Friday, September 17, 2010


Sacred puriri (has Maori legend attached)

From all that I have been able to learn from people with experience and expertise the
density of kawaka and seedling matai on Whakairiora Mountain at the base of
Ngunguru Sandspit exceeds anything seen elsewhere.  Very likely it is the richest place
in the world for these sparse New Zealand native trees.  This is just one aspect that
makes it a unique habitat type with great significance for preservation because of the 
unusual botanical combinations.  Could there ever be an area where such importance 
was greater?
Old growth forest- rare on coast

Old growth rata vine

With the current drought an important aspect emerges which has a bearing on the
ecological effect of subdivision roading.  After four months without significant 
rainfall plants in this coastal region are showing signs of stress.  But not on Whakairiora. 
There the canopy is as yet intact and excludes the drying effect of wind. But this will change
drastically if the planned roading system is carved through the forest, up and along
ridges and across slopes.  This will admit the drying winds and have an impact on the
capacity of this remarkable remnant of coastal forest with its high diversity of native plants
 to withstand the rigours of climate change. There is a vigour in the bursting abundance of 
seedling kauri, kowhai, kawaka and matai that I think is related to this wind exclusion.  I see 
this area in the context of a great many forest remnants my wife Jan and I have visited and 
documented [digital photo data base/Stepping Stones from Coast to Coast ebook and DVD
between Maunganui Bluff on the west coast and Whangarei Heads on the east: a chain of forest
 remnants that provides insights into the formerly continuous canopy
 of forest that once clad this region.

All the forest abundance of Whakairiora is to be put in danger just for a few house sites in
a region which is all too demonstrably [expanses of scarred hillsides] more than
adequately supplied with massive areas of subdivision, much of it unbuilt on long after
curbing, channelling and reticulation were installed.
Such diverse rainforest and unusual botanical combinations 

are unique on the coast.

New Zealand mourns several extinct birds such as the curve beaked huia, the moa and
the giant eagle.  Now it is not a species but a unique habitat that is at stake: perhaps
soon to be gone forever.  This is why I see Whakairiora mountain forest remnant and the
adjacent Ngunguru sandspit dunelands as of national significance, probably global
significance, worthy to be set aside as a Heritage Park.

And so, in calling for a moratorium on coastal subdivision until after a national review I
wrote: "In terms of coastal subdivision, things are desperate all around our New Zealand
coast.  These are gold rush days of the landbankers, like the Chatham Islands crayfishing
bonanza and the rush to grab sea space for marine farming.  I think Government should
call a moratorium on all coastal subdivision until after the election and there should be a
review as to where New Zealand wants to go: a green haven envied by the world-or a
suburbanised seaboard."

On the opposite side of Ngunguru Bay from forest clad Whakairiora stands the
savagely ravaged Rehuotane mountain.  The name seems tragic in that the forest has
been stripped from Tane's realm on those heights for a massive subdivision.  The
summit is a big yellow clay scar like a skull cap with a single wind bent manuka on its
crest.  This is the view from Whakairiora.  Will it become a mirror?

It is called "land banking": using land as an investment.  As coastal land with scarcity,
increases in value, it is being snatched up for speculation.  Could this be the fate of
Whakairiora?  Sacrificed to greed. Tane's realm: just some figures in a bank balance and
all that eroding clay from the bulldozers sluicing down into the sea and smothering the

I learnt from an Environment Defence Society study on landscape that 23 per
cent of subdivision in the Whangarei district has not been built on.  How much of this is
supplying any real human need?  Or just land-banking greed?

Footnote: in early January 2007 the bulldozers violated the mountain with roads. Huge
 mulchers ground up the trees.  Since then, an economic slump has suspended development. 
But the locals are ready for a battle!

Thursday, September 16, 2010


On Anzac day Jan and I returned to the mountain with a four of our neighbours: 
Reggie and Neal; Rob and Elaine, a picnic party with serious exploration in
mind.  This time we were determined to penetrate to the very end of the enchanted
Kawaka Promontory.  We knew there had to be parents for the ever-increasing density
of matai seedlings among all the crisp kawakas and copses of kinky trunked Coprosma
areolatas.  So we pushed on through a dense wall of wind-compacted bush that hitherto
had excluded us, seeming to suggest it was the end of the promontory and that a
sudden cliff edge would precipitate us headlong into the bay.  First we followed the cliff
edge line of pohutukawa, coprosmas, hebe clumps, a few stumpy nikau and patches
of wharangi.  Wind pressure out here has bent the tops of the bushes at right angles so
they look weird and grotesque.  But this was a mellow autumn day with a frisson of an
offshore breeze and the sea below, sparkling and clear, revealed extensive forests of
kelp where three Maori divers were snorkelling for kina.
tawapou berries: rare coastal tree

To my delight almost at the end of the promontory I found what I sought: a solitary
tawapou tree with a few ripening berries on it.  But no seedlings to propagate this rare
coastal tree.  Beyond here the wind compaction made progress extremely hard. Finally
a dense mass of flax bushes perhaps purpose planted long ago by cliff dwellers.  The
rope factory…And an awe-inspiring ocean panorama including our beloved Poor
Knights Islands.
coastal kauri

Returning along the eastern side of the promontory, above Purapuratahi Cove, we
found even more kauri of all sizes from seedlings to sturdy, gnarly trees.  More than I
cared to count.  No massive giants of inland forests here but these wind exposed trees
had muscles.  They showed signs of hard lives out on a knuckle of rock facing into the
most powerful winds this coast ever knows; such as Cyclone Bola.  And adjacent to
them the density of young kowhai seedlings was remarkable.  'The force that through the
green fuse drives the flower' wrote Dylan Thomas: there seems to be a green power out here that enables every tree to reproduce with immense vigour.  Little sign of the months of drought that has tree leaves elsewhere hanging limp.  The bush above the cove is quite dense: rewarewa, taraire, karaka, and kohekohe with their fruits like nutmegs sprouting from their trunks, now beginning to split open and reveal crimson seeds like little tongues just as fresh buds appear for early winter blossom.

All this and much, much more slowed our progress but as we walked back towards the
densest part of the kawaka grove I found those powerful, hammer patterned trunks I so
dearly sought.  There they were: mum and dad matai, probable progenitors of the
densest grove of seedlings I have ever seen; as dense as are the kawaka in this same

Our party could now set off on the cliff edge walk to Harakeke Island where we met a
pod of six bottlenose dolphins cruising by close to the rocks.  After visiting the deep
caves, and scrutinising a rock-clinging morsel of rare fern inches beyond wave reach;
traipsing through cove after sandy cove, each a paradise wherein to spend a lifetime sun
basking and then striding summitwards to the sacred puriri tree with the wide spread
limbs which once cradled a crying baby placed there to decoy enemy from fleeing cliff
dwellers; after the deep valley where a huge deep red rata vine embraces a puriri; after
passing gnarly old mamangi, biggest coprosmas in the world and sleek lancewoods and
descending to our waiting cars and draughts of water my neighbour Rob said he was
amazed at the diversity of Whakairiora. “There are so many rooms,” he said.  “You
never know what to expect next.  Lots of windows offer long views, even right out to
the Chicks and Little Barrier Island but at no stage can you see it all or gain any
impression of a complete panorama.  It just leads you on from one delight to another.
Those giant spreading pohutukawa, the broad swathes of Muehlenbeckia covered
sand hill; the deep shady forest, sunlit ridges, long prospects through open woodland,
cliff edge shrubberies, Ngunguru sandspit in its entirety, on and on and on.' 
And we, all my dear neighbours, after our daylong walk, agreed this should be protected
 forever as a National Heritage Park.

On the T.V. news that night: controversy over a bull-dozered road across Gallipoli's gauntbattlefields in far away Turkey.  I thought of those brown warriors on the Ngunguru sandspit and the burial ground at Purapuratahi Cove of people from the Poor Knights massacre…all threatened by dozer-bladed development…And our Resource Management Act says: there should be no unnecessary subdivision… Can we save Ngunguru Sandspit and Whakairiora Mountain?…


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
pa site.

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....