War hero Willie Apiata surprised Whakatāne residents yesterday on a walkabout in the main street selling poppies for Anzac Day.
"Gotta love NZ," said former Herald photographer Alan Gibson, who bumped into the soldier in full uniform and the Victoria Cross pinned to his chest.
Gibson said Apiata was strolling around with a cardboard tray of poppies and creating a real buzz among shoppers.
He was really personable, people were coming to shake his hand, have a photo with him – "what an awesome ambassador".
Gibson said it was a great honour to meet Apiata in person, who he photographed for the Herald when the solider returned to his marae at the small community of Te Kaha near Opotiki in the Bay of Plenty after receiving the Victoria Cross in 2007.
The former corporal in the New Zealand Special Air Service (SAS) became the first recipient of the Victoria Cross for New Zealand for bravery under fire during the war in Afghanistan.
The Victoria Cross for New Zealand replaced the British Victoria Cross in 1999.