Elisabeth Easther talks to the proprietor of Tophouse Historic Inn, St Arnaud, Nelson.

I've always liked people, I enjoy meeting them and talking to them. So it can be annoying when you do travel and people are all yammering away on their phones.

I'm from Rangitikei originally, born in 1954, so my memories of the '50s are a dim vision from the cot. I remember in the '60s, living in the countryside and doing things like eeling, climbing trees and bird nesting. We fed the chooks, mowed the lawns, helped in the garden and milked the cow. We weren't rich so we made our own fun. For holidays, Mum's parents had a farm in Sanson so we'd go there, or to Dad's mother in Bulls where she'd spoil us rotten. Or we'd visit the wild west coast beaches, all grey black sand, driftwood at the mouths of rivers. These were mainly day trips, I don't remember going away with Mum and Dad for extended periods.

Twenty-odd years ago I spent some time in China for work and that was intriguing. In the countryside you'd see people in the fields growing veges using hoes and shovels, then in smoggy cities they're building 130-storey high-rises and the scaffolding is bamboo all the way up. I was there for work, consulting to the Chinese Government, and they are amazing hosts. Breakfast is 20 courses, lunch is at least 30 and dinner 40, such beautiful food and these little dishes kept coming and coming. I certainly put on weight there.


Over the past 10 years we've really got into diving and we've been to most of the islands. Tonga, Samoa, Fiji, Rarotonga, Great Barrier Reef. The underwater world is amazing, you see something different every time you go down. In Tonga, I got within a couple of metres of a humpback whale and its eye was a huge ball, about the size of a basketball. But I wasn't scared, they're quite gentle.

My wife Helen came across a leopard shark once. They're quite big, about three metres long, and Helen loves taking underwater photos. She focuses on this giant and it starts swimming towards her. She back paddled and it kept following her. When we got to the top and told the guide, he said, "that's old George, I wondered where he'd got to".
Apparently he was as friendly as a kitten but we didn't know that.

Probably the best trip Helen and I did, we landed in Perth and went 1200km up the coast to Exmouth. At Monkey Mia, we had dolphins swimming through our legs, we went out and saw dugongs and you can swim with whale sharks. They're about 12 metres long and they swim towards you with their huge mouths open, so you have to swim to one side or the other to avoid the mouth. If you got in their road I don't know what would happen, even if they do only eat plankton.

We bought Tophouse 15 months ago because we wanted to enjoy nature. We're just 7km from Lake Rotoiti and St Arnaud, surrounded by mountains and a beautiful old beech forest. And because there's no light pollution, a lot of people say our stars are better than they are down south.

I've always liked people, I enjoy meeting them and talking to them. So it can be annoying when you do travel and people are all yammering away on their phones and not taking the opportunities that come along. People are losing face-to-face conversations and relationships which I think are the spice of life.

Tophouse oozes history. In 1894, there was a famous murder, a guy called Bateman fancied the governess who was looking after the kids here. When her employers went away, Bateman's mate stirred him up and said another chap was going to have his wicked way with Miss Wylie, so Bateman borrows a shotgun from the postmaster and blows his rival away, hiding him behind a pile of logs. Then he thinks, the postmaster will know it was me, so he shoots him too. Then Bateman shot himself. So no one got to have their wicked way with Miss Wylie.

Tophouse was built in 1887 when the only people coming through were surveyors, gold miners and early settlers. Drovers with up to 12,000 sheep would stay here en route to Hanmer and Culverden, selling them to the people developing Canterbury. The rooms then had bunks three high, the bottom was a shilling, the middle one sixpence, the top one thruppence. It's a lot more comfortable now.

Further informationa: see tophouse.kiwi