Hauling heavy packs and killing stoats in remote Te Urewera is not your run of the mill holiday, discovers Nathan Pipenberg
We were deep in the heart of Te Urewera rainforest, carefully threading our way down an exposed slip to the Tauranga River. From there, our four-person team would wade upstream for three kilometres to Te Pua Hut, our home for the week and a welcome sight after 12 hours on our feet. But first, a steep, shifting slope of scree and sand stood in our way. We all wore cumbersome aluminium packboards – perfect for carrying heavy loads but a nuisance on the steep terrain we were now negotiating. As I approached the crux of our descent, I found myself on my backside, slipping slowly downhill with no handholds in reach. The pack shifted slightly, and suddenly my balance was gone, and I nearly was as well.
I’d had enough of the pack. I took it off and tossed it to the ground a few metres below me. But it didn’t stop there. It bounced and continued tumbling out of sight down the slip. It crashed past rocks and through cutty grass for the next few seconds, as I listened warily. Behind me the rest of the team had stopped their own treacherous descents to contemplate my pack’s sorry fate. We stared at each other for a few moments, and then we all burst out laughing.
The others were probably amused by the stunned look on my face, but I was struck by the fact of being out here, sweating up hills and falling back down, all to protect a few birds that I probably wouldn’t even get the chance to see.
For outsiders, New Zealanders seems obsessed with the protection of native fauna, especially of the avian persuasion. I can say this with authority because I am an outsider – an American who’s both impressed with and a bit intimidated by the scope of conservation efforts here. Earlier this year, I was one of 15 volunteers gathered in Te Urewera to see the conservation work in person, as part of a Department of Conservation volunteer project, setting and baiting stoat traps in the backcountry.
The trips were organised by Matt Haines, a DOC biodiversity ranger based in Te Urewera and a fellow American transplant. He too first experienced New Zealand as a traveller, and returned a few years later to reunite with his girlfriend and volunteer with DOC. After two months of hard work, he was offered a permanent position.
“I’m loving the area, the people and the work,” Haines says. “It was an easy decision to stay.”
Before the trip, he invited me to join a Facebook group where new volunteers organised car-pooling and past volunteers shared memories and photos. Two things from the page stuck out to me: one was the number of photos posted of volunteers being flown into the work sites by helicopter. Given the chance, I wanted to take that ride. The other was the name and description of the group – ‘Hard Bastards Holiday: killing stoats with extreme prejudice.’
I was excited, and a little nervous, to start.
Te Urewera is well off the beaten path. Together with the nearby Whirinaki Te Pua-a-Tane Conservation Park, it is the largest remaining swathe of native bush in the North Island. The forest is only accessible via a single metal road, which leads to the area’s main tourist attraction, Lake Waikaremoana. North of the lake, Te Urewera is lonesome in comparison – dominated by thick prehistoric rainforest, covering steep chasms and hiding narrow valleys.
Because of that isolation, it’s an epicentre for conservation efforts. According to DOC, Te Urewera is still home to every surviving species of forest bird endemic to the North Island, save for the North Island weka. In fact, the northern section of the forest is home to one of the largest remaining populations of kokako, and a reintroduction programme for kiwi hatchlings. In all, the conservation work in Te Urewera is a coordinated effort that includes DOC, Tuhoe Te Uru Taumatua, a non-profit called Whio Forever, a host of enthusiastic volunteers, and even the Rangipo Prison Farm, where the stoat traps were constructed as part of a prison work programme.
The bird populations are key to understanding Te Urewera. “Kiwi, kokako and whio are the best indicator species,” Haines says. If these species are thriving, it’s a good sign that stoat numbers are down and the forest is healthy.
It’s also a waiting game. Before the new trapping regime put in this year, just one of 15 kiwi hatchlings survived in 2014. Haines says hopes are much higher for this year, with 172 stoat kills in Te Urewera as of June. But the pay-off is gradual. In addition to the six volunteer trips placing traps, the traps must be cleaned and reset regularly, and both stoat and kiwi populations are monitored.
I was part of the sixth and final ‘Hard Bastards’ trap-setting expedition in Te Urewera, the last in a project that spanned six months, covered 8000ha, and included 70 volunteers who together donated more than 2000 hours of their time. Volunteers converged from all corners of the world, including Canada, Ireland and India.
Thanks to some previous experience tramping and working backcountry jobs in the US – which Haines admits he discovered through Facebook stalking – I was chosen for one of the backcountry teams. It would mean I’d get the helicopter ride I wanted, but in exchange would have to tackle the work that’s harder to access, in the heart of Te Urewera.
My team was led by another biodiversity ranger, Wipatene ‘Wi’ Mason, and rounded out with Claire Cameron and Mariela Llano, both from Auckland. We were sharing Te Pua Hut with another team of four led by ranger ‘Jinx’ Te Pou. The hut only had six bunks, so Jinx slept on the deck.
Cameron was already a two-time Hard Bastards veteran, there as part of a work exchange programme with her employer, Auckland Zoo. She’d signed up for two trips willingly, and when a third came up, her boss put her down for it, assuming she’d be game.
“It’s bloody hard work, but great fun at the same time,” Cameron says. “At the end of it, you can look back with a great sense of accomplishment, both personally and with what you have contributed to helping protect our biodiversity.”
An enthusiastic bird-watcher, Cameron had two firsts during the three trips she took – a long-tailed cuckoo and several pairs of whio, the latter finally spotted on our 14km hike out along the Tauranga River at the end of the week.
Back at Te Pua Hut, Wi gave me a hard time. After my pack careened down the slip, he went to retrieve it before I managed to do so.
“If you do that again, you’re getting your pack yourself,” he said. I’m pretty sure he was only half-joking. I thought to tell him that I was right behind him, looking for the pack as well, but instead I agreed, before taking off my shoes, soaked from the return trip through the river, and heading off to find a plate for dinner.
We started at 6am the next morning. It was a week of hard work for the volunteers, but just another day for the rangers. We spent the first half-hour finding ways to fix our water bottles and day packs to the packboards, while Wi strapped on tall gaiters and a long handsaw for cutting through bush lawyer and supplejack. Days started at sunrise and the work carried on until late in the evening.
Our intended purpose was simple in theory, but in practise was often complex and frustrating. Scattered throughout the bush on the ridges overlooking the hut were about two dozen traps. Each trap was set on a predetermined line, each 150m apart. We had a topographic map with details of the lines and approximate locations of the trap sites, and a GPS unit with exact locations of the drop zones where we would find the traps.
Many of the trap sites were off-track, and as we slogged our way through the bush with the 20kg traps strapped to our packs, we would mark a path by attaching yellow blazes to trees, so that workers resetting the traps in future would have a route to follow. It was easy to get turned around in this kind of terrain. Even on a 150m walk to a trap site, you could feel all alone when the rest of the team was, in fact, just around the corner.
On the second day, a member from the other team, Shannon Grant-Mackie, told us about her harrowing experience separated from the rest of her crew. After setting a trap, she began to walk back through the bush only to find herself away from the team and with no markers in sight.
“We were really worried about Shannon,” Jinx said. “We sat down and ate lunch until she showed up again.” Each team was also equipped with a waterproof map, a Garmin GPS and a pair of radios. So while the crews had a few treacherous moments, we were in good hands.
A few months after finishing our week in the bush, I heard from Julie McCloskey, another volunteer who worked out of Te Pua Hut, and was now in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where she had settled down again after three months in New Zealand. Hard Bastards Holiday was her introduction to the country. I asked her how she looks back on the trip.
“The awkwardness of the traps, and bushwhacking, the 10-hour days and the steepness of the hills come to mind,” she said. “But I took away a lot from the trip. It was a good reminder of how important our environment is and to always take care of the land.”
I caught up with Haines and some other volunteers again to find out the results of all the hard work. It had been months since the last crew set the last trap.
While the volunteers were gone, Haines told me DOC staff had been monitoring kiwi and stoat populations, cleaning the traps, and mapping Te Urewera to find the final few locations that needed additional traps. He said the trapping programme will get its real test later this year, as hatching season begins.
But he’s already hopeful that this year’s hatchlings have a good chance. “We’ve killed heaps of stoats,” he said simply.
Want to volunteer?
Fancy a strenuous holiday hauling traps, monitoring birds or looking after huts? Look up the volunteer page at www.doc.govt.nz