Tag Archives: wetlands

Fencible life

In the mid-1800s New Zealand was a fledgling British colony. Scattered settlements around the newly established capital of Auckland were vulnerable to attack from certain native Maori tribes and from aspiring French colonists. Retired British soldiers who had already seen at least 15 years active service in other British colonies, particularly India, were recruited to settle in the Auckland region. Their duties were hardly ‘military’: they were to patrol their own settlement and attend church service. There were four such settlements (in Onehunga, Otahuhu, Panmure and Howick) forming a line of defense against attack from the south and east. They were known as Fencibles, meaning simply ‘able to defend’, and being essentially of good character, tradesmen, usually married and in their 40s, they were ideal immigrants – just what the new colony needed. New Zealand offered many of the Fencibles an escape from the squalor of the Industrial Revolution or the despair of the Irish potato famine. Not that getting to New Zealand was easy. In the 1840s a sailing ship took around 100 days to reach Auckland from Britain. Conditions onboard were difficult. Once the excitement of the departure had passed the days at sea must have seemed interminable. Each family’s baggage allowance was limited to a wooden chest, measuring 80cm x 50cm x 45cm.

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Once the families came ashore their hopes were dashed of finding the two-roomed wooden houses (on 2 acres of at least partially cleared land) that they had been promised during recruitment. A tent on the beach was often their first shelter.

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Notice how the pillow (and the mattress) was stuffed with what appears to be twigs. This is mangemange (muehlenbeckia complexa), a native New Zealand plant which is wiry and springy and actually quite comfortable to lie on.

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As soon as possible the fencibles moved into huts made from bundles of raupo – New Zealand swamp reeds.

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Cooking could at least be done inside – the soot-darkened roof is from an open hearth in the centre of the dirt floor. Insects tended to live in the roofing so a sheet was slung over the beds as a sort of ceiling.

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Some of the raupo shanties had a wooden chimney, and although there was sometimes glass in the windows these dwellings must have been miserably cold and damp when it rained. No wonder the Fencible families rebelled: this was not much better that what they had left in Britain.

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An earth-sod cottage, with wooden chimney and fireplace for cooking

Gradually the wooden cottages were built and the scrub land was cleared. Sometimes larger, two-family cottages were built right on the boundary of two plots of land: a thin partition divided the cottage in half but provided scant privacy for anything above a whisper. At last though they had a brick fireplace, real beds and the chance to paper over drafty cracks in the walls with newspapers, pages from ‘The Illustrated London News” and even wallpaper.

 100B2786 A 2-family cottage

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layers of wallpaper and newspaper covered the walls (on the right)

100B2799 a long-drop toilet

In spite of the hardships the Fencible families generally flourished and real communities formed. Between 1847 and 1852 around 2,500 men, women and children were brought to New Zealand with this scheme. After seven years their cottage and land became their own property. Many of the families stayed in the  area and contributed greatly to Auckland’s growth and development.

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The Fencible and early settler period is brought to life at Howick Historical Village in east Auckland. The open-air museum was established by bringing together on one site buildings from Howick and Panmure’s Fencible period. All the photos in this article were taken at the village. As well as furnished dwellings, other buildings include a school, a courthouse, a pub, a church (where weddings are held) and a blacksmith’s forge. www.fencible.org.nz

Maria O’Leary, the wife Captain Robert Hattaway, one of the Howick Fencibles, planted these macracarpa trees on their farmland in the 1850s.

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The trees are now within the Cascades Reserve, a wetland area crossed by the Pakuranga Stream and Wakaaranga Creek, and adjoining the Howick Historical Village site. The waterways and their catchment area are currently being revitalized by Landcare Trust through a public awareness and environmental education campaign called ‘Volcano to Sea’. www.landcare.org.nz

100B2739  This track, paved with volcanic rock slabs from nearby Pigeon Mountain-O Huiarangi crossed the reserve, It was constructed by pioneer farmers in the 1840s.

A new life for an old quarry

East Auckland’s Mount Wellington – or Maungarei, to use its original Maori name – is an extinct volcano, the youngest on-shore one in the region’s volcanic field. It last erupted 9- or 10,000 years ago and although ‘Maungarei’ means ‘the watchful mountain’ in Maori, it isn’t expected to erupt again anytime soon. Although, like most of Auckland’s volcanic cones, it’s called a Mount, it’s only 350 metres high. When Maori settled in the area around 600 years ago, they built a fortified pa on it and their vegetables flourished in the rich volcanic soil.

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The northern slopes of Maungarei-Mount Wellington, as seen from the wetlands, with part of the quarry rock face on the right.

The lava flow to the north of Maungarei was quarried for bluestone (basalt) from 1936 to 2001. Over 18 million cubic metres of rock were extracted from a 220 acre area, providing a large part of the building stone for Auckland and further afield.

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This feature wall in the nearby Speight’s Ale House  show old time quarrying in progress.

In 2001 there are any number of things to do with the decommissioned quarry, from total abandonment to lining it with a supposedly watertight material and using it as a rubbish dump. In fact, the latter solution was put forward but the project foundered and the site has now become an attractive wetlands nature reserve.

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A pukeko crosses the boardwalk.

A natural spring at the edge of the quarried area provides a series of small lakes which are home to pukeko, ducks, swans and water fowl, while tui and fantail love the flax flowers in the landscaped slopes surrounding the lakes.

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The reserve is landscaped with native plants including these flax and grasses

The reserve is a real asset to the residents of adjoining Stonefields: it provides a very welcome outdoor escape from some of the rather compact townhouse dwellings. A picnic area, grassy paths and boardwalks around the lakes make this a pleasant place to relax.

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Give me the joys and challenges of living in Ventimiglia Alta any day, but the residents of Stonefields are no doubt happy to have this peaceful reserve nearby instead of a rubbish dump!

Pukeko versatility

Daytime sightings of New Zealand’s iconic bird, the kiwi, are extremely rare and although it is a nocturnal creature, encounters after dark seldom happen either. It is hardly surprising then that another native bird – one that is colourful and quirky and easily spotted – has been happily adopted as a sort of all-purpose mascot. The pukeko, or (less glamorously) the purple swamp hen, inhabits wetlands and grassy areas.

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Its feathers are gorgeous shades of blue and silky black, with a white tuft under its tail feathers. It struts jauntily about on sturdy red legs and has a distinctive red beak. Unlike the flightless kiwi, the pukeko can fly, although its takeoff and landing tend to be rather clumsy.

Over the last 15-20 years the pukeko has appeared increasingly in decorative and souvenir versions: everything from fridge magnets to paintings to quite bizarre garden décor.

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Take your pick in any gardening shop throughout the country. Notice how the pukeko on the bicycle is wearing gumboots like any true “kiwi” New Zealander. But also notice that this poor pukeko has “knees” (its legs bend like a human leg) whereas real pukeko have “elbows” in their legs – their legs are jointed like human arms. Prices are in New Zealand dollars – NZ$10.00 = €6.00

100B2527 Fridge magnets are fun.

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Garden pukeko in all sizes, from a small bowl of succulents to life size.

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This pukeko family came to Dad’s garden about 15 years ago, carefully hand crafted in Taranaki. They’ve kept their colour amazingly well.

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At this time of year a pukeko may even sport a Santa hat and a beakful of tinsel.