Fun worth fighting for
HK students add their voice to battle to save NZ educational park, writes Kent Ewing
Now a robust 78, David Blackley is still a man who habitually courts risk and seeks adventure.
In his younger days, that meant crossing the Sahara Desert in a Morris Minor convertible, rumbling across South America in a Land Rover for a honeymoon and building a 38-metre schooner to take part in the 1992 Tall Ships Race commemorating Christopher Columbus' voyage to the New World 500 years earlier.
Along the way he fell in love with, purchased, and later sold Fiji's Katafanga Island.
In his later years, as a group of Hong Kong students and teachers can attest, the New Zealander has turned his attention to youth and education. Ironically, the same can-do spirit and insuppressible energy that propelled him through his earlier exploits have landed him in trouble in his latest endeavour, which involves taking on a government bureaucracy that may be every bit as tough and stubborn as himself.
The 19 Hong Kong International School secondary students and two teachers were recent guests at the vast Blackley homestead - located in the Papamoa Hills in the Bay of Plenty region of New Zealand's North Island. The students now feel a warm kinship with both the place and the man who built it.
They inadvertently became part of the Blackley saga (much of which he has chronicled and self-published in his autobiography, Born for Adventure) during their stay at his Summerhill Recreational Farm under the tutelage of two New Zealand tour guides, who schooled them in the farm's rich Maori history and introduced them to the challenging mountain-bike trails that twist through its idyllic beauty.
The farm, which covers more than 130 hectares - nearly a third of Mr Blackley's land - sits 250 metres above sea level and offers stunning views of the Bay of Plenty. With the intention of extending his love of the land and its history to a younger generation of both New Zealanders and foreigners, Mr Blackley has donated the farm for public use.
But the incorrigible maverick did not deign to consult government regulators before he launched the project, and those neglected bureaucrats are now threatening to shut down a key part of it.
That would be a shame, say the HKIS students who ate in the ger (Mongolian hut) that Mr Blackley paid to have built there, slept in his sheep shed and rode on his bike trails. The students came away from their experience with a much greater knowledge of Maori culture than they could ever have picked up at the average tourist den.
In the battle of Blackley vs the bureaucracy, they are rooting for the old man. But the old-timer, despite having conquered desert and sea in his youth, may have finally met his match.
The sticking point, it seems, is the ger, the farm's centrepiece and communal meeting place, which the local government is threatening to close down because Mr Blackley failed to follow legal procedures before building it.
'That's me, I suppose, for ploughing ahead and never looking back,' Mr Blackley said. 'Don't worry, it will sort itself out. We might be best to put on a party for the bureaucrats.'
But what if, in the end, the district council orders the closure of the ger? 'Over my dead body,' the ageing rebel declared.
But Karl Young, a native of nearby Rotorua who manages the farm for Mr Blackley and doubles as a tour guide for Multi-Day Adventures, is worried - and not just about the problematic ger.
'We believe that hurdle can be overcome,' he said. 'But there is a possibility that Summerhill Recreational Farm could still be shut down. This risk of closure does not rest entirely with the Western Bay district council.
'Any user could potentially feel they have a claim to make if they suffer an injury, or worse.'
The HKIS students and teachers suffered a number of cuts and bruises, as well as a fractured wrist and a fractured arm, during their week-long biking adventure, but no one was talking about lawsuits after their return to Hong Kong.
'When you get there,' said Kelly Lo Jing-yan, a Year 10 student, of her arrival at Summerhill, 'all you can think about are the fears of roughing it, the small, dusty bathroom hut with the broken door, the ominous calling of the cows, and the bugs, oh God, the bugs.
'However, once you get over all that, it's really something out of a dream. There we were, some rich city slickers sleeping under the stars, breathing fresh air.'
Year 11 student Gerald Cheng Ka-hang was also struck by the contrast between Summerhill and Hong Kong. 'I could actually see constellations at night,' he said. 'The bike trails were truly breathtaking, blending exciting turns with beautiful scenery. One thing to add, though - there was quite a bit of cow dung.'
Other students expressed dismay over the possibility of Summerhill shutting down.
'I would be angry,' said Alex Kim, in Year Nine. 'Summerhill is a beautiful place where tonnes of people and families can go to have a nice walk, picnic or a bike ride.'
Eleanor Walker, another Year Nine student, added: 'I would be disappointed. Karl and Mr Blackley worked really hard to make Summerhill what it is. When we were there, we saw locals enjoying the BMX track and the mountain-biking trails, just like us. It would be unfortunate.'
Besides biking and star-gazing while at Summerhill, students visited historic fortifications built by the Maori to fend off their enemies.
Mr Young fears that the passing down of the rich stories associated with these landmarks to younger generations could also be a casualty of any bureaucratic or legal tussle. He and fellow guide Tony Brindle make a habit or regaling visitors with tales of Maori cunning and bravery against British invaders.
'Summerhill is a truly visionary project,' said Mr Brindle, who moved to New Zealand 10 years ago from the village of Coniston, in England's Lake District.
'It is an opportunity for people to get involved in something that one day will be a world-class mountain-bike park and to put something back in for later generations to enjoy.'
The farm operates on the koha [donation] principle, but the gift need not be monetary; visitors may also give time, material and labour. Indeed, Mr Young built and continues to maintain the hiking and biking trails with the help of volunteers.
'All visitors have an opportunity to become participants and therefore custodians of the land,' Mr Young said, 'giving a sense of ownership and responsibility for its future ... Summerhill is valuable because a lot of people, both locally and internationally, don't get exposed to this type of environment.
'It means a lot of things to people - from star-gazing, to patting a lamb, to watching normal farming practices up close. Up here it's not about being a big, glitzy commercial venture. We are a group of volunteers dedicated to building a network of tracks in a natural, rural New Zealand environment.'
Time will tell if Mr Young and Mr Blackley can build a bureaucratic paper trail as impressive as one of their bike trails.