Ohu

This former commune was founded in 1973. At the time of its closure around 2000 it was the most longstanding of eight communities set up around New Zealand under the Ohu Scheme umbrella. Labour Prime Minister Norman Kirk approved the scheme in which young adults could channel their disenchantment with urban life into forming intentional communities centred around a ‘back to the land’ ethos.

Ohu is a Māori word meaning ‘communal work group’. Ohu communes were set up on unused Crown land, with their residents paying leases matching those of farmers grazing their livestock on government-owned land. Some saw the Ohu Scheme as a calculated initiative to remove radicals from urban settings, while its stated objectives were: to assist people in becoming self-sufficient from the land; to enhance people’s spiritual and social wellbeing; to reconnect people to the land; to give people a chance to develop alternative social models; to provide a communal environment as a potential antidote to the ills of modern society; the promotion of the virtues of a simpler life; to be a place of healing for participants as well as for society as a whole.

The area in which this ohu commune was situated had originally been gifted to servicemen returning after World War One. However, by the time of World War Two, the land was abandoned and the access track winding its way through steep terrain steadily returned to bush. It took the 1970’s ohu founders three months of hand cutting and digging to rehabilitate the track sufficiently to allow even horses to reach the ohu site. Over the course of its lifetime, up to five couples with children lived at any one time at the ohu, and undertook a range of initiatives to explore self-sufficiency, including gardening, bee keeping, dairying, manufacturing butter and soft cheese and hunting meat. Quirky DIY housing flourished in a climate of limited resources, salvaged materials, amateur architects and builders, and a relaxed attitude towards regulations. The central meeting house was an exceptional architectural achievement. Its circular form, pentagonal upper floor and feature windows, and domed timber ceiling constructed of triangles forming interlocking hexagons speaks to the utopian ideals of its community and era. It now cuts a lone, striking figure amidst a rewilded landscape.

By 2000, the same forces of isolation and endless hard manual labour that had prompted the returned servicemen’s families to walk away had again splintered a community, and the ohu dwellers departed, seemingly taking with them only what they could carry on their backs along the hour-long walk down to the river crossing to conventional civilisation. In recent years, former residents have expressed a desire to return to the ohu and transform it into an outdoor education centre. However, the Department of Conservation remains unconvinced at present that the group have the resources required to restore the buildings to safe habitability and to mitigate against the environmental impact of reoccupation. And so for now the remains of the ohu quietly stand as an inspiring – and perhaps also cautionary – tale about utopias and visionaries.

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