Walking in history
Last Sunday Skyler, Muzzlehatch and I drove north through the slowly gentrifying railway town of Helensville, crossed the invisible remains of the Glorit Line, the quixotic attempt to protect 1940s Auckland from a Japanese invasion that never came, and turned left down Taporapora, the hammerhead shark-shaped peninsula that divides the northern and the southern stretches of the Kaipara Harbour. Tucked away in a northeastern corner of the isthmus is Atiu Creek Farm Park, one of the newest provinces in the empire known as the Auckland Regional Council.
Unlike most other ARC properties, Atiu Creek was not bought by government: its owners, the Anglo-Swiss-Kiwi Chatelanat family, have gifted the farm to the people of New Zealand, on the condition that family members be able to continue to live and work on it. The Chatelanats have been adding their labour to the soil of Atiu Creek Farm for more than half a century, running large herds of sheep and cattle and growing crops in the odd paddock. Senior members of the family have long been determined to protect their paradise from the depredations of subdividers and golfers. Working in concert with ARC planners, local historians, archaeologists, and members of the tangata whenua, the Chatelanats have created a park which should be a model for others the length and breadth of the country.
Atiu Creek Farm is beautiful - it sits on rolling hills adorned with groves regenerating native bush and windbreaks made of massive poplars and oaks, and it is bordered on three sides by a lake-like arm of the Kaipara. It's not only scenery, though, which commends the park: the Chatelanats and their allies have done an exceptional job of preserving and presenting the human history of Atiu.
Ancient and nineteenth century Maori archaeological sites have been carefully fenced off, and described in signs and leaflets. Tracks take visitors to the site of two ancient pa, where members of the Te Uri o Hau iwi (close relatives of Auckland's Ngati Whatua people) would defend the strategic Opou portage route, which connected north and south Kaipara. The names of various parts of the property remember the mighty dead: the little stretch of coast called Solomon's Bay, for instance, celebrates the mana of a local chief who led his people against Hongi Hika's Nga Puhi invaders during the epic battle at nearby Kaiwaka in 1825, during the height of the Musket Wars. Four new wooden pou symbolise the mana whenua that Te Uri o Hau still exercise over Atiu Creek.
The more recent history of Atiu Creek has not been neglected. A late nineteenth century European camp is remembered, along with an old oyster farm that still leaves its mark on the coastline. What is perhaps most notable about the park, though, is the attention that it gives to the cultural history of the dairy and sheep farming operations that have prevailed on the property for the past hundred years. It is now common to see the ARC and organisations like the Department of Conservation give space to the ancient and nineteenth century history of their lands, but less common to see the more recent past get its due. At Atiu Creek, though, there are detailed and fascinating displays about the day to day lives of the workers who made the farm into a profitable enterprise, and the culture that these workers developed.
On a wall of Atiu's huge woolshed, which is built in a central European style very unusual on New Zealand farms, a map shows the sometimes-bizarre, sometimes-droll names of the many paddocks of the property, and explains the stories behind them. In odd corners of the farm, signs tell the stories of the men and women who broke in and worked the land. One sign, for instance, commemorates 'Irish Jack', who liked to wander the property playing the bagpipes, and insisted on building fences in a perfectly straight line, no matter what terrain he encountered. Other signs give clues about the role Maori played as labourers working the land their hapu had once owned, and explain the Chatelanats' visionary decision in the 1950s to reforest the degraded landscape they had inherited from earlier settler farmers.
Walking through Atiu Creek Farm Park is like reading a very entertaining history book, and it's much better exercise than bookworming, too, as Muzzlehatch and Skyler found out to their discomfort. Only the oysters which I pulled out of the mud at Solomon's Bay sustained Muzzlehatch on the long march back to the car, and during the somewhat shorter drive to the pub at Warkworth.