Topic: The Road to Pipiriki by Dorothy Scott

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The Road to Pipiriki was Dorothy Scott's entry in the 2012 Memoir and Local History Competition.

Archived version here.

James K Baxter

Joe eased his elderly bones into the seat beside me and sat, contentedly puffing away at his ancient pipe and chatting about the last few days we’d spent at a photographic convention in Wanganui. The yearly conventions held by the Photographic Society of New Zealand were always eagerly anticipated by all of us as a time to catch up with old friends, rehash old memories and gain new skills.

All sorts of expeditions were planned for these occasions, one of which was to spend the day with the rest of the group, jet-boating on the upper reaches of the Wanganui River. The thought of tackling the winding road to Pipiriki proved too much for Joe and he commandeered me for the job.

As we drove along the River Road in his old Ford Prefect, the river was serene beside us and the willows along its edge huddled in friendly groups, enjoying the sun.

We turned east and began the climb through the hills towards Raetihi. The country here was steep and the ground hungry for fertilizer, with little creeks running through the clay. The soil was also unstable and rows of poplars and willows were scattered over the scarred hillsides in an effort to hold it together.

A sign appeared, pointing along the valley towards Jerusalem.

“Turn off here,” said Joe. “I’ve always wanted to talk to Baxter.”

We bumped and twisted our way along a track leading through long grass and straggly kanuka bushes. Here James K Baxter formed his commune in the late 1960s to help kids dragged from the streets of Auckland to conquer their addictions. This was the perfect place for the venture, with no drugs or chemist’s shops for forty miles – and they had his experience and wisdom to guide them.

There was a small church, looked after by the few nuns living in the settlement; several ramshackle houses, and an amateurish vegetable garden tended by the inhabitants of the commune.

I think the commune as such is gone now, but, at the time, James Baxter had given up his former life and put every cent he owned towards the project. Any social welfare hand-outs received by those living there were pooled and used to buy groceries and other necessities.

As we arrived, another car pulled up and friends of mine from the convention emerged. We all strolled towards the cluster of houses together. James, in his shabby old coat, welcomed us in and took us into the communal kitchen with its stacked rows of tinned food, tins of sardines and mismatched crockery and introduced us to a couple of teen-aged boys, long-haired and unshaven, but very clean. They offered us a cup of tea and it would have been ungracious and rude to refuse.

We were handed the milky tea in a chipped, much used blue enamel mug to share among us and one of our group was a doctor. I can still see his carefully blank face when it was his turn as he surreptitiously wiped the edge before drinking.


We sat out in the sun talking, beside an open door to a room with much-battered interior walls. James explained that sometimes when drug withdrawal symptoms became too tough to handle, a sufferer would need the chance to lash out, hurt themselves, anything, to release the tension. They could voluntarily go into that room, rave and shout, kick in walls, whatever would help at the time.

While we were sitting there a boy, obviously distressed, came up to James. He excused himself, took the lad a small distance away and sat down with his arm across the youngster’s shoulders, talking quietly. You try not to watch in these circumstances, but as the soothing voice continued, so the tension gradually left the thin shoulders of the boy. Eventually he stood up and moved off.

I wandered away from the others across the long grass to the little church, drawn by the contrast between the unkempt surroundings and beautifully-maintained building. Inside the peace enfolded me and I sat, enjoying its tranquillity. It wasn’t long before two or three young ones slipped quietly into the pews behind me and knelt, saying not a word.

I went back to the others and James re-joined us, taking us away up the hill to the house they called the ‘Big House.’ As we left the kitchen and turned up the path, we stopped to talk to a group sitting on a seat they’d carved out of the clay bank. Behind them hung a line of washing, ragged jeans and patched sheets, fluttering on a primitive line.

The ‘Big House’ had once been a typical New Zealand homestead much like the one we had on the farm; surrounded on three sides by a veranda, with a central front door and a window each side of it. Seated on the edge of the veranda by the steps was a long-haired girl; her swain behind her, carefully combing the shining locks.

It was too much for the photographer side of me. The light was perfect and I spent some time photographing them from various angles, only to find once I was home again and had developed the film ready to print off, that these two were part of the same four I had photographed sitting on the bank below the washing. They must have taken a short cut, run up the hill and posed on the veranda, waiting for me to arrive.

On the southern end of the veranda a slightly crooked and jerry-built room had been constructed and James told us with pride that the kids had built this for him from odds and ends gathered around the commune. I could only imagine the difficulties that would have arisen as they struggled with their lack of skills and knowledge, the broken-down tools that would have been available to them and the poor quality of the materials they had to work with.

What a symbol of love and respect these young people showed for their leader and also what a powerful message was given to all who had eyes to see. This room, built with love, had been created by kids who had been as low as it was possible to go. They’d been gathered from under bridges, squatting in derelict houses, roaming the streets, un-loved and shunned by all.

This bearded, long-haired, quietly spoken man, with his cultured voice and magical way with words, saw what needed to be done to save them and did it.

I have always been glad that I had the opportunity to spend the best two and a half hours of my life talking to this humble man, famous through his poetry. He has made such a lasting impression on me that I will never forget him.

I’ve thought often about what made him so special. Was it his immense dignity, his profound knowledge of humankind? Or was it the compassion and love for others that shone from those deep-set brown eyes?  There is much to learn from the wisdom of a man such as this.


This page archived at Perma CC in October of 2016:

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The Road to Pipiriki by Dorothy Scott

Note:About the Author: Raised on a remote country farm, my love for the written word grew out of being taught through the Correspondence School system, beginning at Primer 1 and continuing through until what then was known as Form III, at which point I went to Iona College in Havelock North to complete my secondary education. A blank page was a challenge – to fill it my greatest pleasure. And so the passion grew, writing short stories and having them accepted for publication. joining NZSA and becoming involved in various writing groups was the next step and for the last two years, I have been Chair of the Top of the South branch of the association.