My manu rākau is a huia. That is my walking stick — carved into the shape of the magnificent bird, long since gone. Chris has a kākāriki and Freddie's is a moa. A pīwakawaka for Isaac and a tūī for Daisy. We are not tourists, says our guide, Stella.
We are given our manu rākau so that we might see Opua Forest as the birds would.
It's an enchanting idea. A visceral connection to the past, the present and to the forest.
"I don't like the word 'tourist'." Stella Schmid meets us at the wharf at Paihia, where she used to have a job cleaning. Now the wharf is the pick-up point for her Papatūānuku Earth Mother Tours, one of three Walking Weekend tours in the Bay of Islands.
Wherever you are from, you are manuhiri, a guest. It's about whakawhanaungatanga, she says. Relationships. That is how she rolls.
Stella's day started at 5am when she got up to make the fried bread we will eat at the end of our walk, which will be still warm, and liberally spread with butter and kānuka honey.
Stella has long been a kaitiaki of the forest. She grew up in Waitangi. Now she's one of three trustees of the conservation group Bay Bush Action, and she promotes their conservation work through her walking tours.
The group maintains 2040 traps in a 500ha area. They hope to get rid of pests so kiwi can thrive once again.
Once the kiwi were all gone. Now there are six pairs in the area.
"It's hard work, trapping. My son started when he was 7. He's 15 now and he doesn't want to trap any more. But he's done a good job and one day he'll come back to it.
"We all want to restore the mauri, the life force, back to the forest, by trapping all these introduced mammals," she says.
In five years, they've caught more than 8000 rats, nearly 3000 possums, 131 stoats, and 112 feral cats.
Stella even has a benevolent view of the pests that decimate the native flora and fauna.
"Everything has a place — by no means am I a cold-hearted killer. It's important to be compassionate. That is why we are here, seeing the forest through the eyes of a bird. "
THE STOATS, the possums, the rats. The humans. Now there is another devastating challenge: kauri dieback. So when we get out of Stella's van, at the start of our walk, the first thing we do is disinfect our shoes using the wash station. These ancient trees are in a free fall from a pathogen that threatens their very existence. It's not known where it came from.
Once kauri were all over the North Island but now there are fewer than 2800ha of kauri forest remaining. These tuākana rākau (ancient guardians of the forest), may some day become just a memory.
Stella leads us to Tāne Tū Kaha. "His age is estimated at around 500 years old. His name translates as Tāne the guardian of this forest, standing alone but strong.''
His strength is a reminder of our responsibility, says Stella, "to stand strong as the voice for the protection and conservation of Te Taiao — the natural world for Tāne and all his tamariki."
She has a story behind every plant. Take the "Shining karamū" — it has dense clusters of orange berries that the tūī love to eat and that you can make a drink from the leaves to heal ailments. The pūriri, and the īro (larvae) that burrows through the trunk and lives off the sap of the tree for more than seven years before it transforms into the beautiful moth, we all know as the pūriri moth. The hollows in the pūriri were at times used as the burial place for the bones of the great leaders of her tribe.
"Don't step under the kahakaha after a heavy rain," she says. Otherwise known as the widow maker, the kahakaha, or perching lily, become heavy when sodden and they will fall. "There's one thing that I am fearful of when I'm checking traps, especially in the lower parts of the forest ... when I hear a massive crack, and think, 'where's that tree falling from?'"
See the rimu, she says. Inside those branches is sap that when burnt creates light like a torch once used to illuminate a journey a pathway.
The leaves of neinei (spiderwood), a plant that reminds me of pictures in the Dr Seuss books, were used to make raincoats, by thatching the garment, much like you would a roof.
The toto (kauri gum) or blood of the kauri had many uses. Collected and processed for the use as varnish and burnt to soot and used as ink for tā moko (tattoos). Sap also was mixed with other plant juices and used as a toothpaste.
Stella is in awe of her ancestors, of their ingenuity and resilience. "My waka — I just put gas in it and drive four and half hours to Hamilton if I want to go camping. But for my ancestors, their work was their camping and their camping was their work. Harvesting food required skill and energy. Not like going to 'pensioner's rock' — the mussels at Countdown."
All the proceeds from that delicious kānuka honey goes right back into Bay Bush Action's
conservation work to preserve and protect the forest and the kiwi that live in it.
Coastal Kayakers Walk
Our fabulous and funny guide Chad drops us at the entrance to the Waitangi Forest. See you at the Haruru Falls in a couple of hours, he says, and with a casual wave of his hand, he's off. We head into the bush, where there are a few minor washouts from recent rain, but it's an easy trail for my tribe of three 11-13-year-olds.
We meander along, chatting and trying to identify native birds, and we eventually fall silent, letting the blissful tranquillity envelop us. There is a saying: if you are seeking creative ideas, go for a walk. Angels talk to those who walk. The pīwakawaka dancing at our feet may well be agents of the gods. One of the highlights for us all is a magnificent boardwalk through the mangrove forest at Waitangi Inlet. We see kōtare (kingfisher), kōtuku (heron) and kawau (nesting shags) high in the pōhutukawa. We hear the Haruru Falls before we see them. The foot of the falls and the fertile surrounding basin was New Zealand's first river port. In two hours we see no one, until the last five minutes before the falls. Take snacks and water for the walk, and enjoy it at a relaxed pace.
Urupukapuka Island - Project Birdsong
We jump on the 10.20am ferry at Russell and settle in for the 40-minute journey to Otehei Bay. Urupukapuka Island can only be described as a kind of wild utopia. At the jetty there's a massive school of tāmure (snapper) swirling around in a silver-pink frenzy. There's a sense of abundance. The island has been pest mammal-free since 2009 and is slowly being restored to the natural wonder it was before the farming, before the fires and the pests raged and destroyed the native bush and wildlife. If the past is a travesty, the present is a wonder to behold and a testament to the graft of the dedicated volunteers who have planted thousands of trees here. We start our walk from the old lodge and up through the mānuka and kānuka shrubland. Maddie has an enviable job. Today she is our personal DoC guide, but mostly she takes students on guided walks to show the work of Project Birdsong and Te Rāwhiti hapu.
It's an extraordinary experience. The first thing you notice is the serenity, punctuated by birdsong. We see the impossibly cute and curious toutouwai (North Island robin), the tīeke (North Island saddleback), countless tūī and pāteke (brown teal). These are some of the species, including reptiles, seabirds and plants that have been reintroduced to the island. What is most spectacular about this experience is the startling diversity. There are old pā sites, a wetland, and spectacular pōhutukawa fringed-cliffs, where we gasp in wonder at the views at the islands of Ipipiri. Our great circuit walk takes about five hours and is easy, although there are some steep inclines. We swim and snorkel and end the day with hot chips and cold drinks at the Island Lodge. We delay our departure to the last possible moment, catching the 6.30pm ferry to return to Russell and soak our walking weary bones in a hot bath.
What to bring: lunch, togs, a snorkel and mask is a great idea.
Omata Estate Vineyard & Kitchen
When we arrive at Omata, after our two-hour adventure with Stella, the place is packed with people like us on the trail of the Walking Weekend, taking respite and taking in the extraordinary views across the vineyard to the estuary. We order a selection of wines to taste and the kids get juices. Outside, the pizza oven is cranking, and we are famished so we order a couple of large pizzas to share and a platter. They call in extra staff to cope with the influx but they are calm, attentive and delightful. omata.co.nz
For more informaation on walking weekends see boiwalkingweekend.co.nz and to book, go to eventfinda.co.nz/tour/2018/bay-of-islands-walking-weekend-2018