To celebrate Auckland’s 175th anniversary, its demisemiseptcentennial, the Weekend Herald continues its series celebrating the growth of the city with a look at people who shaped Auckland. Today: our extraordinary hero.
In association with
ASB Tamaki Paenga Hira - Auckland War Memorial Museum

At first glance, they appear to be odd, unconnected things - a small wedge of grey rock; a wooden honey crate; a watch with a sweat-stained strap and a face furrowed with deep scratches. But pieced together, they help to weave the story of an extraordinary New Zealander - mountaineer, explorer, environmentalist, beekeeper and philanthropist Sir Edmund Hillary.

Below ground and behind the scenes at Auckland Museum rests a collection of more than 100 fragments of Hillary's life - each meticulously wrapped, rolled or encased. The collection of objects, gifted by his children Peter and Sarah, is dominated by plaques and medals celebrating Hillary's world-famous deeds.

Also in the museum's safekeeping is the Sir Edmund Hillary Archive, now on the verge of realising its own significant achievement.

Auckland Museum are waiting learn whether the Hillary Archive - including Sir Ed's Everest diary - has been accepted by the Unesco Memory of the World international register.
Auckland Museum are waiting learn whether the Hillary Archive - including Sir Ed's Everest diary - has been accepted by the Unesco Memory of the World international register.

Before his death in 2008, Hillary bequeathed to the museum his personal archive of 25,000 papers, photographs and documents. Among them is the diary he wrote each day on his way to conquering Mt Everest in 1953.

Advertisement

In July, the museum will learn whether the archive has been accepted by the Unesco Memory of the World international register. Created almost two decades ago, the register identifies "documentary heritage of universal value".

The Treaty of Waitangi and the 1893 Women's Suffrage petition are the only two New Zealand documents to have been included so far.

"In contrast to those documents, the Hillary Archive makes up more than 30 linear metres of papers, photographs and other material gathered by and about Sir Ed, which in its totality contextualises his life and achievements," says Theresa Graham, the museum's acting manager of library and inquiry services.

"If the Hillary Archive is added, it will be an official recognition of its significance on the world stage."

The collection has been in demand from international authors and film crews in recent years.

The labelling, packing and storing has taken human history collection manager Sarndra Lees more than a year of diligent work.

"Having grown up with the Hillary story my whole life, it's been a privilege to be caring for them."

Another piece of Hillary history can be found preserved in south Auckland.

Advertisement

The man voted time and again our most admired New Zealander lived almost all his life in Auckland -- and most of his adult years in a rambling wooden house he built on Remuera Rd in 1956.

After being moved to the grounds of Sir Edmund Hillary Collegiate in Otara, it is now a leadership centre for students and the community.

Here are 10 objects from Auckland Museum's Hillary collection:

1. Hillary Honey crate

Some of Hillary's archives arrived at the museum inside an old wooden crate, bearing the stamp of Hillary Honey. "Office and Everest Diary" was scrawled on the side.

Born in Auckland, Hillary was still a baby when his family moved south to Tuakau, to farmland his father, Percy, had been allocated as a returned serviceman. After training as a beekeeper, Percy established more than 1000 hives. Happiest tramping in mountains, Ed Hillary quit his maths and science studies at Auckland University College to join his father's beekeeping business fulltime in 1938.

2. Mementos of war
Among the keepsakes from Hillary's World War II involvement are sets of war service medals, heavy cardboard dog tags and one Air Force wing. Hillary's family were opposed to war, even after Percy served in Gallipoli in World War I. The family followed the pacifist beliefs of Herbert Sutcliffe, founder of The School of Radiant Living; Hillary even trained as a Radiant Living teacher and went walking through the Waitakere Ranges with the Radiant Living Tramping Club. He and his brother Wrexford registered as conscientious objectors - his brother spent four years in a detention camp, but by 1944, Hillary had joined the Royal New Zealand Air Force.

He climbed mountains during his training in Marlborough, before being posted to Fiji and then the Solomon Islands as a navigator on a Catalina flying boat.

His service ended when he was badly burnt in a boat accident. He recovered in the Southern Alps, with his mentor, esteemed climber Harry Ayres.

A piece of stone from the top of Everest which Sir Edmund gave to his mother.
A piece of stone from the top of Everest which Sir Edmund gave to his mother.

3. Rock from the top of the world

Found inside a large silver locket, which once belonged to Hillary's grandmother, was a small dark-grey piece of sedimentary rock. A note written by Hillary's school-teacher mother, Gertrude, explained its significance. "This stone was taken from the top of Everest on May 29, 1953."

When he reached the summit of the world's tallest peak, Hillary snapped photos of Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, planted flags and buried a tiny crucifix in the ice, and then took a few stones as souvenirs.

Today laws forbid the removal of any natural objects from Mt Everest, a Unesco World Heritage site.

4. Everest anorak
The dark blue anorak, with leather trim, is in mint condition other than missing a button off a cuff. The windproof cotton jacket is thought to be the one Hillary wore to Everest's summit. Peter and Sarah found it stashed away beneath the family home in Remuera.

5. Queen Elizabeth II Coronation medal
News of Hillary reaching the roof of the world finally arrived in Britain on the day of Queen Elizabeth II's coronation -- June 2, 1953.

Several weeks later, Hillary was knighted and received the special Coronation Medal from the new Queen at Buckingham Palace. All 37 members of the expedition party received the medal, with its red and blue ribbon and rim engraved with "Mount Everest Expedition".

Sir Edmund Hillary's Rolex watch, which was given to him in 1953 after he had climbed Mt Everest.
Sir Edmund Hillary's Rolex watch, which was given to him in 1953 after he had climbed Mt Everest.

6. Battered Rolex watch

If this watch could talk - Hillary was gifted a Rolex Oyster Perpetual timepiece after conquering Everest, and wore it on his Antarctic expedition a few years later.

Today, its face is a maze of scratches, and its strap is stained, but Peter Hillary told the Herald that the watch, in its battered state, "just spoke" of his father -- who'd had it repaired after damaging it breaking concrete in his garden.

The timepiece was at the centre of a High Court injunction in 2010, when Hillary's children stopped their stepmother, Lady June Hillary, from selling legacy items at a Swiss auction to raise money for the Himalayan Trust.

7. Scott Base wood block
When Hillary visited Scott Base in late 2004, for the opening of the Hillary Field Centre, he was presented with a block of wood. It was engraved with the words: "To Sir Ed, from Scott Base Staff", and carved with a sketch of one of the modified Massey Ferguson tractors Hillary used to reach the South Pole overland (the first expedition to do so in motor vehicles). It was a fitting tribute for Hillary, who was a founding father of Scott Base, New Zealand's scientific station in Antarctica, in 1957. Hillary made his final visit to the ice in 2007, for the base's 50th anniversary.

8. Colourful rosette
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Khumjung School in Nepal -- also known as the Hillary School -- Sir Ed was given a multi-coloured rosette as the "Distinguished Guest".

Built in 1961, the school in the shadow of Everest was founded by Hillary and today has more than 300 pupils. Hillary's Himalayan Trust has since set up a further 26 schools in the Khumbu region, along with two hospitals, 12 bridges and two airfields.

An intricate wall hanging in the collection was gifted to Hillary at the 1966 opening of the Khunde Hospital, staffed by New Zealand volunteers. His life-long humanitarian work earned him the title "Burra Sahib" (big in heart) among the Sherpa people.

9. Magellan Award
Only 34 adventurers have been honoured with The Order of Magellan, the highest award of the Circumnavigators Club, presented to "Outstanding individuals dedicated to advancing peace and understanding in all parts of the world." Hillary received his in 1983 -- joining Douglas MacArthur, Jacques Cousteau, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Sally Ride, and later, son Peter Hillary, a revered mountaineer in his own right.

10. Tryathlon Medal
The wealth of decorations treasured by Sir Edmund Hillary, KG, ONZ, KBE, were of diverse value and status -- from the rare Knight Companion of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, the Hubbard Medal, National Geographic Society medal (presented by US President Dwight Eisenhower), and the solid gold India Everest Medal; to awards from the Kathmandu Taxi Drivers Association and the Beekeepers Association. Then there was the Weet-Bix Kids Tryathlon medal inscribed with "Try!" he received in 1998. At 79, he was too old to compete, but apparently, he ate Weet-Bix during his Everest ascent.

Edmund Hillary (left) and Sherpa Tensing Norgay after their ascent of Mount Everest.
Edmund Hillary (left) and Sherpa Tensing Norgay after their ascent of Mount Everest.

Hillary by the numbers

1919

The year Edmund Hillary was born in Auckland.

25,000 Documents, slides and photos in the Hillary Archive, held at Auckland Museum.

27kg The weight of Hillary's pack on Everest - one of the heaviest loads ever carried on the mountain.

20 Hillary was among the first 20 people selected as members of the Order of New Zealand (ONZ), the country's highest honour, in 1987.

77km The length of the walking track through the Waitakere Ranges that makes up the Hillary Trail.

1995 The year Hillary was appointed to Britain's oldest and highest order of chivalry, as a Knight Companion of the Most Noble Order of the Garter (KG).

$5 The note bearing Hillary's weather-beaten phizog; the only living New Zealander chosen to appear on the nation's new banknotes in 1990.

16 Streets and roads in New Zealand featuring Hillary's name.

Advertisement

More from NZ Herald