Rebecca Priestley, a science historian and writer, planned a journey up north that involved trees — an attempt “to replace climate anxiety with signs of hope”, that ended with “concern about pathogens, colonialism, capitalism, my white settler ancestry”.
Here, she traces the history of kauri, from its near total destruction in the 19th century as a result of European settlement, to the more recent threat posed by kauri dieback.
I’m flying, in slow motion, through the forest. I hear birdsong from the trees surrounding me and footsteps from the boardwalk beneath me. The dense foliage close to the path includes ponga, tī kōuka, nikau. Beyond them is a sea of trunks. I tilt my head back until I can see the tops of the trees, some dripping with epiphytes, and wonder if they are kauri. I realise, with a pang of regret, that I’m not sure if I could tell a kauri from a tōtara or a kahikatea.
A voice tells me to turn, to look around me. I turn and startle when I see a shape below me, to my right. The top of a baseball cap. I take a cautious step, my arms reaching out, but feel wobbly and disoriented, so I take off the VR headset and return it to Sophie, who’s standing beside me, smiling.
I’m at a hui in Palmerston North, and it’s lunchtime. As part of a project called Ngā Rākau Taketake — Saving our Iconic Trees, we’ve gathered to talk about the human dimensions of kauri dieback and myrtle rust. In the session before lunch, I heard that the VR kauri forest experience will enable people outside of Northland, people with mobility problems, our whānau overseas — anyone who can’t physically get into ngā ngahere, the forest — to experience these special spaces.
“Where was this filmed?” I ask.
It’s Tāwharanui Regional Park, north of Auckland. The 360-degree video I was experiencing was from a track known as the Ecology Trail.
The tall trees I was admiring were kauri, but in my mind I see kauri not as part of a forest but as a lone giant, a tree with a name. I can picture a massive trunk with proportionally small branches, a bit like a T-Rex, all torso with tiny limbs. Apart from a visit to Tāne Mahuta in the late 1970s — in the photo that tells me I was there, I am one of four children, holding hands, seeing if we can stretch far enough to link hands around the God of the Forest (we can’t) — I’ve never spent any time in a kauri forest. For most of my career I’ve focused on rocks, fascinated more by signs of life from millions of years ago than by what is living today.
But now, after years of working with climate scientists, and writing about climate change, I can’t see a mountain without imagining it denuded of snow, and I can’t see a sandy beach without wondering how long before it’s claimed by sea level rise.
Trees, though. Trees give me hope.
So I planned a journey that involved visiting trees. But it turned out that trees, as my social science colleagues might say, are also problematic. My attempt to replace my climate anxiety with signs of hope ended with concern about pathogens, colonialism, capitalism, my white settler ancestry.
In my unkempt Wellington garden, the big trees — the ones that reach higher than our two-storey house — are kōwhai, tī kōuka, pohutukawa. In the regional parks in the lower North Island, the giants of the forest are rimu and kahikatea. I know a bit about kauri dieback, the devastating disease caused by the invasive pathogen Phytophthora agathidicida, but how much do I know about kauri?
I know, from my 1970s school ruler that showed off the “Native Timbers of New Zealand”, that kauri — the central inset — is a honey-coloured, finely grained wood. I know, from five decades living in colonial houses, that kauri is the “best” wood, and that kauri furniture, or a kauri fire surround, or kauri floorboards, are something to treasure. And I know what kauri gum looks and feels like.
On my writing desk, I have a piece of kauri gum that was dug out of the Northland earth by Anders Hackell, my Finnish great-grandfather, sometime in the 1890s. Technically it’s a rock, a fossilised resin, but my senses don’t register “rock” when I hold it in my hand. It’s fist-sized, light, warm, and very comfortable to hold.
Four weeks after my VR forest experience, I’m pulling into the carpark at Parry Kauri Park in Warkworth, where it is warm and misty. My first kauri sighting is a relic from the forestry years — an enormous log sits on a red bullock wagon, beneath a pitched corrugated iron roof. As I turn to face the forest, I sight a tree I have no doubt is a kauri: behind a wooden fence, the straight trunk reaches up 12 metres before exploding in a proliferation of branches. Up a paved path, a plaque tells me the “McKinney Kauri” is 800 years old, with a girth of 7.62 metres and an estimated cubic metres of 43.1.
I follow the fence to a pink sign — “Stay safe, stop the spread” — and go in for a closer look. It is a Unite against Covid-19 sign. Further along, I find the park entrance, and boot-cleaning station. A raised wooden walkway, fenced on either side, is fringed by two signs. One gives boot-cleaning instructions, alerting me to:
They are dying from
Kauri dieback disease
I step on a metal platform, then into a recess where I scrape my shoes against stiff green brushes to remove soil from my footwear. Next, I step on a spongy blue pad, and tread up and down to release the foamy disinfectant onto the soles of my shoes.
Through a gate, inside the park, the raised wooden walkway continues through dense bush, the forest canopy protecting me from a light drizzle.
A few metres in, two men in shorts are chatting and looking down into the leaf litter. When I stop, they point out a scattering of two-day old kauri seedlings — each a thin stalk and two narrow leaves. They germinate in the leaf mould, they tell me, and most die after the roots are eaten by insects. Before kauri dieback put restrictions on movement of vegetation, they’d transplanted thousands of seedlings to a nearby ridge, where they would get enough light to grow.
I continue my walk, noting trees I am familiar with — karaka, tōtara, rimu — and others whose names are new to me — tanekaha, parataniwha, porokaiwhiri. After the track begins its loop back, a viewing platform stretches out over a gully whose slopes are lined with ponga ferns, nikau palms, supplejack vines and the glossy green leaves of the porokaiwhiri.
Beyond them are the kauri, some with branches dripping with epiphytes and invisible birds flitting through the crowns. Above the sound of the stream, I hear the call of a grey warbler, the peep of a piwakawaka, then the heavy flapping of a kererū.
I breathe in the smell of the forest, knowing I am in the presence of ancient beings. For tangata whenua these trees are ancestral beings, stretching high to keep Ranginui the sky father separated from Papatūānuku the earth mother.
The rain starts. I run the rest of the boardwalk, a huge smile on my face, as water pours over the brim of my cap and onto my jacket.
At the end of my walk, I take shelter in the Warkworth and District Museum, where there are two women behind the counter. When I tell them I am writing about kauri, one of them says I’m in luck, there is a “kauri bushman” here. I’m intrigued. While they go off to find the bushman, I explore the museum, pausing over displays of giant pieces of kauri gum, dioramas of a bushman’s hut and other items connected with the gum digging and forestry industries that brought Pākehā settlers to Northland.
From a small photocopied brochure, I learn that New Zealand kauri, Agathis australis, is Aotearoa’s largest tree. Its trunk is straight, rather than tapered, and due to its habit of shedding lower branches, older trees have a tall trunk, topped by a crown of branches with small narrow leaves. Its seed cones are globose, or spherical, and, when mature, disintegrate to release winged seeds which are dispersed by the wind.
The “kauri bushman” turns out to be a slight, bespectacled, octogenarian called Maureen. She’s tidily dressed in a woollen jersey over a blouse and trousers and has the quiet confidence of someone who used to be a primary school teacher. We sit on a bench outside the museum, in the shelter of a porch, and talk about kauri.
Maureen is one of about 15 custodians, or “bushmen”, who look after the park. They are all retired, in their 70s and 80s, and “either Pākehā or Bohemian”, she says. While the original kauri bushmen were responsible for felling the kauri forests that used to dominate Auckland and Northland, Maureen is quick to assure me that she’s never taken an axe to a kauri tree.
The Kauri Bushmen’s Association was formed in 1936, once the kauri timber industry was in decline. After the Second World War, the bushmen began buying up stands of kauri trees, to help protect and preserve the few remaining kauri forests. It was the Kauri Bushmen’s Association, along with Harry Parry, who raised the money to buy this land and preserve this stand of kauri.
Maureen has spent a lot of time in kauri forests, measuring trees — her late partner had a mission to visit the dozen biggest kauri in the country — monitoring possum bait stations, carrying the concrete used to build the park’s viewing platform. As well as decades of experience in the bush, she’s done a couple of botany papers at Massey, she tells me, “just to get the basics of plant growth”.
After European settlement, there were pines among this stand of kauri, and sheep grazing between the trees, but when the park was established in 1967, the pines were felled, the sheep were fenced out, and the possums trapped and killed. The large trees in the park were believed to be 800 to 1,000 years old, but the undergrowth — the palms and ferns and vines — are mostly younger than me.
When it stops raining, we walk across the carpark to the “McKinney Kauri”, named after the first European to own this land. Kauri, Maureen tells me, are monoecious, so there are small male and larger female cones on the same tree. From the wooden platform that surrounds the tree, Maureen reaches into the leaf litter, which is scattered with the little male cones that hold the kauri pollen. She holds out her palm, in which rest two cones. The male cone is small for such a big tree — skinnier than her little finger and about two centimetres long. The female cones are bigger, and round, but harder to find.
Next, she points out a knobble of dark orange gum on the trunk above us. The gum seeps out, she said, when a branch falls, “like a scab that forms over the wound. And when the tree falls, and it’s in the ground, the gumdiggers go with their spears feeling for the gum, and dig it up. It was a huge industry in the early days.”
I am curious to know more about the kauri’s companion species, the ones Maureen describes as “hooked on kauri”, thriving in the acidic leaf litter of the forest. We head into the park and find a greenhood orchid. Not much bigger than the kauri seedlings, it has a bright green stem, four spikey leaves, and a pale green flower, mostly consisting of a curved sepal, which Maureen says reminds her of a cobra head.
Orchids, Maureen explains to me, have three petals and three sepals, some of which have a “beautiful frilly petal down the front” called the labellum. “Well, this one, its labellum is like a little tiny tongue, and if you get a fine stick and tickle that tongue, it flicks back. We call that an irritable labellum. If a tiny midge flies in there looking for nectar, and it sits on that labellum, the labellum flicks it back down to where the pollen is. And then it crawls out, flies to another flower and spreads the pollen.”
This particular species, Pterostylis brumalis, was named by a 20th-century botanist, Lucy Moore, who retired to her home town of Warkworth after a career with the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research. Maureen speaks about Moore, and her contemporaries, with respect and affection.
“Those old girls, they were so much before their time, you know? Women in the 1920s played tennis and got married and had children — the young women nowadays, they owe so much to those pioneers.”
By early afternoon, I am driving over the hills to Tāwharanui Regional Park, slowing down to let pūkeko cross the road and enjoying views of blue sea, rocky coast, Kawau Island. It is warm and humid, and the air has a smell to it. Volcanics? The rich earth? The ocean? I wind down the window to listen to the screech of a kaka and the sound of the surf over the electric hum of the car.
Tāwharanui Regional Park is 588 hectares of land at the end of a peninsula in the northern Hauraki Gulf, an “open sanctuary” that integrates farming, conservation, and recreation. Down near the coast, I slow to pass through an electronic gate that separates the pest-free park from the mainland. On the other side of the fence, the road snakes between a lagoon and a paddock of grazing sheep. Beyond that, the road passes through fields of bright green grass, teeming with grazing pūkeko, stepping their banded orange legs through the grass, heads bent to peck the young stems and shoots. I drive with my windows down, feeling like I’m in a scene from Jurassic Park — the pūkeko are the entry level creatures, to warm me up before the main event. A sign tells me that “pateke, pūkeko and kiwi” are roaming. I drive on, past the pūkeko fields, until I find a carpark.
On foot now, I pass a wide, white-sanded beach, gently curving around some dark rocks and a line of pohutukawa. A council worker driving a lawnmower points me up a gravel road, where I fall into step with a young woman. She’s Canadian, used to maples, oaks, and firs, with hazards like bears, brambles and thorns. She’s on her “lunch break”, and we speed walk, eager to get into the forest. Once in the fenced forest, we follow the loop track up wooden steps, along dirt paths, and over boardwalks I recognize from my VR experience. It’s warm and muggy and my back, behind my backpack, is covered in a greasy film of sweat. Noisy tūī sing from the treetops.
After almost an hour’s walking, we come out of the gate and cross a grassy paddock strewn with sheep poo. We walk separately now, down a gully, where there are thistles, flowering mānuka, tī kōuka, and pūkeko scrabbling in the undergrowth, then on to the sandy, rocky beach where I meet a pīwakawaka flitting from clump to clump of seaweed and beach detritus.
I have two more hours driving, but I’m hot and the ocean is right there so I change into my togs and run down to the beach. Heeding the signage warning of “strong rips, currents, large waves and submerged rocks”, I choose a little cove next to the surfer beach, where I don’t so much swim as immerse myself in the water. I lie back, resting on my elbows, and let the waves crash over me, then hold tight as the water and the sand try to pull me with them back into the sea.
Northland’s “Ancient Kauri Trail” follows State Highway 12 from Maungaturoto north to Ōmāpere. I start my day 20 kilometres along the trail, the only guest at Matakohe House, the Gumdigger Café across the road closed.
After a short walk to look south over the Kaipara Harbour, I enter the Kauri Museum.
Whatever I expect from this small-town, niche museum, is surpassed. The museum is enormous, magnificent, overwhelming. It includes a display of kauri logs and milling equipment; a kauri gum room; a working sawmill; a wall of chainsaws of multiple different colours, sizes, ages; a life-size, two-storey boarding house depicting “life in pioneering times”; a recreation of a “quality 1880–1920 six-room-home”; a taonga gallery; and rooms filled with kauri furniture. Its history as a “pioneer museum” is apparent — it’s a bit light on natural history and taonga Māori.
I explore for an hour or so before settling in the main room, where I get chatting to one of the tour guides, Pete, who tells me about some of the people who’ve told the story of kauri. The writer and publisher AH Reed, who “talked to the last of the bushmen” and wrote The story of the kauri. Tudor Collins, a bushman whose thousands of photos of the kauri logging days are held in the museum. And the woman he calls “our matriarch”, museum volunteer the late Mavis Smith.
Collins’s photographs catalogue the destruction of the kauri forests. It all happened within one hundred years, Pete tells me, “with an axe”. Within that time, 96 per cent of the forest, most of which was north of Auckland, was destroyed. “The forest that remains, the four per cent, is the hard to get at forest.”
We walk around the large, high-ceilinged room, Pete pointing things out things as we go. The kauri staircase, the giant kauri log that runs the length of the room, a slab of kauri whose growth rings are marked with key historical events: the arrival of Māori in Aotearoa in the 13th century, Abel Tasman’s visit in 1642, the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840.
Painted on one of the walls, a series of irregular circles depict the circumferences of some of Aotearoa’s biggest trees. Tāne Mahuta, our largest living kauri, is represented by the innermost black ring. The second ring is Te Matua Ngahere, our oldest tree, estimated at 3,000 years old. “Te Matua Ngahere is like me, short and fat,” says Pete. “Tāne is tall and slim.”
There are three more rings. The largest is the Giant Kauri Ghost, the largest kauri on record, which grew in the Coromandel in the 1870s. It had a circumference of 26.83 metres, compared to Tāne Mahuta’s 15.44 metres. I gaze at the wall. Comparing the girth of Tāne Mahuta to the girth of the Giant Kauri Ghost is like comparing the open mouth of a Galapagos shark with that of a Great White.
Kauri was logged because it was plentiful, durable, flexible and, because of its “self-pruning habit,” it had no knots. Compared to other woods, such as rimu and kahikatea, the kauri was easy to cut, Pete says, “like working butter”. He threatens to push his fingernail into a slab of wood, to demonstrate how soft it is, but I flinch and stop him. In 1830, when New Zealand started to export kauri, everything was worked by hand — all the planing, sawing, turning.
“To have a soft timber with no knots meant your tools stayed sharp,” says Pete.
It would take six men one day to cut down a hundred-tonne tree, Pete tells me, “and the next day to cut the head off, and cut it into three manageable butt logs.” And then “a 12-year-old boy” would round the end off with an axe, so that it wouldn’t catch when it was dragged through the bush by bullocks, and floated to the mill along the river.
When the first steam engines arrived on sailing ships, the pitsaws were replaced by machine power. The first sawmills were like a steam engine on wheels. After working an area of forest, the bushmen would dismantle the mill and use bullocks to move it closer to the bush — the trees were so big that it was more economical to move the mill than to move the trees.
The enormous log in the middle of the room predates the arrival of humans in Aotearoa. “That’s the average-sized tree they were cutting,” says Pete, “but that’s only 1100 years old. They were cutting trees that were four, five, six thousand years old. Trees that if they were lying in this room would touch the ceiling, touch the walls — fill the entire room.”
Kauri was plentiful and adaptable, providing “the best and cheapest raw material . . . for building the new colony”, says Joanna Orwin in her book Kauri, which I later find in the museum shop. It was used for everything — houses, commercial buildings, railway sleepers, ships and yachts, barrels, fine furniture, fences. The best wood was taken to the ports and exported. Once the kauri was taken, the rest of the forest, including the kauri stumps and heads, was burned to clear the land for farming. The fires went on for decades, says Pete. Mavis, who was 102 when she died, told Pete that when she was a girl “there was always smoke in the air”.
“Who was getting rich off all that?” I ask Pete.
“The mill owners,” he says. The mill owners were the ones who bought up the land, employed the men to fell the trees, sponsored the wood-chopping competitions to find the best axe-men. The first kauri boom was over by 1874, and the smaller operators were bought up by the big mill owners. The rich got richer.
I comment that the museum is magnificent, but it is full of dead kauri. “It’s kind of sad.”
“It’s real sad,” says Pete. “I have people crying here on a regular basis. It’s all too much.”
The loss of the kauri forests — which had been growing here for more than 100 million years, since Aotearoa was part of Gondwanaland, inhabited by giant penguins and dinosaurs — has had an impact on the whenua, the awa, the moana.
“There was a hundred million years of humus, you know, like top soil, compost. They cleared the land. They cooked the land with fire. They ploughed the land. The rain came and washed it all away, silted the harbour up.”
At home, Pete’s focus is living trees. With support from organisations such as the Otamatea HarbourCare Society and the Kaipara Moana Remediation project, he’s been planting native trees for 15 years. The farmers around the Kaipara are doing “an awesome job” at remediation, he says. “The fishing has never been so good. We’ve got whitebait back in the creek. The water quality’s getting better every year.” The local schools are involved in the coastal planting projects.
“The trees that children planted three or four years ago have got birds’ nests in them and birds feeding on them.”
“When I see people crying here, I say, ‘Just go home and plant some trees. The world needs more trees.’”
The museum’s focus on forestry is making me feel edgy, it’s niggling at something in the back of my mind, and I’m happy to see a woman sitting at a desk covered in kauri gum. Pete introduces me, and heads back to work.
“I’m polishing gum,” says Thelma, who’s working a piece of fine sandpaper over a fist sized lump of pale rock. She explains how when kauri drop a branch, sap bleeds out of the wound until the wound is covered, protected from rain and rot. “The bigger the wound, the bigger the piece of gum.”
“Gum was a major industry for New Zealand,” she tells me as she works. “For over a hundred years we exported gum, and it was made into varnish and lino flooring mainly, but around the Second World War they started using synthetic ingredients, and didn’t want our gum anymore.”
I tell her my Finnish great-grandfather was a gumdigger. I’m not sure where though. I only know he worked in Northland for two years, and was naturalised — he became a New Zealand citizen — in Dargaville in 1896.
We start looking at the pile of gum on Thelma’s desk. On top of a table covered in hessian sacking, she works with simple tools: a large enamel basin half filled with water, a towel, a set of sandpapers of different grades, a bottle of Brasso. A metal pan is filled with a tumble of unpolished gum, and in front of her are the polished samples. She picks up a light-coloured, milky looking piece of gum. “This is a young piece. It’s full of moisture, and that’s where all that mottle comes from, all the cloud in there.” As the gum ages, she tells me, the moisture evaporates, and the piece becomes clearer and clearer, “until it’s like this”, she says, holding up a clear amber-like piece. All the polishing has to be done by hand. “It’s not a substance you can cut easily. Too much friction creates heat and melts the gum. So you can’t use a machine.”
I ask Thelma about the importance of the kauri gum to her hapū, her iwi — she is Te Uri o Hau, Ngāti Whātua. In her whānau in the old days, she says, “if you needed money, you went out and dug gum, you know, for a day or two. Then you sold your gum and your money problems were solved.”
Thelma loves her job. She started in 2020, just seven weeks before the first Covid lockdown, and took a pile of gum home. “So I was polishing at home over lockdown, learning from it, getting used to what I was doing.” As well being a pleasant way to spend time, Thelma says it was therapeutic, mentally and possibly physically as well. “The gum has a substance like vitamin A and antibiotic properties. So, you know, I might be subtly getting rongoā, through it.”
I nod appreciatively.
“A lot of non‑Māori will pooh-pooh that, you know, it’s like some people need science behind something to believe it.”
“Maybe the science just hasn’t been figured out yet?” I offer.
“Well, that’s right. The settlers didn’t know what this was until they saw what the Māori were doing with it. The Māori used gum to start their fires. They would wrap it in flax and take it to the creek at night and light it to attract the fish and eels. Then they realised it was worth money, and started digging it up to sell.”
Most of the pieces Thelma is working will sell as souvenirs. But she won’t waste any gum. Since she started working at the museum, she’s developed new products that are now being sold in the shop: alongside the kauri-drop pendants and earrings, you can buy a vial filled with tiny sparkling crumbs of kauri gum, or your own piece of rough-edged gum to polish up yourself.
I tell her about my great-grandfather’s piece of kauri gum, how my mother recently gifted it to me. I’m cautious, feeling a little bit uneasy — is it okay for me to have this? — but she smiles warmly and tells me it’s a taonga, all the more precious for being handed down the generations.
I tell her how impressed by the museum I am, but how it’s sad too.
“I get a lot of people standing in front of me crying about what’s happened to the forests,” she says.
I note that while I feel sad, it must be so much more personal, for her, whose ancestral land used to be richly forested in kauri.
“I don’t dwell on it,” she says. “I could sit here and cry all day if I thought about the truth, my truth. The forest kept us alive, you know? Our lives depended on the forest. The settlers didn’t have that connection.” She goes silent for a moment while she focuses on her gum polishing.
“Apart from all the kauri being cut down, the fact that they burnt everything else is what gets me. I used to be angry, and I used to blame the settlers, but then when you look at it, the settlers, when they lived in England, they bought a farm, and they got here and got off the ship and they couldn’t see a farm, all they could see was forest. So, it got to the point where I thought, well, I can’t blame them. It’s sad, but we’ve still got the Waipoua Forest. And as long as they can get a hold of the dieback, we’ll always be able to visit these trees. And there is more and more planting going on.”
Before I leave, I follow a narrow staircase down into the “Kauri gum room”. It’s windowless, in the basement of the museum, lined with glass cabinets heavy with gum — from pale yellow, to dark amber, to almost black — and treasures made from kauri gum — jewellery, a model castle, a clock.
In one corner of the room, is a life-size diorama of a gumdigger’s camp. Two men in high boots and muddy clothes stand before their tents, with a billy over a campfire. Captioned photos on the wall attest to their tough life. One of the photos shows a bearded man, carrying his “70lbs of gum, his spear, spade, axe, bucket and tea billy,” winding his “weary way back to his whare”. The caption continues to tell a story, of a gumdigger who has had “a reasonably good day but . . . has yet to wash and dry clothes, cook his dinner and maybe do a little scraping of his gum if there is time over dinner.”
The diggers sold their gum to local storekeepers, who sold to a gum merchant in Auckland. For the second half of the 19th century, kauri gum was Auckland’s biggest export, earning more than kauri timber, wool, gold.
By the time my great-grandfather arrived in New Zealand, I read in Orwin’s book, there were 7,000 fulltime gumdiggers — local Māori, along with “immigrants making a new start, gentlemen adventurers fallen on hard times, settlers supplementing marginal farm incomes, as well as unemployed and unemployable men from the city”.
My great-grandfather, Anders Hackell, who arrived when he was 22 after a short career as a sailor, was in the adventurer category, but also an immigrant making a fresh start. Though I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t have lived up to the gumdiggers’ reputation as “hard-drinking wastrels”. The family story is he was “an ardent Christian” — a Lutheran — and not much of a drinker. Perhaps that’s why he moved on?
Anders didn’t get rich digging gum. But he made enough money to buy passage, on a series of sailing ships, to Westland, where he tried his luck at the goldfields. He made enough to keep some pieces of gum as keepsakes, rather than sell every last piece. And he made a friend on the gumfields, a Swede called Albert Axelson who later married Andy’s sister Carlotta, who followed him to New Zealand. It sounds like a good enough life, certainly an adventure.
I continue my drive north, past fields of toetoe and past shops and stalls advertising kūmara for sale. Through Dargaville, a short distance up the highway north, I pull into a carpark at the Department of Conservation, where I have an appointment with Stephanie, whose team looks after the visitor sites in the Kaipara and Dargaville districts.
Stephanie tells me that two of the three walking tracks in the Waipoua Forest — the Yakas Track and Four Sisters Track — are closed, the entrances barricaded. Te Matua Ngahere track is still open, and Tāne Mahuta — just a few minutes by boardwalk from the road — is still receiving visitors. She tells me about the ambassador programme, in which representatives from Te Roroa, the iwi that owns the land, greet visitors, talk about how kauri dieback is transmitted, and introduce them to Tāne Mahuta.
I’m interested in kauri dieback, I say, but so far I’ve seen only thriving kauri forests at Warkworth and Tāwharanui. I’m not getting a sense of forests devastated by disease. Is it less of a problem than I’ve been led to believe? No, she says. The forests with the most severe problems are closed to the public, but I’m likely to see some dead trees as I drive further north. She recommends that, before I enter the Waipoua Forest, I visit Trounson Kauri Park, a short detour off SH12.
All the kauri forests are being monitored, through regular soil sampling and aerial surveillance, including infra-red drone photography to capture changes in the canopy before they are otherwise visible. “If they find kauri dieback, we close the track, do what we can to stop the spread.”
In recent years, the kauri forests have been embellished with new signage, boot cleaning stations, boardwalks, and barriers around significant trees. Even so, some people seem determined to jump the barriers for a photo. “So we’ve installed cameras and security gates up at Tāne.”
I ask if she thinks it’s ignorance or carelessness that makes people flout the rules like this. A bit of both, she thinks. “Some people just want to go off and explore, they want to get close to the tree and have a photo,” she says with a shrug.
Phytophthora is Greek for “plant destroyer” and Phytophthora agathidicida is a water mould, a pathogen that affects kauri. The first trees to suffer from it were noticed on Great Barrier Island in 1972, but it wasn’t until 2015 that the pathogen was named. The pathogen spores enter the tree through its roots, and over time affect the tree’s ability to transport waste and nutrients from the roots to the canopy. In an effort to fight the pathogen, the trees produce copious amounts of gum. Suffering from a lack of nutrients, the kauri leaves start to yellow, hindering the tree’s ability to photosynthesise. Without sunlight, water, nutrients, infected trees eventually die. A seedling can succumb to kauri dieback in weeks; a mature tree may take decades.
Kauri dieback has already killed thousands of trees. But there’s hope. As well as efforts to stop further spread of the pathogen, scientists are testing different treatments on affected trees, and using mātauranga Māori to identify native plants that produce compounds that can fight Phytophthora. Scientists at SCION are working to find and breed seedlings with natural resistance to kauri dieback disease. Injecting phosphite into the trunks of afflicted trees can help slow the onset of the dieback, but it doesn’t kill the pathogen and it doesn’t stop it spreading.
I ask Stephanie about her English accent. After the years without international tourists, accents have become more noticeable. She tells me she’s been in New Zealand eight years, and in Northland for a year.
“My partner is Te Roroa, from Dargaville,” she tells me. And Tāne Mahuta “was the first place she took me to see.” There are a lot of things to see in this part of Aotearoa, she says, like Kai Iwi Lakes, Waipoua Forest, Hokianga Harbour, “but Tāne Mahuta is one of those must-sees. Everyone wants to see the Lord of the Forest. The first time I saw it, I was absolutely stunned. I hadn’t seen a tree that size before. Didn’t know that trees like that existed.”
I continue north, up State Highway 12. Following Stephanie’s recommendation, I take a side road east, heading for Trounson Kauri Park, a 450-hectare remnant of mixed evergreen rainforest, dominated by mature kauri and taraire, and surrounded by farmland. An inland island surrounded by a sea of grass. At the fence that surrounds the forest, a sign implores us to “Tiakina ōu kauri”. Alongside the warnings to clean our footwear and stay on the track, there are photos of healthy and dead kauri trees. The tree scourged by kauri dieback is a ghost tree, its grey sun-bleached sticks reaching skywards.
The loop track takes us through the kauri forest with an understory of nikau, ferns and kohekohe. I need to make it up the road to see Tāne Mahuta today, and don’t want to be driving back in the dark, so I run along the track.
As I exit, I notice a sign acknowledging James Trounson, who donated this land in 1921, and quoting his words: “These trees were planted a thousand years before the white man came to this country, and will be there hundreds of years hence.”
I take another road back to join State Highway 12, a “shortcut”. But the road soon becomes unpaved and I’m driving my rental car through thick dark mud. I begin to wonder if I’ll make it. My phone has no signal and I haven’t seen a house for miles. Then I pass a man on a vehicle cutting roadside scrub. I drive on, the car now splattered with mud. This is starting to feel like a mission.
By the time I join what I hope is the main road, I’m wondering if I’m lost. I see plenty of farmland, and small stands of trees, but no sign of a forest. Phone reception is poor, and I don’t have a paper map to follow. Signs, though, give me clues I’m heading in the right direction. Kauri Protection Area: Keep Kauri standing, says one. Polished kauri gum and woodturning, says another. The One Stop Kauri Shop is closed, maybe a victim of the lack of international tourists.
As the road takes me higher, I have a view of the sparkling ocean to the west and — at last — a vast forest to the east. By the time the road enters the Waipoua Forest, I’m tired, hungry, dehydrated and not entirely sure where I’m going. The tall trees are forming shadows right across the road. My phone has no signal. Did I miss a turn back there? Some locals don’t come through the forest at nighttime, I read somewhere. It feels spooky even in the afternoon light.
There is death here. On the high, windy road through the forest, I’m confronted with the grim sight of an undeniably dead kauri. The road is lined with trees, but rising above them is a giant ghost tree, grey sun-bleached antlers reaching for the blue sky. And then I start seeing more of them, scattered through the forest.
But, at last, there’s a sunny clearing, a parking area, some buildings. A welcome tūī calling from the trees. I pull over and watch a van load of grey-haired visitors tumble out on to the roadside gravel and walk towards the walkway entrance, and then follow them in. “Welcome to Tāne Mahuta,” says a sign, with greetings in te reo Māori, German, Spanish and Mandarin. We walk through a four-lane boot cleaning station, then across a metal bridge, through a set of decorative metal gates. I take my time, letting the others walk ahead, so I can be on my own. I follow a short boardwalk and then, around a corner, there he is.
God of the Forest, son of Ranginui the sky father and Papatūānuku the earth mother, is an expanse of trunk. If I tip my head back, I can see the great spreading boughs of the crown, inhabited by a mass of epiphytes that British author Colin Tudge described as “a fantastical, floating garden”. It’s more than a tree — it’s an ecosystem, home to insects, birds, lizards.
I had imagined myself here, alone, spending time with the tree, but there are 10 of us on the wooden platform and the bench seats are damp, so I lean against the guardrail. I feel gently sad and flat. It’s great to see all this effort for one tree, but there’s a whole forest, many forests to protect. As well as the Northland forests I’ve visited, there are kauri forests in the Waitakere Ranges, Aotea/Great Barrier Island, Coromandel. Can we save them all?
A pīwakawaka flits about, distracting me from my gloom.
Some of the other visitors are talking about spirits and karma. One man, in shorts and baseball cap, makes a joke about what the timber would be worth.
When I exit the forest, cleaning my boots again, acknowledging the “Thank you for keeping kauri trees alive” sign, I see a young Māori woman across the road, talking to someone in a car — one of the ambassadors? She’s eating, probably on a break. She smiles at me. I hover for a bit. I want to go and say hello, to talk about Tāne Mahuta, but I also don’t want to intrude.
In a July 2021, Richard Shaw wrote a piece for The Conversation, called It’s time for Pākehā Kiwis to own their past. His great-grandfather was involved in the 1881 military assault on Parihaka, one of the most brutal events in our country’s past. But even Pākehā ancestors, like mine, who weren’t involved in state-sanctioned violence against tangata whenua, were probably involved in some sort of violence against the land.
When I return from my Northland trip, I open a box containing family history papers. After my great-grandfather left Northland, he moved to the West Coast where he worked as a gold miner. He married my great-grandmother, the daughter of a West Coast gold miner, and then — according to a narrative written by my great-aunt — “when the children began to come, and the gold began to peter out, Andy went sawmilling”. He first worked at Grant’s Mill at Marsden, a small town inland from Greymouth, and then as a yardsman for Stratford & Blair in Greymouth.
In 1911, the family moved to Hokitika where Andy managed a sawmill for Benjamin and Mulcock. Eventually, he built his own sawmill near the township of Kaniere. Today, all that’s left is a street that bears his name, Hackell Street.
My kind, gentle great-grandfather, who spoke English, Finnish, Swedish and Russian, who taught his grandchildren to sail and to row on Lake Kaniere, to chop wood and stoke a fire, wasn’t just a gumdigger, and a goldminer, he was a sawmill worker, and then owner, logging rimu and kahikatea. He cut down trees that were hundreds of years old, to build houses for the European settlers, to build boxes to export butter and dairy products to England, to provide materials for boats.
Today, there are just a few stands of these trees remaining, remnants of the great forests that once covered Aotearoa. It can be overwhelming to think about the death, the destruction. But there are little things we can do, like community tree planting, supporting carbon offset programmes that plant trees.
I think about what Thelma said in Matakohe, at the Kauri Museum. “We’re never going to see a 3,000 year old tree, but our mokos will. There’s lots and lots of 200-year-old trees and 500-year-old trees, so we’ve just got to sit and wait and they’ll be back, you know?”
Rebecca Priestley is a science historian, writer, and professor of Science in Society at Te Herenga Waka Victoria University of Wellington.
Her travel to Northland was supported by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment through the Mobilising for Action theme of the Ngā Rākau Taketake programme of the Biological Heritage National Science Challenge in Aotearoa/New Zealand C09X1817.
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