Monday, 29 August 2011

Mangere — Scratching the Surface

What does Ms Average Aucklander (whoever she is) know about Mangere? That it’s home to the airport and the sewage works, major chunks of regional infrastructure that she frequently uses but seldom considers. And she’s probably seen Mangere Mountain, one of those familiar volcanic bumps on Auckland’s landscape. Finally, she’s heard tell of “social problems”, though she’d be hard pressed to give details or facts.

At the Mangere Town Centre library (photo:
Carol Bartlett, with subjects’ permission).

Recently I spent a day in Mangere’s company and just managed to scratch the surface, though I came away with impressions that will last — and I plan to go back. Of the three parts of South Auckland with Mangere in their name I’ve visited only the town centre, but Mangere East and Mangere Bridge have public libraries too, so they’re two (of many) reasons to return. Meanwhile, I’ve been reading about the area, and making virtual visits there on the web.

Big Men of Mangere 
Some of the streets near the airport are named after people and planes in aviation history. The one leading to the public library, Bader Drive, purportedly commemorates Englishman Douglas Bader, who lost his legs in a flying accident but went on to earn numerous honours in World War Two.*

Another local thoroughfare, Massey Road, commemorates a man who lived there. William Ferguson Massey, the prime minister whose name is also attached to the last part of Auckland I visited for this blog, began his parliamentary career in West Auckland in 1894 but represented his home ground of “Franklin” — including Mangere — from 1896 until he died in 1925. Half a century later the same street would be home to another Mangere MP and prime minister, David Lange.

Boxer David Tua, in A. Robson’s painting
on the town centre library wall.
Lange and ‘Farmer Bill’ Massey were both big men, physically as well as figuratively, but it’s a third local ‘big man’, boxer David Tua, whose portrait is up on the wall at the Mangere Town Centre library. Tua may be better known among the people who were at the library the day Carol and I visited, too: he’s closer to their age, he’s still standing (though his August 13 boxing opponent got the better of him), and he shares the same Samoan heritage as some.

The library is at the back of the Mangere shopping centre, which had plenty to divert us. When we drove into the carpark at about 10.30am the Saturday market was in full swing, excelling in super-fresh fruit and vegetables. We paid $3.00 for bananas, mandarins and pears that would cost twice as much even at Pak ’n Save.

Pacific Islands Central
Most vendors and shoppers at this outdoor market were Pacific Islanders, in keeping with Mangere’s majority PI population (62% at the 2006 census), and several stalls featured bundles of rolled leaves that are used in cooking across the Pacific. I thought they were banana leaves but Mr Me‘a Kai, Robert Oliver, replying to my Facebook query instantly from his current base in Shanghai, told me they were taro leaves, which have different names in the various Island languages. 

Taro leaves and more at the Mangere Market.
Samoan cuisine uses these in what Robert’s award-winning South Pacific cookbook Me‘a Kai describes as “probably the best-known green vegetable dish from the Pacific region: palusami — a custardy concoction of young taro leaves baked with rich coconut cream”. Only the young leaves can be used because taro leaves are rich in oxalate, an irritant.**

From the market we made our way into the shopping complex, which opened to fanfare in 1971. A special edition of the South Auckland Courier back then said that this, a government initiative to complement state housing, had “taken part of downtown Auckland and transported it to Mangere”. National retail chains had stores there, though The Changing Face of Mangere and a 2010 report to the Manukau City Council*** record how this has changed. Smaller shops have taken over.

Dancers, backed by a Pacific
drummer. (Photo: Carol Bartlett)
Young audience members do
some drumming of their own.
Arriving in the courtyard at the centre of the complex, we joined a crowd that had gathered to watch a free drum and dance performance, then resumed our search for the elusive library. When we found it, it looked on the outside like a poor relation to the flash new arts centre opposite, but inside it was buzzing — more than could be said just then for the arts centre, though it’s since been the venue for a highly successful Pacific musical about the migration experience.

The Anatomy of a Library
A fascinating fact about the town centre library is that almost all the people using it (while we were there, anyway) were teenagers. It’s hardly surprising that Mangere has a youthful population as well as one that’s rich in Pacific heritage: well over a third of locals are under 20 years old (39% in the 2006 census). 

A selection of Bibles at Dewey decimal number 220.5994,
and an interesting blend of fiction genres.
A staff member confirmed to Carol that teens are a perpetual presence at this library. Free internet access is understandably a drawcard but so, apparently, are the books, which many must use on site — their parents won’t let them borrow library books for fear of accumulating overdue fines.

Scanning the shelves, I saw what seemed like more than the usual proportion of practical-looking self-development books — and in no other library have I seen so many bibles in so many languages, let alone a repair manual face out on display (though a number of libraries have these books by Graham Dixon, and Auckland Libraries pride themselves on their collections of car manuals).

Fiction also puts in an appearance. The Mangere Town Centre library is the only one I’ve seen with a display promoting large print books, and the sign pointing to ‘western and science fiction’ created a pairing I found so unlikely that I photographed it — only to learn that the Cowboys and Aliens movie was scheduled for release. Local reviews I’ve seen of this Daniel CraigHarrison Ford combo haven’t been great, but the Prague Post declares that it works “pretty well”.

An Encounter with the Volcano Deity
We left the town centre to drive to Otuataua Stonefields. On today’s maps this 100 hectare park is in Mangere but its neighbourhood on the shores of the Manukau Harbour is named Ihumatao. The latter means, at face value, “cold nose”. Reading further (as I have no kui or koro — elder/grandparent — to tell me these things) I discovered it refers to the nose of Mataaho or Mataoho, an Auckland volcano deity. 

Mataaho must have been busy: a new guidebook, Volcanoes of Auckland, counts 50 volcanoes dotted around our isthmus. The one named for his nose (more widely known as Maungataketake or Elletts Mountain) is three kilometres from the airport, but Mataaho bestowed his name on other landmarks too. 

Scene at Otuataua Stonefields.
The Ihumatao area alone has seen (sniffed?) plenty of volcanic activity, and not just courtesy of Mataaho’s nose. The eruptions of Otuataua and other volcanoes tens of thousands of years ago resulted in large amounts of basalt and scoria — hence the Otuataua Stonefields. 

Much of the stone has been quarried in recent years but before that, gardeners and farmers made the most of it: Maori traditionally used it to mark boundaries, create windbreaks and warm the fertile soil for crops of tropical taro and kumara; later, drystone walls divided up the Pakeha-owned farms there.

Volcanoes of Auckland seems to be what it says on the cover, “The Essential Guide”, and I’m likely to refer to it on future trips. Initially I questioned the need for this September 2011 publication by Bruce Hayward, Graeme Murdoch and Gordon Maitland, as Lava and Strata: A Guide to the Volcanoes and Rock Formations of Auckland was published only in 2000. Apparently, though, geologists are learning new things all the time about these very old (in human terms) landmarks.

Unsurprisingly, Volcanoes of Auckland has numerous references to Otuataua Stonefields. I’m also finding it more informative and easier to use than its predecessor: its text is more extensive; it looks more closely at human relationships with volcanoes; and it works for the general reader both by providing an index and grouping volcanoes in north, south, east and west Auckland.

Ihumatao Quarry Rd leads to the stonefields,
10 minutes from Auckland International Airport.
Flesh on the Bones of the Land
The stonefields are just 10 minutes’ drive from the airport; 13 minutes from the library. These days they appear desolate, beautifully so.

Anyone visiting may want this book, together with other information and advice — such as the request of Te Wai o Hua (local Maori people) that we avoid walking on top of Puketapapa/Pukeiti; the exact location of this cone; and that it’s the smallest remaining in the Auckland Volcanic Field. A heritage centre proposed for the stonefields will no doubt help more of us to recognise the flesh on the bones of this land.

We might learn about the centuries-long occupation of Ihumatao that continues to this day, a refusal to swear allegiance to Queen Victoria, the breaking of the waka. About the lava caves with their fragile skins, the dumping of rubbish in a sacred place, the removal of human bones by children. About the baches once made from car cases, the fossil forest that emerges at low tide, the endangered native cucumber plant that clings on in the stonefields. About the confiscations, the Bolt that split the Rennie farm in two, what happened once the heritage people came.

And that’s only scratching the surface of Ihumatao, of Mangere. 

Afterword: Auckland Libraries has a wonderful timeline of local history, The Journey, compiled by the then Manukau City Libraries and online at Searching with the key word “confiscation”, for instance, you can find out about the breaking of the waka (canoes) and which Maori land was confiscated in Mangere.

* Biographical information about Bader is available to Auckland Libraries members through the Digital Library in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

** Statement of interest: I edited M‘ea Kai

Gateway at the stonefields, looking
towards Manukau shoreline.


  1. Lovely blog as always .... I had to check to see whether we have more Pacific languages Bibles but no I think you're right Mangere has an impressive collection.

    I'm sorry to see that teenagers might not be taking books home because of overdues. Spread the good news there are no overdue fines on most childrens and teen books.

  2. Have you tried any recipes with taro leaves since your visit to the market?

  3. Thank you, Mark. Good point about overdues. Perhaps it’s about losing books altogether as they get passed around the family. But looking on the bright side, people DO come in to the library.

    Lindy, no: sadly the favourite ways of cooking taro leaves seem to be with coconut milk or cream, a rich food I’m trying to avoid these days!

  4. what a fantastic and comprehensive blog entry! so well researched, and it shares the vibrant 'flavour' of Mangere well :)

  5. Your appreciation is appreciated, Kelly M. I've worked out that posting once a week is not entirely realistic for me, but perhaps the depth and range of coverage will make up for that.

  6. This blog makes me wish you do a nation-wide library tour...

  7. Nice words, thank you, Emma. I strongly recommend Emma Neale’s latest blog post: