Charming Cimino

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Cimino Cole is a warm, gentle and twinkly man – but it would be fair to say that the fierce heart of an environmental activist beats within his rangy frame. He’s the founding editor of the Mahurangi Magazine, an online mag which is the mouthpiece of Mahurangi Action Incorporated. It goes back to 1974 when a group of stroppy citizens (‘Friends of the Mahurangi’) got together to dispute a Warkworth sewerage plan which discharged effluent into the Mahurangi River… amazingly, Auckland Council has finally this year announced plans to end this practice. Cimino (pronounced ‘Cheemeenoh’) was christened Peter but his maternal grandfather, great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather were all named Salvatore Cimino. Wellington’s Evening Post on August 12 1899 carried the obituary of Salvatore Cimino I, who came to New Zealand from Capri, Italy in 1840. He died at 91, a legendary sailor and entrepreneur, who plied a trading route between Wellington and Lyttleton. However, Cimino took on the name in his mother’s memory really; she died suddenly when he was fourteen, a tragically defining event in his young life.

Cimino has always been a political animal, and has a self-confessed thirst for understanding what makes the world tick. His activism goes back to 1973; he remembers days during the Muroroa Atoll testings, when he was the go-between the ham radio operator and the protest vessel (the former Baltic trader Fri) and the media here. “Broadcasting was still very nailed-down back then and the ham radio operator was prohibited from speaking directly to the press, under pain of lifetime loss of his operating license” he says.

“It was one of the reasons why Radio Hauraki’s unlicensed broadcasting was so exciting back in 1966. I remember when the MV Tiri (the boat Hauraki broadcast from, outside the five-mile territorial limit) prepared to leave Viaduct Basin – authorities were trying to close the old rolling-lift bridge to keep them from leaving, but a number of people, including a woman who later lived here at Mahurangi West, climbed into the mechanism to stop it closing. It was amazingly courageous.”

But Cimino’s partner Sarah points out that his activism goes even further back than that. He organised a strike of his fellow Ōrewa District High School students in protest of the Cuban Missile Crisis brinksmanship in 1962. “The strike followed an outdoor assembly; teachers were startled when nobody moved to go to their classes. It was short-lived, however, thanks to the timing of an October shower,” he smiles.

Cimino struggled at school – he was terribly shortsighted but it wasn’t picked up till he was in his teens. It hasn’t done his English any harm – his writing on the Mahu Mag (and in Junction) is exceptional: wry, deft and a joy to read. He thinks it must have been his high-school English teacher. “Beryl Hooten was her name,” Cimino remembers. “She used to have us go outside and lie in the long grass, while she read to us – poetry and prose.”

2016 has been a big year for Cimino. Not only has the Warkworth sewerage plan finally come home to roost, but he’s also backed a winner in young political contender Tessa Berger, whom he’s known since she was born. Tessa gladdened his heart last year by joining the somewhat age-challenged committee of Mahurangi Action, and becoming its president at age 21. She subsequently became the chair of the Mahurangi Coastal Trail Trust, and with Cimino and the rest of the team, was triumphant in overturning the council’s proposal to turn beautiful, unspoilt Te Muri beach into a giant carpark.

Tessa, with Cimino as her campaign manager, came close to first equal in the local board elections. Naturally, the pair have many ideas in common. “I’m really excited for Tessa,” enthuses Cimino. “With Warkworth’s predicted growth heading towards five times its current size in the coming decades, it’s essentially going to be a new town. We must ensure it plays to its strengths: re-create those strong connections to its historic river, make it walkable and cyclable. And the rest of the Mahurangi region’s outstanding natural beauty must endure. Tessa is totally on to all of this and I’m right behind her.”

The pair have also come up with what they think is the only long-term intervention capable of reversing declining voter turnout – voting in schools. This would play to the strengths of both Tessa and the other very young candidate in these elections – Chloë Swarbrick – who came from nowhere to beat John Palino, who’d nipped at Len Brown’s heels in 2013. “Voting in schools is only available to about 8% of year-7-upwards students in the Auckland region – it needs to become universal,” says Cimino.

Tessa says, “First a neighbor, then a friend, Cimino quickly became family to me. He’s always the first to give, whether it's his time, knowledge or money. It’s the selflessness in the work that he does and his lifelong dedication to conservation that’s a constant source of inspiration for me. There’s so much I could say. Sometimes words aren’t enough!”

Cimino has also, in the last few years, helped two fantastic local historical publications get to print. Jade River: A History of the Mahurangi by Ronald Locker and Changing Times by Kit de Latour. But the Mahu Mag is almost all his own work – and it’s an extraordinary resource, full of up-to-date, pithy political comment, witty local stories and educational essays on everything from voting systems to nuclear power, geology to climate change. If you have a bit of spare time, read it – you’ll emerge enlightened and inspired.

www.mahurangi.org.nz