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Partial History of a River

River of Blood: Tales of the Waiatoto by John Breen
Longacre Press, 192 pp. $40. Reviewed by SIMON NATHAN

The area south of Haast, on the West Coast of the South Island, remains one of the most isolated parts of New Zealand. Fearsome mountains, dense forest, hazardous flood-prone rivers prone, and high rainfall that can last for weeks combine to make this an unwelcoming place. But within such difficult country, the Waiatoto valley stands out as a place that most people avoid. Over 40 kilometres long, it is choked by moraines and landslides, with steep gorges and little flat land. It starts at Terminal Lake, draining glaciers on the northern side of Mount Aspiring. There are no precious resources such as gold or pounamu, and it is a route to nowhere. Those familiar with the literature of the mountains may have heard of the Waiatoto diaries, written by Charlie Douglas when he explored the apparently never-ending valley from January to May 1891 (and forming a chapter in John Pascoe’s book, Mr Explorer Douglas). The evocative names of tributaries, ranging from Seething Stream to Glistening Torrent, were all given by Douglas.

The Eggeling family has been associated with the Waiatoto valley for over 130 years. The patriarch, August Eggeling arrived, aged 21, as part of the ill-fated Jackson Bay settlement in 1875. Two years later he took up land in the lower Waiatoto valley, and ever since his family has been associated with farming beef cattle (and more recently deer hunting). His grandson, Kerry Eggeling, represents the area on the Westland District Council today. Author John Breen has loosely tied the story of the Waiatoto valley with the history of the Eggeling family.

One of the features of life in South Westland before there was road access was the annual cattle drive, taking stock to market in Whataroa along the old Paringa-Haast cattle track. This was a 2-3 week trek, starting by mustering cattle from the Waiatoto and other areas, then driving them northwards, with fearsome crossings of large, unbridged rivers such as the Haast and Moeraki. Betty Eggeling (married to Charlie, son of August) was one of the first female cattle drovers, and the text includes her evocative account of the cattle drive.

The deer population of south Westland exploded in the 1950s, invading from Otago. This had a drastic impact on the grazing of beef cattle as the deer competed for food. In the autumn muster of 1959 the Eggelings recovered only 35 cattle from the upper Waiatoto although double that number had been put out to graze in the spring. The rest had died of starvation.

But although the coming of deer seemed like a disaster, it turned out that there was a ready export market for wild venison. Carcases were shot, gutted and carted to the nearest landing strip by ground hunters, loaded into small planes, and flown to the processing plant at Mussel Point. Airstrips were cleared in remote valleys wherever there was flattish land, and the shooters had a bumper haul for several seasons in the early 1960s. The less said about hygiene standards at the time, the better – after all, in those days the meat was for foreigners, not local consumption.

It was a lucky coincidence that the Haast Pass road was opened in 1960, coinciding with the start of the deer boom. Processed meat could be readily transported from south Westland to Otago and further afield by refrigerated truck. The introduction of helicopters in the late 1960s opened another chapter. Hunters were now mobile, and deer could shot anywhere. The only problem was to recover the carcases.

This was a cowboy period, when flying regulations were widely ignored. There were many plane and helicopter crashes or near misses, and the accidents are casually noted in passing. I had my own experience as a young geologist, hitching a ride from Mussel Point to Martins Bay in the meat locker of an overloaded Cessna. The pilot was killed a fortnight later.

Once deer farming was allowed, emphasis changed from shooting to live capture. There is a fascinating account of the methods used by Kerry Eggeling and partners to capture deer in enclosures along the Waiatoto.

The hunting story is what John Breen is really interested in, and this takes up over half of the book. He has interviewed most of the survivors of those days, and his account provides local colour to more conventional accounts of the history of deer hunting.

This book will appeal to those interested in the history of human settlement south Westland – a useful companion to Julia Bradshaw’s The Far Downers. The trials and successes of the Eggeling family provide an interesting linking thread, and the reader can only be amazed at their resilience and determination. The block of photographs between pages 112-113 provide a wonderful pictorial record of a family and their associates over a century.

Overall, however, this book is a partial account, telling the story from the viewpoint of those who have exploited the resources of the area. Conservation and the natural fauna and flora are virtually ignored. Since the designation of the south west New Zealand World Heritage Area in 1990, the region has been transformed with the expansion of tourism and outdoor recreation. Times have changed, and this is the story of a past era.

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SIMON NATHAN is a Wellington-based geologist and writer. Recent work includes editing and contributing to The Amazing World of James Hector (Awa Press, 2008) as well as web articles, blog pieces and book reviews.

1 comment:

  1. Tony Eldon, 3. December 2009, 21:26

    Damn silly title. River’s name may or may not translate to it, but as the author states, the reason for the name is unknown. That it the beginning and the end of the subject! The personalities are worth meeting, but the emphasis is on settlers, and there is little said about the regular transients who frequented the river for several months each spring, for the whitebait fishing.