The Great South Road: where cultures converge
Once the main route south from Auckland, the Great South Road took war to the Waikato and opened up the city’s fertile hinterland for pioneer farmers. Eventually supplanted as a transport route by the motorway that grew vinelike about it, the old trunk road now connects a series of diverse communities which reflect the waves of migration that have changed the ethnic face of New Zealand’s largest city.
It is half past six in the morning and I am standing on the corner of Great South Road and Broadway. The traffic pulsing through the lights into Newmarket and the city beyond feeds mostly from Manukau Road. Great South Road, which crests a rise and drops out of sight towards Greenlane, is still quiet at this hour. An unexceptional crossroads, with a Mercedes-Benz dealership on one corner and an Indian tandoori restaurant on another, this spot marks the start of what was in the mid-19th century the great route south from the colonial capital.
In 1843, when work on the road began, Auckland was little more than a huddle of raupo whare, tents and rough clapboard buildings, its streets rutted, and the enclosing countryside for the most part a fern-covered wasteland. Even Newmarket’s Broadway, now a canyon of glass-fronted boutiques, was then a mere track among cleared hills connecting a handful of scattered buildings.
In the 1860s, when disgruntled Maori began to lose patience with Pakeha ways, declaring the King Country out of bounds and harassing settlers from Hunua to the Manukau Harbour, British soldiers used the Great South Road to reach the seat of war—the northern hinterland of the mighty Waikato River. In those days the road began in the heart of Auckland, the mileposts taking their measure from a grocery store on Shortland Crescent. The men left their barracks in what is now Albert Park and marched through Parnell and Newmarket, while the commissariat wagons took a gentler route along the ridge of Symonds Street and down Khyber Pass.
The 12th Regiment of Foot, the 14th, the 18th Royal Irish, the 40th, the 65th York and Lancashire, the 70th, the Royal Artillery and the Engineers—at one time or another all stepped out down this road on their controversial missions into the heart of Maoridom. Then, as always, military effectiveness hinged on mobility, on bringing weight to bear. To this end the road, and later the river, was to prove/invaluable.
The road proper had been pushed through to Drury by 1855, and a bridle track cut from there to the Waikato. In places it was knee-deep in mire, and travellers had to make a canoe crossing at Whangamarino. Toll houses were set up near the capital to help pay for metalling as far as Papakura, and settlers’ clearings in the heavy bush south of Drury were incorporated into the road. By 1859, even the rough track through the Maori kainga (village) at Rangiriri and along the east bank of the river as far as Ngaruawahia was being dignified with the name “Great South Road.”
When Sir George Grey returned from Cape Colony, South Africa, in September 1861 to serve a second term as governor of New Zealand, he took the precaution of ordering the road to be widened and improved as far as the river. The job fell to soldiers lately from Taranaki and from India—some 2500 of them, minus 500 for garrison duty at Auckland and 400 at Otahuhu.
In June 1862, John Martyn, a farmer at Ramarama, a few miles south of Drury, recorded his impressions of life in the midst of the “bustle and excitement” of soldiers: “As soon as morning dawns, we are aroused first by the bugles and after by the drums and fifes,” he wrote. “The day comes, and bodies of men are seen along the line of the road, cutting and blasting. The long line of artillery drays carting metal—the Land Transport Corps with its almost endless teams of bullocks, horses, drays and packhorses.”
To Martyn, the camps of the various regiments contrasted pleasantly with the green walls of the forest, and the music of the bands enlivened the day. Army horses and bullocks grazed on his land, and two companies were camped directly across from his house. With sentries parading around the clock and police on the road at night, the farmer declared himself well protected.
Just 12 months later, Grey was mustering the district militia. Relations with Maori had fallen into a tailspin and, for good or ill, he had determined to invade the Waikato. Hefting blankets, overcoat, rifle and 60 rounds, haversack and cooking utensils, militiamen and volunteers marched along Broadway, wheeling into Great South Road through the intersection over which the flags of Mercedes-Benz now flutter and on towards Otahuhu.
Deciding on a quick reconnoitre of the way ahead myself, I order a café breakfast of which the colony’s Scottish military commander, Major-General Sir Duncan Alexander Cameron CB would doubtless have disapproved, and set about finding a suitable vehicle for the job.
Sales manager Ken Britzman at Continental Car Services’ Italian Car Centre, a few hundred metres down Great South Road, has just what I need: a 292 km/h Ferrari Spider with near as much horsepower as Cameron had for his entire Waikato campaign.
Amid an assemblage of Alfa Romeos, Fiats and Maseratis, the congenial Britzman runs through some company history. Founded here 35 years ago in what was a commercial backwater—the upstairs workshop was a hat factory, its nearby Volkswagen site a sewing-machine shop—the company defied the odds and prospered.
The choice of location proved inspired. Ringed by the affluent suburbs of Remuera, Epsom and Parnell, the company is now “slap bang in the middle of our hunting ground in terms of demographics for European cars,” says Britzman.
Prospects, though, can come from anywhere. As Britzman tells it, blokes wander in on a Saturday after mowing the lawns to get their kids up close and personal with extreme sports cars, and it is not unknown for a tradesman who drives a ute during the week to lovingly roll out his Ferrari on the weekend. New Zealand, it turns out, is second only to Switzerland in per capita Ferrari ownership.
And so to the Spider—a silver-grey specimen, rather than the more familiar racing red. I slide in next to the besuited Britzman. We power back the hood and head out to the nearby southern motorway to stretch the legs (Great South Road itself is a 50 km/h no-fly zone).
Once a gap appears in the motorway traffic it takes a few spine-pinning seconds to reach the speed limit and get awash with adrenalin. An image of the wide-open Desert Road flashes unbidden as we settle into the flow. After ticking along amid three lanes of traffic for a time we loop off on to Great South Road, motoring back through Greenlane and past a parade of car distributors and dealerships. Britzman spots a patrol car idling at the lights. He walks a tightrope, he says, selling the excitement of Ferrari without falling foul of the law.
A few minutes’ walk from Continental Cars, over the rise, is an institution that in some ways couldn’t be more different. Dilworth School, a handsome and distinctive cluster of buildings set back from the road behind playing fields and a mass of pohutukawa and Queensland kauri, is the gift of Irish philanthropist James Dilworth. The country’s largest boarding school, it was founded in 1906 with the goal of educating boys from poor families. It is the only school in Australasia, and one of very few in the world, to shoulder the entire educational burden of its students, paying for everything from full board and tuition to uniforms, sporting equipment and field trips—some $21,000 annually per boy. With a roll here and at the nearby junior campus of almost 500, that is a lot of dollars to come up with.
Dilworth’s solution to the funding issue, as deputy principal Bruce Owen explains, is land. Prime hectares of it. James Dilworth encapsulated what was happening in Auckland at the time the road was being built. When he stepped ashore from the Planter in mid-1841, he began buying up real estate almost straight away: Parnell property, farmland in Remuera—which rocketed in value after the introduction of horse-drawn trams—and vast acres in various parts of the Waikato.
Unlike many of the settlers who practised land speculation as a sideline, Dilworth for the most part retained and enlarged his holdings, becoming one of Auckland’s wealthiest citizens. When he died in 1894, at the age of 79, he was found to have left most of his estate to fund the Dilworth Trust, with his wife Isabella one of the trustees. There were a handful of exceptions, including “the lithograph of a Maori Feast framed with New Zealand woods.”
The lithograph, from a drawing by Joseph Merrett, commemorates the gathering of 17 Maori tribes at a feast hosted by Te Wherowhero and Wetere in 1844 and hangs in the foyer of the school in accordance with the terms of Dilworth’s will. When I look at it, it is instantly clear why he wanted it there. The vast panorama, bracketed by the volcanic cones of Three Kings and Mount Hobson, encompassed Dilworth’s prime estate. The “picturesque . . . natural amphitheatre” on which the tribes disported was the one that he was in the act of buying at the very time Merrett sketched the scene.
The artwork is also a record—though contemporary Pakeha observers were slow to realise it—of the unequalled power and mana of Waikato on the eve of war. As Dilworth’s biographer, Russell Stone, pointed out, Ngati Whatua may have had customary claims to the Auckland isthmus, but Waikato subtribes living there had the power to sell with impunity.
The seed of Dilworth’s philanthropic endeavour was sown in the late 1880s when, ageing and childless, he was returning from a trip to England. Aboard ship he met fellow Ulsterman and Anglican priest George McMurray and broached the subject of what to do with his vast wealth. McMurray made a bold suggestion, and Dilworth School, underpinned as it is by the tenets of the Anglican Church, is the result.
As I stroll down Dilworth’s neatly trimmed paths, I pass a carved Celtic cross, modelled on one that the school’s founder knew from his childhood in Ulster’s County Tyrone. Like the green of the boys’ uniform, it is a reminder of his Irish roots.
The brochure in my hand announces the intersection of Market Road and Great South Road as Auckland’s premier antiques and collectibles location: eight speciality shops carrying three million dollars’ worth of stock. I cross the road to inspect the merchandise on offer: a late-18th century oak chest for $10,500; a pigskin suitcase, $295; a 1915 Vickers machine gun; a stuffed marlin from the Bay of Islands, caught circa 1950; submarine engine plates; a paper cup manufactured to raise funds for American Richard Byrd’s 1928 polar expedition, price tag $150; a carved French armoire ticketed at $19,500.
“It’s like a department store,” says owner Geoff Lancaster of the cluster of shops.
“We’re diverse, so we don’t compete.” He lists what was once in the block: an IGA store, an old-fashioned cake shop, a seller of poultry, a wet-fish shop, a chemist, a greengrocer. A typical suburban block of shops, in other words.
Lancaster is in no doubt what killed it: the motorway. It cut people off, he says. Or, at least, imposed a psychological barrier. With insufficient housing to the south-west to support such businesses, they slowly suffocated. The grocery store became a pet shop, the fish shop a fast-food place, then a video rental outlet. An automotive accessories retailer sprang up—Britzman’s demographics kicking in.
Lancaster cunningly boosted his prospects by opening a shop a couple of kilometres away in upmarket Remuera—“on a Saturday you couldn’t walk on the pavements there, it was that chocka”—to lure customers across to his Great South Road showroom. He let the lease go a few years later, but by then people had developed the habit of calling in. The number of antique dealers on the road doubled, so that now, despite swings of fortune, the place has a strong identity.
On one corner of the intersection stands Diamond Takeaways, Norman Num presiding. It is not yet open, but I go in anyway. After a word or two, Num swings back the counter and I walk backstage between bustling cooks. He clears a small table of trays of frozen meat and waves me to sit.
When I remark on the implacable frontage of “antique row,” he smiles. “This place is in big demand as an antique shop too,” he says. “But I’m an old identity here. I won’t be moving.” A family business, Diamond has served takeaways on this corner for 20 years, and before that another nine years across the road in what is now Geoff Lancaster’s building. Kiwi-born Num, an accountant, got into the food business by chance. His mother decided to open the takeaway outlet when her husband died. Num and two sisters were enlisted to help part time.
“Word got out that there was a little old lady running the place with the help of her kids. It just took off from there,” he tells me.
Learning that Num employs staff from remote Cantonese villages rather than, as is usual, from Hong Kong, I run my eye down his lime-green menu. What, in the closely printed columns, is different from standard Chinese takeaway fare?
His fingers underline an item here and there. “The sweet and sour sauce has more tang,” he says. “Mother’s recipe. The boys enhanced it.” He breaks off to answer a question in Cantonese from the workbench, then switches back without missing a beat. “And the black bean sauce dish. You should try it.”
Num’s menu also offers Indonesian dishes, Thai sauce dishes, Hong Kong-style chow mein, Singapore fried noodles and, over the page, burgers, toasted sandwiches and fries. An ethnic melting pot of taste.
That line-up of dishes exerts a big pull. All his regulars are locals, but even city workers who have moved away, some to lifestyle blocks as far out as Clevedon, often find reason on the daily commute home to swing by for a meal. Then there are the 200 or more people in Dilworth 71—a two-storeyed curtain-glass building housing a firm of consulting engineers and the New Zealand Blood Service. “Since that went up my lunches have gone silly.” And the motels. They enjoy high occupancy rates year round, Num says, because they are close to everything. Trade shows and events at Ellerslie and Cornwall Park. Newmarket. Motorway on-ramps.
It was thanks to the new motorway that this stretch of Great South Road escaped widening, and the block of shops was spared—though official dickering with the number of lanes means Num’s spouting is torn off regularly by turning trucks.
Roads, trams, cars, the motorway—Great South Road is a study in how transport defines and redefines what gets done in a place. How communities court connection, building roads only to flourish or fade according to the fortune that rolls their way over the rutted or tar-sealed surface.
Down past the Greenlane intersection, which, with its massive Foodtown and fast-food outlets, Num contends is one of the country’s busiest, I come across half a dozen of his compatriots on the footpath. They are marshalled before the imposing railings of the Chinese consulate, under a yellow banner deploring the persecution of Falun Gong.
Falun Gong founder Li Hongzhi’s spin on the ancient practice of qigong, an Eastern blend of exercises and meditation, has taken the world by storm since its introduction a decade ago, with its followers said to number in the millions. Such popularity evidently rattled the Chinese government, which clamped down on the movement with little regard for subtlety.
And this has been the result: ongoing protests at Chinese diplomatic posts in many of the 65 countries where Falun Gong has gained a foothold.
Wendy Cao, a mild-mannered young woman with a four-month-old boy in a backpack and a two-year-old running about at her feet, has been outside the consulate six mornings a week, rain or shine, for the past two years. The two-year-old, Allan, grew up on the pavement here, she tells me. “They all know him at the embassy.”
At first, officials tried to get the protesters moved on. When that failed, says Cao, they photographed everyone, later denying visas to the protesters. A man whose mother died was unable to return to Shanghai for the funeral. Another, a permanent New Zealand resident, couldn’t get his Chinese passport renewed.
She leaves off talking to hand out a leaflet. Allan tries to wriggle under the consulate gate and is hauled back by a fellow protester, who grins widely at me. I flick through a copy of Cao’s leaflet, and from the diagrams am able to identify an exercise being done by one of the protesters. A Falun standing stance, it no doubt gets a lot of practice here.
Geologist Ernest Searle, writing in the 1960s of a cluster of small volcanic cones not two kilometres from the Great South Road–Church Street intersection, in Onehunga, lamented their destruction by quarrying. “From the point of view of landscape it is a tragedy that the material of these volcanic hills should be so useful and so easily won, for man, having removed the hills, cannot put in their place anything as pleasing.”
I can only agree. In front of me is an invisible portal, a psychological door opening on to a stretch of Great South Road that in childhood came to embody the city’s unpalatable underside. The very names of the suburbs—Southdown, Westfield—gave off the oppressive odour of the charnel house. It was a thriving enclave (to my child’s mind a wasteland) of freezing works, manure works, soap factory and municipal abattoirs, standing on a reclaimed rim of the Manukau Harbour.
Driving through Southdown now, I see that its works are being converted into an industrial park. Across an intersection, the former Westfield works already have been. Sharp office buildings and warehouses fill the once grimy acres. Further along, Hellaby’s Shortland site is still being redeveloped. Some claim that the Westfield development, close as it is to ports, the southern motorway and the main trunk railway line, is Auckland’s premium industrial site.
A sign—“Auckland Meat Processors”—catches my eye. It seems to be the only slaughterhouse still open for business. Walking in, I find, behind the front desk, a gilt-framed glass panel some two metres high, decorated with beautifully calligraphed lettering and screen-printed photographs. “R & W Hellaby,” it reads. “By appointment to His Excellency, wholesale family and shipping butchers, meat preservers, refrigeraters, ice manufacturers, fellmongers, tanners, bonedust & fertiliser manufacturers.” One photograph shows the firm’s Shortland Street shop, with 17 dapper moustachioed and white-aproned butchers surrounded by carcasses. Another shows the boiling-down works, another the Richmond stockyards. The panel is a handsome tribute to one of the country’s more recognisable surnames.
Fred Hellaby, managing director of Wilson Hellaby, the parent company formed by a group of outside interests to run the plant, ushers me into his office, where we fall to talking about the changing fortunes of the industry. Richard and William Hellaby started up in their first small butchery in 1873. In 1882, the start of refrigerated meat shipments to Britain put a rocket under the New Zealand meat business. Rail and nearby Manukau Harbour made Otahuhu a logical choice for the expanding meat processors: rail to bring the beasts in from the Waikato and elsewhere, and the harbour to get rid of the effluent, which was pumped into the sea in huge quantities of fresh water. But the export boom left some in the industry uneasy that local markets were being neglected. R & W Hellaby decided to do something about it, and developed a chain of butchers throughout New Zealand.
As the slaughterhouses flourished, workers crowded in and Otahuhu prospered. At the height of the boom, Otahuhu’s chain gangs were killing 30,000 sheep and up to 3000 cattle a day. “There must have been 10–12,000 people working in the industry and related trades,” says Hellaby.
Then, gradually, things went sour. The ageing works became heavily unionised. Stringent hygiene regulations—among them the banning of wooden cool stores were imposed on New Zealand exporters when Britain joined the European Community. Smaller, more competitive works sprang up at Matamata, Te Kuiti, Te Aroha and elsewhere. Affco’s Southdown plant shut its doors in the late 1970s, Hellaby’s, in Westfield, following suit a few years later. In the 1990s, even the municipal abattoir closed, an asset Auckland City Council no longer cared to run.
“Otahuhu tipped over badly in the eighties,” says Hellaby. “It will take a while to recover.”
In Otahuhu’s town centre, Great South Road is Main Street, with a scattering of palms doing their best to turn it into a boulevard. From the footpath, the place has an undisguised air of enjoying itself, of being at ease with its identity. On the corner of a side street is a stone marking the position of a military milepost put there in 1860 and indicating 9 miles to Auckland, 13 to Drury.
Military miles are one thing, but a quick look around tells me how far I have really travelled from downtown Auckland. Here is the House of Island Style, with its bright equatorial clothes. Double Happy BBQ Shop Hong Kong Style. Dean’s Pacifica Barber. Customer Made Fashions, which seemingly makes embroidered badges. Its window is full of samples for suburban Pacific Island church groups: the co-operating parish Onehunga Samoan choir, the Tongan community church of Hephzibah in New Zealand, Witness for Christ, Mt Albert.
A couple of big lads stride by—Mormons in white shirts toting backpacks. A turbaned Sikh rests on a bench seat grooming his beard. There is an African woman. A mokoed Maori. A great many Polynesians.
“When I was young we catered a lot to Europeans. There are not so many now,” says Irvin Govind from the back of his family-run fruiterer, Big Apple. “There were a few Maori, too, but I couldn’t tell you when we last had one in the shop.”
Instead, Pacific Islanders keep him busy, along with Asian immigrants from Cambodia, Malaysia and elsewhere.
Govind, a big man with a jovial bearing, lets his eyes drift along the shop to the counter, where his wife is ringing up a sale. At his side is a freezer piled high with Fijian cassava. The shelves hold big bags of cocoa beans and 2.7 kg tins of corned beef, Tongan coconuts and pineapples from the Philippines, tins of Malaysian cream crackers, Samoan plantains, Chinese salt, hefty bags of pia—“powdered tapioca,” Govind explains.
Over the years he has adapted to the buying and eating habits of his customers. “In the Islands, with no freezers, they generally shop day to day,” he says. “Same here. In the morning, after dropping the children off at school, they buy what they need for lunch. Then in the afternoon they get what they need for the evening.” Quantities are different, too, he tells me. A family may go through a box of bananas and 30– 40 kg of taro a week.
Many live in the nearby Pacific Island headquarters of Mangere and Otara but call into Big Apple because, thanks to Searle’s volcanoes, the route to the city funnels through Otahuhu. An added magnet, in days gone by, was that all the banks were strung out here along Great South Road.
I ask about Westfield and Southdown. Govind shakes his head. “When I was young I hated Fridays. The freezing workers would come here in their overalls reeking of meat. The closures didn’t affect us too much.” European shops such as Hugh Wrights
began closing, he says, and for a time people survived on benefits. “The whole town was busy on a benefit Tuesday in the ’70s and ’80s. But other industries grew. The factories in Penrose. Pacific Steel. It’s a vibrant place. Always has been.”
I cross the road to have a few words with Valasi Meafou, senior reporter at the Samoa Post. The trim brick building, framed by palms, is a former courthouse once used by the Ministry of Pacific Island Affairs. Maefou herself migrated from American Samoa, lured by photographs sent by a sister.
“You don’t miss Samoa if you live in Auckland,” Meafou tells me. There are a lot of Samoans in Otahuhu, and even more Tongans. When people come here from the Islands they try to find a new centre, a sense of belonging, she says. The Tongan church fosters that. As does the Samoa Post. Issue 301, which lies on her desk, carries a front-page story about a well-known Samoan family gaining a matai title. The bilingual weekly is the country’s biggest Samoan paper, with a readership across the South Pacific of 60,000.
Its pages are decorated with a veritable rainbow of advertisements greens, oranges, yellows. “If it’s not colourful it won’t sell,” Meafou says, but from her expression I gather the print journalist in her would favour a touch more black ink on the page.
The big car park at Rainbow’s End is brimming with children. There are groups from Leabank Primary and Papakura’s Edmund Hillary School. Road patrollers from Remuera Primary being rewarded for jobs well done. Parents and teachers. There is a lot of squawking and chattering outside the gates. The adults, for the most part, are quietly apprehensive, either at the thought of holding things together all morning or at what one of them calls, with a jerk of the head, “that plunge of death.”
She is referring to Fearfall, a tower drop—“18 storeys up, 80 km/h down!”—which looms over the trees. It is the latest ride in this 9.3 ha theme park, which, I am told, is the only place in the country with a fixed-site roller-coaster, and boasts one of the highest theme-park attendances per capita worldwide.
Aucklanders make up a high proportion of the more than 300,000 visitors who enter the gates of this 20-year-old palace of fun each year to fling themselves around in bumper boats and CanAm cars, to climb aboard the corkscrew roller-coaster and giant rocking pirate ship and to slip down the log flume—the all-time favourite. But around one in ten is from overseas, and it is not unknown for South Islanders to rearrange their itinerary if they hear in advance that the log flume is closed for maintenance.
Leaving the kids wound as tight as mainsprings in anticipation of certain joy, I head for the citadel-like council offices of that big, bold exercise in town planning, Manukau City.
“Cars dominated the planning of Manukau City,” admits environmental policy planner, Chris Smith. The place started as a greenfield development in the 1960s, he says—a city built from scratch in the heart of rural Wiri, which itself was going nowhere and taking a long time about it.
Manukau City encompasses more than 300,000 people and stretches from the Firth of Thames in the east to Auckland International Airport in the west and from Musick Point south to Takanini and Hunua. That is a lot of territory to administer—some 640 square kilometres’ worth. Planners undoubtedly felt impelled to rise to the challenge when putting together their purpose-built regional hub. The result was an employment and retail centre based on the American model. Smith’s job is to undo that car-oriented thinking by renovating the city centre and generally enlivening the place.
It is, as Americans who are also going down that path would say, a big ask. The concept plan includes encouraging some 8000 people to live in the city, laying a rail link across to the main trunk line, attracting a tertiary facility with up to 15,000 students and creating attractive pedestrian precincts. Wiri Station Road is slated to become a landscaped boulevard, giving better foot access to Rainbow’s End.
Glancing through Smith’s ninth-floor window to envisage what that might look like, I catch the “plunge of death” lowering children in spectacular fashion. Beyond it, traffic follows the thread of Great South Road towards Manurewa.
In the early days, Manurewa was called “the garden suburb” for its open spaces and fine country houses. One of the finest properties was The Hill, Auckland merchant David Nathan’s extensive rural abode, bought in 1910. When the original house burned down Nathan built an even more substantial residence in its place, along with a fine Norman-style water tower. The building was later given to the local council and is now run as a community arts centre.
I make a detour up Hill Road to see Nathan Homestead. It is, or should be, a pilgrimage site for any student of the Great South Road, because it was Nathan who made the road fit for cars. In the 1920s, Great South Road was a dusty, metalled and pot-holed affair that chewed up the flimsy tyres of the day and spat them out. In his reminiscences, Nathan’s son, Lawrence, tells of the time the family’s Peugeot got five punctures between Auckland and The Hill, the fifth on the corner of Wiri Station Road. A car was flagged down and the children despatched home. Having stayed behind to repair the puncture, a testy David Nathan arrived at his door four hours after setting out from the city.
Experiences such as this spurred him to found the Great South Road Association, with the sole object of getting the road realigned, resurfaced and generally made safe for cars. It was a less than straightforward task. With seven local bodies each responsible for one or more sections of the road and employing its own construction experts, getting agreement on the road surface and the bridge specifications was a nightmare. It was equally hard to convince ratepayers to vote through the necessary funding—especially when those without cars looked on Great South Road merely as a convenient route for shifting stock.
After determined lobbying and offers to drive voters to the polling booths, the association carried the day. Within a few years a new concrete road had been laid from the Harp of Erin—a Y-junction in Greenlane named after a pub that once stood there—all the way to Drury. “There is no doubt,” writes the proud son, “that the huge development of South Auckland dates from this new road’s completion and would not have occurred without it.”
Upstairs in Nathan Homestead, I stumble on military milepost no. 16 from Great South Road in a glass case, its white painted flaking with age.
Nathan’s concrete road is now buried for its entire length under layers of asphalt and chip, but I come across a piece of it unexpectedly in Papakura. After stopping in at the old Selwyn Chapel and First Presbyterian Church, where settlers huddled for safety in the darkest days of Cameron’s Waikato campaign, I seek out local museum curator Lloyd Walker to look at early photographs. I am especially interested in an aerial shot showing the blocks of prime commercial real estate given by the government to the Anglican and Methodist churches to help them generate income for education purposes. The Anglicans used theirs to fund Queen Victoria School and St Stephen’s, both in Parnell (though St Stephen’s subsequently moved to Bombay).
Since the photographs were taken, Papakura has burgeoned, even as Drury, a few kilometres south, has atrophied. It is a surprising outcome. “Drury was more significant in the early days,” says Walker. “Papakura was just a crossroads where the road from Clevedon met Great South Road.”
“Great South Road,” echoes his assistant Shona Paul, overhearing. “We’ve got a piece of that in the back room.” I smile at the joke, but it is true. I am taken through a door to a bench, underneath which sits a great slab of concrete rescued from resurfacing by a history-minded former mayor.
Curious about land values out here on the rural flanks of the road, I pause to look in a real-estate agent’s window. It is a bad move. A big bush-clad property catches my eye. “The secret is out,” shouts the copy. “You could be away in the Canadian Rockies yet you are only 30 minutes from Auckland CBD in the fabulous Drury Hills.”
Before I know it, I’m in L. J. Hooker’s Papakura office talking to manager Stuart Millington. He’s been selling rural real estate here for 31 years. Before that, he farmed beef in Rotorua. Papakura’s a good place, he says. “The first city you hit coming up the motorway, and by far the smallest. It’s got an equestrian centre, a thriving airport, virtually any club and organisation you can name, and it’s 30 kilometres closer to the snow.”
No longer technically on the Great South Road—which these days ends abruptly at the top of the Bombay Hills—Rangiriri was the site of a battle to which the road inexorably led. Having crossed the Mangatawhiri River—a “line in the sand” to Waikato Maori—Cameron’s men pressed south. Cameron declined to tackle the defences at Meremere head on—Maori nicknamed the plodding and methodical general “the lame gull”—instead building a redoubt and shelling them with artillery. The outflanked Maori abandoned their fortifications, and Cameron was hailed for sparing the lives of his troops.
Rangiriri, the second line of Maori defence a few kilometres up the Waikato River, was a different matter. At the Rangiriri Battle-Site Heritage Centre, 75-year-old director Pat Gaitely leads me through a tearoom lined with period muskets, sabres, swords, uniforms and other paraphernalia and into a small auditorium. There he sets going a short documentary.
On November 20, 1863, Cameron attacked Rangiriri, throwing gunboats, heavy artillery and some 1500 British troops against 400 or so Maori defenders. By nightfall the dogged Maori still held their ground, but heavy overnight rain ruined their powder. The next morning, some say mistaking a white naval ensign for a signal to parley, the defenders raised a white flag of their own. British soldiers were soon amongst them, shaking their hands and congratulating them on their bravery.
“Homai te paura,” they replied. Give us some powder. It was too late. The time for fighting had passed.
“There were to be other battles, but Rangiriri was the most significant,” says Gaitely. “The king was defeated and Waikato lost 1.2 million acres of land to pay for the war.”
Opposite the heritage centre is a graveyard with the remains of some British and Maori dead. Officers were buried in Auckland, most Maori taken elsewhere.
Back home, Cameron was criticised for the “absence of science” in his attack, in particular for flinging Captain Henry Mercer’s artillerymen, armed with pistols, into a pointless assault. Mercer was shot in the face and taken back to Queen’s Redoubt, at Pokeno, where he later died.
There was no absence of science when State Highway One was built—right through the middle of the Rangiriri battle site. But the desecration was, at least, not one-sided: the motorway destroyed the resting places of Mercer and his fellow officers in Auckland’s Grafton cemetery as well.
Chaos. Traffic is piled up everywhere. A two-truck collision on State Highway One at Drury has cars backed up for kilometres on all the northbound feeder routes. Rain brings the sharp tang of asphalt. Across the road is the Jolly Farmer Inn. It stands on the site of an earlier inn where, in 1855, Ferdinand von Hochstetter and his party stayed while surveying the nearby coalfields, for the duration of their stay flying an enormous Austrian flag from its gables.
In the grounds of a small Anglican church is the railed grave of Joseph Middlemas, who died on November 15, 1862, aged 42, thereby missing Rangiriri by a year. A monument put up by friends thanks him for promoting the interests of the district. That promotion, however sincere, was to little avail. Drury these days is a few ribbons of road with somewhere else to be, at the tip of a finger of the Manukau.
I follow the Great South Road beyond the trail of waiting vehicles and on to its anticlimactic end. Up in the Bombay Hills, past the chained entrance to defunct St Stephen’s School—all flaking paint and lichen—it is unexpectedly extinguished on a ridge of land at a roundabout. To the left, Bombay. To the right, Pukekohe. Ahead, the Hamilton on-ramp. Beside the road is a sign for the Bombay Rugby Club, major sponsor Thoroughbred Tavern. Another notice announces a Bombay community barn dance (supper provided). After Rangiriri, it seems an anticlimax. An unworthy end to a great road.
Behind me a blue sign announcing “Great South Road” points back the way I have come, north to a fold of distant, built-up ridges. Lacking the patience to crawl home in an endless declutching queue, I park at a boarding kennels (“Southern comfort for your dog”) and stride past the line of drivers to the home of Bruce Terhuurne.
I find him in a lower field, at the controls of an excavator. He cuts the engine when he sees me and waits while I pick my way across the broken ground. The 38-year-old son of Dutch parents, Terhuurne was born in the house next door, he tells me. He remembers playing on the motorway when it was being built. Great South Road, in those days, was still the main road. He nods to the line of cars. “That’s how it used to be. Always busy. Especially on long weekends.”
Ramarama back then had three petrol stations, a fruit shop, butchers, tearooms. All gone. His father ran a pig farm. There were a few around. Terhuune bought this land, which once supported 5500 pigs, 10 years ago.
He is working to fill in what was the old effluent pond. “Next time you come here, you’ll be walking on grass.” We shake hands. “We’ll get there,” he says. I turn for the road and circle round smouldering fires of rubbish. The caterpillar engine coughs into life and its tracks rattle and clank.
It’s noon, and the traffic is freeing up once more. Ebb and flow, rush hour and open road. Changing fortunes, changing routes. The seasons of a road.