Davey Gunn 'the man, made of horseshoe nails and whipcord.’
Davey Gunn, born in 1887 in Station Peak, Waimate, was a Scottish bushman who left an indelible mark on the history of New Zealand. As young man he moved to Sutton and established himself as a farmer before buying property in the Hollyford Valley and marrying Ethel May Willetts, with whom he had three children.
Gunn grew his farm, first buying out his partner before going on to acquire four leases totaling more than 25,000 acres in the Hollyford Valley. Gunn moved to the valley and established his base at Deadman's Hut on the banks of the Hollyford River. His Hollyford run was mainly heavy bush country, and his sole income came from the annual sale of cattle at Invercargill, which entailed a cattle drive of 175 miles that took four months.
Despite being faced with deer infestation and difficult conditions, Gunn became a superb bushman, cutting tracks to give access to river flats and building a chain of huts. Stories about him are legendary one time when he was chasing steer through dense bush and tore his thigh and scrotum on a jagged branch, without flinching he stitched up the gash with a darning needle and some old fishing gut, from that on he was as 'the man-made of horseshoe nails and whipcord.’ He was also known for his frugality, and often referred to the Hollyford as "The Land of Doing Without." Although he was not a businessman by nature, he persevered through his challenging living conditions and the impact of the Great Depression.
In 1936, a Fox Moth cabin plane crashed into the sea at Big Bay, injuring the pilot and five passengers, one of whom died soon afterward. Gunn was present at the time and made a remarkable journey for help. He traveled from Martins Bay to Marian Corner in 21 hours, a journey that normally took four days. A plaque at Marian Corner commemorates the event, and Gunn was awarded King George VI's Coronation Medal in 1937.
In 1936, Gunn began guiding parties through the Hollyford and continued doing so for nearly 20 years, later employing guides to assist him. He was respected for his bushcraft, his energy, and his knowledge of the area. Friendly and hospitable by nature, and possessing considerable personal charm, Gunn became a well-known and popular figure. He communicated his own enthusiasm to a generation of trampers, and during his 25-year tenure of the Hollyford and Lake McKerrow district, he opened up the area with tracks and accommodation huts.
In 1950, Gunn was badly injured when he slipped over a bluff, and from that time, he began to age noticeably. On Christmas Day 1955, he drowned in the Hollyford River near Hidden Falls with a 12-year-old boy mounted behind him when his horse stumbled and fell. His body was never found. He was survived by his wife, Ethel, and their children.
Davey crossing the Hollyford river.
Davey Gunn was a remarkable man who left a lasting impact on New Zealand's history. His legacy as a skilled bushman and guide lives on, and his remarkable journey for help after the 1936 plane crash is a testament to his perseverance and dedication. His life story is an inspiration to anyone who values hard work, self-reliance, and a love for the great outdoors. A memorial cairn near the junction of the Pyke and Hollyford rivers bears an inscription that concludes, "All who passed this way knew him as 'Davey, the Tramper's Friend.'"