Decline, distrust and destruction under the mountain

St Mary's church in Northland's isolated Whangape.
St Mary's church in Northland's isolated Whangape.

The police came under the shadow of the mountain. They drove past the mangrove swamp that used to be a horse-racing track, that used to be a sports field until the tide came in and did not leave.

They passed Kotahitanga Marae where a brass plaque stood etched with the names of members of the Maori Battalion who were born and bred in Whangape and went to war and did not return.

The vehicles crawled down the four-kilometre gorge, tyres shuddering over a rutted, metal road.

They passed the single-storey homes with peeling paint and Sky TV satellite dishes, the rusted-out caravans and the sedans sitting on stocks with the windows busted out. The cars came to settle under Whakakoro - the sacred mountain.

Angel of mercy: The view of Whakakoro from St Mary's church -known to locals as Matanginui.
Angel of mercy: The view of Whakakoro from St Mary's church -known to locals as Matanginui.

Along with the cars coming and going, residents in Whangape heard the sound of machinery whirring long into the evening. At night, there were lights on the mountain.

Since last November, when police raided the town, there had been sideways glances and the skidding wheels of quad bikes in the dust and the echo of gunshots from night-time possum hunts too close for comfort.

When police gathered the community at the marae last Monday night, Detective Sergeant Trevor Beatson said the machinery, the traffic and the lights had all been signs of an elaborate drug operation.

"Ka mamae te ngakau, te hinegaro me te wairua," said a local kaumatua. "The pain is felt in our hearts and minds and body."

Was he scared? No he wasn't. Would he give his name? No he wouldn't. The stares, the skidding and the gunshots were all messages, he said.

The kids were now calling the place WhangaP.


Generations of Ngati Haua hapu had trudged over Whakakoro to reach the coast for food and for survival. It was where their ancestors, their tupuna, were buried in caves carved deep into the mountain face.

In the late 19th century, a large timber mill stood on the foreshore of the village at the tip of the North Island, 40km west of Kaitaia. In the following decades, there came vegetable gardens and a port that welcomed ships into the keyhole harbour to run kauri, flax and gum around the country and across the Tasman Sea. Houses sprang up in the hills and their owners raised families. In the weekends, they would gather and share stories about their children and how business was doing in the Far North.

In 1870, the Native Land Courts awarded Whakakoro's 2647 acres to be partitioned and divided among 22 owners. The partitions were surveyed at a cost of £150.

A small village filled with wooden shacks had grown on the beach shore during the Depression. The shacks were filled with families who would rise in the early morning to kick plentiful fat mataitai off the rocks and fish for snapper at dusk without even getting their feet wet. All you needed was a knife and a line.

Forty years later, residents watched as sawdust was dumped into the harbour. They watched floods come and go and the willow trees on the banks disappear. Then they watched as the silt in the harbour built up and the sea slowly rolled in and swallowed their racing track.

When the trees were gone, the residents slowly went with them until the population came to rest at about 100.

The ones that remain now were almost all born and bred in Whangape. Even when the milling left and the jobs dried up and the tide came in, they stayed. Now they while away the days in homes filled with sepia-tone photographs of family members long since passed. Some left, of course, looking for jobs down the line in Auckland or Hamilton. The rest stayed and stayed afloat on government handouts. There was 95 per cent unemployment.

They became embodiments of what the Waitangi Tribunal called a "powerless" people left living in "penury". The hapu was just one of many in the north, it said, that suffered physical deprivation, poverty, social dislocation and loss of status.

Others, however, stayed and somehow did much better. They built large homes and seven-bay farm garages filled with brand new equipment and drove late-model Japanese cars that ran up and down that rutted, metal road.

Neighbours looked down the valley and over the mangrove swamp and raised their eyebrows.

The police, when they swooped, took three days to search the area around Whakakoro. When they finally packed up and left, they took brand new quad bikes, diggers and tractors. They seized breathing apparatus, protective clothing and seven makeshift drug labs and acres of land. And, in a rusted ammunition box, hidden in the undergrowth, behind a two-storey orange building complete with that seven-bay farm garage, they took $100,000 cash. They also took with them the Murray brothers Frank and Colin. Amid the deprivation of Whangape, police had uncovered $3 million in cash, assets and drugs.


Colin Murray and  Betty Anne Lloyd’s home in Whangape. Police seized $3m of assets, cash and drugs after their arrest, along with Colin’s brother Frank. 

There could be more, of course, said detective senior sergeant Chris Cahill. You don't know about what you don't find. It was called Operation Enzone.


It was all part of something much larger - an operation that police said spread out from Northland to Napier and encompassed nine suspects.

Across the valley, neighbours saw the dust rise as police cars rolled away.

"Ma te wa," the kaumatua said as the dust fell back down. In time, things come around.


From the top of a spine of hills you could see a church on the far southern end of the harbour. From Whangape it looked like a white bulbous fleck amid a palette of dry green. It is where much of the Murray whanau were buried.

Murray. It was a name that rolled down the valley, scrawled on letterbox after letterbox. The family came from seven siblings, descended from a Scot who was a boatbuilder and an entrepreneur and a merchant who knew the ways of trading in these parts and grew prosperous, the family swelling with each generation.

James "Chum" Murray had one of the best tracks to the coast in Whangape. It was rugged and rocky in places and had deep culverts that threatened to tip bikes over and down the hill. But for years he had kept his gate open, allowing people to use it as they pleased. It was a privilege for the community, he said.

Somewhere through the family tree, Chum Murray and his cousin Cliff Parker were related to the other Murrays, Frank and Colin.

Several weeks after the drugs bust claimed his relatives and his nephew had fled in fear to Australia, Cliff Parker made the 30-minute trip by quad bike over the hill at the back of his cousin's property. Parker had been diving that afternoon and came back to find the door to his bach wide open, windows smashed and clothes ransacked. In a container found nearby was a piece of bloodied material where someone seemed to have cut himself. In Whangape there is no cellphone reception and most were thankful for that, so Parker rode back over the hill to report the crime to police.

When he returned to the bach to start the cleanup, he found nothing but smoke, smoulder and a square of charred black sand where it used to stand. Further down the coast in both directions were five more baches that had been burned to the ground. One of them belonged to the family of Mana MP Hone Harawira. Chum's bach was also ash.

Parker brought the local fire marshal over the hill the next day. There was no doubt of the cause - none of the baches had a power supply or running water. The perpetrator, it seemed, had gone from property to property, setting one alight and waiting for it to be completely destroyed before moving on to the next one.

It was a gratuitous piece of destruction, Parker said, and there was no going back now.

In the weeks since the raid there had been a further diluting of a fragile, unspoken understanding that settled on Whangape from the time drugs first arrived more than 20 years ago.

Soon after the raid, children found a dead calf on the beach. They giggled as they wrote in the sand: "This calf was killed by P". They stood around admiring their work until they saw a man make his way over the hill toward the shore on a bike. The children quickly dispersed.

The community was beginning to speak up.


Chum Murray sits on a log in front of some charred sand. His liquid green eyes eye the sparse remnants of domestic trinkets - a burnt cheese grater, some melted tarpaulin, the disembodied remnants of a spring mattress and a metal shower box lying on its side.

He had helped build that bach 35 years ago. He helped lug wood and roofing over the hill to set up in the spot his family had spent decades coming back to.

Back then you could drink water straight from the river. Now cattle stray on to the beach and meander around the rivulets that run down the hill and into the sea. They chomp on kelp washed up on the shore and excrete its remains into what used to be fresh water streams. Now the water needs to be boiled.

Whenever Chum came back to Whangape from work on the road as a contractor, he would make a point of coming to the coast. People would talk about its location, its isolation and its beauty. But when someone would describe it as "idyllic" or "tranquil" Chum would merely shake his head as if that sort of talk missed the point.

At his home, near the dozens of novelty mirrored keys given to nephews, cousins, and nieces for their myriad 21st birthdays, was a photo hanging over a door frame. It was a faded colour print of 11 Maori men in tartan shirts and boots and rolled up trousers with narrow-brimmed hats atop their heads and with their hands in their pockets. At the front of the group, leaning on one arm against a barnacle-shrouded rock was Chum's father, Matua Glass Murray.

In 1992, Glass Murray had led an occupation of Whakakoro to protest the sale of part of the mountain to a Lotto winner who had recently come into about $4 million.

Part of that land belonged to Maori, he said. But the protest did not stop the sale.

The Lotto winner, Robert Buchanan, proceeded to block access to the mountain, local Maori said. He bulldozed roads and attempted to set up tour groups to visit the pa sites and bones that lay on Whakakoro.

In 1997, a claim was lodged by Ngati Haua with the Waitangi Tribunal to bring Whakakoro back under control of the hapu.

Two years later Matua Glass went into the Tasman Sea for a swim and did not return. The water was rough. He was found washed ashore the next day.

The mountain then passed through the hands of several owners until today, when it sits in the hands of the Van den Brink poultry family but is on the market for $4.6m with the promise of easy access to the beach and, according to the real estate spiel, a mixture of hills running down to the coast with knobs and knolls "ideal for house sites".

Ngati Haua is still waiting.


For Chum, coming back to the coast always felt like a connection to those early days - a childhood spent foraging the land and fishing the sea. Putting a line in the water and pulling out snapper until the kit was full. You fished to eat. Back then the family rode over the hill on bareback horse and, if they came back with nothing, then people went hungry.

The community was once renowned for being strong, Chum said. Once they supported one another. It used to be a small place known for big things, he said. Now it was in hiding. They did not want to be seen. The drugs in Whangape were a humiliation, he said. It was a contamination.

There is now a lock on his gate to the coast. His bach will be rebuilt, of course. One of his nephew's places was reconstructed in three days with the help of some rugby mates. Already it has ranchsliders, foam mattresses and picnic tables out the front.

Before winter sets in and the trek over the hill becomes muddy and loose, Chum will rebuild. The lock will remain, however, until there is some closure to the troubles under the mountain.

The other Murrays are before the courts. It might be some time, Chum said, before he takes the lock off. Maybe by then, he said, the hapu might even know if their waiting for Whakakoro had been worthwhile.

Ma te wa: in time, things come around.

Sunday Star Times