It might not be as famous as other bush-clad hotspots, but Bay of Plenty's ancient Whirinaki Forest deserves more of the spotlight, writes Tim Roxborogh.
Whirinaki has become something of an obsession. I was hiking with a friend in the never-logged, 1200ha Otanewainuku Forest south of Tauranga a few years ago when he said, "Well, if you think this is awesome, just wait until you see Whirinaki".
We must've been passing yet another neck-craning, ancient rimu, and he was right – Otanewainuku was awesome. But then came a further mention of the 56,000haWhirinaki, this time not just as being one of the great remaining podocarp forests in New Zealand, but reportedly the entire planet. And oh, by the way, Sir Edmund Hillary and David Bellamy helped save it back in the 1980s.
You had me at, "just wait until you see Whirinaki", but throw in Hillary and Bellamy? How was this place flying under the radar? And so the obsession began, one which until a few weeks ago, I'd never satiated in the flesh. I finally made it to Whirinaki Te Pua-a-Tane.
It's almost certainly a generational thing. If you were of age in the 1970s and 80s, then chances are you definitely do remember Whirinaki when it was an ongoing flashpoint of environmental versus economic tension. Located on the western flank of the prehistoric eco-system that includes the even larger Te Urewera, and once part of the grand swathe of North Island rainforest that also connected all the way to Pureora Forest (and beyond) west of Lake Taupō, Whirinaki could've been lost to loggers. Some of it was.
You're reminded of that as you venture from Rotorua, through Murupara and to the tiny former logging settlement of Minginui that sits on Whirinaki's edge. About an hour's drive, or 80-minutes if you're coming from Whakatāne (Whirinaki lies within the greater Whakatāne district), the impact and scars of man on the landscape may be subtle, but they're all around. This isn't to say it's not a beautiful drive; it is. It's just that when pockets of wild native forest this precious are interspersed with pine and pasture, it's hard not to think of what once was.
It's now decades since Hillary and heavyweight British botanist Bellamy became two of the most public faces leading the fight to preserve Whirinaki. Bellamy went as far filming an episode of documentary series Our World there in 1984, enthusing about "New Zealand's dinosaur forest", and "a living cathedral that dates back 200 million years".
That same year, Minginui locals were so angry at conservationists for putting a stop to the felling of the extraordinary 1000-year old, densely-stacked, 65m-high rimu, mataī, kahikatea, miro and tōtara that define Whirinaki that they barricaded the road into the forest to prevent bushwalking. Times have changed.
Now Minginui is home to a multimillion-dollar government-funded nursery where, instead of removing native trees for commerce, an ambitious replanting scheme is slowly creating jobs. In a town that's struggled for employment, the aim is to empower locals to extend their forest to some of its former reaches, as well as to regenerate interest in the almost Singapore-sized slab of primeval wilderness that remains at Whirinaki Te Pua-a-Tane.
Forgotten forest Minginui
The final drive from Minginui into the main carpark at Whirinaki is on dirt roads where these natural skyscrapers – some who've survived a full millennia - dwarf the smattering of cars. This is it; the forest worth fighting for. But once the battle was won, did New Zealand somehow forget about it?
The number of people who've done several of this country's 10 official Great Walks that gave me blank looks when I told them I was Whirinaki-bound suggests that when the headlines of the 80s subsided, so too did the general public's understanding of this astonishing taonga.
Whirinaki reverted back to being the undisturbed, misty-green mythic land where blessedly little changes year by year, decade by decade, century by century. Its future secured, it all but disappeared from the collective Kiwi consciousness, hidden from main trunk lines and the majority of tourist brochures. To realise a country as small as New Zealand could hide something as significant as Whirinaki was a big part of why I knew had to get here.
There are 175km of trails within the conservation park. Everything from one-hour excursions like the Sanctuary Track, right the way through to the five-day, 79.2km Te Pua-A-Tane Circuit. If you're like me and have only one full day in the park, leave Rotorua (or Whakatane) before sunrise, giving yourself plenty of daylight to do two essential walks: the 11km Whirinaki Waterfall Loop Track, and the 5.5km (return) Arohaki Lagoon Track.
The Waterfall Loop Track encompasses the moss and fern-covered organ pipe rock formations of Te Whāiti-Nui-a-Toi Canyon. It's a sight equal parts surreal and serene as the water rushes below, but as striking as this canyon is – and it's worth the minor peril to get those photos from the edge – I was never in doubt about Whirinaki's biggest selling point: the trees.
Under the canopy of Whirinaki
Some of Whirinaki's towering podocarps almost rival Waipoua Forest's Tāne Mahuta for stop-you-in-your-tracks, Honey-I-Shrunk-The-Kids wonder. With Whirinaki ecologically unique for the sheer number of giant trees per square kilometre, that feeling of taking those first strides into the forest and immediately being enveloped is profound.
Back on the main path, the Waterfall Loop Track was an easy three to four hours' walk, allowing time for a bite of lunch before the two-hour return of the Arohaki Lagoon Track. Think the Mirror Lakes on the Milford Road, but without the crowds and with a stand of kahikatea trees sprouting roots into the rain-fed, frog-filled lagoon.
Back at the car park, the silence of the forest was broken only by the birdsong of the native species who make Whirinaki Te Pua-a-Tane their home – everything from miromiro (tomtits), toutouwai (robins), kiwi, whio (blue duck), kākāriki (parakeet), and kererū (pigeon).
Te Pua-a-Tane translates as "the abundance of Tāne", with Tāne being the "God of the Forest" in Māori mythology. And what an abundance. If 2000-year old Tāne Mahuta in Waipoua is the spiritual father of all that's here in Whirinaki, his offspring have done him mighty proud. It's time a new generation of New Zealanders saw that first hand.
Need To Know:
Ngāti Whare are the active kaitiaki or guardians of Whirinaki Te Pua-a-Tane Conservation Park. Working alongside the Department of Conservation, they protect the natural, cultural, and historic resources of the forest.
Where To Stay
The Black Swan Lakeside Boutique Hotel is a nine-bedroom mansion on prime real estate in Kawaha Point, Rotorua. This is 5-star luxury where yes, you have the enormous bed, the private balcony, the Insta-cute conservatory, the sweeping views to Lake Rotorua, the brilliant cooked breakfasts, and the splashes of flamboyance in the form of chandeliers and art works.
But what really sets this place apart are the grounds. There's a private beach and jetty, a swimming pool with sun loungers, and best of all, a grand lawn surrounded by rock walls, immaculate hedges and rose gardens. Two spa pools sit in a gorgeous stone building like something out of the south of France, perfect for resting and reflecting after the day's adventures.
For more, see bayofplentynz.com/places/whirinaki-forest, and blackswanhotel.co.nz
Tim Roxborogh co-hosts Newstalk ZB's Weekend Collective, Saturday & Sunday 3pm-6pm