Changes and challenges for Mt Eden

By Andre Hueber


Auckland landmarks are pointed out to us as we whiz silently up Mt Eden on an electric shuttle.

'The crater is the food bowl for Mataaho, the god of volcanoes," our guide Tracy Davis tells us as we reach the summit.

"In the past, Maori paid homage by giving seasonal gifts of food ... it was a place of ceremony. Around 7000 people lived on the mountain at one stage. They moved to One Tree Hill in 1740 to keep the land sustainable."

He explains how, in recent decades, people dumped cars and junk into the sacred volcanic cone, and scrawled obscenities on the large stones at the bottom.

Mr Davis is one of the Tamaki Hikoi guides who are tasked with changing the face of Mt Eden, the Maunga.

Their service - part of a year-long Auckland Council trial - takes visitors to the summit on guided tours up to 20 times a day.

As we walk towards a large ancient kumara pit, he stops to pick up rubbish.

The mountain has been reclassified as a regional park and will soon be owned - along with 17 other volcanic cones - by the Tamaki Collective.

The collective, encompassing 13 iwi, is expected to sign a final deed of settlement in its treaty negotiations with the Crown.

That will see a new governance body responsible for the cones - encompassing six members of the collective, six members of Auckland Council and a Crown observer. Tour buses have long clogged the summit of New Zealand's most popular tourist destination but since December have had to park halfway down the hill. Mr Davis says 80 per cent of bus visitors walk to the top but some tour companies now give the journey a miss.

Inbound Tour Operators' Council chief executive Lesley Immink says the new rules about driving up the summit have even led to some tours avoiding Auckland altogether.

"Auckland is losing bed nights, it's a poorly executed plan."

She says when the summit was full of buses it gave the area a "buzz".

"The ambience and experience used to be a lot better. People used to think 'it must be so exciting because there's so many people here'. Now there's hardly anybody." Even the cows are gone, having been sent off to other pastures in 2009.

MOUNTAIN TO CLIMB

But Kit Howden, chair of Friends of Maungawhau, says the commentary now being given by the Tamaki Hikoi guides on their electric shuttles is opening people's eyes to the site's rich history.

"In the past it's been used as a recreational area where anything goes - from mountain bikes on the kumara pits to anti-tank guns pointed at the Sky Tower.

"Tamaki Hikoi are getting the message through it's a heritage site and needs to be protected."

Mr Howden says if the new model continues it will improve the whole infrastructure of the mountain.

Auckland Council manager of regional and specialist parks, Mace Ward, says iwi made it clear the site's cultural identity wasn't being respected.

"We've taken a number of bites to rectify that. The first was getting buses off, the second is providing more shared pedestrian space (footpaths and traffic calming) and the third is providing signage and interpretation."

He says the signs - a work in progress - will help people change their behaviour.

"People will learn it's like the European equivalent of a cathedral and you don't do certain things."

RESIDENTS ON SIDE

Mr Ward says local residents now enjoy walking up the road without buses getting in the way and visitors who do go on buses enjoy walking the final 250m to the top.

He believes the site could become an even richer experience for tourists but says the council is reluctant to "steamroll" ahead without consulting the community, tour operators and the maunga's new guardians.

Peter Haynes, Albert Eden Local Board chairman, says his role over the past 18 months has made him realise the significance of Mt Eden to iwi.

"Aucklanders have always taken the cones for granted, despite them being what makes Auckland unique in the world.

"A great example was when I was growing up in the mid 60s when the local borough council came up with a plan to build an artificial ski slope on the side of Mount Wellington. Of course we thought it was a splendid idea.

"In 2010 people were still gleefully cutting trenches through kumara pits on Mount Wellington/Maungarei. It exemplified the continued cavalier disregard for cones by many Aucklanders." But, he says, "people are waking up."

Tamaki Collective spokesperson Paul Majurey has previously told the Herald the the group has an "inter-generational duty to protect the tupuna maunga (ancestral mountains)" and that process has begun. Mr Majurey has said the aim - ultimately - is to repair some of the damage from a long council history of neglect and ultimately have the maunga made a World Heritage Site.

CONE LEGACY

When Auckland was founded in 1840, 38 cones had intact scoria cones.By 2010, 24 have had their cones removed or sliced away. Only Browns and Rangitoto islands have untouched cones. (Source: Volcanoes of Auckland - The Essential Guide by Bruce Hayward, Graeme Murdoch and Gordon Maitland.)

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