15 Best Places to see the Sunrise in Auckland: Two Inner-City Volcanoes

April 25, 2020
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LAST week’s post was about sunrise on some of Auckland’s urban beaches. This week’s is about sunrise from two of the city’s pretty green volcanoes, Ōwairaka and Mount Eden.

Auckland’s inner suburbs, with Ōwairaka and Mount Eden identified (full official names). Background Map data ©2020 Google. North at top.

Auckland’s an unusual city, because it’s built on a field of extinct volcanoes, as per this famous map from 1859. The individual volcanoes are extinct, but there’s always a risk a new one might pop up.

Map of the Auckland volcanic field by Ferdinand von Hochstetter, first published in 1859, from an 1865 reprint. Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

Mount Eden, officially Maungawhau / Mount Eden, is 196 metres or 643 feet above sea level at the top. Ōwairaka, officially Ōwairaka / Te Ahi-kā-a-Rakataura / Mount Albert, is 135 metres or 443 feet.

So, the volcanoes are fairly small.

All the same, you can get amazing views. I would say that Mount Eden is the best place to get an overall view of Auckland as the sun comes up, because it’s fairly close to the downtown with its tall buildings and Sky Tower.

You can watch the lights of the city centre, north of Mount Eden, slowly fade as the sun comes up over the suburbs to the east.

Mount Eden has a huge crater at the top. It’s not as big as the crater on Rangitoto Island, but much more accessible. You can drive to the top, and there are bronze markers that point out where various local landmarks and distant cities are.

Here’s a daytime photo of the same scene, showing a bit more of the crater.

Photo by Alan Collins (‘Etherbug’), 2009, CC-BY-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Mount Eden’s crater is called Te Ipo o Matāho, which means the mixing bowl of Matāho, a legendary hero. As the legend has it, the other volcanoes of Auckland were formed when Matāho’s wife left him and took his clothes, so the fire-goddess Mahuika sent earth-fires to keep him warm.

The other thing that’s really distinctive about Mount Eden is its pre-European terraces, which make it look a little bit like a Mayan stepped pyramid.

Terraces on Maungawhau / Mount Eden, Photo by ‘Avenue’, 2006, CC-BY-SA 3.0 and other licences via Wikimedia Commons

Some of the other volcanoes of Auckland have terraces as well. World Heritage status has been applied for and it’s being worked through.

In colonial times, the volcanoes of Auckland were quarried for scoria. Their unique and actually rather amazing cultural status wasn’t appreciated, because most Māori had been driven out of Auckland during the 1860s in the course of the New Zealand Wars, the local equivalent of the American Civil War.

"The once happy New Zealand, a land of homesteads and farms, cattle, and rosy children playing on the green meadows, is now the scene of ruin, desolation and bloodshed of the most barbarous character, and, worse than all, the destruction by our own defenders, the lawless mob introduced from Australia. . . . What fearful scenes I have witnessed of late, years of toil destroyed by Maoris & defenders while the inhabitants are out defending another part. Such is Auckland now."

So wrote a settler named Fred Haslam in a letter to his parents, penned while manning a picket at Drury some 36 kilometres south of downtown Auckland in November 1863.

Soldiers in the Albert Barracks or Fort Britomart, Auckland during the 1860s. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections Image 4–423

The Māori name for Auckland is Tāmaki Makaurau, meaning ‘the place desired by many’. Desired by many, but monopolised in the end by a few.

For a time, thereafter, the volcanoes of Auckland were known by their colonial names and, as I say, quarried. Here’s a picture of Ōwairaka as it was at the beginning of the twentieth century, then known simply as Mount Albert. You can see that it looks quite bare.

Public domain image of an old postcard (ca. 1910) posted by C. O. Hawke, via Wikimedia Commons

There were probably native trees on top in the time of the Māori; but if so, they would have been chopped down for firewood by the colonists later on, much as the last surviving tree from a sacred grove on One Tree Hill was by “some goth of a settler,” as even the local colonial newspaper put it at the time.

Mount Eden is the most usual name of one of the peaks I went up. That name honours George Eden, the first Earl of Auckland (UK); its Maori name, Maungawhau, means ‘mountain of the whau tree’ (Entelea arborescens).

The other peak is known as Mount Albert , after Prince Albert; but most commonly these days by the name Ōwairaka. This name honours Wairaka, the daughter of a chief who sailed to New Zealand from Hawaiki, the legendary ancestral home of the Māori.

Hawaiki seems to be another way of saying Hawaiʽi. The actual ancestral homeland of the Maori isn’t modern-day Hawaiʽi, though, but some islands near Tahiti that lie in the direction of Hawaiʽi as seen from New Zealand.

And so that is the origin of Ōwairaka. The third official name for that volcano, Te Ahi-kā-a-Rakataura, means the home fires of Rakataura. This refers to a tohunga (shaman) who was named Rakataura.

Shortly after the postcard of ‘Mount Albert’ was made, the colonists began to wise up to what remarkable things the Auckland volcanoes actually were. In 1915 a law was passed that protected them from being built upon, though a few continued to be quarried for a while yet.

After they were saved from development, Ōwairaka and the other cones were prettified by having British and American trees planted on them. In New Zealand we call such introduced species ‘exotic’. This is an issue that’s become quite political lately as there is now a quarrel, a distant echo of the old one, as to whether those trees should be chopped down and replaced with New Zealand natives such as the whau that once grew on Maungawhau.

A lot of people think that gradual replacement would make sense but they aren’t keen on the current policy of denuding the volcanoes and then waiting for native trees to grow back. Which might be a long wait, as most New Zealand native tree species are slow-growing. And surprisingly enough, perhaps, a lot of native birds also inhabit the ‘exotic’ forest. The fear is that if the introduced trees come down, these birds won’t have anywhere to go either.

When I went up Ōwairaka, there was a protest camp there, organised by a group called Honour the Maunga, whose protest signs included a picture of another volcano lately reduced to its bald state of a hundred years ago.

The colonial name for that one is Pigeon Mountain: not the sort of pigeon that clusters around park benches but the kererū, also known in New Zealand as the wood pigeon. This is a large, impressive-looking native pigeon that only lives in treetops and refuses to walk around on the ground begging for crumbs. Well, if there is no woodland on Pigeon Mountain anymore, there won’t be any wood pigeons either.

But I don’t want to get too far into the details of these local protests. My point is just that the volcanoes of Auckland are really special places that the locals are passionate about, candidates for World Heritage status, and also among the best places to watch the sun come up over Auckland!

Note: The quote by Fred Haslam is from ‘Fred to his parents’, 5 November 1863, letter in possession of Haslam Family. Quoted in Ben Schrader, The Big Smoke: New Zealand Cities 1840–1920, Wellington, Bridget Williams Books, 2016, p. 179, source emphasis as shown in Schrader.


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