Come with us as we explore the gun emplacements and shelters which burrow into this Auckland volcano.
History and Background:
North Head is a small strategic headland at the mouth of Auckland’s Waitemata Harbour. Its commanding views over the Hauraki Gulf and inner harbour have made it an important lookout and defence site for centuries, first for early Maori inhabitants and later for European settlers.
North Head (named Maungauika by Maori) is a taonga with many special places. The tangata whenua have a spiritual, cultural and historical relationship with their taonga.
It is one of the oldest of approximately 50 volcanic cones in the Auckland volcanic field having been formed over 50,000 years ago in a series of great volcanic explosions.
The military installations date from 1888 and were built to protect Auckland from a feared Russian invasion with additions made for WW1 and WW2. Under the control of the Public Works Department, 300 unemployed men set to work with picks and shovels to dig a network of tunnels and pits for three huge disappearing guns. The barrels, each weighing over 13 tonnes, had to be hauled up the steep slope of North Head for installation. After firing, the guns retracted out of sight into their pits where they could be reloaded. One of these guns has been restored and was fired at the end of the ceremony – ear pugs were necessary and the boom was heard many kilometres away on the other side of the harbour. A historical highlight of the installation, the large ‘disappearing’ gun, one of a few remaining in the world.
During World Wars I and II, North Head and other defence positions around the Waitemata Harbour and the offshore islands were built to fend off possible attacks. Although the attack never eventuated, North Head became the jewel of Auckland’s coastal defence system and the centre for the control of all of New Zealand’s coastal defences until 1957.
The Navy continued to use North Head until 1996, after which, the whole area became a reserve administered by the Department of Conservation (DOC).
North Head holds a military tunnel complex, gun emplacements and fortifications and is well signposted with numbered descriptions and orange markers. Just across Auckland harbour from the central business district, the historic suburb of Devonport is full of charm and character. Decades of relative isolation by road, followed by visionary town planning, has preserved Devonport’s heritage. The streets are lined with wooden colonial villas built in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Stories are told that there are 2 planes from the war buried inside. In the mid nineties the Army was called in to jack hammer and try to find these planes supposedly in the hill.
Local residents were told possible ammunition still fully charged could go off at any time, but nothing was found after several weeks work.
There have been many stories and perhaps urban legends circling amongst the locals, of the North Head tunnels and surrounding areas being haunted.
Tales of short fast-moving shadows seen speedily rushing through the tunnels, people being touched in the tunnels, tiny darting lights, icy cold blasts of ‘wind’ experienced in isolated rooms away from windows or entrances.
Another rather vague story heard was of two alleged ‘soldiers in uniform’ seen standing guard above one of the gun turret entrances, looking off into the distance towards Rangitoto. These were seen to then fade and disappear.
Unfortunately and typically, these stories were always fleeting and so unexpected that none of them were ever documented with camera evidence by the witnesses. The stories also have never been widely reported or publicised and have remained as just urban legend, distorted perhaps by years of “Chinese Whispers”.