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Autumn comes to the road to Lush Places. Photo/Greg Dixon/Listener

Greg Dixon: Isolation in the back of beyond

A tale of early life on a remote sheep station can teach us a lot about isolation.

“Road not recommended,” read the sign. It wasn’t bloody joking. Beyond its plain, wry warning was a narrow, unrelenting snake of a road, a thing of gravel and grief that wound for 32 long kilometres through Skippers Canyon above Otago’s Upper Shotover River.

In spring, there would be washouts and landslips. In winter, there was ice and snow and flooding. For months of the year, it could be impassable. And all year around there were dizzying hairpins, step climbs, slippery turns and precipitous drops. It made drivers tough, and it broke some, too. More than one who’d made it from Queenstown to the end of the Skippers Rd refused to drive back.

But at its end, on a high country sheep station, between the Richardson and Harris mountain ranges, a young family lived remote from the rest of the world in a solitude that’s hard to imagine in 21st-century New Zealand. It was in this isolated place, at the end of the country’s worst road, that Terri Macnicol and her husband, Archie, made a family and a life of hard yakka leavened by homely pleasures.

I spent this week reading about them in Beyond the Skippers Road, Terri’s lively, funny, affecting memoir about “working the run” at Mt Aurum Station between 1941 and 1957. It was published by Reed the year before I was born, 1965, and was quickly given two reprints.

I found a copy a month ago at the Masterton library, in a small, sad sale of books that had apparently outlived both welcome and use. “Five for a dollar,” said its sign. I took Beyond, and its 1966 sequel, Echoes of Skippers Canyon.

Terri had been born on a farm near the entrance to Otago Harbour in 1912. Going to school meant walking 5km to the pilot station wharf, then, after a trip on the pilot boat across the harbour, another 3km trek to the classroom.

Terri knew about isolation. But Mt Aurum Station was beyond the back of beyond. When she joined her new husband there in August 1941, they, at first, lived only at the station homestead. It had seven small rooms, and seven outside doors. There was one neighbour, on the other side of a sometimes very shirty river. There was no electricity, the phone was often on the blink, and in winter they lived and slept in the kitchen, close to the black coal range: “Archie blithely told me: ‘Several generations have lived here before us, so I guess we’ll survive,’” Terri writes.

In their second winter as a couple, with the first of their four children, Joy, still an infant, they moved, by horseback, a further 20km into the station, to “The Branches”. Here home was a two-room hut. Cooking was done on an open fire with a camp oven. If there was sickness or injury, there was trouble.

This was complete isolation. But at least The Branches, which became their winter home, received six or seven hours of sun a day, instead of the “miserable four” at the homestead.

I am making life at Skippers sound severe and exposed. But it was a kind of paradise. The Macnicols had such fun, such solidarity, such love in that harsh, beautiful place. And they were equal to their lot.

“I soon became used to the solitude,” Terri writes of her first winter, when Archie left her to go rabbiting in the mountains for weeks. “My baby kept me busy, and I sewed, knitted, read, and kept the tins full …”

As I lay on the couch with Beyond the Skippers Road, immersed in this other world, marvelling at the fortitude, resourcefulness and courage of another generation, our world changed. We decided to stay home. It was for the best: Michele has an autoimmune condition.

“You guys should be fine, you’re naturally isolated,” my sister Justine texted from Auckland. Yes, we’re alone at Lush Places, apart from the cat, the four hens of the apocalypse and the ewes. But we live just a driveway’s length from the rest of the world. We’ll need fortitude, resourcefulness and courage, too, I think, now we’re all together on an uncertain journey, long past a sign reading “Road not recommended”.

This article appears in the April 4 issue of the Listener, which is on sale now, but we are releasing timely stories early.

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