Story: Northland places

Page 14. Upper Kaipara Harbour

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Kaipara Harbour

Largest enclosed harbour and estuarine system in New Zealand, with over 800 km of coastline. The harbour is separated from the Tasman Sea by two large sandbank peninsulas. The upper Kaipara lies in Northland region and includes the large estuaries formed by the Wairoa, Arapāoa, Ōtamatea and Ōruawharo rivers.

Māori settlement

The waterways provided Māori with resources, and a ready means of moving between settlements. Most of the marae around the harbour are affiliated with Ngāti Whātua sub-tribes, who have associations going back hundreds of years.

Fishy business

Towards the end of the 20th century, commercial fishing had depleted fish and seafood in the Kaipara Harbour. Concerned locals have been frustrated in their attempts to enlist government support to save this rich local resource. In a 2005 documentary, The Kaipara affair, veteran film-maker Barry Barclay examined their plight.

European arrivals

European settlers began arriving in the area about 1839, mostly to work in the kauri timber industry. Boat-building for local needs also thrived. The sawmilling settlements established at the water’s edge at Tinopai, Arapaoa, Matakohe, Paparoa, Pahi, Whakapirau, Tanoa, Batley, Oneriri and Ōruawharo have survived as tranquil backwaters.

Between 1862 and 1865 the Albertland company brought 3,000 settlers to Port Albert, on the south bank of the Ōruawharo River. Some settled further north around Maungaturoto. They came to farm, and now dairy farming is the main economic activity in the district. The townships of Maungaturoto and Kaiwaka both benefit from a highway location. Maungaturoto is the home base of one of Northland’s bus companies.

In Seven lives on Salt River (1987), Dick Scott explored the histories of seven families who lived on the shores of the Pahi and Arapāoa rivers during the early days of European settlement. They included Gordon Coates, prime minister from 1925 to 1928, who grew up near Matakohe and returned to the district throughout his life.

More recently, Pahi in particular has become a launch point for houseboating and fishing in the Kaipara. A museum at Matakohe commemorates both the kauri industry and the early Pākehā settlers.


Kaipara Harbour is a key site for migratory wading birds. In summer more than 30,000 Arctic waders, including godwits, plovers, curlews and sandpipers visit. Many New Zealand waders, including wrybills and South Island pied oystercatchers, visit from their southern breeding grounds in winter. It is also a breeding site for several rare and common species, including the fairy tern and New Zealand dotterel.


Peninsula separating the northern reaches of the Kaipara Harbour from the Tasman Sea. Its distinctive landscape has many lakes surrounded by sand dunes, quicksand in places, big exotic forest plantations and a sculpted ocean coast.

North Head, the entrance to Kaipara Harbour at the southern end of the peninsula, is low-lying, a feature which caused many shipwrecks. There are records of 113 shipwrecks on the coast: the first in 1839 was the Aurora, a full-rigged ship of 550 tons. The last recorded was the yacht Aosky in June 1994. Much of the terrain of the Poutō peninsula is a conservation area for sand dunes and dune life, or (further inland) planted in exotic forest.

How to cite this page:

Claudia Orange, 'Northland places - Upper Kaipara Harbour', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 April 2024)

Story by Claudia Orange, published 12 Dec 2005, updated 1 May 2015