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Why is New Zealand so Fascinated with Kauri?

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What’s the deal with this kauri tree?

Travel up north of Auckland and you’ll notice the word “kauri” on signposts everywhere, from kauri forest walks and kauri dams to kauri museums and kauri galleries. Kauri is a type of native tree in New Zealand, but what is this whole fascination with kauri? How can a type of tree become such a huge attraction?

Kauri are some of the oldest and largest trees in the world, so indeed they are a “huge” attraction. What once used to cover almost the entire of Northland, kauri were considered the “kings of the forest” to the early Maori and were a huge attraction for European settlers that found many uses for its strong straight-grained wood.

Today, New Zealanders see how vital it is to protect the remaining kauri forests and conserve these natural wonders. Something we backpackers can help out with when we’re hiking in the forests.

10 Best Locations to see kauri forest

  • Waipoua Forest, Kauri Coast
  • Trounson Kauri Park, Kauri Coast
  • Puketi Forest, Bay of Islands
  • The A H Reed Kauri Park, Whangarei
  • Tane Moana Walkway, Tutukaka Coast
  • Kauri Cove, Coromandel
  • Twin Kauri Scenic Reserve, Coromandel
  • Cascade Kauri Regional Park, Auckland
  • Great Barrier Forest, Great Barrier Island
  • Hunua Ranges, Auckland
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The size and age of kauri

They’re huge! The kauri tree trunks can be more than 2 metres in diameter, making you look hilariously small if you hug a kauri tree. The widest tree is Te Matua Ngahere in the Waipua Forest with a diameter over 4 metres. However, that tree isn’t the largest of the remaining kauri, as its neighbour, Tane Mahuta (Lord of the Forest) is the largest kauri tree in New Zealand with a volume of 244.5 metres-squared.

Kauri are impressively old too. They can live for 1000 years or more. Te Matua Ngahere is believed to have been around for 2500 to 3000 years!

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What is a kauri forest?

When you hear “kauri forest” it doesn’t mean the whole forest is covered in kauri. Usually a few kauri trees stand tall above a canopy line of smaller trees like rimu and nikau palms, as well as tree ferns making for a very interesting forest stroll.

This also means that if you are going to walk in a kauri forest, you’ll probably have to walk some way to find a kauri. Never fear, the walks to kauri are well signposted! There are also boardwalks to follow making it easy to find the kauri, but also protect the trees from kauri dieback disease (see below).

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The Maori uses for Kauri

Although we today appreciate kauri for their sheer size and natural awe, kauri was sought after for much different reasons over our human history in New Zealand.

Humans first started using kauri when Maori used the gum for starting fire and medicinal purposes. The soot left over from the burnt gum was used as tattooing ink. Maori used kauri as a metaphor for chiefly status, for instance when a great person died, there is a saying: “kua hinga te kauri o te wao nui a Tane”, which means: “the kauri has fallen in the sacred forest of Tane.” Although Maori didn’t find much use for the wood, the buoyancy of the timber was ideal of their waka (canoes).

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The European uses for Kauri

The first Europeans in New Zealand found the kauri to be ideal for shipbuilding. By mid-1840, people were setting up stations across northern region of the North Island to trade timber and build ships. Maori were trading kauri with the Europeans in exchange for European goods, which eventually lead to trading muskets – a significant time in New Zealand history which influenced the Musket Wars. Read more about that in Maori History in New Zealand.

From 1840, the industry around kauri was rapidly growing. The kauri gum, which was prized for its use as varnish and linoleum, was dug up from many of Northland’s swamps and exported. Sawmills and logging occurred across the northern regions. However, logging in the dense forested and mountainous areas was hugely demanding a dangerous work. The only way loggers (bushmen) could get the huge timber down to the sawmills was by accumulating the logs in a creek then waiting for a flood to wash them down to the coast. By the 1850s, they took flooding into their own hands by making dams out of the kauri felled onsite to wash the logs downstream. About 3000 kauri dams were built. The very little number kauri dams remaining are considered historically significant sites. Although the kauri dams were effective, they tended to destroy 30-40% of the wood, so this method was later replaced by tramways.

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USes of Kauri today

Before humans settled in New Zealand, kauri covered much of Northland, Auckland and the Coromandel. The northern landscape would have looked much different than it does today. Huge kauri forests have been logged or burnt and is now replaced with grassy farmland. Within just 100 years the landscape was transformed. Logging of native trees was finally put to an end by 1985.

Today, the last remaining patches of forest are under conservation to protect the kauri forest ecosystem and all the species dependent on the kauri. Plus, as us travellers understand, people in New Zealand and visiting New Zealand much prefer to take a nurturing approach and simply see the magnificence of the tree. Even give it a hug… Honestly, they are the most huggable trees.

However, there is a new threat to kauri that could see the numbers diminish further.

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Kauri dieback

Kauri forests have had it pretty hard. To add insult to injury, they are now threatened by kauri dieback disease which is spread simply by soil movement.

Kauri dieback is a fungus-like disease where microscopic spores in the soil can infect kauri and damage the the tissues that carry nutrients in the tree. Although some infected trees don’t show symptoms, you can tell a tree is infected by yellowing foliage, loss of leaves, dead branches and/or gum bleeding from the bottom of the tree trunk.

Dieback is found all over the North Island’s northern regions. Slowing down the spread of kauri dieback has been made easy for use backpackers taking on the kauri forest hiking tracks. There are boot cleaning stations at the start of many hikes in the northern areas, which you must use both before and after a hike. There are usually boardwalks installed near kauri to stop people from standing on the kauri roots.

All you have to do to stop the spread of kauri dieback is:

  • Clean your gear – shoes and bike tyres before and after going in the forest.
  • Stay on the track.

Other ways to look after New Zealand

New Zealand is a super stunning country, which can be preserved for generations to come. Check out these articles on how to be a responsible backpacker.

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