Battles over for ‘Lost Tribe’ campaigner

Wednesday November 21, 2018 Written by Published in Local
Les with his children, grandchildren and family. 18101723 Les with his children, grandchildren and family. 18101723

The late Les Priest will most probably be remembered on the local scene as the staunch campaigner, fighting for the rights of retirees of the “Lost Tribe.”


For 22 years he lobbied tirelessly for senior citizens of “The Lost Tribe”, those who had spent the required 20 years or more in New Zealand before reaching the age of 55 years.

Although they qualified for the New Zealand pension they could not access these funds because they have chosen to live outside of the country.

Unofficially elected as the spokesman for the Lost Tribe and having worked in New Zealand for 29 years for Les, “It was the principle of it”, says his son Grant.

He was elated receiving after receiving the news earlier this year in March that New Zealand pension eligibility laws would finally be altered in favour of realm countries such as the Cook Islands.

“Justice is about to be dispensed for those of us who have qualified for NZ Super by virtue of having spent the requisite working/taxpaying years in New Zealand,” he told CINews via email in March after hearing the news.

“Our residents – locals and New Zealand expats – are all New Zealand citizens, carry New Zealand passports, use New Zealand currency and have special ties with New Zealand.

“The Cook Islands is not a foreign country.

“If New Zealanders want to live in a foreign country, that is their choice.

“Our country is acknowledged by the New Zealand government as being within the realm (Cook Islands, Tokelau and Niue) of New Zealand.

Priest also gave credit to NZ Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign affairs minister Winston Peters, “who has championed our cause for years and is now about to make it happen”.

“I doubted that I’d ever see this day until Winston and Jacinda took over the reins last year and indicated that a change was in the pipeline.”

Born in Christchurch May 30, 1931, Priest first arrived to Rarotonga in 1954 on a two-year survey contract. While here, he met his wife-to-be, Mata Parakoti.

The tossing of a half crown sealed the fate of where Priest and Mata would live after he had completed his work stint.

The couple departed for New Zealand and married on July 20, 1956 in Nelson.

Their eldest child Grant was born in New Zealand in 1957 and daughter Lynn (now Sword) in 1960.

Grant recalls arriving in Rarotonga in August 1974 after the international airport had recently opened.

His mother was ecstatic to return home, as this was her first trip back to the island since their departure. Mata’s grandmother, who had raised her, was also thrilled and suggested the family return to live and occupy family land in Titikaveka.

In 1977 the Priests returned to Rarotonga, Grant and Lynn remained in New Zealand.

Foundations for their accommodation units in Vaimaanga began, constructed by the late Errol Young. During their development Priest played the piano three nights a week at the newly-built Rarotongan Hotel. Palm Grove Lodges opened for business in 1978 and the Priests delighted in operating their small motel complex.

Soon after the Cook Islands Motelier’s Association was formed, Priest took on the position of secretary, with Geoff Porter as president. This gave the smaller individual properties more influence with travel wholesalers.

Later they teamed up with Lagoon Lodges run by Des and Cassey Eggleton at the time, to form the Maeva Group.

Sadly, Mata passed away in 1987 after an illness. Priest said he found it difficult to “maintain that air of geniality needed to be a good host.”

In 1988 Palm Grove expanded with eight units on the inland side of the main road and about four years later a further eight bungalows were built on the beachfront.

However, Priest no longer had the heart to continue running the lodges. A New Zealand couple bought shares in the business and took over management in 1993.

Priest was also a founding member of the Grumpy Old Men’s Club (GOMC), a group of “mature seniors”, who met daily at the Cook Islands Game Fishing Club in Tupapa.

The GOMC had a distinct table on the club deck decorated with their names on individual plaques and an irremovable sign to enlighten those unaware, that their table was reserved daily at 5pm.

One didn’t need to check their watch to know if it was 5pm as Priest would appear smartly at that exact time.

Daily get- togethers in the late afternoon would involve checking through the CINews crossword, answering questions on the Tui beer bottle caps and solving the world’s problems.

Also an artist, Priest produced many humorous caricature pieces of fishing club members.

In 2016 Priest suffered a heart attack. This was the beginning of several trips to New Zealand over the next three years for medical treatment. 

In early 2017 while in New Zealand, Priest received the traumatic news that his leg needed to be amputated due to poor circulation following his heart attack, and the inability of his body to recover from an ulcer on his heel.

His daughter Lynn says, “Naturally this came as a huge shock to a man who had been very independent since the passing of our mother, Mata 30 years prior.”

During the recovery period in Auckland, he endured five rigorous months of physiotherapy and rehabilitation in order for to have a prosthetic leg fitted.

“It was his wish to return to Rarotonga as soon as he could, and he was determined he would walk again,” says Lynn.

Priest returned to Rarotonga in May 2017 with his prosthetic leg.

“However his sense of achievement and joy at being back home was short-lived,” said Lynn.

Unfortunately, after six weeks of being home, Priest experienced the same symptoms with his remaining leg. 

“Once again we returned to New Zealand hoping that modern medicine would allow his second limb to be spared.”

Sadly, it wasn't to be, and his second leg was amputated in September 2017.

Priest endured the same rehabilitation procedures to attain a definite level of fitness, before he could return home.

Settling back into life, confined to a wheelchair, he kept himself busy, spending many hours reading and writing.

Priest was usually occupied on some project such as creating his own calendars from his collection of photographs, or birthday and Christmas cards that he would send to about 50 friends and family worldwide each year.  

His day always started by completing the crossword in the local paper, then move on to his many volumes of more complex code cracker crosswords. 

“He was always challenging his mental ability, which remained intact and sharp, right up to the time of his passing,’ says Lynn.

“The highlight of his day was to finish off with a visit to the Fishing Club, where he would enjoy the company of old friends while sipping on a beer or two at his favourite table on the top deck.”

Priest befriended new visitors to the club, many of which became lifelong friends.    

Lynn says “there was never a dull moment” with her dad.

“He was a great conversationalist, passionate about music, art, sport (particularly rugby - he never missed an All Blacks match), literature and current affairs.

“His music room at his home is a testament to that and holds many treasured pieces acquired or created over the years.”

Priest’s own artworks adorn these walls; his baby grand piano and musical DVDs, provided him and his friends with many happy hours of entertainment during regular “soirées” which he held.

His shelves hold hundreds of carefully catalogued musical compilations that he pieced together on tape cassettes and compact discs (CDs) before the days of musical DVDs.

An impressive collection of heavy, thick, beautifully bound reference books and dictionaries also feature on the shelves.

“Although now almost obsolete thanks to "Mr Google", he would still refer to the books as a matter of habit, if not to complete a crossword, then to compose a piece of writing,” says Lynn.

Carer Mark came into his life two years ago following Priest’s heart attack.   

Despite Priest’s reluctance at having a caregiver share his “space”, he and Mark soon became firm friends. 

“Mark is a caring and devoted caregiver, and our father received the best care and attention anyone could wish for,” says Lynn.

“Dad was able to live out, and enjoy his life to the fullest.”

Priest passed away at Rarotonga hospital on September 5  aged 84; he is buried at Vaiimanga beside his wife Mata.

His children Grant and Lynn continue to reside on Rarotonga with their families.

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