At age 80 and having competed in more than 25 national pipe band championships, Taradale piper Ian Lee will be making this week's big event in Hastings his last fling.
His retirement from competition with the Hawke's Bay Caledonian Pipe Band was confirmed to Hawke's Bay Today just two days before the annual national championships are held in the Bay for the first time in 19 years.
But he won't be giving up on his weekly nights with the band and supporting the competitions, saying: "It's what's kept me young. I love it."
On a scale of 1-5 for obsession it's right up there, and he says that when the band starts playing, in the street march through Napier on Friday afternoon, the public will be able to see why.
"There are so many young ones [the youngest in the band at the championships is 16], they are so good."
Besides, the band and its culture are in every respect "brilliant", he says – shining particularly since wife of nearly-55 years and great supporter Helen died 16 months ago.
"They've been wonderful."
The championships, hosted by the Piping and Drumming Academy of Hawke's Bay with the support of the HB Caledonian Pipe Band and Napier Pipe Band, open with the march starting at 3.15pm on Friday, in Dalton St. It will continue through Tennyson and Hastings streets, all closed to traffic during the event.
There are 35 bands. HB Caledonian in the first group off, with the only other Hawke's Bay band Lindisfarne College set to roll at 4.06pm. The Napier band does not compete.
The rest of the weekend will be full of sets and medleys at Mitre 10 Sports Park Hastings, which has some history to compare in its famed Highland Games, but now focused mainly on the pipes and national dancing.
It could have been McLean Park in Napier, where the championships last in Hawke's Bay were staged in 2002. The championships were once held in Hastings, in 1961.
The Caledonian Society held annual sports in Napier as long ago as 1887 and is closely linked to Hawke's Bay's biggest sports stadium through its vestment by Sir Donald McLean.
The stadium's development as a national and international rugby and cricket venue made it unsuitable for the pipe band championships, says drum sergeant David O'Hanlon, whose history is much shorter – the seven years since he came from Glasgow where he'd been in highland bands "all my life".
Lee's Caledonian link is through his grandparents, both Irish but his grandmother having Scottish parents.
He grew up in Gisborne, playing pipes for the national dancing competitions at the Poverty Bay show.
He came to Hawke's Bay during the 1966-1969 Ranfurly Shield rugby era, joining the City of Hastings Pipe Band (now the Caledonian band) and playing on McLean Park – not at halftime with the pipes but as halfback for Taradale at a time when he might have had a shot at rugby glory but for a lot of good other halfbacks, including shield stars Hepa Paewai and Aidan Thomas.
Working in the nursery industry and then 36 years in the vineyards and winery of winemaker Tom McDonald, he took a break from the band for some years and rejoined about 1985.
Jarrod Cawood, who works lives in Havelock North, comes from Rangitikei farm stock, and is the drum major, is effectively the "bossy bugger" who keeps the rhythm and other things going, most enthused by the camaraderie.
The band had to move its building some years ago to make way for Harvey Norman's arrival in Hastings, and in three weeks' time move again, from near the Hastings District Council building to The Farne, off Lyndhurst Rd.
Last year's event in Invercargill was cancelled due to Covid, and there were fears this year's would go the same way. The Royal New Zealand Pipe Bands Association made what Cawood calls the "D-day decision" to go ahead only last week.
The championships would not have gone ahead at level 2 because of limits on public gatherings and the 2m distancing requirement would have ruled out a street march.
"The streets are only so wide," Cawood said.
The band has close ties with Lindisfarne and the Napier Pipe Band, which has about four members of the HB Caledonia championships assembly of about 23–13 pipers and a drums and base section of about nine.
It is one of the larger bands in Grade 3, members owning their own pipes, which have ranged up to $12,000 for the more historic, but generally in the modern-new era up to $3000-$4000. The band owns the parade kit of kilts and sporrans, and the drums.
In a "normal" year, the band plays regularly at regional competitions leading up to the nationals.
Many, like Lee, practise regularly outside of the club nights, even daily, and, by the sound of it, with little or no disapproval from neighbours.
"They like it, they don't mind at all. Some even say open the doors and windows, so they can hear the music clearer."