Our People: Diddy's a natural-born hunter-gatherer

By Jill Nicholas

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THE GIRLS: Diddy Rice with the cows he keeps on his property. PHOTO/STEPHEN PARKER
THE GIRLS: Diddy Rice with the cows he keeps on his property. PHOTO/STEPHEN PARKER

CHARACTERS such as Diddy Rice are the very reason Our People exists.

For starters there's that Diddy name. For anyone who insists on being formal his given Christian names are Albert Matua, some do call him Alby but they're a rarity.

Diddy's been 'Diddy' or 'Dids' since his 1927 birth; it's the derivative of the 'diddums' his dad insisted on calling him.

Wow, Diddy's 89? Unbelievable.

Credit his maternal Rika genes for his youthful looks and take on life. When Our People profiled his Aunty Miri Groves (nee Rika, November 11, 2014) she was 98 and remains active. Then we trumpeted her mind-blowing number of nieces and nephews. Diddy's the oldest and by his reckoning his 'cuzzie' tally's 67.

His seniority makes him their kaumatua (spokesman/elder), the kaitiaki (guardian) of the whanau's Whittaker Rd land; ironically he's as European as he is Maori.

It's a heritage as fascinating as this man who's feasted on life to its marrow. Diddy's been a mechanic and rabbiter; a 'pylon monkey', driven school buses and logging trucks, spent 14 years as a probation officer and, as a Justice of the Peace, has presided over traffic court.

For years he had his own company supplying chook farmers with mill shavings.

This guy's biographical backstory's just begun. A natural-born hunter-gatherer, he's a fisherman, pig hunter, deer stalker, an ace with a game-bird gun.

To that little lot add horseman. Until recently he ran the plush Treetops Lodge's trekking venture. He'd still be at it if an Achilles tendon he 'buggered' playing tennis hadn't said 'enough's enough'.

The Achilles might have had enough on-the-hoof action, Diddy hasn't. There's an additional twinkle in those sparkling eyes of his as he tells us he's gone into "dairy conversion". Translation: He's using his urban acreage to graze the "girls" he's replaced his horses with. He hand-milks them, supplying whanau and friends; home-churned butter's become his latest speciality subject.

It figures that Diddy's a rugby fanatic but the 1981 Springbok tour placed him and wife Norma on the protesters' side of the barbed wire barricades in Hamilton and Auckland.

"We were totally against apartheid, marching in the streets with all these pro-tour people jeering, the police were charging with their batons, I was a policeman's son, we had a daughter in the force then.

"Our son-in-law said 'those bastards wrecked the game'. I said I was in the middle of the pitch when it was called off, he wouldn't talk to us."

As president of Putaruru's Marist club the Rice family became the town's public enemy number one.

"People we knew well became vigilantes, congregating outside our place. I said 'it's my choice to protest, your choice to burn our house down'."

Norma riles at the memory of the 'rude' words detractors scrawled on their windscreen "but they did come to know the implications of apartheid".

Norma's been 'Mrs Diddy' 63 years. A teacher, she was selling educational books in Hamilton when they met.

"It was at a Christmas Eve party at Olympic rower Jim Hill's, Did was strumming a guitar, he had this fetching little Zorro moustache."

Diddy insists they chatted each other up; they married in Westport, Norma's home town. The location made her groom a happy man.

"It's where the pubs are open day and night ... my father's best man was my best man."

The couple were living in Putaruru when an ad for a probation officer in Tokoroa caught Diddy's eye.

"I'd always wanted to do something like that, I loved that job but after 14 years I had to foreclose on it, the stress got to me."

Ear-wigging into a sotto-voiced exchange with Norma we pick up the words 'kangaroo court' and pounce - good sort Diddy spills the beans.

"There were a lot of my probationers out on the dams, in the mills, when something went wrong I'd set up a little court session, decided whether to fine them, get them sacked, threaten jail, it was swift and summary."

Did his bosses sanction justice the Diddy Rice way? "Hell, no, they were a bunch of wimps."

His reputation remained untarnished, he was appointed a JP.

"I got to sit in the traffic court, had to fine my mates."

Judges were also mates. Diddy's tale of his first meeting with the late Evan Tuckwell out-Crumps any Barry Crump yarn.

"I was in my bush gear tying my dogs up at the back of the Tokoroa court when the new judge drove up and wanted to know who I was, what I was doing. I said I was the probation officer, that I liked to go hunting before court. He said 'you're the sort of guy I want to meet', we became great friends ... my first big speech was at Tuckie's funeral."

Post-probation Diddy opened RM Rice Contractors, that's where the chook farm shavings come in. The company was sold when he inherited the Rika kaitiaki role from his mother, Amelia, in 1998.

As chairman of the Acclimatisation Society's Putaruru sub-branch Diddy was introduced to Treetops owner John Sax.

"I helped him plant out hundreds of rhododendrons and natives; over a beer I said: 'John, you need activities here.' He said 'good idea, you do it', that's how the trekking started."

We take him backwards to his 'pylon monkey' days, it's a term that stumped us.

"I got the contract to erect pylons from the new Mangakino dam to Turangi, employed a gang of Tainui [Waikato] boys, they had to be fearless, we were like monkeys swinging from those wires. I made a lot of money but gambled it all away at cards, two-up, when we got married I still owed some guy 60."

Atta boy, Diddy, spoken like the dinkum Kiwi joker that you are.

- Rotorua Daily Post

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