A Royal Enfield, a lost rock carving and a missing mere — Paul Charman on the track of history in North Auckland

Drive at highway speeds from Auckland to Whangarei and you'll spend only a few minutes skirting Pukekaroro, the big kauri-clad dome just north of Kaiwaka.

I wasn't in a hurry, so parked the borrowed Royal Enfield close to where the late Tom Coates once farmed the fringes of the big hill.

He allowed anyone to climb through the smooth-trunked young kauri to the overgrown crown of the hill.

When he sold, the new owners built a deer fence across the track.


Baldrock - or Pukepohutu - resembles a flinty-faced giant's head.

I fired up the bike and rode another five minutes to Kaiwaka's other ancient "watchtower" - Baldrock or Pukepohutu (Hill of Stone). It's more obscure; most northbound drivers catch only a glimpse as the winding main highway leaves Pukekaroro behind.

The gnarled old hill was as impressive as ever as I turned into Baldrock Rd. Resembling a flinty giant's head, it is coming back into public prominence after decades of quarrying.
I had permission, so I opened the gate and rode up the old track but not too far. I killed the engine and trudged for about half an hour to the top.

The surrounding country was stunning and memories flooded back. Tom and I once scrambled round the base of the rock looking for an ancient Maori rock carving but couldn't find it.

He was the descendant of Thomas Coates, who joined Francis Mander to build a complex network of kauri dams on the Pukekaroro block. Mander's daughter Jane wrote The Story of a New Zealand River, which many think inspired The Piano.

Both hills had stations of Mander's ingenious roller-coaster, designed to carry logs out of the bush on their way to the Kaipara.

Tough bushmen working the big kauri discovered the carving chiselled into a big boulder on the southwestern face. A photograph appears in The History of Kaiwaka but the carving was apparently covered by a landslide during World War II.

Some say it was pre-Maori, others say it was the moko of a Ngati Whatua chief buried higher up the hill. Sceptics say it was graffiti carved by bored bushmen.

Pukekaroro has a mystery too - a lost chief's mere. Thomas Coates claimed a Ngati Whatua chief made his last stand on Pukekaroro after the chilling Te Ika-a-ranga-nui battle with Ngapuhi (led by Hongi Hika) in 1825.

Knowing his time was short, the chief threw his mere into a cave so it would not be captured. Tom said his father often looked for the cave, but never found it.

The Maori who told Tom's father this story also said eight skeletons had been interred in a hollow tree on Pukekaroro and this proved correct. The Coates family found these remains and buried them.

For many years Kaiwaka farmers have gathered and reburied bones left scattered over a wide area following Te Ika-a-ranga-nui. They are found to this day.

Scrambling down Baldrock, I rode toward the Kaiwaka-Mangawhai road, where a monument - a low plinth close to the busy road - has been built to those who died in the battle.

Ngati Whatua struggled heroically and came close to winning but, lacking guns, collapsed before Ngapuhi muskets.

This forced Ngati Whatua to flee Kaipara and go to Waikato, returning only after Hongi's death in 1828. Finding the then-overgrown remains of the place where more than 1000 were killed was impossible.

I had one more place to visit, so went back into Kaiwaka and took the road to the Oneriri Peninsula, turning into Rangiora Rd, which leads to a boat ramp by the dreamy Otamatea River. It was the place to recall the renowned chief Arama Karaka and missionary William Gittos.

The Enfield on the track up Baldrock; the top is a half-hour walk away.

After the battle, Arama Karaka decided to sell the bloodstained land to the Pakeha. He worked with Gittos, investing the proceeds in farming and business ventures.

Like Cromwell, Karaka believed a Christian should "praise God and keep his powder dry". A score of sealed gunpowder barrels, washed up from the 1863 wreck of the Orpheus off Whatipu - New Zealand's worst maritime disaster - were stored underneath a church on the Otamatea River bank opposite Gittos' mission house.

Ngati Whatua would not be caught the same way twice, I thought, as I rode back into Kaiwaka for a flat white before a long, cold ride home.