Rock of Ages

Posted by Liz Light in Auckland & Northland Travel Stories
Thursday, 10 August 2006
an image Wairere Boulders

Some of the massive boulders are fluted, as if a giant has dragged fingers through icing. Some are rippled like the ocean and others have wrinkled rows of razor sharp ridges. These world-unique boulders, thousands of them, many bigger than buildings, have all tumbled together in Wairere Valley, near a northern arm of Hokianga Harbour.

Stepping through the gate and following the path into the valley is like falling through Alice’s rabbit hole into wonderland. We walk under rock arches into cold dark caves, rocky bridges straddle the gurgling stream and giant twin rocks reach for each other, having been one until smote asunder by a giant’s sword.

We pass boulder after extraordinarily boulder seeing a yellow eyed dragon heading for the river, a rocky turtle sitting in it, a boulder elephant guarding the end of the path; God’s sculptures carved in stone. 

The boulders are unique because, being basalt, a hard volcanic rock, they should not have these extraordinary exterior characteristics and do not anywhere else in the world. That this bizarre boulder valley has formed amid Northlands rolling clay country is also a one-off geological phenomena.

Wairere boulder valley is on the land of Felix and Rita Schaad and Felix explains that during the fourth eruption of Omapere, now a lake 20 kilometres away, 2.5 million years ago, there was a lava spillage in the area. When lava cools quickly the scoria slowly crystallises in a solid, airless way and becomes basalt. The lava spillage originally sloshed over clay, then set solid, like icing on a cake. A crack formed, rain eroded the clay beneath away, and massive basalt boulders broke off and slowly, with the workings of gravity, water and time, slid into the continually deepening Wairere Valley.

Subtropical rain forest grew over the area, dominated by kauri, the king of trees. Rain, filtered by the kauri canopy, accumulated acidity as it moved though the foliage and this, ever so slowly, leached the rocks into fluted, corrugated and pockmarked patterns.

Rita and Felix left Switzerland for New Zealand 22 years ago. They fell in love with the Hokianga, and impetuously bought 144 hectares; two thirds bush, one third pasture that hadn’t been farmed for years.

The property’s 110-year-old cottage was derelict, with no phone, water or power and Rita says, “People asked why we wanted to buy such a place but, coming from Switzerland, we delighted in its wildness and the farm’s strange big boulders. It was a magic place and still is.”

They planned to farm the many wild goats on the property, selling cashmere to make a living. Building 15kms of fencing to keep the goats out of the bush, Rita and Felix kept the best of the wild nannies and bred them with fine fibered white bucks.

“Initially we didn’t realise the loveliness and extent of the boulder valley until we chased a beautiful white goat, we wanted to capture, into it,” Rita remembers. “We lost sight of her then she appeared standing on top of an extraordinary rock some distance away. Then we stopped following the goat and explored the valley, which was overgrown and difficult to walk through. It was stunning and we said to each other that, one day, we should open this to the public.”

When the bottom dropped out of the fine fibre market after five years, Felix, an engineer and trained musician, kept cash flowing by teaching music at the local high school and setting up websites. They made a little track up through the valley, for themselves and friends and five years ago decided to open it to the public.

Creating Wairere Boulders Nature Park required constructing 11 bridges, 11 staircases, and three kilometres of gravelled paths, with Felix’ engineering background proving essential for the project’s success. They hauled gravel in buckets up bush paths, dragged telegraph poles, the supports for the main bridge, up the hill with the tractor and then winched them though the bush, and into place, using block and tackle.

Finally, in late 2002, Felix and Rita fulfilled their boulder dream and Wairere Boulders Nature Park opened to the public. The full walk, up the head of the valley, takes two leisurely hours, but there are smaller loops for those with less fitness or time. Entry costs $10 per person or $25 per family. Felix doesn’t teach any more and says he and Rita get by on the income from the Nature Park but visitor numbers will need to double before they make a decent living and cover capital costs.

It’s thrilling for geologists with over 200, from many different countries, visiting last year while ordinary folk savour the rich rainforest walk with hobbits’ homes, dragons, towering church organs and other magical hinted-at formations waiting around rocky bends.

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