Monday, 26 December 2011

Hard Bittern: A Tale of Manurewa

Bing Dawe’s Australasian bittern weathervane, shown at Auckland
Botanic Gardens in Manurewa,is part of his Watching out for
St Francis
series at the Sculpture in the Gardens exhibition.

Photo courtesy of Jane Sanders, ART Agent.
Manurewa means “soaring bird” to people whose appreciation of Maori language involves translating it into English. To others it means “drifting kite”. Birds and kites both feature in old stories about this part of South Auckland.

In the 1930s a Pakeha ethnographer and collector, George Graham, recounted “Nga Matukurua — The Two Bitterns” before an audience at the Auckland Museum’s Anthropological Section. This “Tale of Manurewa” was about twin pre-European pa, fortified villages on two neighbouring volcanic mounds. 

During Pakeha settlement these became known as McLaughlin’s and Wiri mountains but now they are known hardly at all, as my kind has spent decades erasing them. McLaughlin’s, about 10km from the Manurewa town centre, strikes me as a misplaced Mayan construction covered in grass, though in an Auckland Libraries anthology, poet Tony Beyer sees it as a temple from ancient Mesopotamia:

mclaughlin’s gashed hill
tiered into a ziggurat
by quarryings

Scoria from Wiri Mountain made railway ballast “all the way south to Ohakune”, according to Volcanoes of Auckland. This one-time landmark has kept only its lower northern slopes, incorporating “the best lava cave in New Zealand” plus, where a 60-metre-high scoria cone once stood, “a large lake-filled hole”. The authors have low expectations of its future, predicting it will be “flattened and earmarked for industrial subdivision”.

The Vigilant and the Careless
But let’s get back to the bitterns Graham mentioned. The Te Wai o Hua people’s hill-fort commanders in the late seventeenth century were dubbed Te Matukutureia and Te Matukutururu, respectively the vigilant bittern and the careless one. The careless bittern lost his head and consequently his life when Ngati Whatua warriors captured his pa — his fault, as when war threatened he had gone fishing for eels and fallen asleep (the local equivalent of fiddling while Rome burns). His kinsman on the other hill kept “his sentries ever posted, his pa entrance ways securely closed”, saving his village, his people and “his tatooed head”.

The chiefs’ avian identities settled on the hills: McLaughlin’s Mountain is more eloquently Matukutureia, and its careless neighbour Matukutururu. (That’s according to Manukau’s Journey, an Auckland Libraries e-resource, but some people apply these names the other way around.) 

At the botanic gardens, Manurewa.
These days The Field Guide to the Birds of New Zealand describes the Australasian bittern as a “Protected rare native... Usually solitary and stealthy”. Its favourite hideout is a swamp (or wetland, as we call these shrinking habitats now), but the matuku does fly. The noted artist and ornithologist Don Binney painted one soaring through the sky at Te Henga, West Auckland. In Manurewa, the popular Auckland Botanic Gardens currently feature Bing Dawe’s flying bittern at their Sculpture in the Gardens exhibition, on until February.

An Appropriate Emblem?
Could the bittern be an appropriate emblem for Manurewa today? It’s a suspicious bird (says William Herbert Guthrie-Smith in Bird Life on Island and Shore), and has reason to be: it’s embattled. So is Manurewa, if media portrayals are accurate — a suburb full of streets named Struggle, inhabited by Kiwi battlers.* Stories that have made the news and elicited wider comment are about the murder of a liquor store owner, attacks in bars, the Manurewa Cosmopolitan Club’s refusal to admit a turban-wearing Sikh man, residents’ opposition to a planned prison for men next to the existing women’s facility, concern about state house tenants “let in” to Manurewa, and a suspected drunk driver whose car critically injured two girls on the footpath. 

Doug Ford’s Manurewa murals include this tongue-in-cheek
(he says) portrayal of the fictitious Oh My God Fruitery.
When Manurewa lost South Auckland’s central business district to another ward last year, a councillor said the change “ripped the economic heart of the Manurewa ward”. The Auckland Council’s Manurewa board suggests in its just-published plan that the pre-amalgamation council “failed to show [the] urgency necessary to transform the Manurewa town centre”, a smaller set of shops and services than those in the central business district nearby. 

Earlier in the year, it was high noon in Manurewa for six whole weeks, with both hands of the town clock stopped on 12.  Auckland bureaucrats were held responsible for time standing still.

But the local business association has worked to spruce things up, commissioning mural artist Doug Ford to paint the town. Manurewa is also a semi-finalist for the 2012 national “Community of the Year” Award.

There have been moments of glory, several of them thanks to a man who is now a stern-looking businessman with spectacles and silvering hair. John Walker, a member of the Manurewa Harriers Club in his teens, started running seriously in the early 1970s and didn’t stop until he had completed 135 sub-four-minute miles, 20 years later. Sir John Walker represents Manurewa–Papakura on the council and chairs his Find Your Field of Dreams Foundation, helping South Auckland youth through sport.

Local MP and Prime Minister Bill Massey
unveiled the Manurewa war memorial in 1921.
Other Manurewa moments, commemorated rather than celebrated, came in wars fought elsewhere. An obelisk on the corner of Hill and Great South roads lists First World War fields of battle and locals who died there. This 1921 monument just outside the gates of Manurewa Central School, supplemented by more recent plaques, is reminiscent of war memorials in small towns all over New Zealand.

A Microcosm of the Community
The public library, 30 years old in 2012, is across the road on land that local historian Gwen Wichman says was once the school horse paddock. When we arrived on a Saturday morning, a Chinese woman and her grandchildren were just leaving with a fresh supply of books. We found many more children and teenagers inside, mirroring perhaps the high proportion of young people in Manurewa’s population (29 per cent are younger than 15 years, compared with 22 per cent Auckland-wide).

In one library nook, a pair of jandalled teens at either side of a small table flirted in a manner recognisable from a distance and probably across the millennia, pretending attention to their respective magazine selections while rather more interested in each other. At the far wall, a couple of pony-tailed girls watched over the shoulder of a classmate/brother/boyfriend as he watched something riveting on a computer screen.

Boy and book, Manurewa Public Library
Children of assorted ages engaged in activities communal and solitary at another table. By the bookshelves a small girl clad confidently in fuchsia colours of magenta and pink tried to converse with her browsing father (she’d already chosen her reading). A sneakered boy, cross-legged on the floor, was absorbed in the ROAARR! of the picturebook before him.

All these people seemed to reflect the ethnic diversity of the Manurewa board area, where Maori
and Pacific residents are 57 per cent of the population, and Asian people 15 per cent. The library caters for its community with Hindi and Punjabi collections as well as substantial Maori and Pasefika sections.

The low-roofed library building has a warm, woody atmosphere inside, thanks to sloping ceiling beams, brightly coloured signs and a vibrant mural by Kaiaua artist Tony Johnston. None of South Auckland’s “troubles” was evident when we were there; nor did anything appear to warrant the two — no, three — security officers we saw. They were sociable as well as vigilant, however. 

Above and below: Manurewa Public Library, outside and in.
 I chose two children’s books, Jan Mark’s Museum Book and Keri Smith’s How to Be an Explorer of the World, which I’ve wanted to read ever since it featured in Auckland Libraries’ Top 5 Goodies blog. Carol’s haul included a huge volume featuring photos by Annie Leibovitz. She also indulged her love of English poetry that has regular rhythm and end-of-line rhyme.

The Drifting Kite
However, I wanted to know more about the “drifting kite” of Manurewa. Though the library’s copy of Tamaki-Makaurau: Myths and Legends of Auckland Landmarks doesn’t include that story, the Auckland Museum Library and the South Auckland Research Centre (at Manukau Public Library) both have something that does, George Graham’s “Two Bitterns” lecture.

As well as explaining the Matukurua villages’ names, Graham told of a rivalry there between the brothers Tamapahore and Tamapahure. When Tamapahore’s kite flew better than Tamapahure’s, an incantation by the latter caused Tamapahore’s kite to drift away “to the far off Hauraki horizon”, its owner in pursuit. Manurewa’s full name is therefore “Te Manu-rewa-o-Tamapahore” — the drifted-away kite of Tamapahore.

So is Manurewa soaring bird or drifting kite? The local marae and schools seem to favour the latter but I get the feeling many Pakeha (not Graham) prefer the former. The soaring bird suggests a near-empty landscape, with nothing between us and nature; the kite indicates that people have lived and travelled around the area since long before the Pakeha arrived. 

Manurewa library activities communal and solitary,
literary and otherwise.

The Oxford English Dictionary, available online for Auckland Libraries members, describes a “battler” as “a swagman” and “a word used in Australia and New Zealand in various other shades of meaning... esp. a person struggling against odds.”

The opening lines from Tony Beyer’s poem Matukutururu are copyright and quoted here with his permission. The poem previously appeared in his collection The Century (HeadworX, 1998).

Manurewa population statistics in this post come from the local board plan. 

A typed transcript of the George Graham lecture is at Auckland Museum Library, with a copy at the South Auckland Research Centre.

Another source for this post was Manukau’s Journey, the Auckland Libraries timeline of South Auckland history researched and published by the South Auckland Research Centre, now at Manukau Library.


  1. Simply wonderful. Makes me want to visit the Manurewa library ( and the Botanic gardens. I have always hoped to see a bittern but might have to be content with Bing Dawe's. May we hope for more posts in 2012?

  2. Thank you, Anon, for both visiting and commenting. You may have noticed a slower pace than I originally offered (one visit a week? I don't think so!). But I do plan to continue the Auckland Libraries visits in the new year, with occasional dalliances. I hope you'll join me.