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‘Ambergris rolls on Hellfire Beach’: Robin Hyde on Rakiura

Alison Hunt and Bronwyn Lloyd


Text of a talk presented 23 April 2006 at BLUFF 06, Te Rau Aroha Marae, Southland

In the spring of 1936, Robin Hyde received permission from her Auckland Mental Hospital doctors to travel to Otago to work alongside the ex-parliamentarian William Downie Stewart (Docherty 216, 218). This was Hyde’s first extended parole or probation since her admission as a voluntary boarder in June 1933. A period of probation was a normal precursor to patients leaving the mental hospital, giving them a chance to prove to themselves and the authorities that they could stand alone (Gray 2). Hyde went home to Wellington in late September and from there caught the inter-island ferry to Christchurch, arriving in Dunedin 30 September (Leggott 387). Her solo tour of the far south began on 7 November, lasted about 10 days and included the Queenstown area, Invercargill and Bluff, culminating with a week on Stewart Island. She returned to Dunedin and then visited old friends in Christchurch, travelling on to the West Coast and to Nelson and Marlborough, where she met up with her mother, Nelly. The women flew home to Wellington from Nelson on 2 December.

The significance of this journey south resonates in Hyde’s writing and rewriting in the following years. In autobiographical terms, it was an experiment in independence in the world outside the Lodge and away from the support of her doctors. In symbolic terms, it represented a rebirth into the world, an intense experience which is reflected in the attention paid to it in her writing.

Hyde's southern journey also provided material for the last of a series of twenty travel articles that she had been writing for the New Zealand Railways Magazine as a means of earning a modest income. Under the general title 'On the Road to Anywhere' Hyde's articles appeared in the magazine between April 1935 and September 1937 and covered much of New Zealand. Hyde had a discerning and appreciative eye for the charm and peculiarities of the New Zealand scene. Two articles were written about her week on Rakiura, 'Isle of the Glowing Sky: Stewart Island and a Glass Box' and 'The Birds of Rakiura: Titi, Kiwi, and the Summer Bird'.  

At first glance these articles read as charming descriptions of the flora and fauna of the island punctuated by lively anecdotes recounted by the locals. She learns about a visit by famous Canadian harpist Prosper Ralston who had travelled all the way to Stewart Island to find paua shells with which to adorn his dream harp. There is the story about the daredevil aviator, Oscar Garden, who crash-landed his plane near the shore on a day when all the Stewart Island men were away fishing. A chain of women dragged plane and pilot ashore just as the first set of triplets on the island were being born.

Hyde provides an account of the various styles of home on the island, from the makeshift home of the authentic Stewart Island hermit caveman with a tent-flap and a few punga ferns to shelter him from the icy blasts, to the exquisite cottage of authoress Mrs Dorothy Baker, complete with rockery garden, sloping terraces and a green amphitheatre bordered by primroses and daffodils. She pictures the Norwegian whaler's house, its gables crowned with brightly painted wooden dragons.

As Hyde points out in the opening lines of her article 'Isle of the Glowing Sky’, Rakiura made an impression on her far beyond the scope of the travel article she was writing:

This is supposed to be a piece of descriptive writing, a little mild encouragement of the ‘Go South, young man, go South’ variety, and if anyone likes, he or she can still take it as such; but I mean it differently now. (27)

In Hyde’s writing, an island is always some version of Hy-Brasil; it is a mystical place, a paradise, a place of death and rebirth into a new life, a meeting place and the conjunction of the earthly and the spiritual. It is usually situated at an extreme (the far north or south, the edge of the world, the west) and it is approached across water on a ship, a rowboat or a barge. It is holy Avalon where Arthur goes to the afterlife; it is the land of the Hyperboreans, fair northern divinities; and it is the island in the stream where Ratty and Mole meet the god Pan in Wind in the Willows.[1] In Hyde’s novel Wednesday’s Children, it is Wednesday’s island in the Hauraki Gulf, populated by dream people. It is a place of life, death, afterlife and the imagination. All of Hyde’s islands would have been present in her mind as she ferried across Foveaux Strait to Rakiura. And Rakiura would come to symbolise for Hyde a place of ultimate New Zealandness, an Eden, and a place of potential social rebirth.

Rakiura is the third garden of New Zealand in the poem ‘The House of Woman’ from The Book of Nadath:

A garden and a garden and a garden: three spaces held between the seas,
Triple as all things are triple, partaking of the nature of the body, the mind and the spirit,
Which are three, but one: and from which men have echoed their creeds.
There shall the violets lie in beds, in bays of dark blue, and the soft tide of odours wash about her feet. (8)

During her excursions around the island, one of Rakiura's companion isle-dots, as Hyde described it, captured her imagination: Ulva, an island in the entrance to Paterson Inlet. The circumstances of the island, the beauty, the quietude and the unspoiled surroundings seemed designed for Hyde's kind of happiness. She writes:

Stewart Island's Ulva is a lonely little place, so beautiful with bird and berry, hanging fern and wild orchid, that you might think it waiting for its lord and lady out of the old song. Once it was the home of a botanist, the late Mr. Charles Traill. His house still stands in one of the bushy, golden-sanded curves which are mere repetitions of Stewart Island's commonplace, and is inhabited in the summer time. (27)

The old song is ‘Lord Ullin’s Daughter’ by Thomas Campbell, a ballad of doomed love and death by drowning on a stormy passage to ‘ Ulva’s isle’. The most romantic account of Hyde's visit to Ulva Island can be found in a letter to Mary Smee written a little later from Hyde's Wellington home. The time on Ulva blends into a general account of the week’s island highlights:

As for me for a week on my own little island of Ulva I lived on mussels and venison and had ambergris with my coffee. Both mussels and ambergris possess strong aphrodisiac properties. I am bringing a bit back to Auckland and might perhaps let you try it. How did I get to be on an island eating mussels? Ah, that is a long story: but I did, and picked wild yellow orchids with a scent like mist, and masses of white starry ake-ake smelling like ripe mango, and little spider orchids purple and green, with long groping feelers. Oh and tuis bloated to their very boots with fuschia honey tumbled out of wild trees and at night the kiwis marched screeching bold wickedness to one another. I speared flounder - crimson clots of gore on sand-coloured fish with a reproachful eye, and the devil of a long spear in my hand. And I polished red-fire paua and by lamplight let down my hair and coming back on the old Tamatea shared a rug with such a vast Maori woman, and here is the joke of it, she was ill and I wasn't. We swooped like a vast swing into the green, flowered and clotted with foam, and I laughed and she lay prostrate...She was such a darling with a soft voice and a little boy called Rex who liked me and we yelled 'There's a big 'un' every time she collapsed. (Challis 388)

Prominent amongst Hyde’s distillations of New Zealand are motifs that can be traced to her experience of Stewart Island and the keepsakes she found there. Hyde lovingly describes these keepsakes in the first of her Rakiura articles:

You may think I speak warmly. But you can't see spread out in front of me on this table my beautiful green and blue paua shell, my pieces of ambergris, my shell-fans, my Maori weather-glass, my wild yellow orchids from Ryan's creek, my white stars of ake-ake, which, hanging in masses of bloom over little rocky islands, smells like some queer tropical fruit, a cross between pineapple and mango. (‘Isle’ 27)

The weather-glass and the pieces of ambergris in particular were a source of fascination for Hyde. The properties of the weather-glass were revealed to her by Fred Traill, the authority on Stewart Island lore, and guide, philosopher and friend to visitors to the Island:

The weather-glass is a quaint bit of Maori land lore. Washed up on the beach, the huge leathery strands of bull-kelp are common-place enough, but only the initiated look for the places where the stem is swollen by an enclosed bubble of air. This is cut out, making a rather decorative little brown globe, whose merits, however, are not its looks. If your kelp weather-glass is full of air and resilient, fine weather is unfailingly ahead. If the ordinary barometer is dropping, and rain is near, the kelp feels spongy, and there is very little air in the bubble. I have tried my weather-glass in all weathers, and unlike normal humanity, it lies not. (29)

Of ambergris Hyde writes:

How many people know that ambergris of the value of many thousands of pounds has been found, and is still being found, on Stewart Island, which is the world's steadiest source of supply? A piece valued at over £10,000 was found by one man still living on the Island – and, depression or no depression, he has remained an ambergris hunter. Ambergris, valued as a perfume fixer, and used also in giving champagne its bouquet, is quite ordinary to look at – the best quality like a soft, greyish piece of stone, the worst black. It is only when you touch it that you discover it is plastic, and notice its odd pungence. Incidentally, ambergris is sold to the merchants of the East, as well as the perfumers of Paris, and Arab potentates put it in their coffee, under the impression that it is a very potent love-charm. (31)

In Hyde’s semi-autobiographical novel The GodwitsFly, these souvenirs from Rakiura, the ambergris and the weather-glass, symbolise that which is beautiful and that which is wise. Eliza Hannay observes that men mean everything to women, but women only figure in the lives of men as the providers of dinners and children. She thinks forward to old age and the keepsakes that are redolent of significance in their lives:

And for both, when they were old, there was the last sexless companionship, a possibility of being people instead of men and women. But for most, since they had got so thoroughly into the man-and-woman habit, existed only patience, a withdrawing into the frail, battered shell of the body. Little black people living in old, ramshackle huts, by the green edges of the imperious sea. One has a lump of ambergris on his mantelshelf, one has only a Maori weatherglass, the bubble of air cut out in its leathery case from the strands of bull kelp. A little beauty, a little wisdom. (141-42)

In Nor the Years Condemn, Hyde’s 1938 novel about Depression-time New Zealand, the healer Macnamara tells the nurse Bede Collins:

It’s a pity more people don’t visit Stewart Island. The ambergris is washed up in chunks there, on the western beaches, and you can hear the stags belling. That, as you say, is beside the point. This is the point. Ambergris isn’t used, as people imagine, for perfume. It’s used to fix perfumes. Once you use it to fix any old scent you like, you’ve got it for keeps, not for a few glorious hours. It’s a stabilizer. There are a good many stabilizers in the world. I, lady, aim to be one of them.’

‘Stabilize what?’

‘The scent of the people … the stench if you like to call it so. Tears, sweat, blood, silliness, accidental aspiration, the beginnings of honesty, the promises before they become piecrust.’ (234)

Ambergris occurs in a strange and luminous passage in Chapter 16 of Godwits which is titled Barbarian for Caesar’. The text is a stream of consciousness attributed to Timothy Cardew as he waits to board the boat for London and thinks of the relationship between himself, a New Zealander, and the Imperial power of Britain represented by the figure of Caesar. The motifs connected with Stewart Island in Hyde’s travel writing are representative here of essential, exotic, colonial outpost New Zealand and are fully possessed by the pakeha Timothy:

A barbarian I come to you, O Caesar, smelling of gorse and the rank fleece of sheep, able to tell you of a red-flowering tree in my own land, of winds stalking in the flax like the great lost bird, the moa, and of a green weapon-stone whose cold touch is more beautiful than the kiss of a woman. Like the plumes of black impis, the six-foot toi-toi feathers dip and skim beneath the wind. With my own hands I have rounded out the belly of a boat, clinker-built, and straightened her keel so that she rode like a tern on the waves. I have broken sharp oysters from the rocks, and burned strange woods in my campfire. Yet thin grass stooping among the starlight was more than all these. I have picked up ambergris washed from the mighty feeding-grounds of the sperm whale, south of Solander Islands, and found minute rubies in the far north; and I know the story of the lost cinnabar mine, and the sulphur islands where men are afraid. I have left the prints of my bare feet on a beach of glittering iron-sand. If I come before you now, Caesar, and roll these discoloured pearls out of the piece of beaten flax in which they are wrapped, will you not look up, satiate though you are? I have been afraid, and made others afraid, and I know the beach of azure blue shells. (181-82)

This passage in Godwits is patched into an otherwise realistic chapter. It is a narrative departure startling in effect and it is possible that it was inserted into the text as Hyde edited it on Stewart Island. From Woodsley House, Stewart Island, she wrote on 10 November 1936 to Downie Stewart that she was

well and safe and with a rather heavenly though very conceited bellbird ding- donging about a foot away after the Tamatea trip to Traill’s accommodation house. Will be here for one week, then come straight back to Dunedin or else do the Eglington Valley trip first, and so homewards. (Docherty 223)

She added: ‘Haven’t done any of my novel since I left Dunedin, but I have hopes for this week’. And then:

A million sandflies have bitten me while I write and a score of tuis have checked me. Goodbye now. If I ever do write a good novel I’ll dedicate it to you and your sister, as thanks for the lovely south.

The ‘lovely south’ is ultimate New Zealand and ultimate succour for Hyde, resonating in her writing as a counterpoint to her experiences in China in 1938. In the poem ‘Thirsty Land’, the speaker is situated in a China suffering from heat, drought and war, and takes comfort in her mind’s journey down the length of New Zealand, north to south, eventually travelling past Reefton and on to Rakiura:

Past Reefton, white in surf; Lyttelton lights,
Lake- locketed Manapouri, half untrod.
Past stars grown big as fists, through dangerous reefways
Sealers and men grown old in sailing teach.
(Wild fuschias’ falling crimson dyes the sands,
Ambergris rolls on Hellfire Beach).

Onward, to wash the southernmost reach.

Such I remember, in the thirsty land
Whose bones stare through her skin, pain from her soul;
Her wells dry, her unharvested grain stands pale …
The tides run up, they lap the southern Pole.
Blue-green that ice: and this land burning hot
With fevers. Withering hangs her misty glow.
Abundant wings are black about the breasts
Of dead I loved, and could not know.

Give me your cold: waves from my hands to flow –
In the hot deathly nights, you arm me so.   (Young Knowledge 354-55)

The lonely, rugged lee shore of Hellfire Beach got its name from the glare of whalers’ try-pots. It came to signify for Hyde a place from which the first narrative of European contact might be replayed if the Japanese advance into the Pacific were to reach New Zealand and the population take to the hills. On 16 January 1938, two days before leaving for England via China, she wrote to Eileen Duggan from her temporary quarters in the attic of the Grey Lodge, Auckland Mental Hospital:

I don’t want to be away from New Zealand for very long, I like it so that in the event of a Japanese invasion I’ve planned the populating of Hell Fire Beach and Devil’s Cave on the west of Stewart Island – You’d like them. (Docherty 326)

Hyde never did make a return visit to Rakiura but the people, the folklore, the birdsong, the flowers and the ambergris from the Isle of the Glowing Sky certainly remained with her. ‘I am going back’, she wrote in the closing lines of her second travel article,

perhaps to find a catseye at the Devil's Cave […]. Or perhaps another whale might come floating in from the feeding-ground of the great sperm-monsters, twelve miles south-west of the Solander Islands…and prove, on investigation, to contain in its disordered interior, a quantity of ambergris like that found by the whale chaser Campbell in 1912…

Or perhaps, on another visit, I might learn the full story of King Topi's greenstone mere, which one of his descendants, still living on the island, allowed me to see. But only to hear the birds sing as they do in the afternoons would be sufficient reason. (‘Birds’ 23)



Alison Hunt’s research is supported by a Bright Futures Top Achiever Doctoral Scholarship awarded by the Foundation for Science and Research Technology. Bronwyn Lloyd’s research is supported by a University of Auckland doctoral scholarship. Grateful thanks are due to Michele Leggott for her input to this essay.

Works cited

Campbell, Thomas. ‘Lord Ullin’s Daughter’. In Francis T Palgrave, ed. The Golden Treasury. 1875. 27 June 2006. <>

Challis, Derek and Gloria Rawlinson. The Book of Iris: A Life of Robin Hyde. Auckland: Auckland UP, 2002.

Docherty, Lisa. ‘“Do I Speak Well?”: A Selection of Letters by Robin Hyde 1927-1939.’ Ph.D. Thesis. Auckland University, 2000.

Gray, Theodore G. ‘Report on Mental Hospitals of the Dominion for 1929’. Appendices to the Journals of the House of Representatives 1930, H-7.

Hunt, Alison. ‘Lotus-eating in Avondale: Tennyson in Robin Hyde's Poetry and 1934 Autobiography’. Ka Mate Ka Ora 1 (Dec. 2005): 34-66. 27 June 2006. <>

Hyde, Robin. ‘The Birds of Rakiura: Titi, Kiwi and the Summer Bird’. New Zealand Railways Magazine Mar. 1937: 20, 21, 23.  

---. The Book of Nadath. Ed. Michele Leggott. Auckland: Auckland UP, 1999.

---. The Godwits Fly. 1938. Ed. Patrick Sandbrook. 3rd ed. Auckland: Auckland UP, 2001.

---. ‘Isle of the Glowing Sky: Stewart Island and a Glass Box’. New Zealand Railways Magazine Feb. 1937: 27, 29, 31, 34.

---. Nor   the Years Condemn. 1938. Dunedin: U of Otago P, 1995.

---. Wednesday's Children. London: Hurst and Blackett, 1937.

---. Young Knowledge: The Poems of Robin Hyde. Ed. Michele Leggott. Auckland: Auckland UP, 2003.

Leggott, Michele. ‘Robin Hyde: A Chronology.’ In Young Knowledge: 384-94.


1. See Hunt for a discussion of these allusions and connections.



Last updated 20 July, 2006