Geoff Thomas is the ultimate image of a good Kiwi bloke. Renowned for his hunting and fishing skills, he’s the go-to guy when the Kiwi elite, from Rachel Hunter to Richie McCaw, want to escape to the great outdoors. It was to Geoff that All Black Ali Williams turned for entertainment on the morning of his wedding last December, and his popular TV3 programme Outdoors with Geoff will celebrate its 15th series next year.
But underneath the fun-loving game hunter is a man who has suffered more heartbreak than most – because not only has Geoff battled serious health issues of his own, in 2005 his wife died, leaving him in sole him in sole charge of the couple’s five children.
“I was hunting in New Caledonia when Vicky called me to say she was having trouble walking – she kept stumbling and kicking steps, that kind of thing,” remembers Geoff (64), who also has five grandchildren.
“The doctors thought it might have been a stroke, so she had tests, and they found a brain tumour. That was a bit of a wake-up call. Then they did a biopsy and found malignant brain tumours deep rooted against her brain stem. There was nothing anyone could do – it couldn’t be operated on.”
Geoff is still deeply affected by the memory of his wife’s death at 55, which happened when their youngest child, Katie (now 19) was just 12. “It’s not something I’ve talked about before, but it changed my whole perspective on life,” he says with tears in his eyes. “The oncologist told us we had about six months left together, and he was right, almost to the day. It doesn't get any bigger than that.”
Geoff has nothing but positive things to say about the medical team – almost. “Once when I was looking at her x-rays, the neurologist looked at me and said, ‘Hey, you’re famous!’ I explained that no, people like Kate Middleton and Tom Cruise are famous. I’m not. But I wasn’t too happy with that – here we were, talking about my wife dying and he wanted to talk about fishing,” he remembers.
Despite his faith in the New Zealand health system, Geoff chose to work from home and bring Vicky back with him to spend her final days surrounded by family. “I didn’t want her dying in a hospital,” he says.
With help from visiting nurses and hospice staff – as well as his daughters Jenny (25), who took time off university to help her dad, Lisa (43) and Sally (38), Geoff took on responsibility for all Vicky’s needs, including bringing in special equipment for the bathroom. He also began filming his show – usually shot all around New Zealand – exclusively in Auckland so he could be by his wife’s side.
“I got a few complaints from people because we had a lot of programmes about snapper fishing around Auckland at that time! But I didn’t want to have to explain to everyone what was going on.”
After Vicky’s death, Geoff threw himself into looking after his kids and his show – but the dramas weren’t over. Twelve months later he flipped a quad bike, leaving him with a broken eye socket and cheekbone “and a few bruises here and there".
True to the saying that things happen in threes, a year later Geoff was diagnosed with prostate cancer. “That was interesting – it was my turn to get a biopsy,” says Geoff, who now gives talks on the importance of regular checkups. “I’m all clear now – can’t have any more children, but I don’t think that’s going to be an issue!”
While the care of his children, a sick wife and a brush with cancer while bringing home the bacon – literally, in Geoff’s case – would be too much for many men to take on, Geoff says he is content. He is certainly busy – Geoff has just written his 10th book, Outdoors With Geoff, writes a regular column for the New Zealand Herald and has started up two new businesses – including a corporate boutique lodge in Tarawera. But given the chance, the outdoorsman would be a full time domestic god.
“I love being at home doing the washing and cleaning,” is his surprising admission – even as he talks to the Weekly there’s homemade pumpkin soup on the hob and a wild pork casserole in the oven. “I love cooking. I even love doing the dishes – it’s therapeutic.”
And now he’s 64, will he slow down? “No, no. More fish to catch!” smiles Geoff. “There’s a lot more to do. A lot of people tell me that in hunting and fishing all day I have the dream job, but I reckon life isn’t a rehearsal. I’ve had my ups and downs, but I have a lot of fun.”