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Sunday, 26 November 2017 12:30 am

Peninsula wants Fort Ballance to be a showcase, not an enigma

A MAZE of concrete tunnels and gun pits blend into the hillside, overgrown and rugged, a perfect canvas.

Fort Ballance no longer accommodates soldiers and gun turrets.

It has evolved into a space where spray cans are the weapon of choice and photographers strive to capture its rawness.

Lying dormant for more than 60 years amongst the hills of Wellington’s Miramar Peninsula, the fort has degraded.

However time has been a curious ally for the Army base which is now a relic appreciated not only by historians but artists and explorers as well.

Built in the late 1800’s as a coastal defence against a Russian invasion, Fort Ballance was shut down in 1945 and it has since become something entirely different.

If you already know about the place then you are one of the lucky ones, for it is not easily found without direction.

Retracing my steps

As I arrive at the Fort Ballance turn off, there are no cars in sight and the sun, barely visible behind rain clouds, is descending.

I park my van at the bottom of the track and start to walk up the hill, armed with a torch, a pen and a notepad.

A beaten up sign on the right warns off trespassers: “NO ADMITTANCE EXCEPT ON BUSINESS.”

I carry on anyway.

The concrete path, just wide enough for one vehicle, is in good condition with only a few cracks and potholes.

Low shrubs and native bush run along side the track as it bends up and around the hill.

At the top the wind returns with a vengeance.

The main section of the fort is in view. I hurry towards it seeking shelter, brushing past tall weeds in the front courtyard, overgrown and sprouting yellow flowers.

The entrance to the right is nearly two metres wide and three high, and large cracks spread across the concrete like lightning.

in post pix

IMAGES: SIMON BURROW/DARKHALIDE

Inside, the corridor is well lit and an old fireplace lies dormant and crumbling near the entrance.

This used to be the barracks and the fireplaces situated at opposite ends of the room, would have once kept soldiers warm.

The walls, like the outside, are covered in graffiti and empty spray cans are scattered on the floor along with old fireworks and broken glass.

Musket slots large, enough to fit your hand through, run along the side of the wall facing south-west, if the artillery guns failed then this was the last line of defense.

At the time it was built, the army was equally intent on fending off potential attacks from renegade Maori groups as well as Russian invaders.

It’s no surprise that many who visit are un-aware of its history, this place has become a playground for the venturous and only remnants of its heyday remain.

History

For local historian Alan Jenkins, the site has historical value beyond measure.

“Those buildings have watched our country change,” he muses, during an interview inside his cluttered camera shop in Miramar, named Big Al’s.

“From the end of the Russian scare to the first and second world war, it was used as a military camp.

BW in post

Photo supplied by Alan Jenkins

“It was also used as a training camp for the Vietnam War and is to this day still being used by the SAS.

“It’s absolutely drenched in history,” he says, leaning back on a torn armchair.

Big Al used to be the president of the Moa Point & Breaker Bay Residents Association and when there was talk of a housing development on the land he fought to ensure it did not happen.

“We said ‘enough, this area should be protected and should anyone decide to do any fly-by-night developments then we will be asking the Resource Management Act to hear it in court’.”

He is adamant that Fort Ballance should be converted into a historical park and officially opened to the public.

Fort Ballance B&W 2

Photo supplied by Alan Jenkins

“It’s important for New Zealand as a nation that is trying to find its identity to preserve our historical sites.”

He refers to its neighbor, Fort Dorset as a prime example of what should be done.

“Wellington City Council did a wonderful job in developing Fort Dorset.

“They’ve cleared away bush so you can see the site, they’ve put up interpretive signage and have opened up the tracks.

“That’s an absolute blueprint for what they should do with Fort Ballance.”

Asked for his opinion on its use as a canvas by graffiti artists and taggers, he grins: “The graffiti is getting to a point where it could be regarded as historic as the fort.”

“However I personally don’t like it for a number of reasons.

“The buildings should be treated with respect because they have seen New Zealand grow from being a colonial outpost of Great Britain to becoming its own nation.”

“Its not the taggers fault though, they don’t understand the history behind it.”

Creative

Wellington photographer, Simon Burrow understands why Fort Ballance was built but he also appreciates what it has become. in pst pic

“There’s a whole sense of history there but with a modern take by the graffiti artists and other creative types using it,” he says.

There’s no doubt that the fort is well over due for some TLC, however for Simon its decrepit features are part of the appeal.

“As a photographer that’s what I look for, the decay, the change of state.”

Simon first became aware of Fort Balance 10 years ago staring out the window of a plane, heading south.

“I was looking down going ‘what’s this’.”

“A couple months later I drove around the coast with a friend and tried to find it.”

Eventually they did and Simon has been going back ever since to document it and play around with new camera techniques.

In contrast to his first visit, he has become less intimidated by the prospect of trespassing on military land.

“The first time it definitely felt like we shouldn’t have been there but I suppose that was part of the thrill,” he grins.

“However it seems to have calmed down quite a lot since then.”

He also points to a number of ways the site has been used over the years, engagement photo shoots, punk gigs, parkour and movie nights in the tunnels.

Bw Puc

Here’s an excerpt from a write up about one of the gigs, published online at Up the Punks Wellington:

“There we were on February 22, 2014 at the Scorching Bay bunkers overlooking the firing zone of inner Wellington harbour with the sun on our face and wine bladders in hand ready to rock out to High Risk Maneuver, Awkward Death, The JOHOs and Numbskull with a random appearance by travelling minstrels Possum on the Rails. All of which begged the question: with fuck all places left to play in town why don’t we do this more often?”

Why indeed?

There is potential to use the site in so many ways. I can imagine converting it into a skate park with a series of snake runs and bowl sections flowing in and out of the buildings.

One of Simon’s fondest memories is taking his kids up there and seeing it through their eyes.

“They were blown away after I told them it was over a hundred years old.

“I even gave them a stripped down history version, although they don’t quite understand war yet.

“After the shock wore off, they started using it in a utilitarian way.

“I watched them start exploring the site, jumping off everything and finding new tunnels.”

We both agree that the potential to explore is what draws many people to the site.

“There’s always something around the next corner.”

Retracing my steps

Back out into the open and the low hanging sun reveals one of the empty gun pits and a few rusty paint cans discarded in the nearby flax bushes.

An artillery gun was strategically positioned here so its operators could have a clear shot of any Russian warships that ventured inside the harbor.

It turns out no shots were ever fired, however there were a number of times when ships were spotted.

Big Al recounts the tale of the Japanese who were able to sail a submarine in and out of the harbor, because no one was game to fire up it.

There’s a ladder nearby, and it leads me higher up.

From the top there is a 270-degree view of Wellington Harbour and in the distance headlights float along State Highway 1.

The ocean is rough and white capping.

Unfazed, the Interislander plows straight through it, heading for open sea.

The next bay over is protected from the southerly and the surface is almost glassy.

There is a mussel farm about 30m out, just within casting range for a lone fisherman parked up on the side of the road.

This used to be an important vantage point for Maori long before the Pakeha.

They knew that if they controlled that area of Wellington then they could control the trade to the South Island, and that’s where the greenstone was.

I decide to carry on exploring, and head back down the ladder. 
Fort Bz

Another entrance leads to a narrow path with the mouth of a tunnel at the end.

Dense weeds require some ducking and swiping, and inside the tunnel I can barely see my hands in front of me.

After a while my eyes adjust, picking out a series of corridors on the left and right, devoid of light.

I reach for the torch and follow its beam down the right corridor.

The walls have less graffiti on them and you can see the original red brick, which Big Al said was sourced at the time from local brick makers, the Tonks Brothers.

Other workers and materials used in the construction of the fort have a story as well.

Railway track ripped up from the Manawatu Railway runs down the tunnels, and corrugated iron was used for the first time in New Zealand.

Prisoners from neighboring Crawford Prison played a part in building Fort Ballance and also lugged guns up the hill and planted pine trees in the area.

The Army clearly had budget constraints at the time and was more than happy to take advantage of cheap labour and materials.

Moving on into the next room, there is an eerie vibe, as though someone’s watching.

I make the call to get the hell out of there and head for the light at the end of the tunnel, footsteps echoing behind.

Out in the open again and I can see a little better, despite the dusk.

I’m standing in the middle of a huge gun pit, the beast that was the centerpiece of Fort Balance defences, and the walls are covered head to toe in graffiti.

There are layers and layers of it, as if there is an on going battle to have the freshest tag.

Or maybe it’s an act of respect to paint over some body else’s mark?

“Keeping it real, packing steel, getting high.”

“All you need is… Love.”

Heading back to the gate and feeling like a tomb raider, a torch light cuts the dark near the second gun pit.

I call out…no reply… then two figures step out of the tall yellow weeds.

“Jesus Christ, where did you come from?” they ask, with what sounds like relief.

I introduce myself and ask what they are doing here.

“I thought I would show her the place but it’s been a little spooky,” the man says.

“Yeah, this is like something out of a movie,” she agrees.

I ask the young couple if they want to come and check out one of the rooms on the lower levels of the fort and surprisingly they agree.

On the way, we swap stories and discuss the nature of the place.

The man tells how he used to come up here when he was 18 with his friends for midnight walks.

As we come around a bend in the dirt track, the entrance to a tunnel on the western side of the fort comes into view.

Inside it is wide enough to walk in single file and leading the way I come to a bend and point out a message on the wall.

“You are in my power.”

Whoever holds dominion over the place is a mystery and without pausing to consider it, we carry on.

The tunnel opens out, revealing a large dark room, so quiet that I can hear the woman next to me breathing.

There is an elevated rectangular podium in its center, about a foot off the ground, and stenciled across one of the walls is an army of Stormtroopers.

Clearly fewer people are aware of this room, because there isn’t any other graffiti in sight.

Either that or people aren’t as willing to venture into it’s depths.

Development

I wonder whether the Stormtrooper room will be left alone when the fort is finally developed.

It was announced back in 2011 by Culture and Heritage Minister, Chris Finlayson and Wellington Mayor Celia-Wade Brown that Fort Ballance among other heritage sites in the area would become part of the Watts Peninsula Reserve. FRTST

A decision has been made to develop the former defence land into a historical park, but it is still very much in the planning stages and it could be years before we start seeing any changes.

In the meantime I highly recommend visiting the site in its current condition.

You will not be disappointed.

Retracing my steps

Heading back down the hill to the safety of our cars, the moon is up and the road is quiet.

Near the bottom, a set of headlights lights up the last stretch of track.

As we draw closer a man jumps out of the car with a large set of keys.

Perfect timing, we’re about to meet the gatekeeper.

He isn’t surprised to see us and I sense that we aren’t in any trouble.

He introduces himself as Mark from Simple Security, he’s been doing the round for six months.

“It must get a bit spooky up there sometimes,” I say, scrambling for my notebook.

“Na, it’s not too creepy as long as you don’t think too hard about it. Although, you wouldn’t want to run into any escaped convicts,” he laughs, referring to the old prison nearby.

Mark checks the place every night for vandalism, which he admits is quite hard to spot in the dark.

Cutting to the chase, I ask him if he’s seen anything unusual up there, half expecting to hear outlandish tales of strange inhabitants.

“The coolest thing I’ve seen is probably young cadets training.

“You do get some people sleeping there, but that’s about it.”

It turns out that he doesn’t have a problem with people exploring and is pretty laidback about the occasional squatter as well.

Thanking him for his time and saying goodbye to my fellow explorers, I jump back in my van, content with just sitting there and reflecting on another memorable experience at Fort Ballance.

I doubt its creators would recognize the Fort now.

However its degradation has enabled people to use the space creatively and for me that’s a positive.

IMAGES: SIMON BURROW/DARKHALIDE 

FARATA

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is is a Whitireia journalism student
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