Arawhata – Ordinary to some – Extraordinary to those who know

I used to think, even though individually unique, people at the end of the day are just people. I have never been one to go jelly-like at the knees when meeting people who come with a reputation.

But some people and places, without a doubt, stand apart from others. Both the Arawhata and the Nolan family I have recently shared time with can be described like this.

The Arawhata Valley is tucked away in South Westland between Haast and Jackson Bay on the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand. The valley is dominated by wildly unpredictable and unforgiving rivers, thick, dense native bush, and stunning mountain ranges.

The flats up the Arawhata Valley for many generations have been carefully and conscientiously grazed and controlled with Hereford cattle.

The immigrants that arrived in Jackson Bay in 1874 in what has been commonly referred to as the ‘failed settlement’ refused to leave the ship on arrival, such were the harsh conditions set before them. Those that did were given land through a government ballot. They were allowed to work this land two days a week; the remaining five days a week, they worked the land for the Government.

Only four families survived this harsh, rugged, beautiful, but unique way of life. It’s an incredible testament to courage and strength that their descendants still live and continue to farm this way here today.

Being offered the opportunity to go along on the annual Autumn muster up the Arawhata Valley was a privilege that many others have had, but a hell of a lot more would love to have this opportunity.

After spending my initiation period in Haast with some other locals for a couple of weeks, I was accepted into the community and filled my role as the ‘handy bitch’ quite well. 

One of the old-timers told me that “you have to be versatile in this place”, so lucky for me, I could draw on a lifetime of challenging experiences and bluff my way through the week without too much collateral damage.

There is one ruler only when you are getting ready to go on the musters in Haast, and contrary to belief, it isn’t the ‘Nolan Elder” – it’s Mother Nature and her rivers!

There are only two ways up the Arawhata (or three if you include walking like Arawhata Bill, a West Coast Legend). You go by horse or jet boat. My riding days (I thought before I came to Haast) are over due to my physicality challenges through injury, so the boat it was, and I certainly wasn’t complaining. And now I am looking for a horse again.

Packing up was done with the experience of those who have been doing it for well over 30 years, so I kept my hands in my pockets unless asked. You don’t need anything except the basics like ten pairs of socks and earplugs to shut out the snoring (or purring), as some liked to call it. If it weren’t for the ever-present dangers, it would almost be described as Pony Club camp in the old days (minus the rum).

Some of the horses and gear had already been ridden and boated up the river in preparation for the few days mustering ahead, so only – three riders had to make the journey up to the Callery Hut, gathering up a mob along the way. The rest of us boated up to drop off some more supplies and met up again with the others for a quick change over and swap around of horses. With some shoeing repairs done, we all departed again on different modes of transport further up the valley towards the Waipara Hut, where we spent our first night. Just being present here was enough. I know even for the seasoned regulars, this place holds a kind of magic that is hard to describe. It’s something you can just feel.

Unpacking the boat left me wondering if there wasn’t going to be a kitchen sink appearing at any moment. With three loads completed, we had all the gear shifted up to the hut, and both the fire and billy were on before the riders arrived with another mob of cattle.

Anyone who has spent time in the hills mustering and had plenty of ‘Hut Time” knows that there is something pretty special about it unless, of course, you have been held up by weather and run out of supplies… The smell of the open fires, candles burning, no power, the fresh cold water coming out of the taps (sometimes along with the rust and other debris from the header tank that we don’t talk about), the yarns told, the names scratched on the walls, the huge night skies filled with stars, the bird calls during the night, the really good Billy Tea, the odd beer and rum to warm you up or cool you down, the rustle of the sleeping bags, bacon and eggs for breakfast (usually with burnt toast), the card games or solitaire, the long drops with the best views in the world, the babble of the rivers, the wind through the tin, but most of all for me…it was the quiet and the still of the night, that at the same time was full of life and wonder.

We don’t mention the snoring, the chaffing, the stinking wet socks and undies (for me anyway) but I can’t think of many other slight negatives. Anyway, earplugs, cream and spare kit sorted all that out.

The first night was spent with most of us with an ear out for the sound on the roof. The rain was forecast to come in, which means the rivers are to be carefully watched and read before any attempt of mustering begins.

Unfortunately (for once), the weather report was spot on just about to the minute, in a good old fashioned West Coast way, the sky opened, and it absolutely bucketed down just as we all rose for breakfast. We waited it out for a bit, and then after JJ accessed the river, with the decision made, the horses were bought in and saddled up. The images speak volumes (just like the rain).

My morning tasks after the others rode out were to make the stew, clean up the hut and do the dishes. It was easy when left alone boiling up the hot water to imagine what it must have been like for the early settlers (read Arawhata Bill) in these extraordinary, wild, beautiful, but treacherous places. I am completely in awe of how they survived. I guess what we don’t know is how many didn’t.

The rain stopped after a couple of hours as quickly as it started, the sun came out and left an eerie light. I was really hankering to get up the valley to photograph, but I felt even more of a pull to try to be as useful as possible. So here I was, a bit like Shirley Valentine (Google the movie), still cooking and cleaning but in a fabulous place.

The plan (there is always one that starts with every letter of the alphabet here) was that I would photograph everyone riding down the valley from the bush line and when they rode in with the mob. BUT…it was very apparent that wasn’t going to happen when two riders rode in dripping. The rivers had risen while everyone was out mustering. You know it’s serious when the boss mentions it’s the fastest he has ever seen it rise.

The Arawhata Bill was launched eventually, but not quickly (with the aid of JJ on a motorbike), and we set off up the river to pick up and drop off people and dogs to muster on foot and by boat. There is always something different happening here and this apparently was ‘Something Different” – JJ mentioned this more than once. At the end of the day, it all worked out well with a good muster and not too many being left behind to clean up on the straggle.

With all the weight of the dogs and people in Arawhata Bill, it didn’t take much to give it another exfoliate from the gravel in the river, and on more than one occasion, that is exactly what happened.

The river is both fascinating and frightening. I witnessed this for myself. It is almost like someone filling up a bath until it’s nearly overflowing, then letting the plug go; it happens that fast. On top of that, the debris are cleverly camouflaged just underneath the surface. The glare of the sun or even the change in the light is enough to fool anyone experienced or not. Add to that the colour changes all the time after rain with all the silt and gravel stirring up the bottom, so the depth is extremely deceiving. The flow of the channels is something at times easy to see and at others…not so much. I was probably in a boat with one of New Zealand’s most experienced drivers in these extreme and ever-changing conditions, and at no point did I feel unsafe but always aware.

After two nights in the Waipara Hut, we loaded the boat (minus the sink) and shifted camp to the Callery Hut (back down the river a bit), as the saying goes in Haast.

This didn’t go without some pretty interesting events. Let’s just say the three hours I was going to be alone in the boat didn’t eventuate. I did, however, spend a considerable time alone in a beached boat filled with Easter eggs and beer on the Arawhata river while I watched the skipping rope bounce up and down on the top of the water. We certainly were not going anywhere in a hurry. It was timely that the Canterbury Jet boat Club came along and got on the end of the rope, aided by JJ and his horse Sandy. We eventually got Arawhata Bill floating, but not me… another dip in the Arawhata.

A couple of the crew had to leave early, so that night, it left me filling in as full-time cook along with filling in in the yards. I am thinking of changing my name to Polly!

Rhiannon, the vet, arrived that night from (just down the river) ready for pregnancy testing the next day. It’s hard to explain that in the middle of nowhere (or deep in the heart of somewhere), it felt a bit like Grand Central Station with all the comings and goings.

 Another experienced Nolan family member Annie arrived by boat the next morning to ride out on the last day to help navigate the fresh weaners down the Arawhata Valley to the yards where they are trucked from the home block.

The last day up the valley for me was spent photographing the departure of the weaners, which was, for me a bit of a highlight. They were pretty good all things considered; a handful of cows helped settle the mob. To see JJ, who has grown up in the saddle in this extraordinary terrain and way of life galloping on his beautiful buckskin Sandy flat tack down the valley to stop a weaner break was for me ‘my best moment’.

With the hut cleaned, the boat packed up, and cows let out, it was time to leave the Arawhata Valley. On the last boat ride down the river, I tried to drink it all in (but staying dry this time), savoring the moment for my memory bank.

We passed the mob cruising down the valley, and once I got to the bottom, I walked back up the riverbed to meet up with them all again. Standing out in the middle of the Arawhata, it is absolutely daunting to imagine the river bank to bank in flood.

On reflection, the cattle were easier to work than the different apparatus in the hut, so I know which job I preferred. But it was great to be able to feel like I had been useful and contributing, not just taking up precious space. My other job (the one I came down for), of course, is being a photographer, so I did have my camera hanging off anything I could find in between working the gates in the yards. It was extremely special to be not only included but accepted into the family for this short but incredible time.

At the end of the muster, I honestly felt like this was one of the absolute best things I have ever been privileged to do in my life, one that has been full of many adventures and a whole lot of fun.

To conclude, I would like to give a very special mention to the strong, independent, courageous, and above all, humble women I met during my time spent in Haast. They are women who essentially are “just getting on with it”. There is no fanfare or fuss, or any need or desire for any public acknowledgment. They work tirelessly alongside their men, supporting them in often extremely dangerous and hazardous conditions. They, to me, are indeed very special women.

The faithful working dogs also deserve more of a mention, and you can see them in almost every image firmly at the boss’s side. Up to eleven plus times a day, launching themselves into a cold and swift river without even being asked is a testament to the stuff they are made of. They take on cattle with sometimes courageous stupidity. I have huge respect for these dogs, I have been around them all of my life, but they are forever continuing to teach me something new. 

According to my late father, I grew to six feet tall because I was emersed in horse shit most of my childhood! Witnessing the tough Haast horses in action especially in such challenging, demanding and rapidly changing conditions bought back good some great riding memories.

Like the working dogs, they swim the rivers multiple times a day. They are ridden in all kinds of weather and plough through the bog and bush as easily as swatting a sandfly. The temptation to hop on was stronger than anything I felt on the muster, however, if I had of, I would have become a liability. It’s not a playground up the Arawhata, especially on a cattle muster with cows and calves. They are there to do a job, not to have someone unaccustomed to this terrain causing unnecessary issues. But if JJ and Kathy invite me back for my cooking, next time I will be taking my riding boots!

I leave you with this.

Prior to going to Haast, I was still experiencing a lot of pain with my lifelong back complications, and I had given up hope that I would ever again enjoy doing what I identify as being me.

When I got to Haast, of course, the pain and limitations were still with me, and they may always be. But… for that time, up the Arawhata, I forgot about it.

Your mind is the most powerful and complex thing in your body. To overcome what you think it is telling you sometimes is acutely challenging.

Haast and the extremely special people I was with did this for me.

Nobody asked me if I couldn’t do anything.

Nobody asked me if I could do something.

Nobody asked me not to do anything.

So I just did it!

An enormous thank you to JJ, Kathy, Matt, Sara, and Lisa.

You are all special people living a very special way of life, one I look forward to seeing continue for many generations to come. You have given me precious memories which I will carry with me to my day’s end.

I will continue to encourage others to know your story and support the continuation of the special historical way of life you live.


  • Helen Nolan

    May 11, 2022

    Wow ? fantastic writing & pics Vicky!! Bought me to tears actually as you’ve captured the whole “essence of Arawhata” where we all love ❤️ & hold special memories of musters gone by with our late parents & still get to enjoy with JJ & Kathy when we’re lucky enough so Thank You heaps & im sure you’ll be back!! A good cook is bloody important ya know ?

  • Wynsome Adams

    May 11, 2022

    Fantastic story I to have been up the Arawhata River with JJ & Kathy.
    Was an amazing experience off the bucket list my trips were at least 25 years ago & still feel so privileged to be part of the muster. So enjoyed your story & pictures bought back many great memories!!

  • Michele Neckelson

    May 11, 2022

    what an adventure! thank you so much for sharing it. your photos are anazing and although epically awesome dont do the scenery or the occasion justice. its magestical country down there. having just been down in the sth isl as a family my camera never left my side the photos I took are wicked but not the same as being there.and the occasion one very few get to experience. I’d give my eye teeth to be part of this muster in what ever capacity. what a privilege to share it with your hosts and our privilege you chose to share it with us. thank you keep the blogs coming.

  • Martin Dagg

    May 13, 2022

    Just loved to have been there . Nothing beats the back country , 95 per cent of kiwis never see .