Editor-at-large Shayne Currie is on a two-week road trip, to gauge the mood of the nation and meet everyday and notable Kiwis making a difference in their communities and wider world. Today we also catch up with Simplicity founder and managing director Sam Stubbs for Nine Questions With... and Wellington senior reporter Georgina Campbell meets a young couple who have set up a Cuba St hotspot.
John Bougen describes it as the last true small town in New Zealand.
And in the heart of the South Island’s West Coast, the former high-flying businessman - transplanted from Auckland almost a decade ago - has been at the centre of a remarkable story that has seen the town revitalised.
Bougen gave up a life as a globe-trotting traveller - he once set a world record by visiting 191 countries in 150 days - and took his business acumen in 2015 to Reefton, 80km northeast of Greymouth and with a population today of just under 900 people.
Since then, he has helped lead the transformation of the town, giving it a literal facelift that honoured its rich, gold-mining heritage and turning it into a vibrant hub for locals and tourists.
One of New Zealand’s most successful businessmen - Bougen established Dress Smart and the Auckland Memorial Gardens - he has now firmly embraced a new life in the town, which was established in the 1870s off the back of the discovery of quartz gold reefs.
In 1888, it was the first town in the Southern Hemisphere to be lit by electricity - to this day, Reefton is known as the Town of Light.
Bougen has led the refurbishment of around 45 buildings. That includes the overhaul of the town’s old school buildings that he bought for $179,000 - they were refurbished as four luxury apartments a year ago.
At Christmas, he will be moving into his own new home - an old state mine workshop he has painstakingly transformed into a New York-style loft. It was the reason he moved to Reefton in the first place.
Elsewhere, the town is gleaming, with restored historic buildings and a range of curiosity shops. As the Herald stopped for breakfast on Saturday morning, the local, famous tearooms were already doing a roaring trade with visitors and locals alike.
Bougen has described Reefton as the last true town of New Zealand.
“There’s been a group formed to market the whole of Buller, not just various parts of it,” he tells the Herald.
“And I had to defend that statement quite vigorously for about five minutes, but in the end, there were nods around the table.
“I’ve travelled so much. I think it’s part of the reason I fell in love with Reefton; because it is as a town used to be.
“In reality, it’s small enough that you know pretty much everyone, and it’s big enough that you’ve got all the services you need.
“And it’s safe, it’s got good education, it’s got sufficient medical facilities. You’re just a very short drive - in West Coast terms - to an international airport or anything else.
“So on that basis, what more could you want?”
Perhaps weary of the West Coast’s reputation for rain, he says - “please record this” - it essentially does not rain in Reefton between January and April, with temperatures over 30C in January and February. “We’re like Provence; we’re cold in winter and hot as heck in summer.”
Reefton’s revival is also due to the renewed work of three firms planning to mine for gold in the area. Several hundred new workers will be in the town over the next few years.
In a town that’s already been battling an accommodation shortage, Bougen estimates another 40-50 houses will be needed, partly the reason he set up another business - flat-pack houses.
He has also rebuilt the old jail, constructed in 1873, to help house some of the workers.
He has a team of 10 people helping him on his projects - including a roofer, builders, a plumber and other tradespeople.
He says all of his work in Reefton has felt like a “happy accident, or happy coincidence”.
“We do have quite a large part to play in the accommodation, hotel or food side of town. Everything I’ve been involved in... felt right at the time.”
He puts Reefton’s revival down to many people who had worked hard for decades to create a smouldering fire. Eight years ago, petrol was thrown on it.
“It’s not just me, but there are others who came in on the back of the flames erupting, and when you walk down the main street now, it does feel pretty good.”
Shayne Currie is travelling the country on the Herald’s Great New Zealand Road Trip. Read the full series here.
Bougen says he loves ripping through old buildings and “finding out what makes them tick”.
“Every time we buy one, we say, ‘Right, we can sort this out in two seconds’. Well, it takes that two seconds to realise that actually there’s months of work in it, but that’s kind of fun.
“We’ve done it all properly. We’ve had about 23 building permits, so that gives the scale of the work we’ve been doing, from complete restoration to new builds like at the back of Super Value.
“The intention has always been to work on our own buildings - don’t ask me how many we’ve got, because I’d have to spend a bit of time thinking about it.
“But there are quite a few. To own a building is one thing, but to have it so that it’s in good condition for tenants or living in is another. It’s fair to say, not a lot of maintenance has been done on most of our buildings in some decades. Or, in one case, at all - over 120 years.”
Day seven - Nelson to Wellington
The Great New Zealand Road Trip reached the North Island on Sunday night, after moving through the heart of wine country - Marlborough - on Sunday afternoon.
In Blenheim, we met Sydney tourist Lyndal Roots, who was checking out the shops in town. She was about to head back to the bus to return to Christchurch, and then back home on Wednesday. She had loved her time in Blenheim, finding the locals and town laid-back.
Her word for the mood board summed up the day: relaxing.