Darcy O’Brien

Anne Gibson at NZ Herald reports:

If you’ve ever visited Cape Reinga, the Bay of Islands or even the islands of the Hauraki Gulf, you have a lot to thank Darcy O’Brien for. Anne Gibson meets the quiet public servant who bought large chunks of these precious coastal areas for the public good.

For many decades, much of the coast and so many parks and islands around Northland and the Auckland region have been available to camp on, walk around, land on from boats, photograph and generally adore. That access is something we think we always had. It seems right, it makes our lives better and we are happier for it. Maybe we even take it for granted because these areas have been our playground for so long.

But were it not for one man, it could well have been otherwise. The Northland and Auckland land may well have been the preserve of the rich, locked away from our eyes forever.

Darcy O’Brien is a quietly spoken unassuming gentleman who will only agree to tell us his extraordinary tale to honour others, never himself.

It is a story so strange, it beggars belief that it was ever forgotten.

“I’ll agree to it, for the sake of all New Zealanders and the belief in the public ownership of the estate,” says the 95-year-old over afternoon tea at his Belmont, North Shore home of a request for an interview. …

Mr J.D. O’Brien – as he was known in the media at the time – was assistant Auckland commissioner of Crown lands in 1957 and, a decade later, Auckland commissioner of Crown lands, a title he held until he retired in 1976. He was at the centre of at least 40 separate purchases which gave the northern area its most precious northern conservation estate of well over 5000ha.

No other New Zealander has ever come close to achieving so much in this field, as with the support of successive governments and ministers of lands and survey, he created some of New Zealand’s biggest reserves, public land now in the Department of Conservation’s (DoC) hands.

What a great unknown story.

“Our man in the land grab” said the Herald on May 18, 1974, on his retirement and role with what was then the Department of Lands and Survey. It summed up just some of his accomplishments: creating the 9300ha Hauraki Gulf Maritime Park and becoming the park board’s inaugural chairman; purchasing Red Head Island, Urupukapuka Island, and Moturua Islands in the Bay of Islands; and buying Motukawanui Island, the largest in the Cavallis, for just $150,000.

Hauraki Gulf is iconic. Those of us who enjoy it, owe Darcy a vote of thanks.

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