The road less travelled is often the one that brings unexpected rewards, so while a visit ‘up North’ is on many travellers’ wish lists, it’s worth taking in the West Coast along with the East.
WORDS & PHOTOS BY LORAINE ROWLANDS #67283
The latter offers sandy beaches and stunning views that deserve their popularity, but the West Coast has a charm all of its own. Enjoy the best of both worlds by driving ‘the loop’ from Auckland, up the East Coast, across the top to Cape Reinga and then back down the West Coast back to Auckland. There are many significant and fascinating historical and geological places to visit. The driving distances aren’t huge, but the road is full of interest and variety. Shortly after leaving the Hokianga Harbour in Omapere, SH12 takes you through the stunning Waipoua Forest. Tane Mahuta is the best-known, but just one of the famous kauri trees living here. The aptly named ‘Lord of the Forest’ is easily accessible along a boardwalk.
The oldest kauri living, Te Matua Ngahere, is only a little further along the road and also visited by an easy pathway. Tane Mahuta has been in the news recently due to the threatening closeness of the soil–borne Kauri dieback (Phytophthora agathidicida), and a very real fear is that this giant of a tree will succumb. It’s a sobering reminder of how seriously New Zealanders need to take this disease and perhaps by learning more about the kauri’s habitat, we might hasten a solution.
After being inspired by the age and majesty of the trees, continue the trip south to Dargaville, stopping in at Bayley’s Beach where you will see the remains not only of shipwrecks but the mounds of petrified wood jutting from the sand. There are many scenic and interesting side trips from SH12 which are worth researching if you have the time, but keeping to the main route will take you past the Wairoa River (sometimes called the upside-down river, as the silt seems to sit at the top) and further into the Kaipara Harbour. A worthwhile challenge for those not scared of heights is scaling Tokatoka, a volcanic plug that commands a 360 degree view of the Kaipara. Samuel Marsden, an early missionary, used to climb this peak to see what was happening in the Kaipara.
After all this activity, stop in at the jewel of the Kaipara, the world famous Kauri Museum at Matakohe. Although its name suggests it simply tells the story of the timber industry, it is also the story of the early European settlers to the area, and gives a comprehensive idea of the domestic, educational, commercial and spiritual lives of the people. The felling of vast kauri forests of the North and the industries of kauri gum and timber were recorded in Tudor Collins’ photos, an extensive collection of which is on display at the museum at the moment. It is a sobering thought that just four percent of these vast forests remain today. The strength and flexibility of kauri made it ideal for boat building and making masts and spars for sailing ships. The museum houses fine examples of boats including a kauri dinghy, a Logan-built sailing boat built in 1938, a ‘Frostbite’ sailing dinghy built in 1939 by Jack Broke and an 1860’s Kaipara punt for fishing in shallow muddy waters.
Also on view is the prized collection of carved specimens of golden gum pieces (the collection of gum is the largest in the world), many stunning pieces of kauri furniture, a fully furnished 1900’s replica six-room interior of a kauri villa beautifully and authentically furnished and modelled, as well as many samples of wonderful arts and crafts making use of both the gum and timber. You can stroll through a replica two-storied life-sized boarding house showcasing examples of the museum founders conducting a meeting, a seamstress at her work and an authentically gruesome re-enactment of a dentist plying his bloody trade. And, of course, there is the operational machinery room with many restored machines used by the pioneers. The list of exhibits preserved for generations to come seems almost endless. Small buildings which have been relocated to the museum site include the local school built in 1878, and the Matakohe post office operating from 1909 to 1988. Across the road from the front of the museum is the Pioneer Church build in 1867, not long after the first settlers arrived in 1862.
Another famous landmark is the Coates Memorial Church which was dedicated to the memory of the Rt Hon. Joseph Gordon Coates. Known as ‘the man who got things done’, he was a local boy who became an MP for Kaipara for 32 years and served as Prime Minister of New Zealand between 1925 and 1928. The church is a fitting memorial to one who gave great service to New Zealand, in both peace and wartime. Back on the road again, head towards the delightful little ‘Village in the Valley’ of Paparoa and the turn-off to the Sterling Road Kauri Bushman’s Reserve. This reserve walkway has very recently been boarded by DOC and showcases the younger kauri forest. There is a real aura of peace and hope, and it is well worth a visit. Parking is available, but takes some negotiating from the metal road.
It would be very easy to spend a whole day in and around Matakohe. In fact, it is advisable to make you sure you see everything. A day trip is also a good option considering it takes roughly two hours from Auckland (140km) and is just one hour south of Whangarei. There are good camping grounds nearby, interesting beaches on the Kaipara Harbour at Tinopai and Pahi, and good eating places and quirky little shops in the village of Paparoa. The Kauri Museum itself has a POP; there’s the Matakohe Holiday Park, the Paparoa Motor Camp, Pahi Beach Holiday Park and other POPs at the Paparoa Hotel and Paparoa Station Road, Monkey Hill. There are two possibilities in Tinopai, a half-hour drive south-west from the museum, close to the harbour. It’s definitely worth making that long-dreamed-of visit ‘up North’ but fascinating to head away from the much-visited East Coast to fossick around the byways of the West Coast.