I’m not a natural protester, so when I took my children to march against mining in national parks it was my second personally significant demonstration. The first was when I was four and we lived close to and attended playgroup at Orakei Marae on Auckland’s Bastion Point. This protest ended with a procession of army trucks snaking up the road in response to the pacifist stand by the Ngati Whatua when Rob Muldoon’s National Government moved to sell off this prize piece of land to developers. This reserve, Whenua Rangatira, has since been returned to those who were then seen as radicals.
The history of this park and my childhood memories of it are interwoven. I have always been moved by the fenced-off patch of land on the sweep of grassy hillside, a memorial to a little girl who, in my mind, was just like me, but who died tragically in a fire during the protests.
Towards the magnificent Waitemata Harbour, on the more manicured part of the point, is Michael Joseph Savage’s mausoleum and memorial. It is said New Zealand’s first Labour Prime Minister was so loved, his picture adorned the walls of tearooms and lounges throughout the land. I used to wonder about this man who was so important that a giant concrete rocket and paddling pool were built in his memory.
With its tightly clipped privet hedges and square rows of bedding plants, Savage Memorial remains a fine example of Victorian landscape design. It’s a tribute to a man whose policies were once the foundation of our nation’s aspirations.
A row of phoenix palms leads up the hill like soldiers in station to his memory. Stately and appropriate for the time, they are now, like the privet hedge, on the Auckland Regional Council’s list of pest plants.
It was on Bastion Point that I tried to keep up with the Huckleberry Finns – my brother and the Macdonald boys – who went eeling in the creek and, when our parents weren’t listening, conspired to “go bush” there. I loved the cows and the dank old concrete bunkers that came with tales of Japanese fighters threatening to attack our shores.
I’m grateful these beautiful rolling hills were saved from the hands of developers and returned to Ngati Whatua o Orakei. Rather than becoming another exclusive piece of cliff-top real estate, the land remains free for all of us to roam.
This land is managed by the Whenua Rangatira Reserves Board, which has liberated it from conventional management, thereby opening the door to a more flexible and holistic approach to serving the complex needs of a community.
Recently I met Charmaine Wiapo on the marae. She is responsible for managing this 48ha parkland, which is made up of several areas, including Bastion Point, and a major restoration project on the western ridge, Takaparawhau. The philosophy of Wiapo and her team is simple: toitu te whenua, toitu te tangata. We survive if the land is cared for. Because of this, herbicides are banned and organic and permaculture principles are practised. The marae also has a zero-waste policy for everything, from its day-to-day running to all major events such as kapa haka.
Weed management without pesticides is a labour-intensive challenge. I was impressed to see the dreaded tradescantia (wandering willie) laid out in the sun to frizzle before being added to the compost and allowed to rot – unlike mine, which I’ve been sending to the dump to discourage its spread.
The team’s zero-waste policy came about at the request of the iwi after they realised their waste was being taken down the line to be dumped on cousins’ land when most of it could be composted on site.
The most significant project is Ko Te Pukaki for the restoration of habitat. Once a month throughout winter, anyone is welcome to join the planting days to help restore the native ecology along the ridge lines and fringes. The planting is also bringing back natural heritage materials for cultural harvest, including 17 kinds of harakeke (flax); plants for medicine; mahi toi dye, carving and weaving materials; and mahi kai for food and its preparation.
As we passed a large sweep of newly harvested toetoe, Wiapo told how she had once grumbled about the boys having to drive to Piha to gather stems to frame the tukutuku panels they were working on for the meeting house. They’d responded by placing a bag of seed in her hand; this toetoe was the result.
Originally, plant material was grown by the local council nursery, but now the marae runs its own, Okahu Rakau.
Beyond this is the maara kai, which is divided into two main gardens. The first is run by the kohanga reo, and as part of their lessons, the children are required to spend an hour a day in the gardens. There are worm farms, and chickens for eggs and manure. It is a five-star vegetable plot in a five-star location. As we watched, the kids ran straight out into the garden to forage for fruits for morning tea.
Just beyond the potting shed is another vegetable plot, freshly hoed after a successful kumara harvest. This is the garden of the Streeties from Auckland’s City Mission. After coming to the marae to help on one of the planting days, they wanted to return. They were offered the use of the land for their own garden. Now a small group comes at least twice a week to grow vegetables for the mission. So, as well as serving the community, this garden has given the Streeties their own safe place away from the city.
After an hour or so, Wiapo collected kawakawa and herbs to make tea, which we shared while sitting on the steps of the administration block.
Looking around, I was inspired by all the possibilities that public land can offer. What we often forget is that this habitat for the birds, plants and insects is ours as well. We are dependent on it as a place to meet communally, to acknowledge history and to serve the needs of the community. Toitu te whenua, toitu te tangata.