Ghost story

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.

Metro Magazine NZ - - City Guide - TEXT — PETER MALCOURONN­E / PHO­TOG­RA­PHY — CHRIS MOR­TON

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.

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