Maori have lived on the Auckland isthmus for hundreds of years, harvesting the abundance of seafood from its harbours and the produce of the land. They established villages and trade routes, pa and industrial scale gardens. Helen van Berkel retraces the steps of our first people.

THE WATERFRONT

HITORI (the backstory):

Hundreds of waka beached on Te Onemaru a Huatau were a common sight long, long before the Northern Motorway cut off the beaches of Freemans Bay from the sea and they became grass reserves.

In Te Too village children played and helped their parents as they dried shark caught at Mangonui, across the sparkling Waitemata, or eels from the Tunamau stream. Reeds from the Wai Kuta that emptied into Wai Atarau were harvested and used in bedding and clothing.

Okaa Pa, sometimes a defensive outpost against marauding tribes from the north - more often a lookout in times of peace for waka plying the portage routes to Kaipara, Paremoremo and Okura - stood proud on its headland. In its line of sight, pa dotted the headlands across and along the Waitemata.

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On the far side of Victoria Park, where Victoria St West levels out beside the park, large drying racks gave the area the name To Koranga, or Scaffolding. The name gives an idea of the scale of the food preparation that went on here. This was a rich resource for early Maori who would spend months here before moving south as the seasons changed.

O NAINAEI (the now):Where warriors once roared their earth-shaking haka at Okaa Pa, children splash in the pools of Pt Erin. Black rubber tyres rumble and screech over the footprints of sandy-soled Maori children. Pampered designer dogs trot above the grooves made by beached craft on Te Onemaru a Huatau. A church now stands on the headland that once sheltered the bustling village of Te Too, the headland itself quarried away to form the new bedrock of Victoria Park's cricket pitches.

Roughly where Maori women once gathered reeds, well-heeled shoppers park their Audis and push grocery trolleys. The pa, the villages and the waka are gone but the stream still runs in pipes under College Hill. It took only a handful of generations for the art and traditions of the Maori who thrived on these shores to be almost lost. The renaissance of the 70s is continuing now, however, and Auckland Council has plotted a path along the old waterfront, installing metal information boards showing photographs and - sometimes sparse - information about the tribes who populated the area nearly two centuries ago.

Old photographs, sometimes interposed on modern scenes, show the shoreline that once was. Continuing around the shores of the lost bay, you'll see a plaque in the foyer of Grant Thornton's office building commemorating the original inhabitants of this area and a Maori Community Centre that catered for their displaced descendants who returned to this place after World War II.

POUTOHU (signposts): Start your walk at Pt Erin - once Okaa Pa - which now exists only in oral tradition. Put on your strategic thinking cap and you can see this headland, which offers extensive views of the upper harbour, gateway to the west and north, as well as to the east, is the prime spot for a pa.

A paved path under shady pohutukawa take you to a grassy reserve that curves alongside the Northern Motorway and into the city. It doesn't take too much imagination to see this land was once connected to the water. Nearing Victoria Park the reliance of the indigenous people on the bounty they could catch and harvest here is revealed in a relief sculpture that says this is: "Auckland, where the fish are so succulent you can eat them bones and all." Little remains to tell a stranger that Victoria Park was once a shallow bay, although a photograph on the council board shows ships moored more or less at what is now the free kindergarten.

In the Pt Erin children's playground are a native eel (tuna) and a frog, in honour of the creatures that once swarmed the creeks and estuaries that fed the bay.
In the Pt Erin children's playground are a native eel (tuna) and a frog, in honour of the creatures that once swarmed the creeks and estuaries that fed the bay.

In later years it got the name Waipiro Bay, or Stinky Waters, referring to the "drunken settlers". The brick chimney of the rubbish "Destructor" that no doubt contributed to the bay's foul reputation still stands sentinel over the shops and bars of Victoria Park Market. In the children's playground are a native eel (tuna) and a frog, in honour of the creatures that once swarmed the creeks and estuaries feeding the bay. Look closely behind the apartments and carpark buildings and you will see unmistakable white sandy stone of the original coastal cliffs. The sunbathed St Patrick's Square was the obvious spot for Nga Wharau a Tako village. Your walk ends on Queen St at the stylised prow of a waka, invisibly moored to a mooring post across the street.

WHAT TO TAKE: This is an easy afternoon's walk. Take a camera, water for this heat, and your imagination to consider the lives of the people who once walked and fished on these shores.

THE STONE FIELDS

HITORI:

When the first Tainui waka arrived in Manukau Harbour, they discovered someone had arrived before them. Standing on a volcanic plug overlooking the Manukau Harbour was Hape, the clubfooted one they thought they had left behind, greeting them with a karanga. Miffed at being left behind, he'd hitched a ride aboard a stingray and beaten the slower waka. (Another version has Hape performing the karanga on the ridge behind Auckland City, the one we know as Karangahape.) But the story of Hape is just one reason the Otuataua stonefields at Ihumatao are significant.

Walk through the lichen-edged wooden gate and you are entering a 20,000-year-old volcanic field where much of the lava flows are still visible. Although quarrying, that great destroyer of landscapes across Auckland, did reduce the original plug that once stood about 65m to a shallow crater - the stone helped build Auckland Airport - the ridges of lava, some covered by forest and grass now, dribble down to the shores of the Manukau Harbour. What also excites people who know about these things, is that the 100ha field shows how agriculture developed in New Zealand. More accustomed to the temperate climes of their equatorial homelands, Maori learned to build small mounds to create microclimates and provide shelter and extra warmth to their early kumara, yam and gourd crops. Later they successfully grew wheat and potato for export. Thousands of people lived here, making a very healthy living thanks to the rich volcanic soils. There were pa, there were villages, houses and middens. Then Governor Grey gave Maori the choice of signing allegiance to Queen Victoria - or leave. They were forced out and so began the Maori land wars.

O NAIANEI: Every single stone on this landscape has been moved and used in some way by human hands: early Maori built walls that followed the ridgelines and Europeans criss-crossed the land with straight structures. Then an airport was built on one side and a sewage pond on the other and it takes a very keen, educated eye to see the stories of the landscape. The block remains politically sensitive. Protest signs line the entrance: "Join the virtual protest", they exhort. Land next to the stonefields has been allocated for housing. The site is exposed to vicious westerlies off the Manukau and despite council billboards within the site, there is little to explain what you are looking at.

The stand of trees on your right were important to Maori: for their berries, their bark. But grass has overgrown the site and cattle churned up large parts into a muddy swamp.

POUTOHU: An exploration of the Otuataua Stonefields begins with a walk down a gravelled road. To your left is an avocado orchard that invites you to take only what you need. Billboards ask that you don't move the rocks or climb the volcanic plug. The ground remains fairly solid as you walk alongside the ancient forest of puriri, karaka and titoki but it quickly gets muddy as you head westward towards the plug and to the massive Moreton bay fig on the skyline. The interference of human hands is evident everywhere; in the straight walls in the little hillocks of the gardens. But without a guide, the significance of these landmarks will escape the casual walker.

WHAT TO TAKE: You have to be pretty determined to find the stonefields, so bring your google or a good roadmap. I would also recommend good walking boots rather than sneakers as the mud out here gets pretty deep. Be prepared too for a brisk wind off the flat Manukau.

THE CHURCH

HITORI:

Tension had been brewing for a while. The Waikato land wars had broken out in July and the Maori were starting to see that maybe the Treaty of Waitangi, signed little more than two decades before, was not going to give them the protection they needed. Governor Grey's proclamation had forced them off the Otuataua stonefields, where Maori had lived for nearly 400 years. Meanwhile, the devout settlers of remote Pukekohe were celebrating the opening of their simple little church - Pukekohe East Church - perched on a hill that looked towards the fertile lands of Waikato, although no doubt far more thickly wooded than the green fields offering such a pleasing vista to the eye and grazing to horses today.

The fearful settlers garrisoned the church and surrounded it with a wooden stockade. And shortly before morning tea time on September 14, the first shot was fired. The battle raged for most of the day, and accounts differ as to how many were in the Ngati Maniapoto war party - some say 200 others say 300 to 400 - who had travelled to the church from Waikato. The Maori party was led by Rapurahi and interestingly, a woman, Rangi-Rumaki, was one of those who led the first charge at the church. Behind the stockade were 17 settlers, later reinforced by soldiers from Ramarama. The names of the settlers on a plaque inside the church. The names of the six Maori who died - again, accounts differ and some say five - are not recorded. In fact, a local woman later had to fight to even get the large boulder that now sits in their honour in the graveyard.

O NAIANEI: Plaques at the plain block entrance tell you this used to be a school, a seat for local government in the area and oh, a battle of the Maori land wars was fought here. The church is famous for the bullet holes that pierce its wooden sides and it takes some time to find them. I was peering at the walls, poking my fingers in the holes I could see when a little phalanx of older selfless locals marched up the path carrying bags and boxes - ready for an open day at the church. Today they are very excited because they have managed to locate an old road scooper, which may or may not have been used to build the roads in the region. They carefully set it up outside. Inside a solitary picture of an unnamed Maori stands to the right of the altar. In the centre are the portraits of a stern-looking couple seen by locals as the founders of the European settlement here. More pictures are displayed on a noticeboard behind the main church room.

The churchyard has the graves of the old settlers, many telling stories of great tragedy, listing a heartbreakingly lengthy roll calls of children who died well before their parents. As for the Maori presence here, there isn't one, apart from that big rock to the side of the graveyard.

POUTOHU: No signposts lead you to the Pukekohe East Church. There is nothing to indicate that the church is even here until you spy it under the spreading boughs of roadside trees. It's easy to find from the Southern Motorway standing tall on a windblown hillside. Plaques tell you what happened here and ancient newsclippings pinned to boards inside ploddingly tell the story of the pivotal events of 1863. But don't expect to drop in and expect to see this: the church is locked during the week and it was only by good fortune and the good graces of the lovely folk who tend this place that I was able to get in there.

WHAT TO TAKE: A good map and knowledge of the land wars.