Writer Peter Malcouronne and photographer Chris Morton have released a book about Great Barrier Island and those who live on it. In this extract from Aotea Great Barrier they meet fisherman and adventurer Bob Whitmore.
Down at the wharf at Tryphena, rod in hand, holding court in his "director's chair", Bob Whitmore isn't expecting much. Not like in the old days. His first day here on the Barrier was sometime in the mid-50s, flown in by legendary pioneer aviator Fred Ladd. He went straight out in the boat. Caught 50-something snapper, 14 to 15 pounds a fish, almost too easy to make it fun, and certainly too many to know what to do with. He gave away as much as he could and ploughed the rest into the garden.
Bob's been on the island 42 years now — or at least that's where you'd find his house.
Because a lot of that time he was out at sea, decades spent on his longliner on the waters around the Gulf. It was a gilded age, at least until the big trawlers came and vacuumed up everything. They'd slip in at night, park up off the wharf like it was Friday night shopping downtown. It was crazy, it was carnage. Eventually it was stopped, after it became clear exactly how bad an idea it was. Now the fish are slowly coming back, but it's not the same and Bob doubts it ever will be again.
But back when he first came out here, back when there were 250 people on the island (most of them retired farmers running down the clock), he loved it. "It was the isolation and the fishing, everything. It was such a free and easy place; it was beautiful. Paradise.
No power, cars falling to bits, wild cattle, heaps of shooting and fishing. You could pitch your tent anywhere on the side of the road and no one cared. Build your bach and no one gave a damn. Most homes had a wood range and there were no firewood restrictions."
Back then you knew you were safe on the road when you meandered home leaving the island's cop drinking in the golf club behind you. The new cop doesn't drink and tickets the islanders for expired WoFs.
After spending every spare moment camping on the island on weekends and holidays, Bob built his first bach here in 1968. He and wife Tipi stayed a couple of golden summers and in 1970 moved over for good. A long-drop toilet — a deep hole covered by a clapboard construction for privacy — was the first requirement.
And so Bob and a mate got to work. "We kept striking this bloody rock, so we dropped half a plug [of gelignite] down. Boom!" Then they'd dig a bit further, and drop down another half a plug. When they got down 25 feet they poured in about 10 buckets of water because it intensifies the blast. "Tipi had hung all the washing, all the sheets. We tied two plugs of jelly together, put a detonator in, and put all these buckets of water down there. Chucked it in and took off behind the bloody bach. It went off like f***ing Rotorua. The water went a f***ing hundred feet in the air. Mud and shit all over Tipi's washing. Ha ha. Huge f***ing mess."
Out on the Barrier, a calm bay is much valued.
"There's not one little place with an anchorage and shelter where I haven't slept. I'd usually go where I could get TV coverage, because when you work hard all day, sometimes knocking off at nine o'clock at night, it's nice to lie down and watch the box for an hour. Wreck Bay … Harataonga … Shark Alley at Medlands was all right. Little Barrier's a prick of a place because it's round and you can't get a decent sleep there. Cuvier's the same."
Bob — yes, a man of the sea. But if marooned on land any December he'd be the go-to Santa for the community. The sack would be full of pāua and crays. Twinkling eyes. Beard in the style of generations, centuries of seamen. Wring him and you'd get pure salt. An ancient mariner. Dry lips, chapped by the sea and salt and sun.
The pull of the sea never leaves. "I like listening to the waves crashing on the beach. All my life I've lived close to the water, even in Ōtahuhu, I lived close to the river. Whitecaps one day, next day it's calm. I never get sick of it, never."
Once bound to the Barrier, Bob bought his longliner — a 24-footer, a two-man operation that laid up to 2000 hooks on a line between buoys marked by flags, then returned a little later to see what they'd got. In the winter they'd only get a quarter of a pound of fish per hook, but in summer it was two pounds average; a thousand-hook line yielding 2000 pounds of product. "For 30 years, I'd go to sea Sunday morning and come home Friday night," he says. "Most of the time I was here, but when there wasn't much around I'd fish around Ponui Island, or out in the Firth of Thames or over at Leigh."
It's not easy fishing, he says, especially when the prevailing sou'westers get up and blow 40 knots straight for a fortnight.
The fishing was a competition. The others kept an eye on Bob. "Soon as I started my motor up they'd all start their bloody motors up. As soon as I'd throw me flag over they'd start chucking 'em. They'd set over the top of my lines. They'd see you pulling fish in and they'd be following behind you putting their line out behind you. So I'd get on the radio and I'd call them all pricks and arseholes and they could hear that all over New Zealand."
But like he said, it's all changed now. "I could go out there now and catch 40 snapper on the hook, but I'd have to throw 38 of them back. And the two you kept would probably be undersized."
There's talk of a marine reserve, but Bob says that would bring its own problems. "The trouble is that once they start one, it gets bloody bigger and bigger. I don't know why they want a fishing reserve 'cause there's no bloody boats there. They wanted one out to sea but who's going to police it? There's a whole lot of the back of the island that you can't fish out of 'cause it's a naval reserve."
But here, this place, his wharf spot, has its moments. He'll bring down his deck chair and maybe a beer.
He's been here on the wharf for ages today without a nibble. It doesn't matter. After a life looking at it, the sea can still move him. "The other day the water was dead flat, it looked like a millpond. It looked like corrugated iron, these waves rippling in, not breaking or anything. Bloody beautiful."
The big irony of the old fisherman's life is that he doesn't much care for fish as a feed. It's always been a way to get out on the water and now next to it, on the natty little L-shaped wharf. "It's nice to come sit here. People come wandering down and you have a talk. It doesn't matter if you don't catch a fish."
Tryphena's a holiday-sized harbour. Small enough to walk around if you want, or row across or maybe swim if you're strong. Little beaches separated by green bush hills. A boat grumbles in and Bob hails it, asking the old question. A girl answers: "Only about four good-sized ones." She's his great-great-niece. Bob had three kids; one's in Melbourne, one was here for a while, one died.
His brother's here too, bought a boat and did commercial fishing for a few years. Then he went building, making many of the houses around Tryphena. Bob sees him every day. "His house is built on the side of the hills and he always had to carry the timber up on his back, I don't know how he did it."
He'll often drop in to Billy Whitmore's on his morning walk. "We'll wander down to the shop together. My mates are there, we sit down and read the paper and have our coffee and do the crossword and then wander home at midday. There's Phil, there's Bluey, there's always someone down there."
He lives for these moments. There's no one at home now — his wife Tipi's been gone two years, after 34 together. "It was a bugger. But she was pretty crook for a while. I go for a sleep in me chair by the TV sometimes and I wake up and feel as if she's beside me."
His best friend, Hank Hollick, is nine years dead. The stories are legion, the two a latter-day Butch and Sundance, riding across a New Zealand of few real rules that's now long gone.
Hank — Mad Hank — owned a Tiger Moth, a wire and canvas open cockpit biplane new in the 1930s.
"I was at the pub one time having a few and I said to these jokers, 'I love going to the bloody Barrier, but it costs so much bloody money and it's so hard to get there'. And they said, 'See that fella down the bar in the white overalls and that? He's got an aeroplane. Go down and have a yarn with him'. And so I do and that was when I met bloody Hank!"
Hollick was a strapping man, an infantryman in the Western Desert aged 19, a wrestler, parachutist and then a flying chimney sweep, buzzing the country and landing by farmhouses to offer his services. He also liked a drink and after a couple would address all-comers as "Scungy".
He was 13 years older than Bob, but they became fast friends and took off to the Barrier whenever they could.
"I was living in Ōtahuhu. He lived in Papatoetoe. We'd come over here at least once a fortnight. Spend a day fishing and skin diving and then we'd go back and sell the fish and crayfish, which would cover our next trip. I remember once we went to an air pageant in Māngere. We landed and laid out all this snapper on the grass and then Hank went up on the microphone and said, 'Fresh fish from the Barrier'. Christ, we were mobbed."
One day, they strafed the house of The Black Panther, Waka Nathan, with toheroa. "We flew up to Dargaville, and landed in a farmer's paddock. Put a net out and caught a bloody great swag of mullet. Then we went a little further on and there were beds and beds of toheroa. Big ones. And so we filled up three sugar bags and then Hank went back and got the plane. He lands it on the beach. And we were loading all the stuff in the plane when we saw this bloody Land Rover coming up the beach with the rangers in it."
A panicked getaway was required. "Hank chucked everything in on top of me — I'm still trying to get me bloody straps done up — and then he jumped in and we started going straight at the bloody Land Rover. We're about the width of this room away when he pulled up. We skimmed over them by about 10 feet. Maybe less."
Now it was time to deliver the spoils. You see, Bob worked with Waka Nathan and the pair had been to the new All Black's 21st the night before.
"Waka told us they were putting a hāngī down on the Sunday and said, 'Don't forget to bring us some toheroas home'. So Hank had done one separate bag and had that with him in the back. We're over Waka's house and Hank goes down. He cut the motor doing a tight turn round the house and dropped them out. When I saw Waka the next day at work he said only three broke."
It was now time for Hank to also move out to the island. The biplane came in handy as a cart horse. "He brought a coal range down in the cockpit and he'd often bring over a stack of two-by-fours, just have them stickin' out of the cockpit."
And then they'd be off again, usually with surf-casting rods poking out the top like aerials. Bob claims the duo were the first to land at Māngere airport. "It was a Sunday afternoon and they were building it and those big carry-all trucks were going up and down. There was dust everywhere and they were all at work and we came in and landed.
Did a wheelie right along and took off again."
Of course, Hank eventually ran out of luck. Flipped the plane on soft sand at Kaitoke Beach, wrote it off. Permanently on island now, he bought a boat, tried his hand at commercial fishing, but decided there was more money sly-grogging. Witnesses tell of the boat staggering into Tryphena, loaded down to the freeboard with booze. "He was in this old Land Rover and dressed up like Al Capone. He had a big tie, he had a driver and he's sitting in the back."
They were best friends — mates for life. But in 2001, Bob got Guillain-Barre syndrome and was hospitalised for five months. "The bugger used to ring me up. Every second day, he'd ring. And here's the thing: I didn't know that he was dying at the time." Hank had cancer. "Bugger never told me. Never bloody told me, and there he is worrying about me.
Should've been worrying about himself."
Bob shakes his head. He's tired: all this talk about the old days is making him wistful, or at least it might if he had time for "introspective crap". Sure, he says, he's been here an age, but his story has chapters still unwritten. Despite more setbacks — a blocked aorta, an aneurysm, diabetes and, in 2007 when he was 72, another three months in hospital after he crashed his Harley — he's not going to give up. He's only about the fifth oldest on the island by his reckoning and intends to take the crown one day. He keeps a close eye on the competition — names one — "but he's just about stuffed".
But the day will come. Bob's family has a plot in Ōtahuhu. There are no Whitmores buried on the Barrier, but he thinks he'll stay on island. "No one would come to your grave in Ōtahuhu and put flowers on it, may as well stay here." Hank's buried at Gooseberry Flat.
"He's got a nice bloody tomb there with a parachute on it and things and an aeroplane. I went over to the council to see if I could book a plot. 'Where did you want to go?' they said. And I said, 'By Hank'."
'Aotea Great Barrier — Land and People' is available from pottonandburton.co.nz. RRP: $69.99.