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Opinion - Mount Erebus

It’s about time Erebus families got what they requested with a national memorial where all 257 names of New Zealand’s worst peacetime disaster can be honoured and remembered. Most Kiwis think, “Why has it taken so long?” Why indeed. The accident controversy since the early 1980s has far too long overshadowed proper pastoral care of the Erebus families. The Prime Minister and Air New Zealand apologies have now eased the healing process.

Our advocacy group for a national memorial contacted many Erebus families. It quickly became apparent they had three main convictions; the Erebus National Memorial should be located at an accessible site, attractive and appealing, and not be in a cemetery.

In 2017 the Government heard the pleas of Erebus families. The Ministry of Culture and Heritage surveyed in 2018 the views of family members and Operation Overdue Ice Phase members. Results were similar to what we had discerned. The families sought a secluded location of grass, trees and other plants all with a natural aspect or view, with space to sit and reflect, reference to the Antarctic, and the memorial having an educational dimension. By far the most common way family members want their loved ones represented on the memorial is by including all the names in a ‘touchable’ way.

Our advocacy group had no involvement in the funding, choice of site or design for the Erebus National Memorial. Auckland was clearly the logical place and we were delighted to learn of the selection of the Dove-Meyer Robinson Park. We fully supported the extensive consultation process with families, Council and Manu Whenua, and considered the winning Te Paerangi Ataata – Sky Song design to best fulfil the memorial objectives and with a very small footprint in a large public park.

The Dove-Meyer Robinson Park in Parnell is centrally located and easily accessible to people of all ages. Further, the park is already a well-known remembering place with other nearby memorials present - and Sir Dove Meyer Robinson was Auckland mayor at the time of the Erebus accident.

The chosen site for the memorial, utilising a steep bank area but preserving maximum green space and care for the magnificent nearby Pohutukawa trees, has the advantage of an outlook to the harbour and ocean. How fitting that nearby – almost a stone’s throw - is where the first flying boats arrived in New Zealand in 1937 and where our pioneering overseas airline, TEAL, first linked New Zealand to the outside world. In fact, from the Erebus memorial site can still be seen the poles in the harbour, part of the navigation path for the flying boats. Nearby in Mission Bay, the Walsh Brothers trained many World War One pilots and in earlier years pioneer pilot Jim Hewett operated his Falcon Airways from Orakei Heights. The aviation ambience is strong.

Many of us were impressed how the Te Paerangi Aaata – Sky Song design sits lightly to the site, enabling open green space for special gatherings and easy continued use by the public. Part of the memorial has some height but that is integral to the Sky Song design and accentuated by the steepness of the site.

I was disturbed by recent comments that some local people did not want to drink a glass of wine by a grave. The Erebus National Memorial is not a grave – and the park does have a partial alcohol ban! Or the remark that people want parks only to be happy places, and not reminders of tragedy. From my many years of pastoral ministry I would reflect that death is an integral part of life and people of all ages and cultures acknowledge in some way, the reality of the frailness of our human journey.

Parnell is one of New Zealand’s most historic suburbs. Local residents now have the privilege of embracing the Erebus families with the new national memorial, on behalf of all New Zealanders. The original vision of the Dove-Meyer Robinson Park since its purchase in 1914 was for it to be an amenity for all Aucklanders. It can become a special place for all Kiwis, including the 257 people lost on Mt Erebus whom we honour and remember now and into the future

Rev Dr Richard Waugh, aviation historian and chaplain, is the spokesperson for the group advocating for the Erebus National Memorial.

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