Peter Thompson

Dingle’s toughest journey

Mountaineer Graeme Dingle’s 1200km odyssey with six young violent offenders was a journey he would later describe as the most difficult and stressful adventure of his career, and one that nearly claimed his life.

Written by       Photographed by Graeme Dingle

It is a terrible day—a day of freezing winter rain. A few hundred feet higher it is snowing but down here in the Atiwhakatu, the rain hammers on the hoods of our parkas and creeps with icy fingers inside.

We have been walking all morning—walking through wet, cold bush, walking beside the raging Atiwhakatu River in the Tararua Ranges. The noise is deafening as the brown fury roars down to our right. We hear great boulders tumbling down the bed of the river, carried along by the thick brown water.

I am on edge, tense because of all the dangerous crossings we have already made; tense that something might happen before we light the fire and call it a day.

We reach Jumbo Stream and my heart skips a couple of beats as I look at the raging stream falling, tumbling down towards the main river. The stream flows as if down a rocky staircase, then sweeps around a corner wildly like a kind of watery wall of death before falling into the raging Atiwhakatu. Without too much hope of finding a crossing place I walk up to the edge of the stream and look across.

The first half of the crossing does not look bad, so I signal to Waka Attewell, the ace adventure cameraman who has been my friend for 13 years, to join up with me for an attempt.

With arms linked, we stoically enter the first channel. It is thigh deep and moving very quickly and in one place 1 feel us almost lose our footing but we manage to forge out into a shallower place.

We collect our wits and look at the next channel. It is no more than 20 feet to the bank, but it looks deep and very fast. We take a couple of tentative steps until the water is thigh deep. Waka says, “I think this is a four-man crossing, Ding.” But the other bank looks almost close enough to lunge for so I move forward, stepping into the middle of the channel. For a moment my feet are on the ground and then I am gone, followed closely by Waka. The nightmare I have always considered is happening. I am being tumbled down this raging stream with a hundred metres of life left before being swept into the main river. It is so terrifying that 1 hardly notice the freezing water. I am fighting for my life.

I grab a root but this is torn out and I go tumbling on down the stream again, crashing into boulders, going head over heels in the wild water. I grab a large boulder that is just sticking out of the water and wrap both my arms around it, my fingers clutching for anything that will save my life.

A moment later I’m hit, first by Waka’s pack and then by Waka, his clutching hands grabbing hold of me and pulling me back into the stream. I let out a cry like a man breathing his last and hurtle off once again down the mad fury.

I manage to grab another rock and half pull myself out of the water. The whole thing is over in minutes and I am absolutely exhausted. I’m so relieved to be olive that I hardly even consider that Waka is almost certainly dead.

[Chapter Break]

The Journey is in its sixth day and mountaineer and adventurer Graeme Dingle has come close to death. For all he knows his close friend Waka is dead. Yet the first thing that registers as he crawls feebly out of the water is how amazed and delighted he is to find that the rest of the team has run down the banks to the angry waters of the Atiwhakatu and is standing ready to assist.

A seemingly small thing, but Dingle can’t help feeling pleased. They reacted in the right way without anyone telling them what to do.

‘They are the six young violent offenders Dingle has come to know over the past few weeks as The Bros. And even after witnessing the near drowning of Dingle and Attewell (who miraculously survives the ordeal after being washed into a stopper) they have enough trust left to unquestioningly follow Dingle back into the water when he makes his second attempt to cross, crawling precariously across a tree which has fallen into the stream.

For Dingle this 1200km odyssey, which began in Picton the week before with a gut-wrenching crossing of Cook Strait by kayak, would turn out to be the most difficult and stressful adventure of his career. Thirty three days later when the Journey ends in a triumphant walk up Queen Street in Auckland, climbing a big wall in the Himalayas would seem easy compared to the unpredictability of the Journey.

Dingle’s idea of a long, hard journey to raise money for Telethon—to support its anti-violence theme and prove that some convicted offenders could be rehabilitated by introducing them to the rigours of the outdoors—came at a time when many people were feeling that prisons were an expensive exercise in futility.

A midwinter trek through some of the most difficult terrain in the North Island had the potential to capture the headlines—and the community’s imagination—and bring the issue to the forefront of public attention.

And for the most part the response was positive. As the Journey team made their way through the North Island between June 24 and July 27 1988, Dingle met mainly approval from those he encountered, or who phoned in on talkback radio.

But there were some detractors who saw the Journey as more soft-pedalling for offenders. A Waikato Times editorial no doubt voiced the feelings of some of its readers when it stated, “It all sounds like a marvellous adventure for the young people—the kind hundreds of young Kiwis would love to undertake, if they could afford the time and had the money.

“If the six young men front to do a Telethon trek after they have served their sentences and in a month of their own time—not taxpayers’—we will be prepared to join Mr Palmer in his enthusiasm.”

The usually conservative NZ Herald took the opposite view. “Putting young criminals through any course that lets them learn what they are capable of sounds more promising than force feeding their resentment.”

Justice minister Geoffrey Palmer and his department were also right behind the idea, allocating Doug Roberts, a probation officer from Tauranga, for the duration of the Journey.

Through Roberts, 20 referrals were received from North Island prisons and probation officers. Ten were chosen to do a course over Queen’s Birthday Weekend at Dingle’s Outdoor Pursuits Centre in Turangi, before six were finally selected.

The criteria were that all six should have a violent offence in their background, and that they should be representative of violent offenders in the community. It was important not to end up with six people there for common assault and unlikely to reoffend—”that would have been too easy”—but at the same time, the six chosen had to be committed to making a change.

In the end Dingle, Roberts and Greg Brosnan, one of the centre’s most experienced instructors, chose the final six. All men, aged between 17 and 24, most of whom had never kayaked, climbed or biked long distances before. They had come for the promise of a job and the chance to prove to themselves that they could change their lives. Violent offenders who had themselves been the victims of violence, the Journey offered them something positive for the first time in their lives.

Cliff Messent, the youngest at 17, was due to appear for sentencing on a charge of aggravated robbery when the Journey finished. He and a mate had robbed a taxi driver—Cliff held the man while his friend seized a log book they thought contained money. His record summed up as theft and assault.

Leon Wilson, 19, a big, rough looking man with convictions for armed robbery and assault was from Auckland. His dad had been a staunch Stormtrooper and Leon had been in the Black Power since his early years. He wore a ring on his nipple and had tattoos even on his eyelids. He was serving two years at Waikeria for armed robbery.

Henry Pompey, 19, also from Auckland, had a history of burglary and assault charges. He was nearing the end of a two year sentence for rape. A quiet, shy character, he found it hard to talk without looking away.

Don Christie, from Hamilton, had spent a good deal of his 24 years in jail. He went straight from third form at 15 to jail. He had convictions for burglary, assault and car conversion. He also had a two year old daughter called Natasha. “I don’t think she’s going to be proud of me if I’m in and out of jail.”

The other two were Pakeha. Richard Carlton, convicted of common assault. At 19, a cool-looking individual already proud of his prowess in the outdoors, and newly converted Christian living at Lifegate Christian Community in Auckland.

Rikki Johnson, 20, had been on probation for burglary and assault, and threatening to kill someone after drinking too much tequila.

It was not without a great deal of trepidation that the Bros set out on a cold June morning on the first length of the Journey—the 108km paddle from Picton to Titahi Bay in Wellington.

The Bros had spent several days at the Outward Bound School at Anakiwa practising kayaking. In the relatively sheltered waters of Marlborough Sounds the only mishap had been Leon tipping in—but the others had righted him so quickly that team leaders Dingle, Roberts and Brosnan barely had time to react.

None of that had prepared them, however, for the sheer terror of a Cook Strait crossing, with nothing but a brightly coloured plastic kayak between them and two to three metre high seas whipped up by a fierce norwesterly. Not even the escort provided by two 30-foot sailing yachts owned by a couple of Dingle’s old climbing friends, and the additional safeguard of a fishing boat skippered by local fisherman Jack Shallcrass, who’d agreed to pick up any “swimmers,” could diminish “the scary sight” .

Dingle’s wife Corrina, who was along for the ride, was the first to be sick over the side. The next casualty was Cliff, who offloaded himself on to one of the yachts, followed by Leon and Don. Richard went next—after ignoring a warning to keep his distance from the other kayakers he had come tearing off down a wave and almost wiped out an angry Dingle. Finally, after 30 kilometres, Henry was knocked over by a wave, and like the others was expertly picked up by Jim Shallcrass.

Ironically, it was Rikki, who had been so full of self-doubt he had wanted to pack it in before even starting out, who continued to paddle the whole distance. He never gave up despite being wet, cold and sore, and stoically battled conditions that even the more experienced leaders found tough.

Rikki was also the first of the Bros to get to the top of Ruapehu two weeks later, but a few days after that he decided to pull out of the Journey and go home, saying something about having to see a girlfriend. Pretty much a loner throughout much of the Journey, he had threatened to leave every few days. Feeling that they had cajoled and encouraged him enough, the team leaders let him go.

It was a decision Rikki later regretted.

It was inevitable that there would be trouble. The Bros had been selected for the Journey because of their violent histories—and that carried a certain risk with it. Most of them had short fuses, and under the pressures of a tough, uncomfortable, sometimes dangerous Journey, it was certain that tensions would blow up sooner or later.

They did.

Though Dingle and the other leaders are adamant they never lived in fear of the Bros, there were times when the Bros themselves would try to tell them that they should. At one of the many meetings which the Bros called to air their grievances, there had been the implied threat: “Don’t push us, we’re violent men.” It was not a threat Dingle took seriously. “Their behaviour didn’t ever seem as dangerous as the environment.”

And if it did, it didn’t stop Dingle laying down the law when he had to—as on the Tararua section when Greg Brosnan noticed the smell of cannabis and saw Henry walking a little strangely. Dingle later reminded the Bros they had all made a vow of no drugs and no alcohol and he’d be extremely annoyed if they were smoking dope while he had given up his gin and tonics in the evenings. Afterwards the boys had walked across to the river and thrown a bag into the murky waters. That was the last they saw or smelt of dope for the rest of the Journey.

For the most part, the Bros seemed to be learning to control their anger. Once, after an argument about rugby league, Leon kicked a marker post and hurt his foot badly enough to put him out of the Tararua section. He didn’t kick any more marker posts, but as he later said, better that he lashed out at the post than at one of the Bros.

Cliff’s self-control was not as good after a long, hard day of tramping through the Tararuas—a day in which he and Richard had been getting increasingly on each other’s nerves.

Before the team leaders could intervene, the smaller Cliff had knocked Richard out and was then, in true street fashion, putting the boot in, before Henry dragged Richard away. Don, who had arrived late on the scene, then rushed in and roughed up Cliff, probably in an attempt to impose some kind of street leadership, though he said later that it was because Richard was a Christian and couldn’t hit back himself. Richard, meanwhile, sat half-comatosed, muttering that if he had a knife he would stab that so and so. A few hours later the tension was broken when Cliff came back and gave Richard a hug.

The fight was quickly forgotten amid the more pressing worries of surviving the Tararua’s flooded rivers and freezing conditions, and the near drowning of Dingle and Attewell at Jumbo Stream. After a couple of days, the group decided to abort the Tararua section, and a helicopter lifted a battered Waka Attewell out of the ranges, complete with the precious documentary film which he had managed to save.

It was not until the assault on the Ruahines that the Journey really started to click into place. Up till then the distractions of the media, the constant comings and goings of support staff and the presence of TVNZ’s documentary crew had had its down side. The team was never able to become cohesive, or settled. Even the contact with the community the uniformly warm crowds who gathered to welcome the Journey as it made its way through the North Island, added to the pressures on the group.

In the Ruahines there was no camera crew, no media, and no support staff. Just Dingle, Roberts, Brosnan and four of the Bros. Rikki was laid low with an injury and Richard had decided to pull out just before the group went into the mountains, refusing to give his total commitment to the seven hard days of slog ahead. A few days later Richard asked to be taken back, but by then the group was adamant that it was too late. Richard had made his decision and had to live with it, and perhaps that was the journey’s greatest lesson for him.

The next seven days of tramping through the Ruahines were marked by violent storms and difficult terrain. In Cattle Creek the storm was so violent the group could hardly stand up against the wind, which was tearing waterfalls apart and blowing them straight up into the air.

On the Ngamoko Range they tramped north in knee-deep snow, with visibility almost zero and navigation difficult. And on the frozen tops of the Mangahuia Range they had to cu t steps in the ice in order to make any progress.

It was the most physically demanding section of the Journey, but it held a “desperate joy” for Dingle, and a special place for the Bros. who had never felt so close. Doug Roberts, who took psychological tests to gauge the Bros’ feelings of well-being and their anger control throughout the Journey, saw the Ruahines as being the clear start of their improvement.

“For the first time we started to come together as a group. We were holding together, co-operating, looking after each other. It was the difficulty of the terrain, the isolation and the smaller group size. We had to help each other. It was all for one and one for all”.

It was telling that the group came unstuck almost as soon as they left the Ruahines and went back to civilization. At the end of that first day out of the Ruahines, after a gruelling 85km bike ride to Waiouru. Don Christie and Dingle came to blows in a much publicised scrap.

It happened at the Waiouru barracks. The film crew was there. The four supporters, Sol Delamere, Lou Hoia, Robyn Kay and Tracey Patterson were there. And worst of all, the media were there.

Dingle remembers vividly the meeting which led to the fight. Don had asked Greg Brosnan why he was giving them such a hard time, and Brosnan had complained that among other things Don was continuing to draw on the walls of huts with a black felt pen after he had been asked not to.

Dingle asked Don whether he would draw on the walls of meeting houses.

There was a brief exchange of words then Don suddenly jumped up and stormed across the room to leave. I followed him shouting. “Come back here and stop acting like a child.”

“Come back here and stop acting like a child.”

I had scarcely got the word child out when he turned and rushed me with the speed of lightning, throwing me against a wall. This made me very angry. but above all I was determined not to be bullied by somebody three or four stone heavier, and despite the non-violent theme I decided the time to woo was over and the time to scrap was nigh.

I rushed at him and hit him a couple of times in the face. He responded in a similar manner. The fight erupted a couple of times more with me getting thrown through some swing doors and down stairs. I don’t remember exactly how it ended, except it wasn’t looking good for me, but eventually Don stormed out of the place.

Once again it was settled with hugs and a firm pact never to resort to blows again while on the Journey, but it was obvious that the Journey was reaching its mental and physical high point. It was also obvious that some of the boys were nervous about the impending assault on Ruapehu, an event which had begun to assume fearsome proportions in the minds of some of the Bros, particularly Don. To him the mountain was something mystical and magical, even sacred. He had a fear of it, a feeling that it should be left alone.

But two days later when Don stood on the 2751m summit of Ruapehu in perfect conditions, he felt “peaceful, massive, on top of the world”. Like the others he would struggle to describe the incomparable feeling of having conquered the mountain, of being in another world, the elation as they launched spontaneously into a full-blooded haka, the sheer joy as they hugged each other.

For once the whole team seemed happy. They still had 500 kilometres to go but for all of them, this was the climax. From here on, it was all downhill.

On that final day, there was triumph mixed with sadness. After all they had been through, the Justice Department had insisted that Leon and Henry return to prison to finish off their sentences—two weeks for Leon, one week for Henry.

As they climbed One Tree Hill, the two had dragged behind, trying to savour the last few moments. Henry was in tears. Leon walked slowly, “I want to make the most of my freedom.”