Minginui’s last stand
On Waitangi weekend, 1989, the tiny central North Island town of Minginui was at the centre of a massive military operation. Troops and artillery flowed into the town in a last-ditch effort to quell a (mock) rebel uprising. The townspeople, mostly spectators in the army drama,had reason to reflect on the significance of the clash: in many ways Minginui itself is facing its darkest hour.
The morning of the invasion of Minginui dawns grey and threatening. Swollen rain-clouds drift overhead and the tall pine trees which encircle the village look more than ever like dark sentinels. It rained last night and the day before, and brown, shabby puddles litter the roads.
At 5am on this Sunday morning heavy leather boots are already splashing through those puddles, and the click of firearms being readied for action disrupts the calm.
Jenny Kohiti and her children are asleep when the first shots are fired, but by the time the army trucks rumble into the village at 6.30am the household has begun to stir. They know they are in for trouble. Jenny has been harbouring two rebels in her home for some weeks now and it is only a matter of time before her house is searched.
When the soldiers bang on the door she is still in her dressing gown making breakfast for her children. Neither she nor the rebels had expected an intrusion this early. Suddenly, the rebels panic and run out of the house, automatic rifles blazing. They are killed in the cross-fire, but die in the knowledge that they have taken two New Zealand soldiers with them.
For her part in the resistance movement Jenny and her children are taken to the army compound in the village rugby field for questioning. She is still there three hours later, sipping tea, eating dry biscuits, swaddled in a crusty grey army blanket. Though it is cold and draughty in the tent and she has bare feet, Jenny is not complaining.
“It’s good fun,” she says. “Something different.”
Sergeant-major Garry O’Neill gropes for words to explain what’s so special about Minginui. It’s a question most of the army personnel in the tiny Urewera village have been asking with varying degrees of success for the past three weeks. The example he chooses says as much about the army as Minginui.
“It’s so behind the times,” exclaims the Vietnam veteran. “One of the Mongrel Mob introduced me to his mates as a guy who fought for his country. Can you believe it? That’s just out-dated anywhere else.”
Naturally, this is one unfashionable sentiment O’Neill and his colleagues can tolerate. The mantle of soldierly glory may have slipped off their shoulders completely in city streets, but here in Minginui it is allowed a brief airing at least.
It is a happy coincidence, then, that Minginui has been selected to stage an important scene in the army drama about to unfold. Called Exercise Golden Fleece, it is the biggest military exercise of its type to be held in New Zealand in 20 years.
The title harks back to the Greek myth of Jason and the Argonauts and their search for the Golden Fleece. Jason finally locates the fleece in the mythical land of Colchis, but before he can retrieve it he has to perform a number of heroic tasks.
For the purposes of the army exercise “Colchis” is a large section of eastern North Island hill country, meant to represent a South Pacific island.
The New Zealand forces have been called in by the government of Colchis for help in suppressing an armed uprising of political dissidents. Minginui is the rebel stronghold and local residents have agreed to play the army’s game as the enemy, with some soldiers to assist them.
O’Neill is one of the rebel leaders and, along with 35 other terrorists, plus support personnel in the forest, he has the task of putting up a forceful resistance to the invading New Zealand forces.
The climax of this drama is scheduled for Waitangi weekend, when over 400 troops will descend on the village and attempt to quell the rebellion.
Army personnel claim the choice of Minginui was a sheer fluke. They simply wanted a small, isolated rural village and any one of the settlements in the area would have done. But in choosing Minginui they have added themselves to a surprisingly long list of outsiders who have closely scrutinised the village over the last 20 years.
Despite its isolation — 100km from Rotorua on an unsealed road (nobody drives through Minginui on the way to another destination) Minginui has been the subject of scores of hand-wringing papers from bureaucrats, conservationists and potential tourist operators alike.
There are cabinet papers, Ministry of Works reports, conservationists’ pleadings, State Service Commission reports, University of Waikato assessments and more recently comment from Treasury, the Department of Conservation, the Department of Maori Affairs, the cabinet social equity committee . . .and now the
army is having a look-in.
Surely, these must be some of the most documented people in New Zealand, and the question inevitably arises “Why?” The answer seems to lie in the social history of the place: what has happened to New Zealand, and particularly to the Maori community, in the past 40 years is thrown into sharp relief in this one small outpost.
For a start, Minginui was a government creation. It was established by the New Zealand Forest Service in 1946 as a model forest village. They named the town after a nearby stream; the name Minginui literally means “large herb.”
Minginui lies on a flat plain in the Whirinaki Valley. It is immediately surrounded by pastoral and scrub land, and beyond that rise the majestic primeval podocarps of the Whirinaki State Forest Park.
Across the hills to the east is Urewera National Park, while further to the west lie large expanses of exotic forest on the Kaingaroa plains.
Like many other towns planned by the Ministry of Works in the late 1940s and 1950s, particularly Kawerau and Murupara, Minginui is a miniature version of Timber Town, with curving streets and box-like wooden homes perched on neatly mown, quarter-acre sections. The streets, set out in a circuit roading pattern, are aptly named after native trees — Miro, Rimu, Totara.
Apart from the 95 houses in the village, Minginui has its own fire station, shop, school and Working Men’s Club. There is a church — a tiny white building which is generally mistaken by newcomers to be a disused yet tidy shed of some sort. I’m told, however, that 20 people can fit in there, though it is locked most of the time.
Next to the church is an even smaller building, the craft shop, which is also closed during the invasion. Not far from the shop , the Department of Conservation’s office and then, just a stone’s throw, the Working Men’s Club.
The shop is the village’s focal point during the day but at night the pool tables and cheap alcohol at the club take over.
The ring of pines around the village is a stark reminder of its history. Until recently, Minginui was a single industry town, a factor which gave it an unmistakable cohesion. The population has remained 95 per cent Maori, mainly from the Ngati Whare tribe. Many families have been there for two or more generations, and despite the isolation and lack of services, most people have close attachments to the region and the village.
Minginui was once a spirited community. The last time the army decided to treat it as the enemy area they were in for a surprise. This exercise, over 20 years ago now, involved an air drop of soldiers into farmland near the village.
Realising they were being described as the enemy for the purpose of the exercise, the locals decided to behave according to type.
The story goes that they grabbed one of the soldiers, tied him up in his parachute and took him to the officer in charge at the paratroopers’ assembly point. The man apparently was not amused.
But the real fight began in the late 1970s — for jobs. Conservationists lobbying for an immediate end to the milling of native trees in nearby Whirinaki Forest were the bane of Minginui. In retaliation, Minginui people organised road blocks, stacked meetings of the Native Forest Action Council and helped send over 8000 submissions to government to no avail. Though Minginui was making national headlines from 1978 on, the conservationists were slowly gaining ground.
The battle was finally lost in 1984 when the government announced an end to all native logging, and three years later the Forest Service was dismantled. In 1988 the last major employer in the village, Carter Holt sawmills, pulled out.
The current level of unemployment in Minginui is thought to exceed 90 per cent, and morale is generally low.
In the town’s favour, however, is the strong social cohesion fostered during the war with the conservationists (locals call them “greenies”) — a factor which came into the govern‑ment’s calculations when considering the future of the community. They reasoned that such a close-knit, committed community would stand a good chance of future success and survival.
The army, too, is hoping that some of this fighting spirit will be displayed during their exercise, and already some of the greenie tactics have come in handy. O’Neill and his band of rebels were wondering what signal they could use to alert the village to the need to assemble outside the shop. No trouble, they were told. We’ll get two cars to drive around the village with their horns going, like we did when the greenies came to town.
“You’ve never seen a village move so fast. Everyone was out and at their places blocking the road in a couple of minutes,” remembers one local.
This time the villagers’ role is to riot against the New Zealanders, stage marches and sit-ins, let tyres down and create problems at checkpoints.
The army’s aim, on the other hand, is to carry out a low-level operation, flushing out the rebels and winning the confidence of the locals.
Though Minginui will not be able to provide the army with tropical Pacific Island conditions, it will undoubtedly give them good training in wet weather survival. According to the local Department of Conservation, weather in the area has taken a turn for the worse since Cyclone Bola. Rainfall, generally high in Minginui, has increased over the summer period. This weekend is no exception.
The rebels with their makeshift gear are not as well equipped to deal with the downpours as the well-clad, well-organised troops. It seems too cruelly real that the political wing of the rebel movement are able to discuss tactics in the warmth and comfort of the Minginui Safari Lodge while the hard-core militia endure primitive conditions in the wilds.
Rudi Cermak, a rebel, has been living in the abandoned Carter Holt sawmill as part of the rebel propaganda and munitions unit. He is coated with a fine film of dirt and his face has the stringy look of a man who has had little sleep. The first thing he does is apologise for his undeodorised state.
“There’s nowhere to wash around here, and come and have a look where we are sleeping,” he says. The beds are narrow constructions only recently raised from the grimy concrete floor because the “rain kept coming in and wetting the sleeping gear.”
Attempts at washing clothes have not been too successful either since the washing line was so filthy it cut a black smear into all the garments. Cermak laughs at the absurdity of such efforts in this environment.
Despite the hardships, his crew have been printing and distributing inky gestetner leaflets condemning the regime. These crude, indignant documents festoon the shop.
The rebels are also dab hands at cooking up booby-traps and bombs, ingeniously devised from household items such as clothes pegs and mouse-traps. Booklets on how to make explosives, including a recipe using farm fertiliser, are closely guarded.
As we leave, Cermak yells behind us that we must walk along a single route because “everything around here is booby-trapped.”
Rebels like Cermak have already discovered that dealing with munitions in a civilian setting is a delicate matter. Caches of replica weapons have been hidden in the surrounding countryside and in the homes of those who have agreed to take part. However, one cache was returned by a helpful hunter who asked, “Did you guys lose these?”
And already even more helpful souls have presented the rebels with a real home-made bomb. A well-intentioned gesture, though a little zealous for the army’s liking. They promptly defused the explosive.
For the purpose of the exercise Waitangi Day has been declared a day of recognition for the alternative administration. Marches and demonstrations against the Colchian government are on the agenda and the rebels are gearing up for action.
Five local families have agreed to harbour rebels and take a more active part in the scenario, and so far most of the village has consented to being searched.
Says Garry O’Neill,”It is surprising how keen they are to be on the rebel side.”
Some responses, though, have been telling in other ways. “At one meeting a guy came who was totally deaf. At the end of the night he said, ‘What are these army guys here for? Have they come to steal our land?’ ”
By now the rebels are completely integrated into the community, although they look a little too clean-cut to be true Minginui style. If only beards didn’t take so long to grow, they sigh. Designer stubble has yet to take Minginui by storm, and that’s all they have managed so far.
But they’ve made the grade in other ways. O’Neill is chuffed that he and other rebels and their partners were invited by a Mongrel Mob member to a barbecue at his house.
“It was very nice too,” he said, and then shaking his head he adds “Things constantly surprise me here. That particular Mob member has one of the neatest houses in Minginui.”
The Mob have also been written into the scenario because “every society has them, even Colchis.” But they have been renamed in army-speak as the ROGUES — Racially Oriented Groups of Unemployed Ethnics.
The first day of the battle opens promisingly, with sunshine. Corporal Junior Ruri (a rebel) peers out of the lodge window at the golden rays and declares it “a good day for killing soldiers.”
The rebels have already sent out their terms for negotiations with the army, but the army ignores their requests and arrives noisily by helicopter.
The welcoming party of children watch in awe as hunched figures emerge from the whirring beast, newly cut grass flying in their faces. The delegation moves to George Macmillan’s house for top-level negotiations. Macmillan is the village manager, now cast as mayor.
There is much over-blown posturing and threatening on both sides.The rebels maintain they have brought peace to Minginui while the army insist the rebels have been intimidating and murdering locals. “The media have reported that,” they say. “The media don’t lie.” All journalists present wince.
As always, a gaggle of children converge upon the solidiers, particularly those with weapons. In a village where video games (“spades”) have yet to invade, the presence of the army is about as good as they will ever get in terms of entertainment.
Soldiers’ ration packs are the closest thing to fast foods for these children, who eagerly seize upon any spares, and nearly every small boy has his face streaked with camouflage paint.
The coloured grease seems to imbue them with a newfound confidence and they swagger behind the soldiers with a chin-up, boyish machismo.
Meanwhile, the rangy manuka next to the Minginui bridge is twitching with rebels awaiting the army invasion. Sure enough, local teenagers on motorbikes race across to report the army are on their way.
The rebels crouch in the scrub in anticipation, blinking back the rain which has started to come down with a vengeance. Special effects couldn’t have produced a more muddy, solemn World War I scene.
At last an army jeep rumbles into view and starts across the bridge.
Suddenly it is all over, in a soggy anticlimax. A small puff of dirty grey smoke is the only sign of the scripted explosion. Worse still, the umpires declare the bridge has only been partially destroyed and though the jeep and a few men are now statistics, enemy soldiers lose no time running across the broken bridge on foot.
This is real Breaker Morant stuff. One man surely deserves an Oscar for his spirited attack and then brilliantly executed death in which he rolls down a hillside and lands without complaint in a puddle.
Yet despite the best attempts at seriousness, much of the planned tragedy descends into melodrama or pure comedy. Hearing cries of “Are you dead yet, mate?” and the reply “Yes” ring across the hills does little to add an authentic stamp to events.
Sunday starts early with a dawn raid and house-to-house search. Some locals are taken away for questioning, and despite the cold and the rain at the army compound they love their moment of glory.
Junior reports gleefully that he has passed a checkpoint undetected simply by travelling in a Mob car. He enjoys telling the bit where he waved a beer bottle at the army. “If they were really smart they would have noticed the top was still on,” he says.
The day wears on with the occasional thunder of booby traps and car bombs (all puffs of smoke) reminding you there is a war on. Army men are everywhere, lurking around Minginui houses and trying to pick off rebel snipers. It seems they are succeeding. The rebels can just about count their troops on one hand now.
At last the greenie signal is heard. Two car horns blast the calm, and obediently the locals leave their homes, though not with the urgency one would expect. There is a Sunday picnic air to the gathering outside the shop and the children are hopping with excitement.
Even the local hermit has come down from his self-imposed isolation in the hills for the event, and with his long white flowing beard that appears to cover most of his face, he looks every inch the part.
The remaining rebels in the crowd attempt to whip up emotion with angry chants about the army occupation, and the raggedy, somewhat baffled group ambles to the army compound. Placards have been made for the march proclaiming “Kiwis Go Home” but some children have picked up the wrong cards. They hold “Contaminated Water” signs aloft with misplaced pride.
This is the point where the rebels are supposed to kill a local child and blame it on the army, with the aim of starting a riot and gaining a bundle of political points.
But the gap between reality and pretence grows wider by the minute. If the locals seem confused, the army is stunned by this gathering of 150 bearing “Contaminated Water” signs, the shooting of a boy with a balloon pop and accusations that they are somehow responsible.
At this stage no-one is entirely sure what is going on, but my sympathies are with the hermit. It must be like watching part 13 of a television saga without the benefit of programmes one to 12.
By Waitangi Day the battle is drawing to a close. Last night Junior nobly sacrificed himself in a suicide bombing mission, taking six army men with him, and two other rebels at large were caught later in the day.
Though the rebels have undoubtedly won the hearts and minds of the locals, they have not counted on the stomachs of the children. Fora packet of Sparkles, the children will happily reveal where the rebels are hiding and the remaining mop-up operation is easier than the army expected.
In fact, in more ways than one, the children probably benefit most from the army’s presence. During the static display in the afternoon, they are given the opportunity to hold weapons, sit in an armoured personnel carrier and huddle under camouflage nets.
Those army personnel who have been in the village as rebels for the past month have also taken an interest in the children.
“I’m always saying to them — what are your plans, what do you want to do when you grow up, where do you want to be? I’m on at them all the time,” says rebel (Corporal) Carmel Marino, “because they don’t get much of that around here.”
Says local Pat Rua, nodding in the direction of his teenage son, “I like the military exercise and I hope it gives this little egg here something to think about.” His son does not want to appear too biddable, but admits shyly that the army has been pretty good.
Rua, once a carpenter for the Forest Service, now runs an Access scheme in Minginui. He is a large, relaxed-looking man, keen to inject some hope and skills into the community, for he knows Minginui is in danger.
With the cessation of logging, Minginui lost its cash crop, and the Forest Service, which once attended to every need, went with it. Cut adrift from its original reason for being, Minginui has changed says Pat Rua, from being an industrious village to one where the patterns of life revolve around a trip to the dole office every Thursday and down to the club at night. Even so, Rua doesn’t see the changes in completely negative terms.
“I don’t blame the conservationists. They’re alright. They made us see a few things we didn’t want to see. Even closing the Forest Service was a good idea. We’d been hand fed for so long it was hard to get out of the habit. Even after we’d been corporatised for two years, we were still relying on the Department of Conservation.”
At 52 he doesn’t want to leave his home, which, like many others in Minginui, is bedecked with photographs, family memorabilia and glittering knick-knacks.
“Most of the people here are confused now. They don’t know what’s going on, but they don’t want to leave. I don’t want to leave. I like the isolation, the fishing, hunting. There’s no point going to Rotorua because we would only shift our problems. If you stay here for four or five years the place grows on you. Even after people have been away for 10 years they still come back
“My long-term aim is to get people to work here, but with the dole the same as money on Access it’s hard to keep people coming. I tell them that if they don’t come we will lose the Access scheme and it won’t come back. That generally works.”
After the Forest Service left, the Crown returned the land and improvements not required to the Te Whaiti Nui-a-Toi Trust, which represents the interests of Ngati Whare. The Department of Conservation will administer the village until the end of March; then a village trust takes over.
At the moment, the locals lean heavily on the skills of George Macmillan, who is the village manager, spokesperson, dreamer and schemer. Minginui has no local elders, but there are a loose group of people who are trying to assume this role for the community. Marylou Mason is one of these people, though she only reluctantly admits it.
Mason’s youthful looks and dimpled smile belie the fact that she has had 12 children, eight of whom live in Minginui. Some of them are Mob members, whom she describes as “monkeys giving me cheek.” In any event, they are all family and “good boys, really,” she grins.
Though Marylou lives in Munipara, she has close links with the village. With her immediate family pretty much off her hands, she is concerned with putting something back into Minginui, so she teaches at the Kohanga Reo school and takes the local youth club. Mason is aware that the responsibility now rests with people like her.
“George helped us when we didn’t know how to go on. I give him credit but he’s gone as far as he can go. It’s up to us now.
“When people bought their homes in 1987 I noticed a big change. People really settled then and they are much happier and proud of their houses. They are wanting to keep them nice.”
Of the 95 houses in Minginui, over half are Crown-owned, and the rest were Carter Holt Harvey Ltd homes which the locals have recently bought from the company. Minginui people will soon be able to buy their homes from the Crown, with the proceeds going to the village. It’s a deal most locals recognise as being pretty good. In fact, some things are still too good in Minginui and that poses a dilemma. Recognising that the dole saps the will of the people does little to alter the fact that it is hard to survive without it at Minginui.
Locals like Rua and Mason agree that the impetus for change will probably come from outside, and they are optimistic that this is already starting to happen.
Ironically, the salvation of Minginui may lie once again in the forest, albeit this time in its original state. The irony is not lost on the locals. One Mongrel Mob member told me, grinning wryly, “We’re all conservationists now!”
A number of tourist-cumeducational projects are planned, including a whare wananga (house of learning) using the Whirinaki Forest as an outdoor laboratory for universities all around the world. David Bellamy, of “Botanic Man” television fame, supports the scheme.
Bellamy became personally involved in the Whirinaki dispute five years ago, and regards the forest as “the best stand of virgin podocarp forest in the world.” Although only in the planning stages, if a Massey University course there is successful next year, the whare wananga will become a reality.
In addition, a Tauranga-based company, Mohaka Development Company Ltd, is establishing a three-day Milford Track-style walk through the forest which would end up in Minginui.
Tracks have already been upgraded, and two lodges to be built in the forest are next on the list. The company starts the Whirinaki tour in October. Locals will be employed as trek guides, and there are also opportunities for someone to provide food and other services.
Minginui already has a new lodge, which is able to provide anything from hosting a conference to taking people hunting.
Hunting is a popular local pastime and some Minginui people make a living out of the deer, wild boar and possums in the forest. A group of the Mongrel Mob boys tan and stretch possum skins and are able to sell the product around the country.
The options are only just beginning to become clear. Slowly, imperceptibly, Minginui is changing. But such a lustrous future is undoubtedly years away and for the moment Minginui is facing its darkest hour.
One man who has faith in the community is the senior management advisor for the social impact unit of the State Services Commission, Joe Doherty. Doherty, from the Tuhoe tribe, knows the area well. He is from Ruatahuna, just up the road, and he believes that in time Minginui will carve out its own destiny.
“I’ve seen it happen before with people brought up on the dependency cycle and I believe they can still change with the right combination of advice and assistance.
“I worked in Rotorua for the Department of Labour and the same situation on a different scale happened in Turangi with the wind-down of the power station in 1983. They experienced the same kind of community depression and it took them a number of years to break out of it.
“The same thing happened at Kaingaroa. They also handed their village over to a trust and the village slowly picked up.”
So it may be that the army will be just one of the many outside influences to touch Minginui over the next few years. The immediate benefits of their occupation are already evident simply in terms of village maintenance. The rebels and the army have been trying to outdo one another in the bid to win the hearts and minds of the locals. As a result, Minginui’s swimming pool and school have been painted, roads improved, firewood chopped and the army dental unit had no shortage of work in the week they were there.
Long-term it’s hard to say what the after-effects will be, though it’s just possible that some years hence an unusually high proportion of army recruits will call Minginui home.