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The history is apparent as soon as you turn off S.H.10 at the Kahoe Bridge and take the road to Totara North. Looking across the harbour towards the tiny settlement of Whangaroa, quiet waters hide the wreck of the Boyd. In the peaceful morning of our visit, it is impossible to imagine that in 1809 this was the scene of massacre, of sixty-six people.
Morning mist slips through the mangroves and pohutukawa that hug the narrow road. The harbour is shimmering, yet the hills before us are in shadow. At Saies we come across another relic. An old wooden building set in the mangroves. In a former life it supplied stores to the gumfields of the Far North, delivered by packhorse in exchange for the diggers' hard won kauri gum. The gum, in turn, left the shop's backdoor by scow, out through the mangroves and down the harbour.
Before setting off on the track it's worth detouring to Totara North, to hear for yourselves the silence of an industry which altered the environment of the harbour and helped shape its history. The timber mill, now still beside the water, was once the largest shipyard in Australasia.
The mill is a reminder of the times when the harbour's hillsides were stripped of kauri, as bushmen worked to fell the giant, hauling logs along ridges with bullock teams, using driving dams or chutes to transport them to the harbour.
The road ends at the sleepy port. Beyond lays the lure of the outer harbour, reached only by foot or boat. So we backtrack to Campbell Road, parking by the DoC sign that clearly marks the entrance to the track. Here we are met by our guide for the day, Tony Foster. As a local, he knows the history of the land and of the people, but his passion is the flora.
Climbing steadily on a sticky clay road we enter the bush and Tony shows us how the variety of species in Northland's coastal forest creates its unique beauty. Tanekaha, ponga, kohekohe, kanuka, nikau, mapou, rimu, manuka and ferns provide a tapestry of shapes and shades of green. After half an hour we reach the saddle and it's time for a drink, while we learn the secrets of the plants that surround us.
Then it's time to leave the road and duck into a downward, twisting track. The wide benched track is now a ditch carved by coursing water. It began as the road from Totara North to Taupo Bay and the route for transporting milk cans by horse from the farm in the valley below.
Rocks packed in clay litter the track, part of the distinctively volcanic nature of Whangaroa. The harbour is characterised by the igneous plugs of St Paul's and St Peter's, and rough andesite cliffs. The cliffs are layers of volcanic boulders and pebbles, deposited by lahars and cemented by mud and sand. At the base of such a cliff sparkles a swimming hole, and we take a break in its cool waters. We have reached Wairakau Stream at the base of the hillside.
Upstream, beneath a bluff lays the dilapidated remains of an old farmhouse. A sprinkling of wild peach trees, tall macrocarpa, puriri strainers and totara battened fences are the left overs from last century's settlers. We cross the stream twice and enter the long valley of kikuyu which runs alongside the inlet. Out in the open we admire old puriri and pohutukawa infused in the cobbled cliffs.
There is a sense of peace in the Wairakau Inlet. In the mangrove fringed estuary, the tide creeps over the mud to old coastal trees and on the steep volcanic cliffs bush tumbles around towering rock. It's a place where Maori once lived off the land and sea, combining many of the elements that speak of Northland.
The tide laps right up to the old farm gateway as the track now enters the bush growing beside the shore. An old wire fence and flax bushes separate us from the mangroves. Nikau palms grace tumbled chunks of cliff and a dark stream. Its source is Wairere, a waterfall dropping from the canyon-like cliffs to our right.
In the sub-valleys beneath the canyon cliffs, Tony shows us piles of rocks, remnants of old kumara gardens. Maori planted amongst them, using their stored heat to prolong the growing season. The flowering of the kowhai signalled the time to plant. Layers of shells in middens are also reminders of Maori life in the estuary.
Following still the twists of the inlet, the track gives views to high points of lumpy rock, where hardy shrubs struggle for a foothold. The river deepens and green channels emerge. We climb for a short while through old puriri and nikau before taking the easy walk around the edge of the last headland before Lane Cove. Wairakau Inlet has entered the parent Pekapeka Bay and we stop to take in the view of hidden coves and bulging, undercut cliffs.
Directly in front of us stands the promontory of Okahumoko, the tragic last stand of the Kaitangata hapu in 1827. All but two were killed by an attacking party acting on orders from Hongi Hika as he lay dying at the head of the harbour.
Nestled among old mangroves in the secluded bay below us is the former holiday home of the Lane family, owners of the old mill at Totara North. Now the house is administered by DoC. For day walkers like us there is a shelter by the water's edge. So we stop for drink. Some walkers decide to swim before the boat arrives while those of us who are impressed by a view tackle the climb to the Duke's Nose. The Duke of Wellington, in fact. It is his nose which inspired the naming of the beaked rock face.
The track to the Nose is steep. Here the regenerating bush is more exposed and the limey green tones of tarata, rewarewa, and hebe stricta predominate. The track stops at the base of a bluff and a rock climb is necessary to go further. Luckily, cobbles and boulders provide plenty of places for your hands to grasp and for feet to stand.
From the top the view is majestic. Before us lies the entrance to the harbour. Imposing volcanic headlands and crags dominate and define the harbour's arms. The bush reaches down to the many bays and coves, its reflection adding to the magic of the water's colour.
At our feet, different varieties of hebe cling to the Duke's Nose and Tony points to some of the species which are only to be found in Whangaroa: Pseudopanax gilliesii, the five finger with only three fingers and the pretty Coprosma whangaroa with its distinct male and female leaves.
Back at Lane Cove, Tony's boat awaits and it's time to view this unique harbour from the water. As we look about us we learn of the different groups of people who have added to Whangaroa's rich history. In the bays before us whalers made temporary homes, leaving behind only their excavations and wild peach trees. We cruise past Ranfurly Bay where local Maori lived in the fishing season, drying their corn on manuka racks back at Pear Tree Bay. Tony points to the bays to the east, home to game fishermen today and to the legendary Zane Grey in earlier times.
As we head back towards Totara North its time to marvel at the quiet beauty of this harbour. Formed as water eroded the volcanic debris of twenty million years ago and bush filled its valleys and hillsides, it is a place like no other. Whangaroa is a unique gem.