Reimagining Aotearoa’s Past, Present and Future.

Our social, political, and economic consciousness is shifting as a nation. As we begin to understand and embrace what being Maori can say about Aotearoa, our conversation as designers turns to the land and to the built environment. Damian Powley thinks these deep narratives have as much to say about what once was, as they do about our collective identity. Here he re-imagines a historic portage connection, in a modern city.

As Auckland, the City of Sails, makes its move towards becoming Tāmaki Makaurau, what could and what should a uniquely modern Māori and Polynesian city on the edge of the world look like? When you think of Auckland, you think of boats on the harbour framed against a backdrop of volcanoes, but stretch a little further out to the suburbs and hinterland and the Tāmaki isthmus is criss-crossed with pathways and portages traversing between the Manukau and Waitematā harbours.

Tied to our nation’s sea-voyaging heritage (you don’t just arrive in Aotearoa by accident) our tūpuna (ancestors) came here purposefully. Transportation by water made sense, and what made Tāmaki so desirable was its location and access to resources. Yet with the course of time and the ability to travel faster and quicker across land, New Zealand opened up its interior. Tāmaki remains a key transport connector, albeit now north and south by truck and rail.

Imagine: the narrowest point of the isthmus between East and West, coast to coast, is marked on paper only. A remaining strip of land (40 metres wide by 1.2 kilometres long), bisected now North and South by the national rail line and State Highway One. Through one of Tāmaki’s oldest suburbs lies the clues and remnants of the traditional portage crossing: Totōia-Ōtāhuhu Canal Reserve.

Te taiuru, te taiwhiti
He haumi waka
He hononga tāngata.

The west, the east
A waka binds
A joining of people.

Buried beneath the modern suburb of Ōtāhuhu, one of the most important Māori cultural features of Tāmaki Makaurau lies still and quiet. Although its presence is not known to many and despite there being virtually nothing that might tell you of its importance, this site connects mana whenua (indigenous peoples) of this area all the way back across the Pacific Ocean to Hawaiki, the ancestral Māori homeland.

Many, many years ago, Māori ancestors made a series of long and challenging journeys down through the islands of the Pacific to arrive home here in Tāmaki Makaurau. Tauoma is one name that mana whenua gave to the Ōtāhuhu portage. He taonga tuku iho nei nā ngā tūpuna, this treasure that has been handed down to us from our ancestors. Tauoma is the place where Māori ancestors travelling from the Waitematā Harbour and Tāmaki River first found a place to drag their great waka hourua (double hulled ocean-going canoes) overland to the waters of Te Manukanuka o Hoturoa, the Manukau Harbour.

Tauoma is one of a regional network of at least 15 known portages that permitted travel across the Auckland region via coast, harbour and river. These watery highways avoided the near impossible task of travelling overland across a then-densely forested original landscape.

Kia whakatōmuri te haere whakamua:
‘I walk backwards into the future with my eyes fixed on my past’

Peeling back the hidden layers underneath our city streets and opening up the cracks of the past can be challenging. Sometimes the best way – or less painful, at least – is to rip the band aid off quickly and expose the site for what it has become. It forces us to confront it and deal with it, and it allows us the opportunity to be open and authentic in our response. A profound history, and uniquely Aotearoa story has been left abandoned. There are wounds to heal. The site is toxic, embedded with over 100 years of industry dumping and run off, it has been left to ruin. It is weeded and infested, and the twin harbour edges to the Manukau and Waitematā are plugged with silted mud and mangrove.

Yet despite this, the crossing is not forgotten. It is alive and continues to live in the kōrero of place and time. It is in the names and stories that remain and what the people hold tight to. Scratch beneath a modern city and the whenua remains. Recreated and celebrated since 1992, the historical portage journey is retraced by waka from the Waitematā, over the portage crossing at Ōtāhuhu, and on to the Manukau. The annual portage crossing event brings teams together to re-trace and re-create that ancient passage. It’s a whānau affair.


And while the site’s current context may not live up to its historical and cultural significance now, looking forward it can. Bringing together mana whenua, the Māngere Ōtāhuhu Local Board and the community – the people – the conversation is turning towards what this site might be and represent for our future. Let’s not forget, this land (public open space reserve) was thankfully set aside because of big dreams.

Rightly or wrongly, a sliver of land parcel was set aside in the 1850s with a dream of connecting the two harbours. For a whole host of reasons (and perhaps thankfully) a canal connection never quite happened. But it is through big dreams only that we are lucky enough 150 years on to be afforded the opportunity to hold on to that connection. We can now re-tell, re-connect, and re-imagine what those dreams might be. Hopefully in this process we can also take the time to acknowledge, celebrate and reimagine for our future.