Kaitaia: Golden age of the Dallies

By Pamela Wade

It's definitely not a winterless spot, but there's warmth in Northland's history, says Pamela Wade.

The Gumdiggers Park features a model Gumdiggers workers' settlement. Photo / Supplied
The Gumdiggers Park features a model Gumdiggers workers' settlement. Photo / Supplied

The lady at Visitor Information in Kaitaia is a bit stumped.

"We're all about beaches and fishing up here," she says, looking over my shoulder at the rain falling outside.

She scans the racks of pamphlets advertising quad bike adventures, horse riding, sand-dune tobogganing, deep-sea fishing and bus trips up Ninety Mile Beach, and plucks one out. "There's this," she offers.

It's for Gumdiggers Park and promises buried kauri trees and a village of gumdiggers' huts. We shrug - what else is there to do on a rainy weekend in Northland? - and drive up SH1 through damp green countryside where only the cows seem to be enjoying the weather.

A fence hung with gumboots signals we've arrived, and John Johnston gives us a quick rundown about the history of the family-owned park, and a quick rub-down too: he swipes some sandpaper across a big lump of kauri gum and tells me to have a sniff.

It has a sharp, clean, resiny smell that perks up my spirits and, along with a gleam of sunshine, means I head off along the path ready to be interested.

There's a lot to be interested by: for a start, some huge numbers. Kauri have been around for 220 million years, so dinosaurs once wandered among these immense trees, the second-biggest in the world after the Californian sequoia.

The park is the site of at least two kauri forests, the first dating back 100,000 years to when some unidentified cataclysm occurred - hurricane, tsunami, eruption, comet? - which felled them all in the same direction.

Preserved in a peaty bog, the trees lay hidden for eons while the dinosaurs disappeared, Gondwanaland split up, moas came and went, and people arrived in Aotearoa.

Maori had already discovered some uses for the hardened gum secreted by kauri when damaged; but when the Europeans realised there was high-quality amber simply lying around for the taking, it was a ka-ching moment.

Just like the real gold rush to come later down south, there was a mad scramble to collect this kauri gold and sell it in England and America, to be used for varnishing coaches and coffins. Then the easy pickings ran out and the hard work began.

On both sides of the path through the bush are shafts several metres deep. These are where the second wave of collectors, the real gumdiggers, poked and shovelled and sweated to find the buried gum that might bring them, over a year, perhaps £300.

For 50 years, until World War I, thousands of men chiefly from Dalmatia - the Dallies - lived in primitive sacking and sod-hut villages that sprang up around the gumfields; digging, sieving, scraping, weighing and bagging from dawn till bedtime to send money home to their families. The park has a cluster of replica huts.

On a cold, wet day, it's easy to appreciate how miserable life was for the diggers and I remember there's a saying "mad as a gumdigger's dog"; yet the photos show smiling faces, and informal co-operatives meant that the work had a social side.

We poke through relics from those busy days; metres-long gum spears, specially made sturdy spades, rubber boots for wading in the swamps (hence, "gumboots").

We watch a video linking kauri with climate change research, give the "Gumdiggers' dunny" a wide berth, and loop past an immense tree stump maybe 150,000 years old, and a couple of bright green geckos considerably younger than that. By the time we return to the shop to peer at a fly preserved in gum 42,460 years ago, admire glowing golden amber pendants, and handle bowls turned from wood that's 45,000 years old, we've got some perspective on our wet weekend - what's two damp days against this sort of timescale?

CHECKLIST

Further information: Gumdiggers Park is five minutes off SH1 near Waiharara in the Far North.

Accommodation: Carrington Resort is three hours north of Auckland and has a wide range of activities and accommodation in villas or rooms in the lodge. The lodge restaurant is excellent and there is also a cafe at the resort's award-winning winery, Karikari Estate.

Pamela Wade was a guest at Carrington Resort.

- NZ Herald

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