Where the winding road ends, they just want to be left alone.
Backed into green hills that sprawl untouched by man for miles, it’s the final destination. In the remote, natural cul-de-sac, with one way out, beneath low-lying bands of cloud, and beyond the gloomy, mirrored calm of Lake Haupiri, they view incomers with a sideways suspicion.
Their cars block the rough road, matted with wet yellow leaves. Weka hustle into the abundant ferns, flowering gorse and clumps of bearded light-green moss that clings unshaved to black beech bark and crumbling fenceposts.
“What do you want?” asks the stern-faced sentry guarding one side entrance to the sprawling, self-contained commune. The demeanour, along with light blue shirt and navy blue cargo trousers, proffer a para-military or foreign police feel.
At the main entrance, blocked by two maroon Peugeots – for some reason car of choice for the reclusive cult’s members – they’re just as hostile.
And it’s not just because they’re burying their dead leader today. They never want the media here.
“We’ve had the wool pulled over our eyes by people like you for 20, 30, 40 years,” says one senior member of Gloriavale Christian community, based at Haupiri, inland from Greymouth on the West Coast.
When the Herald shows up, less than 24 hours since it was confirmed that the secretive religious commune’s controversial leader Neville Cooper, also known as Hopeful Christian, has died, they won’t relent. Nor will they accept any condolences.
“If you were sorry for our loss, you wouldn’t pester us like you do. You’re all the same. The media is all tarred with the same brush. That’s what I have experienced.”
The Australian-born Christian, evangelical preacher and convicted sex offender, died on Tuesday, aged 92, after suffering from prostate cancer.
His health had been in decline for several months. In February, he’d been hospitalised at Grey Base Hospital after a heart attack. They feared he’d die then, but he’d held on for a few more months.
He wouldn’t want the Herald arriving, asking questions either, the Gloriavale member said.
“It was his choice [to be left alone]. He doesn’t want this to happen. And you won’t respect his wishes, even after he’s dead?”
That’s all well and good. Except, there’s the convictions, and further allegations of sexual and physical abuse by Gloriavale members over the years, along with claims of forced marriage, and excommunication and pressures on those who leave. And in June 2015, 14-year-old teenager Prayer Ready, who had Down syndrome, died choking on a piece of meat in an “isolation room” where the door handles had been disabled to prevent people getting in and out.
Don’t the senior members of Gloriavale – including prominent commune spokesman brother Fervant Stedfast and fellow senior member Howard Temple, the “Overseeing Shepherd’s Appointed Successor”, who are favourites to become the new leader – believe the New Zealand public has a right to know what goes on there?
“Why do they deserve to know? What right have they? You can get all the information outside if you want, why do you have to come here?” the senior member says today, sat in the driver’s seat of his aged Peugeot, arms folded, with the window cracked.
“We don’t want the high level of public interest. Isn’t that our choice? Surely. Can’t you respect our choice? What can’t you fellas respect that? We want to be left alone.”
Gloriavale’s origins date back to 1969 when it was founded by Neville Cooper, later to become Hopeful Christian.
They set up their idealistic community on a terraced piece of land at Cust, in North Canterbury, overlooking picturesque farmland stretching to the jagged Southern Alps.
Known then as Springbank Christian Community, families lived according to a strict interpretation of Christianity, working unpaid in community farming and aviation businesses.
Quietly, they worked away, stuck to themselves and the congregation steadily grew. It now boats more than 500 members made up from around 90 families. Members of the church and community still wear standardised modest dress and the women wear scarves covering their hair.
In 1991, they moved across the Alps, to the remote, sandfly-ridden shores of Lake Haupiri. The rich, soggy farmland was tended and the community’s income prospered through dairy and deer farming and the manufacture of meat meal.
The community is totally self-contained, with little contact with the outside world. Access to media and the internet is heavily restricted. Limits are placed on clothing and diets, marriages are arranged informally, and if anyone decides to leave, they are ex-communicated.
But in the mid-nineties, the sect was rocked by scandal. Its leader, Christian spent 11 months in prison on sexual abuse charges after being convicted on the testimony of his son Phil and some young women who had fled the compound.
Phil Cooper wrote an explosive book on the commune called Sins of the Father after escaping in 1989.
Many more members have left in recent years, including one of Cooper’s daughters, Miracle. She fled with her 10 children in 2010, after 41 years, and found life tough on the outside.
“I’d never known any other life,” said Miracle, who lives in Canterbury, and did not wish to reveal her surname or exact location.
“The whole of society is different to how we were inside the community,” said Miracle. “It’s like you’re a small child learning life from scratch.”
The biggest challenge is starting out afresh with no assets, she believes.
Banks are reluctant to give loans, and matters such as tenancy agreements and home insurance are new concepts.
She hasn’t returned to Gloriavale since her departure and doesn’t believe she’ll ever be welcome back.
“Not unless you’re willing to go back and make your life back there,” Miracle said.
After the move, away from the only friends and family she had ever known, she felt “cut off, dejected and really lonely”.
But she is pleased she left.
“I did it for my children, and I feel I made the right decision because we are all together as a family.”
A former member said most of the families living in Gloriavale were unaware of Christian’s sex abuse conviction and believe he was jailed for preaching the gospel.
Elijah Overcomer was evicted from Gloriavale after questioning leader Christian over his conviction for indecent assault on young women.
“Most people in there believe that it’s because he was preaching the gospel,” told NZME in 2015.
“Most people would not have any idea, and if you told them why he went to jail [they’d say], ‘you’re a liar, you’re just accusing our leader’.”
Overcomer was banished from Gloriavale in 2013 after questioning Christian over his ability to lead with such a conviction on his record.
Fervent Stedfast has previously told the Herald that people are free to leave Gloriavale whenever they want.
“No one is here against their will. We only want people who want to be here,” he said.
Over the years, Christian has trained a tightly-held group of elders who would continue to lead the segregated community by his rules, Massey University professor of history Peter Lineham says.
It was Lineham’s belief that a group of about six elders would continue to run Gloriavale as they had been doing for the past two years.
“The impression I’ve had for the last couple of years is that the community was preparing for his departure and that there was a kind of strong joint eldership that was operating in the community and that things were simply referred to him as a kind of back-up as the founder of the community.”
Whatever way they go, the weaving road in and out of Gloriavale will be closely watched, from all directions.