Chris Long: The Kiwi boy who grew up two days hike from the nearest town

Chris Long and his younger sister Robin were born two days’ hike from the nearest road.

Their parents had abandoned modern society in the 1980s for life in an abandoned cabin at Gorge River, on the wild West Coast of New Zealand.

Long had no electricity until he turned 6, they mostly caught or grew what they ate, they played with toys crafted from driftwood and jade and their mother home schooled them.

Learning to survive in the wild equipped Long with the skills to explore and work around the world. After 17 years living in remote isolation, he left to attend school in Wanaka before travelling to 60 countries. He taught extreme survival skills in Antarctica, worked as a dog musher with huskies in arctic Norway, and crewed on a small yacht sailing through the Northwest Passage.

In this abridged extract from The Boy from Gorge River, Long describes a typical day.

'This food is from Gorge River'

Because Gorge River is on the west side of the Southern Alps, the mornings there are the coldest part of the day. The sun takes a long time to rise and in winter there is a bitterly cold katabatic wind that blows down the river, which is intensified by the narrow gorge
upstream from the river mouth.

Often I’d be going after Dad, having seen him, wearing his dark green Swanndri jacket and tall gumboots, heading down the back track towards the river. That meant it was time to check the net! I would run past him and down the hill through the forest to the river as fast as I could and then Dad would catch me up. Our fish net was attached to the end of a long rope in the estuary. Dad would pull it in, hand over hand, while I stared excitedly into the emerald-green water, trying to catch a glimpse of the shiny silver fish. We usually caught yellow-eyed mullet that would come into the estuary at night and sometimes there would be an extra-large shimmering in the bottom of the net and that meant there was a kahawai.

Afterwards Mum would ask me to bury the fish frames in the garden. When we caught a big kahawai, Dad would fillet the fish and place each fillet on a rack made out of recycled stainless wire from a cray pot and sprinkle on lots of salt. Then we would go down to the
beach and start a fire in our fish smoker. The rack would hang in the top of an old 44-gallon fuel drum that acted as the smokehouse.

After dealing with the fish, it would be time to go for a walk down the airstrip. I would also disappear into the bush a few times to check on Dad’s rabbit snares, and if there was a rabbit in one of them, I would tell him when I got back.

After my walk, it would be time to start my home-school work. My main subjects were maths, social studies, science, English and spelling, but often they would be incorporated into a project. One time when I was 10, I designed the front page of a newspaper called The Gorge Weekender and wrote the headings with a black Vivid pen. The breaking news was ‘Trampers Arrive at Gorge River’ together with some smaller articles about ‘Cricket’, ‘Deer Spotted’ and ‘Yacht Sighted’. Instead of using photos, all the pictures were hand-drawn.

One of the most amazing things about my education was that Mum and Dad showed me how things worked and then we studied why they happened that way. I was fascinated by numbers, statistics and trends in the world around me.

When I was 4, the Correspondence School sent a packet of sunflower seeds to grow. We planted them in a freshly dug patch of the garden in front of Dad’s workshop. I watched them develop with fascination and each day would measure the height of each plant. When they were fully grown, I plotted their heights and the widths of their flowers on a graph and a distinct trend was obvious.

When I’d finished my schoolwork I might hear Dad cutting some jade with his diamond saw powered by two solar panels on the roof. I would watch for a few minutes before pulling out a rough piece of jade that I had found on the beach. Then I would sit patiently
polishing it with some sandpaper and water, stopping every now and then to see if it was becoming shiny.

Mum would usually have done the washing in the morning and after soaking the dirty clothes in buckets for an hour or two it would be time to take them down to the river to rinse them in the clean fresh water.

We learned to swim while visiting Nana and Grandad in Queensland, and after that, I was always keen to jump in the river. Mum and Dad bought me a wetsuit to help with the 10- to 12-degree water. I would put on my flippers and mask and spend hours swimming up and down the estuary. I practised diving to the bottom to collect rocks, chasing yellow-eyed mullet back and forth in the shallows, and sometimes Robin and I would have races on our homemade styrofoam body boards.

Mum would often remind me about the bags of firewood on the beach that needed to be brought back to the house. If the bags were down at the airstrip, we would use our little four-wheeled trolley, built by Dad out of a baby pram and a fish case off the beach.

Mum and Dad never gave us money, but instead gave us opportunities to earn it. We would get 50 cents per bag of firewood collected and 25 cents for each bag if we just did the carrying part.

The garden constantly needed fertiliser too, and if there was seaweed washed up on the beach we would bag it up and carry it back to put on the garden. Sometimes Mum would have a slug problem in the garden and would pay me five cents for each dead slug.

In the evening just before dark I would carefully select my best fishing lure out of a jar of random hooks and sinkers and would run down to the river to try to catch a fish. I always wore a long-sleeved shirt and pants. There is just no point wearing a T-shirt and shorts in South Westland because the sand flies will eat you alive. My hands would be covered in bites by the end of the evening but it never bothered me that much.

Until I was 6, in 1999, we had no form of electricity and used candles and a Tilley lantern for lighting. Eventually, we bought our first solar panel, and above the kitchen table went two fluorescent lights connected to a 12-volt deep-cycle battery bank. If the sun had been shining during the day, then we would have light all night, but if it had been raining the charge would be low and we would still need to use candles.

Just before dinner, Mum would ask Robin or me to pick a fresh salad. She had a stainless-steel bowl that she would want filled and we would carefully pick broad beans, carrots, peas, parsley and tomatoes. Some green salad leaves such as mizuna, watercress and
lettuce would be made into a salad with any other edible leaves we could find growing wild in the garden. Sometimes in the autumn, we could pick a handful of mushrooms along the airstrip. Mum would always grate the carrots and distribute the pile of juicy, bright orange shreds evenly on our four dinner plates. I have never eaten tastier carrots or tomatoes than the ones Mum grows at Gorge River.

We would always eat dinner as a family. The table was made from two bed heads nailed together and four driftwood legs. I would sit to Dad’s left on the same bench seat and Mum sat to his right nearer the fire on her homemade driftwood stool. Robin would sit across the table from me on another stool. The stools had been made by Mum – out of three straight pieces of driftwood, crosspieces that fitted into each other, and a padded piece of plywood on top – when we started homeschooling.

Mum would always cook dinner and usually it would be yellow-eyed mullet fillets rolled in egg and breadcrumbs and fried until crispy golden brown. On the side would be potato chips and steamed silver beet and broad beans and the leafy green salad – all from the
garden. Sometimes Mum would fry up the fish roe and they looked just like little sausages. Quite often she would sit down at the table and announce proudly, “Tonight, all this food is from Gorge River!”

Poor Robin absolutely hated fish but didn’t have much choice. She would sit there sometimes for half an hour, slowly chewing her way through her piece of fish.

After dinner, we would carefully put any leftover food in the mouse-proof cupboard under the sink. If we had a pot of venison from some hunters it would go on the floor in the bathroom, which is the coolest part of the house. As long as we boiled the pot each day, we could keep food there for a couple of weeks.

We never wasted any food and would only throw away vegetable scraps, which would rot down in the garden, fertilising the soil. It almost makes me cry to see how much good food is wasted by people in the developed world. So many resources go into creating
a meal, just for someone to throw it away because it’s a day overdue or has some flavour someone doesn’t like. And most is not even composted properly! If we wasted food at Gorge River, then later we would have to go without.

After tea, we would often play a game or do a puzzle.

We didn’t have walls forming bedrooms. Instead, we had curtains that could be pulled back during the daytime, creating an open-plan living area and allowing us to make better use of our limited space.

I would drift off to sleep to the sound of the waves crashing on the shoreline. If there was a storm outside, the rain would make a heavy pitter-patter on the corrugated-iron roof and the rātā outside my window would creak and groan in the howling wind.

The Boy from Gorge River
By Chris Long
Published by Harper Collins
RRP: $39.99.

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