Life's gentle pace down Otira ways

BUSY: Bill Hennah fires up the coffee machine at the Otira Hotel.
BUSY: Bill Hennah fires up the coffee machine at the Otira Hotel.
CONTENT: Resident Richard Armstrong admits it gets cold but you can't beat the view.
CONTENT: Resident Richard Armstrong admits it gets cold but you can't beat the view.
MOUNTAINOUS: The Otira sign spells it out.
MOUNTAINOUS: The Otira sign spells it out.
TAKING IT EASY: Resident Merv Clarkson has ambitions to build a log cabin.
TAKING IT EASY: Resident Merv Clarkson has ambitions to build a log cabin.
MILLION-DOLLAR VIEW: The Otira Hotel has a stunning backdrop.
MILLION-DOLLAR VIEW: The Otira Hotel has a stunning backdrop.
STORAGE: A new use has been found for the Otira swimming pool.
STORAGE: A new use has been found for the Otira swimming pool.

The Otira Hotel and the Otira village's hall, fire station, and 18 railway houses have been on the market for nearly three years. After listing on TradeMe last week, owners Bill and Christine Hennah have been the toast of the media and a sale appears imminent. MARTIN VAN BEYNEN and photographer JOHN KIRK-ANDERSON call in.

Bill Hennah is on the hotel veranda yarning with an Otira resident called Merv Clarkson.

A neon sign in the window says Fish and Chips and another sign heralds the Otira Cafe and Bar. It used to be called the Otira Tearooms but nobody drinks tea any more, Hennah says.

With the little Faema espresso machine hissing and steaming, he makes a flat white, saying when pressed about his skills, he claims the best coffee in Otira.

A traveller comes in.

''Can I get some tea please,'' the man asks. 

''Yep,'' says Hennah.

Hennah makes the tea and puts it on a tray while the tourist sits himself down at one of a collection of red-velvet upholstered chairs and brown veneer tables which Hennah bought at an auction.

''It's only crap,'' he says. ''It came from a Chinese takeaway in Brighton (New) that went broke.''

The velvet goes well, though, with the regal red carpet on the floor which looks like it might once have adorned a finer establishment. In fact it came from a Hokitika pub.

Not that the Otira Hotel is not fine but somehow putting the pie warmer with two pies in it on a stand in front of the counter, behind which Hennah makes the coffee, and which was probably once the hotel's reception desk, does not enhance the surroundings.

The cafe offers meals, sandwiches and drinks all prepared by mein host.

''Way I was brought up, if you can't cook yourself a feed you can't live.'' 

He was brought up in Mt Roskill, then a working class suburb of Auckland.

The hotel's kitchen is huge and has strident orange doors on the cupboards. It looks clean but utterly unused.

Hennah, who works long days, looks after the cafe and the licensed bar where a dart board and a rented pool table with a red top and worn looking jute box entice customers. Many attempts appear to have been at refurbishment, none very successful.

Hennah makes himself a cup of something. He has a good head of greasy dark grey hair which he wears long. He sports several days' stubble and his dirty grey T-shirt stretches over a big belly. He is also wearing blue trackies and jandals. His arms bear some faded tattoos, one of which looks to have been an image of a showgirl. His knuckles are fleshy and rounded.

He gets puffed easily although he stopped smoking straight after he had a heart attack in November last year.

''Pretty tough stopping?''


The hotel normally offers accommodation but no-one has been able to stay for a while because a big wind about six weeks ago blew off the corner of the veranda roof which affected the fire escape. The same wind uprooted garages and toppled washing lines in the village.

Hennah, once a builder in Manurewa, Auckland, is about halfway through renewing the veranda roof using rough sawn tanalised timber. His son is giving him a hand when he gets time off from work.

Hennah's handiwork is evident around the hotel. He has reclad the two storied front with a plywood product called Shadowclad, which he says is made in Greymouth and guaranteed for 20 years. He has nailed it over the original horizontal weatherboards which can still be seen in their peeling blue glory on the side of the hotel facing Highway 73.

A large flat screen TV above the fireplace in the cafe, is beaming in the advertising channel while Hennah unfolds a large map showing what is for sale. 

He and his wife Christine bought the village and hotel in 1998 for $73,000 but Hennah says they spent $1m on it in the first 12 months. They had come across in the train to see their son, who was working on the Brunner springbridge. 

''Christine, she'd been typing for 20 odd years and had RSI in the shoulders and I got it in the arm from swinging a hammer.''

They thought they could make a go of it. The package they are selling includes the hotel, the hall, the fire station and 14 rented or rentable houses on a 20ha parcel of leasehold land. The land is owned by the Crown with the rental set at 10c a year. Their two sons are equal partners in the business.

If they sell, the couple intend to stay on in the former school building in the village where they have converted the two classroom-building into a residence. They have also bought a campervan which they will use to visit the rellies and have a holiday.  

Christine looks after the money side of the business which is just as well because Bill doesn't appear too interested judging by his attitude to the pub.

''We don't encourage people to drink. We don't need the business as long as it pays for itself and you get a good way of life. What else do you need?

''In the winter the village [rent] helps pay for the power in the hotel and in the summer the hotel pays for painting in the village.'' Most people don't want Otira changed, he says. 

''Because so many people have moved through here, just about everyone will know someone with a connection to Otira. One of the best things here is the clean air.

Asthmatics can cut down their inhalers. It rains here but we get less wet days than Auckland. But when it rains it rains."

Outside the day is warm, still and sunny. Christine is on the porch and is worried the visitors might be building inspectors. She has white paint on her hands and clothes from working on one of the recently vacated houses which were prefabricated in Hamilton in 1923 and railed to Otira where they were erected on sections facing the railway line.

At its peak Otira had a population of over 600 and could boast 62 family homes.

Christine wants to know if Bill has offered the gentlemen a coffee and gives him a veiled telling off for leaving a door frame in the rain.

"We can use it to fix the front door," she says.

On a tour around their domain, Bill points out the hall which is rented out for $10 a week and is the centre of a Saturday market.

The house blessed by Christine's recent painting, is a good example of the toll exacted by years of unloving tenants.

Bill mentions the previous tenant who burnt two doors in the house for firewood and did the same with part of the garage frame.

"When they move out, you come in and paint. Doesn't matter what you do. Within a week the person will come in and ask 'can I change the paint? I don't like that colour'."

Driving down the tarsealed village road he runs through the tenants of the houses. Three are engine drivers, two are shunters, one is one of the "best mechanics you can come across", a couple have just came back for Aussie, several are no hopers, and one is a possum hunter who doesn't care about power and just wanted somewhere dry for the winter.

After displaying the still serviceable community pool complex opened in 1977, Hennah gives his final endorsement.

"You can't find a better place. When it rains and blows that's by far the better day because you can see what nature can chuck at ye, eh."

You have to be 'a certain type' to live in Otira

Merv Clarkson, a former Christchurch stonemason and star rugby league player, has lived in one of the Hennah houses for about four years. He has some land further up the road and plans to build a log cabin.

An ACC beneficiary due to a persistent achilles injury stemming from his sporting days, Clarkson has fixed up the house and cleaned up outside.

"I've done all the work to it. Bloody hell there was shit everywhere."

On the joys of Otira, he says: "You have to be a certain type of person. If you want to party every day and go to town don't come to a place like this but if you need to relax and are into the nature side of things, it's perfect. But it's not for everybody."

The residents all get on and the resident mix has changed, he says.

"There used to be a lot of ratbags here but we sorted them out and place has got nice people here if you know what I mean. It has been known for drugs and no-hopers but it's not like that at all now. Most of the guys are railway workers. You can plan your day by the trains."

Down the road Richard Armstrong, 42, is out seeing what's going on in the street. He's been in town with his partner for six months and says he was milking in Dunsandel before upping sticks. Now he never wants to leave. "The only thing about here is winter time. Half past two, light the fire. It's cold as."

He works part-time, he says, on a nearby dairy farm and comes home to a white couch on the back lawn.

"I have a beer and just look up there.

"I don't know about you guys but when you wake up in the morning and look at that you can't beat it."

The Press