Taranaki: Listen for the kiwi

By Deborah Telford

A fly-walk venture enables Deborah Telford to get close to our native bird.

On a clear, calm day you can chopper over Mt Taranaki and see the 120,000-year-old. Photo / Venture Taranaki
On a clear, calm day you can chopper over Mt Taranaki and see the 120,000-year-old. Photo / Venture Taranaki

Mt Taranaki sulks behind a thick collar of cloud even 30 knot winds won't budge.

It's a blustery day, by the bracing standards of the North Island's western-most region which cops more than its fair whack of wind, rain and sun from weather systems moving east across the Tasman Sea.

Richard Foale makes the call to go ahead with our helicopter flight from Port Taranaki to a remote Purangi farm, east of the mountain and about 60km inland from some of the country's best ocean swells along Surf Highway 45 between New Plymouth and Hawera.

The Kenyan-born pilot's 25 years' experience includes flying British Army choppers in Northern Ireland and private US planes during the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu. He and wife Jolanda moved to New Zealand in 2001 and set up their New Plymouth business, Heliview Flights, which takes scenic tours over Taranaki and the Central Plateau.

Richard's known for smooth piloting so I feel in safe hands for my first helicopter flight.

It's too windy to fly over the dormant, 120,000-year-old crater of 2518m-high Mt Taranaki. Instead, we'll cruise at 620m, flying past the 1.75 million-year-old volcanic remnants of Paritutu Rock and Sugar Loaf Islands, along the coast to Oakura, cutting inland on the west side of the Kaitake Ranges.

After our spectacular 25-minute trip, I'm not surprised to hear that choppering over Mt Taranaki is one of the most popular "must-do" experiences in the region.

Last summer, Heliview teamed up with local farmers and conservationists Karen and Bob Schumacher to offer new helicopter and minibus tours. They included guided bushwalking and kiwi listening at Otunahe on the Schumachers' 192ha farm.

The Schumachers are members of the Eastern Taranaki Environment Trust (ETET), a group of landowners working to protect kiwi from predators like possums, rats, stoats and ferrets.

"If we don't help our national bird survive, who will?" says Karen on the way to begin our bush walk.

Stubbies hitched high and feet planted wide, Bob stands, deep in concentration holding what looks like a large TV aerial above his head.

He's cracking a code from a series of clicks being emitted from a tracking device that monitors Nahe, one of at least 25 kiwi on the 70ha reserve and the first to be tracked there by ETET.

With kiwi numbers declining by 10 a day and 95 per cent of their habitats unprotected, the ETET and dozens of similar trusts have their work cut out. Yet, in just six years, the Schumachers have already boosted kiwi survival rates on their land from five per cent to more than 60 per cent.

Dappled sunlight filters through ancient native trees, including a majestic 2m-wide rimu that locals say at about 800 years is one of New Zealand's oldest.

The next day we tramp through equally stunning scenery, this time in the moody, magical rainforest that cloaks Mt Taranaki

Gazing up at munted, lichened trunks of the mountain's main canopy tree, Kamahi, our Department of Conservation guide, Dave Rogers, tells us it's the heavy rainfall washing away needed nutrients that causes their deformed shapes. "I've never known what a healthy one looks like," the veteran of 35 years' work on the mountain jokes.

A Maori affiliated to five of Taranaki's eight iwi, Dave is now a programme manager for DoC, dealing with biodiversity threats and conservation values in the area bounded by Patea, Mokau, Opunake and Whangamomona.

From the Stratford Plateau carpark, we sidle the mountain's eastern slopes to Wilkes Pools on Kapuni Stream, one of more than 365 turbulent rivers and streams that rush down the mountain.

Heading for Dawson Falls via Bubbling Springs, we stop to nibble native mountain parsley, taste carrot-flavoured Five Finger stalks, which possums adore, and spot the world's tallest moss. We hear how bales of koromiko leaves were shipped overseas to World War II troops to help cure their dysentery.

It's a clear day, the crisp air is the only elixir I need and Mt Taranaki stands stark before us after shrugging off his fluffy duvet of cloud.

"Get out your cameras," says Dave. "In a few hours he'll be gone again."

WHERE TO STAY

Stratford Mountain House: Overlooking bush, the licensed restaurant in this lodge on Mt Taranaki has excellent food. Book ahead. Ph (06) 657 6100.

Ariari Lodge: Expect charming hospitality in Eltham on the picturesque edge of New Zealand's longest man-made lake. Ph (06) 764 7577.

Ahu Ahu Beach Villas: Eco-friendly villas with great views. Ph (06) 752 7370.

Deborah Telford travelled to Taranaki with the assistance of Venture Taranaki. For more information email info@venture.org.nz, ph (06) 759 5150.

- Herald on Sunday

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