When Lou Sanson's distinguished public service career ends in 10 days, he would like to be in Hokitika, with his 90-year-old artist mother, Alison, where it all began.
In his eight years of running the Department of Conservation and 11 years before that running Antarctica New Zealand, Sanson has built a reputation for positive leadership.
He is so positive that he sees the silver lining in Covid.
"Covid has been good to us because we've just seen so many Kiwis just realise how special this place is," he tells the Weekend Herald.
"I just feel privileged to have worked hard for New Zealand every day and this great love affair that Kiwis have with our backcountry."
It has been a career that perfectly blended his mother's love of nature, the West Coast and Southern Alps and his father's fascination with the Antarctic.
"My mother grew up at Inchbonnie near Ōtira and she was an artist," he says.
"She used to go up hills and roar up stags and pull the fuchsia bark off trees and do paintings on them.
"From a very young age she took us up to Kelly's above Ōtira and taught us how to drink out of Mt Cook lily leaves and we panned for gold in rivers, white-baited, got us a rifle when we were 15.
"I couldn't have been blessed with more perfect parents," he says.
His father, who died in 2003, was an engineer and developed a love of the Antarctic after working there in 1964. Lou and the rest of the Sanson family would make contact with him once a month from the RNZ studios in Greymouth.
"I just followed the adventures that my parents had and I wouldn't be in this job if I wasn't a Coaster."
During his eight years at DoC, he has worked with many ministers, including Nick Smith, Maggie Barry, Eugenie Sage and Kiritapu Allan in Conservation, and Murray McCully and Winston Peters in his Antarctic role.
Sage, a Green Party minister from 2017 to 2020, says that before Sanson arrived at DoC in 2013, it was fairly demoralised after funding cuts, a restructure and significant job losses.
He had extraordinary people skills, she said, and in his time there he had broken down what she called "fortress DoC," strengthened relationship with iwi and hapū, the commercial sector, tourism and NGOs and had helped to mainstream conservation and appreciation of nature.
"He was an inspirational leader of the department because of his enthusiasm for conservation and because of his deep and extensive knowledge of the department's operations," she said.
Now aged 64, Sanson started as a 14-year-old, helping park rangers to cut tracks up the Copland Track. By the age of 17, he had walked every valley from Hokitika to Haast.
But he had some early knockbacks. He was turned down when he applied to become a park ranger and for a job in the Wildlife Service.
He joined the Forest Service, getting accepted into forestry school and specialising in mountain land management at the Forest Research Institute, and getting degrees at Canterbury and Lincoln.
He headed to Invercargill for one of those jobs that was meant to be six months but which turned out to be 22 years.
He was still down south in 1987 when the Department of Conservation was formed through an amalgamation of some services of the Forest Service, Lands and Survey and the Wildlife Service.
He was put in charge of the Subantarctic Islands and the Catlins, and then Fiordland and Stewart Island.
From 1996 to 2002 he was made Southland Conservator, like a district commander for DoC. It was an eventful 22 years.
He helped to set up the Rakiura National Park on Stewart Island, make the Subantarctic a World Heritage Area, get Campbell Island predator-free and started work on eight marine protected areas in Fiordland.
That set him up for his next move to head Antarctica New Zealand in Christchurch and then to the Department of Conservation in Wellington to head an organisation of 2000 people, managing eight million hectares - 30 per cent of the land area of New Zealand - 4.5 million hectares of public conservation waters and about 600 archaeological or historic sites.
"It all started out of growing up in Hoki and that deep love of the environment," he said.
"My whole life has been in nature; my whole career has been in nature and I've been able to balance my father's passion, 11 years running the Antarctic programme with my mother's passion for the mountains and the alpine flowers and the rivers of Te Wāhi Pounamu."
Sanson will move to Central Otago, do some voluntary work for Predator Free 5050, trapping possums, stoats and rats, and for the Backcountry Trust, painting huts, and hopes to also work as a consultant and in governance positions on boards.
He believes there will be a totally different approach to tourism post-Covid in line with the vision promoted by Tourism Minister Stuart Nash of moving up the value chain.
And along with the benefits of getting rid of predators, New Zealand would be a very select destination.
"With Predator Free New Zealand, we will be the Galapagos of the world in a hothouse world and one of the great nature destinations on the planet.
"There are only a few places like us that have got what we've got, like Iceland, like Patagonia, like Costa Rica.
"We've just got that magic and we've set aside 30 per cent of our country for nature and we're trying to do that in our marine environments.
"Then we've got this incredible resource of tracks and huts – 900 huts – and the Backcountry Trust, people out there every weekend restoring them with Dulux. We've just got this massive asset that is very, very special to the world."
Sanson also believes that New Zealand needs to start considering using genetic technologies to help in the fight against predators – and the rapid development of a Covid-19 vaccination could see the birth of a new age of integrated technologies – "a bit like the industrial revolution".
"We have been mapping the genome of the stoat. Stoats are public enemy No 1 in my view. I think we are going to need to think of those techniques," he says.
"We've got a massive challenge with climate change and we've got to think how we sequester carbon and how we get these breakthroughs, just like we've had this massive breakthrough on a vaccine for a virus.
Asked about his legacies, Sanson says he has "shifted the dial" to work on restoration of fresh water, not just on land; advocating for the eradication of wilding pine; and the use of 1080.
"If you assume your community is going to do things like Predator Free Waiheke and Predator Free Wellington and Predator Free Banks Peninsular, somebody has to look after that incredible backcountry of Kahurangi and South Westland and that's our role."
He said DoC was getting better and better at using lower doses but it was sometimes tough dealing with opponents.
"If you go to the 1080 sites, my name is "Loose-Nuts Lou" because I challenged them for loosening our [vehicle] wheel nuts."
But what really shifted the world was the prosecution and jailing of Taranaki man Gregory Buchanan in 2019 after threats to take down helicopters involved in 1080 drops.
"It's no longer acceptable in New Zealand to sit on a computer and send abuse or death threats to people working for the Department of Conservation."
Sanson says his proudest achievement as head of DoC was his focus on health and safety.
He had been with the organisation at the time of the Cave Creek tragedy in 1995, in which a shoddily built viewing platform claimed the lives of 13 Tai Poutini Polytech students and DoC officer Stephen O'Dea in Paparoa National Park.
He said the first thing he did when he was appointed Director-General was to visit Virginia and Harry Pawsey, who were the parents of Kit Pawsey, a student killed at Cave Creek, as representatives of other victims' families.
"I promised I would do everything in my power to ensure that safety sat at the heart of our culture and I feel I have done that.
"Sadly, I've had four people lose their lives while I've been in charge and I'll live with that for the rest of my life."
They were Stu Haslett in 2014, Calvin Lim in 2017, and Scott Theobald and Paul Hondelink in 2018 in a helicopter crash that also killed Nick Wallis, not with DoC but working with them on the fatal day.
"You go to those funerals, you meet the girlfriends, the partners and you think 'what could have I done that could have prevented this?' Those are always your biggest regrets," Sanson said.
But the safety culture in the organisation had genuinely changed after Cave Creek.
He believed that he was leaving DoC in better shape than when he took over.
"It's got the resources it needs to do the job and it's got the culture it needs to do the job."
Few would dispute that one of Sanson's legacies will be his work in strengthening partnerships, both with Māori and with the private sector, commercial and philanthropic.
He worked closely with former Treaty Negotiations Minister Chris Finlayson on the Ngāi Tūhoe settlement which disestablished the Urewera National Park and set up a legal entity Te Urewera, co-managed by Tūhoe and the Crown.
Finlayson said there had been some school of thought that treaty settlements were a threat to the DoC estate but that was not Sanson's view.
"It was 'how do we make these things work? We recognise how important whenua is to tangata whenua.'
"He got it," said Finlayson. "I found him a tremendous team player who understood the obligations to Māori were the obligations of the Crown, not of the Department of Conservation or other departments and it had to be a whole-of-Crown approach."
Sanson said that although five million New Zealanders owned national parks, they were ancestral lands "so in each one there is a long relationship back to iwi and hapū and whānau at place and I have deep respect for that".
"Nature is part of who we are and to be a New Zealander is a fundamental relationship with nature and when you put a te ao Māori lens over it, you bring that kinship-based relationship with the natural world environment.
"It is so powerful to who we are as New Zealanders and that combination of tino rangatiratanga and kāwanatanga."
The other partnerships Sanson has strengthened has been with the private sector.
He rattles off acknowledgements to businesses and philanthropists like an Oscar's speech: Meridian, Genesis, Air New Zealand, Fulton Hogan, Toyota, Neal and Annette Plowman, Julian Robertson, Sir Stephen Tindall and Gareth and Sam Morgan.
"I think there has been more than $70 million come from commercial partnerships, but equally from philanthropy and it really has been a very exciting part of the job to be involved with people who just want to put stuff back."
Some are helping to restore birdlife on Conservation land, some are helping with Predator Free, doing up huts, or helping with whale strandings.
Does he have a favourite place in New Zealand that he returns to, besides the Coast?
He and the family have been camping in a tent at Glendhu Bay near Wānaka for 20 years and from there he usually gets into Cascade Saddle.
"It is a hell of a walk in there but you get up there and you just think wow! Alpine flowers, kea, Mt Aspiring, the Dart Glacier, it's stunning.
"Lake Roe on the Dusky Track is another really, really favourite spot - just lakes and so isolated – and then the West Coast, just going behind Hokitika and up Mt Brown.
"I'm happy just in the hills, in a hut, and a sunset and kea around me, alpine flowers out. It makes my heart sing really."
Sanson was interviewed from his home, where he will remain throughout alert level 3.
He does not know exactly where he will be on Monday, September 13.
"Hopefully I'll get to Hokitika. I started in Hokitika. I want to finish in Hokitika because that is my tūrangawaewae and to be with my mum on my last day would be pretty special to me, my mum, my wife and my two daughters."