Normally, he did the beating. Whacking at the undergrowth with a stick and shouting to make a din. But this time, Uncle Jack set him up at the base of a long island on the Buller River and, this time, he could hear Uncle Jack tapping at the undergrowth and making a din. But he was singing not shouting. Still, the driven deer wandered into the open – a young fat spiker shielded by a group of hinds. Then it stepped clear and he fired and it fell to the ground 30 feet away.
Johnny Currie was 11 years old when he shot that ‘first’ deer with an old lever action National Arms 12 gauge black powder shotgun. “We took the Number 2 shot out and melted some of it back in with candle wax to make a solid slug,” he reflects. “Dropped him like a rock!”
Johnny went on to shoot thousands of deer in his career, which included hunting for skins, bounty and meat during the late 50s and 60s. His best tally was 174 deer shot between five mates on a four-day hunt in the ‘Kakapo’ in 1963.
“The deer were so thick they’d bred down to not much bigger than goats.” But it was still good money for the young fellas, earning them ‘three-and-six’ for a set of ears.
“That equated to five beers,” Johnny says. “And because of the camaraderie and men were drinkers, you’d always come out of the bush and into the pub… where you’d spend your earnings.”
His Uncle Jack influenced him in other ways, adding to his skill set and building character. Jack worked in a steam sawmill, and would often let young Johnny chop wood to feed the steam winch. The youngster also learned the value of solitude.
“Whenever I visited Uncle Jack and Aunty Bertha at Rahui in the Buller Gorge, I increased the town’s population by
Childhood reflections form the scaffolding of Johnny’s life, shaping him into possibly one of the last genuine Kiwi bushmen alive. He lives in an old slab hut he built himself among the native forest in the Awakari Valley, Buller. Family connections to the land go back over a century.
“As kids, we’d walk the three-and-a-half miles to Charleston school each day, but we never had any shoes,” he yarns as the billy boils over the fire, “So we used to kick old Minnie Hampton’s cows in the guts so they’d stand and crap – then we’d stand in it to warm up!”
It was a childhood shadowed with a constant shortage of money but full of great richness. “We had it better than Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn; they only had a flat river while we had sand dunes to mountains, gold mines and sawmills, and acres of bush to roam.”
But the elders warned the kids not to go near the high limestone crevices because, ‘if they fell in and didn’t freeze first, giant eels would eat them.’
“You know when you toss a rock into a deep hole, there’s a long silence followed by a ‘boof’ as it hits the water and then a sploop sploop as the waves hit the wall? We always thought that was the big eels coming out, so we stayed clear!”
Childhood learnings developed a sense of pragmatism too; warnings to watch out for disused mine-shafts led to the carrying of a ‘mountain stick’ to probe the ground ahead. If you stuffed up, self-reliance was called for, like the time he smashed his thumb trying to set a possum trap at the age of seven.
“I’d seen this big trout in the Nile – it was behind a rock, and weighed eight or ten pound,” he reminisces. “I went into the sport shop and Colonel Fountain said the brown Devon would work the best.”
But at ‘two-and-six’ it was out of his reach. “I couldn’t get tuppence together but, Uncle Paddy said he’d pay me two shillings and sixpence if I caught him a big possum – he had hundreds of old traps in his shed.”
Johnny managed to catch himself in one of the traps, and his ‘screaming blue murder’ attracted his mother. “Oh John, we can’t get you to town until the Newman’s bus comes through on Monday, so I’ll fix it for you.”
Older brother Bruce held him around the waist while she ‘moulded’ it back into shape – then split a clothes peg and made a splint. It still aches 70 years on.
His mother also shielded Johnny from his father, a hard man who ‘worked a handle over the coal’ (shovelled coal for a living) and then went to the pub. When Johnny’s last school report arrived in the mail – he was doing correspondence – his mother read it and simply said, “Oh John, we can’t show this to Dad, can we?”
The report was littered with ‘unsatisfactory’ comments in every subject, with the headmaster’s summary judgement chiselled into the youth’s memory: “John’s work is quite unsatisfactory in every respect!”
Equally monumental was his ‘Old Man’s’ adage aimed at deterring him from a wasted life in the bush like his ‘mother’s brothers’.
“If you don’t go to town and get a decent job, you’ll never be any good as long as the hole in your arse is pointing downwards!”
The irony was not lost on young Johnny: “At that stage I was running 65 possum traps in the Upper Totara, doing school work at night, and earning more money than the Old Man!”
Johnny Currie has some salutary advice for youngsters of today, saying they’d do well to think of life as a ladder, standing upright in front of you. He says that all kids have the bottom rung available to them the moment they leave school. “If you pull the ladder over on top of yourself with drugs, booze, or laziness, the ladder will keep falling over.”
But, he argues, if you want to get to the top and keep it level, you have to do everything right, “Get a job, apply yourself, and keep your nose clean.”
Keeping his nose clean was something the young Johnny struggled with, but there was no malicious intent. During his early school years at Charleston, Johnny ‘got the strap’ almost daily. His school report, again, reflected his ‘tardiness’: “John’s work will improve when cleanliness is observed!”
“My school work always had dirt smudges all over it on account of the giant kokopu,” he reflects.
The old gold workings behind the school were full of water and teaming with these native freshwater fish. Come lunchtime, the irrepressible Johnny Currie would bolt from the school grounds, turning over cowpats on a neighbouring farm so he could collect grubs to feed the kokopu.
He’d become so engrossed in this activity, he’d always be late for the afternoon lessons. “The bell would ring and I’d be a good five minutes from school,” he chuckles, “So I’d run like hell, the stone bruises cutting my feet, and never have time to wash my hands before I got in!”
His teacher had a ‘two-foot stick as thick as your thumb’, and he’d whack the lad across the hands – a stroke for every minute he was late. “If you moved your hand, you ended up with a broken thumb.”
Despite the regular beating, Johnny thought highly of his teacher: “He was a beautiful man.”
He didn’t share the same affection for his father, whose grip he couldn’t escape. While drawn to the bush and encouraged by his uncle Jack, the Old Man forced him into an apprenticeship spray painting cars. The tedium of sanding cars nearly drove him mad.
Jack soon recognised the boy was miserable, and suggested he follow his uncles into the bush.
“I can’t,” Johnny replied, “Dad won’t let me.”
“Well, your dad is not going to control you the rest of your life,” Jack advised, “You just stay strong.”
His mother spotted an advert for a woodsman cadet at Golden Downs, near Nelson, and quietly enrolled him. As he left home, she handed him a camera and said, “You are going to have a very interesting life John, take lots of photos.”
But his formal bush training was short-lived. 12 months later, at the age of 16, Johnny reluctantly returned to inherit the family farm, which was unprofitable on account of his father’s drinking. The house had become known as ‘The Boar’s Nest’, and attracted wayward travellers who heard that ‘free booze and lodgings’ were to be had.
“The only rule I had was that all rifles had to stay on the front porch,” Johnny reflects, stating that guns and booze never mix.
In those days it was common for men to travel with rifles slung across their shoulders, and people thought nothing of seeing two or three armed blokes walking the streets of Westport.
But milking 35 cows on 322 acres didn’t pay the bills, so Johnny gravitated back to the bush. “We were all young fellas – Horse Hendrikson, Colin Dalkie, brother Val, and me – we had a hell of a good time,” he remembers. “It was all flat land up ‘Madman’s’, so easy felling… we had logs stacked right up the spar tree most of the time.”
And there was plenty of time for hunting. “Every Monday one of us was up early to get a deer for the camp.”
They fashioned a firebox from a ten-gallon drum with a plate on top, and they’d fry venison steak for the first half of the week, then live off stew the remainder. Deer were also sold for bounty and skins, but the real money came in the 80s with live capture of feral goats for farming. Johnnie was getting $250 for a black nanny, and he could lead eight goats out of the bush at a time. “Goats are natural leaders, so if you tie one to a string and bite it on the ear, it’ll walk in front of you.”
He tied the biggest to his left hand and the rest, from largest to smallest, on a string from his right hand. His knowledge of flora and fauna is extensive, much of it learned from early Maori. He talks of a fungus that grows high on big ‘black birch’ trees, that drops to the ground and dries to weigh nothing. Maori travelling to trade greenstone would carry it as a fire starter; once lit, it would slowly smoulder and, when blown on, would produce red hot coals. Being so light, it was transported in bulk, in tightly woven baskets, or seal skin or moa skin waterproof containers. Because there are no beech trees in the North Island, it was a highly tradable commodity, almost as valuable greenstone.
People were naturally attracted to this knowledgeable and charismatic character, which led to him being a pioneer in tourism. In the early sixties, he’d ‘round up’ travellers stopping at the Charleston pub on Friday nights and charge them five-quid a head to take them through the Ananui Caves, famous for their moa bones. He’d then spend the money back at the pub recruiting more tourists the following Friday. Johnny later developed the award winning Mitchell’s Gully Gold Mine tourist centre with his brother and today has, ironically, become a tourist attraction himself. Visitors from around the globe take Outwest Tours’ Johnny’s Journey and visit this unique Kiwi character, hear a few yarns over ‘billy tea’, and watch him feed his ‘tame’ wild deer.
It’s been a life from timber to tourism and he wouldn’t trade a moment of it.
And his mother was right; he did take lots of photos.