Tongariro: Of willows and wetlands

By Fraser Crichton

Fraser Crichton joins a Project Tongariro field trip kayaking at Waimarino Wetland Reserve on Lake Taupo.

A volunteer on the Waimarino Wetland for Project Tongariro. Photo / Fraser Crichton
A volunteer on the Waimarino Wetland for Project Tongariro. Photo / Fraser Crichton

Kayaks scrape off the concrete of the Motuoapa slip, just north of Turangi, to glide into the mirror blue of Lake Taupo. It's 10am and I'm here on a Project Tongariro educational field trip, exploring the Waimarino Wetland Reserve.

Our guide for the day is Nick Singers, the Department of Conservation's technical support officer, flora, for the Tongariro area. Project Tongariro is a community organisation that runs field trips and conservation projects across the Tongariro National Park, with members from as far afield as Auckland and Wellington. Today there are 10 of us on a family trip and all the kayaks and gear have been provided free.

We paddle north out into the lake and curve westwards a few hundred metres off shore. The lake is glassy flat and the sun is strong. There's a dense line of willows, their autumn leaves still glowing yellow; giving no clue of the wetland that lies behind. It's nothing special, really. Just reeds and bush and willows. Lots of willows.

They may look pretty in their golden autumn or fresh spring colours, but Nick tells us that willows are actually an introduced weed. They clog waterways and create a sterile understorey where native plants like flax and raupo can't grow, in turn this threatens the birds and animals relying on native plants as a food source.

For the past six years DoC and Project Tongariro volunteers have cleared willows from the reserve. Killing the willows using herbicide sprays was easy; not killing the native plants and animals at the same time was harder.

We turn south towards the lakeshore and follow a narrow channel that twists and disappears behind shrubbery. The paddles catch in the branches and dip deep in mud, but we pop out on the other side into the wetland proper.

The water is surrounded by reed beds and stunning views of Mt Tongariro and Ngauruhoe. Nick's son, Max, out in front, disturbs a raft of Canada geese. They curve off into the sky, honking. Pied stilts and white herons are wading in the mud. It's an enchanting place.

Eighteen hundred years ago the view was a little different.

"Just imagine bare white pumice around the entire Lake Taupo hill catchment," Nick says, explaining that the wetland formed just after Lake Taupo erupted. Pumice washed off the mountains and formed a river delta of volcanic sediment. Today the only thing that stirs the water is the movement of the kayaks.

We reach a point after about an hour, where it's too shallow to keep paddling. We join our kayaks into a raft and Nick cuts open a watermelon, sharing out slices across the hot plastic deck. In the distance we can see a band of dead willows; the work the volunteers have carried out. Nick tells us that in 10 years' time Waimarino will have regenerated, with flax, manuka and kahikatea replacing the willows.

As the wind gets up, the bows of the kayaks slap and splash in the tiny waves. Paddling is harder, but we make it back to the slip and pull the kayaks back out.

It's noon and time for lunch at the Licorice Cafe.

ESSENTIAL INFO

Project Tongariro: Ph (07) 386 6499 (leave a message, the office is not staffed full-time) or email info@tongariro.org.nz for details. Annual membership $30 individual, $50 family. Join the AGM at Blue Duck Station on the Whanganui and Retaruke Rivers surrounded by Whanganui National Park (reached via Taumarunui or National Park) 2 nights from $103, guided walk $21 October 12 to 14. Te Matapuna Wetlands planting, October 20 with more planting projects and walks through November and December.

Licorice Cafe: 57 State Highway 1, Motuoapa, ph (07) 386 5551.

- NZ Herald

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