Kauri grew throughout the extensive forests of the peninsula before the arrival of Europeans. It is the second-largest and second-longest-living tree in the world. Botanist Thomas Kirk wrote in awe of ‘one of the grandest sights in the vegetable world. Magnificent columns, from 50ft to 60ft [15 m to 18 m] to the first branch, and from 4ft to 8ft [1.2 m to 2.4 m] in diameter, rise in rank after rank’.1
A king among kauri
The largest kauri tree ever recorded, at Mercury Bay, had a circumference of 23.77 metres and a height of 24.3 metres to the first branch – twice the bulk of Tāne Mahuta in the Waipoua Forest. Another tree, with a diameter of 7.3 metres, was thought to be 4,000 years old.
Exploiting a fine timber
The region’s kauri were first exploited for spars for sailing ships. Around 1820 HMS Coromandel loaded spars at the harbour that now carries its name. Ships visited to obtain spars until the late 1850s.
The elasticity of kauri timber and the length of the tree’s trunk made it well suited for ship hulls. Numerous schooners and cutters were built in small shipbuilding yards in the Hauraki Gulf and on the Coromandel Peninsula before larger yards in Auckland and at Mahurangi took over in the 1870s. Kauri was also used for building houses and in mines.
Getting logs to the coast was a challenge. Water, released from behind dams, was used to drive logs down to tramways or rivermouths.
The steep catchments, fast-flowing rivers and V-shaped valleys of the Coromandel lent themselves to the use of such dams. More than 200 dams were built in the Whangapoua, Tairua and Kauaeranga river catchments.
On the town
After six months’ hard work in the bush, many bushmen hit town for a spree: a short spell of binge drinking, gambling and visits to prostitutes, until the money ran out. Others spent their money more carefully, saving for land and a house. Bushmen on the steamer from Thames to Auckland cut dashing figures in newly purchased suits and trilby hats.
Saw pits operated by two men with a cross-cut saw gave way to water-driven mills in the 1840s, and to steam-driven mills in the 1860s.
In 1888 the Kauri Timber Company, a Melbourne enterprise, bought up virtually all cutting rights to standing kauri on the peninsula. Its production peaked in 1901–2.
Kauri gum had a number of uses, including making varnish. The first gum diggers in Hauraki were Māori displaced by the wars of the 1860s, who worked swamps and river flats before moving on to forests. Local Māori landowners also participated. Europeans joined them later in the century. These hardy workers used fire to clear the land of vegetation and, until the practice was banned, ‘bled’ trees – making cuts in the trunk to gain the gum within, rather than retrieving it from swamps or the base of trees.
The kauri-timber industry used trees wastefully and with little heed to forest regeneration:
- felling and extraction of trees inevitably damaged smaller trees and saplings
- use of only the lower trunk meant wastage of the huge crown
- up to 30% of logs were lost in dam drives
- the use of fire to clear ground for gum digging and farmland destroyed any chance of forest regeneration
- liberal timber regulations worked against the conservation of a resource that takes a long time to grow.
The Murray men, workers in the Kauaeranga valley, were colossal for the era: George was 2.03 metres tall and weighed 127 kilograms. His sons, Jack and Ivan, were not much smaller.
Bush work called for men of physical strength – ‘hulking great fellows’ and ‘strapping great men’, by one account – but also coordination and endurance.2 Swinging an axe, heaving a pit saw and carrying a timber jack (around 38 kilograms) all day were the bushman’s lot – 58 hours a week, with only Sunday off.
Bush camps varied in size from a nīkau hut shared by several men to a cluster of timber shanties occupied by 20 or 30 men. It was a male world of austere living conditions, no indulgences except food, and strict rules – such as a prohibition on alcohol and gambling for money – to help keep the peace. Meat and potatoes were staples for evening meals, cooked slowly in the camp oven while the men were at work.
From 1902 the trees ran out and loggers resorted to reworking areas. By the 1920s the hills were ‘cut-over’, scarred and visually devastated. The last major logging operations and dam drives on the peninsula were in the Kauaeranga valley in the early 1920s.
About 400 hectares of mature kauri trees survive in the 2000s, located in areas too difficult to log during the timber boom. The main stands are in the Moehau ecological area, the Manaia Forest Sanctuary and the upper reaches of the Tairua River. Individual giants can be seen elsewhere, closer to the road.
Trees narrowly saved
In 1972 some of the largest kauri trees at Manaia were marked for felling under the New Zealand Forest Service’s ‘sustainable yield policy’. Protest by local conservationists helped save the trees and create the Manaia sanctuary.
The Coromandel Forest Park (73,000 hectares) was created in 1971 to promote public recreation and conserve surviving native forest. It is divided into a number of blocks: Moehau, Waikawau, Kauaeranga, Hikuai and Maratoto, with smaller areas at Kennedy Bay, Ōtama and Whenuakite.