Friday, September 18, 2009


The first thing Rob tells us is that our fish is full of worms.

“She’ll be right for bait,” he smiles. “Barracuda. Kiwis call ‘em cooters, we don’t eat them really. They’ve got a lot of worms.”

Peter and I concede that we had seen some worms in the meat, but we’d just cut them out. Besides, surely if the fish was cooked thoroughly, the worms would die?

“Not the eggs though.” Rob takes a slug of our feijoa wine. “You’ll want to freeze the meat overnight. That’ll kill the eggs. Otherwise you’ll get infected with the worms.”

He knows about hunting and fishing and skinning. Born on the Chatham Islands, part Moriori, Rob’s grandfather raised him from the age of four months on a series of working sailboats. “I’ve got pictures of some real old men, the old cooks and that, bottle-feeding me.”

He warns us he’ll be making some noise tonight, when he’s out shooting rabbit. “Need some tucker to stock up the freezer,” he explains, with a crooked-toothed grin. He has a bushy beard and a grey Confederate soldier’s cap perched atop his head, crossed yellow muskets embroidered in the wool. He’s wearing a filthy hoody, an old pair blue shorts. I imagine he’d rather wear the same clothes every day than do the bloody laundry.

We sit in the cockpit, enjoying the sunshine in Mimiwhangata Bay, the gentle roll of our boat at anchor.

“My Dad was a writer, pretty famous. Bit of a hunter, bit of a bushman, like that. Wrote about the old New Zealand, the way it was. Pub yarns. I'm probably one of sixteen kids. That I know about. He was a dad to about 12 of them.”

“And you?”

“I was one of the lucky ones, that escaped. He wasn't exactly the best of dads. But if I could have impregnated as many women as he did, I wouldn't have minded.”

I ask him who his father was, and he tells me. He really is famous. I’ve heard of him, even with my tiny knowledge of New Zealand literature. “Is he still alive?”

“Dead now. Too much smoking and drinking and living the good life. Can’t blame him for that, I guess.”

Rob takes us on a walk around the nature reserve. We hike up a hill, thick green grass tangled in our Tevas. From the top, we see a stunning vista: jagged rocks crumbling into the ocean, the water shifting from turquoise to darkest blue as the bottom drops away. The view extends to the horizon: the crashing surf blends into rolling swell, and then the great white Pacific, glinting beneath the sun.

Rob’s lived on a boat his entire life, except when he was in Japan for ten years, teaching English. “I faked a university degree, a Bachelor in the arts. Got one printed out and sent over there, and –yeah, 'cause the money was good and everything else. Then I met a Japanese girl, and we got married. We had our twins–in Japan they call 'em "halves," but we called 'em "doubles," 'cause they got a bit of Japanese and a bit of Kiwi in ‘em.”

Since we are damn near exhausted keeping up with one toddler, the thought of twins makes us shiver. “Twins?” Peter asks. “What was that like?”

“Dunno mate,” Rob replies. “Didn’t have much to do with it.” He’s in touch with them now, though. His son’s a bush pilot, flying planes in Papua New Guinea. As to his daughter, she’s studying to be a geisha in Japan.

“It's the last path I'd ever want her to take, but she's stuck with it, it's what she wants to do. A lot of training, a lot of hard work. She's on good money yeah, for Japanese standards and everything else, but she'll never be fully into it till she's about thirty.”

He tells us how she has to study poetry and music, as well as business and the law. She has to be able to sit down with anyone, and converse intelligently on any subject. “Why in the world wouldn’t you want her to do it, then?” I ask, confused. “It sounds as though you’d be very proud of her.”

“Well…” he trails off. “What’s wrong with being the next Jean Batten, or Sir Edmund Hillary?”

“That’s a pretty tall order,” mutters Peter.

Rob points out a Pohutukawa, a magnificent tree with great, straining branches, extended and cupped as though offering their leaves to the sky. The tree is covered with vines, thousands of tiny tendrils twisting around branches and trunk, a symbiotic circulatory system.

The Pohutukawa is sacred to the Maori. There’s a lone, ghostly tree up at the tip of Cape Reinga, at the northernmost edge of the country. That’s where the spirits of the Maori are said to go when they die, into the tree and down through the root system, and on to Hawaiiki, their mythical home.

“Do you take your boat up to the islands much?” I ask. “Fiji? Tonga?”

Rob shakes his head. “I actually prefer the Southern Ocean to be honest. I go cruising down there, go round in circles for a few months, and come back when I run out of food.”

“The Southern Ocean?” I ask. That’s sort of like jogging up Everest for a bit of a holiday. I think about his fiberglass boat, with no pilothouse, not even a dodger. “Ever see anything scary down there?”

“Ninety knots,” he chuckles. “Your rigging actually breaks 'cause it's so iced up, just goes brittle and snaps. Lost my mast and the whole lot. Got saved by some blokes at Scott Base.”

“Wait a minute,” I interrupt. “Scott Base? Isn't that in the Antarctic? What the hell were you doing down there?”

“Something about that Southern Ocean,” he recalls fondly. “You can get a month of crap, then one day, the sky will open up, you'll get a huge great big southern swell, and that southern breeze, about twenty knots, and so you'll get some of the big whales coming up, it just makes the last thirty days all worthwhile, even just for a ten minute window like that. You've got a great big whale riding up, and a bit of iceberg out the back.”

“Icebergs,” I repeat. “Jesus.”

“ You don't have to worry about mosquitoes down there,” he adds.

“No,” I say, lamely. “I guess not.”

That afternoon, he brings round a book, by his useless mongrel of a father. “Just please return it,” he asks us. “I just—I want it back.”

It’s a book of short stories, and I read several of them. The writing is excellent, luminous and spare. The stories are full of gum boots, sodden pastureland, hot bowls of porridge, and warm beer. They take place in New Zealand, forty or fifty years ago. It’s clear that Rob’s father loved the outdoor life, self-sufficiency, “a good keen man” who can stand on his own two feet in the world.

Setting the stories aside, I reflect that Rob’s father would have been proud of his son’s adventures in the Southern Ocean, his unconventional kids, his skill with a rifle and a knife.

And I wonder if he knew about any of it.


  1. Wonderful portrait of a most intriguing man.
    Love your writing.

  2. Masterful! Not one use of the word 'fuck'!

  3. Almost impossible to sail to Scott Base - or be rescued by Scott Base, as it's permanently iced in and 77 degrees south! Sounds like he's telling yarns like his father.

  4. Wow another "expert" on what can or can't be done. I bet you know all the worlds truth. Have you been there? Have you done anything that might make a good story?
    Frankly I doubt it.
    Me, I like a good story and if told well who cares if it's 100% true.........martin

  5. Geesh Martin, I didn’t say it wasn’t a good story. I just doubted that he could’ve been saved by Scott Base, and yes I’ve been there many times. I spent 30 months working in Antarctica, 22 of which were at McMurdo station which is 1 mile from Scott Base. So yeah, I know what I’m talking about – sorry Antonia that my last comment started some kind of flame war… Martin take a chill pill.

  6. Cooking fish to an internal temperature of 140°F will kill all fish nematodes and tapeworms. Normal cooking procedures generally exceed this temperature. Source: UC Davis and others.