David Fisher

David Fisher is a senior reporter for the NZ Herald.

Greatest NZ Stories: Tanks for a great 50th

David Fisher and photographer Mark Mitchell travelled the country looking for the greatest Kiwi yarns. Follow their journey in this series.

Today a goldminer's son tells of the lengths he went to for a $130,000 gift.

Day 21: Ross

Evan Birchfield had long been fascinated by tanks.

So when it came to his 50th birthday, there was only one present that would do.

As it turned out, buying one was the easy bit. The hard bit was sneaking the behemoth into the tiny West Coast town of Ross, where the Birchfield family runs a gold mine.

"There was a bit of stress involved," says Andrew, one of Evan and wife Jane's three sons. He had been searching the world for a Centurion tank. "That was all he used to talk about."

It's quite a gift. Weighing in at 52 tonnes, the tank was first seen in Europe in 1945, arriving a month after hostilities ended. It was England's answer to Germany's much-feared Tiger tank.

Andrew's online search was so fervent that at one stage the US Department of Defence emailed questioning his interest. "They were telling me to stop."

He didn't, and tracked down a Centurion for sale in Australia.

"We flew over there and bought it," he says. Tanks, by the way, cost about $130,000. Deal done, he turned for the airport. "That's when the headaches started."

Andrew had missed the plane. Normally, that's bother enough. But it becomes even more so when your Dad is the boss, a hard taskmaster, and you've bunked off work to buy him a birthday present in another country.

He rang Evan and lied about where he was, saying he was in Christchurch with a broken-down car, and slipped back to work on the next flight.

Then the tank got sent to the wrong port, turning up in Auckland instead of Nelson. Somebody told the television networks a tank was being imported and soon enough a journalist was on the case.

"We were trying to keep everything quiet," says Andrew, but the journalist had tracked down the business somehow. They were dancing around the office, trying to stop Evan, now 61, from answering the phone.

"A couple of times I said to Mum, 'Let's just tell him'. It'd be far less stressful especially when that TV crew started calling."

They managed to throw the media off the scent and get the tank on another ship, this time bound for Nelson, where an alert inspector noticed mud on the underside.

Andrew bunked off work again. "It was hard getting the time off," he recalls. He went up to Nelson, washed the tank and got it on a transporter down to Stillwater, from where it would be smuggled into Ross.

Jane recalls being worried it would be spotted. "They said, 'Don't worry. We'll stick a cover over it and no one will know what it is'."

So there it sat in a yard in Stillwater, under cover with a bloody great turret sticking out the front. "Well, you couldn't miss what it was," says Jane.

Evan, by now, had heard a whisper and the West Coast well knew he was keen on a tank. As Andrew says, "On the West Coast, you only need to fart and everybody knows."

Jane: "People were ringing him and asking, 'Have you got a tank coming into town?'." Early on, she'd dashed his hopes. "If you think you're getting a tank, I want an apartment on the Gold Coast."

It was such a flat response that, when he rang the transporter driver, he happily accepted the explanation the tank was there for some blackpowder gun club event.

They got the tank down to Cemetery Hill, just north of Ross, before off-loading it. Import regulations meant it wasn't allowed into New Zealand with fuel, so there was a bit of a panic finding more when it spluttered, choked and died out in the open.

Evan reckons he "nearly drove over it" that night, but they had his brother lined up to get him into the pub at the time it was delivered. By the time he did go that way, the tank was stashed in a neighbour's haybarn.

It's never simple, keeping a surprise present under wraps. Evan was up the next day with a bulldozer - he's been driving heavy machinery since age 9 - and heading over to the neighbour's place to do some work.

There were tank treads all over the place, so before Evan got there, the neighbour was in his own tractor driving up and down across the property trying to disguise the tracks. "I've got a new dozer," he tells Evan, which was a terrible excuse really.

Then they panicked, because the work Evan was going to do had him driving back and forth in front of the haybarn where the tank was stashed. So, a friend was recruited as a diversion and put in the cab with Evan. Every time their path went near the doors, the friend struck up a conversation with all the usual shouting and hollering that goes on in a bulldozer.

"We tried to keep it quiet but it was pretty hard to hide," says Jane.

But they did. And then came the birthday.

They were out the back of Birchfields Ross Mining, the expansive base of the gold-mining business, when a red car came belting up the road, hell-for-leather. It swung into the business, sliding to a halt and disgorging a cluster of armed men, all dressed like were in the Special Air Service or some special forces unit. "They came flying in there and started firing," says Evan.

Then came the tank.

It clattered along the road, apparently chasing the SAS guys, who turned their fire on the tank, like they were fighting for their lives. The tank, impregnable, turned into the yard, bore down on the birthday celebrations and rolled straight over the top of the red car.

Andrew says: "We could only run over half of the car because the guy who owned it wanted the engine."

Out popped the opposing force, dressed in a West Coasters' view of what terrorists might wear in 2002, the year after the World Trade Centre attacks. Broadly speaking, it's Middle Eastern.

"I was an Arab," says Andrew. "I was driving it. I got shot."

The SAS team conquered the tank. Evan said: "Then the SAS guys dragged all the Arabs out." The "terrorists" were held at gunpoint and many photographs were taken.

As for the car, the attempt to save the engine didn't work out so well. "It ended up getting smashed up later in the night after a few cordials," says Andrew.

Evan had a good night. "Understandably," he says, "I never went to bed."

Jane did, but woke about 4am. She says she looked out the window, next to where the party was being held, and saw Evan standing there, just staring at the tank. She watched for some time, initially thinking he was alone, then noticed a few other people still up. She watched and he didn't move, just stood there and stared at his tank.

Then, at first light, she was woken again when Evan started up the tank.

"Here we go," she thought. And off he went.

And for a few years, that was the pattern. He doesn't drive over cars anymore: "I got one stuck in the tread and it dug up under the mudguard."

There had been other lessons too. "I went through a house one day. I didn't realise it would break so much stuff off."

Eventually, there were repairs needed. "I went over to Aussie to get some parts for the one I had," says Evan.

The man with the parts said: "Have a look in the shed." And there was a tank. "It's for sale, too," said the man.

Evan wrung out his words with a fair dose of exasperation.

"Hell, don't tell me that," he said.

So that's two tanks. "That's our anti-aircraft gun in the shed there," he says, driving past a chunk of weaponry mounted on the back of a flatbed truck. "That's in case we get a tank coming at us from the air."

Evan was born in Grey Valley, where his dad had a contracting business. Evan started young, helping out with his father's business. The old Bedford truck: he can remember barely being able to touch the pedals.

The work just "dried up overnight" in the 1980s, he says. That was when they moved to Ross and began goldmining. There's a lot of regulation to work through. You ask him about tanks, and he says: "I drove a bulldozer for years and I always thought dealing with some of these public officials, a tank might be more useful."

There were a few people mining at the time and enough work for everyone. It created a collegial environment, he says, in which knowledge and innovation was shared.

The Birchfield business is alluvial mining, using water to separate gold from soil - a sort of massive gold-panning operation. He's aware it's not a universally popular way to make a living. "There's a segment of the community who really hate us with a vengeance."

The company started small but now employs 35 people. The business is a large part of Ross, with many employees able to buy houses in the town. They get well paid, says Evan.

"I can spend millions of dollars on machines but if I don't have good people on them I might as well not bother."

The goldmining business is all-consuming. "You can't have a hobby. If I had a boat or set of golf clubs I'd never use it."

If anything, Evan's hobby is mischief. One day he decided he'd like a dragon. "So we built one," he says. He waves a hand past the workshops and sheds to the back of the yard. "That's its head over there."

Sure enough, it's a dragon and a decent size. Amazing what a man with inclination, and a workshop for heavy machinery, can accomplish.

They call it the Ross Ness Monster and it made its debut when Evan and Jane's son Paul went fishing.

They knew where and when he would be casting a line. The dragon was submerged in the lake, with air canisters on remote control.

Once Paul was settled in, they activated the gas canisters and up floated the dragon, its head quietly breaking the surface just next to the small rowboat.

Paul pretty much flew for the shore. Evan cracks up, his arms are moving at a blur, miming a freaked-out Paul rowing so fast he's flying through the air. "He's in the middle of the air, rowing for the shore."

That was when the tank emerged through the undergrowth. A huge BOOM roared out as pyrotechnics in the barrel ignited, and then there was a BAM as a matching charge went off in the dragon's head.

Oh yes, says Evan: "It's good to have a second childhood."

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