How it began
In 1982, after 20 years working for radio, TV and print media in the UK, Monaco, Australia and Brunei, award-winning journalist Nigel Coventry became public relations officer for NZ's Tourist and Publicity Department (Now TNZ). In 1985 he left that role to write about New Zealand’s visitor industry for overseas publications, as well as editing a new magazine, Travel Scene. To hide the fact he was a prolific writer Nigel adopted pseudonyms: Nancy Manchester and Nick Darby.
IT was launched when Nigel saw the need for an independent, factual and up-to-the-minute publication about NZ tourism and, despite some initial industry scepticism, it began as a weekly fax-based publication, with four pages of content, snail-mailed to anyone who didn’t have a fax.
Advertisers were soon keen to recognise the potential of this new market and today, there's so much happening in the industry that IT now consists of 18 (and sometimes up to 22) pages, necessitating the need for an Executive Summary, for subscribers throughout New Zealand are 17 other countries who now receive the publication by email. He also launched the Inside Tourism Industry Diary.
Nigel was New Zealand Travel Writer of the Year in 1985/6 and was a PATA Gold Award winner in 1999, thanks to an exclusive interview with the then-chairman of the China National Tourism Administration during his New Zealand visit prior to ADS. In 2008 Nigel was stunned to be named PATA Journalist of the Year.
Who is this guy, Nigel Coventry?
Born in the Cotswolds, UK with asthma so bad the doctors thought he wouldn’t survive, he was introduced by his grandparents to scrumpy, the farmhouse-made and oh-so-strong cider, in a last-ditch attempt to save him. Thankfully he took to the drop and hasn’t looked back.
He left school at 16, after moving from a small boys’ grammar school in Tewkesbury to a mixed school in Bletchley, Bucks. The headmaster (as they were called then) thought the young Nigel might end up in trouble with the girls, being the new boy who wore red socks and who sped around on a flash chrome racing bike, and suggested he apply for a job on the local paper. Not knowing what a journalist was, Nigel asked a lot of questions and got the job.
Nigel was in Bucks when the Great Train Robbery happened, about 10km from Bletchley, and when the government announced that the first new city in the UK for seemingly centuries would be spread over 28,000 acres of north Bucks countryside. Bletchley was swallowed up.
As a columnist Nigel’s interviewed many pop stars including the Rolling Stones, The Searchers and the Hollies. Nigel’s first foray overseas was to Monaco where he lived on the beach for a week only to return to England as a raw prawn. He had never heard of Ambre Solaire at that stage. On another visit to the principality he was given a job collecting money from people who wanted to use mattresses and umbrellas on the man-made beach. Having learned his lesson he also sold suntan lotion.
He later co-managed one of the first discotheques, Fanny’s London Discotheque, around the corner from the casino. Nigel had driven a mini throughout Europe many times by the mid-1960s and even visited the then-taboo countries behind the Iron Curtain including Poland, the GDR, Romania, Bulgaria and the USSR.
After returning from one of these trips, his father asked where he’d been and, on hearing it was Moscow, his father’s face went white. Nigel soon realised why. Dad was employed at Bletchley Park, and prior to that was at Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in Cheltenham. Both places were top secret! It was where British intelligence was based - where they listened to all “intel” coming from the Communist Bloc. Oh well, he hadn’t known that, as his dad was sworn to secrecy. But, on reflection, Nigel could have ended up in trouble and his dad could have lost his job.
(Bletchley Park is where the Brits cracked the German military code using ponderous but effective computers, and was the subject of two films including The Enigma File). Nigel eventually decided to visit the heart-shaped island at the bottom of the world (Tasmania) so set off on his own, travelling - and sleeping - in a van through Eastern Europe to Turkey, intending to reach India.
Originally he did have a partner but, after they’d been celebrating their departure in the local village pub, both jumped in the van they were to use, and the exhaust pipe fell off! The “friend” then announced he wasn’t going.Two days later, with the exhaust pipe repaired, Nigel left early in the morning, As he was tiptoeing downstairs, his parents were still in bed and when they asked where he was going, he said, “Australia”. Mum then asked if she could make him some sandwiches!
Nigel spent three months travelling through Eastern Europe, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, India, Nepal and Thailand, then on to Singapore. He eventually arrived in Fremantle by ship, crossed the Nullarbor Plains and ended up where he’d intended, in Tassie, where he worked on The Examiner, before moving to The Advertiser in Adelaide, where there was less “Pommy bashing”.
As police reporter he missed the tipoff of his life: Ronnie Biggs was living in the Adelaide seaside suburb of Glenelg. Ronnie was the most famous fugitive of the time, having been part of the Great Train Robbery in Nigel’s patch in the UK. The tipoff was never followed up and years later it was discovered that Ronnie really had been there after all. Oops.
In NZ in 1969 Nigel was invited to join The Dominion and later The Sunday Times. While on the latter he met Les Hutchings who was trying to warn the world about government plans to raise Lake Manapouri for a power station. Nigel’s front-page story helped stir the public into supporting the campaign to stop this happening, and he covered the ensuing inquiry for The Dominion.
He then joined NZBC in Wellington as a reporter, covering a story for radio in Bowen Street’s Broadcasting House, then walking to the Waring Taylor Street studios and repeating the same story on television. TV and radio were one in those days.
In 1970 he was invited to join the Borneo Bulletin, the Brunei-based weekly also covering Sabah and Sarawak.Nigel was the only journalist ever to interview the present Sultan’s father, the late Sir Omar Ali Saifuddin, the canny power behind the throne at the time. The interview lasted three hours.
He later wrote the life stories of all major East Malaysian chief ministers and governors.During Queen Elizabeth’s visit to South-east Asia in 1972, Nigel was introduced to the Queen as “the one who gets it wrong” by a tongue-in-cheek British Resident (High Commissioner).
On that visit Nigel was the only still photographer invited on board the Royal Yacht Britannia and had the Brunei Sultan, his parents and wife, as well as the Queen, Prince Philip and Princess Anne, posing for him.That photograph is on Nigel’s wall in his Paraparaumu Beach office, where one can see the Duke whispering to the Queen, “That was the one from the local papah.”
When the Sultan of Johore visited Brunei he rang Nigel and invited him to the istana for a chat. This freaked Nigel out at first because the sultan had a violent reputation. He was said to have pulled a pistol on a motorist who had overtaken his Highness’ car - and to have hit someone over the head with a club while playing golf, killing them. But the royal chat went smoothly and, as the Sultan went on to become King of Malaysia under the country’s heads of state elections, Nigel can say a King once poured him a cup of iced tea.
Nigel was the only journalist to travel weekly from Brunei into Sabah and Sarawak, and was probably the first European newspaperman to visit many of the more isolated villages deep in the Borneo jungle.This is acknowledged in a reference from the paper when he left. “Nigel has made many arduous treks through the jungle in his hunt for stories,” wrote the editor.
One trip saw him travelling through the pirate-infested Sulu Sea in a kumpit which moved only at night, and with no navigation lights – only for him to be arrested by the Philippines Constabulary as a “spy for Sabah”. On s later trip he interviewed by Sultan of Jolo’s daughter, Princess Kiram, and wrote about the link between the Brunei and Sulu royal families.
He travelled over the border to Sarawak every week from Brunei and because of family connections was often driven to interviews in the Mayor of Kuching’s chauffeur-driven Mercedes - to the awe of local Chinese journalists who would then try to find out what the subject of his interviews had told him for their own stories! He was later banned from Sarawak for 10 years, only to be eventually invited back as a host of the state government.
After three years exploring Asia he took a month-long journey from the then Soviet Far East to Moscow, mainly aboard the Trans Siberian. On that trip he also visited Tashkent, Samarkand and Georgia. He particularly enjoyed the latter for its architecture, wines and way of life.
Back in England he became chief reporter on the Bucks Advertiser in Aylesbury. During the three years he was there David Bowie, then an unknown person to Nigel (who had, let’s be honest, been living overseas for seven years), sometimes rang the office to talk to a junior reporter by the name of Kris Needs.
Aylesbury was the scene for a monthly “club” called Friars which had 10,000 members. Fans would travel from all over Europe to visit the club. Even Split Enz played there. Bowie was often in the crowd and Kris met him several times, eventually running the singer’s fan club. Also known for his unannounced appearances was Elton John who lived in Tring about 15km away.
It was a happening scene of which Nigel was unaware, preferring to moonlight as a taxi driver and run three taekwondo clubs, in addition to his fulltime job as a journalist.
Nigel had gained his black belt in Brunei in 1974, and the sport was unknown in England until he formed the British Taekwondo Association. Nigel later worked for the Oxford Mail and Times as a sub-editor, and then became editor of The Bicester Advertiser.
After returning to Wellington via the US, Canada and American Samoa, he joined the Dominion as a sub-editor. He moved to the Tourist and Publicity Department to run an export year campaign, transferring to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as information liaison officer. He ended up as press secretary for Deputy Finance Minister Hugh Templeton and Rob Talbot, who was Tourism Minister as well as Postmaster General.
Nigel applied for the position of public relations officer at the Tourism and Publicity Department’s head office. Told he had succeeded but that the Minister wanted to keep him, Nigel stunned his bosses by declaring he’d do both jobs. And he did. Eventually he found Simon Towle and introduced him to Mr Talbot “as your new press officer” – and Nigel was free to focus on tourism.
Until then Nigel would walk fast between the Beehive and head office to conduct his responsibilities. As the weather was often inclement he’d wear a trench coat with the collar turned up and that lead to whispers amongst his colleagues at T and P that he really worked for the SIS! Don’t forget that this was during the Muldoon years. Since Nigel left the department in 1985 to freelance, he’s never looked back other than to retain contacts throughout the country.
He was manager of the Brunei Taekwondo Team invited to the first World Taekwondo Championships in Seoul in 1972, and also managed the New Zealand team to the World Champs in Taiwan in the 1980s. Nigel has completed five marathons, four in under three hours and with a PB on 2hrs 54mins.
Today his exercise consists of playing a trumpet. While he is often unable to recall what he did even an hour earlier, Nigel started playing music after 50 years, when wife Linda bought him a cornet, and discovered he hadn’t forgotten a thing.
What were Nigel’s most frustrating experiences? Being in a coach heading from Ankara to Tehran only to hit a snow drift where he and about 16 others were stuck for several days until Nigel, frustrated that although the road was cleared by ploughs, no one would help free the vehicle because it was Persian registered. He walked through knee deep snow to a village to raise the alarm, phoning the British Embassy to tell the bus company their coach was broken down, the engine cracked and people might die if help didn’t come.
During a trip from Adelaide to Alice Springs he was in another coach which got stuck for two days. This time in bulldust by the Woomera Rocket Range. And his most memorable trips? Cruising the Inside Passage in Alaska, visiting North Korea and enjoying Iran and Afghanistan, which were very peaceful in 1968. In fact, one of the most memorable times he can recall was standing in a field just outside Herat with a cobalt sky. But that was all before he had discovered New Zealand…