Backpacking Pensioners travel blog

Cape Reinga from Spirits bay

Another crowded beach

Spirits Bay camp

Another view of the camp

A view on our journey

Paua - looking towards the sandbar

A Gum Digger Relic

An old gum diggers diggings

Kauri gum, over 20,000 years old

Ancient Kauri Kingdom - The big bowl is ours

Top of the Kauri Tree Staircase

Back of the Kauri tree Staircase


It is another beautiful day in Paradise. Well, it was very windy and rainy through the night, and there might be a few showers today, but what the heck! Here we are in the remote north of the country in winter with the best temperatures in NZ, and it is more of a fleece day than a raincoat day. Our choices are to do the whole day walk along the coast to Cape Reinga or be lazy and make the most of the beach walks and be fit enough to enjoy happy hour at the end of the day.

Soon we were enjoying our first beach walk and reflecting on the peaceful solitude of the bay. In the summer holiday periods this camp site will be full and children will enjoy the beach and the waves; many adults and some children will be fishing. Today the fish are safe. Rosemary has brought 2 rods and bait but it is too windy and the sea is rough. This is a shame as I fancied I would become a fisherman with such good tutoring. I was ready for the second step after buying my fishermen’s hat at Butler Point Whaling Museum.

After a lazy lunch we walked round the large site and paid our fees at the honesty box station, retired for coffee and cookies in the van before going right along the beach once more, and then happy hour. Is this getting boring? After a fine meal we played dominoes. Last night we had played the simple game of ‘Knock Out Whist’ and I was always knocked out every time by round 2 to the merriment of Sylvia and Rosemary, never getting past the 6 card stage. No mercy, no compassion, sexist bissams.

Spirit Bay is on one of the routes for departing Maori Spirits following death as they make their way to Cape Reinga. It got its name when an old Maori set off in search of his daughter who had not returned from the south. When his friends asked him how they would contact him if he did not return, he told them they could meet his spirit in the bay.

The night was again very windy and rainy but the morning heavy rain prevented a final beach walk before leaving the area. We are going to drive south and visit places of interest before meeting up with Rosemary at a camp site at the north side of Maitai Point.

A 10 mile bush drive along a gravel road, with great views from on high, took us to SH1 where we turned south. After a further 8 miles we turned east to Paua, turning right before reaching the small community and driving to the far point of our road. Apart from a beef farm, an old dilapidated building with a warning notice saying ‘keep out, asbestos’, and an old jetty. There was nothing but remote coastline and a very big silicone sand bar from which Godwits depart in early March for migration to Alaska and Siberia; scenery we felt privileged to view. A notice on a gate gave us information for contacting the owner if we wanted to pay money to camp. The field had long grass and no facilities. As camp sites go, if they offer shares in the project don’t bother to apply.

Back at the main road we again turned south for about 40 miles before following signs taking us from SH1 to Gumdiggers Park. This is a set in an area of New Zealand bush where safe paths allow visitors to walk round an area where Gumdiggers worked. There is also a recreated village, old machinery, trading area, and excellent black and white video of ‘Gumdiggers yester year’. Information plaques are sighted all around the trail.

Gumdiggers worked in awful wet conditions and wore big Wellington Boots. New Zealanders began calling them Gum Boots. Gumdiggers searched for the gum of the Kauri Tree. After 120 + years of growth the lower limbs begin to fall off. When damaged the Kauri tree produces great amounts of resinous sap which covers the wound and protects the inner timber. The sap congeals into hard lumps and falls to the ground where it is eventually covered by the forest litter. After thousands of years the sap hardens into fossilised Kauri Copal, (also known as New Zealand Amber).

In this area there was a large Kauri Forest; in fact 3 Kauri Forests have been identified; the youngest forest being only 26,000 years old. Kauri tree stumps were lying outside by the car park with a notice stating, “Many more trees of similar size lay buried in the swamp where these were evacuated. They were destroyed all at the same time by some natural cataclysmic event some 45,000 years ago. (This referred to the middle period forest). Sections have been taken from stumps at the right hand end of the car park and from the even older forest buried here at Gumdiggers Park by scientists from Auckland University and others around the world, to help understand the changing climatic conditions over the past 150,000 years or so”.

Apparently carbon dating of things that have lived is only effective up to 50,000 years, so the top forest is dated at 45,000 years old and the age of the older forest is an intelligent guess. Most of the trees of each forest lie in the same direction and manner which show that some cataclysmic event must have happened to destroy the forest. Each theory is well supported but not sufficiently to be conclusive. One theory is that a giant meteorite landed in the Tasman Sea and the impact caused a 700 foot high tidal wave which bowled over the trees. (I read somewhere there have been at least 3 giant tsunamis in New Zealand over the last 25,000 years).

The Kauri Gum industry began in the 1840’s but its heyday was in the 1890’s to 1910 before gum was replaced by synthetics. The work attracted immigrants, including many from Dalmatia, know known as Croatia. In the 50 years to 1900 Kauri gum was the largest export from Auckland ahead of wool, gold and kauri timber. Initially the market demanded gum nuggets which were used in the manufacture of varnishes and some paints. In the 1910’s a new market developed for the poorer grades of softer gum and chips, for the manufacture of linoleum.

The Gumdiggers would first test out the ground with a ‘gum spear’ as in the swamps the trees could be buried up to 50 feet. The long prod would be twiddled and diddled and the skilled worker could tell what it might be probing. It was a long way to dig down for nothing. Keeping the water out of the hole whilst digging and excavating the resin was no easy task and the work was dirty, hard and wet.

We were able to walk round the area and view Gumdiggers holes, exposed areas of old kauri trunks, view an old kauri stump which may well be 150,000 year old, walk down into one hole. At one point we climbed on to a platform which overlooked a vast No Go area of overgrown bush swamp which has thousands of holes dug in it.

It was a very interesting place to visit. Back at reception we met the husband of the owner of the land. His wife is the fifth generation to inherit the property. He had the idea to develop it into a tourist attraction and so preserve the history of the Gumdiggers. The shop has memorabilia and lovely jewellery known as ‘New Zealand Amber’, which he makes from 45,000 year old Kauri Gum he finds further north. The old gum makes the best coloured jewellery.

Our last visit of the day was to Kauri Kingdom near Awanui, near the start of SH 10. This is a large shop and café owned by Dave Stewart and his wife which is built around a tree. Dave Stewart and his crew extracted a log in October 1994. Radiocarbon dating confirmed that the tree had been perfectly preserved in the swamp for 45,000 to 50,000 years. The estimated weight was 140 tons. It was necessary to cut a 110 ton section off and pull this out first. This tree is the largest known kauri log to have been extracted and because of this it was never milled.

Dave conceived the idea to create an internal staircase within this log as a centre piece for a new shop. In September 1998 a 50 tonne section was cut from the monster log and transported back to the site of the new shop. A 20 inch thick reinforced concrete pad was poured, the log stood upright and the shop built around it. The staircase itself took Dave 300 hours to chainsaw out and two other men another 200 hours to finish it. It is thought to be the only internal log staircase in the world! – If not, definitely the oldest.

The tree dimensions are; Girth 37 feet, Diameter 11 foot 8 inches, Height 17 feet, Growth 1,087 year (growth rings counted).

Rosemary’s text warned us not to take our credit card with us into the shop, but it was too late. Inside there was wonderful furniture and wooden items all made with 45,000 year old reclaimed swamp kauri wood. The feel of the wood is superb, and you can purchase items from as small as a spinning top to a large wooden settee costing thousands of British Pounds. In one area are a lot of unfinished products such as bowls and sculptures. These can be purchase along with a kit for further refining the smoothness of the wood and a pot of beeswax to bring forth and heighten the wood grain. We bought a bowl which is currently on its way to Scotland and Sylvia will be busy rubbing away over the forthcoming Scottish winter; we may even meet the kauri wood genie and get 3 wishes.

By now the time was about 5pm, so we tore ourselves away, knowing the weekend bus trip also called at Ancient Kauri Kingdom. We travelled 9 miles down SH 10 before turning left towards Cape Karikari, stopping at the DOC camp of Maitai Bay. Rosemary had already dismissed the idea of a soggy grass site and found an excellent flat spot on tarmac close to the camp facilities.

We found her in quiet repose in near proximity to two of the locals. You should not feed the wild life; however this apparently does not apply to domestic animals. The friendly dog had apparently sniffed and spurned the offered pretzels where as the large pig, (which we were assured had been pink earlier in the afternoon), thoroughly enjoyed masticating a green grape on both occasions it was offered one. This grubby pig which was busy rooting when we arrived was not pleased with me when I refused to feed it. The pig might not be wild but I bet the DOC workers will be when they see the mess it made.

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