The “Top of the North”; Kauri & Gum

teenage boy standing in front of signpost showing directions to all parts of the world.  White lighthouse in the background, clear, blue sky. This is the lighthouse at Cape Reinga, the northernmost tip of New Zealand.

After last year’s trip to the “Top of the South”, this year we thought we would follow up with a trip to the “Top of the North”.  Very little planning and very late too but but we have car, tent and a map  – all you need for a road trip.  Lachlan didn’t get to come again as he was working.  Hard life when you are a teenager needing money to fund an extravagant lifestyle of Magic cards, trendy clothes and nights out with the boys!

We decided to head up the SH1, peel off at Brynderwyn and up to Dargaville.  This is Gumdiggers country – the whole economy from the mid 1800s to mid 1900s was predicated on digging the gum out of the ground where Kauri trees had fallen centuries ago  to ship back to Lancashire and Birmingham to make into varnish.  The gum is a bit like the white blood cells that form scabs to help the healing process when we cut ourselves.  When the Kauri trees are damaged the gum leaks out to heal; it collects in the crooks of branches and on the tree trunks.  Where the trees had fallen the gum was buried with them.  The gumdiggers probed for the buried Kauri trees and then dug down to find the hardened gum.  In areas where the Kauri trees were still standing they “bled” the trees for the gum.  Many of the diggers came from Dalmatia (what is now Croatia) and were known as Dallies.  They lived in shanty villages in huts made out of sackcloth or corrugated iron and baked earth sods.

Dargaville was once a thriving port but looks a little sad nowadays.  Nevertheless, there has been some effort at regenerating the place and we found a great little cafe for lunch.  It is situated on the curved reaches of a wide, brown, muddy, tidal river which is quite impressive from above.  The Dargaville museum is definitely worth a visit – we spent a good couple of hours in its tardis-like depths.  It is a treasure trove of collected memorabilia of life in the area; all manner of trinkets, household objects and tools of the trades undertaken by the inhabitants of the area.   However, despite an impressive display of lumps of gum and carvings made of  gum, gumdigging equipment and detailed explanations of how it was extracted and the lives of the gumdiggers, we left the museum still not knowing why the gum was mined!   We found out a little later in the day when we stopped at a shop selling Kauri woodware and gum jewellry.  The main market for the gum was England and the USA where it was made into high quality varnishes.  As the supply of gum dwindled and the good quality lumps were dug out, the smaller, low grade gum was used to make glue.  Eventually, the trees that had been “pegged” to bleed the gum out of them died and fell, the deposits in the already fallen trees was too deep and difficult to dig for and the gumdiggers had to find something else to earn a living.  Many of them stayed in the area, some had made enough money to buy land and turned to farming, others had other trades such as carpentry, building or ironmongery.  It was mostly single men who came over from Croatia; they settled with Maori women and stayed, others went back to their families in Croatia or had already brought their wives and children over.  It is strange to see the many road names with the “ich” suffix and shops and businesses with Eastern European names.

We found a great DOC campsite at Trounson on the edge of the Waipoua Forest where we stayed a couple of nights.   It seemed quiet when we first arrived late in the afternoon but by 10pm the place was full.  We are used to DoC sites with minimal facilities so were surprised to find that there were proper toilets, hot showers and a fully equipped kitchen.  The place is well known for being able to see kiwi at night, so as the sun went down we headed off into the bush with a red torch trying to walk as silently as possible.  (Not very silently with a teenage Aonghas!) The forest was like Piccadilly Circus, red lights beaming everywhere and the footfall and whisperings of  probably a hundred or so people along the 3km of track!  We were excited when we heard kiwi calling and scuffling in the bush but we didn’t see any.   Nigel and I decided to do the whole walk the following night; we set off early to avoid the crowds but despite sitting quietly in several spots for extended periods of time and hearing them again, we still had no luck sighting any kiwi.

One of the main reasons we had gone to Waipoua was to see the giant Kauri.  We didn’t manage to get this far north when we came to NZ in 2005 on holiday and the Kauris have been on our wishlist ever since.  Once upon a time the Kauri covered the northern part of New Zealand.   Huge swathes of forest were buried in some sort of cataclismic event hundreds of thousands of years ago, but the forests regenerated and when the European settlers arrived in the early 1800s they quickly recognised that these mighty trees with their long straight trunks were invaluable for ship building, houses and furniture.  The timber industry, like the gum digging was to decimate the Kauri population as trees were felled to send to America and Europe.  Thousands of tons of timber was wasted as the methods for getting the logs from the hillsides down to the ports was brutal.  Like anything that seems plentiful, the people benefiting from it don’t see the long term effects of their actions.  Now there is a huge conservation and regeneration project underway to re-forest the land with these beautiful and majestic trees.

We were amazed at the number of large Kauris that are in this forest.  Up until now we have seen the odd large Kauri and stands of young Kauri in the forests in the Coromandel, and in the Waikato.  Here in Waipoua Forest there seemed to be a significant number.  It is difficult to know how healthy the Kauri are as the 21st century has brought a new blight – Kauri dieback disease.  Interestingly though, whilst we had to disinfect our footwear to prevent spreading the disease in the forest area around Trounson, there are no such measures in the tourist areas where the large Kauri trees are.

Tane Mahuta is the tallest Kauri tree in New Zealand and it is truly impressive.  So too are the other trees we walked to; The Four Sisters – four Kauri fused together at the lower trunks that then soar high up together;  Te Mata Ngahere, the second tallest Kauri.  We also walked past Cathedral Cove which is a group of Kauri in the middle of the forest that tower up like the columns of a gothic cathedral to Yakas whose roots are protected by a boardwalk which means that you can get up close for some “tree-hugging”.  The walks through the forest are all on prepared paths and boardwalks and visitors are urged not to stray from the path as the shallow feeding roots of the Kauri are delicate and easily damaged.  The Kauri are inspiring and I am ever reminded about how small we are in a world that can produce such beauty and splendour.

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Easter at Dickey’s Flat and the long walk

A man and a boy standing by a fence in a paddock on a hillsideEaster fell early this year which meant that we had a very welcome five day break during term time.  Despite having lots to do both to catch up and in preparation for work as well as house and garden maintenance, we decided that we needed to get away.  A break from technology, computer screens   and brain strain was definitely needed.  So we headed off to Dickey Flat to go camping with some friends who have a boy the same age as Aonghas.

fern leaves on the forest floor

Dickey’s Flat is in Karangahake Gorge which is famous for the goldmining that took over the area during the “Gold Rush” in the 1800s.  We had had a day out there a few weeks ago to cycle the Gold Trail and were fascinated by the history of the place.  It is amazing to think that what is now a quiet, rural area was once the throbbing hub of a huge industrial community.  The rusting dereliction of the massive cyanide tanks that were used to extract the gold are overrun with plants as nature reclaims its place.  Swathes of forest and bush were cut down and cleared to build the gold processing plants; ancient tall Rimu, Kauri and other trees were felled and used for beams and buildings or shipped off to Europe and America.

Boy standing at the end of a tunnel

There is evidence in the river that flowed through the campsite of the pipeline that was built by the miners to carry water between Waihi and Paeroa; mill races where the river was diverted to create deeper channels to drive the machinery.  The access tunnels that were cut through the rocks are now used to get to the waterholes where we dived off rocks, swam and explored the river bed hopping from rock to rock and wading across swirling pools.

Despite the busyness of the campsite – we struggled to find a spot on Friday lunchtime and had to carry all our gear a good three of four hundred metres from our car to the site and estimate that there were probably a seventy or so tents on a site that DoC reccommend is for 35 – it was remarkably peaceful and relaxing.  The densely packed “teenage village” that sprung up opposite us during the early evening only really disturbed us after midnight when they decided to play spotlight in the woods behind us!

splash of water as child enters river by jumping in from rock aboveWe spent most of our time playing and swimming in the river, lazing around the tent reading, playing cards or watching the boys doing all of those things.  On Easter Sunday,after the obligatory Easter Egg hunt, we decided that we should really do something active to counteract the copious amount of food and wine we had consumed so we consulted the brochures, looked at the map and talked to a friendly ranger.

Two women and a child sitting in the flowing water of a river.  Rocks and boulders around them.

He suggested that the walk we were interested in would probably take us about two hours, that if we drove out of the campsite and parked our car at the other end and walked back to the campsite, it would be mainly downhill and easily manageable for the average person.  Teresa was happy with that; two hours was at the limit of her comfort zone but downhill would be fine.

So off we set.  “This is quite a long way in the car.” says Teresa, as we drove to the start of the walk.  “We’re coming back on ourselves though,” says Denny, “so it’s not that far”.   Hmmm!

woman walking up hill, dry fields in background

The first part of the walk was UPHILL through some paddocks.  It was hot. It was tiring.  And if there had been one more field of up, Teresa would have stopped and turned back.  However, we started to go down, and we were in the bush so we were shaded from the sun.  The views from the paddocks were beautiful and it was interesting to note the difference in the colour of the grass in the different fields.  We are in the middle of a drought here in the North Island and the ground is dry as a bone.  The river is about two feet lower than it had been when Teresa and Denny were here last year at the same time.  We walked up through paddocks that had also clearly been sprayed to kill the gorse as all around us it was brown and dead.  Gorse is an invasive species that was introduced to NZ by the English and Scots settlers and it has all but crowded out many of the native species in many places.

Woman walking tyhrough the bush in NZThe lusher bush and the shade that it brought was welcome but the downhill was short-lived as we followed the undulating path.  The ranger had told us that there was a section that, in reverse, was almost too steep to walk upright, but that downhill was more negotiable especially in dry weather where there was no mud to slide on.  We anticipated that it wouldn’t be long until we got there but as we made our way up and down through the bush it seemed like it would never come!  We stopped frequently to take photos and drink.  The bush was varied and as we descended – we were on a gradual descent despite the ups in between – the flora changed.  We noticed it most as the light changed where it had more space between the trees to get through to us; when the plants were dense and low we sensed the moisture they gave off, and when the trees were tall we could feel the draught of the breeze and the light as it filtered down to us through the branches.

The steep dowhnill finally came; it would definitely have been treacherous if it had been wet, but the extreme aridity meant that the ground was little more than dust which shifted as we descended and we almost rode it like powder snow or scree, at times only just in control. Teresa used the trees to bounce off like in a game of pinball!

Boy leaning on signpost in bush

We caught up with the boys who seemed to be draped around a waymarker, had a brief photo stop and then they hurried Teresa on.  By this time we had been going for about an hour and a half; as Teresa moved onwards Gus revealed what he and Gav had been hiding.  The sign that read: “Dickey Flat: 3hrs”!

The way continued to be “undulating” but it really was beautiful and the variety of the trees and plants in the bush provided us with something to talk about and was a distraction.  Teresa was starting to be discouraged, her feet were sore, her legs were sore and she was tired.  But she kept going – she had no choice!  In her own words; “the only thing that is keeping me going is the fact that I have to!”

We finally reached the river where we anticipated that the “undulations” would cease as we followed the river along to the campsite.  We were wrong.  The path started to climb once more, and then it descended, and then it climbed…. Even when we reached the second river crossing the path continued to meander up and down the steep hillside that formed the bank of the river.  I guess that we should have realised that the Karangahake Gorge is not called a gorge because the river banks are flat!

Rickers - young kauri trees towering looking upwards to the skyHowever, we still managed to delight in the scenery especially when we came to a ricker stand.  A ricker is a young kauri tree; these were densely packed, probably no more than a metre apart over an area as far as we could see.  Mostly spindly young trees with trunks about a couple of inches diameter, but interspersed with bigger ones and even the odd large tree.  Even the larger ones would only be considered “teenagers” in the world of Kauris where some of them are so big that five or six people cannot link hands around them.  The light was amazing – by this time it was close to 6 o’clock and dusk was falling – there was also a hint of mist and the air was damp so the light that filtered through the waning sun and the trees was almost translucent.

Crossing the river provided some light relief and a break from the tramping and it also allowed us to soothe our hot feet in the cooling waters.  There was still another 40 minutes or so of undulating pathway before we finally reached the campsite. The light was going fast and there was a sense of urgency to get back before dark. (although despite that Teresa and I did manage to spend about 15 minutes trying in vain to photograph the Kereru that perched happily in a tree, evading our journalistic lenses as he hopped around, munching on Miro berries!) We did get back; four and half hours after setting off on a two hour walk!  The boys and I jumped straight in the river to wash away the sweat and relieve our tired muscles but not before putting a glass of wine into Teresa’s hand and a bowl of water to soothe her feet!

Great work Teresa G – and you didn’t get to push me down the hill!

walking party preparing to cross river

The first term over!

Well the boys have made it through to the end of their first term at school. Lachlan seems to be coasting quite a bit and finding the standard of the work easier than in the UK. Of course he doesn’t mind not having much homework because he finishes everything in class but has intimated that he finds some of his lessons boring because he isn’t really challenged. He is also still quite disorganised – lost his school planner already so doesn’t write anything down (not that he used it anyway!) Whilst he doesn’t have much to remember it’s not a problem but he isn’t getting into the habit of using a planner for when he will have more to remember. (Sorry QES but the good habits he was encouraged to have there have just gone out of the window now there is no pressure from school here!) There is a Parents’ evening after the holidays so we will address those issues then! It may just be the case that the first term is slow because all the students are new and have just come from the different Middle Schools. However having started to study the French scheme of work in readiness for my new job I think it’s more the case that the standard here is just lower than in the UK! There has also been quite a lot of discussion in the staffroom about the low standard of the NCEAs, (external National Exams) which were introduced/revamped relatively recently, being too easy. The idea being that everyone succeeds and so has higher self esteem – where have I heard that before?! The reality, of course being that most kids find them too easy, aren’t challenged and so just doss around in class because they know they can gain credits without putting themselves out too much! Balance is a wonderful thing! That, of course is a crassly simplistic explanation of a complicated educational ethos but one that, I think, has some merit.

Aonghas is enjoying school (though claims he doesn’t as always!) and he is positively challenged. A balance does seem to be achieved in the Primary School although if we had any complaints it would be that he has too much homework! He certainly has a more structured program than Lachlan and spends more time “studying” at home. They have a program called “Have a BALL” (Be a Life Learner). They have a grid of activities that they should do over a two week period which include maths, spellings and reading, as you would expect, but also has activities that involve the whole family in an attempt to encourage parents to take some responsibility for their children’s progress and also to create a healthy work-life balance. Activities include doing a 10 minute task to help out in the house each day (fine by me!), playing a game with a family member, trying out a new activity, relaxing (he’s good at that one!), doing some exercise, using a computer to do research work and so on. All activities which you would expect to do in your everyday life. In theory the children do the activities at their own level but Aonghas does get quite anxious and thinks he has to complete everything so we have had some tears!

The two week blocks tend to be topic related and obviously linked to the topics they are doing in school so last time all the work was to do with birds as they have just had a trip to Maungatautari. For example, there was some research to do about how fantails build their nests, they had to draw a bird and write some notes about their chosen bird, they had a poem as a stimulus and had to write a similar poem about a bird of their choice – all that on top of 10 minutes reading everyday, learning spellings and maths activities! Quite a lot of work and in fact there was some discussion in the playground from other parents about how much there was and how much time parents as well as children were having to spend doing it. Aonghas is quite bright and relatively well motivated – surprisingly! He comes home most evenings and gets his maths book out to complete his maths, though he is less keen on writing activities. We also have time to sit with him but families where the children are less bright or who have little brothers and sisters and parents don’t have the time to sit with them are finding the whole program quite onerous and stressful. Anyway, they have a break over the holidays – all the activities on the homework sheet are just having fun, eating healthily, helping round the house, and doing physical activities to challenge themselves. We can cope with all of those! One of them is to climb your nearest mountain so hopefully we will get out this weekend and do that! We have a few to choose from!

I mentioned Aonghas’ school trip to Maungatautari – Maunga is the Maori word for mountain. Aonghas was delighted that I could accompany him and his class – he has always wanted me to come on school trips and I never could before because I was working full time. Maungatautari is a forested volcanic cone which unfortunately over the last 200 hundred years or so since the European settlers arrived has been decimated of it’s native species – both plants and birds. This is a huge problem all over NZ. The threatened native populations of NZ are mainly ground dwelling birds such as the Kiwi which had no predators until the early settlers introduced rabbits, and then stoats, weasels (to control the rabbits), mice, rats, possums, goats etc. The trees were felled, especially the Kauri, for building which inevitably affected other species in the bush. Anyway the upshot of it is that the Department of Conservation has created an Ecological Island at Maungatautari. It is an amazingly ambitious project to clear the area of all mammalian pests and predators (non-native species) and to encourage native species such as the kiwi and other birds as well as regenerating a healthy diversity of fauna and flora in the forest. To that end they have erected a predator proof fence around the whole area and spent years tracking and trapping all the predators from within the area so that they now are pretty certain there are no predators left. In the last couple of years they have introduced several pairs of kiwi as well as other birds and just this year a kiwi chick hatched. The fence really is impressive – there is a space like a sort of no mans land either side of the fence so that creatures can’t use the tree branches as bridges and there is an alarm system in place in case the fence is breached by, for instance, a tree falling.

We had a lovely time – there were 5 parents as well as two teachers so we had responsibility for a group of 4 children each and of course Aonghas was in my group which he was thrilled about. We met a volunteer from the Maungatautari Trust who told us all about the aims of the project and then took us up to the fence and explained how it worked. The children had already done some work on the project in class so knew some of the information which meant that they didn’t have to take in too much at once and were able to ask really good questions and answer her questions too. We then walked through the forest and tried to keep the children quiet enough to hear the birds! We spotted lots of the predator tracking boxes – these are placed every 20 metres or so throughout the forest so that they can make an accurate survey of what is around. Even though they are pretty certain hey have eradicated the pests they continue the survey to make sure none get in. Just yesterday there was news that on a similar ecological island in the Hauraki Gulf a predator has killed some birds so vigilance is vital. There are Weta houses dotted around the forest too which gave us an opportunity to see these normally nocturnal spiders.

The best part of the walk was when we were entertained by a very cheeky little Fantail. These are delightful wee birds which flit around from branch to branch, chirping as they go and this one led us a real dance! I’ve included a short video I shot on our camera – not very high spec and definitely not professional quality but hopefully you can get an idea of what we saw.

Fantails are quite tame and have been known to come in to people’s houses. This is the poem that Aonghas wrote for his homework (with some parental help – but not much!) about the Fantail.

I’m a little nosey native with a big showy tail

See if you can follow my trail

Spot me in your garden, the park or the bush

I’m never still, always in a rush.

Hopping from twig to twig, flitting all around

My black and white stripy tail bobs up and down.

I love to follow visitors, tell them all I know

Scratching under my wing and squeaking as I go.

WHAT AM I?

Wooden Tower MaungatautariIn the middle of the bush there is a wooden tower which the kids had been talking about the whole trip and it didn’t disappoint. It is a huge structure which is pretty impressive, it sways in the wind and as it is wood it also creaks but the view from the top is stunning. You can look down on the birds’ nests and the crowns of the trees and we had a great view of a couple of very fat looking Wood Pigeons. Unfortunately the sway of the tower added to the number of children running round the top platform and the distance means that the photos are not the sharpest but you get an idea.

If you ask Aonghas and half the kids what the highlight of the trip was though they would say it was that one of the buses broke down on the way back and they got to play on the playground whilst they waited for it to be fixed!