Book Review: Wild Journeys, by Bruce Ansley

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_wild_journeysThis book is a good read, and an example of excellent local publishing with New Zealand stories. But, somewhat frustratingly, it could have been an essential read in the tradition of Kiwi adventure stories, with its hard cover and illustrated dustjacket.

Bruce Ansley, the former writer for The Listener, turns out to be something of an adventurer and sailor. But, by his own admission, he is not an intrepid sailor, or much of an adventurer. His tales are mostly about following in other people’s footsteps, often forgotten men who came to an untimely demise on foolhardy missions. He is a more enthusiastic sailor, but one who knows the risks and his own limitations.

In a way the tales of the voyages are the more personal stories. Ansley ends up sailing around North Cape, and the South Cape (in Stewart Island), and as a Dunedin resident even worked on a crayfishing boat in Fiordland. As a young man the crayfishing went well, but getting back to a safe harbour did not, and he almost missed his own wedding in the process. Fortunately, he did marry Sally and they remain together, though she doesn’t appear to have accompanied Bruce on most of these journeys.

Ansley does, of course, meet up with some interesting characters. These include Rhys Buckingham, former wildlife ranger who has pursued elusive the ‘grey ghost’ of birdlife, the South Island Kokako, for 40 years. Then there is Colin Gavan, or ‘Wobbles’, the skipper of the boat that gets Ansley to the South Cape, and back again, despite the wild weather in Foveaux Strait that has claimed so many local mariners.

But it is really the ghosts of pioneering men, or their own mythology, that Ansley seems to be pursuing here. He begins with the adventures of the folk hero prison escapee, George Wilder, and his habit of staying in baches around Lake Taupo. Other adventurers are less well known, such as John Whitcombe, a Canterbury road surveyor. His journey through the Southern Alps ended badly, but he did find the Whitcombe Pass first, even if those that came later could mostly not follow in his unfortunate footsteps. Ansley also finds a lost adventurer of sorts in the German sea captain, Count Felix von Luckner, who was captured in the Pacific during the First World War. After several escapes he ended up on Motuihe Island in the Hauraki Gulf.

All of this is entertaining and fun, with some useful turns of phrase: sailing up the North Island’s west coast, Taranaki’s ‘graceful shape’ appears, and Cape Egmont ‘turned into its cracked and crenellated self.’ But Ansley’s writing about the South Island comes across as the more convincing and soulful. And a couple of times his North Island geography lets him down, such as when the Tangiwai railway bridge is described as a little way east of Waiouru, when surely it is to the west of the village.

There is in fact a complete absence of any kind of map in the whole book. Moreover, some of the chapters could have been enhanced by a photo or two which display the landmark that Ansley is trying to reach. This is certainly the case for the lost mining settlement of Serpentine, somewhere in central Otago, and for which it takes Ansley two attempts to find the little church (which is apparently at the highest altitude of any churchin New Zealand). Another example would be the pillar at Tuturau, in Southland, erected on the centennial of the battle between the northern chief Te Puoho and Ngai Tahu.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

Wild Journeys
by Bruce Ansley
Published by HarperCollins
ISBN 9781775541202

Book Review: Coast: A New Zealand Journey, by Bruce Ansley and Jane Ussher

This book is available in bookstores now, and is also featured in our Summer Reading Cataloguecv_coast_a_nz_journey

When I was asked to review this book I had in mind a coffee table book, low on writing and long on stock photographs. The book, however, is a delight of stories, history, culture and mood-evoking photographs. I keep sitting down to read a few pages and finding myself idly noting that half an hour had passed.

The book moves around New Zealand, beginning with Cape Reinga and the story of the Maori Underworld. The story continues down the North Island’s East Coast, winding around to Wellington and Taranaki. The (West) Coast and the rest of the South Island follows. Each location has been researched thoroughly, and the length of time the authors spent on this project is apparent.

What I loved most was the distinct ‘Aotearoa’ voice of the book. It feels as though an accomplished orator was standing in the room with me, telling a story about our country.  When you slow down to let the words wash over you then you know you are in the presence of a great book! Having grown up in Taranaki I was keen to see what was written about the West Coast of the North Island. In a great collaboration between words and images the story of Digger’s lament was very moving. The strength of this book is the emphasis on the stories people have linking them to a particular patch of coastline. For some, the coast provides a livelihood. Others are fascinated by the resources of the coast – fishing or plant life. Kiwis who see the coast as being for serious play and recreation are also covered.

Both Bruce Ansley (writer) and Jane Ussher (photographer) show an ability to form relationships with the people they interviewed. The stories are richly worded and detailed – the images strongly capturing the mood of the subjects and location.

What a special book. I can think of no better purchase for the difficult-to-buy-for person this Christmas.

Reviewed by Emma Wong-Ming

Coast: A New Zealand Journey
by Bruce Ansley, photographs by Jane Ussher
Random House NZ
ISBN  9781869799434