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New Zealand: Northland: Dargaville and the Kauri Coast

New Zealand: Northland: Dargaville and the Kauri Coast

The final remnants of Northland’s most spectacular residents cling to life in protected forests between Awanui and Dargaville – this entry covers exploring our Kauri industry, and the end of my Northland adventure.



After a wonderful sleep and shower at Awanui, I punched ‘Kohukohu’ into the GPS, a small arty settlement on the edge of the Hokianga Harbour, and headed south.

I had decided to take the longer loop around around the Herekino forest rather than the direct route. I thought I could navigate myself over there without any trouble, there’s only one road. The GPS could sort me out after that.

So turn after turn, I ignored the GPS and followed the ‘follow the worn road at the fork’ method. I found myself in Ahipara; it’s a peaceful seaside town, but not where I wanted to be.

Chastised for my hubris, I turned the Garmin on and followed it’s confident direction. I drove through Ahipara and found myself climbing the hills on heavily cambered gravel roads. I began to have doubts, but my faith was strong. ‘Continue on to Gum Diggers Road’ Garmin said. So I did.

You can drive Jazz's anywhere

You can drive Jazz’s anywhere

Eventually I noticed it had me turning onto ‘Offroad’ after another 5km on this gravel blind corner deathroad. Reluctantly I accepted that I may have made a mistake. I zoomed out on the GPS to see where it was taking me.

I was heading to Atlantis, not Kohukohu.

I was heading to Atlantis, not Kohukohu.

I don’t regret the detour, it was neat. I got to see lots of folks’ private boltholes – future tiny home locations? You’d never see any of that hidden local stuff if the GPS didn’t test your intelligence every now and then. I returned to Ahipara and back to the road to Herekino, down to Kohukohu.

It was a great road, lovely driving.

The Hokianga harbour is this craggy scar of water cutting almost halfway across Northland. In the early days, this ocean access was a gift to traders. Small settlements sprung up along it’s length. It was also an artery to collect felled Kauri logs. There are three Heritage New Zealand missions dotted along the southern edge, but they were all closed when I was in the area. Naff! It would be a huge detour to drive around, so they run a small car ferry between Kohukohu and Rawene on the hour for $20.

The Rawene-Kohukohu ferry

Passive aggressive is the best kind

The community noticeboard was ferry informative. (worth clicking on so you can read it!)

On the south side, Rawene is a real nugget of a place. It’s cramped, like an English coastal village. I loitered briefly outside Clendon House but with it unexpectedly closed too, I had nothing to detain me. I carried on out to the mouth of the Hokianga Harbour, past a place called Omapere.

Entrance to Hokianga harbour

The sandy entrance to the harbour is dangerous. There have been 23 documented wrecks.  I pulled into the Arai-Te-Uru reserve to take a look, the site of an old signal station. Information panels told me the bar was sounded in 1819 by Reverend Samuel Marsden, with the first European ship entering in 1820. The site of the signal station is now a tasteful place of remembrance to those who perished on the bar, and those lost to the sea.

Hokianga War Memorial

Info panels told of one ship, the SS Ventnor, which sunk in 1902. The story is tragic; on board were the coffins of 499 Chinese men, mostly goldminers from the south, whose estates could not afford repatriation upon their deaths. The Chinese community rallied the funds to send the bodies home for their traditional burial rites and to be with their families, but the ship hit a rock and sunk off Hokianga. Some coffins washed ashore and the bones were buried by the local iwi. In 2007 the wreck was re-discovered, and apparently there’s a bit of interest in marking the sites and things in remembrance.

I like this story; I feel the Chinese pioneers in New Zealand haven’t got much screen time in my life. New Zealand is officially bi-cultural after the Government decided to recognise Maori culture in the 1980s. So while my experience with state education etc. had a small smattering of Maori in it, it’s been very weak on the other cultures who have also shaped modern New Zealand from the beginning. I’m liking seeing more of the diversity!

Driving on, I arrived in the Waipoua Forest, one of the last bastions of our ancient Kauri.

Tane Mahuta, Lord of the Forest. The largest Kauri alive today, 1,250 – 2,500 years old. (I left folks’ heads for some scale, though they are quite a bit closer to me than the tree themselves)

The conservation story of Waipoua forest is a tale worth telling in itself.

Bought from the Maori for peanuts, it fell under the State Forests Act in 1885. Due to it’s difficult location it wasn’t cut down or burnt like the rest of Northland, as it’s a wet area so fires didn’t take hold quite as well.

In the 1940s only a tiny bit of native Kauri forest remained. The public found out the State Forest Service was logging Kauri in the Waipoua. The people rallied, and after 12 years of political action, just 80 square kilometres was declared a forest sanctuary. In the late 60’s, the National Government decided ‘fuck it‘ and started cutting it down again, which didn’t stop until 1972 when Labour got in and put a stop to it – a move only done as an election promise I am guessing.

A fifth of the protected forest was cut down during those short years, demonstrating the efficiency of modern new logging machines. But the fun doesn’t stop there; the machinery was second hand, bought from the tropics. In the present day, it’s been discovered that a tropical fungus has found its way into our Kauri forests. It’s suspected that it hitched its ride on the tracks of this machinery, such was it’s speedy and deep spread into our few remaining stands of Kauri.

The fungus attacks the roots of the Kauri, starving and killing them. It’s called ‘Kauri Dieback’, and it’s a problem unique to Kauri, because Kauri are unique trees.

This might be the Yakka’s Kauri. You’ve really got to be there to experience their girth (tehe)

Their precursors lived in the Jurassic period, 150 million years ago. The modern Kauri is a bit different from those prehistoric trees, which is why it hasn’t gone extinct yet. The roots are shallow and fine, feeding on the decomposing layer of the forest. The foliage is acidic, and as fallen leaves decompose around the trunk they keep other trees stunted. A symbiotic fungus lives on the fine roots, helping the Kauri get nutrients. Unfortunately the invasive fungus feeds from the roots too, but gives nothing back; it just kills. So that’s a real bugger.

I learnt all this from a friendly elf woman who was keeping an eye on the conveyor of tourists taking the short boardwalk to see Tane Mahuta, our largest remaining tree. She and her ilk care for the trees, and educate everybody on the plight. The problem is, there’s a lot of nice tramping (hiking) to be done in Northland, and one boot with tainted dirt in it can kill a healthy, 2,000 year old tree. To try and halt the progress, the Department of Conservation (DOC) have set up a bunch of self-decontamination stations where you can scrub and disinfect your boots outside key Kauri forest entrances. But it relies on people caring, and everybody bothering; an optimists’ arrangement. If I were a Risk Assessor…

Decontamination station

Following the various raised boardwalks to keep us off the soil, I managed to find a few moments of peace with these great trees. It’s awe inspiring, standing there, looking at these great trees, knowing they may have been there when the Roman Empire was a fledgling. This one tree, there as the Empire rose, there as it fell, there during the dark ages, there during the Battle of Hastings, there to greet the first Maori. It has more impact when it’s a living organism as opposed to an ancient rock; I got a bit emotional. All of them there, until humanity decided there was money to be had and we all wanted ours.

Inspired and disgusted, I soaked them in, then soaked my boots, and left leaving less than footprints.

The drive through this forest is wonderful; a steep, winding trail. I was heartened to see small Kauri growing on the sides of the road. They’ll be lucky to reach the scale of their parents, and I wish them the best.

Enjoying State Highway 12

Cows n that

South of the forest is Dargaville, a town which rose to prominence during the lumber days and has struggled with its subsequent irrelevance. I stopped in at the Dargaville Museum, a custom-built centre from the 80s perched above the town. It was pretty great.

First up was a little video showing the process of swamp kauri recovery and milling in the present day on the odd occasion they’re able to do it. You sit on four rows of the chairs from the old cinema.

Swamp kauri are the trees which fell long before we got here and have been preserved in swamps for tens of thousands of years. When Kauri logging stopped, the old logs were still fair game; most which were known of were removed a long time ago. These days there’s been a ban on export for those, as Kauri are special to Maori (they actually appreciated them), but we’ve been exporting ‘woodcarved’ swamp kauri (circa 50,000 years) in 100 tonne blocks. It’s used for full carving overseas, but to define a block as ‘carved’ is as easy as writing your name on it. Anything for a quick buck – urgh!

After that, a central area covers ‘Dargaville life’ – well documented from inception to the present day, but with everything given the same amount of screen time, not that interesting.

They have a big section on the Dalmatian (Croatian) settlers, many of whom settled in Dargaville to work in timber or the gum fields – ‘gum fields’ being the practice of digging up ancient Kauri gum for use in resins and linoleum. Over time, as gum got harder to find, healthy Kauri would also be bled for low-quality gum. Another rapacious practice, which we quickly exhausted (and all for nothing, as synthetics are better at all of it now). There’s a good gumdiggers museum up by Awanui, but I missed it on this trip.

Kauri gum ornaments in Dargaville museum

Gum washing plant, restored

I found it a surprisingly great museum; it starts provincial but every turn I took took me to a new topic, and it was well covered and interesting. The maritime section is great, with plenty of bits of wrecks, tales and things I’d not heard covered before. I learnt of another Northland industry of yesteryear I hadn’t been aware of: Toheroa. Toheroa are large shellfish that bury themselves in the sands around New Zealand. A staple of nomadic Maori diet, they weren’t much of a hit for Europeans until Prince Phillip asked for a second helping of them in 1921. With the techniques for canning seafood available, industrial-scale dredging of beaches began, collecting Toheroa for canning and export. The heaviest populations were soon depleted enough to make commercial operations unprofitable, but it became a Kiwi staple thing to do – go dig around for Toheroa. They were almost wiped out by 1980, and are now protected, only able to be collected by Maori at special occasions.

Maritime section, Dargaville museum

Heading out of the museum I noticed two masts standing proudly; they’re the masts of the Rainbow Warrior.

At the local campsite I talked with three young folks who turned up on touring bikes. They were heading to Cape Reinga (good luck to them). I talked quickly, and their English speaker nodded ‘yes’.

I wandered toward the pub, got sick of walking and bought fish and chips instead.

I really liked Dargaville. It’s packed with neat Victorian houses, the streets are wide, it’s got a great aspect on the Wairoa river. Everyone I met was awesome. It’s run down, but it has a certain charm; I think it’s going to be the next Thames, the next gentrified town by Aucklanders who increasingly realise they don’t need to live in the city to do their jobs. And I hope it happens, that technology can get people to leave major cities and spread our population and opportunities again.

Nice skies at sunset in Dargaville

In the morning I packed up early and headed south to the Tokatoka peak, a small jut of rock overlooking the Wairoa inlet. The view was superb, but again, I screwed up with the camera. Here’s the best I could do recovering the best landscape shot ever:

From Tokatoka peak, to the Wairoa river

With the milk tanker and the dust it was so good damnit!

Heading on south, I headed to Matakohe to visit the Kauri Museum. Unlike most attractions it opened at 9am, but I was still a bit early. I popped over to the cemetery to be creepy.

Matakohe church

22nd June 1887 the first European to be born in Matakohe, Alpha Jarvis, planted this oak tree to mark Queen Victoria’s Jubilee and the 25th anniversary of Matakohe.

The museum was a $25 fleecing – I hope it’s a community owned museum. This was ‘the place to see’, so I figured I’d be there a while; unfortunately I treehugged myself into despair and left after a brisk 1.5hrs.

For all it’s ‘Kauri Museum’ namesake, the place is not for appreciating Kauri, but to celebrate the efficiency in which we destroyed Kauri. The wonder that man can ‘create’ through carving up and diminishing the grandeur of an unmolested behemoth. It glorified and reminisced for ‘the golden years’, those decades where humanity literally sapped 2,000+ years of life out of a region, and reveled in it.

‘Tuatara’ – it’s a bit off.

There is no doubting that some of the craftsmanship shown in the few ornate furniture pieces is spectacular.  But I can appreciate the craft, and the fine medium the Kauri presented, without thinking much of the museum. For me, seeing the few remaining trees, Tane Mahuta et al, the wonder was in their life, their ongoing longevity. Recognising the length of their past, and their ongoing future, put the insignificance of my being into stark focus. Not in a depressing way, but in a ‘one big ecosystem’ sort of way – life has gone on, and it will go on – and in the case of these trees their one life had gone on through the entirety of our western civilisation. They moved me, the memory moves me now. But all this museum is is exhibition after exhibition glorifying how clever we were to be able to get such Majestic trees logged and moved out of the forest. ‘It’s the last place on earth to have trees this old? Sweet, we can make cheap houses!’

Hooray for man

‘Kauri dam’ – it was more efficient to dump them in dammed streams then blow them in sync to the harbour than drag them out.

I understand why regionally they put a romantic shine on the past. Those were Northland’s glory days (for Europeans at least), and their great grandparents and grandparents were in these industries. I just felt it didn’t ‘take any lessons home’ at all; Te Manawa museum in Palmerston North recognised the loss and damage of it’s polluted waterways and explored some optimism for the future; this Northland edifice just looked backward.

It was all so sad. It is only human to work on the problems in-front of us as individuals, to strive to better our individual lot. Left alone, of course we’re going to destroy everything. It is up to our institutions and government to divorce individual ambition from where we want to be at a cerebral, global, beyond-your-lifetime scale. To think beyond ourselves and those around us is the grandest, most developed thing humanity could do. I’m pessimistic about our ability to do this these days, and I feel our selfishness is reflected in successful political party policy across the board. I just got really bummed out, seeing how hard we’d failed in Northland. We’ve always sucked. We kept logging these 2,000 year old trees as recently as the 1970s, despite country-wide protest! If it was such an effort to redirect individual ambition to even save a small copse of millennia-old trees (whose future is debatable), what does that suggest about our ability to address global warming?

Folks also took to collecting Kauri gum pieces, what an enriching hobby.

I don’t mean to belittle some of the ingenious work the lumberjacks did, a lot of it is very interesting and clever. But this museum didn’t even acknowledge the shameful element, or that in the beauty of their collection is so much loss. My hippy heart hurt that through all of it, no lessons are learnt.

It was the culmination of the rape of Northland that got to me. I’d just had enough. I wanted to go home. I got in the car and drove 13 hours.

I left the sun in Northland. Every hour or so I’d turn the heater up a notch on my way south.

I’m ending this on a dark place, but I did have a wonderful visit up North. I could do the same trip the opposite direction and see completely different things, it was a whirlwind tour.

The ten day solo roadtrip cost about $1,000. Here’re my costings – if you weren’t as lazy as I with preparing food you could knock a good $200 off easy.

Total cost: $1039

Take-homes: the stink

For me, sustainability has become more important to me since this trip. It really illustrated to me how pure capitalist free market activity (such as that in our early years) really will completely decimate a place for private benefit, leaving dead earth for all who follow. It also reinforced my understanding of our political process as pretty flawed; if we want more of our country, we really need to fight for it. Left and right all they’ve ever done is capitulate to extractive industry, until it’s either extinction-time or people have protested for decades. It’s amazing how we keep bumbling into destroying ecosystems to make a quick buck, only understanding what we’ve done after we’ve destroyed it. The wonder of New Zealand, why the rest of the world wants to visit, is because we’re so young we haven’t completely destroyed it yet – but we’re making great headway. Maybe I am naive in these thoughts – my job is non-destructive – the idea of taking from that which I didn’t create to better my lot and feeling entitled to that is a bit weird to me.

Take-homes: the good

Nice beaches. There’re pockets of optimism and opportunity up there, so that’s cool. I really enjoyed the history. But to counter the boohoo sentiment of this post – the best bit is, people recognised the trees were worth saving and kicked up enough of a stink that the government did save them. Hopefully they’ll be there for another two millennia, for some future guy have his moment: ‘these were here when Trump became President of the United States’.

Larry's a 30-something chap interested in tramping, being a dork and changing the world via less boring training.

1 Comment

  1. T T Jervis · February 20, 2019 Reply

    Alpha *Jervis

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