Elephants in my backyard...

Skyping with a Kiwi friend overseas one afternoon, he asked what I’d been up to that day. “Walked around Western Springs Lake among other things.”

After colonisation, the area was part of land farmed by Scottish settler, William Motion who arrived in New Zealand in 1839. In 1874 the city bought William Motion’s mill and 120 acres including the spring. The council established Western Springs Park by 1961. In its history it has been home to a motor campground in the 1930s and an American military camp in the Second World War. These days it is the venue for the annual Pasifika Festival - South Pacific’s largest Pacific culture event.

The natural spring-fed lake is home to native fish - short and long-fin eels, banded kokopu and inanga, along with introduced species such as koi, grass carp and perch to name a few. I particularly love standing on the little bridge over the lake and watching the eels come nosing up for a handout. Native plant species abound - ngaio, ti kaika, kapuka. And introduced willows, eucalyptus and water lillies. My favourites, though, are the birds - pied shags, gulls, pukeko (who have the cutest babies on earth, which, like the swans and geese, they protect fiercely), teal, Australian coot, swans, ducks, geese, chooks and roosters and pigeons. It’s hilarious watching the geese run towards people honking hopefully for food. Their run is somewhat ungainly, kind of lopsided and eager. Some of the geese look like they’ve had bad perms. Feathers all spiralled and mussed. I wish people would feed them seeds rather than bread. Cute bunnies hop about certain areas of the park. One of the best things about a lake walk is seeing the elephants in their enclosure at the zoo next door. I have to say, they look pretty content. It’s amazing we can see these creatures practically in our backyards.

Walking the lakeside path, I feel like I am in a private world. A sanctuary. Even with the copious amounts of bird poo squelching into the soles of my Nikes. In the past, I have taken my dogs walking with me there. Only the twice, however, before I realised it’s not dog-walk territory. Not for my two energiser bunny Jack Russell terriers. JR’s and swans meeting was never going to end well. One of my dogs would stand and shake violently with a ‘what could be’ glaze in her eyes, while the other one screamed at the top of his doggie voice to be leashless.

At four years old my niece was attacked by a swan at the lake. For no reason. The swan rush at her and attacked. Obviously having a bad day. My poor niece sustained a few beak wounds and has never forgotten it. Nor has she ever forgotten me taking her to the Lion King at five years old. We had to leave the theatre such was her tearful distress. Bad Aunt. My friend Janet and I used to walk the lake every morning, three or four times around, putting the world to rights and mumbling about our partners. Rain or shine. I also walk there with a friend who is terrified of birds. She spends quite a bit of time ducking behind me and squealing “make them go away”.

Then there are the memories of concerts at Western Springs Stadium. The birds must hate the noise. Led Zeppelin was my first concert there, 25 February 1972. They opened with Immigrant Song. The atmosphere was intoxicating enough without the clouds of smoke. I will never forget David Bowie in 1978. He strolled on stage in white tennis shoes, green pants and a yellow shirt and launched straight into Warzawa. I’ve never liked crowds, but the crowds helped make those concerts. These days three people in the same supermarket aisle as me is a crowd.

Delving into the history of the lake and park has only increased my love for the place. Nothing dark and foreboding to me. Simply a rich history, and hopefully a long and safe future. I’m a little annoyed at myself for taking this tranquil oasis for granted and not finding out its history before now, and all the other special places on our doorstep. We are blessed to have such a green space filled with birds, plants and animals so very close to the city centre. It is a joy to watch families picnicking, using the barbecues and listening to the laughter of happy kids in the playground. And the loos are clean. Always a bonus.

Sun’s out, seeds in pocket, shoes on. See you there. (DEIRDRE THURSTON)