Molesworth: a story every kiwi should know

By SciBooks 13/11/2013

Reviewed by Jane Hallmolesworth-cover_blog_w

REVIEW: Molesworth: Stories from New Zealand’s largest high country station
by Harry Broad.  Photographs by Rob Suisted.

Craig Potton Publishing

RRP: $69.99

The high country stations of the South Island of New Zealand have a mystic appeal to the males in my family:  huge, tough, rough, difficult country, but fascinating. I grew up hearing tales of the huge stations of Central Otago and North Canterbury where my father and his brothers used to work, rabbiting, chaff cutting and blade shearing before they took up farming full time. One station above all others had a fabled reputation and that was Molesworth, the largest station in New Zealand and the most remote. A few years ago, the station was opened up to the public  and one of my brothers, a sheep and cattle farmer himself, made a pilgrimage there. This book brings his descriptions of that trip to life for me, along with the history and the people who made this station famous. 

Presented in the ubiquitous ‘coffee table’ format –  too large to read in bed and too heavy to hold,  but wonderfully inviting with Rob Suisted’s panoramic photographs –  Harry Broad’s Molesworth reveals the history and appeal of this iconic kiwi station.  Its 191 pages of meticulously researched and highly readable text, is fascinating and comprehensive, though structured in a series of short, ‘stand alone’ chapters that make it easy to dip into at any point. The chapters are clearly identified and cover a variety of subjects and themes – people, farming and conservation practices, history, and botany – guaranteeing its appeal to a wide audience.  As expected with Craig Potton Publishing, Molesworth is beautifully set out and a fine balance achieved between text and photographs, both historical and modern.

The book is divided into three sections.  The first section, 1850 to 1938,  draws on the early history and run holders of the station. There are photographs of the run holders and early scenes of the station as well as contemporary photographs of some of the original buildings. It outlines how and why the station was abandoned and the lease reverted to the crown in 1938. Molesworth suffered from plagues of rabbits which were so bad in the dry inland parts of the South Island that farmers walked off the land. Like all hill country farms in those days, Molesworth ran sheep;  but the height of the land, which starts at 900m, the piercingly cold winters,  and short growing season, meant that they had a precarious life. As did the farmers, who  often overstocked their land with disastrous results.

The second section of the book,  1938 to 2003, focuses of the substantive land issues that were dealt with post 1938: preventing land erosion, controlling rabbits  and revitalising land depleted from detrimental farming practices. Bill Chisholm who managed the station from 1942 until he retired, was instrumental in turning the fortunes of the station and creating a working, profitable enterprise for the government. His first step was to change the livestock from sheep to cattle and to stop burning off tussock. There are many stories about Bill and his wife Rachel who dedicated their lives to this piece of land, along with others who lived on or were associated with the station over this period, all carefully compiled from interviews and reminiscences. The Chisolm’s daughter Ann married one of the station employees, Don Reid, who, after Bill’s retirement,  took over as manager for the next 20 years.

The final section, 2003 to the present, outlines some of the politics involving government ministers and the change of ownership to the Department of Conservation in 2005. It gives an insight into the complex management system needed to balance farming, recreation and conservation activities. Eradication of noxious plants – briar rose, broom, hieracium, for example – and animals such as possums, rabbits, goats, and deer is still a constant priority. Public access for recreational uses such as fishing, tramping, mountain biking, horse trekking and tour parties, has to be managed alongside the conservation of many rare plants and animals, some of which are found only on the mountains of this station. Providing and protecting habitats for native animals has become increasingly important. This section also includes interviews with people who have been or are associated with the station – staff, tour operators and DOC workers, for example – and descriptions of the day to day workings of the station, including the cattle muster, which is no light undertaking!

Molesworth with its blend of stories and evocative photographs excels in conveying the vastness and isolation of the property, the harshness of the environment and the dedication of the past and present custodians of this land. For me, having grown up on a  farm and with a love of tramping and training in botany, this book was especially appealing. If you aren’t able to visit the station, Molesworth the book is the next best thing; and if you are, your experience of it will be for having read it. Either way, this is a story every kiwi should know.

JANE HALL grew up in Southland on a 300 acre sheep/cattle farm and her brothers still farm in Southland. As a keen tramper, she explored many parts of Fiordland. She studied botany at Otago University and for several years taught biology and science. She now lives in Wellington and lectures at the Open Polytechnic.