Motu Manawa - Pollen Island Marine Reserve

Motu Manawa / Pollen Island
by James Littlewood

“If you want to get there, I wouldn’t start from here” said nobody once, but in quite a good joke. In this case, it’s true. The journey to Pollen Island - or Motu Manawa - is neither easy nor pleasant. And once you get there, there’s almost nothing whatsoever to do. Which is one of the things I quite like about it. It’s just not even a remotely sensible place to go.

Here’s what you’ll need. You’ll need someone who’s done it before. You need a guide, and you need to take flags to mark your way back. I’m not kidding. You need gumboots: big ones. You’re going to hit mud in large quantities. Vast quantities. Endless, vast, deep quantities of very, very slimy, sticky, mud; the sort you sink into every time you stand still. And you need low tide. You need to depart about an hour before low tide, and you need to come back within an hour after low tide. Otherwise you may drown. Or more likely, you may get stuck in the mud, and then very wet, and then very cold, very hypothermic and maybe even very dead.

The other reason you don’t want to go there is because both it, and the mud you traverse to get there, are all part of a marine sanctuary, and the last thing the sanctuary wants is for you to walk through it and die in it. Actually, the last thing the sanctuary wants is for you to violate its sanctum: no fishing no killing no removing no feeding any life forms of any sort, other than you.

So, given you’re not going to do this, just scroll through the photos and imagine it, instead.  Start at Rangimatariki in Avondale, also known as Rosebank Park Domain, also known as KartSport Auckland, for the obvious reason that their racetrack takes up the entire domain. From there, you can easily find your way to the cycleway/footpath that runs alongside the Northwestern motorway. Head west. In a hundred metres or so, you’ll reach a nice resting spot with a view of the Whau boat club. Here, you clamber down the sea-wall rocks, and head north under the low-spanned motorway bridge. Don’t worry, it’s legit.

You’ll emerge on the south head of the Whau, on a thin strip of grass, covered in litter, outside the barrier alongside the motorway. You see? I told you it was neither interesting nor sensible. From here, you clamber down another sea wall, and onto the mud flats. These are vast, and extend for miles, and contain almost no distinguishing features of any kind, other than mangroves, and they all look identical. In only a few steps, the land - even the motorway - seems far away and indistinct.

Occasionally, you’ll cross a wee creek. Funny to think of a creek way out here, far from the shore in a place that’s usually under water. Keep moving! Keep heading north.

Eventually, you’ll see a bit of the mangrove forest that’s different to all the other bits. Up ahead, there’s a kind of outline skirting the top of the mangrove horizon. Well done. You’ve identified your destination. Keep moving. Keep heading north. 

Eventually, you emerge from the mud onto a bit of earth that is slightly higher and slightly firmer than all the mud that’s everywhere else. And then, almost on top of you, there’s a bank about two metres high and two hundred metres long, made entirely of cockle shells. Millions and millions of shells. Billions of them. Take a seat on the bank. Admire yet more mudflats drifting lazily off into the upper Waitematā. Congratulations: you’ve arrived at Motu Manawa / Pollen Island. 

Here you may contemplate the life of Dr Daniel Pollen.

It was an unusual life. He was a long serving politician, even our premiere for a while. He was also a doctor, who - according to the stuffy and antiquated 1966 Encyclopaedia of New Zealand - was known to be liberal enough to care for patients who couldn’t afford him, and also “to champion the Maori cause”, while at the same time be a conservative Tory, Minister For Native Affairs, Receiver of Land Revenue and - get this - Commissioner of Confiscated Lands. That kind of liberal. 

Besides those peculiarities, Pollen excelled at living and working in strange places. To begin with, he came from Ireland via Washington, DC. Nothing strange about them. Afterwards though, his travels and exploits became both extensive and detailed. He spent time in Sydney, then the Pacific Islands. And then: Kawau (some years prior to Governor George Grey’s arrival there), an island in the Hauraki gulf, quite near the mainland but very far from Auckland, especially back then. 

Why Kawau? Imagine coming all that way to New Zealand, only then to hive off to a low lying, pleasant-but-featureless island 50 miles off in the gulf, where he wrote newspaper columns on the subject of responsible government, and was also “to the fore in supporting temperance, scientific, and library movements there.” Which is insane, because there is nothing remotely resembling libraries, science or temperance there at all.

Kawau has a famous history of drinking, no library whatsoever, and nothing but the ecologically disastrous legacy of Governor Grey’s menagerie of exotic animals to contribute to science. 

After that, back in Auckland, Pollen got wind of Motu Manawa and its untold stores of cockle shells. Possibly - without a motorway tearing past it - local folks were more in touch with these things back then. Anyway, he mined the cockles from the Motu Manawa, shipped them by the trillion to his Avondale factory, melted the lime out of them, and used the lime to make concrete, which was in turn used to make much of Auckland. He was also a pioneer in the great brick and ceramics industries of Avondale and New Lynn.

You can still see some of the old concrete structures they used to gather all the cockle shells up. Presumably, there’s a fair few cockles in a fair few old Auckland buildings, still standing here and there. 

Motu Manawa - the island of the heart / Pollen Island. If you wanted to go there, I wouldn’t start from here. 

Image Credits: James Littlewood

Wetlands Of New Zealand New Zealand Wetland Birds and Their World Up the River: Explore and discover New Zealand's rivers, lakes & wetlands HB

From 1880s till the 1950s over 90% of Auckland’s wetlands were drained, so this remaining tidal area is prized by wetland birds. It is one of the few significant wetland bird feeding & breeding grounds in the Waitemata Harbour. Motu Manawa Marine Reserve protects some 500 hectares of the inner reaches of Auckland’s Waitemata Harbour and includes intertidal mudflats, tidal channels, mangrove swamp, saltmarsh and shellbanks.

Forest and Bird are working to ensure the two islands within the marine reserve (Traherne and Pollen Island) are pest-free and weed-free so that native flora and fauna can flourish again. In prospect is improved public access with a safe bird-walk using a marked trail. 

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