Now for a little history of Northland. The nearest harbour to Ngataki – Houhora Harbour was home to whalers and Dalmatian Gum Diggers (no, not the dogs, but people from the balkan area now known as Croatia, but this is also where dalmatian dogs are from). The old Post Office and Dance Hall next to Houhora Tavern date back to these pioneering days when the Dalmatian Gum Diggers were digging their fortunes of kauri gum burried below the surface of surrounding areas such as Waiharara, where the Gum Diggers Park sits now.
Although both the Post Office and Dance Hall now lie derelict, the Houhora Tavern is still in full swing and well known for a great pub lunch. If you’re heading out all the way to Cape Reinga and feel in need of a re-fuelling pit stop, this one is not to be missed.
THE GUMDIGGERS OF WAIHARARA
A half hour drive from Houhora or Kaitaia, depending on which way you are coming from, you will find the Gumdiggers Park. Open all year round, this magical place is well worth a visit, as not only does it show New Zealands’ history , but the history of the world as we know it through various preserved trees and resins.
The site itself was a fully functioning gum digging site just over 100 years ago, mainly worked by Dalmatian gum diggers, but some Maori and other European settlers joined the ranks too. From 1870 – 1920 gum digging was Northlands’ major source of income, and many farmers even turned to gum digging part time or even full time in the off season to support their families and pay for farm improvements.
It’s not just the gum digging history that’s of interest here tho, but the origins of the gum itself, which takes you back to over 220 million years ago, to the great forests of the Agates family of evergreens. What caused them to suddenly die and fall before being compacted and preserved in the Northland peat bogs is still a mystery. But these trees, when damaged produce huge amounts of sap, which falls to the ground, is buried by leaf litter and over many years being compacted, becomes amber! Also known as Kaori trees, this type of evergreen is still around today, but their presence is limited only to the Gum Diggers park and the far North of New Zealand.
Wandering around the park, as well as the original gum digging holes and equipment (including gum boots) left for visitors to see, there is a fine array of amazing plants on the site – including the tea tree and the manuka tree.
Tea tree got its name due to the gum diggers brewing the leaves for tea as a substitute for ‘real’ tea as that was very hard to come by. But this tea carried many benefits and was consumed to combat stomach upsets and sore throats. If the oil of the leaves was applied topically it was great for healing wounds and preventing foot infections due to its anti bacterial properties.
Manuka is highly valued for its healing ability by the Maori and early European settlers. Used on its own and together with other native plants it can treat a range of skin conditions and vapour baths containing it were used for sinus issues. It is frequently blended with lavender and citrus oils such as lemon.
The Manuka plants bactericidal and fungicidal effects carry through into it’s nectar and honey, as a result, even today this is a highly sought after honey, worth big money in the health industry. It is frequently used as a drink with lemon to combat sore throats and chest infections.
Gum Boots were originally known as the ‘Wellington Boot’ due to supposedly being invented by the 1st Duke of Wellington, Arthur Wellesley in the early 19th Century. As a variation of the current uncomfortable Hessian boots of the time, the first Duke of Wellington reportedly created a leather version made of calf-skin and designed to be more comfortable on the battlefield but smart enough for evening wear, with some even coming with tassels! The Kiwi term of ‘Gumboots’ originated in the late 19th Century, supposedly at these gum digging sites. A new boot was created, based on a patent to vulcanise rubber and a Frenchman’s ingenious footwear design to help farmers of his home country. News spread with the new European settlers to these gum digging sites, and the item was soon adopted by the gum diggers of New Zealand, and so the name ‘Gumboot’ stuck.
THE SUBRITZSKY HOMESTEAD
Situated on one of Northland’s popular, yet basic camping grounds, the Wargener Camp Site is New Zealand’s oldest (1860) homestead. Settled by New Zealand’s first Polish family – The Subritzky family of Northland. Hidden away on Houhora Heads, the homestead can still be seen tot his day, with its quaint white picket fence, and crushed shell path leading to the front door of 3 beautiful stained glass windows, unusual for it’s era.
Currently under renovation and closed to the public, we were lucky enough to get a sneak visit. A gentle turn of the front door and it creaked slowly open, an ancient set of intricate rusted keys lay on the floor, as if strategically placed. ‘Hello’, I called out. No answer. As we knew who now owned the property we thought they should know it was currently unlocked and that I had found the key, but not after a little look around first. The familiar musty smell of old house beckoned us in and we wandered into the next room. Currently full of storage of the most unusual and intricate items I have ever seen all together in one house. Boxes of old empty giant snail shells were piled next to shoe boxes brimming over with cotton spools and delicate highly detailed and beaded embroidery hoops.
In front of the window was an old writing desk, with top hat and walking stick resting over it, as if the man of the house was preparing to go out for the day. In a smaller room towards the back stood an old Singer sewing machine, complete with treadle. Clearly untouched for many years due to several layers of dust it was sitting under, but obviously much loved in a former life. In this room was also a vast collection of ancient glass and clay jars and a very old original wind up radio.
A room towards the front of the house still held a child’s cot and a dressing table, with all original features. Glancing up at the painted ceiling with detailed light fixtures gave the impression this was once a grand home.
It was now time to find the owner and alert them to the unlocked door. Hugely grateful they insisted in giving us another tour and full history of the house.
Although this house will still be under renovations for sometime, when it’s open again it is well worth a visit if you have even the slightest liking for a good bit of history and beautiful artifacts.