McCallum’s chip

Image: Di Stewart. Jervois Road, Herne Bay, Auckland, showing a footpath covered in red stone chip, 1996. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 802-13-11.

While walking in the city, I scan my environment like I do while walking on the beach. I actively look for interesting patterns and curiosities. One day my eye tuned into a ‘red stone’, I saw it everywhere: as loose stone chip, in concrete foundations, floors and small ready-mix concrete applications; The council uses it on road islands, in concrete for raised pedestrian crossings and down the shoulders of the motorway. Albert Park is completely paved in this loose red chip. The more I looked the more I saw it.

Image: Finn McCahon-Jones. Piece of footpath covered in red stone chip.
Collected in Surrey Crescent, Auckland, 2003.

This red stone, I would argue, is as iconic as the Mt Eden basalt kerbstones seen around the city, and as easily identifiable. This ubiquitous stone has become part of the aesthetic of the Auckland streetscape, yet somehow it remains purely as a material commodity, and unlike the kerbstones, it has not yet transformed into a cultural object.

Image: Auckland Weekly News. Little known island composed almost of shingle and metal in the Hauraki Gulf … (Pakihi Island), 18 June 1930. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, AWNS-19300618-45-4.
Commonly known as ‘McCallum’s chip’, this red chert gets its name from the McCallum family who have been mining and distributing this stone across the city for over one hundred years. The McCallum Bros Ltd started mining chert on Pakihi Island in 1906, and Karamuramu Island in 1908.

Image: Whites Aviation. View of Ponui Island, 1951. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, Footprints 06073.

Pakihi and Karamuramu Islands are part of the Hauraki region which is home to many iwi. Until European contact, Ngāti Pāoa occupied most of the land from the Thames estuary, the Hūnua Ranges, east Tāmaki, Waiheke Island and the coast northward to Whangaparāoa. The iwi Ngāi Tai was part of an extensive coastal trading network between Tāmaki, the Coromandel, Aotea (Great Barrier Island) and across the Bay of Plenty to Tōrere Bay, where another Tainui-related tribe, Ngāti Tai, live today. 

Karamuramu Island can be seen just offshore from Kawakawa Bay in east Auckland, and along with Pakihi Island is comprised almost entirely of chert. In other countries chert is considered a semi-precious stone and is used in art and architecture. Unfortunately, the Auckland chert has fine dust fractures throughout its composition which means that it easily shatters, and is no good for fine work. So instead it has been used as a building material. 

Stone is crushed on Karamuramu Island before being shipped across the Waitematā Harbour to the Auckland CBD on boats, where it is put to use in all aspects of the building industry.

Image: Arthur Buchanan. Showing the square bilge ketch 'Bee', built in 1891 at Matakana, and owned for many years by the McCallum Brothers, 1909. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 7-A15513.

In 2020 Karamuramu Island is still being mined. According to the McCallum Bros website Karamuramu Island currently consists of several million cubic meters of rock, and they will be supplying this stone for many more years. I think about how the island is slowly disappearing from the harbour, and reappearing across Auckland. How something seemingly immovable such as an island can become so ephemeral. It is bittersweet seeing the island reconstituted and remade as traffic-islands in the city street. I lament the destruction of the island, yet enjoy seeing this unique stone all around the city.

I am constantly amazed how this small island has become such a physical presence in the city.

Chert, sometimes called jasper, is a sedimentary rock that was formed over millions of years and is made up of the shells of dead micro-plankton.This stone is commonly found on the beaches of East Auckland, especially around Kawakawa Bay.

Image: Unknown photographer. Loading shingle, Kawakawa Bay, 1925.
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, Footprints 00790.

Before Pakihi and Karamuramu Island were mined for stone, it was a regular sight to find flat bottomed boats, called scows, parked on the beaches collecting shingle. With a plank and barrow, men would load the boat full of beach shingle until it was lifted again by the incoming tide.

For the past ten years, I have been making an artwork with this red Karamuramu Island chert. I collect it wherever I see it with the idea that I am going to rebuild the island in my house. I love the fact that the stone is identical, coming from the same source, but spread over a large area and across time. My collection consists of hundreds of pieces of this stone that all look the same until you read the location I have carefully written on each piece.

Image: Finn Ferrier. Finn McCahon-Jones’ collection of chert collected around Auckland, 2008-2020, May 2020.

Through making this artwork I hope people can see red chert not just as a commodity, but a thing unique to our environment. And that our streetscape is actually a landscape built from multiple landscapes across time.

Image: Henry Winkelmann. Looking north, towards the North Shore, showing the first stages of Campbells Point being graded to reclaim St Georges Bay, March 1919. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 1-W481.

From the late nineteenth century until the early 2000s Auckland was being built with our own materials. Headlands, mountains, beaches and rivers were used to make the city. Our local materials were inherent in our concrete and roads. Owairaka Mt Albert sits below SH16 towards Te Atatu and airplanes land on tarmac made from Maungarei Mt Wellington, to name a few.

Queen Street, until the 2008 upgrade, was lined with polished red Karamuramu chip concrete pavers. Now Queen Street it is paved with Chinese basalt to “reflect” the city’s rocky heritage, rather than retaining any of our actual heritage. 

Image: Finn McCahon-Jones. Auckland Council sign, showing inanga stone,
corner Victoria and Queen Street, 2008.

The nuances of the city are slowly being overwritten and replaced by signs to represent the very things that have disappeared. Ngati Whatua worked with Auckland Council to reintroduce whitebait to Te Wai o Horotiu (the stream that runs from Aotea Square to the Waitemata Harbour) in the form of engraved basalt blocks. It is a sad replacement, but at least the inanga are there.

Apart from Karamuramu Island, no stones come from central Auckland any more. Maungarei Mt Wellington was the last mountain to supply stones to the city. Currently stone for roadworks mostly comes from the Hunua Ranges, south of Auckland; and new basalt to pave our streets is imported from China. 

Image: G.B. Scott. Showing the fountain in Albert Park, with the university buildings and clock tower behind, and ground covered in red stone chip, 1960s. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 996-190.

We are lucky to live in a city that expresses so much of its history in its immediate landscape, yet without much thought we tend to overwrite and alter the landscape irrevocably. There are a lot of clues in our environment, echoes to the time just before now which we should preserve consciously.

We need to consider the cultural aspect of our built environment as well as the material one, preserving and renewing what we have, rather than replacing them with symbols reflecting what is gone. The recent protests at Ihumātao have shown many Aucklanders that the material and social aspects of this city are more closely entwined than some might realise. Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland has a far deeper and richer history than we are often led to believe; we should take the lead of local iwi in understanding that our environment has many intangible dimensions.

I would like for everyone to use the materials we have wisely, by using things carefully, recycling and reconstituting materials where possible. Right now we are seeing one of the biggest social turnarounds in recent history, where symbols, systems and old perspectives are being challenged and new perspectives embraced. I hope the future use of materials will include an understanding that the local landscape is not full of inert materials to be exploited, but that it is a rich realm in which to reinforce local histories in our built and social environment.

Next time you see red chip covering the ground think of Karamuramu Island. Not as red chip but as an island.

Image: Finn Ferrier. Map drawn on chert pebble from Kawakawa Bay, 2010.

Author: Finn McCahon-Jones

Author note: Finn McCahon-Jones is one of the 2019/2020 Auckland Library Heritage Trust scholars. This blog post is part of a larger project that he is working on concerning the movement of local materials within our cityscape. He has been using Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections image databases, Heritage Images and Kura Heritage Collections Online, to try and understand where our inner-city headlands and beaches have gone, and to search for local character in an otherwise dense city façade.


  1. Thank you, a wonderful commentary on our ‘landscape’ Finn …
    I wrote about McCullum’s chip this very morning…as not being sustainable for continued use for paths….
    ....we must reuse what we have already disturbed, it holds our stories and hands…. basalt quarried by prison labour at Maungawhau, scoria used in the kūmara cultivation's of Te Tahuri that have become dry stone walls, repaired, reused…again and again.. the lichen holding evidence of the advent of the car.

    Look to innovations in smaller regional councils, recycled aggregates for roading; milk and beer bottles.

    To see Karamuramu Island recede (its interior now below sea level) is one of the saddest sights in Tāmaki Makaurau…the best view afforded by Waitawa Regional Park, a former explosives manufacturing site whose wharf bisects a significant coastal pā…..……see what we did there…

    1. How you see Auckland must be rich, but seeing this richness can sometimes be sad. I hope you tell these stories so others can see deeper into the landscape. Thank you for your thoughts. - Finn.

  2. A beautifully written, fascinating and enlightening piece of writing - I will never look at the often maligned 'red chip' in the same way again! Thank you, Finn.

    1. Enjoy your walks spotting patterns! If you are ever walking around St Paul’s Street up Symonds to Grafton Bridge - keep an eye out for black-and-white granite kerb stones. Another street treasure. - Finn.

  3. Nice piece of writing Finn. Interesting idea that the materials with which we choose to build our city form as much as inform it.

  4. McCallum’s metal - as it was often called - also went by barge to the Hauraki Plains to be used in forming roads - it was not the only source. The rivers and drains of the plains were once its highways and the barges could travel a long way up them - but thus were the instrument of their own demise as transport routes when they were used to haul road metal. The burden put on roads was that many had to have opening bridges to sustain the barge and motor boat traffic - but the roads themselves took the traffic and meant the bridges were rarely opened.

    There is a good road history here:

    So it was not just Auckland that benefited.

    1. Hi Garry, I recently visited Pauanui on the Coromandel Peninsula all the streets and carparks are paved with this chert too. And I have collected pieces from paths on Kawau Island.

      It’s incredible how widely this stone was used - and once you start seeing it, you see it everywhere. - Finn

  5. Couple of slip ups in an otherwise interesting piece. When you write taht teh red chert has been transported to Auckland across the Manukau Harbour you did of course mean the Waitemata Harbour. When you say that there is plenty of chert around Karaka Bay I believe you really meant Kawakawa Bay as there is no source of chert anywhere near Karaka Bay, Glendowie. I think you will find more scoria came out of Puketutu and Otuataua cones for the Mangere Airport runway than came out of Maungarei. Cheers

    1. Thank you Bruce for spotting some glaring mistakes; and for updating other details. Auckland’s social-geological history is not always a straight forward thing to find. I appreciate your comments. - Finn

  6. Thanks for this interesting info.

  7. As Bruce Hayward could affirm, the red chert was "mined" by nature long before man arrived, ancestral rivers quarried it in the Hauraki Gulf and carried it over to the Manukau, where it can be found in abundance as redeposited gravel (conglomerate) in the Pliocene sediments at Elletts Beach west of Karaka. It is a stone of significance geologically as well as culturally.


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