Riverhead: An urban forest
On Auckland’s north-western doorstep lies a rare expanse of unpeopled land that is worked by foresters, eyed by developers and enjoyed by a recreation-hungry public.
With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to see that the group had been lulled into a false sense of security. The 4WD trip had run without a hitch all day. It was an organised fun trip for a group of self-confessed townies who wanted to do some off-roading in Riverhead forest.
“Good practice for the carpark at Foodtown,” quipped one. Hardcore off-roaders call them “shiny trips.”
But just two kilometres short of the forest exit, where the track degenerates into a quagmire, things came unstuck. Actually, they became very stuck. As winter darkness settled in, it looked like the conditions at Riverhead were going to have the final say.
The tour operator, Ian Mills, made light work of the slime with his old Riverhead clay-coloured workhorse. One by one, the late model vehicles which followed him fell victim to the bog. The shiny element, which had been champing for more action earlier on, now had its hands well and truly full.
Progress was slow as drivers were helped through the deep-rutted mud. Steam billowed from wheel arches after each burst of action. Well after dark, the group emerged intact from the forest gate. There was a collective sigh of relief as the vehicles moved back onto their familiar terrain: tar seal. But Riverhead had left its leaving card. Each vehicle was fully branded with pale orange mud.
“Remuera won’t know what’s hit it!” exclaimed one driver.
Riverhead—not much more than half an hour from Remuera—is an urban forest. It is tucked in relative anonymity behind the small township of the same name at the top of the Waitemata Harbour and is one of a clutch of northern-region state forests which includes Woodhill and Maramarua.
It is tucked in relative anonymity behind the small township of the same name at the top of the Waitemata Harbour and is one of a clutch of northern-region state forests which includes Woodhill and Maramarua.
In forestry terms, Riverhead is a midget. Its 4846 hectares look postage stamp-sized against the 100,000 ha giants of Kinleith and Kaingaroa in the central North Island. But Riverhead is a rare oasis of state-owned land amid a dense patchwork of lifestyle blocks, farmland and the expanding greenfield areas of Westgate, Albany and Orewa. Its steep and bristly landscape is bordered on the east by the country estates of Coatesville, on the west by the wine-growing belt, and by expansive arable Rodney farmland to the north.
By way of its location, Riverhead forest provides excellent opportunities for recreational users, and has done so for many years. Although the land is state owned, the forest is administered by Carter Holt Harvey Forests, which purchased the cutting rights in 1990. The company encourages recreational use of the forest.
Rob Webster, a former district forester for the NZ Forest Service, says that in the past many foresters frowned on recreational use of forests. “That was before the multiple-use concept [production, conservation, recreation and education] came into being. People very quickly found that responsible recreational users are your eyes and ears. Besides, if you try to have a locked-gate policy, the irresponsible users will always get in.
“We realised that the state forests complement the regional parks and the sorts of recreation that they can provide. A lot of the parks are managed for more passive-type recreational activities, whereas the state forest users tend to be into more active forms of recreation.”
Riverhead proves his point. This year’s recreational events calendar shows that, among vehicle users alone, mountain bikers, 4WDers, motorcyclists, all-terrain vehicle users and dog sled drivers will all hold events in the forest. Pig hunters and game-bird shooters will be out in the winter months, and horse riders and walkers use the forest year-round. Search and Rescue, the Army and the Territorials all train in the forest on a professional basis. And let’s not forget the World Challenge Tag Paintball Games, which has a licence to use an area at the southern end of the forest.
The Waiteinata Motorcycle Club is one of the most established groups involved with Riverhead. In the 1970s, when the club was started, there was no Upper Harbour Bridge, and access to the forest involved a long and circuitous drive. Club members used to stay for the weekend. John Nicholson, a founding member of the club, regards the forest as a piece of land with many competing pressures on it. He is sure there will come a time when the land is worth more as something other than a production forest.
Motorcycling, like other motorised sports, is an activity that has few venues open to it, and those who partake are well tuned to potential threats to their sport. Although the club has always had a good working relationship with Riverhead’s various forest managers, situations can change. Nicholson cites a forest in Taranaki, where motorcyclists were shut out for several years by the manager for health and safety reasons.
As a long-time forest user, the motorcycle club has invested time and effort into developing tracks and bridges for its own use. The bridges allow motorcyclists to cross gullies from one forest compartment into another, and Nicholson estimates that over 100 km of tracks have been built by the club over the years. Of course, others benefit from these facilities, and Nicholson says it grates badly when club members are told their sport is destructive, and yet they built the tracks in the first place.
Not long ago, most of the road from Auckland to the forest gate was unsealed. Now Riverhead is virtually encompassed by asphalt. Improved access makes the forest an appealing venue for some more unlikely sports, one of which is paintball. Situated on Old North Road, the former main highway that runs along the southern boundary of the forest, the paintball operation has seven “pitches” and is often fully booked.
Players come from all walks of life, and the object of the game is to capture the opposing team’s flag. Once your eyes have become accustomed to the forest gloom, pitch-side spectating can be an amusing, if risky and colourful, affair. Some players dart frenetically from tree to tree, others hatch strategies with their teammates, while the rest lie patiently in the undergrowth and wait for sniping opportunities.
Their faces hidden behind wrap-around visors, each player clutches a paintgun complete with gas canister and ammunition pod. After the game, spent paintballs lie scattered on the floor like some strange forest fungus.
While paintball players come to Riverhead for fast-paced action, horse riders venture into the forest interior for some space, solitude and safety. Nipping at the heels of creeping tar seal is urban sprawl, penetrating ever deeper into the rural environs of Auckland. A byproduct of both is greater road speed, something that makes road riding an unappealing option. Increasingly, horse owners are opting to go to places like Riverhead where they can ride without danger from traffic.
After running a riding school in Albany for almost 20 years, Sue Clemow shifted out, leaving behind land that had been in family hands for three generations. Sealing and straightening of the local roads meant that out-rides were no longer safe for riding-school pupils, and changes to the zoning meant that land for grazing was an increasingly scarce commodity. The ponies never got a night-time because of the new street lights and the constant traffic. Eventually the orchards, which were the family business and which had provided grazing and shelter for the ponies, were sold to developers. “The trees were plucked from the ground and put through a chipper,” recalls Clemow. “It was such a shock!” It was time to go.
Now the family and ponies have relocated. A peninsula of Riverhead forest land curls neatly around two sides of their property. Out-rides for children at the riding school are once again a possibility. But when I ask if she has moved far enough, she admits, “Possibly not.”
Demand for the forest does not stop once the sun goes down. Every Tuesday night at 9 P.M., the resident moreporks are drowned by the steady crescendo of helicopters. The thudding continues for about an hour while army personnel practice winch training in the forest. Local sled dog teams also train in the forest at night—or at any time when the temperature is below 12°C. At Auckland’s latitude, that is either first thing in the morning or late at night.
Sled dog racing can definitely be classed as a minority interest in this country. In Alaska, it is a glamour sport where professional mushers are household names, and the Iditarod (a 1100-mile race across the state) is a national event. In warmer climates, like ours, a rig—basically a trike with a few extras—is used instead of a sled. High running costs mean that local dog teams are smaller than their professional Alaskan counterparts, with between two and four dogs per team.
Fitness training is an essential part of a team’s preparation for the winter race season. The dogs are viewed as athletes, and need to be properly prepared to perform well. Finding suitable venues is a problem for city-based teams. Urban venues are generally unsuitable, because the dogs are noisy, they travel fast and do not take kindly to distractions, such as cats and rabbits. Once again, forests come up trumps. Every sled dog race in the North Island is held in a forest.
On an exposed hillside, a lone Waratah is cutting down the last pine trees for the season. Like an oversized, one-armed gorilla, it swings its mechanical fist towards a 25-year-old tree. The fist grabs the base of the tree, and within seconds the trunk is cut and being laid on the ground. Not finished yet, the fist skims back and forth along the trunk, stripping off all the branches. The whole process has taken just under 30 seconds. The Waratah moves on.
The rest of the logging gang is back at the skid site. They work ant-like against the red-brown denuded landscape. With only a few trees remaining to be felled, the team will soon shift out of Riverhead to nearby Woodhill forest to continue logging through the winter on Woodhill’s all-weather soil. Although the two forests are separated by only 20 km, physically they are worlds apart. Woodhill is on sand and is dry year-round, whereas Riverhead is renowned for its mercurial change from dusty and parched to wet and muddy. The defining feature of Riverhead is mud. The timing of the logging team is perfect. After only a few falls of rain, the skid site is already deep in pale yellow clay and is cut up by the tread marks of heavy logging machinery.
But it is not only the logging crews which contemplate a shift out of Riverhead at the onset of winter. Roger Sheriff, one of two recreation co-ordinators for Carter Holt Harvey Forests, says that “one [forest] is great in the winter and one is great in the summer, so every autumn and spring we have a migration of harvesting gear—closely followed by mountain bikes.”
The forest managers are particularly conscious of the movements of mountain bikers, as they are, by far, the most avid forest users. And no one, least of all Carter Holt Harvey Forests, was ready for the overnight boom in the sport in the early 1990s, or that cycle retailers would promote forests as ideal adventure playgrounds for mountain bikers. The influx of riders has brought with it a major health and safety headache for the company. Sheriff recounts several tales of near misses as mountain bikers swept onto logging sites and right past working machinery.
For the mountain bikers, a solution has come in the form of a dedicated 314 ha mountain bike park at Riverhead run by commercial operator Auckland Bike Parks. The bike park idea has already been tried at Woodhill and is heavily endorsed by the mountain biking fraternity. Carter Holt Harvey Forests says it is happy to see an area of land set aside specifically to suit the needs of mountain bikers and where there is no potential for conflict with logging operations for 15 or 20 years.
Not all forest users are particularly welcome, or even legal. “At this time of year the mushroom boys are out,” Sheriff tells me. “You can pretty well pick them by the type of car that is parked outside the gate.” Hallucinogenic mushrooms grow in association with older pine trees in the autumn, and are attractive trophies for drug users. The hallucinogen that they contain is a class-A drug, and it is an offense to carry the mushrooms. Sheriff says the police have nabbed pickers at the forest gate.
Sheriff doesn’t think any marijuana plots have been found in Riverhead. Orienteers, apparently, are usually the ones who find such plots as they weave through the forest interior from one check-station to the next. But there is no orienteering at Riverhead, and consequently no official reports. “You must be talking to the wrong people!” scoffs one prefer-to-remain-anonymous forest local when I raise the subject. He recalls losing hold of his horse one day. The animal took off up the road and galloped into the forest undergrowth. Following its hoofprints, the owner came upon a sizeable dope plot complete with rotary hoe and other tools stacked carefully under a tarpaulin.
Burnt-out vehicles and piles of household rubbish dumped on the forest boundary are calling cards left by other visitors. The roadside verges are also scarred with vehicle tracks. Like motorcycling, four-wheel driving is another sport that is feeling the pinch of having fewer and fewer venues available to it, especially ones that are close to the city. Those who come to the forest for some off-roading without a permit will find the gates locked. Frustrated, they often take to the verges for some action instead.
Government land for nothing scheme” proclaimed the Auckland Star in 1921, in reference to the proposed Riverhead Homestead Settlement scheme, which surveyed 5465 acres of what is now Riverhead forest into 36 allotments. The land was marginal and was to be balloted and sold for 10 shillings per acre. Despite an enthusiastic response from the public, the scheme was shelved indefinitely because of the unpredictable financial climate and poor land prices at the time.
The land, like most of the southern Kaipara, had been purchased by the Crown from the Ngati Whatua in the mid 1800s. Much was turned into farmland, but the future forest land was geographically isolated and remained largely unoccupied.Unlike the major centres of the time-Riverhead, Helensville and ICmkapakapa,which were all accessible by water-the forest land was inland, and thus remote.
The area was rich in kauri and native forest, and a number of Europeans were granted timber licences. Most of the milling in tile area was done in tile 1870s and 1880s-including the present-day Riverhead forest land. Gumdigging started at about the same time and continued well into the next century. At its peak, there were 12 gumdiggers’ camps on today’s forest land.As transport to the area started to improve in the late 1800s there was a gradual shift from milling to agriculture. By 1912, tllere was public pressure to release more land for small farms, out of which came the aborted Riverhead Homestead Settlement scheme. In 1925, the Commissioner of Crown Lands suggested that the land should be used as a production forest. One year later, this idea was implemented and Riverhead was proclaimed a state forest. Privately owned land within its boundaries (800 acres) was purchased by tlle Crown, and tree planting started in 1927.
The first crop of pine trees at Riverhead was virtually a complete failure-many trees died and others failed to thrive. Foresters knew the soil was marginal but were at a loss to explain the scale of the failure. It wasn’t until the 1950s that the culprit was identified-phosphate deficiency. This discovery led to the application of some of the practices used in agriculture-application of fertiliser and aerial top-dressing- into the management of production forests, and Riverhead at last became a viable production forest.
The trees at Riverhead, as in all other exotic production forests in New Zealand, are felled in 25-year cycles. But there is something about tree-felling that sits uncomfortably with many. Riverhead, possibly because of its proximity to the city, makes people more aware of this reality, and not always with positive results. There is a new subdivision in Dairy Flat with a clear view of the eastern side of the forest. Several residents there complained when the nearby trees were cut down. “The forest has been decimated by logging,” said one child.
Carter Holt Harvey Forests does its bit to try and explain forestry to the public.The company employs an education co-ordinator to run group outings to the logging sites.
During one such outing, I listened to the guide likening forestry to agriculture and explaining to a group of schoolchildren that the trees are a renewable resource and one that allows New Zealand to fulfil its domestic need for timber while preserving its precious native forests. But the sight of the Waratah munching its way through a line of trees seemed to send the harvesting analogy out the window. “I wish we could build homes out of other materials,” said one. “I hate the way the tree shakes,” observed another.
It is hard to imagine the demand for a venue like Riverhead decreasing in the future. A growing population and an increasing trend for desk jobs, spawning a greater demand for outdoor pursuits and self-help activities, mean that venues such as Riverhead will continue to be sought after. While the spectrum of recreational users at Riverhead has remained relatively constant over the past 25 years, new ones will doubtless appear.
On the other hand, there is no guarantee that Riverhead will remain forested. The Auckland Regional Council has a long-term proposal for a dam in the area to provide part of Auckland’s future water supply. On paper, this scheme would tie up about one-fifth of the forest’s area-although for the moment it has been sidelined by the Waikato River scheme.
For now, Riverhead forest remains an oasis of land ignored by most but regarded by its regular users as one of Auckland’s best recreational outlets. Those users would prefer the forest to stay in the “best kept secret” category. But as the city boundaries shift outwards, this is one playground that is going to see a lot more use.