When the Stockade team crossed paths with Gregg Holmes and Max Walton, we were captivated by the tale of travel, adventure, and the saving grace of great fencing skills.
Adventure begins, 1984
Gregg Holmes caught the travel bug as a young trainee from Ashhurst on a seven-month international agricultural exchange to Canada. Alberta seemed ‘tractor heaven’ and with a few weeks off to explore Canada, the US and Mexico, he awakened his wandering spirit. On his return home he picked up a fencing job to finance his next adventure – Denmark. He fenced some more before falling into sheep shearing with nil experience, plenty of enthusiasm and credentials as a Kiwi enough to satisfy the Danes.
Fast track to 2020
The Kiwi fencer and, now, international man of the land, is heading South across continental America. With cracked ribs, doped up on painkillers and fighting an onset of hypothermia from the chilling blast of an incoming Artic storm, he is living the dream!
Gregg is crossing the globe top-down from the Artic Circle to Sub Antarctic South America, and then beyond, on his Honda Africa Twin, 1000cc dual-purpose adventure bike. He rides from Alaska arriving in Alberta 30 years after his first stint there. He is back on the combine harvesters. This time they are the latest high-tech million dollar, GPS auto-steer machines. Then it’s onward to Utah in subzero temperatures followed by a relaxed trip to Panama.
In Panama, Gregg connects with an engineer, an Indian National, who he’d met in Alaska for 10 minutes. The pair have arranged to ride together and cross the water to Columbia on a 113-year old, steel-hulled ketch to avoid the Darien Gap – a mosquito-infested jungle, almost impenetrable and notorious for its poisonous snakes, escaped murderers and drug barons. Then it’s a four-day stomach-churning sail to safety.
Finally, it’s smooth. It is land. Dust, gravel, and roads less travelled from Columbia to Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile. Finally, Gregg is standing in Ushuaia, Argentina, the Southernmost city in the world, 45,000 kms from Alaska and ready for his next leg.
72 hours and down to the wire
In Argentina there is talk of “Italy.” That’s not Gregg’s intended destination. “Talk of ‘COVID’.”
Within 12 hours, national parks are closing. A notice comes from the hostel. “Argentinian borders close in 72 hours”. It’s a heart-stopping 3000 km ride to Buenos Aires. Gregg must transit through a small section of Chile, then back into Argentina on the same day. The government issues an edict requiring any person entering the country to be quarantined for 14 days. This instigates a series of roadblocks and police checks. Gregg is detained. He is issued with travel papers to move through checkpoints. No, there’s a misunderstanding. They are not travel papers at all but notice of quarantine. Leaving the hotel means risking arrest. The embassy is no help. The police, doctor, and interpreter return and with some fast talking Gregg is on his way and locks in a flight with LATAM Air.
Things change rapidly: Flight cancelled. Rescheduled. On, off. No airport entry without a valid ticket. No valid ticket. Starting to panic. No commercial flights. Last hope is a government-sanctioned flight to San Diego, Chile. Full lockdown, curfew, military – everywhere.
And a flight!
Time to reflect
Auckland, 25 March. It is Level 4 lockdown. Gregg arrives, holds up in an RV and recalls how earlier life plans had sent him on a different course.
“Returning from Denmark 30 years ago I had a grand plan of becoming an agricultural pilot. I took a job at Lochiniver Station to set up two big tractors they had brought over from the States and ended up staying for 6 ½ years, getting married and having our first child… Flying went out the window and I moved North, to rural South Auckland, where I invested in a helicopter business. The guy turned out to be a conman, took all we had saved.”
It was a big life lesson for Gregg and time to dig deep and build back up using the skills and resources Gregg had on hand.
“I put a flyer out around Ardmore and Brookby. ‘I will fence, relief milk, paint, a few other things’. Then the phone never stopped ringing. More and more it kept coming back to fencing. I started up my own company in 1995.”
Fencing brought Gregg a stable, reliable income for 25 years. “I fenced alone for a while, built up a team and a reputation. It’s been a great business in a unique area. Through all the economic downturns, fencing, for me anyway, has never waned.”
The next leg
“Then came Max Walton. A young guy looking for work. He had an aptitude for fencing. I showed him a few things and he picked them up straight away. I knew I’d better hold on to him.”
Two or three years in, Gregg recalls Max thinking about going out on his own and Max recalls Gregg seeding thoughts of transition for ownership and promising plenty of opportunity if he put in a hard day’s work.
“We did the transition over a couple of years to make sure the clients were happy. Max had good skills there – but a few things to learn in a business sense. The clients were in agreeance of staying on and over those years Max took on more responsibility. We agreed on a price.”
Gregg knows identifying and fostering Max’s young talent and mentoring him to become a business owner opened up his lifetime dream of riding around the world on a motorcycle.
He didn’t know that planning ahead and investing in Max was about to pay dividends in other ways.
Coming full circle – 2020 lockdown, New Zealand
Under Level 4 lockdown Max is working on his own. Stock containment is essential work. His two staff have been unable to join him. Where could he find a reliable experienced new hire in this environment? Walk in Gregg.
“It’s been great having Gregg’s experience back on board. Everything I learnt about fencing, I learnt from Gregg himself – so I can trust he will do a great job.” Max likens fencing to riding a bike. “Once you know what you are doing and have the basic knowledge about how a fence is constructed, you have a skill for life.”
And Gregg is happy to be on the job too. He has a boss he has handpicked. Still, a couple of things have changed. Work isn’t quite as hard as when he left since Max won a Stockade ST315 batten stapler from last year’s FCANZ AGM, then quickly invested in the ST400i post stapler for the team.
Max says there’s that much work to do, and he knows efficiency is key.
“I am adapting, bringing some modern technology and equipment into the business to make our lives as fencers so much easier. Since getting the gas-operated tool, it’s opened up a whole lot of uses. We always struggled to get a compressor down some of those steep hills. Now with the ST315i batten stapler you don’t even think about it. You just grab it and head off. Repair work or new work, the ST400i post stapler is really useful, definitely speeds things up and saves the arm from stapling away.”
As for the future – Gregg is enjoying the beautiful New Zealand outdoors while he waits to reconnect with his bike and saves up for his next adventure. This time, Africa. Max is already thinking about the next generation of fencers. He has brought on an 18-year old who is already showing talent.
“He’s keen, reliable and turns up every day and is proving a valuable part of the team already.”