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Just about everyone I meet or who purchases my products from me, asks the same questions.  “How did you get started and what gave you the idea to extract oil from kanuka and manuka?” (New Zealand Tea Tree).

Where do I begin?  Probably the Stellin’s arrival on Great Barrier Island.  This  took place in 1957 with my father’s quest for an island paradise, isolation and to escape the family business that his uncle was expecting him to take over.  Then we have to go back a bit further in time. There were two Stellin brothers;   John Stellin was my father’s father and James Stellin was my mother’s father.  John was the elder of the two and he offered James the opportunity to go to University where he learnt law, business and accountancy.

Both brothers served in the Great War, John with a British Regiment on the Western Front where he was badly gassed and like thousands of other soldiers he never really recovered.   James served with a New Zealand Regiment, first on Gallipoli and then on the Western Front.  He was fortunate to only receive minor wounds.   My father, Dion Stellin, was born in London during the Great War and was just old enough to remember seeing German Zeppelins (airships) bombing London in 1918.After the armistice both brothers returned to NZ.   John spent the rest of his life a sick man and unable to work.  James became a very successful businessman, owning many valuable properties in Wellington.  He married and had three children, a son and two daughters.

My father, Dion Stellin left for Britain in 1938 with the knowledge that war was about to come to Europe once again.  During the war he served in many different parts of the armed forces.  By the end of the war he was a Major in the S.A.S, Military Cross Bar and mentioned in dispatches.  Most of his war service was spent in the Middle East and Mediterranean, notably in the islands of the Aegean where he fell in love with the people, the food, the wine, the music, the dancing and the women. A number of accolades were bestowed upon my father and upon his closest friend, Anders Lassen.   A large number of the island people named their first born sons after the two.  My father acquired the nickname Stud Stellin.  Need I say more!  Both men were loved very much.

A second accolade was given to them by the German occupation forces who put a price upon their heads, dead or alive.  Both men thought this was a real laugh.  Misfortune struck when Anders was killed two weeks before the end of the war.  He was posthumously awarded the V.C. but my  father never really got over his death.

My father was also involved in Palestine leading up to the birth of the new Jewish State.

In 1944  a major tragedy occurred for the Stellin family with the death of Flying Officer James Kingston Stellin, only son of James Stellin.  He was killed in action while flying a fighter over France.  The people of the small French village of Saint Maclou-la-Briere buried him with great honour and he was posthumously awarded the Croix de Guerre and Palme by the people of France.

After leaving the forces my father spend a couple of years travelling around Europe, the Mediterranean, North America and Canada.  He returned to New Zealand to sort out some family business with no intention of staying but he met and fell in love with my mother about the same time things were beginning to happen in South East Asia.  It was a choice for my father between Korea or Malaysia.  After consulting the world atlas he decided the tropics would be a much nicer place than a cold mountainous country.  He spent two years in Malaya fighting with the Fijian battalion during which time he was badly wounded.   He fell in love with the islands, the people and their way of life.  The Fijian soldiers held him in very high regard, as one of their own.

On returning to New Zealand he married my mother and spent the next couple of years working for his Uncle James.  James had great expectations that my father would take the family business over, him being the last of the Stellins.  However, by this time my father had become totally disillusioned with the whole system in general and was looking for a retreat to escape to.  He found Great Barrier Island and fell in love as soon as he set eyes on the island.  It reminded him so much of the Aegean Islands and the Fijian Islands combined in one.  The little rocky islands off the west coast and the mountainous subtropical interior.

He went straight into a partnership and bought Okiwi Station, 12,000 acres.  Then he brought the family up to the island, my mother, two sisters and myself.  I had just turned one when we arrived in 1957.   This move was a substantial cultural shock for my mother who had been brought up in high society, big houses, servants including maids, cooks, gardeners, chauffeurs etc.   She was dumped on an isolated island and confronted with an old smoky wood stove and an old farmhouse that leaked when it rained.  She cried for two weeks.  James Stellin my mother’s father was heart broken.  Not only had my father walked away from the family business and a fortune but worst of all he had taken his beloved daughter and me, his only true grandson, to, in his eyes, the end of the earth.  James Stellin never forgave my father for this act of betrayal.

Our time at Okiwi Station was very frustrating and depressing for my mother and father.   The partner turned out to be a violent alcoholic and the partnership collapsed costing my father all his money.  The major event for me during that time was when I was nearly eaten by the partners pet pig, a big, old fat sow.  She was shot soon after.

From Okiwi we moved over the hill and down the Port FitzRoy Harbour to the land we are living on now.  James Stellin bought this land for us even though he hated us living on the island.  The farm was purchased from Peter Flinn whose family had owned it for nearly 100 years.  In contrast to my father Peter had had enough of the Barrier and the hard farming life and now just wanted the easy life of the city.  He was 36 when he left.

This property was a true paradise for my father.  Just about surrounded by water, lots of small islands off the western side, 2000 acres, 27 miles of coastline.  It had been named Sunnyside and Flinn’s Arm but we call the peninsular Stellin Mark.  This property is isolation within isolation.  No road access, no phone until 1996 and the only way out by boat.  Going to school was an adventure and still is for children living at Wairahi Valley.  It begins with a three mile boat trip up the FitzRoy Harbour in a small open boat, then a 3 mile trip by road down into Okiwi basin.  Many school days were missed during the winter months.

We were confronted on a daily basis with what would be considered nowadays  amazing natural events.  To us, as children, they were just part of everyday life.  We watched pods of killer whales (orca) herding and feeding upon little blue penguins.  We watched these orca cruising alongside our boat,  surrounded by thousands of sea birds.  We watched these birds drop like snowflakes into the water as they fed on the remains of small fish that had been eaten by big fish.  The marine life in those days was outstanding.  When we weren’t at school, and that was often, we would either be bareback horse riding, fishing or just being adventurous kids.

Again, luck was against my father.  The first catastrophe was the old Flinn homestead burning down.  We lost just about everything.  We moved into a one room shack believing that we would soon build a new house with the insurance money.  However,  not only did James Stellin hold the deeds to the farm he also held the insurance policy which he would not release.  We all lived in the shack for a number of the years.  The next catastrophe happened when my father was mustering sheep and he was thrown from his horse, landing on rocks.  He fractured his back and broke one of his arms.  Consequently he was in plaster for 6 months during which time my mother did the hard, heavy work, cutting and splitting firewood, digging the gardens and taking the children to school.  We did what we could to help.

Once my father was fit enough to sit a horse he started to check on the stock to ready them for mustering and shearing.  It took him only two days to realize that we had lost nearly all our sheep, over 2000 head.  My father knew who had stolen them but he could never prove it.   This last catastrophe financially crippled us, destroyed my fathers dreams and left him an empty man. 

Times had been hard before but now my father was asking the impossible. No stock, no income.  By the time my mother made the decision to leave and take me to Auckland my two sisters were already at boarding school.  I was also sent off to boarding school.  Our school fees were paid for by James Stellin, along with the house that we moved into.  A hollow victory for James.  My father stayed on the farm, coming to Auckland every now and again.  

I was 17 when I finally came back to the farm, ready to help my father revive his dream but sadly I only had two years with him.  He passed away in 1975 from cancer.  He had just turned 60 and I was 19.   During the time we were in Auckland my father’s only income was from a small war pension or from whatever money he made when he came to Auckland.   There was no money to maintain the farm and consequently it reverted back into scrub teatree, kanuka and manuka.  The sheep and cattle that were left had become totally wild.   I lived by myself for the next couple of years and these were hard years.  I taught myself how to shear sheep and how to put up fences and my only income came from sheep I could catch and shear. 

Upon turning twenty one I received a good legacy from my grandfather, James Stellin.   Overnight I went from being a very poor, ignorant farm boy who could not even afford a plane trip to Auckland to being a very wealthy, ignorant farm boy.  It wasn’t long before I had squandered my legacy on women, drugs and alcohol.  A small amount went into the farm.  By now my mother had moved back  to run the house, generally to keep an eye on me while I worked on the farm.

A couple of years later my grandfather’s trust was wound up.  Money that had been locked up for many years was finally divided amongst the family members.  This money gave my mother and I the ability to start redeveloping the farm and we did this for the next 15 years.  These were great years with lots of excitement and fulfillment.  We put in roads to just about every part of the farm, turned scrub into pasture and tamed dangerous wild cattle.  The sheep and cattle changed from wild, shy animals that would run for miles or attack to kill, to become animals that would stand waiting at the gates, ready to be moved into the next paddock.  We had a great feeling of satisfaction and achievement.

Crushing scrub kanuka and manuka was normally done in late spring or early summer which gave it time to dry out through summer.  In autumn we would burn it, harrow the ashes and then spread grass seed and fertilizer.   Within a couple of months there would be new pasture which would then be fenced off.   During the crushing the aroma coming off the scrub was quite overpowering, imagine a 20 ton bulldozer smashing and squeezing, the air filled with a mixture of kanuka and manuka.  After a days crushing clothes would reek and even the bulldozers smell of diesel and oil would be overpowered by the aroma of crushed scrub.

On many occasions my friend Laurie Turner and I would discuss ways of extracting the aroma and what might be done with it.  There was always the thought in the back of my mind that it could be extracted and used.

In 1985 two things happened that spurred my interest in extracting oil from kanuka and manuka.  Both things coincided.  One was an article in a magazine and the other was an accident that involved a local boy.  A wood splinter had penetrated the boy’s eyeball and it was a couple of days before he received medical help.  The local doctor removed the splinter and found there was no infection in the eye and it consequently healed very quickly.  When asked why the eye had not become infected the doctor said it was because it was a tea tree splinter and tea tree has known antibacterial properties.   I wondered if he was talking about Australian tea tree, melaleuca or did he think that the New Zealand tea tree and the Australian tea tree were one and the same, as their name tea tree suggested.

Coincidentally the article I had been reading in an Australian magazine at the time of this accident was about their tea tree oil, melaleuca, and about the bush stills.  They use these stills to extract the oil from natural stands of melaleuca on a yearly basis.  The article also talked about how they were planting out many hundreds of acres in rows of tea tree so that it could be harvested by mechanical means.  This sped up production to cope with the ever increasing demand for the oil in Australia and for the overseas market.  The article also detailed how to use the oil and its natural antibacterial and antifungal properties.

With the basic knowledge gained from the article, on how stills work,  I made a very small one.  The pot was an old steel can with a bolted lid.  The condenser was made of steel and aluminium piping and the oil separator was a brandy bottle with holes drilled in it to let water in and out.  The kanuka leaf material sat just above the water which was then heated from the wood.

The first few extractions were a real eye opener.  I had expected our oil would be the same colour as the Australian oil, a clear yellowish colour.  When reddish, golden, yellow droplets floated to the surface in the separator I first thought it was scum or grease residue.  However, I learnt that this is the colour of our kanuka oil when it comes into contact with iron or steel and a chemical reaction takes place.  When a stainless steel vessel is used the colour is light yellow to a golden yellow.  Manuka varies from light green to dark green.

Only a small amount of oil could be extracted with this small still, just 5 to 6 mls a day.   I used this unit for a number of years, extracting just enough oil for my own use and for friends.

There was no real information available on New Zealand kanuka or manuka oils at this time and I knew of no-one who was extracting it on a commercial basis.  Because of this lack of information my mother and I, along with our friends, became guinea pigs in determining what to use the oils for and how to accomplish the required results.  We recognized that the most widely used oil  was kanuka and that is what I extract now.