Dream, reality of remote life contrasted

David Barnes reviews Out Of The Wild, by Charlie Paterson. Published by Craig Print.

There are many tales of struggles to tame patches of New Zealand wilderness. One of the most salutary attempts was the failed settlement of Jamestown; James Macandrew’s plan for a West Coast port for Otago province on the shores of Lake McKerrow in Northern Fiordland. There’s little evidence of it there now and most of the township has become part of Fiordland National Park. A few sections remain in private hands and, in the 1990s, Charlie Paterson — burnt out from his job running salmon farms — acquired one of them. Many people who spend time in the back-country, and a few who don’t, have dreamt, at least momentarily, of building a life there. Paterson set out to make his dream come true. With no income and little capital, he embarked on a plan to create a luxury lodge; later downgraded to backpacker accommodation.

Paterson pulls few punches when it comes to describing the difficulties he encountered. The obvious ones of weather, remoteness and sandflies are only the beginning. Miscalculation of the cost of flying building materials in meant that much of it was deposited at the head of the lake to save on flying time. While there may have been no alternative when he was so strapped for cash, everything had to be made up into rafts and towed down the lake, then manhandled on to the site, causing enormous delays and adding to the cash-flow woes. One chapter is devoted to his battles with bureaucracy and it is clear that, regardless of which party was in the right, Paterson’s skills in dealing with it did not match his ability to live a self-reliant lifestyle.

While the building was eventually finished and attracting customers, it was clearly a case of too little, too late and never generated a sustainable income. In 2002, seven years after starting the project, the property was sold. Much of the book was drafted by candlelight during lonely nights at Jamestown, with opening and closing remarks for each chapter written more recently. Inevitably, there’s some bitterness in the contemporaneous sections, although it is clear  the author can now look back with more objectivity.

An editor is credited in this book but it is marred by eccentric sentences  and repetition. Anyone who has dreamed of a life in the wild will find this book gives them cause for reflection on some of the challenges.

– David Barnes is a Lower Hutt-based reviewer.

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