From helicopter piloting to real estate, Oamaru identity Stephen Robertson has led a colourful career. Oamaru Mail reporter Daniel Birchfield sits down with him to find out a bit more about his story.
Q: Where are you from originally?
I was born in Ashburton, spent most of my primary school years in Mataura, but had my first primary school day in Te Anau. I ended up finishing primary school at St Joseph’s when we moved to Oamaru in the early 1970s then I was educated through secondary school at St Kevin’s.
Q: What was childhood like for you?
I think my childhood was probably most fondly remembered in the North Otago region. It would be of the lakes fishing, up with the family boating up there. Shooting and fishing was my thing – possums, rabbits and trout fishing. I have fond memories of that. Sport wise – I was pretty keen on sport – it was playing tennis, softball, a bit of golf, rugby and cricket.
Q: What do you recall about your days at school?
I was probably a lazy student, to be fair. I didn’t struggle at school, but my teachers would say I could have done a lot better academically. That’s probably why I didn’t work hard, because I didn’t find it that hard. I enjoyed St Kevin’s. I went there when it was an all-boys school. It was a school my uncles had gone to so I was second generation, and now my boys have completed their time at St Kevin’s, so they’re third generation, so I’ve got a big tie to St Kevin’s now, which is nice.
Q: What did you do when you left school?
Straight out of school – I actually finished school at the end of the fifth form – I was driven to be a pilot, I had decided. My father was a pilot – a helicopter pilot – and I decided that’s what I wanted to do. So I literally got on an aeroplane before my school certificate results came out and at 17 I flew to Melbourne because my father was living over there and I decided to follow him around. Eventually, I ended up obtaining my fixed-wing licence, then my helicopter licence and . . . back to New Zealand as an ag pilot, flying for Helimac Helicopters for five years. Then I ended up back in Australia, then working for a company in Papua New Guinea flying bigger helicopters. That took me into even bigger helicopters – flying Russian Mil helicopters. I pretty much flew out of Papua New Guinea. I did quite a bit of work for the United Nations world food programme doing aid and recovery, things like that. I worked in Bangladesh, East Timor and Indonesia, wherever generally in the Southeast Asia region there was strife or problems.
Q: How did you find your experience in Papua New Guinea?
Papua New Guinea was a pretty interesting place. I spent probably 12 months touring – month on, month off, out of there. It’s driven by the gas and oil industry and it’s a beautiful country. It has its people problems, but we were generally well looked after and stuck to the job. I was pretty much working for the oil and gas industry, flying support whether it be bringing in machinery or people. It was a good job – but not somewhere I’d take my family for a holiday. I was based around Mt Hagen, which is in the Western highlands, and security was a big issue. The highlands, in particular, can be very violent. We got hijacked once – we were doing an election actually, picking up ballot boxes. We went in and we had an unsavoury character waving a home-made shotgun around. He wanted the helicopter to fly him out. You just do what you’re told in that situation. Fortunately, with radios, we called ahead and let the police know we had a hostile on board and they were waiting for him when we landed. He got a free ride, but also got a bit of time as well.
Q: You also spent a bit of time in eastern Europe. What did you do there?
I went to a place called Moldova. The reason being the guys that had bought the Russian helicopters had bought two and they sent seven of us over to Russia – we had to get our endorsements there and get our captaincy there. Russia doesn’t allow anyone, apart from a Russian citizen, to be a captain on an aircraft so the machines we bought in Russia were taken to Moldova, registered there, and that’s where we did our training. The machines were put into use in the oil and gas industry, doing rig shifts and supply into the jungle in Papua New Guinea.
Q: Do you still get into the cockpit?
Not as often as I’d like. Only as a passenger really. I’ve still got a valid medical, but I haven’t been flying as much as I’d like. It’s something, if I can get the work under control, I’d definitely like to do more of. I have no passion to go back to commercial flying.
Q: Why did you decided to come back to New Zealand?
Primarily, what triggered me to come back to New Zealand was the fact me and my wife wanted to bring our boys back to New Zealand just so they could grow up as I had, with a fishing rod and a .22. I did look at going to a position in Dunedin, flying out of there for a helicopter company, but LJ Hooker Oamaru offered me a position as a salesperson. Change is as good as a holiday as they say, so I thought I’d give it a shot for 12 months to see how it went. That was 11 years ago. I bought the company, the sales division of LJ Hooker, so it’s been the right move and been very good for my family – especially my boys.
Q: Why did you take the job?
I needed a break from flying. The opportunity was there and I took it. It enabled me to be home every night, which is the thing I hadn’t been able to do because I was flying.
Q: How would you describe the real estate market in North Otago at the moment?
It’s amazing at the moment. I think we’ve gone through a 15-month period that, in 11 years, I’ve never seen before. I’ve never seen the Oamaru market as buoyant as it is. Out-of-town buyers are coming through because of what the district offers, its affordability and its lifestyle. It’s become a huge attraction for people and ex-pats coming back to New Zealand. They are looking closely at North Otago. All that has driven the market up, but still kept it affordable. It’s very, very busy at the moment.
Q: What can you tell me about your involvement with basketball at St Kevin’s?
I played basketball at St Kevin’s myself, for the Jets. We used to do all right, actually. We used to play at the drill hall every Friday night. I do help a lot with the basketball there, probably driven through my own two boys who were good basketballers at school. I try to support as much sport at the school as I can, and around the district. I think at the moment we’re sponsoring, as with our club incentive programme, over 60 organisations. With the basketball, it’s a bit close to my heart. The boys have done really well over the last three or four years.
Q: What do you like to spend your spare time doing?
My spare time’s spent fishing. I’m a very keen fisherman .. if I have a spare half a day, I’m on the river.
Q: What do you think the future holds for Oamaru?
I think we’re seeing with some of the long-term infrastructure, with irrigation and Alps 2 Ocean, they are driving industry, jobs and tourism. I think they’re working really well. I think the A2O is going to get bigger and bigger. It’s highlighting Oamaru and the Waitaki Valley and, on top of that, we’re lucky to have the Waitaki River with its expanses of water for irrigation. That’s creating jobs for 100 years.