During my first visit to Waitati I came across a tall, skinny man stooped over as though digging for pipi on a beach. He straightened up, looked at me, and loosed a large, somehow startling grin. His baggy clothes hung off a lanky frame. He was bald on top, but his thin hair was long at the back and held in a pony tail. He offered a slow hello, explained he was stealing gravel from the council to fill his potholes, and invited me inside to swallow some fire-water.
Pete Smith came to Waitati as a hippie in 1968, and at 45 he still holds firmly the values that brought him here. Pete is one of a number of people who arrived during the ’60s and ’70s and whose presence earned this little village 20 minutes north of Dunedin the label ‘the cradle of hippiedom’.
Most of the hippies have gone, but some remain, settling now into middle-age where the term is no longer appropriate. They, and others who have joined them since, are still living unusual lives; still seeking fulfilment, this time of individual visions.
The garage-cum-shop owner, Richard Loughrey, is an appropriate gate-keeper for the village. With an unruly beard and matching laugh, he is slightly off-beat and a surprise to find behind the counter in a service station. An advertisement for his shop offers service “by staff with whom you’re on first name terms, and your cheque is stamped ‘personally known’ by the person who took it.”
Richard migrated from a job at the Dunedin post office, where he spent 12 years “dead bored” as a technician. He thinks Waitati is “the bee’s knees”, its prime value being that “greatly varying people are prepared to live with each other.”
The primary school headmaster, Maurice Jordan, says that although it can be difficult to get a consensus with such an extreme variety in attitudes, “people round here accept each other’s views because there is such a range.”
Polish immigrant Adi Siepoecz who came alone to New Zealand in the 1960s to get “as far away as I could”, adds that people in Waitati mind their own business: “If you have purple hair and green socks no one will give you a second glance.”
Pam Kent, owner of the secondhand shop, speaks of “the insane element … unorthodox people”, and has an explanation for why such people are noticed here: they exist everywhere; it’s just that they need a boost to make themselves known. “It only takes one or two to come out of their shell and you’ll find there are lots of others.”
Waitati is situated on Blueskin Bay, a beautiful inlet which at high tide on a clear day reflects the hills that surround it on all but the seaward side. By the sea, but without either the fishing boat smell of ports, or the hazy, happy noise of seaside resorts, Waitati is shored by mudflats in front and green, soggy Otago hills behind.
It is a small and picturesque collection of cottages on a sunny day, but on the more frequent dull and wet days, Waitati looks drab, the buildings huddled under the hills. When the tide’s out the mudflats stretch uninvitingly out to sea.
According to popular belief, Blue-skin Bay was named after Te Hikutu, a local Maori who was so heavily tattooed that he was called “Blue‑ skin” by the early Otago settlers. Murray Gilchrist (78), whose mother was born in Waitati and who has lived here most of his life, has a different explanation: the Maori all turned blue with cold! Says Murray, “The winters here get so hard it could well be true.”
On the new fast bend of the motorway it’s easy to miss the turn-off to Waitati completely, but if you do make that turn you will find yourself driving down the main street of a quiet village — a new but disused post office, a fire station staffed by a volunteer brigade, a roughcast church, a community hall, a bridge across the gentle stream that is the Waitati River, and a low wooden verandahed building which was once the general store.
Population: 355. Its claim to fame: the tallest tree in New Zealand — a 69.1 metre (23 storey) eucalyptus.
As remembered by Murray Gilchrist, Waitati was once a busy village — two butchers’ shops, a three-person general store, a bakehouse, three churches, a blacksmith, a famous hotel (the Saratoga), a police station …
Orokonui, a collection of wooden villas overlooking a private inlet, was the nucleus for the Waitati settlement. Built last century, Orokonui became a psychiatric hospital early this century. At one time it had 300 patients and employed a large proportion of the local community.
In the 1950s and ’60s Waitati was a place where people, especially Dunedinites, had holiday houses (cribs). But the holidaymakers started going further afield, the general store closed in the late ’70s, and Orokonui in 1983.
The empty cribs were cheap, partly because of depressed prices after the 1968 floods. According to local councillor Murray Grimwood $10,000 was all you needed to buy a house on a patch of land, and cribs changed hands for far less. The word spread and the influx of alternative lifestylers began.
In the ’70s Waitati was the first home of the people who left to form Takaka’s Rainbow Valley Commune, the home of Malcolm Gramaphone, author of the Brewers’ Bible, and the birthplace of Mushroom magazine. Mushroom, which remained based in Waitati until the late ’70s, was a national monthly magazine which, according to Nikki Robb, a member of the group that launched it, acted as an “information source for alternative lifestylers all over the world.” A flick through a couple of these magazines revealed articles on natural energy sources, herb use and vegetarian cooking, and letters from all over New Zealand requesting information on communes and different aspects of alternative living.
These were the days of the Waitati Militia, a notorious brigade who staged elaborate mock battles with other communities and pulled various heists on the unsuspecting public. On one occasion militiamen baled up and harangued anyone in Blueskin Bay who drove a Japanese car. On another they hijacked a train by felling a tree across the line just out of Waitati, then leapt aboard stark naked, demanding the passengers’ beer and money and taking a number of hostages.
Waitati also gained a reputation for its ‘alternative agriculture.’ One Dunedinite, now a business executive, wistfully recalled Waitati Green as “some of the best to be had — a beautiful, smooth smoke.”
Although Waitati was a focus for the hippie movement, no true communes ever developed there. “It was more of a staging post,” commented one ex-Waitatian, “a point on the evolutionary continuum. There was always a transience about it.
Now the face of Waitati is changing again. Most of the cribs are full and there are signs of development in the village. Orokonui is being developed privately as an old people’s home, a holiday park, a conference centre, a crafts centre, and a base for activities such as horse hire. The garage owner has turned his premises into an extensive general store, post office and mail pick-up point, and community noticeboard.
Pam Kent has bought the building that was once the store and turned it into a second-hand shop. She plans to develop an outside market. The shop was built in 1857, and it was immediate love of this building that prompted Pam (39) to move from Auckland to Waitati in 1982.
For these residents the transience of the ’70s is something they have put behind them. They live in Waitati because of the natural setting, cheap housing and a quiet life — the chance to ‘do your own thing’ without fear of crushing judgement.
They don’t want thousands of visitors. Nor do they want the sewerage scheme which could bring more people and higher living expenses. And they certainly reject the ‘alternative’ label. Basket-weaver John Hillier explains: “Waitati is a town full of individualists, people doing things different from the mainstream … It seemed like we could come here without being labelled hippies.”
John (37) is a basket-weaver in the French tradition, and works in the Orokonui crafts centre. His wife, Lesley, manages the business. They bought their house two years ago from Alan Admore (Mushroom founder) and live there with their three children — Kahu, Chantal and Anya.
John and Lesley met when they both played in a 1970s travelling band, and since then have opted for the isolated and itinerant lifestyle. They have done time in a housebus on a fishing boat, and in a part of the Marlborough Sounds accessible only by boat.
Basket-weaving for John means independence. He likes to be free from other people’s systems, and free to vary his hours when the whitebait are running. But he says it’s no easy task. After three years he has reduced his hours from more than 70 to 40 a week, but still earns less than he could do on the dole. He hopes to one day study under a master craftsman in France.
Waitati offers the Hilliers a useful environment for John to finish his apprenticeship, and a caring community for their children. Says John, “If one of my kids fell over on her way to school the first local to come past would pick her up and look after her — and know her name. That sort of thing is worth its weight in gold.”
Nikki Robb is another who rejects the hippie label, but who finds in Waitati the kind of creative and life-enhancing values she wants for herself and her children.
Nikki (36) and her parents immigrated from the United States in 1972 when she was a young teenager. At the age of 19 she came to Waitati, married and with a baby, and became a founding member of the Mushroom community. She has since been a clothes designer, a potter and a photographer. She recently resigned as director of Dunedin’s Carnegie Gallery to pursue her own artistic interests. She likes the idea of becoming an “asset-backed drop-out.”
She says in 1972 Waitati was full of young people, many of them students or disillusioned professionals, all “trying to achieve new goals; a lifestyle that had better values.” They lived in separate homes but shared many parts of their lives.
“This house used to be Grand Central Station,” she remarks. “The door was always open to strangers needing a bed for the night or children needing to be looked after.”
And yes, Nikki and her friends wore tie-dyed shirts and muslin skirts, ate health foods and ground their own flour, embroidered, preserved, meditated and experimented with soft drugs.
But Nikki says that was then and things have changed. For one thing, it would be financially impossible to live that way today. “Being a family wasn’t as difficult as it is now. We could afford our dreams then. If there was a worker in the house it meant that women could stay home and be mothers, and for me, that’s all I wanted. I was happy if there was a nice loaf of bread baking and the kids were happy.
“Now my interests are broader. There are a lot of things I want to do and achieve. We were cruisers then; now I’ve got my goals planned out.”
Nikki is one of the few who have remained in Waitati, changing with the times and observing the changes around her. She lives here because she is in love with her house, the beach and her friends; it is a “sanctuary” away from town.
This sense of sanctuary was echoed by all of the people I visited in Waitati, and seems to be the common reason for the arrival of a significant number of overseas immigrants. Ulf Schmidt (31) emigrated as a young man to escape pressure to join the army in his native Germany. For him it was a toss-up between New Zealand and the Falklands. He chose New Zealand, and then, because the rent was cheap, Waitati. He now works as a photolithographer in Dunedin.
In 1983 Peggy Palms was a 20year-old tourist in New Zealand, but her journey was to end, to the surprise of her family in Germany, in an unlikely village just out of Dunedin. She met Ulf at the yearly Whare Flat folk festival (now moved to Orokonui), and they were married in a double wedding with another German couple in the local hall.
They both like the quietness. Peggy comments, “People would think we were living here like a retired couple”, but she is not complaining — “it depends where your priorities are.” Ulf and Peggy have outdoor interests which are easy to fulfil in a place like Waitati.
They live in a freshly painted, neat wooden cottage, the verandah stacked tidily with wood and a vegetable garden out the back. Coal range, wood fire, cosy rugs, a music stand in the corner and Dylan in the background, gentle lighting and brewed coffee … their lifestyle is aesthetic.
They both found Waitati friendly from the beginning — “It doesn’t have that small town shut-up quality … people really care; there is no nastiness.” Peggy suggests because there are no laid-on entertainments, people are forced to entertain themselves. And they do. They are spontaneous and put ideas into practice. Ulf says there is a certain amount of madness and free-thinking. And he says perhaps the “free spirit” of things has caused the large number of marriage break-ups he and others have noticed.
The Seiferts are also immigrants; they came to escape the overpopulation and pollution of Europe.
Marshall Seifert (50) was born in Australia and raised in New York. Anna Lise (47) is Danish. They met in a restaurant in Copenhagen in 1967 while Anna Lise was at medical school and Marshall was on a wine tour.
Now Anna Lise is a psychiatrist, and Marshall, a television softball and basketball commentator, runs an art gallery in Dunedin. He is known to New Zealanders for his role in writing, and appearing as the art expert in the television series Antiques for Love or Money. He also has diplomas in bartending and in wines and spirits (and has judged a national cocktail competition).
Marshall had spent six months on a farm exchange programme in New Zealand in his early 20s and wanted to come back to live. Anna Lise says she knew nothing of the place other than “there were lots of sheep and men went to work in shorts and it sounded absolutely absurd.” Europe, though, was polluted and too packed with people.
Both Marshall and Anna Lise worked at Orokonui hospital Anna Lise as medical director and Marshall as recreation officer. After their two children were born, Marshall stayed at home to look after them. During this time his plans for the Marshall Seifert Gallery, a gallery for emerging artists, were formed.
He says people criticise much good art — especially modern art because they don’t understand it, yet feel they should. “They become angry at it, their emotions get confused and they tend to say `If I don’t understand it, it’s rubbish’.” He thinks it is the function of art to “challenge or threaten” people.
Marshall and Anna Lise live with their two teenage daughters in eight acres of native bush on the hill overlooking Blueskin Bay. In the late afternoon Anna Lise takes me onto the patio; she points one way towards Flagstaff, another towards Double Hill, and then towards the Bay — full tide, still and clear: “This is why we like Waitati.”
For them it’s the peace and quiet and the outdoor life. They think it’s important their children develop outdoor interests. They have horses, Anna Lise has a vegetable garden, the family go canoeing on the Bay, tramping in the Silverpeaks, and skiing.
Anna Lise will not allow any criticism of Waitati. She thinks the mud-flats at low tide are made beautiful by the crabs and birds that feed there. And even the weather is “ideal for brisk walking and for working in the garden.”
She likes the local school which provides a focal point for community activity and allows her children to “meet all kinds of people and get a broad view.” And Marshall: “I like it when people are stating their opinions; it’s healthy.”
And they are close to the arts, music and theatre of Dunedin. Marshall:
“Each of us has seen a lot of the world and we feel very lucky to have discovered a place like Waitati.” He says Waitati people are tolerant because they have plenty of open space — the closer people get, the more argumentative they become.
There is open space and respect for privacy here, but as an outsider I notice there is also an information network between these people. News travels fast, and it can be disconcerting to arrive at a house for the first time and discover your purpose and previous movements are already known. But there is little distrust; people are open, friendly and hospitable.
Waitati doesn’t work by addresses; in fact, as the mail all goes to the shop, simply “Waitati” is sufficient as everyone’s address. So as I explore this village I am given maps and directions by landmark. Bruce Sheppard must have felt the loss of a personal address when he signposted his driveway “Prince Harry Place”.
I have no trouble finding his drive, but it is more difficult to understand how I am supposed to tackle the approach. I guess it’s deliberate that Bruce has no front entrance to his house — visitors have the choice of any angle through the garden. And maybe Bruce finds the variations a source of entertainment. Feeling watched, I negotiate the various garden paths, and am eventually confronted with a two-storey house, fronted with a verandah adorned entirely with junk.
Bruce (40) came to Waitati in 1974. He began with a bare two-acre paddock and has since envisioned and brought into being a monstrous, but somehow beautiful, private castle.
Bruce is convinced that junk is underrated, and a tour of the garden (which must be done to the accompaniment of appropriate garden touring music) soon confirms his obsession with the commodity.
The garden is divided into sections, each with its peculiar construction, but the dominant theme is old television screens. Blank television sets, salvaged from the tip across the road, adorn the garden like a barbed tribute to modern civilisation.
Beside a telephone box, used, perhaps, for private meditation, stands a bird table. But instead of breadcrumbs, these birds are provided with a toaster plugged into a tree. And round the next corner I come across a homemade pond (“Lake Beatrice”), complete with row boat which Bruce says can be nice for a quiet breakfast with Jules, his wife. At one end of the pond is a concrete wall in which are embedded household appliances and motor parts; at the other, an ancient petrol bowser.
But perhaps the coup de theatre of the garden tour is the massive concrete teapot which spouts water into a teacup, which in turn feeds an outside cave-bath, heated when needed by a boiler.
The house itself has the same mark of loosed imagination, with unexpected doors and odd shapes. Ease of social interaction has dictated the shape of the living room. But the most startling revelation is the toilet. Stuck like a great black growth half way up the side of the house, the room is a bumpy round cavern. A car windscreen provides the toilet user with a view.
But what does it all mean? “Self expression” — the essence of life, in Bruce’s view. He maintains that everyone has creative talent but needs to be “seduced” into “exploring their need to express themselves in an abstract form.” And he puts his beliefs into practice. One year he decided to enrich the lives of his fellow residents by giving them telephone boxes as surprise Christmas presents. Waitati probably has more telephone boxes per capita than any other place in the country.
Like many Waitati residents, Bruce arrived here by accident. He started life in Palmerston North, where, he says, society’s pressures forced him into marriage and a suburban house. He regrets being given no opportunity to actively choose his lifestyle.
After travelling in a caravan, he was attracted to Waitati by the low cost of land, and the illusion of isolation yet actual nearness to Dunedin.
For six months of the year Bruce works as a woolclasser in Dunedin. He also rears pigs, grows lettuces, makes wine and beer, and sells fish to finance the local film society.
Garden aside, Bruce’s main form of self expression is music. He plays drums in popular Dunedin jazz band Rue de Remarque. And as with his junk art, Bruce believes music is for sharing.
In April this year he organised an unforgettable musical experience for the community. Invitations stated simply, “Bring an umbrella and two candles.” According to Nikki Robb, the evening turned out to be a “thorough assault on all the senses nonstop for 45 minutes.” There were fireworks, dancing, flutes, an eight-piece brass section and percussion instruments made out of street signs and vacuum cleaner tubes. Two clapped-out pianos were doused with diesel and set alight by Bruce’s son, Simon, riding a unicycle. The umbrellas? Part of the music as well, with water from garden hoses being played on them.
Encouraged by the evening’s success, Bruce is now writing an opera.
He is convinced of the value of a creative lifestyle: “If the whole world did this kind of stuff there wouldn’t be any wars or civil servants, and it would be a better place.”
The local councillor is another who believes in the possibility of a better kind of world. But he is convinced of the importance of fighting for it. At 34, Murray Grimwood is the youngest councillor by far on the Silverpeaks County. His ideals have remained uncorrupted by two years on the council, and although he has invested in a good pair of shoes, he still balks at wearing a suit or tie.
Like many others I have met, Murray has long hair and a bushy beard. He sits in a T-shirt at his oak table, beside a door which stands open, admitting weak winter sunlight. Beside him, on the table, sits Zachariah the cat, and partner Jennie Upton holds Ishmael, their 18-month-old baby.
But why politics? “I wanted to make the world a better place for Ishmael.” Murray says when he asked his own father why he didn’t stand up to be counted against nuclear ship visits, the reply was “What can I do? I am only one person.”
“If Ishmael asks me that question at least I can say, ‘I did what one person could’.”
Murray thinks it is important that people like him are involved in local body politics. There are enough in organisations such as Greenpeace, “but we’re thin on the ground in councils, so that’s where we should be.”
He doesn’t feel guilty about collecting the dole — he says he doesn’t want to take the available work from young people who he thinks often need self-esteem, which he doesn’t: “I can find more socially useful things to do with my life.” He says what society gives him in terms of the dole he puts back into it with hours of unpaid work on the council.
He and Jennie are unemployed. They live in a crib — bought for less than $10,000 in 1982 — which they are renovating. They have extended the house backwards up the hill, and are building a loft on the roof of the old crib to make the most of a spectacular view over Blueskin Bay.
Again, they chose Waitati because it was cheap (they wanted to bring up their children without the worry of mortgages) and out of the city sailing and hang gliding are two of Murray’s hobbies.
He says Waitati is a village of “flaring great philosophical differences”, but he says ideological debate keeps the village alive and means it will never have the stifled atmosphere of much of small town New Zealand.
Pete Smith founded the Waitati Militia as a protest against the Vietnam War. Complete with uniforms and a cannon, the group is still active, satirising war in a good-humoured way. But loss of life is not the only reason Pete objects to war; it also kills the forests to which he is devoted.
Pete, a professional ecologist, spends a good deal of his time overseas campaigning for the future of forests, particularly pollution-damaged European forests. He has been promoting a scheme to establish plantings of endangered species in suitable areas in New Zealand, for later return when their native environment has been cleaned up.
The idea has been taken seriously in some quarters, but the usual response is one of inertia. “There are people who don’t care because the ecological judgement day isn’t here and now; people who don’t want to get involved in a scheme which won’t have immediate pay-off; government departments whose initiative is strangled by user-pays policy,” Pete says, adding that “this will be my last project.”
Pete sometimes wonders why he didn’t go with the people who left Waitati in the ’70s to form the Rainbow Valley Commune. He is disillusioned with what he sees as Waitati’s decline in community spirit and in tolerance for extremists. “What New Zealand needs is a resurgence of the values of hippiedom and a more laid-back way of life,” he says.
Others, too, are concerned with the loss of cohesiveness in the village. “The points of reference have changed,” says Nikki Robb. “The loss of the general store, the post office, the railway station — people feel displaced, especially the older ones.”
Pete sees Waitati’s salvation in its smallness and isolation. He doesn’t want “thousands of North Islanders ripping through the place.” He describes these people as “rubberneckers” — those who are the watchers and consumers, rather than the participants.
And to the accusation of being ‘alternative’? “It’s a strange word. We’re the real Kiwis and it’s all those other silly idiots that are alternative.”