Bruce Ansley retraces the escape route of our most unlikely hero, George Wilder
In an extract from his book, Wild Journeys, Bruce Ansley retraces the escape route of our most unlikely hero, George Wilder
New Zealand in 1962 was a nation of just two and a half million people, who prided themselves on knowing everyone else by their first names.
Keith Holyoake was Prime Minister, DoveMyer Robinson was Mayor of Auckland. Peter Snell ran a world-record mile. Wilson Whineray captained the All Blacks. George Wilder escaped from prison.
George broke out of prison three times. He fooled the police. He lived in the bush. He swam rivers, crashed through roadblocks. He was polite and apologetic to people he stole from.
What else? Well, nothing really. He’s like a frame that has lost its photograph. Only a murky background remains.
Yet George was once the most celebrated man in the country. People followed his tracks. They applauded his escapades. They diminished his crimes: oh, a few counts of burglary and car conversion. Nothing, really. Just a young man feeling his oats.
They even sang songs about him, or at least, sang along with Howard Morrison’s George The Wild(er) NZ Boy.
Even today he is elusive. He got away from the police dozens of times. Now he escapes the public. He lives near a tiny settlement at the bottom of Hawke’s Bay. It is as much a bolthole as you could find in this country. Some people know where he lives but not many. Oh, and he plays golf.
Half a century on from the days when every newspaper marvelled over the way he stayed out of sight, George Wilder is still lying low. He remains fleet. In fact, he seems to have got rather better at it over the years. His tracks remain on the land, nonetheless.
George first escaped on May 17, 1962. He climbed a 10m wall to break out of
New Plymouth prison. It was quite a feat; the hopelessness of the place must have lent him wings. New Plymouth prison was built around 1870 in an era of Victorian prisons. New Zealand favoured, then, dreadful stone dungeons, although at least this one didn’t become a backpackers’ hostel like Christchurch’s Addington jail, or a tourist attraction like Napier’s.
These prisons fascinate the public because of their meanness, their sense of bread and water. They are the deepest, darkest dungeons of fairy tales. People look at their barren cells and shiver deliciously. They ask to see the places where people were hanged.
Only two people were executed in the New Plymouth prison, both in the late 19th century, both Maori — one for killing a surveyor parcelling up his land for sale, the other for murdering his wife.
The jail stands on the corner of Downe St and Robe St, prime CBD real estate in New Plymouth, a sad place with its blank stone walls broken by tiny windows. As with all the other relics of grim justice, no one wants to stay very long.
Neither did George Wilder. Hard-labour convicts were still breaking rocks there in the late 1950s, not long before George escaped. He was in for burglary, car conversion (a Jaguar, one of his favourites) and shop-breaking.
The cells were tiny, only 2.1m x 3m, the smallest in the land, too small to swing a cat or hold a man. So over the wall went George, and you only have to stand outside this stone pile to sympathise: he was a creature of bush and space.
He was said to have changed out of his prison clothes on the jail’s roof, putting on a check shirt and Air Force blue trousers, although there’s no record of where he got them. A small car was reported to have broken through a police road checkpoint on the New Plymouth to Waitara highway shortly thereafter and, chased by a traffic officer, it disappeared. Police said it was a green 1935 Chevrolet Junior with primrose grille and wheels. George always liked his cars. They said George was a tough man but not dangerous.
THE LEGEND began at that moment.
He might have been seen here, he was reported there but, essentially, he disappeared.
At the time, Scott Carpenter was orbiting the Earth and winning a reputation for disobeying orders. Adolf Eichmann, who stood trial for Holocaust atrocities inside a glass cage in Jerusalem, was on his way to the gallows.
George Wilder was creating his own reputation. A stolen Thames Trader he was believed to be driving crashed through a roadblock near Tokaanu. A policeman fired two shots at him.
They missed. “Crashing through roadblocks” was to become the most-used phrase of his escapes.
Police gave chase at speeds of up to 75 miles an hour (120km/h) — not too bad for an old Trader. They found the van abandoned. George had “escaped into the bush”, the second mostused phrase of his escapes.
Police believed he’d doubled back to Tokaanu. They set up a roadblock at Moerangi, not far from Tokaanu. A light-blue Austin A50 slowed, almost stopped, then crashed through the roadblock and roared away. Next day the car was found bogged in mud some 10km to the north. Police began searching the western shores of Lake Taupo.
MOERANGI IS still named on the map, but on the ground it is no more than a sign pointing to a nearby station. I reach the top of the Waituhi Saddle, driving through bush, before realising I’ve gone too far, although the view is worth it. Then back, past Moerangi and through Kuratau Junction, whose perfect old school is now the community hall, with the new school beside it.
But Tokaanu has seen better days. The petrol pumps have gone but the little church is wellcared-for, unlike in some small towns. If there are people here, they’re staying indoors.
Tokaanu was once a popular thermal resort but it is eclipsed by nearby Turangi now. The grand hotel still dominates the town, giving the empty streets an air of gravitas. When George Wilder was on the run, the Tongariro power scheme and the Tokaanu power station were in full swing and the area was thriving.
George was once the most celebrated man in the country. People followed his tracks. They diminished his crimes: oh, a few counts of burglary and car conversion. Nothing, really. Just a young man feeling his oats.
George Wilder, handcuffed to Constable R.J. Clarke, is taken to a police car at Taupo. With them is Sgt T.A. Marsom, who made the arrest. Below: The bush hut at Runganga, off the Napier-Taupo Rd, where police and an Internal Affairs ranger found the fugitive.
Wilder, left, being taken to the Mangakino lock-up in 1962.