The pōhutukawa and the Takapuna apartment dwellers

Beachgoers shelter under a pohutukawa, northern end of Takapuna Beach. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections T0248

The pōhutukawa and the Takapuna apartment dwellers

An ancient grove of pōhutukawa on Takapuna beach was once used by Māori to prepare the dead for burial. Today the trees are frail and pose a danger to the path below. Mana whenua want it closed but some residents want to keep it open as it provides easy access to the beach.

There’s a grove of pōhutukawa at the north end of Takapuna beach. They’re magnificent: big, old, stretching trees that reach out over the sand. If you haven’t seen them in real life you can see them in paintings and historic photographs, generations of New Zealanders walking along the beach wearing their decade’s strange hats and clothes, the arms of those trees framing their progress through the years. The grove has a much longer unphotographed history. The trees were used by Māori in the preparation of bodies for burial. Those arms held up the dead and let nature clean their bones, before the bones were gathered up for burial elsewhere.

The famous pōhutukawa captured in the lithograph Takapuna Beach, ‘a favourite summer resort’. Image: K. Watkins. 1894.

Those ancient arms are finally getting frail. If you look up into the branches you can see strops holding up some of the elderly limbs. The trees have also been carefully pruned and thinned over the years, iterations of Auckland councils doing their best to keep the trees alive and the people underneath them safe. This job gets harder as the years go on; at some point we need to plan for the trees to fall and for new pōhutukawa to grow up among them, taking their place as we and our funny clothes have replaced our ancestors’.

It wasn’t great forward planning when the North Shore City Council built an expensive boardwalk through the grove in the early 2000s. While it was operational, the boardwalk provided access to the end of Takapuna beach for around an hour every high tide, but it has now been permanently closed for reasons of cost and public safety. It’s still possible to walk along the beach at almost all times, and at high tide it’s a short stroll around the grove and the apartment blocks behind them to get to the beachside cafe and the coastal walk north.

Let’s step back to those apartment blocks: The Sands, The Rocks and the Mon Desir (named after the iconic Mon Desir hotel that they replaced). These residents currently have a stone accessway from the back of their apartments to the beach, and most of them want to keep it. This will involve stropping more trees, continual monitoring and continual intervention, all on the public purse. The arborist’s report states that removing the accessway is the best option for the health of the trees, as well as “the most pragmatic in terms of managing current and future risk to the users of the footpath network.” The council is currently taking public submissions on these two options: (1) close the area and let it regenerate, or (2) keep the stone path to the private apartments open and rig up the trees to keep it safe. Consultation is open until July 12, and the Devonport-Takapuna Local Board will make the final decision.

An Auckland Council ‘drop-in’ session takes place underneath one of the towering pōhutukawa. Image: Keri Mills

A recent RNZ story on this issue framed it as public access vs iwi interests. There are two problems with that framing. Firstly, it’s not about public access at all, unless as a member of the public you value having access to the locked back gate of the Mon Desir apartment complex, perhaps in order to gaze through the bars at a lifestyle most of us will never be able to afford.

A Rangitoto Observer headline runs “Blue-chip apartments could lose beach access”. This is a more accurate description of the situation, but still depends on whether you think being diverted to a sub two minute walk from the pedestrian gate, down The Promenade and onto the sand (and I have a bad ankle at the moment) constitutes “losing beach access”. This is not about public access. The RNZ story talks about the boardwalk – but the decision to close the boardwalk has been made. The decision still pending is about the stone path through the grove, which provides more immediate access to the beach for the private apartments behind the grove, and nothing else.

Rangitoto Observer, 21 June 2019.

Secondly: sure, there are iwi interests involved. You can read about their concerns here. They include radical agenda items such as making sure the public is safe, collecting seeds from the trees in case of myrtle rust, fostering new native plant growth, encouraging native birds to return to the area, removing rubbish bins from inside the grove and perhaps putting up some signage to describe the historical and cultural significance of the trees.

The framing of community vs iwi is concerning. Do the residents of these apartments constitute “the community”? Are iwi not part of “the community”? The concerns identified by iwi focus on the big picture, the long term, heritage values, and generally what one might think of as “public” interests.

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Walk up The Promenade. Past the Mon Desir apartments on your left is a plaque on the wall which tells you Takapuna beach “was originally called Waiwharariki (the water of the common flax). The grove of magnificent pōhutukawa trees on the cliff was known as Te Urutapu (the sacred grove) and was greatly revered, all wayfarers paying tributes or placing a sprig of fern or manuka at the foot of a tree as they passed.”

Photo: Keri Mills

Take a left along Hurstmere Road, a gentle right on to Anzac St and look out for a carpark. Pay tribute. This carpark was the site of a very lively local debate last year about the future use of the area. Possibly too lively. I don’t have strong opinions on the carpark story, but I do want to lightly bring it up. It’s a stone’s throw from Te Uru Tapu; it’s a site that is clearly very valued; it’s a story people know.

It’s Matariki. A time to remember the dead and reflect on the future. A time for harmony and respect. And a great time to make a submission to the Devonport-Takapuna Local Board on the future of the grove of pōhutukawa trees at Takapuna beach.


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