Friday, 15 April 2011

Beside the Big Mount Wellington

Ellerslie–Panmure Highway, Mt Wellington behind.
(Photo: Carol Bartlett)
Many have disappeared; others are dented or diminished, but Auckland’s volcanoes are very much part of our lives. Some, despite our best efforts, still dominate the landscape.

Mount Wellington, in whose lava field New Zealand’s largest aggregate quarry made its home and built a fortune, is one of the latter. The volcano still has its 100-metre-high cone, concealing an explosion crater 60 metres deep.

From Stud Farm to Shopping Mall
Local landmarks that are manmade include Moyes’ car yard, “beside the big Mount Wellington”, as John Moyes likes to tell us in his TV ads, and that flat-as-a-pancake expanse we drive around — the Panmure roundabout, which the transport planners are already plotting to replace.

And don’t forget Sylvia Park. Though now a shopping mall, it started as the stud farm belonging to the Messrs Morrin, who named it after a mare. In the Second World War, US and New Zealand forces turned the site into military food storehouses and workshops, still bearing the stud farm name.

There was even a “Sylvia Park Shopping Centre” before the one we know today. Initially it was “three shops... Armishaw’s dairy, Gatwood the butcher, and the Cumming’s brothers grocery”, according to RA Baker’s local history (
From Bush to Borough, 1987). “At this time in 1952, they were surrounded by cabbages belonging to the Chinese market gardeners and scattered residential sections”. By 1986 great progress had been made, with “the new Sylvia Park Maxi Mart adjoining the Woolworths Supermarket”, and McDonald’s — the hamburger joint, not the old man’s mythical farm.

The new Sylvia Park shopping centre is New Zealand’s largest; larger than any Westfield. (Those malls are presumably no relation to the Westfield Freezing Works that ran here in industrial south-east Auckland from 1908 to 1989, as Australia’s Westfield Group arrived in this country only in 1997.)

By design the centre pays homage to ‘heritage’ with cones, colours intended to suggest our most quarried volcanic rock and, among other things, a roof form mimicking the military warehouses that stood to attention for more than half a century, latterly in rather shabby uniforms. Thankfully it hasn’t gone so far as to replicate the conditions that made Mount Wellington “the worst hit smog area in the country” (wrote RA Baker), where in 1955 “hundreds of houses... were turning black overnight from the acrid industrial fumes”. 

Maungarei across Panmure Basin.
The Watchful Mountain  
In its present form Sylvia Park wins popularity contests in our City of Sales — I’ll wager more people promenade there than ascend Mount Wellington — but does it really shape and enlarge our landscape? I don’t think so. The volcano does that.

The Maori name for Mount Wellington is lyrical: Maungarei, meaning alternatively “the watchful mountain” or “the mountain of Reipae” — a Tainui ancestress who flew to Northland on a bird. But whatever you call this place, at 9000 years old it is the volcanic equivalent of a spring chicken. In Auckland, only iconic Rangitoto is younger (600? Pshaw! It’s a day-old chick, if that).

Just over a kilometre away is the Panmure Basin, a 28,000-year-old explosion crater marking another volcano... or two, it now seems: in 2008, scientists found what they believe is another volcanic cone buried there.


Panmure Basin: Still Waters Run Deep
The basin is well used by the community, and recreational organisations dot its shores (including the former Swimarama, where I had lessons as a child). The day we visited, people were running around it, sailing on it, fishing in it, admiring the views and the birdlife.
Fishing near the Tamaki River entry
to the Panmure Basin.
Its still waters carried no sign of current volcanic upheaval nor of the taniwha Moko-ika-hiku-waru, which used this crater as its eating vessel some centuries ago. But something must have been after the kahawai, Carol said, as the fish were jumping clear of the water.

A hop, skip and jump away from the basin is my favourite manmade Mount Wellington landmark, albeit one I nearly missed. When I looked up the Mount Wellington library, it no longer existed. It’s now the Panmure library, which makes sense, as it’s around the corner from Panmure’s main drag, Queens Road.

The library is a bit like the Panmure Basin, huge and full of interest, with still waters running deep. Even the approach is fascinating. Queens Road must originally have been just like any flat white shopping area but now offers delights as diverse as WHOLE PIGS (in a prominent possie at the corner), Luksha Kiwi Mart (For Your Taste and Quality Spices), Sonam’s Video (Home of Indian Entertainment), Sri Puteri’s Malaysian Mamak Flavours (Ice Kakang and Ice Cream), and Tres Marias — Three Marys? — Trading (Importers of Filipino Products).

As we strolled, we saw lots of cars parked in Queens Road but, strangely, few people. Two ardent men, laying hands on a third as they invoked the Lord Jesus, made the greatest impression.

A “spacious city library”
The library at Panmure must have dipped into the same paint pots as its sister at Point Chevalier — the colour scheme of coral, lime green and grey is identical. Both buildings were purpose-built and date back to the late 1980s, but Panmure’s coat of paint may be more recent, as it looks more vibrant, not worn at the elbows or frayed at the edges. 

Tongan books, there for the taking.

Panmure’s library is much larger than the Point Chev facility, whose scale probably befits a seaside suburb. If you view Panmure as ‘just another suburb’ that may seem strange, but this building was designed as the “spacious city library” (says the poster in the foyer) of the brand-new Tamaki City, which formed in 1987 from the amalgamated Mount Wellington and Otahuhu boroughs. It includes room for council activities: even today, the Tamaki–Maungakiekie Local Board meets in another part of the building.   

This library also seems more spacious than the current Manukau City Centre and Research libraries, which I presume have operated as the hub of the former Manukau City’s 16-library structure. What’s more, Tamaki City ran for just two years before Auckland (with its own city library) swallowed it up in the 1989 amalgamations. That’s okay, though, because a bigger fish came along and ate Auckland so now we’re all fins (and gills, scales, gut and tail, etc) together; all part of the same politically modified sea-creature. 

A place for play at Mount Wellington Library.
Becoming a Blended Family
The Auckland region’s public libraries have been becoming a blended family for a long time — since before the supercity took shape — but the various concentrations of resources must still do their managers’ heads in, especially considering that library buildings are less easily picked up, moved and plonked down than happened with Point Chev back in the 1920s.

The great thing is that all of us can use Panmure Public Library, or any other in Auckland, even without going there. It just happens that I had more fun crossing the city to call in than I would simply picking up a Panmure book from my Avondale branch. 

I’ve been trying not to have favourites, yet Panmure may be my best library visit so far. Nothing hangs heavy in this place. Nobody dominates. There’s plenty of thinking space, play and work space — even a “Quiet Reading Room”, which may sound old-fashioned, but it’s in use. The public noticeboards are extensive. 

It’s not all about the space, however. The great posters must come from some central marketing department of the libraries, as I’ve seen some elsewhere; otherwise the displays are APOW (all Panmure’s own work), with good use of colour and some well chosen books. One, complete with wheelbarrow, features the “King of the Mountain” event scheduled for Mount Wellington in May.

A display for Mount Wellington’s “King of
the Mountain” event. (Photo: Carol Bartlett)
The notices that booksellers call shelf-talkers reveal a keen sense of humour, with “Mini-Me” recommending short stories, “Gollum” fantasy and “Freddy Krueger” horror. Two weeks before the school holidays, there was already a poster announcing kids’ library activities for the duration. 

This place, I can see, is used by all sections of the community, which is not an affluent one. An Akozone Homework Centre operates here, and with library help some of its participants solved a local crime that they witnessed outside, late last year. 

Mount Wellington’s Mystery of the Aztec Deity
Of course, nobody’s perfect, and if I struggled it was in finding local stuff to borrow from this local library. The ‘local history’ section put in a plug for the Panmure Historical Society but most of its books were from around New Zealand and the heritage trail on the wall was Mount Albert’s, though Panmure pamphlets were also available. Mt Wellington: 100 Progressive Years, for which the online catalogue mysteriously lists the Aztec deity Quetzalcoatl as a subject, is only at the Central Auckland library (for reference only) and Takapuna (a lending copy).

It pays to ask. When I did, a man behind the desk was able to issue me an apparently “reference only” copy of another local book for a couple of days, and he offered more than once to order the first for me. When the only operational catalogue-dedicated computer was in use, he obligingly set Carol up with one at a librarian’s desk.

Ah, the public library: long may it mark the land and enlarge our minds — even as long as Maungarei, the watchful mountain.

One of the quiet corners of the library.

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