Northland: Holding up the sky

By Kirsten Warner

A night walk in Waipoua Forest and surfing Hokianga Harbour's sand dunes create a thrilling weekend.

At night Tane Mahuta appears to float in the Waipoua Forest. Photo / Dean Purcell
At night Tane Mahuta appears to float in the Waipoua Forest. Photo / Dean Purcell

Amy and Dave are on their honeymoon and, in spite of the rain, there is something romantic about being in the great Waipoua Forest at night.

For all of us on that night walk, this is more than just a holiday romance. Standing and listening to the disembodied voice of our guide, Bill Matthew, rising in prayer, chant and waiata from somewhere in front of us in the dense darkness is a stirring experience.

Bill's strong, melodic voice is full of reverence for the forces of creation. Here in the night forest we are transported back to the pre-European world. It's a fleeting encounter with a time when gods were believed to live among people, and nature was revered.

We could have visited the giant kauri by day, but we have all chosen to experience the mystery and freedom that darkness brings, that extra feeling of adventure, excitement and potential.

There are several eco-tourism companies, two around the Hokianga, offering night forest treks.

I am interested in the Maori world, so hook up with Footprints Waipoua, a venture associated with the Copthorne Hotel in Omapere, which offers a Maori guided tour, leaving from the hotel at 6pm.

Bill has lived and worked as a welder most of his life in Auckland, but is happy to have gone home and swapped the Sky Tower for Tane Mahuta. "No more high rise buildings," he says, "a lot more high rise trees. It's up to us to take care of the land and this environment for our future generations."

We scrub our shoes before entering the forest (to guard against carrying in the kauri dieback disease) and Bill starts his commentary about predators, life cycles, the life of the forest and Maori lore, interspersed with chanting to the "Lord of the Forest". We are all amazed by the colonies of trees and plants growing on top of the great kauri, in their own eco-system.

The giant kauri, anchored behind their protective fences, seem too vast, too old, too surreal, more like buildings or ships floating in the partial light.

Tane Mahuta may be the tallest; "Lord of the Forest" and manifestation of the god Tane: "I could really believe it was holding up the sky," says Amy.

But "Father of the Forest" Te Matua Ngahere is the oldest, even more massive and I've read it described as a "slab-sided colossus" which rises out of the gloom, "like a creation of Weta Workshops". I agree.

It's been growing for over 2000 years. "Quite a lot of Americans believe the Earth's only 6000 years old," says our honeymooner Amy Gale.

"If you think of some of things that have happened in the past 200 years," says her husband David Melski, "moon landings, electricity, the French Revolution ... and multiply that by 10 ..."

Amy, an expatriate New Zealander who has lived in the United States for 11 years, comes up with a surprising number of answers to the questions our guide throws out. She also had an uncanny in-built compass and pointed to the direction we had come from.

That particular exercise shows me how out of touch I am with my survival instincts, and I feel insignificant in this landscape.

At the end of three hours, we leave with a nut of kauri gum in our pocket and thoroughly drenched, but that doesn't matter. I meet the honeymooners again on the car ferry from Rawene to Kohukohu, and find they loved the experience so much they went back again the next morning.

"It still had the solemnity and majesty," says Amy, "but in the morning it was more casual, more touristy. I felt we should be the only tourists," she laughs.

The golden sand dunes of Hokianga Harbour are one of New Zealand's great natural wonders. They remain, thankfully, pretty much untouched, and although you are able to visit by boat or dune buggy, the operators who take you there are also careful guardians of this treasure so that no man-made disaster happens to them.

Not many people are aware that behind the vast, shifting sand hills is another extraordinary natural landscape - wind-scoured sand sculptures, like a mini-Grand Canyon.

Andrew Kendall of Sandtrails Hokianga takes visitors there, 11km down the beach from Mitimiti, in his modified VW dune buggy. He knows every inch of this strange and vast landscape and rides the contours at a calculated speed.

He also recognises any damage caused, perhaps by thoughtless trail bikers riding up the faces of the precious, soft sandstone formations, and regularly reports to the Department of Conservation.

He's a great guide, a Mitimiti local whose prayer, as we stand on the summit looking back down the dramatic Hokianga Harbour, is an expression of his belonging to this wild landing place of his ancestor Kupe. A bonus on the way back is to drive on past Mitimiti to the birth place of artist Ralph Hotere, although his family shack is now gone. Andrew can show you the river and resting place of the spirits stopping for a drink (a "mitimiti") on their journey north to Spirits Bay.

From Omapere, locals and ex-fishermen Peter Clark and Anthony Tupe of Hokianga Express Charters, run boat trips across the harbour, providing boogie boards and instructions for safe dune surfing. Hurtling down on your stomach, you use your feet as brakes - or find yourself sliding head first into the water, which is all good fun.

They plant flags to keep dune boarders within defined boundaries to limit damage to the dunes.

The dunes are pristine, rippling like the sands of Arabia. "We came out this morning with a broom and made all those patterns," jokes Anthony. "It took a while but was worth the effort."

FURTHER INFORMATION

See footprintswaipoua.com; sandtrailshokianga.co.nz and hokiangaexpress.webs.com.

- Herald on Sunday

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