Buffalo Beach

Looking southeast along Buffalo Beach at low tide

it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me, but New Zealand has a booming timber industry – has had for quite some time. prior to Maori arrival on the islands approximately 1,000 years ago, forests covered nearly the entire landmass. using fire, Maori cleared about 15 per cent of those forests prior to the arrival of European settlers in the 1770s. timber proved useful in ship repair – a constant necessity for vessels stopping on their way to or from distant ports. in the early 1800s, the population explosion of New South Wales further increased demand; and the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, which paved the way for rapid European settlement in New Zealand, increased the pace of deforestation with thousands of acres being burned to clear farmland or clear cut to fuel the timber industry.

Looking southeast along Buffalo Beach at low tide
Looking southeast along Buffalo Beach at low tide

we saw evidence of the timber industry – past and present – nearly everywhere while traveling. one of the more interesting sites (which, to be fair, we didn’t observe ourselves) is the wreck of the HMS Buffalo at the bottom of Mercury Bay in Whitianga. the area around Whitianga was once thick with kauri forests, trees useful for their gum and resin, and the harbor on the northeast of the North Island somewhat sheltered from the Pacific Ocean useful for hauling them to distant destinations. ships came from as far away as Norway, Sweden, France, Italy, and the UK to collect some of the 500 million feet of kauri harvested in the region.

the Buffalo (originally named Hindostan) was built in Calcutta in 1813 as a food transport vessel and subsequently acquired by the Royal Navy for use (initially) as a storeship. over the years, the Buffalo also served as a quarantine vessel, convict ship (carrying 180 female convicts to Australia in 1833), transport for colonists bound for Australia, and finally a timber carrier.

Looking out over Mercury Bay from Buffalo Beach
Looking out over Mercury Bay from Buffalo Beach

in this last capacity, the Buffalo came to be anchored in Mercury Bay in July 1840. while today the harbor has moved into the mouth of the river (significantly more sheltered though perhaps impractical for vessels that size), in the 1800s the dock and pier extended out from what is know known as Buffalo Bay, near where our first hostel was located. on the 28th of July in 1840, a storm blew into the bay and parted the kauri-laden Buffalo from its anchoring cables. when it became clear that the ship could not be saved, the captain steered onto the beach and the crew abandoned ship. it sank and remains where it went down. in 1996 a team of maritime archaeologists and volunteers from Australia located and charted the site of the wreck and in 2009 the New Zealand Navy investigated the wreck using snorkels; much of the ship has broken up due to storms and spending more than 150 years underwater though the hull, reportedly, remains in good condition. at low tide on a day with exceptionally clear conditions you can see the wreck from above; the weather never got truly clear while we visited Whitianga and, more to the point, we didn’t get directly above the site, but neat to consider all the same!

Author: Erica

born in the midwest with wandering feet.