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Matakohe Kauri Museum - “Real New Zealand Heritage at its best”

The MOTAT Society excursion to the Matakohe Kauri Museum on Saturday, 20 May started out by coach from MOTAT 2, stopping for a cup of well-needed coffee at the Tulip Cafe in Kaiwaka, a place I have passed often but have never visited previously. With the yummiest caramel slice on offer, I’ll be back!


The weather on this grey-skied, autumn day did not improve, which only made stepping into the Matakohe Kauri Museum all the more striking. Yes, the gift shop, filled to the brim with some amazing pieces of artistry and more than a few prime souvenirs was great but the initial display room exhibiting kauri gum pieces and craftsmanship, with walls and cabinets of polished wood (I’m assuming kauri), definitely exuded warmth. The crowded shelves of the display served as a reminder of the region's once-thriving gum-digging industry (from 1850 to 1900 kauri gum was Auckland’s leading overseas export for use in varnish and linoleum) with photographic evidence of daring gum-diggers who braved the treacherous swamps in pursuit of this valuable natural resource.

Moving further through the museum I learned about the kauri timber industry. Early European settlers found kauri to be ideal for shipbuilding and other construction and by the mid-1800s sawmilling was a huge NZ industry with kauri being milled for houses, furniture, fences, firewood, and railway sleepers. Timber was also exported to Australian colonies to build their houses and ships. By 1853 timber made up 31% of NZ’s exports and between 1890 and 1920 between 15 and 25 percent of all native timber was exported.


The pathway from “majestic standing tree” to “building materials” in a time of limited transportation was an amazing feat of human ingenuity (and may be a component of the Number 8 wire mentality attributed to Kiwis to this day). Trees were felled by bushmen with axes and two-man crosscut saws and at times the highest tree would be felled first, taking down others in a domino effect. Bullock teams hauled the massive logs to driving dams where water built up over a period of months. Then, in stormy weather (much like the weather on the day of our visit) advantage was taken of deluges to further encourage the cascade of logs downstream after tripping the dam gates.


Kauri is the only native New Zealand timber that floats, which allowed rafting (chaining logs together and towing them by steamer) through the Kaipara Harbour, down to the Kaipara River and to one of a number of busy timber mills such as the mill at Helensville. From there sawn timber was taken by rail to Auckland or shipped to Australia. Millions of metres of timber was transported.

The museum invited me into the lives of people during the times of kauri gum and timber extraction. Bushmen living in remote camps, working long days and longer weeks, far from simple amenities such as medical care, and in some cases solid rooves over their heads. An exhibition on Edward Coates outlines the life of an English gentleman who immigrated to NZ in 1866 seeking better fortune than that of a "younger son". Edward, father of Joseph Gordon Coates, NZ's first NZ-born prime minister (1925-1928), heavily influenced the Matakohe history and was involved in both farming and the timber trade. His homestead, “Ruatuna”, which we were able to visit after the museum trip (see Bruce Wild’s account here) and where Gordon Coates was born and raised, is said to have been built from a single Kauri tree.



Today the Kauri is significantly deficit (not a one could be seen from the Ruatuna

homestead). Depleted by historical logging and threatened by a soil-borne pathogen

Where do you think Tane Mahuta sits in this chart? You might be surprised.

(Phytophthora agathidicida), which causes the fatal kauri dieback disease, no longer do we see the extent of their majesty. A graphic on the wall of the Volunteers' Hall in the museum depicts the circumferences recorded of many felled kauri. I was astonished to learn that our biggest living kauri, Tane Mahuta, at 4.4m is dwarfed in comparison to others, with the largest recorded being 8.5m. It's incredibly sad that examples of these gigantic natural treasures today only exist in paintings and displays.


There just was not enough time to soak up all the detail within the Matakohe Kauri Museum and I can only touch the surface here of the exhibitions the museum provides - the machinery and milling processes displayed in the Smith Wing were impressive: a full-sized sawmill, enormous kauri logs and the actual equipment for felling trees, transporting logs, milling timber and collecting kauri gum. The Sterling Wing, a recreation of a quality 1880 to 1920 six-room home, sporting authentic furnishings and decor, typical of how kauri timber was used for buildings and furniture. The lifelike mannequins, based on real people and dressed in period costume, were very impressive - from the corner of your eye you could almost imagine them moving. Perhaps most impressive was the life-sized recreation of a two-storey boarding house built INSIDE the museum.


Recently opened and what we did not get to see on our visit is the Forest Walkway

“The first and largest part of a multi-phase redevelopment, the new walkway features a forest of tall “trees” – cleverly designed light boxes – which visitors pass through after entering the Museum. Alive with a natural soundscape of bird song and sounds from the native bush, the Walkway takes visitors back in time to the Jurassic era when kauri emerged in Gondwanaland. It introduces the Māori dimension of the story and, in particular, the story of Tane Mahuta and the creation of the world of light.
Entering through the walkway, the height, sound and light give a “wow” factor, to the Museum, creating a sense of awe and the scale and ancientness of kauri.”
from the Matakohe Kauri Museum Website

We ate well at the Gumdiggers Cafe which offered very enticing lunch options and some made a quick stop at the Coates Memorial Church. I am definitely looking forward to a return trip to Matakohe to spend more time in the museum and explore the church and its surroundings.


Words by Jodie Cawthorne (Administrator)

Photos by Ken Lee-Jones (MOTAT Society Member)

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