Ghost walks (1) Kumutoto Stream

By ghosts, I mean things that have largely disappeared from the city, leaving barely any trace behind. There are numerous streams in Wellington’s CBD but these have been mostly covered over by roads and hidden in underground culverts. The Pipitea stream for example, makes a brief appearance in the Botanic Gardens before being piped down Tinakori Road, under the motorway and the Westpac stadium, and out into the port. Apparently fish still migrate up the Waitangi stream, through pipes under Kent and Cambridge Terraces to Prince of Wales Park to breed.

Kumutoto stream mouth

Kumutoto stream mouth with kina sculpture

The Kumutoto was the first Wellington stream to be culverted, in 1866, but has recently made a very minor reappearance as part of the Kumutoto precinct development on the waterfront. A sort of notch has been cut into the harbour and at low tide, as it was when I set out to trace the route of the stream, you can see the top of the concrete tunnel that the stream flows through to enter the sea. The architects refer to this as ‘declaiming’ – presumably in the sense of giving back part of the reclaimed land of the harbour. Maybe the word should be ‘de-reclaiming’. But this is just the stream mouth – a very small concession. For nearly all of its length, the stream remains ‘undeclaimed’.

Kumutoto toilet

Kumutoto toilet

It’s a Sunday morning and people are walking along the harbour, wrapped up against the blustering wind. Before setting off, I pay a visit to the new-ish Kumutoto toilets around the corner. These are meant to evoke sea creatures, but inside the curved concrete interior, once the surprisingly heavy door is closed and the sounds of the city are muted, you could be in an underground pipe, just like the Kumutoto.

I think about its subterranean waters flowing below my feet as I follow what might more or less be its path, across Customhouse Quay and up Waring-Taylor Street to Midland Park. The stream flowed down what is now Woodward Street and across what is now Lambton Quay to enter the harbour. There is another reminder of the stream in the metal sculpture at the entrance to Woodward Street.

Woodward Street

Woodward Street

This used to be a flax collecting area. As early as 1831, nearly a decade before the first New Zealand Company settlers arrived, a flax trader called David Scott had purchased land here, and built warehouses and dwellings. For about three years, Kumutoto was a central flax collection point in a network of flax stations in the east of the North Island. David Scott was later to argue with William Wakefield, one of the principal agents of the New Zealand Company, over ownership of the land.

The area at the top of Woodward Street was occupied from the mid-1830s by the Te Atiawa people, who moved to Ngauranga Gorge in 1849. There was a kainga on the site of the Wellington Club building on The Terrace. The Wellington Club has, in fact, been through a number of different buildings on this site since it moved there in 1877, from a wooden villa, to a short-lived quirky Roger Walker building, to the current graceless high-rise, ornamented with pretentious 1980s-style pillars and arches.

Wellington Club building

Wellington Club building

I’ve never been in the Wellington Club, but according its website, it has a bar called Drake’s Acre– a reference to Wellington’s first brewery which was on this site prior to the Wellington Club. The brewery was called ‘Drake and Northwood’ after its co-owners, Thomas John Drake and Thomas Northwood and operated from 1843 to 1850. It used water from the Kumutoto Stream to make its beer. I’m intrigued as to what the beer might have been like – but more of this in a future post.

Next door to the Wellington Club is Wakefield house. There’s a plaque here to mark the site of the house where Edward Gibbon Wakefield, the founder of the New Zealand Company, died. But I can’t see anything to mark the site of the Kumutoto kainga.

Underside of motorway

Underside of motorway

The Kumutoto Stream turned south-west at a right angle at the pa, and this is what I do, following the Woodward Street subway and turning left under the motorway through the Clifton carpark. I’ve crossed through the end of the carpark many times but I’ve never really stopped to look at it. On a Sunday morning, it is all but deserted. There’s something impressive about its monmumental scale: the sinuous lines of the underside of the motorway, held up by curving parallel lines of pillars passing in and out of shadow. The ridged concrete makes it look as if it is constructed of concrete planks, hewn from some fossilised forest, and held together with huge metal plates. There’s a steady rumble and rhythmic clunk as cars pass overhead.

I take some stairs up to the higher levels. The stairs are made of wood as is the ramp from the highest level down to the next, which seems out of place in this concrete landscape. Along the middle level are two parallel rows of massive mallet-shaped structures, like long-abandoned monoliths from a people of the concrete age. I take a closer look, but can’t see any purpose for them. I follow the carpark to where it meets the cable car. Right at the end, a man is using one of the fire hoses to wash his car.

Concrete mallets

Concrete mallets

Kumutoto Stream was overhung with tall rimu and totara, nikau palm and tree ferns and was a source of eels and freshwater crayfish. The stream continued to run along the gully after the area was settled, the trees cut down and houses built on either side, along The Terrace and Clifton Terrace. However, it has long since been buried under the motorway.

I cross into another carpark. At the end of this carpark, I follow a rough path which takes me underneath Boulcott Street and along the edge of the motorway towards the terrace tunnel. The path becomes rougher as it climbs up the side of the motorway. Partway up is a collection of office chairs, beer cans scattered around them, and a sinister-looking leather jacket draped over a tree branch. The path leads onto some wooden steps and then I find myself at the back of houses on The Terrace.

Kumutoto stream

Kumutoto stream

I follow a narrow lane leading off The Terrace onto a roughly grassed area above the terrace tunnel. It is completely deserted. I pause to watch the traffic entering the tunnel, and then continue along the lane which ends abruptly by a low chain link fence. I can hear running water, and there, below the fence is the Kumutoto stream, fed by a dribbly little waterfall. It looks sad and muddy, choked with fallen leaves and plastic drink bottles but I’m pleased to see it.

A path and steps leads up and away from the stream. I push through trees to see where the stream goes, but it is soon hidden from sight among tradescantia-choked banks. Back in 1979, David McGill wrote about the stream running through the garden of 109 Salamanca Road. I return to the path which takes me up to the squash club in Kelburn park and then continue along the edge of a gully to Salamanca Road. I keep looking down the gully, but there’s no sight or sound of the stream. I wander down Salamanca Road and number 109 is still there, a large wooden house hidden behind the houses fronting the road, so maybe the stream does indeed still run through its garden.

I cross Salamanca Road and head up Mount Street to the University which is where the stream supposedly has its source. I rather half-heartedly zigzag through the university, but there’s no sign of any water and by now, I’m supposed to be somewhere else, and so I say goodbye to the mostly undeclaimed and hidden waters of the Kumutoto Stream.

NZ Topo database. Crown Copyright reserved.

NZ Topo database. Crown Copyright reserved.


McGill D and Tilly G (2012) The Compleat Cityscapes
Kernohan D (1989) Wellington’s New Buildings
Kumutoto Kainga, Wellington City Library website
Ward, L E (1928) Early Wellington
Yska R (2006) Wellington: biography of a city

5 thoughts on “Ghost walks (1) Kumutoto Stream

  1. Pingback: Ghost walks (2) Te Aro | Rising to gale

  2. Pingback: Ghost walks: beer digression | Rising to gale

  3. The mysterious concrete mallets are foundations for another section of motorway that was planned to be built when a duplicate tunnel was built next to the Terrace Tunnel. The foundations were built, they there was only enough money for one tunnel and therefore only one section of the motorway leading up to it needed to be built, leaving the other lot of foundations incomplete.

  4. Pingback: The space in between (1) | Rising to gale


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