THE SMALLEST CONTINENT – free first chapter

Smallest Continent working cover 1‘There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’  DAVID FOSTER WALLACE

‘Beyond the beauty of external forms, there is more here: something that cannot be named, something ineffable, some deep, inner, holy essence. Whenever and wherever there is beauty, this inner essence shines through. It only reveals itself to you when you are present.’  ECKHART TOLLE

‘Beauty is some kind of laser connection to higher worlds.’ VOYTEK KURTYKA, the world’s most extreme and visionary alpinist

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The book will be out in May 2015. You can pre-order a signed copy of THE SMALLEST CONTINENT here

Invocation

From the summit of Aoraki/Mount Cook you can see the curvature of the earth, though this maybe a trick of perspective since, with nowhere higher to go, up here you feel not only on top of the visible world but at the centre of it too. To the south, the summit ridge — New Zealand’s Highest Mile — runs towards the two lower peaks, sharp and jagged, like a westerly wave frozen at the moment of cresting, and, way below, though Antarctic in its grandeur , the twenty-seven-kilometre-long Tasman Glacier is but a thin squiggle of white, the shape of a question mark. East and west you can see both oceans, and to the north a choppy sea of snow-white peaks all the way to the horizon.

Aoraki is a huge mountain by any standards and this is not just because Sir Ed Hillary cut his mountaineering teeth here, before ‘knocking off’ the Big One. If you’d travelled, as he did, into the heart of the Nepalese Himalayas, where mountains crowd the sky above the Khumbu Valley, and imagined Aoraki there, it would make a fine companion to the earth’s highest peaks. The summit of Everest would still dwarf it by some 500 metres, but Lhotse would be about the same height and the nearby Cho Oyu 200 metres lower. The relative height of Aoraki, from its base in the glacial moraines to the wind-sculpted summit, approaches 3000 metres, and so from below, from the flat, desert-like Mackenzie Country, the mountain cuts an imposing figure.

From the summit the views are grander still, though the place does not encourage epiphanies or contemplations. On one side the sun burns with the intensity of a welding torch; in its shadows the frost is equally fierce. This is one of those rare places where you can get sunburnt and frostbitten at the same time.

There is also that constant if vague sense of unease that we are really only halfway through our twenty-hour escapade and that the descent, in the armour-plate ice conditions we had struck, will be harder and slower than the climb itself. The clock is ticking and we are a long way from home.

But still we linger, mesmerised by the views, enchanted by the absolute stillness, reluctant to leave, knowing too well that we should. These are snatched moments of almost transcendental beauty and I for one don’t want to break the spell. The silence here is multi-layered, like an orchestral arrangement, not just the absence of all sound but something to listen to, to fall into . . . seductive like a siren’s song, and just as dangerous.
Finally we can dally no longer. Utilitarian sounds creep in — crampons grinding on hard ice, snorting of runny noses, the rustle of wind-shell clothing, gurgling of a hot drink poured out of the thermos. Although the reality remains unchanged, our perception of it alters. Magic and poetry recede, and we return to more pedestrian considerations of survival.
We start down the mountain, abseiling the Summit Rocks, clawing our way down the steep ice that never softened, facing the mountain, our ice tools and crampons exacting a steady staccato 4/4 rhythm.

Thump! Thump! Ice-axe! Ice-hammer! Left foot. Right foot. Ice-axe. Hammer. Thump! Thump!

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Each stab of steel chips away shards of ice and sends them hissing down the curtain-like flank of the mountain. We climb down steadily and deliberately, aware of our fatigue which can cloud judgement, exacerbate danger. Aware too that we are carrying within us something delicate and immeasurably precious, something worth bringing back. The view from the summit, a peak encounter with the landscape.

* * *

What hidden powers lie within the landscape, what indelible spells it can cast upon us. I have forgotten names of lovers, the delicious topography of their figures and curves but, even though my climb of Aoraki happened years ago now, I need only to close my eyes to recall that summit view with all the detail of an Ansel Adams photographs: the lines of breakers rolling in from the Tasman Sea, the striated bands of rainforest coming up to meet the glaciers, the blinding-white sawtooth profiles of receding ranges, the surreal turquoise blue of the lake.

For the past twenty years I have been fortunate to work with some of the world’s most illustrious geographical magazines and, better still, their visionary editors who burnt with both curiosity and an appetite for good tales. We would brainstorm ideas — always a two-way process — choose the most appealing ones, and then they would send me off, a hound on a scent, to sniff out, hunt and gather, and to fetch the stories from the land.
For me, this was effectively ‘we’re cutting you loose’ licence to roam and explore, and to live many lives, often at a considerable expense and without briefs, synopses or guidelines, the only unspoken but inviolable prerequisite being that I would always come back with a good story. And since I never failed them, with time the editors came to think of those commissions not as gambles but as worthwhile if sometimes eccentric investments.

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This trust allowed me to indulge a multiplicity of interests, both core and peripheral, and to find many new ones too. Some of those at first seemed unappealing, but I engaged with them all the same, following the wisdom of an early mentor who cautioned me to ‘look for the extraordinary in everyday life’ because ‘there were no boring stories, only boring writers’.

I found out early on that it was the people — the characters — who were at the heart of each story. They were both the motor and the fuel for every narrative, but as I travelled and lived each of my assignments I found it was impossible to separate the people from the landscapes. The forms, moods and seasons of the land permeated people’s lives, inspired and shaped them, showed in their work, attitudes, often in their countenance, in their hands, their sense of identity.

Trying to depict people outside the landscape in which they lived, in which their story occurred, produced abstract, two-dimensional figures, uprooted and unengaging. It was like painting a portrait without a background or, worse, without the canvas on which it belonged.

Along the way, I had many more Aoraki moments with the land and its inhabitants. Watching a whale tail slide into the ocean ink against the snowy backdrop of the Seaward Kaikouras. Hefting a ten-ounce nugget of raw pure gold found in a mountain river and running my hand against the scalloped and perfectly youthful bark of a kauri tree as old as the time of Jesus. Floating through the cathedral grandeur of underwater caves beneath the Poor Knights Islands and flying low over the golden-white beach of western Kahurangi, the stands of nikau palms planted like darts, their coiffures those of old-fashioned feather dusters. Without realising it at first, or not putting it into words at least, I began looking more closely at landscapes, their power and the meaning they have in our lives.

* * *

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Outside my door the sea is breathing heavily. Its exhalations are short and explosive, violent blasts of white water that bulldoze the stony beach and crumble the rocks that guard it. There are brief moments of silence before the sea begins to draw another breath, sucking itself in with a slow asthmatic hiss, raking the gravel as it goes out, gathering itself for another blow. Sometimes I sit on the porch, in an old wicker chair, and synchronise my breathing with it. Like the Aoraki silence, the sensation is comforting, the rhythm natural and entrancing, and, after a while, impossible to get out of tune with. It stays with me as I go about my days. The breathing of the sea.

I am living in a rented bach along the Paparoa coast — my own attempt at a Thoreauvian ‘cabin in the woods’ and ‘living deliberately’ — and this heaving sea is my closest neighbour. The bach, nick-named Biscuit Tin, is a simple corrugated iron and plywood affair, painted bush-green, with rusty red trimmings, floorboards that slant in every which way and a weathered wooden deck facing the sea. The deck is a miniature museum of beachcombing existence: bits of driftwood that resembled something to someone, stones and shells, a faded buoy, a decaying cray pot with a rope stiffened by sun and salt, a blue-and-yellow flipper. My own additions include a stone calendar: a dark grey rock to mark each day’s beach walk and white egg-shaped quartzites for Sundays.

Every day, using leathery flax leaves for handrails, I climb the steep track leading down to the beach. The air is always hazy here, thick with sea mist that settles on my face and clothing like fine dust and makes my lips taste salty. Short of being on a boat I could not live any closer to the sea.

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There was a time in my life — early and formative — when I used to live for the mountains. Any landscape without them was unappealing, lacking visual interest, flat and boring. Back then, we climbed in every spare moment, and at other times too, skipping school, postponing work. When I could not go climbing, I would pull out my rope and hold it to my face like a bouquet of wildflowers, inhaling its fragrance. It smelled of lichens, limestone and granite, pure mountain air and freedom. It got me through the down days.

We returned from the climbs to huts or camps, and we bragged about our exploits the way the Second World War fighter pilots may have come down from their air battles, still high on adrenalin, feeling invincible and above the mundane concerns of quotidian existence. Seeing ourselves as the poets of the vertical rock and ice, romantics of the mountain vistas, who could be moved to tears by a sunset but who also had enough tenacity to tough out a fourteen-hour hanging bivouac in minus twenty degrees Celsius. Mortality, too, was a theoretical concept back then, like an exotic disease affecting others, but from which we ourselves were immune.

I came to New Zealand in my early twenties because of the mountains, and immediately gravitated towards Tongariro National Park, Aoraki, Mount Aspiring and Fiordland, as if they were the only features in the landscape. But, after the initial hunger was satiated, when I was no longer obsessed by looking up and allowed myself for the first time to look around, I discovered an entire continent’s worth of diversity. Beaches both subtropical and subantarctic, orange groves and penguins, glaciers, fiords and rainforest, caves and volcanoes, tundra and a desert, rivers with the best trout in the world and oceans of untold secrets. All neatly compacted into three main islands, friendly and easily accessible, a lifetime of exploration and learning. New Zealand landscapes have opened my eyes to the world at large and so I’ve begun to think of the country as the smallest continent.

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At first, this realisation brought about a blitz of activities, an obsession for accumulating experiences. With the same ardour I climbed, I learnt to scuba dive and explored the coasts, the kelp forests of Stewart Island, marine wildlife of Kaikoura, the shipwrecks of Marlborough Sounds, caves and freshwater springs, and of course the Poor Knights Islands. I kayaked the fiords, the sounds and the golden bays, rafted and fished the rivers, cycled every trail I could find, prospected for gold, visited all national parks, saw the iconic birds and animals in the wild. I was on the move most of the time, and never at peace, finding validation in Bruce Chatwin’s Anatomy of Restlessness, not yet realising that the cure for itchy feet was not to run faster, and to more places, but to stop and examine the feet themselves, and the land upon which they stood.

When a prominent international magazine ran a story on ‘100 must-do things in New Zealand’ I saw that I could tick nearly all of them off, and offer plenty more enticing alternatives. It was about the same time that I became aware that I was going too fast, the landscapes in which I adventured passing by in a blur, always there, but at times almost invisible because of my inattention to them. Rushing from one escapade to another, bagging peak experiences on the run, does not lend itself to epiphanies in the landscape.
As my guitar teacher once pointed out, in music, rests are as important as the notes for without them all you get is just noise. So it seems with the landscape too. The true communion with the land, the noticing and the appreciation, happen in the pauses and silences that punctuate the action. It took me nearly a decade to slow down enough to be able to breathe with the sea.

* * *

The Smallest Continent page 6The stories in this volume are a collection of my favourite encounters with New Zealand landscapes, both in adventures and contemplations, a personal journey in uncovering their intricacies, perhaps also a record of growing up in my perception of landscapes and the sense of our place within them. They reflect the quest for balance between the notes and the rests, words and silences, doing and being.

I still travel extensively in the landscapes of my smallest continent. I ski and fly fish, ride and climb, tramp and camp, continue pursuing the stories of the land. But the compulsive greed to accumulate these experiences is gone, the ‘bucket list’ no longer burning in my hands.

The landscape, though seemingly timeless, has taught me to pay attention to the present moment, for it is possible, and likely, to go for a most beautiful walk in the world and be so caught up in your mind and its dramas, you can miss the experience entirely, so that the walk becomes just a mechanical movement through scenery, without engaging with it, and that is such a waste. And so, every time I am in the landscape now, I train myself not to go faster and further but to go deeper, as T S Eliot wrote (’), ‘and know the place for the first time’. Every time.

Much has been written about the role of landscapes and our place within them because questioning them, and examining the answers, appears as important to the human quest for knowledge as enquiring into our own identity. To my mind, many of these enquiries seem overly cerebral, lost in their own eloquence and sophistication, concocting big words like topophilia (the love of landscape) and psychogeography, while devoting minimal time and space to the direct experience itself.

Yet to understand a landscape is not a theoretical pursuit. It is to be with that landscape, immersed both in its breadth and details, not talking about it, but letting it talk. The glimmers of larger truth and insights that come from this may not be communicable to others because the messages from the landscapes are largely wordless and non-conceptual. The best the words can do is to inspire you to get out there and into the landscape, to have a direct experience of that to which the words point.

Henry David Thoreau hinted at it already in the 1850s, as did Waldo Emerson, the inimitable Edward Abbey, and New Zealand’s own Charlie Douglas, all of whom spent inordinate amounts of time alone in natural landscapes. Most of the world’s indigenous cultures also related to the land around them in non-verbal and non-conceptual terms, though invariably with reverence and by ascribing unseen powers and qualities to various features in their landscapes: rocks, springs, mountains and rivers, trees and gorges, sunsets and solstices. Until we nearly obliterated their traditions with our ‘know-it-all’ religious zealotry and technological dominance so that now much of it seems lost and we have to rediscover it all for ourselves.

The Smallest Continent page 1And it is there to be found, because that wisdom which is at the heart of all spiritual and religious traditions is like the nuggets of pure gold you will encounter later in this narrative. It may be obscured, buried or hidden, but it is indestructible and impossible to tarnish, waiting for us to rediscover it. Recently, drawing on his own direct and most profound experiences, Eckhart Tolle restated this wisdom in a way that brings our relationship with the landscapes — with the life around us — into a wider perspective: ‘Everything is alive. The sun, the earth, animals, humans,’ Tolle writes in his mega-seller The Power of Now. ‘Even a stone has rudimentary consciousness; otherwise, it would not be.’

The most recent cutting-edge research in quantum physics begins to confirm that too, offering for our consideration game-changing ideas that within the universe, nothing is separate from the rest, hinting at a real possibility that William Blake’s ‘the world in a grain of sand’ may not be just a poetic figure of speech.

* * *

I once lived in the Swiss Alps where I came across the concept of hausberg, literally a home mountain. The local tradition has it that a person needs a mountain with which he or she has a particularly deep and personal affinity. The mountain needn’t be anything dramatic, no Matterhorn or Eiger, a simple hill will do, what’s critical is the strength of the connection.

A hausberg is the hideaway where you play as a child, and where, later, you may seek solitude during life’s tempests, or a place to share with your loved ones and only the closest of friends. In New Zealand, I’ve learnt that a hausberg does not need to be a mountain. It can be a beach, a river, a path in the woods, an ocean-view hilltop, an urban sanctuary, but whatever it is, as the epicentre of your personal heartland, it’s the landmark which springs to mind when you think of home and the power point where you connect with it. And it seems as if we are compelled by gravity, to go to this place regularly, in order to recalibrate and recharge and let the inner pendulum of hopes and anxieties find its natural balance again.

Finding your own personal connection point with the landscape gets you to ask all the right questions, even if the answers may not be immediately forthcoming. A nomad at heart, I have several such power spots and they change with the seasons,. Some, like my favourite rivers, are too personal to name or mention, but most are included in this volume.

Indulge in your favourite activities and have adventures in this smallest continent of ours, whether it is a beach walk, ride or a paddle, fish or a dive, a most radical line in the mountains, or anything in between, because ultimately it’s your own direct experiences with the landscapes is what matters most.

Just make sure you pause often enough. Look and listen.

Let the land speak.

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The book will be out in May 2015. You can pre-order a signed copy of THE SMALLEST CONTINENT here

Ski Clubs in NZ Geographic

A home in high places

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At the end of a long farm road, Peter Wilson greeted me with a knuckle-crunching handshake, then swung open the access gate. “No matter where in the world you have skied, you’ve never seen anything like this,” he said, nodding up the big hill. He cast a practical eye over the business parts of my Land Cruiser, its high clearance and the predatory mud tyres. “Follow me. You should get up the track all right,” he said. “Just put her in low range and go quietly.”

Moments later, through a gushing ford and up a couple of steep hairpin turns, I could see why. This was the kind of track you’d negotiate when going tahr hunting, to camp under rock bivvies and melt snow for water. But at the end of the narrow and exposed switchbacks, Wilson assured me, was a well-appointed lodge—like an eyrie on a mountain—the ski club’s headquarters and an oasis of backcountry luxury with a log burner, hot water and flushing toilets. And a spa pool on the deck overlooking the wide, green confluence of the Waitaki and Hakataramea valleys.

“We’d be sitting on the deck at the end of a day’s skiing and watch a car coming up the track,” said Wilson. “It would start off eagerly, then you’d see it getting slower and more hesitant, then doing a 10-point U-turn at one of the hairpins, and start heading back down—failing what we call the ‘Awakino Test’. One of us would have to go down and fetch them. Once people get up here, they love it, but keeping that access track open is our biggest headache and expense.”

It was early June. The snowline was only just coming down to below the summits of St Marys Range above us, and the long weekend was the last opportunity for the club’s major work party before winter proper and the much-anticipated ski season. The list of chores was long, and at the lodge and around the machinery shed four men in well-used overalls milled about purposefully, getting things done with quiet efficiency. The talk was not about skiing but about gear ratios, spare parts, strategic diesel stashes, the stubbornness of certain engines and that godsend of the new tow rope—a central part of the entire operation—replacing the old one, which had been procured from another club field for a bottle of whisky.

“One of our members owns a liquor store so he donated the whisky,” said David Campbell, wiping engine grease off his hands. “So the old rope didn’t cost us anything. We’ve managed to get a grant for the new rope from the local electricity company. That’s how things are done here: not on a budget, but with no budget at all.”

With only 15 members and the cashflow of a school-leaver, Awakino is the country’s smallest and one of the oldest ski-club fields, a one-of-a-kind relic from the old New Zealand. It’s open only on weekends and runs on traditional rather than economic values: enthusiasm, volunteer hours and classic Kiwi can-do attitude.

“Whatever we need, we either have to find for free or make ourselves, or both,” said Wilson. They scavenge and cannibalise spare parts from the entire Oamaru farming district: an old tractor for the rope-tow engine, a railway carriage around it as a housing, a $500 road grader that the previous owner never wanted to see again. The grader was a steal, said Jack Parkes, a farm mechanic who has been a key member of the club since 1972, but it took all summer to rebuild its massive engine, which was giving no end of trouble. “It’s still not quite right,” he said. “Maybe next summer I’ll get the bugger working properly. Continue reading …

Photos by Julian Apse

 

Adventure Writing Workshop

At New Zealand Mountain Film Festival in Wanaka, 4-8 July 2014

Derek GSo you’ve had your high adventures, survived to tell your tales and now you want to write them up, perhaps for a magazine article, a book or as a film script. Don’t hammer out reams of prose just yet, come to our Adventure Writing Workshop first. “Stories are like jokes: you can ruin a good one by telling it badly,” says the Workshop’s tutor Derek Grzelewski. “We all can write but story-telling requires an entirely different set of skills, and these are universal, regardless of what medium you’re are working with.” Sharpen your writing pen and unleash your creativity in the relaxed informal space of this unique workshop. Learn about narrative structures, suspense and pace, what to tell and what to withhold and when, how to read as a writer, and how to make your stories compelling, satisfying, un-putdownable. Whether you are a never-ever or a published pro you will get a lot out of this time with one of the most experienced adventure writer in the industry. Above all, you will be shown directly how to make your pursuit of creative writing into an adventure itself, a lifelong climb towards excellence where each step is as important as any goal and achievement you bag along the way.

Details and registration here

About Derek:
For the past 20 years a Wanaka local Derek Grzelewski has been a writer and photographer for top-end magazines like New Zealand Geographic, Australian Geographic, Smithsonian and GEO. He has completed over a hundred major assignments on adventure travel, extreme outdoor pursuits and natural history, and his books THE TROUT DIARIES and THE TROUT BOHEMIA, both about fly fishing in New Zealand, are international bestsellers, considered among the best in their genre. Derek’s latest book, GOING TO EXTREMES, Adventures in Unknown New Zealand, which is a collection of his best magazine stories, is being launched at the Festival.

GOING TO EXTREMES, Adventures in Unknown New Zealand will also be launched at the Festival

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GOING TO EXTREMES, free first chapter

G2X cover‘Fools say that knowledge can only be acquired from books & men . . . and call me a fool & even worse for wasting my life in mountain solitudes. [But] I have now been wandering about the uninhabited parts of New Zealand for over five & thirty years always finding something in nature new to me and the world . . . glimmerings of truth unknown to others. I have never regretted the life I have been leading.’ CHARLIE ‘MR EXPLORER’ DOUGLAS

‘Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.’ MAYA ANGELOU

‘You can live like a sheep or you can live like a lion.’ JEAN-MARC BOIVIN

‘To each. their own Everest.” MIROSLAW FALCO-DASAL

 

PROLOGUE

 

‘Sometimes you have to go to extremes just to find room to breathe.’

The soldiers came up in a single file, rifles slung across their backs, their winter-white camouflage turning them into moonlit ghosts against the monochromatic landscape that was all mountains, snow and trees. they must have left their skis on the col below though they had kept their poles for balance and rhythm as they broke a knee-deep trail up the last steep section of their patrol beat. they were climbing hard, their out-breaths thick as smoke. I watched them through a slit in a rock only metres above, sinking deeper into my hiding place as they approached.

I had climbed here a number of times so was well familiar with the place, and had seen the border patrol before and knew this was their turnaround point. Beyond and for many kilometres, there were only crags, bluffs and rocky spires; an outburst of geological extravagance in the usually rolling and mellow Carpathian Mountains, the one section they did not need to guard. the national border was hermetic and only a fool would try to get across it here — a fool or a mountaineer. Still, I was relieved they didn’t have dogs. the standard-issue German Shepherds would, at this distance, have sniffed me out regardless of how well I was hiding. My escape plan was sound and carefully prepared, but there were always going to be a few gambles in it, and the presence or absence of dogs was one of the big ones.

It was all a gamble, really, one last all-or-nothing gambit. By all accounts, I should have been one of those soldiers. It was 1986 and the government of Communist Poland and its military certainly did their upmost to conscript able-bodied recruits like me, as I
did my damnedest to evade them. We’d played this fox hunt for a few years: me on the run, a fugitive in my own country, trying out one option after another, the hounds of the regime cutting me off at every attempt, slamming shut doors on each of my ways out, confident that, with the borders effectively closed, it was only a matter of time before I gave up my silly antics, as almost all men my age eventually did.

But they underestimated my resolve, my yearning for freedom. Quetzal, the sacred bird of the Mayas, is said to be so adamant about its freedom that it will die if caged. My sentiments, exactly. to me, this yearning for freedom — not liberty, take note, for this can be given or taken away by those usurping the power, but true freedom that is the inalienable birthright of everyone on the planet — was not negotiable. It is as innate as a drowning man’s craving for air. No one and no thing can stand in its way. Which is how and why I came to play my last card.

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Finally, when even my parents were being hounded by the military police as to my whereabouts, when I had to walk past our home incognito to see if it was safe to come in, when all options seemed used up and all ways out firmly locked, I feigned surrender, a capitulation which was so coldly and patiently expected.

I was issued with a military summons, a one-way ticket to become a red-beret commando, no less, and the honour and distinction of a three-year stint, instead of the compulsory two years’ service for ‘the country, the people and their Communist ideals’. A weasel of a military bureaucrat, with a cruel smile on his face and wielding what little power he had, assigned me to a garrison furthest away from the town where I lived, no doubt as punishment for the sins of such long evasion.

‘No coming home for weekends,’ he feigned an apology. ‘the 9 trains aren’t fast enough to make the trip before your pass runs out.’ He gave me a week to organise my affairs before commencing my tour of duty to ‘serve and protect’. But what that weasel did not know was that I was just buying time. And that one week was exactly what I needed.

Five years earlier, I had still been a teenager when I’d watched a column of tanks rumble past our home, the soldiers in the hatches stony-faced, inhuman like automatons, avoiding eye contact with those who watched them from the street. on 13 December 1981, unable to contain the groundswell of freedom movements, the Communist cabal, desperate to cling to its power, declared martial law in Poland — in effect a war on its own people. It was a strange kind of war, an invasion from within and, with its imposition, the de facto police state came out of hiding and became official.

The Poles are a feisty and free-spirited lot, with a long tradition of heroic uprisings, but this time around, when they voiced their protest, they were swiftly met with an iron fist of uncommon cruelty, something that might have been expected from an outside aggressor, not from a group of your own, supposedly elected, public servants.

Battles flared around the country: workers occupied factories, taking on riot police with lances whose tips were heated white-hot in industrial foundry furnaces; stones and bricks confronted bullets and truncheons; tanks bulldozed impromptu barricades. Stretchers made out of unhinged doors were used to carry the bodies of the fallen, holding them up as martyrs. Army jeeps blocked intersections while soldiers checked everyone’s ‘papers’ as if in some macabre replay of Nazi Germany, the images still fresh and painful in the nation’s collective memory.

this then was the historical background against which I was to serve my time in the army, perhaps one day to open fire on protesters when ordered to do so. But the protesters were people like me, coming of age, and their grievances just. I could no more point a gun at them than I could at myself. this too, like the pining for freedom, was non-negotiable. And so I was about to play my trump card.

On that mountain pass on the border between Poland and Slovakia, breathing out slowly into my woollen glove so that the steam of breath would not betray my hiding place, I watched the soldiers I could never become. Huddled in a circle, they stomped their feet and beat their mitts together against the cold, the ear flaps of their fur hats tied tight under their chins. they lit cheap workingmen’s cigarettes — filter-less and acrid — and with each drag their faces glowed red with a hint of warmth. they swore, and spat, and checked their watches, stamping around some more, doing what soldiers the world over do best: killing time.

One of them passed around a flask and they all took a swig, and finally, when the requisite number of minutes had passed, the patrol-leader signalled a move-on, and they all filed back down the trail they had broken earlier. on the col below they clipped into their skis, the snapping of their antiquated cable bindings sounding like the metallic clang of closing rat traps. then they were off, schussing down through the snowy glade from whence they came.

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For a long time afterwards I lay still in my rock crevice, listening to the winter silence. If patience is the virtue of a hunter, it is even more critical for the hunted. In a routine learned from winter climbing bivouacs, when staying awake and moving was the only way against cold and frostbite, I clenched and unclenched my fists, one at a time, wriggled my toes ten times each side, to circulate blood to the extremities, to keep them from going numb.
When I finally deemed it safe to come out, I stretched and warmed up with a few callisthenics. Below me, the couloir down into Slovakia — and freedom — was long, steep, snowy and smooth. tempting.

Coming back from climbs, we had often descended such gullies using a technique known as a snow glissade. this butt-slide, gleeful and fast, feet-first and using the shaft of an ice-axe for both steering and speed control, was a fun way down, until one time my climbing partner ran over a tip of a rock hidden under the snow which nearly took out his tail bone. I’ve preferred to walk down ever since.

I shouldered my pack and threaded my right hand through the webbing loop of the ice-axe. I thought of the weasel back at the conscription office. I should really send him a note so that he could amend his records. From this day on I was to be considered AWoL. No further notice given; case closed. I could send this to him as a postcard from some stunning exotic island, I thought, a place on the planet where I could get as far away as possible from him and all that he 11 represented. New Zealand, perhaps? Now there was an idea . . .

I started down the couloir, tentatively at first, stabbing the ice- axe into the snow for safety and balance, punctuating my gait. then, finding a newer, freer rhythm, opening up the throttle of the soul, I went from small steps to giant leaps and moon-walked down the slope, confident the snow would hold. the Iron Curtain did not have many cracks, but I had just found one and there was no turning back.

Sometimes you have to go to extremes just to find room to breathe.

You can pre-order a signed copy of GOING TO EXTREMES here

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How unforeseeable are the workings of life, how mysterious its ways, coincidences, synchronicities. Within less than a year of that Carpathian night I did indeed find myself in New Zealand. there, on the kitchen table in a backpacker’s hostel in Auckland, was a torn-out page from the jobs section of the New Zealand Herald, days old but with one entry which seemed written especially for me. A high-rise maintenance company was looking for someone with expertise in industrial abseiling, a skill virtually unknown in the country back then, but something which was the only work I’d ever done since leaving school; one which paid enough for an offbeat and expensive climbing lifestyle while also allowing ample time to pursue it.

Within days I had the job and a work permit; within months a residency and my own abseiling business. It would take many years to exorcise the ghosts of the past, the nightmares in which, for some inexplicable reason, I had gone back to Poland and now I would never get out — the dream so predictable and repetitive, yet catching me out every time, making me wake up bolt upright, sweating, breathing hard and checking where I was. But apart from these interludes of bedtime horror, for the first time in my life I felt free, and ready to taste this freedom in all its splendour.

After months of dangling on ropes from the roofs of many of Auckland’s high-rises, I bought a mountain bike, still a relatively new invention in those days. I equipped it with saddle bags, a small climbing tent and all the other prerequisites for self-sufficiency, and set out for a year-long tour of my new home, reasoning, after Hemingway, that: ‘It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them.’

I clocked some 10,000 kilometres on that bike, visited most of the national parks and hiked all the major trails. I spent a semi- Antarctic winter at Mount Cook, largely on my own and in the huts at the head of the tasman Glacier. I would fly up the névé by ski plane, on standby rate, packing a month’s worth of food and books, drag all that stuff to a hut on a kids’ plastic toboggan and live there for weeks on end, learning to ski big mountains and learning to write, daily drunk on my new freedom.

People came and went and I joined some of them on their ski tours, but, except for resupply trips, I did not come out until spring. After weeks of sensory deprivation amid the sterility of snow, even the grasses and lichens, let alone flowers and alpine plants, had the pungent intensity of wild thyme snorted straight up, like a drug. I was intoxicated with the country — its varied landscapes so full of potential for adventures, its friendly, laid-back, live-and-let-live people. the space, the clean air and clean rivers, the solitude and the almost unbearable lightness of being free among it all. I saw New Zealand as a place with the diversity of an entire continent — the smallest continent, as I still think of it — one that could take a lifetime to explore and to write about. And so I came back from that bike trip with a plan.

One grey and drizzly day in 1992, in his Mount eden office in Auckland, I met the man on whom this entire plan was hinged. His name was Kennedy Warne, and only a few years earlier he had co- founded and more or less single-handedly ran and edited the most illustrious magazine in the country, the New Zealand Geographic.

His office was part literary den, part laboratory of some eccentric inventor, strewn with half-read manuscripts dense with pencil annotations, large prints of photographs and mock layouts, trial covers and posters. Amidst this farrago, Kennedy moved back and forth like a whirlwind of creative energy, unable to sit still, forever fetching examples of work, both good and bad.

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‘See, this is good.’ He showed me a stunning photograph of a man climbing a ridge in the Murchison Mountains, radio-tracking a takahe. ‘It’s good. But it’s not good enough. I don’t just want to lift the standards; I want to establish a whole new level for magazine writing and photography in this country. We have so many good untold stories here, but they’re only worth telling well. Listen to this!’ 13 He read out loud an opening paragraph from one of his favourite stories, in the Smithsonian, then another from the New Yorker.

‘Can you hear it? this stuff sizzles. It’s like a sound or a scent wafting from a good kitchen. It draws you in. It’s irresistible. It makes you hungry for more.’

I could hear it alright, but whether I could do likewise was another question entirely. I sensed that, like the winter night in the Carpathians, this meeting was another pivotal point in my life. But unlike that time on the border, there was no telling which way things would turn here. this time it wasn’t just me who was taking the leap of faith. I had to convince this man to take that leap with me.

I had with me three story proposals, honed to a word like haikus, my only trump cards in this gamble against impossible odds. I had no portfolio, no previous experience. I had only just bought a camera kit sufficient for the job and, hell, english was my fourth language.
But we were both burning with the same fire, the curiosity for life, the treasure hunter’s lust to go out into the world and find the nuggets of the best stories, and to bring them home, polish them up as best we could, and offer them for others to experience and, hopefully, savour. It was easy and obvious to see that quality in him, but somehow Kennedy must have recognised it in me, too, for the next day he called me back in, handed me a cheque to cover my travel expenses and a bag of transparency film to shoot my first story.

Within a month I was back at Mount Cook, this time climbing the mountain itself alongside a guide and his client, to write and photograph my first assignment for the magazine, about glaciers, ‘Rivers of Ice’.

That was the beginning of an adventure which continues to this day. By my rough estimate, I have done over 70 features for the magazine, and many more for other publications, and, if this has been a wild journey it is because, from the outset, I insisted not just on writing each story well but on living it, too. And so to write about ceramics I became a potter for a time; to learn about the underground world of karst, a cave diver. I have played the roles of logger and tree-hugger, poacher and ranger, hunter and the hunted, because one of the early and formative wisdoms which Kennedy had impressed on me was that a writer had to ‘run with the hares and hunt with the hounds’. And because, from he beginning, I innately believed that for writing to be authentic it had to come from direct experience, and that any writer’s block could be overcome by spending more time in the field, gathering experiences, living the story.

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I’ll spare you that very first piece about glaciers, for it was clumsy and riddled with purple prose, the way ice, though outwardly solid, can turn out to be full of air bubbles and pores when you stab an ice-axe into it. the learning curve of writing and story-telling was vertical for me then, an arduous and foolhardy climb, much like my early mountaineering efforts, the ones from which you come back lucky to have survived to tell the tale. But by the time I wrote ‘the odyssey of Alphonse Barrington’, which is included here, the angle of this learning curve had eased off somewhat, becoming a steady, pleasantly steep slope, which it has remained ever since — always a good challenge but never quite such a desperate do-or-die again.

The narratives in this volume comprise what I consider my best work to date and they will take you to places and people that are as extraordinary as they are unknown, inaccessible, forgotten or just plain surprising. the theme of going to extremes, and the progression from ‘elite’ to ‘ordinary’, from speciality interests and a narrow focus to the all-encompassing ‘big picture’, have become clear to me only in retrospect. At the time of research and writing, I picked the subjects purely because they appealed to me, not really seeing that each choice, adventure and encounter was also a stepping stone on a larger journey of understanding.

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By ‘going to extremes’, I don’t just mean outdoor adventures. Any pursuit — saving endangered species, searching for artistic excellence, treasure hunting, maritime rescue or pioneering aviation — can be taken to extremes if instilled with enough passion and commitment, enough inner fire.

The subject matter of these stories is as diverse as my interests, but this collection is also a record of adventures, a progression in writing life and, above all, an evolution in awareness — my own trial-and-error attempts to ‘see a world in a grain of sand . . . And eternity . . .’ no, not in an hour, but in one moment, the Now. Looking for the mystical ‘zone’ to which the extreme adventurers, athletes, artists, performers and thinkers allude — often in veiled inferences and hushed voices, for the state is as delicate as a soap bubble — and often finding it in the most unexpected places, in the ordinary here and now.

I have always been fascinated with human potential: what we are really capable of, how we act under fire, how seemingly everyday people can become superheroes when faced with a crisis. How, when we are confronted with impossible odds, we can find within ourselves hitherto unrealised reserves, the unused booster tank of clarity, strength, will, energy and resolve that can see us through and out of trouble.

I grew up among people who constantly tested that potential, often to beyond its breaking point. the mountaineering club I belonged to in Poland produced the hardiest and most accomplished bunch of Himalayan climbers ever to walk the earth. though the most coveted prize in the world of climbing has long been the so- called ‘Crown of the Himalayas’ — all fourteen of the 8000-metre mountains — the gallant, intrepid Poles, with their ‘we can do better than that’ attitude, also elected to climb these highest peaks, but in winter! think Antarctica combined with ‘Death Zone’ altitude. No surprise that for many years no one else dared to follow, and so the Poles notched the first ten first winter ascents largely by themselves.

Some years later, their exploits became the stuff of global legend after being portrayed in Bernadette McDonald’s book Freedom Climbers but, at the time, as a teenager trying to make sense of the world, climbing and girls, and soon to embark on my own little freedom climb, I had no idea just who these people really were — Kukuczka, Wielicki, Falco-D?sal, Hajzer and many others whose names may not mean much to you. they gave their time to the club, teaching us how to use ropes and ice-axes, tie knots and make anchors, then disappeared on far-off expeditions of unspeakable hardship. they pushed the limits of what was possible to such extremes that, over time, most of them did not come back.

Settling in New Zealand and, through my travels and work, getting to know the country, its history and people, I soon became aware that there was no shortage of such heroes here too . . . a more diverse bunch and not so obsessed with mountains, to be sure, but of similar grand calibre: Hillary and Blake, Richard Pearse and Bill Hamilton, Jean Batten and Kelly tarlton, Don Merton and Arthur Lydiard. then there is Charlie Douglas, the country’s very own thoreau, and even that old fool Barrington, the accidental explorer, whose journey has been likened to Shackleton’s epic crossing to South Georgia, which was also navigated by a Kiwi, Frank Worsley. And they are just the first tier, the avant-garde.

No question then that, for the size of its population, per capita as it were, New Zealand has produced more world-class pioneers, inventors and exponents of the extreme than any other nation. this phenomenon has been globally recognised. It has even caused some pundits to wonder if New Zealanders are endowed with some kind of special ‘adventure gene’ that is expressed in a greater than usual percentage of the populace. or if perhaps the land itself, in all its glorious and compact diversity, like some giant magnet or tuning fork, has the ability to activate that adventure gene in those who spend time within it, who hear and respond to its silent song.

I like the second idea better. Nurture over nature, if you like, and away from any implied genetic superiority because, beyond national pride, name-dropping and drawing inspiration from the greats, there is a lot more to consider here.

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‘Extreme’ has become a much overused, almost meaningless word these days, and, combined with an epidemic of celebrity worship, reinforces the idea that any ‘going to extremes’ is surely the domain of the others — the greats — and never ourselves. Yet the extreme is a highly relative concept. to a Himalayan guide, climbing Mount everest again may be all in a day’s work, but for a man recovering from a heart attack even a short jog can be an extreme effort.

I once spent a day with a Feldenkrais therapist who worked with post-stroke patients, helping them to regain their basic faculties. After their neural network had been partially fried by the stroke — which could erase neuromuscular memories and pathways for even some of the most basic functions — these patients could take weeks, if not months, to re-learn to move their fingers, speak, begin to walk. If that is not going to extremes, what is?
After his fall from Mount Awful, in which he sustained spinal injuries confining him to a wheelchair, John Nankervis, one of New Zealand’s best-known mountaineers, said he now faced the hardest climb of his life, the toughest route. As Falco-D?sal, one of the ‘freedom climbers’ wrote: ‘to each, their own everest.’

The most extreme adventures and heroic deeds often happen in our daily lives, unacknowledged and out of sight and they are, more likely than not, overshadowed by empty glam and the fakery of mass entertainment. If you doubt that, ask a fire-fighter, or, better still, join their training programme. It will redefine your idea of ‘extreme’, as it redefined mine.

Even if our perceptions of what is extreme vary widely, we all innately sense that, if only from time to time, we need to enter this state beyond the comfort zone and, further still, to venture to the edge of what we consider possible.

G2X-pic8Why? Because the extreme is where life is lived to its fullest. It is where evolution takes place, where most growth occurs, whether for a lichen or a human body, mind and spirit. It is where the vibrancy of life is refreshed and rediscovered, where we find inspiration and new directions — food for the soul — and we need these as much as we need food, water and air, if not more. there, as we test ourselves in these recurring baptisms of fire, the mundane and the false drop away and only what’s real and true is left to shine.Joseph Campbell, a mythologist and a student of legends and folklore, has suggested that all of our stories, the good and memorable ones at least, can be distilled into one essential narrative: a story of going to extremes, and coming back with the goods.

The book he wrote about it is called The Hero with a Thousand Faces, implying that the story is the same, and only the faces of the heroes and heroines change. the characters may differ, as do the times and settings, but the tale is the same the world over, from the Bible and classical Greek theatre, to indigenous myths and legends, to modern thrillers and movies.

In this archetypal story, the reluctant hero or heroine is thrown out of his or her world of comforts and routines and into a wild adventure, against their will, against all odds and insurmountable obstacles. one after another, things go wrong until, when they could not get any worse, they do. At the pivotal point in the narrative, hounded by fears, enemies, accidents, losses and other misfortunes, the hero reaches rock bottom, down and nearly out.

This is where that booster tank kicks in, when all that was false falls away and the hero finds his or her true strength, and comes through all the challenges and returns to the ordinary world, bringing back a hard-won piece of wisdom, a nugget-like glimmer of larger reality, to share with others.

I am that hero and so are you, because Campbell’s one story is the tale of a universal human quest for wisdom and understanding. our journeys will differ — like fingerprints, no two are the same — but one thing we can be absolutely sure about is that, whether we want them or not, life already has adventures planned for us, and some of them will be extreme.

G2X-pic7It has been my direct experience that, unlike Campbell’s reluctant hero, it is better to enter the world of adventures voluntarily. this makes for a smoother journey, more engaging and less accidental. And so, here then are some of the favourite treasures I’ve dug up in my time and brought back to share. May they serve and inspire you on your own journey.

It’s a wild ride, and we are all in this together.

 

 

 

You can pre-order a signed copy of GOING TO EXTREMES here

 

Trout and Water Quality

 

My story Saving Trout Country, about trout and water quality in New Zealand, is in the March issue of North & South Magazine.

Have a read and join the groundswell!

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 The big trout held just under the tongue of current breaking off an island-like boulder and from where we stood it was nearly invisible, camouflaged beneath the liquid greenstone of the river frothed with whitewater. Only the sway of its tail gave it away, and only when a brief window of smooth water passed over it, which was how I first sighted the brute.

“There’s a good fish just down and left of that boulder,” I said to my companion Frank Mosley, and pointed to it with my fly rod.

Frank couldn’t see it but this was to be expected. Unless you’ve trained your eyes to spot New Zealand trout, you are likely to miss all but the most obvious ones. Frank was from Montana, accus- tomed to “fishing water” rather than individual trout, though to his credit it was tough to see fish here in the Reefton backcountry. The ostrich-egg boulders that cobble the riverbeds are bone-white and, in bright sunlight, as hard on the eyes as the blinding glare of a glacier.

“Trust me,” I said. “There’s a fish there all right, and a big one too. Just cast a metre up and left of that boulder.”

Frank did, even if he was not entirely convinced. His cast was accurate enough, but for a long suspended moment nothing happened. He lifted the rod and the line seemed snagged.

“Damn, I caught the botto…,” he said, but then the bottom near the boulder exploded with a fury of spray.

The big trout was airborne above it, shaking its head from side to side, its arched wet body glinting gold as it caught the sun- light. The fish bounced off the water a couple of times, then shot downstream, like a soft, lithe torpedo and a contra- diction to all laws of fluid mechanics.

“Oh my gawd,” Frank’s voice was an octave above his usual baritone. “Did you see THAT? It’s a monster!”

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We followed at a run, rod held high but bent into a deep C, Frank’s eyes fixed at the end of his line. He seemed in a trance, ready to walk on water. Well, almost. He was fit and nimble for his mid-60s but a few times I had to catch and steady him as he stumbled over rocks he did not see. The fish was tak- ing us down the river and we crossed and re-crossed the tumbling current, wrestling with it, tripping and fumbling on slippery bottom, gaining some line, losing it again, but at all times keeping it taut like a guitar string.

Twice Frank was down on his knees, flailing on all three limbs but with his rod arm steady and strong. With a pang of dread I saw where the fish was head-ing: a mother of all log-jams a pool below us. If he went in there, into the debris of past floods, we would never get him out.

But then, in the eye of calm below the rapids and just short of the log-jam, I finally netted the fish. He was just shy of the magic 10lb that is the hallmark of a trophy. Frank got his pictures and we released the fish immediately. He was a magnificent trout in his prime, with a fiercely hooked lower jaw, muscled body and a glistening skin that seemed too tight for it.

He was just as spent as we were, and nosed into a rock in the slack water right at our feet, and for a long while all three of us just sat there in absolute stillness, catching our breaths, the only sound the murmur of the river. Then I heard Frank sobbing, and covering it with laughter. He rubbed his eyes with a ban- dana, his hands trembling. “Got the god- damned river water in my eyes,” he said, but he was fooling no one. I smiled and said it was a really good fish, the kind you’d expect out here.

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“No, no, you don’t understand. I’ve been fishing all my life, since I was big enough to hold a rod, and this is the best trout I have ever caught,” Frank cut in. “Where I live, you can’t even buy this kind of experience anymore, no matter how much money you have.”

He fell quiet and withdrawn after- wards, taking time to absorb the expe- rience, and he didn’t want to fish any- more that day, as if not to dilute the quality with repetition or numbers.

On the way back down the river he said: “You’re probably spoilt because you
can have this any time you want, but for me this one fish was worth coming all the way down here. Mountain climbers go to the Himalayas for the best there is, fly fishermen come to New Zealand. Today, I bagged my personal Everest.”

Continue reading in the March 2014 issue of the magazine or get the online version here

 

Lessons from the Wasteland

My latest story for New Zealand Geographic LESSONS FROM THE WASTELAND

photo by Bryce McQuillan

photo by Bryce McQuillan

Rust, lichen and wild Central Otago thyme combine forces to consume and cover the last traces of human industry at the Earnscleugh Dredge Tailings near Alexandra. Mined and washed of their gold from the 1890s, the river gravels have become a sanctuary for rare species, and one of the country’s most unusual wildlife reserves.

Between Alexandra and Clyde, on the true right bank of the Clutha River but walled from its swift flow by a thicket of willows, there is a patch of the most unusual landscape you will find anywhere in this country. Dunes of river gravels, loose, barren and arid, wind-blown and burnt by the fierce Central Otago sun and frosts. Their forms are surprisingly regular, with parallel ridges and troughs and frequent cone-shaped craters, though only an aerial view fully reveals the place for what it is—a man-made moonscape, an undulating heap of industrial wasteland from a century of mining for gold.

The Earnscleugh Dredge Tailings are a historic reserve, a 170-hectare memento from heady days when plundering the land while pursuing its riches and simply walking away when no longer profitable was considered an acceptable use of a valuable resource.

From the outside, the reserve appears desolate and lifeless. The gates to it are locked, and now the footbridge over the Fraser River is washed out too, requiring a detour. Not that anyone seems to mind; even locals avoid the place. Earnscleugh is a most unlikely wildlife refuge, unless you visit with Brian Patrick.

photo by Bryce McQuillan

photo by Bryce McQuillan

Patrick is New Zealand’s butterfly and moth man, an ecologist specialising in insect-plant relationships, with particular and life-long interests in Central Otago’s weathered rockscapes. He knows the name of every plant and every insect here, making distinctions out of the multitude.

“Walking around the Earnscleugh and following Brian Patrick, I cannot shake an impression that, if by some grandiose human folly, life on Earth was completely wiped out, this is what its rebirth might look like.”

One spring day, just as another rainstorm was clearing and its spent clouds were drawn like a heavy drape off the Otago sky, I walked into the unlikely wild of the Earnscleugh Tailings with Patrick. What from the outside appeared like an industrial apocalypse proved to be an oasis of wildlife—a treasure trove of beauty, small and delicate, though apparent only if you are prepared to get down on your knees and look closely to see what poet William Blake called “a world in a grain of sand, and a heaven in a wild flower.”

photos by Bryce McQuillan

photos by Bryce McQuillan

The world’s first gold dredges were developed near here. No one in particular can claim the credit for them as the process of evolution and refinement was at once collaborative, competitive and decades long, but the machinery perfected on the Clutha, with upgrades and modifications, is still in use today, in gold-mining operations as far afield as Alaska and Malaysia.

In just two months of work prior to August 1862, prospectors Horatio Hartley and Christopher Reilly washed up and collected some 1100 ounces (34 kilograms) of colour in the Cromwell Gorge, instantly earning the Clutha and its tributaries worldwide fame as rivers of gold. But with the subsequent boom and massive influx of diggers, the easily found gold was quickly exhausted and extraction became more industrial in scale and technology. The dredges—scooping out the auriferous gravels from the river bottom and washing, sorting and separating them in tumblers and over mesh screens—proved the most productive.  Continue reading here …

 

Tales from the Underworld

Celebrating 25 years of New Zealand Geographic magazine …

TALES FROM THE UNDERWORLD

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In Motueka – a small town renowned for its fruit, housetrucks and organically conscious hippies-the stress level was undetectable. Along the main road muscle cars lazily rumbled for attention, and somewhere a child was hammering out a chore of piano scales. The town felt safe and friendly, like a place where nothing can ever go wrong.

That was an hour ago. Now, with the clammy hand of fear at my throat, I am starting to wish I had stayed in town. Though only 10 kilometres away, I am in a world so different that I could well be on another planet. Underground and underwater, inside the bowels of a marble mountain, I am finning against the gentle current of the Riwaka River. My hand slides along a nylon version of Ariadne’s thread, strung out by my guide. All I can hear is my breath hissing in and gurgling out through the mouthpiece of my air supply-until the steel air cylinder on my back hits the rock ceiling with a loud clang. In this silent, liquid gloom, the slightest sound has the intensity of a Chinese gong.

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My torchlight zigzags across the grey walls, revealing an austere and surreal landscape like a derelict railway tunnel. The passage-its walls as cold as glacial ice-slants down, then turns upwards and opens like the wide end of a horn. I surface next to my guide, Sean Mitchell, resting on a pile of boulders, and take a draught of moist cave air.

We are in a chamber the size of a circus tent. When we turn off our lights, the darkness is absolute, and so thick I can feel it pressing against my face. These walls have never seen sunlight, yet we have only passed the entrance sumps, flooded siphon-like passages that form a kind of Lewis Carroll mirror gate into another world. Ahead, through clay-coated chambers and tunnels, through twisting squeezes which corkscrew like deformed keyholes, and through yet more sumps, the cave continues for no one knows how far.

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Sprawled on the riverside rocks in total darkness-monsters with black wet suit skins, flippered feet and faces distorted by hoods and masks-we may look a natural part of this subterranean world, but it’s only an illusion. Caves make you feel alien and out of place in a way that no other earthly landscape does. They are black holes in the imagination; cold, eternally dark places inhabited by creeping and slithering creatures, places where early explorers found themselves involuntarily slicing the air with crosses and mumbling paternosters. They epitomise our fear of darkness, of confined spaces, of unfathomable depths and, ultimately, of the unknown. Continue reading … 

You will also find this story in my upcoming book GOING TO EXTREMES” which will be published in 2014 and launched at NZ Mountain Film Festival in Wanaka and Queenstown 4-11 July 2014

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The Odyssey and the Lost Gold of Alphonse Barrington

 When I asked my friend Mick Hutchins, a one-time Oxford University scholar in Icelandic mythology and then a Mt Aspiring National Park ranger, to join me on a two weeks’ adventure following the footsteps of Alphonse Barrington, I envisaged a romantic journey amid splendid scenery and campfire stories thickened with pipe smoke.

Three days later, clinging for dear life to a handful of roots overhanging a mossy and near-vertical river bank, I was beginning to think, perhaps we were in for much more adventure than we had ever wished for. It also occurred to me that Barrington’s diary, unduly spare as it seemed, was in fact a quiet masterpiece of understatement.

 

Barrington

The Odyssey of Alphonse Barrington

When the walnut stock of the McCarthy shotgun touched Captain Elchold’s cheek the fate of yet another pigeon seemed inevitable. With the precision of a gun turret he tracked the bird across the sky and was about to pull the trigger. Suddenly, he stopped. The pigeon crash-landed into the mop of a mira tree, but Elchold’s attention was now elsewhere. He lowered his weapon, watching in disbelief.

Three haggard men were crossing a branch of the Dart River, dragging their feet against the swift current. Their hair and beards were long and matted, their faces scratched and streaked with caked blood. Bedraggled guernsey shirts and fustian trousers cloaked their angular bodies like oversized potato sacks. A half-starved dog swam ahead and shook itself dry on a gravel bank. Its shaggy coat was stretched over protruding ribs like the bellow of a concertina.

The first man across wore a ragged tunic made of a crudely stitched blanket. His eyes were lost in the cavities of his skull. Approaching the captain, he muttered a feeble plea for tobacco.

Like both of his impoverished companions, Alphonse Barrington was a gold miner. Six months earlier he set out to prospect in the unmapped mountains of South-Westland. His journey, full of misadventures and unspeakable hardship, was to become one of the most heroic episodes in the history of New Zealand exploration.

Barrington_4The three men who staggered out of the wilderness in such emaciated state this crisp June morning were later described by Captain Elchold-skipper of a whaleboat which ferried supplies across Lake Wakatipu-as “living skeletons covered with skin.” so weak they were barely able to speak. “Wrecks of humanity,” recorded another witness.

The year was 1864. Abraham Lincoln had just been re-elected president of the United States, and the population of Australia had reached one million. In New Zealand’s North Island, racial tempers ran sour and exploded into war when the punitive expedition of General Duncan Cameron crossed the Mangatawhiri River and entered the King Country. Meanwhile, in the South Island,  men in their thousands scarred the mountains and diverted the rivers in a frenzied search for gold.

The first great gold-rush, in Gabriel’s Gully, had been on for almost a year when, one March Sunday in 1862, shepherd Thomas Arthur wandered off to the Overshot Creek (later the Shotover) and with a milking dish and a knife gave it the fame of being the richest gold-bearing river in the world. That same month, in the Upper Shotover, where the river twists and foams through a steep gorge, Dan Ellison and Hakaria Haeroa rushed to rescue their drowning dog and found a beach paved with nuggets. On their first day they gathered over eleven kilograms. Continue reading … 

You will also find this story in my upcoming book GOING TO EXTREMES” which will be published in 2014 and launched at NZ Mountain Film Festival in Wanaka and Queenstown 4-11 July 2014

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