Images: Tess McClure

Inside Mahana: When a Commune Turns to Rot

In a remote community in the forests of the Coromandel, a utopian dream has turned sour.

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May 28 2017, 6:35pm

Images: Tess McClure

He's 79 years old now, almost 80. Padding across the floorboards in velcro-strapped sandals.

It's difficult to know how long the house has been abandoned. The lounge is tidy, sparse. There's a coffee table with a candle, burned half the way down. A silent television in the corner. Boxes of books: Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential, a Yates Garden Guide. In the kitchen a vase of flowers has tipped and dried out where they've fallen. Everything covered with a thin layer of dust.

Arthur is shuffling around, rifling through the boxes. He's talking to himself now, seems to have forgotten there's anyone else there. He picks out a fraying cookbook.

"Sometimes they come in handy, these old recipes," he murmurs. Tucks it under his arm, moves on through the house.

On the stairs a pile of litter fallen from the roof where rats have nested.
"Look at this," he steps over. "Whenever a house is empty, the rats move in."
In the upstairs room are two single children's wooden bedframes, side by side. Marijuana leaves are strewn across the floor. "See what this is?" A quick hoarse laugh. "Somebody's been drying their dope in here." He sweeps up a dry handful, lifts it to his nose to sniff.
"They smoke it themselves but they also make money off it. It's one of the reasons they don't want people moving in. They're scared for their plots."

An abandoned home at Mahana stands tidy but empty, covered with a thin layer of dust.

From the balcony you can see over the valley, thick manuka forest, black-trunked and deep green. The rain sweeping through is the tail of Cyclone Donna. The valley is enclosed by thick cloud, and the hill-line seems to undulate, ridges slipping in and out of focus.

Arthur looks out over the trees. The enormous eye tattooed at the centre of his forehead is creased by frown lines. Everything you can see, he points up the valley, everything up to the ridgeline, everything is Mahana.

"We're not a community any more," Arthur says.

"It's more everybody's got their own house. Like suburbia. There's no community anymore. No one does anything. That's a pity. Things change, I understand that. But I'm hoping sooner or later we'll turn things around.

"It hasn't happened yet, but you never know."

Arthur surveys the Mahana Valley from the balcony of an abandoned home.

***

Mahana was established on 1978 in the wake of Nambassa, one of the enormous hippy festivals held on the Coromandel Peninsula. The broader hippy movement was already rolling toward its conclusion, as several thousand gathered in the valley for a three-day celebration of free love, peace and music. A film about Nambassa, Dirty Blood Hippies, calls it New Zealand's "last gasp of the hippy dream". But the gasp birthed something. A group from the festival gathered. The root of all human problems, they agreed, lay in ownership of land. They decided to buy a section of land, and set it free. The valley was bought for $40,000, and placed in freehold. It was one of the peninsula's only fully open communes: anyone could turn up, sign their name to the rules, and move in.

In its heyday the valley housed more than 60 permanent residents, 27 children. In the summer months it might swell to 120. They named it Mahana—which members today say is roughly translated to mean warmth in Māori, but was actually drawn from the name of a rock-opera that had toured the hippie circuit back in '76.

The houses are still there, dotted through the bush. About 20 people live here, and some of the homes sit empty.

In old photos of Mahana, it's populated by families and crowds of people who came to join the commune.

***

Arthur weaves down a dirt track through the bush.

The fruit trees spotting the path are dead now, but he lists off what they used to grow: plum, pear, feijoa. They're grey and brittle, wreathed in lichen.

Dotted through the bush are a few remaining homes, where the last inhabitants live

"The rot started about 12 years ago," Arthur says.
"That's when it started. People started drifting away. Kids were growing up but they wanted to move to the city. The toys of the city are very enticing."

Over a small stream, you reach the old cookhouse, where the community used to share its meals. It's empty, grime on the stove, cobwebs wreathing the ladles and spatulas.
"The cookhouse used to be the soul of Mahana," Arthur says. "In the olden days, if anybody arrived, there were always people in the cookhouse. There was always a pot of tea on the stove." On the room's central beam, children have marked off their heights.

Arthur came to Mahana around 35 years ago. Before that he'd been a pastry chef, living in Wellington—he still makes the occasional wedding cake. He was a fervent pro-legalisation campaigner and racked up a few pot convictions in police raids. On his first ever visit to Mahana he says he had a "spiritual experience," sitting right here on the deck of the cookhouse. He'd been looking for something for a long time without knowing what it was, he says. At Mahana, he found it.

The commune's cooking house, where inhabitants once shared meals together, is abandoned and covered with dust.

When the families drifted off, the nature of the place changed, he says. The makeup of the community is mostly male now. The old spectre of land ownership crept back. There are arguments over how open the community should stay, over who has a right to the empty houses.

Some disputes escalated, became startling in their violence: two houses were burned down. After the first fire, one resident spent a year in prison for arson. More recently, upon the news that a women and two children were hoping to move into the community, another house, sitting empty, was ripped apart by a group of residents.

It's still sitting there in the bush, saturated with rain, part of the roof ripped off, the central beams hacked into pieces with a chainsaw. The floorboards have been gouged up, walls smashed in. It looks like an enraged medieval beast has ripped through.

"The knife that I pulled out of my back? I've got it at home and it's got your name on it."

"The ones that stayed here and the ones that are still here want to change the rules and make the land their own again.

"They want to own the land again and you can't come here. That's the problem."

By his concrete igloo, Arthur looks out across the valley. Over the the years, tensions have risen between him and the other inhabitants of Mahana.

A cluster of abandoned cars have been dumped at the bottom of the hill, unable to make the crawl up the dirt track and out.

Halfway up the slope is a white-haired man, with a backpack, sockless feet and tramping boots. He's walking up the hill, his back to us.

"That's the man who burns down houses," Arthur says.

The man reaches the top of the slope, and turns. Sees us looking up at him, and waves slowly, then continues his way up the track.

An abandoned caravan among the Manuka. Over the years, people have left their homes empty.

***

"The knife that I pulled out of my back? I've got it at home and it's got your name on it."

Further along the gravel track, a man lives in a house-bus. Arthur says they were close once: good enough friends, even after he took up with one of Arthur's ex-wives. There's a well-tended vegetable garden, thickly mulched with flowers at the borders. He sees the car's progress up the hill and walks quickly, shoulders set forward, out to meet us on the garden path. He looks furious.

We pull up. Does he want to talk about Mahana? Swift shake of the head. "Not in the mood for that."

He turns to Arthur and his voice is low, face tight with anger. "What do you bring people here for?"
Arthur shifts back and forth, gestures vaguely at the valley.
"Well, collecting evidence, collecting evidence..."
"Oh! For fuck's sake. You're nuts," the man turns. "He's a nut."

"Might be better if you packed your bags now!" Arthur chimes out. "Backstabber. You understand?"

The man jerks his head to the side: get out.

There's a pause, then:
"I've got a knife at home with your name on it," Arthur blurts. "The knife that I pulled out of my back? I've got it at home and it's got your name on it."
They stare at each other for a second
Arthur hops in his car and starts the engine.
The man watches his progress up the hill.

Arthur walks through the bush tracks of the commune. He's been living alone for some time now.

***

"You can stop right there, thanks Arthur."
Dave Prisk has come out to the deck to meet his visitors.
"We've been having trouble with him," he says.
Dave's happy to chat, as long as Arthur waits with his car.

He is, it turns out, the local fire chief, heading up the volunteer squad. He's lived at Mahana - "I like the bush, like the isolation"—since the mid-80s. The house is warm and open. His partner weaves, and it's sweet with the smell of drying flax.
A cat on the carpet that purrs loud enough to be distracting, and he looks down. "We sort of adopted her," he says. Dave seems startlingly normal. It's difficult to imagine him taking to a house with a chainsaw to stop someone moving in.

"The house was—what's the modern word for it? De-established," he says.

For some time, he says, some of the community have wanted to establish a two-tiered structure: people who don't live here but have signed the book, and then resident members. They want to take back control of who's allowed to move in, mostly to keep out unsavoury characters. Mahana's isolation makes it attractive to people with a variety of goals: meth labs, housing stolen goods, weed plots.

Mist rolls in off the hills of the Coromandel. Over time, the isolated commune has become wary of outsiders.

"We had some people wanting to move in before Christmas. Port Charles had had three properties burgled in a single night. The property where these people were living, a lot of the stolen stuff got found on their property. And then they wanted to move in here.

"We stopped these people moving in, and we've been slammed for that."

But how did they stop them? He laughs. "Oh, I don't want to go into things. Like I say, there's a lot of shit going on." There is a pause.

"The house was—what's the modern word for it? De-established," he says.

I picture the ripped up floorboards, the smashed windows, the upturned couch.

"Deconstructed. If it hadn't have been deconstructed-" he pauses, then continues: "Because there was no policy to say 'No' to certain people moving in, it was seen as the only option to stop elements that we considered undesirable from moving in here. Arthur's got no children living here, no family here. I've got a school-age child here."

Since they stopped that group moving in, it's become a witch hunt, he says, a trial by social media, with Arthur taking his complaints to Facebook and past residents calling for those who took action to be turfed out. No-one's come to see Dave, or ask him what his side of the story is.

"He doesn't have much in the way of relationships with other residents. He's probably quite lonely and he loves attention.

"I would say he's lonely. He doesn't have any family here. The rest of us can come home from whatever we've been doing, we've got our families in our homes.
"Arthur probably does miss that."

A vase of flowers lies where it's fallen, knocked over in an abandoned home. The house's owners have long since left.

"The hardest thing to do, believe it or not, is to live your own philosophy."

Arthur's house is up a steep incline—106 steps, hand-dug and filled with concrete, each with a different ancient rune tiled into it.

He points to one, a horizontal tile surrounded by ten squares. "This one here, is one strong man. He gathers people around him and forms an army. That's the army symbol."

Arthur lives in a concrete igloo structure he built himself. The outer layers have begun to crumble.

Arthur lives in a kind of enormous igloo—built with mud bricks from the hillside, then reinforced with concrete as they started to crumble. By evening, it's cold. The roof is painted to show the sky—sunrise to the left, night sky at the right. The plaster is chipping now. Small fragments of orange sunrise have fallen from the roof and are flaking on the table. Outside, he's built a fire-pit, with benches arranged in a pentagon for people to sit around it. It hasn't been used yet.

"I don't know any relationship here that didn't flounder. Mahana, she broke every relationship."

He's given me a police report to read. His statement recounts an argument with another resident out by his wheelbarrow, after long running tensions over the entry of new people entering the community.
The man "reached into his shirt and pulled out a steel grey/black chisel," Arthur's statement reads. "He said he was going to fuckin kill me and smash my brains out. He further said he would gladly go to jail for killing a cunt like me. People will congratulate me for killing you".
Arthur tells the story like it happened last week. The statement reads February 2014.

"In any situation where people live close to each other, there is strife. But the community would always resolve it," he says.

Relationship breakups were a problem over the years. "You might move here with your boyfriend, and then he's got his eye on another girl," he says.
"I don't know any relationship here that didn't flounder. Mahana, she broke every relationship."

"Sometimes I sit here and think about Mahana. I think of all the things in retaliation I can do."

Inside the house, Arthur digs around for a bottle of home-brew. He settles on a bottle of tangelo wine, which he's been ageing for three years. In recent months, he's cut down his drinking, he says. It used to be that if he opened a bottle, he'd polish it off in that sitting. Now he's trying to look after his health.

He sits by the window, lights his joint, fits it to a pipe.

"Sometimes I sit here and think about Mahana. I think of all the things in retaliation I can do."

Arthur at his home in Mahana. He brews his own beer and potent tangelo wine.

Then he's off, talking again about the house that was destroyed down the way.
"I'll show you the photos—the house, how it was. I could build a court case."
There's no good reason for the destruction, he says. Only malice.
"The first reason they say is it's a health hazard. But a health hazard for who? Two is some crackhead wants to move in. Three is they want to teach the old cunt a lesson."

"They want to teach the old cunt lesson? That's me, the old cunt. I teach lessons right back. You want to teach me a lesson? Come on."
Does he get lonely up here, in the dark?
Arthur throws back his head and laughs. "Loneliness is something I've never experienced in my life!"
"I don't need anybody. My own company is satisfactory. I never get lonely, I don't understand loneliness."

In the evenings, Arthur's home darkens and cools. He doesn't get lonely, he says.

It'll all come to a head soon; Arthur says. He's called a meeting of all community members, past and present, to rule on whether Mahana stays open. He seems confident that the meeting will rule in his favour, and it will mark the start of Mahana's return to openness and its former glory.
I ask him what will happen at the meeting, what outcome he's hoping for.
"Well, I'd like to see those people expelled," he says.

"The hardest thing to do, believe it or not, is to live your own philosophy."

Follow Tess on Twitter.

An earlier version of this story misspelled Dave Prisk's name. We apologise for the error.

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