A Life on Gorge River
Random House, $39.99,
A Life on Gorge River is an impressive and sometimes touching narrative that should appeal to all lovers of the great outdoors and perhaps to many others who may wonder how a family could not only survive, but actually flourish, so far from the conveniences of urban living. Long Long recounts the 30 years of his life in the wilderness, the first 10 years alone and the last 20 with his wife, Catherine and subsequently with their kids, Christan and Robin. The tale also traces Long’s childhood in New Zealand and his secondary schooling and early manhood in Queensland.
He describes himself as a happy small boy with three delightful sisters and kindly parents. These early years were golden, with memorable activities like a climb of Ruapehu with his Dad, when Long was four years old. No mollycoddling there. Later, at Saint Joseph’s secondary school in Brisbane, Long thrived as an army cadet being taught basic survival skills, as a keen athlete, as a school prefect and winner of the Senior Christian Doctrine prize.
When he went to medical school, Long’s future as a respected, urban middle-class professional must have seemed assured to his Mum and Dad and their friends. It was a knockout blow, then, when he chucked in his medical study in year three and emerged instead as a fully-fledged 1970s hippie and peacenik. Dad responded by voting him out of the family home (on behalf of his wife and daughters, who didn’t get to vote), and this was the first step in a pilgrimage that led, eventually, to the Gorge River in south Westland.
What his parents may not have known was that Long had been moving, slowly but surely, to the notion of an alternative lifestyle some years before his road to Damascus epiphany. After the family crisis he odd-jobbed as a builder’s labourer in Brisbane for a while, patched up an old dwelling in an abandoned settlement, hardened up with a barefoot walk around about three-quarters of the Australian perimeter, worked on a prawn trawler in the Gulf of Carpentaria, flew to India and then Sri Lanka. It was here that Long had his revelation about south Westland and subsequently fetched up on the West Coast, home at last. His prose becomes lyrical. Here he is at the wheel of the cray-fishing boat Komuri, skippering the midnight watch off Puysegur Point and navigating by the western stars:
It was magic. The moon was full and as we neared Fiordland across and out from Te Wae Wae Bay the snow on the mountains sparkled with brilliant white light. I was seeing for the first time the crystalline, pristine nature of Fiordland, which was to be my home territory for the greater part of my life.
And again, in the bush beside the Cascade river, as he
frittered away the miles of mossy, muddy track through glades of forest filtering the brilliant sunlight coming through the canopy. Mossy, lichen-covered podocarp trunks were dappled in golden, tawny and raw umber shades, the sap-green understorey of coprosma and fuchsia adding to the mystery of the forest gloom.
Soon established as a de facto resident caretaker at the New Zealand Forest Service Gorge Cottage, Long found he had fallen among friends. He liked the fishermen, the pilots, hunters, Cascade musterers and forestry staff and they liked him. Long also prayed that a soulmate would turn up sometime, and lo and behold she eventually did, in the person of Catherine Stewart. These stalwart partners brought complementary skills to their marriage, and both have had much to offer their resourceful children, topped up by distance education from Wellington.
Later in his book, Long writes of his profound affinity with his environment and earlier inhabitants who left him a cache of greenstone adzes which had lain buried for hundreds of years. As a South Westland icon, Long may also warm to thoughts of those 19th-century explorers and prospectors like Mr Explorer Douglas, Barrington, Farrell, Simonin, Arawata Bill and others who paved the way.
I was lucky to meet the Long family once, on a walk south from the Cascade river flats with friends. The family was building a flourishing arts and crafts business, so I asked Long if he might make me a copy of a dolphin carving I admired in their home. A year or so later it arrived in the post, and I sent a cheque to Robert Long, Gorge River, c/- Haast Post Office, South Westland.
Malcolm Geard used to bash about the hills and snowy peaks, but is now reduced to reading about it.