Whether she's interviewing the prime minister or reporting from atop a penguin's nest, Sam Hayes always looks manicured and sophisticated. She's a familiar face on all TV3's news programmes, from Firstline to Nightline, and is regularly snapped at social and fashion events. But behind the chic urban image is a fiery South Island country girl who is almost always the first to put her hand up for any story, anywhere, any time.
So when the 28-year-old environmental reporter fractured her wrist – just two weeks before flying out to Antarctica with prime minister John Key – her first thought was she may have jeopardised her only chance to visit the one place she's wanted to go since she was a kid.
“I slipped on the rocks at Piha beach, landed on my arm and heard a crunch – all I could do was clutch my wrist and wail ‘Antarctica!’” laughs Sam, who says visiting the ice-cold continent has been on the top of her bucket list since she learned about it at school.
“Luckily the surgeon agreed to swap my cast for a splint so I could fly and I wrote to Antarctica New Zealand saying I should be allowed to go – although I was so determined not to miss out, I think I'd probably have taken the cast off myself!”
While the public weren't aware of Sam's injury – “I was so rugged up in the kit you have to wear to stay warm, you never saw it” – she wasn't the only invalid to board the Hercules for the nine-hour flight, as John Key had fainted the night before they took off.
“We were very lucky actually – our flight had been delayed due to bad weather. If we'd taken off at 6pm as scheduled, he might have fainted in midair and we'd have had to turn around and fly home.
“He did look a bit tired and strung out on the flight but, to be honest, we all did. The flight's pretty harrowing, both physically and mentally,” she says.
The night before the team flew out, John suddenly started sweating profusely, stood up to leave a restaurant and passed out. He went to hospital for a few hours and was checked out by every specialist in the place, including a fainting specialist, who told him that sometimes these things just happen.
For both Sam and John, the rest of the trip was mercifully uneventful health-wise, although Sam underestimated the effect that living in 24-hour daylight would have on her.
“It's a huge issue. You never relax,” she says. “Every time your body tells you to calm down and take some time out, get some sleep, you see the bright sunlight outside and gear up again.
“It's also incredibly dry. When we arrived, we were given drink bottles, which had ‘Hydrate or Die’ written on them. I drank a huge amount of water.”
Despite her city-girl screen persona, Sam is completely at ease in the country and spends as much time as she can out of town. Her childhood was spent riding horses, hunting and fishing from a canoe with her “quintessentially South Island” dad.
“I live in Auckland, wear designer dresses – my world now is completely different from the way I was brought up,” smiles Sam. She has swapped her role as reporter and fill-in news presenter for TV3's news programmes for one as reporter on the channel's new current affairs programme, 3rd Degree, which airs next month.
“As a small child, I'd get wrapped in a Swanny, a pair of huge socks and a hat, and Dad would take me paddling around in his canoe.”
While Auckland-based Sam tries to work as much of her rural childhood into her daily life as she can, she misses the freedom country life gave her. “I loved it,” says Sam, who still goes fishing with her dad when she goes home to visit.
“Dad is one of those men who can fix anything – he's built a boat and a sleepout for my brother, and when I was at uni in Dunedin I'd take my car back home and whatever was wrong with it, he'd make it work again.”
It was, says Sam, a pretty idyllic childhood. “I started riding horses as soon as I was old enough to stay on one and it was compulsory in the Hayes family to go on bush walks every weekend – no matter how much we complained!
“My brother and I used to get dropped by helicopter into Fiordland with Dad. He'd shoot a deer, radio the helicopter and away we'd go. I do wonder sometimes if that's what led me to become a vegetarian!”
Sam says she'll always be a country girl at heart, but she wouldn't swap her life for anything – not at the moment. “I used to panic about the future a lot. I used to think time was running out,” she says.
“At the grand old age of 28, I've realised that I don't need to do everything immediately. It's taken time, but over the past year I've realised that I can make decisions based on the fact that there will be opportunities down the track.”
For now, that doesn't include a relationship, a house, kids – or even the horses she'd love to own one day. “I've told my parents that if they want grandchildren, I have a brother and a sister they can talk to!” she laughs.
“Saying no to something now doesn't mean saying no forever. At the moment I'm preoccupied with work and I have a lot of options. I'm not saying I don't want any of that one day. I really would love to live on a farm one day, but it's not for me now.”
Sam clearly has a lot more living – and travelling – to do before she settles down. “Every time I save any money it goes into an account called ‘Travel Fund’,” says Sam, who has travelled for her job since she first started working for 3 News at 22.
She even has a “grab bag” permanently at the ready which includes a pair of trousers, sneakers, a shirt, blazer, a TV3 microphone flag, an earpiece and a toiletry bag, so she can leave at a moment's notice.
“I'm always thinking about going somewhere else and seeing more places. One of the amazing things about travelling as a journalist is that you get to see ‘backstage’.
“The trip I had to Antarctica is impossible to buy as a holiday. I know I have the best job in the world.”