If anything could rival New Zealand sports photographer Peter Bush's love of rugby, it's Mesopotamia - the magnificent and historic South Canterbury station which lies in the Rangitata high country, hard against the Southern Alps.



Bush first crossed paths with the Mesopotamia runholders, the Prouting family, almost 50 years ago, when they ended up rescuing his brand new rental Land Rover from the clutches of the mighty Rangitata River. He and a hunting mate had pitched their tent on what they thought was a track, the heavens had opened during the night, and they'd got caught in a flash flood.



With the water level rising, they had to abandon the submerged vehicle until it could be towed out once the water level had dropped. Despite this ignominious start - he's been the butt of endless "North Island townie" jokes ever since - Bush has remained firm friends with the family.



In a new book, A Fabled Land, Bush joins journalist and Cantabrian Bruce Ansley to reveal a vivid portrait of this awe-inspiring place, where 150 years of station life have been played out within the great amphitheatre of the mountains.

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Ansley captures the spirit of this great sheep station: from the early pioneers who first braved its harsh winters and searing summers to the ingenuity and drive of the present-day owners, the Prouting family.



This is a man's country, where the women who wish to stay must hold their own; a country where the past is echoed in the present and in this fascinating book we ride the "curious tide of extremes" that farming embodies: the heartache, the exhilaration, the grandiose, the bombastic, the gracious, the laconic humour.

BOOK EXTRACT: BUSHY COMES TO MESSIE


I knew Jack Acland from Mount Peel Station. He was chairman of the Wool Board and I did a lot of work for the board. It was 1970. The All Blacks were in South Africa. I was pretty keen on shooting and he said, 'Why don't you come down our way? One of the big stations down here is run by a good friend of mine, Malcolm Prouting.'



So Bob Hayman, Russell Stewart and I hired a Land Rover in Christchurch on a nor'west day in September. We called in to Mount Peel and Sir John and Lady Acland made us welcome. It was a bleak day but we bowled up the valley and asked Malcolm if we could go shooting; that Jack Acland suggested it. Malcolm kind of ran his eye over us. He said, 'One thing about it, Jack Acland does not run Mesopotamia. I do.' In a rather nice way.



Then he said, 'I think you've left your run too late. There's a nor'wester coming.'



But we wanted to do some shooting, so we set off, went through a number of gates into the riverbed and ended up on this vague track. Suddenly we could see the clouds and the first spots of rain. We came to the last tributary of the main river and I walked in but it was up to my waist, too deep for a Land Rover.



We picked out a dry spot where there were some stunted willows and we put up a rough tent. We'd spend the night out and hopefully cross in the morning.

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By then it was getting dark. The rain got heavier. Down came the tent and we got into the Land Rover.



It just kept raining harder. At midnight we felt a big bump and there was this huge log resting against the radiator. The car was just starting to float. Bob Hayman was an Aussie, a butcher, good driver, jack of all trades. But he couldn't swim a stroke. We decided to pack everything we could into our packs and if she tipped over we'd try to hang on, but if we couldn't we'd try to float. It was black.



Heavy rain squalls. A greasy dawn came at last. A great sigh of relief. But the river was bank to bank. The island we'd camped on had disappeared.



Then up came an Auster. It flew over really low, waggled its wings and circled us a couple of times. The pilot waved. Laurie Prouting. So we sat it out. Two days later the river had dropped far enough. We took a lightweight pack with our sleeping bags and a rifle, and we crossed this last tributary. I hopped across with a rope and we pulled Bob over. We got to the Black Mountain Hut. But the hut was locked. Bob got a piece of fencing wire and picked this massive lock, which impressed me no end. We made ourselves comfortable.



The plane arrived up next day. Dogs in the hopper. I couldn't see where he was going to land but I didn't know Laurie. He landed. He said, 'Glad you guys made yourselves comfortable.' And he said, 'We must have forgotten to lock up but I'll show you where the key is.' He was being polite, of course.



He knew it had been locked. He said the river had cut new channels. 'You've got to leave the Land Rover. When the river drops we'll see about towing it out.'

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We had a couple of good days, shot a couple of tahr, then we walked out.



It was totally miserable. Rain. When we got down to Messie Anne cooked this wonderful meal. I was starving. I ate the meal, climbed into the sack, and Russell and Bob staggered in about 11 o'clock, absolutely rooted.



We got a lift down to Mount Peel, spent the night there in manorial splendour and went through to Christchurch the next day. Rang the rental car guy and he said to leave the key on the front wheel and he'd send us the account.



I said, 'We haven't got the Land Rover.'



He blew up. 'You bastards from the North Island, you've got no idea.'



I said, 'Look mate, it was an act of God.'

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He said, 'Don't give me that crap. Where are you?'



'Just leaving town now, mate.'



They got the Land Rover out. Laurie and someone cranked it up, used a horse to drag it back across the river, took it back to Christchurch and saved our bacon.



On the strength of that we became friends. I came back for musters and so on through the years. The big one was the huge muster in the eighties. It's part of history now.



To me it was magical. Once we were snow-raking; winter, blue sky, but tramping out these tracks with Blue, then head shepherd. We nursed some sheep along then about eight of them jumped out of the trench and got into a creek. We got them back but a couple of them refused to move. We left them behind. Came down getting towards dark over these big boulders.



Blue made a cup of tea in a keening wind. Got down to the hut and someone had left the door open and the place was half full of snow and it was too late to go anywhere. About 10.30 at night Laurie came flying in really low. Dropped us some bundles. But no food, just sleeping bags. We got the fire going though.

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I thought these people, they're hardy, they're tough and I'm a sort of city slicker. I have nothing but total admiration for them. None of them are clockwatchers. They respect each other, look after each other, and when you're there they expect you to behave in the same way.

A Fabled Land



by Bruce Ansley, Random House, $49.99