Whaka penny diver's biggest bounty was marriage to Maoridom's first Miss New Zealand

We catch John Waaka copping a bit of a growling.

It's from a real estate personage and, light as she keeps her tone, she does convey that eating rotten corn in his kitchen's a turn-off for possible house purchasers of the Pakeha kind. They don't understand, she scolds.

Anyone who's ever smelt rotten corn understands, it smells like, well, rotten corn and John Waaka's a connoisseur.

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He would be, wouldn't he? He's Whakarewarewa born and bred, a village where rotten corn's a universal delicacy, so there to picky Pakeha.

Our People wasn't intentionally ear-wigging on his ticking off, John had his mobile's speaker on and he was responding with that cheeky "Maori dude" giggle that has us speculating that perhaps it was John Waaka who was Billy T James' role model for that classic chortle of his.

As for the rotten corn, John's unrepentant; the possible lost sale? No worries, another buyer has come along, a non-Pakeha, so now he can "sling the mattress in the back of the van" and take his long-planned road trip through the country he's driven tourists around for a good slice of his working life.

Tourism's embedded in his bloodline. He's the son of Kuru Waaka, founding director of the Maori Arts and Crafts Institute (now Te Puia) and was a Whaka penny diver from the second he was old enough to jump into the Puarenga Stream to stuff his mouth with coins tossed from the village bridge.

"We grew up running around the tourists' feet, diving, collecting their entry money for the village families, some of that would manage to come our way; these were nice little earners for us kids."

John's had a few 'nice little earners' in his time but claims his biggest and best bounty was one money couldn't buy, marriage to his wife of 50 years, former district councillor, the late Maureen Waaka (nee Kingi).

He proposed the night before she left for London to represent New Zealand at the 1962 Miss World pageant, the first Maori to do so.

"I knew she was a celebrity but she'd always been my beauty queen. I chased her until she caught me . . . I took her for this moonlit dinner, popped the question, she hummed and harred, eventually said 'yes, but don't say anything until I get back'. Then what does she do? She goes and blabs about us in London."

 The late Maureen Waaka (nee Kingi). Photo/File
The late Maureen Waaka (nee Kingi). Photo/File

Maureen was still at school when the pair met at the St Faith's Youth Club.

"She fell in love with my motorbike . . . she was 21 when we got engaged, me 23. When we told our fathers they said if our's had been an arranged marriage like the old days they'd have matched us."

Our laugh-a-minute conversation comes to a sombre halt with John's revelation Maureen suffered the stroke that claimed her life the day after their golden wedding anniversary, June 15, 2013. John misses her "big time".

To cheer us both up we rewind to his pre-marriage days, starting with why, at 14, he was told he was wasting his time at the then Rotorua High School.

He blames the school for consigning him to Form 3C.

"I hadn't been too bad at Whaka [school], not the brightest, not the worst, but the first day at high school they called out my name for 3C, I knew I was better than that, felt short-changed, lost interest."

His dad used his connections to have his son enrolled at Hodderville, the Salvation Army's training farm near Putaruru.

Two years on John became a rural cadet on Gore's outskirts, but homesickness kicked in.

He was found a job at Fletcher's Ngongotaha mill "but I was always late for work, the boss said 'boy, look for a job nearer Whaka".

That job was in the neighbouring FRI's seed nursery.

"They were on the lookout for people to collect pinecone seeds in the forest, I put my hand up, ended up at Wairapakau near Kaingaroa."

Along came another nice little earner. "Working in pairs we were clearing £30 a week at the time the going rate for most people was £12."

Work at a Wairoa sheep station followed. "Then I got thrown off this horse, broke my bloody back, ended up coming home on a stretcher. The doc said I wouldn't have lasting damage."

He hasn't and, once recovered, turned to delivering soft drinks and tanker driving.

"Next I got this job with the Ministry of Ag [MAF] doing disease control for brucellosis and TB. In 10 years we'd cleaned it all up - worked ourselves out of a job."

John being John the work brought a lucrative sideline; trapping possums for survey purposes was part of his job description, only a few were needed but the area was riddled with them.

"We could lay a line, get 100 a night, easy."

John 'happened to know a fella out Western Heights way' willing to take the extras off his hands for 75 cents a body.

"We'd be handed cash in an envelope by his wife who actually worked for IRD."

That Billy T laugh erupts again.

"At Christmas we invited the MAF big-wigs to a party, put on plenty of kai and booze. They had a wonderful time, no one thought to ask where the money came from."

When he became 'surplus to MAF's requirements' he turned to tour bus driving.

"I'd got my passenger licence before I delivered soft drinks but Road Services wouldn't take me on because of my back injury. A lot of guys had a scheme going playing on crook backs for payouts."

Attitudes changed, John drove tour buses until shortly before Maureen's death, moving on to tour vans, principally for cruise boat passengers. He hung up his keys in April to plan his own road trip.

There's a whopping great chapter of John Waaka's life we've left unexplored, it's the decades he spent at the forefront of hotel hangi and concert parties. He and Maureen led the Rotorua International Entertainers seemingly forever, a time which generated a host of requests to perform overseas.

"I've always said if you can poke out your tongue you can see the world."

JOHN WAAKA:
Born: Rotorua, 1940.
Education: Horohoro and Whaka primaries, Rotorua High, Hodderville Training Farm.
Family: Widower, one son, five daughters. Mokopuna? "Heck, ask me an easy one."
Interests: Whanau, people, Maori music "I want to set up an archiving office." Cooking (his brawn's legendary). "My mother taught me." Fishing, involvement in numerous trusts.
On tourism today: "It hasn't really changed, just become more sophisticated."
Personal philosophy: "Live life."