Michele Hewitson interview: Davey Hughes

By Michele Hewitson

NZ's wild man of ... er ... Wainuiomata shares his experiences of big game hunting and killer pomegranates

Next week, Prime begins screening Kiwi adventurer Davey Hughes' series about living on the wild side. Photo / Richard Robinson
Next week, Prime begins screening Kiwi adventurer Davey Hughes' series about living on the wild side. Photo / Richard Robinson

Are you a hugging person?, asked Davey Hughes, the adventurer who claims to be a feral wild man, and who is also known as "Swazi Man", after his outdoor clothing company. He looks the part.

He was wearing a battered hat, (he has two; one brown, the other white), an angel's wing earring (not a real angel's wing, obviously and he pretends it's an eagle's feather) and a pendant made from a grizzly bear's tooth (very real; he shot the bear.) He has long blond hair and a beard.

The day I met him he had a red "racing stripe" in his hair. Sometimes he has blue, or purple. He is 53, so his hair might not be naturally blonde and it isn't. He gets the tips, and the racing stripes, done at the hairdressers, in Levin. The hairdresser is Chinese and doesn't speak English, so he just points. I suppose they're used to him, at that hairdressing salon in Levin.

I thought he must be quite vain about his hair but he said:" No! I'm not. My hair is a statement of just laziness, to tell you the truth. Growing my hair long, growing a beard ...

I can't be stuffed shaving every day and I grew my hair long, and I always have done, because I live my life at 100 miles an hour. So if my hair's not going straight back, I'm not going fast enough — I need to speed up. Christ almighty, I'm halfway through this life and I've only done a quarter of the things that I want to do."

The hair will be going at 100 miles an hour in his latest venture, which of course involves adventures: Davey Hughes, Untamed, which begins screening on Prime, on Sundays at 2pm, from April 6. Untamed, which is also the name of his book, is really just a chance for him to go travelling around the world, killing things. No, not really, or not just — things are killed, from time to time, but he says it is really about "story-telling".

The story-telling may from time to time involve a few tall yarns, and more than a few practical jokes. My favourite involves the one where he is tempted by wild pomegranates, in Africa. This is a spoiler but as it's in his book and is a good yarn, here it is.

He eats a few pomegranates and his mate Richard eats some and then the government game scout turns up, sees what they're up to, turns ashen and tells them that the fruit is used by poachers to conceal poison to entice elephants. Much induced vomiting ensues before the joke is revealed. What we don't get to see, he said, was Richard "dying", and him doing CPR and everyone crying and him thinking: "I'm next." Gotcha!

His mantra, and he recites it every morning, is: "It's a good day to die." He insists he really believes this and that it means that if it isn't a good day to die then: "You're not living life the way you should be." A truck roared past on the road outside and he said: "If I walked out there — I'm not going to do it - but if I got killed by that truck, I'd die with a smile on my face. Screaming! Ha, ha, ha!"

He didn't, I said, look very happy to be dying, after eating those pomegranates. "What better place to die than in the African bush where it all started?" He looked pretty crook about the idea to me. "You're trying to save yourself, but I wasn't upset I was dying. It's quite a cool feeling to think you're dying because all your thoughts become pure."

Well, if he says so, and he does. We had a lot of the sorts of enjoyable arguments that went round and round and ended up with both of us talking nonsense. We had an entirely mad spat over why it was okay for him to shoot a zebra and not a giraffe. He said: "I've heard they're not all that tasty." What's the difference then? "Well, zebras do taste really good." He had brought me a copy of his book, in part because he thought I might enjoy the recipe for zebra liver with a sauce of rum or whisky, bacon and "cheap Australian red wine — there is no point wasting good Kiwi wine on this recipe". I still didn't know why it was okay to shoot a zebra and not a giraffe. "I guess it's the same as when people choose a dog. I mean, what's the difference between a schnauzer and a great Dane?" You're not choosing a dog to eat it! I spluttered.

I should have seen one of his terrible jokes coming. I didn't. So I said: What a silly analogy. "It's not. Because a schnauzer you could put in a microwave. But a great Dane?"

I am not, by the way, to say he kills things — he hunts them. "You have to understand hunters. Some people hunt to kill and some people kill to hunt, you have to decide which. I don't hunt to kill."

I had thought it would be a funny idea to take him to a vegan cafe where I could ask him about killing, oops, hunting things. I also thought it might appeal to his sense of humour. "It does. I ate a blueberry muffin once." He does eat vegetables, as long as they're wrapped in bacon: "It's hard on peas."

The joke turned out to be on me because the vegan cafe is my local and here I am sitting across from a man wearing cowboy boots who is saying, and not in a whisper: "I wouldn't eat a horse. I have eaten horse, in Belgium. But I didn't find it all that good, you know?"

He was a possum trapper and before that briefly worked in advertising. That seems an odd transition but he is a restless and impetuous person. He once read a book about advertising and so decided to give it a go. He went possum trapping because, like many country kids, he read Barry Crump.

He went into the outdoor clothing business because his wife had the idea and employed him. He claims she still pays him 50 bucks a week. They employ 55 people and used to employ 80 but they lost the NZ Army contract when it went to China. He says the business would be more successful if they too contracted the work out to China but he believes in creating work for the provinces. "We can't all be brain surgeons or computer analysts or," he said, looking at me in the way I fancy he looks through the sight on one of his guns, "journalists".

Davey Hughes' mantra is 'It's a good day to die.' Photo / Richard Robinson
Davey Hughes' mantra is 'It's a good day to die.' Photo / Richard Robinson

I was safe enough (for now) being inedible. His main argument for hunting things is — beyond his "spiritual connection" one, which is something to do with coming from Vikings, I think — that he likes to eat wild meat. He likes to travel and taste different wild things in the way, he said, other people like to travel and try different wines. He could buy meat, obviously, but to say so invites derision. "Oh, yeah, there's no processed meat, is there?" There are very good specialist meat shops. "Somebody's killed it, haven't they?"

Yes, but he doesn't have to. I was being thick. He does have to, because he wants to eat wild meat. So you can see what I mean by arguments that went around in circles. "I like stuff that is wild." Yes, but why does he? "Because I'm wild myself!" Oh, he is not. He's a successful businessman. "No, I'm not. I'm feral."

He lives in a lovely little old cottage, in a place with no name, underneath the Tararua Ranges, on a hill overlooking a meadow where the deer come to graze. And, kaboom? "No, I don't shoot them." Why not? "Because I love seeing the deer. You see, I have a spiritual connection to the animals. I still haven't answered that one, have I?"

He lives on his own, having quite recently separated from his wife of 25 years, Margaret. They have three children, now grown up, and the business belongs to them both, so their lives are still much entwined.

He is very sad about the end of the marriage, although it was his decision to leave. But he is happier on his own; he has always been good at being on his own. He loved possum trapping, in the bush, alone for months, for that reason. When I was asking about his marriage, he had the look of a man who fervently wished he was back in the bush at this very moment.

I was trying to imagine what form his bachelor interior decorating skills took. Of course he has the head of a Cape buffalo on his living room wall. Does it look at him? "Yeah. Buffalo look at you as though you owe them money. Ha, ha, ha. They just have such an air of arrogance to them, of superiority and they are as stroppy as. They just want to rip another backside." Where did he get it? "In the shoulder."

He is a romantic who writes poetry. There is some in his book — alongside his recipes for zebra liver and possum stew and tips on how to skin a mountain lion and a pictorial tour of his gun safe. I read a stanza aloud: "Ottered inlets and meadowed bears/Booming loons voice upon unlearned ears/Mother Nature's breasts lay snow-laden high/Ere you glimpse through a grey drizzled sky."

He said: "Do you know what a loon is?" He did an impersonation of a loon's call. "Which is where," he said, "I think the term loony comes from."

He said, a bit later: "Do you believe in reincarnation?" I'd been asking about his grizzly bear pendant (and getting told off for calling it a necklace.) Because, honestly, why shoot a bear? "Because he was going to bite my arse!" He shouldn't have been annoying him by being in his space. "Why not? It's my space. I'm from the wilderness." He is not. He's from Wainuiomata (which is where, had he ever have grown up, and he says he hasn't, he'd have grown up.) "That is the wilderness." Which is how we ended up with reincarnation.

He said he believed in it and he used to be a wolf. You did have to ask: How did he know? "Because of the way my hackles rise. And, like a wolf, I have an extra vertebrae. Feel that." Like a fool, I did. He lunged at me, snarling like a wolf, then laughing like a loon. What a savage beast of a man he is. He said: "I didn't bite you!" Then, contritely: "I hope I didn't frighten you. It was just a joke."

Now, would I like that hug? Not likely. He's too ferocious. Not really. That was just a joke. And to pay him back for his joke, I'm afraid I'm going to have to put paid to his reputation as a feral wild man. Despite all of his going about the planet popping innocent animals, he still manages to be an absolute poppet.

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_n2 at 18 Sep 2014 23:10:22 Processing Time: 559ms