Pioneering saga of early Otago horse whisperer author’s dream come true

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Margaret Mills
Author Margaret Mills ... "characterises in real life some of the grit and joyous energy displayed by Kitty." Image: David Robie /APR

Asia Pacific Report

For Margaret Mills, adventurer, environmental campaigner, activist poet and Greenpeace stalwart, it was a lifetime dream coming true at 91.

When she opened her parcel from the mail at her hilltop Waiheke island home just over a week ago, out popped advance copies of her maiden book, The Nine Lives of Kitty K. – the saga of a horse whisperer and her happiness and tragedies in the early settler days of outback Otago.

This was a wonderful Christmas present after a five-year labour of love. Writing the book took 14 months and then a further four years to get it published.

But she really dreamed about writing the book many years ago and when she finally had a chance to write it, she did so with tremendous enthusiasm and persistence.

“An extraordinary New Zealand debut historical novel … celebrating an unsung heroine of the Goldfields,” says her publicist Karen McKenzie.

In fact, most of the book is a true story, with only the early parts in Ireland being a reconstruction.

“Set in a turbulent period of goldfields’ history, The Nine Lives of Kitty K. paints a vivid picture of pioneer life as told by the sons and daughters of those who lived it and survived the terrible Depression of the 1890s,” says McKenzie.

‘Toughest woman in Otago history’
“Kitty Kirk (1855–1930), arguably the toughest woman in Otago history, endured those times, supporting herself as a woman alone.”

Former Pacific Media Centre director David Robie says the book tells a story of Kitty’s life at the tail end of the goldrush that “provides a glimpse of the harshness of life in early settler times – especially for women”.

He adds: “The author, Margaret Mills, herself an outback adventurer with a green heart, characterises in real life some of the grit and joyous energy displayed by Kitty.”

Mills is a much liked character on Waiheke island who had a role on the Greenpeace flagship Rainbow Warrior when it was bombed in Auckland on 10 July 1985 with the death of photographer Fernando Pereira.

She asked to be relief cook for a month when the campaign vessel arrived in New Zealand after a humanitarian voyage rescuing Rongelap islanders from the ravages of a US nuclear testing legacy in the Marshall Islands.

Mills had only been on board three days when French secret agents bombed the ship.

“I heard the captain say, ‘Oh Margaret, are you still here? We’ve been bombed!’ and I laughed. Well I mean, would you think of being bombed here? No,” she told Newshub in 2015.

After the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior Mills continued to work on Greenpeace ships.

Her friendships with crew members changed her life.

Her Kitty K. book will go on sale in mid-February and she hopes to have two launches – one on Waiheke and the other in Queenstown where “people will really care about this story of early hardships”.

  • The Nine Lives of Kitty K.: The Unsung Heroine of the Goldfields, by Margaret Mills (Mary Egan Publishing, February, NZ$34.95)
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