16 January 2009

Forest lords and mission houses

Curled fern frond near Tane Mahuta, Waipoua Forest, Northland

Whenever I'm in Auckland I try to visit my father's crew in the Rodney district an hour north of the city. Bruce and his wife Sally have a lovely 10-acre block just outside the bustling little town of Warkworth, where they enjoy a pleasant lifestyle. This time my visit to stay with the Warkworth Wilsons included a quick road trip to parts north with Bruce in his Mazda sedan. It had been 20 years since I'd seen the Waipoua forest north of Dargaville and the Bay of Islands, and I was keen to pay another visit during my short summer excursion to New Zealand.

Our first stop was quiet little Dargaville on the banks of the Wairoa. Its streets were virtually deserted when we drove into town on the Sunday morning between Christmas and New Year, with most of its residents either inside at home or away for the holidays. There wasn't much going on, so after buying icecreams from a threadbare shop near the river and filling up with petrol, we took our leave.

A short drive north up State Highway 12 we stopped to enjoy a walk along the well-kept bush paths at the Trounson Kauri Walk, a conservation reserve with plenty of mature kauri trees in their prime. Wandering through the bush you can really get a feel for the Northland forests before widespread logging removed much of the straight-as-a-die kauri from the area to feed the demand for masts and spars for the 19th century world's navies and merchant ships. Outside the grove the sun beat down, but inside it was cool and calm, and the native birds chattered to each other quietly in the tree branches, with fat wood pigeons perching on high boughs to keep an eye on human trespassers into the forest kingdom.

We paused at the nearby hamlet of Donnellys Crossing, which was once the end of a bush railway line from Dargaville used by loggers and gum-diggers. Nowadays there's just a small tearoom with tables made from huge hunks of Northland timber. The short-staffed lady behind the counter made us tasty BLT toasted sandwiches while we admired the stock on display in the tiny general store that occupied one corner of the tearooms.

Heading north once more, it was only a short drive through the beautiful dense forest to a short strip of road dotted with parked cars: the start of the short bush walk to see Tane Mahuta, the mighty kauri lord of the forest, and the largest kauri known to exist. It’s 51.2 metres high, its trunk has a girth of 13.77 metres, and estimates of its age range from 1250 to 2500 years.

Further north the road reaches the mouth of the Hokianga Harbour and veers eastwards towards the beach at Opononi, home of many a summer camper and ornamented by a simple statue of the town’s most famous visitor – the playful Opo the dolphin, who frolicked with children in the harbour in the summer of 1955-6.

After a race to eat icecreams in the sun before they melted, we continued on to the Bay of Islands. Securing a motel room on the outskirts of Kerikeri for the night, we settled down to watch the second T20 international from Hamilton, which New Zealand won by 36 runs. Then we enjoyed a top-notch takeaway curry from an Indian restaurant in the town. Highly recommended!

The next day was overcast and damp. We made haste after breakfast in Kerikeri and drove down to Kerikeri inlet to see the heritage buildings there. Samuel Marsden planted the first grapes in New Zealand here in 1819. The Stone Store (1833-6) is the one most people remember when they think of Kerikeri, and it’s great that the road that curled around the store and led to the bridge over the inlet has now been closed to traffic so as to protect the building’s delicate foundations. But it’s the two-storey villa next door that’s more significant – the unassuming white-painted Mission House is the oldest building in New Zealand. The Church Missionary Society built it in 1822 for the Rev John Butler, New Zealand’s first clergyman. In a letter dated 6 November 1819 to a fellow clergyman, Butler had said:

The prospects are indeed glorious, and I am fully persuaded that New Zealand is ripe for all the instruction and improvement that a Christian world is able to bestow. The New Zealanders are a robust, athletic and noble race of men, of lively dispositions, amazing quick in perception, and, generally speaking, they are a kind and affectionate people. Many of them speak a great deal of broken English, and are very fond of our language. There is no obstacle in the way to prevent our progress in the glorious work of civilizing, and, by God's blessing, evangelising New Zealand, but the want of means and proper instruments.

Next stop was the Treaty grounds at Waitangi, which has been enhanced by the recent decision to allow New Zealand citizens free entry. This is a good move, as the Treaty grounds have been rather over-commercialised in recent years. The Treaty House where the British Resident, James Busby, resided is still a pretty adornment to the sweeping greensward where chiefs and dignitaries gathered to sign New Zealand’s founding charter on 6 February 1840. Nearby is Te Whare Runanga, the Maori meeting house built for the Treaty’s centenary in 1940.

From the nearby bayside tourist centre of Paihia we took a small ferry across to historic Russell. In its original guise of the whaling village of Kororareka, Russell was famously described as ‘the hell-hole of the Pacific’, renowned for drunken sailors and Maori living a dissolute and lawless life. Russell was also the site of the famous insurgency led by Ngapuhi chieftain Hone Heke, who cut down the British flagstaff at Russell four times to demonstrate his disdain for British rule. Part of the war that erupted between British troops and Maori warriors in the north can still be seen in the timbers of Russell’s Christ Church, where the holes drilled by rifle shots in the attack of 11 March 1845 can still be seen, and the gravestones of British soldiers killed that day still lie.

After lunch in Russell I visited Pompallier House, the site of a French Roman Catholic mission from 1841-2, which housed a printing press to bring biblical texts to the local Maori. Ringed with well-kept gardens, the two-storey house now proudly displays elderly printing presses and samples of the materials it published.

As we crossed back to Paihia on the ferry the heavens opened and the Bay of Islands received a summer deluge that didn’t let up for hours. Driving back to Warkworth we could reflect on an excellent tiki-tour of the north. The Mazda’s windscreen wipers slapped the downpour away and the headlights drilled through the blinding mist cloaking the Brynderwyns, and we returned to a good bottle of wine at the Wilsons' table.

NZ Government Tourist Bureau film of Northland, 1940s
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