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

Out of Bounds

Welcome to the complete document of our explore of this huge campus of four prison units abandoned in 2012 and currently being demolished.

Part One: “Out Of Bounds” [0:00] Prisons have existed on this site for nearly a century. During the Second World War, conscientious objectors were detained here. In the 1950s the site housed a prison farm which was further developed in the late 1970s. The scale of the site — thousands of hectares of commercial and native forests, farms, wetlands and a river — meant that a perimeter fence was impractical, deemed only ever suitable to house up to 600 inmates at a minimum to medium security level. From 1998 the prison began to suffer repetitional damage, with a seizure of almost $1 million worth of cannabis plants growing on site, a buckets-for-toilets scandal, two inmate drownings involving Māori cultural training, canoes and parachutes, and a guard convicted of supplying cannabis to a prisoner in return for a bribe. The closure of this unit – one of four we visited as the autumn sun was falling fast – was announced in 2012, and the land and its buildings have now been returned to their original owners. No signs of the commencement of demolition were then evident, and — gratifyingly — no signs of vandalism. A 360-degree panoramic mural painted around the walls of the dining hall conveys a sense of geographical placement among the majestic landscapes beyond the perimeter of confinement, tantalisingly out of reach.

Part Two: “Man With Short Arms” [6:30] Perhaps some kind of neuroscience was at play in this choice of images — SpongeBob SquarePants meets the lost city of Atlantis — for a mural painted along the back corridor of the isolation cells of this unit. Presumably intended to calm disruptive prisoners, and engage painterly ones, further intriguing murals adorn the cold cell walls: a man pruning the limb of a tree so anatomically uniform that he might just as likely be an electrician working on wires strung from a lamp post; a Māori wahine wearing a pounamu and a kākahu feather cloak — barefoot on a pedestal — turning her face to the light; a man surveying his upcoming twisting traverse into a landscape crowned by an active volcano, with only a briefcase to sustain him; and the man with short arms — seemingly ill-equipped to utilise the key to freedom that lies beside his truncated frame with its enormous feet.

Part Three: “Traces of Time” [11:49] From the window of #55, an informed eye studies the moody skies above the central courtyard. Glenn’s 1972 Christmas present — The World Encyclopedia of the Film — languishes in #11, its front cover torn off but not yet discarded. #18 plays host to a brown-crayoned face, mouth agape as if inviting the throwing of ping pong balls at a fairground amusement. Nearby a grey-bearded pig farmer and an athletic woman carrying groceries seem to be missing an opportunity to converse at the fence line. Monied wanderlust is palpable in #16, where a shrine to cars, boats and exotic getaways gleams under fluorescent light. Outside Sunday church services advertise the promise of personal transformation via belief in a higher power, while inside #37 another route to growth is being chosen. The number of 5 — denoting maximum difficulty — is written into every column associated with expressing affection towards anyone from an intimate partner to a shop assistant.

Part Four: “But They Can Die” [16:30] The pigs of George Orwell’s Animal Farm proclaimed, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”. Pigs are similarly the object of resentment in under-the-mattress graffiti in Cell #26 of this former prison. The poem begins burnt into the wood: Pigs CAN’T FLY and continues in blue pen: BUT THEY CAN DIE NEXT FINE DAY BLOW A Pig away IF YOU KILL A Pig a day it WILL Keep the doctor away Nowhere more clearly did we find articulated the smouldering frustration of incarceration, channeled into the kind of blind hatred that negates any opportunity for insight. Elsewhere was a mixture of light and shade. In the kitchen the relative gentleness of a rainbow framing the extractor fan was juxtaposed with murals depicting fearsome hyper-masculine muscularity. No such diverting decor was provided for prisoners in solitary confinement, who were required to surrender their tobacco products and were issued with fresh water, a chamber pot, one mattress, one pillow, one pillow slip, one sheet, and blankets or duvet “in accordance with climactic conditions”. How some of them obtained implements sharp and sturdy enough to partially chisel their gang names and insignia into the stone walls and into the paint of their cell bars and doors is anyone’s guess. Puzzling at what we had experienced, and all the more aware of our own freedom of movement and expression, we walked for ninety minutes back down the road through pine forests to where we’d parked our car.

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.

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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.

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.

Keith Butler

This incline was opened in 1889 in the South Island of New Zealand to transport coal by rail down from the mines it served. It operated for nearly a century until the closure of the mines. A caretaker, William Butler, stayed on when the settlement emptied out. On the 13th of September, 1988, a rainstorm caused a landslide, burying what remained of the settlement and killing Butler. His body and car were never found.

Waterpark

Late last year we explored the abandoned waterpark “Ho Thuy Tien” near Hue, Vietnam. This place has been fairly well documented by UE and backpackers before, so to mix things up a bit we decided to predominately explore the park via bicycle- and we’re talking about the old school one speed bicycle variety with a basket on the handle bars.

It took 30-40 minutes in the heat & humidity to bike there from Hue city, courtesy of Google Maps. At the main gate we were surprisingly waved through by a guard. We were expecting a “fee” like all other locals and visitors alike. Perhaps he felt because we’d biked all the way out there we deserved the “free” entry- what ever the case it was good karma.  Locals we spoke to later just could not believe we’d been given “free” entry.

Closed a decade ago- probably because of the high priced tickets and lack of attractions- the park has over the years become a hang out for local youth, urban explorers, backpackers, and on weekends (in this case) a bus load of students. Apart from getting the neck slit gesture after outstaying our welcome at some local lads bbq on top of the waterslide section- it was a safe and surreal experience- and then we had to bike all the way back to town…

Casino Rouge

Exploring the ruin of the French colonial era Bokor Casino Hotel in Cambodia recently. The Casino was fought over by the invading/liberating Vietnamese army and the murderous Khmer Rouge from 1979 onwards. Due to it’s strategic place and size on Bokor plateau it was invaluable to either side to gain an advantage over the other. In recent years it has been cleaned up and somewhat structurally improved- unfortunately removing most of its neglected charm, tragedy and history in the process.

Church : Time

Exploring the abandoned former French colonial era church on Bokor Mountain in Cambodia recently. In 1978 the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia, toppling the murderous Khmer Rouge in a matter of weeks. There was however a stalemate for a time on Bokor (and other locations) as the Vietnamese and the Khmer Rouge battled it out- fighting between the church and nearby casino. In recent years the church has had occasional use- it’s first in nearly four decades. “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen…”

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.

 

 

 

 

Nokor

Not your usual urbex video, but exploring ruins nonetheless. This is the strange fusion temple complex of Banteay Prey Nokor in Cambodia that we visited late last year. Situated in countryside near the town of Kompong Cham, the original 11th century Mahayana Buddhist shrine has been added onto over the centuries and incorporated into a bewildering and sprawling complex of wat’s and stupa’s. Apart from a security guard and a couple of monks we had the place to ourselves. More to come from Cambodia soon…

Kingdom’s gone!

This derelict and forgotten film set was never actually used for filming as the movie was mothballed after running out of money. The set still stands waiting for its film crew and producers to perhaps one day return.

Exploring this abandoned movie set in the middle of rural New Zealand countryside was quite the experience, as we wandered through the film set which was designed to look more like Jerusalem than New Zealand it felt like we were entering some kind of cartoon world. Everywhere we ventured was artificial and built by film set designers, from the walls and floors to the odd props and building materials that were left lying around and never used.

 

The Mansion

Built out of New Zealand native kauri wood in 1899 and the largest structure in New Zealand around in its time, this grand mansion is slated for demolition following extensive earthquake damage.

The mansion was built lavishly both inside and out for a Scottish immigrant Allan McLean, and its beauty is resounding even in its currently dilapidated state. McLean donated his mansion to women’s education upon his death, a worthy cause – we hope McLean’s can eventually be restored and not demolished.

Exploring one of Christchurch’s last grand mansions still standing brought emotions of amazement and sadness as we looked around its unique beauty and its so-far-decided future, demolition.

 

 

 

The Farm

Inside an abandoned former catholic girls school/farm/’rehabilitation unit’ we visited in mid 2013. Founded by a French sisterhood in 1953 -“the girls who came into the care of the sisters often had problems that could not be resolved in their normal environment and needed the loving care of others to restore their sense of self-worth.” The first residents stayed at the ’13’-room Manor built by its previous owner; and over the years the Catholic order embarked on a building program that included a 25-girl dormitory, two-story working/training block, visitor accommodation and sports facility. The last building was an expanded convent for the growing number of sisters at the facility. At it’s peak there were apparently up to 50 nuns in the house, and at least 70 girls. The farm/school/borstal/convent finally closed down in the early 1980’s.

Chiller

A video from a couple of years ago- wandering around the creepy ruins of an abandoned cool-stores facility in Taranaki. Happy Halloween folks 😉

Inhospitable

Filmed in late 2011- this was the final days of the old Hawera Hospital (1925-2012). Demolition was already well underway on the South Taranaki Hospital, with at least half the complex already gone. A compact digital camera was rigged onto the hot-shoe of a DSLR to capture on video the state the place and what was being photographed- plenty of shaky camera footage ensued. Abandoned in 2002, the hospital’s state of decline over the next decade was dramatic and completely unnecessary. It wasn’t a pretty explore- a bleak and hazardous environment, the complete opposite of what a hospital is supposed to be about- inhospitable.

House on the Hill

Rural legend says this house was transported to its spectacular hilltop location sometime in the 1980’s. Allegedly the farmer who owned the property, had intended to renovate the house and make it the family home. Apparently though soon after the building was in place, the couple separated and the man was left to bring up the children on his own. Then, because he couldn’t afford to spend any more time and money on the house, it duly deteriorated and is still standing like a folly decades later. Check out our videos here and here.

WAIKUNE

After 30 years of decay this abandoned prison camp is barely recognisable as a prison anymore, this was a quick, fun early morning explore of a prison that was closed due to 1000 prisoners being released in New Zealand under the Criminal Justice Act in 1985.

The Lost Resort

Anyone visiting Rarotonga for more than a few days, will probably have heard of (or seen) the doomed and abandoned Sheraton resort on the south coast. For a tiny country (pop. 14,600) which earns half of its income from tourism, completing the project is seen as vital.

The history of the project dates back to 1987 when the Cook Islands Government signed a deal with an Italian bank, after being unable to attract the required foreign investment. The Government acted as guarantors for the NZ$52 million loan and agreed to an Italian company’s bid to build Rarotonga’s first luxury 5-star 200-suite hotel and golf course. Sheraton signed up to manage the property and work began on its construction in 1990.

However within a few years, the lion’s share of $52 million disappeared down a black hole carved out by the mafia and other crooks- the project was 80% complete when the insurance firm cut off funding to the builders. Since then, Rarotongans have seen a steady flow of foreign receivers, consultants, con men, lawyers, bankers and developers trying to figure out what to do with the site. The country’s finances were crippled as the government’s liability ballooned to $122 million, and taxpayers are still saddled with the interest bill. The issue of who owns the hotel has been stuck in the courts for years.

Many locals think the project was doomed from the beginning, after a curse was thrown on the site in 1911- after More Uriatua was shot dead by William John Wigmore, following a bitter argument over ownership of the land. At the project’s official launch, Metua More’s grandson, More Rua turned up dressed as a high priest in warlike regalia, intoning the resurrection of his grandmother’s curse. He ended by slamming his spear into a rock onto which a plaque had just been unveiled by the Prime Minister, marking the beginning of the Sheraton project. When the rock split to ground level, the locals saw it as a sign that the resort was still cursed and doomed. It still lies abandoned and derelict today, with no new grand plans of completing The Lost Resort.

 

 

 

Smash You Bro

This car wreckers yard was the set of the New Zealand cult classic film Smash Palace released in 1981. The junkyard offers a rare opportunity to see cars from multiple eras and in various states of decay – some are even in the process of being reclaimed by nature by means of plants growing inside them.

Ruapehu Railways

Standing at the feet of Mt Ruapehu are the remains of several railway viaducts in various stages of decay. Modernisation of the railway network and the move towards concrete bridges in place of the historic steel viaducts has meant that these symbols of industrialisation are no longer in use. One of the viaducts has been turned into a tourist attraction with the option of walking across it – on this viaduct I took the path less travelled and popped down for a look at the hidden service platform beneath its deck.

Ford

Fording a stream in a rather unconventional manner, because here at Urbex Central we feel you don’t always need to take Urban Exploration seriously 🙂

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Man on Wire

Gunner gets in some tight rope walking practise up the cables of an abandoned suspension bridge. This particular bridge was a crucial factor to the success of this region in the early to mid 19th century. Check out Gunner’s video of the event here

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Hilltop Sanatorium

This imposing building on the hill overlooking a small country town has had several uses in it’s lifetime.
It was initially constructed as a hospital for veterans returning home from the great war, before being re-purposed as a sanatorium (tuberculosis hospital).
After 60 years and over 7000 patients, and with the number of cases of TB in decline in New Zealand the hospital became a safe haven for the handicapped and for people suffering from head injuries.
The hospital has gone through another metamorphosis in the new millennium and is now used as part of a larger vineyard complex, we popped by for an inspection on our travels through the North Island.

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Freestyle

Sometimes we don’t even have to search for a new location- we just stumble on them. This abandoned rural school and pool is a good example. We came across it accidentally while taking some time out from exploring a nearby complex. Someone’s got to brush up on their freestyle strokes though 🙂

Beaufort

The Crusader fortress of Beaufort Castle- constructed in the 12th century- has been the focus for countless battles and the home of many occupiers over the centuries.

Beaufort (French for “beautiful fortress”) sits atop a 300 meter cliff which declines steeply to the Litani River. Its commanding location, with views over of much of southern Lebanon and northern Israel, is still of strategic value today.

In fact, Beaufort is one of the few cases where a medieval fortress has also proven to be of strategic military value, in the age of modern warfare.

In late 2005 the place was in ruins- but there was no mistake who held the high ground here.

Hezbollah’s AK47 emblazoned flag fluttered in the breeze- along with their allies and former rivals, AMAL.

Seven months later, the IDF once again invaded Lebanon- blitzing their way up to Beirut- laying South Lebanon to waste and cluster bombs in the July War

The Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) held the castle from the beginning of the Lebanese Civil War in the mid 1970′s, until the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. The Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) finally evicted the PLO and occupied and fortified Beaufort, controlling south Lebanon for the next two decades.

Upon their withdrawl in 2000, the IDF set explosives and destroyed most of the structure. In 2007 an Israeli film- Beaufort– was released about an IDF unit stationed at the fortress.

Anba Hatre

Aswan, Egypt, Dec 2005: Anba Hatre is an earlier name for the 7th century Coptic Christian monastery of St Simeon- featured here in the previous post. During the exploration some video was shot on a very basic mini-DV tape camcorder, and due to this being the last tape. it was edited in camera to make the tape last longer. This is the result, with only a basic “damaged” effect and a soundtrack by the instrumental band Grails, appropriately titled “Erosion Blues”.

The Monastery

Aswan, Egypt, Dec 2005: After exploring some ancient tombs on the westbank of the Nile (featured here)- we decided to walk across the open desert to the ruined 7th century monastery of St. Simeon. It didn’t look far, but in the heat and harsh enviroment of the desert, it proved to be a bit more challenging. The Monastery of St Simeon dates back to the 7th century- it survived as a Christian stronghold of southern Egypt up until being sacked by Saladin in 1173 and abandoned. No real thorough archaeological attention has ever been paid to this ancient site. It was examined and published by Grossmann in 1985, and in 1998 by the inspectors of the antiquities- but still very little is known about this ancient monastery fortress.

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Psych

This former notorious rural psychiatric hospital- see this post-  was visited by one of our group back in 2008. The majority of the buildings then were mostly intact with minimum vandalism. Today many of the buildings have been demolished, with the remainder largely abandoned or used as storage. Incredibly though a number of the villa’s are now reoccupied, by apparently sane people.

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Racecourse Tower

In keeping with our recent racecourse posts, but this time from a different racecourse entirely, join us on a trip up to the top of an observation tower at a rural racecourse on the Kapiti coast. Taken just after a big storm had lashed the lower North island, thankfully the wind had dropped enough to make the climb.