This viaduct was built in 1908 during the ‘Age of Steel’, when steel plates, beams, girders and trusses held together with bolts and rivets were seen as the answer to almost all engineering problems. Curving elegantly amongst notoriously difficult terrain, it consists of steel lattice and mass concrete piers interspersed with Pratt truss and plate steel girders. It remained in use until 1987 when it was superseded by a creation of the ‘Age of Concrete’ as part of the electrification of the North Island Main Trunk (NIMT). At that time the decking was removed, and since then it has remained in the landscape as an inspiring site of groundbreaking New Zealand engineering history.
Sentences with hard labour were common in the New Zealand criminal justice system through the 19th and into the 20th centuries. Convict working gangs were dispatched to build public works, often making bricks on-site from materials sourced near their worksites. They wore distinctive prison uniforms marked with arrows to decrease the likelihood of covert escapes. While the clay was still soft, inmates marked bricks with arrows as a form of self-portrait: a reminder of their presence and their contributions in spite of the ostracisation associated with their incarceration. Several inmate fingermarks are also visible in the bricks of this 19th century convict-built rail tunnel abandoned in 1900.
Cars up trees: it’s a sight that still confounds, even half a decade after we first visited this odd scene. Above where the cars now lie is a cliff, beyond which is a sharp bend in the road. Stolen cars have been sent airborne over the edge – ‘Thelma and Louise’ style – since the 1960s. It appears the landowners and their local council still haven’t yet agreed who bears responsibility for resolving this mangled mess. And so the cars steadily are rusting their way into the ground – or at least the ones that managed to set wheels on the ground after their joyride.
For music, just the fizzing of cicadas on a hot summer day, and our footsteps ringing out in the cool air inside this 1876-built tunnel which was closed in 1955 after a deviation in the rail line it served.
An important aspect in understanding residents’ lives at this commune from its founding in 1973 to its abandonment in about 2000 was to locate and traverse their river access. The river was their source of hydration, cleanliness, spirituality, and even the electric light in their homes once they’d installed a generator at the dam. So early one misty morning, we set out to divine for water.
The dome ceiling of the upper floor of this meeting house of a commune founded in 1973 and abandoned about 2000 is designed as an expression of mystical geometry. Pentagonal and triangular windows intersect with hexagonal timber patterns. It must have been quite a trippy place to take a nap: regrettably the bed is now utterly squalid.
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.