Ohu: A Feature-Length Visual Documentary

This visual documentary was shot over our two visits to a former commune 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 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 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 1970s 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.

By the turn of the millennium 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 to the river. What now remains of the ohu quietly stands as an inspiring – and perhaps also cautionary – tale about utopias and visionaries.

Part One: Ohu (0:00) Our first day visit uncovered so much of interest that before we’d paddled back across the river to civilisation we were already planning our return.

Part Two: Track Work (22:25) Incessant track work was essential but could be perilous. One mother and her young son were plucked off the back of a horse that had lost its footing near the edge of a high cliff beside the river. They survived: the horse plunged to its death. Traces and eras of labour-intensive track work remain, from the wooden frame of the flying fox they used to cross the river, to farm vehicles they abandoned, to the bridges they built which for now are still just passable, to a solitary spade standing upright in the soggy landscape.

Interlude: Robin’s Room (26:12) A small outbuilding beside John’s house had a loft bedroom and a chest of drawers belonging to a youth by the name of Robin.

Part Three: Hive Minds (26:40) According to records marked on a chalkboard inside, April 1993 appears to be when beekeeping operations ceased.

Interlude: Goat Encounter (31:06) Wildlife thrives in this valley in which hunting is prohibited by law.

Part Four: Pastoral Arts (32:00) A painter’s easel stands overlooking the hillside on which the communal meeting house was built, and the nearby house still contains once-cherished paintings and art books.

Interlude: Enchanting Glade (36:08) The lush riverside environment.

Part Five: Pentagonal Dreams (36:40) Sacred geometry at play in the hexagon-worshipping architecture of the central meeting house.

Interlude: Mud Man Emerges (41:04)

Part Six: Down River (41:49) The river was the commune’s source of hydration, cleanliness, spirituality, and even the electric light in its homes once a generator was installed at the dam.

Interlude: Up River (49:18)

Part Seven: All You Need To Know (49:50) Inside the front door a short and almost indecipherable note is written on the wall: “John’s house is the best house in the ohu and that’s all you need to know.”

Interlude: What Remains (54:48)

Part Eight: Bells, Brushwork & The Business of Billowing Bamboo (55:13) The bell that rang out over the valley to gather the commune members still hangs from a tree.

Interlude: Riverside Theatre (59:41)

Part Nine: LSD 96 (1:00:57) We were told this meeting house used to be a Mongrel Mob headquarters. LSD and mystical geometry seems to have inspired its upper floor with its dome ceiling.

Butt of a Joke

Māori history records that long before this 1.2 kilometre, late 1880s-era tunnel was built, the chief Tarau, heading southward, climbed the range through which the tunnel now passes, situated near the upper Ongarue Valley in the Waitomo region of New Zealand. His subjects dutifully followed their chief, in single file. Mirth must have spread down the line of travellers about Tarau exposing his backside (“poro”) as he bent to the task of scaling the steep hill. And so that place, and the tunnel which was later dug through it, operating for nearly a century until 1980, acquired a colourful name: Poro-A-Tarau — “the posterior of Tarau”. It was a place where a chief exposed his rear end, becoming literally the butt of a joke.

Congratulations to The Forsaken Explorer NZ, Urban Kiwiana and KEWM for tracking down Poro-A-Tarau last year, and special thanks to The Forsaken Explorer NZ who promptly and kindly directed me when I had lost my way. Links to their videos of the tunnel are below.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VQh4_nK0r7s
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=66KJ7nEdyeA&t=3s
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=96a8bm7oifI&t=34s
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R9lv1ucPRlQ
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SS6uFvBpcgQ&t=540s

Across Time

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.

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.

MX3030

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.

Raw

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.

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.

#12

This former rail tunnel has sat abandoned since 1900. It is now three-quarters buried by the earth, and half-flooded. Distinctive arrow imprints on the red and brown clay bricks indicate the presence of prison labourers in its construction. Prisoners serving terms with hard labour wore arrows on their uniforms to visually distinguish them from civilian workers, and they marked their handmade bricks with arrows, as a kind of self-portrait. Finding this tunnel was a team effort involving anecdotes from rail workers, hand-drawn maps of enthusiasts, and – finally – simply groping through thick vines in search of the source of faint sounds of trickling water. The entrances are completely obscured in dense overgrowth. The thrill of finding something so untouched for so long is indescribable.

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.

Trees Company

Driving rural back roads in the Waitomo region, we came across several well-worn former abodes. Interestingly to us, many a collapsing farmhouse had a companion tree somewhat alleviating its loneliness, presumably planted by its former occupants.

Heat, Water and Silence

The current temporary closure of this commercialised geothermal area in the North Island of New Zealand allowed us to capture nature steadily continuing its activity in the peaceful absence of human occupation. According to Māori legend, New Zealand’s geothermal areas were created by two ember-bearing travellers – not on the sea, but through the earth. The two sisters of ocean navigator Ngātoro-i-rangi heard his call for their help from the midst of a blizzard at Mount Tongariro. They loaded six kete baskets with glowing embers and summoned Te Pupu and Te Hoata – the subterranean goddesses of fire – to deliver them to their imperilled brother. The goddesses dived deep into the earth and carried the baskets of heat from Hawaiiki (the Polynesian homeland) to Aotearoa. Each time the goddesses surfaced on their voyage they left a trail of embers, creating geothermal sites at Whakaari (White Island), Moutohorā (Whale Island), Rotoiti, Tarawera, Rotorua, Ōrākei Korako, Wairakei and Tokaanu. By the time they reached Ngātoro-i-rangi at Ketetahi, Tongariro, only one kete of fire remained to save his life.