Tracking down the hermit heroes
What makes someone drop everything and head bush? And why are their hardscrabble lives so fascinating for the rest of us? Naomi Arnold talks to Golden Bay author Gerard Hindmarsh about his new book Outsiders:
"They are the most popular bloody stories," Gerard Hindmarsh says. "It's astounding. People love to know about how other people get on and compare it to their own lives."
He admits his new book is, in fact, nothing new. Writers have long been drawn to the colourful stories of remote places and people, such as Nelsonian Don Grady and his Grady's People series, which began in the pages of this newspaper, and Hindmarsh himself in recent book Kahurangi Calling.
Yet he thinks it's high time for a reminder. The lives of the 30-plus characters detailed in Outsiders grew from a collection of freelance work on "extreme subjects" that Hindmarsh penned for New Zealand Geographic magazine over the course of about 20 years. It was a trip to Puangiangi Island, off D'Urville, and an encounter with self-imposed exile Ross Webber that made him think about collecting those extreme stories in a book.
Webber, for example, deliberately got all his teeth pulled out when he went to live on his island at the age of 27. What force could be strong enough to make a man do that? "He didn't want to have a toothache," Hindmarsh explains. "It was a wise move, actually."
Webber bought the island in 1957, and at the time Hindmarsh visited, the exile was more than 60 and hadn't been off it in 18 years. He farmed sheep, caught blue cod, baked his own bread, grew tea and his own vegetables, and made everything else that he needed - his two-bedroom bach, cider, wine, beer, jam, dried meat, combs for his hair, pottery plates that he fired in his own kiln, and even a helicopter pad for occasional visitors. He used a rifle to herd sheep into his yards, blasting strategic bullets off rocks to get them to move.
In his late 70s he sold the island for around $3 million and moved to Auckland, where he lives with his wife, Jean, 45 years his junior.
"It made me realise that certain people stand out," Hindmarsh says of his time on Puangiangi. "There's always the hardcase characters who live in the mountains for a few years here and there, or go and do something pretty extraordinary, but there are very few characters who dedicate their whole lives to living a dream outside the square."
Hindmarsh has been collecting the stories since 1993, mostly in the South Island, in which someone seeking solitude can get lost more easily than the North. People from our region include Kahurangi's Snow Meyer, the Chaffeys, Gerald Cover, the Page family, Dick Moth and Bruce Reay.
"I started counting them up and started to visit them, amassing a body of notes. Every trip was extreme and a one-off and it took years and years." Slowly, a picture started to emerge, and Craig Potton Publishing's co-owner Robbie Burton encouraged him to collate them in a book.
"I really wanted to look at them in with the tradition of Arawata Bill and the tramps and the swaggers," Hindmarsh says.
Men, and it's usually men, although Hindmarsh has stories of female outsiders too - have been going bush to escape society since there was a society to escape.
What amazed Hindmarsh about all these people was "their incredible grip on the world" - thanks in large part to the constant company of Radio New Zealand National.
"Ross Webber could talk about American foreign policy - he was articulate, he knew the world."
Although some were slow to warm up, he found most of his subjects good company.
"None are hermits as such," he says. "Maori Bill would yell at people and set his dogs on them, but all the others are extremely friendly and welcoming, especially after a long period of time. They realise that they've done something quite admirable."
He says his book is timely because it's just so difficult to do this sort of thing these days, as land use changes from a recreational common land to a "biodiversity asset". The book's final chapter, on Brightwater-born career eel fisherman and possumer Bruce Reay, is subtitled "Bureaucratic Battler", and details his struggle not to survive outside society, but to actually extricate himself from it.
"The amount of bureaucracy he's fighting now; he has to sign concession documents and pay $2000 a year just to live in an old duckshooter's hut in Okarito, and DOC are trying to prosecute him about the old dog he has," Hindmarsh says. "The people in some ways have been shut out [from the land], so that's why it's important to tell those stories."
So why are we so curious? Hindmarsh believes we admire their guts and independence, that they went out and actually did what many of us wonder about. That they "don't give a stuff" about the regulations and consumer trappings the rest of us spend our lives entangled in. But he believes we also use the outsiders as "a kind of sounding board".
"I think that in some ways they're almost like the silent critics of society," he says. "These people are our real folk heroes. [American author] Annie Proulx says they're decent people digging their heels against society and going the other way, and we need them."