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When I was a kid, my mum would take my brother and me to feed the ducks at the Domain. We’d bring a picnic, and I practised overeating and falling asleep in the sun. I climbed every tree, ran the length of the gentle, grassy cricket fields, and began my love–hate relationship with geese. Bastards that they are.
To five-year-old Joel, the Auckland Museum looked exactly as a museum should: stately, handsome, just like in a movie. The manicured grounds were from a movie too, and the Wintergardens, humid and lush, were a far cry from 1980s Birkenhead, where I lived. Up to that point, my main impressions of Auckland had been my school, the bush behind my house, the local Big Fresh, and the toy section at the Takapuna DEKA. Looking out over the Domain, though, I was struck by a thought for the first time: I realised with a giddy kind of pride that we lived in a proper city. With a proper museum and a proper park. ‘This could be anywhere,’ I thought. ‘This could be New York . . . or London!’
Now that I’m an adult (of sorts) and have actually been to New York and London, I realise that my observation was both right and wrong. Yes, it is a proper park, and certainly deserving of a proper international city. But it was only after returning from overseas that I became suddenly aware of just how Aucklandish the Domain really is. It couldn’t be anywhere else if it tried – though, for a long time, it really did.
At its inception as a public park in the 1840s, the Domain was rigorously planted and shaped by the Auckland Acclimatisation Society. Their endeavour to create a slice of the Old World in this colonial outpost is still evident in many of the pretty English gardens, and the band rotunda looks straight out of Mary Poppins. But, try as the Acclimatisation Society might, the native trees remained: scattered among the transplanted foreigners are crops of proud pohutukawa, puriri and totara.
Before it was a park, before its marshy swamps were drained and flattened into cricket pitches, the Domain was a war memorial of a different kind. For 600 or so years, Ngati Whatua and Ngapuhi fought bloody battles for control of the commanding views. In 1828 peace was brokered by the first Maori king, Te Wherowhero, who renamed the land Pukekawa, or ‘hill of bitter memories’. A sacred totara planted by his granddaughter in 1940 still stands in the spot where this peace was brokered, not more than a kilometre from today’s war memorial.
The land itself rests on the remains of what may be Auckland’s oldest volcanic crater. It’s thought that the last eruption occurred some 100–150,000 years ago, raising the peak upon which the museum now stands and leaving behind a crater that became a freshwater lake. Fun fact: the water from this lake supplied the drinking water for the early CBD, and a reservoir buried beneath the fields in the 50s supplies it still. The duck ponds are also fed from this ancient water source. Lucky ducks. And geese. Bloody geese.
The Domain is one of the city’s finest picnic spots – it certainly outdoes itself with the view. Conveniently dotted on the park’s outskirts, you’ll find several more-than-adequate alimentation stops (some suggestions listed below). Just as well I got in all that practice when I was a kid; my mum must have known I had a bright picnicking future ahead.
At 75 hectares, the Domain is Auckland’s largest and oldest park. It’s a volcano which became a pa site which became a battleground which became a war memorial which became a park which became another war memorial. Many of the world’s cities have parks that define them, and Auckland should be proud to have the Domain as its green heart.