Queenstown, increasingly bereft of crusty characters, has lost one surely out of the box.
Bruce Mills, pioneer paraglider here and in the Indian Himalayas, champion skier, climber and trekker died suffused with cancer in Christchurch just after Christmas. He was 58.
Some 200 friends attended what might best be described as a no-regrets memorial in the Wakatipu Ski Club lodge at Coronet Peak last Wednesday. Tributes flowed, along with the jokes, food, bevvies and music.
Last year he was doing what he’d done for 25 years, mostly in India – he’s been called the father of Indian paragliding. Then back to Queenstown two or three times a year to breeze in on friends for tea or whatever was going – and to ski hard. “My back hurts, but my physio here will fix it,” he’d say. And then just as suddenly, he’d fly out again.
The back was the undoing. He returned to New Zealand late November in a wheelchair with suspected Tb of the spine. Four weeks later he was dead from wide-ranging cancer.
Bruce gave himself nine months to live, and was feisty and forceful with the Christchurch nurses to the last: “I’ll fly again if I have to do it in a trolley, but get me a room with a view.” A palliative-care bed had been sorted for him at Frankton hospital, but he never made it back to his beloved, formative local mountains.
His grandmother Cath was a Murchison; they ran upmarket Eichardt’s in the 1920s and 30s. Quiet Cath married sometimes irascible Ron Mills in the late 1920s. Ron was the local (utterly illegal) town bookie, in the days before the TAB. Furtive phone calls or a quiet visit to the house behind their Beach Street shop would fix the wager.
The pair begat Johnny, a Coronet Peak original: bus driver, ski instructor and roustabout from the early days; eccentric in his latter days. In the 1950s he did something then quite odd for the town: took up with Margaret, a well-educated, urbane Aucklander, but something of a dag nonetheless.
Bruce was their eldest, and naughtiest. With younger brother Brett he set fire to Queenstown Hill in the early 1960s when it was very burnable, experimenting with matches behind their Robertson Street house. But the kids all went on to something.
Bruce, though, didn’t stop being naughty; dealings in herbal drugs saw him spend a spell inside. He made the news a couple of years ago for refusing NZ Consulate help on an Indian drugs charge. He denied it.
He faced the world more squarely than most. He started skiing on Coronet at five, illegally tied by rope to legitimate ski-tow users. He was touted as a possible world champ until an early 1970s car crash cracked three neck vertebrae.
He eventually made Himalayan India his other home, dealing in everything from remodelled saris, to internet cafes, to taxis, to ski-touring – and above all paragliding. He sold gear to impoverished India, instructed, made friends.
International website tributes are copious. He had his own brand of Buddhism.
At the memorial, veterans of Queenstown paragliding and skiing talked of their days with Bruce. How they’d climbed Mt Earnslaw with no gear, trekked in Ladakh, listened to his dreams. How he’d started in India with just skis and an old-fashioned parachute. Younger relatives talked of his insatiable desire to help people, including his networks of friends in India who helped them.
“Float with us”, said Rene Schwaller, local paragliding pioneer. No one came up with anything better.