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Ben's People: 'On a Wim'

Ben Ulisse
wim faces sea
Coastal contemplation.  Ben Ulisse

Wim Bevers might have arrived here with little English, but he brought with him a wealth of experience and know-how from the Netherlands.

Some folks defy categorisation. I sat down one afternoon to speak with a welder, a poet, an environmentalist and a carpenter; as well as a soldier, an actor, and a gardener. Wim (Vim) Bevers is all of these and more, and an active pillar of the Sefton, Balcairn and Amberley communities. 


Born into war-torn Holland in 1950, Wim and others of his generation had to grow up quickly and learn a trade to help rebuild their country as it emerged from the rubble. Public work on dams, dikes and land reclamation was underway in the Netherlands on a scale never seen before, with The Zuiderzee Works project dubbed part of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World. As a child, Wim saw mighty GMC troop transporters left behind by American forces being repurposed as work trucks by Dutch locals for hauling materials to fix bridges and other bomb-ravaged infrastructure.  
‘We heard lots of stories about the war, and how bad it was. We were often told, “If you don’t eat that, during the war you would have eaten it,” so that was still in people’s minds.’  

The demand for practical skills saw Wim train to become a sheet metal engineer with Philips Electrical in Eindhoven, while studying middle-management at night classes. So, when his turn came to serve in the army, he was put in technical services and worked beside mechanics along the East-West border in Germany. ‘The Iron Curtain, as it was called then. I was stationed 40kms away from it in a big British camp with a lot of tanks and other stuff about.’ 

dikes map 2
Map of post-war water retention efforts in Holland. Ben Ulisse

The Human Factor 

It’s often said there are no real winners in war. Wim’s time spent in the military made a deep impression on his views, but a sobering experience one afternoon affected him in a way that would last forever.  
One free Saturday when I was just 20 years of age, I started my day with a few beers in a bar. Everyone was feeling good, so we went out for a walk to visit the old concentration camp, Bergen-Belsen. But man, that high didn’t last when we saw what happened there.’  
He describes seeing mass graves with 2,000, 5,000, and another with 12,000 bodies. Already dumbstruck, young Wim and his friends next found a loaded car park with families inside each vehicle, weeping. ‘Most of them were German people, because 70% of them didn’t want that war either. The human factor is the same as what’s happening now in Ukraine and in Russia.’ 

Wim adds that, despite constantly hearing “The Germans are bad” during childhood, his attitude changed once he saw how hurt those people in the carpark were. ‘We were hit mentally when we left there.’ He is glad to be living down here.  

Another takeaway of these encounters was their profound impact on Wim's perspective over the wider world, opening his eyes to new global issues becoming apparent as the dust settled on post-war Europe. 

‘It’s unbelievable what so many tanks cost, one tank was a million dollars even then. A Centurion tank with a dozer blade would use forty litres of petrol for a kilometre. Environmentally, it was shocking, and all along that East-West border there were camps of 20,000 people all moving about. If tensions in Berlin had escalated then, they could have destroyed each other 350 times over.’ He shudders.  

‘When you’re there, you live your life and you do what you have to do, but that had crossed my mind several times. So, after I’d done my duty, I went back to work at Philips. Then we bought a house just behind a supermarket, and it was all concrete.’ 

Now living in quietly rural Sefton, Wim and his wife Dinie’s house is a beautiful A-frame Lockwood decorated with hardy wood furniture he's made over the years, along with bespoke art painted by their friends and family. It has a very warm, inviting feel, like being in an Alpine ski lodge or Appalachian log cabin. Dinie presents me with more strong coffee, and windmill cookies. I dunk a cookie in the coffee.

wim garden
The Bevers enjoy sharing what they grow with others. Ben Ulisse

The Circle of Life  

‘So there we were, living in that concrete house, when I started to see the circle.’ 
‘The circle?’ I ask. 
‘Of life,’ Wim says. ‘Born there, school there, work there, go to that hospital, die and get buried there. I saw the circle appearing. Dinie didn’t like it either.’  

Then one day in the 1980s, everything changed.

‘Our son said “I wanna go to Australia, mum. I wanna live there,” because we had a book at home about it. We got more interested and read a lot more, then we made the plunge. In those days, there was an understanding between the Dutch and New Zealand government. You went through the paperwork, and they supported your travel, but you had to stay for five years otherwise you had to pay it back.  

‘See, you must give reasons on those forms, on why you want to move. And I still had a core belief in the back of my mind that if the East-West border ever got into real conflict, half of Europe gets blown off the map. Of course, we had to leave behind the secure social health system in Holland, but here’s still pretty good.’ I ask if they had any regrets about moving.  

‘Never. Ah, you miss certain things, like when your parents pass away, you can’t always make it. Or sometimes you want to have a cup of coffee with your sister, but we've been back several times. And they’ve been here.’  

amby beach
It wasn't a great day for a picnic. Ben Ulisse

A Green Backbone   

‘We were not active greenies, but we had a very strong green backbone, we understood a lot of stuff that was happening and could see it was not going to last. There was an oil crisis in Holland too, when we couldn’t drive on a Sunday, so we became members of a horse-drawn vehicle club. We thought it was marvellous.’   
‘A bit like the Pennsylvania Dutch?’ The Amish came to mind. 
‘Yeah,’ he replies with a deadpan expression, ‘but without the blessing from upstairs.’ We both laugh. 

Wim is a writer like I am, although his style is more poetic and his output much more prolific than mine. He hurries off to print out a poem that he’s keen for me to hear, so I turn to Dinie and ask her reflections on their life here.  

‘I’d been involved in speech and drama since a young age in the Netherlands, but I prefer the way it’s done here. In 2006, both Wim and I took part in a docudrama called The Waimate Conspiracy, based on a book called The Waikikamukau Conspiracy by Stefen Lewis about a disagreement between Māori and Pakeha over stolen land. It starred Jim Moriarty, Jon Gadsby and David McPhail to name a few. And lots of locals from Waimate, where we were living at the time. It was a great experience.’ 

Wim re-joins the chat just as Dinie mentions how Holland and other Scandinavian countries trailblazed the green movement. He tells me how here, at the age of 55 he set up and ran the first recycling centre in Waimate for five years, after being impressed at how efficient the one already operating in Amberley was. ‘They were very good at it, so we came up to have a look.’ It wasn’t all smooth sailing though, and Wim says he was shocked at how authorities dealt with it at first. ‘They didn’t seem to have any knowledge. I didn’t have much at first either, but you learned quick.’ From his own account, many of the earliest recycling setups in the South Island were set up by volunteers. ‘And councils took over once things got underway.’  

bench edge
Sitting here during bad weather would be an edge-of-your-seat experience. Ben Ulisse

Coastal Concerns 

‘When you look at low-lying areas, Canterbury is not so different from the Netherlands, but the way we manage our water is very different. Sure, the consequences are a lot more dramatic there where people might live five metres below sea level, but then our beaches here seem to be disappearing at an alarming speed.’ 

We drive down to Amberley Beach where I see how far back the soil has eroded since I last saw it a year ago, and a bench seat facing the sea now sits at the edge of a sharp 0.5 metre drop over rocks below. It looks the same along the coastline, and the only bridge in and out of the Amberley Golf Club crumbles at the edge where waves strike it. Wim looks on cautiously as the wind picks up. ‘I don’t know how we’re going to deal with it here. Us locals are worried.’  

Authorities are aware of the issue too, and Leigh Griffiths of ECan informs me that the Hurunui District Council is currently scoping its next maintenance work on Amberley Beach for this coming summer. ‘Generally, coastal erosion is expected to occur more due to climate change, which may increase the frequency and severity of storms. In addition, sea level rise is expected to continue at an accelerated rate.’ She adds that both organisations are doing their best with the resources available, and they work together to monitor things closely.  

Now in his seventies, Wim has been a lively and outspoken presence in community, council and other town hall meetings for decades. Between volunteering, fundraising, and speaking up for what he believes in, he isn’t showing signs of slowing down yet.  

Wherever there is work to be done, there will be Wim.