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Of all the random locations that I had drawn from the hat Jerusalem was the one that I had looked forward to visiting with the greatest anticipation. During my extended stay in New Zealand in 1974 it had already gained a reverential significance as the spiritual home and burial place of the poet James K. Baxter. The remoteness of the location, far along a gravel road up the Whanganui River, closer to Raetihi than Wanganui, made it even more attractive to those in search of somewhere special, somewhere where they could find themselves. Why I had never travelled up that road in the past I can only put down to the fact that, like most people, I was on the way to somewhere else and a slow journey along the Whanganui River never really fitted in with my plans. Somehow I also had the feeling that the road was home to the laid back hippie community and that I would never feel comfortable with that spaced out peace and love ethos. For some reason I also felt that it must be one of the last refuges of the Maori disaffected and that the intrusion of a 'pakeha' would be resented as he made his voyeuristic journey through the area. It is strange how the mind creates its own image about a place and its people based on fragments of information, like pieces of broken pottery from an poorly executed archaeological dig.
The drive along the road running parallel to the Whanganui River is interesting without being spectacular. Occasional glimpses of the river gave an indication of what it could be like but they were few and far between. Perhaps the only way to approach Jerusalem is by the river itself but the drought and the subsequent low water level would have made that difficult at this particular time of the year. I hoped for an instant that jet boats had been banned from the river but then I found out that the Whanganui Scenic Experience Jet 'is an ideal way to experience and enjoy the beauty and serenity of the lower reaches of the Whanganui River, visiting key historic and spiritual sites'. Where now peace and tranquility? The canoe would be the only appropriate approach and in 1849 a colonial administrator, Donald McLean, and his companion Richard Taylor travelled up the Whanganui River to visit the tribes of the interior. McLean wrote how the 'sun pierced through the mist and reflected on the splashing of our paddles as each canoe in front was pressing up against the force of the fresh. Our own natives eagerly singing their shrill canoe songs and happily consoling themselves of arriving in good time in Hikurangi'. Pure poetry that transports one back to the moment.
McLean also noted that 'At Pukehika a large clay-walled church had been built at Patearero'. Patearero, meaning 'slippery tongue' was the former name of a larger Maori settlement that incorporated Hirukarama, later more commonly known as Jerusalem. Long before James Baxter brought Jerusalem to worldwide attention it was the location of a catholic mission to the Maori. In 1883 Sister Suzanne Aubert arrived in Jerusalem to rejuvenate the faltering mission and to set up a refuge for destitute 'pakeha' children from Wellington. By doing so she gained the love and respect of the community. It was to this place that in September 1969 James Baxter and some of his followers came to create a more communal, loving and peaceful existence. However by September 1971 the followers behaviour had so upset the peace of the place that the local community, Maori, 'pakeha' and catholic mission alike, were united in their opposition. It was finally agreed that the James Baxter group was to be restricted to a maximum of ten persons. And so yet another idealistic dream had been turned sour by the flaws of human nature. James K. Baxter died on an Auckland street on the 22 October 1972, aged 46 years. Somehow I feel that he died a sad and disillusioned man, someone who had flown too close to the sun.
Jerusalem failed to speak to me when I finally arrived there after all these years. Perhaps I expected too much. Perhaps its time had passed by and it had reverted to the place that it should have been all the time, a quiet backwater of a backwater. But there was a benefit from the journey since further back down the river was Matahiwi where a Maori lady and her family were busy placing the 'River Queen' outside of their newly converted school house where local arts and crafts, and homemade cakes, were on display. There was a quiet beauty about the place. There were no cameras, no press, no hippie hangers-on, just them and their precarious precious venture. They were beginning to reclaim the river. I hope that they succeed.
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