The Piha Tramway — Piha, Karekare and Whatipu

This whole story starts with the kauri trees in Piha.

One of the largest and longest-living trees in the world is the kauri tree (Agathis australis). This endemic New Zealand tree, an ancient conifer, averages 30-40 meters in height with trunks often reaching several meters in diameter, and can live over a thousand years. Prior to the arrival of the Europeans, large stands of kauri flourished in New Zealand. However, it was quickly discovered by the Europeans that the wood of the kauri was ideal for spars on ships and for timber for construction. An industry soon developed to harvest these valuable trees for use both in New Zealand and for transport primarily to nearby Australia.

Piha is a west coast beach town north of Auckland, nestled at the base of the steep hills of the Waitakere Range. A large volcanic outcropping, Lion Rock, dominates the main beach area, which is known for its black sand, its famed surf (New Zealand surfing originated here) along with its notoriously dangerous and changing rip tides. How dangerous is the surf there? Well, Piha Rescue, a New Zealand TV show (10 seasons) is based solely on the rescues of the shore patrol at Piha Beach.

Piha beach - Lion Rock in the center.

Piha beach – Lion Rock in the center.

But in the 1800s the main interest in Piha were the fine stands of kauri. The problem, however, was that much of it, even if harvested, would be difficult or near impossible to transport, first out of the forest, then to the sawmill in Karekare, some eight kilometers away. Once in Karekare, the wood would still need to be transported down the coast another eight kilometers or so to where ships could pick up and transport the lumber.

In 1860s the kauri forest in Piha Valley was bought by a Dr. Stockwell, and for twenty years he unsuccessfully tried to log and transport the kauri out of the remote valley. Once he had gotten the logs out of the forest, part of this plan entailed strapping the logs to rafts, dragging the rafts out to sea and then down the coast. His efforts failed. Thirty years passed.

It is hard to appreciate just how difficult and demanding logging was in these times. Teams of logger men using hand tools, primarily axes and long saws, cut down trees in remote valleys.

Logging kauri - note the size of the tree.

Logging kauri – note the size of the tree.

Once the giant trees were down, they had to be cut into smaller, more manageable sized logs and maneuvered to locations where they could then be hauled.

Cutting into manageable sizes.

Cutting kauri into manageable sizes.

Kauri logs.

Kauri logs.

Dragging giant kauri log.

Dragging giant kauri logs.

How were these giant logs moved? Anyway they could be. Timber jacks, ratcheting devices, along with ropes and chains were used particularly in tight conditions to position or move logs. Logs could also often be rolled on a series of smaller logs. Skidding, pulling the logs along the ground and along roads, was accomplished using teams of bullocks (12-20 strong). On hillsides, logs were sent sliding downhill in chutes often lubricated with water. Another method involved damming larger streams usually at the top of a steep incline. A pond behind the dam would be allowed to fill—this would often take months—and the backed up pond would be filled with cut timber. Finally, the dam would be released and the giant surge of water would take the logs down the valley. Invariably, the logs would end up in a helter-skelter tangle at the bottom and many would be damaged. Additional weeks or months could be spent extracting the logs from their pileups. Meanwhile, the dam would be reconstructed and the whole process repeated. Thousands of these dams, called driving dams, were used throughout New Zealand during the heyday of kauri logging.

Driving dam.

Driving dam.

Driving dam.

Driving dam with logs behind it.

Tramways were built in some locations to haul logs. The development of steam engines and steam powered winches allowed log cars to be hauled or lowered up or down often frightfully steep grades.

In the case of the Piha logging industry, the problems still remained. Any logs that could be brought down to Piha would still have to be transported—Stockwell’s logs-on-rafts had proven unfeasible—to Karekare, eight kilometers away, where the sawmill was. Once there and after being sawn into lumber, the wood would have to be hauled another eight kilometers down the coast to Whatipu where it could be loaded on ships. Currently, lumber from the Karekare lumber mill, was being dragged in wagons by teams of bullock or horses down this final stretch to Whatipu, and was complicated by the fact that much of this beach route was accessible only once a day during low tide severely limiting the amount of lumber that could be transported.

But despite all these underlying problems, in 1906 another attempt to harvest the Piha kauri was made. A bush contractor named William Stokes developed a plan to pulls logs out of the Piha valley, and then haul the logs overland to Karekare. His plans proved too expensive and he soon found himself beset with financial difficulties. It was at this time that a Dr. Raynor, a Canadian-born dentist, working in Auckland decided to join Stokes’ venture. Raynor had been quite the sensation in Auckland with his Queen Street Dental Parlour employing five dentists, along with his Dixieland Dance Hall and a chain of cinemas. On arriving in Piha, he apparently considered placing a restaurant atop majestic Lion Rock. But for now he was ready for logging kauri.

The problems were solved by building a sawmill in Piha—processed lumber was far easier to transport than kauri logs—and a steam powered tramway was constructed that lifted lumber out of the Piha valley up 300 meters with a grade of 1:1.45 (22%) and then lowered it down a grade to Karekare, a grade of 1:2.5 (36%), over a total distance of about 8 kilometers.

A northern section of tramway was later added to bring logs from nearby Anawhata Valley to Piha (see map below).

Tramway at Piha.

Tramway at Piha.

Karekare incline.

Karekare incline.

Doc - Aug 25, 2015, 2-39 PM

Route of the entire Piha Tramway (2)

Over time a narrow gauge rail line was then built, following the route of another previously built tramway, from Karekare along the Tasman Sea all the way to Whatipu, (approximately eight kilometers) where a new wharf for ships had been built on the sheltered side of Paratuate Island at the entrance to Manukau Harbor.

Much of this torturous, rugged rail line along the Tasman had a primitive, nightmarish quality. It traversed deep sand beaches, carved its way along rock ledges and passed beneath sheer cliffs much of the time only a few feet above the sea. Both the construction and operation were compounded by the notorious west coast weather: gales, torrential rain, wind, and sand blowing across and engulfing the tracks. Crossing Karekare Beach itself proved difficult. The sand was both hard in some areas and soft in others. Trestles, some up to 16 feet high off the ground, were constructed.



Along cliffs where there was no underlying support for the track, holes were drilled into the rock, and the sleepers (railroad ties) were secured directly into the holes. Elsewhere, gaps in cliffs, often at the mouths of sea caves, were crossed by primitive bridges (look closely at images below). One tunnel was constructed; the hinged smokestack of the train had to allegedly be tilted into a horizontal position in order to allow the train to pass. This entire transport operation from Piha to Whapitu constituted the Piha Tramway and ran from roughly 1906 -1921.

Piha Tramway.

Piha Tramway.

Piha tramway.

Piha tramway.



A small, specially -built engine named “Sandfly”, with 38 gears, handled the hauling of the lumber from Karekare to Whatipu for many years.

The old wharf at Whatipu.

End of the line – the old wharf at Whatipu.

Then in 1915 the whole Piha logging operation and tramway was bought by the NZ Government Railways, which badly timber for its own purposes. Logging in the area ended in 1921 by which time there were few kauri left standing, and the hills were devastated from the effects of logging. The tramway was abandoned and the remains generally left to the elements.

We visited Piha where this had all started. At least on the day we were there, the seas did not disappoint. It was summer and numerous people were in the water, which I would describe as tumultuous. Because of the constant breaking and re-breaking of the waves, you could easily lose sight of someone just a few feet away, and could readily feel the currents pulling at you.

We stayed at the crowded holiday park. There were lots of people in Piha. It is certainly an area full of dramatic sights but not a favorite of mine.

Whatipu, the terminus of the old Piha Tramway, is the exact opposite. An isolated serene, lonely beach at the end of a road. You can walk for miles and miles on beach and probably not see another soul. Only two other cars were staying in the campsite. Currently Whatipu is a scientific reserve. No dogs are allowed. The warden chased one group of campers away who had a dog. We saw a few fishermen carrying huge fish back from the sea. We took a long walk on the beach in both directions. At night the stars were spectacular.



The remains of the tramway, however, have disappeared, at least at Whatipu, except for some evidence of where the wharf was. The tramway used to run just under the large cliffs to the north, where there are a number of large sea caves—one of which was apparently large enough to be used as a dancehall around 1899.

Sea cave - site of the old dancehall.

Sea cave – site of the old dancehall.

Recently, since the 1940s over six square kilometers of new beach have been deposited by the sea at Whatipu so that there is now a huge span of beach, marsh and undergrowth between the cliffs where the tramway once ran and the ocean. The Piha Tramway no longer exists. Time and the sea eventually reclaims everything.



Lowe, D. (1985). The Piha Tramway. Henderson, New Zealand: The Lodestar Press.

Woodward, M. The Piha Story.

Coney, S. (1997). Piha A History in Images. Auckland, New Zealand: The Keyhole Press.

Diamond, J. and Hayward,b. (1991). Kauri Timber Days. Auckland, New Zealand: The Bush Press.

Photo credits:

All black and white: New Zealand government

2) Kauri Timber Days by John Diamond and Bruce Hayward 1991 Auckland The Bush Press


6 thoughts on “The Piha Tramway — Piha, Karekare and Whatipu

  1. Thanks Paul,… being a bit of a history nut, this was so interesting. I really enjoyed it a lot.!!!… and you wrote in such a way that I could see the whole operation… ok, the pictures helped : ). …. But your writing was especially visual.

    • Most welcome !! I have been seen and walked all round those places since the early 1970s when it was still quite evident of the tram way existence along and round karekare and further along the beach !
      Nature has a way of fixing things and returning to what it used to be !
      Over many years I have collected ALL the photos you have plus more also that are not included !
      BUT I will save this and add to what I already have as well !
      Well done and good luck

  2. Pingback: there was an extensive narrow gauge railway along the coast of New Zealand installed only to remove kauri lumber, and during the removal, gold reefs were discovered by accident when using "driving dams" to flood canyons and float out the logs &#

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