Island dweller left for wife and city life

ALONE: Ross Weber.
ALONE: Ross Weber.

No man is an island. Just ask Ross Webber.

After spending 46 years living alone on Puangiangi Island in the Marlborough Sounds, he changed tack completely to explore the world.

In 1957, as a 27-year-old, the Nelson man bought the narrow, hilly island which sits 45 minutes by boat from French Pass.

ROSS WEBBER: After almost 50 years of solitary existence, he’s seen the world, married and living in Torbay. Photo: TONY SKINNER
ROSS WEBBER: After almost 50 years of solitary existence, he’s seen the world, married and living in Torbay. Photo: TONY SKINNER

He cleared the scrub, built up a sheep farm and his own house, starting with a corrugated iron shed and eventually a two-bedroom house.

But in 2004, aged 73, he decided he was too old to be running the farm alone, and put the island on the market.

After a multimillion-dollar sale that attracted national and international media interest, Webber sorted out a passport, flew to Auckland and boarded the Discovery, the first of three cruise ships he would sail on for almost a year.

"It was very nice," the 82-year-old says matter-of-factly from his current home in Auckland.

He also sailed on Marco Polo and then, for seven months, P&O's Artemis.

Although having lived alone for nearly half a century, Webber says it did not take much to get used to being on a boat surrounded by thousands.

"They're [the boats] very big, there's a lot of room on them. There's 10 decks, it's not at all crowded."

He became a talking point among guests, with a documentary on his life on the island being screened in the onboard movie theatre.

"I visited 43 different countries. Some I didn't like very much, some I did."

Samoa was one destination that impressed him and, after returning to Auckland, Webber flew back there to spend nearly a month on the Pacific island.

But for all his travels Webber still says Nelson, to which he moved as a teenager, was one of the best.

"Nelson stacks up pretty nice. I'd sooner live there than anywhere else."

However, a chance remark by the owner of a Nelson guest house where he was staying led him to romance and a new home.

The owner told him he should meet her cousin, Jean, in the Philippines.

"I'd spoken to Jean on the phone a few times. I went over, and we decided to get married."

Although she is 45 years his junior, he says they have been happy together ever since.

The pair returned to New Zealand in 2007 but, because of a protracted dispute over the sale of the island, they were only able to buy their first home together about six months ago, in Torbay on Auckland's North Shore.

While he might like to move back to Nelson, he says Jean prefers Auckland. "I've never liked it here, dreadful weather."

Webber was finally able to resell the island in June this year to Wellington-based charitable trust Fauna Recovery New Zealand, which plans to turn it into a reserve and restore its ecology.

Webber says he and Jean had been back to the island once in recent years, but it was a sad experience.

"It was very depressing to see it. It was all over-run, the fruit trees I had planted were dead. We couldn't get in [to the house] because it was all locked up."

The island's new owners, Sue Freitag and Barry Dent, have suggested that once they had everything fixed up he might like to visit again.

These days Webber enjoys watching cricket and working in his garden. He says he has no regrets about leaving his island.

"I was too old to stay there. I needed a change, if I was younger I would like it again."

The Nelson Mail