How the hippies really did help to change our world

By Dan Salmon

Tim Shadbolt protesting in front of the Whitecombe and Tombs. Photo / NZ Herald
Tim Shadbolt protesting in front of the Whitecombe and Tombs. Photo / NZ Herald

Look around New Zealand: modern, multi-cultural, accepting of difference and nuclear-free. Our No 8 wire mindset has evolved into an entrepreneurial ability to put our music, film and fashion on the world stage.

We have come a long way from the Holyoake years of the 50s and 60s, a time former hippie Chris Hegan describes as grey: "It was self-righteous, it was stuffy, it was conventional."

New Zealand in the 60s was conformist and repressed, an uptight little England in the South Pacific.

Into this blandness came the hippies, a rainbow revolution of new ideas. They started a cultural war that changed New Zealand, but one that also saw many of the so-called hippies beaten up and arrested. Others became casualties of their experimentation with drugs or sex.

Despite the fact New Zealand resisted the hippies, most of them survived, and gradually their social conscience and healthy disrespect for uptight traditionalism infiltrated almost everywhere.

Most of the hippies may never have become policemen or joined the armed forces but some did became mayors, MPs, wine-makers, architects, business owners and creatives.

They may not have stopped the Vietnam War, but subsequent protests did derail the 1981 Springbok tour, put an end to nuclear ship visits and force a Government u-turn last year on mining on Coromandel Peninsula and Hauraki Gulf.

Two years ago, television producer William Grieve came to me with an idea for a documentary. It was time, he said, to make a film about New Zealand's hippies.

Initially the film was to be about hippie fashion, music and social change, full of the "tune in, turn on and drop out" sex and drugs stories we're used to from North America and England but our stories paled next to the Summer of Love, Haight Ashbury and Woodstock.

So we were soon drawn to the real revolutionaries, the hippie back-to-landers, the young idealistic urban intellectuals who rejected the city, consumerism and the straight life to go back to the land and start again.

It started with the Vietnam War. Looking for a place to gather to protest New Zealand's military involvement in 1969, Tim Shadbolt led a march to take Albert Park back for the people. The Jumping Sundays began. A weekly hippie gathering, where people came in their thousands for a collision of politics, music, drugs, dancing and, yes, hippie fashion.

Sundays in Albert Park were the launching point for protests, relationships and political revolution. Protest against the Vietnam War brought students and young people together in unprecedented numbers, and the explosion of youth culture shocked the nation.

"The reaction of New Zealand towards us was, you had to be a traitor," says Shadbolt. "Society may have rejected us as a bunch of dirty, long-haired unemployed hippies, but we saw ourselves as being part of a catalyst for change."

When police waded violently into a group protesting the 1970 visit by US Vice-President Spiro Agnew, it felt like the end of innocence.

John Bower was beaten up and thrown over a fence. He says it was that "unprovoked attack" that pushed him to take his protests a step further.

He did time for geligniting the Fox St Royal New Zealand Air Force depot in Parnell.

Bower was an engineering student and never thought himself a hippie, but his social conscience had him form a prisoners' union at Paremoremo.

We interviewed him for the documentary, and one of my biggest disappointments was we didn't have room for his story. As he and I walked up Fox St looking for his bomb target from 40 years ago, I was struck by his quiet thoughtfulness and bemusement, as a businessman today, that he was driven to such extremes by the times.

"It was the nearest military establishment to us. So we were hitting back," he says.

"My rationale, they're dropping bombs in Vietnam, you can have one here yourself ... I suppose I went a bit further than most but in hindsight it's probably because as kids we had no parental control, so there were no boundaries.

"I've got a bit wiser in my old age. Blowing things up doesn't work. You've got to win people's minds, don't you?"

The world moved on from Vietnam, and the hippie revolution took hold of the general population, becoming merely fashion.

Meanwhile, the real revolutionaries became disillusioned with city life. Communities sprouted up across New Zealand as hippies swarmed to the cheap land of isolated rural areas.

In the Coromandel, Moehau Community's Chris Hegan remembers it was a quite a shock for the locals. "All these naked hippies turned up and started buying little bits of land and contaminating their environment."

As for myself, I was astonished by the inventive beauty of the hippie architecture. Some of the houses, pulled together from hand-milled timber and demolition materials were absolutely mad, others were sensibly warm and cozy, with steep-pitched roofing and attic bedrooms echoing our early pioneer cottages.

It's a wonderful image, the long-haired university drop-out turning up with modern ideas and expecting to get on with the farmer next door. They were urban kids, and had to learn to build houses and geodesic domes, to milk, make fences, keep bees and butcher sheep - often from books.

To meet the "how-to" demand, Alister Taylor published the New Zealand Whole Earth catalogues.

During the shoot, we found one in an abandoned community kitchen. Five years after everyone left, it was still open on the table.

AS A TEENAGER, Olive Jones left Tauranga and hitched to Nelson to join an urban commune. She and a group of friends raised the money to buy their own land near Motueka. They set up the anarchist community Graham Downs and stepped back into the 19th century, ploughing by horse, using rollers, tine harrows and seed drills. The idea was to tread lightly on the land and, for a while, it worked.

"When it came together it was the most wonderful thing," remembers Jones. "It was incredibly hard physical work, but there was something intensely satisfying about it. Everything came from the land."

Jones skinned a horse at 18 and built her own house while she was pregnant.

Graham Downs is still there, but fruit and nuts fall to rot on the ground, and the old horse gear is slowly rusting away beneath weeds and kikuyu.

Jones left with a broken heart. The founders of the "open community" were trapped by the inclusiveness of their mission statement. They found themselves expected to provide for a growing community more interested in drugs and drinking than in the vision of living on the land.

Some of these communities still function. Some have become weekend and holiday homes for their now-professional shareholders.

Moehau, in Coromandel, has 50 shareholders, and though they can get through an AGM without a punch-up, future planning is almost impossible.

In Golden Bay, writer Gerard Hindmarsh reckons the small population swelled by up to 400 as he and others headed over the Takaka Hill.

All he could afford was a small piece of scrub-covered swamp. In the early days Gerald hid his marijuana there. He tells of being pursued through the wetland by the police, "a naked raving hippie" racing to hide his plants.

When he bought the land, the thing to do was bulldoze swamp. But Hindmarsh liked it. He protected it and built a boardwalk. Today, as we realise the importance of wetlands, he allows the public to enjoy the one he saved.

And what of New Zealand's most famous commune, James K Baxter's Jerusalem on the Whanganui River?

Rhys Green paints a bleak picture of outcasts dossing down on unsanitary shared mattresses and waking up to people taking photos of "the hippies".

For Green, it was a bittersweet time where the close community struggled with drugs and the attention of the outside world. He claims their back-to-the-land image was manufactured by the media. He showed me a Weekly News photo spread, with a picture of a bunch of them posing in a weed-filled vege patch.

"That was probably the only time we were seen in the garden," he says. "It was overgrown and here we are with hoes and things."

This hippie revolution was born out of the idealism of my parents' generation. I grew up around that environmentalism and social concern. Forty years on, the good hippie ideas, the living locally, keeping bees, alternative energy, saving whales and even the farmers' markets have come of age.

The best of the hippie generation, like the best of the Kiwi pioneers, and the best of the uptight straight world of the hippies' 1960s parents, has formed who we are.

Dirty Bloody Hippies premieres next Sunday in Auckland as part of the Documentary Edge Festival 2011.It opens in Wellington on March 11.

- Herald on Sunday

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