Northland’s buried treasure
‘Gold fever’ struck northern New Zealand in the late 1800s, and peaked at the turn of this century with 20,000 fortune-hunters spread across some 800,000 acres of land. What they were seeking was not metallic gold, but kauri gum: a rich golden resin which polishes up like glass and is one of this country’s most beautiful natural products.
Kauri gum should have another name. Not a sturdy, lumpy word like gum, but something signifying liquid gold. A word that might imply mysterious landscapes and the hopes and dreams of generations, as well as encompassing the beautiful and rare.
Quite apart from any poetic deficiencies in the name, strictly speaking, the stuff is not gum at all. It is a resin exuded by the fabled New Zealand conifer Agathis australis in response to injury. The guardian of the tree, resin washes out and entraps boring insects, seals over the ravages of wind, lightning and animal damage, and prevents the entry of bacteria and fungi that may cause disease.
Gums, on the other hand, are substances that swell in water to form gels or sticky solutions. Some are plant derived, like gum arabic from Acacia or the algae agar and carageen. Others are synthesised.
The kauri is a prodigious bleeder. Over the thousands of years of life of the largest of these leviathans the resin runs down the tree, collecting in the forks where it becomes crutch gum, pouring from the roots as sugar gum, or accumulating in frozen drips and long wax-like stalactites on the bark as candle gum. Over the aeons, layers of forest debris cover the gum to depths of up to 100 metres.
Stories tell of yields of two hundredweight of crutch gum from one tree, and of massive subterranean deposits of over 600lbs in a single nugget.
Some refer to the resin as kauri amber. Amber is a generic term for fossil resins aged over four million years exuded by extinct conifers. Resin less than four million years old, which has begun to harden but does not yet have the physical properties of amber, is called copal, and “kauri copal” is a term favoured by Northern Hemisphere varnish makers of the past.
Thereby hangs the tale, much of it apocryphal, part nostalgia, frequently tragic, of kauri gum and Northland’s continuing tendency to boom and bust. For the purposes of the tale, the vernacular “kauri gum” is at least expedient.
Before the arrival of Homo sapiens, and thus before the products of nature were seen as raw material, put there exclusively for our picking, kauri forest covered much of Aotearoa.
Kauri gum has been found in lignite seams at Gore in Southland and associated with coal at Roxburgh in Central Otago. Kauri will grow, and do grow if tended, in Dunedin and Christchurch, well south of the more recent cut-off line for naturally occurring kauri at the 38th parallel (Kawhia to Opotiki).
But by the time the voyaging forbears of the Maori arrived, kauri forest covered only pockets, and larger tracts of the area between Kawhia in the south and Kaitaia in the north. Apart from an isolated sprinkling in the vicinity of Spirits Bay in the far north, the peninsular area between Kaitaia and Cape Reinga was denuded.
What caused the disappearance of the countrywide covering, and especially the more recent and mysterious absence of living trees on the rich gumfields of the Aupouri Peninsula, is a matter of much and varied speculation.
Theories range from the scientifically respectable ice ages, volcanic activity, tidal waves, continental side-step, soil deprivation and fires, through the legendary upheavals brought about by the struggle between the Maori god Tane and his parents, to fanciful giant aliens with chainsaws.
The Aupouri, called by Cook “the desart (sic) shore” because of its then rolling sandhills, bears underground evidence of having been clothed several times with successive layers of kauri forest. The most recent layer, carbon-dated as 3000 years old, lies buried in a jumble of peat swamp, pumice and sandstone, and its placement raises more questions than it answers. Most of the gum is to be found in swamps, yet living kauri do not like wet feet. At low tide, ancient logs stick up out of the channel of the Houhora Harbour, while at the head of the harbour layers of pipi shells are found 40 feet up, on Mt Camel, and 60 feet down, in boreholes at sea level.
In places the logs lie with their stumps and roots in the ground and their huge trunks lying neatly east to west. To add to the mystery, there are other places where the stumps and branches are buried in logical patterns, but there is no sign of the trunks.
Sitting in the Wagener family’s museum at Houhora, looking at gum and listening to speculative talk of the land and its ups and downs, one feels a sense of imminent eruption or plunge, as if the land were an elevator, and some cosmic lift operator might suddenly press the “down” button and head for the boiling core.
Roy Wagener reckons there are now more theories than logs.
From the earliest Maori occupation until the first pakeha arrived, kauri gum could be found lying on the ground in Northland.
At the beginning of pakeha contact several Maori uses of kauri gum were recorded. Gum straight from the tree was boiled until soft, puha juice added, and the gum was then chewed communally. Contemporary Maori medicinal use of the chewed gum as a treatment for vomiting, diarrhoea and digestive upsets would suggest that early observers were watching an event which was more pharmacological than social—a conclusion strengthened by the fact that other copals are used medicinally in the tropics.
Maori also used the resin, which burns bright and hot, as a fire lighter. Later, pakeha exploited this use in the making of matches, and still today, in households around Northland, a handful of glittering dust from the bottom of the gum bucket does wonders for wet wood in the winter.
Maori burnt the gum as torches, both for lighting the way and attracting fish, and used it in the kumara plantations as an insect repellent. The pigment used in Maori facial tattoos was sometimes obtained from kauri gum, either by burning the gum and mixing the pounded soot with oil, or by burning the gum and collecting the pigment on branches or leaves which had been smeared with animal fat and suspended in the smoke.
The first pakeha sighting of gum led to one of those endearing and enduring cases of mistaken identity. Captain James Cook is said to have picked up a handful of gum from under mangroves at Mercury Bay in 1769. He concluded that the gum came from the mangroves, and the plant was duly named Avicennia resinifera, after the Arab physician and astronomer Avicenna, and the resin.
Laing and Blackwell’s Plants of New Zealand quotes an even more elaborate embroidery of the original mistake: the mangrove “exudes a kind of green aromatic resin which furnishes a miserable food to the barbarous natives of New Zealand.” It was not until 1819 that the first recorded pakeha identification of the resin as a product of the kauri was made—by Samuel Marsden.
When the rush for this northern gold started, the diggers had in mind less utilitarian uses for the gum than did the Maori: it would be used to beautify and improve the lives of people in far-off countries as linoleum, varnish, paint and polishes.
In providing the gum for these purposes, the diggers would, they imagined, make their fortune. Thousands of hopefuls from all over the world rushed towards the treasure… but most would merely eke out a living in the miserable conditions.
And in so doing they would leave behind a devastated countryside, one that was turned over and burnt over.
Hand in hand with the timber millers, they would strip the landscape of its forest cover, leaving behind the legacy of the bleak, denuded lands of today’s Northland. But another part of the legacy of the diggers would be a New Zealand culture made richer by the influx, a culture from which some of our major industries would spring.
In 1815 a cargo of gum from the Bay of Islands was exported to Sydney and put up for auction. It attracted little interest.
Charles Darwin, on being shown a kauri at Waimate North, noted in his journal of 1835 that “a quantity of resin oozes from the bark which is sold at a penny a pound to the Americans but its use is kept a secret.”
A Whangarei newspaper report claims that in 1836 Captain James Clendon, Magistrate and Collector of Customs at Rawene on the Hokianga, sent a trial shipment of 20 tons of gum to London. The cargo was pronounced worthless and dumped into the Thames. Some time later, so the story goes, a small boy playing on the banks found a piece and took it home, talking about “a stone that floats”. His father, who was in the varnish trade, had the gum analysed and traced back to the ship, thus initiating a 100-year export industry.
Eight years after Clendon’s shipment, John Logan Campbell and his partner William Brown disposed of a speculative shipment of gum from Hokianga to the fire kindler and marine glue trades in England.
Gilbert Mair, a Whangarei pioneer, had a thriving gum-for-blankets deal going with the Maori at Kaitaia by 1845—red blankets earned more than twice as much gum as grey.
The Mair trade had also grown from children’s happy knack of collecting treasure. The Mair offspring’s find of gum in the 1830s was left on the mantelpiece and noticed there by a visiting whaler, who offered fourpence a pound for gum to use in varnish manufacture. William Brown reported in 1845 that large quantities had been exported to America, where it was made into copal varnish, and predicted a great future for the trade.
Brown was right. “Between 1850 and 1950,” writes kauri historian Bruce Hayward, “450,000 tons of kauri gum, worth £25 million, were exported, and for 50 years prior to 1900, gum was Auckland Province’s most valuable export, ahead of gold, wool and kauri timber.”
At the peak of the industry there were 20,000 gumdiggers in the north. First on the fields were the Northland Maori, joined later by Maori from the King Country, Waikato, and the Bay of Plenty. By the 1880s, word was out around the world, and diggers flooded in from Yugoslavia, China, England, France, Malaya and Germany. British diggers and runaway soldiers from the New Zealand land wars mingled with fez-wearing Bosnian Muslims, who were mistaken for Turks, and Finns who were mistaken for Russians.
But the ethnic group which had the greatest presence was the Yugo-slavs. Known then as Austrians, later as Dalmatians, they were a collection of distinct and separate peoples from the states of Dalmatia, Macedonia, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, Serbia, and Montenegro.
They emigrated from their homelands, mainly Dalmatia, in response to problems at home caused by foreign domination and exploitation. Population growth, peasant farming on ever-decreasing land holdings, phylloxera in the grapes and political unrest after the Austrian annexation of Dalmatia in 1815 made emigration of sons to greener pastures a means of survival for many families.
The first arrivals had no intention of staying. Their aim was to work hard, make as much money as possible and return home. Some, in fact, made the long return journey three or four times.
When they arrived in New Zealand they were technically Austrian, but ethnically and sympathetically otherwise. And, like the Chinese on the goldfields, they were persecuted. The Yugoslavs’ great industry, co-operation and ingenuity made them formidable workers on the gumfields. Their success led to resentment among other diggers and, fuelled by fluctuations in gum prices and traditional British suspicion of foreign tongues, resulted in their scapegoating.
In 1898 anti-Dalmatian feeling culminated in a commission of enquiry. The commission set aside reserves of Crown Land for British, Maori, and naturalised New Zealanders to dig for an annual fee of five shillings. Aliens had to dig ground already picked over by the others, and had to pay £1 per year for their licences.
Racial prejudices are not so easily assuaged, and still the persecution persisted. When World War One broke out, broiling suspicions erupted into accusations that the “Austrians” were enemy aliens. The finding by the Aliens Commission of 1916 that Yugoslavs were loyal, law-abiding citizens was publicly derided.
Nevertheless, stories of Yugoslav success are legion. Their legacy includes the stone walls of the volcanic mid-north and the New Zealand wine industry. That the Yugoslavs have survived, prospered, and maintained their cultural heritage throughout Northland, in the face of this barrage of slings and arrows, seems miraculous.
There is a commonly held belief that gumdiggers were a shiftless, unskilled and lawless lot with no vision or prospects, whose children’s children live on in Northland in dole‑funded limbo because no subsequent industry, excepting the brief Marsden Point boom, arose to employ them. In fact, gumdiggers worked inhumanly hard, often in foul circumstances, their only crime a kind of blithe hope. Most were single men; most lived in small huts made of timber, sod, and corrugated iron. Some lived in shanties made from grain sacks.
At day’s beginning they would walk several kilometres to the patch they were digging. Often they worked in water as they searched the wetlands and peatlands, working down through the rich deposits of sediment, soil, and decaying vegetable matter which had been carried down with the gum from surrounding hills. While several men dug holes, another operated a primitive hand-pump made of makeshift piping—sometimes jam tins soldered together. Most of the holes were one to four metres deep, but groups of diggers sometimes worked 12 metres underground.
At night and on wet days they would scrape the gum, a necessary prerequisite for sale—paler grades were worth more than darker gum. On Sunday the diggers would bake bread, wash their clothes and mend their equipment. In their spare time they would play cards, play musical instruments and devise ingenious whimsies from the gum, carving it into Bibles and hearts and crucifixes; into bottles and beads and cigarette holders.
At first, kauri gum was collected from the surface of the ground. In hilly country a digger could often tell from the contours of the land where a kauri tree had fallen, and by finding where the head of the tree was, could usually find gum. As the price rose, surface gum rapidly disappeared and the gum-seeker was forced to look underground.
Early diggers used spades and sometimes spears to find the gum. The Skelton gum spade, with its ash handle and tapered, forged blade is said to be the spade that dug the foundations of Northland. Designed especially for the gumfields, it remained in production until 1971, when hand-forging and die-making were replaced by assembly line production. For extra strength, the spade was strapped and riveted front, back, and sides, and it featured foot treads.
In wet places a long spear with a handle was used to locate the gum. Dorall Blucher, a gumdigger who worked in the Ahipara area in the 1940s, says that gum teams usually had a specialist spearer who could tell by the sound the spear made whether it had struck gum.
Brian Wagener describes the adaptation known as a “button” or “joker”, which made spearing for gum easier.
“It was hard to put in a spear. The story I was told is that someone talking to his mate had a spear in his hand and prodded through an eyelet off a boot by mistake. He pushed it into the ground to try to get it off and found that the spear was easier to get into the ground with it on.
“After that they made them out of four turns of wire. There was quite an art in twisting the wire. If the joker scratched past a piece of gum, traces were left on the side, so you could tell what sort it was.”
In wet places a gum hook—like a blunt spear with an inch and a half right angle at the bottom—was also used. This sometimes obviated the necessity to dig a hole, and could be used by experts to manoeuvre swamp-buried logs out of the way.
A cut-off kerosene tin with added handle was the universal gum container. When filled, the gum would be emptied into a sack and carried back to the shanty at the end of the day. There, accumulations of dirt and the crusty exterior of the gum had to be cleaned off with a sharp knife.
While some climbed for gum, others dredged for it and even dived for it, in lakes where kauri logs had lain for millennia. A few tried chemistry to persuade the swamps to give up their wealth. Various methods and solvents were used, with brief flickerings of success and rave reviews, to extract oil, resins and waxes from kauri gum, timber and peat. The most recent of these ventures was Kaurex.
In 1985 the Kaurex Corporation Ltd aimed to establish a commercial venture to extract resins and waxes from peat on 1400 hectares of Crown swamp at Kaimaumau, north of Awanui, by means of organic solvents. These compounds would then be purified and sold, for use in such diverse applications as carbon papers, printing inks, polishes, paper coatings, high precision casting waxes, leather finishes, wax coatings for food packaging and lipstick that wouldn’t melt in the sun.
Kaurex was confident of success. Chemical analysis showed Kaimaumau peat to be between 5 and 10 per cent soluble matter. Market research indicated strong demand for the products they would recover, especially the waxes. The extraction technology had already been successful in obtaining waxes from South Island lignite deposits, and pilot extractions in the laboratory showed that the peat would indeed deliver its riches. Investors were found, equipment assembled and the plant was built.
Whangarei sharebroker Frank Newman described the market at the time as “so buoyant you could float the Titanic”.
On February 11, 1985, the then Archbishop of New Zealand conducted a service in a large corrugated iron shed to pray for successful mining.
By March 1987 the final products were reported as being weeks away, but no product ever came out of the plant. By February 1988 the company was in receivership, and in 1989 the dismantled plant was auctioned. Today, little can be seen of the spectacular stainless steel structure which once stood out on the coastal skyline. The whole site is under a metre of scrub, and the gum remains locked up in the ground.
The verdict from locals is that the project was “doomed from the start”, but the actual problems were technical, climatic and financial.
The process required the peat to be dried. Colin Putt, chemical engineer on site says: “At one stage I was a salt maker. I learned about solar drying. You can’t do it in a humid climate like Kaimaumau.”
Spent peat, from which solvents had already recovered the resin and wax, was to have fuelled steam boilers. However, a problem in boiler design made this impossible, and the necessity to use coal instead caused cost overruns.
Sand in the peat caused abrasion to the pipes and equipment, and the main extractor itself kept clogging up. When this happened, the resin set solid in the pipes and had to be chipped off. Furthermore, the recovery of the solvent was less effective than had been predicted. Kaurex had chosen the relatively expensive butyl acetate in order to extract higher quality waxes, and soon the company was in financial trouble.
As it happened, this was the time of the sharemarket crash, and refinancing proved impossible. Putty “The valuable resources of Kaimaumau are still there. Kaurex had a good source of raw material, good process, good product and good markets, but they bit off more than they could chew.”
No two pieces of gum are the same gum bleeds from all parts of the tree, and the roots, trunk, knots, branches and cones all produce resin of different quality.
Rei Hamon, an artist who collects gum for his art gallery and museum in Thames, explains: “There’s a difference in the gums which come from trees which are dying, trees that have grown on storm-swept rocky ridges, trees that have flourished in the swamps of Northland, and trees that have grown on the clay- and mineral-impregnated ridges of the Coromandel Peninsula.
“All of these factors add to the colours or shades of the gum, which range from nearly blacks to a clarity not unlike glass.
“The gum that bleeds from the northern side of the tree will receive the greatest amount of direct heat from the sun and will usually produce gum of the most beautiful shades of gold.
“If this gum drips off the roots on to the rocks it then turns a deeper gold because of the greater heat generated by the sun on the stone.
“If a large piece of gum is buried, say 40 centimetres under the ground, and a large kauri has caught fire above it, steady sustained heat that has gone down through the ground will give different beautiful shades of wine.”The longer the fire’s heat lasts, the darker the gum will be.”
Hamon tells of old gumdiggers who would put green gum in paper moulds and bury it under the cooking fire in their camps. “They knew just when to take it out, depending on what shade they wanted. When it was cold they would then carve it into beautiful things and polish it.”
When it came to grading gum for commercial purposes, colour was only one of the criteria. Size, hardness and purity were also taken into consideration. In order of decreasing size, the pieces of gum were known as nuggets, nubs, peas, chips, and dust. Range gum, which came from the hills, was the hardest; the softest was chalky gum from the swamps. White range gum was the most valued, then white swamp gum. Black gums, also from the swamps, and bush gum, from living trees, were two of the lower grades. At one time as many as 50 sub-grades were recognised.
By the 1940s, exports of kauri gum had declined to less than 300 tons annually. The trade was all but over. The decline and fall, blamed sometimes on increasing scarcity of gum or, optimistically, on the lack of a universal grading system, was ultimately caused by the development of competitive synthetics. Alkydbased varnishes, with their ease of application and fast drying times, quickly superseded copal varnishes, and the advent of vinyl sounded the death knell for linoleum.
But with the virtual passing of the gum industry, there remained the vexed question of what could be done to put right some of the damage the landscape had suffered at the hands of diggers. One of the “solutions”, while seeming like a good idea at the time, proved to be a terrible blunder. It was the introduction of gorse.
The Kauri Gum Commission Report of 1898 advised setting aside an experimental farm for gorse pasturing, with a view to reclaiming gum lands, saying that land which could not feed one sheep to the acre had been made to carry and fatten five or six sheep to the acre when planted with gorse. Northland is now glutted with the pest, and lacks the economic strength to get rid of it.
Another outcome of the passing of the kauri gum industry was a tung oil venture. Touted as a replacement commodity for declining kauri gum, tung oil is obtained from the seeds of Aleurites fordii and A. montana, natives of China.
In 1933 the Journal of the New Zealand Institute of Horticulture reported 100,000 trees planted and a rosy future in exports of tung oil for use in paint, lino and waterproofing and insulating materials. The trees failed to thrive on a high water table, winds blew out the tops, synthetics arrived… and rumours still abound in the north about the authenticity of the venture.
All that remains are a few standing trees in the far north, rows of stumps in the Mangakahia Valley and a wonderful story of not one, but two Rolls-Royces buried in the sand on Ninety Mile Beach by a tung oil entrepreneur.
There is no doubt that kauri gum subsidised the development of Northland’s farms and transport systems. Many of the original farmers came first to dig gum, then financed their land purchases with the profits, underwrote subsequent farm development by devoting a portion of the working week to gumdigging, and capitalised on the land clearance to make fine farms. Some negotiated gum-for-land-clearing deals with itinerant diggers.
But the kauri gum industry would appear to have done more for the bank balances of Auckland dealers, government coffers, and the Northern Hemisphere manufacturers who gained the added value in processing the raw material, than it did for Northland.
Northland bought survival, received a pittance and lost a resource. Ever since, it’s been seen as the back of beyond. A nice place for a holiday or a sketching tour, but not, unless you’re a fairly masochistic dairy farmer or an employee of the Department of Social Welfare (on the right side of the desk), a serious living and working environment.
In the past, for the promising sons of Auckland to go north was a disgrace. Northlanders were gumdiggers, Maori and “Dallies”, and none of these epithets was a compliment. Even today, the view of the north, which is consistently left off the top of maps, out of weather forecasts and arts diaries and omitted from all but the most philanthropic and determined of fringe cultural tours, is of a balmy haven for the unemployed, radical Maori and marijuana farmers.
Yet, going among the gumdiggers, seeing their strange land, feeling the dancing ghosts in places where only a pile of tin might remain as witness of the disappearance of whole towns, and hearing their stories, it’s difficult not to feel a little like a gumdigger yourself—prospecting for the beautiful shiny buried pieces of their lives.
On the high Ahipara gumfields plateau above Shipwreck Cove, where the grandson of the “last digger” lives among the bent-backed scrub with no electricity, a tribe of dogs priming for the hunt and his grandfather’s dreams for company, my fingers wanted to dig into the podzolised wasteland.
For a moment in the wilderness, the vision of treasure from the earth seemed possible.