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

Weekend Herald - Canvas - - CONTENTS -

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.

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