The fortress, which has tunnels, chambers, and gun pits, is a World Heritage site owned by the New Zealand government. It sits on the eastern end of Waiheke Island, surrounded by farmland land and vineyards, Moon said.
As an Allied force, New Zealand commissioned three defense fortresses, including Fort Stony Batter, which were all built in total military secrecy, Moon said.
By the time the fortress was finished, the war was over. New Zealand was never attacked, and Fort Stony Batter’s tunnels were never used, according to New Zealand’s Department of Conservation. Instead, the site became a ghost town.
Source: New Zealand’s Department of Conservation
For 60 years, the buildings and tunnels sat abandoned. The tunnels flooded with water, and according to Fort Stony Batter’s website, locals were often spotted exploring the underground passageways.
Source: Fort Stony Batter
One of those explorers was Moon. “We would often venture out into the fortress, explore its dark, underground tunnels, get lost, and scare ourselves silly,” Moon, who has lived on the island for 27 years, said.
Then in 2002, a group of Waiheke volunteers started cleaning up the tunnels. They disbanded in 2012, and the tunnels again sat empty, Moon said.
In 2017, Moon, who has an interest in archaeology and anthropology, had the idea for a one-off event inside one of the fort’s underground chambers. That’s what catalyzed a complete restoration, he said, and led Moon to reopen the tunnels to the public for daily exploration.
So in 2021, after years of self-funded restoration, the tunnels reopened for tours and events like underground concerts, art exhibits, and meditation sessions. Since then, 12,000 people have explored the massive, underground fortress, Moon said.
Source: Radio New Zealand
This summer, I was one of them. I arrived at Fort Stony Batter during Waiheke’s off-season in June, which is winter on the island. While the tunnels are open every day in summer, they were not when I arrived, along with the tour office. Moon said this was likely due to the off-season and pandemic.
This meant I couldn’t explore the underground tunnels. Luckily, the public can access the 50-acre property any day, so I was able to wander around the fort’s historic above-ground buildings, which included gun pits and bunkers.
I parked my rental car and set out on a muddy path to the defense fortress.
The fortress is about a half mile away from the parking lot. Along the path, I spotted sheep and massive boulders in every direction.
Today, the land is active with grazing sheep, which travel from the nearby Man O’ War farm and vineyard. The boulders, meanwhile, have existed on the land for eight million years after a volcano erupted, Moon said.
This is the only part of Waiheke Island that’s scattered with boulders. The massive rocks worked to the military’s advantage — they were turned into concrete for the fort’s buildings, according to a sign I saw on the trail.
Before I made it to the fortress, I read signs that painted a picture of what life would’ve been like for the soldiers and workers here during WWII.
For instance, this now-empty plot of land was once a camp with 28 buildings, one sign detailed. Moon said that the workforce abided by strict secrecy. “The workforce of 200 men were not able to communicate with their families, and they weren’t able to leave the site of war. They were locked down for three and a half years,” he said.
Near the abandoned camp, I spotted a grass-covered foundation. According to another sign, this lot was once a workshop for blacksmiths, engineers, and store men. Here, the men maintained generators, guns, and other equipment.
In the distance were three cement buildings. As I approached the structures, I learned from posted signs that they were used for storing diesel.
Moon said the restoration process has been extraordinary. “When I arrived here, it looked like a post-war zone and now it’s a thing of beauty — it’s alive,” he said