Monday, 25 June 2012

The Lord of the Trees

With our time winding down in the Bay of Islands, we took the opportunity over the bank holiday weekend to head over towards the Kauri Coast in the west of Northland to visit the Waipoua Forest, a place famous for it's impressive kauri (Agathis australis) trees.

Its a relatively straightforward drive cross-country, picking up State Highway 12 along the Hokianga Harbour and we couldn't have picked a better day for it, as it was a warm, beautiful autumnal day. After an hour's drive we pulled up in the small historic settlement of Opononi to admire the dazzling sand dunes of the tranquil Hokianga Harbour. The sand dunes dominate the landscape reaching 170m at their highest point and during tourist season it's possible to take a water taxi over the northern head of the harbour and sandboard down the dunes. The photos in the guide books really don't do them justice as they're absolutely huge and don't fail to impress when you first catch a glimpse of them as you descend into Opononi!

Lizzie standing on the beach of the south head of the harbour

The glistening waters of the breathtaking Hokianga Harbour
Some of the mountainous sand dunes are also covered in vegetation

Opononi was made famous from June 1955 to March 1956 by an inquisitive young bottlenose dolphin who the locals called "Opo the Friendly Dolphin". She regularly approached the beach near Opononi wharf to play with the local children, letting them ride her back. Opo’s playful antics included juggling beach balls and beer bottles on her snout. Numerous newspaper articles and photos drew thousands of holidaymakers to Opononi. Tragically, on  9th March 1956, Opo was found dead. Concerns for her welfare had already led to the formation of the Opononi Gay Dolphin Protection Committee and the people of Opononi were devastated, with the whole country going into mourning. She was buried with full Māori honours in a special plot next to the Opononi's RSA hall. Some Māori considered her to be the incarnation of an ancestor, or the great navigator Kupe - the first person to discover Hokianga. There's an interesting article on The Northland Advocate website which covers the story of Opo following the 50th anniversary of her death.

Below is some archive footage of "Opo the Friendly Dolphin" which is available to view on YouTube:

Opo rests outside the War Memorial Hall
Hokianga is also know in Māori as Te Hokianga-nui-a-Kupe – "Kupe's great departing place", named to commemorate the legendary Polynesian explorer. Kupe was believed to have settled in the Pakanae area, 2km out of Opononi, before his journey to Hawaiki (the homeland of the Māori) to start the migration of the Māori people to this land. In a sense Hokianga can be considered the cradle of New Zealand civilisation.

As we were leaving Opononi to continue on our journey to the Waipoua Forest, we made a brief stop at the Arai te Uru recreation reserve at the south head of the harbour where there's a scenic lookout with spectacular views across Martins Bay and the entrance of the harbour.

Arai te Uru recreation reserve offers the best views of the harbour
The vegetation is mostly flax, manuka, bracken and cabbage trees. 

Following State Highway 12 through to Waipoua Forest, the drive through the north end of the forest felt like  a section of a rally course with thick vegetation and bush on the sides of the narrow road! The first stop was to visit the iconic Tāne Mahuta, or the "Lord of the Forest". There was a noticeable drop in temperature under the forest canopy as we walked along the boardwalk track designed to protect the shallow and delicate roots of the colossal kauri trees. At 51.2m high, a girth of 13.77m and an estimated wood mass of 244.5 cubic metres, Tāne Mahuta is the largest kauri tree alive. It's only at a whopping 17.88 metres from ground that you reach the first branch of the tree! What is more impressive is that the tree has witnessed the entire human history of New Zealand and was possibly a mature tree before the birth of Jesus Christ... According to Māori mythology, Tāne is the son of Ranginui the sky father and Papatuanuku, the earth mother. Tāne tore his parents apart to bring light, space and air allowing life to flourish, as a result Tāne is the life giver and all the living creatures in the forest are Tāne's children.

 The overwhelming size of Tāne Mahuta towers over the visitors below

Epiphytes grow on the lowest branches

The forest is home to an abundance of other plant types and trees

At one time the kauri forests used to cover 1.2 million hectares of the North Island in Auckland, Northland and the Coromandel Peninsula, but many of the beautiful trees were plundered for timber by British settlers for the construction of homes and the masts of warships. Waipoua Forest represents the remnants of a majestic kauri forest prior to European interference.

A kilometre or so further south a short road leads to the Kauri Walks car park where there are three kauri walks to do; the Four Sisters, Te Mataua Ngahere (Father of the Forest) and the Yakas Kauri. Before entering the area we had to clean our shoes to reduce the spread of kauri dieback disease, which is caused by Phytophthora taxonAgathis (or PTA). It is thought that human activity involving soil movement (on footwear, machinery or equipment) is the greatest cause of the spread of the disease.

The walking track allows you to experience the ecologically diverse forest

Unfortunately, we only had time to see the Four Sisters and Te Mataua Ngahere but we would have liked to seen the Yakas Kauri (named after the gum digger, Nicholas Yakas) as it's the 7th largest kauri tree in New Zealand and one of a few that you're allowed touch but it was at least a 35 minute walk just to see this notable tree.

The Four Sisters are a group of slender kauri trees which have grown from the same mass of pukahukahu. It is thought that the four trees have co-existed for between around 200 to 500 years. The Four Sisters are located on a short path just off the main path to Te Matua Ngahere, a 10 minute walk from the car park through some native bush.

The base where the Four Sisters grow together in harmony

The walk to Te Matua Ngahere is a 40 minute round trip, but it's worth it as it's believed that Te Matua Ngahere is the second largest living kauri tree and has the biggest girth of any kauri in the country. In my opinion I thought that Te Matua Ngahere was more striking than Tāne Mahuta on first impressions, even though the trunk is much shorter at 10.2 metres giving it a total height of 29.9 metres. Also discovered by Nicholas Yakas, it is also thought that Te Matua Ngahere is the oldest out of the two largest living kauri trees in Waipoua forest, estimated to exceed 2000 years old possibly closer to between 2500 - 3000 years old!

Kauri dwarf the surrounding tataire, kohekohe and towai trees

This is the closest you can get to Te Matua Ngahere without harming the roots

By the end of the walk we were ready to jump back into the car and turn the heaters up to full blast as it had go so cold walking through the dense forest canopy!

Sunset fun on the return to journey through Hokianga Harbour

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