Kaipara: Pure shores

By Liz Light

Liz Light explores the quiet villages of the Kaipara Harbour.

A stately home at Batley on the Kaipara Harbour. Photo / Liz Light
A stately home at Batley on the Kaipara Harbour. Photo / Liz Light

The Kaipara Harbour's hundreds of watery tendrils are quiet, close places. The harbour is not bright technicolour, like the east coast, nor is it wildly thunderous and wind-swept, like the west. Its beauty is watercolour soft; sun shimmering on smooth water, sunbursts on emerald headlands and drowsy villages happily left behind by progress.

With 3350km of coastline, and an area of about 500sq km, the Kaipara is the largest harbour in the Southern Hemisphere. It has two great arms, one pointing north to Dargaville and the other south to Helensville.

Between these arms hundreds of salty rivers curl their way east, sneaking up valleys and squeezing between crumpled hills. Tinopai, Pahi, Whakapirau, Batley, Tanoa and Port Albert are hamlets with houses spread around a wharf or beach.

Some have a church, others have a country school, some have a marae and all have the harbour and fishing; boats are anchored out in the channels, launched off trailers at high tide, dinghies are pulled on to grassy banks and folk fish off wharves.

The Kaipara hamlets aren't flash with hot new subdivisions and shops but they have history and it's tales of settlers' colonies, gum-digging and the milling of colossal kauri that lures me down country roads to the edge where land and water meet.

My father's name is Albert so it's fitting that Port Albert, west of Wellsford, is the first place I visit. Port Albert was the hub of the Albertland Colony, which in its heyday in 1865 had 3000 souls and has been shrinking ever since.

It was colonised by a non-conformist Christian group, with shiploads of eager promised-land settlers coming from Nottingham.

Religious folk need a place to worship and the Minniesdale Chapel - built of the kauri that once covered these hills - has pride-of-place gothic-arch windows brought from Britain on a sailing ship. The first service was in 1867 and, now, through those windows, I see the settlers' gravestones and those of their children and children's children.

Sheep and cattle graze the pasture they sowed, the harbour they bravely crossed the world to live beside shining at the foot of the hill and home-country skylarks whistle their fluttery melody into the blue.

But the Albertland dream was a disappointment. Farming was heartbreaking; the soil poor, rain unreliable in summer and muddily omnipresent in winter and, after years of hardship, people drifted away.

Now Port Albert's long wharf is used as a perch for shags and white-fronted terns and has a scattering of houses behind it. There are a few hundred people living in the area and it seems that prosperity still eludes many of them; more than the usual number of homes are made from converted barns, old house-buses with jerry-built awnings and caravans tucked under macrocarpa trees.

Further north, the Otamatea River rises and falls to the tune of the tides. Here, while the Albertlanders were trying to farm, lumberjacks were felling kauri forest, starting at the harbour's edge and working back until the great logs were dragged long distances down tram lines to Kaipara mills.

New Zealand's first novel, Story of a New Zealand River, is based around this part of the Kaipara where author Jane Mander, daughter of a miller, spent some of her childhood.

Her descriptions of the bush give an insight into what once was. She writes of "voluptuous gold and red in the clumps of yellow kowhai and the crimson rata, and there were masses of greeny white clematis" and "towering arrogantly above all else stood groups of kauri, whose great grey trunks shot up without a knot or branch and whose colossal heads, swelling up into the sky, made a cipher of every tree near".

The giant kauri are long gone and the land on both sides of the Otamatea is green undulating pasture.

Lilies left by the settlers thrive in damp places, wild turkeys gobble grumpily as we drive by and cock pheasants strut away.

At Tanoa, a harbourside Maori community with marae, church and a straggle of houses, Sam skims pipi shells across the mirror water and I peer into the church and explore the graveyard, where both Maori and Pakeha rest.

The church, built in 1870 by Rev William Gittos, a Methodist missionary, is now being cared for by the trustees of the Otamatea Marae.

Fish jump in the shallows, a fishing boat chugs slowly past and sparrows tweet happily in the ancient pine guarding the cemetery.

Further west, Batley takes the prize for archetypical Kiwi beauty; the stately home on the hill, daisy-filled garden, the leaning corrugated-iron boat-house, the tired boat resting on the sand and pristine little waves idly sliding up and down.

We picnic on the grass, charmed by the soft sunny sweetness of the place. I imagine what Batley was like in the late 1800s when the house was a hotel, post office, general store and kauri gum trading post, when there were two mullet canning factories in the bay, fishermen coming and going and little cottages, long since fallen over and rotted away, straggled along flat land by the beach.

Tinopai is the closest town to the harbour mouth. Water rushes past the wharf as the tides ebb and flow. Fishing is excellent with kahawai common, snapper caught often and the occasional big kingie. The wharf is busy with strollers and sticky-beakers, like us, and fishers with lines out.

There is a general store of sorts, low on stock, but it has icecream, so while we lick Trumpets we wander around the hard-case marina up a side creek. It's home to anything that could roughly be called a boat; there are fishing boats, a couple of conventional runabouts, a house boat, a home-built hippie boat with an excess of stained glass and a couple of old sweeties that use the marina as their retirement village.

At Pahi, on the Arapaoa River, the boat-launching area almost has a traffic jam as trailers are backed into the high tide then boats whiz off down the harbour.

The queen of the bay is the Pahi Pub, built in 1905 as a boarding house and patronised by thirsty blokes from Paparoa, an inland wowser town whose God-fearing folk banned liquor, hotels and other signs of sin. It's a much-loved private home now and its old kauri timbers stand still and strong.

- Herald on Sunday

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