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Photo-essay: Ihumatao and the Otuataua Stonefields Historic Reserve

Writer Geoff Chapple and photographer Stephen Robinson explore the Otuataua Stonefields Historic Reserve with an archaeologist and a specialist caver.

I. In the late 1990s, Manukau City Council, Auckland Regional Authority and the Department of Conservation set out to protect Auckland’s last major remnant of ancient Maori stone gardens. They paid $4.7 million to buy 100ha of land on the Ihumatao Peninsula, Mangere, from four separate farming families, and in 2001 then-Prime Minister Helen Clark opened the Otuataua Stonefields Historic Reserve.

II. Archaeologist Dave Veart discusses Stonefields’ history with Listener journalist Geoff Chapple (right) and Peter Crossley, a specialist caver who’s located lava caves within the reserve and just outside it. Radiocarbon dates around Ihumatao go back to the 1400s, when the Polynesian migration to Aotearoa was still adapting to a temperate land. The new arrivals needed warm temperatures for tropical kumara, taro, yams and gourds, and expansive volcanic landscapes, like this one at Ihumatao, were ideal. Archaeologists believe that Stonefields and its surrounds can help unravel the story of this end point of the 5000-year Polynesian migration across the Pacific.

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III. You live with the losses. Veart’s expansive gesture encloses former flanks of the Otuataua volcano, partly removed by the quarrying that began here in 1987. Veart found remnants of a papakainga (village) in this area, but those remnants were lost to the diggers.

IV. What did stop quarrying, says Veart, standing here within a half-hidden stone outline, was this large remnant stone foundation of a wharenui on a knoll above the former papakainga. The big house was probably the grandest structure overseeing the village. It’s about 6 x 4 metres, with a porch out front and a big midden alongside. As they would on entering a wharenui of our own era, Maori visitors sometimes take their shoes off when entering this precinct. It’s an important place.

V. To make their gardens, Maori cleaned out rock from the gullies and piled it onto the ridges above. Every stone you see has been lifted and placed by human hand, and Otuataua was a productive and famous agricultural centre for the sub-tribes of Te Akitai and Te Waiohua. Those tribes still live in a nearby village, where the Makaurau Marae Committee supports a protest against the new Special Housing Area located alongside Stonefields. Fletcher Living intends building up to 480 homes on this 33ha block, citing iwi support from a second influential committee in the village, the Makaurau Marae Maori Trust.

VI. Beyond a typically enhanced Maori ridge stands an old European drystone wall. The two styles are at odds with each other. By following ridge contours, Maori were trapping heat and also protecting crops from the westerlies that sweep across the Manukau. After this land was confiscated from Waiohua in 1865, the walls of the early European farmers here were built straight across Stonefields to respect survey lines and contain livestock.

VII. Crossley (left) and Veart at the entrance to Stonefields.

VIII. Peter Crossley has explored dozens of Auckland’s lava caves and long ago noted caves on the eastern slopes of Stonefields’ second major volcanic edifice, Puketapapa.

IX. The caves and koiwi (burial remains) within them were well-known to kaumatua from the nearby Makaurau Marae. They’re outside Stonefields’ boundaries, but before the reserve was opened, the elders asked for protective grills across the entrances. The intent then was to replace the grills with something more subtle, says Crossley, but that didn’t happen. The caves are in the Special Housing Area, and Fletcher Living has agreed to set back its housing limits to protect them.

X. Public walkways now stretch across the hummocky volcanic terrain within Stonefields, with wide views out to the Manukau Heads.