Most people don't think of Onehunga as a seaside suburb, cut off as it is from the Manukau Harbour by State Highway 20, the southwestern motorway leading to the airport. But with the opening last weekend of a brand-new waterfront park, that has changed.
The new park, called Taumanu (meaning reclamation) has been built on reclaimed land to the west of the motorway - 6.8 hectares of new parkland. It's been three years in the making, requiring 334,000 cubic metres of fill, rock, sand and topsoil, more than 30,000 plants and 350 trees, and is connected to "mainland" Onehunga by two bridges, creating a circuit around the Onehunga Lagoon.
We are lucky enough to get into the park for a sneak peek before its official opening, being shown around last week by Chris Marshall of Fulton Hogan, the construction manager for the project. Chris, an amiable Welshman, is obviously very proud of what's been achieved at the site, and our 5-year-old and 2-year-old kids are excited to be the first children to explore the newly completed park.
It is a bright but windy day, with the prevailing southwesterly blowing briskly off the Manukau Harbour. The tide is almost fully out, revealing the mudflats of the inner harbour, but further out the Manukau is sparkling in the sun.
The advantage of the wind direction is that despite being just metres from the motorway, we can't hear any traffic noise. The park is also sheltered by carefully designed hillocks and bunds, which look like natural landscape features but effectively screen both the sound and sight of the busy thoroughfare.
Another feature which looks natural but is the result of hours of painstaking work are the rock "headlands" sticking out into the harbour and containing the park's beaches: some freshly coated with pure white sand from Pakiri, and some more "natural" looking ones (more rocky and shelly).
Chris tells us each of these headlands took around six weeks to build, with each large volcanic basalt rock being carefully placed by hand.
The Manukau Harbour's original residents are also obviously enjoying the return of the foreshore: we spot several pied stilts, stalking white-faced heron, a piping flock of black oystercatchers, and even a well-camouflaged New Zealand dotterel (we suspect the other half of the pair is around somewhere, but it is even more well-camouflaged).
There's broad walking and cycling track running through it.
Our 5-year-old son, keen to try out his new biking skills, is quickly off on the curving path which runs from one end of the park to the other. The firm-packed pathway has a gravelly top surface, so it would be a bit rough for scootering, but it's perfect for biking.
We stop to inspect the very natural-looking beaches: there are plenty of interesting shells to be found, with the exciting addition of washed-up mud crab carapaces.
At the southern end of the park is the main bridge over to the Onehunga Bay Reserve (now also renamed Te Tauranga), and Princes St.
The bridge has been covered with carved timber panelling by Bernard Makoare, celebrating both the nature of the sea at full tide and the mudflats at low tide.
On the Onehunga side there's a children's playground, too. My husband and I are both old enough to remember when the only route to the airport was across the old Mangere Bridge, and the 2-year standoff that completely stopped work on the replacement bridge in the late 1970s.
Little legs are getting tired, so we hop back in the car and drive over the new Mangere Bridge to the Mangere Bridge village for an ice cream in the sunshine on Kiwi Esplanade.
When they're less tired, we could get there via the old bridge and a new cycling and pedestrian pathway along Orpheus Drive, past the Manukau Cruising Club. On the south side, the cycle trail continues along the foreshore to Ambury Farm Park, and on the north it runs along the Onehunga foreshore to Southdown. We will have to come back with more bikes for a proper explore another day. Locals have waited a long time for the Onehunga foreshore to be returned to them. Hopefully this summer it will be reclaimed not only from the harbour, but also by the people of Auckland.
Need to know
• Onehunga Taumanu, accessible from Seacliffe Rd/Orpheus Drive by road, or by footbridge from Onehunga Bay Reserve/Princes St.
• There are toilets and changing rooms at the park, near the car park. It is safe to swim at the park, around the high tide. Water quality will be monitored by Auckland Council, as it is at other beaches (0800 SAFE SWIM or on the Auckland Council website).
• No dogs are allowed at the eastern end (to protect the birds). They are allowed on-lead by the new beaches. There's an off-lead area by the Onehunga Lagoon in Onehunga Bay Reserve on the other side of the motorway.
• For a refreshments, cross over the motorway to the family-friendly Library Cafe in Princes St (and have a poke around in the Hard To Find bookstore in Onehunga Mall); or cruise over the Old Mangere Bridge to the Coronation Rd shops, where there is a bakery, cafe and icecream shop, and the sunny, sheltered, north-facing Kiwi Esplanade.