Thursday, September 16, 2010
Pt2: FURTHER EXPLORATION OF WHAKAIRIORA MOUNTAIN FOREST
Over the weeks that followed Jan and I made many return trips to Whakairiora, often
guiding first comers to its glories. We were driven by a powerful motivation: of all the
forest remnants we have explored, this one was not a D.O.C. reserve. Private
ownership threatened this precious realm of Tane with subdivision; house sites and
roading. We wished fervently it could become a regional or national park. Perhaps by
the time you read this its fate will be sealed...
First we took the easy twenty-minute path that runs left across the mountain’s northwest
flank out to the Kawaka Promontory. There we found a rare grove of kawaka or New
Zealand cedars Libocedrus plumosa with several huge trees, many good sized ones
and a great many lush green seedlings at every stage. The wind-blown seed of such
coniferous trees would not travel far. New Zealand cedars have a very attractive shaggy
chocolate brown bark. All the way up the trunk the bark fractures into short strips which
curve upwards in tatters. In silhouette, looking through a glade, its profile is very
appealing. Such a dense grove of these cedars is an unparalleled sight in our forest
remnants. The D.O.C. people we guided over the mountain recalled a couple of such
places: one near Kaikohe; the other near Cape Brett, but none as dense as this. In the
adjacent coastal forests we had only seen the odd kawaka or two; never a grove.
On the forest floor there are also very many strangely divaricating matai seedlings,
some in groupings of up to seven and others up to eight feet tall. But we could find no
parent matai trees, with their striking hammer-patterned bark, in the vicinity. The only
mature trees we had seen were on the longer summit track. The berry-encased seed of
the matai has probably been wide spread by birds. It appears to survive best along
walking tracks, where competition is reduced. Some of the paths here would be pre-
European. Neither kawaka nor matai seem to be cattle palatable and because bush
cattle [we saw four] have used this promontory for camping and grazing there are areas
of open grassy sward. Nearby there is a stream in the cove still moist even in a
drought. I think the disturbance of cattle may have created opportunities for these
seedlings to establish. Or perhaps clearance goes back to when the sandspit base had a
It is very pleasantly habitable. A midden down in the adjacent cove reveals the shells
of pipis and cockles. The cockles would have been carried from Ngunguru estuary.
There is trench at the neck of the promontory, said to have been a sacred path taken
by Maori tohungas or priests to conduct special rituals down in the cove. We found
another earthwork running up the east side of the cove. This may have been a ‘fire
trench’ whence tokens were offered by the tohunga to protect warriors going into battle.
From what I have been able to glean Whakairiora once had a spiritual significance for the
people who had a pa site and a village of thatched dwellings on the nearby sandspit.
Their descendants regard Whakairiora as the equivalent of a cathedral: “It is our Notre
Dame,” claimed a tribal spokesman.
On the east side of Kawaka Promontory above the cove we found a stand of five
good-sized kauris facing the open sea. It is equally unusual these days to see kauri
alongside kowhais and pohutukawa trees near the sea. But here is the horror: from where the main track leads down to Purapuratahi Cove a side path, intensively blazed with blue paint, leads out towards the promontory tip. I assume this signifies the path for clearance by bulldozer and chain saw. Along this route many mature puriri, pohutukawa, massive cedars, tall kowhais, old kanuka and a big rewarewa bear ominous spray can blazes. Here and there the bush is densely packed with groves of Coprosma areolata, which is not common on most of this coast. It is an attractive small tree with a confetti of small, light green, round leaves and a quaintly kinky zigzag trunk. I love to hold a leaf to the light. It has a pattern that would make a fine stained-glass window!
Near the promontory tip on its western inshore side, facing Ngunguru sandspit, there is a
gully down to the sea [perhaps once a stepped path to a very sheltered canoe landing,
but now choked with cutty grass]. On one side of this gully lies a gigantic and ancient
pohutukawa whose massive horizontal branches lie on top of each other like fingers on a
giant’s hand to form a formidable wall of wood bounding the northern rim of the gully. I
have reason to suspect the peculiar form of this amazing tree results from deliberate
modification long ago for ritualistic purpose.
Nearby a powerful old puriri thrusts up to
support the canopy like the pole in a circus tent. Around it are kohekohe, taraire, karaka,
kowhai, nikau palms, cedar seedlings, a few small kahikatea and a thicket of supplejack.
At the very cliff edge are salt spray adapted wharangi trees with their large, glossy, light
green leaves in clusters of three.
As we ate our picnic lunch in a forest glade the raucous cries of black-back gulls overhead
made me look up: broad, white sea bird wings cresting the tips of cedar trees.
It is too rare these days to be in a richly diverse remnant of New Zealand native forest with
the murmur of the sea at hand.
From the promontory’s inshore tip we could peer down on to the top of a mostly
submerged reef with swirling seaweeds and clear blue water and I reflected: if we ever
had the wisdom to create a zone of marine protection here it would be possible for our
descendants to watch reef fishes flitting about while on the verge of a rain forest.
Perhaps an impossible dream? But unless there is urgent action Whakairiora is destined to become part of a housing subdivision like that on Rehuotane mountain visible through a filagree of pohutukawa boughs across Ngunguru Bay: mostly gorse clad slopes with yellow clay scars and straight roof lines and a network of roads. And this Whakairiora Mountain is those future householders' beautiful outlook. When will we consider the duty of reciprocity in this country's diminishing landscapes? A view is a two-way street...
No place on the Northland coast could cry out more for preservation in the public
interest. I cannot sleep at night for thinking of those gleaming dozer blades carving their
way out there through the forest across steep slopes from the Ford Road car park....