Outsiders, Stories from the Fringe of New Zealand Society By Gerard Hindmarsh. Craig Potton Publishing, 2012. Softcover, 234 pages, $35.
Golden Bay local Gerard Hindmarsh began his writing career with an article for New Zealand Geographic about tramping the rugged Heaphy coastline. Since then he’s penned four books, including Kahurangi Calling, which told stories of Northwest Nelson. There’s some overlap between that book, and Outsiders, his latest effort. For example, he covers eel fisherman Bruce Reay, exiles Annie and Henry Chaffey, hermit Gerald Cover and Forest Service ranger Snow Meyer.
But Outsiders is far more than a retelling of these interesting Kahurangi folk; it’s an examination of other people who have chosen to live on the edges of society; or well beyond it. Some of these figures are well known in the outdoors community, like prospector Arawata Bill (William O’Leary), whose journeys in the Aspiring country are legendary; or Davey Gunn, who opened up the Hollyford Track to tourists and trampers alike. Robert Long and Catherine Stewart, who raised their family at remote Gorge River, north of the Hollyford, are well known too, thanks to recent books by both, but Hindmarsh tells his own story about spending a few days with them at their hut.
Some of the profiled characters are genuine hermits, who sought to escape society. Others, like the Longs, are far from anti-social, but choose to live unconventional lives because of their beliefs or life circumstances. Indeed, Hindmarsh is at pains not to portray these people as freaks or misfits, but folk with genuinely interesting reasons to be outsiders. Perhaps the most interesting chapter is the story of Tom Neale, a New Zealander who lived Robinson Crusoe style on the tiny Pacific Island of Suvarov for 16 years. How he survived sickness and storms is fascinating.
While some outsiders are reviled or feared, others have become folk heroes. Take army deserter Joe Driscoll, who evaded authorities during World War Two by hiding in South Westland huts. West Coast locals, who tend to have a healthy disrespect for authority, supported Driscoll, and helped him to avoid capture for five years. Once, while six military police discussed their plans at Blue River (Blowfly) Hut on the Haast-Paringa Cattle Track, a pre-warned Driscoll was listening under the floorboards. Even the policemen who finally nabbed him admired his skills, and one became a lifelong friend.
Outsiders, as the author writes, challenge our conventional beliefs, and sometimes provide inspiration. Their fascinating stories are presented in page-turning prose by Hindmarsh, who as a one-time lifestyle-block Golden Bay hippy (recounted in his book Swamp Fever) has a fine pedigree to tell them.