growing northland

It has an abundance of natural resources, a temperate climate, a unique heritage, unparalleled standing in this country's history and proximity to New Zealand's largest city. So why has Northland remained one of New Zealand's poorer regions? Identified as a surge province it has now been allocated $150 million so far from the Provincial Growth Fund.
In the first of a three-part series into what this means for the region Lindy Laird looks at how the North was shaped.

Erupting from the land

Visitors heading north from the Auckland hinter belt find themselves in another world, Northland - Te Taitokerau.

Winding along a narrow highway, they enter a unique land hunched between the wild Tasman to the west and the mighty Pacific to the east.


Over 250 million years of geological processes, what is now Northland changed size and was partially drowned by advancing and retreating seas many times. The province more or less now sits on giant slabs of rock which erupted out of the ocean and slid hundreds of kilometres southwest over millions of years.

The displaced rock eventually buried all that had been Northland to a depth of about 2km, the newly raised land then becoming a hotbed of violent eruptions. That process saw major subsidence and erosion, and many huge volcanoes partly or entirely collapsed, on land and off the coast.

Lava rocks form much of the region's high country ranges while sedimentary rocks lie under the rolling country. Because of its fire and water birth, and the effects of climate, terrain and vegetation, Northland has a complex pattern of mainly poor, shallow soil types. Taming and bringing the land into production, living off it, hasn't always been straight forward. In Northland, in every scenario humankind has to manage, there is no one size fits all.

Dairy farming is one of Northland's backbone industries.
Dairy farming is one of Northland's backbone industries.

Nestled in coastal borders

The North is almost an island, metaphorically and physically.
On the south west boundary one of the world's largest harbours, the many-armed Kaipara, slithers its way almost into the Mangawhai estuary on the east coast. Further north, the inner reach of the Hokianga ends just a short stretch from wetlands and rivers that feed into the Bay of Islands.

Further north again, the long neck of Aupouri Peninsula forms a fragile, narrow defensive between the two great bodies of sea.
Inside its coastal borders, Northland is a puzzle of wilderness, farmland, weed-clad hills, crop land, drained and diverted waterways, and sheaths of pine forests.
Despite being deeply wounded by timber and kauri gum gold rushes, the wealth of which was mostly exported with the products, there will forever be remnants of former majestic, primordial kauri forests, and valleys and hills cloaked with native bush.

A barque sits at the wharf at Kohukohu, loading timber destined for Australia, circa 1900s.
A barque sits at the wharf at Kohukohu, loading timber destined for Australia, circa 1900s.

Farms thrive and still grow, but along overgrown tracks cut into clay banks and rotten rock slumps many an abandoned Strugglers Gully — absorbed by more prosperous neighbours, or buried beneath pine plantations paid for by last century's exotic forest incentives; marginal land, in truth or convenience.

The visitors' journey passes thousands of stories of Māori, colonists, flattened, crumbling or intact pa sites, old battlegrounds, marae, urupa and other graveyards, churches, farmsteads, rockwalls, sad and shrunken towns or solid rural service centres, derelict dairy factories on the outskirts of nearly every town, and coastal settlements once the vegetable and kai moana gardens of iwi, or the gateway into this roadless region - now holiday playgrounds.

Greens give way to faded moss tones, golds and peaty browns the further the road winds up Northland's rumpled body. A last narrow, manuka and wind swept peninsula runs parallel to Te Oneroa ā Tohe (Ninety Mile Beach) to the northern tip of New Zealand and one of its most sacred places, Cape Reinga - Te Rerenga Wairua.
Paramount in the journey, half way up the Northland isthmus is the Bay of Islands , ''the basket'' or Ipipiri as iwi knew a large part of it. Now it is called the birthplace of New Zealand, where two peoples met on the crossroads of a new nation.

Mukai Hura urges on the combined waka crew haka on Te Tii beach during Waitangi Day celebrations in 2017.
Mukai Hura urges on the combined waka crew haka on Te Tii beach during Waitangi Day celebrations in 2017.

Kupe makes landfall

The region's human beginnings were with Kupe who, leading his people to Aotearoa in the earliest wave of Polynesian migration, was thought to have made landfall in the Hokianga about 1000 years ago.
Explorers from Europe and England, then European sealers, whalers, traders and runaways started arriving in the late 1700s, followed by missionaries, bushmen, soldiers, settlers and more entrepreneurs. A third migration brought the "Yugoslavs" or "Dalmatians", mainly Croatians escaping the Austro-Hungarian empire which would usher into war Austria, Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Italy and Romania.

A group of Croatian gumdiggers.
A group of Croatian gumdiggers.

Imported diseases — common cold viruses, venereal infections, measles, influenza, typhoid fever, dysentery and tuberculosis for which tangata whenua had no immunity — and dislocation from mahinga kai (traditional food resources) had brought the Māori population almost to its knees. From around 100,000 people in 1769, their numbers NZ-wide had declined up to 30 per cent by 1840.

But by 2018 the number of New Zealanders who identified as Māori was 734,200, of whom 44,928 (7.5 per cent) lived in Northland. Ngāpuhi is the country's largest iwi with 125,601 people, or 18.8 per cent of the entire Māori population - most of whom do not live in Northland.
Northland's entire population was almost 180,000 in the last count, and around 33 per cent of them were Māori.

Digging up gum

More than New Zealand's gold rushes had, golden kauri gum earned the country's greatest export money in the late 1800s.
Gum-digging was the major source of income for Māori and settlers such as the "Dalmatians" (Yugoslavians and Croatians). By the 1890s, 20,000 people were engaged in gum-digging over 327,755 mainly swampy hectares.
The gum was used in varnish, linoleum and marine glue and by the 1890s was in 70 per cent of all oil varnishes made in England. The market peaked in 1899, and in the 1940s synthetics replaced the natural resin.

A Māori woman working in a swampy gumfield in Northland.
A Māori woman working in a swampy gumfield in Northland.

The gumfields lay mainly where long fallen kauri forests had fallen, drowned or bled, but standing kauri forests covered more than a million hectares when European timber seekers arrived in Northland. Today barely 4000 hectares remain.
Young straight kauri called rickers were used to repair or replace sailing ship masts from the late 1700s and the first export load of timber - 98 kauri spars - left New Zealand in November 1820.
Durable, strong, straight, evenly grained, with few knots and easy to work, kauri quickly became a preferred timber worldwide. Its qualities and the sheer volume of timber that could be reaped sparked more than 100 years of plunder.

The tough settler industries became part of a tradition of derring-do, hard work and innovation that also embodies modern Northland. Those tangata whenua, explorers, innovators, settlers, hard workers, escapists and realists shaped the physical and social landscape.

Rain brings problems

The pioneers dubbed it the Winterless North because it didn't get very cold in the opinion of people from Europe or further south in New Zealand.

With an average annual rainfall of between 1500 and 2000mm, there are plenty of jibes about "winterless".
The rain and run-off bring huge problems: siltation in waterways and the flooding of towns such as Kaeo, requiring expensive riverworks, or in central Whangārei, a detention dam; contamination and difficulty meeting national clean water standards; in Northland's poor soils, erosion and related land management problems, with costs and compliances added burdens.
Even aside from the property owners charged targeted rates, all ratepayers in one of the country's physically largest but lowest income regions pay for damaged roads and other flood clean-up.

Then again, with growing frequency, Northland experiences drought. The effects are felt acutely by farmers and growers.

Add water restrictions, fears that dams, rivers and aquifers feeding public water supplies will dry up, concerns about the safety of alternative water sources and downstream costs on the environment and ratepayers, and few residents are immune to Northland's seasonal lack of or abundance of rain.

The current lack of systems to harness and distribute water limits further development of land suitable for horticulture.
But to put the potential value of new horticulture and agriculture into perspective, last year Northland dairying earned $596 million, the avocado crop more than $43m (down from $53m the previous year), kiwifruit $38m (down from $43m) and the often overlooked but steady Kaipara kumara crop $60m.

Trade and the waterways

Back in the day, Northland was commonly called the Roadless North, the waterways its highways, its vehicles being waka, schooners, cutters,steamers, scows, punts, bringing waves of people, exploitation, change and development.

 A Parliamentary tour of Northland in 1917, to take a first hand look at Northland's roading problem.
A Parliamentary tour of Northland in 1917, to take a first hand look at Northland's roading problem.

From the 1840s the North's scattered coastal settlements were serviced by the "Mosquito Fleet" - a swarm of fast vessels that darted up and down the coast.
Many vessels in the informal yet efficient fleet were built locally of durable, versatile and abundant native timbers. Most were purpose-built to go wherever their cargoes dictated, whether across oceans or merely estuaries.

By 1875 firewood, potatoes, timber, flax, kauri gum, fencing rails, lime, coal and cattle were being shipped out of the North. Tea, sugar, flour, liquor, clothing, lamps, tools, kerosene, general goods and people eager to make their fortunes or just a living were shipped back in.
Boatbuilding, chandlery and shipping agencies have long been a leading commercial feature of the North and local seaways were among the busiest in the new world. In March 1855, the first schooner-rigged steamship came into Whangarei Harbour after steaming up from Auckland in an unheard of five days. The steam engine of the industrial revolution had arrived, on the sea at least; it would be some time before it reached the hard hinter land still early in the days of being broken in.

By the turn of the 20th century, the kauri rush had slowed, and no longer were there up to 120 ships anchored in the Northern Wairoa River awaiting loading with kauri timber or gum at Dargaville, Te Kopuru, Browntown, Aoroa and other jetty or mill towns. And yet, while it was the biggest, the Northern Wairoa was just one shipping centre in the North.

The ships that carried Northland's wealth out brought in the people, goods and animals that would turn the drained swamps and felled forest lands into farms.

Two hundred years after the new Northlanders began to poked their way inland in scows and punts, or walk for terrible days through slippery clay and deep mud, the limitations of the region's transport network remains a problem. It is inadequate for the region's needs today let alone its future, and a topic used for political points-scoring as well as being a political hot potato.

A recurring conversation speaks of a return to coastal shipping, strengthening and widening the over-burdened roads and rebuilding a railway.

Growing for the future

Apart from Māori seats and Māori-strong parties in their various guises and alliances, and a strange aberration in 1966 election when Social Credit's Vern Cracknell won the Hobson seat, rural-backed Northland has been a National stronghold.

Whatever their political allegiances, the people, leaders, promoters and politicians seem to agree on one thing only, that it is long overdue that Northland had better support from the rest of the country. It's a viewpoint that gets rolled out and promises made about every three years at election time, by all political parties — each with their own twist on why and who's fault is it much of Northland remains stuck in the poverty cycle, the rest barely edges forward.

Over the next two days, the series looks at some Northland issues today, how the PGF's investment to date might address them, and how to keep Northland growing.