Devonport: Our explosive history

By Jim Eagles

Spooky tunnels and historic weapons keep young and old entertained at Auckland's North Head, writes Jim Eagles.

The new Navy Museum nestling under North Head at Torpedo Bay. Photo / Jim Eagles
The new Navy Museum nestling under North Head at Torpedo Bay. Photo / Jim Eagles

Feeling my way carefully through the dark of the tunnel - the torch having been commandeered by 7-year-old grandson Geoffrey - I headed gratefully for the faint glow in the distance.

Finally I emerged into the light to find myself confronted with a huge gun, sitting on top of a giant metal roundabout, the massive barrel high above pointing across the harbour to the mansions of Kohimarama.

The grandchildren, who had run ahead, were already busy climbing its ladders, wheels and hydraulic tubes, demanding to be photographed.

Their climbing frame was the famous 8-inch disappearing gun, which since 1886 has sat on the North Head of the Waitemata Harbour, guarding the approaches to Auckland.

It's the focal point of a network of military tunnels dug into the ancient volcanic cone - one of the oldest of the 50 or so volcanoes around Auckland - as a result of scares about imminent attacks by Russians, Americans (ironically, the only ones to actually develop an invasion plan), Japanese and Germans.

In recent years the Department of Conservation has progressively opened the old tunnels, buildings and walkways to the public, making it a fantastic place to explore New Zealand's history, have a picnic, enjoy the fabulous views ... or play with grandchildren.

In the old stone kitchen, erected in 1885, you can watch a short film about North Head, or Maungauika, explaining that the mountain's story goes back to the very earliest Maori voyagers (Uika, whose name was given to the hill, was either the grandson of Toi the Navigator or a crew member on the Tainui canoe, depending on which iwi you're listening to) and the beginnings of European settlement (a pilot station was established here in 1836).

Then you can stroll the recently refurbished walkway round the base of the hill, marvelling at the caves, tunnels and concrete pillboxes once used for a protective network of searchlights, submarine nets, minefields and quick-firing guns, before climbing through a particularly spooky set of tunnels back to the top.

If you're so inclined - and we were - you can pretend to fire a few salvoes from the battery of saluting guns used to welcome Queen Elizabeth on her royal visit in 1953 and then climb on top of the disappearing gun and try to imagine it blasting out those enormous 95kg shells capable of penetrating 350mm thick armour on a warship 1km away.

I have a vague idea what it might have been like because I've twice seen the gun fired, most recently last month, when the 125th anniversary of a military presence on North Head was celebrated by a band performance of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, with the cannonfire provided by some Army howitzers and the disappearing gun.

Of course the gun didn't actually shoot out a shell and it didn't do its special trick - from which the name comes - of using the power of the recoil to disappear into its underground chamber to reload in safety, then re-appearing, thanks to its powerful hydraulics, ready to fire again.

But DoC archaeologist Dave Veart has hopes that one day we might see the gun actually disappear. "I've got an estimate of $140,000 for restoring the gun to a point where it could rotate and go up and down," he says. "So if we can find the money it could happen." That would be fantastic.

In the meantime, as part of the on-going improvements at North Head, a contract has just been let to produce a model disappearing gun so that early next year visitors will be able to make it rise and fall just like the real thing.

About the same time, the Fire Commander's Post on the top of the hill, which provides a fantastic panorama right round the Hauraki Gulf and - the reason it's there - a view of the gun batteries once scattered round its headlands and islands, will be opened to the public. DoC is working on a second film to be shown there, focusing on the story of the wider gulf.

Also close to being opened is the old barracks built in 1885 to house the Armed Constabulary and two years later converted into a prison to hold the convicts who were made to dig all those tunnels. The aim is to use that as an interpretation centre for North Head.

One item I hope will be included in the display, when it opens, is a projectile fired by the disappearing gun, which was later recovered from the lava on Rangitoto.

It's enormous and extremely heavy - so heavy that Veart and I between us had problems getting it into position for a photo - a further indication of just how powerful the disappearing gun was.

I asked Veart if, when the gun was fully restored, it might be possible to fire a real shell. He grinned, so the idea obviously appealed, but he thought not. Pity. When the disappearing gun on Mt Victoria fired a few practice shots a century or so ago, the repercussion was apparently so powerful it broke windows all round Devonport. Imagine the effect you'd get today. My grandkids would love it ... and so would I.

Further information: You can find out about North Head, and download a self-guided walk pamphlet here.

- NZ Herald

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