Putaruru - Past & Present


A unique museum, water and walks

Story by Sheryl Bainbridge Photos Neill & Sheryl Bainbridge

For years we’ve driven past the New Zealand Timber Museum on the main road just south of Putāruru saying ‘we must stop one day’. ‘One day’ arrived, and we spent an absorbing couple of hours learning how the timber industry impacted New Zealand’s development. The museum is a fascinating and moving tribute to the hardworking bushmen of that time, an industry long gone and the men and beasts who worked within it. Sustainability wasn’t given much consideration in those days and there are now only remnants and pockets of native bush scattered throughout the country as a reminder of how things were before Europeans came, but the museum gives an extremely interesting insight into how this part of the country was broken in.


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In the model room next to the reception area (and this historic 1800s building itself was once a dormitory for young farm cadets), is an outstanding model of a bridge. Construction of the actual bridge, demonstrated by the model, typifies all that was good in our pioneering days – the make do, can do, number-8-wire mentality where solutions were found in whatever was available. In the backblocks, steel and stone were scarce but what was available was tōtara wood, and plenty of it. Transporting tōtara and mataī logs from the Taupō Tōtara Timber Company’s base in Putāruru to the sawmill at Mokai, near Taupō necessitated crossing the Waikato River. In a major engineering feat, the single span Ongaroto Bridge, designed by James Edward Fulton, took shape. At 230ft the bridge, constructed of 150,000 feet of heart tōtara in 1905 became the longest span of a wooden girder bridge in the world. By the time it was replaced by a steel girder bridge in 1931 it had become so shaky that the loco driver was forbidden to cross the bridge on the loco. Instead, he would start the loco going slowly over the bridge and follow it across on foot.

The model room also features a unique wooden sculpture of a bushman’s equipment – an axe, hard hat, swannie, boots, maul and wedges. It was presented to Tony Grayburn, retiring chair of NZ Forest Products in 1989 and was created by Jack Bradbury who was known as the Whittler of Whitianga.


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On the wall of the reception area is a map that includes the locality of two tunnels carved out of solid rhyolite rock as part of the bush railway. We went looking for them without success but it’s good to see they are listed as heritage items in the South Waikato District Council‘s District Plan, as is an old railway water tower from those times that can be seen from the state highway, beside the railway south of the museum.

The museum consists of several buildings, many of them historic. In the Axeman’s Hut we were delighted to see a photo of my husband’s aunt’s brother, champion axeman Dinny Hoey among the trophies and memorabilia. As well as a 1915 jail and an 1800s school building there are other buildings that contain static displays and milling equipment. All sorts of saws and axes are displayed on the walls as well as an extensive collection of chainsaws. A circular saw is signed with very basic care and safety messages that would never do today, and there are even pieces of parliament. Thanks to the Putāruru Jaycees, who collected these timbers for the museum, it holds all that remains of one of our oldest and most historic buildings. When it was demolished in 1969, no effort was made to save the rest of the solid kauri building, which housed the Governor General and became a temporary parliament following a fire in 1907. A shame and a disgrace.


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Putāruru has not set out to become a tourist destination. It’s a service town for its many local communities, but the timber museum gives such an interesting overview of the timber industry that it’s really worth taking the time to look around. Anyone planning an event has some good options too. A charming, deconsecrated church sits on the village green alongside the museum. It comfortably accommodates 70 people and is a popular venue for weddings. Nearby the 1886 Junction Hotel building has been refurbished and is available for events including weddings. It’s attached to another historic building which will shortly become a café, and the reason for the cafés proposed name, the Stump and Axe is clear from the sculpture just outside.


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Over in Waimiha, roughly 1.5 hours south-west of Putāruru, the remainder of the oldest steam-powered native sawmill and the remnants of the mill town, some nine or 10 houses have been left exactly as they were when the mill closed down in 1996. Described by Allan Dick as a “time capsule” (we’ve both been there and written about it), it’s a fascinating place to visit, and handy to part of the Timber Trail cycleway and the Tour Aotearoa route. Anyway, the timber museum also has a marvellous photo of the mill, then known as Endean’s Mill in its heyday when it was fully operative.


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While we were in Putāruru we learnt that the Blue Springs were not far away. The GPS directed us on a roundabout route to the Blue Springs Te Waihou Walkway where in the company of many other visitors we walked alongside what is said to be the clearest water in the North Island. The purity of the water is due to its long, often underground journey through the Mamaku Plateau from the Kaimai Ranges, and the length of time (50–100 years) that it takes to reach the stream. It’s a three-hour return walk of 4.7km, but we were told by a returning couple that the first kilometre or so was easy walking, which it was, after which there were stiles and undergrowth to contend with. Riparian plantings and the clarity of the water meant it was a really nice walk. There are toilets, and a seat beneath a group of massive redwoods, but camping and swimming are not allowed, and visitors are asked to take their rubbish away with them. After enjoying our walk, we turned left out of Leslie Road onto Ngatira Road to find that there was also access to the springs a mere five minutes’ walk from an admittedly overflowing carpark, but it means that those with limited mobility can still get to see the cool, clear water.


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Ten kilometres west of Putāruru lies the small community of Arapuni where nearby walking tracks include part of the Waikato River Trails system. A road runs along the top of the 1920s Arapuni Dam, and there are great views of the gorge from a suspension bridge near the historic power station.

All in all, it’s easy to spend a day or more here. If you run out of time the museum welcomes motor homes by arrangement, and other accommodation options are available locally. 


Article kindly provided by nztoday.co.nz



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