Devonport and the view towards Auckland City from North Head. © William Chan

Devonport and North Head: Victorian village meets mysterious fort


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The local iwi, Ngāti Whātua, were the first to scope Takapuna, Takarunga and Takaroro – the three volcanic cones at the end of the northern headland of Auckland’s Waitematā Harbour – as ideal defensive positions.

The biggest and strongest of the pā they built was atop the uttermost of the three, which they named Maunga Uika. The terraces of their fortifications can still be seen today.

When the Europeans arrived, they too saw the strategic potential of the headland. Not long after Devonport – named Flagstaff until it assumed its present, Anglophile name in 1859 – was founded, a naval base was sited on the re-named Mount Victoria, complete with dockyards below in Stanley Bay.

At the end of the nineteenth century, Maunga Uika (now known by the unimaginative name of North Head) was fortified all over again. This time, the hill was driven with a honeycomb of tunnels housing bunkers, barracks, magazines and gun emplacements. The Russians were coming, you see, and our defensive master plan was to arm North Head to the teeth so that when the Russian armada appeared in the Rangitoto Channel (as they certainly must), we could blow it out of the water and win a famous victory for the greater glory of the British Empire...

Well, it all made sense at the time. Today, you can still see and even explore some of the tunnels, and the main emplacement still houses an 8-inch Armstrong ‘disappearing’ gun, so called because it was mechanically contrived to pop up out of its hole to lob a shell at the unwary Russians and drop back out of sight before they could splutter, ‘Where the hellski did that come from?’

A post shared by Scotty P (@_scottpeters) on Nov 13, 2017 at 11:30pm PST

Just as entertaining as late Victorian military strategy, contemporary theory holds that the lion’s share of the original tunnels are still there, sealed off and disguised, and packed with all manner of military secret stuff, from frighteningly unstable First World War ordnance to a couple of Boeing seaplanes used by Auckland’s Walsh Brothers for their once-famous flying school.

Who knows? Whatever the truth, with its splendid views of the Hauraki Gulf, North Head is the logical location for a picnic day out, which can also include lazing nearby on some of Auckland’s prettiest beaches, and exploring the arty/crafty outlets in Devonport’s main street. Or you could catch a ferry across from Auckland City – as Aucklanders have been doing for as long as there have been Aucklanders – to enjoy a night out at one of Devonport’s many restaurants and bars.

Devonport – so nice, it’s no wonder the locals want to secede. And they’ve got the best defensive position in town.

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