Henderson Valley, New Zealand – A History In The Mist

Henderson Valley/Opanuku, New Zealand.

History and future of the misty valley.

From our earliest known history this valley has played its part in shaping the identity of Waitakere City and Auckland. This area has been inhabited for more than 1000 years as discovered by archaeologists at various Pa sites in the Ranges.

The Pacific rat, or kiore, a poor swimmer, could only have arrived in New Zealand with humans. In the mid-1990s a scientist radiocarbon-dated Pacific rat bones excavated from caves in the North Island, and came up with dates as early as 50-150 AD. Humans must also have arrived at this time, with rats on board. The discovery was a scientific bombshell.1

Maori Tradition tells that the earliest known inhabitants of the area were the the Turehu, (hapu or sub-tribe of the people called Patupaiarehe.) Generally described as being fair skinned, red- or light-haired, an elusive people who dwelt in the densely forested hills and only ventured out at night or under the cover of the valley’s plentiful fog and mist to fish and gather food. Turehu were sometimes heard deep in the bush by Maori, digging bracken fern root, but were often only visible to powerful tohunga/spiritual wise men. A condition of tapu pertained to these forest dwellers, and should any person intrude on their domain they would immediately abandon that part of the forest. Their leader was Tiriwa, and the area known traditionally as ‘Hikurangi’ now called the Waitakere Ranges and beyond were named Te Wao Nui A Tiriwa – The great Forest of Tiriwa. Tiriwa had homes throughout the region.3

Many years later (Circa 925AD), Maori Chief Maruiwi arrived in Taranaki and chose to look for land further north. 4 The Tino o Maruiwi successfully settled the open fertile flat land of the South Kaipara, however, when a large influx of canoes known as “the great fleet” arrived from Polynesia during the 13th and 14th centuries many of the Maruiwi were killed by the new arrivals, fugitives driven into hiding in the Ranges.5 Widespread vegetation changes were noted around this time from mainly forest species to bracken fern and scrub, due to Polynesian settlers burning the forest for kumara/ sweet potato cultivation, and to create space to encourage bracken fern growth. The starch-rich underground stems of bracken fern formed an important part of the settlers diet.6 It is also believed by Maori that Moa and giant eagle lived in the valley but appear to have been extinct by the end of the 17th century.

The Opanuku Stream runs through Henderson Valley, “Opanuku” meaning “The place of Panuku” and previously name of the whole of the valley area from the head of the stream high in the ranges to the Wai pareira or Henderson Creek. The story of the naming of the area is as follows:- A Turehu, called Nihotupu, lived in a cave named at the base of the Ruotewhenua hill in Waiatarua (located in dense bush off Opanuku Rd). On a food gathering expedition to Te Henga (Bethells), Nihotupu came across the gardens of a Maruiwi chief named Panuku. Nihotupu took gourds he found growing there and upon discovering Panuku’s wife Parekura working in the gardens, kidnapped her. Parekura was understandably unwilling, and made the clever decision to leave a trail in the hopes that Panuku would be able to find her. It worked, Panuku spotted the white feathers plucked discreetly from her clothing and tracked Nihotupu and Parekura back to his cave at Ruotewhenua, Panuku arrived and challenged Nihotupu to a fight, he agreed. Nihotupu lost and paid for his mistake with his life, the couple were reunited.

A hill next to Ruotewhenua and stream was named after Parekura, the stream runs from Ruotewhenua to join the Opanuku stream in the valley, rather romantic under the circumstances! 7 Nihotupu also has his name remembered in another stream which runs from Ruotewhenua to Parau, the Upper Nihotupu Dam, (Auckland’s highest dam) a gorge downstream, and the Lower Nihotupu Dam.

Sometime during the early 15th century the Mahuhu, (descendants of the great fleet who had taken over the Kaipara area) were themselves invaded by the Ngati Awa tribe, survivors again decided to take refuge in the Ranges . These refugee groups united and over time became the tribe we know as the Kawerau a Maki. From the 1450’s onward the Kawerau established tribal ownership of the Ranges which despite being a reticent and peaceful people, they managed to hang on to and are still considered mana whenua (traditional people of Opanuku) today.

The Wai pareira takes its name from Pareira an illustrious Kawerau ancestress who was niece of the renowned Polynesian navigator Toi te huatahi. After exploring the Hauraki Gulf and the Waitemata Harbour, Pareira and some of her followers decided to settle at Wai Pareira – the bay of Pareira. In time this name also became applied to the river we also call the Henderson Creek.8

Henderson Valley has it’s own pa and storage pits sited behind the Mountain and Henderson Valley Road area. The Puke-aruhe Pa (Hill of the bracken fern), was a Kawerau pa, built as a base for seasonal food gathering and used as a lookout to monitor their walkways to and from the Kaipara and Waitemata Harbours.9 If invasion loomed (which it did periodically) the Kawerau would abandon their pa and melt quietly into the forest, invisible as the Turehu, to return when the danger had passed. The pa site was largely destroyed in the 1970’s by bulldozing, but the pa storage pits are apparently still in tact.

European settlement

In 1843 recent Scottish immigrant (blacksmith) Thomas Henderson and his brother in law Henry MacFarlane decided to buy a small schooner named the LUCIDAN, which was in Auckland Harbour. Re-fitting her, they advertised for passengers and freight, sailing on the 31st January 1844 for the Bay of Islands. The vessel proved herself, so much so, that local Maori chiefs Paul, Te Kawau, Te Hira and Rawhiti asked Mr Henderson if he would be interested in a proposition to swap the ship for some land, stating that they had Governor Fitzroy’s permission to exchange the land, a total of 17,784 acres situated on the Whau, for the ship. With these assurances, Thomas agreed to the swap and handed over the schooner to the Maori chiefs. After a meeting with Henderson, Governor Fitzroy wrote a memorandum agreeing to the swap, but allowed Mr Henderson only 9,000 acres of the promised land in exchange for the schooner.

The land situated at the foot of the Waitakere Ranges included Henderson Valley. It was densely covered in bush with large stands of Kauri and Rimu trees, the partners knew the timber was valuable for ships spars and masts,as well as building materials. Henderson wisely also bought the 1000 acres of land adjacent to both the Opanuku and Henderson streams to ensure his sole uninterrupted use of the waterways for floating logs out of the hills. A timber license from the government allowed the stands of timber to be cut down. Timber workers were employed by Henderson & MacFarlane to pit saw the timber in the bush and float the heavy logs down the creeks to the outlet into the harbour. Large timber dams were built in the bush, to retain the cut logs before they were flushed down the creeks to the mill, deeply scouring the stream bed as they went. As areas of bush were cleared gum-diggers moved in, further clearing logged areas of other vegetation in their search for gum to supply the growing varnish industry.

Henderson & MacFarlane decided to set up a timber mill, they employed John McLeod, a Canadian immigrant timber worker to build it at the junction of the two creeks. A large water wheel (to drive the saws) and a dam was constructed, along with some small workers cottages and a cook house. Henderson’s Mill was taking shape from the bush as the trees and scrub were cleared. In later years a steam engine was installed at the mill, which reached a cutting capacity of 9000 super feet* of timber per day During its total years of operation, the mill was estimated to have cut some 45 million super feet of timber from the ranges.(*Super foot 12 inches long by 12 inches wide by 1 inch thick – 304mm X 304mm X 25 mm)

In 1858 Henderson sailed to China on a trading mission. Whilst there, he bought 50 pairs of Chinese ring-necked pheasants. Henderson took the birds to his mill. A Maori lady enthused over the birds bright colours, opened the door of the cage to touch them, seizing their chance the pheasants escaped into the surrounding bush. From these few birds in 1858, the wild population has grown throughout New Zealand, and we still see them in the upper valley.

Henderson sold his 10,000 acres of farm and bush land in 1881, the land sold readily to eager buyers.10 Most of Henderson Valley was deforested, with the exception of the steep and inaccessible upper reaches, (only 2% of the forest area of the Waitakere Ranges remained unaffected by the timber industry). The process of establishing pasture involved further clearing native scrub by fire, which often burnt out of control (Denyeret al. 1993).

In the 1890’s viticulture, and farming were established in the lower valley. From the vineyards of Dalmatia, immigrant families brought their wine making skills to the green foothills of Auckland’s Waitakere Ranges. Pleasant Valley Wines on Henderson Valley Road is the oldest. The 80 acre property bought in 1890 by Dalmatian, Stipan Yelas, to dig for gum. The winery was established in 1902 and remains in family ownership today.

Some years later in 1932, 19 year old Dudley Russell an Aucklander of English descent also decided his future lay in viticulture and bought 24 acres of land on Vineyard Rd in the valley. Dudley built a humble one room tin shed which became his home for the next ten years as he doggedly worked to establish his vineyard. By the 1970’s Western Vineyards was 115 acres with 64 acres in vines, producing award winning wines and his vision for the land, it’s cellars, swimming pool, tennis court, Japanese Garden and large home realised into a beautiful addition to the valley.

Wildlife habitat depletion from continued timber milling had a major impact on the area. By the mid 1930s the kaka, kiwi and kakariki parakeet were rare, the tui declining and the kokako gone, introduced farm animals took over.11

1945 saw the Sapich Brothers (Tony, Mark and Ivan) take on 80 acres at Forest Hill Rd, again the vineyard is still in family ownership. For generations these dedicated pioneer viticulturists and farmers tended their vines and struggled with unproductive soils high rainfall and humidity as the city grew around them slowly engulfing their slopes

The Henderson Valley primary school first opened its doors to 19 pupils in 1915 in a small 4 metre square rented temporary building on Gum Rd, opposite the current site on Henderson Valley Road. 4 Acres of land was bought at the current site in 1919 and once built 24 pupils attended from 1922 under the gimlet eye and stern discipline of headmistress Ethel Croker. By 1984 more buildings had been added and 125 pupils were on the roll. After further pressure due to more residential development substantial additions were built in the 1990’s as well as moving the Henderson Valley Hall on to the school grounds and by 2007 the number of students has risen to nearly 500.

By the 1920’s Aucklanders recognized the value of having such a large wilderness area close to the rapidly growing city and planned to protect a substantial area. The Scenic Drive was opened in 1939 and the Centennial Memorial Park was established in 1940.

During the late 50’s and early sixties ten acre block subdivisions spread, taking over land which farmers had struggled to use as farmland for many years,and making it into lifestyle blocks, Poultry farms replacing some. Sections were being sold on Grassmere road bringing new residents to the area.

The Waitakere Ranges Protection Society first came into being in 1973. More than 700 Hectares of land have been added to regional and district parkland as a result of the society’s efforts (including an addition to the 308 hectare Spraggs Bush at the top of the Valley) The parkland now covers 17,000 hectares in total.

A play centre was opened at the Henderson Valley Hall in 1974 where it operated until given land further down the valley on Farwood Drive where they built their own centre in 1988.

The Future for “The place of Panuku” .

Developmental pressures have increased along with the ever expanding population of Waitakere City. The enlarged park lands and regeneration of the forest have made the area more desirable for sub division and development than ever before. Local and Central Government have now agreed to establish legislation to protect the Waitakere Ranges Heritage area, upper Henderson Valley is included. “The goal is to put in place measures that will ensure that this important and finite resource is not gradually eroded and undermined with the result that the valued features that are lost forever”13. Kawerau a Maki and Ngati Whatua have expressed similar concerns. The bush of the Waitakere Ranges and the fingers remaining in the upper areas of the eastern foothills, have been identified by Waitakere City Council as outstanding landscape features. The lower eastern foothills with their mixture of pasture and bush have not. 14

The earliest known people of the valley considered themselves guardians of the land and its resources. Given the depredation it has suffered since, it is now time to back up that ancient wisdom with modern law in an effort to maintain and hopefully restore the original character of this unique area. Fortunately, with the re-establishment of forests in the Waitakere Ranges, and much work done by organizations such as the Auckland Regional Council, Waitakere City Council, Royal Forest and Bird Society, and the “Ark in the Park” project some native flora and fauna populations have returned to what’s left of the great forest of Tiriwa. The dawn chorus of Tui and Kereru and night calls of Morepork may be heard again echoing along this misty valley.


1. Geoff Irwin and Carl Walrond. “When was New Zealand first settled?”,Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. URL:www.TeAra.govt.nz/NewZealanders/MaoriNewZealanders/WhenwasNewZealandfirstsettled/en

2. The Maori as he was: a brief account of life as it was in Pre-European days. Author: Hoane Nahe, “Maori, Tangata Maori.”Journal of the Polynesian Society 3(1894):27-35.

3. “Waitakere Ranges,Ranges of Inspiration.” Waitakere Ranges Protection Society Inc 2006: 21

4. Hoani Nahe, ‘Maori, Tangata Maori.’ Journal of the Polynesian Society 3 (1894): 27-35.

5. JT Diamond & Bruce W Hayward “The Maori history and Legends of the Waitakere Ranges”:2-3

6. Geoff Irwin and Carl Walrond. “When was New Zealand first settled?”,Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand.

7. JT Diamond & Bruce W Hayward “The Maori history and Legends of the Waitakere Ranges”: 34

8. Draft Waitemata Harbour Foreshore Reserve Management Plan, Part One. URL:www.waitakere.govt.nz/HavSay/pdf/waitemata-partone.pdf

9. Joan Lawrence “The Archeology of the Waitakere Ranges” 1989: 215

10. Anthony G Flude “Henderson’s Mill”. Henderson Borough Council 1977. 11.URL:http://www.waitakere.govt.nz/AbtCnl/pp/districtplan/pdf/policy/cityenviroment.pdf 12&14.URL:http://www.waitakere.govt.nz/abtcit/ne/pdf/waitakere-ranges-heritage-bill.pdf

13. Waitakere Ranges Heritage Area Bill, 2006 No 15-1, Explanatory note, General Policy Statement,Issues Analysis, p. 2. [http://www.waitakere.govt.nz/abtcit/ne/pdf/ranges-] bkgrdrpt.pdf