Voices in the Trees

In Tests, Western Star, September 2021, Tests September 202129 MinutesBy Dave McCoidOctober 29, 2021

The idea for this month’s cover feature was sparked by an image arriving in our inbox. It was of a beautiful new Western Star and Patchell Industries nine-axle log combination, and with it was a short message from its East Coast-based owners, Tutu and Raewyn Manuel. The note was brief but it resonated with heartfelt pride and excitement in their new ‘baby’. We knew, without doubt, that there was a story here, but we never realised how big it was and the profound impact it would have on us.

PART ONE

“What colour is it? It changes in the light and shade.”

“Iridescent burgundy?”

“Shiraz?”

“Shiraz? What the…?”

“Na, I’m not sure what it is.”

Gav and I were following ‘Ruaumoko’, Manuel Haulage’s Western Star 4884 FXC 8×4 logger with its Patchell Industries 5-axle trailer on the back as it loped up the North Island’s far east coast between Gisborne and Tikitiki.

We were certainly mesmerised, not only by its hue, which altered and sparkled with the changes in light and reflection, but also the attention to detail generally; polished chrome, stainless and alloy, the perfectly plumb old-school black Western Star mudflaps right through the entire unit. As it did when we saw those first images in Raewyn’s email, Ruaumoko sends the onlooker a clear message that a lot is going on here. This truck says far more than ‘I cart logs’.

Not surprisingly, in the context of the wider story, the almost indescribable colour was perfect. Nothing in this story was as you’d expect. Take the owners. A young business, a new truck; we were expecting Tutu and Raewyn Manuel to be sub- 30, transitioning out of a fleet driving position into their first new truck and contract, everything on the line. Young people, into it boots and all. Wrong! Well, not the ‘boots and all bit’, that’s a Tutu favourite.

We met Ruaumoko’s parents on a rainy Monday night in the Te Puka Tavern, a fabulous location right on the sea – and we mean right on the sea – at Tokomaru Bay.


Even if the last time you saw her was in the previous aisle at the Tokomaru Bay Four Square, for 67-year-old Raewyn Manuel, there’s only one way to greet people, and that’s with a huge smile and a hug, one that only mothers ever really possess. Hot on her heels was an equally welcoming handshake and pat on the shoulder from her husband, soul mate, and lifelong sweetheart, Tutu Manuel; himself a sprightly 70 years in the race.

“We thought you fellas must have got lost,” he laughed.

Beer and feed in hand, we sat down.

“Isn’t it what you do in retirement?” laughed Raewyn. “Buy your first log truck, having never been in trucking before?”

“Jeepers,” said Tutu. “Sometimes, I think ‘what the heck?’, but no, boots and all I say. Boots and all.”

Ray Feki, Raewyn and Tutu Manuel.

The path to Te Puka Tav

Yes, it all sounds perplexing, so let’s suss out the roots of this incredible story.

Tutu hails from Rangitukia, a rural settlement slightly northeast of Tikitiki on the North Island’s East Coast. He’s a direct descendant of Manuel-Jose, a Spanish whaler, trader, and leader of European traders on the coast. In fact, Tutu’s is the largest family of Spanish descent in New Zealand. The things you learn!

Raewyn is Samoan by birth. Her dad arrived from Apia aged 14 and was a farmer, eventually managing farms from Gisborne up around the East Coast.

Coincidently, both Tutu and Raewyn were from families of 10, Tutu was number five and Raewyn number three. “There was no TV,” laughs Raewyn. They both went to school in Rangitukia, and the truth is, she and Tutu are childhood sweethearts. They themselves have five children of their own… “And we had a TV!”

However, a large chunk of their working years has been away from home. Five years was spent on the Chatham Islands working in the export crayfish industry in management and administration. They’ve also had long careers in the Department of Corrections, and for the 17-odd years leading up to ‘retirement’, Raewyn worked in transport operations and administration at Fonterra in the Manawatu. How handy was that in hindsight? Someone up top was looking down.

Ruaumoko rolls south of Wainui Beach.

Approaching retirement and after 37 years living in Feilding, in 2017 the pair decided it was time to return home to a quieter life.

“Smell the roses, go fishing, get off the grid,” says Raewyn. They decided to give the family batch in Tolaga Bay a spruce-up and call it home. That’d be them, ka pai… Yeah, na.

A couple of months into their new life of leisure, Tutu took a spin up the coast to visit a friend who was ill. Next door lived cousins and local log cartage contractors Chubb and Agnes Rewi. On this day, they were putting a new roof on their veranda, and when Tutu left the neighbour’s place, Chubb yelled, “Hey, Tutu! When are you going to buy a log truck?”

In Raewyn’s words: “The rest, as they say…”

It has to be said that it’s not the sort of thing you’d normally yell to a 67-year-old man three months into retirement, and to understand why Chubb did, we have to go back a long way … a really long way, to a young and wide-eyed Tutu Manuel in the early 1960s, watching his uncles and his mates heading up into the hills in a New Zealand Forest Service workers bus, each with a shovel and bunch of saplings. Time now for Tutu to take over for a bit…

Crossing the Mangaoparo River bridge on the way north.

“I remember the runanga [tribal council] discussing the opportunity forestry presented. The land was hard going, and they’d been encouraged to tell the farmers to put it all into trees. ‘This is a future not just for now, but for our children and mokopuna [grandchildren],’ they said. ‘It will provide jobs planting and managing the trees, pruning, harvesting, trucking, milling.’ As a result, there was land going into trees all over the place.

“It was hard work but good times. There was a lot of hope that came with the forests.

“I remember the first Forest Service bus picking my uncles and relations up. The first trees were planted up close to where you’ll be going tomorrow near our family’s block under Mt Hikurangi, north of Tikitiki. When they got to the planting site, my uncle said, his mate ‘Bunny’ Green told the others to stay in the truck while he went out. They all thought he was saying a prayer to Tane Mahuta or something, but when he came back, he said, ‘Okay, you lot can get out now. I just wanted to plant the first one.’”

At this moment, Raewyn prompts Tutu to tell the “Mayday story”… And he laughs.

“Yes, yes, the Mayday story. That was on the western side, up from Te Kaha in the Te Kumi Valley. The workers’ bus broke down at the end of a hot Friday in the bush, and a real character whose nickname was Ka Jinks, grabbed the radio and called out ‘Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!’. You can imagine what that started and when they saw the ruckus they caused and responders arriving, asking, ‘Who called mayday?’, the boys all turned to Ka Jinks. He said, ‘Don’t look at me, I said ‘payday, payday, payday’. Only on the Coast!” laughs Tutu. “Only on the Coast.

“Everything was good, but what happened as trees came on stream was the outsiders came in and took all the contracts and jobs. We hadn’t got organised in time and weren’t where we needed to be and so we missed out. But in modern times, people like Chubb and Agnes, and Jack, Ricky, and Leanne Kuru, have put everything on the line to provide work and opportunity for the people of the far East Cape. I just can’t say enough about what they, and people like them, have done. The Mackay’s are another. Wonderful people.”

Optimus Pine powering out of Tokomaru Bay.

“Boots and all”

And so that’s why Chubb yelled ‘buy a log truck’ to a 67-year-old man three years ago. He knew that even though they’d been away for much of their working life, Tutu and Raewyn had a destiny at home they needed to fulfil, set in motion all those years ago by their forebearers.

“We got home and began laying the groundwork that same day,” says Raewyn. “There were many visits to Chubb and Agnes’ and even more phone calls, emails, and texts – after all, we were as green as grass. We had to be guided each step of the way. Chubb was very good and explained how the forestry industry worked. All we knew was that pine trees were growing everywhere, the roads were full of logging trucks, and everyone wore bush shirts and PPE gear … even to town.

“And so began our forestry education.”

A clear measure of Chubb and Agnes’ integrity and desire to give their old friends every possible chance of success was not just the offer of a contract subbing to their own Rewi Haulage Ltd – they also leant them driver Ray Feki. By the time you’ve finished reading this story, you’ll understand what that represented given the times we live in, and the struggle finding the right people to put in trucks.

“We set about looking for a log truck,” said Raewyn. “I thought I’d struck gold when I found two Hinos on TradeMe for $120,000. It almost looked like two for the price of one to me. I rang Chubb, all excited. ‘You won’t get a driver to hop in those old trucks,’ he said. Darn! I knew it looked too good to be true.

“Eventually, with Chubb’s help, we found our first truck, a 2013 Freightliner Argosy and five-axle Patchell trailer. It was purple, my favourite colour, so we travelled to Taupo, fell in love with it, and brought it back to Gisborne – thanks again to Chubb.

The fleet number was to be 622, saved for Tutu by Chubb (“Thank you Chubb” – Tutu, Raewyn), and her name was ‘The Old Girl’.

Beau and Natalie keep Optimus Pine busy.  

Ray of light

“Chubb introduced us to Ray Feki at a health and safety meeting in August 2018. Ray was to be our driver on loan, but one month led to eight months, then a year. All this time, Ray was just chugging along in the Freightliner, keeping it on the road, and making positive upgrades as necessary. He brought the bodywork back up to its original glory and then put a maintenance plan in place that would ensure regular servicing and attention to detail nearer to COF time.”

Watching Dad and Mum embark on this retirement ‘adventure’ from the sidelines were daughter Vicky and her partner Kyle Hill. While they both had significant management careers of their own in the meat industry, they thought adding to the family’s fledgeling enterprise was an opportunity not to be missed. Enter the Western Star brand and a beautiful, brand new, blue 4884 FXC, kitted out with Mills-Tui log gear.

“It was a dismal wet day in Gisborne and this beautiful shiny new truck turned up,” says Raewyn. “Originally, it was going to be called Optimus Prime, but that was already taken by a truck on the Coast, so it ended up Optimus Pine!”

Ray was handed the keys for the hard yards put in on the Freightliner, and Jules Cook, “the pocket rocket”, as Raewyn describes her, was brought on shortly after to double shift Optimus with Ray.

“Jules was a bloody good driver and workmate,” says Ray in the truck the next day. “Losing her was terrible. Really sad.”

By now, Tutu and Raewyn’s other daughter Natalie had returned from living in Brisbane and was taking care of safety and compliance in the business. With Ray on Optimus, Willie Robinson was hired to drive The Old Girl on single shift, and it all looked to be trucking along just fine. Everything the elders had hoped the forests would be all those years ago was playing out copy-book style in this wee enterprise.

New shift driver on Ruaumoko, Steven ‘Opi’ Aupouri.

Earthquakes, volcanoes, and seasons

It’s never the crisis, it’s your reaction to it that determines the eventual outcome, and no business’ story is ever devoid of at least one makeor- break moment. As the logging industry descended into crisis through 2019, and with Covid-19 following in short order, Manuel Haulage had the benefit of owners well versed in life’s rougher roads. They ensured there were no headless chooks and that calmness and pragmatism prevailed as tough decisions were made. Raewyn recalls the time.

“It was 2019, and unease in the China wood market was growing. Their wharves were becoming congested with unsold logs that didn’t appear to be moving anywhere soon. There was talk of the timber industry in New Zealand slowing. It meant our trucks were not carting logs every day, and the work was shared around. I remember Ray calling on one of his trips saying the forestry workers had gotten word it was to be their last day for processing, that they were being laid off. It was a sad day. The skids began to close down one after the other. Then to make it worse, Covid hit.

“That was very unsettling. We were a new company, not very experienced, and responsible for not just our three drivers – there were five families in total, as well as a lot of debt.

“We decided to get our team together and brainstorm how we could best manage the lockdown. Our utmost intention was to keep our team together and support each other. We agreed no unnecessary spending was the first step. By now, Ray, Jules, and Willie were full time with Manuel Haulage. I suggested outsourcing our drivers on a casual shortterm basis. We rang around the larger companies in essential industries that may need relief drivers. We were lucky as it was harvesting and processing time for the orchards and growers. Ray and Willie were able to work at Freshways Transport on linehaul, although Willie’s contract was short term. Jules kept the home fires burning and ran Optimus on any short trips we were lucky enough to get.

“We were then offered short-term work for the Freightliner, so Willie came back and did that before taking on work carting sweetcorn for a local contractor.

“Natalie used this time to make our own masks and sanitisers for the trucks as there was none to be had in the shops. She sanitised the trucks from top to bottom, inside and out. We made up hygiene kits for each truck, making our own bars of sanitising soap from local manuka oil, and essential oils, as well as our own sanitising wipes. We ensured everyone had enough for work and home.”

Ray glides into Tokomaru Bay. Trucking in the community at its best.

Ruaumoko

We all know now what happened next. Once the lockdown was lifted the country’s economy went mad, with no sign of letting up even at the time of writing as the globe emerges from the pandemic, learning to live with its new microscopic passenger.

“Prior to Covid, we had begun talking about buying a new truck. The Old Girl was verging on one-million kilometres, and Willie had moved on to new pastures. Instead of keeping her going on some of the worst roads in New Zealand, it made economic sense to put a new unit on. Midway through 2020, we decided to press ‘go’ on that project. The truck would, of course, be Ray’s.”

During the Covid crisis, Natalie told her mum she had decided to go to driving school and get her class-5 license.

“‘So I can drive one of our trucks,’ she said,” laughed Raewyn. “All sorts of scenarios flashed before my eyes. I shook my head, wondering how a little 5’ 2” midget would be able to do everything required. How could she reach the pedals for starters? Since then, she has finished her one-year course and gained her class 5 – plus a few other licences along the way. Today she drives a 54-tonne logging truck … and she can reach the pedals.”

It just so happened that Natalie’s partner Beau Jones was an experienced log-truck driver, and pretty handy on the spanners too. So he came on board post-Covid to take Ray’s place as the lead driver on Optimus, and together with Natalie, today they keep the big blue fella busy on a shift-and-a-half roster.

Back to the new addition. “We looked at various brands, prices, and options etc. Western Star appealed and we were impressed with Vicky and Kyle’s unit. Mark Ellerington, our Penske salesman from Tauranga, had visited monthly to make sure everything was on point. He’s been brilliant and has accommodated us at every step.

“We had our own thoughts on what we wanted but sought the experience of Ray and Mark. Mark spent a day out with Ray and they discussed trucks and options on the job, reporting back to us, and together, we began to put a specification together.

“One of the keys was the ability to carry one packet of 6.1m logs on the truck and two on the trailer. Planning was also underway for the Patchell five-axle trailer with an extra-long drawbar to enable our load requirements to happen.

“It was during this time that we got a call from Ray to ask if we had a name for the new truck? We said ‘No, it’s your truck, you name it.’ Without hesitating, he said Ruaumoko. Tutu and I were both stunned. That name resonated not only with us but in us. Ruaumoko is a famous East Coast haka, and during World War II, Sir Apirana Ngata led our troops into battle with that same haka. Our own grandson, Apirana Turupa McLean Manuel, is the great-greatgrandson of Sir Apirana Ngata. In Maori mythology, Ruaumoko is the god of earthquakes, volcanoes and the seasons. So it made perfect sense. It was meant to be.”

In February this year, Ray and Ruaumoko rolled into Gisborne for the first time.

“It was an emotional and proud moment for Tutu and I to see Ruaumoko, polished to the hilt, arrive home, in Ngatiporou country,” said Raewyn in reflection. “As soon as I could, I climbed up into the truck, and in the glovebox I placed a set of painted Samoan Beads. They had been blessed to keep all who travel in him safe.”

The truck’s arrival was also a sign that the young company had weathered its first real storm.

Ruaumoko powers up Loisels hill.

Reflection

“It has been a great journey and big learning curve for us both,” says Raewyn. “But we’re glad we took it on, even though in the past three years, there have been more curveballs than we ever thought possible. As people new to trucking, we’ve learned it’s a tough business to be in. It’s unequal to anything we’ve experienced. If you can make it in trucking, you can make it in anything.

“Undoubtedly, the biggest tragedy for us all was losing our Jules to cancer in June this year – our beautiful lady driver and Ray’s offsider. In the short time Jules had been with us, she and Natalie had become quite close friends. It was truly devastating.

“But we have managed to work through each hurdle as it has been presented, at times stretching one dollar to make two, and we’re still here. It’s still early days, but if your business is about the people, we think everything will be fine.

“We often talk about the forestry beginning in the 1960s. Heading to school at Ngata Memorial College in Ruatoria, we would pass the various forestry workers along the roads carrying their lunch kits and waiting for the mini-bus to take them into the forest. These were the legends and pioneers in the early days that laid the foundation for us today. Little did we know that almost 55 years later, we would be taking our trucks into those same forests and carting the logs out they had planted.”

This feature is dedicated to the memory of Julia ‘Jules’ Faye Cook (1975 to 2021), loved team member of Manuel Haulage Ltd.

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