Michael Burt encounters whio aplenty in an untouched corner of Te Urewera
Have you ever travelled through the New Zealand landscape and imagined what it was like before the forests were felled and the land tamed, when a person could walk for miles under the canopy of ancient sheltering forests? Perhaps you dream of following wild tumbling rivers for days, crossing distant blue ridges without encountering a single sign of civilisation or meeting another person. If you have, then Te Urewera is a place that you must experience.
Like a single living organism, forests blanket almost every part of it. Once you leave the road and step into the forest, the trees close in and everything is bathed in a diffuse green light. Solid, straight rimu and beech trunks tower over you, their canopies overlapping, making a clear vista rare. Openings in the forest are few and far between, the few clearings consist of a handful of dried lake beds and small slips, with two tiny patches of subalpine scrub. The geology and rolling topography mean that the river beds are stable and bouldery with deep pools. Massive trees grow right to the river banks with their branches overhanging the water, in contrast to the wide gravelled rivers of much of the rest of the backcountry. The high rainfall and ubiquitous mountain mists keep the forest perpetually damp; moss and epiphytes grow on every surface, the soil is soft and deep and a rich humic smell fills the air. Except for a couple of tiny, regenerating pockets near Lake Waikaremoana, the forest has never been felled. Because of its sheer size, remoteness, and perhaps its eerie, misty personality, this part of the island has been a place of refuge, hiding, and recovery. Today its untouched expanse allows us to seek refuge from modern life and return to the type of landscape that used to cover New Zealand.
My mate KC was visiting from the US and keen for a bit of a tramp, so we pulled the maps out and strung together a possible six day route. As soon as the weather look settled we headed to Waikaremoana and started up the Manuoha Track to get access deep into the bush.
We descended towards Te Kei Stream, a small tributary of the Ruakituri, rumoured to be easier going than the other creeks in this area, and took a long deep drink once we reached the water’s edge. Encouragingly, the stream seemed open and easy going, so we stayed in the water and walked down the creek bed, spooking wood pigeons as we went. The creek was small enough to jump across, but every decent-sized pool had a pair of blue ducks in it, and often a big fat long fin eel lurked in the slow water near the edges. Occasionally the creek plunged over papa ledges and required a bit of imagination to find ways around the cascades without getting too wet, but mostly we were able to relax and soak in the atmosphere – the eerie whistles of whio and the noise of the stream kept us company, reminding us that we’d entered untouched Urewera rainforest
That night as KC set up our mountain radio to get a forecast and check in with the base, a pair of blue ducks flew noisily up the valley past our camp, whistling and clicking, cutting the quiet of the evening. I joked to KC that between this trip and a recent trip down the Motu River he’d seen more whio than most Kiwis ever would. He agreed they were not doing a very convincing job of looking like an endangered species.
The tent walls slowly began to glow with the first rays of daylight, so I shook the dew off the door and looked outside. Perfect: sunshine, no wind, and a lot of interesting-looking stuff on the map ahead of us, including three big waterfalls.
The first waterfall was a stunner. At the bottom, a pair of whio whistled away at us from the far side of the pool, which was deep green and bordered by mossy cliffs dripping with spray. We wondered how often this place was visited by people.
Two more big waterfalls followed – each different with one being quiet, bull-nosed and spread out, dozens of white rivulets trickling down to a shallow, sandy pool at the bottom. The next was tall, narrow and thundering with a deep cauldron carved out at the base.
As we hoped, the Te Kei was easy going all the way to the Ruakituri River. The first pool below the junction had two fat rainbow trout busy feeding in the current. The upper Ruakituri is a special place to visit; the river is mostly wide, flowing over papa bedrock ledges with long, deep green pools in between. The pools are so deep that often there is no visible current at all – just huge dark tree stumps, fallen branches and ghostly white rocky platforms dividing translucent green channels. Big, lazy eels cruised the warm shallows and whio weave through eddies in the fast water. The banks of the river channel are vertical rock, covered in carpets of moss with massive beech trees stretching out over the river in competition for sunlight.
We climbed out onto a leaning tree trunk and watched a particularly large eel work a ‘beat’ up and down its territory. I have been told that these eels live for over half a century if left alone, and this one, with light coloured scars on his brown back and ragged pectoral fins looked like he’d seen a few big floods in his time.
We made it to our campsite at the Owhakarotu clearing with a couple of hours of daylight to spare, so we had a look for Tui Flat Hut, a camouflaged historic bushmen’s shack hidden close by. We then relaxed by a perfect swimming hole on a wide bend of the river. A few solar-heated potholes in a papa shelf next to the river provided an almost warm bath until the sand flies chased us away.
After a humid and restless night harassed by hordes of mosquitos in Tui Flat Hut, we zigzagged down the river to the Anini Stream junction, looking forward to the next two days following it to its source high in the Huiarau ranges. We took advantage of the low flows to explore the deep gorges that we encountered. Just above the Ruakituri junction is a sculpted narrow limestone gorge choked with massive boulders and gnarled, water-worn tree trunks. We waded and climbed up it as far as we could, then stashed our packs on a ledge. We swam through cold, dark pools and scrambled over and under massive boulders that had been wedged in the canyon. Going was tough but progress was possible until we came to a very difficult cascade that was swift, deep and narrow. Balancing on logs and swimming neck-deep through the cleft we were blocked by an overhanging ledge and waterfall. Impassable. Retreating to our packs we resigned ourselves to the long climb up and around the gorge instead.
Before the trip we had arranged to rendezvous with friends Pete and John at the Anini Clearing. Splashing around a bend in the creek we noticed wisps of smoke drifting out from a clearing in the manuka and a leg of venison hanging in a tree – they’d made it! Around a fire that night we caught up on news and enjoyed fresh venison steaks.
Further upstream, the river cut through the backbone of the Huiarau range through a long, dark, narrow gorge. The walls were too steep to sidle above the river so we scrambled up the foamy torrent of the steeply descending stream. Although it was midday, the cool echoing depths of the gorge were dim and gloomy, only faintly reflected green light reaching the riverbed. Slippery ledges, waterfalls and smooth, water worn walls slowed us down, but soon the overhanging walls of the gorge opened out to reveal an expansive basin, walled in by high jagged ridges on either side with a low saddle in the distance. Lush mountain cabbage trees grew in bunches beside the creek and stooping, stunted beeches crowded the stream banks. We headed for the saddle, sneaking up on a mob of deer on a grassy flat. KC went ahead, stalking his first New Zealand deer: a young hind that proved good eating. Pete’s sharp butcher’s knife flashed as he quickly separated the back steaks from the carcass and we filled our packs.
We found the saddle in thick bush and crashed down the other side. Downstream, Makakoere Hut appeared through the mist, high above the river on our right. As we approached, the hum of a helicopter pierced the silence and a shiny little Robinson materialised out of the clouds, dropping its cargo of people and supplies outside the hut then roaring back down the valley as our hearts sank – four bunks in the hut and already at least six occupants. Bad timing! But it turned out well: our hut companions were gracious and generous, providing tall stories and vital ingredients for a delicious rich venison stew on a cold, wet afternoon. Like all good huts, this one was well-equipped with a library including a couple of Philip Holden books and westerns, a few pairs of old shoes for hut slippers, a sharp axe and a collection of billys and frying pans. We read, cooked and drank tea while the rain pounded on the tin roof.
In the morning, the river was up at least 30cm from the heavy rain and changed to silty brown overnight but it was receding.
Pete and John left the hut at daylight, hoping for a deer on the river on the way out to the roadend. KC and I followed and by afternoon we were out of the bush and on to farm land.
Burnt skeletons of giant beech trees lay strewn about the hillsides, reminding us how lucky we are that such a huge wilderness remains untouched in the Urewera.