Review: The Boy from Gorge River

Reviewed by Allison Balance

Chris Long’s memoir, The Boy From Gorge River, is a boy’s own adventure yarn that will appeal to teenage boys and armchair adventurers of all ages.

At the risk of sounding like my grandmother, Chris Long seems like a very nice young man. He’s also been a busy young man who has packed a lot into his 30 years – including writing the story of his life so far.

His autobiography, The Boy from Gorge River is the third book to be written by a member of New Zealand’s remotest family. His Dad, Robert ‘Beansprout’ Long’s best-selling memoir A Life on Gorge River came out in 2010 and it was followed in 2012 by his Mum Catherine’s equally popular take on events in A Wife on Gorge River.

Gorge River is in South Westland, a two-day walk from the nearest road end. Beansprout settled there in an abandoned house in 1980 and worked up and down the coast, making money by gardening and helping out on fishing boats. Beansprout was joined a few years later by Catherine and in the early 1990s, Christian (to give him his full name) and then sister Robin completed the family.

I made Beansprout a cup of tea once (this was before the family came along). I was camped in the middle of nowhere - the mouth of the Hacket River - carrying out bird surveys and he wandered past, bare foot as was his wont. He wondered what it was like as a place to camp; I assured him it was a sandfly-infested hellhole and he nodded sagely. I was pleased to read in Chris’s book that the Hacket River mouth did not feature as a camping spot for the family on their regular walks south to Big Bay.

The Long family lived off the land, no easy undertaking in that part of the world, and Chris’s isolated childhood was full of fishing, foraging and making the most of what was at hand. He learnt to be self-sufficient, both mentally and physically, to work hard and be self-motivated. He was a diligent Correspondence School student and he was also entrepreneurial, finding ways to make money by selling whitebait, possum fur and later on, possum skin hats. He was smart, curious and gregarious despite the lack of social connection to kids his own age. All of this has stood him in good stead as an adult.

The subtitle of Chris’s book is ‘from New Zealand’s remotest family to the world beyond’ and, just as it says on the packet, Chris has had a life of two very different halves. In his final year of schooling, he decided to leave home and attend Aspiring College, in Wanaka, well regarded for its outdoor education. This laid the groundwork for what has become a globe-travelling life that has seen him work as a sea kayak guide in Milford Sound, a kitchen hand on an Antarctic cruise ship, a ski patroller, a field trainer at Scott Base and a husky sled driver in Norway. In between he has visited plenty of countries (more than 60) and helped crew a small yacht through the Northwest Passage.

Chris’s memoir is a boy’s own adventure yarn that will appeal to teenage boys and armchair adventurers of all ages. Chris’s writing is enthusiastic, easy to read and he intersperses tales of growing up with home-spun philosophy about life’s lessons. There are plenty of delightful moments. He’s not keen on the West Coast’s ubiquitous sandflies (the answer to that is simple – long trousers and long-sleeved shirts) but he’s very keen on catching fish. Fortunately for him he also likes eating it, which was just as well as it was a staple food while he was growing up (his sister Robin wasn’t such a fish fan so she didn’t fare so well).

Chris ends the book not knowing what he’ll do next – but something will come up and you can be sure that in his usual spontaneous way this nice young man will seize the opportunity to head off on another adventure to add to his already rich collection.

Reviewed by Alison Ballance