When I was 17, I fell in love. It wasn’t destined to last, not least because we were from different countries. She was a Catholic schoolgirl from near Newcastle in New South Wales, Australia. I was in the sixth form at Auckland Grammar School, and we met by chance in New Caledonia on a class trip intended to improve our French. I’m not sure how beneficial it was linguistically or culturally, but we certainly did our bit for adolescent trans-Tasman relations. Our long-suffering teacher and the rather terrifying nuns in charge of her group struggled vainly and were no doubt hugely relieved to get us all back on separate planes when the week was over.
Back in Auckland, I was heartsick. We wrote long letters to each other almost daily, and made half-baked plans to visit one another that summer. And while the passage of time and lack of means meant we never did meet again, my abiding memory of those lovelorn weeks is of borrowing my parents’ car and driving to the Auckland Domain to feel sorry for myself in relative solitude.
I’d begun experimenting with smoking and had bought a carton of duty-free French cigarettes (soft-pack menthols, for some reason) on my way back from Noumea. I puffed my way diligently through them, sitting in the parked Hillman Avenger, looking across the sports fields towards the tree-covered mound and the glass houses of the Winter Gardens, contemplating the misery of love found and lost. I never got out of the car, and no doubt I stank like an ashtray when I eventually skulked home in time for dinner. If my parents said anything, I was too immersed in my own melancholy to remember.
Quite why I gravitated to the Domain to soothe my tormented teenage soul wasn’t something I thought much about at the time, but it has become clearer to me as the years have passed. It wasn’t a particularly convenient destination from where I lived. There were parks and quiet corners much closer to home. But I was drawn there, and I can only conclude it was because it offered a sense of belonging, of familiarity and reassurance, without being my own claustrophobic backyard or bedroom. As a place to mope, it was something like a home away from home.
But then, it had been like that for years. I’d been coming to the Domain with my parents—usually my mother—and sister since we moved to Auckland from Dunedin in 1968. It has become a point of constant return. I’ve been to the Domain alone, with others, with new lovers and old friends, and eventually with my own children. As it must be to countless Aucklanders, the Domain is both public and personal space. If I recovered from that early bout of lovesickness, my love for the Domain has only grown.
Auckland is sometimes known as the City of Sails, for its evident maritime blessings. But it is also very much a city of parks. Of all these great green interruptions to the urban sprawl—including the magnificent volcanic cones of One Tree Hill/Maungakiekie and Mt Eden/Maungawhau—the jewel is surely the Domain. It is the city’s oldest park, sold by Ngati Whatua to the Crown in 1840 and reserved five years later by a far-sighted George Grey, then Governor of New Zealand. Its 80 hectares are home to the oldest continuously operating plant nursery in the country, some striking monumental architecture and sculpture, ponds, playing fields and native bush. As Hyde Park is to London or Central Park to Manhattan, so the Domain is Auckland’s heart and lungs.
It was also once an inferno. For much of my life I was unaware that the Domain—or Pukekawa by its original Maori name—is largely the remains of an ancient volcanic eruption. Once you see it, of course, the old crater and tuff ring seem quite obvious. A low ridge runs around what are now playing fields, with Auckland War Memorial Museum at one end and Auckland City Hospital at the other. A small hillock near the middle of this natural amphitheatre, now wooded and grassed, is the scoria cone created by that original explosion. Yet compared to the more obvious volcanic sites that dot and define Auckland—mostly small mountains with deep craters—this place offers few such clues to the untrained (or unobservant) eye.
That the Domain can still be seen for what it once was is largely due to Grey’s prescience in recognising an infant city might one day need and value such a space.
Maori, of course, had long valued Pukekawa. Its warm northern aspect and elevation, and its proximity to the Waitemata (then a lot closer, before harbour reclamation began in the late 19th century), made it an ideal settlement. The old volcanic crater had become an eel-rich swamp, and the hill on which the museum now stands was a pa, named Pukekaroa. A ‘memorial palisade’ on the old scoria mound surrounds a totara reputedly planted by Princess Te Puea Herangi in memory of her great-grandfather—and possibly the Domain’s single most significant one-time inhabitant Potatau Te Wherowhero.
Before Te Wherowhero became the first Maori King in 1858, he lived for some time in a cottage at Pukekawa provided by George Grey, who respected and valued the great Waikato warrior chief for his influence and mana in the period immediately after the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. According to an excellent little history of the Domain published by the then Auckland City Council in 1979, Te Wherowhero and his great Ngapuhi adversary Hongi Hika made their peace in 1828 at Pukekawa.
The name Pukekawa itself seems to have been Te Wherowhero’s extension of its original meaning of ‘sour hill’ (due to the failure of kumara to grow there) to include ‘hill of bitter memories’, in reference to the tribal conflicts it had witnessed, particularly Hika’s brutal musket raids (the Toki Whatinui battle site lies in the adjacent hospital grounds). It doesn’t seem to have been intentional, but is nonetheless fitting, that the War Memorial Museum and cenotaph were built on this commanding site roughly a century later.
Yet, like so many places steeped in blood, the Domain today is tranquil. As the American writer Henry Miller once wrote, “The quiet village where the river flows so peacefully, the very spot where you choose to dream in, is usually the seat of ancient carnage.” The only other echoes of this martial past are a plaque noting that American soldiers were stationed here during World War II, and the sound of a bugle playing the ‘Last Post’ every Anzac Day dawn.
For all its rich Maori history, the Domain feels much more like an English park than a pre-European pa. The Maori past is hidden, buried, largely gone. Inside the museum it can be found in the magnificent He Taonga Maori gallery; on the hill behind there is the palisade; a new replica stockade lines part of the Domain Drive leading down to Stanley Street. But it is the Victorian and Edwardian layer of history that greets the visitor these days.
Indeed, from a distance on a sunny summer’s day, the crowded cricket ground looks much as it might have a century ago. At times there are so many games being played simultaneously it’s impossible to tell where one outfield begins and another ends.
The players in their whites dot the green sward, and from the right vantage point one can see no structure more recent than the old wooden pavilion at the western edge of the park, built in 1898 after an earlier version burned down the year before.
The Domain’s first cricket match was played in 1874 and was billed as “England versus World”. The Thames Star recorded “a victory to the Englishmen by 21 runs”, adding that the “scores were small owing partly to deadness of the ground”—something of an understatement, given the World made a total of just 71 in its two innings. To be fair, the teams might have been justified in blaming the pitch, since it was laid upon the recently drained crater swamp where Maori once trapped eels and, briefly, early colonists shot at ducks.
Of all the other sports that have some historical connection with the Domain including cycling, football, rugby league, bowls and even lacrosse—it was athletics that drew me there in the early 1970s. This was due more to chance than innate ability; a friend of mine was the son of a former representative middle-distance runner who coached during the summer, when a track was marked on the grass in front of the pavilion. I don’t recall winning anything, but I do remember the long, warm evenings when we practised starts and sprints and generally messed around in the Domain twilight.
A quarter of a century later, I would be standing somewhere on that same field in the dark, surrounded by tens of thousands of other people, with my own young son on my shoulders. We were watching Santa Claus arrive at the climax of Christmas in the Park, which is annually staged in front of the pavilion. Like my own connections with the Domain, this concert and others like it are part of a continuum. As one historical record of the cricket grounds mentions in passing, the pavilion was also a venue where “local bands offered musical entertainment while ladies promenaded”.
This visible stratum of the Domain’s layered existence is relatively thin, nonetheless, and beneath its colonial gentility lies an older Auckland.
There are middens all over the park, and any substantial digging or earthworks require resource consent, due to its general archaeological significance. Melanie James, who has worked at the Domain nursery and Winter Gardens since 1989, told me of the time some bone fragments were found among the roots of a nearby pohutukawa. Intuition suggested they might be human, and when the police had a sample carbon-dated, the remains proved to be pre-European. The bones were simply put back where they were found.
So many of us were brought here as children by our parents or on school trips, and have grown up to take our own children and grandchildren to the same places. So much of Auckland has been impermanent, from its urban and suburban architecture to its ever-evolving tangle of roads and motorways. So a large part of the Domain’s enduring appeal is its inter-generational continuity. As parks manager David Millward put it, “People love the place and they don’t want to see it hurt.”
The museum, the duck ponds, and the Winter Gardens—the triple star of the Domain’s notional ensign. As a child, I remember them all as places we were taken on weekends just to get out of the house. In particular, I recall the several times our cocker spaniel jumped into the pond in the Winter Gardens’ courtyard, to my sister’s and my simultaneous embarrassment and amusement.
I used to look at the museum and imagine what it might be like to live there. I liked the view from the front steps, down the lawn and across the city to Rangitoto in the harbour. But the thought was also a little scary. It would be years before the movie Night at the Museum played with the idea of the exhibits coming to life when the lights went out, but that was more or less my fear. I chose the places within the building where I might feel most scared or most secure; the dimly lit replica of a colonial street unnerved me, while the whare nui in the Maori Court was somehow reassuring. Like every Auckland kid, I would stare at Rajah the taxidermied elephant and marvel at how he came to be there.
It was a typically grey and dreary Auckland weekend many years later when I suddenly realised I had a reason to go back to the museum, which I hadn’t set foot inside since childhood. The reason, of course, was my own young son. Letting him loose in the wide, echoing corridors for the very first time, and showing him the things I’d once discovered on visits with my mother, was one of those moments that give you a glimpse of the arc of your own life.
More recently, I worked at the museum, chairing a series of evening events based around panel discussions and musical performances. Aside from the sense of personal satisfaction at this new connection with a place I’d known most of my life, what I couldn’t help noticing was the sheer pleasure people took in simply being there after hours, to explore, to sip a glass of wine, to appreciate the place for its own sake.
The slightly appalling irony now is that I’ve become an exhibit myself. In the schoolroom display there are class photographs from my primary school during the years I was there, and around the corner the tableau of a fully assembled dental clinic. Despite being from the era immediately preceding mine—the awful drill is pedal driven rather than electric—I’m reminded that I come from the golden age of the murder house.
As everyone who works there eventually tells you, the domain is woven into not only the city’s history but its citizens’ personal histories too.
Usually after a visit to the museum we would head to the kiosk for an ice cream. I had no idea at the time, but the kiosk is in fact a remnant of the Great Industrial Exhibition that was staged in the Domain in 1913 (the band rotunda being the other survivor). A large ‘Hall of Industry’ was built, along with a ‘wonderland park’ of amusements and rides, and all of it dismantled and removed by the following year.
The stucco kiosk, now a cafe/restaurant, was intended to represent the ‘ideal New Zealand home’—a poignant sentiment in hindsight, perhaps, given that the troop ships would soon be carrying many ideal New Zealand home owners to Gallipoli and the Somme. Within a decade, construction would begin on the War Memorial Museum on the hill behind, followed by a cenotaph to “the glorious dead”.
If there was a wonderland for me it was inside the two glass houses of the Winter Gardens. The humid warmth of the tropical house, with its Amazon water lilies and pitcher plants and bromeliads, felt truly exotic to a child. In the cool house, whose function is to maintain year-round floral displays, there is a wishing well. I see children gazing fascinated at the coins on the bottom just as I once did. How did they get this money out? Might I take some? Would I be caught?
Built in stages in the 1920s, when cast-iron and glass technology had become relatively sophisticated, the houses are true Victorian pleasure gardens. The design was by one of the country’s great architects of the first part of the 20th century, William Gummer (of Gummer and Ford), whose other public monuments include Auckland’s Dilworth Building at the bottom of Queen Street, the Auckland Railway Station, Christchurch’s Bridge of Remembrance and Wellington’s Massey Memorial. Gummer was also a founding member of the Quoin Club, a kind of artists’ collective that held regular exhibitions. Some of his watercolours were described by the Auckland Star in 1920 as “noteworthy for their exact draughtsmanship”.
It was through the Quoin Club that Gummer met the sculptor Richard Gross, one of the pioneers of New Zealand public sculpture. Among his enduring commissions are the male figure that tops the memorial pillar in the forecourt of Auckland Grammar School, the famous Mission Bay fountain, the figure of love and justice at the Savage memorial on Bastion Point, and the bronze Maori chief on the One Tree Hill memorial. But it is the Domain where the greatest concentration of his work can be found.
Gross was commissioned by architects Grierson, Aimer and Draffin to design the stone frieze on the museum entablature, depicting scenes from the various wars in which New Zealand troops had seen action. He also designed the Athlete, a large bronze statue on the Domain’s Park Road gates. Like Gross’s anatomically correct nude for the Massey Memorial, this attracted some typically petty controversy over the years, and we would often laugh as we drove past to find some prudish do-gooder had clambered up the gates and installed a floral bouquet to preserve the athlete’s modesty.
But the work that has arguably inspired more conversations than any is Gross’s small statue of a leaping cat on top of a globe that in turn sits atop a column in the Winter Gardens’ courtyard. There have been various urban myths about the statue, including that it was put there by Gummer himself, who had grown tired of people placing beer bottles on top of his world. But in 1976 a Mrs Sybil Dibble—truly came forward to tell the Auckland Star that it was indeed a Gross original.
“He is the king of the cats,” said Dibble. “With his upstretched paw he is appealing to the King of the Birds to stop the incessant war between cats and birds.” This, she said, was in keeping with Gross being “a man of magnificent ideals” who had told her of his purpose during a stroll through the Winter Gardens. “He was quite serious about it… and he saw no reason for cats and birds to fight.”
Gross is not the only agent of whimsy here. In the fernery behind the glass houses—originally a quarry in the scoria mound of the Domain crater—is a series of native bird sculptures in bronze by Greer Twiss. The birds perch and nestle within the bush, labelled in English, Latin and Maori, mimicking the genuine exhibits in the museum on the hill above. Like the nearby Valkyrie sculpture in the formal gardens, the Twiss birds have been stolen in the past. The Valkyrie (which has disappeared twice) was eventually returned, but an entire new series of castings had to be created for the fernery, on the condition a security system was installed.
The base of the fernery is near the water table and roughly on the level of the duck ponds across the road from the Winter Gardens. It’s discouraged now, due to the impact on water quality, but it was almost a rite of passage for young Aucklanders to throw stale bread to the quacking hordes on a Sunday afternoon. I think our spaniel jumped in there, too.
Fed by a natural spring, the ponds were early Auckland’s original water supply. A stream runs from them down through the Domain bush, and water was once piped as far as the Mechanics Bay tannery. They were also the site of an early trout hatchery established by the Auckland Acclimatisation Society, and the source of much of the North Island’s fish stock. A centennial plaque nearby records “the gratitude of past, present and future generations of trout anglers in New Zealand for the Society’s successful importation of Californian Rainbow Trout ova in 1883, its hatching of the eggs in the Auckland Domain ponds and its subsequent distribution of the fish and their progeny to many New Zealand waters”.
The Acclimatisation Society—versions of which existed in many parts of the colonial world—was a peculiarly 19th-century idea. Part zoological enterprise, part nostalgic exercise in establishing reminders of ‘home’, it sourced and bred birds and other exotic wildlife, as well as fish. From the Domain the society distributed the progenitors of some of our commonest garden species, “with applications for sparrow and song-birds such as starlings and blackbirds being among the most popular”, according to one account.
The society’s Domain site is now the nursery, a surprisingly large collection of glass houses, potting sheds and growing beds near the formal gardens, dating from 1867. More than 5000 varieties are cultivated behind its fence, to be displayed in the Winter Gardens or planted out in the grounds.
It was here I met horticulturist Colin Bradshaw, a 47-year veteran of the Domain nursery and gardens. He showed me one of the oldest, certainly the loveliest, of the glass houses, the orchid house. Nearly a century old, it features an ornate cast-iron floor, hot-water piping underneath the growing tables, and delicately ornamented struts supporting the roof.
The house was originally erected in 1926 at Ellerslie Racecourse as part of the botanical programme there, but was moved to the Domain in the early 1930s. “It’s the deluxe model of the house, I understand,” said Bradshaw. “It’s beautiful, and it’s lovely to work in.”
From the nursery, you can see the tops of some very large trees, one of them a sequoia planted in 1870 by Queen Victoria’s son, Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh. (Other notables who planted or provided still-growing specimens in the Domain were Bishop Pompallier and Governor Hobson, whose giant bamboo thrives nearby.) I couldn’t find any record of Alfred’s Indian elephant—which he had acquired during a stopover in Ceylon—accompanying him to the Domain, although the animal was certainly housed for a while at the Albert Barracks across Grafton Gully.
At that time, of course, the Domain would have looked very different; unsealed roads, bush blending into surrounding backyards or scrub, the surrounding city still working out where one ended and the other began. Surveyor-General Felton Mathew’s original 1841 plan of Auckland— envisaged then as the capital of the new colony, and the major city in “New Ulster”, as the North Island was still called—would have seen the Domain abutting his elegant central precinct of crescents and squares.
It might have been a wonderful thing, too, had the defining utilitarian logic of a market town such as Auckland not prevailed, and a cheaper, practical, but unlovely grid system been adopted. While a few vestigial clues to Felton Mathew’s vision survive around Albert Park, the Domain was protected by law to become precisely what Grey had intended—breathing room in a busy city.
For all the groomed gardens, playing fields and lawns, the Domain’s true glory is the bush. To be within minutes of high-rises and parking buildings yet to be surrounded by manuka and nikau and barely hear a vehicle is a remarkable thing. Without its Domain lungs, Auckland would undoubtedly be a grittier, more polluted city.
The various paths and tracks that lace the bush lend another perspective to the geography of the town. Follow the tracks down the Domain’s eastern flank and you will eventually find yourself at the railway line looking up at the backs of houses and offices on the Parnell ridge. Down here there is a disused depot and the hulking remains of old wagons.
Other travellers use the railway corridor, too. As David Millward told me, it wasn’t until staff mounted a possum-eradication campaign, only to find the bush reinfested within a year, that they realised the pests were using the tracks to navigate the city. Because the lines link many of Auckland’s green spaces, the possums had discovered their own railway.
Possums are one thing; people are another. The Domain bush has long been a refuge for the homeless and destitute. Every now and then a camp will be discovered and the police notified. The main worry is fire, but there have also been criminal gangs stashing stolen goods in the bush, and even the odd university student dossing down between flats. German backpackers have been known to assume the Domain is a freedom camping area.
“Some of them look after their areas really well,” said Millward. “They’re the ones that get away with it because we don’t always know they’re there. We try to be as compassionate as possible. If we find a camp we give them 24 hours’ notice to move on.”
There was once a man who lived near the railway lines for about 18 months. Cindy Pocock-Smith, the museum’s longest-serving staff member, used to see him on her daily walks around the Domain. “He had a blue tent, and he’d put branches and fronds over the top of it. He had a garden and everything.”
Pocock-Smith has also lived through some of the Domain’s darker episodes, including the still-unsolved murder of Betty Marusich, a homeless woman, in 1995, and a heartbreaking series of suicides by hanging in one of the wooded groves. But her affection for the place far outweighs those memories. When a long-time colleague and friend died, a plaque was placed on the seat, near the northeast corner of the museum, where they had often sat and talked. “She was our on-the-spot mum. When she passed away, she left a big hole in our team.” The plaque reads: “To Mum”.
You find these little tributes all over the Domain, dedicated to the lost but not forgotten. As well as their memorial purpose, they serve as signifiers of the park’s true and permanent role in people’s lives. Of all its many uses, from sports to public events, it is as a sanctuary that the Domain is most treasured.
Dog walkers, strollers, families, hospital patients recuperating or relatives seeking solace, all are drawn there for simple reasons that need no literal explanation.
Perhaps, then, the last word belongs to a poet. In the late 1960s, James K. Baxter lived in and around Grafton. He’d met a man in the Domain who invited him to move into a house in Park Road. Later, he moved to a local boarding house in Boyle Crescent where he counselled drug addicts and which became a bit of a communal drop-in centre. Legend has it that Baxter gave one of the bush tracks its subversive but now semi-official name, the Ho Chi Minh Trail. This was all before he founded his famous commune on the Whanganui River, but he returned to Auckland in 1972, where he died at the age of 46.
He was no fan of the city, which he once compared (in ‘Ode to Auckland’, the last poem he wrote) to “an elephant’s arsehole”. But in the last poetry collection published before his death, Autumn Testament, Baxter had written lovingly of the place he often went to walk or meditate.
The delicate pure invisible light I have not Seen since I left Grafton. In those days I’d climb the hill on the Domain Before dawn, when the leaves were cold as iron Underfoot…