My Gold Card birthday present was a weekend of precious father-daughter-boats time. Zoë and I first watched a Women’s World Cup Soccer match, then did an Up the Creek adventure in a remote upper arm of the Kaipara Harbour.

The Kaipara is a harbour of superlatives. It’s the biggest in New Zealand by a country mile, with over 800km of shoreline. The water covers 947 square kilometres at high tide: at low water, a huge spread of 409 square kilometres of mudflats are exposed (!). All of which makes for some considerable tidal flows, with 7960 million cubic metres of water being moved every day by the tides.

Within this rich saltwater habitat, 90% of the snapper on the west coast of the North Island are recruited (hatched from eggs).

The Wairau and Kaiwaka River arms of the Kaipara Harbour.

There are 100 rivers flowing into the Kaipara, but unfortunately an overwhelming majority of them are polluted – as was revealed by the seminal 2005 documentary film A Kaipara Affair by Barry Barclay. But still, it remains an enormously productive ecosystem; and the miles and miles of healthy mangroves (some of the biggest trees I’ve ever seen) bear testimony to that. And yes, despite huge areas of the harbourside hills being logged back in the day, we encountered pockets of untouched and re-generating bush. Among the latter, it appeared they are now dominated by young tōtara growing up. Some kauri coming back too.

And plenty of birds: on our day out on the upper harbour, we followed three different flocks of royal spoonbills; and saw innumerable gulls, shags, ducks and more. Two kahu New Zealand harriers engaged in a competitive flying display. And a couple of wattled plovers noisily bothering them at just the wrong moments. Indicative of the numbers of ducks were the many maimais regularly posted along the water’s edge, half hidden in the mangroves fringe. Of course they were photographed, as part of my longer-term project of a visual record of the vernacular in New Zealand architecture – if you can call them that.

Alex at Maungaturoto Wharf

What we didn’t see was many other boats. Though only an hour from Auckland, we could spend a whole day out boating in splendid isolation. Mind you, the temperatures were midwinter fresh. (The water too, as I found out the hard way, when a planned graceful transfer from the rubber dinghy to the kayak didn’t go exactly as it should have…) Just one bloke hurrying home in a very modest tinnie. He held up his bag of shopping to let us know what he’d been up to. Obviously he’d got to Kaiwaka at the top of the tide before us. We were taking our time with the small motor on the inflatable, interspersed with me on the kayak when the inlets looked more interesting. Including one dead end, where I turned left too early.


Zoë corrected me by using the Savvy Navvy smartphone app, which we were also testing at the time. It was quite amazing to find it still working as a nautical chart this far inland – and naturally way more accurate than this ol’ fulla following his nose.

You’ll never do justice to the epic extent of the Kaipara with just one Up the Creek adventure. I reckon you could spend a lifetime exploring all its many corners. While paddling, I was having a daydream about buying a boat and basing it here to do exactly that. My musing was – what kind of boat exactly? Perhaps a smallish cruising catamaran would do it, one that could sit on mudflats as often as you’d expect in this harbour – and get you places at speed when there’s water. We came to a long low bridge carrying the northern railway line. Only now not running trains, but a roosting home to more spoonbills. Make that a boat with a mast that can be lowered, eh.

Tall Spars steamer spread
Milking for the pets’ breakfasts, Maungaturoto 1922.

A good place to start exploring, albeit vicariously, would be with the comprehensive book Tall Spars, Steamers & Gum: A History of the Kaipara from Early European Settlement 1854-1947, by Wayne Ryburn. It’s in the library. And covers this huge harbour’s rich heritage well, supplemented by some extraordinary photographs showing numbers of big ships, back in the day when the ‘Port of Kaipara’ was a thing – which also included the well-removed (from each other) wharves at Dargaville and Helensville, plus others. Trouble is, the ‘Port’ had the most dangerous front door: the epic, racing tidal flows and shifting sandbars at the (deceptively) wide Kaipara Harbour mouth have been the graveyard for 113 ships. Some say even more – maybe 140.

The first of those shipwrecks was the waka moana Māhuhu, which capsisized in the northern channel at the harbour entrance, at the end of its voyage from Hawaiki. The captain of the waka, Rongomai, was drowned. Then the first European shipwreck was the 550-ton barque Aurora, in 1840. And the litany of shipwrecks has not stopped since.

So Zoë and I chose to simply ‘cross the T’ at the head of one arm of the harbour, and follow a transverse stretch of water from the historic town of Maungaturoto to Kaiwaka which lies on State Highway 1 between Wellsford and the Brynderwyn Hills.

Man Alone Creek beckons.

Our beacon for the trip, visible at all times, was the dominant 300m mountain Pukekaroro just north of Kaiwaka. It’s of great significance to Māori as it overlooks the site of an epic 1825 battle Te Ika-a-Ranganui, between armies of Ngāpuhi and Ngāti Whatua warriors.

Previously, in 1807 on the West Coast at Moremonui, in the first clash between iwi armed with muskets and those without, Ngāti Whatua – the fighters with traditional weapons – actually won, as the Ngāpuhi men hadn’t yet learned that the re-loading time for muskets was a liability in close combat. They soon learned to fire in volleys, and the Musket Wars were on. Retribution was fully achieved at Te Ika-aRanganui when Ngāpuhi re-invaded. So this is a landscape of much deep history.


With some exceedingly odd angles too. Like the story of Baron Charles Philippe Hippolyte de Thierry. Now here was one eccentric character. He came from France at the height of the colonial enterprise, with dreams commensurate for the times – but even bigger than most. For the good Baron reckoned the natives of the South Seas ‘needed’ an Emperor. Him, in fact.

Getting set at Maungaturoto Wharf
Railway bridge and spoonbills
The creek on the Savvy Navvy app.

On the way here, in French Polynesia, he first tried out his proposition as ‘King of Nukuhiva’ but the locals weren’t buying it and suggested he move on. When he landed in the Kaipara in 1837 he offered the same deal; but of course the mana whenua said ‘Steady on, mate’ – though he was granted a (very) modest block of land. But the Baron’s big dreams kind of faded to nought. He ended his days as a penniless piano teacher in Auckland. (His grave is at the Grafton Cemetery and more of his tale on the STQRY app which I wrote for that place.)

Back to the Kaipara. Paddling the kayak with Zoë puttering along behind, we made it to McLean Park at Kaiwaka. The creek is still tidal this far up. It intrigues me how the mangroves thin out, to be replaced with sedge-grass and raupo waterside ecosystems, even though this is still salt water. Though it must be much diluted by freshwater inflow for the waterways higher up. This was evidenced by flood detritus high in manuka trees, after the big rains of this winter. And close to the sites of serious history mentioned earlier.

Alex chasing spoonbills up the creek.

There’s a distinctive cloud that forms over Pukekaroro mountain. It’s seen as an omen, as revealed in the whakatauki ‘He kapua pōuri ngā kaiwaka kei runga i te paerangi. He tohu aituā tēnei’ (kaiwaka are threatening clouds on the horizon. This a sign of misfortune.) On our day, we experienced rain squalls, but fortunately, not the ominous cloud.

From the 1880s, steamers provided regular service to Kaiwaka from the Otamatea arm of the Kaipara. The Minnie Casey ran a service every Tuesday from 1882. Services continued well into the 20th century, we’re told.

This from a passage in Tall Spars, Steamers & Gum, after bemoaning the sometimes impassable muddy roads early settlers had to contend with: “The harbour with its many inlets was the original roadway. The dissected landscape of the Kaipara meant water access was important to the settlers, and the first villages and houses clustered close to the landings. Flax and timber mills were also built alongside rivers.”


Now of course, it’s a quiet rural landscape, and as far removed from the world of shiny marinas and superyachts as possible. The kind of place where instead of the aforementioned glitz, you’ll find dead boats and rusting tractors equitably sharing harbourside paddocks. And two local blokes in Swannies and Red Band gumboots sharing a yarn and a coupla frosty Lion Reds at Maungaturoto Wharf when we returned. Shaking their heads at the crazy town folk on the harbour on this wintry, squally day. Though they were quick to invite us back; and told us of how many local kids would be jumping off this very same wharf come summer…

Things is, it dries out completely here at the Maungaturoto Wharf at low tide. And we felt the beginnings of that staunch outgoing tide on the home stretch in the mid-afternoon. It was a reminder to treat the Kaipara – wherever you may be on it’s wide or winding waters – with due respect.

I reckon we might just take them up on their invitation. There’s much that’s worthy to be coming back to. Like the settlement just nearby in yet another arm of the harbour, with the splendid name of Tinopai and an authentically low-key marina; or the re-furbished wharfside hall at Whakapirau, where the water tank has a poem by Sam Hunt painted on it. Or, or… But the highway to the big city was calling; and the deadline for the last ferry home to Waiheke Island. So we bundled the rubber ducky back in the car, kayaks on the roof again, and left far too early, while bright double rainbows marked our passage. One made it all the way to the ground exactly at the dairy factory in Maungaturoto; apposite, for this region’s current pot of gold, after all the timber extraction of the past.

The Kaipara is indeed an epic waterway. Full of great stories – and boating adventures galore.

For there’s much more to explore. A hundred more Up the Creeks await! BNZ