As told to Elisabeth Easther.
I was born and raised in Ohaeawai, six miles out of Kaikohe and I went to a school that had just 28 kids. I spent a lot of my childhood in Whangaroa where my paternal grandparents lived. I was one of their 55 grandchildren — Dad's parents had seven sons and seven daughters and he was an uncle before he was born. I had a wonderful time running riot in the hills and fooling around in dinghies with all my cousins. I love Whangaroa Harbour, to me it's a very spiritual place, and my soul is settled when I'm there. For over 100 years, every New Years Day, our extended family would got together for a hangi down at Ranfurly Bay, but it's harder to get all the cousins together these days.
I spent much of my adult life farming, and sometimes that involved travelling to source genetics — bringing in embryos and semen for our Angus stud at Matauri Bay. During that time, I wrote part time for farming magazines and when I left the farm, I concentrated on travel writing, and established a magazine called Sojourney. I had never created a magazine before, but I find, whatever you want to do in life, it just comes down to a series of steps and you sit down, plan those steps and then do them, one by one.
When we were farming, each May we'd go to Australia to help friends muster in the Snowy Mountains, rounding up cattle on horseback. One year, we'd had a bad car accident two weeks prior and I wasn't allowed to ride for a year, so I was stuck in the cottage doing the cooking. One day, our friend told me he'd seen a brown-bellied black snake sunning itself on the veranda. This is the most poisonous snake in the world and its bite can kill a person in three minutes. When hanging out the washing, I disturbed the snake, which reared up to bite me, luckily it didn't get me but I spent the rest of the morning banging pot lids together to keep it away. When I told them I'd seen it, Cedric the farmer gave me a gun and some bullets and told me to shoot it, if it came back. The next afternoon I'm sitting under the clothesline doing cross-stitch, when I see the snake coiled around the outdoor hot water cylinder — but if I shot it there I'd damage the cylinder. Eventually the farm manager came by and shot it under the house while I shone a torch over his shoulder. It came towards us at a hell of a speed with me yelling "Shoot! Shoot! Shoot!" He got it with one shot, and we fished it out in three bits.
In Wyoming, we were visiting another lot of farming friends and they took us to Yellowstone Park. I was standing on the side of the road videoing a huge herd of bison, my two younger children beside me, when Mirielle said "Mum, I think they're getting close." And she was right. A big bull had started to paw the ground. The kids had already run, and when I turned and ran, he chased me. I could feel the snot from his breathing running down the backs of my legs. Luckily a car appeared, and raced down the hill to chase it, so the bull turned his attention from me and kicked in the side of their car instead. My heart was racing for some time after that.
A few years ago, my husband Jack and I had three weeks in Borneo with an aid organisation. We tramped 10km down the coast to stay in a little Muslim fishing village where no one spoke English. They were such beautiful people. When we got there, it was so hot, we all dived into the sea. A large crowd of villagers came down to watch us because, what we didn't know at the time was that the area is infested with crocodiles. They took us out that night spotlighting and we saw just how many there were and how big they were.
My husband and I were looking forward to retirement, Jack is quite keen on travelling, but we are also passionate about our community. When the old BNZ building in Kaikohe come up for sale, no one wanted to buy it, partly because of the huge cost of earthquake-strengthening. This is Kaikohe's only heritage-listed building, and we couldn't bear the thought of such a beautiful building sitting unused, with broken windows and squatters inside. We decided to stick our necks out and establish a food and accommodation business that will employ many local people. It has cost us almost $2 million to restore the building. We probably won't ever recoup what we've spent during our lifetime, but our payback is seeing our community benefit — and you can't put a dollar value on that.
Di Maxwell runs Left Bank, Boutique Accommodation and Backpackers, Kaikohe.