It is a warm Wednesday evening as Henk Haasjes sits in his taxi outside a Seven-Eleven in Wollongong. He has just started his shift and is enjoying a coffee before going to join the end of the line of taxis at the rank. He will work through the night until about three am, when the next driver will take over for the daytime shift. Henk has driven taxis for the last eight years. He is a carpenter by trade, but switched to taxi driving due to a lull in business.
“I enjoy the work most of the time,” he says, taking a sip of hot coffee, “You got your bad moments; people being rude or they got no money or they try to run. Some are aggressive. But most of the time, it’s good.”
Henk describes his worst customer, who he came across a few years ago.
“He tried to stab me with a barbecue fork!” Henk says, “The guy fell asleep and I drove him home. When he woke up, he became aggressive. He threatened me with a barbecue fork. I drove a little further, in front of the Warilla Police Station and I ran out of the cab to the cops. I said ‘This man wanna kill me!’”. The police arrested the man and made him pay the taxi fare, before releasing him.
“He was off his head,” says Henk, shaking his head.
Henk is originally from Holland. He grew up in Hasselt and learned English at school before joining the army.
“The army was compulsory in Holland then; the two oldest sons had to serve, so I did the training and volunteered in Lebanon, for the Peace Corps. The United Nations had a peace-keeping force in Lebanon and Holland delivered soldiers there; 800 Dutch there in the south of Lebanon for seven years. I was there for one year. I was in the army for two years altogether,” Henk says.
He would have stayed in the army for longer, had it not been for an accident when he was seventeen, before he joined the army.
“I fell and knocked my head on a steel bar and was unconscious for three hours. Nobody noticed me. Eventually someone found me and took me to hospital. I was in an induced coma for three days,” he says. As a result, Henk is deaf in his left ear. A year after the accident, he applied for the army and lied in his medical tests so that he would get in.
“I said I was healthy. I was bored of carpentry and I was young, I wanted to try something new,” Henk says.
“And I got in; I loved it. After I served in the army I wanted to sign up for another couple of years, but they had to do another medical test and they found out I was deaf and that I lied to get in.”
After being forced to leave the army, Henk moved around and worked a lot. He worked all around Holland and in Berlin before returning to Hasselt to open a restaurant.
“It was the smallest restaurant in the world!” he says, “One table and two chairs.”
Henk funded the restaurant, ‘Kiliaen’, through a phone competition, whereby people paid one euro per minute in a bid to win a free dinner at the novelty restaurant. However, the restaurant only lasted nine months due to council restrictions.
“They closed it down because it was too small, by law. It had to be at least 35 square-metres and it was only eight-and-a-half,” says Henk.
“So after a year of the council winging I decided not to wait for everything and went off for Australia instead.”
During that time, Henk had been talking to an Australian woman, Mary, through an internet chatroom.
“The internet was just up, it was in the 90’s, so not many people had the internet the way we’ve got it now,” he says.
“I was using a program called ICQ to communicate with my friends because it was cheaper than using the phone. I met a nice girl, Mary, and we started chatting. She invited me over for a holiday and I’m still here!” Henk says with a coarse laugh.
“I liked it here and you know, the rest is history. We have a son together, he will be starting high school next year.”
Henk has only been back to Holland three times since moving to Australia.
“I like it here, I don't miss Holland that much. Don't forget, these days, you've got the internet and you can watch Dutch TV if you want. But I don't do it a lot,” he says.
“I don't have a lot of contact with the Dutch here. They're almost invisible here in Australia. There are enough of them, but most Dutch people who come here start talking English and do the Australian way, you know? There is not really 'the Dutch way' in Australia; Macedonians build their own church, Muslims build a mosque, but the Dutch, there is nothing of them. Maybe the Pancake House, you know. Or the windmill in Melbourne, but that's it. And don't forget, the Dutch were the first here, before the English!” Henk laughs and takes a sip of his coffee, which is almost cold. It is almost time for him to return to the taxi rank.
Even after fifteen years and thousands of kilometres from where it all started, Henk is still using his wild imagination and ambition to create something different. In 2011, he proposed building another version of the smallest restaurant in the world on Hill 60, in Port Kembla. Although that proposal was unsuccessful, Henk has not let it slow him down. He has recently set up a new app, Taxi Ezy, which already has over 800 downloads. He hopes to change the way we order and use taxis by introducing an online booking system, discounts for regular taxi users and the opportunity for customers to select and review specific drivers. The free app can be downloaded from Google Play.