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Ben’s People: 'Rollin’ with Colin'

Ben Ulisse
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Getting back on the saddle.  Ben Ulisse

Local legend “Two-Dogs” will ride again.

Chances are, you’ll have seen him riding his bike and homemade trailer along the side of the road at some point, often towing mighty bundles of grass and hay over equally impressive distances. Most know him as “Two-Dogs,” few know him by his real name Colin Wilkinson.  

It’s a blisteringly hot day in Rangiora when I approach Colin’s block of flats. Straight away I spot his new 3-wheeler parked outside one of the rear units, along with a sizable collection of bicycle parts. I knock on the door and get his neighbour Doug Hulme, who turns out to be their community bike mechanic.  

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Doug working on Colin's current 3-wheeler. Ben Ulisse

He shows me the snazzy red trike with purple handlebar grips and carry-basket on the rear, then begins cutting into the left-hand grip with a kitchen knife. ‘So that Colin can grab it with his hook, Doug explains. (Colin recently underwent an amputation on the lower half of his left arm).  
Colin’s place is a few doors down he tells me, but ‘he might be out enjoying the weather, so good luck.’ 

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Modifying the handlebar grip. Ben Ulisse

The man himself isn’t home, so I return the following day in the morning as per Doug’s suggestion. It’s just as hot today as it was yesterday, so I breathe a sigh of relief when Colin welcomes me inside his flat to shelter from the scorching sun. Colin is known to be a shy fellow, so expecting it might take a while to break the ice, I was surprised he let me in so willingly. I explain that I’m here hoping to write a story on him, and he nods. ‘Yup, Doug told me you were coming.’ That certainly helped, cheers Doug.  

Colin’s dwelling is very minimal. His only entertainment is a radio and his one chair doubles as a place to keep things off the bare concrete floor. I suggest we chat outside, but he shifts a box of belongings off the chair and insists I take it. Colin sits on the edge of his bed facing me. As a friendly offering, and because the temperature is in the high twenties, I brought a drink along for him. His face lights up at this, but I wish I had more to offer.  

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Mr. Wilkinson at home. Ben Ulisse

Colin sets the drink aside on a small table by the window for later, and I see his prosthetic arm with a plastic hook at the end. It more resembles a giant Lego minifig claw than a classic pirate-hook. Asking how his hand came to be amputated, he tells me ‘it was a thistle,’ and mimes the action of raking. ‘With a grubber, must’ve got a thistle in there. It was a little black dot.’ Colin frowns. ‘I should’ve picked it out, bugger, I should’ve picked it out.’  

A grubber is a three-pronged gardening tool used for breaking up stubborn roots and aerating soil. Skin grew over the thistle, swelling Colin's hand as an infection spread along his arm to the point where a major life-saving operation was required. All this was preventable, but Colin’s fear of doctors made it difficult for him to seek help. ‘I should’ve let them take it out, it was only a thistle.’
It’s sad to see this sudden remorse in his face. ‘They tell me it wasn’t cancer though,’ he adds. 

Either way, it’s now become part of the “Two-Dogs” folklore. I tell Colin a lot of people in North Canterbury are wondering how he’s doing, and about his popular online following.  
He knows, all right. ‘I got a page about me on Facebook, Two Dogs fan club.’  
Surprised for the second time that morning, I ask if the nickname bothers him still. ‘Used to, don’t mind it now. I’ve gotten used to it.’ Out of respect however, I still address him as Colin.  

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Remembering days gone by next to one of his old bikes. Ben Ulisse

After 63 years of living with two hands to suddenly going down to one in July, some growing pains to this new lifestyle change would be understandable. But ever the optimist, Colin would have you believe he’s as strong as he ever was.  
‘I’m good as gold,’ he insists, even as he struggles to move a shoebox with one good hand and a stump (I shift the box for him). ‘Just... I just can’t ride my bike, it’s the only thing I can’t do. I still cut grass good, walk down the road and cut grass. Not many would do that, would they? No, no.’ 

Hard work is in Colin’s blood. He tells me of his childhood in Murchison, where ‘we had a farm, a big dairy farm,’ and he dreams of moving back one day. ‘I’d build a bach for me and all the animals and spend the rest of my life there.’ He also plans to make a headstone for his father that says, ‘Your loving son, Colin.’   
I'm shown an old photograph of Colin and his twin sister, which sits on a shelf of mementos along with a headless cowboy statue and a vintage wooden clock. It’s clear that most of Colin’s treasures are not physical items, they are memories. 

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Colin and his sister (since deceased). All Colin's photos are used with permission. Colin Wilkinson

Despite losing nearly a whole limb, he wasn’t content with sitting around in a bed. ‘I was getting bored in hospital, I discharged myself.’ Something else drove him to leave early: his two cows. Close friends over in Loburn looked after them while he recovered, but any time spent away from his beloved bovines was too much for Colin to bear. ‘They were in good hands though.’  

To keep these livestock fed, a trailer towed behind Colin’s bike had been his method for years. Unfortunately, Colin has mostly gone off bikes since the operation and preferred walking due to a fear of tipping over. He poses next to his former bike, a trusty two-wheeled companion that’s served him well over the years hauling animal tucker. Unable to operate it with one arm, there was obvious need to find a replacement.  
The solution came when a second-hand adult tricycle was donated by Mike of the Waimakariri Bike Project as a transitional fix, until a better one can be made.  

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Colin feeds his livestock some tasty fresh-cut grass. Ben Ulisse

We go visit Doug a few doors down, who has almost finished modifying the handlebar to accommodate Colin’s unique new hand. A final adjustment needs to be made, so Doug and I, using his slightly bent screwdriver and my pocketknife shimmy and slide the remaining piece of rubber along the bar. That way Colin’s claw can sit against the flared end without sliding off.

Our effort impresses him. ‘How much do you want Doug? I’ll give you twenty bucks.’ Doug smiles. ‘No charge. Just give me a piece of fish some time.’  
There’s only one more thing left to do: get Colin back on the saddle.  

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Colin inspecting Doug's handiwork. Ben Ulisse

Colin gives the trike a quick check all over, then rather gingerly, climbs onto the seat and places his right foot on the pedal. It all looks promising, until he freezes. ‘I don’t feel steady!’ And off he hops.  

Next, Doug demonstrates how safe the trike is with his left hand behind his back. ‘See? You can ride it one-handed, or even go in a straight line with no hands,’ he pauses to rest mid-pedal, ‘and you won’t tip over.’  


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Getting a feel for the new machine. Ben Ulisse

‘I don’t like it, I don’t feel steady.’  

We manage to get him back on for another go, this time on the gravel driveway behind the flats. Colin tries, but after five minutes we decide to call it a day and roll the trike back to Doug’s.  

I’m sure his confidence will return in time, so hopefully we’ll get to see Colin out cycling again, pulling unbelievably tall loads of sacks full of hay and grass. He and Doug reminisce on his glory days.  

‘I used to ride everywhere, all the way to Waikari once,’ Colin states proudly. Doug nods. ‘One time he walked from Christchurch to Ohoka in just over an hour.’ 
Of course, everybody recognises Colin, so they usually offer him a lift if they see him walking along the road. Sometimes he accepts, sometimes not. Colin doesn’t like accepting charity, as I would soon discover. ‘Not very many know him as Colin, though,’ Doug says curiously, ‘they just know him as Two-Dogs.’ 

Now, the origin of his nickname, for those who were wondering.  

Back in the eighties, Colin was wetting his whistle at the Red Lion Hotel (a former Rangiora pub on High Street) and had two pet dogs with him which used to follow him everywhere. Someone must have found it amusing, seeing two canines in a bar, and the name stuck. Like many nicknames, the meaning became lost over time.

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A younger Colin with his two pet dogs, Spot and Scotty. Colin Wilkinson

Colin Wilkinson welcomes me back into his flat when I return a week later with some canned food and a coffee table. He doesn’t want it, but one of his other neighbours does, which works out. Colin has plans to walk down to Flaxton Road to gather grass and feed his cows that day, so I offer him my services for the morning. He agrees, on the basis that we can fit more sacks of grass in my boot than he could carry alone, so with a couple empty sacks and the grubber we head off in my car to cut some grass.

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Colin is amused at the lichen growing on my car's roof. Ben Ulisse

I park on the grass shoulder of the motorway, and we wait for a gap in traffic to cut across. Straight away, I’m amazed at Colin’s energy. With just one hand, he threshes the tall grass and weeds with the speed of a younger man having all his limbs. I try to grab some cuttings for him, but he prefers working solo, so I resort to holding the sack open instead.

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Colin values his independence. He appreciates people's kindness, but he doesn't want handouts. Ben Ulisse

A bit further down the road, and it’s cow-feeding time. The cows trust Colin, so I stand back and let him carry the feed to them. They look happy, and so does he. It’s a great day in Rangiora. After the cows are done, I drop Colin off at his flat.  

It’s time for me to go. Doug promises he will make sure Colin keeps practising, so I expect to see Two-Dogs out riding again very soon. And you should, too.

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Happy cows, happy Colin. Ben Ulisse

*   *   *

Some great news! 
A Givealittle fundraiser was created midway through the year so that Colin could get a custom-built trike, and the amount raised exceeded the expected target by several thousand dollars. Nearly ten grand was donated in the end, but a delay in the processing time of one month to almost four months with little information available was concerning to many people.  

I had been making inquiries about the fundraiser and following any lead I could find, and I’m pleased to announce that just as of this Monday, all funds have been cleared. Brian Gilbert of Trikes NZ Ltd will be working closely with Colin’s trustee Sue Baker, with the money in an account under Colin’s name. Brian says ‘it sounds like a good outcome is going to happen.’ 

*   *   * 

This is the final interview for my end of year project ‘Ben’s People,’ and for anyone still reading; thank-you for your patience, your ideas, and your encouragement over the past few weeks. I’ve enjoyed getting out of my comfort zone and meeting new faces, as well as seeing familiar faces I haven’t seen in a long while.  
To those lucky six who featured in these stories, you’re all part of an exclusive club now.  

Mark Weir 
Wim Bevers 
Sarah Moeau 
The Wizard of NZ 
Raewyn Windley 
Colin “Two-Dogs” Wilkinson