Twenty years before the Victorian English claimed New Zealand our first road was built by a small number of soldiers and crew from HMS Dromedary. HUGH DE LACY tells the story.
IT WAS THE BRITISH NAVY’S eagerness in the early 19th century to find new sources of timber for the spars of its ships that resulted in the building of the first road in our country.
It happened in 1820 on one of the first official visits to the country by a British Navy ship, and it brought with it the men, the vehicles and the oxen to lay the foundations for the country’s native logging industry.
The ship was the HMS Dromedary, and it had had a colourful history after being built of teak in the Bombay shipyards in 1799 for an Indian merchant, and named Kaikusroo.
The merchant sold her to the Royal Navy in 1805, and she was renamed HMS Howe and converted to a 40-gun frigate, only to be further modified to a 20-gun store-ship the following year.
At that time she was renamed Dromedary, the third of five Royal Navy ships of that name.
Known to sailors throughout the fleet as “that Bounty bastard”, Bligh had for the third time provoked an uprising by his subordinates – he had been captain of HMS Director during the Royal Navy’s widespread Nore mutiny of 1797 – when the citizenry of Sydney deposed him in the Rum Rebellion.
The Dromedary brought the troops that restored order, and Bligh was sent home.
In 1819 the Dromedary was fitted out in England as a convict ship and in this role under Captain Richard Skinner she ferried 370 prisoners, guarded by a detachment of soldiers from the 84th Regiment of Foot, to Tasmania.
She then went on to Sydney where she was refitted as a timber transport, and sent off to New Zealand – and later Norfolk Island – seeking spars.
She arrived in the Bay of Islands on February 20, 1820, carrying the missionary Samuel Marsden on the third of his seven trips to this country, and nine high-ranking Northland Maori, including the 15-year-old son of Anglophile chief Hongi Hika, who had been studying at Marsden’s Sydney seminary.
Marsden and the seminarians were offloaded in the Bay of Islands, and Captain Skinner set about negotiating the purchase of kauri timber from the local Maori.
At the time Northland boasted 1.2 million hectares of kauri forest – now reduced to just 4000 hectares – which was no less a figure than Captain James Cook had originally recommended as ideal for ships’ spars, an increasingly rare and valuable commodity.
Skinner eventually closed a deal with the Hokianga chief Muriwai, of the Popoto tribe, for a stand of kauri in Whangaroa Harbour, and the Dromedary sailed up there accompanied by a 25-ton tender, the Prince Regent, in late June.
To transport the spars to the ship, the Dromedary had, while in Sydney, taken aboard two timber carriages and 12 oxen to pull them.
But the site proved difficult to access, being in a steep ravine on the Mangaiti Stream, a tributary of the Kaeo River, and guarded by extensive swamps.
The challenge was to get the timber to the Kaeo River, from where it could be ferried by craft out to the Dromedary.
An officer aboard the Dromedary, Richard A Cruise, kept a diary of the ship’s voyage which was later published as a book called Journal of Ten Months Residence in New Zealand.
Cruise described the forest site as “in a deep valley” approached initially over level ground “but afterwards undulating and intersected with a swamp and a rapid brook” (the Mangaiti).
“The hill under which the trees grew thickest was steep, but it was thought that the spars, when cut and lightened by being trimmed, might be hove to the top of it by means of a capstan, and dragged to the water’s edge by ten bullocks, with the united strength of the natives and the crew.”
This was almost certainly the first use of a capstan to winch logs out of a forestry stand in this country, and it went on to become a common technique until replaced first by steam, then by diesel and electric-powered winches.
Cruise reported that Skinner and the Dromedary’s carpenter surveyed the route from forest to beach and, “proposed to make a road from the wood to the river, to build a bridge over the brook, and to fill the swamp with fascines”, thick bundles of wood tied together and dumped into the swamp to make a firm surface for the bullocks and carts.
To access the swamp, “a road was first made, a mile and a quarter long over a clay surface, which could not be kept in repair in bad weather”, Cruise recounted.
The weather can’t have been too favourable that year because it took the full complement of the Dromedary, led by the soldiers of the 84th, until late November to complete the road and bridge, and to haul 98 kauri spars out over it.
The road ran for only two kilometres and its significance to the country’s road transport industry has largely been lost in the mists of time.
But between the clay-based approach path, the fascine carriageway over the swamp, the bridge over the Mangaiti, and the fact that it was built for wheeled vehicles, this logging track more than qualifies as the country’s first true road.
For a long time after the Dromedary departed, the road was known locally as Te Ara Hoia, or the Soldiers Road, but today it is barely distinguishable, other than by map coordinates (E 1670407 N 6115793), from the surrounding Kaeo farmland.
There are no known sketches or paintings of the Dromedary, nor any of the road-building operation itself, but the accompanying map gives some idea of the location.
The blue line – actually a property boundary – is also that of Te Ara Hoia, and, running equally straight, and almost parallel to it, is a stretch of Omaunu Road, which accesses Kaeo village.
The swamp where the fascines were installed and the bridge built over the Mangaiti Stream is at the top end of Omaunu Road.
After leaving Whangaroa Harbour, the Dromedary and its load of spars arrived back in Sydney in December 1820, and from there returned to England.
It spent another decade as a Navy ship before being tied up in Bermuda during the 1830s to serve as a convict hulk.
The road continued to sit there long after it ceased to be of any use, and eventually ended up as a midden that has yielded thousands of artefacts – bottles, buttons, coins, knife handles and gaming pieces – to archaeologists who have pored over the site during the last couple of decades.
To judge from Robert Cruise’s reminiscences, the success of the country’s first venture into road-making was regarded by its architects as a triumph over nature.
“It is scarcely possible to imagine that so small a number of people, with such inadequate means, could have effected an undertaking apparently so far beyond their powers,” Cruise wrote.
This assessment of the challenges – from the precipitous topography to the sometimes violent weather and perpetual vulnerability to earthquakes – faced by the makers of New Zealand’s roads holds as true today as it did when Robert Cruise penned those words 200 years ago.