Striding out into the world

Chris and Robin boulder-hopping near Barn Bay, on their way to town. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Chris and Robin boulder-hopping near Barn Bay, on their way to town. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Chris Long grew up with his family at Gorge River, on the rugged South Westland coast, two days’ hike from the nearest road. Since leaving home at 17, Chris has explored the world. This is an edited extract from his newly published book, The Boy From Gorge River.

Chris Long’s father, Robert, found an abandoned house at Gorge River, in 1980, and never left. Ten years later Catherine Stewart joined Robert there, and the next year Chris was born. Chris’ sister Robin came along not long after he turned 3.

While Mum did most of the gardening, Dad would do the fishing (with me always by his side). Whenever the weather allowed, he would set a gill net in the river mouth at low tide, and he would retrieve it the next morning.

A net is more efficient than a fishing rod at Gorge River and in summer he would usually return with a few yellow-eyed mullet or a big kahawai in the bucket. During the winter months it’s harder to catch fish in the river and he would often have to go to the south end of the airstrip to catch kelpies (blue-striped wrasse) on a hand line in the rock pools on the incoming tide.

Some days he would stand down there surrounded by crashing waves for hours through the middle of a cold southerly storm just to catch us enough fish for dinner. He would never give up.

Usually Mum would fillet the fish and fry them in oil in a heavy cast-iron frying pan on top of the stove. However, if we only had one or two fish, she would keep them whole so as not to waste any food.
The fish stocks in the area are pretty good but often the biggest challenge is the weather. If the sea is too rough and the river flooded, there is simply no way to catch fish. At those times, Dad would try to snare a rabbit on the airstrip to eat

instead.

One of the more interesting foods we ate was bull kelp, which grows in some places along the coastline, its long tentacles waving backwards and forwards in the surging waves.

The huge ten-metre swells that come straight from the Southern Ocean regularly tear clumps from the rocks and after a big storm we would always search the beaches for freshly washed-up kelp.

My favourite way to eat it was to dry 30-centimetre lengths (again behind the fire) for a few days until it was crunchy. I loved the salty flavour that tasted like the sea.

Mum would also grind it up to make kelp powder, which I see is now very expensive in some shops.

Dad liked to make a pudding out of fresh kelp tentacles chopped into three-centimetre lengths that floated in a milky broth. However, that, along with smoked kahawai stew, was one of my least favourite foods as a kid.

Luckily, we didn’t have either of them too often and generally I loved all the food that we ate at Gorge River and was never a picky eater. I especially enjoyed eating any fish that I’d helped catch or vegetables that I’d helped grow.

We couldn’t keep any type of livestock for meat or milk, so any food that Mum and Dad could not catch or grow at Gorge River — for example, wheat, rice, oil and milk — had to be carried in from Haast in their backpacks.

Occasionally we might get a box of food dropped off by a fishing boat or passing helicopter, but in the early days this didn’t happen very often.

Robin, Catherine, Chris and Robert Long in front of their house at Gorge River in the mid-1990s....
Robin, Catherine, Chris and Robert Long in front of their house at Gorge River in the mid-1990s. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

When I was a baby, we would go out to town three or four times a year and on our return Mum and Dad would carry home as much food as they could fit in their backpacks. When something ran out, like cooking oil or butter, we would have to go without for a month or three until we had the opportunity to get to the shop again. I learned as a kid to appreciate what food we had and not to miss the food we didn’t have.

For my birthday I would always get a cake, but its ingredients would be quite simple. It wouldn’t usually have sugar, but if it included some butter or cooking oil then I felt like the luckiest child alive!

After tasting sugar for the first time when I was three, I exclaimed to Mum in my baby voice, ‘‘Sugar’s really nice!’’ I didn’t taste chocolate until I was four years old.

Chris grew up learning the skills of a largely self-sufficient life and loved their wilderness home. But as a member of a sociable family, he lapped up every opportunity for interaction with a broad range of visitors from trampers and fishermen to celebrities and even film crews coming to document their unusual lifestyle. A week-long correspondence school camp, when Chris was 15, was his first trip away from home alone. It was also a taste of things to come.

By the age of 16, my thoughts and emotions were becoming more complex and confusing. There was a lot on my mind. After reading in the evening, I would lie in bed, imagining how my social life would be if I was living out in town. Perhaps I would have a beautiful girlfriend and a group of mates to hang out with and create trouble. I had seen what was out there on my previous trips to Haast, Dunedin, Brisbane and Boyle River and knew full well what I was missing out on. But on the other hand, I was still fully entrenched in my life at Gorge River, hunting, fishing and whitebaiting.

No-one ever forced me to live at Gorge River and through my teenage years I never felt trapped. I knew that if I wanted to leave, we could talk about it and work out a way for it to happen. But if I’d wanted to leave during my early teens, then my family would have gone with me and I didn’t want to be the one who made us all leave.

Now that I was older, things were different. I could leave by myself and they probably wouldn’t follow. I knew that eventually I would have to make a tough decision.

At the start of 2009, as an independent, capable young man more familiar with the world of adults than teenagers, Chris moved to Wanaka for his final year of secondary schooling, at Mount Aspiring College.

It took me about two weeks to settle into the routine of school and the new surroundings I was immersed in. As far as studies were concerned, I was relieved to be on exactly the same page as all of my peers. With the Correspondence School I had sat the same physics and chemistry exams as every other student in the country the year before, and the only thing I had to get used to was learning in a classroom with 20 others. There were so many more distractions than

I’d had at Gorge River, but it was helpful to have a teacher in the same room who could explain things so much better than my Correspondence School answer sheets. I quickly found I was one of the more focused students and felt confident academically.

But studies were only a small part of the reason I’d moved to Wanaka and I was already finding the social life quite challenging.

I mostly spent time with the other 120 students from my year and we would often sit around in the common room or out on the grass.

About 40 of us were new to Wanaka and this made it easier because I wasn’t the only one. However, I still had no idea what to talk about in a group and most of the other new students seemed to fit in much faster. At Gorge River I had learned how to talk with strangers, but they were always adults and the conversations were very different and more natural. This constantly frustrated me because deep down I knew that I was an outgoing person. I had to find a way to fit into these new social circles.

It soon became clear that I was one of the most unique students at school and it didn’t take long for people to start talking about the new boy from Haast. I was surprised when my peers were curious about my background and would invite me into their groups. It felt nice to be accepted.

Add a Comment

Our journalists are your neighbours

We are the South's eyes and ears in crucial council meetings, at court hearings, on the sidelines of sporting events and on the frontline of breaking news.

As our region faces uncharted waters in the wake of a global pandemic, Otago Daily Times continues to bring you local stories that matter.

We employ local journalists and photographers to tell your stories, as other outlets cut local coverage in favour of stories told out of Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.

You can help us continue to bring you local news you can trust by becoming a supporter.

Become a Supporter