Farewell Aussie Steve

04:46, May 24 2013
Steve Toyer
Former Clutha River Cruises operator Steve Toyer farewelling his boat the Mataau, also the Maori name for the waterway he has worked and played in for the past 11 years before returning to Australia.

On a perfect autumn Anzac Day, Steve Toyer, tourist operator, and the brains behind some of Clyde's heritage-business success stories, tied up his boat for the last time.

The Clutha River has provided both work and play for this brash, boyish, 50-something Australian in the 20-odd years he has been based at Clyde.

With the turning poplars giving the riverbank a burnished halo, and the water a golden hue, "Aussie Steve" as he is known, reflects on what drew him to the town two decades ago. Then married with a daughter, it was Central Otago's mining history that also struck at the gold-loving heart of this self-confessed fossicker.

Originally from Sydney, it's to New South Wales he will return this autumn, perhaps not with bags of gold, but treasured memories and mementoes.

"I've had a ball. If I'd had more time I would have done more gold-seeking for sure," he laughs.

Family ties and Clyde's tourism potential were equal factors in him staying so long, setting up Clutha River Cruises, one of several tourist ventures he was told would never work.


Now 11 seasons later, he is handing over a going-concern to colleague and genial English blow-in Laurence Van der Eb, who like Toyer, has fallen under Central Otago's spell, dividing his time between Clyde and the Spanish island of Ibiza.

Trained as a lithographic printer and camera operator, Toyer has been many things, from fisherman to bouncer and bar manager.

On arrival in Clyde, he first worked at Olivers Courtyard and Restaurant, for the former owner and good mate Fleur Sullivan, as a bartender/builder.

"Yeah, I still know the old bat," he says fondly, often visiting her in Moeraki, where Sullivan established another successful restaurant, Fleur's Place.

Renowned for working and playing hard, while chatting to some patrons at Olivers late one night, he was astounded to hear how little it cost to buy a bar license in New Zealand, then just $767, compared with A$30,000 to A$40,000 in Australia.

"I thought they were winding me up."

Turns out they weren't. He'd always wanted to set-up his own bar, and he didn't have to look far, with the old Bank of New Zealand building just across Clyde's main street available. Operating as a video-hire shop, it was "crying-out" to be turned into a bar-restaurant.

In the early 1990s, Toyer renovated the interior, using recycled materials.

"If you haven't got the money you've got to make do with what you've got."

The theme, blues memorabilia and Cajun food. The name, The Blues Bank. Colour, bright blue. Controversy, huge. The place caught on like an Aussie bush-fire, but like most aspects of Toyer's personality and vision, nothing was done easily or by halves. Keeping the colour scheme was one of the many fights Toyer has fought in the name of progress and tourism in Clyde over the years.

He freely admits to being considered "an upstart with big ideas".

But despite all obstacles, his legacy is that successful eating and drinking establishments have been operating in the historic building for over a decade, which currently houses The Bank Cafe.

Of the firsts for Clyde, he is proud to be part of establishing Clyde's annual New Year street party, and outdoor seating, made possible after "the spaghetti western" of overhead electricity lines were replaced by underground power. Known as "the sticky-out bits" and slammed by his detractors, nevertheless, the al fresco theme stuck.

"I loved the Blues Bank days but my kidneys didn't," he jokes.

Stopping-off for a last flat- white on Clyde's main street, he automatically goes into host- mode with lycra-clad visitors, also sipping their coffee, fresh from biking the Otago Central Rail Trail.

These people learn that Clyde's wealth is not all about the gold in them thar hills. It's about the town's uniquely intact main street, an unexpected find for any visitor.

From his bar's success, Toyer was able to spring-board other ventures at other nearby heritage buildings, including the Hartley Arms, a former hotel, quite possibly the first single-storied stone hotel in Central Otago, dating from 1869, which he helped turn into a back-packers, chipping off a mountain of 1950s plaster to expose the original stonework.

During that time, he renovated the cottage next door, once belonging to a prominent Clyde pioneer, James Hazlett, getting friendly with the former butcher-merchant's ghost.

In the late 1990s, he got involved in another ambitious renovation, The Dunstan Court House, which was turned into an art gallery- cafe.

However, like his other ventures, it got bogged-down in permits and local politics, and uncharacteristically this time, the frustrated Aussie Battler called it quits, and walked away.

Not one to mince words, his dealings with people and bureaucracy highlights the basic difference between Kiwis and Aussies, he reckons.

"Australians have no hesitation in speaking their minds. Kiwis are a lot more conservative."

His tussles have made him a few enemies and a grudging respect, but also many friends and admirers, his recent leaving-party being an example of that goodwill, where more than 150 people showed up to say goodbye and wish him well.

In another of Clyde's historic precincts near the museum, his last project was the conversion of the former Vincent County Council base. At first, he planned to build a gold-yard and craft shops, but there were too many obstacles, so he went to Plan B, and established another accommodation venture, clearing a 30-year accumulation of pigeon poo, working around existing features, such as a mechanic's pit, which led to the business being named The Workshops, also serving as a base for Clutha River Cruises.

Often working 16-hour days meant there was not much time for hobbies, however, that comes with hospitality territory, he says.

"When you run a business, it has to be personality-based because it's a service industry. You are the business."

But in any spare time he had, Toyer was also tinkering away on an old wooden trawler parked in his backyard, dreaming and scheming about starting a boat tour business. At the same time, he was amassing pre- European and gold mining knowledge, particularly about the stretch between Alexandra and Doctor's Point in the Roxburgh Gorge.

"Everyone laughed that it would never work."

No-one had tried doing Clutha River tours since the 1960s.

But there was another life- preserving reason for this speed-demon to go into a boat business.

"I used to race a jet boat, for fun.

"But I had to sell it because I was going to kill myself!"

He settled for more sedate speeds, and as business started to take off, eventually buying the slick cruiser commonly seen on the Clutha today, in an enterprise that combined many of his loves, including hospitality, boats and gold- mining history.

To Australia, he takes partner Sam, who he met on holiday in Queensland five years ago, and their two heelers Matches and Missy, along with a mountain of antique suitcases he's been squirrelling away for years.

"I always intended filling them up and leaving one day!"

He leaves behind examples of how Clyde's tourism potential could be further developed, without detracting from its unique charm, and a wish for the town.

"The powers that be have to work out ways to keep young people here, because unless they change their attitudes, more are going to move to Australia."

As to why he's moving back himself, it's more about it being time for a change, and to help his parents, now in their 80s, living in Batemans Bay, NSW.

Uncannily, this south coast town boasts the well-known Clyde River, so it could be that Toyer is not done with boats yet, once he completes his Australian boat master's ticket.

The Southland Times