Little Barrier Island: Good for the soul

By Cliff Taylor

Little Barrier Island truly is New Zeland's last untouched natural sanctuary.

Boulder beach on Hauturu (Little Barrier Island). Photo / Cliff Taylor
Boulder beach on Hauturu (Little Barrier Island). Photo / Cliff Taylor

A famous story is told around the Hauraki Gulf of how Rahui Te Kiri, wife of the last chief of Hauturu (Little Barrier Island) was so aggrieved at being evicted from her home that she swam back to the island - twice.

The details of this epic swim have been clouded by the passing of more than a century. But when you've been to Hauturu, and relatively few people have, you begin to understand what could have compelled Rahui to try so desperately to return.

My connection to the place bears no comparison to that of the Maori, of different iwi, who occupied the island for centuries and left many pa sites and pits on its knife-edge ridges. I first visited when I crewed on a fishing boat in my early 20s, and we anchored beneath Hauturu's impregnable sea cliffs. I lay on my bunk listening through the hull to the boulders rolling over each other in the swell.

Later, as a volunteer on the Department of Conservation's kakapo programme, I tramped through the primordial forests and sensed that this truly was New Zealand's last untouched natural sanctuary.

I've always dreamed of returning.

This summer I did, again as a DOC volunteer, joining an eight-strong team on a two-week reptile monitoring mission. The entire island is off-limits to the public, so a permit is required to land and one of the few ways you can get one is through DOC's volunteer programme.

Hauturu is special. "The wind's resting post" wears its cloud crown in splendid isolation, clearly visible 22km from the mainland, yet untouchable. It is very steep and very wild, protected by towering cliffs and boulder banks. As I approached by boat after the hour-long journey from Leigh, I could hear the island vibrating with cicadas and birdsong.

Its history is contentious. Fought over by different Maori tribes, up to a third of its forest cover was cleared for farming until, towards the end of the 19th century, the Crown started negotiating with the few Maori still living there to buy the island, ostensibly for a nature reserve. Even then its uniqueness was recognised.

A purchase agreement appeared to have been reached, but the chief Tenetahi, who felt he was being treated unfairly and had incurred large debts trying to prove ownership of the island, allowed contractors to start logging the kauri. Alarmed, the Crown passed special legislation in 1894 to compulsorily purchase Hauturu. Tenetahi and Rahui refused to leave their beloved homeland and were forcibly evicted by armed police.

Some bitterness has existed ever since, although a settlement was finally reached last year in which Hauturu was handed back to Ngati Manuhiri who, in turn, gifted it to New Zealand after seven days. Access rights for the hapu and land to build a whare are included in the settlement.

During the intervening century, Hauturu has become an island lifeboat for this country's fauna, and one of our most important centres for conservation. It has been described as the only remaining large forest area undisturbed by introduced browsing mammals. The battles against feral cats and rats have been won, although not without cost. Two workers have died over the years after falling on the steep terrain and are commemorated on the island.

But the result has been spectacular. Wander anywhere on Little Barrier and you will be serenaded by an astonishing array of feathered divas; korimako (bellbirds), tieke (saddleback), tui, hihi (stitchbird), kaka, popokotea (whitehead), kakariki.

The bandit-masked kokako hop about on the lawn beside the volunteers' bunkhouse, grazing on daisies and clover flowers. After one strenuous day I was lying on the hot rocks at the beach, lulled to sleep by the sound of the sea, cicadas and the haunting, almost childlike cry of the kokako, when a North Island robin landed on my knee.

The island's wetapunga insects grow as heavy as blackbirds and some earthworms are 1.4m long. Then there are the lizards, a wide variety of skinks and geckos which we had to collect in pit fall traps, measure, weigh and record. These, too, are showing positive signs of recovery since the eradication of rats in 2004.

The rangers, Richard and Leigh Walle, run the tuatara breeding programme. In 1990, just four tuatara were found on Hauturu. Nearly 140 have now been released into the wild, and so far this year 43 eggs have been laid in the tuatarium.

The island has been central to efforts to save the kakapo and once hosted half the world population of this extraordinary prehistoric parrot. But they struggled to breed in the harsh environment and were transported to Codfish and Maud Islands in 1998. However, in mid April, seven kakapo were released on the island amid high hopes that the improved environment would allow them to thrive. Hauturu even calls its birds back home.

DOC runs many volunteer programmes around the Gulf islands, but Little Barrier provides possibly the greatest challenge. Strict quarantine measures are enforced and placements are usually longer in duration than on some of the other islands.

This is not a place for the unfit or faint-hearted. Each day, the volunteers set out to hike a specific route, checking and re-baiting traps. The tracks can be steep, requiring ropes in places, and often involve long periods of rock-hopping along the coast. But when the day's rounds are done and the data has been punched into the computer, it's time for the beach. Swimming, snorkelling, sunbathing and breathtaking sunsets.

One unforgettable evening began, simply enough, with a dolphin swimming past. Later I sighted a whale, its black back and white vapour spout gleaming in the evening sun.

As the team gathered to watch, the whale rocked and rolled , stingrays with wing spans as wide as a table flapped lazily in the shallows, great schools of silvery fish erupted from the sea surface and a solitary little penguin landed and waddled up the beach, looking at us in unafraid puzzlement. My Russian, American, Australian and local colleagues agreed, this was far more entertaining than TV.

The bats come out at dusk, wheeling against the sky and, later, the kiwi step on to the stage. They are so plentiful it is possible to spot them directly outside the bunkhouse, even in day time.

It is difficult to describe the effect of spending two weeks on Hauturu. I arrived wasted by three weeks of flu, two of severe toothache and God knows how many hours of lost sleep. I departed deeply tanned, feeling fitter, stronger and calmer than for many years. It really is that special.

The Austrian naturalist Andreas Reischek, who searched for the hihi on Hauturu, described it thus: "In this primeval paradise, I felt the windows of my soul were opened."

As I stood on the deck of the departing DOC boat, Hinemoa, looking up at the cloud-shrouded summit of Hauturu, where the patupaiarehe or fairies are said to dwell, I promised myself that, like Rahui Te Kiri and the kakapo, I too would return.

Volunteering for DOC:

Practically the only way to gain access to Hauturu (Little Barrier) is to become a DOC volunteer. People wanting to volunteer need to be fit and able to commit for extended periods. References may be requested to confirm fitness and suitability.

There are numerous other volunteer programmes on islands in the Hauraki Gulf, including Aotea (Great Barrier), Tiritiri Matangi, Kawau, Motutapu, Motuora, Motuihe and Rangitoto. The work includes different types of conservation activities, such as species monitoring, weeding and planting and general maintenance.

Experienced people can also apply to work on Raoul Island in the Kermadecs, although these placements are normally for several months.

Further information: Contact Sue Cameron at aucklandvolunteer@doc.govt.nz or on (09) 425 7812.

- Herald on Sunday

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