‘Solitude’ – a tale of 40 years spent hidden

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by Greta Yeoman

In 1913, Annie Fox entered the remote mountains of Kahurangi National Park to live a hidden life with her lover, Henry Chaffey.

More than a century later, the story of the Timaru-born woman’s 40 years’ living in exile in the Nelson bush will come to the stage of Geraldine next month, with support from Arts on Tour.

The couple’s story of love, loneliness and loss is recounted in Solitude: a solo stage production by Nelson-based performer and drama teacher Martine Baanvinger, who performs the show accompanied by a soundtrack composed by New Zealand musician Mark Manson.

Baanvinger first became interested in the story after visiting Asbestos Cottage north of Nelson, where the couple lived in seclusion for 40 years.

Annie Best was born in Timaru in July 1877 and went on to marry Peter Valentine Fox, a butcher and cook, in 1896.

The couple had two children but it was reportedly an abusive marriage, one which eventually prompted Mrs Fox to leave to follow Mr Chaffey into the wilderness of the Kahurangi National Park in 1913.

Mr Chaffey, who was born in England in 1868 but later immigrated to Timaru, had married in 1903 but following his divorce in 1908, shifted to the mountains of remote northwest Nelson to search for minerals.

Asbestos Cottage. PHOTO: DOC

Mrs Fox joined him four years later, leaving behind two teenage sons in South Canterbury.

While Mr Chaffey was in regular contact with the outside world through his work in mining ventures, Mrs Fox only ventured outside the Cobb Valley once in 40 years – for a trip to Nelson Hospital.

Following Mr Fox’s death in 1932, some 20 years after the couple first entered the remote bush area, the Chaffeys were married by two ministers who travelled into the wilderness to conduct the ceremony.

The couple reportedly became legendary figures to the trampers, geologists, packmen, hunters and miners who encountered them in the mountains north of Nelson.

Baanvinger’s performance of her show at the Nelson Fringe Festival in 2017 prompted her nomination for Best Actress, Best Solo Performance and Best Script awards, while the production won the Best Music/Sound award.

She is set to perform Solitude across New Zealand next month, supported by Arts on Tour.

Her sole South Canterbury performance will be at the Lodge Theatre in Geraldine on August 23.

Tickets can be purchased from Louk Clothing on Talbot St, Geraldine.