Stepping down the Great South Road
A few months after I posted a report on 'Atenisi's ceremony at this blog, Paul completed his feature-length film Tongan Ark, which offers a languidly impressionistic, wryly affectionate account of the institution and its extraordinary founder Futa Helu (you can see some previews of Paul's film on his website).
Paul and I have given our film the very rough working title Twenty Steps Down the Great South Road. In a sort of test shoot last week, Paul captured me ranting and raving about our project. Paul and I are hoping to do dozens of interviews as part of our project, and we're keen to hear suggestions about aspects of the Great South Road's history which need coverage. Reproduced below is a rough draft of an introduction to Twenty Steps Down the Great South Road.]
Like Los Angeles and Belfast, Auckland is a city defined by its roads. Auckland's harbours may look good on picture postcards, but they play little role in the daily lives of most of the city's residents. Auckland has hundreds of kilometres of rivers and creeks, but these waterways have long since ceased to be transport routes, and are now often obscured by overpasses or diverted into underground drains. Auckland's train network remains underfunded and underused. Almost all Aucklanders use roads to get to and from their workplaces and their favourite leisure spots, and to enter and leave their city.
The Great South Road is perhaps the most historically and sociologically significant of all Auckland's traffic routes. The road was built in 1862 and 1863 to carry troops from the fledgling town to the northern border of the Waikato Kingdom. The colonial government, which was still based in Auckland, was filled with fananciers and property speculators frustrated by the refusal of the Waikato's King Tawhiao to allow the sale of Maori land to Pakeha. The Great South Road was conceived as a route to the riches of the Waikato, and a route to Pakeha domination of the North Island. Mileposts were raised to mark the progress of the road, and camps, redoubts, inns, and churches grew by its side.
As soldier-engineers imported from Britain pushed the road south through swamps and undulating bush, Maori began to seize their theodolites and shovels. Soon warriors sent north across the Waikato River were emerging from the bush to shoot at troops and settlers alike. Finally, on the 12th of July 1863, six thousand British troops left their redoubt in Pokeno, at the southern end of the Great South Road, and crossed a small tributary of the Waikato into Tawhiao's territory. The conquest of the Waikato had begun.
With the end of the Waikato War in 1865 and the confiscation of a million acres of Maori land, the Great South Road's military usefulness was largely exhausted. But the road quickly became important as a link between the farmer communities founded by Pakeha in South Auckland and the adjacent Franklin County. Milkcarts and herds of cattle took the place of marching armies.
As the New Zealand economy grew in the late nineteenth century, the Great South Road became part of a new trade route that connected Auckland with Wellington and other important North Island centres. The road also became a thread between new suburbs like Ellerslie, Penrose, Otahuhu, and Papatoetoe.
As New Zealand became more urban, and Auckland became a portal through which new ideas and new cultural trends reached the rest of the country, the farming communities south of the city increasingly defined themselves in opposition to their neighbours. The Great South Road was once again perceived as a route taken by invaders.
After the opening of Auckland's Southern Motorway in the early 1960s, the Great South Road ceased to be the main traffic route between the city and the rest of New Zealand, and increasingly became the preserve of South Aucklanders. Many residents of Auckland's northern and eastern suburbs used the motorway to bypass the south of their city completely.
In the 1940s and '50s Maori from the Waikato and Northland began to settle in significant numbers in the new suburbs beside the Great South Road. In later decades of the twentieth century, South Auckland became the main destination for new immigrants to New Zealand. In the 1960s and '70s tens of thousands of Pacific Islanders were drawn by the promise of jobs in the area's burgeoning economy.
Despite the neo-liberal restructuring of the economy in the late 1980s and the '90s, and the closure of railway workshops and factories in South Auckland, the flow of new citizens from the Pacific has continued, and has been complemented by immigration from Asia and the Middle East.
With their linguistic and cultural diversity, the new communities along the Great South Road offer a glimpse of New Zealand's future. Too often, though, South Auckland has been presented in a negative and stereotypical light by the mass media and by politicians. In the imaginations of many Kiwis who live outside its borders, South Auckland is a frightening place, where English is a foreign language and gangs patrol the streets.
The widespread disinterest in or hostility to South Auckland can be related to the image of New Zealand promoted by successive governments and by the propagandists of our tourism industry. A big majority of Kiwis live in urban areas, but New Zealand has been presented, in the speeches of politicians and in the advertising campaigns of the Tourism Board, as a land of pristine forests, snow-capped mountains, and clear blue lakes. In recent years the Lord of the Rings movies, with their repetitive presentation of a Kiwi countryside carefully cleansed of signs of human habitation and history, have only reinforced the vision of New Zealand as a pleasant wilderness.
With its views of endless car yards and fast food bars, abandoned factories and unglamorous housing developments, and mangrove swamps and flat blocks of farmland, the Great South Road starkly contradicts the 'official' image of New Zealand.
Director Paul Janman and writer Scott Hamilton propose to journey slowly and deliberately down the Great South Road in search of pleasure and enlightenment. Like Iain Sinclair's accounts of his epic walks around London and Daniel Kalder's reports from the unglamorous corners of Russia, Hamilton and Janman's adventure will be a contribution to the burgeoning genre of 'anti-travel' art.
Scott Hamilton grew up close to the Great South Road, and his investigations will mix scholarship with autobiography. As he travels by bullock cart, bicycle, Morris Minor, Bedford van, and Shank's Pony, Hamilton will talk about history and the future, meet old friends and new acquaintances, revisit the sites of major humiliations and minor victories, point out beauty spots and eyesores, and celebrate and berate twenty-first century New Zealand. Standing beside ancient earthworks and historic mileposts, breathing in the fumes from courier vans and busy slaughterhouses, arguing with diehard rednecks and Maori Trotskyists, poring over old war maps and the apocalyptic literature of Destiny Church, Hamilton will ponder the conflicts and agreements, connections and disjunctions, and flukes and misfortunes that have created the rich, confused history of the Great South Road...