Going bush in Wilderland

COROMANDEL DREAMING: Russel Mooyman and Ceclia De Donatis on the deck of their Wilderland house.
COROMANDEL DREAMING: Russel Mooyman and Ceclia De Donatis on the deck of their Wilderland house.

Wilderland looks like hippy Hobbiton. Wonky houses, charming as anything, all colourful and ramshackle and dotted through happy land. Two blokes step out of the picture from god-knows-where. They are about as tall as each other and everything around them looks miniature and their height adds to the whimsy of it all. You wonder how they fit inside their coops, or if they disappear at the end of the day, like magic.  You blink and they're still there. One of them is the Wilderland general manager, Russel Mooyman. 

He says he dressed up and he looks like a kid who has raided the opshop. He's in a pink and grey striped shirt, untucked, a stripey old belt, brown pinstripe pants and skate shoes. Brown, greasy hair and a faint smell that's not mainstream deodorant.

He could do with a splash of cold water on his face.  You'd never guess he's 39. He talks slow and so does Simeon McLean. 

WORKING THE LAND: Louise Gribble in the vegetable garden.
WORKING THE LAND: Louise Gribble in the vegetable garden.

They both have a similar handshake where they clasp just your fingers. McLean has legs long as spiders and he's dressed all in black and has dark dreads and darker eyes. He moves like he's dancing at a music festival. They are immensely likeable, gentle creatures. And because of their laxity, everything slows down. Fantails fly low, as confident as pets and over here and over there, people are working the land.

You'll know Wilderland as the hippy commune over in the Coromandel. Mooyman is not a conventional man and he doesn't like labels. He's right that Wilderland is technically not a commune. But it's really only a technicality and that's not enough to change the minds of the mainstream.

''People call it a commune because it's a nice, easy label that people can use, because it's understandable. People can go, Oh, cool, a commune! A bunch of hippies living together! But it's not that - it's a charitable project, no one owns anything, we are working together and we are here for the public benefit, not the benefit of the people who reside here.'' 

He says he's not a hippy, either.

''Because that's a label used by non-hippies to describe something. What does it meeean?''

Later in the day, the gong sounds. It's the lunch bell. Russel Mooyman heads up the steps and  just before he heads inside for a shared meal, he turns. 

''Our one hippy thing is the circle for lunch."

Inside, there is a high concentration of dreadlocked hair and bare feet. ''We have some wild travellers,'' says Mooyman earlier, when describing the Wilderland clientele. ''Some of the people are experimenting with all kinds of social conventions and social boundaries around nudism and things like that.'' He goes on to say nudists aren't allowed to be nude in the shared areas - ''It's just too disturbing for some people.'' And inside at lunch, everyone is dressed. And everyone is holding hands. It's not a prayer circle, because Wilderland is strictly non-religious. A European woman is describing the meal she has cooked. She asks for volunteers to clean the pots. There's a moment's lag, then two pipe up. Someone says there's a meeting after lunch about some markets and there's a moment's confusion because that clashes with something else and meanwhile hands are holding hands and getting clammy. 

Lunch is served like this every day. 

People who stay at Wilderland meet for breakfast at 8.30am, discuss the day's plan, work till 1.30, lunch, and have the rest of the day free. All operations are collaborative, but areas of work are broken down into teams and the more trivial decisions are decided on within that framework. It allows visitors to join a smaller group that aligns with their interests and feel a sense of ownership quickly as part of that structure. Bigger decisions go to management and follow the same group process. 

Mooyman says one of the biggest challenges is collaboration. The democracy of it. But the alternative is a dictatorship and he doesn't believe in that model. He's a smart guy. He wants to create a profitable business model that relies less on the land and more on educating the public in sustainability and organic farming. 

Around 120 people visit Wilderland every year. ''Often they go on with their lives and we hear about these really cool eco projects they are involved in around the world.'' He's got plans drawn up for a visitor centre that will sleep 12  and he hopes the build will begin this summer thanks to ongoing public donations that have so far reached 17 grand. 

Before arriving at Wilderland five and a half years ago, Mooyman was a documentary film maker. 

''This is a funny story,'' he says. It's not funny at all. It's about what you'd expect. One day he was filming at an eco village and he had an epiphany and  subsequently withdrew from his day job and ''started on the path that lead to here''.

He's about to have a baby with his partner Cecilia De Donatis, an earthy, European woman with a penchant for meditation retreats. They snuggle on their deck for photos and Mooyman looks lanky and happy and relaxed. 

The Thames Coromandel District Council has given him a few sleepless nights over the years. Demands for upgrades on all the haphazard housing that was built without consent over four decades ago.

At the moment it's a $30,200 retrospective fee that usually comes after resource consent and before the build. It was a surprise to Mooyman. He literally got served a notice saying Wilderland had 10 days to pay, or risk foreclosure. He shakes his head. He talked the council down and quickly set up a plea to the public to help pay the debt. He can't spend the 17 grand that's tagged for the visitor centre because ''it's wrong to spend someone's intentional donations on something else'',  so those who back free living and loving have stepped up again and so far donated $8450 to help vanquish the debt. If he has to, he will look at selling a patch of the million-dollar land they live on. But he doesn't want to do that. 

''This land was gifted as a charitable trust for the purpose of education - for me, the land is the sacred part - it's the part that's not negotiable. Land is land. It has its own value that is not monetary.'' 

Mayor Glenn Leach says council is prepared to wait until the end of the fundraising campaign, ''and provided all the debt is paid, the matter will be at an end''.  And so the circle will remain unbroken. 

Visit wilderland.org.nz

Waikato Times