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February 2021 Issue
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Infinite galaxies

: Dougal Rillstone fishes his treasured Mataura River - a river he has played on and in his entire life

Time spent outside helps you understand where you stand in the grand scheme of things, writes Dougal Rillstone

My affair with the outdoors started with a baptism of sorts. The moment of my dunking was recorded in a photograph taken by Mum. I’m up to my shoulders in the Mataura River, staring back at the camera across the current and stones of the riverbed. Dad stands over me, looking down at his first child. The photograph was taken on a warm afternoon in the summer of 1950, and I’d just turned one. Looking back at the photograph, 70 years after it was taken, I’m struck by the uncertainty and entrancement I see in my eyes. Bruce Chatwin said, ‘We remember our first paths with our unsureness’, and I see, in my look, the beginning of my first path in the outdoors.

My first years were spent on the eastern edge of Gore, in a triangle bounded by rolling hills to the north and east, the Mataura River to the west and the Waikaka Stream just three blocks south of our house. It was my playground. I dug up rabbit holes, collected birds’ eggs, fished for eels, perch and trout, and raced my trolly down the gorse-patched hills. The Mataura was both swimming pool and playground. My experiences by the river during those early years cast an enduring spell and my sense of the outdoors developed naturally.

I was simply swept away by the excitement, challenge, and danger that I enjoyed as a boy, living on the edge of Gore, surrounded by hills and moving water. Back then, I had no sense that having my soul captured by trout, rivers, and the mountains of the south would lead me into an ever-closer relationship with the natural world. That I would become captivated with the ephemeral life-cycle of mayflies and the other creatures that inhabit the places I love. Nor that long reflective walks with a fly rod in hand would give me the quiet time to consider the miraculous cycle of water, and the part water has played in shaping this landscape.

Time away from the land and rivers of southern New Zealand played a part in my understanding of what the outdoors means to me. Back in the mid 1970’s, I experienced one of those forks in the road that can determine the direction of our lives. I had been in London for three years, and one Saturday morning found myself sheltering in the lee of a postbox from a sea of rushing faces. It was the moment it became clear that this was not my place. The pull of the river and the southern landscape was too strong to resist. I returned to the south and, later, in the early 1990’s, chose to give up a conventional working life for the freedom to spend time in the places I cared about.

While the landscape of my happiness remains in the south, I also experience the outdoors in other places. Places that connect me with water; places where I can find solitude, challenge, where the outdoors hasn’t been simply subsumed into the human domain. Places that make me think about where we have been, where we are, and where we might be headed. Places I have grown to love like the north-western tip of Cape York in Australia, where the only prints I see on the beaches while searching for Indo-Pacific permit fish are those left by snakes, wallabies, dingoes, turtles and saltwater crocodiles. And places close to home, like the Ida Valley, where on moonless nights I see galaxies stacked towards infinity. They take me somewhere beyond my grasp, leaving me filled with wonder and uncertainty. And while walking across the sheer expanse of landscape on Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula, in the company of grizzly bears and Steller’s eagles, which have hunted trout and salmon there long before man set foot on the land, I felt both insignificant and an intruder.

My 70 years spent connected to the outdoors has left me with a better sense of what can and can’t be bought and sold; some understanding of the complex harmony of the natural world; and an altered perspective of where I stand in the scheme of things.

Dougal’s book Upstream on the Mataura: a fly fisher’s journey to source is available to purchase here.