Caveman Phil Wood

Equally at home amongst shirts and socks or bones and rocks

First Published North and South Magazine

At 82, Phil Wood - retailer of practical menswear, veteran scout master and passionate speleologist - is still crawling around on his hands and knees.

Wood’s shop is located at 190 Palmerston Street, Westport. His business card reads, “Phil Wood - out on his own in menswear”. The shelves and hangers are crammed with T-shirts and tracksuits and bush shirts and boxer shorts and hats and coats and socks and souvenirs. And at the rear of the store a glass display unit twinkles with gold coloured trinkets, silver cigarette lighters and game cards.

Probably not much has changed since the ‘60s. The store could sit comfortably alongside a stall in a bustling Moroccan market. It’s a recipe that clearly works. Wood has been doing the same thing in the same shop in the same spot for over 65 years.

This octogenarian has lived his whole life in Westport. Tall and slender, with a full head of grey and a beard some shades paler, his eyebrows snap to attention when talking about things speleological.

A speleologist studies caves and other karst features: their history, structure and physical properties as well as their life form. Wood’s interest in speleology was piqued in 1947 when he took a group of scouts on a caving adventure at Oparara. (He was a scout master for 47 years and received a silver tiki for his long and distinguished service.)

He points past T-shirts and track pants to a photo on the rear wall of the shop. It’s a younger Wood - bearing up under the weight of an eagle with enormous wingspan and fierce gaze - which he is retuning unflinchingly.

“That,” he says, a smile creeping into his voice, “is a Harpagornis Moorei. New Zealand’s only eagle. And I discovered her in a cave back in the late ‘70’s. Along with three other eagle skeletons.”

Also known as Haast’s eagle, the Harpagornis Moorei is the largest eagle known to man. It became extinct around 1400 when its food source, the moa, was hunted out of existence by Maori. It had a wingspan of up to 3 metres, weighed 10 to 13 kilograms and could motor through the South Island bush at 80 kilometres per hour.

The eagle gripping Wood’s arm has found a permanent perch in Te Papa.

“I found 52 different species of bird bones in that cave, including moa. I gave it the name Honeycomb Hill Cave because it’s filled with tunnels like a beehive.” Since Wood’s discovery, 14 kilometres of passages have been mapped and several important moa bones have been discovered there.

A certificate pronouncing “Phil Wood - Honorary member of the NZ Speleological Society, 2006” hangs in the corridor at the back of the shop.

A further photo in Woods’ store shows him standing next to a man wearing a beanie - Jacques Cousteau. In 1996, Cousteau, around 80 at the time, was in New Zealand filming the “Discovering New Zealand” series. Cousteau paid Wood a visit to quiz him about another of his finds - a baleen whale fossil.

Wood is still clambering down ladders into the earth’s bowels and crawling around in the dark.

“I’ve just done a survey of a sea cave at Cape Foulwind. It’s that sense of discovery. It doesn’t happen all the time but when it does…”