Northland: Where kauri is king

By Jim Eagles

A land that once resounded to the fall of the mighty kauri is now rejoicing in its regrowth, writes Jim Eagles.

A mannequin operates a steam mill at the Matakohe Kauri Museum. Photo / Jim Eagles
A mannequin operates a steam mill at the Matakohe Kauri Museum. Photo / Jim Eagles

It's ironic, really. Pay a visit to Matakohe's marvellous Kauri Museum and you'll find yourself enthralled by the exploits of the hardy bushmen who felled the mighty kauri forests that once bestrode the land.

But drive further north to Waipoua and you'll be even more enthralled by efforts to revive the kauri and the other species, including the kiwi, that live under its shadow.

Attitudes have turned full circle.

Once New Zealand's economy was heavily dependent on the exploitation of kauri timber and kauri gum. Now another industry is growing up on Northland's west coast, dependent on the living appeal of these magnificent trees.

It's easy to understand the modern fascination with the kauri.

Walk into Waipoua Forest and stand before Tane Mahuta or Te Matua Ngahere and you know yourself to be in the presence of what Maori call the Lord of the Forest and the Father of the Forest.

These vast, ancient, serene entities have been on Earth longer than Christianity, were mature well before the first humans arrived in Aotearoa, and have outlived the empires of man.

But it is also easy to understand the enthusiasm of the early settlers for harvesting this seemingly limitless resource.

When Captain James Cook saw his first kauri forest in 1769, he wrote: "The banks of the river were completely clothed with the finest timber my eyes have ever seen."

His report inspired the Royal Navy to send ships to New Zealand to harvest the wonderful straight trees for spars. They were followed by bushmen, gumdiggers and farmers, who felled kauri for their timber, dug up the gum to make resin and cleared the land to form pasture.

The museum at Matakohe is a marvellous tribute to those pioneers who endured extraordinary privations and showed incredible strength to help build the country we have today.

When the museum opened in 1962, it was based on the wonderful photos of Tudor Collins, a magnificent collection of kauri gum, some fine examples of kauri furniture and an assemblage of the tools used by the bushmen and gumdiggers.

All those elements are still there but the museum has steadily expanded - it now covers more than 3000sq m of displays - and embraces a complete cross-section of local history.

There is, for instance, a century-old steam-powered mill with life-sized mannequins, apparently modelled on the descendants of the men who worked the mill, busily slicing giant logs into rough-sawn boards.

There is also a huge kauri trunk being climbed by a gumdigger using spiked boots and axe-pitons. (In this case the gumdigger was planning to get his gum not by digging but by cutting holes in the bark so the sap would ooze.)

The latest addition is a gallery of vintage farm equipment, all in working order, including a milking machine, an enormous bulldozer and a hand-powered separator, all donated by and maintained by local machinery enthusiasts.

Fay Wilson, our guide for the museum tour, said: "It's amazing what some people have in their sheds and it's wonderful to see it all working."

Next on the drawing board, apparently, is a typical old boarding house where the average bushman would have stayed during one of his infrequent visits to civilisation. There are even nervous hints that it might include - gasp - a bordello.

It's a fascinating, living, breathing picture of the life of the settlers. I went for my first visit in several years intending to stay half an hour and ended up captivated for three hours.

But although the kauri museum keeps growing, the kauri forests on which the timber industry was based were not limitless.

By the early 20th century less than 10,000ha of kauri forest remained and even that was under threat. Happily, not only has most of that forest been preserved as conservation land but work is under way to plant more kauri forests.

Even more happily, it is possible to take part in this new kauri era without having to share the privations of the bushmen and gumdiggers.

Waipoua Lodge, about 90 minutes by car from Matakohe and on the edge of Waipoua Forest, may have been built from pit-sawn kauri timber at the height of the kauri milling era 120 years ago and has a great collection of mementoes of those rugged times. But that's where the connection ends.

New owners Nicole and Chris Donahoe have created the sort of luxury accommodation and superb food and wine that those who lived there a century before could only dream about.

After a hard day strolling in Waipoua Forest or along the magnificent west coast beaches it's nice to return to a roaring fire, broccoli and blue vein cheese soup, venison in black pepper sauce and a mellow Northland merlot.

And, at the end of a night walk in Trounson Kauri Park looking for kiwi, it's pleasant to relax in the comfort of your self-contained apartment - one of four built inside the old farm buildings - with hot coffee and a delicious rum baba.

At the lodge you have the choice of gazing peacefully at the forest, exploring it, or helping it to grow.

The entrance to Waipoua Forest is just 2km away and there are well-formed pathways to all the big kauri. There have been a few thefts from parked cars but the quaint Waipoua pie-cart tends to deter break-ins at the Tane Mahuta track and locals have set up a security watch at the kauri track car park, for which they expect a $2 levy.

Unfortunately - and, in my experience, typically for the Department of Conservation - at this time of year the forest information centre is closed at weekends when New Zealanders might be most likely to visit. But just down the road from the lodge lives Stephen King, driving force behind a plan to buy and replant the rest of the Waipoua catchment, and he welcomes visitors any day of the week.

His Waipoua Forest Trust has scattered manuka seeds and seedlings over several hundred hectares of land and is now raising young kauri, from the seeds of giants like Tane Mahuta, which it is planting under the cover of the flourishing scrub.

"Hundreds of years ago this was all kauri forest," he says with a sweep of his hand, "and hundreds of years from now it will all be kauri forest again."

To help with this work a scheme is being developed for lodge visitors to buy a kauri, plant it, and return to watch its progress.

But it's not only young kauri that are flourishing in the Waipoua area. Kiwi are also making a comeback thanks to DoC's efforts to transform Trounson Park into a "mainland island".

An intensive trapping and poisoning programme has reduced the number of predators in the 450ha reserve, allowing native species to flourish.

Go for a night walk with Tina Parker from the Kauri Coast Top 10 Holiday Park and you're almost certain to see one or two North Island brown kiwi - along with Kapiti and Stewart Islands it's probably the only place you can expect to see our national symbol in the wild - and to hear a lot more.

The last kiwi census in the park recorded 220 birds, Parker says. And, with the survival rate of chicks having been at least trebled by the absence of pests, the number is steadily growing.

You're also likely to see koura (freshwater crayfish), banded kokopu (freshwater native fish) and eels in the streams, spot kauri snails, glow-worms and cave wetas in the foliage and hear moreporks calling and bulls roaring (over the fence).

The Waipoua trust is also doing its bit to assist the return of the kiwi and is working towards establishing a kiwi hatchery.

Tourists can join in the night census work - which means sitting on a ridge for an hour listening for kiwi calls. You're most likely to catch the high-pitched cries of the males, the females of this species being less talkative and having deeper voices.

Perhaps the most obvious indication of how well the kiwi recovery programme's success is that a couple of wandering birds have been hit by cars in the past few years and there are now kiwi warning signs on roads in the Waipoua area.

If you hit one, please don't flee in a guilty panic, but let DoC know where the accident happened. If the bird is a male it could be caring for a clutch of eggs and DoC may be able to use dogs to track the nest and hatch the chicks.

That's definitely not a problem you'd have had to worry about a few years ago. It's ironic, really.

What else to do?

Although the Waipoua Forest is the focal point of the Kauri Coast there are plenty of other things to do.

For an unexpectedly interesting selection of paintings, many featuring the coast, have a look at the Ted Rope Gallery in Victoria St, Dargaville. Rope is a local farmer and you can enjoy the unusual experience of a discussion about art being interrupted by an argument over the price of bulls.

There are plenty of galleries featuring superb kauri furniture, bowls, vases, plates or ornaments. My favourite was Nelson's Kaihu Kauri on State Highway 9 north of Dargaville, with its magnificent centrepiece of a 30-tonne swamp kauri.

Kai-iwi Lakes, just north of Dargaville, have beautiful places for swimming, boating, fishing or, at this time of year, just sightseeing.

Waimamaku is home to New Zealand's smallest brewery, run by Innes and Michele Carad. It's not all that easy to find the brewery open or to track down bottles of its light and dark ales, but it's well worth the effort.

The South Head of the Hokianga Harbour remains one of my favourite places for its magnificent views of seas, sand dunes and the taniwha at the entrance to the harbour.

Those who ran remember the days of Opo the dolphin - and even those who can't - should make a pilgrimage to the statue in Opononi and the nearby South Hokianga Museum with its audio-visual presentation.

The wonderful, desolate, wild, west coast beaches are fantastic places for a walk at this time of year, or for indulging in a bit of politically incorrect behaviour - going for a blat on a quad from Baylys Beach Holiday Park.

CHECKLIST

Where to stay: Waipoua Lodge is on State Highway 12, 4km north of Dargaville.

Kiwi-spotting: Night walks in Trounson Kauri park are run by Kauri Coast Top 10 Holiday Park. You can contact them on 0800 807 200.

Kauri Museum: The Kauri Museum is at Matakohe, on State Highway 12. You can contact the museum on (09) 4317417.

The Waipoua Forest Trust can be contacted on (09) 4395678.

Further information: See northland.org.nz.

The Kauri Coast Information Centre is in Dargaville and can be contacted on (09) 439 8360.

The Hokianga Information Centre is in Opononi and can be contacted on (09) 4058869.

Jim Eagles visited Northland as guest of Destination Northland and Waipoua Lodge.

- NZ Herald

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