Happy camper - a day in the life

21:08, Jan 06 2012
BEST SEAT IN THE HOUSE: Tapu publican Bruce Efford at his favourite seat in the bar.
BEST SEAT IN THE HOUSE: Tapu publican Bruce Efford at his favourite seat in the bar.

Bruce Efford's got the best seat in the house. From a strategic barstool at the end of a chunky wooden table in his Tapu pub, he can see the main bar, bottle store, dining room and garden bar, and he can look across the road to the camping ground, store and the Firth of Thames beyond.

A name-plate on the table designates this as Efford's spot and it's fair to say he's earned it.

Efford has owned the Royal Oak Hotel for nine years and last summer he took over the camping ground as well. He's big, burly, 60 years old, presiding happily over both places because he loves this coastal village 20km north of Thames.

FOR THE BIRDS: Tapu camper Ron Nisbett cooks lunch for daughter Rosa, left (with Sunny the parrot), and friend Opal-Tia Howell.
FOR THE BIRDS: Tapu camper Ron Nisbett cooks lunch for daughter Rosa, left (with Sunny the parrot), and friend Opal-Tia Howell.

The camping ground, with about 150 sites, was "rundown to hell ... so I did the bloody thing up".

Now he's got a pile of happy campers at a picturesque site on the fringe of Tapu Creek, with the sea beyond. He's got dedicated local people running it. Efford's the manager: "I go over and get told off, we have a lot of fun. I don't take money out of the camp – I put it back in."

Although summer is a busy time, when the Tapu publican-cum-campground owner opens the front door to his weatherboard pub built slap on the main road, he appears more laid back than frantic. The secret to this is "Tapu time", the best thing about the village.

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"It's a slow place, it's a nice place to live," he says. "You do things tomorrow, and there's no such thing as tomorrow."

A sign in his big bar says "free drinks tomorrow". He grins; he's caught a few people out. When they come back the next day for free beverages, he has to explain the joke. It's one of his many little ice-breakers in the pub. The others include a Santa Claus who does a twirl and down-trou at the push of a button, a wooden model of a long-drop dunny that noisily falls to bits when you open the door, and a scantily clad calendar girl (a joke and no one's complained).

He's up at 7am and the first thing he does is make a cup of tea for Maggie, the pub's kitchen manager and cleaner. Maggie has been at the hotel for 10 years, so is clearly a mainstay. They sit in the bar, drink tea, and review the previous day. This is a morning ritual, then Efford's busy doing the tills and ordering supplies.

There's also banking, tidying up, handyman jobs, lawnmowing, fixing broken things, and popping over to the camp to see how things are going. He'll wipe tables, do dishes, anything. Plus there are the fire calls. A Tapu Volunteer Fire Brigade member for 31 years, he's deputy chief, and the siren goes "always when you're flat out".

Efford says he's got a good core staff and he also likes to take on school-leavers who can't get jobs. They get a bit of training before they move to other things.

He has been married, but he's on his own and he's got no kids, so he likes to give other people's children a chance. "I've had a few flops but I'm still doing it."

Staff member Charlie Hamilton, 18, appears, neatly dressed for his shift as the first customers drift in around midday. Charlie's from Coroglen, the son of a friend of Efford's, and he works at the pub during summer holidays. He says of his boss, "he'd give anyone a hand".

Efford is from a five-generation family originating at Ngarimu Bay, south of Tapu. His ancestors used to milk cows then take the milk to the miners in Thames. His father came up to work at Tapu during the Depression, driving trucks for local firm McMahon's. During World War II, his father spent five years as a prisoner-of-war. Efford says he told him in later life: "Bruce, we fought for freedom but the dictators are coming in the back door."

Efford names three modern dictators he's unhappy about, namely Waikato Regional Council, with whom he has a few issues over flood protection; banks and the way people can rack up crippling credit-card debts; and texting, the root of many teen crime problems and partying excesses, he says.

He came to Tapu in 1979. He had been a fisherman and freezing worker in Thames, retiring at age 50, then enduring "one of the most boring years of my life", before the lease on the Tapu pub came up. He took it on, then bought the freehold.

The pub was tired and he did it up, creating an old-school atmosphere with memorabilia that reflects coastal history and people. Tapu was once a gold-mining area with four or five pubs. The original Royal Oak, built in the 1880s, burned down in 1932, and this is the replacement.

Efford ironically was once one of the bad boys on the customers' side of the bar and was banned a couple of times.

"I'm buggered if I know how Rex [a previous publican] put up with me. I know about bad boys, I've been there."

He can't be bothered drinking too much these days and, when he fills a handle for a photo, he chooses a "two-stroke" Amstel Light from the 10 beers on tap.

Efford can't abide stealing, fighting and vandalism. He reckons you need a lot of patience to be a publican. "You'll have your arse kicked every time you turn around." Having said that, Efford adds locals [about 300-400 permanent residents in Tapu and nearby Te Mata] pull together in adversity because it's an isolated township and, after some major floods, they've been left to battle it out on their own for two or three days.

It's all worked out for Efford. The Royal Oak, an independent hotel, is ticking along happily, paying its way, drawing in travellers, campers and fishermen.

He runs a couple of popular fishing competitions each year, and he likes to put something back into the community. This year it's been a 27,000-litre water tank and hydrant next to the pub. He's also installed Tapu's only ATM machine.

It's time to visit the campground to see if the campers are as happy as the boss says. Ron Nisbett from Auckland is cooking bacon sandwiches for daughter Rosa and her friend Opal-Tia Howell. Next door are Nisbett's mate Norm, from Huntly, and his parrot Sunny, their site sheltered by a large pohutukawa.

Norm prefers freedom camping but he's happy with the setup at Tapu. Nisbett says everyone's friendly, the kids can swim in the creek, there's seafood on the back doorstep, and the pub across the road and he can take his daughter into the garden bar with him.

Both men add that Efford doesn't put up with any nonsense from campers and a general consensus among those spoken to is that he's cleaned the place up.

"He's a good sort," says Nisbett, "he's made all the difference."

A bit farther on, Brian James from Pukekohe has returned from fishing with five snapper and his grandkids are playing in the boat. James bought a caravan at the Tapu camp less than a year ago and is pleased with his decision. "Bruce is a good guy, he's fairly strict on the rules."

Back at the pub, the man in question has to work behind the bar because they're one short. Some from the camp stay on to play karaoke. Efford closes about midnight, then walks through the camp to check everything's secure. He's got another man on security but likes to do a final swoop himself before getting to bed about 1am. "That's about normal."

Waikato Times