Māori and kauri
For Māori, the tallest trees in the forest traditionally had chiefly status. In the north of New Zealand, kauri held the highest rank. This is reflected in sayings such as, ‘kua hinga te kauri o te wao nui a Tāne’ (the kauri has fallen in the sacred forest of Tāne) – repeated whenever a great person dies.
Legs like tree trunks
Kauri features in a northern version of the creation story of Ranginui, the sky father, and Papatūānuku, the earth mother. At the beginning of time Rangi and Papa clung together, trapping their children in the darkness between them. The strongest child, Tāne Mahuta (the god of the forest), pressed his shoulders against his mother and pushed upwards with his powerful legs, separating his parents and allowing light to enter and bring life to the world. Some northern Māori tribes say that his legs were the trunks of giant kauri trees.
Although revered, kauri was considered less useful than other trees such as tōtara and miro, which not only provided superior timber for buildings and carving, but produced berries that attracted birds, an important source of food. Kauri gum was valued more highly than the wood: it could be used as a fire starter, and for medicinal purposes. The soot from burnt gum was a tattooing pigment. The straight-grained, buoyant timber was, however, ideal for canoes.
The timber trade
The qualities of kauri timber impressed the first Europeans who visited northern New Zealand from the late 1700s. The elasticity and length of the trunks made them ideal for ships’ spars. By the mid-1820s, timber merchants, pit-sawyers, and shipbuilders were setting up shore stations throughout the northern region. Māori traded kauri spars and provisions for European goods, and later for muskets.
The timber and gum industries
When European settlement picked up pace after 1840, there was also a growing need for sawn timber for construction. By the mid-1860s, steam-driven sawmills were springing up along the many harbours and waterways of the kauri region. From the 1870s to the 1910s, sawmilling was the biggest employer in the Auckland province. Many sea-going ships and coastal scows, built from kauri, served the expanding export and domestic timber industry. During this period kauri gum, prized for use in varnish and linoleum, was dug from Northland’s swamps and exported in large quantities.
Extracting kauri logs from remote and rugged bush country was physically demanding and dangerous work. The bushmen cut felled trees into manageable lengths, then used levers, timber jacks, and blocks and tackle to roll them into creek beds. Here the logs accumulated until floods could float them downriver into tidal inlets and harbours for collection by scows and ships.
In the mid-19th century kauri timber, roofing shingles and prefabricated houses were shipped to Sydney and then to San Francisco, the major port on the American west coast. Kauri helped build these cities, and after the devastating San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906, it was used in rebuilding.
By the 1850s, skilled bushmen were using timber felled on site to build dams to augment natural floods. An estimated 3,000 dams were built, mostly in the Waitākere Ranges (Auckland) and the Hokianga, and on the Coromandel Peninsula. Thousands of logs could be sent down the waterways after the synchronised triggering of dams. Although very efficient, such drives may have destroyed an estimated 30–40% of the logs felled. In later years, steam haulers and tramways replaced the use of dams.
In just over 100 years, logging and burning transformed the northern landscape from forest to farmland. By the early 1900s, most kauri forest had been logged. Although there was growing concern for the survival of remaining native forest, the high value of kauri timber meant that the forest was still exploited. A final push to extract the last of the kauri swept through the north in the 1920s and 1930s, reducing the forest to the few patches that survive today.