Mark Blumsky on diplomatic and horticultural life in Niue

by Mike White / 05 November, 2017

He’s been a shoe-shop owner, Wellington mayor and a National MP, but Mark Blumsky found his slice of heaven as High Commissioner-turned-horticulturalist in Niue. He talks to Mike White. 

Life turns on little things. Chance meetings, dashed intentions, unexpected invitations. For Mark Blumsky, former Wellington mayor and National MP, all these things played a part in him shifting to Niue and establishing several businesses. So did a bowl of coleslaw.

Truth be told it was several bowls of coleslaw. Too many bowls, ultimately. Posted to Niue as New Zealand’s High Commissioner, Blumsky loved the fruit and fish the Pacific island provided, but the repetitive meal accompaniment wore thin.

“Coleslaw is nice, but I missed my salads. They said it was too expensive to fly in lettuce – cabbage came by boat because it lasted longer.”

At the time, Blumsky was president of Niue’s golf club. One day, club captain James Douglas showed him a small garden he’d begun at the back of his property.

“This is quite good,” Blumsky told him. “You’re a bit of a green thumb.”

The problem with Niue – warm and lush as it is – is that it’s a coral atoll, with very little topsoil. Scratch the surface and you’ll get down only 10 or 15cm before you hit rock. Even if you do get a crop to grow, it will suck out the soil’s limited nutrients in a season.

So Blumsky and Douglas decided to try their hand at hydroponics – essentially growing crops above ground in water. They could see the potential but really had no idea what they were doing. Their first lettuces bolted to seed, ending up looking like Christmas trees. But with advice from a New Zealand company, they gradually refined their operation and now grow five types of lettuce, cucumbers, peppers, bok choy, choy sum, silverbeet, cabbage, pumpkins, pineapple, rock melons and a vast array of herbs. And tomatoes. Bloody tomatoes. This is the fifth season they’ve tried them, all previous crops falling victim to the heat, the rain, the humidity, or the villainous fruit-piercing moth. But at $20 a kilo flown in from New Zealand, they’re worth one last try, sighs Blumsky.

“We’ve learnt heaps,” he says, wandering through his new world of greenery called Niue Fresh. “It’s all been trial and error – and we’ve made some big-time mistakes.”

A walking track through the coral formations and bush that are typical of Niue. With so little topsoil, it’s difficult for crops to survive.

It was a mistake of some magnitude that led Blumsky to Niue. The former shoe-shop owner had been Wellington’s mayor between 1995 and 2001, ran a business incubator after that, then in 2005 became a National Party MP. It took him just a year to realise it was the wrong move. “Horrible place for me, for my sort of personality. Didn’t fit there.”

National leader John Key convinced him to see out his term, but Blumsky couldn’t wait to escape Parliament in 2008. Not long after, Foreign Affairs minister Murray McCully asked the entrepreneurial Blumsky to investigate tourism potential on Niue.

“Where’s that?” Blumsky replied.

Confusing it with Nauru, and unsure if McCully had actually said Norway, Blumsky located it on a map and said yes. After he’d made several trips there, in 2010 McCully asked Blumsky if he’d consider being New Zealand’s High Commissioner in Niue.

“And I thought, why not? Little did I think I’d end up living there at the end of it – but I just really liked it.”

There was another attraction. On a previous trip he’d met Pauline Rex, granddaughter of Niue’s first Premier and daughter of a Cabinet minister, who’d just returned home after 10 years working in Dubai as a flight attendant. Blumsky had seen Rex in her family’s restaurant, repeatedly gone there and eaten far too much coleslaw in an effort to catch her eye. They eventually married in 2012.

By the time he finished his High Commissioner stint in 2014 (succeeded by Jacinda Ardern’s father, Ross) Blumsky had committed himself to the island and its population of 1500. “I just decided this was where my life was going to be. So I pretty much sold up in New Zealand and moved up here. All my mates thought I was mad. They’ve apologised now – and some of them have come up three or four or five times.” 

He loves the warmth – of both the climate and the locals. “The people are stunning. They’re just themselves. They’re natural, there’s no pretence. They accept life, they accept you, there’s no hidden agenda. They just live life, and they enjoy each day.”

It’s rubbed off on Blumsky, now 60. “I don’t worry as much as I used to. I don’t play games like I used to – political games, or one-upmanship. You become pragmatic because there’s no Mitre 10 or Bunnings down the road. You become realistic.

“The other thing is, I’ve never been so well behaved in my life, because everyone knows everything you do. I’m a model of excellence!”

And while he says Niue is incredibly busy for an island with so few people, he revels in the pace of life. “It took me six months to slow my walking down, because I’m from Lambton Quay – and you don’t walk slow down Lambton Quay because you get bowled over. Here, you make sure you’re going in the right direction. As long as you know you are, you actually don’t care that it takes you longer.”

Blumsky (right) and Niue Fresh co-founder James Douglas.

Even though the speed of his gait has slackened, Blumsky swears he’s fitter than he’s ever been. He works outdoors, eats the greens he grows, plays golf, “and I mow the lawns at the bowling club twice a week”.

He’d never played bowls before he came to Niue, other than a ceremonial roll-up as mayor. But in 2013, he helped establish a club in Niue and is the current pairs champion with the local baker. Rex also plays and she won a silver medal at the 2015 Pacific Games. Both are hoping to represent Niue at the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Queensland. “We’re getting better,” he says. “We practise like crazy and we’re competitive – shit, we’re competitive.”

Another aim Blumsky has is to one day become a member of Niue’s 20-member parliament, though first he’ll have to be granted citizenship, something he’ll be eligible for in 2020, after living there for 10 years. “I think I can add some value. The best job I ever had was Mayor of Wellington. It wasn’t politics really, and you felt you could make a difference. And I think I could do the same here.”

He feels he’s already made a difference, investing in several businesses as well as the hydroponics farm, which employs five people – one of whom he’s just gifted five per cent of the company because of his loyal service. Along with supplying the local market, Niue Fresh is about to start exporting herbs to New Zealand for use in Auckland restaurants.

In addition, there’s great potential for the island’s tourism industry, Blumsky says, because its story hasn’t really been told until now. In the meantime, though, there are lettuces to grow and melons to ripen – not to mention tomatoes to nurture and cosset through to maturity.

Seeds sprouting before being planted out.

Blumsky returns to New Zealand every year, still loves Wellington, but worries it’s drifted a bit. “It needs a kick up the arse. I don’t think it’s as positive as it used to be. I don’t think it should ever lose that tag, but I think it’s lost a bit of the mojo. I can’t believe they lost the Sevens. I can’t believe they let some of that magic fizz go.”

Blumsky says Wellington’s new mayor, Justin Lester, is a nice guy and wishes him the best of luck. “I hope Justin can be bold, because you need to be a bit bold in a city like Wellington. If you’re not bold, Auckland gets away on you.”

Blumsky says if he wasn’t living on Niue, he’d definitely come back to New Zealand. When he does return on holiday, he loves going to restaurants and movies and shops and sampling pinot noir.

“But then you come home and you think, yeah, I’m glad I live here.”

This was published in the October 2017 issue of North & South.

 

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