Page 1: Biography
Björk, Carl Axel
Whaler, goldminer, character
This biography, written by Ian Dougherty, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998.
Carl Axel Björk was born in Hedvig Eleonora parish, Stockholm, Sweden, on 5 August 1880. His mother was a 29-year-old unmarried seamstress, Johanna Sofia Björk. The identity of his father was not recorded. When Carl was four years old his mother died and he spent the next 2½ years in an orphanage. He was then sent south to live with a foster family, that of farmer Sven Magnus Petersson in Thorhamn, Blekinge. Carl went to sea in sailing ships from an early age and had travelled extensively by the time he arrived in New Zealand in 1909 at the age of 29.
Björk worked as a whaler based at Stewart Island, before settling at Preservation Inlet, Fiordland, in 1925. He spent more than quarter of a century in the remote fiord, initially living at Diggers Creek while working as a roadman on the three-mile supply track from the boat-landing sheds to the Puysegur Point lighthouse. He then moved to Te Oneroa to scratch out a living as a goldminer. After 10 years Björk was said to have made enough money to pay for his passage home to Sweden, but was robbed in Wellington and returned to Te Oneroa to continue panning for gold.
Carl Björk was known by many names. Carl became Yullus, Yules and Jules; Björk became Björg, Borg and Berg. Most of his acquaintances eventually settled on Jules Berg. He also acquired the nickname of the Hermit of Preservation Inlet, but he was no recluse. A small man with a big heart, he would welcome grateful fishing-boat crews, lighthouse keepers and other visitors.
Vegetables and venison were the standard fare. The giant-sized vegetables grew in a manure of rotten fish and seaweed. The venison came from wild deer that raided his extensive garden. The ingenious Björk had various deerstalking methods, which included hanging from a tree a bunch of tasty native mistletoe connected by a cord to an empty tin inside his hut. As soon as the tin rattled he would move quickly to a hole in the wall, where an old car lamp and a .303 rifle were already aimed for action, day or night.
Some of the garden vegetables were destined for Björk’s bush winery. Carrot, parsnip and beetroot wines were the house specialities. He made about 300 gallons of wine a year and production was usually a year ahead of consumption. Each caller was expected to sign the visitors’ book, which the Swede was unable to read, and then sample the potent liquor.
Björk was fond of story-telling and dressing up, usually as a cowboy, complete with two large six-shooter pistols slung from his hips, or as a policeman. The stories included one about the time he saw three (supposedly extinct) moa during an overland trip north to Milford Sound.
The main room of the rough hut Björk had built from abandoned materials had a sloping floor. Consequently, a couple of buckets of water sloshed along the high side kept it clean. Fiordland’s notorious sandflies were kept at bay with mixtures of rancid butter and kerosene or grease and Jeyes Fluid cleaning solution, dobs of which he kept under the brim of his hat and periodically rubbed on his exposed face.
The lifelong bachelor apparently had planned his own death: he would get drunk on parsnip wine, sprinkle kerosene around the hut, sit back and throw a match. His end was much more conventional. In increasing ill health, he was taken around the coast to Riverton, where he lived in a small cottage for a few months. He died in Riverton Hospital on 17 September 1952.
Carl Björk was a lovable character who was renowned for his hospitality and admired and respected for his ability to survive alone for extended periods in a harsh environment. During his lifetime he became a local folk hero. Stories about his exploits continued to be related in Southland long after his death.