At first blush the proposal to ban cars from the summits of Auckland's volcanoes seems outrageous; on reflection, not so bad. The maunga, to use the Maori term, are a grand, green, silent presence in a city of more than a million people. They distinguish the place, standing above the rooftops as landmarks for various suburbs. They are dramatic evidence of the region's volcanic creation and a reminder that eruptions have not finished. Not all of their slopes have been protected from development, but they are today. Aucklanders might readily agree the cones are sacred in their own way, not all will agree that vehicle access does them any harm.
Physical harm has been a weak argument employed in previous attempts to restrict wheeled access, a pretext probably for values that might now be asserted more strongly by the new guardian authority, Tupuna Maunga o Tamaki Makaurau, representing the tribes of the region, the Crown and the Auckland Council. If heavily visited places such as Mt Eden and One Tree Hill are suffering physical damage, the authority would be proposing to stop people walking on the maunga too. They are not. It will remain possible to drive up some distance for a view. But those who want to reach the summit will have to do so on foot. When they do, their experience will be enhanced by the effort they have made and the quietness of the surroundings at the top.
No longer will it be a place where cars come and go, doors are slammed, people wander about listlessly until the summit wind drives them back into the car. Having made the effort to walk up, they will savour their time at the top, exploring the crater more closely and noticing not far away the terracing and other archaeological features of Maori life centuries ago.
Not everyone, of course, is physically able to walk up a hill the height of Mt Eden or Mt Wellington and unless the road on One Tree Hill stops fairly close to the top, the distances on Maungakiekie will deter all but the very fit. But those who cannot manage the walk will not necessarily resent the loss of car access. They, too, may draw value from the fact that the summit they can see is a place treated with some reverence.
It is not unusual for mountains to be treated in this way. Visitors to Mt Cook discover when they take a scenic helicopter flight that they can circle the summit, but they are not supposed to fly over it and the operators do not. Up near the peak no explanation is necessary. So it will be when cars park high enough for a view from a maunga but some distance below its crown.
The roads ought to be replaced with boardwalks wide enough to take larger numbers than might be expected. North Head, which does not permit vehicles to do more than park at its entrance, attracts thousands of strollers on a fine day. Nearby Mt Victoria, with vehicle access to its heights, is not nearly as enticing. It is possible that the presence of parked cars and, until 2011, tour buses at the top of Mt Eden discouraged more visitors than they brought to it. Promoters of Auckland's tourism should not resist the proposed restriction.
When coaches were barred from the summit three years ago the council bought two 14-seater shuttles to take tourists to the top. It soon replaced them with a single 12-seat van. Clearly tourists do not have an aching need to get a higher view. If they do, there is the Sky Tower.
The volcanic cones can be returned to their natural splendour as far as possible. Views of them are more valuable than views from them. The maunga will be more impressive when we can no longer ride to the top and have to contemplate a bracing walk.