2 Jan 2015

Taranaki basks in rugby glow

6:45 am on 2 January 2015

A heroic kayaker, an errant seal and an all-conquering rugby team were just some of the events to catch the imagination of Taranaki folk in 2014.

In April, Scott Donaldson set off from New South Wales in an attempt to become the first person to kayak solo across the Tasman.

Scott Donaldson with wife Sarah on Friday.

Scott Donaldson and his wife, Sarah. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

Three months later, supporters and the public alike waited anxiously as stormy conditions and highs winds began to push him back across the ditch with his goal of landing at Port Taranaki agonisingly close.

After rolling three times during the night and losing power and potentially communications, Donaldson finally abandoned his bid on 14 July, with only 83km of his more than 2000km voyage left to paddle.

But no sooner had he been winched to safety than he began making public speaking appearances championing his pet cause, asthma awareness.

Donaldson challenged a packed council chamber in New Plymouth to get out of their comfort zones and get active - but perhaps by doing something a little less extreme than he had.

fur seal

Fur seal Photo: PHOTO NZ

Plucky New Plymouth pensioner Arthur Lester didn't need reminding to keep active. The 85-year-old was out on his regular walk along the Coastal Walkway in June when a fur seal took a huge bite out of his leg.

At last report, a chirpy Mr Lester was recovering well and looking forward to getting out of the limelight and back on his feet. The seal, meanwhile, had eventually skulked back into the Tasman Sea.

There was no negotiating with the angry seal but there were deals a plenty being done around the region's council tables.

New Plymouth Mayor Andrew Judd.

New Plymouth Mayor Andrew Judd. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

In September, after much wrangling, New Plymouth Mayor Andrew Judd got the numbers to pass a proposal to introduce a Maori ward at the next local government election, only to instantly feel the backlash.

Colourful councillor and former reality TV star John McLeod resigned on the spot and local Grey Power president Hugh Johnson left his post to champion a citizens-initiated referendum on the issue, which is closing in on the 2700 signatories required to force a poll.

Mr Judd is resigned to losing the mayoral chains over the Maori wards issue but he won favour with his handling of the emotive issue of whether or not to sell the council's pensioner flats.

Richard Flyger.

Richard Flyger outside his pensioner flat. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

In late October, the council decided to hold on to its 145 units and forgo a potential $12 million windfall.

Meanwhile, in South Taranaki, the fallout from the Eltham buttermilk stink debacle continued.

Residents of Castle Street, who claim they have been poisoned by the fumes from three million litres of rotting dairy product dumped at the wastewater plant, took little solace from the Taranaki Medical Officer of Health's October report on the matter.

Dr Jonathan Jarman confirmed their ill-health had most likely been cause by the stink but stopped short of saying they had been poisoned.

Deputy Mayor Alex Ballantyne, who says he knows of three deaths possibly linked to the pong, was unceremoniously ditched from the post in November after his boss, Mayor Ross Dunlop, said he could no longer work with him.

The council itself was in the firing line later in the month when it faced the wrath of the Environment Court, which hit it with a $115,000 fine for its role in the debacle. Not that the affected residents took any pleasure in that decision - after all the fine comes out of South Taranaki District Council ratepayers' pockets and will be paid to the Taranaki Regional Council, where they also pay rates.

Eltham resident Mark Kelly believes he may have been poisoned by fumes from three million litres of dairy products dumped at a wastewater plant.

Eltham resident Mark Kelly believes he may have been poisoned by fumes from three million litres of dairy products dumped at a wastewater plant. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

Other court room dramas to play out over 2014 included the October trial and sentencing of sex offender Allan Neil Rosewarne to preventative detention.

Three days into his trial, the 48-year-old changed his plea and admitted 18 charges involving the systematic rape and beating of his two partners over almost 20 years.

Basketballer Reuben Te Rangi.

Reuben Te Rangi. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

In the same month, promising New Zealand Breakers basketball player Reuben Te Rangi was convicted for his role in a vicious assault in New Plymouth in May.

Te Rangi and Southland Sharks teammates Leon Henry and Shea Ili attacked staff at a bar in the city after being refused entry. All three were convicted and received community-based sentences.

The inquest into the deaths of Auckland climbers Nicole Sutton and Hiroki Ogawa in 2013 was also held in October.

Over four days the court was told harrowing details of the rescue attempt and conditions on Mt Taranaki at the time of the couple's death.

The coroner released his findings in November, which pointed primarily to the pair's failure to turn back when others in their party did as leading to their death.

Hiroki Ogawa and Nicole Sutton.

Hiroki Ogawa and Nicole Sutton. Photo: NZ POLICE

Early in December, two New Plymouth teens were cleared of rape charges following a nine-day trial which captivated the city.

The young men, now aged 19, were 18-year-old New Plymouth High School students when their drunken sexual encounter with the girl, who was 17 at the time, was filmed and uploaded to Facebook.

One of the men was found guilty of making an intimate recording and his lawyer was seeking a discharge without conviction.

No criminal charges were laid but the region's main tertiary education provider, the Western Institute of Technology at Taranaki (WITT), was ordered to pay back $3.7 million in government funding following an investigation into irregularities in its Maori performing arts programmes.

One student, 78-year-old Hinga Harris, received a litter from WITT saying she had graduated - despite her attending only a few classes.

WITT had to cancel about 400 diplomas and certificates it had issued.

Hinga Harris

Hinga Harris Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

While some Maori voiced their frustration at the institute, the year had some significant highlights for tangata whenua.

As well as the positive outcome in the Maori wards debate, two Taranaki iwi, Te Atiawa and Ngaruahine, signed off on their respective $87 million and $67.5 million Treaty of Waitangi settlements in August.

National Party candidates romped home in the province's Parliamentary electorates during the September election but that was an odds-on bet - unlike Taranaki's history-making victory in rugby's ITM Cup.

Taranaki celebrate winning the ITM Cup Premiership Final.

Taranaki celebrate winning the ITM Cup Premiership Final. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Riding on the back of huge home town support, Colin Cooper's unfancied side came from behind to beat Auckland in extra time in the semi-final against Auckland at Yarrow Stadium, and held off Tasman at the same venue in front of a sell-out crowd in the final a week later.

Almost unbelievably, it was the first time this rugby-mad region had won the national provincial title and Taranaki is still basking in the glory of that October victory.

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