Giants of the forest

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February 28th 2020
Published: May 14th 2020
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The less I say about Auckland the better. People seem to be flocking there to live, but we failed to see the charm. Perhaps in the suburbs it is better, but downtown is crowded, noisy, congested, and lacking in charm, at least for us. The museum is magnificent - more about that later.

After a night in Auckland, we headed back out on the road, this time going up the west coast of the North Island and then crossing over to the east side and the Bay of Islands area. In particular, in addition to just seeing more of the North island, we had our sights set on the kauri trees. Among the largest trees on earth, these also represent one of the oldest tree groups on earth, with representative species extending back to the Jurassic period, some 135-190 million years ago. These trees are closely related to podocarps, a more common type of conifer. Both originated in Antarctica when it was part of Gondwanaland. Their unique growth characteristics and biology enable them to continue to compete against faster-growing (and more modern) flowering plants (angiosperms). Forests where kauri trees are common are referred to as kauri forests although they are usually use scattered about in clumps and are not the numerically dominant species.

These trees start with lateral branches, but these are shed as it attains greater height, making climbing vines much less of a problem. As time passes, flaking bark and dead leaves build up around the base of the tree, and these are more acidic than is normal with other trees. The acidification of rain water this causes results in leaching of minerals from the soil and carrying them down deeper where they are less available to competing species. Meanwhile, the Kauri trees (and also the podocarps) feed through a series of fine hair-like roots near the surface, with nutrients coming from the decay of its own detritus. To support the tree against winds, several large peg roots go down deep into the earth, serving mostly as support and stabilization structures. The trees reach a diameter of about 5 meters, and even larger specimens are rumored to have existed in the past. They grow an average of about 2.5 mm per year in diameter, so I will leave it. to the more enterprising among you to do the calculations of age, but the larger trees are all at least several hundred years old, and 1000 year is not uncommon. There is no good evidence that they ever reach 2000 years in age.

We began by visiting the Kauri Museum in Matakohe. Frankly, I was not expecting much, but found the museum fascinating. There formerly existed a thriving kauri harvesting operation in this area, and the museum shows various aspects of that. But of more interest to me at least, it had a great deal of information about the trees themselves, and examples of the wood that was obtained. Kauri is known for beautiful grain, and also for production of a gum that hardens over time like amber. Finding and caring this produced collectors' items for years. Finding new gum is now rare. Perhaps the most surprising thing was the samples of what is called swamp kauri. This is wood from kauri trees that became buried under anaerobic conditions in swamp mud and were preserved, often for thousands of years. Although their structure will not support architectural use, the wood can be used for furniture. We saw a slab that had been buried for 7600 years before being exhumed.

The two largest known trees now can be visited via short walks on prepared paths. In fact, sticking to the pat is mandatory. Over the last several years a pathogenic fungus has begun kauri dieback disease, and spores can be carried on shoes, so each visit must go through a shoe cleaning and sterilization process on the way in and out, and stick to paths. The second largest tree is called Te Matua Ngahere ("Father of the Forest"), and is shorter but greater in girth. The largest is Tane Mahuta ("God of the Forest"). The latter has a trunk height of 16.78 meters, a girth of 13.77 meters, and a total height of 51.28 meters. The somewhat smaller (overall) Te Matua Ngahere has a larger girth of 16.41 meters. Although not quite as large as giant sequoias, there is actually more usable timber in a kauri because of the cylindrical (rather than tapering) trunk shape. Because of their growth characteristics, each sits in its own little clearing, making viewing easy and awe-inspiring.

From the Waipoua Forest with its kauri trees, we meandered along the west coast shoreline and then cut across the island to the Bay of Islands on the east coast. Here is located the preserved historic Treaty House of Waiting. NZ declared independence in 1835, but in 1840 at this locations the Maori chiefs and white settlers effectively revoked that and signed a document that effectively made NZ colony of Great Britain. The document was signed on February 6, 1840, and is now considered the founding document of the nation. February 6 is now a national holiday called Waiting Day.

Paihia itself is a typical coastal resort village. We finished the day having diner at one of the local waterside eateries.

Additional photos below
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15th May 2020

A friend of mine obtained a swamp kauri slab...
which he made into a table top. As you say, the result was stunning...almost like a tiger eye in shimmering golds.

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