Tsunami anniversary: A Kiwi on chaos island helps rebuild

By Catherine Masters

When the terrible extent of the Boxing Day tsunami became clear, Nate Macmillan knew he could help.

The Paraparaumu 42-year-old had the kind of skills tailormade for the aftermath of a disaster - he could drive a digger, was handy with a chainsaw, and he could rebuild.

So the divorced jack of all trades bought a ticket to Bangkok and went to the worst hit areas of Thailand.

In January, word of mouth led him to Phi Phi Island and, apart from one trip home, he's been on the island ever since.

"I just arrived and there was a metre and a half of shit still in the streets. So I just got a wheelbarrow and, with everybody else, we humped shit for a couple of months to clear all the streets."

The following months were quite a ride for the tall, tattooed New Zealander who found disaster does not always bring out the best in people - and he became a key character among the volunteers running the chaos-wracked island.

He joined the volunteer organisation Hi Phi Phi. It received some international aid but the volunteers also came up with novel, even macabre, ways of raising money for locals who had lost everything.

They sold T-shirts and other materials found in the clear-up.

"We set up a shop and we'd wash the clothes and sell them to the tourists.

"We opened up heaps and heaps of businesses, just giving the locals enough money for massage beds or fridges, or whatever they needed to get them started.

"We were basically running the island, because the Government said the island was shut, like it was a no-go zone."

The volunteers were welcomed by the Thai people, but not by the officials on the mainland.

"To start with we were threatened with expulsion and imprisonment, officials saying the volunteers were not supposed to be working here.

"It was just really politics back then. I don't really want to say much about the Government, it just stirs it up again. But they were trying to do a big land grab and grab the big business district for a big luxury hotel."

The presence of volunteers rebuilding has made it hard for them to do so, he says.

"They threatened to come in with diggers to pull down houses built in the wrong spot, but it hasn't happened.

"Everybody's just building, everybody's just carrying on. That's just Thailand, they do these big threats - no this and no that - but people just do it."

It wasn't always easy for other reasons too. Among the scores of good people who came to help, some were intoxicated by a strange kind of disaster fever.

In the early days Macmillan says there was a lot of violence on the island, not locals but tourists getting drunk and aggressive.

They would get so drunk they would bottle each other, he says.

He remembers having to tie a Canadian to a bed so they could stitch his head up after a fight. "It just seemed to attract nutters and we had lots of situations where these idiots would come and cause grief."

They ranged from the improbable to the absolutely bizarre.

"We had one guy commit suicide, or try to, and he left a note so we looked for him for two hours thinking he was hanging from a tree. Then we got a phone call and he was jumping on a plane in Bangkok. He'd done it three times around the world.

"We had this other guy, Captain Bananas he called himself, and he tried to start selling weapons.

"He was American, he was an ex-Vietnam vet, he was a crazy guy. He ended up saying he was going to come back and kill me ... there were death threats. It was just really crazy in those days."

Macmillan found himself acting as a policeman, getting troublemakers off the island as quickly as possible.

"It was so frustrating. We had enough bloody dramas going on with all the death and these idiots just come here to try to make more grief."

Every couple of weeks something strange would have to be dealt with.

Once a tourist went to a nearby bay on a long-tail boat with his family and early one evening Macmillan received a telephone call asking him to help.

The man had fought with his family, refused to get back in the boat and had decided to swim back.

"There are sharks out here so we had to get the police and drag this guy in the boat and get him off the island as well."

The rest of the time was rewarding, although sometimes disturbing.

Macmillan remembers a dive crew pulling a whole skeleton out of a bay, but usually it was thigh bones or other body parts they would come across.

Along the way Macmillan has bonded with Phi Phi Island and its people.

He is here for the tsunami anniversary on Boxing Day but has to go home for an operation and to earn some money - volunteers are unpaid.

Then he hopes to come back and see if he can make a living.

In the meantime, he will take home memories of an international brigade of rebuilders, most of whom were good people.

"There were just so many volunteers and they were all willing to just go hard and do it for nothing. It was really cool. A lot of them just fell in love and stayed here. It's just a special place."

He knows the island will be a different place when he returns.

In the earlier months it was quiet, just volunteers and locals, but it is changing fast.

"It's getting really busy now, with bulk tourists and they're just here to lie in the sun and get fat - which is all good.

"The Thai people have to get back on track with their businesses."

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