Hokianga's Wild West fest's unusual way of fundraising

by Peter De Graaf / 24 February, 2018

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Julian Gielen, of the South Hokianga Riders, on his stallion Waima, ahead of last year’s shootout. Photography/Peter de Graaf

Once a year, the Wild West saddles up and rides into Waimamaku for a day of highway robbery.

Pity the poor tourists whose first inkling of the Wild West fest comes as they round a corner of SH12. One minute, they’re driving through rolling Far North farmland, the dunes of Hokianga Harbour fading in the rear-view mirror and Waipoua Forest still just a sliver of green on the horizon. Next minute, there’s a heavily bearded hillbilly in the middle of the highway, brandishing a shotgun and demanding cash.

It’s not on the official list of attractions but one of the joys of the festival, held in the South Hokianga settlement of Waimamaku every February, is watching reactions to the locals’ unorthodox fundraising method. Some motorists purse their lips, lock the doors and stare firmly ahead. Others pull over, pile out of their vehicles and, hooting with laughter, join in the line dancing.

The event started 15 years ago as a Far North take on Hokitika’s Wildfoods Festival, with the added appeal of a keg-throwing challenge and a best-dressed roadkill competition. Over the years, it’s morphed into a Wild West theme, featuring horses, gun-toting cowboys, live music (country, of course) and cheese-rolling races (with tyres painted yellow standing in for cheese wheels), a nod to Waimamaku’s cheese-making history. These days, a wearable-arts parade has replaced the roadkill contest, but keg-throwing remains the subject of intense rivalry. 

A highwayman known only as Blue awaits the next unsuspecting motorist.

The highlight, however, is always the shoot-out, starring members of the South Hokianga Riders and the Kaikohe Gun Club. Previous years have featured a robbery at the Four Square, a cheese heist, and an attempt to kidnap Waimamaku’s women. What they have in common is lots of horses, shooting, smoke and enough noise to leave your ears ringing for hours. Most of the action takes place on the main highway, which means every time there’s a cheese-rolling heat, or the bad guys are spotted riding into town, the traffic has to wait.

Former fire chief Dene Preston is one of the regulars. Every year, he dusts off his vintage double-barrelled shotgun and sets up a home-made stop sign, gallows and gravestones carved from polystyrene. “I try to vary it a bit each year. I’ve got someone who says he’ll make me a coffin this year, I can prop it up behind the hearse.”

Preston and his daughter, Korina, have been holding up drivers since 2003. “Seeing their expressions, that’s the part we really enjoy,” he says. “Especially the foreigners. Some of them don’t know what they’ve come across. The Americans and the English, they’re the best to hold up. Highwaymen are part of their history. They want photos taken and most of them are pretty cooperative. Some of the Europeans, though, they pretend they don’t understand or they give you foreign money.”

Past festivals have raised money for defibrillators and for Hokianga Hospital. In 2017, $1800 went towards a diagnostic kit for Waimamaku’s health clinic. Proceeds from this year’s festival, on February 24, will go to the Northland Rescue Helicopter and the Cancer Society, among other causes. 

Preston says Wild West enthusiasts come from as far away as Whangarei to take part. “They just can’t get over it, holding up cars and having a shoot-out in the middle of a state highway,” he laughs. “It’s getting more and more popular. All we hope for is a nice fine day and plenty of traffic coming through.”  

This was published in the February 2018 issue of North & South.


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