Kaipara: Stumbling over superlatives in NZ's kumara capital

By Jim Eagles

The 'smallest church in New Zealand', at Avoca, was once a porch. Photo / Jim Eagles
The 'smallest church in New Zealand', at Avoca, was once a porch. Photo / Jim Eagles

"Just here," says Hugh Rose, "is the smallest church in New Zealand." And, sure enough, through a gap in the roadside hedge appears a tiny building with a steeply pitched roof surmounted by a white cross.

It's only big enough for half-a-dozen people," adds our guide, "but the priest still comes here now and again." Actually I'd have thought six people his size would never fit.

Hugh, a farmer with a finger in many pies, including an excellent farmstay operation in the lovely Tangowahine Valley, is showing us round the Kaipara district where he lives, and it's a tour with quite a few superlatives - smallest, longest, biggest, best - and a great many entertaining stories.

His smallest church was originally part of the town of Avoca, one of many towns around here that died when the kauri timber and kauri gum ran out; its shops, schools, houses and churches mostly just left to die.

"This actually wasn't the church but the entrance to the church," explains Hugh. "But the church itself was moved away so they had to make do with the porch."

Then, when even the entrance was about to go, Mary Vuletich, matriarch of a Dalmatian family who were the first settlers in the area, stepped in, bought it and had it restored.

"She's bought quite a lot of buildings round here to save them. There's the church and original Avoca schoolhouse over there and the old post office in Dargaville. It's good to see them preserved."

The longest item in Hugh's catalogue is Riporo Beach, the longest driveable beach in New Zealand and, as any local will tell you at the slightest provocation, definitely longer than the more famous Ninety Mile Beach to the north.

Riporo Beach starts at the Maunganui Bluff - which is where Ninety Mile Beach ends - and runs 100km along the coast to the end of the Poutu Peninsula and the North Head of the Kaipara Harbour.

The beach is guarded by a range of huge sandhills, some more than 200m high, but there are several narrow valleys - like the Mahuta Gap, where we entered - that you can drive through.

It's a spectacular place to visit, with the great highway of sand stretching north and south as far as the eye can sea, bounded on one side by the rolling surf of the Tasman Sea and on the other by the brown and yellow sandhills.

Unfortunately, we don't have time to go all the way down the beach to the decommissioned Kaipara North Head Lighthouse, but if we had chances are we might have come across the remains of one or two of the 150 shipwrecks known to have occurred on this stretch of coast.

By way of compensation, Hugh tells us stories of locals riding across the dunes and discovering the remains of newly exposed ancient shipwrecks, only to return the next day and find them back under the shifting sands. But dozens of the wrecks have been investigated, particularly by local historian Noel Hilliam, and you can see many relics on display in the Dargaville Museum.

Some people obviously come here to enjoy the tranquillity, like the elderly man standing beside his truck and operating a windlass on the back attached to the kite that had carried his fishing line far out over the surf, or the stocky young man standing with folded arms beside his surf rod and staring dreamingly out at the waves.

Others are more interested in the opportunities provided by the wide-open spaces, stropping across the empty sand in their hotted-up cars and bikes (though the beach is officially a road and the usual rules apply), or the cluster of motocross riders waiting their turn to take on a course carved across the steep face of a huge sandhill.

I used to come here decades ago as part of an annual pilgrimage to collect my quota of toheroa and make the finest seafood fritters and soup known to humankind. Unfortunately, so many toheroa were harvested in those times that they are now a protected species and I haven't seen one for years.

Would it, I ask, be possible to dig one up ... just for a look ... for old time's sake? Hugh is dubious. But then he spots an honorary fishery officer and asks him. "No problem. Follow me."

The uniformed officer stops further down the beach at a spot where a stream meanders across the sand and, sure enough, there are the telltale breathing holes of a dozen toheroa. It's easy enough to dig up a handful, but I have to say they look a lot smaller than I remember from the good old days.

Meanwhile, the fisheries officer has noticed that someone else has been here digging up toheroa. As soon as we have reburied our catch, he sets off after the adjacent bike tracks to see where they lead. We wish him well.

But the sight of those toheroa has filled me with a hankering for seafood ... and fortunately the cure for that is just up the Bayly's Beach entrance to the coast at the Funky Fish Cafe. Seafood chowder. Parmesan-crumbed tarakihi. Yum. But, sadly, no toheroa fritters.

The best stopping point on Hugh's tour is, surprisingly, the abandoned Northern Wairoa dairy factory in Dargaville, which looks pretty dilapidated but is taking on a new life as home to Kauri Coast Honey, one of the largest honey producers in the country, turning out up to 200 tonnes of manuka honey a year.

This is the brainchild of David Whitehead, a local boy who became fascinated by bees when still a youngster, acquired his first hive when he was 12, and who now has 10,000 of them.

The vast concrete rooms which once housed stainless-steel milk vats are now piled high with coloured boxes full of trays of wax combs, smelling of honey and buzzing with confused bees.

Daughter Tristan, the firm's marketing manager, explains that the initial rating of honey is done by taste, and to demonstrate pulls out a waxy comb, pokes her finger in it and sticks the finger in her mouth. "Mmm. Definitely manuka."

Just to be sure she's right, we all poke our own fingers into the comb and have a taste. It's superb - rich, dark and with an almost smoky taste - so good I have another go.

Then David mentions that it's important to check the moisture content of the honey isn't too high "otherwise it may ferment". "Really?" I say a bit too enthusiastically. "So then you'd have mead."

"Something like that," he answers with a grin, and produces a bottle of some very nice honey liqueur, which delays our departure quite a while.

While sipping a few drams, we learn that Kauri Coast markets manuka honey under its own Nature's Buzz brand but also provides a lot of its honey to other producers and sends its beeswax wax off to furniture polish and skin cream manufacturers.

The honey tastes delicious - especially the special active variety, which also has medicinal powers - and Hugh is justified as rating it as the best, because Nature's Buzz took top spot in last year's Guild of Fine Foods Great Taste Awards in London.

Warren Suckling was just an ordinary Dargaville kumara grower until the day three-and-a-half years ago that a tour bus pulled up and the driver asked if he could tell the passengers something about kumara.

The next week another bus turned up with more people wanting to know about kumara ... and the legendary Kumara Ernie was born.

These days most tour buses to the Kaipara area stop off at the Kumara Box and enjoy Ernie's hour-long show - "well, it usually goes longer than that, because there's so many interesting things about kumara to tell people" - and his remarkable collection, which ranges from Maori digging sticks to a magnificent greenstone carving of the legend of how the kumara reached Aotearoa, and from pictures of pioneering kumara growers to samples of the increasing number of varieties of sweet potato now grown locally.

In case you didn't know, the Kaipara district is New Zealand's biggest kumara-growing area by a country mile, producing some 90 per cent of the country's crop.

The fertile flats around Dargaville and Ruawai are dotted with vast fields of kumara, packhouses, roadside stalls ... and peculiar billboards featuring a wild-eyed character in a funny hat asking, "Didya getya Northland kumara?"

This chap is apparently known locally as Ernie, which is why Warren took the name, and also why he had a funny hat made, which he puts on when he slips into character.

The hat obviously works wonders, because Kumara Ernie puts on a great performance - I'd never have thought the kumara story could be made so interesting - and the things his wife Mavis does with kumara in the kitchen are remarkable ... would you believe kumara jam?

And on top of all that, outside their home is the biggest - it wouldn't be on Hugh's itinerary if it didn't have a superlative - kumara in the land.

As a footnote, my vote for the funniest of Hugh's many entertaining yarns about the area goes to the story of the kauri.

It seems a farmer in the Tangowahine Valley who was selling up and retiring wanted to preserve a magnificent kauri on his land.

To do this he had the block on which the kauri stood made a reserve, arranged access from the Tangowahine Valley Rd and persuaded the Dargaville Lions Club to build a footbridge across the stream fronting the property.

"What the Lions Club didn't know," says Hugh, "was that the kauri was actually in Whangarei District, not Kaipara, and the farmer had moved the boundary signs a couple of hundred metres down the road so they'd think it fell into their area."

Great story. And the kauri is worth visiting, too.

CHECKLIST

Where to stay: On Tangowahine Farm you can stay in a delightful cottage in the bush. Phone (09) 439 1570.

What to do: Ripiro Beach runs 100km along the coast from the North Head of the Kaipara Harbour to Maunganui Bluff.

Kumara Ernie's hour-long show will answer any questions you've got about the Kaipara district's stand-out vegetable crop.

Kauri Coast Honey turns out up to 200 tonnes of manuka honey a year.

Where to eat: Try The Funky Fish Cafe at Baylys Beach.

Further information: See northlandnz.com.

Jim Eagles toured the Kaipara as a guest of Destination Northland.

- NZ Herald

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