• Keith Newman

Neil Burden’s legacy - Caring for the Cape (Part 2 of 2)

Next generation takes over at Burdens Camp and gannets business; bulldozers replace pick axes to clear the Cape, a love of classic tractors, DOC demands a concession....dramatic rescues


Cape Coast identity Neil Burden ran Gannet Beach Adventures for several decades, helping to turn it from a family hobby into a business, driving people out to the Gannets from the age of 15-years.

Neil Burden driving his tractor on the beach
Neil Burden driving his tractor on the beach

It was never a full-time job for the mechanic and engineer and neither was running the Burden’s Motor Camp, but he always kept his hand in along with other relatives, making sure everything ran smoothly.


Neil began his apprenticeship as a mechanic from the age of 17-years in Railway Rd, Napier working on buses, got his trades certificate, learning under a former aircraft mechanic, then joined Te Awanga resident Ron Bushby who had a garage in Hastings.


“I'd been helping him to fix up motors and he said, ‘I'll pay you A Grade mechanics wages if you can work for me’. I only had my trade certificate then and I learnt more in 6 months there than I had in the previous six years.”


He was with Ron Bushby Ltd for six years then moved to Wellington to work with various companies including General Motors, a major Holden dealer in Lower Hutt that had 18 mechanics. He was one of only three with A Grade qualifications


“The workshop was magnificent. Every Friday afternoon we took everything out of the shop, completely cleaned the floor ready for the following week. And we all had an intercom at our bench, so you didn't have to move away from your bench. We had all the right gear.”


However, around 1962 his father’s health was failing and he needed help running the camp ground and the gannet tours, so Neil headed home and took up with his old employer Ron Bushby.


When Mick Burden died, Neil took over his commercial fishing license. “Then the Ministry of Fisheries tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘You're going to have to pay a levy for everything you catch, and we want everything to go through the sheds’.”


Neil says they wanted more fish for the export markets but the Burden’s weren’t having any of that. “We knew it would cut the people out who we knew were giving good fish for a good price. We didn't want that.”


Rather than complying, the fish got sold to the fish shops but they still had to pay a levy to the government.

Neil Burden & Terry Skurr on their fishing boat
Neil Burden & Terry Skurr on their fishing boat

Neil married in 1964 and purchased a house in Hastings where his wife Elizabeth was a registered nurse, while he worked for another mechanic in Hastings. There was a lot of commuting for 13-years helping with the camp and taking people out to the Cape on weekends and holidays.


Keeping the coast clear


Clearing slips and debris around the route to the Cape was made a lot easier from around 1968 when bulldozers began to be used. Sometimes a stick of dynamite helped loosen up dangerous areas where it was likely there would be a fall in the future.


A small price rise around 1968 to cover the cost of a bulldozer at about $1000 a season. That was the year the family shifted from using old trucks and Model Ts, Pontiacs, Internationals and Crosleys to introducing larger more powerful Minneapolis Moline tractors for the gannet trek.


Neil had first begun using tractors to transport material to build a shelter at the Cape for the Gannet Board which was under the auspices of the Commissioner of Crown Lands.


“We were lucky enough to find some in the country, in Auckland and Feilding, but mostly we had to rebuild them in order to create the fleet for the growing tourist demand and then build trailers for people to sit on,” says Neil.


When DOC took over, Neil says the Gannet Board had laid everything on the plate for them including many volunteers prepared to carry out work needed.


He was surprised when they required him to pay them $3000 a year concession or he would no longer be able to operate. Neil’s first response was “get stuffed” but on rethinking it, he realised so many would miss out on seeing the gannets. To compensate he put his price up from 50 cents per passenger to a dollar.


He continued to take voluntary workers, Department of Conservation and the Gannett Board members out to the Cape when they were raising money and building the cottage up toward the sanctuary.


When that structure was completed in 1968 he took Gannet Board representatives out for their first meeting in his “big wagon”, a straight 8 Studebaker motor with two gear boxes to get the gearing right down”. In the photograph of that trip taken by local identity Pete Van Asch, Neil is seen at the wheel, his father Mick is standing up, ranger Wes Stanley is shown with his hat on and Jack Cappence (sp?), the Commission of Crown Lands, is also aboard.


Beach becomes a road


Gannet Beach Adventures originally left from the campground at Te Awanga and it was always hard going crossing the river mouth. We often had a bulldozer pull the whole fleet across, particularly if there was a lot of metal on the beach it could take 30 to 45 minutes just to drive to Clifton.”


Water supply was limited so they would often take young family members through the river, or across the mouth, to wash the vehicles underneath before greasing them up again ready for the next trip.


Then the Ministry of Transport got involved. “Even though we were on the beach and not the road we had to have permission to operate without registration or a Warrant of Fitness. That changed when they decided to make the beach a road,” says Neil.


A relative from Auckland helped run the tours when things got hectic over the holiday period and it became an educational exercise with school trips on weekends and during the week.


It was a condition of his job as a fleet mechanic for Firestone that Neil could take time off. “As it got more popular with school groups, I was taking them out during the week and a large part of the trip was a study on the cliffs, the layers and faults, and geology.”


Having been out there a long time I was able to recognise all the different movements and how things have shifted and changed over hundreds of years.


In February 1972 a large slip on the track sent a truck and trailer into the sea. Neil Burden who arrived shortly afterwards towing a trailer loads of sightseers out to the gannets came across the slip and helped others free the trailer, using two tractors to pull it clear.


Just then another slip came down and caught the truck owned by Ned Deakin of Clive, and another tractor, twisting both vehicles sideways. “We had seen the slip coming and bolted in time to avoid it,” Neil told the Daily Telegraph.


“When we went to clear them again, a third slip came and pushed them out to sea.” He said it was the biggest slip he’d seen in 20-years.


In another incident Gannet Beach Safaris tractor and trailer was overturned after a large wave broke over it in March 1980. Neil, who was driving the tractor as part of a convoy of five tractors delivering a new toilet block to the rest hut at the gannet sanctuary, says the group was late returning and got caught in the tide around 7pm.

Cape Tractor overturned by landslip
Cape Tractor overturned by landslip

He told the newspaper he misjudged the rounding of the point and his 1952 Minneapolis Moline tractor was swamped and he was forced to abandon it. The remaining tractors had to drive back to the sanctuary where the crew spent the night.


Gannet tours legacy


Gannet Beach Adventures was never a full-time job for Neil and there were times when it seemed the rules and regulations became ridiculous with the tractors and trailers requiring WoFs and a Certificate of Fitness and even the tow bars and draw bars having to be certified.


“We talked about throwing it in ... The powers that be assumed we were doing 80km an hour along the road with the 40-tonne unit. The reality was we weren’t towing any faster than 20km and there was nothing dangerous about it.”


Regardless they were given a certain time in which to have the tractors and trailers certified ahead of the next season. The Ministry of Transport recommended an engineer from Havelock North who came to see the vehicles which were parked in an old hay shed. “When he saw the rust underneath he said he couldn’t certify them.”


Word got out that we were struggling with this requirement and TV3 came out to ask us if we were going to keep going. “I’ve got the video where I said ‘No, we’re shutting down. I’ve told the campers ‘that’s it’. Anyway, it came on television and a chap in Hastings who'd come out with the school children, said he would certify them. If it hadn’t been for him, I would have packed up. It was bureaucracy gone mad.”

Neil Burden leading a tour to the Cape Kidnappers Gannet Colony
Neil Burden leading a tour to the Cape Kidnappers Gannet Colony

Neil’s nephew Rod Heaps took over Gannet Beach Adventures in 1991 and then handed over to former long-term driver Colin Lindsay and his wife Kim in 2008.


They’ve had their own battles with bureaucracy and struggled when DOC closed access to the Cape after a large rock fall injured two Korean tourists who were walking along the beach. Then Covid-19 hit and it took another season for a full inquiry to be completed and the company was allowed to resume part way through the 2020--21 season.

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