The Peninsula of the Dawn: Te Atatū and its living mudflats

June 20, 2020
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THE TE ATATŪ PENINSULA’S another natural wonder in the wild western suburbs of Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city.

It’s located between two creeks that meander lazily down to the upper Waitematā Harbour, the harbour of sparkling waters, across mud flats and through mangroves, for Auckland is subtropical enough to have mangroves, and other plants of a green and leathery character that seem to owe nothing to the modern urban civilization — with all its lawns and flower-beds — that has so lately sprung up in this part of the world.

The Northern End of the Te Atatū Peninsula. Imagery ©2020 CNES/Airbus, Landsat/Copernicus, Maxar Technologies, Google,, Waikato Regional Council. Map data ©2020 Google. North at top.

The Te Atatū Peninsula as a whole. Imagery ©2020 CNES/Airbus, Landsat/Copernicus, Maxar Technologies, Google,, Waikato Regional Council. Map data ©2020 Google. North at top.


Te Atatū scenes

These savage everglades of Auckland’s upper Waitematā are one of the city’s most appealing features, for some. They’re not conventionally pretty beaches, though there are some.

More usual is mud.

Mud with mangroves.

The landscape’s full of fresh-water swamps and salt marshes with boardwalks over the top.

The two creeks that define the peninsula are the Whau River, to the east, and Henderson Creek to the west. Whau is a kind of tree. As for Henderson Creek, it is named after an early settler of means who bought most of the land in the area from the colonial government in the 1850s.

I suspect that it was a long time before Mr Henderson was able to recoup much from his investment, as the area, though close to Auckland city, remained wild and frontier-like until the 1950s, inhabited only by a small number of Māori and settlers. That was mainly because the creeks, flowing from north to south, acted as powerful barriers to the westward expansion of the growing city of Auckland.

That problem persisted until the Whau River and Henderson Creek were finally crossed by the Northwestern Motorway in 1960.

Atatū is a Maori word meaning ‘just after dawn’: Te Atatū means ‘the just-after-dawn’. For here, too, is a great place to seen the sunrise (‘ata’) in Auckland. The word ata also means reflection. So there’s added layer of poetic meaning to do with water and reflections.

And so the sun rises — and reflects — over the great coppery fetch of the Waitematā Harbour, shining through what’s now the Auckland Harbour Bridge and beteween the tall buildings of the downtown in the far distance, until it is fully risen (‘tū’).

Here’s a link to a great Instagram shot of dawn from Te Atatū put up by Auckland Council.

Both on the Whau River side, where the Harbourview-Orangihina foreshore park is located, and on the Henderson Creek side, the wetlands on the shore are being conserved for ecological reasons and to give people a wilderness-like experience in the city.

Here’s a flyover of the Harbourview-Orangihina Park on the Whau side of the peninsula, placed on Youtube by Thomas Consultants.

As appropriate as it is, the name Te Atatū is not an old Māori name. It seems that it was bestowed only as late as 1909, by an Irish shopkeeper and preacher from the locality who was married to a Māori woman of the Ngati Whakaue hapu (section) of the Arawa iwi (tribe) of the Rotorua area. Her real name was Raiha Ratete but she called herself Eliza Rogers among the settlers. It was quite common for Māori to have two such identities back then. It seems conceivable that the name Te Atatū was really Raiha Ratete’s idea.

Yet the peninsula already had a local Māori name, one that nobody who actually lived on it seemed to know about in 1909, not even Raiha Ratete of the Arawa. This name was Ōrukuwai , meaning the place of Rukuwai, an ancestor of the local iwi known as Te Kawerau-a-Maki.

Before the time of European settlement, Ōrukuwai had actually been quite densely inhabited. Its waterlogged character did not deter the Māori as much as it deterred later settlers, for the Māori, like other Polynesians, mostly travelled about by boat and were good at fishing. On the land, which was fertile, they grew traditional Polynesian crops such as kumara (sweet potatoes).

The wider Auckland district was a major centre of old-time Māori life, perhaps the major centre. Its traditional name of Tamaki-makau-rau, the place desired by many, reflects that fact.

Two portages through what’s now urban Auckland gave access from the Tasman Sea that lies between New Zealand and Australia to the wider South Pacific Ocean.

And the two harbours of Auckland, the east-facing Waitematā and the west-facing Manukau, whose creeks and estuaries are so inconvenient for modern motorists, were just as convenient for canoe-borne Māori.

So — why were names like Ōrukuwai forgotten?

The answer to that question is that Tamaki-makau-rau had become almost depopulated by the Union Jack was formally planted there in 1840.

That mainly happened because of tribal wars waged with muskets in the early decades of the nineteenth century, muskets supplied by what New Zealand historians have often since referred to as “unscrupulous traders.”

The area that had once seemed so desirable had, by 1840, come to be seen as hopelessly vulnerable to attack by raiders, who would arrive in fearsome, Viking-like war-canoes.

Māori waka (craft) of the war-canoe type, at the Waitangi Treaty House grounds, New Zealand. Photo credit W. Bulach (2009), CC-BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The locals who survived these raids soon fled to less desirable places that were harder for the raiders to get to.

This is something that has often happened to seaside communities in history. Seaborne raiding was so endemic in the past that it’s encoded in idioms we don’t even think about. To this day, English-speakers indicate that everything’s fine by saying that ‘the coast is clear’.

Anyhow, once the coast of Tamaki-makau-rau had, itself, been made clear by the Royal Navy of the nineteenth century, the land repopulated rapidly.

Except that it wasn’t called Tamaki-makau-rau any more, but Auckland. A lot of the associations and memories of its former population had been lost.

And so the settlers of future suburbs-to-be, scratching their heads for a better name than Henderson’s Point (since Henderson already had the creek named after him) or Five Mile, hit upon Te Atatu: a highly poetic Māori name which sounded old-timey but was really a modern invention.

With the exception of Mrs Bennett, the small numbers of Māori who still dwelt in the area around 1900 seem to have led a fairly marginal and dwindling existence in the face of encroaching manuka scrub, a hard, woody coloniser of open ground which grows very rapidly in the warmer parts of New Zealand and requires a population of a certain size, and determination, to keep it in check. The undated recollection of a settler named Mr Thomas, “an old identity of Te Atatu,” records that:

"The small tribe of Maoris left Te Atatu in 1900 and went to live in the Waikato, but in 1912 several of the tribe returned, one of whom was a princess whose name was Kiri, and another was her grandfather. They went back to the old settlement, and lived in an old whare [traditional dwelling] and an old rusty shed, which had been erected. Kiri had a playmate called Rua and they both went to the Te Atatu School, which was built in 1907. They continued to live in this fashion until Kiri’s Grandfather died in 1910 [sic]. He was not buried at the settlement, but somewhere in Auckland. The remaining party except an old man and woman returned to the Waikato. The early settlers of Te Atatu were forced to labour continuously by clearing away the Manuka, which grew, and still grows, very abundantly in that district."

The princess and her grandfather, and the elderly couple, certainly weren’t up to clearing away the manuka. And so the last Māori settlement on the peninsula was abandoned to the bush.

European colonists, who would sooner or later step in to clear the bush once more as their own numbers increased, tended to view this melting-away of the Māori — seen in a number of localities — as somehow inevitable, and not the product of specific historical misfortunes.

Misfortunes which continued even after the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi by which New Zealand acceded to the British Empire in 1840: a development welcomed at first by many Māori, who thought that it would bring peace and prosperity to all.

Well, it did for a time. But then, some parts of the Auckland region that were still inhabited by many Māori, away from the harbours depopulated in the earlier anarchy, then suffered ferocious land confiscation and exile of the inhabitants in the New Zealand colonial wars of the 1860s.

After that date, Auckland became an almost completely white city for nearly a hundred years; the fact that it had been founded by a treaty with the Māori nearly forgotten. Which is ironic because, today, in 2020, Auckland’s close to being a majority-minority city, with about a quarter of its population either Māori once more or from the Pacific Islands, and with a large Asian minority, these days, as well.

To continue, just as in the days of the past, the modern Aucklanders are keen boaties.

In fact it’s something of a cliche that Auckland is the ‘city of sails’. And not just sailboats. Powerboats and water-skiiing are also allowed in the lower parts of Henderson Creek.

And of catchers of fish too, though the catches have declined lately through mismanagement.

All the same, a lot of effort’s going into the restoration of the mudflats: which are hugely important as nurseries of life in the sea and also for the native birds, as well as healthy outdoor recreation.

We don’t have a Covid lockdown in New Zealand any more, but one of the things that’s happened is that I find it a big hassle to drive anywhere far afield, now, after having not done so for a couple of months. I think this tendency to enjoy myself locally might last.

It’ll be interesting to see if Aucklanders start to appreciate their city and its many interesting hidden-away places more, as opposed to travelling to some faraway place for the nature cure.


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