Zara Glover – Highland Dancing To The Top

Close up of Zara in her Irish Jig costume.

There’s no age limit on following your dreams. Old or young, it’s the dream and what you are willing to do to achieve it that counts. Zara Glover is just 12 years old, but she is one of the most focused and determined people I know. Let me tell you about Zara and how she is working towards achieving her dreams.

Highland Family Heritage

Zara Glover may be a born and bred Kiwi, but Scottish Highland Dancing is very much in her blood. Her mother’s family comes from the Orkney Islands, and they’ve been dancing for generations.

In New Zealand, Zara’s grandmother and aunts all danced too, and her mother Sandra was only 16 when she began teaching. With all that behind her, it’s no wonder that Zara has loved highland dancing since she was 5 years old.

Dances of the Highlands

When you hear the words Highland Dancing, the chances are that bagpipes, tartan kilts and highland flings come to mind. But I’ve learned from Zara and her family that there is much more to dancing than first meets the eye.

It seems that most of the highland dances of Scotland have their roots in history and legend.

There’s the Fling of course: its origin comes from the fierce battlegrounds, where victorious highland warriors laid their targes (small, round shields) on the ground and danced the stag-like steps on top.

You may have seen a sword dance too.

Two swords are laid on the ground in the form of a cross and the dancer leaps nimbly, first slowly and then faster in a series of complicated steps. It was said that if a warrior touched a sword as he danced then he would surely be wounded in the coming battle. But woe betide the dancer who kicked it out of position: that was an omen of death. Even today, in competitions, you’ll be disqualified if you displace a sword during the dance.

Zara Glover springing high above crossed swords in a highland sword dance.
Zara springing high above crossed swords in a competition.

But did you know that the Irish Jig and Sailor’s Hornpipe are also popular highland dances? Then there’s the Seann Truibhas (pronounced Shawn Trews) which in English means “old trousers”. This dance began in the terrible years after the battle of Culloden when the Highland Clans were all but destroyed, the kilt was banned and the men forced to wear the hated English trews (trousers.)

Let’s Start At The Very Beginning

Zara and her younger brother Alex are learning all these dances and more. Of course, beginners don’t learn the full dances at first. They learn the basic steps and as they develop their technique and stamina over time the more complicated elements are added.

It seems to me that highland dances are very precise. Toes pointed just so. Fingers held exactly right. Stance, walk, knees, breathing, even facial expressions — these are all taught right from the beginning so that they become second nature.

Fitness and athleticism count for a lot too.

Zara is one incredibly fit young lady, and when I realised just how much dancing she actually does — including the hours of practice, I understood why. You burn a huge amount of energy doing any one of the highland dances, let alone performing all of them, which is something Zara — and Alex — often have to do.

Zara in sailor suit, dancing the hornpipe.
Dancing the Sailor’s Hornpipe.

Dance a Little Deeper

There are three main components in the highland dancing world: exams, competitions and shows. All three play a big part in the Glovers’ lives, with Zara and Alex dancing and Sandra teaching, organising costumes and of course transporting.

Sandra is also a qualified judge, so in competitions she often has a big role to play there, although not in the sections where her own children are competing.

Examination season comes around twice each year and becomes a huge focus in May and September. Exams are graded of course, with each one being progressively harder.

The Coveted Solo Seal

The top honour in New Zealand Highland Dancing is the Solo Seal and to win this is Zara’s mission. It’s a tall order. To qualify, Zara must attain honours in every previous examination — both practical and theory. Even with that daunting task accomplished, there is still the actual Solo Seal exam to complete: an incredibly rigorous examination which is often performed in public.

Very few dancers manage to achieve this coveted award, but Zara is aiming to be one of them. To date she’s on track, having achieved honours in each exam so far, but there’s a long road ahead. With so many exams to pass before you can enter for the Solo Seal, most dancers are 19 or 20 before they attempt the final exam.

Competitions Big And Small

Competitions are a regular part of life for the Glover family. Many a weekend will find Zara, Sandra and Alex on the road heading for an event somewhere in New Zealand. There are competitions at all levels, from local clubs right through to the Nationals, where the best dancers of all ages compete.

The number of medals, sashes and cups that Zara has won over the years is truly breathtaking. She has boxes of beautiful sashes, another dedicated to medals, and a whole cabinet devoted to awards and mementoes of special highland dancing trips. Not to mention the cups — most of which are awards won in the past year. They’ll be returned to the various competitions in due course, but it’s entirely possible that more will take their place.

A colourful display of ribbons and rosettes won by Zara in highland dancing competitions.
Just a fraction of the ribbons and rosettes in Zara’s collection.

Highland Dancing Shows

One thing I was truly surprised to discover is that Highland Dancing has more than the traditional dances found in exams and competitions. And this is where the shows come into play. Here, talented choreographers weave traditional steps into modern dances, interpreting themes and stories in a way that is fun and beautiful to watch.

New Zealand even has its own Highland Dance Company which is known for its exciting and innovative dances. Joining the company is the second part of Zara’s dream. It would be hard work but thrilling to be part of a company that performs all over the world.

Highland Dancing With The Stars

Indeed, Zara and Alex have already had a taste of that life. In November 2017 they joined a team of young dancers from all over New Zealand to compete in a unique competition at Euro Disney in Paris.

Highland dancers from all over the world congregated in huge numbers to compete in a variety of traditional and modern competitions. New Zealand’s dancers shone in the ChoreoMagic category with their vibrant costumes and exciting interpretations. Zara and Alex were in several dances and both were part of “Moana” which won the New Zealand contingent the Overall Award.

More recently the Highland Dance Company toured in New Zealand with a show called “The Heart of the Highlands.” In each centre, they invited young local dancers to join them. Zara and Alex were part of the vibrant show in Invercargill.

There are other, more local shows as well, everywhere from performing for Rest Home residents to displays at the Edendale Crank Up day and the Te Anau Tartan Festival. Shows are mighty hard work, but the fun and camaraderie make it all worthwhile.

Alex Glover, aged 9, performing an Irish Jig dance.
Alex performing the Irish Jig.

Learning Life Lessons

Sandra says that the dancing world has given Zara and Alex many important life skills. They certainly know the value of hard work, and the truth of the phrase “practice makes perfect.”

But they’ve also learned how to win — and lose — graciously, and how to be proud but not boastful of their achievements. The family have made lasting friendships through dancing, but at the same time, they’ve learned how to cope with stress and nerves too.

Fitness we’ve already mentioned, but Zara’s dancing has been great for memory training as well. When you have to remember so many steps, dances and the theory behind them it certainly exercises your memory muscle.

Zara Glover — Surely One To Watch

I’ve known this young lady since she was five, and have loved watching her develop into the person she is today. It was great to interview Zara and Sandra and learn more about their highland dancing way of life. Zara’s dreams are big, but the way she’s going there’s every chance she’ll achieve them.

The icing on the cake, for me, was going to the Heart of the Highland’s show. I’d travel to see a show like that again in a heartbeat. Perhaps one day I’ll be there to watch Zara as a member of the Highland Dance Company.

Good luck with your dreams, Zara. We’ll be cheering for you all the way.

Garston – A Place To Call Home

Overlooking the playground on the Green.

I’ve lived on a farm in Garston for 35+ years so that almost makes me a local. But my husband is truly Garston born and bred. His family were one of the first to settle in the valley when it was opened up to farmers in the 1860’s and the McNamees have been here ever since.

So for our family, the ties to Garston run very deep, and we’d find it pretty difficult to leave.

But what is it that makes this quiet country village so hard to beat?

Cycle Trail with distant mountains, looking north towards Garston.
The “Around the Mountains” cycle trail, heading North to Garston.

The View

Let’s begin with Garston’s location.

The village is set in the narrow Upper Mataura River Valley, and mountains range on either side, as far as the eye can see. Their beauty is different from the craggy splendour of Queenstown’s Remarkables range. Ours are “working” mountains; home to animals — farmed and wild —  rare bugs, mountain plants and above all, the golden tussocks which colour the landscape.

Above the village, hidden terraces slope in layers up to the foot of the mountains, and this is where our house can be found. When I step out of the back door for my daily walk there is not a soul to be seen. It’s just me, the birds and the sheep.

What a way to begin — or end —  a day.

A Tough Start

When Europeans first arrived they farmed the Upper Mataura Valley as one giant sheep station. But later on the area was divided into 200-acre sections and these were balloted out to small farmers and settlers.

And that’s where the modern history in Garston begins. Our family came from the lean pickings of the gold claims in the Skippers Valley to try their luck at farming. Others made money killing rabbits — a lucrative enough trade in those days to enable them to save enough to buy into a farm. Some came from family farms further north or south.

Life was pretty tough in those early days. The valley had very few trees back then and firewood was in short supply. The winters were brutal. There’s a famous tale of one long ago winter when the deep snow lasted for so long that the settlers had to use their carefully-hoarded fence posts for firewood just to survive.

Money was scarce too. The kids walked to school from farms dotted around the countryside whether they had shoes or not. My father-in-law used to say:

“We never minded stepping in a cow pat on the way to school —  at least it warmed our feet up.”

I still don’t know if he was joking or not.

Gold

There’s gold in them thar hills. Or at least there used to be.

Shortly after the settlers arrived gold was discovered in creeks and cracks all around, and life got busy as the gold miners flooded in. They came from all over the world to try their luck, set up camp for a while and livened up the area.

Eventually, the gold became too difficult to find, and the miners drifted away to try their luck elsewhere. They left reminders of their stay, with a little cluster of Chinese miners’ graves in the cemetery, and the great water races which they dug high in the mountains to supply water for the great sluice guns in the Nokomai Valley just beyond Garston.

Loving Reminders

Stone picnic table and seat in Garston.
The memorial picnic area north of the Garston Green.

John Newman

It’s easy to guess that Garston is proud of its history. One of the first things that stands out when you stop is the information booth, which was updated after much collaboration by local historians. And when you start to look around you’ll find caring memorials all over the Garston Green.

North of the shops is the picnic area dedicated to John Newman, a former owner of the Garston Hotel, who planted so many of the trees between Athol and Arrowtown. Take a stroll towards the tree-covered hillside nearby and you’ll find a gorgeous little walk called Newman’s Way which takes you up over the knoll to Garston School.

Newman's Way sign and path at Garston.
One of three entrances to Newman’s Way.

The Vital Rail Link

Further down the Green, you’ll find tributes to the time when the trains ran in Garston because when the railway opened in 1878 it was a huge boon to the area.

In those days before sealed roads, fast cars and huge articulated trucks, trains were the best and fastest way to travel the long distance between the “big smoke” of Invercargill in the South and Kingston — the gateway to Lake Wakatipu and Queenstown — in the North.

Farmers transported stock in and out of the valley by rail right up until the early 1970s.

Close up of a man guiding sheep onto a railway wagon.
Loading sheep onto the train at the Nokomai Siding, 1968.   Photo courtesy of Pam and Peter Naylor.

Even when trucks took over the job, the famous Kingston Flyer steam train ran through Garston as a tourist attraction until 1979, when floods damaged the railway tracks so badly that the whole line closed.


Garston doesn’t forget, though. On the Green, you’ll find tracks, trucks and a display of antique jiggers. There, too, is a loving memorial to Russell Glendinning, a towering figure in local railway lore.

The Russell Glendinning Memorial Seat.
Russell Glendinning was a hugely popular, expert train driver. He drove the Kingston Flyer on her last-ever trip through Garston.

Peter Rabbit’s Village

Peter Rabbit’s House has been a special secret in Garston for a long time now. It’s a bit of a  mystery; who did put out that little clothesline and Peter Rabbit sign next to the rabbit hole? Whoever it was, I hope they know how their whimsy brought smiles, and that gradually other, secret “rabbit paraphernalia” appeared.

Tiny clothesline and outhouse in Peter Rabbit's Garston village.
Some of the original pieces in Peter’s village.

Eventually, someone added a diary, and visitors started leaving Peter little notes.

The House expanded in 2017 when the Garston School children decided that Peter needed company, and made a whole replica gold-mining era village.

No one will tell you whereabouts Peter Rabbit’s Village is in Garston. To this day it’s still a delightful surprise to discover for yourself.

The River

Winding through the valley, the Mataura River is world renowned for its trout. People come from all over the globe to try their luck in the cool, clear waters during the fly-fishing season. Some eat their catch or mount it to sit proudly on a wall.

But others are simply there for the love of the fish and the sport. Those intrepid fishermen are found in the tricky “catch and release” sections of the river. Some of the fish there are huge — and wily — having been caught and released more than once over the years.

My favourite river memories are set in the 1990’s. Baking summer days, at the stony beach under the old railway bridge where all the local mums and kids gathered to cool off.

The children floated down the river on giant old inner-tubes from their dads’ tractors, jumped off the rocks and ate enormous afternoon teas. The bravest of them hung over the rail of the towering bridge above.

“Watch me! Watch me!” they’d yell and then leap down into the deepest pool below.

Stretch Your Legs In Garston…

Nowadays Garston is moving on and looking outwards.

Travellers stream through on their way to the glories of Milford Sound or Queenstown and many of them stop at the Garston Green for a welcome break.

Kids race to recover from their long journeys on the playground. Adults discover the delights of  The Coffee Bomb, Craft Keepers and The Hunny Shop.

…Or Stay A While

But some opt for more than a quick stop.

Fishermen, bikers, hikers and those who just want a slice of rural peace and quiet, can all find a bed at the Garston Hotel or at one of the lovely B&Bs dotted around the district.

There’s no denying that living in the country has its challenges. Farmers tend to work the daylight hours: short in winter, long in summer. And of course, in the spring lambing and autumn harvest seasons, work can continue well after dark.

And almost every trip requires a car: we’re simply too far from everywhere to walk.

But despite that, Garston is a special place to be. Friendships run deep and beauty surrounds us every time we step out the door.

I am lucky to call this little slice of New Zealand home.

Frontage of the Garston Information Booth at the Garston Green.

B&Bs in Garston:

The Red Shed

Southern Venues High Country Farmstay

The Naylor House

Menlove Homestay

Castle Hill Lodge

Anakawa

Meadowbank

P.S.

Eventually, I plan to have many more profiles of the enterprising people who live and work in Garston, Athol, Kingston and beyond.

If you (or someone you know) would like to feature on Time of my Life I’d love to hear from you.

Please contact me through the contact form below or message me through Time of my Life’s Facebook page.

If you live further afield in the South and feel your story would be a good fit for Time of my Life, I’m happy to help. Contact me to arrange a time to connect.

The Cusp – Graceful Furniture Designs

Close up of The Cusp's logo: a washer engraved with The Cusp.

Something delightful about all the people I get to interview for Time of my Life is the way their faces light up when speaking about their work. After all, we’re discussing their dream, and their passion shows. And no one communicates that delight more clearly than Kim Patterson and Stephen Counsell. It was a real pleasure to meet them at their little workshop and to learn more about their dream business, The Cusp.

Step Inside The Cusp

“Would you like to see the workshop?” asked Stephen. “I’d better warn you, it’s a little bit cold in there.”

What an understatement!

In fact the little, one-car garage where Kim and Stephen work their Cusp magic was actually more like an icebox and I quickly understood the wisdom behind Kim’s winter work uniform of thick fleecy jacket and sturdy overalls.

But the temperature was soon forgotten, as they began to show me around their fascinating Aladdin’s cave of a workshop and to tell the story behind their business and their dream.

How It All Began

Kim and Stephen met in the busy Customs department of Queenstown’s International Airport. They started work about the same time, and recognised in each other a kindred spirit. The two quickly became friends and supporters in what can — at  times — be a crazily stressful job. Their personalities, complementary strengths and weakness, and most importantly their shared love of “tinkering in the workshop” made for a firm friendship.

In those days, of course, there was no talk of a business. But the idea was sparked in mid-air as Kim leafed through a magazine and a page caught her eye. It was only a small article about a woman who upcycled and restored furniture, but as she read, Kim’s imagination took flight. By the time the plane landed she was convinced they should give it a go.

And that’s exactly what she said to Stephen next time she saw him. “Read this,” waving the article under his nose. “We could do that!”

New Life To Old Furniture

Kim and Stephen began by rescuing, restoring and upcycling furniture. It was a hobby that gradually began to take on a life of its own. Their first piece was a chest of drawers rescued on its way to the dump. Battered, bruised and topped with an indelible ink stain, the poor thing was sorely in need of some TLC.

Stephen and Kim worked their magic and brought it back to life. The ink was never going to come out, so they painted a bright, simple geometric design over it and voila! Problem solved. They put the piece up for sale on Queenstown Trading and it sold within an hour. Exciting stuff — and even more so when the new owner came back and asked for more.

But when you’re restoring furniture, each unique piece presents its own set of problems to solve. It takes time and skill to think, design and source materials — not to mention the actual physical work of restoration. Then, once that project’s finished you move onto the next, which presents a completely different set of problems. Those hard-won solutions are often not transferable to the next piece of furniture. It seemed, that with just two people, furniture restoration wasn’t sustainable as a business.

From Restoration To Design

The Cusp Strata Coffee Table
Coffee table from The Cusp’s “Strata” range.

However when Kim and Stephen began designing their own furniture that issue was suddenly resolved, especially when Stephen learned how to use CAD — Computer Aided Design — software.

Of course it still takes hours and hours, with many problems to solve when designing the prototype of a new line. But once that’s done other, similar pieces, can be made in a fraction of the time.

An easily recognised example is the stylish Cusp coffee table. Like many of their reproducible pieces, the table is made out of plywood used in a rather special way.

A New Way To Use Plywood

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plywood

If you know as little about working with wood as I do, you’ve probably seen plywood, and even heard the term, without knowing much about it. Usually you would see the large flat surface on walls and furniture. But The Cusp furniture uses plywood turned on its side, so that you see the plies (layers) in all their work.

I found the method truly fascinating.

Once a piece is designed, the design is then broken down into shapes and those shapes are etched into sheets of plywood by Winton-based Nigel Molloy Joinery. They’re delivered looking rather like giant model aeroplane sets.  Stephen and Kim then finish cutting out the pieces and glue them together. The result is a distinctive piece of furniture. You’d recognise The Cusp style anywhere.

Cutting out the pieces is painstaking work. The leftover frames – neatly stacked in the workshop – immediately reminded me of model aeroplane cutouts.

Bespoke Furniture

The other side of The Cusp’s business comes from commissions for bespoke solutions to their customers problems.

Arguably their breakthrough commission came from the Remarkables Start Early Learning Centre when they commissioned a “seat with a wow factor” to grace the foyer of their (then) brand-new centre.

This was the seat that led Stephen to learn about CAD — a huge learning curve that required hundreds of hours hunched over his laptop; learning, searching for advice and practising until the designs in his head appeared on the screen as intended.

When they finally unveiled the seat plans to the clients there was a pause then both ladies breathed “Wow!”

Kim and Stephen decided they’d met the brief.

Kim Patterson and Stephen Counsell on the seat with the Remarkables Mountain Range in the background.
The remarkable seat that transformed The Cusp. Notice the outline of the Remarkables on the seat and in the real mountain range.

Problem Solving

Clients often come to The Cusp because they have a problem that off-the-shelf furniture won’t solve.

Stephen and Kim have designed sturdy furniture for airbnb houses, solved a lighting dilemma for an electrician and filled many problem spaces with made-to-measure, elegant furniture.

The smallest commission to date was for a soil sieve but their largest — apart from the seat — is one currently in design.

The brief is definitely impressive: a desk, with filing-cabinet-drawers that pull out as steps which lead to a sleeping loft with tatami mats (Japanese sleeping mats). Oh, and can you make it feel like a treehouse?

The Cusp motto kicked into gear: “We can do that!”

Help and Encouragement

Kim and Stephen are highly appreciative of all the help they’ve had along their journey so far. Their respective partners — Gary and Lisa —  are right behind the venture.

What’s more, it is rare for a client to commission only one piece. Their happy customers keep coming back for more, which means The Cusp now has a waiting list.

Stephen can’t speak highly enough of Nigel Molloy Joinery for the help and encouragement they’ve given over the past year, especially with their generosity and aid while he was learning Computer Assisted Design.

Their “can do” attitude and “Give Great Service” values resonate with Kim and Stephen, who have a similar ethos at The Cusp.

What’s In A Name?

When I asked where the name came from they laughed because Kim’s original suggestion — Funky Fufu — now seems so impossible and absurd.

It was Gary Patterson who came up with the breakthrough name and the more you think about it, the better the name seems to fit this unique little business.

  • On the cusp of something great
  • Counsell US Patterson – an amalgamation of names
  • Cusp – in geometrical terms the “intersection of two graceful curves.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Connect With The Cusp

You’ll find many more photos and videos of The Cusp’s graceful and elegant furniture designs on their Facebook page

Email: create@thecusp.nz

My own little memento from The Cusp.

From Manila to Garston – Connecting Kids

In Cathedrals and Connections I wrote:

Building connections between people young and old —  between countries, cultures and religions — is vital. It’s the way that we will move the people of our world towards peaceful acceptance of each other. It’s the way to build trust.

Today I have another story – this time about connecting children and cultures to share.

Overseas Travel: The New Norm

When I was young very few children travelled overseas. Certainly I didn’t know anyone who had even set foot on a plane, let alone travelled to another country.

How different it is today. Even from faraway New Zealand, families regularly head overseas for holidays and adventures. In tiny Garston School all of the staff and 65% of the students have travelled abroad — many more than once. Some have family in England and Australia and travel to connect with friends and relatives there, and to learn something of their history and culture. Others return with tales of theme parks, shops and sandy shores.

Destination Garston

Garston School: A small rural school in the heart of Southern New Zealand.

But some lucky youngsters get to move out of their comfort zone and experience cultures that are very different from their own. And that was certainly the case for the group of Chinese-Filipino teenagers who visited Garston School recently. Their visit opened a gateway between the Philippines and New Zealand and created connections on a very personal level. It’s a visit that the students in my class will long remember.

The seven teenagers and their teacher were in NZ to learn about our culture, but also to learn about themselves.

One of the many reasons schools at all levels organise Education Outside the Classroom (EOTC) is to give their students the chance to be independent. From day outings to school camps; Duke of Edinburgh tramps to overseas sporting or cultural trips, a key purpose is always to foster growth and self reliance. This sort of trip gives youngsters a chance to gain skills and confidence in their own abilities, while still enjoying the support and safety that traveling with a group brings.   

Laugh, Learn, Love.

So Joseph, Nicole, Christine, Joanna, Jim, Cheska and Haslie came to Garston School. (Their only visit to a NZ primary school, in fact.)

It was a chance to discover part of our culture and to share a little of theirs. The teens wanted to interact with children, and that’s exactly what happened when they joined a technology lesson about buildings with my 5 – 7 year olds.

My students loved the chance to work in a small group with their chosen teen. They talked about their own homes and found out about the houses of their new friends. What a contrast – from tiny Southland villages to Manila, one of the most densely populated cities on Earth.

Of course there was a practical task too, as they experimented with blocks to build towers which would stand up in an earthquake. The room was buzzing with conversation and the occasional groan as another tower bit the dust.

I’m Longing to Visit the Philippines Now

All too soon it was morning tea time, and our newfound friends disappeared to visit another class. But that afternoon they returned to give a presentation about the Philippines to the whole school.

El Nido Island, Philippines
El Nido, Philippines. Photo by Cris Tagupa on Unsplash

I was impressed by the care they’d taken to introduce their culture to younger students, connecting with meaningful images, songs and games. We loved the slideshow pictures of beautiful islands, and animals so different from those found here. Every pause for questions brought a host of hands waving in the air, as the children begged to know more.

When a Chevrotain — or mouse deer — appeared on screen, Alex’s hand shot up in the air. I knew immediately the delighted connection he had made because I’d made the same one: on separate trips, we had each been amazed to see the tiny mouse-deer in the Singapore Zoo.

All too soon the special day had finished. My children rushed to exchange goodbye hugs and selfies.

Our new friends were heading to Invercargill for the weekend and then to Blue Mountain College. We hope they had a lovely time there too.

21st Century Education: Knowledge…

A vital facet of 21st-century education is learning to make connections. We teach this from the very earliest days in school.

We want our children to see the patterns… connect the dots… make links between what they know and whatever they’re learning about. Nowadays we don’t just teach facts. Instead our emphasis is on:

  • How to find out what you need to know … and
  • How to apply that knowledge to solve future problems.

These are essential skills needed to function in the modern world.

… and Communication.

But we also need to understand where other people are coming from. Why their ideas might be different and how differences can enhance rather than threaten.

We live in a global society where communication skills are rated as the top priority in many jobs. Therefore social and cultural connections are just as important as knowledge.

Student exchanges and visits like this are one way to foster understanding. My children have fond memories of this visit and the lovely people they met. I’m sure that Christina, Joseph, Jim, Haslie, Cheska, Joanna, Nicole and their teacher do too.

Who knows what may come of this brief connection?

Dwane Herbert – A Spearfishing Legend

When Cobey Herbert arrived in my class as a skinny five-year-old, I sent home the usual note asking about food allergies etc. Back it came, duly filled in: Cobey can eat anything except paua.

“Paua?” I thought. “Who would give a little kid such an expensive shellfish? We won’t be cooking paua here, at the most inland school in New Zealand.” That was certainly way out of my comfort zone.

It wasn’t until Cobey’s dad arrived with undersea treasures to show the kids that I understood, because it turns out that Dwane Herbert, is a 7-times National Spearfishing Champion of NZ.

Dwane and a student inspect a kina.
Garston kids were fascinated with Dwane’s underwater treasures.

I had no idea what spearfishing was, so I went to visit Dwane, and his wife Annie, to find out.

Dwane’s Day Job

He may live near the most inland village in NZ, but in his day job Dwane Herbert is the skipper of a kina and paua fishing boat, working off the southern coast. If you’re thinking dredge nets or fishing lines stop now. There’s none of that in this niche industry — it’s all diving. What’s more, the divers only wear snorkels and masks. No oxygen tanks allowed.

The job is tough — and so are the crew. You have to be, in a job that’s weather dependent and involves a fair amount of danger. It’s certainly not for everyone but Dwane loves it. As he says:

“I’ve  done it all my life. I started at age 7, up in Whitianga, going out on the boat with my Dad — who’s one of the best in the business.”

But much as he enjoys the snorkelling and fishing, they are the daily routine stuff. Dwane’s real passion lies with spear fishing.

“Growing up, we’d always have to work first, then we got to play. The rule was fill your sacks with paua or kina and then we’d get an hour of spearfishing. That’s the hour I lived for.”

What is Spearfishing?

Spearfishing is a technique that’s been around for centuries. Simply put, it’s throwing a spear at a fish, but of course there’s a lot more to spearfishing than that.

Forget those movie images of spears hurtling towards far-off leviathans. You have to get in close to the fish with spearfishing. There’s a 3-4 metre rope which attaches the spear to the speargun so that’s the maximum distance you can shoot from. And once again, it’s strictly snorkels, masks and flippers in this sport.

It actually seems more like hunting, than fishing.  

Dwane says it’s important to identify the fish before you shoot. Each species has its own characteristics, and a good spearfisher has to know how a particular fish will react. If you know which way the fish is likely to dodge, you have a good idea whereabouts to aim for a quick, clean kill.

Spearfishing is an environmentally-conscious sport too. “We eat everything we catch,” Dwane explains. “That’s the rule. There’s no indiscriminate hunting and you don’t get the damage to other species that net fishing can cause.” Even the competitions don’t allow waste, with all the fish being auctioned off for charity.

“In NZ the fish still aren’t used to being hunted. Sometimes they’ll swim right up to you and take a good look.” That’s because spearfishing is a relatively new and small sport in NZ.

But in Europe spearfishing has been going on for centuries. It’s a big sport with big money involved. In European countries you can sell the fish you spear, so the top divers actually are spearfishing for a living. They do it day in and day out.

“The competitions over there are at a whole ‘nother level.” says Dwane.

Spearfishing Championships — New Zealand…

Spearfishing New Zealand Nationals are held in various locations around the North Island each January.

Competitors are likely to be swimming, diving and contending with wind, weather and waves for up to 6 hours while they hunt for specific fish on the competition list. One boat takes everybody out, and they all hunt within the same boundaries. It’s demanding and dangerous, which is why the NZ nationals are a team competition.

Divers work in pairs as a team, and both catches are weighed and judged together. They take turns at diving so that one is always watching to check the other’s safety.

Dwane and his family are regular attendees at the NZ Spearfishing Nationals. As he explains, “I’ve been to them for most of my life; it’s just what we do in January.”

Spearfishing Grandfather, sons and grandsons.
Spearfishing goes through the generations in the Herbert family and most summers you’ll find them at the New Zealand Spearfishing Nationals.

… And Beyond

But his passion for spearfishing has taken Dwane well beyond the New Zealand competitions. He’s a regular competitor in the Inter-Pacific championships and has even been the Australian Champion. Biggest of all, is the chance to compete at the World Championships, and 2018 will be Dwane’s third — and hopefully best — experience of that heady event.

“I haven’t had the best luck at the World’s,” Dwane admits ruefully.

His first competition was a sobering experience — or rather a non-experience.

“I had surgery on my ankle two days before we were due to depart and turned up on crutches. I thought I’d be fine.”

The team leader had other ideas, and Dwane spent the next fortnight as a reluctant bystander

Taking on the World

Competing at the World’s is a huge step up. It’s a completely different set-up to the NZ and Inter-Pacific competitions because divers work solo with a specific area assigned to each competitor. Each diver has a team on a support boat, who are responsible for his safety and catch.

Because the Competition is usually held in Europe, the list of fish is different and includes far more fish species. That’s partly because there are far more edible fish species in European seas. We don’t have that many edible species around NZ so the lists in our competitions are small compared to overseas ones.

Dwane has to memorise what each fish on the list looks like. He has to know their behaviours and likely reaction to being hunted.  European fish are used to being hunted. They understand that humans are dangerous and will scatter or hide as soon as the spearfishermen appear.

The sea presents a new challenge in Europe, as well.

Coastal waters around NZ are very tidal and can be rough, with less visibility, but they are also shallow by comparison. In Greece, for example, spearfishers dive to far greater depths without an oxygen tank. And of course the fish are very shy and hide away in holes and crevices, so you spend longer underwater looking for them.

So when Dwane took his family to the World’s in 2016, they found that the clear, deep water presented a new danger.

Scary Experiences

When I asked Dwane about his scariest moments, he couldn’t really say, but Annie was in absolutely no doubt. The deep waters of the Greek Islands provided a huge shock.

Two weeks before, while practising for the big competition, Dwane got the bends (decompression sickness.) Because he was diving for long periods in water far deeper than he was used to, nitrogen bubbles in the blood were trapped and caused a blockage in his brain which led to a stroke when he came up to the surface.

Dwane says “I wasn’t really scared”
But Annie counteracts.  “That’s because he couldn’t see himself — the rest of us were terrified.”

Fortunately a nearby Greek diver had an oxygen tank. Dwane was given aspirin to thin his blood and relieve the blockage, taken 10 metres down underwater and pure oxygen pumped into him while slowly bringing him up little by little. Once back at the surface, Dwane was rushed to hospital. Amazingly, there was no lasting damage and Dwane was fit and ready to compete by the time the Worlds began.

But then disaster struck when Dwane got a lung squeeze. He says…

“The lungs get compressed at those depths and a sharp turn or twist can cause a tear. You don’t feel it — it doesn’t hurt, but when you get to the boat you start coughing blood and breathing is hard. I knew immediately that was it and I couldn’t go on.”

Portugal

Dwane Herbert with a large fish caught in Portugal.
Dwane with a fish caught on the 2017 recon trip to Portugal.

This year the biannual World Championships are in the south of Portugal. Once again, conditions will be different, but this time around Dwane feels much more prepared. In 2017 he, and other members of the NZ team, travelled to the competition area to check out the water conditions and fish.

They discovered that Portuguese coastal water is not as deep as in Greece, so the fish stay shallow. On the other hand, the seas are quite murky so visibility can be very poor, making the fish even harder to find.

Hopefully Dwane’s luck changes this year and there are no nasty accidents waiting in the 2018 competitions.

Family

One of the best parts of Dwane’s spearfishing lifestyle is the opportunity to travel. It’s even better when his family can come too.

They love to travel with him and experience the lifestyle of different places.

“The Greek islands were so much fun,” says Annie. “We could have stayed much longer.  Everyone was very welcoming but what we found the most strange was how everyone was out and about at night. Even the little kids were out way past 11pm.”  

Just like Dwane, his boys have been in and around boats and fish all their lives. During spare weekends and school holidays it’s the family’s joy to take the boat away to remote waters and enjoy the peace away from daily chores. Cobey and Eli love spearfishing and have taken to it with a passion. They would love to follow in their father’s footsteps.

Dwane with sons Eli and Cobey in wetsuits with their fish.
Eli, Dwane and Cobey – a spearfishing trio.

I love learning. My favourite saying is “you learn something new every day.” So I found it fascinating to listen to Dwane and Annie’s stories of spearfishing and to learn a little about the fishing life.

Their life and experience is so different to mine, and yet we live in the same little New Zealand community. Thanks, Dwane and Annie, it’s great to know you a little better now.

Follow Dwane on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/DwaneHerbertSpearo/

Sponsored by Beuchat NZ                 

 https://www.facebook.com/BeuchatNZ/

More Dreamers and Doers…

Loved learning about a family who follows their dreams? Find out about other Southern Dreamers and Doers in:

A Hand-Built Home Infused With Love

Living the Dream at Craft Keepers

Cathedrals and Connections

Silhouettes: When people connect with one another

There are many different reasons to follow your dreams. This week’s post comes from a heartwarming story that Nikki, my American niece-to-be, told me a few weeks ago.

Sometimes your dreams and passions can sustain you through devastating times. It helps, during a period of illness, depression or heartache, to throw yourself headlong into something you’re passionate about.

This was the reason that Ray, an eighty-plus gentleman from West Virginia, turned to art to help him fight Alzheimer’s and the onset of dementia. Ray’s passion was making paper models, and his heart particularly lay with cathedrals.

Abbey, a travelling nurse, regularly called in to care for Ray during these tough times. And during one memorable visit, she told him about her daughter Nikki and the big decision she had recently made.

“My daughter has left the States,” she told Ray. “She’s moved all the way to New Zealand!”

Many Americans have never even heard of New Zealand, but Ray knew where she meant and wanted to know more.

“She’s gone to live in Christchurch,” Abbey told him.

Ray was shocked. He knew about Christchurch and its devastating earthquakes and was particularly moved by the plight of the city’s lovely cathedral. In his own way, Ray had wanted to commemorate the beautiful building.

He led Abbey over to his collection of beautiful models — and there it was. A stunningly, intricate paper model of the Christchurch Cathedral in all its former glory.

Paper Model of ChristChurch Cathedral

Now it was Abbey’s turn to be shocked as Ray presented her with the lovely model. When she protested, he insisted that he wanted her to have it. Ray passed away shortly after, but Abbey now has his special gift to remember him by.

Abbey’s little cathedral is so much more than an intricate model; it’s a symbol of empathy and connection. Dementia did not rob Ray of empathy. He understood the grief associated with the loss of Christchurch’s precious cathedral and chose to honour it in his own, special way. With his gift, Ray also gave Abbey a second connection with Nikki’s new home.

When she comes to visit her beautiful new grandson, there’ll be more connections; a new extended family to meet. Perhaps Abbey and Nikki will visit the real Cathedral with them. 

American and Kiwi, beginning to understand each other just a little more, and to treasure new friendships formed.

Building connections between people young and old —  between countries, cultures and religions — is vital. It’s the way that we will move the people of our world towards peaceful acceptance of each other. It’s the way to build trust.

Everything starts with one person connecting with another; it continues with empathy and hope. Connecting begins with me and with you. I hope this becomes a passion that we all can share.

Thank you, Ray.

Thanks also to Nikki and Abbey for allowing me to tell their special story.

Images of Christchurch Cathedral after the 2011 earthquake are courtesy of Karyn Druce.