I’ve been wanting to write this piece for nearly a year…
Last January we explored New Zealand’s North Island. There are many, many wonderful sights there, just like the South Island, but unique in it’s own way.The North Island is warmer, bordering on semi-tropical on the north side. There are numerous islands on the north side of the North Island that are beautiful and special places, along with a lot of sea life. The North Island has New Zealand’s only active volcanoes, as well as a small desert in the rain shadow of one of those volcanoes – Mt. Tongariro. The North Island also has some very appealing intimate sights, just like most anyplace else in the world.
As much as I love big, bold landscapes like the Grand Canyon or New Zealand’s Southern Alps, there are many times that I also enjoy the small, intimate locations. Many times, you have these little locations all to yourself and can almost lose yourself in the solitude and the simple beauty of these places. On New Zealand’s North Island there once grew forests of large and ancient Kauri trees (Agathis australis). To see a Kauri tree is to stand in the presence of greatness. They are massive trees and impressive like redwood or sequoia, but in a slightly different way.
Kauri trees have a similar girth as sequoias and redwoods, but aren’t nearly as tall. However, they contain nearly as much usable wood since the tree doesn’t taper significantly. Also impressive is there life span as they are estimated to be many centuries, and even millennia, old. Kauri trees held a special place in the world of the Maori. As the largest tree in northern New Zealand, it provided a great hull for a Maori waka or war canoe. The Kauri tree is so large that it took a great deal of time and patience to fell one for a waka. The kauri would be selected, a clearing made around it, and then it would be left to slowly die before falling on its own or with some assistance. Seen as a member of the Maori spiritual realm, the selected Kauri tree would receive an incantation from the tohunga (priest) to propitiate Tane (The God of the Forest) and remove any religious restrictions (tapu) that might be on the tree. As an example, the waka that is on display at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds is nearly 35 meters long. Kauri trees also were valuable for more modern ships and their masts, as well as building materials.
Alas, since kauri trees have been so popular, particularly by the Europeans for their ships and homes, as well as slow growing, the Kauri forests are now believed to cover about ten percent of their former area. The remaining Kauri trees are generally protected on conservation lands or simply out of respect. Kauri trees are also suffering from soil fungus infections that are making their survival even more difficult. It is breathtaking to drive through the kauri forest. While these trees are not plentiful, they are relatively easy to pick out since they are so large. We were able to behold Kauri up close in a couple of locations on the North Island. At one site while you’re driving through the Waipoua Forest with your jaw agape, after a short walk you can stand in awe of Tane Mahuta – The Lord of the Forest – the largest Kauri tree remaining in New Zealand. Even better, in my mind, was the hiking path that wound by and around several Kauri trees in the Omahuta Kauri Sanctuary near Mangamuka. At the Omahuta Kauri Sanctuary you are able to get up close and personal with several different Kauri trees, although the drive isn’t nearly as easy as getting to Tane Mahuta – but definitely worth it. You’ll very likely have Omahuta all to yourself. Carefully walk through this forest, watching your step, as you’ll likely spend much of the time looking upward!
Lastly, I think that the thing that most impressed me about the Kauri trees was the small ecosystem that each large, mature tree holds in its branches, many meters above the ground. There are so many different plants growing “up” in the sky, in the canopy of the forest, clinging to the kauri trees, and using available moisture and rain, and nutrients. That’s how you view the world when you’re partly an ecologist. Amazing!