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Blue ducks and babbling brooks

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October 2019 Issue

The three-day Whirinaki Circuit is a North Island forest classic

Whirinaki. The name flows off the tongue almost like a whisper. This is a place of quiet, where the forest hushes the wind, muffles the sound of the streams, and the birds enjoy protection high in the canopy.

Whirinaki possesses a beauty both magnificent and subtle: there are stands of podocarp so dense and seemingly ancient that they amplify their Mesozoic past of some 200 million years ago. But these stands are rare, even in Whirinaki, and this circuit more often passes through areas where the forest is less columnar, but still beautiful in its own way: ranks of umbrella-like tree ferns, dark understoreys beneath tawa trees, the light diffuse and dappled on the forest floor.

In the past, however, Whirinaki has seen noisy protest and bitter controversy, making newspaper headlines around the country. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, it was the battleground between the Forest Service and the local community against conservationists and protestors, who wanted the selective logging trials to stop. International conservation heavyweight David Bellamy lent his name to the cause, as did prominent Auckland University professor John Morton, and Sir Ed Hillary. They joined ranks with conservation groups Native Forest Action Council and Forest & Bird to produce a large format book, To Save a Forest, which featured outstanding photography and made an impassioned plea to save the forest.

The conservationists won public support, and the logging stopped. In 1987, Whirinaki Forest Park was created, now known as Whirinaki Te Pua-a-Tane Conservation Park. However, for the people of Minginui, the end of logging meant loss of jobs and livelihoods. The small village never fully recovered, although some locals now run guided trips, while others are involved in pest control efforts.

This three-day circuit offers a superb introduction to the 84,000ha park, which lies adjacent to Te Urewera. Together, they form the largest remaining contiguous tract of native forest in the North Island. The circuit offers good benched tracks (thought about one-fifth of the circuit follows waterways which could become difficult or impassable in wet conditions) with generally easy gradients, two excellent huts, plus the chance to hear kākā and see whio. The forest is one of eight ‘whio forever’ sites around the country where blue ducks are protected by a predator control programme.

1. Forest Road and park entrance
From the car park at Forest Road, the well-graded track heads directly into some of the densest stands of podocarps in the park, with the five main species all present: kahikatea, rimu, miro, totara and matai.

2. Te Whaiti Nui A Toi Canyon
After about 15 minutes, the track crosses a footbridge over Te Whaiti Nui A Toi Canyon, a small but impressive narrowing of the Whirinaki River, confined within mossy ignimbrite walls.

3. Mangamate Stream
The track continues up the true right of the Whirinaki River, soon passing the Moerangi Track junction. After about 90 minutes, the track reaches the signposted turn-off into Mangamate Stream. Here, travel is mainly on tracks beside the river, but it fords often, and sometimes follows the riverbed for short sections (this could be impassable when the river is in flood).

4. Mangamate Hut
The track reaches a grassy clearing at a prominent fork, where Mangamate Hut used to sit before it was relocated higher up the valley. The track now sidles and climbs to a low saddle, where the nine-bunk hut occupies a small grassy clearing.

5. Kakanui and Taumutu streams
The track drops down the other side of the saddle into the headwaters of Kakanui Stream, a branch of which is followed south, and eventually over another small forest saddle into the headwaters of Taumutu Stream. By now, tawa dominates much of the forest, providing pleasantly cool travel even on a hot summer’s day. It’s about this point that you are extremely grateful for the good nature of the track; the complex, convoluted ridges and streams would be exceedingly challenging navigation if off-track. Easy travel down the Taumutu Stream leads to its confluence with Whirinaki River, at a footbridge.

6. Central Whirinaki Hut
Head north along the true right of the Whirinaki on the easy, flat track. Central Whirinaki Hut occupies a substantial clearing, set on flats near the river. It’s the largest hut
in the park, with bunk space for 25. Ample camping exists nearby.

7. Verns Camp
The track continues north, following the Whirinaki River downstream, with numerous opportunities to reach the river edge and watch for whio. It sticks to the true right, crossing a few tributaries on footbridges, until reaching Verns Camp where there is a permanent shelter, sometimes used by guided parties staying in the area, and three campsites.

8. Whirinaki Falls
About 45 minutes north of Verns Camp, the track reaches another junction. Head left to reach a viewpoint of Whirinaki Falls. Although only 8m high, the Whirinaki River has enough volume to make for a decent spectacle.

9. Whirinaki Waterfall Loop Track
This track stays on the true left of the Whirinaki River, rejoining the inward track at the footbridge over Te Whaiti Nui A Toi Canyon. The car park and the end of the circuit are just 15 minutes away.

10. Arohaki Lagoon
No trip to Whirinaki Te-Pua-a-Tane Conservation Park is complete without a visit to this extraordinary lagoon. Arahaki is a sizeable wetland surrounded by magnificent stands of kahikatea trees, standing side by side like ranks of soldiers, their feet in the water. DOC has constructed a viewing deck among the gnarled buttresses of one edge of the lagoon. The walk begins from a car park 1.5km further up from Forest Road car park. Allow an hour each way.

Total Ascent
Easy / Moderate
Mangamate Hut (9 bunks), Central Whirinaki Hut (25 bunks). Whirinaki Recreation Camp also offers accommodation for schools and camps.
Forest Road to Mangamate Hut, 4hr; To Central Whirinaki Hut, 4.5hr; To Forest Road, 5hr
BG38, BG39

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