From finding people to finding solutions to access issues

A few years ago, Rod Smillie found himself sharing a hut deep in Whanganui National Park with a couple of Israeli secret service officers who had come to New Zealand for a holiday.

The men talked about the situation in Israel. One of the officers had a PhD in nuclear physics. “When you're stuck in a hut in the middle of nowhere, the only thing you can do is talk. You meet some amazing people,” Rod says.

A lifelong passion for the outdoors, coupled with his interest in people prompted Rod to take on the role of regional field advisor for the New Zealand Walking Access Commission, for the Taranaki, Whanganui and Manawatu regions. Rod, an ex-farmer, brings plenty of experience to the role, having worked 14 years for the Department of Conservation (DOC) and 25 years in search and rescue operations.

Search and rescue taught him a great deal about human psychology. He explains: “It used to be that when someone got lost, you'd simply swamp the area with people until you stumbled upon the missing person. Nowadays, lost person behaviour is a well-researched science, with psychological and statistical data to support it. You don't need huge numbers of people out searching.”

Rod grew up in a small district called Matau, in eastern Taranaki. He farmed there until 1999, when he set up a pest control business. Pest control was the focus of his first role at DOC, in Whanganui. He recalls that role with a sense of pride.

“When I first started, the relationship with the local iwi was pretty strained, but in the end it was strong. It comes down to being honest with each other. We never promised anything we couldn't deliver. And we involved the community in everything we did.”

He waxes lyrical about the Whanganui River and its surroundings, saying: “It's just a beautiful place. The seventh wonder of the world, as far as I'm concerned.”

After Whanganui, Rod spent two years managing DOC's Palmerston North office, between 2013 and 2015. When the Commission's regional field advisor position became available, someone told him he should go for it.

The new role means he can continue to do the things he loves: talk to people, listen to their issues, and help them figure out the solutions that work best for them.

“I've always been interested in problem-solving. It's good when you can be involved in an issue and listen to both sides. Quite often, both parties have to give something up. But there's generally a solution out there that everyone can be happy with.”

In his spare time, Rod is studying towards a diploma in health and safety management. He tramps regularly, a good way to “keep the kilos off.” He is a keen hunter and hopes to take his young sons along when they are a bit older - they are seven and nine. These outdoor experiences will teach them about resilience and “how you go about solving problems when you don't have Google at your fingertips,” he says.

Most of all, his boys will learn the meaning of friendship.

“For me, the camaraderie is of more value than the hunting. Over the years, there have been some fantastic conversations and laughs,” he says.