Each week, Elisabeth Easther gets the story of people in the Kiwi tourism industry. Today, she talks to Craig Rutland, proprietor of Last Light Lodge and Cafe, Tuatapere, Southland.
My uncle and aunt owned the Colville General Store in the Coromandel, we'd take the winding coast road, which was gravel a lot of the way. The shop had wooden floors, a big U-shaped counter and two cranky old petrol pumps out front, it was very 1950s. There were 44-gallon drums outside and we'd go through those and take the empty bottles to the shop to get change to buy candy. If we weren't at the beach, eating pipi fritters or playing with my cousins, my older brother and I used to go off into the bush catching freshwater crays, exploring and chasing wild goats. We'd pack a sandwich and not come back till dinner.
After marriage, kids, divorce and cooking for many years, I packed up and left for a working holiday to Australia and got a temp position at the Grand Hotel in Lorne. They wouldn't take staff in the hotel, so I ended up at the backpackers thinking I'd just stay a night but it was wonderful. I loved the people, the atmosphere, there were smart and intelligent travellers of mixed ages; it wasn't what I'd expected at all and in a matter of weeks I'd met lots of people I've stayed friends with. And this sparked a dream, to one day run my own backpackers.
Because I married young and had three children, my focus was looking after them and I didn't have time for me and after the separation, it opened up a whole new element of growth for me, to go travelling and to realise I love tourists.
From Melbourne, I bought a round-the-world ticket. I ended up in a village in Thailand and I was the first white man to stay there. I couldn't speak Thai and they couldn't speak English and I loved every second. They were so warm and hospitable. The food was strange and the environment was strange but I thought it was paradise and they all wanted to leave.
Then I went to China where there were so many wonderful food experiences. I went through Guangzhou, Yunnan and into the Sichuan, which was much more sparsely populated than you'd expect China to be. Tiger Leaping Gorge was a wonderful experience, staying and eating with the mountain people who open their homes up as little cafes.
I went cycling with a lady called Lee Fang in a place called Yangshuo, where the mountains are like camel humps and there were water buffalo ploughing at the edge of the roads. She told me what life was like for her in the communist era. She left school at 7, because she had to cut firewood on the steep volcanic rocks with a little saw, to get enough wood for her family to cook food. In China, you could eat turtle, dog, rat and snake, but they cost a fortune and I just ate poor-man stuff. One time I took a bus from Yunnan to the Sichuan - I always took local transport, where some guy jumps on the bus with piglets in a sack - and we stopped at this awful diner, where the buffet was laid out in plastic bowls. I dished my meal up and paid for it - when I realised it was all guts and anuses.
Returning to New Zealand, I went to Timaru where I started the Off The Rail Cafe, and it was a great success but when someone wanted to buy it for a good price, I let it go. I didn't have the money to go further North. Using Trade Me, I looked all over the South Island when I saw this place in Tuatapere, five acres, 1500 sq metres of buildings and even though I didn't know where Tuatapere was, long story short, I bought it. This started me on the road to having my own backpackers lodge and there was enough space for guest rooms, gardens, camping grounds, the restaurant and a home.
My partner is French, she took a year off to come to New Zealand and she came to Tuatapere to stay for a week. I must have been doing something right, she's been here ever since.
When people come to Tuatapere, they're surprised how quiet it is, although there's lots to do here. What can you do? You can visit Gemstone Beach, the rock pools at Cosy Nook or the Clifden Caves, collect mussels from the Waik or walk the Hump Ridge Track - there are walking tracks everywhere - or just sit by our fire. For me it takes me back to Colville in the '70s, remote and beautiful.