Heeding the call of the wild

Not every woman could fall in love with a long-haired hermit living two into his hut and raise a family. But, as Catherine Stewart recounts in days' walk from the nearest road-end, move her new book, she is not every woman.

Catherine Stewart raised her children miles from civilisation.
Catherine Stewart raised her children miles from civilisation.

I had always wanted to live in a lighthouse - doesn't everyone at some stage? I was somewhat deflated to find that lighthouse keepers didn't actually get to live in the round towers, preferring to live in "normal" houses nearby.

I came to live with Robert Long, also known as Beansprout, at the mouth of the Gorge River on the west coast of New Zealand's South Island. Our home is about halfway between Jackson Bay, at the end of the road south of Haast, and Milford Sound.

Although not circular, our house has many attributes of a lighthouse. It shakes in high winds or with a big sea running, and the windows are always covered in salt spray.

While finishing university in Western Australia, I often studied maps looking for tramping tracks, and was fascinated by the apparent inaccessibility of the area south of Haast. One day, I found a dotted route linking up with the Hollyford track and I knew that sometime I wanted to go there.

I first heard of Robert as I hitchhiked to Haast. I was picked up by a man in a Morris Minor, he was going tramping into the Cascade and looking for someone who lived down there. Later I was pretty sure that he had been looking for Robert.

In January 1987, I hitched a ride south as far as Oamaru. As we pulled out, a tall, thin, long-haired man with a beard and a funny hat waved to the bus. That was the first time I set eyes on Robert Long.

Lou Brown and his kids were also aboard the bus. Lou lived at Barn Bay, a day's walk from the Cascade Rd. He suggested that I should walk in to see them some time.

My friend Cathy Mountier was keen to walk to Big Bay again, and I jumped at the chance.

I was alone in the Browns' house when there was a knock on the door.

And here was that tall, thin man again, with the same funny hat, which he'd made himself from thick, lumpy wool spun on a drop-spindle and dyed yellow/green with lichen. He also wore a long, homespun woollen swannie which he had just finished knitting on needles made from the wire of an oven tray. The buttons and toggles were dolphins' teeth, coral and bone. Robert's lace-up gumboots bore hand-stitched patches cut from the inner-tube of a tyre.

He told me that he was the Browns' neighbour. I said they'd be home later in the day and, according to Robert, shut the door in his face. He didn't forgive me for years.

Of course, he came back later. When he heard that two women were tramping in to his part of the coast he thought perhaps he'd better come with us. We slept the night in Beansprout's bivvy before he led the way for the last 8km to Gorge River.

I saw, for the first time, the hut that was to become my home.

I was highly amused and impressed by the detergent bottle punched with nail holes that made a perfectly adequate shower nozzle. I was less impressed by the trickle that came out when I turned the taps, but made the most of it.

We stayed for a week eating Beansprout's food before we walked on again, to Barn Bay. The potential beginnings of a relationship had been made, but I wasn't ready to stay anywhere just yet. I didn't come back for a year and a half.

In February 1989, I walked into Barn Bay with my sister Alison. My fascination with the area had not diminished.

I hadn't really figured out what I'd say to Robert when I saw him, but he wasn't home anyway. I left a note on his table with a telephone number in case he wanted to get in touch.

He called me two or three months later when he was next by a phone, and we arranged to meet in Queenstown to tramp through the Greenstone track. It was a wickedly cold but stunningly beautiful trip in a hoar frost.

At the Divide, Robert turned north to walk down the Hollyford Valley, and I hitchhiked back to Christchurch.

During 1990 I spent half my time at Gorge River, and Robert was keen for me to live there.

"It seems like a dream," I answered.

Here was a place I could live with the basic necessities of life; a piece of ground that was big enough to grow what I needed to eat, and whatever I put into it would come back to me. It didn't seem such a difficult decision after all.

We were happy to eat like peasants. A bag of rice went a long way with a few potatoes and root vegetables from the garden. Swedes, turnips and parsnips came up every spring. Comfrey and watercress gave us all the greens we needed. I didn't much like the ground kelp powder which Robert sprinkled on every meal, but it was a great source of minerals. We added a bit of flour, usually hand-ground, to thicken the leftover rice, and fried it in patties. If there was no oil, we rolled it into chapattis in flour, cooked them on top of the stove and spread them with butter, if we had it, and Marmite.

We get about five minutes' notice of visitors arriving by aeroplane and about two minutes' by helicopter. As the aeroplane circles, the scramble is on. A quick tidy of the table or floor, sweep the worst of the dirt under the wood-box, change my filthy gardening pants for something slightly better, or tidy away some of the food and dirty dishes on the bench. Oh, and put wood on the fire so the kettle can get started.

At the end of 1990, we flew to Canada where my sister was having her first baby. We came back with Christan on board.

Robert was absolutely delighted with my pregnancy. From the day that Christan was conceived there has never been any other option for either of us, and although we didn't get around to having a wedding for a couple of years, we were effectively married at that moment, for better or for worse.

During that winter, a particularly friendly fantail flew over to squeak at me whenever I stepped out the door. It flitted about when I was gardening, landing on my head, my shoulder, and once on my hand, and getting under my feet as I walked. Of course, it was only chasing the sandflies I'd accumulated, but after that many of the other fantails also seemed more tame than usual. Even in the Hollyford, the fantails seemed to have heard the exciting news.

As the due date drew closer, we planned to walk three days to Big Bay. I was seven months' pregnant and not exactly happy about it.

I took my first attempts at homespun wool and a pair of knitting needles Robert had made from No. 8 wire to knit a few pairs of thick, woollen, over-nappy pants during the next few weeks, but anything else I needed for the baby had to wait until I got out to town.

Our son was born at the just on 26 September 1991. Seven pounds of boy!

"His name is Christan Robert Long!" Robert announced.

A favourite question people ask us is: "What do you do if you have an accident?" The answer? "Well, mostly we don't." Clearly, though, being able to get help is crucial, particularly after Christan and his sister Robin were born.

During our second pregnancy we scored a hand-held VHF radio. Robin was almost a year old before we had an emergency locator beacon.

Fortunately, the kids have grown up safely without us ever having had to call for help.

Candles cost us a fortune in the first few years, and they often smoked and stank. Our eyes were not getting any younger, either, and instead of reading with a single candle we'd need four or five. The kerosene lantern also stank.

Eventually we bought the first solar panel and another battery. As well as having a light at night, Robert could run a small motor and a diamond saw or grinding wheel for working greenstone.

It was Christan's food requirements that pushed us to buy a freezer for meat. He was 13 and went through three shoe sizes that year.

At the same time we needed a wind generator to fill some of the gap in sunlight hours, particularly during the winter.

Without telephone contact, our main communication was by mail. I thought if I had a computer I could type it once and edit it to be sent to different people.

So we leaped straight into the 21st century with a laptop computer.

Before Christan went away to school, we flew Roger Crowe in from Haast to added a satellite dish to the other technology on our roof and - bingo! - we were in touch with the rest of the world by email, Skype and Facebook. Neither of us wanted to be out of touch with our son.

Abridged extract from A Wife on Gorge River
by Catherine Stewart (Random House, RRP $39.99).

- Herald on Sunday

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