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This 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
by Bruce Ansley
Published by HarperCollins