New Zealand has three world heritage sites – areas of international natural significance.
One cold day at Whakapapa Village, 20 years ago, I watched a group of local iwi perform a spirited haka while beyond Ngauruhoe sulked under cloud. A hungry wind bit as the voices chanted, bare feet thumped, challenges were issued, and it was not from the cool temperature that I shivered. Later, representatives of several iwi from around Aotearoa presented rocks from their rohe, which were interned under a local stone.
The celebration marked Tongariro National Park gaining dual cultural and natural World Heritage Area status. Tongariro already had natural status, when in 1990 it became the country’s first World Heritage Area, in recognition of its dynamic volcanic environment – part of the Pacific ‘Ring of Fire’. That day in November 1998, however, the ceremony acknowledged the area’s cultural significance to local iwi, who have long lived under the shadow of these mountains, their tipuna.
Alarmed at the loss or deterioration of many sites of world significance, the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) signed an accord in 1972 which aimed to protect places like the Pyramids of Egypt, the Acropolis in Athens, the Colosseum in Rome, Cappadocia in Turkey, Machu Picchu in Peru and many others. Later, UNESCO began to recognise places of international natural significance too, and now the total number of sites exceeds 1090.
New Zealand has three: Tongariro (1990), Te Wahipounamu (1990) and the Subantarctic Islands (1998). Countries that sign up to the convention agree to let UNESCO monitor the sites and face penalties for inadequate protection.
In recent years, proponents have suggested that Kahurangi National Park and the nearby karst of Takaka Hill could be another good candidate. Certainly the geological and biological diversity of our second-largest national park merit this status, quite apart from the myriad of opportunities it offers outdoor enthusiasts.
1. Tongariro National Park
The volcanoes of Tongariro draw tens of thousands of walkers, skiers and sightseers every year, and the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is so popular now that measures to limit overcrowding are being considered. However, there are many quieter parts of the park, equally worthy of interest. And multi-day tramps like the Ruapehu Round the Mountain Track make great destinations, especially in the shoulder or winter seasons.
2. Te Wahipounamu/South Westland
Occupying some 10 per cent of New Zealand’s land area, Te Wahipounamu is nothing if not immense. Encompassing Fiordland, Mt Aspiring, Westland and Mt Cook national parks, this vast area protects the majority of New Zealand’s most important remaining wetlands, vast mountain ranges, and many of our wildest rivers. The South West New Zealand World Heritage Highway, between Hokitika and Wanaka, offers an easy route through the area, with many short walks and tramps en route.
3. Subantarctic Islands
New Zealand has five groups of subantarctic islands famous for their birdlife and distinctive ecologies: the Snares, Bounty, Auckland, Campbell and Antipodes. None but the Auckland group has any forest – southern rata cowed and stunted from both the southern latitude and extreme weather of the ‘Furious Fifties’. Biologically and geologically, Macquarie Island is part of this subantarctic group, but this is managed by Australia. All of the islands are protected as nature reserves, which require a permit for entry, and some are off-limits to any but scientists and conservation managers. However, a few cruise companies offer opportunities for people to visit Auckland and Campbell islands. Both island groups feature giant megaherbs, several species of albatross and other seabirds, as well as New Zealand sea lions.