Freshly shucked and cracked kina shells are spread across the gravelly driveway that snakes up to the Mikaere family home perched high on a Manaia hilltop, about 17km south of the Coromandel township.
Family patriarch, Harry, has a small excavator in the shed that he uses to maintain the winding 1km long access road, but he finds that recycled mussel and kina shells also help to maintain the road surface.
“You see, the driveway is a bit rough in parts, so we lay them out and they break down as the trucks and cars run over them and they help hold the driveway together,” explains Harry.
“Down there a bit further is where I put my mussel shells too.”
The kina casings have come from 500 of the urchins that will be shared with 400 guests at a family memorial and most of the whanau have pitched in to help prepare them, cracking and shucking on the back lawn.
The 20 acre property is home to Harry, his wife of 45 years Ruth and three dogs. It is also a family sanctuary for their four children and 21 nephews, nieces and mokopuna.
With sweeping 360 degree views, every outlook is stunning; to the west over the Manaia Harbour and out to some of Harry’s mussel farms in the Firth of Thames. And out to the east and south over bush and hills that shadow the lands where Harry grew up.
“I’m Ngati Pukenga, Ngati Maru, Ngati Kahungunu, born and bred,” Harry said.
“Dad was a war veteran. He served in the 28th M ori Battalion and was wounded three times in WWII and was crippled down his right side…but he was hard working.
“Our family home was on a small dairy farm down the hill from where we are now. It was subsistence living during my childhood but food was always available.
“Dad was always pushy about three things: Good health, education and economics – and in that order.
“There were 10 of us kids and Dad allowed half of us to go to boarding schools while half of us stayed home to work on the farm.
“I was one of the ones at home and attended Manaia Native School and Coromandel High School.”
It wasn’t a seamless education.
“I couldn’t read or write when I started at high school,” he said.
“I used to skip school, run down the hill, whistle to my horse then stash the school uniform under the bridge and spend the day fishing and picking pipi to help feed my family. ”
By the age of 16, Harry had left school and begun his career in primary industries with a forestry apprenticeship in 1968 at Kaingaroa.
“I started New Zealand Forest Service woodsman training in 1968 which covered silviculture practices, like taking seeds out of pinecones and planting them out, right through to harvesting and extraction and trucking out log forms,” he said.
“By 1972 I was working as a sub contractor and by ’76 I’d moved out of the industry because of the unionisation.”
From forestry, Harry moved into fishing; a long held dream.
“I came out of what was a frustrating challenging industry at that time and, after much discussion with my wife, we decided to move home to my turangawaewae Manaia and set myself up for fishing commercially for snapper, dogfish, flounder, kahawai and mullet and many other species,” he said.
“I bought a 22-foot aluminium dingy, with a 115 hp Mercury motor and I’d set 1600m of nets, 2 times a day out in the harbour or in Tikapa Moana/The Hauraki Gulf depending on the weather. This was hard work, at times financially rewarding and others very lean. The inconsistency of income was not conducive to supporting our family.
“That was in the pre-quota days and by ’81 a change had come and we made another decision and sold all the fishing gear to take up a position offered to me working with oyster farms where the income was regular and still on the sea.”
And so began Harry’s long association with the aquaculture sector.
“I was working for Paul Wybourne which is now Pacific Marine Farms between Northland and Coromandel. My job was to travel up to Northland to go out and check the farms, pick up the oysters and bring them back to process for the Australian and Hong Kong market.
“I also used to do all of his trucking for him and I’d haul 22 tonnes on an old Leyland – I knew every corner on the Brynderwyns.
“I’d leave home at 2am and arrive at Waikare Harbour in Russell, Bay of Islands at 9:30am and get back to Coromandel at 7pm.
They were 19 hour days, 7 days a week and towards the end I’d run out of steam. Then Paul offered me a position to go and grow oysters in Chile and that put me off. I said to Paul, I’m not going. I’m staying here to farm mussels.”
The first hurdle was to learn how to grow them.
“Mussel farming at that stage was still being developed,” Harry said.
“They used to grow them on rafts and I went down to Marlborough and had a look at their systems and growing structures and all the stars aligned. I applied for the license while still working with Paul, that was in 1982 and it took 5 years before it came through but in the meantime we started with one line in the communal area in the Coromandel Harbour that was being used for mussel growing research.”
Once the license came through, Harry was ready to invest his future in the industry and took his proposal to the bank.
“They said you’re a mug going into aquaculture, nobody knows anything about this,” he said.
“Maori Affairs gave us the loan to put in four more long lines, and within three years, a six hectare farm in the Manaia harbour was fully developed.
“During this period of developing my farm I built a 52 foot barge which I contracted out to developing a number of other farms in Coromandel.”
And that had a big impact on the industry and the community.
“We put a lot of money into the community and employed a lot of people which has a multiplying effect,” Harry said.
“We’re very proud of what we contributed to our industry, our community, region and country.”
“But once we saw the big corporates come in, we recognised that the economic dynamics of the industry were shifting and that we were too small to survive on our own so we sold up the contracting business and leased our farms out.”
Today Harry and his family maintain consents for 65 hectares of mussel farming space and continue to look for opportunities to grow without handling any of the farming duties directly.
“We continue to create partnerships with people we want to work with…but my focus in more recent times has been on building the Iwi/Maori component of the industry for the benefit of Aotearoa.
“I’m working to get more Iwi/Maori ownership within the aquaculture industry. As we see the 20% settlement offers become available, what I’m saying to Maori/Iwi, is if there is an opportunity to grow fish or shellfish in your area, do the research and see if you can make it work.
“I try to be as helpful as I can. I believe Iwi need to be involved right across primary industry – which I categorise as the three fs – fishing, farming and forestry.”
While well known as an Iwi leader, successful businessman and aquaculture pioneer – Harry and Ruth have also worked tirelessly to improve the delivery of Maori health services.
“When Ruth and I got married, we were both 18 and had strong views on what life needed to be and for us that was to help bring significant change for Maori,” he said.
“The biggest driver for me was the negative outcomes, right across the social sector – health, corrections, education, police – we fitted at the top negative end of that.
“It was obvious that the existing health system was failing Maori and being a businessman I could see things I could do to help make a change. We needed health services for our people by our people.
“Ruth is a nurse and we built a private hospital and aged care facility in Coromandel in 1987. We used the income we got from the first mussel lines and the equity from the farms as security to buy the original building.
We started with eight beds, then added six and then we built a ten bed hospital.
“It was the first aged care facility in Coromandel and in 1994 when the old hospital closed we gained the contract for ten hospital beds. At the time it was a battle for us. We had a huge capital expenditure and high costs and social delivery but we struggled through it and survived and it became a model for how things can be if you have the time and the knowledge.
We have since purchased the property next door and added five more rest home beds giving the facility 30 beds.
“In 1989 I was elected by my Iwi Ngati Pukenga to be a trustee of the Hauraki Maori Trust Board and to this day I am still on the board.
“During my trusteeship, in about 1996, the concept of the provision of health and wellness services to the Maori people of Hauraki was discussed and my knowledge of the health sector proved an asset and Te Korowai Hauora o Hauraki –a rural Iwi-based, not-for profit, incorporated society providing health and wellness services across the Hauraki rohe for Maori by Maori was born. I became the Chairperson of the organisation as the HMTB representative and am still in that position today.”
The organisation now employs 239 people and has been providing effective health services for over 19 years including doctor and nurse clinics, prevention, early detection, treatment and management, education, wellness care, mental health services, whanau support, health promotion and public health services.
“The anecdotal evidence is that we are moving the needle north,” he said.
“I’m proud of the organisation but we still have a lot of problems. It was good to get it going, but there’s still a lot of work to be done to get it to where it needs to be.
“These are not seasonal changes, these are intergenerational issues and it takes a long time to get through this process.”
Harry has also been taking his own health seriously and has lost over 70 kg.
“About five years ago, my weight led to the bones in my feet collapsing,” he said.
“I saw a surgeon who declared my feet were in bad shape which could lead to amputation but I decided we weren’t going to do that and I’ve gone from 189kg down to 115kg to reduce the damage. I will however be having some surgery.
“As long as I’m given the opportunity to breathe I will continue to walk on my feet.”
And there’s a few miles left in them yet.
“My plan is to stick it out till I’m 72,” he said.
“I’ve got about another eight years to go and the legacy I want to leave is that during my time, I have made some advancing quality changes in regards to clients and beneficiaries.
“Over 33% of my people suffer badly from poor literacy, numeracy, ill health and poverty. 62 per cent earn less than the annual cost of living and unless there are significant changes, my people will continue to suffer and other ethnicity groups in Aotearoa/NZ.
“It’s about recognising opportunity and giving the people access to the skill set necessary to take advantage of the opportunity and keep moving the needle north.
“We’ve got some good young people coming through. It’s huge the changes that are coming.
“We’ve got to carry on and not only deal with today, but pass our knowledge and history onto our sons and daughters, nieces and nephews and grandchildren so that they understand that.
“If you don’t know your history, how can you tell where you are today and where your future is? If you know where you’re from, it’s easier to see the opportunity and where the future might lie.”
Walk on Harry, walk on.