Kauri logging… Deforestation, technology and ingenuity.

Since the dawn of mankind and being able to use technology safely, we’ve a history of being rather ruthless in exploiting the advantage. In recent years, much awareness has been made of the clearing of remaining natural forest/ jungle in South America and other tropical regions to make way for cattle grazing or planting of palms for their oil. But deforestation is not a new topic.

If I remember correctly from my school history, in Roman times, it was common strategic practice throughout all the disputed territories (eg modern  France, Germany, Poland, England, Wales and lower Scotland.) to remove all vegetation from the side of the road for up to a few hundred yards, or two arrow flights. That’s all the vegetation such as trees, shrubs, bushes. It’s quite hard to ambush when there’s nothing to hide behind. And then in later times, wood from the forests was used extensively for shipping, especially for use in the English Royal Navy, which became the British Royal Navy, which was used to expand the British Empire throughout the far flung corners of the world. The mighty English oak was prized for planking and masts. Trading ships were then required to service the colonies, including slaving and tea clippers. Timber was also required for housing, factories, building machinery, utensils and general tools (no ready amounts of aluminum or stainless steel) for everyday use. And that didn’t include using it as fuel for homes, factories, smelting, foundries and charcoal…

European forests eventually became quite depleted as a result of all the intensive logging over the centuries. Fortunately for them, steel use became quite widespread and took some of the pressure off the forests. When early Europeans first arrived in New Zealand, they were busy whaling and empire building , and then they were busy trying to survive fighting with each other and the local Maori tribes/ iwi. There are several traditional stories of the war parties that ravaged throughout New Zealand, taking advantage of the musket’s superiority. War parties even travelled  between North and South Island to achieve their objective.

But by the early 1800’s things had settled down and industry and the colony was starting the thrive. And it needed wood. Strong, flexible and straight wood for ships planking and support for the towns and goldmines that had started to spring up around the country, as well as housing and general industry, for framing and furniture.

Kauri fitted the bill nicely. Historically, it grew tall and straight (40-50 metres), and regularly exceeded 4-5 metres in diameter. As older Kauri have very few branches below their crown, there was little wastage from them in the way of superfluous branches and twig matter. It is aesthetically pleasing when used in furniture and requires little maintenance for its upkeep. (Kauri are so majestic in their natural setting that we haven’t felt comfortable trying to photograph them and reproduce them here. You’ll just have to come and see them for yourself, or check out other sources.)

There were only two obstacles in the way. Size and location. Size was addressed in the old fashioned manner of many hands make light work. Camps of over 20-30 men sprung up and they initially used large saws, axes and wedges to fell the timber. All by hand. Naturally, the largest trees were felled first. The Hauraki harbour basin was one of the first areas to be logged on an industrial scale by the British. (Not all logging went unopposed. There’s a story of how a French colony was given sanctuary in upper reaches of the Hauraki harbour, who abused their position. They had their sanctuary revoked, had the settlement destroyed and sent packing.)

Kauri logging occurred from the 1820’s in the Coromandel area on a small scale. After all the more lucrative stands north of Auckland had been harvested, there was a greater effort to harvest the area. Improvements had been made on the technology with the use of better saws, and water mills for power, eventually leading to steam and electricity being introduced.

Because Kauri favour the upper reaches of high, elevated and exposed steep hill slopes, getting to them was difficult enough. Getting the cut timber out to civilisation was a whole new challenge. Areas that had streams and rivers running in plentiful supply and in relatively straight lines were used to float the timber down. The stream would be damned for up to a year or longer if necessary whilst logs were collected. At a certain point, the dam was released and the water carried the trunks down. Choosing the right stream was a matter of trial and error. Damage of up to 1/3 of the crop caused by being bashed against boulders and steep rocky canyon walls was the norm. And there was little consideration for trees and other vegetation that stood in the way of the logging. Forest fires were frequent, and huge swathes cut through smaller trees for roads and tracks for getting the logs out.

But such was the driving need for the timber that all obstacles were overcome. Different areas had different problems, requiring unique solutions.

For example, the Kauaeranga Valley near Thames has good supplies of water, but the terrain was rocky and steep, making access for supplies difficult as no roads or tramways could be built. So a path was built out of the rockface, not for the loggers, but for the pack horses which brought in the food and other supplies.

The start of the pack horse trail...
The start of the pack horse trail…
Which is extremely technical and complex in parts.
Which is extremely technical and complex in parts.
And just goes straight up the hillside...
And just goes straight up the hillside…
Note the low height of the forest following the extensive deforestation. Logging ended here in 1926, and young Kauri can be spotted poking out of the forest canopy throughout the valley.
Note the low height of the forest following the extensive deforestation. Logging ended here in 1926, and young Kauri can be spotted poking out of the forest canopy throughout the valley.
A stand of young Kauiri close up as seen from a rise about 20m above the valley floor.
A stand of young Kauri close up as seen from a rise about 20m above the valley floor.

As you walk the path, it becomes obvious that it certainly wasn’t built for people as the steps are just slightly out of line, and the inclines are fairly steep. And there’s no hand rails to stop you if you stumble, so care is needed at times. Despite its age, the staircases and path are in very good condition.

The good news for the Kauaeranga Valley is that in 1971 it became part of the Coromandel Forest Park, over  73000 hectares that is now protected by the good people at the Department of Conservation. Now a popular tramping resort, it stands as a living reminder about how close New Zealand came to losing something so unique, and a testament to the ingenuity of the men who lived and worked here.

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