Waipoua: Whispers in the forest

By Paul Rush

The four sisters portray remarkable sibling harmony. Photo / Footprints Waipoua
The four sisters portray remarkable sibling harmony. Photo / Footprints Waipoua

I once met a Waipoua Forest guide who knew the enchanted forest intimately but harboured an inexplicable fear of the children of the mist. Many times he traversed the winding trails at night and felt a presence - a mystical spirit figure shadowing him.

"One night I had this unmistakable feeling that something was taunting me. I looked up and saw a tiny human figure dart across the track. The vegetation parted, the unknown being passed through and it closed up again," he told me.

"I spoke to it gently, assuring it that I meant no harm. I grew up in an isolated area of the Hokianga, so I'm no stranger to turuhu people and patupaiarehe fairy folk."

All the Hokianga guides I have since met nurture a compelling desire to reveal the secrets of their beloved kauri forest.

Footprints Twilight Encounter is a four-hour night tour of the forest and the man of the moment on tonight's tour is Tawhiri Tiwai, an imposing figure with long black hair and a mischievous smile.

He hails from the tiny settlement of Waima, "the pivotal centre around which the universe revolves".

As a kaumatua, Tawhiri knows the little people - they are his loyal subjects.

After a karakia (prayer), we enter the forest and examine some of the 300 species of trees, plants and ferns.

Tawhiri pulls out his "laptop", a plastic folder with illustrations of the different species of kiwi found in the forest. We study this in the fading light as a lone native owl begins his haunting repetitive call of "morepork, morepork".

"The kauri tree is a hermaphrodite, producing male and female cones like these," Tawhiri explains in whispered tones, passing me a healthy looking male specimen.

"The female blossoms open at a certain time prompting the male to pollinate and then ignominiously fall to the ground and die."

As the light begins to fade, we penetrate deeper into the forest, listening to distant bell-like whistles and guttural croaks of the tui, the last of the day-time birds.

We come upon a rare sight in Waipoua, the "Four Sisters". These four kauri trees live in perfect sibling harmony growing only one metre apart. At their feet we find a very rare carnivorous kauri snail, which has some unusual habits like whistling, eating worms and climbing trees.

"Oh mighty Father of the Forest, you have stood for 2000 years, you stand tall today - may you continue to stand and prosper. We bring you greetings from this whanau."

In the inky darkness Tawhiri's deep disembodied voice rings out in a mihi (greeting). We have reached the base of a giant tree.

Te Matua Ngahere has to be seen to be believed. It is surely some unreal creation of Weta Workshops. A vast wall of timber that reminds me more of a cliff face than a tree. The Father of the Forest is one of the largest living things in the world.

Retracing our steps by torchlight, our group arrives at another place of great significance. A deep, resonant voice carries the expressive tones of the Maori language up into the canopy, which is silhouetted against the palest blue vestige of twilight in the sky.

"Maori believe that you, Tane Mahuta, are the God of the Forest. You created all life. In the beginning there was darkness as our parents Papatuanuku, Earth Mother and Ranginui, Sky Father, were locked in eternal embrace. Only you, great Tane, had the strength to force Ranginui skywards to allow light to enter our world."

We look up, following the spotlight beam and stand dwarfed and humbled by his "Lordship", Tane Mahuta.

Paying homage to the ancient Lord of the Forest is the highlight of our twilight encounter. He is truly a giant, towering 51 metres into the sky, ramrod straight and beautifully symmetrical.

He was already a giant when the first Maori voyager Kupe arrived in the Hokianga. His primordial forest is a living link with the age of the dinosaurs.

"We are very proud of what we have here in Waipoua," Tawhiri explains.

"You may not be aware of it, but we have planted a seed in each of you - a seed of conservation for all our beautiful living things."

Our guide concludes the tour with a heartfelt waiata (sacred chant) to bring mana and strength to the declarations of respect for Tane Mahuta.

Our group has experienced one of the world's top 82 ecotourism attractions, as identified by the Lonely Planet guide.

We leave the forest in thoughtful silence. We have listened, we have seen and now we understand.

We will nurture that little seed of understanding and it will surely grow.

FACT FILE

Footprints Twilight Encounter: Operates daily at 6pm with a minimum of two guests. It departs from Footprints Office, 50 metres west of Opononi Hotel and from Copthorne Hotel, Omapere and is four hours in duration. Freephone: 0800 687 836 or see footprintswaipoua.com.

Paul Rush travelled to Waipoua courtesy of Kings Tours and Footprints Waipoua.

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