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The Kauri Coast: A Paradise for Eco-Tourists

Published
January 26, 2024
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THE Pacific coast of Te Tai Tokerau, the great Northland peninsula of Aotearoa New Zealand, is the more touristy and developed side of the peninsula. It is where you find the city of Whangārei and all the main attractions like Mangawhai and the Bay of Islands.

But there’s still a lot to be seen down the west coast as well. For that reason, the main tourist route is called the Twin Coast Discovery Highway.

Northland map showing the Twin Coast Discovery Highway (red), via Northland Inc (downloaded 2023)

South of Ōmāpere, at the mouth of the Hokianga Harbour, you are on what’s called the Kauri Coast, after the great subtropical conifer, Agathis australis, that used to grow widely in the area.

The kauri was logged for its rotproof timber until conservationists succeeded in putting a stop to the industry in 1974.

They used to say that there were two houses inside every mature kauri, which gives you an idea of how big the large ones were.

On the other hand, the kauri took centuries to reach such proportions. Younger kauri could be felled for the masts of sailing ships, but that was also a dying industry by 1974.

The kauri also produced an amber-like gum, which gradually built up in the soil of kauri forests. The gum was extracted for many years by so-called gum diggers, who would go around with steel rods, probing the muddy ground and digging up any lumps they found. Sometimes, they dug out massive trenches to get at deeper deposits as well.

Kauri logging and gum digging belong to a romantic but hardscrabble era of New Zealand’s past. They are examples of the extractive, boom-and-bust enterprises that have been typical of the economy of Northland.

Remnants of kauri forest remain. Apart from the local coastal and lookout tracks around Ōmāpere, the first major Kauri Coast attraction that you come to, heading south from Ōmāpere on State Highway 12, is the Waipoua Kauri Forest.

Map data via the New Zealand Department of Conservation by Land Information New Zealand, CC BY 4.0 (2023)

The Waipoua Kauri Forest contains the largest remaining kauri tree in Aotearoa New Zealand, a tree named Tāne Mahuta after the Māori god of the forest.

This tree is generally thought to be about 2,000 years old, if not more. It was only discovered as recently as 1924 when the route of State Highway 12 was surveyed in these parts. Though kauri logging continued for another fifty years, I suspect that being so close to a new road, Tāne Mahuta became a tourist attraction straight away, and was thus spared.

Sign pointing to Tāne Mahuta

The elevated track leading to Tāne Mahuta

The forest god himself

Despite Tāne Mahuta’s reverential name, there were other kauri that were even bigger:

“Kairaru” they called it: the largest kauri ever officially measured in New Zealand. It was big, so big that when Percy Smith first discovered it in the late 19th century, he mistook the trunk for the side of a cliff. Which is not surprising when you consider how big it actually was. In height and girth it was almost half as big again as the legendary Tane Mahuta. Even more incredibly, its timber volume is estimated to have been triple that of our largest living kauri.

Kairaru was not logged either and might still be with us if a Victorian settler’s careless use of matches had not caught it in a runaway scrub fire not long after its discovery.

Unlike the great California redwoods, the kauri has little resistance to fire, relying mostly on the pervading dampness of the northern forests and on luck, which for Kairaru ran out on a hot day in 1891.

The fact that a highway was not blazed through the forest until the 1920s begs the question of how people got around in those parts beforehand.

If you look back at the detailed map above, to the east of the section of State Highway 12 that runs between Ōmāpere and Waipoua, you can see a track that is broadly parallel to the modern highway.

This track is called the Waoku Coach Road Track, a name that doubtless harks back to the era in which stagecoaches were the preferred means of overland travel in this part of the country.

Kawakawa Hokianga coach stage. Original photographic prints and postcards from the file print collection, Box 18. Ref: PAColl-7581–63. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22565319. Copyright described as “unknown.”

I don’t know why State Highway 12 was surveyed to the west, instead of just upgrading the old coach road, which is what usually happened.

Further south, in the middle of the Kauri Coast, there is a cluster of attractions:

Photo from Maunganui Bluff by Pierre Roudier, 23 January 2012, via the New Zealand Department of Conservation and Flickr. CC BY-NC 2.0.

Here is a general map for orientation, and then a more detailed one.

The part of Northland that includes the Kauri Coast. Map data ©2023 Google.

Name of Trounson Kauri Park added to Map data via the New Zealand Department of Conservation by Land Information New Zealand, CC BY 4.0 (2023).

Like the Trounson Kauri Park and the Maunganui Bluff, the Kai Iwi Lakes deserve special mention. They resemble tropical lagoons, with white sand shallows and blue water of greater depth in the middle.

An aerial view of the Kai Iwi Lakes, which are roughly 2 km behind the beach. Imagery ©2023 CNES/Airbus, TerraMetrics, Data SIO, NOAA, U. S. Navy, NGA, GEBCO, Landsat/Copernicus, Planet.com. Map data ©2023 Google. North at top.

The Kauri Coast has its own website, kauricoast.co.nz, with a subsidiary website called kai-iwi-lakes.co.nz, and on that website, you can see a drone video of the Kai Iwi Lakes. Here it is also. You get the idea!

I have only ever driven past the Kai Iwi Lakes, and now I am kicking myself. Definitely next time!

A new cycle trail is also proposed to run from Dargaville to Donnellys Crossing. This is the proposed Kaihu Valley Trail. When it is completed, it will be possible to mountain bike from Dargaville to Ōmāpere via a route that consists mainly of the Kaihu Valley trail and the Waoku Coach Road.

The following two photos are of Kauri Coast informational roadsigns, actually taken at the southern end of the Kauri Coast, so they point left. The coast is, of course, on your right as you are heading south.


Here’s a photo of some of the typical terrain on the Kauri Coast, as seen from State Highway 12.

A typical view from the side of SH 12 on the Kauri Coast, looking northward

The southernmost sizable town on the Kauri Coast is at its southern end. This is Dargaville, which sits on the Wairoa River, a river that flows into the northern end of the Kaipara Harbour, one of the largest harbours in the world at nearly 950 square kilometres of open water at high tide.

The Kauri Coast thus lies between the Hokianga Harbour and the Kaipara Harbour. Some think of it as ending at Dargaville, though others would say it doesn’t really end until you get to Poutu at the north head of the Kaipara Harbour’s mouth.

Kaipara Harbour Location Map, by M. Tupe, C. Woods and S. Happy. (2020). NIWA project: ARC19501. CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Attractions at Dargaville include self-drive railcart tours, a kauri workshop open to the public, a “large Māori, Maritime & Pioneer Museum” in a hilltop park overlooking Dargaville, and an engineering museum which is on top of the same scenic hill, and the Pupu Rangi Nature Sanctuary, a rather special kiwi park (which only seems to be open to long-stay visitors however).

Although kauri logging has been banned since 1974, many craft workers still produce kauri products using so-called ‘swamp kauri’, ancient logs that have been preserved in bogs.

Dargaville, a railway hub and river port which used to be at the heart of the kauri logging trade, is now at the heart of the swamp kauri industry. The town is also the tourist hub of the southern end of the Kauri Coast and the northern end of the Kaipara Harbour.

Dargaville is still pretty sleepy though. To reiterate, it is really the eastern, Pacific coast of Northland that attracts the throngs to waterfront bars and yacht marinas. The western side of the peninsula is more suited to nature contemplation in forests and along empty, storm-tossed beaches.

Geographically, the Kaipara Harbour resembles San Francisco Bay. But in contrast to the densely populated Bay Area, hardly anyone lives on the shores of the Kaipara Harbour by modern standards.

All the same, the Kaipara Harbour used to be important in the past. Before good roads such as State Highway 12 were constructed in the area, the many nooks and crannies of the Kaipara Harbour formed a handy means of getting around by boat.

Many Maori pā and colonial villages were established in the headwaters of the Kaipara. It’s just that those settlements haven’t got any bigger in the years since, with all the growth tending to go to Auckland instead

From Dargaville, just off the map above at the top, you can either head on down the Poutu Peninsula, which guards the northern half of the Kaipara Harbour to its North Head, where you can go sand duning next to a picturesque lighthouse, or turn inland to join up with State Highway 1 at Brynderwyn.

On the way to Brynderwyn, at the small town of Matakohe, there is a Kauri Museum. It is well worth a visit.

Sign pointing to the Kauri Museum at Matakohe

Another old colonial township you pass through is Paparoa. It may well be evening by the time you get there, as in this rather atmospheric shot by my editor, Chris.

Paparoa

Paparoa has the same name as a scenic mountain range in the South Island that I have also blogged about, but of course it is a long way away. As with Ōmāpere by the sea and the inland lake of the same name (or for that matter the 34 American towns named Springfield) you do get the same place names popping up here and there.

To get away from it all on the Kaipara Harbour, which is really historic in its own right, a highway in the days of the winterless north, you might want to head down a peninsula just west of the Pahi River, shown in the Kaipara map above, to the settlement of Pahi and the Pahi Beach Motor Camp, overlooked by another fine old colonial building, the Pahi Hotel. The campground also contains one of the largest Moreton Bay figs in the world.

I believe that Pahi is named after a Ngāpuhi chief, Te Pahi, who visited Australia in 1805 and 1806, and was duly awarded a medal by the Governor of New South Wales.

The Te Pahi Medal: https://www.tepapa.govt.nz/discover-collections/read-watch-play/maori/silver-slice-maori-history-te-pahi-medal

Continuing east, you pass through Maungaturoto, which has a 1902-vintage colonial pub, admittedly not as outwardly spectacular, in gingerbread-like terms, as the one at Pūhoi, let alone the Duke of Marlborough in Russell.

The pub at Maungaturoto

To round off, check out the Ancient Kauri Trail on the website of NorthlandInc. This is a guide to a road trip along the Kauri Coast with many of the side attractions described.

Suffice it to say that this post has only scratched the surface, and I need to get out and do some of the many bushwalks on the Kauri Coast as well!

Lastly, there are more tourist photos of the Kauri Coast on the website of the NorthlandInc Media Centre.

If you liked this post, check out my award-winning new book about the North Island, available from this website, a-maverick.com.


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