New Zealand

Copyright: G J Wright


After twenty years in East Africa and the Middle East, serving in the Colonial Police through the Emergency in Kenya and with Naval Intelligence in the Persian Gulf, I arrived in Auckland with my family on 15 July 1973 looking for a quiet life. How wrong can you be!

Whilst in Bahrain I read Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring” which left a lasting impression and an inclination towards employment in a related area. But with a wife and family to support, needs must, and so I took a job with the Kerridge organisation in the 246 building in Queen Street. I started to look for work in conservation or the environment, but with no qualifications, there was little offering. Some months after starting at 246 I saw an advertisement in the Herald by the Department of Lands and Survey for a Ranger position at Kawau Island. I applied, was interviewed, but was unsuccessful. The actual appointee lasted less than a year.

In the meantime a move from Manurewa to Devonport allowed me to walk to the ferry and then up Queen Street to 246 Building. A few weeks after the interview I was approached on the ferry by a gentleman who introduced himself as Darcy O’Brien the Commissioner of Crown Lands who said that he recalled interviewing me for the Kawau position. He was apologetic that I had not gained the job, but urged me to keep trying. He added that he was sure that there was a position for me in National Parks and Reserves.

Some week after that I had just arrived home from the city when I had a call from Wally Sander, Chief Ranger, Hauraki Gulf Maritime Park, offering me the job of Caretaker at North Head, Devonport. The wage was minimal, but included the former base commander’s house, rent free. I duly quit Kerridge and the family moved to North Head.

I later heard that there were doubts in the Lands and Survey office about whether I could handle the practical aspects of the job. There was probably good reason for such reservations because the task definitely lay outside any of my past experience. But I was so pleased to be out of the Queen Street that I do not recall any doubts about my ability, though it must be conceded that handling the tractor, an old Fordson, the Gravely mower and a chainsaw presented a steep learning curve! I soon learned that you don’t drive a tractor up a steep slope with a heavy load of firewood on the tray, and that the Gravely was a powerful beast that flung rocks like a canon! I didn’t receive any firm directions or tasking, so I made, and added to a list of jobs that clearly needed attention.

I found the summit of North Head fenced and occupied by the Royal New Zealand Navy who ran a tactical and navigational school in a cluster of WW2 huts. The Navy band also used a large timber building just above the Takarunga Road entrance, as a practice room. I met the OC of the summit facility, Lt Cdr Gerry Wright and so soon had access to the Navy’s slop chest and acquired some durable working gear at minimal cost.

Otherwise the reserve was largely in a state of neglect, open to the public day and night, which had led to some vandalism, tagging and other mischief. The tunnels were largely intact, but littered with broken door and window frames, and other rubbish including the remains of fires. The tracks were overgrown and in some places blocked by fallen tree limbs.

Except for locals who paid daily visits, the reserve was generally quiet on weekdays except for public holidays, or when cruise liners or naval units were entering or leaving port.

One daily visitor was an elderly gentleman, a Mr Hammond, who liked to stroll gently up to the disappearing gun and back by one of the other tracks. He also liked to talk. He was convinced that New Zealand was under immanent threat from Indonesia or China and we had some lively debates on this.

There was however more activity at weekends extending from families walking the tracks or enjoying the views, to less savoury visits by motorcycle gangs who occupied tunnels and lit fires. There were also evening or weekend visits by local youth on trail bikes who liked to race around the accessible tracks.

The latter was highlighted when a boy of about 15 in a bedraggled and shocked state came to the house one Saturday afternoon and reported that his trail bike had gone over the edge and had wedged against a pohutukawa tree on the Eastern face of the reserve. He had managed to scramble back onto the track, but he could not retrieve his bike. He was lucky, a few feet to the left or right and he and the bike and himself would have dropped to the rocks fifty feet below. Retrieval was not easy, but eventually we managed to haul the bike back onto the track and found that it was little damaged. A few weeks later, he returned with his mother who had made a decorated pot for us, as a thank you gift.

In another trail bike incident, I caught a couple of teenagers riding at speed around the tracks and it transpired that they were from an address in Takarunga Road, just outside of the reserve entrance. A visit met with unconcealed rage from the father, a doctor, who questioned my right to interfere with his son’s activities on North Head and instructed me to leave his property. However, I did not see the boys on North Head again. I understand that he complained to the Lands and Survey office where he learned the rights and wrongs of the matter.

Around the same time, I found the carpark full of large motorcycles with the riders ensconced in one of the tunnels around a roaring fire with smoke emitting from a vent like a chimney. All very jolly, but they were using timber ripped from doors, frames and windows. They were not too interested in my views, but when I said that I had called the police I was almost trampled in the rush to leave. It was all too quick to record any number plates and in any case, pillion passengers stood in front of the plates in practised fashion. It seems that they had not missed the fact that there was only one route in or out of Devonport making it easy for the police to set up a road block.

By this time I had become an honorary ranger and had some semblance of a uniform to put fear and awe into such miscreants! The office had also supplied a pair of transceivers which were helpful when I needed to call the house from anywhere on the reserve.
In the meantime I carried on cleaning up the reserve, gathering and disposing of rubbish, removing fallen tree parts, and sorting out long derelict fences . One very old fence was found to have posts of 150mm squared heart rimu and I still use a heavy coffee table made from its parts. The posts had weathered to a surface of light grey, but on the inside was beautiful, golden, knotless timber.

The task of cleaning up the tracks and open grass areas was complicated by the presence of large areas of kikuyu grass where mowing left the brown under stems visible. The task clearly called for an integrated spraying programme, but I had neither the equipment, nor the inclination. Still progress was made and I found that regular consistent mowing reduced the kikuyu to a level greensward. I first encountered kikuyu grass in its native habitat, on the lawns of the Brackenhurst Hotel at Limuru, just out of Nairobi, where the elegant lawns were kept under control by teams of low-cost labour!

Litter was sometimes a problem because the 12 gallon drums placed about the reserve were a ready target and manageable enough to be rolled and flung over the edge onto the rocks below. After due deliberation, I constructed half a metre square concrete plinths with a 10mm coach bolt set into the centre. A hole was drilled into the base of the drum which was them lowered over the bolt and secured with a nut. One night after I had poured a base, it rained and in the morning I found the concrete appeared as attractive exposed aggregate. Of course, if I’d have had my wits about me I would have removed all the drums and left it for visitors to take away their rubbish — as I later successfully did elsewhere.

Living on the reserve it was soon clear to me that a good deal of nonsense could be prevented by controlling vehicular access from Takarunga Road—by locking a gate at sunset and opening them first thing. About this time the first casual helper, Bob Watson, was employed and so the idea was put to the office for the construction of a low wall and a single horizontal steel pole gate at the head of Takarunga Road. Consent was obtained to use a dump of river stones which were found elsewhere on the reserve. And so construction was entrained. The wall was about half a metre high with eight tanalised 150mm posts set in to project from the top on which was secured a similar sized horizontal pole. A gap for pedestrians was left at the head of the footpath to the left side. A single pole steel gate was constructed and brightly painted, to swing across the road to exclude traffic.

Of great assistance to a fledgling was George Holmes who was then Senior Ranger at Rangitoto and the source of much practical knowledge. George however formed the habit of telephoning several times a week, for no particular reason, but at around 6.00am. It was only later that I found that George the joker kept a phone by his bed! He organised the construction of the gate at the HGMP workshop.

George invited myself and family to visit Rangitoto and arranged to pick us up at the Torpedo wharf one morning. He took great delight in driving the jet boat which had impressive turn of speed and maneuverability. However some of his demonstrations were not appreciated by Maureen, especially when he showed how the boat could be turned through 90 degrees at speed! She swore that she would never, ever get into a boat driven by George again! Our boys, William and Michael, were aged 4 and 5 years at the time and they were impressed!

The wall and gate worked well and the only snag proved to be the need to walk down and lock the gate at sunset and open it first thing in the morning.

Early one Saturday morning I had a visit from Anna Souter who worked in publicity at the Auckland office of Lands and Survey. Anna said that she was part of a group of people who were members of a local historical society. She had left the others in the tunnels where they were intent on demolishing a brick wall which they believed had been built to conceal a disassembled aeroplane. Anna said that she had tried to reason with them, but that they would not listen to her.

In the tunnel I found a group of about a dozen people who appeared to be led by a man who told me that they had reason to believe that one of the original aircraft from the WW1 era Walsh Brothers flying school had been hidden in the tunnels. I explained that whether or not a concealed aircraft existed, he would need to obtain consent from the Commissioner of Crown Lands before entraining any work on a gazetted Historic Reserve. He and some of his colleagues seemed unconvinced, but I told him that if he persisted in his intention then I would be obliged to call the police. Finally, he agreed to seek the necessary consents and left with his group.

I cannot now recall his name, but he went on to become a Devonport Borough Councilor and pursued his quest for some years. It seems that there had been rumours and myths about a Walsh Brothers aircraft and about ammunition similarly stored in closed tunnels. I gather that in the 1990s, DOC made formal investigations, but nothing was found either on North Head or behind the Torpedo Wharf.

One sunny afternoon the boys and I were flying our kite in the vicinity of the disappearing gun when a crowd of jolly jacks erupted from the huts on the summit to investigate the UFO that had appeared on their radar. Perhaps they thought that they were under attack!

About to close the gate one evening I met an American and four children walking into the reserve and we fell into conversation. It seemed that the family were staying at a friend house in Takarunga Road and he was looking for work. Since Bob Watson had left, Dr Bill Quigley became the second casual worker. We started on a brick laying job right away, bricking up an embrasure in pill box at the foot of the caretaker’s garden. I’d been aware since moving in that there was a considerable drop to the rocks on the foreshore and when my boys and their friends discovered the possibilities, it was time to take preventative measures.

Working around the disappearing gun one day I turned just in time to witness a Navy Wasp helicopter descend gracefully into the Waitemata harbour. I later heard that the crew was rescued and that no one was injured.

Towards the end of 1974, a ranger position at Kerikeri was advertised, I applied and was interviewed. The position was very popular and there were a considerable number of applicants, but after some weeks I learned that I had been appointed.


Copyright: G J Wright