The Northern Advocate, Saturday 01.03.2008, by Peter de Graf, Chief Reporter


This place really rocks 
THERE CAN'T be many tourist attractions in Northland that were first discovered by a goat. In fact, it's a pretty safe bet there's only one - the Wairere Boulders Nature Park, near Horeke in the South Hokianga.
Even by Northland standards, the Wairere Boulders are remote. You'll find the turnoff to winding, unsealed Taheke Rd about 20km west of Kaikohe on SH12. After another 15km you turn onto the even rougher McDonnell Rd - but at least there's no missing the hand-made signs pointing the way.
The Wairere Boulders walk starts at a former milking shed, now an information centre kitted out with displays and an honesty box. The brochures promise ``World-unique Boulder Formation'', ``World-unique Rock Surface called Fluting'' and ``Howling Wilderness''. You can perhaps tell that the brochures - like the paths, the ``Stunning Bridges'', the signs and everything else in the park - has been made by the wonderfully eccentric Swiss landowners, Felix and Rita Schaad.
The park's main claim to fame is a valley littered with giant boulders, which time and the natural acidity of rain has carved into strange forms. The surface of many of these rocks has been `fluted', or carved into miniature ridges and valleys up to a metre deep. While fluted rocks aren't uncommon - there's some lovely examples, albeit on a smaller scale, around Lake Waro in Hikurangi - it's almost always limestone. But in the case of the Wairere Boulders, the Schaads maintain their rocks are the much harder basalt, which was eaten away over millennia by rain dripping through once thick kauri forest.
A network of paths wind through the bush, up steps, over bridges and between hulking boulders. The trees are identified in Maori and English with more of those distinctive black and yellow signs, and some of the rocks are painted whimsically to resemble animals. It's like a big outdoor adventure playground - kids are challenged to spot a crocodile, a turtle and an elephant, or to chamber through a dragon's cave.
Some of the botanical information might be slightly suspect but the walkway works hard at being educational as well as fun. It was a scorcher of a day, so I started out with the half-hour loop track and a detour via a shady nikau grove to a rock pool stained dark brown by manuka, before tackling the longer, hotter trail that climbs steeply upstream to a lookout platform.

BOULDER BEHOLDER: Felix Schaad at the lookout above the boulder-strewn Wairere River.

When I finally made it, I found not just a panorama of the boulder-strewn riverbed, but park founder Felix Schaad himself. Felix patted his belly and explained he hiked up to the lookout at least four times a week ``to get rid of this blubber''. The former Swiss engineering lecturer and his wife Rita moved to New Zealand in 1983, with no plans beyond crashing out at a relative's home in Auckland - until a friend told them about a wild chunk of land for sale in the Hokianga. Abandoned for 17 years, it was 140 hectares of weeds, no power, no access and an old cottage crammed with mouldering hay. The Schaads and their six-year-old daughter spent their first year in the Hokianga living in an old house bus.
Taking a bath took four hours by the time they'd collected and heated the water. Their plan was to breed goats - as well as providing wool, the animals would help clear the rampant weeds. They were expensive in the 1980s short-lived goat boom, so Felix trained his dogs to track the wild goats that roamed the property. The extraordinary thing is that Felix and Rita had no idea of the geological oddities that lay hidden under the weeds when they bought the land.
But one day Felix was chasing a particularly determined goat through the bush when Felix, goat and dog suddenly found themselves atop a rock with an astonishing view over a valley littered with giant boulders. And that's the very spot where the Schaads built their lookout.
During the walk back down the valley Felix pointed out the kidney ferns, the flowering trees and the rocks they'd dubbed with names like Sydney Opera House and Waves in Suspended Animation.
He explained the pest and weed control that still keeps them busy, and his plans of eventually boosting visitor numbers from the current 5000-7000 a year to as many as 20,000. He said geologists were sceptical of his claims that the fluted rocks were basalt, but he didn't care.
Just then Felix's radio crackled into life.
There was a rapid-fire burst of Swiss German from Rita. She warned Felix there was a vehicle in the car park - a rusting old Corolla - but no money in the honesty box.
I'd been busted. I explained to Felix that, honest, I had no change. I was planning to go knocking at their door afterwards to pay - besides, I needed to scrounge some petrol or I'd be stuck at Horeke forever. ``Don't worry, it's all under control,'' Felix radioed back amicably. So not only did I get a personal tour of the boulders, I also got enough petrol to get me home. And I had a nap and a cold beer by a rock pool. The can of beer in my bag was the only thing I had left to drink, I explained sheepishly to Felix as I disposed of the evidence. ``That is tragic,'' he said.


PASS MARK: The trail to the lookout climbs over, around and even through curiously shaped boulders.

PET PROJECT: Some of the rocks have been painted whimsically to resemble animals.


WILD SIDE: The walkway crosses the boulder-strewn Wairere River.