Owner of iconic East Coast pub is ‘one lucky guy’

patientstory 10-6-24
A dicky heart, a helicopter, and a hotel by the sea . . . Te Puka Tavern owner Greg Connelly reflects on the stories he will soon get to tell at someone else’s pub.

Greg Connelly has spent a lifetime immersed in pub culture. He was born in one in Bangalow, in the hinterland of Byron Bay. As a developer he’s been involved in building and refurbishing hotels. And more than 20 years ago he bought his own at Tokomaru Bay, overlooking the ocean on the picturesque East Coast.

But he’d never been picked up from one in a helicopter.

That was until 2020 when a cardiac event led to the then-73-year-old becoming a passenger on the Trust Tairāwhiti Eastland Rescue Helicopter.

“I’d had episodes of atrial fibrillation (irregular heartbeat) before but it’s not something you want to ignore as it can cause blood clots, and if they end up in the wrong place, then you’re really in trouble,” says the affable Aussie.

“On this particular day I damn near fainted in the hotel so the manager called the local health clinic, and once they’d taken a look at me they got straight onto ringing the chopper.

“I like to think I’m pretty stoic but on that day I was really pleased to see them. They landed in the car park, treated and loaded me, and whipped me down to Gisborne Hospital.

“They kept a close eye on me all the way until my heart went back to its usual rhythm. And you can feel when that happens . . . it’s like someone comes along and gives you a great big kick up the backside and you’re up and running again.”

Greg got away with it that day but had to have a cryoablation procedure to shut down the heart tissue causing his problem.

“But even though I’ve lived here for a long time, and paid taxes for a long time, I don’t like to be a burden on the health system,” he says. “So I bolted over to Coolangatta and checked into a private hospital to get it done. It took just a couple of hours and when I woke up they said ‘you can go play golf now’.”

And it’s just as well Greg returned to Tokomaru Bay fighting fit.

Having already poured energy into sprucing up the pub, installing a massive commercial kitchen and building four self-contained accommodation units he, too, was impacted by weather events that slammed the East Coast.

However, it was not early-2023 cyclones Hale or Gabrielle that were the problem. It was the giant rain of March, 2022.

“The volume of water was just incredible . . . even the cyclones a year later didn’t come anywhere close,” he says.

“So while the buildings were solid, there was an effect on the sewage system and that had to be sorted before we could open again.”

While the kitchen and accommodation was operational, the doors to the pub itself were shut, he says.

“It had to be done but dealing with insurance and things was frustrating and it took 19 months to go through all those processes.

“The worst thing was having to let staff go over that time. That really hurts in a community like this.”

By November 2023 it was all sorted and, mindful of the march of time, Greg put the pub on the market.

“I’m not getting any younger and with my son and two daughters all gravitating back to Australia I wanted to be closer to them and my grandchildren,” he says.

“It’s been amazing and I built up a really good business, but it was time to think about those priorities.”

It has been 21 years since Greg Connelly bought the Te Puka Tavern but pub-life was not his first experience of the Tairawhiti region.

“I came over in the summer of 1976/1977 and my mates and I were surfing at Raglan when someone said ‘if you’re looking for waves, you’d better go to Gisborne’,” he says.

“We came for a New Year’s Eve party and I just didn’t leave. I had a great bunch of friends and we lived in this big house near Gentle Annie at Waerenga O Kuri, basically surfing and socialising and having a great time.”

Greg was already a partner in a building company back in Australia and after 12 months duty called, and he headed back over the Tasman.

Then in the winter of 2000 he returned, heading to Tokomaru Bay to spend time with friends.

“I couldn’t believe that in that year I lived in Gisborne I never travelled up towards the East Cape . . . it’s just so beautiful I kept coming back,” he says.

“I had the idea of purchasing a little piece of land then, in 2003, ended up buying a seaside tavern.”

It wasn’t a straightforward process. The tavern was not formally advertised so Greg — who had just returned to his home in Australia – asked a mate to “toddle down on his bicycle” to talk to the owner.

“He said he’d listed it with a real estate agent in town, Adrian Sutherland, so I got in touch with him and he sent me all the guff.

“I hadn’t even unpacked my bags but headed straight back, stayed for the marketing period then put my tender in at five-to-five on the last day.

“And it wasn’t long before Adrian turned up with a bottle of champagne and said ‘you’ve just bought yourself a pub’.”

The first thing Greg did was get rid of pokies and other gambling, which he didn’t believe served the community well.

“But I had business to be getting on with in Australia so I leased it until I could return in late 2010.

“Then we looked at what was needed, how the days of the ‘six-o’clock-swill’ were over and the focus was more on family and food, and got stuck into refurbishing the whole thing and putting in the commercial kitchen and studio apartments.”

Over the following years the tavern has been home to events from weddings and 21st birthday parties to the now-iconic local fishing competitions.

“You can always build on something and if I was younger I’d do even more, especially around the accommodation which is always full, but it’s someone else’s turn now.”

With the pub on the market, Greg was stoked to still be in good health to enjoy the next chapter of his life.

“I don’t know if I’d even be here if the rescue helicopter hadn’t come that day . . . everyone from the clinic nurse to the flight paramedic were amazing,” he says.

“I was one lucky guy and have some pretty interesting memories to take home and tell at someone else’s pub.”

CAPTION: COMING OF AGE: In the 21 years he has owned Tokomaru Bay’s iconic Te Puka Tavern publican Greg Connelly has seen some epic parties and a few massive rain events, but he never thought he’d see a rescue helicopter land in the car park.