The magic of Mesopotamia

By Andrew Stone

Peter Bush's pictures of "Messie" evoke the immensity of the landscape and give some insight to the working of the land. Photo / Supplied
Peter Bush's pictures of "Messie" evoke the immensity of the landscape and give some insight to the working of the land. Photo / Supplied

A new book uncovers the rich history of a vast South Island high country run. Andrew Stone talks to the team behind it

The first time Peter Bush went to Mesopotamia he was lucky to leave alive.

It was 1970 and photographer Bush had driven up to the vast Canterbury high country station in a hired Land Rover with a couple of mates to shoot deer and tahr.

Run-owner Malcolm Prouting let them continue beside the chilly Rangitata River towards the South Alps and darkening nor'west skies but warned them: "I think you've left your run too late."

Bush and his pals pitched a tent on high ground in the middle of the braided river. Sure enough, the rain came and the river rose as darkness fell. Around midnight, recalls Bush, with the hunters back in the jeep and swift currents lapping at the door panels, a log smacked into the radiator.

Bush: "The car was just starting to float." Eventually the intrepid bunch used a rope and reached dry ground.

Leaving the 4WD behind, they trudged to a lonely hut where one of them picked the lock.

A day later Laurie Prouting, Malcolm's son, arrived in a small Auster plane.

Pointedly he remarked: "We must have forgotten to lock up but I'll show you where the key is."

Bush says he shot two tahr but got soaked through. His enduring friendship with Laurie Prouting was sealed when the farmer dragged the Land Rover across the river and got it back to the hire firm in Christchurch.

"Saved our bacon," Bush says fondly.

And so began his connection with the great sprawling farm he calls "Messie". His photographic record of the past 42 years has been assembled in a handsome new book A Fabled Land, by Christchurch writer Bruce Ansley.

The huge farm has a singular place in New Zealand's settlement history. Its first owner was Englishman Samuel Butler, who set out for the colony to put some distance from his overbearing father, a vicar who wanted his son to wear the cloth. Arriving in 1860, armed with a degree from Cambridge, £2000 from his father and barely a clue about what lay ahead, Butler set out on a horse called Doctor to explore the farthest reaches of a foreign land. For the 24-year-old, the attraction lay in the unbelievable deal laid before anyone bold enough to settle Canterbury's "waste lands". By simply staking a claim in the broad valleys below the mountains, and agreeing to stock the land, a settler could become a runholder.

Butler beat a rival to seize his mountain-ringed property and settled in a cob hut, survived on a bleak diet of mutton and bread, hung English watercolours on his walls and played Bach on a piano which filled half the living room. Ansley writes that he found the place "very grand, very gloomy and very desolate" and so cold that when people spoke their breath froze so they had to break it and fry it "to see what they were talking about".

Yet the overpowering landscape fed the young migrant Butler's imagination, and provided the backdrop to his novels Erewhon and Erewhon Revisited, which Ansley read first as a schoolboy.

Former Listener journalist Ansley says he'd always wanted to write a book about "Messie", given its almost mythic status in high country lore. Malcolm Prouting, Laurie's boy and the latest owner in a family line, was receptive to Ansley's approach, but the addition of Bush to the team sealed the deal.

Their work stitches the book together. Ansley conveys the flinty edge that generations of farmers and their families needed to make a go of it in harsh and unforgiving surroundings. Bush's images reflect the seasons which rule the farm calendar - the autumn muster and tailing of lambs in summer, velvet harvest from the valuable deer herd, the thundering feet of Angus cattle moving to lower country for winter.

"It's an entrancing place," reflects Ansley, who pitched in with sheep dipping and other tasks in the two years he spent gathering the history of Mesopotamia, the backstory of the Proutings and the rhythms of high country life.

Of all the 304 South Island stations, Mesopotamia - a Greek word for the land between two rivers - stands apart.

It alone was founded by a novelist and its landmarks wear distinctive names: Mt D'Archiac on the Main Divide, which feeds Lake Tekapo and the Rangitata, marks its most western point. Four peaks recall the Battle of the River Plate: Exeter, Achilles, Ajax and Graf Spee.

Once it covered 41,000ha and supported 18,000 sheep. Economic currents and tenure review have whittled the enterprise back to 8000ha, with 20,000 adjacent hectares tipped into a new conservation park.

The Proutings got $4.6m to relinquish this great chunk, but Malcolm told Ansley he wasn't impressed: "It's our business, our livelihood, our passion, our history. For the guys on the other side of the table it's a job."

Ansley says the sense he felt in the farm's vast emptiness was the immensity of the mountainscape.

"I took a walk up Bush Stream," he recalled. "Walk is an understatement. It took me the best part of three days. I felt like a tiny figure in a giant landscape."

The location excited film-maker Peter Jackson. Scenes for Lord of the Rings were filmed across the great wide river from the station homestead. On land where Butler once roamed, Jackson created Edoras, hill fort capital of the Riders of Rohan.

New Zealanders know Bush through his vast catalogue of rugby images, many taken in black and white when the snapper had few peers.

He covered his first test as long ago as 1949, a Saturday at Eden Park when New Zealand lost to Australia. But the infinite scenes he found in the upper Rangitata got under his skin.

"It captivated me the first time I went down there. It's a bit like Shangri-la, hidden in behind the hills. The people seemed to grow out of the land."

Bush felt privileged to enjoy part of New Zealand he thought could "go the way of the dodo and the moa. I'm lucky I've lived long enough to see what might be the twilight of the great high country days".

On his earliest visits, 40-odd years ago, Bush used film, capturing images with high-end Rolleiflex and Nikon-F cameras. Eventually he went digital - "press the button and boom, boom, boom". Of all the photographs, the shot of head shepherd Blue Horton clearing a path for snow-bound merinos was memorable.

"It was so cold the shutter froze up. I had the camera under my jacket so it would work."

How did he get up that ridge?

"One foot after the other."

Bush is modest about his results: "Out there you could be blind with a white stick - which is an insult I know - and still come away with memorable images."

Ansley is glad he got to know Bush during their shared journeys, saying the lensman's history is bound up with New Zealand's journey over the last 50 years. "He'll be yakking away in the middle of a yarn and he'll say, 'Pull over mate.' What he means is, 'stop, stop immediately' because he's seen something. He was always saying the photograph you put off is the photograph you never get."

In the mountains, he couldn't put a cork in Bush.

"The winter nights are long up there. And bloody cold. I remember one night we were huddled round the stove while Bushy filled me up with his immense store of rugby stories. I'm counting on him not stopping when we take the show on the road."

He even found they shared a connection. Ansley's twin sons Sam and Simon have a stake in hip Wellington bar, the Matterhorn. Bush told his high country companion: "Oh, I took Louis Armstrong there in 1963."

As we wind up our chat, Ansley asks if Bush, who is nearly 83, had talked about any more projects. He mentioned, I say, that he'd like to do something with all the images of out-of-the-way camping spots he's taken over the years. But most of all, Bush would jump at the chance to get back to Messie: "My knee plays up a bit now but if I had to crawl back there I would."

A Fabled Land: The story of Canterbury's famous Mesopotamia station - Bruce Ansley with Peter Bush, (Random House, $49.99).

The Weekend Herald has 10 copies of A Fabled Land to give away. To be in the draw, tell us the name of Mesopotamia Station's first owner. Send your answer, with name and address details, to Weekend Herald contest, P.O. Box 3290, Auckland.

- NZ Herald

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