Island oasis celebrates 50 years of offering hospitality and a place of retreat for some seriously troubled souls.

Is there a prettier place anywhere to watch the sunset than on the foreshore at Karaka Bay on Great Barrier Island? On the evening I was there, in late November, it dropped in a blaze of white glory into the V formed by a couple of offshore islands.

By day, whio and oystercatchers mooched watchfully at the stream mouth unruffled by the squeal of kids diving into deep water from the wharf.

The beauty of this place may have eluded Neville and Dorothy Winger when they arrived at the bay in 1962 with an eye to buying the 840ha bounded by the high ridges to north and south.

Neville, who died in 1981, recalled "a brown, treeless land of hills and cliffs", all that was left of the ruthless logging of the island in the preceding decades.


The land, whose first European settler, Edwin Paddison, had arrived exactly a century earlier, was littered with cowpats and duck droppings. But Neville, a noted car dealer, felt called by his faith to buy the place. The asking price was 6500; he got it for all he had - 1000 in cash and his freehold home in Hamilton. He called it Orama, which is the Greek word for vision.

The Wingers' vision will be celebrated this weekend when Orama (now officially Orama Oasis) celebrates its 50th anniversary. The place, they tell me, will be packed to the rafters with veterans and friends.

Bruce Christensen, who with his wife Merrillyne, heads the team of two dozen staff and volunteers who run the place now, describes its driving force as "an earthy, practical Christianity that deals with people as they are". In providing a place of retreat, and the infrastructure for groups who come to stay, they live their faith in a spirit of service - they call it servanthood - and hospitality.

The way people are when they come to Orama is not always pretty. From the 70s, it was a rehabilitation centre for alcoholics, drug addicts and others whom the vicissitudes of life had brought to the edge of despair. One such was Phillip Knowles, who happens to be my second cousin, who arrived after a long, hard battle with the bottle and now runs the industrial-grade kitchen that turns out meals for up to 200 people. He intended to stay a few weeks. That was a year ago.

"I came here for three months 34 years ago," says Bruce Christensen, echoing a common refrain around the place. He's racked up 18 years over that time in three stints, but he met Merrillyne there. She was the cook and used to give him custard squares and melting moments "and it took a while for me to realise that no one else was getting them". They were married on the front lawn.

Bruce's back story is an Orama legend. In 1979, he was a 23-year-old in the grip of a fierce heroin addiction and with a couple of prison terms under his belt. He had twice attempted suicide before he found his way there.

"I found acceptance here, and love and family," he says, "and hope for the future. Mind you, I gave them a run for their money. I used to push the boundaries all the time, to let them know I wasn't giving in easily."

The singularity of the vision at Orama may account for its longevity; it is among only a handful of the dozens of community-living ventures established in the 60s and 70s to have survived in anything like their original form.


These days it sustains itself in part from a partnership with the Sir Edmund Hillary Outdoor Pursuits Centre which runs courses for schools and other groups. The dining hall is bulging with 190 teenagers during my 24-hour visit, but the permanent residents number only a couple of dozen.

After dinner the Christensens and others of the old hands speak of the different paths that have led them here. Ben came on a building job; Gordon came on a surfing trip; they and others were beguiled by the community's embedded idea of service as the vehicle by which they express God's love.

"They gave me back my dignity," recalls one visitor in a wall display prepared for the weekend's gathering. Another remembers something different: "They gave me blisters". You get the impression both are talking about the same thing.

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