In the mists of time, Kaipara was a land of giant kauri trees, patrolled by giant moa, myriad lesser birds, and with her seas and rivers abundant in fish — a place as near perhaps to paradise as ever existed.
Then came the Maori from out of the Pacific — an island people with a tradition of superlative navigation skills over the wide ocean tides and currents, cloud and winds that led them to Aotearoa, The Land of the Long White Cloud.
For centuries they made New Zealand their home. Then in the early 18th century, came the tall ships of European explorers, followed swiftly by seal hunters, whalers, traders and an assortment of adventurers.
In the mid 1860s came a wave of settlement, people seeking freedom from Europe’s established social regimes.
The Auckland Provincial Government offered assisted passages to immigrants from England and wider Europe and the northern Kaipara Harbour was selected for settlement with a man offered 40 acres of land with a further 40 for his wife and 20 acres for each member of his family between the ages of 5 and 18.
In May 1862 the first party of what became known as Albertlanders set sail from the East India Docks in London. After some 100 days at sea, the immigrants were sent off to their place of settlement on the Kaipara.
Maps dished out in London showed wide roads from Auckland to Kaipara clearly marked, but were in fact, non-existent, and wagon wheels many immigrants had strapped to the ship rails were sold before they went by sea up the west coast to the then coastal hamlet of Mangawhai, today a bustling town and seaside holiday destination.
From there it was a slow and arduous journey over bush-covered land to Kaiwaka and on by tidal waterway to Port Albert. In ensuing years, more migrants fanned out to claim land in and around the emerging settlements of Maungaturoto, Whakapirau, Pahi, Paparoa, Matakohe, and on to Ruawai and Dargaville.
An area of 70,000 acres of land is today home to these towns with many surrounding farms still in the hands of settler families today.
Port Albert, once seen as a provincial capital city to rival Auckland, still stands as a sleepy backwater off State Highway 16, with the town of Wellsford long replacing it, to then grow exponentially with the advent of railway and arterial roads.
The other main route to Kaipara was by way of the huge harbour, via Helensville, then a timber milling town gorging on the huge Northland Kauri forest.
This was the route taken of the Smith family, still resident in the Matakohe area today and with founding connections to the iconic Kauri Museum.
The Smith matriarch was the first European woman to step ashore at Matakohe that afternoon in November 1862 and the family went into farming and kauri milling.
Land grants were made as surveyors completed their tasks, and many settlers lived in makeshift camps when they first landed ashore.
As they moved onto their blocks, men supplemented their income the land provided, by digging for kauri gum while the timber was harvested.
They worked mainly in wetlands and swamps where once there were ancient kauri forests and around 450,000 tons, worth £25 million, were sent to England or North America between 1850 and 1950.
Huge tranches of timber first served as masts and spars for sailing ships of many nations, and later buildings rose in Sydney Town and as far away as Los Angeles from pit sawn and milled beams, joists and weatherboards.
Wise heads did not prevail until as late as 1970, when legislation halted the indiscriminate milling.
A forest of more than a million hectares in the mid-1800s had by then been reduced by 90 per cent.
Kaipara Harbour is one of the largest in the world.
Early settlers used the Kaipara Harbour for travel and recreation
It extends for some 60 kilometres from north to south and has catchments feeding five rivers that emerge from drowned valleys earning them the name of salt rivers, and over a hundred streams. The harbour heads are dangerous — waves from the Tasman Sea break over large sandbanks about five metres below the surface two to five kilometres from the shore, an area called The Graveyard, and responsible for more shipwrecks than any other place in New Zealand.
Despite the perilous bar at the harbour entrance, the Kaipara became a busy timber port from the 1860s, shipping thousands of tonnes of kauri timber and gum The Northern Wairoa is the main river feeding the Kaipara from the north, and Dargaville was established on the timber and gum trade 30 kilometres upstream. In the hey-day of the kauri trade, huge rafts of logs were brought down the river to mills about the shores of the harbour. By 1907, production had peaked, after which a steady decline set in, with only minor amounts being cut in the next 50 years.
During the 1950s and early ‘60s the supply of logs from private lands almost ceased. By 1973, government policy finally ended all felling of kauri.
Fortunately, massive replanting projects have come into play since — but at the same time, these forest icons are now threatened by a dieback disease that is challenging science.