Shaping the land, Ian J Graham

Volcanoes of Auckland: The Essential Guide
Bruce W Hayward, Graeme Murdock and Gordon Maitland
Auckland University Press, $59.99,
ISBN 9781869404796


Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, is often referred to as the “City of Sails” because of its location straddling two large harbours – the Waitemata and Manukau – and the popularity of sailing for sport and recreation. But, as the excellent Volcanoes of Auckland: The Essential Guide suggests, it could equally lay claim to being “City of Volcanoes”, since it is built on the remains of at least 50 volcanoes that have erupted over the past 250,000 years within 20 kilometres of its centre.

Several previous books have provided pictorial and geological accounts of the Auckland volcanic field, notably those by E J Searle (1964) and L L Homer, P R Moore and L O Kermode (2000). But this most recent offering by Bruce W Hayward, Graeme Murdock and Gordon Maitland is the most comprehensive yet. The book not only discusses the most up-to-date interpretations of geological processes that produced various volcanic formations, but also outlines the Maori mythology and the Maori and European history associated with them. Combined with a consistent discussion thread related to the conservation value of retaining the various landforms for their cultural, historic and scientific value, the book is truly an “Essential Guide” that should find its way onto many shelves and coffee tables in Auckland and beyond.

It is beautifully illustrated with a mixture of historic photographs, simple-to-understand maps and diagrams, and modern paintings and photographs, all of which showcase the remarkable diversity of landforms and land uses featured within the city boundaries.

Full-page reproductions of the historic maps of pioneer geologists Charles Heaphy and Ferdinand von Hochstetter (and the account of their somewhat brittle relationship) are a delight. Particularly effective is the association of diagrams and photographs relating to specific volcanic processes and resulting landforms (the formation of the Takapuna Reef fossil forest, for example). Well-chosen paintings by local artist Chris Gaskin, such as that depicting the Maori settlement on Mangare Mountain, add a touch of class. The captions are fully informative (excessively so at times), but the choice of a fine grey font makes them more difficult to read than need be.

Although none of the authors have credentials as volcanologists (Haywood is a world-renowned palaeontologist), they have clearly researched and consulted well, and there are no substantive issues arising from the scientific discussions. What does come through is that, despite 150 years of scientific study, knowledge of the eruptive history of the Auckland volcanoes is still inadequate to allow formulation of a predictive model of future activity. A programme of systematic dating of major eruptive episodes is under way at last, and when completed may yield a much better understanding of the hazard from the still-active Auckland volcanic field, including the likely timing of the next eruption. Careful evaluation of various dating methods and their uncertainties is needed (the suggestion on p24 that radiocarbon ages are less precise than argon-argon is only true near the limits of radiocarbon dating, about 50,000 years BP, particularly if modern AMS methods are used).

There is a consistent, but not unwelcome, conservation theme running through the book – the need to preserve Auckland City’s landforms before they are further destroyed by development. It is likely that publication was motivated by a desire to further raise public support for the cause. In that case, the book serves its purpose well, demonstrating persuasively through text and illustration just what a scientific and cultural gem Auckland is, and how easy it would be to allow further (necessary and inevitable) development to obliterate or severely modify what is left of the city’s extraordinary landforms.

That said, it is ironic that the many examples of splendid architecture dotting the city – and illustrated in a montage of photographs – were built using material quarried from lava flows and scoria cones now in need of preservation and restoration. An implication of closing inner city quarries is the need to cart aggregate from distant sources to the north and south of Auckland City, with attendant detrimental effects on the roads and the environment. That this is an acceptable and necessary price to pay for the preservation of cultural heritage is implied, but not discussed.

A pleasing aspect of the book, and one that gives it a distinctly New Zealand flavour, is its sympathetic treatment of Maori mythology, with thorough explanations of  volcanic landforms and associated features from a matauranga Maori perspective. Many Maori place names describe geographic or geologic features, often in a delightful way. One example is the account of Taylors Hill and the sacred karaka grove at Parehuia-Taurere (Taurere me te uru karaka tapu o Parehuia). The story of the elopement of Parehuia to join her forbidden love Turanga i mua is a familiar one. Like that of Romeo and Juliet, it ended in tragedy, but it is commemorated in the placename Taurere (“the loved one flown away”), which became the name of the ancient pa where the karaka grove still flourishes.

Other Maori names provide a practical and, in some cases (from a modern science perspective) insightful, explanation for local features, such as the names of local fresh-water springs that nourished early Maori communities.

Also well-covered is the history of human settlement from the arrival of the Maori in the 14th century, through the next main wave of immigration in the early 19th century, to the present day. The Maori adaptation of volcanic cones, such as Te Pane o Mataaho (Mangare Mountain), to form pas and associated villages is beautifully described in words, photographs and paintings (notably, the superb recreations on pp57 and 63).

As Auckland grew fast under largely European settlement in the 19th and 20th centuries, extensive use was made of natural rocks and landforms, such that the city became not only “built on”, but “built out of” its volcanic field. Quarrying of scoria intensified to feed the insatiable demand for aggregate, until this was largely brought to a halt and sources outside city boundaries were turned to. The account of this journey, and the key historical figures – such as Sir John Logan Campbell, the “father of Auckland” – responsible for slowing the destruction and helping preserve and restore the remaining landforms, are fully and sensitively discussed. One can’t help but admire the forethought and generosity of many of these largely unsung heroes for the legacy they left the citizens of Auckland and New Zealand. The authors of this book are playing their part in maintaining that vision and momentum.

A book of this type potentially serves multiple purposes – as a reference for local residents, a traveller’s guide, a text book – and all of these are likely to subject it to frequent and rough use. The choice of cover and binding then is unfortunate, and a more robust hard cover and fully sewn binding would have been more appropriate, although making it a little more expensive. That is, however, a minor quibble over a book that will provide many hours of enjoyable reading and/or satisfied browsing for residents and visitors to Auckland alike. It will also serve as an essential reference book for anyone with an interest in how and why our land is shaped the way it is, and how the people that live on that land have adapted to it and made use of its resources.


Ian J Graham is a Wellington scientist.

Tagged with: , , , , , ,
Posted in Non-fiction, Review, Science
Search the archive
Search by category