North And South,   March 2005




Rock Of Ages

The secrets of a hidden Hokianga boulder valley revealed

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. We pass boulder after extraordinary boulder glimpsing a yellow-eyed dragon, a rocky turtle, 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 Northland's rolling clay country is also a one-off geological phenomena.

Landowner Felix Schaad 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 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.

Felix and wife Rita 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's 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 dream and Wairere Boulders Nature Park opened to the public ($10 a head, $25 a family). The full valley walk takes two leisurely hours, but there are smaller loops for those with less fitness or time.

Felix has given up the teaching job to devote himself to the nature park and the Schaads are confident visitor numbers are on track to double, which will cover capital costs and provide a decent living.

More than 200 international geologists found their way to the boulder valley last year while a growing stream of ordinary folk continue to turn up to savour the rich rainforest walk with hobbits' homes, dragons, towering church organs and other magical hinted-at formations waiting around each rocky bend.

Elizabeth Light

MARCH 2005 NORTH & SOUTH Page 25