Massive trees in Whirinaki
Image: Neil Hutton ©
The Korowai (cloak) of Whirinaki Te Pua-a-Tāne Conservation Park embraces Ngāti Whare iwi and is woven through co-management. The threads are the park’s biodiversity, and its historic, cultural and spiritual taonga. By nurturing the forest, recreational, social and economic opportunities flow for all people.
Māori have lived here probably as long as the oldest trees still standing. The original inhabitants of the Whirinaki valley were believed to have been Te Marangaranga. They were conquered by Wharepakau and his nephew Tangiharuru, descendants of Toi the great Māori chief.
Through this conquest Wharepakau and Tangiharuru, with their people, occupied the lands in the Whirinaki and Rangitaiki valleys and their descendants have lived in the district ever since. Ngāti Whare are descendents of Wharepakau and regard themselves as the guardians of Whirinaki Te Pua-a-Tāne Conservation Park.
Māori association with the forest is also spiritual. Whirinaki protects and preserves the people and legends of the past, is traditionally known as a pātaka kai (source of food), and provides herbs and building materials for cultural purposes.
These include tōtara for meeting houses and other carving work. The right to take these resources is special to Ngāti Whare and arises from their significant relationship with the forest. This commitment also extends to a long-term project to regenerate the podocarp forest that will enhance its overall value and ecological health and create an expanding conservation park for future generations of Ngāti Whare.
The power of the trees
Whirinaki is best known for its awe-inspiring trees. The greatest of these are known as podocarps and include rimu, tōtara, kahikatea, mataī and miro.
These forest giants have always been valued but in quite different ways now compared to the past. Visitors who marvel at their great height and size are often surprised to learn that logging of this forest ceased as recently as the mid-1980s.
Conservation groups actively campaigned to stop the native harvest and came into direct conflict with the local community who saw this as a threat to their lifestyle and employment.
In 1985 a new government ended the logging of native trees and by 1987 all logging of native timber had stopped at Whirinaki.
Plants and animals
North Island brown kiwi in Whirinaki
Image: Neil Hutton ©
The vegetation of Whirinaki changes from lowland podocarp forest in the basins through to beech forest in higher altitude areas. The plant life reflects the landform, altitude and soils along with past disturbance by volcanic activity and burning by humans. The park’s most striking characteristic is its wonderful podocarp forest.
Birdlife is diverse and abundant. The forest supports high numbers of rare birds such as North Island brown kiwi, red and yellow-crowned kākāriki, and North Island kākā. Other notable birds include whio (blue duck) and the endangered kārearea (New Zealand falcon).
New Zealand’s only native land mammals, long-tailed and short-tailed bats (pekapeka), are present but rarely seen. Alert visitors may catch sight of a long-tailed bat around the forest edges in the evening.
Many introduced mammals have also made Whirinaki home. These include red deer, pigs and possums which have played a major part in modifying the forest. Deer and possums were liberated in the late 1890s and their populations rose to a peak around the late 1950s. Rats, mice, cats and stoats are also present.
The lie of the land
Image: Neil Hutton ©
Whirinaki is located between the central volcanic plateau and mountain axis of the North Island. To the west is the Kaingaroa plateau, while to the east and south are the Huiarau and Ikawhenua ranges, bounded by the Whaeo and Te Whaiti faults.
The park contains elements of volcanic and non-volcanic landforms and soils, and the plant and animal life reflects these differences.
The land is still and peaceful now but this belies the violent origins of the Kaingaroa Plateau and Whirinaki basin. About 1800 years ago the Taupo eruption ejected a great wave of pumice, destroying all in its path and creating a new landscape. A lot of material also fell from the air, cloaking the greywacke ridges to the east.
The northern part of the forest, west of the Whirinaki River, is relatively low country which rises from 360 m to 730 m. There are beautiful river flats and rolling, tree-covered hills and gullies. These are a marked contrast to the steep rugged greywacke country in the south which rises to 1365 m at Maungataniwha.