Kauri logging (2). More ingenuity…

We introduced Kauri and a short history about it’s sad demise in our last post about Kauri logging…

The Coromandel area had several logging sites,each one posing its problems for the bushmen and suppliers. The new Waitawheta DOC hut sits on the old Waitawheta Sawmill site. The Waitawheta river has a good flow, but has steep sides, huge boulders and several hairpin bends to negotiate. The usual practice of flooding the river and floating the timber down was unsuccessful as it damaged a large proportion of the harvest (more than the industry’s standard loss of 30%!), and often jammed up in the narrow ravines or got stuck among the boulders.

So the enterprising loggers built a tramway along the sides of the Waitawheta gorge, up to the sawmill site.  Between 1898 and 1928, it started out being pulled by horses, before graduating to tractors in the 1920’s. The tramway was (and still is) an impressive feat of engineering. Not only did they carve it out of the rock by hand using pick, shovel and dynamite, they also had to regularly clear it of landslides and debris. Several sections of the original tramway have slid into the river, or been obscured/ obstructed by landslides since logging stopped in 1928. There is certainly not a lot of leeway on either side if you were to meet a log coming head on. According to DOC, the original bridges, built over the numerous canyons, were still being crossed well into the 1960’s.

The Waitawheta tramway never used steam locomotives due to them being unable to negotiate the sharp curves along the valley floor. The timber logs were transported using an ingenious system of straddling the log across two rail bogies, using the log as the chassis. The log was able to slide across the top of the bogie, enabling it to go round sharp (tight )bends easier. Up to 40 horses would be stationed at the camps, which wasn’t cheap. The Waitawheta camp eventually changed from being a lumber camp to a sawmill, using steam engines to power the saws. It became quite famous locally for the quality of its sawing and quality of the timber Eventually tractors and modified trucks were introduced, reducing costs and improving productivity. In 1928, the logging stopped due to its poor economic return and the rails and equipment uplifted.

As you walk along the tramway, there are several relics lying almost in-situ, reminding you of the industrial beginnings of this popular and scenic walkway. Timber rail sleepers lie where they were placed in niches carved out of the rock, with their cast iron rails sticking out, almost as if waiting to trip an unwary tramper. New swing bridges traverse the river, but you can still see the concrete buttresses that held the support for the original timber trestle bridges. And from time to time,rusting rails and wheels spring out at you.

Timber sleepers, with their rusting nails give testament to the amount of physical labour involved...
Timber sleepers, with their rusting nails give testament to the amount of physical labour involved…
The tramway was cut from the cliff face, with minimal clearance...
The tramway was cut from the cliff face, with minimal clearance…
Sharp bends such as this one known as
Sharp bends such as this one known as “The devil’s elbow” wreaked havoc with the floating logs.
And huge boulder fields caused jams.
And huge boulders caused jams. Note the size of the debris along the banks.
Sharlene beside a kauri log on its rail bogey. (Sharlene stands 1.65m in her hiking boots ...)
Sharlene beside a kauri log on its rail bogey. (Sharlene stands 1.65m in her hiking boots …)
Modern swing bridges cross the river today, but you can still see remnants of the original timber bridge foundations along the river bed throughout the valley.
Modern swing bridges cross the river today, but you can still see remnants of the original timber bridge foundations along the river bed throughout the valley.
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