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Pop CultureJanuary 28, 2024

Black Coast Vanishings brings true crime closer to home

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Image: Supplied

Tara Ward reviews Three’s new docuseries exploring a series of chilling unsolved disappearances from Piha over the last three decades.

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“There’s a lot of secrets at Piha,” a sombre voice tells us in the opening moments of Black Coast Vanishings. “You need to be careful,” another warns, as shots of wild surf and steep volcanic cliffs loom through the screen. “I think this is a very sinister story,” former Waitakere City mayor Sir Bob Harvey declares. It’s one heck of a spooky opening to Black Coast Vanishings, Three’s new true crime docuseries that investigates the mysterious disappearances of six people at Piha since 1992.

It’s the perfect recipe for compelling television: tragic true life stories, a ruggedly remote setting, and a series of quirky characters from a small town on Auckland’s West Coast. Each of these disappearances occurred in different circumstances, but Black Coast Vanishings pulls them together by one common thread: Piha. Episode one revisits the disappearances of teacher trainee Iraena Asher and French exchange student Éloi Rolland, who visited Piha decades apart but both vanished without a trace.

Hearing the recordings of Asher’s phone calls to police is both chilling and heartbreaking, but Black Coast Vanishings isn’t just the story of those who disappeared. We also meet Rolland’s heartbroken parents, who asked their son to bring them some black sand from Piha as a souvenir, and Asher’s former boyfriend, who didn’t answer her phone call the night she disappeared. The pain and anguish of these family and friends is quiet and constant, anchoring the series in the grief of those who remain behind.

And then there’s the Piha locals, who have seen it all, heard it all, and have their own  theories about what really went on in their backyard. We hear from the Piha camp ground kaitiaki and a couple of local surfers, as well as residents Julia and Bobbie, who recount how they brought Asher into their home on the night she disappeared. These different perspectives bring an energy to the series and helps to create a rich portrait of small town New Zealand, a place where everyone notices everything and the length of the fire siren signals the seriousness of a situation.

Six people have disappeared at Piha since 1992. (Image: Supplied)

Piece by piece, Black Coast Vanishings builds a picture of Piha as a foreboding place where dodgy dealings were rife. Are these disappearances a terrible coincidence, or are there more sinister forces at play? With police declining to comment on the majority of these missing persons cases, we’re left with a lot of theories and supposition about what might have actually happened – as one local puts it, “until there’s evidence, we can’t be sure of anything”. If you’re looking for definitive answers, Black Coast Vanishings can’t give them to you, but it does provide a thought-provoking, gripping insight into an awful set of real life events.

True crime is always a TV winner, but it’s not often New Zealand audiences get to watch a true crime series about our own backyard. Black Coast Vanishings is set to change that. With the series screening on Three across four consecutive nights (the entire season drops on ThreeNow on Sunday), this will be a treat for true crime fans. It’s slickly made and full of atmosphere and suspense, but never forgets the tragedies at the heart of the series.

Black Coast Vanishings airs Sunday-Wednesday, 8.05pm on Three, or can be watched here on ThreeNow.

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