Bucket man, Blanket man… now Caveman!
Wellington may have its homeless on the streets at night shelters and WINZ-funded lodges. But lurking beneath the rocky bays of Seatoun Beach Salient writer Dave Crampton discovered a 70-year-old man living in a cave just big enough to fit a bed and a toilet… except he doesn’t own a toilet. Ross M Collins, in his first ever media interview talks to Salient about his life, his new motorbike and his penchant for naked sunbathing.
You’ve heard of Bucketman and Blanketman, but Wellington’s very own Caveman lives in a cave about 15 minutes walk from the foreshore car park out the back of Seatoun.
While Collins would not consider himself homeless, Downtown Community Ministry may well do. Sure, the cave may come under the definition of ‘affordable’, but it is not secure, and Collins sleeps rough. He has been living in the cave the area of an average to large size residential toilet for more than a year, after he built a small entranceway into the rock. He lives alone unless you count seagulls and rock crabs as company.
“When I first came here there was just a cave – it goes in about six to seven feet. I sleep in the car – but I could sleep in here if I wanted to. It’s nice and relaxing here – but old Mother Nature is a bit rough on me sometimes.”
Nice and relaxing it may be, but it is a solitary existence. He’s got no refrigerator, phone, shower, toilet, or residential postal address… and no toothbrush. “I just don’t bother cleaning my teeth,” he says, “If I want to clean my teeth I eat a carrot. This idea of taking the enamel off your teeth is crazy. People wonder why they’re 40 and have lost their teeth”. Collin’s unique existence means he has no power and therefore no heating. “Who wants it heated?” he asks. “You put a coat on. If you want heat you just pop along here (into the cave) and I guarantee that in two minutes you’ll be taking off your jacket.” So, we put it to the test. We went out the back with our candles to have a look around this tiny cave, being careful not to bump our heads. We still kept our jackets on – Collins was right, it was mildly warm.
Wellington City Council officials are aware of Collin’s living situation, as are handful of others. “The Council tried to move me – the Parks and Reserves (department) asked me if I wanted to shift into a house. And I said I wouldn’t shift into a boarding house, but only a house on condition that the rent was no more than $25 per week.
They asked why? I said, ‘I’m not stupid – I don’t want to pay $100 a week’. What’s that going to get me – fresh water, beautiful views – I can get that here for nothing.”
Collins does have some worldly possessions: a car, some food, utensils and plastic plates – and a brand new motorbike, which he paid for with his National Superannuation payments. Much of his possessions – such as a few clothes, books, and a television – are stashed in his car. None are insured. God knows where he finds room in his car to actually sleep. I didn’t want to ask how many pairs of undies he owned, in case the answer was one. So, with a car and a bike, I asked if he gets out much.
“Well, I go to the car every night,” he explains in his eccentric manner. “The cave gets a bit damp – but it can get hot… very hot inside – but very dark – it’s pitch black. It goes in six feet and 18 feet the other way – about four or five people can get in.”
Collins says he hasn’t been to the doctor for 15 years, and eats well – he has Weetbix in the morning, cold sausages for lunch, and before heading to his car to sleep he cooks his own tea – normally tinned food such as spaghetti. “I’ve just got sort of a small cooker – I just cook here, but I can’t be bothered today. I sometimes go out and get a hamburger.”
So with all this time up his sleeve, what does Collins do all day? It’s not like he can surf the Internet, put on his latest CD or watch TV in the cave. Collins provided a revealing answer. “Well, there’s this nudist beach around the corner. I participate. I like to swim around here in the nude. You look at people with clothes on and think, ‘they’re stupid! They need to get more sun on their bodies’.” At this time of the year however Collins leaves his clothes on and spends his time drawing – particularly when the inter-island ferry passes outside his door. He starts with the front of the boat “but the time you get to the back of the boat – it’s gone.”
Collins hasn’t lived rough for too long. He’s a staunch Kiwi. “I’ve been here all my life,” he explains, “but I’ve been in Australia for 31 years. I’ve come back 169 times, spent $23,000 – but I’m getting old now.” He is a retired bus driver, and has driven both in Australia and New Zealand. “I drove for about 38 years – never had an accident,” he explains. “And the reason why, is that if you just concentrate on your driving, you don’t have accidents. I covered eight million miles – not kilometres, miles…. actually I did have one accident when I came off my motorbike, hit the back of a truck. Almost killed me. I vowed never to have another accident.”
Collins says he last had a shower at his daughter’s house about three weeks ago. His sister and two daughters – all of whom live locally – think he’s a bit weird. “They say ‘Dad, why are you so stupid? Why are you so rough?’. I had my last haircut in 2002, and my daughter says ‘Dad, when’s your next haircut?’. But I don’t pay rent, I’ve got no bills and I got a brand new motorbike in eight months – now I’m saving up to buy a motor home – that’s going to cost me $7000 and I can get that just before Christmas.”
Collins had his 70th birthday two weeks ago. While he didn’t throw a party, we did ask how he celebrated the milestone. “Well, I looked out the window. There’s a bird, a whole family of them, actually, I just saw them a couple of minutes ago – a family, three birds. I feed them. Anyway, I’ve had about 68 other parties.”
One wonders why he doesn’t treat himself out to a weekend away, say, at the Taranaki Street Night Shelter. He won’t go there. “You can be sound asleep, somebody tells me there, and someone starts playing around in certain parts and puts their hand up you…. in the dark! I think to myself I’d rather sleep in here and if something does run up my leg, I know it’s only a mouse, and he can’t do much damage.”
As long as that’s not a trickle of water from a southerly storm, Wellington’s newest character looks far from extinction.