John da Silva travelled the world as a wrestler, but a remote corner of Great Barrier Island had captured his imagination. After good times and bad, it still draws him to return.
The old wrestler clambers out of his dinghy, drags it on to shore. It’s not much of a beach, 30 metres wide at the most, and it’s stony, slippery as hell. He looks up the valley, dark and damp this winter’s morning, and breaks into a grin. “This is a truly special place,” he says. “You’ll see.”
He first came here in 1971. He was 37 years old, the British Empire professional wrestling champion. “There’s always someone in the family who’s got a feeling for ancestry. And I had the bug. I was the first to come back.”
Growing up on a Pukekohe sheep farm, the youngest of six, John da Silva had heard the stories about Mangati Bay. How his grandfather, a press-ganged whaler from Santa Catalina, Brazil, had washed up there. How he cobbled together a home from stray kauri logs and scavenged iron. How he and wife Polly Mary hacked out a farm, raising pigs, goats, ducks and nine kids.
These were good yarns, but for John it was incidental colour framing the real story: Mangati Bay as a place of magic and myth.
He’d pester his old man: tell me more. Well, Domingo Silva would say, when it was stormy and the wind howled down the valley, you’d sometimes hear the sounds of battle. “Now… shhhhhh,” he’d tell his rapt boy. “Listen. Listen carefully. Can you hear that? That noise? What is it?” A distant haka — the roar of a hundred warriors. But from where exactly? And then — thud, thud, thud — so regular, almost routine: the metronomic midnight chop of an axeman from deep in the bush. A ghost. But of whom?
More, John would say. Tell me about the spirits. Tell me about the voices that came out of the ground. And his father would smile, ruffle his hair and tell him he’d have to go there one day and find out for himself. Return to the island where I was born and where your grandfather is buried.
Now, John had decided, was that time. “I tried to get Father to come back and give us the lay of the land. ‘No boy, I can’t.’ He was too ill. And so I convinced my older brother, Bruce, a bushman, to come on the pilgrimage.”
They arrived by flying boat. Tall, broad-shouldered, straight-backed, the da Silvas stood out. And they’d worn their best clothes — suits, ties, fedora hats (though, incongruously, they lugged a tent and swag). City slickers. And isn’t that John da Silva — the wrestler? The locals, once they stopped chuckling, were curious. What were they here for?
But while the boys knew where they were going — well, they knew the name at least — they had no practical plan on how to get there. One thing’s for sure. They weren’t walking, no way, and definitely not in those bloody suits.
Then, as now, Mangati Bay is not an easy place to get to. Sure, it doesn’t look that remote on the map. On the western side of the Barrier, it’s about eight kilometres in a straight line from the nearest settlement at Whangaparapara. But that’s up a hill that becomes another, then another. It could take you a day to hack your way through thick bush and strangling vines and even then you might not make it at all. Far better to take a boat around.
So an itinerant Canadian offered to whip them across in his yacht. It’s a short, choppy chug of four kilometres, sticking close to cliffs with scrappy trees fighting on.
No sign of man, not until they reach their bay and find a boat at anchor. A bloke pulls up crayfish pots — Paddy McGeady, the island’s ranger. “I’ve brought these two Silva boys with me,” the Canadian calls out. “They’ve come to find their land.” The ranger looks back, doesn’t say anything. Then: “Silva? You’re Ding’s boys? I knew your father. He was twice your size!
“Get over here,” he cries. “Jump in. Have a cuppa. I’ll tell you some stories about your old man.” There are plenty and McGeady, an Irishman born in Fiji, embellishes them well.
“Domingo — Ding, your Dad — was a mighty good boxer. And pretty handy with an axe in his hand. He did the North Island circuit… won more than he lost. Yep, Ding was a contender. But your Uncle Paul was a legend.”
He has his own Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand biography entry. He was, the family say, the youngest New Zealander to serve at Gallipoli. Lied about his age to enlist — his axeman’s broad shoulders hiding the fact he was 17 when they landed. A month later, he was shot in the head. His jaw was shattered, he lost an eye — but he survived. Made it back home.
Paul Silva became King of the Underhand Chop — where you’d stand atop a log, hack into it between your legs, then pirouette around and attack the other side. You’d hit that log 20 times if you’re good, each blow within a centimetre of your toes. You have to be deft, you have to be accurate — you have to have a damned good eye (in Uncle Paul’s case, it was his right one, a patch covering the socket emptied by Turkish lead).
Though the records are a little sketchy, it appears Uncle Paul last won a national title in 1950, aged 53.
The ranger knows all that. But the Silvas’ greatest chopping feats, he says, happened right here at Mangati Bay. “Look at all this bush,” he gestures. “Your dad and your uncles had the best training facility anywhere. All day out there with an axe in their hand. Clearing, cutting up wood… chop, chop, chop.”
John looks up at the valley and for a moment thinks he hears an echo of that industry from so long ago. It’s time. The brothers are rowed ashore.
And now what? What do they think they’ll find five decades, more, after the last human lived here?
From Uncle Paul and their father they had wayfinder stories. Stand on the beach, look up the valley. There’s a stream snaking up on the right-hand side — now imagine it forks, and heads up on the other. That’s where you’ll find the old house, about 100 metres up from the beach. Maybe 200 metres… it’s a long time ago. Either way it sounded easy but flax soon gave way to supplejack and they went nowhere fast.
It took them two hours of bush-crashing, their shirts sweat-soaked, their trousers torn, to find something. But each step connected them to their ancestors. A fork, a grinding axe, old tins that dissolved into red dust when you lifted them. Some roofing iron. A rotting cross that marked the grave of an unnamed aunt or uncle. The bush took the homestead long ago. And the veggie garden, Polly Mary’s great project that fed a family of 11, has been swallowed.
But where is Grandfather? Buried on the headland near the old whaling station of Whangaparapara, their father said.
When the Canadian returned just as he said he would, the boys got him to drop them off where they thought it was. We’re here, Grandfather (John always refers to him in the first person. Simply ‘Grandfather’). Look for the wrought iron, their father had told them. More searching, more battling bracken. It takes them half an hour, but then there it was. They had found him.
Their work was done. They tidied up Grandfather’s grave, made a fire, pitched a tent, stayed the night. John woke early the next morning and went and sat by the grave for an hour. “I felt this pull,” he says. “This feeling. Like: ‘You’ve come back, thank goodness, but now you’re leaving again. You should stay’.”
They flew back to the city. Back to tell their father about his old home and all they found. And how they will return — how they must reclaim this land. For it has — John can’t explain it — become a part of him. He feels it. He could hear Grandfather’s words in the wind.
Ding Silva listened, smiled, a single tear pilling in his eye, then scuttling down a cheek. Did he want to return? He nodded. But he’s not up to it: gassed in the First World War, he will soon be diagnosed with throat cancer. He won’t make it home.
“Five minutes?” says the coach. “You set? You ready to go?”
“Yep. Ready,” says John da Silva. He stands up and fills a doorway. He rolls his shoulders, orbits his head around in low, slow circles. Takes some huge gulps. He closes his eyes.
He’s only been wrestling two years. Barred from playing rugby at Pukekohe High School because he was too big — at six-foot-four and 17 stone, he was an inch taller and a stone heavier than Colin Meads — he’d been directed into boxing. He won the Auckland heavyweight title. But when he tried wrestling, he was a natural. Won the national heavyweight title inside six months and, very quickly, no one in the country would fight him. John has just turned 21.
He’s selected for the 1956 Melbourne Olympics — New Zealand’s first-ever Olympic wrestler. And he’s moments away now from his first bout.
He’s fighting a Russian monster, gold-medal favourite Ivan Vykhristyuk. ‘Ivan the Terrible’ has been wrestling since he was four: he’s been in camp for the last decade. John’s preparation has been more proletarian: he was pushing a wheelbarrow around a building site the week before.
The fight begins and within seconds John knows he’s in trouble. He’s flummoxed by Vykhristyuk’s speed: how does a man this big move so fast? And he’s intensely strong, his holds tighter than John has ever experienced before.
If that was not enough, the Russian’s a supreme
technician. He knows what da Silva is going to do, seemingly before Big John has even thought it. Three, four times Vykhristyuk nails the novice — prepares to pin him and finish things. But each time John — rough, raw, no ringcraft at all, the Russian growls — breaks out. He’s pretty strong himself — indeed, he’ll never be pinned in his career. Not once.
Soon it’s the Russian getting frustrated. “This is some fucked-up shit,” he cries out in Russian to his coach. “Calm!” his coach shouts. Think. He’ll do what he has to. To counter John’s strength — which strangely seems to be getting greater late in the fight — he’ll stand at the edge of the circle. When he’s in trouble, he’ll jump outside to safety.
It’s scrappy, ugly, undignified really, but it works: Vykhristyuk wins on points. But afterwards, everyone wants a piece of the young lion. I’ve seen the future of wrestling and his name is John da Silva, says one. “Give me your boy,” says celebrated Swedish coach Viking Palm, “and I will give you the world champion inside a year.” John just needs competition. And he needs time.
Two years later, he’s sitting at a table in a smokechoked wrestling den in Brixton, London. He’s the fifth-ranked heavyweight wrestler in the world. Earlier in the year, he beat the British Empire champion, Ken Richmond, then beat him again. But then John got sick on the boat to the 1958 British Empire Games in Cardiff. He dropped two stone and, his mojo sapped, finished fourth. And now he’s sitting here on his own, staring into a beer, wrestling with an unsolvable conundrum. He’s stuck on the wrong side of the globe. There’s no competition at home — but he can’t get better without more fights. He has a vague plan to hook up with Viking Palm after Cardiff, but he has no money. As John ruefully realises, “You can be a champion… but a hungry champion.”
Chain-smoking, slick-haired spivs are expert at scenting an existential crisis. They sidle over. “Thought about going pro?” one asks. “No,” John says. “I’m an amateur and I’m about to go to Sweden to prepare for the Rome Olympics.”
The promoter smiles at John’s earnestness. He knows he’s got him on the line. “Look, you could go to something like the Olympic Games every week if you were a professional.” “Really?” John asks. By the way, what’s that bulging envelope in your front pocket?
A sign-on fee, he’s told. “Actually… why don’t we double it? Deal? Good. Sign here. We’re going to take you around the world. We’re going to make you a star.”
The headlines were mad and alliteratively bonkers. “Massive Line-up of Masculine Might Electrifies Duke. Meet the Mat Men. Meet the Mighty Maori Chief, John da Silva.”
Wednesday 22 May 1963 — he’ll never forget the date. John is the main draw at the Royal Albert Hall, up against Hungarian army officer Tibor Szakacs, a feared exponent of suplexes, backhand chops and flying tackles. Later, John will look back at this as the greatest fight of his career. Certainly, it was headline news in London.
With characteristic understatement, the Daily Express’s Charles Mascall writes: “When ‘Big John’ da Silva, the powerful Maori warrior, was a boy in his native New Zealand… he never dreamed that one day he would wrestle at the Royal Albert Hall in the presence of His Royal Highness, the Duke of Edinburgh.
“This descendant of the Maoris — one of the greatest fighting races on Earth — had everything against him when he started life as the son of a humble woodchopper. But through his ability as a wrestler, this muscle-packed Maori chief has travelled the world…
“Look at this huge, panther-like heavyweight and see what fantastic strength nature has endowed him. Take it from me, not many men on Earth will beat this gigantic New Zealander.”
It’s been a heck of a ride since Brixton’s brown envelope. Those first six months in Germany learning the ropes. He’d started off there at the bottom of the bill,
in small type almost falling off the page, but the people at the Bavarian bearpits soon warmed to ‘The Maori Thunderbolt’… their ‘Big Chief Mahori!’
Having proven himself against the Teutonic titans, John returned to England and took on Primo Carnera, ‘The Ambling Alp’, former world heavyweight boxing champion. “He was a freak,” John remembered. “Nearly seven foot tall.” John wrestled him to a draw.
Across to the States, where he took on Buddy Rogers, aka The Nature Boy, the inaugural WWF heavyweight champion. Strutting into the ring like a bulbous-bummed baboon, Rogers was the original TV wrestling villain. He’d level good guys with a piledriver, finish them with a figure-four leglock. With the enraged crowd wanting to rip his peroxide-blond head off, he’d grab a mike, then wind them up some more with his “To a nicer guy it couldn’t happen!” tagline. John fought him three times, drew twice.
Now to the East, where John beats up 32-stone King Kong in Japan, then hammers Hans Von Steiger, ‘The Tiger of Berlin’, at the Singapore Badminton Hall. Then India, for a barnstorming three month-tour in 1962, where he wrestles their great champion Dara Singh in mudpits in front of 100,000 fans (star of over 140 films, Dara Singh is revered still, their post-colonial Colossus who’d lift Westerners aloft and hurl them out of their ring. “No one, not even Mahatma Gandhi, was a greater superhero in India than Dara Singh,” wrote the Telegraph India after his death in 2012).
By now, you could make a case that John da Silva is the most recognised New Zealander on Earth, better known than Sir Edmund Hillary and the Formula One drivers. But “Wrestling before Royalty” is his finest hour.
There’s soundless newsreel footage on YouTube. John is wearing some kind of piupiu, a headband and head feather — a North England notion of an American Indian-inspired Māori chief. He bows deeply when he’s introduced to the Duke of Edinburgh, who tells him how much he admires the Māori people. Then it’s all on.
John has brought his full repertoire to the ring — the Cobra hold, the Kiwi crab, the ‘lumberjack chop’ and his signature reverse surfboard hold. How does that work? Says John: “You’ve got to get your man face-down down on the mat by kneeing him in the guts, or elbowing him or something. Then you stand on his legs, lock his legs in yours, grab each arm and rock and rock until you get him right up overhead and either his back breaks or he gives in.”
That’s the plan — but it’s easier said than done. The fight rages for eight 10-minute rounds, the Duke laughing through much of it. After almost two hours, the Hungarian edges it. But what a show they’ve put on.
Afterwards, John finds himself thinking of home. While he’s making good coin, it’s a hard life on the road, sleeping in a thousand cheap hotels. But it’s not only that. He’s thinking of whānau. He’s thinking of ancestors, not Māori as the promoters claim, but his real forebears — Portuguese, Spanish, English, African and French Tahitian (the great sportswriter, TP McLean, would tease him about this presumed ancestry. “I have a very great respect for Māori,” John told him. “I would love to be one.”)
And far more often than he can explain, John finds himself thinking of a strange little bay on Great Barrier Island.
He makes it home in 1967. He’s 33 years old, fitter and stronger than he’s ever been, and ready, he tells McLean, to lead wrestling’s renaissance in his homeland. For the next decade, he’ll fight three times a week. At Newmarket Park, Western Springs, Stanley Street and Carlaw Park — 10,000 crammed in there to see him fight. The YMCA Stadium on Wellesley Street could squeeze in 4000 and would always sell out: they once turned away 800 at the door. Town halls from Whāngārei to Invercargill, the wonderfully named Izandium in Palmerston and that unlikely wrestling hotspot of Hawera (where he fought
variously at the Hawera Opera House, Hawera Sports Stadium and Princes St Gym).
Largely on da Silva’s broad and fantastically hairy back, wrestling got its own television show, On the Mat. From 1975 to 1984, New Zealand school playgrounds saw re-enactments of the On the Mat fights between King Curtis, Ric Flair, and, in an incredible almost totally forgotten episode in New Zealand history, a young Andre the Giant (who swung by Palmerston North).
And at the top of the bill was Big John, On the Mat’s first champion. We loved him.
Just read these lines in the New Zealand Truth following John’s successful defence of his British Empire title against Canadian villain Art Nelson:
“Nelson is an uncouth renegade from the rules who began to kick like Don Clarke and punch like Rocky Marciano.
“Over rounds five and six, Silva decided to show that he had been brought up in a hard school, too. The bout became a real (well, reasonably real) donnybrook.
“Once Silva posed a punch over the cowering villain, then looked at the fans for the affirmative. ‘Yes!’ they screamed. ‘Whack him!’ Silva did as he was told.”
Wonderful stuff. You can see why John hung on, didn’t retire until he was 43. But now he was ready for the next act. Now it was truly time to go home.
It’s deeply moving, if a little hard to understand sometimes, why this remote, bleak place exerts such an influence on John da Silva. On an island with a hundred postcard beaches, why this one? Why Mangati Bay? John laughs. “I know what you mean. My friends often say to me: ‘You’re mad to go to that old place’. And I know some people can find it unnerving. Spiritual things happen here. But that’s what brought me back. I’ve felt it from the beginning. As soon as I arrived here, I felt this tremendous urge to stay.”
That pilgrimage with brother Bruce changed everything. Seeing where their ancestors lived, raised livestock, grew their food. Then, finding remnants of their lives, returning to the mainland, reporting back. Watching how deeply this affected his father (“My son, returning to where I’d grown up, tending my father’s grave”).
Why did it take him so long to come here? Through the 1960s, he wrestled round the world — from Bombay to Beirut to Berlin — and was hardly home. There was never really a good time.
“After Dad died, I began working on my uncle. Kept telling him we had to go back and reclaim the bay. That we needed someone to lead us. He was getting on by then — he was well into his 70s — but he said, ‘I’ll do it, boy’. So we gathered all the young ones together and booked our tickets for New Year’s Eve, 1974.”
For most of the voyage, Uncle Paul stood at the bow, gripping the railing. He grinned the whole way. They were less than an hour out, the island filling half the horizon, when he fell down. By the time the ferry reached Tryphena, the great axeman was dead. Now, his photo, mid-swing in white singlet, looks down at us from the wall. Ding’s too. We’re taking tea at the little bach that overlooks Mangati Bay. Mozart’s Don Giovanni is on, the afternoon sun streams in. Since he had a heart bypass a decade ago, John and second wife Willie have lived in nearby Whangaparapara, but he finds an excuse to come stay here a couple of times a week. “Gotta feed my mountain ducks,” he says, grinning.
“When I come here, I feel like it is the origination. The original place of our ancestry — of Grandfather, Grandmother, Father, his brother, their sisters. This spot right here. Because it’s got a little bit of comfort. You can sit in the sun, you can look at the hills. You can reminisce, you can turn the radio and TV off and just be a part of the bush.”
He comes back to the photos. His grandmother, Polly Mary. “Beautiful lady of the Pacific. I’ve never been to Tahiti: I want to go there before I have my final days
on Mother Earth, and trace her family.”
A photo, too, of son Garth, a heavyweight boxer on his way to the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. “Garth’s a bit of a yuppie nowadays. He lives in Sydney, but comes back here once a year and runs around the hills. I think he has two hearts of desire. He loves the Bay, but he loves the push-button world more.”
Another picture of Garth, flanked either side by a sister. “We call this one ‘The Last Supper’. Because Sharron, my eldest, died two weeks afterwards from cancer. Isn’t she beautiful… she once played Evita in a play, you know. She looks so well here…”
He sighs, doesn’t say anything for a minute, just looks out the window, gently rocks on his chair. Then he springs up. “Let’s go,” he says. “I’ll show you around.”
There are other ghosts at Mangati Bay. Mouldering shacks made of rough-hewn boards and Perspex. Rusting water tanks. Busted toilets. Three dead tractors. The disintegration of John da Silva’s dream.
For 27 years, up until 2004, this little bay was bustling, a camp that took in some of New Zealand’s most damaged teens. It was John’s idea: a back-to-basics boot camp for those too young for jail, too tough for anyone else to take on. You can understand his rationale. He’d just finished his wrestling career. He was a household name, OnTheMat massive in two-channel New Zealand. As the show’s inaugural champion, he was revered by teenagers, especially Māori. As his wife Willie noted, “Most of those young people thought he was a god.”
But there was a far better reason to have the camp here. Mangati Bay had changed his life. Its simplicity, its solitude, had helped him discover who he was. He
feels a deep spiritual connection to this place. And he thinks if these young kids come to this special place then they, too, might find themselves.
You take these kids that no one wants and take them away from the city life and the trappings of modernity. Away from poverty; from the dope or glue, or from the father who was abusive or just not there. You gather up those lost boys and bring them to a place that’s uncorrupted. Where they’re one with nature: where they can stop fighting everyone, stop fighting with themselves.
It was a deliberately Spartan regime: his young charges lived in tents, would wake up at 6am, spend their days working the gardens, fishing, cooking, running around the hills, studying Māoritanga and doing Correspondence School work. And it seemed genuinely transformative. Clinical psychologist Erin Eggleston spent a month at the camp in 1993 and wrote: “There was certainly something special, and indeed spiritual, about living a traditional subsistence lifestyle and practising the culture that goes with it.” The following year, John was awarded a Queen’s Service Medal. But these were hard nuts. And a gentle giant’s influence only goes so far, especially as he gets older and his mana, or at least his wrestler rep, fades. Each night they’d gather in the cookhouse, a concrete and corrugated iron shack, and talk. Total honesty, total candour. You pass a tokotoko, their ‘talking stick’ — it’s your turn. But some of the kids were too scared to speak up. Others, like William Bell, who’d later kill three people and grievously injure a fourth at the Mt Wellington RSA, weren’t listening.
In the late 1990s, following his heart op, John and Willie moved off-site to Whangaparapara. Things seemed to slide. Rumours were building of tough love going way too far. Kids getting hidings — ‘the bash’ as they’d call it. Living in tents — right through winter, in 20th-century New Zealand — was an increasingly tough sell. The camp was shut down.
Then, in 2008, journalist Matt Nippert wrote a devastating 4000-word exposé in the Listener. “What really happened to boys sent to a boot camp on a remote island?” he asked. Sexual abuse. Suicide attempts. Self-mutilation. Ritualised violence from the ‘Flying Squad’, youngsters elevated to be enforcers. Recalcitrants taken to an island dubbed Alcatraz, 100 metres offshore, their food and water rowed out daily. An especially lurid — and contested — allegation of four young men, suspected thieves,
forced to dig their own graves at gunpoint. The camp, Nippert suggested, had morphed into Lord of the Flies. There was no escape from Mangati Bay.
Further Nippert revelations followed in 2015, then a damning investigation by the Sunday television programme. While no one accuses the leader — “John da Silva never condoned violence. I don’t blame him for any of this,” said one complainant — the camp was his vision. His life’s work, for the best part of three decades, has devolved into 80 individual lawsuits against the New Zealand government.
Sitting here in the old cookhouse, trying to make sense of it all, he seems almost bewildered. How could all this happen? Here? In this special place? It’s unbelievable. He’s had dozens of letters over the years from young people who tell him this camp saved their life. But what about the others? What if Mangati Bay came to be their own version of hell? His heart would be broken.
It’s hard not to feel great sadness for a man whose great idea, whose grand vision, is collapsing around him. But old wrestlers, especially this slightly naïve, unfailingly optimistic one, don’t do self-pity. Mangati Bay remains untarnished.
“Come on,” he says, “there’s something else you’ve got to see.” We head up the valley, past mānuka bent back by 50-knot sou’westers. But when we reach the old homestead site, the trees straighten. “Notice how calm it is?” he says. “How still? See how the sun beams in from the side? That’s why I built a campsite here. I was trying to think Grandfather’s way. Why did he come here? What were his reasons? And you see there’s a quietness, a peace about this spot.”
This is where daughter Sharron’s memorial stone rests. John takes off his beanie. A sad smile. Another sigh.
“I remember telling Sharron that when I die I wanted her to bring my ashes back to the Bay.” He points up at the hill, the little Gibraltar that guards the entrance into Mangati Bay. “There. Right up there by that tree. And she said, “‘Oh, Dad, I want to be there with you, too.’ I never dreamed she’d die before me, but she’s up there now.” Up on the hill he has renamed Mount Sharron.
ABOVE— The hills above Kaitoke swamp, Great Barrier Island.
ABOVE— Throughout a childhood spent on a Pukekohe sheep farm, John da Silva heard stories about his ancestral land at Mangati Bay, but it would take nearly 40 years for him to go “home”.
ABOVE— Since the 1940s, when the flats were drained, this land on a farm at Awana has sunk by about a metre.
ABOVE— Mouldering shacks at Mangati Bay signify the disintegration of da Silva’s dream.
ABOVE— Along the coast to the east of Te Pā a Wana, eroded rocks tell of the sea’s relentlessness.