Nothing but the birds: Manukau Harbour

First published Thursday, 24 February 2011

Free range on the Otuataua Stonefields and Watercare Walkway  


For weeks I’d been carrying the metaphor of a safe harbour around in my head. It was time to weigh anchor, farewell calm waters and venture out through jagged heads to the open ocean beyond.

So when I find myself on a hot early summer’s afternoon staring into the distant blue-hazed throat of Auckland’s Manukau Heads, it’s as though I’ve retrieved the image from my imagination.  

As I squelch my way across the wet mudflats towards the retreating tide line my eyes pan around the huge “safe” harbour. It’s a revelation to learn the Manukau is New Zealand’s second largest natural harbour sprawling across 394 square kilometres of water surface at high tide.  I see Auckland through a fresh lens as I follow it's borders starting at South Head on the Awhitu Peninsula, crossing the channel to Burnett or Ohaka Head on the north side and then letting my eyes slide along the coast to Huia and Cornwallis. I pause at Puketuku, Auckland’s smallest volcano directly across the water in front of me, once called Week’s Island and before that intriguingly - island of the “Long Desired”. 

The Sky Tower’s ubiquitous needle poking into the grey cityscape is strangely comforting as my gaze sweeps across the wide skirt of One Tree Hill, mentally notes Mangere Mountain over there (huh! Mangere means lazy didn’t know that). 

The hot afternoon sun reflecting off the stonefields is like a giant heater behind me as my eyes zoom low winging their gaze over the mangroves out to distant Clarks Beach and Awhitu.  And then there again- way in the distance - those beguiling heads and all the harbour’s wide open mouth promises.

There is a Māori story that says the Manukau is named after the “anxiety” of Hoturoa  (Te-Manuka-O-Hoturoa) as he steered the great Tainui canoe across the Tāmaki isthmus towards the breakers at the harbour entrance. It’s thought the name Manuka, first applied to the heads, then extended to cover the harbour, and has since corrupted to Manukau. West Coast poet Paparoa Jeffery Holman draws on the story:

Manukau makes a name for itself (for John O'Connor)

When old Hotunui saw the breakers on the bar, part of him wanted Tainui out of there: "Aue, ka tāhuri tātou!"

They say that feeling got this town a name: Te Mānuka o Hotunui, fear of drowning. Now flying's taken over from the sea, as my way in to Manukau and terra firma, home at last from everywhere to Aotearoa - it almost feels the same.

"Get this thing down, big boy, that's the way!" Once those wheels hit tarmac and we roll, my stomach flips, my heart is in your hands.

Just think: somebody wanted to call the city Churchill, Polaris, Ngarimu, or even Savage (Michael J). Give me a seasick Hotunui any day.

I like another theory about the naming of Manukau. It suggests the name comes from the Māori manu for“bird”, and kau, “a swim”.  So “bathing place for sea birds”, or “place of the wading birds”, even better “nothing but birds” .  Of New Zealand’s 120,000 wader birds, 60,000 of them make their home for at least part of the year on the Manukau: arctic Wrybills and bar-tailed godwits, pied oyster catchers, pied stilts and the largest New Zealand population of threatened banded dotterels.

But all I see and hear are little black swallows tweeting in the sky just above me as Debbie, my walking mate, plucks her way across the mudflats and comes to a halt beside me.  She holds the camera round her neck clicking through close ups of the colourful old fishing boat wrecked on the shell bank back round the corner.

Interesting that Debbie and I have fetched up here on Labour Day Monday. Just two months earlier I’d gone with my teenage daughter for a weekend getaway to Whatipu Lodge tucked beneath cliffs on the northern edge of the Manukau.  

Debbie, an old school friend I hadn’t seen since “back in the day”, just happened to be staying at the lodge at the same time and we’d re-kindled a connection sharing the light of a dim torch on a cloudy night down at the beach searching for lollies in the black sand as part of a kids treasure hunt.  I wasn’t thinking about it then but we were adjacent to the notorious Manukau sand bar, site of New Zealand’s worst marine disaster: the HMS Orpheus which went down in 1863 along with 189 of its 257 crew.  Something must’ve seeped into my unconscious though because as the safe harbour metaphor surfaced a little while later so did warning bells about the dangers of navigating tricky heads. Wait for the right tide, said a little voice in my head, study the chart for snags and know the route before you depart. Aha! Hoturoa’s “manuka” was surfacing.  Yet there’d been none of that when Debbie and I set out on this walk.  The whole thing had been pretty random.

 “What about the Stonefields?  They’re pretty cool,”  I’d suggested as we sat on her Parnell balcony eating scrabbled eggs and cherry tomatoes. We might’ve sat there in hot sun all afternoon but our walking poles splayed against the railing were like panting dogs. They’ d been promised a walk and they weren’t going to stop glaring at us til we picked them up.

As I drove, Debbie consulted the map.  We passéd the Mangere poo ponds, round the mountain and headed out along the back of Auckland Airport.  We were talking so hard that we missed the official Otautaua turnoff and then found ourselves rambling down Ihumatao Road (the name of the local Māori papakainga), passéd the quarry and through a gate with a sign: locked at 9pm daylight saving . Further down the gravel road, Debbie gets out of the car to unlatch another gate and then on we go in a spirit of adventure rolling towards the sea and a little car park with three or four cars. We look at one another, pleased: without trying we’ve hit a local spot. As we get out of the car a big, burly Pacific Island man puffs up a little mud path straddling a huge blue plastic barrel on his shoulder.

“Can you get to the Stonefields from here?” Debbie asks. 

He and two younger mates who appear behind him pause thinking and then point to our right, over a high hedge. “That way!”

It’s enough for us. We pass some families picnicking on the beach and then clamber up a high wire fence, throwing our walking poles onto the grass below, then jumping after them.  A herd of black and white Fresian cows all dressed up in their Sunday best look bemused by our back entry to Otautaua.  


The day is hot. Bright. Hot.  We cross the paddock, climb another fence and then stand amidst a huge crop of volcanic rock spread across the ground like acres of broken weetbix. It’s as though the land has a really bad dose of acne. Rocks which ever way you look. Yet its beautiful in an unexpected and wild kind of way.  What’s more each paddock is bordered by spectacular dry stone walls orderly and neat zipping across the land, doing up its jacket.

Early Māori iwi Nga Oho and then Te Wai O Hua used the stones flung out in successive Auckland volcanic eruptions to demarcate garden plots and to warm the soil extending the growing seas for crops like taro and kumara by one month.  When Scottish and English farmers came along in the 1840s they cleared scoria rock and built the dry stone boundary walls to contain their stock.  There was once 8,000 hectares of stonefields in Auckland. This 100-hectare reserve is the only pocket that’s left and it’s a fascinating piece of early New Zealand history.

You can download a good map of the Stonefields and take yourself on a guided walking tour.

But Debbie and I continue to free range walking up into the fields and then heading for a huge boulder and heaving ourselves up onto its top.  Looking out across “the bathing place for sea birds” we can hear the  thrum of Labour Day traffic behind us.  All those poor buggers crawling back into the city down the motorway and we could be on… well the Milford Track – it’s that beautiful here on this hot, blue afternoon!

Interesting that in 1920s and 1930s there were holiday baches built on the shores of the stonefields and used by many Auckland families. They must’ve been appalled when the Mangere Wastewater Treatment plant was built in the 1960s and they were down wind of it and had to go.  Now ironically 500 hectares of oxidation ponds have been removed in a big upgrade and the coastline has been restored once again with the Watercare Walkway. 

I’ve done the 9 km coastal walkway from Ambury Park and back before and now as Debbie and I sit on our Stonefields’ perch, I suggest we go seaward and join up with the end of it.  Enroute we stop under a tree and have a cup of tea boiled on my ubiquitous billy and then we’re out close to the harbour, following a stretch of board walk, the last of the WaterCare Track, Debbie taking arty photos of the mangroves, the old fishing boat, me collecting watercress growing like a virulent beard around the mouth of a small stream.  We free range the last kilometre, over a fence, through long grass, out onto drying, sun-kissed mudflats. Debbie picks up a cocoanut, a sure sign we’re in local territory as I wander out on the wet harbour floor.  The tide’s seeped outwards since we began two hours earlier and I feel like I could just keep on walking.

“Turn this way,” Debbie calls.

I angle briefly towards her camera and then swing back to the benign outline of the Manukau Heads beckoning way out there in the distance.