New Zealand’s largest natural harbour, the Kaipara is guarded by a treacherous bar that’s chalked up its fair share of maritime disasters. Which underscores the bravery and resourcefulness of the early settlers who made the harbour their home. Story by Kinsa Hayes.

The last time I’d seen Kewpie Too was 1962 in the Bay of Islands. We’d sailed on the iconic tourist trip to Cape Brett and through the Hole in the Rock, marvelling as we gently rocked our way through the stone archway.

Now she was in the Kaipara River, that roiling brown highway between the mangroves at Parakai, Helensville. I wanted to sail on her again. I found the website and chose the very affordable two-day cruise on the Kaipara Harbour, staying the night in Dargaville in an old hotel.

An example of Kaipara’s early freight infrastructure, and a scene from colonial Dargaville.

Then I discovered that her sister boat, Kewpie, was based in my home-town, Tauranga. She used to do the Cream Trip run in the Bay of Islands, calling into isolated settlements to pick up the daily cream cans. Kewpie’s owner, Amy Neale, is the first female skipper in the boat’s history.

I boarded Kewpie at Pilot’s Bay at her Mount Maunganui (Mauao) base and was amused by the nod to her past – two old-fashioned cream cans tucked away on deck. The hour-long harbour round trip had the option of a drop-off at Matakana Island. We were requested to stick to the beach but the crystal- clear water was perfect for swimming.

Advertisement


Built in 1894, the Huia held the record for the fastest passage from Australia to New Zealand.

Walking along the white sand, I made myself comfortable against a downed tree trunk and read my book, to be picked up by the next cruise. Very pleasant – but only a curtain-raiser for the main event – cruising the Kaipara aboard the MV Kewpie Too, ‘retracing the routes of historic steamers from a bygone era and exploring the distant reaches of the Kaipara…’

Both boats were built in Opua – Kewpie in 1953 and Kewpie Too in 1958 – and were named after a local character and guide, Ted Cubitt, ‘Kewpie’. Each was a 17m kauri hull with slightly different deck designs.

Easter Saturday morning found our keen group of 31 boarding. Terry and Gaye Somers have been operating this run for 40 years. It showed in their encyclopaedic knowledge and smooth organisation.



Terry and Gaye Somers – your affable hosts for the cruise.   

The Kaipara Harbour is a massive tidal estuary. Originally a complex river system, the valleys became drowned with the temperature rise 10,000 years ago. Five major rivers and many streams flow into the harbour carrying silt from upland erosion. “It’s too thick to drink and too thin to plough,” commented an early settler.

The Kaipara is the largest enclosed waterway in the southern hemisphere. Tributaries from the Waitakere ranges of Auckland to the Hikurangi swamps of Whangarei create a network of navigable creeks. Boats were the means of connection between supplies, settlers and export markets.

The Kauri Coast looked very different in 1840, Terry told us. Tall grey pillars of kahikatea and kauri – in demand overseas – grew right to the water’s edge, towering over the land. The country’s first export crops were logs milled around the little settlements that sprung up along these rivers. As demand increased, square-rigged sailing ships defied the risks of the Kaipara bar, and utilising tidal flow, sailed upriver to the settlements.



A storm uncovered the long-lost Daring, and a charming spot for refreshments – the Commercial Hotel.

The Kaipara became a major port and a Port of Entry. Up to 20 ships arrived or left daily. The blue-roofed Maritime Customs Office in Poutu once housed a Harbour Master, Customs and a signal station. Despatch riders on horseback rode along the beach to ensure the flag signals at the old lighthouse coincided with those of the port.

From the 1860s kauri gum became a new source of income. Gum was used mostly as a bonding agent in making linoleum and varnish. Diggers flocked to the gumfields, particularly from Dalmatia, the old Yugoslavia. Upon arrival, they’d stay a night at one of the two-storey colonial hotels (now mostly boarding houses) before heading off to the uncomfortable life of gum digging. Their descendants still live in the area, farming, fishing or in small business.

Kewpie Too rock’n’rolled gently across the opening of the harbour to the Tasman Sea. Surf was breaking on the sandbars – this area is known as The Graveyard. The current flows at 7-8 knots, sandbars change constantly and wind sweeps through the narrow opening. A wind shift could send a ship to her doom.

Advertisement


Some of the local wildlife species you’re likely to see on the cruise.

More than 110 ships have foundered here. In 2018 storms uncovered a rare find. The Daring, a 17m schooner, beached in 1865 during wild gales, was buried by sand and forgotten. Carefully uplifted from its grave, the well-built boat is currently being conserved at Mangawhai where she will ultimately be displayed at the yet-to-be-built Daring Discovery Centre.

We sailed up deep creeks, a new vista opening out around each corner. In colonial times, the banks would have been lined with wharves for coastal trading by schooners and cutters. Waterways were highways that connected settlers. With a wealth of timber to build boats from and the necessity for a supply line, New Zealand’s boatbuilding tradition was launched.

Hulls were fashioned from kauri planking fastened to curved pohutukawa frames and a keel. Kauri was durable, strong, straight and even-grained. Pohutukawa branches have natural crooks and curves. Both are easy to work. Flat-bottomed scows could land on beaches or mud.

In 1894 James Barber built the Huia, a tops’l schooner which held the record for the fastest journey from Australia to New Zealand. Thompson’s boatyard in Dargaville built hundreds of schooners, whalers and sailboats. In 1907 the boatyard was contracted to build whalers for Ernest Shackleton’s British Antarctic Expedition – and quickly. In this race to the pole there was limited time to complete the boats. Shackleton planned his arrival at King Edward VII Land for January 1908.

Advertisement

On his return to England Shackleton wrote: “In regard to the boats, it will interest you to know that they gave every satisfaction under trying conditions in the Antarctic. They proved to be admirably suited for the work of the expedition, and reflected great credit upon your firm.” In his commentary, our skipper Terry pointed out the shed where they’d been built.

Kewpie Too pulled into the wharf at Pahi. The river settlements became ghost towns almost overnight following the demise of the kauri industry, but Pahi was buzzing with holidaymakers on this perfect day.

We disembarked and joined a coach for the 50km run to Dargaville, passing through Ruawai which grows 90% of New Zealand’s kumara crop. A warm climate, a thin layer of river silt over a clay bed and the flat landscape combine to provide ideal conditions.

We stayed at the Northern Wairoa Hotel, built in 1923. Walking alongside the river, we were attracted to a crowd at the Northern Wairoa Boating Club – the annual regatta was in progress. Boats from settlements around the Kaipara had gathered to follow the tradition begun in colonial times – to race and hold a party.

I grabbed a rum and coke and settled down to watch. Most of today’s boats were launches. Locals and ducks lined the banks as 30 boats churned up brown foam, creating waves that tossed the tall riverbank reeds into a frenzy. The party lasted until 3am we were told. Next morning we set off down the river on our return journey accompanied by launches sailing home and, no doubt, owners with hangovers.

Manchurian rice grass lined the banks. A pest brought in with a sailing ship’s ballast, it grows in fresh water, doesn’t respond to poison and can’t be burned. Northern shearwaters or mutton birds carried out an aerial inspection of us. The first overwintering seals basked on rocks in the sun.

Dolphins leaped beside sandbanks. Spoonbills, oyster catchers and other seabirds fed in the shallows. Hot Cross Buns, coffee and lunch, tea and cake were fed to us by the ever-cheerful Gaye. The passengers themselves were a source of good conversation. It was a weekend of delights that I can heartily recommend if you want to escape from the city. BNZ

THE FIRST ROLL-ON, ROLL-OFF SHIPS

How did they load ‘the grey pillars’ of timber into ships not designed for the cargo?

Those seamen were skilled, daring and inventive. Sailing up Kaipara creeks, they drove the ship’s bow into the mud at high tide and made her fast. The stern would still be in the deep water of the river channel even at low tide.

Shipwrights and carpenters then ‘sprung’ the planks at the bow to open the front end of the boat. The ‘pillars’ were hand-sawn, the logs squared and then loaded onto a trolley and packed tightly into the ship’s hold or lashed on deck. The shipwrights then refastened the bow planks.