Topic: The Haast by Tony Walsh

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A Tony Walsh entry in the 2012 Memoir and Local History Competition.

Archived version here. 

Living at the Haast was like living in another country somehow attached to New Zealand. When locals left for a trip to Central Otago or the big smoke of Greymouth they spoke of ‘going out’ almost as if making a voyage overseas. Long-term residents and the descendants of the early settlers were hardy people and intensely independent; a reflection perhaps of their previous isolation and consequent resilience.

It was pretty much a male world there. Guys drifted in to take jobs in the mill, to hunt and to catch whitebait. Many of them had found ordinary society unbearable, and so you found characters there, blokes with quirks, different attitudes and habits and strange ways of dealing with life’s cares.
 
Max Horne was one of these. His base was a shack on the banks of the Arawata just below the Jackson Road Bridge. He’d gained the right to meat hunt the upper Arawata from the run holders, the Nolan Family and accessed his block by Hamilton jet boat. I stayed with him a number of times at his camp at what he called the Thompson Creek Tea Rooms. 

We first met Max in an unusual manner. On a family picnic to Jackson Bay soon after arriving in the Haast we came across an accident. A brand new Holden Utility lay athwart the road on its roof, the wheels still spinning. A figure on the verge of the road lurched to his feet. It was Barry Horne, Max’s son who’d been sent to Greymouth to pick up a new vehicle from the dealers. Barry had got this far, almost home and had fallen asleep.

Barry was trembling with shock and very afraid of how his father would greet him. We picked him up, drove him home and broke the bad news to his father.  Thus began a new friendship.

Max loved onions. I really believe a sack of them was the first thing to go into the boat for the next expedition. He ate raw onions with almost every meal imaginable.  If he had porridge for breakfast I think he would have sliced them on that too. He reckoned the smell kept the mosquitoes away and there are some big mosquitoes in South Westland!

He had a fondness also for sugar. His billy tea had to be sweet. In the bush he’d ladle three heaped dessert spoons of sugar into his cup. When he visited us at our home his manners took over and it became a mere three or four teaspoons.

Occasionally bush sickness took its toll on Max. After long spells in the bush the need for human company and a drink or two would get to him and he’d end up in the Haast Hotel. It was brand spanking new at the time and after one particularly torrid session he finished up climbing the new curtains before they threw him out.
 
Jimmy Shirwan was a Coaster born and bred. He’d worked in the mines and spent his weekends deer stalking. The lure of the Wilds got to him in the end and drew him south to Haast where he successfully took up meat hunting on foot. He packed out some huge loads, but his real ambition was to become a pilot and own his own plane. He carefully salted away some of his earnings and in time gained his pilot’s licence.

One day by some strange coincidence I happened to be at Mussel Point strip when a strange new Piper Cub flew in. It was Jim. He’d achieved his ambition and he’d bought his plane and here he was wanting to show it off to someone. I happened to be handy and I was that someone.

From Mussel Point we headed off for the Haast Range and Jim put us down by a tiny tarn in the snow grass country. No airstrip just a seemingly level tussock flat and on this Jim landed safely, me with my heart in my mouth. A quick mosey around for deer sign followed and then we were off again up the Okuru valley this time, over the saddle and then landed in the Wills. Jim was really enjoying himself showing me what his new acquisition was capable of. On our homeward journey down the Haast River he practised aerobatics and I was airsick!

Jim was adventurous. One day he and a friend set off to row their tin dinghy to some offshore islands to view the seal colony there. On their way back to the mainland the boat capsized throwing them into the Tasman. As they clung to the upturned hull their plight became even more terrifying when something large took a chunk out of Jim’s heel. Fortunately for them right on the very last of the daylight the pilot of a chopper spotted them as he returned to Mussel Point and hauled them from the Briny. Jim became Jim the Foot after that episode.

Jim the Foot later teamed up with Jim Finney (alias Jim the Fin) and together they worked on deer recovery from a chopper. They were caught out one time by one of those treacherous mountain fogs that can suddenly fill a valley, a real whiteout it must have been. They had no visibility whatsoever. In the thickest of this they slowly descended a huge slip. A tall rimu top interrupted their descent and the machine flipped upside down coming to rest on the high boughs a considerable distance above the ground. The two Jims hanging from their safety belts watched in horrified fascination as aviation fuel dripped from a fuel line onto the hot motor and evaporated with a ping.

The strop normally used for deer recovery was hastily lowered and once on the ground they set out on the long trek home.
 
Then there was Diddley Dave who owned the local garage and service station opposite our home. Tourists called in on him for help with mechanical breakdowns. With the Highway over the pass being new and surfaced with   loose flying metal the frequent broken windscreens were another problem.

Off Dave would sail in his Holden Ute a tandem trailer behind him. The owners of their prized vehicles would have been appalled at the treatment they received. We could see Dave as he returned to the service station. We’d watch through our kitchen window as he reversed the trailer to a power pole, fastened a chain from car to pole and drove off at speed leaving the vehicle bouncing on its springs on the ground.
 
Mike Bennett was also a hunter. He lived with his family at the southern end of the Mussel Point airstrip. His two children were named after the mountain peaks he loved so much. Like Jim the Foot he owned a plane but he’d become a bit of a legend from a story that was doing the rounds.  It went something like this.

At one time Mike worked as a shooter and gutter from a chopper. One flight, high on the tops Mike had bombed up a mob of chamois on a difficult rocky crag. The pilot hovered over the carcasses and Mike descended on the strop. Rapidly gutting the animals Mike pulled them together in a heap and pulled a rope around his bundle. 

Down dropped the helicopter, a hook dangling from the strop. Watching the action by the mirror on his skids the pilot saw Mike give a wave apparently indicating the load was secure. He gunned the engine and the machine rose. Here Mike’s fortunes took a dive! The hook caught in the side of his boot and to his terror he found himself high above the ground dangling from one leg and praying that his laces would hold.

We can only wonder at the pilot’s horror when once more he checked the security of his load and saw Mike in his mirror. Mike survived to hunt another day. 
 
The Haast then really was an unusual region of dear old New Zealand and these citizens of the district in the 1970s are mere archetypes of real West Coast Kiwis of that era. 
 
About the author:
Tony Walsh has been married for 44 years with five children and seven grandchildren. Most of his working life was spent as a teacher and a school principal, during which he spent a great deal of time hunting and trout fishing in the wild. Since his retirement and as his legs got slower, he now fly fishes the rivers, tying his own flies. He published The Black Singlet Brigade with XLibris in 2013, an essential read for any bush adventurer, actual or vicarious. Tony presently edits the local Trout Fishing Club monthly magazine. Now retired, he lives, writes and resides by a trout stream. He describes this as Heaven on earth.

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This page archived at Perma CC in October of 2016: https://perma.cc/4Y9X-BL3Q

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