There is an intangible majesty to the Whirinaki Forest. It could be that the ‘dinosaur’ forest exudes benevolence, having withstood the ravages of human interference. Or it could be the size of the trees, many in their second millennium. Or maybe the reasons are best left unanalysed. This is a forest to just be.
Whirinaki Te Pua-a-Tane Conservation Park is signposted from SH38, 20 km from Murupara and 77 km from Waikaremoana. Turn into Minginui Road, just after Te Whaiti (coming from Murupara). A DoC campsite is situated at Mangamate Waterfall, 6.7 km from the junction on the right. The self-registration camp has toilets and tent sites by a small creek and waterfall. Minginui Village is a further 7.5 km, from where roads to most tracks depart. After Minginui all roads are unsealed and some are in a poor state of repair.
The start of the track is signposted from the River Road Carpark.
At Te-Whaiti-Nui-A-Toi Canyon (15 minutes), a signposted junction marks the branching of the loop track.
Continue straight ahead over the footbridge to admire the canyon and follow the true right of the Whirinaki River. This is spectacular podocarp forest with monolithic columns thrusting skyward all around. It is difficult to pinpoint what makes this forest so special, but the sheer density of untapering straight trunks rising to benevolent crowns certainly imparts reverence. Battalions of wheki ponga, with their drooping skirts, line the trackside. An open and airy feel predominates.
Occasional gaps in the vegetation allow glimpses of the Whirinaki River, which glides effortlessly through the valley it has created. Listen and look for the whio (blue duck), which frequents the areas of rapids.
The track crosses several footbridges with links to tramping tracks deeper into the Whirinaki Forest Park and the Urewera’s. After a short climb, which crosses a spur, the first echoes of the Whirinaki Waterfall become audible (1¼ hours).
The bridge over the river is just above the falls, which tumble ferociously into a cylindrical bowl. Ferns and mosses encrust the sheer walls and mature forest tops the small cliffs There are no real viewpoints of the falls, just glimpses of the spray emanating from the plunging water.
The return leg on the true left of the river doesn’t experience quite the same forest majesty. Good views of the massive podocarps on the opposite bank are frequent. If it’s raining, the tumultuous waterfalls cascade very close to the trackside, on occasions offering a brief, but drenching, shower as you run the gauntlet past them. The track then rejoins the initial part of the loop at the canyon (1¼ hours).
“Whirinaki is one of the great forests of the world. Such a global comparison is needed to put it in its deserved ranking. It is the finest of all New Zealand’s remaining giant podocarp forests”.
This is the opening paragraph of To Save a Forest, a quality book published by David Bateman in 1984, authored by John Morton, John Ogden and Tony Hughes. This fine volume was written in response to the New Zealand Forest Service’s 1979 Management Plan for Whirinaki Forest Park, which proposed: “Some 19,740 hectares of indigenous forest are particularly suited to timber production of which 13, 590 hectares have been zoned for short and long term management”.
The Government of the time saw Whirinaki as a resource to be ‘managed’, a way to keep the nearby logging settlement of Minginui in employment. No regard was given to the magnificence of the podocarp giants and their place as a showcase of New Zealand’s botanical heritage.
The podocarps are a family of trees, whose lineage stretches back over 200 million years. They evolved before the appearance of flowering plants and are distinguished by a succulent foot like appendage on the seed. The antiquity, complexity and grandeur of the Whirinaki Forest makes it virtually unique in the New Zealand and global contexts. Nowhere else is there such density of massive rimu, matai, miro, totara, northern rata and kahikatea. These species were flourishing on Gondwanaland, the supercontinent that existed as an amalgamation of today’s Southern hemisphere landmasses. Dinosaurs roamed through a forest with a very similar make up.
There are a combination of factors contributing to Whirinaki’s uniqueness. The climate is superhumid, therefore there is low loss of moisture through evapotranspiration. The abundant rainfall nourishes a high species diversity in a localised area. Eight ash showers in the last 10,000 years have formed light, freely drained pumiceous loam soils, which can support high densities of vegetation. Volcanic activity has also levelled forests, creating new soil for vigorous recolonisation.
Some kahikatea reach over 60 metres in height, many with a massive girths. “These giants thrust up like swords to the light of the open sky”, writes Morton. The primary canopy is complete, old and virtually closed. The foliage of the sub-canopy also shades the forest floor, so the interior is devoid of substantial seasonal fluctuations. Empires of epiphytes and twisted liana bejewel the branches and trunks of their hosts. The evergreen leaves and honey-green of the dominant tawa sub-canopy filter through a sublime light.
The altitudinal range of Whirinaki displays a textbook succession of forest types. Dense podocarp forest to gives way to medium density podocarp forest and hardwood species. At higher altitudes, mixed podocarp-beech then merges to beech forest at the tops of the hills.
It was this priceless forest that the government of the 1970s decided should be logged for the short-term economic gains of a small community. The plans for destruction came as part of a wholesale policy to exploit the native timber resources of the entire country. Colin Moyle, the then Minister of Forests, proposed an international tender for logging, chipping and pulping of South Island beech forests. These ludicrous ideas prompted the Native Forests Action Council to submit a petition with 341,160 signatures to the government in 1976 – the largest petition New Zealand has ever witnessed. In 1978, nearby Pureora Forest was saved from loggers by activists sitting in the branch clefts of similarly massive podocarps to Whirinaki. A strong campaign waged by the Native Forest Action Council was unsuccessful in turning the minds of the New Zealand Forest Service, whose 1981 plan only designated 19% of Whirinaki’s area free from the loggers axe and saw.
In 1984 Whirinaki was reclassified as a Forest Park. This was seen by conservationists as a veiled bureaucratic facade with the potential for conservation minded management, but little in the way of concrete measures for protection. The conservationists contented the nearby mill at Minginui could easily be converted to processing the massive crops of exotic pines from nearby Kaingaroa Forest, thus ensuring Minginui’s employment for a generation.
In To Save a Forest, the authors concluded there were no real arguments to continue native logging, relating to either employment, export of domestic needs. “A successful campaign must see Whirinaki removed totally from the orbit of timber production and administered with entirely different non-exploitative aims in mind.”
Fortunately their vision and dedicated battling through stubborn bureaucracy has won through. “Few other places in the world could better provide this quality and variety of outdoor experience, remote from the affluence and artificiality of the conventional tourist round,” they contend. And rightly so.
“Whirinaki has no parallel of its kind on earth today. By its antiquity, in its great height and density, but more than all – by its sheer beauty, it inspires us with reverence and awe.” After a visit, you will surely agree.
North Island ▷ Bay of Plenty ▷ Galatea
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Thanks to all the good people working for the NZ Department of Conservation - for all your hard work - making NZ more beautiful, accessable and healthy! Cheers 😍