Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 39, September 1995
By Ken A Clover
(This article was originally written to assist visitors to the area, understand the history of the Plains . It was titled "From Swamp to Farmland, the Story of the Development of The Hauraki Plains".)
The Thames Valley, as we know it today, extends from the eastern Coromandel-Kaimai ranges to the western Hapuakohe range. Ngatea is about at a central point in between.
The Valley begins with the sea frontage at the mouths of the Waihou and Piako Rivers and extends up the valley to Matamata, Morrinsville or any other point in the vicinity pending on one's Local Body affiliation.
The Hauraki Plains is part of this large valley with the extent of it's actual area really defined by the old Hauraki Plains County. Before amalgamation, this was that area of land beginning from the foreshore and on a line between Thames and Miranda. It was bordered by the Waihou River on the east and the foothills on the west and continued as far inland as Netherton, Awaiti and Patetonga. The Hauraki Plains is a land mass which is roughly square in shape with all four sides being about 19 kms in length. It is bounded by rivers and hills so the sides of the so-called square are not all that even. The land is 95% flat and the other 5% is on the slopes of the Hapuakohe hills. It is approximately 60,000 hectares in extent, of which approximately 45,000 hectares are developed and in production. Travelling south, inland from the coastline, there is only a narrow coastal strip of about 15 kms of farmland before undeveloped, or partially developed, peat-land is reached.
The first area of partially developed land is Crown land. It is either under development by Land Corp or is land which has been left in it's natural state until a decision is made as to it's fate by some individual in Wellington. The second area of undeveloped land is that under Department of Conservation control. It is in two separate blocks. The first Department of Conservation area between Torehape and Kaihere Roads is being left as a natural conservation area with no immediate plans for any change. The second Department of Conservation controlled block is a much larger area. It is partly in the Hauraki Plains area and partly in the old Piako County. This is the Kopuatai Peat Dome. This dome is 9665 ha. in extent and is the largest and most intact remnant left of a once major component of the landscape of the North Island. It is a primitive restiad type of swamp consisting of decaying sedges and rushes. This Peat Dome is higher than the surrounding area of land but is still only six metres above sea level. One reason it has been left in its natural state is to act as a barrier to guard against any large surge of flood waters from the river system higher up the Valley. This could help prevent flooding the farmlands to the north.
The second reason for keeping the Peat Dome is the fact that it is the last refuge for at least nine vulnerable or threatened species of fauna or flora. These include the Australasian bittern, fern bird, black mudfish and several plant species from the fern and rushes to the bladderwort and moss families. It is also home, and refuge, to the spotless crake, the native grey duck, the grey and brown teal and the shoveler. This is now the largest remaining Wetlands and Peat Bog in the country and it must be protected at all cost. Hundreds, thousands, more likely millions of years ago, this area was level between the hills, probably many feet higher than it is today. Through it the mighty Waikato River meandered as it slowly made its way to the sea. At one point there was a creak and a gurgle and the whole floor of the Thames Valley dropped many metres. Over succeeding years at possibly 100 year intervals this process was repeated many times. The sea came in, the land was flooded and we had a large flooded valley instead of dry ground. One reason we know of this slide of the land is that on the Thames hills seams of gold run out to the edge of the hills then disappear. Those same seams can be found again at a lower level hundreds of feet below and running out under the sea. The solid ground of base rock did not fall evenly but is up to 900 feet deep on one side of the valley and about 600 feet deep an the other.
Now we have the Thames Valley, flooded, and marine creatures living at the bottom of the sea. Shells are discarded and sand and other deposits begin dropping to the ocean floor. This gradually building up of the floor in places depended mainly on weather patterns and the action of the tide. Anyone observing the bird-life around the Miranda area can hardly miss seeing the build-up of sand and shell-banks that is happening there, even today.
Slowly over the years the beaches started to form. First it was at the edges of the valley where shallow sandbanks appeared, always at an angle to the hills in a sort of herringbone pattern. Debris came down on the rivers and was deposited. A lagoon was formed, and fresh water trapped behind the resulting sand bar or dam. Sand, shingle and pumice was brought down from the central volcanic plateau in the rivers which flowed into this stagnant water. Trees, timber and other rubbish was deposited and then on the soggy higher ground mosses, rushes and low scrubby bushes began growing. This vegetation would grow and die and more vegetation would grow on top. This new growth in it's turn would die and go to the bottom of the heap. So the process went on over many thousands of years. It is this organic material which, due to the lack of oxygen in, the wet swamp, cannot decompose, so it is compressed into what we know as peat.
When the land became firm enough larger, mainly water loving trees, such as Kahikatea could begin to grow in the rich deposits of river silt. Over a long passage of time these trees are blown over or die naturally and they too become the foundation for the peat to grow and build on.
Travelling around the countryside one can often see large heaps of stumps which have been dug out of the ground and piled ready for burning in the wetter season. On some farms seven to ten layers of stumps have been taken out of the ground. It is not only kahikatea stumps and logs which are under the surface but kauri, rata and other trees which usually grow on drier ground. This fact would seem to suggest that the water levels in the Valley have fluctuated greatly over the years. A network of creeks and gullies typifies much of the central Waikato basin. This has been formed over the ages by erosion, volcanic activity, climatic change, and also to a large extent by the not infrequent changes of the course of the Waikato River. The most dramatic of these major shifts took place thousands of years ago when the river slewed round at Karapiro. It left it's former path through the Hinuera Valley and headed in a more Westerly course out to the Tasman Sea. The course it takes today. At Hinuera it can be seen that there is only a very narrow neck of land separating the river from it's present course to that where it flowed years before.
This is not a land of firm foundation. This is not rock or even solid clay, but mud, rubbish, and on top, of course, further inland in the swamp area the ever present organic peat is forming. This has been a continuous process over hundred's and thousand's of years. Up high in the Valley more shell banks appeared and lagoons were formed behind the banks. The lagoons, the swamps, and the slightly firmer peat-covered land gradually crept down the Valley until it extends to this area today. Peat swamp is still forming today in some of the wetter undrained areas. It can also be seen on some of the farms backing onto the sea coast that the level of the mud flats which have formed outside the stopbanks are, in places, two or three feet above the level of the land that was enclosed by those stopbanks eighty years ago. The whole of the Firth of Thames is gradually silting up as has the Valley before it. It is this mud, or to give it a more scientific title, Marine-Alluvial-Deposit, which makes the Hauraki Plains what it is today. This is an extremely rich and fertile deposit and is the reason for the very high production of the farms the area.
Glimpses of pre-European history of the area are afforded by the various swamp and hill pas on the western hills and on some of the higher ground, mainly at Kerepehi. On the arrival of the European settlers in the late 1880s there was only a very small Maori population and we have little recorded history of Maori occupation.
The swamp was mainly used as a source of food such as the gathering of eels and other native creatures. As well it was a source of flax and reeds. The rivers of the Valley, the Waihou and the Piako were frequently used by the raiding Ngapuhi parties. There were many bloody forays by the Ngapuhi under Hongi Hika into the Waikato and Matamata Plains.
In the 1800s settlers everywhere were clamouring for land. Flat land was at a premium and here was an area of land which it could be possible to drain and on which to settle those people. The Land for Settlement Act was passed by Parliament in 1892 and amended over the following years. Draining work had been done earlier by private firms and individuals on the "Piako Swamp" in the Matamata area. This had failed due mainly to lack of finance. The name "Hauraki Plains" was coined to differentiate between that area and this proposed scheme. In 1899 trial levels were run, but it was not until 1902 that a complete set of levels were taken. Slowly, after a 1ot of talk and much procrastination, engineering work was started in 1907. Men were employed to dig the necessary drains and canals and to build bridges and roads.
At first it was by hand, with shovel and axe and then machines of all sorts were brought in. These were the floating dredges and draglines with names such as Priestman, American Dipper and American Walker. In a large number of cases before the floating dredges could commence work the top layers of peat and stumps had to be stripped and a drain cut out by hand. Labourers with their trusty shovels and axes did this work. For one canal, the Maukoro a preliminary drain was dug in a straight line from the coast up the Valley for a distance of 12 miles. Many times the men worked up to their waists in water to get the timber and rubbish out.
By 1910 there had been enough drainage and other work done to have a ballot for the first farms to be made available on the Hauraki Plains. A Ballot was held in Thames on the 18th of May, 1910 for the 6,600 ha. of land available. There were 104 farm sections available and there were 1,300 applicants. With multiple choices by most of those present it gave 5,000 applications to be processed before the Ballot could take place. The 104 successful aspiring farmers now had their farms described by the Lands Dept, as being "partially drained swamp, with vegetation consisting of manuka, flax, pouara grass and in some cases a little mangroves." Not a very promising description for farm land, I must say!
There were two main problems for the new farmers. Water! and Water! In the first case drains had to be dug to get rid of the surplus water and make the land suitable for farming.
In the second place, being an ex swamp there was no water suitable for animals or for domestic use so a supply of good water had to be found. Bores were put down on the farms with each farm having at least two bores and windmills to pump them. When the bores reached a depth to give a sufficient water supply it was found that 90% of all the bores produced a soda water. This did not have a very good taste, and neither the human nor the animal population was very impressed. To cap it all in many cases there was one other problem. This was the case with the N.Z. Dairy Company, many years later, when a bore was put down at their Waitakaruru Cheese factory to obtain a good supply of cool, clear, water as an aid to cooling. The resulting bore produced a reasonable supply but unfortunately it was hot water. There does seem to be a definite fault line of hot water running from the Miranda area, across the Plains from Waitakaruru to Kerepehi, then Te Aroha, Matamata and further. One enterprising Kerepehi farmer put down a bore, obtained a good supply of hot water then built his cowshed around it. He had all the hot water he needed for washing up in the cow shed. Water had been obtained, but almost all was soda water and that did not produce a very good cup of tea. The early pioneers had to make do with that supply augmented by water tanks filled by the rain. There were no clean rivers to supply the stock so soda water it had to be for them.
The cattle did not do well on the Plains until a reticulated supply of water was put in place by the County Council in 1927. This was brought first from a hill stream and now from deep bores on the lower hills.
The Lands Department, being a typical Government Department, was very careful to keep good records of their endeavours. They had a record kept of each of the original bores as it was being put down and sent the resulting papers to the Minister in Wellington to present to Parliament. To give you some idea of the type of land you are standing on today here is a schedule of a bore which is quite a typical one for the Plains. This was put down on the farm of Mr H.R. Clover who obtained the land in the 1910 Ballot. It was at Waitakaruru on the western side of the Plains:- First 52 feet of clay, then as the bore went down, there was recorded 18 ft of pumice sand, 4 ft rotten timber, 5 feet clay, 10 feet rotten timber, 2 feet sand, 13 feet rotten timber, 4 feet sand and so on to a depth of 276 feet where it was stopped.
There was no solid ground reached up to that point and probably no likelihood of reaching any for some depth after that. With each of the bore schedules it always shows approximately the same thing. Forty to fifty feet of that same extremely rich and very fertile "Mud". On the coastal edge the marine deposit is the top layer with the pasture growing on it. As you travel inland, gradually a layer of peat appears overlaying this deposit. At first it is a few centimetres of peaty loam, then as you progress inland it becomes deeper. From nothing at the coast to 2, 3, or 5 metres of raw peat overlays that fertile deposit of "Mud" the further one goes.
I can assure everyone that we are not sinking, nor will you disappear if you stamp your foot - and one does not always need gumboots to walk around an the Hauraki Plains. It was once described as "Living on a pound of butter" but that is a bit of an exaggeration. We have several good points. One is that when there is an earthquake anywhere else, Wellington might jolt and sway, Edgecumbe might rattle and crack, while we here seem to only "Do a Wobbly".
The second point is that we have to thank all you generous people for the run-off of rich topsoil from all the best land in your higher and more hilly areas. Some of this topsoil has been directly deposited in the form of silt and some has entered the sea and been deposited back later as marine deposit. In this area our land has been built up and enriched by taking the best of your land and depositing it into ours. It has become some of the richest farm land in the country. Production from the small area that we are, is quite staggering and all done, in the main, without the use of fertilizers. To my knowledge the farm section obtained by Mr H R Clover at Waitakaruru in 1910 has never had any appreciable amount of fertilizer put on it at all. Today it can out-produce 90% of all farm land in New Zealand.
The stopbanks that can be seen along the rivers and canals are necessary to prevent the water spilling over the land whenever there is a high tide, a rush of water in the river, or whenever the water has to be pumped from the drains. In this area land level is only one and a half metres above mean sea level and a high tide can back the water up to be three metres or more above that same mean level.
Water was a problem to the early settlers but it was also a godsend. There were no roads for access so the rivers and drains became the roads and highways for access to the farms and to get produce to the markets. The land as you can see is very flat so the rivers tend to be comparatively wide and slow moving. There is only two metres of fall between Tahuna, 30 kms inland, and the sea. River traffic coming from Auckland used the only three rivers flowing down the Valley, the Waihou, the Piako and the Waitakaruru Stream. All other bodies of water crossed by bridges in this area are man-made canals. With ships, boats, scows, barges, dredges, launches, dinghies and dug-out canoes, the rivers were a hive of activity.
Comparatively large boats came from Auckland and up the Waihou to Paeroa and Te Aroha. Passengers and goods were transferred to smaller craft which carried on from there, as far as Matamata. On the Piako the large boats came to Ngatea, Kaihere Landing (six kms up the river) and to Kerepehi where the big Lands & Survey Depot was situated. Again smaller boats carried on up the river to Patetonga and, at one stage, as far as Tahuna. At Waitakaruru only small boats and scows called because of the tortuous nature of the stream entrance. Even the large drains were often used as roads for the final journey to the farms in some areas.
The main exports from the Hauraki Plains over the years have been timber, flax, and dairy produce. The timber came almost entirely from the Turua - Netherton - Kopuarahi area. It was sent by ship from the mill at Turua. The flax and dairy produce have been sent by ship from factories and wharves at Waitakaruru, Kopuarahi, Ngatea, Turua and Netherton.
The first report we had regarding the fine stands of timber that could be seen on the banks of the Waihou River were those of Capt James Cook in 1769. It was 25 years later in 1794 that the Brig "Fancy" arrived and loaded spars from the Waihou area. This would have been one of the first commercial ventures in New Zealand.
In 1868 a timber mill was started at Turua. The mill began cutting the large stands of kahikatea in the vicinity and exporting it ... That was the beginning of the many years of association of the Bagnall family with timber, stores and land development around Turua.
No roads and no cars but we did have taxis! Different, but still taxis. They were of course the launches which plied the rivers on a regular schedule. They ferried local passengers and goods from Thames, Ngatea, Waitakaruru, and various small landings and wharves along the banks of the rivers. For very many years until the advent of road transport all cream from the farms was picked up by launch and taken to the dairy factories at Kopu and later Ngatea.
Gradually the rivers silted up and boats could no longer get to Matamata on the Waihou River or Tahuna or Patetonga on the Piako river. It was a strange thing that the very boats which travelled the river bringing in metal to improve the roads were the cause of the demise of shipping around the Plains. Improve the roads and the shipping was no longer needed. Road metal was brought in by the scows and the "Jane Gifford", now restored and at Waiuku, was a regular visitor. The first metal came from McCallum's Island off Kawakawa Bay and so all our early roads were a delicate shade of pink.
As the roads improved by using this metal and cars and trucks became common the shipping service stopped. The last load of cheese from the Waitakaruru wharf left on the "Wairuru" in 1947. The "Taniwha" was the last regular ship on the Waihou and the "Pono" on the Piako.
The roads were formed by drains being dug on either side of the road line with the spoil being thrown into the centre where it was later mounded and smoothed. For years most roads were just this sticky clay and it can be imagined just what they were like in the winter. It was only possible to use a horse and sledge on the roads over a large area of the Plains in the early winters.
As you can see the standard of reading has improved dramatically. The pasture and land has been improved. Drains and canals now mean that the water level has been controlled. Pumping stations can be seen on many drains to provide an extra insurance for drainage.
Different farming methods are in use today. The well known "Hump and Hollow" method of land care gives a better run off of surface water. Farmers have large Wintering barns or Sawdust pads to keep the animals off the wetter area of the farms. All these types of farming methods are necessary to keep up the butterfat production to it's maximum level.
Ngatea has become the central township in the area. Around it are the smaller centres of population at Kerepehi, Turua, Waitakaruru, Kopuarahi, Pipiroa, Mangatarata, Kaihere and Patetonga. These centres have, in the main, lost the shops and services they once had. Regardless of that fact they still retain their identity and are still very strong centres in their own right.
Eighty three years ago dairy production from the 60,000 hectares of the Hauraki Plains was nil. In 1993 it is estimated that butterfat production is over 16,000,000 kilograms. With butterfat at it's present price that means over $100,000,000 pumped into the local economy and when exported means so much more in overseas exchange.
Production from the area is still increasing as more land is brought into full production. The "Plains" have certainly justified the hopes and expectations of those early engineers and planners. They could see the potential of an area, then covered with water and weeds. Their work and vision has been vindicated. The 83 years between the opening up of the land in 1910 and today in 1993 is a very short span of time in the life of any farming area. The change from the "Hauraki" Swamp to the Hauraki plains of today is a tremendous advancement in the life of any comparable area of land anywhere in the country.