Hive Minds

Nearly four decades ago, collectively-minded communities of bees regularly filled these wooden beehives. The hives were painstakingly emptied and their contents weighed and processed in this beekeepers’ workshop. This organic, systemic process can be seen as a microcosm of the commune within which the workshop was situated. Up to seven couples with children resided here at any one time from 1973 to about 2000. They collaborated on self-sustaining endeavours such as dairying, making butter and soft cheese, harvesting, hunting, generating hydro-electric power and beekeeping. Their honey had a branded label which is still proudly stuck to a window in one of the former commune residences. Presumably manufacturing honey was a much-needed commercial interface with the outside world, where in-house produce could be sold for money.

According to records marked on a chalkboard inside, April 1993 appears to be when beekeeping operations ceased. A quarter of a century later, a falling pine tree has done its utmost to topple the workshop, and the whole commune sits decaying in the landscape, somewhat like a giant set of deserted beehives. The ‘hive mind’ of the commune has fragmented and dispersed. Or rather, it has shifted shape. A stream of ants is relentlessly appropriating the remnants of the 1993 honeycomb, hauling tiny piece by tiny piece back to its nest. Given enough years, the ants alone will demolish all that remains of this once-prosperous collaboration between humans and nature.

Down River

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.

Pentagonal Dreams

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.

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.

Preoccupation

“This Place is Occupied; Please Keep Out,” reads the sign above Rimu Cottage in Waiuta. The Waiuta township in upper Grey Valley on New Zealand’s southern West Coast thrived for only 45 years before the gold mine that sustained and necessitated it closed down in 1951.

An Eye In The Earth

While exploring the small gold mining settlement of Waiuta, near Reefton in New Zealand, we found this little u-shaped tunnel network with two entrances nestled into the side of a bush-clad hill.

Know Your Biorhythms

This hut in Waiuta, near Reefton in New Zealand, is where gold miner and photographer Joseph Divis lived from 1930. Divis appeared as a subject in many of his photographs, setting a shutter time release and darting around into the frame. After a career-ending injury in the Blackwater mine in 1939, Divis was interned as an ‘enemy alien’ during World War Two, and his health further declined. When he returned to Waiuta at the end of 1943 he was dependent on crutches. When the Blackwater mine closed in 1951, Divis was one of few residents who chose to stay in what rapidly became a ghost town.

Black Palace

“Black Palace” (Damnak Sla Khmao) was a little summer palace of King Sihanouk, abandoned sometime in the late 1960’s or early 1970’s. It’s located on Bokor Hill Station in southern Cambodia. The “Palace” itself is not on a grand scale, but the overall spectacular location and many outer buildings must have been fairly impressive in its day.

The hill station was built as a resort by colonial French settlers as an escape from the heat, humidity and general insalubrity of Phnom Penh. Nine hundred lives were lost in the nine months during the construction of the resort in this remote mountain location.

The centrepiece of the resort was the grand Bokor Palace Hotel (which has never been a casino) inaugurated in 1925. See previous video- “Casino Rouge”. It was used as the location for the final showdown of the excellent Matt Dillon 2002 movie, “City Of Ghosts”.

Bokor Hill was abandoned first by the French in late 1940s, during the First Indochina War, because of local insurrections guided by the Khmer Issarak. It was only in 1962, for the reopening of the “Cité du Bokor”, that a casino was established in the new hotels near the lake, (Hotels Sangkum and Kiri). Some buildings were added at this time: an annex for the palace, the mayor’s office and a strange mushroomed concrete parasol.

The Bokor mountain was abandoned again in 1972, as Khmer Rouge took over the area. During the Vietnamese invasion in 1979, Khmer Rouge entrenched themselves and held on tightly for months. In the 1990s Bokor Hill was still one of the last strongholds of Khmer Rouge.

West Coast ghost town

Once a thriving railway township, Rewanui was abandoned in 1985 when the railway branch was closed. The town was taken care of and preserved by its caretaker until in 1988 where a huge landslide following a flood destroyed most of the buildings and bridges that remained, tragically killing the sole occupant of the town.

After quite a long walk and a lot of searching through bush we found many remnants of the past still exist throughout the valley including old coal carts and mines.