Although media reports led us to believe that Titirangi was overrun by marauding gangs of rats, some as big as small cats, others the size of cocker spaniels and probably by now as large as your average German Shepherd, we didn’t see a single rat at all. Well that’s not quite true. At Titirangi’s monthly Sunday market, Colin Heath from NZ Coin Works was doing a lively trade in small brass ornamental rats, selling to those who like myself were entertained by the prospect of a new Titirangi icon. That’s not to say that there’s not a ratty issue, and if so, judging by local warning signs it has obviously concerned the local authority enough to take steps to rid itself of the predicament. Titirangi’s renowned for its chicken population, but we didn’t see any of those either, although we could hear roosters crowing in the bush. People enjoy the chickens and like to feed them, which together with a mild autumn has largely contributed to the rat problem.

The view from the roof of Lopdell House looking towards Auckland Airport in the distance

What we did see was a pleasing number of native birds including kererū (native pigeon) and pīwakawaka (fantail) as well as several tūī darting among the trees like fat black arrows. That wasn’t too surprising, as in many parts of Titirangi an astounding range of mature native trees grow right up to the footpaths, and if it weren’t for the number of houses among them, and the sight and sound of traffic, you’d swear you were in the country instead of only 13km south-west of downtown Auckland.

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Graves of sailors drowned during the wreck of the Orpheus in 1863

The suburb’s near the southern end of the Waitākere Ranges Regional Park, and the road ends about 15km away at Huia, near the entrance to the extensive Manukau Harbour. Huia is not far from the small settlement of Cornwallis, where a small graveyard in the bush marks the last resting place of John Kilgour and three unknown sailors who lost their lives when the naval corvette HMS Orpheus was wrecked in the harbour in 1863 while delivering supplies and troops for the Land Wars. The incident was New Zealand’s worst maritime disaster, and many of the 189 sailors who drowned were very young, aged between 12 and 18 years old at the time.

Titirangi monthly market

Back at the market, which began in 1991 as a means of supporting the Titirangi Rudolph Steiner school, well over 50 stalls were selling all manner of arts, crafts and specialty foods. Colin Heath has been there from the outset, making New Zealand coin jewellery and selling a variety of small brass animal figurines including rats, crocodiles, chickens and many others. The market’s very popular with the locals who turned up in droves, leading or being led by a vast number of dogs of all shapes and sizes.

The Pied Piper of Titirangi – Colin Heath with an assortment of brass rat figurines

New Zealand’s most important modern artist Colin McCahon lived at Titirangi in the 1950s and worked at the Auckland City Art Galleries, initially as a cleaner but ending up as the Deputy Director, painting all the while. McCahon House, his home on the steep, winding Otitori Bay Road leading to French Bay, is now owned by a trust and is open to the public at specified times. We were shown around the house by volunteer Georgina Carlton and were amazed at the miniscule living spaces including the teeny tiny separate shower that would have been quite innovative at that time, and the sheer quantity of artwork that McCahon produced in such a small area.

Volunteer Georgina Carlton beside a replica of McCahon’s painting in the dining area

Inside, there’s a replica of the mural that he painted on the wall of the dining area and another painting in the kitchen. Visitors can listen to stories on headphones, and view images of the remarkable number of paintings. The house is well worth a visit for those interested in art and heritage and ways to maximise small spaces. Here, and at most other places we visited near the bush, we saw and used shoe-washing facilities, there to help contain the spread of Kauri dieback

The graceful art deco Lopdell House staircase

August 2019 saw the centenary of McCahon’s birth, and, sponsored by Resene, several commemorative events were held to celebrate Colin McCahon’s legacy and 100 years of modern art in New Zealand.

Perhaps encouraged by the fact that Titirangi was home to Colin McCahon, several artists and bohemian life-stylers chose it as a place to live in the 1960s and ’70s, and many still reside here today. Potter Peter Lange was one such artist, and is famous for, among other things, his brick sculptures. I spoke to him a couple of years ago when our small Far North town of Kaeo was capitalising on its infamy for flooding by installing dinghies around the town, including a welcome sign atop a tall pole.

Pioneer environmentalist Henry Atkinson

I’d thought that one of Peter’s brick dinghy sculptures might be an appropriate addition, given that his father Doctor Lange practised at the local hospital for some time. However, it was not to be, as Peter had stopped making brick sculptures some time previously. So it was quite a thrill, after climbing three storeys up the graceful staircase of art centre Lopdell House to find a Peter Lange brick sculpture reclining on the open roof. I say ‘reclining’ because the piece is a brick lilo and in 2006 it won the premier award in the Portage Ceramic awards, organised annually by the Te Uru Waitākere Contemporary Gallery in the adjoining building.

McCahon House, now a museum

Several of Peter’s large works are installed around Auckland and elsewhere. Some years ago, Peter, who is the brother of the late prime minister David Lange, gifted a large pottery collection to the Auckland Society of Potters, and it’s now stored and being archived at Barry Brickell’s legacy, the Driving Creek Railway in Coromandel, so will be available for the public to see at some stage.

The roof of Lopdell House, as well as providing expansive views across the harbour to the Auckland Airport, is a good place to look down on the roundabout that has been named one of the best in the world by the UK Roundabout Appreciation Society, an organisation that, unlikely as it seems, has a large following throughout the world. The sculptures in the centre of the roundabout were designed by Lisa Higgins in 1993. Inspired by fungus, their original pink colour caused some controversy, but they’ve now been repainted in a greenish-blue, said to be more in keeping with the evergreen of the Waitākere Ranges, and are now generally loved by the community. Outside Lopdell House there’s a statue of Henry Atkinson, pioneer of environmental protection who, prior to his death in 1921, donated areas of land to the Auckland City Council. His statue was originally sited on nearby Mt Atkinson but was moved to the Lopdell House site due to people repeatedly stealing his nose!

At the time of writing there’s a new construction development underway that will change the face of the village itself, and that’s progress. But it’s a given that Titirangi’s underlying community, environmental and art-related values will remain integral to the neighbourhood in this lovely leafy suburb.

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