What do you want to do that for? Brian Turner

Arawata Bill: The Story of Legendary Gold Prospector William James O’Leary
lan Dougherty
Exisle Publishing $24.95
ISBN 0 9088 07 9

Once, many many years ago, my grandmother (my dad’s mother), when hearing that I was going sailing offshore, said: “Don’t be so bloody stupid, it’s too risky.” Then she paused, looked at me owlishly, and with evident exasperation said “And if you get into trouble, don’t expect me to come looking for you.”

Liz didn’t like me, or anyone for that matter, taking what she thought were risks, doing incautious things. Life for her had been hard enough without going off into the wide blue yonder or the wop-wops. At least one – maybe two – of her family had been drowned. They had lived between Port Chalmers and Aramoana on Otago harbour and therefore had experience of fishing and sailing of one kind or another, both recreational and commercial. One didn’t mess with the sea.

Nor the mountains, nor the bush. She couldn’t understand why I was keen on mountaineering, rushing off into the hills. “What do you want to do that for? What do you do there? What’s wrong with Dunedin?” Etcetera. She loved to hear that it had been blowing a gale and raining cats and dogs in Wellington. “Serves them right for living there,” she said.

I was a crazy bugger, too, for risking my life out of sight of dear old Dunedin. She would have thought William James O’Leary, in the end almost universally known as Arawata Bill, was a crazy old bugger.

It’s just occurred to me that Liz and many members of her generation and of my parents’ generation used to think that a great many people were mad. I think it had a lot to do with the fact that in the first 50 years of this century we’d been involved in the Boer War, World War I, then the Depression, then the mad bugger Hitler’s War and that for the most part it had been the blokes’ fault. Blokes were madder than women, in the main. Thus Mabel Howard was feisty, entertaining, indomitable; whereas Holyoake was snooty and an enemy of working class people and Muldoon was simply and absolutely a “bastard” to staunch Labourites like Liz. She and her husband revered the man she called “our Walter”, the one and only Sir Walter Nash.

But while Liz would have seen Arawata Bill as very odd, she wouldn’t have disliked him, for characters were acceptable and even likeable, providing they didn’t exploit people in order to feather their own nests. Charlie “Mr Explorer” Douglas was another she’d have viewed in the same light.

Ian Dougherty is a Dunedin-based journalist and writer with an MA in history from Otago University. His interest in tramping and photography first took him into part of the area frequented by Arawata Bill. One day in a hut beside Lake Howden on the Routeburn Track, Dougherty met “an old-timer” who told him

wonderful stories . . . of a man who was born into poverty, lived on porridge, had a 40-year-old horse and climbed mountains in a three-piece suit and thigh gumboots in his 70s. They were stories of a man who had wasted a lifetime in the remote valleys of north-west Otago and south Westland looking for lost ruby mines and hidden sovereigns and buried sea-boots full of gold. Stories of a man who was buried in a paupér’s graye and somehow became a folk hero and a legend along the way.

Dougherty’s curiosity was aroused, in ensuing years he went looking for information about O’Leary, his life, explorations and character and the result is this very enjoyable, entertaining and informative book. O’Leary was remarkable, a “real character”; he seems to have been a kindly, inoffensive, definitely quirky man. Which is more than one can say about the rat – or rats – who removed the memorial plaque to him from the Rees bridge in 1959-60. Dougherty says that the “local gossip” had it that a “spiteful resident” felt O’Leary was “a scurrilous old rascal, a lazy devil, a useless old bugger”.

All of this begs several questions, none of which will ever be answered satisfactorily: but among them, “What is useful activity?” and, “What constitutes a worthwhile as opposed to a wasted life?” O’Leary was born in Wetherstons, a small town just north of Lawrence on the Tuapeka goldfields, in October 1865. He was the second oldest of eight children, five boys and three girls. Unfortunately, soon after the youngest child Clare was born, when William was 14, Timothy O’Leary cleared out and left his family to its own devices.

William “left school without permission” and worked at “a variety of jobs throughout Otago, Southland and Westland”, including shooting rabbits and cattle-droving. That experience left him “captivated by the West Coast.” O’Leary seldom referred to his childhood save to mention that her had “a very hard upbringing”.

Dougherty recounts many instances of O’Leary’s novel exploits and behaviour, including his habit of cooking native pigeons in “his version of a portable hangi or earth oven”. It’s a delightful tale so I won’t give the details here, save to say that he cooked potatoes, onions, flapper ducks and trout by the same method. O’Leary thought kiwi beautiful to eat and when “feeling off colour, eating eels was said to have cured him”.

From 1912 O’Leary spent most of the next two decades on the Coast where he mixed casual work with prospecting. For a time he was a much-liked ferryman in South Westland, living in a hut by the Waiatoto river and shuttling back and forth to ferry people across the Arawhata. He couldn’t swim, he never charged, he told people to help themselves to tea and other items when he wasn’t home. He was deemed “courteous and well-mannered”, didn’t gamble, didn’t smoke and was no boozer: “one glass of home brew was said to be enough to knock him out”. When not on the Coast O’Leary lived mainly in the Wakatipu area doing casual work for runholders in return for accommodation and keep.

The other Coast character often spoken of in the same breath as “Wata Bill” was Charles Douglas, known to most as “Mr Explorer Douglas”. Douglas left maps and journals, was probably even crustier than “Wata” and, due to his ability and willingness to write, left us more colourful observations, turns of phrase and reflections. He called mountaineers, fondly I have no doubt, “alpine lunatics” and made more extensive explorations than did O’Leary. That said, both were extraordinary men and for self-reliance – a term used but with a much different context and meaning by the new rightists of today – would have left just about all of today’s money-bagging amassers of property and material possessions for dead.

O’Leary appears not to have been quite as cussed as Douglas, perhaps a tad more gentle and naive. Misogynistic? Perhaps. And loners, of course, both of them. Douglas died in 1916, aged 83, O’Leary in 1947, aged 82. Neither married. Their romancing was with the wild places. And what are the “wild places”? In my opinion fairly remote areas where the activities of people have been few and mainly benign.

Douglas felt that “the urge to explore the wild places” was a good thing, there was virtue in it, and I’m sure O’Leary concurred. But he put it even more simply: when you discounted his interest in searching for rubies and gold, “the main reason”, he said, was that he “really loved the bush and the mountains”.

Dougherty discusses Glover’s appealing Arawata Bill sequence in a concise, straightforward manner. Glover wrote it mainly because he was “taken by the name” Arawata Bill, but also because of his own attraction to the mountains, bush and sea.

The illustrations, mainly photographs, are interesting. I would have liked a couple more maps and more detail in them. O’Leary’s last years, which were somewhat sad and sometimes amusing, were spent in the care of the Little Sisters of the Poor in their old people’s home in Andersons Bay, Dunedin. But he never lost the urge to wander; once, when he went missing from the home, he was picked up heading west walking out of Dunedin – and he retained a touching sense of perspective and genuine modesty. He said, “I’m a very over-estimated man”. Possibly, but probably not.

You can find his grave in the Andersons Bay cemetery. O’Leary was the kind of man our society cannot accommodate today, representative of times when people experienced the outdoors in ways that today’s crops of thrill-seekers and oglers are ill-equipped to do.

Brian Turner was the 1997 writer in residence at Canterbury University.

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