Helensville Museum
Helensville & District Historical Society Inc     Click to enlarge images
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Shelly Beach with church and hall  
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Shelly Beach aerial view, 1955, showing beachfront baches  
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Thorne Bucklands house, Lake Otatoa  
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The Para fern
(maraltia salicina)

South Head History

The South Head district is located in the northern part of the South Kaipara peninsula with the Tasman Sea and Rangatira beach on the west and the sheltered waters of the harbour to the east.

Geologically young, the peninsula had its origins about two million years ago when vast quantities of sand and ash from the volcanic eruptions of the Taranaki area and the central North Island were swept up the west coast. Rapidly increasing amounts of sand were thrown up on to the beaches and blown inland forming a series of dunes. These high coastal dunes became barrier arms between the rocky promontories at Muriwai and Waipoua creating the Kaipara Harbour.

During the Ice Age sea levels fluctuated. At times, when it was cold, the land stretched far out into the Tasman and the harbour was replaced by forested river valleys. As the temperature warmed 7000 years ago sea levels rose and the harbour became the vast inland waterway that we know today.

The series of small lakes in the dune hollows are called Nga Tapuwae o Kawharu “the footprints of the famous ancestor Kawharu”.

In 1820 the missionary Samuel Marsden was taken on to the sandhills behind Rewiti to Rangatira Beach and this is his journal description of the scene:

“The sandhills are very high, and command a wide prospect on the sea and in the interior. There is no vegetation upon them and the sands shift with the contending winds. They are several miles broad, and extend along the coast both to the left and to the right as far as the eye can see.”

How surprised he would be if he could revisit the dunes with pine forests as far as one can see.

It was the threat to the Helensville/Auckland railway that provided the need for stabilisation, using a succession of marram planting followed by pinus radiata. During the 1930s, relief workers lived in camps along the peninsula’s dune boundaries. After WWII the planting was continued up to the Waionui Inlet.


For Maori the rich resource of the South Kaipara peninsula provided a favourable living environment. The visible and varied archaeological landscape of South Head is a constant reminder of this more populous past.

Some Maori names are still used in the district and are a memory of those lives.

The small bay near South Kaipara Head, Matahaorua, commemorates Kupe’s canoe and was the site of Alfred Buckland’s 1885 wharf. Turi sailed around North Cape and brought his canoe, Aotea, into the Kaipara to retie its lashing and he named the place now called Shelly Beach after his canoe.

In the 14th century the Arawa chief, Kahumatamomoe, travelled to the Kaipara to visit his nephew at Poutu. At a feast given by Taramainuku he was so impressed with the cooked root of the fern, para, that he gave the name Kai-para to the district. He and his party remained in the area for some time probably living on the shores of the Waionui Inlet. In recent years his Arawa descendants visited South Head to commemorate the past.


In 1820 Samuel Marsden stayed at Te Kawau near the end of the peninsula, and it was there that he was taken to the vantage point at Okaka to assess the harbour’s potential for shipping.

At this time there was the threat of war parties raiding from the north and the unease was apparent. He noticed canoe coming from the north bringing pigs for safe keeping. These were the progenitors of the large numbers on South head by the 1860s.

A few years later, after the disastrous battle at Te-Ika-a-Ranganui, the once prosperous communities were decimated and many fled the area. Other missionaries in the Kaipara held services for Maori in their small chapels at Omokiti and other settlements.


In 1839 the New Zealand Company’s ship the Tory made a perilous entry into the Kaipara, heralding far reaching change.

The worst incident was at the end of August 1841 when the Sophia Pate floundered attempting to enter the Kaipara Harbour with the loss of 21 years (Bryan Byrne pg 172 The Unknown Kaipara).

By the mid 1840s the increasing numbers of settlers arriving in New Zealand created a demand for land. After negotiations Kaipara Maori agreed to sell some of the South Head land. Surveys were authorised and in 1858 the young surveyor S Percy Smith, was sent to the Kaipara. He and his party worked with Maori to define boundaries and ownership in the northern part of the peninsula and in time these were put up for sale. Maori sold some blocks, leased others and retained others, Te Kawau, Omokoiti, Paihawanui, Aotea, Otakanini.

Otakanini has never been sold and now, running from the shores of the Kaipara to the Tasman Sea, it is the largest farm on the peninsula.

At the same time the Government was being pressured to establish a pilot station. Unable to buy land at Poutu, the decision was made to build on the most northerly block, Okaka. The South Head Pilot Station was commissioned in 1865 overlooking, but distant from, the harbour entrance. Ten years later, when Poutu land became available, it was moved to this more practical site.

While the northern blocks were large, those at Mairetahi were smaller providing for more intensive settlement in area with easy access to the sea at the Mairetahi creek mouth. Occupations were varied. There were gum diggers, men like Shine and Potts, who worked the kauri gum reserves (KGR). Others grew grapes, cut firewood, grew flowers as well as having a few animals.


In the past the peninsula had bush clad gullies, coastal forest, kanuka shrubland, fern and native grasses. The Ototoa bush reserve from the lake across the South Head Road toward the harbour is vulnerable to the effects of feral deer and pigs and possum. Little remains of the shrublands, except on roadsides and along coastal cliffs, that were characterised by plants like manuka, kumerahou, mingimingi and Dracphyllum sinclairii. It was this relatively open land that made it suitable for grazing.


In 1865 Daniel Pollen and William Young became the first European farmers on the peninsula when they took up a depasturing lease. Cattle were driven up Rangatira Beach and roamed the unfenced land until the mid 1870s. At that time there was a change in the partnership and Alfred Buckland, a farmer and founder of the stock and station business of Alfred Buckland & Sons Ltd, and with interests in coastal shipping, took over the Pollen’s share.

Farm development began. Land was cleared, ploughed and a mix of new grasses introduced and by 1886 it was running 500 head of cattle, 50 horses including Clydesdales and over 3000 sheep.

The work was hard and the small communities based at Ototoa and at Okaka were self sufficient. It was the era of horses and bullock teams, boats and barges. The sea and Rangatira were their means of communications.


South of the Bucklands and adjoining them at Lake Kereta was Judge F D Fenton’s property Crosland.

In the early 1900s James McLeod established a tramway in Karukaruhui swamp as a part of his thriving flax cutting business centred in surrounding swamps and streams.

By the end of the century rabbits were in plague proportions. Rabbit fences were built from the sandhills to the harbour. Men were employed solely for rabbit control and thousands were killed.

Pigs and deer also increased rapidly and feral populations roamed free. Pigs were eradicated in the 1920s but reintroduced again in the 1970s.
Late in 1880s fallow deer were released and number monitored by the Acclimatisation Society, but by the 1920s they had increased to the extent that they were becoming pests.

In the 1970s, when Roy Monk found feral deer outnumbered his cattle on his property, he obtained a licence and fenced hundreds in to become the first deer farmer at South Head. Many followed and a processing plant was built at Waioneke.

Possum, another pest, were first seen at the northern end of the peninsula in the late 1930s and at first were just regarded as a curiosity. However, it soon became apparent that with the population explosion they were devastating our native bush, and, at South Head, were carrying the disease TB and infecting cattle and deer. Very successful control methods have been taken by the Regional Council’s ongoing possum eradication program and by farm testing of cattle and deer.


As the years went by the road gradually improved and as South Head became more accessible more people moved to the district. Land was subdivided and dairy farms established.

In 1930 Mrs Rita Sanson started a school in her home at Waioneke. A few years later a site nearby was bought and the first building of the present school was built. For many years this was the hub of the district for social occasions, for tennis, and during WWII it was the Home Guard training ground.


After the end of WWII returned servicemen were settled on newly developed “rehab” farms at Crosland Block, round Ototoa and further out at Te Kawau. A few were sheep and cattle properties, but most were dairy units.

With a much larger community, better facilities were needed and the locals banded together and built the community hall on Donohue Road. This then became the focal point for church services, meetings, dances and games. Badminton and indoor bowls were popular. In the 1960s the McMurdos built a small golf course on their property. It was a great success. Later land was bought across the road and South Head golf course is now a thriving club.


With its backdrop of huge old pohutakawa trees, Shelly Beach is a popular recreational beach with a wharf and boat launching, a shop and the headquarters of the local fire brigade.

In 1884/85 Aotea, as it was formerly called, was the venue for an important meeting between Ngati Whatua and King Tawhiao of the Waikato. The issue was whether or not the local people should join the King movement. After much discussion they did not. At this meeting the Council Hall, Te Tiriti, was opened and a four sided memorial with a copy of the Treaty of Waitangi set under glass on two sides was erected with Government funds. It was surmounted by a likeness of Queen Victoria. It stood there for many years and was regarded with great reverence by Maori. Later the buildings and memorial were barged to Batley near Maungaturoto.

Gradually the South Head Road improved and as it did more people moved into the district, bringing with them a wealth of new skills. There has been diversification into goats and alpaca, into semi tropical fruit like macadamia and avocado, persimmon and tamarillo. Beautiful gardens often open to the public. With farm stays, horse trekking, and multisports in the forestry a wide range of recreational opportunities are opening up. There is an ever increasing diversity of occupations.

Barbara Waller

Recommending Reading:

  • A Field to Auckland – Exploring the Region’s Natural and Historic Heritage by Ewen Cameron, Bryce Hayward and Graeme Murdoch
  • Men Came Voyaging by Colleen Sheffield
  • The Unknown Kaipara by Bryan Byrne

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