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Wild food

18 July 2022
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Fishing in the river mouth with my first fishing rod – and a lure with no hook.

Growing up on the remote West Coast brings new meaning to the term ‘wild food’. Words Chris Long

Born in 1991, Chris Long grew up in a small house at Gorge River in South Westland, two “long, hard” days hike from the nearest road, 50km from the closest neighbours and 100km from the closest shop.

In an extract from his recently released book, The Boy From Gorge River, Chris recalls some of his unique
childhood through memories of food.

Both my parents shared a vision of raising a family away from the modern world of TVs, phones, electricity and all the other mod cons that people seemed to be relying on more and more in the 1980s and 90s. This sort of idea was very unusual at the time and most people thought they were crazy. But Gorge River was far enough away that they could choose their own lifestyle and live out their dream relatively undistracted by what other people thought of them. It wasn’t long before I came on the scene.

Although we already had the airstrip, my parents didn’t have enough money to charter aircraft. Therefore, when they wanted to leave Gorge River they would walk and I would ride in their backpacks. Mum and dad carefully stitched leg holes into their packs and I would sit on top of their sleeping bags. The 42-kilometre hike to the nearest road takes two days and the route follows the coastline north to Barn Bay and inland to the Cascade Road end.

Almost all the food we ate in the early years came from the wilderness around Gorge River. This was not only because we wanted to be self-sufficient but also because with an income of just $2000 a year we couldn’t afford to fly food in from the supermarket by plane.

Mum worked tirelessly year-round in the vegetable garden in front of our house to grow food for the family. Over time, as a result of burying fish frames, seaweed and homemade lime from burnt mussel shells, the soil became more and more productive and we were able to grow a wider variety of vegetables.

In springtime mum would start the seedlings off in ‘pots’ made from plastic milk bottles lying on one side in the warm sun on the windowsill. The seedlings would then be planted out in the main garden and would grow over the summer.

2 familygorgeriver
With my parents at the end of the airstrip at Gorge River, in 1992.

The tomatoes couldn’t handle the rain and wind of South Westland, so dad built a greenhouse out of plastic and driftwood and attached it to the front of our house. Then we could grow tomatoes and eventually lettuce. Outside the greenhouse we grew potatoes, parsnips, Jerusalem artichokes, silver beet, yams, leeks, broad beans and peas, and a few leafy greens like watercress and turnips grew wild.

During the autumn, mum would bottle some of the beetroot, leeks and zucchinis, but since we rarely got frosts things like carrots and silver beet would stay alive in the garden all winter.

While mum did most of the gardening, dad would do the fishing (with me always by his side). 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 my earliest memories is of helping mum and dad collect sedge-grass seed to make flour. Sedge grass grows along the sides of the airstrip and on each spiky stalk is a marble-sized seed that looks a bit like a light brown, fluffy ball. We would dry the seeds in a metal camping pot behind the chimney of our wood fire. Once they were dry, mum would grind them into flour.

If we had wheat, she would also dry and grind that to make heavy wholegrain flour and I would watch intently as she mixed some of it together with the sedge-grass flour, yeast, salt and water in her stainless steel bowl to make a thick brown dough. Mum would leave the dough to rise for an hour while she stoked the fire with dry wood and placed a large aluminium camp oven on top of the firebox to preheat.

Then she’d bake the bread for two hours in a round enamel baking pan, turning it over just before it was
done to finish cooking the top. The bread from that camp oven smelled so good and tasted delicious with its thick, crunchy crust. We didn’t always have much to put on the bread when I was young, but we might have some butter or canola oil or jam and that was extra exciting. We always had Vegemite because hunters would leave it in the hut next door.

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.

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.

From as early as I can remember, I was absolutely crazy about fishing. There are pictures of me on dad’s back while he checked his whitebait net, and as soon as I could walk I would follow him everywhere. When I was three years old, dad made me a fishing rod out of a long, thin piece of wood and I found a blue, wedge-shaped fishing lure left in the DOC hut next door. Dad was concerned I could accidentally get a hook stuck in my skin or, worse, in my eye, and wouldn’t allow me to use an actual sharp hook on my lure. And he had his reasons for being concerned.

Our only contact with the world was an emergency locator beacon given to us by a local fisherman, Geoff
Robson. This device when activated will send a distress signal to the rescue coordination centre via a passing jet plane or satellite. In a best-case scenario with good weather, one of the local rescue helicopters could get us to a hospital within about five hours. In a worst-case scenario with bad weather,
it could be days. Therefore, my parents were very cautious about what we were and weren’t allowed to do and what tools and equipment we could use.

Not having a hook didn’t bother me in the slightest and I spent many hours fishing in the river mouth with that blue lure. I was always in search of ‘Fishy Bear’, a large mythical fish that had taken the hooks of two possum hunters who stayed in the DOC hut. Sometimes I would throw my lure out in the river near dad’s net and would return to find a fish on the line. I was always over the moon and wouldn’t stop talking about my catch for days. Little did I know, dad would go down early and take a fish from his
net to attach to my line before putting it back in the water for me to find later.

During the spring months a small amount of whitebait comes up the Gorge River. Dad would set his whitebait net at the bottom of ‘the bluff’, a large limestone cliff, originally carved by a glacier and now covered in rātā trees, which lies about 200 metres upstream from the river mouth and forms the gorge that gives Gorge River its name. When I was two or three, dad hand-stitched me a small whitebait net out of lace curtain material, and after that I would always have my net set in front of his. Again, unbeknown to me, dad would go down first and put a couple of whitebait in my net.

We never caught many, and on a good day there might be 20 or 30 bait in my net and a couple of hundred in his. To me that was an amazing catch. If there were more whitebait in the Gorge River, there would have been lots of whitebaiters’ huts to go with them. We were quite happy to have the river to ourselves and were content with just catching a feed here and there. Mum would mix the small,
translucent, five-centimetre-long fish with egg (if we had any) and fry them in the pan.

As soon as I was able to walk I would follow dad wherever he went. Every two weeks with the full and
new moons we would have spring low tides, when the tide would drop lower than normal, making it possible to find pāua. I would follow dad up the beach to find these camouflaged shellfish that cling to the undersides of seaweed-covered boulders right where the crashing waves meet the shore.

When I was three years old, dad made me a blunt, square-ended pocket knife. On one really calm day I
followed him right out to the edge of the splashing waves. I saw a huge pāua under a large rock and carefully pried it off with my little knife. I was so happy that evening that mum took a photo of me on our camera with my first pāua!

Other times we would collect mussels at the south end of the airstrip. Usually mum would send me down to the ocean to get some sea water and she would boil the mussels in it for a couple of minutes. This would give them extra flavour and we would pry open the shells at the kitchen table looking for the juiciest mussels. The leftovers would be marinated in vinegar and salt for the next day.

Because we always rely on the food from nature around Gorge River, we only ever collect what we need. If we see only five pāua then we know we can only take one or two. And if the rock has 50 mussels, we can take just 10. This relationship with nature is critical if you want to live sustainably off the land.

Despite my family collecting food at Gorge River for the last 40 years, the fish stocks have not decreased.
Sadly, there are very few such places left in the world. Natural food supplies are the first to pay the price for overpopulation and poor resource management. The fact is that most of the world’s fish species have already been decimated beyond repair and humans are directly to blame.

Looking back on the way that I was raised, and on our relationship with the land, I feel lucky to have learned first-hand about the delicate balance of living sustainably in nature.

Edited extract from The Boy From Gorge River by Chris Long.
HarperCollins. RRP $39.99

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