A mystery, by gum

By: Maureen Young

Gum washed ashore at Snells Beach.

Radio New Zealand recently broadcast a BBC series, A history of the world in 100 objects. The objects were sourced from the British Museum. If such a programme were to be devised about New Zealand, then one of the featured objects would surely be kauri gum. Many an indigent settler kept the wolf from the family door with the proceeds of gum digging.  The gum was used in the manufacture of varnish, linoleum, dentures and match heads.

While sorting through boxes of kauri gum stored in the Warkworth Museum, I came across an unprepossessing piece that was covered with pink barnacles and tube-worm shells. With it was a note explaining that it had been found on the shoreline at Snells Beach. While this piece may have washed downstream from a modern forest, chances are that it was a leftover from the days, a 100 years ago, when gum diggers were working on the sand flats at Snells Beach.  

Maori, Dalmatians and local farmers (when the cows were dried off) set up camp near the beach and, when the tide was out, dug holes in the sand flats to access the gum buried deep in the ground beneath. The clay that was dug out was piled around the perimeter of the holes, and, providing the sea was calm, digging could be carried on until there was half a metre or more of seawater surrounding the wall.

Often after a storm, the sods of dirt would disintegrate. The gum in them would float ashore, to be collected at the high tide mark by anyone interested. Housewives, who had daily fires to light for cooking and heating found these scraps useful as fire starters.

How did this gum get there, metres from dry land? Well, during the last glacial maximum about 20,000 years ago, when ice sheets were at their greatest extension, the sea level was 120 metres below that of today. I like to exercise my imagination by picturing the whole of Kawau Bay covered by an ancient forest of giant kauri trees, noisy with bird song. Moa, ranging in size from one to two metres tall, would have picked their way through the trees and browsed on the shrubs, without even a Haast’s eagle (an enormous South Island bird now extinct) to hassle them here in the north. There may be another explanation for the presence of the gum, deep under the sand flats, but this one takes my fancy.

Maureen Young, Warkworth & District Museum


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