In New Zealand, as in other western countries, the late 1960s and 1970s saw an explosion of counter-cultural activity. Many idealistic young people, dissatisfied with suburban nuclear-family life, headed for the countryside, while others set up urban communities.
Miriam Cameron and her husband at the time, Tim Shadbolt, helped establish a commune at Huia, west of Auckland, in the early 1970s. At first they slept outside, in a double bed under a tarpaulin to keep the dew off. Possums ate all their vegetables, and their chickens insisted on laying eggs in inaccessible spots. Cameron made regular trips to her parents’ house in Onehunga for a bit of comfort. ‘They’d feed me up, look after me and I’d have a decent night’s sleep without getting bitten by mosquitoes.’ But she also remembered her time on the commune as ‘an era of great excitement’.1
Areas where land was cheap and beautiful – including the Coromandel Peninsula, Nelson and Golden Bay – became home to many communities, often with environmentalist or self-sufficiency aims. These included Wilderland (founded in 1964) and Karuna Falls (1976) in the Coromandel, and the Tui community (1984) in Golden Bay, all of which still existed in 2017.
Notable New Zealanders who lived in communes include Invercargill mayor Tim Shadbolt, former cabinet minister Marian Hobbs and the late Green Party leader Rod Donald. The theatre and music troupe Blerta had a commune at Waimārama, Hawke’s Bay.
James K. Baxter and the Jerusalem commune
In 1968 poet James K. Baxter had a vision that he should go to Jerusalem on the Whanganui River and establish ‘a community where the people, both Maori and pakeha, would try to live without money or books, worship God and work on the land’.2
Jerusalem residents lived mostly by hunting goats, catching eels and gardening. Resources were often tight, and sometimes food ran out entirely, prompting visitors to move on. The community also relied on donations – Baxter convinced the Rothmans tobacco factory in Hawke’s Bay to supply sacks of tobacco sweepings from the factory floor, and a Hāwera businessman turned up regularly with supplies of cheese, sausages and Port Royal tobacco.
From 1969 Baxter attempted to form a commune based on voluntary poverty, Catholicism and Māori spiritual values. Media attention led to a constant stream of arrivals, and the overcrowding and chaotic behaviour disturbed the locals. The Wanganui County Council also pressured the community to meet health standards. The commune disbanded in September 1971; a smaller, more cohesive group returned in February 1972. Baxter died that October, but the commune continued until late 1975.
The ohu scheme
In October 1973 Labour Prime Minister Norman Kirk signalled government support for kibbutz-type settlements on Crown land, which he hoped would allow dissatisfied youth to participate in building the country.
The settlements were given the name ohu, a Māori word meaning to work together as a voluntary group. Land would be leased to approved groups at 4.5% of its market value.
Back to the land
Matiu Rata, minister of lands in 1974, hoped that the ohu initiative would ‘lead the way to a more concerned society and recapture anew the deep links of people and land. … [The scheme] is not meant to be a copy of kibbutzim or any other communes; it is not meant to be the answer to dissident left or right wingers; it is not meant to be a cheap method of developing marginal lands – it is meant to give an opportunity to New Zealanders to experience the earth, the country and each other in a new fraternal unity.’3
In August 1974 the first ohu was approved, and the Sunburst community moved onto 80 hectares near Whitianga. However, despite around 20 groups showing interest in the scheme, the government struggled to find suitable land, and met resistance from the Lands and Survey Department and from local authorities and landowners. Groups waited months to be allocated land that was often inaccessible, scrub-covered and of dubious value. Negotiations with Lands and Survey, and with local authorities over building permits, often proved difficult. Some became disillusioned and gave up. Nonetheless, about eight ohu were established.
With Kirk’s death in August 1974, ohu lost one of their strongest proponents, and the scheme dwindled after the election of a National government in November 1975. By 1979 only four ohu remained, and in 1983 there were three. The longest-lasting was the Ahu Ahu ohu, on a remote site up the Whanganui River, which survived until around 2000.
Urban communal living
Some communal households were set up in cities. James K. Baxter was involved with urban crash-pads populated by students, homeless youth and drug users in Auckland and Wellington.
Chippenham, New Zealand’s longest-lived urban commune, was established in 1971 in the Christchurch suburb of Merivale, and was a base for political activism in its early days. It survived as the Heartwood community in 2010. Other urban communities included a household run by the Aroha Trust in Wellington for gang-affiliated women. Salisbury Garden Court in Wadestown, Wellington, was a group of 1920s houses around a court which functioned communally in the 1970s.