Memories of the Great Kerikeri Flood


My first recollection of that night in March 1981, was a phone call from the then Bay of Islands County Engineer, the late Tony Plom, asking if it was raining heavily at my home. The time was 2.30am and it had been raining steadily all evening, but no more heavily than our usual February/March downpours.


I put down the phone and went out to check the level of the pool. It had reached the overflow point, so was six to eight inches higher than the evening before.


Tony said that he had had a call that a house had been washed away from the Waipapa Landing area, and that a woman was missing from another house in the same area. An hour later, he, along with the County Chairman at the time, John MacPherson, and General Manager, Maurice Plowright, arrived and we set out to try to establish what was happening.


We drove first to the Stone Store, and were greeted by a torrent of water, which had fallen by some metres, but was still three-quarters of the way up the petrol bowsers that were standing on the wharf area. The tide was on the way out, and the level had dropped from its highest point, which was about 18 inches up the side of the telephone booth which stood 50 metres south on Kerikeri Road. There were no boats left in the basin, and the Stone Store Bridge was active as a weir, the water flowing straight over the top of the bridge—nothing visible, except for a large totara tree sitting on the top of the railing; the tree estimated at 500 years old and weighing something over 50 tonnes. If nothing else, it proved the bridge, built originally at the time of the First World War, was of fairly sturdy stuff, and that the additional work of a few years later was also sound.


We then drove back to Kerikeri past the cross-roads to SH 10 and were met by a high level of water at the bridge where the Origin Gallery now stands. The whole area of the Waipapa Flats, in the dim light, was covered with water. At that time, we had been joined by representatives of the Kerikeri Fire Brigade. Two of their members, Ralph Rogers and Dave Clark, decided to cross the river to ascertain the safety of people living in houses on the Waipapa River Flats. They waded through the water and disappeared, but fortunately, not for good. Little more could be done until daybreak.


At first light, Maurice Plowright and I returned to Kerikeri Aerodrome, where we picked up his aeroplane and toured the Bay of Islands, greeted by the most amazing sights of the power of flood waters. Most of the river valleys at the northern end of Kerikeri had been scoured, and the vegetation along their banks totally cleaned out as if by some giant vacuum cleaner. All the Waipapa Flats were largely underwater and the river between the Rangitane and Puketotara Rivers, in the vicinity of the restaurant, was heavily flooded. The Kerikeri Inlet was largely clear of boats. I recall a large concrete yacht hanging up in the trees on one of the bends of the Kerikeri River, where it had been thrown some 20 feet up the bank by the centrifugal force of the storm.


At this stage, the day was a perfectly fine, sunny autumn morning. Further down the Bay of Islands, towards Rangitane, there would have been 50-plus launches and yachts, many milling about in groups like tea parties. The force of the water had dislodged the moorings, and in numerous cases, still attached to their craft, these had linked together. On Waipapa Landing, where previously a house had existed, the garden and property was swept clean, with only a brown square mark to show any habitation.


Later that day, as the flood levels dropped, the devastation around Waipapa Landing, Peacock Gardens and some of the orchard areas became more apparent. Although such floods are sometimes suggested as an Act of God, it must similarly have been an Act of God that saved Kemp House, with water swirling at incredible pressures around it and several feet up the walls of the house. The house at that stage sat virtually on rock piles, as it had for 160 years.


One of the flats at Waipapa Landing had obviously had a large tree driven straight in through the back and out through the front. Along the inlet, great stacks of trees, and the occasional car, emphasised the power of the flood water. Orchards suffered inconsistent damage. The worst hit in my recollection was the Pearson orchard in Waipapa West Road, where the Pungaere River had taken a shortcut between a bend, and swept through a four acre block of kiwifruit. Except for a large hole in one corner, the block was swept clean; the kiwifruit poles, posts, wires and vines had been rolled up and deposited elsewhere; while on the other side of the river, blocks of kiwifruit suffered no damage, save a rather thorough wetting.


The appeals, the community's effort and the hard work then began. I recall the generosity of people around the country contributing to the clean-up fund, and the collective efforts of those in the community who had not suffered damage. The Fire Brigade and its station acted as a headquarters over the next week, and many volunteers did not see their homes for several days. The houses were rebuilt and the orchards replanted, and for most that night is a very distant memory.