Country meets city
walks coast to coast without leaving Auckland
Scale the heights: There are panoramic views across Auckland from the top of Mt Eden HE summit of Mt Eden (Maungawhau) is shrouded in cars, tour buses and people. An older group seems to extol the view in a language I can’t recognise; backpackers off a bus jostle to have their pictures taken, framed by the expansive green and blue backdrop of metropolitan Auckland.
The panorama is an all-encompassing cityscape I have yet to see bettered. I am biased, of course, but having shed a little sweat on my way to the 196m top of Maungawhau, I am allowed to be.
Up here you can understand why Maori, who sculpted the steep faces of this volcanic viewpoint during centuries of occupation, were driven to call the surrounding area Tamaki Makau Rau (place of many lovers).
It is surely a place to be coveted: towards the north is Hauraki Gulf, dotted with islands, the distinctive profile of Rangitoto in the foreground and a sea that stretches across the Pacific to Hawaiiki.
To the rear are Manukau Harbour (with easy access to the mighty Waikato River) and the Tasman Sea, separated by a narrow isthmus that bulges at either end in bush-clad ranges and rural greenery. This is the strategic hub of ancient transport, north and south.
Modern commuters are unlikely to spit that word isthmus as they sit trapped in gridlock, but well they may. The Auckland isthmus is New Zealand’s narrowest neck of land, never more than 9km wide and narrowing to 2km at its northern and southern ends. Tens of thousands of people must squeeze through this narrow corridor twice a day.
But we Maungawhau rubberneckers are likelier to celebrate the geological forces (ice ages, rising oceans, volcanic activity and the like) that nearly split the North Island in two, and the successive communities that plonked a village, a town, a city on the sinew left holding the potential halves together.
I have special reason to, anyway. I have paddled a kayak around the largest city in the country, 56km in one day, from one harbour to another, portaging across ancient trails barely longer than a suburban street. You can’t do that in Washington or Moscow.
I cycled around it on another day, more than 50km on a marked route that follows harbour foreshore, patches of urban bush and leafy suburban backstreets. Those trees are something else. In the blink of a year or two in this environment, the bare clay of suburban development greens over until, from the heights of Maungawhau, Auckland is one large carbon tax credit.
And I have walked across the city, from the shores of the Pacific Ocean to those of the Tasman Sea. The last time I trekked the 16km of the Auckland City Coast-to-Coast Walk across the isthmus, it was with a group of cub scouts on a sponsored walk to raise money for campsites.
Any walk that starts and ends at the sea, takes in extensive park areas and two mountains, rubs shoulders with 600 years of Maori heritage and more than 150 years of European settlement has to be perfect for an educational family excursion. (And there are opportunities for ice cream and soft drink stops, and a bus home if younger feet get sore.)
It’s just the ticket for late summer or autumn when the exotic trees that line urban footpaths are beginning to change colour. The walk also proves that you don’t always have to leave a city to enjoy a nice bit of country.
Super tramp: Heading downhill to Auckland
So near, so far: A rural ramble within sight of the metropolis So on a day when I feel the need to stretch my legs without hoofing off to the bush, I grab one of the North Shore’s new express buses to the CBD; the end of the line is just a block from the walkway start at Viaduct Harbour. Whatever else the 2003 America’s Cup might have achieved, it certainly left downtown Auckland with a pleasant, if small, waterfront precinct.
Emily Place is also small and pleasant, a pocket handkerchief of grass flanked by a few majestically ancient pohutukawa trees. This was once the headland of Point Britomart where Auckland was founded on September 18, 1840. The tiny park is also the front yard for some of the oldest (and most desirable) of Auckland’s inner-city apartments.
Nearby in Princes Street are the former mansions of the colonial wealthy, now university outbuildings, and a remnant of a defensive stone wall built in 1846 to protect the Albert Barracks from possible attack from Nga Puhi. Down the hill, past plane trees planted in Symonds Street in 1877, is Auckland Domain, marked as New Zealand’s first park in governor William Hobson’s city survey.
The Domain gives me cause to reflect that while I have driven through here many times I have never really given this park, with its stately trees and statues, the sort of close attention it deserves. Groups of people picnicking suggest other citizens are more discerning.
On top of Pukekaroa, the Domain’s volcanic cone, is a totara tree enclosed by a stout fence with carved corner posts. A young traveller consults his guidebook for an explanation before taking a photograph. In the 1820s, Waikato chief Te Wherowhero sealed a peace treaty with Nga Puhi on this spot, an old pa (fort) site. Te Wherowhero became the first Maori king and princess Te Puea, his great-granddaughter, planted the totara in 1940 in his honour. Below it, generations of Auckland cricketers have put bat to ball in the natural amphitheatre of the shallow Pukekaroa crater.
The slopes of Maungawhau, which is the next big park on the route, are extensively terraced but the deep and near-perfect crater is untouched, as befits the sacred food bowl of Mataoho, the god of volcanoes.
Across the way is Maungakiekie, the extinct volcano more generally known as One Tree Hill (although perhaps it would now make more sense to revert to its Maori name).
Rock artists have been busy in the largest of its several craters, moving loose stones to spell out their names: graffiti in volcanic scoria. This was the largest pa site of the Waiohau and stronghold of the area’s 18th-century ruler Kiwi Tamaki. The terraced slopes and huge kumara cultivations were home to thousands of people until they were driven out by inter-tribal warfare in the late 18th century.
John Logan Campbell, father of modern Auckland, is buried on the 182m summit, however, and fittingly so given that he secured Maungakiekie and Cornwall Park for the citizenry. His gift, together with the adjoining One Tree Hill Domain, is a grand 220ha chunk of the outdoors with mature exotic and native trees, groves of huge olive trees (strangely, they have never borne fruit) and pastures where sheep graze in defiance of nearby suburbia.
I once trained for a climb of Mt Cook by repeatedly running up and down Maungakiekie’s steepest face in clumsy plastic climbing boots. A week before my latest sortie across the isthmus, I was at a surprise 60th birthday picnic held beneath a giant Moreton Bay fig tree in Cornwall Park. The more sedate activity is not just an indication of the age of my peers but also of the nature of the park.
The last leg of the coast-to-coast walk is through Royal Oak to the Onehunga Bay Reserve. But be prepared that after 16km you can’t wet your feet in the Tasman Sea or barter for goods the Maori of south Auckland once brought by canoe to Onehunga Beach. The motorway to the airport has seen to that.
You may say that’s the price of progress. But it’s the same progress that means buses (or friends in cars) can transport the walk-weary home. www.akcity.govt.nz www.newzealand.com