Saturday, 10 March 2012

Catching the Bus to WHY-car-whyyy

The Waikowhai bus is part of the fabric of Auckland, and those who rode it together as adolescents include Mark Greatbatch (cricketer), Russell Crowe (gladiator) and Simon Prast (Gloss-ster and theatrical type). But even though I’ve seen many buses bound for Waikowhai during my lifetime, until a few weeks ago I hadn’t a clue where it was.

The name is Wai meaning water, Kowhai as in the yellow-flowering tree. It’s long been said WHY-car-whyyy in our drawn-out New Zealand English, so when I heard it pronounced in the Maori way, I didn’t link it with the Waikowhai bus — or yet know where it was. Why-CORE-fi, said my physio, a Pakeha enunciating the Maori simply, beautifully, unselfconsciously: My husband is the principal at Waikowhai Intermediate.

Kowhai motif.
Outside the library.
Green Belt and Bible Belt
The renovated Mount Roskill Public Library boasts a new kowhai-flower motif and shiny green paint. Both are superficial and easy to slap on, but when I heard that they symbolised the nearby green belt extending to the Manukau Harbour, a light went on in my mind.

Wai-kowhai: it’s the place of the green belt, the bus, and my physio’s husband’s school. The suburb that hangs out with Lynfield, Three Kings, Hillsborough, Mount Roskill and somewhere called Wesley. Together they constitute what I’ll call Greater Mount Roskill, a borough from 1940 to the first big Auckland amalgamation of 1989.

Keith Hay’s Mt Roskill erection.
It's illuminated at night during
major Christian festivals.
I prefer the flexible fit of a green belt to the restrictions and strictures of a bible belt, but it’s as the latter that Mount Roskill has been best known. The influence of local housing magnates Keith Hay (Keith Hay Homes) and Bill Subritzky (Universal Homes) may have had something to do with that.

As mayor for 21 years, Hay had a gigantic cross erected on top of a volcano, distributed copies of the Ten Commandments to local schools and described churches as “the heart of the community”. (His son also became a Mount Roskill mayor before, as Auckland’s deputy mayor, opposing the city’s gay paraders and other habitués of the immoral demi-monde.) 

Subritzky, influential in church, business and local politics, gave a Bible to everyone who bought a Universal Home. In the borough’s penultimate year Mount Roskill had New Zealand’s highest number of churches per head.  

The demographics have changed over the years, and Mount Roskill is now home to people of diverse faiths, including many Muslims. But Hay’s cross still has its home on top of the extinct volcano.

Multicultural Mt Roskill (Stoddard Road).
The Auckland Council has adopted this landmark’s Maori name, Puketapapa, for the diverse area that the local community board covers. Perhaps “Puketapapa” will eventually become as well known as Maungawhau (Mt Eden), Maungakiekie (One Tree Hill) and Owairaka (Mt Albert).

“Flat-topped hill”, its meaning in English, seems apt. The two shallow volcanic craters created thousands of years ago must have given the mound a flattish look, but since the early 1960s, when a water reservoir took the place of 25,000 cubic metres of scoria, it’s been flatter still.

People find various ways to explain the most widely used name for the volcano, “Mount Roskill”. One appealing idea, if only because it loops neatly through the “bible belt” identity, is that it commemorates the peripatetic nineteenth-century evangelist John Roskill, who held services there and later committed suicide. Perhaps most appealing to those mischievously inclined is “Mount Rascal”, briefly bestowed in the 1840s. A variation of that gets an airing in Toa Fraser’s wonderful 2006 film set in the area, No 2. 

Local volcanic rock features around the grounds of Three
Kings School, including in walls that relief workers
built during the Depression of the 1930s.
The Volcano Belt
From the top of Puketapapa/Mount Roskill you can see several other volcanic landmarks. The nearest — Great King or Big King, depending on who you read — is the sole survivor of the original “Three Kings”, a single volcano whose major cones were actually five in number, according to Volcanoes of Auckland. An early Maori name (for the survivor or the trio, again depending on who you read) is Te Tatua o Mataaho, referring to yet another belt or girdle: that of the volcano deity Mataaho. (He popped up previously in another post,
Mangere: Scratching the Surface.)

Commercial quarrying at Three Kings probably began in the 1910s and was quick to diminish the crowning glory of two — their cones. A local history, Not Just Passing Through, records that a local man was surprised one day in the 1920s “to see Mt Eden appear over the far side of what had previously been a vista of the Southern King”.

Thus continued the destruction of what Volcanoes of Auckland describes as “probably the most complex” volcano in the 50-strong Auckland field. Lava from the Three Kings eruptions nearly 30,000 years ago had flowed several kilometres, as far as Western Springs, and created “some of Auckland’s most accessible lava caves”. These remain (albeit on private land): tours of one called Stewarts Cave are a fixture on the University of Auckland’s continuing education programme.

As well as forming the dry-stone walls we’re accustomed to seeing around Three Kings, local scoria was once used less visibly in road-making. It was a key component of Winstone Aggregates’ “Roskill Stone”, a coloured building material, and is sold as a drainage material today. Winstone is still emptying the area, though the remaining cone is protected.

Looking for answers
at the Mt Roskill library.
A Complex Arrangement
The library complex that so vividly portrays Mount Roskill’s green belt also addresses its volcanic heritage, in orange and brown (fortunately some distance from the green). I say “complex” because this council-run building on Mount Albert Road is a bit like the Three Kings volcano, though it does remain intact.

It’s called the Fickling Centre, after another local mayor, and as well as the library it offers various community meeting rooms. My first encounter with the building was in a long-ago (and mercifully brief) incarnation as a recruit for Amway.

 Those who use it today range from music groups and service clubs to Secret Place Ministries, whose Pursuit Church pastors Ray and Pam encourage “intimate encounter with the Lord”, which “often includes times of ...soaking in His presence”. Perhaps worshippers leave their chastity belts and rings at the door?

Anyway, the building has undergone a $2 million refurbishment. This was probably needed, given that it was once unkindly described as “an anonymous block in a darkened corner of the downscale shopping centre that passes for the heart of Mt Roskill” (Alistair Bone, New Zealand Listener).

In the audience at the Fickling Centre
reopening ceremony.
About 90 people gathered for the council’s reopening ceremony and to hear the ubiquitous speeches — quite difficult when the steel-clad air conditioning along the length of the room contributed its thunderous roar. From across the lane, Club Physical’s blaring fervour also made its presence felt, like a hyped and miked Christian revival meeting. We were in Noise City.

I did hear the big boss of Auckland Libraries, Allison Dobbie, say that the refurbished library offers “quiet zones, which have become so important” (alluding no doubt to a recent hullabaloo arising at the St Heliers branch). When she pointed out the symbolism in the design, she meant the colour scheme and kowhai and not the aircon, but it was easy to drift into a reverie about just what the latter might symbolise.

 Something — the Fickling Centre as a whole? — is “a flexible, win-win model for everyone”. Perhaps that comment related to the Citizens Advice Bureau’s new location within the library, which seems to make the CAB people very happy. 

Advice and guidance,
in alphabetical order.
Their speech-giver told a tale I’ve since found in Not Just Passing Through, of the then mayor Dick Fickling turning up unannounced at a meeting about forming a CAB: “Turning off the lights mid-meeting, he regaled attendees with his opinion that when people were looking for advice and guidance, the family was the place to go for it.”  

Well, now the Mount Roskill library is the (or a) place to go for advice and guidance. That has probably been the case since long before the CAB moved in, perhaps from the library’s opening in 1977 — during Fickling’s mayoralty. And of course, the library can be with you always, even once you’ve left the building. “I sat home and read,” Roskill-raised writer Tze Ming Mok once said of her upbringing: “I sometimes say I was raised by the Mount Roskill Public Library.”

Mangere Mountain from Waikowhai Park.
My preferred Secret Place, Waikowhai,
on the Manukau Harbour.
Postscript: Arriving at Waikowhai
I did arrive at Waikowhai, eventually, though I went by car rather than bus. It’s one of Auckland’s hidden treasures, with extensive parkland going down to the sea. 

Where there are homes, you’d expect them to be mansions, given the million-dollar views. Most of them aren’t. The proximity of the rubbish tip and the Mangere sewage ponds put paid to that idea.

Waikowhai tip has disappeared now, there’s regenerating bush, and the sewage works have been replaced by a leaner operation which, rather than being meaner, is much more environmentally kind. You can gather shellfish again from the local shores, though according to Not Just Passing Through, leachate from the old tip continues to pollute Faulkner Bay.

Naturally, the area is rich. I look forward to learning more about the geology and the relatively recent fossils of Wesley Bay. And I want to know what’s so special about nearby Lynfield that Dr Willy Kuschel looked at beetles there for 15 years, producing a study that became world famous.  


The staff workroom has moved elsewhere to
create this open-plan public quiet zone in the library.
Library Facts and Figures
  • Within the old Auckland City’s 17-library system, Mount Roskill’s was the busiest branch — second only to the Central Library. In the 55-library system it still bustles more than many.
  • The recent library refurbishment has added 120 square metres, community rooms and unofficial quiet zones. The colour scheme is lighter and brighter. Window views previously sealed off from the public are now accessible to all.
  • The Mount Roskill library previously underwent extension in 1995 and major renovation in 2002.

Mt Roskill Public Library children’s section.
Interesting Reading
The major source for this post was Jade Reidy’s Not Just Passing Through: The Making of Mt Roskill. A book by Bruce Hayward et al, Volcanoes of Auckland: The Essential Guide, also helped.

Heartlands’ by Philip Matthews (New Zealand Listener, Feb 11, 2006) reviews No 2 and reflects on Mount Roskill’s “ethnic-melting-pot quality”, something this post has failed to do. Tze Ming Mok’s prize-winning essay ‘Race You There’ (Landfall 208, Nov 2004) does this too, as a starting point for her wider reflections on multiculturalism.

Historian Lisa Truttman’s recent Timespanner blog post ‘Wanderings at Three Kings’ offers observations on the Fickling Centre reopening, with photos, and other insights. At least one other post discusses the new Mt Roskill Historical Society.


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