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Dark history bubbling in Devonport

AAP logoAAP 24/10/2016 Michael Wayne

Of all the ways to start a guided tour of Devonport, a sleepy village across the harbour from Auckland, I wasn't expecting this.

"Our first stop is the site of New Zealand's first European execution."

Welcome to Devonport.

Our kindly old tour guide relates the story of Joseph Burns, who in 1847 fell on hard times and broke into the house of a local naval officer, Lieutenant Snow.

Burns had done his research, waiting until Snow and his family had gone out before breaking in, safe in the knowledge they weren't coming home.

"But they did come home," the guide adds, cheerfully.

Burns proceeded to murder the man, his wife and their baby daughter. Then, true to his name, he burned the house down in attempt to hide the crime.

As the rest of my tour group - one other person - rushes to take photos, I look out the window of the bus at the site where Burns was hanged for his terrible decision. It's just a tree, a plaque and the indifferent waters of Waitemata Harbour beyond.

On the other side of the road is a line of historic houses, one of which is built on the site of Snow's estate.

I sense a dark energy bubbling beneath Devonport, threatening to spew forth volcanically at any moment.

And then we're off again, bustling through the quiet streets. The driver toots his horn and waves at locals we pass. Some wave back. Some don't.

"See that house there?" It looks expensive. "It sold for over $NZ8 million [$A7.5 million] earlier this year."

As his commentary descends into pontification about housing affordability and immigrants, let's skip forward to Devonport's backstory.

The area is primarily known for its military history and its volcanoes, we learn via our effervescent guide, but all of this has been buried. Literally.

In the days of early settlement, Devonport's abundant high ground was used by the navy to mount "disappearing guns", which could be raised or lowered at will. Only one remains today, presumably to guard against-

AH-CHOOOOO!

The violence of the sneeze rocks us both out of history. "Excuse me, folks," says the driver. "That probably didn't sound so great over the loudspeaker!" Fittingly, we move on to the first of the three local volcanoes.

Only Rangitoto Island remains dormant, having gone just 600 years without an eruption. Keep your distance, folks.

Mount Victoria, the most famous of the three due to its panoramic views, is extinct, but the summit is peppered with mushroom-shaped air vents that service an underground water reservoir.

The last of the three was quarried at the turn of the 20th century and used to reclaim swampland, which became a racetrack that connected Devonport to the mainland. Many jockeys and horses died because the land was too waterlogged - or so the tour guide says.

Later, when I ask the town bookshop owner about that, he seems puzzled. "Devonport has always been attached to the mainland," he says, almost offended. "That guy didn't know what he was on about."

Could that be true? Could the town's tour guide have gotten it wrong? Suddenly, everything he'd said was in doubt. Had his name even been Graeme? It was his job to know.

"You know, sometimes it gets so cold here," he continues, seguing to a subject more in line with his area of expertise. "I've tried burning books to stay warm, but they don't burn as well as you'd think."

I hadn't actually given it any thought, but he proceeds to leave no shadow of a doubt. "The Nazis found that out the hard way."

With that cryptic comment, I take my leave of the bookshop and head down to the pub the driver had recommended. But would it even be a pub? For all I knew I might be walking into a morgue...or a milk bar.

It's a pub. And outside is a Devonportner shooting me a look that says succinctly that if I were to come home while he was robbing my house, I'd burn.

Across the road, the tour bus driver is picking up a happy family of five, his final group for the day. They set off up the road, toward Lt Snow's house.

Welcome to Devonport.

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE: Flights to Auckland leave Sydney regularly, with Jetstar, Qantas, Virgin and Air New Zealand offering services. It's about three hours' flight time. Devonport is a 20-minute ferry trip from Auckland, with tickets available at the terminal. For more info visit fullers.co.nz.

STAYING THERE: Auckland hotels abound, but if you want to stay in Devonport the Esplanade Hotel offers rooms with 1900s charm. Go to visitdevonport.co.nz for more details.

PLAYING THERE: The Devonport Explorer coach tour is a great way to see the sights of the seaside village...if you dare. For more info hit up visitdevonport.co.nz

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