New Zealand, Walks

Whirinaki – A Dinosaur Forest

Many people may not know or remember the Whirinaki Forest, situated on the southwestern corner of Te Urewera National Park, its magnificent groves of podocarps are not generally well-known. We, who are older local N.Z.ers, will remember it firstly as a place many Whakatane and surrounding area High School students went for their annual school trips. I wasn’t one of those students; my introduction to this forest was firstly a hiking trip with a work group from the Rotorua YMCA and then day trips with local tramping clubs. This post is about recalling the beauty I remember and about this forest’s significance to us all.

The Whirinaki Hut – Mangamate

Greenies vs Conservatives

Whirinaki was one of a handful of forests that captured New Zealander’s imagination during the 1970s to mid-80s. These were years when the future of New Zealand’s native forests became a hot topic. In the mid-70s, the New Zealand Forest Service made plans to log Whirinaki selectively.

They were in for a surprise at the reaction from the new generation of conservationists. Almost overnight, secluded Whirinaki; and the tiny logging township of Minginui; were thrust into the national spotlight. Battlelines were drawn: jobs versus trees, conservatives versus greenies, locals versus townies. These were familiar themes for the times. But nowhere were they more intense than at Whirinaki. If it weren’t for prominent conservationist David Bellamy and other environmentalists, Whirinaki would likely have become another pine forest.

Whirinaki Waterfall

In the end, the tree lovers won.

The logging stopped at Whirinaki as it did in other forests. The new Labour government was in a reforming mood. By the end of its first term in office, it had created a whole new government department to manage native forests (the Department of Conservation, DOC). And in the same year, it protected Whirinaki as the Whirinaki Forest Park.

That was over 30 years ago. But what of Whirinaki now? As one who believed in the cause to “save Whirinaki”, it was a question I had often asked myself over the years, especially in debates surrounding creating jobs for locals versus conservation. 

Birds in Whirinaki?

Bush Robin (Toutouwai)

There are many, including threatened species such as kiwi, kaka, kakariki and whio (blue duck). Conservationists [D.O.C.] state that Robins are seen as an indicator species for successful conservation efforts at Whirinaki; happily, they are now seen flitting between trees in reasonable numbers. The distant calls of kakariki are a reminder that all the birds are benefiting from intensive pest control. Along with the kakariki, kaka and kereru numbers are up significantly in Whirinaki after decades of decline.

Even more apparent were the benefits to the plant community. Regeneration was so prolific; it was difficult to believe we were walking past old logging tracks in some places. Fushias, large-leaved coprosmas, pate and an incredible diversity of ground ferns filled the understory. It was a lushness that I had not expected. But it was compelling evidence that DOC’s efforts to control voracious herbivores like possums and deer; have been successful.

On many hikes through the Kaimais, one missing thing is the sound of boisterous bird life. To this day, I still remember the birdlife in Whirinaki, and I am sure I spent most of that hiking trip with my mouth open in awe.  

Most tracks are reasonably accessible.

Impressive, too, are the number of threatened plants that are found in Whirinaki. These include Turner’s kohuhu (Pittosporum turneri), Dactylanthus taylori, and numerous orchids and mistletoes. Luckily for them, possum control at Whirinaki has so far to date has been successful.

The Famous Five

Undergrowth – new life

The treasures on the forest floor wouldn’t be enough to stop anyone from gazing skywards. The five giant podocarps, miro, matai, totara, rimu and kahikatea, are all there to see. They grow together at Whirinaki, as tall and dense as any podocarp forest; only Pureora on the western side of Taupo comes close.

They are old trees.

Unfortunately, I can’t identify nor remember what species these trees are.

Most are 400– 600 years old, growing in profusion on a thick bed of pumice and ash, built up over 40,000 years. Once, not so long ago, kokako and huia would have danced in their lofty branches. When they were saplings, perhaps some of them were browsed by moa. Yet, like all podocarps, their lineage is even older.

To walk in the forests of Whirinaki is, in the famous words of David Bellamy; is to walk in a “dinosaur forest”.

26 thoughts on “Whirinaki – A Dinosaur Forest”

    1. Thanks very much, Pauline. The greenies deserved the accolades for that fight. Sometimes, they can be over the top with seemingly no logic in their actions. We just need to keep living sustainably with nature.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks very much, Jude and it is indeed an amazing place to explore. Though it does now have a few issues with access due to a few radicals. Life is never completely without hassles.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I totally agree, Jo. At present, in NZ, the forestry industry is under the spotlight for its lack of foresight with climate change issues. Mainly associated with the industry leaving behind slash after harvesting.
      Small towns/places need employment, and we need to preserve precious forests. A hard balancing act.


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