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Hiking in the Whirinake Forest Park

After my amazing hike in the Te Urewera National Park through a forest with such amazing trees from giants to dwarfs, I was eager for more forest so I decided to head to the famous Whirinake Te Pua-a-Tane Conservation Park, which lies on the eastern boundary of Te Urewera. The Whirinake forest is one of the last remaining prehistoric rain forests in the world and came to international prominence in the 1970s and 80s when it became an environmental battleground to stop the logging there. The well-known British broadcaster and botanist, David Bellamy, was a high profile campaigner who helped to save the forest. In 2010, a co-governance agreement was signed with Ngati Whare as part of a treaty settlement. As part of the settlement, the New Zealand government apologised for past injustices and acknowledged the park was integral to Ngati Whare’s cultural identity and wellbeing. The settlement provided for a joint Ngati Whare and Crown regeneration project, which aimed to regenerate 640 ha of exotic pine adjacent to the park back to indigenous podocarp forest, with David Bellamy as patron. The park’s name was changed from Whirinaki Forest Park to Whirinaki Te Pua-a-Tāne Conservation Park. Whirinaki Te Pua-a-Tāne means the abundance of Tane, the god of forests and birds. Some of the trees are over 1000 years old, and many from 500 to 700 years old. It is a Podocarp forest with rimu, totara, kahikatea, matai and miro, and some beech forest higher up; the latin name Podocarpus means seed with a foot referring to the shape of the seed. Podocarp forests used to be much more extensive, but logging and land clearance has greatly reduced them. The Whirinake Forest is an important biodiversity hotspot that supports many rare species of birds, and its networks of walks, mountain biking tracks and huts make it an accessible and popular destination for nature and outdoor enthusiasts, of which New Zealand has so many up to the most senior level.







I emerged from the Manuoha Track and barely had time to put my rucksack down and start hitchhiking before a car stopped with two very friendly Swiss ladies in. I was very aware of how few cars travel along that dirt road so it was very fortunate indeed, and to be travelling with such nice travellers along the very scenic winding road. The road that passes through Te Urewera is very prone to landslides, and we had to stop while a bulldozer levelled the road in front of us. They dropped me off at the junction to Whirinake at the former logging town of Minginue. I crossed the road to look at the Maori community hall and started talking to a man in his garden, and right away another Maori stopped and offered me a ride and took me all the way to the park entrance. I couldn’t believe that I had got there so quickly with such little traffic on the road. It was nearly dusk and I had just enough time for a brisk walk through the temple of statuesque ancient giants just past the entrance, along the Whirinake Track that follows the Whirinake River, and then reach the Verns Shelter to camp for the night. Apart from the amazing trees and lush vegetation I was noticing the wooden pest traps at regular intervals on the track, occasionally with the foul stench of a victim. The next day I wanted to cover as much of the park tracks as I could because I only had enough food left for 2 or 3 days, so after walking at a very fast pace (as I usually do – my parents called me “spring-healed jack”) and taking plenty of photos of the big trees and tree ferns along the river I headed up a 7 km track along a tributary stream to the Mangamate Hut.

















I soon discovered that it wasn’t going to be a very straightforward hike compared with the tracks that I had already hiked along in the park. It criss-crosses the stream frequently, and after a while I stopped putting my hiking boots on and off and walked barefoot along the path and over some wincing lego stones in the river. Apart from the painful stones the major hazard was the frequency of a stinging plant that I was first introduced to on Cape Kidnappers. Urtica ferox, commonly known as tree nettle, or ongaonga in Maori, is a nettle that is endemic to New Zealand. The toxin present in the spines is tryfydin). This toxin contains histamine, serotonin and acetylcholine, the last of which causes powerful stimulation of the parasympathetic nerve system. Multiple stingings can have a very painful reaction which causes inflammation, a rash, itching, and in high concentrations loss of motor movement, paralysis, drop in blood pressure, convulsions, blurred vision and confusion. The toxin from 5 spines is enough to kill a guinea pig. There has been one recorded human death from contact—a lightly clad hunter who died five hours after walking through a dense patch. Acute polyneuropathy can occur due to U. ferox stings. It certainly felt more powerful than the common stinging nettles in the UK and I was getting stung so much that I had a uniformity of discomfort on my legs. There were markers on the very vague path that sometimes followed the streambed, but sometimes they seemed to be more hidden than obvious as if they were there for a test rather than providing assistance. I passed some beautiful groves of tree ferns lining the stream, and higher up there was a lot of pampas grass to find my way through, and foxgloves growing on the stream bank. It was getting late, and I was getting a bit frustrated with the difficulty of trying to remain on the track and not end up in more stinging ongonga. But it was beautiful walking through the tree ferns and smaller ferns on the ground as the sun was getting lower and spilling it’s golden hue through the vegetation ahead of me. I was very relieved to reach a signpost for the Mangamate Hut, but I still had 2.4 km to go and the light was fading fast and there was light rain. I used my good night vision for the last stretch before I finally made it to the very nice hut and got a welcome fire going in the stove to dry my boots and clothes. My legs and feet were hot and aching from all the ongaonga stings. That night I could hear the distinctive piercing call of a kiwi, which greatly enhanced my feeling of being immersed in an ancient rainforest.







The dreaded Urtica ferox, commonly known as tree nettle, or ongaonga in Maori, that made my legs burn.









In the morning the weather had cleared and I had a great view of the densely forested valley below. I returned to the Whirinaki River by a different track that went via the Central Whirinaki Hut and then back to the Verns Shelter where I met some lovely elderly hikers including a nice couple from England who had lived in New Zealand for a long time but hadn’t lost their accents. On my last day there on my way back along the main Whirinaki Track I took a detour to see the Whirinaki Falls where I had a surprise encounter with a pair of beautiful rare endemic blue ducks (Hymenolaimus malacorhynchos) . They were right beneath me at the beginning of the bridge, and unfortunately I wasn’t prepared for taking a photo of them. From there the river flows more dramatically through the steep terrain, and through the Te Whaiti-Nui-A-Toi Canyon where the river drops into a steep-sided narrow winding canyon of mossy polished rock. It was getting dark just as it was when I had first arrived at the entrance a few days before. I was hearing birds singing more than I had in other parts of the park apart from the kiwis at night. I had found a tiny dead bird in perfect condition on the track that made me wonder if it had died of being poisoned somehow; maybe from eating maggots that had been feeding on poisoned carrion? I stopped and lingered by all of the big trees, and when I was nearly out of the park I embraced the last few giants feeling their ancient energy and praying that they would outlive my destructive species. It was almost dark by the time I reached the car park, and my legs were very tired from so much walking and my feet equally sore. I sat down to muster up my last energy reserves but they weren’t needed because a truck emerged from the darkness out of the park and I was given a bumpy ride on the back of their truck to the Mangamate Waterfall campground a few kms away; further than I thought so I was relived to get a lift there. There were quite a few people camped there and I made a beeline for the main shelter where there was a boy feeding a roaring fire. The temperature was dropping fast and the heat was most welcome.


Pest Control in New Zealand

I got into a conversation with the boy’s father, who turned out to be the son of the founder of Minginue, which was founded as a logging town with sawmills. The topic of pest control came up very quickly and in particular the use of 1080, a pesticide using sodium fluoroacetate, which is a contentious issue in New Zealand, with the majority of the debate occurring between conservationists and hunters. Although the use of 1080 in New Zealand was deemed “effective and safe” by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment in a 2011 re-evaluation and is widely considered to be the most effective tool currently available for controlling possums over large areas, it remains a contentious issue, with the majority of the debate occurring between conservationists and livestock farmers on one side and hunters and animal rights activists on the other. Concerns are also raised about security of potable water supplies in areas where 1080 is applied. New Zealand is the largest user of biodegradable 1080 poison using about 80% of the world’s supply. Biodegradable 1080 poison is the only poison currently registered for use on mainland New Zealand as suitable for aerial targeting of the common brushtail possum – a major conservation and agricultural pest. It has been used as such since the late 1950s. Sodium fluoroacetate is imported in a raw form from the United States. This man as a deer hunter was certainly vehemently opposed to its use by the DOC (Dept. of Conservation). He talked about the protests that sometimes had been violent or involved sabotage.

New Zealand’s flora and fauna evolved for 80 million years with moa being the primary browsing animals and no predatory mammals. Consequently, the native birds, insects, and flora have developed no natural defence mechanisms against introduced animals such as possums, rats, mustelids and feral cats. These exotic species have become ecological pests, and their presence has had a disastrous effect on the populations of many endemic species, including the national symbol, the kiwi bird. Populations of the reptile tuatara have also been severely impacted. An estimated 30 million possums inhabit New Zealand, and they are found in 98% of vegetated areas on mainland New Zealand. When correctly applied, 1080 is very effective at controlling conservation pests. One aerial application can kill 98% of possums and more than 90% of rats in the targeted area. These successful knockdown rates provide vulnerable native birds with a crucial breeding window to raise chicks through to fledging, increasing their survival rate. The DOC uses aerially applied 1080 poison across about 440,000 ha of conservation land each year. This equates to 5% of the total conservation estate.

In New Zealand, the common brushtail possum was the main vector for the spread of bovine tuberculosis – a highly contagious disease affecting farmed cattle and deer. The disease was endemic in possums across about 38% of New Zealand (known as ‘vector risk areas’) but industry sources acknowledge the incidence of Bovine Tuberculosis has now fallen to less than 0.05% in the areas where it is monitored. The organisation responsible for managing bovine TB in New Zealand — the Animal Health Board – uses 1080 poison as one of a range of pesticides to kill possums and control the spread of disease to both livestock and unaffected areas of the country. Aerial application of 1080 poison is only used in places where ground control methods are impractical or unable to knock possum numbers down to a low enough level to break the disease cycle. In 2011, this was less than 10% of the total area receiving possum control. Both aerial and ground-based application of 1080 poison is also used to control rabbits — an introduced grazing pest. By 1960, it had become the main poison used in rabbit control. The combination of aerial spreading and the use of carrots poisoned with 1080 enabled rabbit boards (which were responsible for rabbit destruction work) to reduce rabbit numbers in most areas by the early 1960s.

It was a very cold night sleeping in the shelter. I got up early to catch the limited early work traffic heading back to Lake Waikemoana and hopefully on to Wairoa, and once again I was very fortunate getting a ride from the camp, and then after a short time a ride with two Isreali guys back to the lake. Before getting a ride at the crossroad I wanted to take some photos of the Maori community hall and other buildings of Minginue, of which I could only see a few houses. Minginue has suffered economic decline since the end of logging in the area and the closure of the sawmill in 1985, but hopefully the neighbouring Whirinaki Forest, returned to the iwi in 2009, is a possible economic lifeline. I only had a tantalising glimpse of the proud Maori culture on this trip to New Zealand, and I’m eager to learn more about them and connect with them on my next visit.




I had a pleasant surprise at the end of my time at Lake Waikeramoana. I had been disappointed that I had found so few insects during my time there. Then as I was walking along the road at the southern end of the lake trying to get my next ride back to Hawke’s Bay I came across this strange looking insect perched on a rock that had fallen from the rock face. I later found out that it was a New Zealand giraffe weevil (Lasiorhynchus barbicornis) endemic to New Zealand and common on the North Island. It is New Zealand’s longest beetle and the longest brentid (straight-snouted) weevil in the world: males measure up to 90 mm, and females 50 mm. In males the elongated snout or rostrum can be nearly as long as the body. Its Maori names include pepeke nguturoa (“long-beaked beetle”), tūwhaipapa, and tūwhaitara, the latter two after the Māori god of newly-made canoes, because its canoe-like body and upturned rostrum resemble a waka (canoe) and prow. I was so excited with my last-minute find that I was attracting the interest of the occasional passing motorists who unfortunately weren’t going in my direction. I did eventually get to Napier in two rides.






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