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Life of Fiordland legend explored in new biography

Reprinted from University of Canterbury's "Chronicle" - 23/08/07

New biography looks at the life behind Fiordland legend

The Land of Doing Without: Davey Gunn of the Hollyford
The Land of Doing Without: Davey Gunn of the Hollyford by Julia Bradshaw

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The remarkable story of one of New Zealand's back-country legends is brought to life in the latest book published by Canterbury University Press.

The Land of Doing Without by Hokitika-based researcher Julia Bradshaw explores the life, legend and legacy of run-holder and pioneering tourism operator David "Davey" Gunn, who spent 30 years of his life living and working in Fiordland's rugged Hollyford Valley.

Leaving his wife and three children in Oamaru in 1926 to live a tough and solitary life in the wilds of Fiordland, Mr Gunn established one of the most isolated cattle runs in New Zealand. In the mid-1930s he pioneered guided walking and riding trips in the Hollyford and Pyke valleys.

However, it was his 20-hour journey to raise the alarm after a plane crashed at Big Bay in 1936 that established his standing as a back-country hero.

Ms Bradshaw, who has been researching the history of Fiordland and the West Coast for 16 years, said that during his lifetime Mr Gunn was seen as a modern-day cowboy living a carefree life in one of New Zealand's most beautiful landscapes. The reality, however, was somewhat different. He struggled to make a living from his wild cattle and lived with the constant threat of losing his short-term leases.

"Davey was a quiet man and a deep thinker but his eyes had a twinkle and he enjoyed people's company. He was satisfied with simple things, like doing a job well or watching a sunset, and was happiest when he could share his kingdom with people who appreciated the Hollyford," said Ms Bradshaw.

"But, in some ways, Davey's story is a bit of a sad one because he had all these fantastic ideas for the Hollyford but he never had the capital to make them come to fruition.

"The one thing he did achieve was his desire to open up the Hollyford to the people of New Zealand, and that's his greatest legacy."

Ms Bradshaw, who worked on The Land of Doing Without for four years, said she first became aware of the legend of Davey Gunn while working as a guide on the Hollyford Track in the early 1990s. However, it was Davey's son, Murray Gunn, who encouraged her to write his father's biography.

"I'd always been interested in Davey and his story because he seemed such a remarkable person so when Murray suggested I write his father's biography I agreed," she said.

"But Davey was a very private person and at times it's been difficult getting behind the legend to the real man. It took some time to break through that fašade but in the end I think I came to understand him and why he chose the life he did."

Ms Bradshaw, who is currently researching West Coast stories for the redevelopment of the heritage park Shantytown, is the author of three previous books on the history of Arrowtown, Haast and Jackson Bay, and the scheelite mining industry at Glenorchy.

The Land of Doing Without was launched in Te Anau on 21 July and will be launched in Hokitika on 26 August.

The Land of Doing Without: Davey Gunn of the Hollyford by Julia Bradshaw, published by Canterbury University Press, July 2007, RRP NZ$29.50, paperback, 240 x 170 mm, 176 pp, b/w photographs, ISBN 978-1-877257-53-7.

Editor's comment
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