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Belgium honours consul Staples

Don Staples with wife Adrienne Staples after receiving the honour of Knight in the Order of the Crown for Belgium. PHOTO/SUPPLIED

Featherston man Don Staples has received Belgium’s second highest honour, the honour of Knight in the Order of the Crown after serving 12 years as consul for the nation.

Despite not being a citizen of Belgium, Staples first took up the role after the retirement of Rowland Woods.

Staples said his role was diverse and included representing Belgium at official events, creating passports, tracking down missing loved ones, and dealing with “criminal matters”.

He said he was one of three honorary consuls for Belgium in New Zealand, the others being in Auckland and Christchurch.

The positions were created when Belgium moved its embassy from Wellington to Canberra in the early 2000s.

Staples said he first became interested in Belgium through his love for war history.

“Many of the soldiers in World War I who went to France and Belgium were trained in the Featherston military camp. There were huge numbers of them, that camp was pretty amazing, they had something like 7000 men at any given time there.”

He said New Zealanders liberated the Belgian town of Messines from the Germans in World War I, forming a close connection between Featherston and Messines.

“That resulted in about 1960 this twin town arrangement between Messines and Featherston.”

Don’s wife, Adrienne Staples, was South Wairarapa’s mayor when the opportunity to become honorary consul was offered to him over lunch.

He said before his appointment, he and Adrienne had visited Belgium in 2007 for the 90th anniversary of the Battle of Messines.

During the trip, they befriended Wellington’s honorary consul at the time, Rowland Woods.

Woods was preparing to retire from his position, so Staples helped him on the hunt for a replacement.

“Roland invited me over for lunch one day and said he’d found a new honorary consul.

“I asked who it was and he said, “well actually it’s you, we’d like you to take the job”. And that’s how it happened.”

Staples said accepting the role was complicated because he wasn’t Belgian, the Governor General of New Zealand needed to give him formal permission to represent another country.

He said he also had authorisation from the King of Belgium to act on the nation’s behalf.

One of Staple’s most common jobs was issuing replacement passports to travellers, he said he had a box of blank passports under his desk.

“I had a box of temporary passports that I could prepare by hand, put the photograph in, there was a special process for sealing them, and issue passports with a life of about a year.”

Belgium had a second type of passport, a permanent passport, that needed biometrics like fingerprints before they were issued – these were made by a travelling roadshow of Belgium diplomats based in Australia.

Staple’s role didn’t stop at homemade passports, he was often called on by distraught parents to track down their children who had disappeared in New Zealand.

He said it was surprisingly easy to track people down.

“Usually, what I did, I didn’t bother going to the police, I knew roughly where they were and where they were heading

“I’d start ringing up backpackers’ accommodations and places like that.”

He said Belgian parents didn’t understand just how easy it was to disappear in New Zealand, with the landmass of Belgium about 10 per cent of New Zealand with about double the population.

Staples said travellers would often be on working holidays and would be away from phone reception, internet, and post.

He said he almost always found who he was looking for.

In recent years the biggest challenge for Staples was the covid-19 lockdown.

“There were actually more Belgians in New Zealand than Australia travelling around on a temporary visa, they couldn’t get out of the country.”

Staples said he became a go-to person for stuck Belgian travellers.

The government had shut down all major travel, and travellers could get a ticket to get out of the nation, but they couldn’t get to a major airport.

“A lot of them, particularly the young ones were on working holidays and ran out of funds.”

He said the situation was incredibly difficult for many travellers.

Through a DNA test, while exploring family history, Staples discovered that he was in fact closely related to Belgians. His family history in the nation dated back to the 1800s.

Staples retired from the role he considered “an honour” in December 2021, passing the role to a Belgian woman living in Palmerston North.

Grace Prior
Grace Prior
Grace Prior is a senior reporter at the Wairarapa Times-Age with a keen interest in environmental issues. Grace is the paper’s health reporter and regularly covers the rural sector, weather, Greater Wellington Regional Council, and coastal stories.

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