Life at the end of the Coast

Haast Primary School student Lily Kain (9) shot her first deer when she was 7.
Haast Primary School student Lily Kain (9) shot her first deer when she was 7.
Collyer House Bed & Breakfast owner Neroli Nolan remembers growing up on horseback.  Her great...
Collyer House Bed & Breakfast owner Neroli Nolan remembers growing up on horseback. Her great-grandparents only stayed in Haast because they could not afford to leave.
The entire roll bar one at Haast Primary School.
The entire roll bar one at Haast Primary School.
The Arawhata River carves through Haast’s landscape on the West Coast.
The Arawhata River carves through Haast’s landscape on the West Coast.

Life is different when the nearest supermarket is two hours away and the nearest hospital four hours. New Zealand Herald reporter Sarah Harris and photographer Jason Oxenham visited Haast to meet some of its characters.

Of the 240 people who call Haast home there’s one policeman, 13 pupils at the only school, one electrician, who is trying to retire, and no plumber. If one comes to town, residents chase him down the road.

There’s also no doctor — one comes once a fortnight. If there’s a medical emergency a helicopter can land on the school field.

A drive to the closest supermarket takes two hours  and the nearest hospital, in Greymouth, is a four-hour drive or 90-minute flight.

It’s a small, but spread out community, with five rivers that carve through the town, dividing small settlements with big bridges.

It’s a town where you can still buy a slice of land for $60,000 and a bach is advertised with a photo of a bucket full of small white fish — a prize for the thousands of keen whitebaiters who flock to the town for the 10-week season.

Residents have only landlines — there’s no cellphone reception. So they are relaxed about when you turn up, and having someone drop in unannounced is not unusual.

Lily Kain's purple trainers match her glasses with flowers printed on the temples.

The 9-year-old with a long blonde ponytail loves reading, diving in the pond after school and watching warbling tui flit into the forest. She’s also a keen hunter.

She has proudly shot three deer. She’s not strong enough to lift her .22 rifle so she props it up on the stick her dad made to shoot. When her new scope arrived in the mail, she announced it at the school’s show and tell.

"I was 7 years old when I shot my first deer,’’ Lily tells the Herald.

"It had white fur. It was my most amazing moment. But I hope I don’t have to learn to gut them."

Lily has an affinity with animals. Her pet possum, Honey, would sit on her shoulder before he was released and she recently rescued a pukeko chick.

Lily attends the local school with her 12 classmates.

Haast Primary School principal Michelle Green also teaches the school’s 13 pupils.
Haast Primary School principal Michelle Green also teaches the school’s 13 pupils.
Most isolated school in NZ

Haast has the most isolated school on the mainland of New Zealand, with an isolation index score of 7.26. Schools with a calculated index of 1.65 or greater receive extra funding.

It is 220km from the nearest population centre of 5000 (Queenstown) and 392km from the nearest population centres over 20,000 and 100,000 (both Dunedin).

The Haast Primary School’s total funding is tight at $70,000 a year, excluding the principal’s and part-time teacher’s salary. But you can’t buy the magic of hearing waves crashing on the beach from the playground.

Principal Michelle Green is the first to admit children who grow up in the tiny town are different.

"Their lives are more relaxed and richer in some ways. They don’t get taken to activities after school. They make their own fun. They operate like a big family because they’ve been together so long. And there are no pretences, they come to school in gumboots.

"They relate to the land, animals and environment much better than children in a city."

When Ms Green was hired last year the budget was running into the red. To cut costs, she started using the classroom log burners instead of the heaters. Now the children light the fire every cold morning, using wood the caretaker has chopped.

Ms Green has also become a lot better at "DIY" since moving to Haast, as professional tradesmen can be as rare as hens’ teeth — and expensive.

Residents have to foot the bill for four hours of driving and mileage for any plumbers coming into town from Wanaka, which means most jobs cost hundreds of dollars.

When Ms Green saw a van with a "plumber" sign on it early last year, she followed it down the road and convinced the plumber to fix a leak at the school house where she lives.

Another leak sprang recently and it cost $700 to get a plumber over from Wanaka to fix it.

"There’s not many places like this left, unspoilt," she says.

Neroli Nolan is from one of the four founding families of Haast.

In 1874, her ancestors moored in Jackson  Bay with "virtually nothing" and were given 10 acres for their troubles. But promises about fertile soil the consistency of chocolate cake gave way to thick clay and hard work.

They had to do five days’ public work and then got two days to start clearing and building on the land. Sap from the flax was used to keep the bloodthirsty sand flies at bay. They used ash to solidify their dirt floors.

She tells people the only jobs she hasn’t tried are nursing and prostitution. She has been a meat inspector, police officer and quarantine officer in the past.

The bed and breakfast owner feels lucky to have grown up in Haast. As a 2-year-old she would lead Clydesdale horses around the farm all day.

But life was hard in the early days. Nolan’s great-grandparents stayed only because they couldn’t afford to leave. Jackson Bay, at the far end of Haast, was the original settlement and the residents were penned in there by the raging Arawhata River before bridges were built in the 1940s.

When someone died, they had to carry them over the hill to the cemetery in the bush.

To get away from the infertile land, Nolan’s ancestors built a boat to get their children to  Okuru. The boat tipped on the bar as they were about to land and all the children fell into the sea.

With initial settlements near Jackson Bay, the town spread out in the 1960s. The town centre moved to Hannah’s Clearing, to house workers at the sawmill. Settlements then popped up where roading camps started to build the Haast Pass road into the town.

The result today, is about seven settlements spread over 50km but no real "town centre". There’s no hub to Haast.

St John first responder and local businessman Blair Farmer’s advice is to ‘‘never ever’’ make...
St John first responder and local businessman Blair Farmer’s advice is to ‘‘never ever’’ make enemies in Haast — you don’t know when you’ll need the help of others.
‘Never, ever make enemies’

Blair Farmer, a local St John volunteer, moved to Haast from West Otago for a "half sharp" tourism opportunity in 2001. He and his wife Jen intended to stay for three years, but now find themselves ingrained in the community.

"The longer you stay in this place the better it becomes while the rest of the world goes mad. We’re insulated from reality."

His only piece of advice is to "never, ever make enemies", as you don’t know when you’ll need the help of others.

He learnt his lesson six years ago, when a "weather bomb" hit him and his friend, hunting on a jet-boat on Lake Paringa. The lake rose 2m and the creek turned into a river. The men had lost their GPS and the compass wouldn’t work that close to the boat’s engine.

Two men he hadn’t been particularly friendly with, found them.

"We had to drive blind until lightning flashed and highlighted the hills. Then stop in the ink black darkness until the lightning started up again.

"These wonderful two Haast residents turned up at 1am with jet skis, sleeping bags and hot milo. It was just amazing.

"It’s a very tight community."

All that is left of businessman Geoff Robson’s multimillion-dollar shed is chipped concrete and...
All that is left of businessman Geoff Robson’s multimillion-dollar shed is chipped concrete and charred poles.
Support after business destroyed

Businessman Geoff Robson experienced community support first hand when his shed burst into flames in September.

A Hughes 500 helicopter, 18,000 litres of shark oil worth $250,000 and destined to be used for lipstick, a tractor and an entire engineering workshop full of expensive machinery were destroyed in the "multimillion-dollar fire".

"It took out the whole  business. There was 30 years worth of work there. Now it’s gone.

"I’m 68 years old and I’ve got to start again. It’s a wee bit disheartening. I certainly didn’t want to rebuild at this stage of life."

By the time a fire crew arrived from its Haast base, about 50km to the north, the workshop-hangar had been totally devastated. Mr Robson said a faulty panel heater had been the cause and the models had since been recalled.

Since then, locals have been checking in on him, bringing food and offering him a helping hand should he need it.

Mr Robson has insurance and plans to be up and running again in six months.

"That’s the good thing about a small community. They get behind you when you’re in trouble."

Police Constable Paul Gurney, of Haast, says he is living the ‘‘policing dream’’.
Police Constable Paul Gurney, of Haast, says he is living the ‘‘policing dream’’.
A bit of "local justice" goes on

On Constable Paul Gurney’s wall is a huge map plotted with every serious crash he’s had to attend. A dot for a crash, a circled dot for a fatal and a dot with four blobs for a deer.

It helps him find the problem spots on the road.

Const Gurney has been the local area sole-charge cop for just over two years, after postings in Franz Josef and the Chatham Islands.

"The lifestyle grows on you. In two years I’ve only been to six domestics, two fatals. It’s pretty good, I’m living a policing dream."

But when it’s bad, backup is hours away. Three months after he started his new job, Const Gurney had to call on locals for help when an angry man almost walloped him with a headstone.

Const Gurney knew the man was aggressive when he was called out to a domestic violence incident. The offender had bought his own headstone. When Const Gurney approached him he raced to the police car and smashed it up with his makeshift weapon. He swung the stone at Const Gurney but missed; then he used it as a shield to bounce the Taser off.

A local who knew the man joined Const Gurney to help calm the man down; he ended up putting the handcuffs on him after Const Gurney successfully tasered him.

"That was a bit of a nasty one. Domestic violence blows up pretty quick, emotions are at a high. He lost, I won. It was a scary time.

"It was the first tasering in Haast and, hopefully, the last one. He went to prison."

Haast residents are a resourceful lot and sometimes a bit of "local justice" goes on, Const Gurney said. You might see someone with a black eye then later hear they stole something.

The toughest part is balancing the job with making, and keeping friends, in the community you have to live in. Const Gurney admits he might be termed a "soft cop",  compared with city police. But he takes an extremely hard line on drink-driving — there are no warnings.

The worst is when there’s a fatal incident involving a local.

"A lot of cops can’t handle the intimacy with the locals. They’d rather be anonymous. When something goes wrong it’s a big mental hit because you know them. It’s a friend."

"It’s a rat race compared to how it was"

In Haast people rattle off their responsibilities like shopping lists and Kerry Eggeling has one of the longest.

He spent 21 years on the council, has farmed sheep, cows, and deer, is a helicopter pilot, chief of the local fire brigade, was a professional deer hunter and fisherman and set up an odd jobs company to take on peculiar projects, such as replacing rotten timber on the Percy Burn bridge, the largest wooden structure in the southern hemisphere.

Everything about him is rough and ready, like his baritone boom of a voice and calloused seaman’s hands.

He wears a stopwatch around his neck like a school PE teacher because anything on his wrist gets mangled and his fluoro orange socks peep out above black gumboots.

He describes his house as "a working house, not a showpiece". Deer antlers hang from the rafters, the walls are coated in a scale of letters, cards, and funny quotes and a box of broken crayfish antennae lies outside.

Mr Eggeling was one of the first to shoot deer hanging out of a helicopter in the venison recovery heydays of the 1960s and ’70s. He was called "the gutter", as he’d hop out, slit the deer open and scoop all their entrails out before dragging them into piles. The money he earned built the house he and his wife "the dragon" (Fay), now live in.

These days, aged 70, he’s still on the fire brigade, manages his valuable crayfishing quota and sits on the committee for his area’s Rock Lobster Industry Council.

There’s no practical job he can’t find a solution to and has done it all while raising four children with Fay.

The couple got together after Mr Eggeling, who was 18 at the time, hit on 13-year-old Fay when she was waiting tables at his brother’s wedding. Fay moved to Haast when they got married five years later and settled in easily being a "country girl" from the West Coast.

But their life was tough. They had to rise at the crack of dawn every morning to go crayfishing. They’d leave notes for their four sons, aged 5 to 9, listing what chores needed to be done and prompts to get ready for school. By 10.30am they’d get back to start work on their farm of 250 cows and 500 sheep.

"We worked 18 hours a day, every day," Mr Eggeling said.

"We worked our butts off and we struggled and struggled. We were hand-to-mouth. Everything we earned went back into the farm."

It was only when Mr Eggeling sold a big chunk of his 6000ha farm and fishing quota in the 1990s that the family were able to get a bit of breathing room.But it hasn’t been all smooth sailing since then, either. One of the Eggelings’ sons drowned 17 years ago, trying to get over the bar to go crayfishing in bad weather.

"We all warned him not to go. You couldn’t tell him."

Mr Eggeling is nostalgic about the past. He felt people from outside Haast who had been buying land had brought their "away ideas" with them, prompting more rules and regulations.He grumbled about the level of resource consents and occupational health and safety regulations he now has to abide by.

"It just creates work for shiny asses [public servants] in Wellington.

"If we wanted to shoot a deer in the paddock, we could do it. Now, when I went to sight my rifle, a guy was going to call the armed offenders squad. It’s  sad.

"It was a lot nicer growing up. Everyone knew everyone. We knew the sound of their trucks. Now, you don’t know who’s on the road. It’s a rat race compared to how it was."

NZ Herald, NZME

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