It’s every young kiwi boy’s dream, to live on the edge of the forest, spending every waking hour hunting, fishing and shooting. Davey Hughes – the Swazi man – was lucky enough to live that dream, and eventually turn it into a highly successful career.
He’s on a whistle-stop visit to Ashburton as a special guest of the Longbeach Home and School, and Spirit Magazine caught up with him at Hotel Ashburton to talk about his extraordinary life.
It’s not hard to spot him walking towards me. The tell-tale long blond hair and the hat give him away. He’s saving his voice for the evening ‘talk’ but he’s still surprisingly quietly spoken. No show-pony. With his easy smile, down-to-earth sense of humour and quick wit it feels more like catching up with an old friend.
Born in Scotland, the Hughes family moved to New Zealand when Davey was just 18months old, and made Wainuiomata home. “I don’t think I was a born hunter, but one of my earliest memories is the sound of bush pigs rubbing against the house – that’s how close to the bush we were. I dreamed of wild pigs, possums and deer. It was as exciting as hell.” He grins. “I actually dreamed of them in my room, under the bed, in the wardrobe, wherever. Dad wasn’t too impressed as I frightened the hell out of myself.”
He also soaked up the family legends of hunting in Burma (now called Myanmar). His Grandmother was Burmese and his great aunt, at just 4’8” tall, was a legendary hunter.
As soon as he could read he devoured hunting books. Barry Crump was a favourite author, Rex Forester and Robert Service, the Yukon poet. He is still an avid reader, and also writes poetry.
From age six he was roaming the Rimutaka Ranges with his older brother, building forts, hunting possums and dreaming of being old enough to go on a ‘proper’ deer hunt. At 14, he shot his first deer, and he still remembers bringing the (bullet-ridden) meat home to his family. Sharing the meat is a part of hunting that he still enjoys today.
London, Scotland, Africa, the world beckoned, and at 18 he headed off to explore. Of all the countries he visited – and he enjoyed them all – Swaziland made the biggest impression. “Swaziland made me. For the two and a half years I was there, every day was an adventure. I learned a lot about myself. You have to live on your sixth sense, be aware of the dangers, and steer yourself away from them. I developed a very strong sixth sense and it still serves me well, today.”
Returning to NZ in 1985 he very quickly returned to possum trapping, living off his wits in the back of beyond for weeks, sometimes months at a time.
When the possum pelt prices crashed in 1994 he and wife Maggie established the Swazi outdoor clothing brand “I was an expert at getting wet and cold, so we started designing and making products based on my experience, items that were very functional and comfortable.” As the business grew, he became brand ambassador, taking Swazi to the world. The clothing brand has now gained a worldwide reputation for making the best outdoor gear in the world, recently winning the UK Shooting industry Clothing of the Year 2017 Award. “We beat everyone else in the UK. That’s pretty cool,” he says.
He still heads the design team at Swazi, and spends half his time working there, and the other half travelling, hunting, and promoting the brand. Rather surprisingly, the design is his passion. “The European market appreciate style and function. They want outdoor gear that looks good, and does the job, and I enjoy that.”
His passion has taken him all over the world; he has hunted caribou in the Arctic circle, grizzlies in Alaska and buffalo in Tanzania. He’s the dude who often pops up on the Border Patrol programme with an array of interesting souvenirs of his travels … guns, tusks, furs and other weird stuff!
Has he ever been frightened out of his wits? “Constantly. Fear is a good thing. It kicks in that sixth sense I talked about earlier, and you muster all your survival instincts. When you’re sitting around a campfire and you can see the green eyes of a tiger stalking the other side, and you don’t have your gun handy, that’s the stuff that makes you crap your pants. Getting in close to a bear with only a spear, you know you’re alive then.”
A keen environmentalist, his philosophy on life is simple – to “leave this place a better place than the way we found it”. He hates anything that soils the earth, especially what is happening to our water, at the moment. “We need to wake up and do something now, before it’s too late. Our kids get it, but we need to be the ones to act, or there’ll be nothing left for them.” He’s also a fierce advocate of encouraging young people to get out and experience the world’s back country the way he did.
He’s also a staunch supporter of all things NZ-made and says there’s no way the Swazi brand will ever be manufactured overseas.
What does he see himself doing in ten years’ time? “I’ll probably be doing much of the same, but I have aspirations to be a grumpy old man,” he grins, “I’m really a big softie, so I’ll be crap at it, but it might be fun to try.”