The hills around Thames were not only busy with mining activity in the 1800s but with bushman cutting kauri and collecting kauri gum. Like many areas around the peninsula, the kauri industry provided revenue for a considerable number of people. There is another story to do with kauri though, that is not always remembered -the GIANT KAURI TREE of Thames.
'The largest New Zealand tree of which there is any known record - perhaps the largest in the world if judged by its content of good millable timber - was a kauri referred to by Sir David Hutchins in New Zealand Trees (1919) … it was common knowledge in the sixties and seventies of last century that there was a huge kauri growing on the mountains at the head of the Tararu Creek…This tree was stated by those who had seen it to be twenty-eight feet in diameter [a girth of 88 feet].' (A.H. Reed)
The story of this great tree lives on in the writings of several reputable local historians and the newspapers of the day. In April 1884, a Letter to the Editor of the Thames Evening Star stated: 'There is no need to describe the big kauri tree at the head of the Waiotahi Creek. Its name is as well known at the Thames as that of the Big Pump.' A statement was made that a photograph of it could be found in every English-speaking country and that something must be done to buy the tree and save it or else 'if the tree be cut down we shall lose the grandest natural wonder in the neighborhood of Thames.' A photograph (Figure 1), which is thought to be of the giant kauri, was donated to The Treasury, along with a batch of other prints, in 2009. A hand-written caption on the back states: 'Kauri at Tararu, Thames'. The same photo was also found on the Auckland Library web site, with a caption:
Photographer: Foy, Photo, Thames; Auckland Weekly News
Date: 30 JULY 1898
Description: KAURI TREE AT PUNGA FLAT, RECENTLY DESTROYED BY FIRE.
It is therefore considered probable that this photo is of the giant kauri in question. Calculations based on the likely height of the human figure in front of the tree indicate a diameter of around 4.3 metres (14 ft), which equates to a girth of 13.5m (44 ft). This is somewhat smaller than the estimate provided by Reed, above, but it should be noted that that was a third-hand account, and is qualified by the statement that: 'It is unfortunate that the Tararu kauri was apparently never officially measured …'
In the Evening Star of 1 May 1884 there was concern that the big kauri tree was in danger and assurances were made that it was in fact safe and measures instigated to protect it. In fact, two immense trees were referred to:
'I am very grateful for your assurance that the big kauri is in no danger…There are, as no doubt you know, two immense kauri trees - one at the head of the Tararu Creek, in the middle of the stream, and another that is reached by the Waiotahi Creek, and it stands near the horse track to the settlements at the head of the Puru Creek [Crosbies Settlement]…It is an utter desolation on the Tararu side of the Look-out Rock, at the head of the Waiotahi Creek.'
The timber in the bush mentioned above was purchased by Mr Maurice Casey. Mr Casey had been cutting kauri in the Tararu area for several years, and he gave his interest in the tree to the Thames County Council in 1884. Following this, the council set out to protect the tree from fire and other dangers. The area around the big kauri was cleared within a radius of '30 or 40 yards' and 'a notice posted upon this large giant of the forest' on the 30th April 1884 by Warden Kendrick.
From the time the goldfields opened in Thames in 1867, pilgrimages appear to have been made to the giant kauri; outings were made to see the tree and picnic nearby. Grainger, in his book 'The Amazing Thames', remarked that (as part of the local social scene) citizens used to take '…walks to Punga Flat to see the giant kauri tree'.
Mr Toss Hammond recalled that, in 1884, he was with a party who were walking in the area. He noted the big kauri tree and estimated the girth at the base as 43ft and 45ft to the first branch. With him was H.D. Driver, a painter of Thames who had recently painted the great tree. Mr Hammond states that, 'many years afterwards the Thames Borough Council paid £50 for this painting which now hangs in Thames Public Library' [Then, the Carnegie Free Library building, Queen St, Thames]
It was never far from Thames-ites' conversation whether their precious tree was safe or not. Again, in January 1887, rumours circulated that a fire raging beyond Punga Flat had claimed the famous kauri tree. The newspaper sent a reporter to see what damage had been done. The path taken shall now be quoted, as it again gives us clear directions on how the tree was reached. 'Proceeding further along the main road formed by the County Council from the Waiotahi Creek towards the Waikawau [Crosbies] settlement, however it could be plainly seen that a large fire was raging on the hills beyond, and in the neighborhood of what is known as the 'second look-out rock.'' The reporter continued: 'The famous kauri tree, which as our readers are aware, is situated close to the rock, on the northern side, has up to present escaped' - the fire, thanks to the clearing made in 1884. The town could relax - the Great Tree was safe!
On the 24th December 1887, another newspaper reported a visit to the tree. The reporter spoke of a visit in January that year and explained the tree could be reached by starting at Waiotahi Road, or alternatively the longer route is to walk up Tararu Creek. Taking the Waiotahi Road route, they followed the track several miles, past the Moanataiari Mine and several houses, until they arrived at the tree. Their estimate was 35 ft circumference and 40 ft to the first branch.
In September 1889, the Evening Star had advertisements for an auction of several H.D. Driver paintings; including first prize of the Big Kauri Tree:
'One of the grandest specimens of this noble tree to be found in this country. It has been drawn and photographed from every possible position but we have never seen any representation of it come up to this of Mr Driver's. The size of the picture, 72in by 38in.'
It would appear that over the years Mr Driver painted several versions of the tree, as in 1904 it is noted that Mr Driver had a painting of the big kauri, in his private collection.
Early in 1898 the treasured tree was again in the news:
'It is with regret that we learn the big kauri tree at Punga Flat has been burned. A report to that effect reached town yesterday morning, and Sergeant Gillies[?] dispatched Constable McPhee to the spot. When the latter arrived he found that the swamp (which has dried up) was in a blaze, and that the big tree itself was a sheet of flame. The heat was intense, and as there was no water available it was impossible to save the tree, which was one of our most prized attractions.'
The town and wider area was shocked by the news; leading one resident named Roslyn to write a poem which was published in the paper:
THE GREAT BIG KAURI TREE, THAMES,
Destroyed by fire January 4, 1898.
Unharmed by tempests through a thousand years,
Spared the hot bolts of Heaven - a Forest King.
Yet lo! The Greenwood now with grief doth ring.
The Hamadryads are dissolved in tears,
Their court despoiled beyond imagined fears;
Loss Irreparable its Pall doth fling-
Justly the verdict with one voice they bring
'Gainst the destroyer, Regicide appears.
No more at morn the merry tourist band,
Towards that upland habitat shall strain;
Its beads a faithful memory may tell
With an inevitable prick of pain,
Missing this crowning glory from the land
Which had bid much with less regret farewell.
Today, the H.D. Driver painting has been restored and hangs proudly on the eastern wall, to the left of the carpark entrance of the Thames Library (corner of Sealey & Mackay Streets, Thames).
In conclusion, Mr Isdale summarises the H.D. Driver painting and the correlation with the Big Kauri that was destroyed:
'The big kauri tree in question is variously described as being 'at Punga Flat,' 'behind Punga Flat,' and at the head of the Ohio tributary of the Tararu Stream. All these descriptions are correct. The painting shows a view looking down the Tararu Valley to the sea.'
Alas, today we no longer have this great natural wonder and can only dream of its grandeur - but thanks to the painting at the Library, the vision lives on. So next time you visit the Thames Library, take a few minutes to glance at the BIG KAURI that many early Thames-ites knew so well.
However, all is not completely lost … A chance conversation led to a comment by Mr David Pryor of Waiotahi Rd, that he had seen a large stump near the prominent slip overlooking the Tararu valley, on the Waiotahi - Crosbies Settlement track. A visit to this site revealed the charred remains of a large kauri stump, alongside the track, approx 50m south west of the slip. Measurement with a builders tape, revealed a diameter of approx 4.5m; noting it was hard to measure, as only parts of the stump remain, and the original outline of it had to be re-created; and the area was quite overgrown. The location matches the descriptions given in earlier literature, and the view down the Tararu Valley, from the slip, is consistent with that in the Driver painting. The measured diameter of 4.5m (14.7 ft, which equates to a girth of 46 ft) is consistent with the estimates of Toss Hammond, and that from the photo at Fig 1. It is therefore concluded that the stump is probably that of the giant kauri.
The projected opening (late 2010) of a new hut at Crosbies Settlement by DoC, will probably result in a lot more foot traffic on the Waiotahi-Crosbies track. This will provide opportunities for interpretation, along what is an historic access route in its own right, and includes the Waiotahi mining tramway, Punga Flat and the giant kauri stump. Visitors may, once again, take Sunday strolls to see the Tararu giant kauri!
(NB. Papers Past references are labelled THAMES STAR, but some editions are EVENING STAR)
A. H. Reed, Chapter 8: The Forest King, in The New Story of the Kauri, 1964, p.60
Thames Star, Volume XV, Issue 4775, 29 April 1884, page 2 (Evening Star)
Thames Star, Volume XV, Issue 4777, 1 May 1884, page 2 (Evening Star)
'The Big Kauri Tree Painted by H.D. Driver' by A.M. Isdale. 30 March 1988
Thames Star, Volume XIX, Issue 5605, 15 January 1887, page 2. “The Bush Fire Beyond Punga Flat” (Evening Star)
John Grainger, The Amazing Thames: the Story of the Town and the Famous Goldfield From Which it Grew, 1951, p.13
'Crosbies Settlement' p. 9, handwritten notes by Mr Toss Hammond
Thames Star, Volume XIX, Issue 5605, 15 January 1887, p. 2. “The Bush Fire Beyond Punga Flat” (Evening Star)
Te Aroha News, 24 December 1887. 'The Giant Kauri-Pine at Tararu Creek'
Thames Star, Volume XXI, Issue 6368, 9 September 1889, page 4 (Evening Star)
Thames Star, 4 January 1898
Thames Star, Volume XXX, Issue 8961, 8 January 1898, page 2