Discovering the majesty and fragility of New Zealand kauri

by Josie Stanford / 22 April, 2018

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Tāne Mahuta, New Zealand’s largest living kauri. Photo/Getty.

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A twilight tour in Waipoua Forest highlights the majesty, and the fragility, of our mighty kauri.

Northland tour guide Koro Carman sums up the essence of the experience he offers in a single word: life.

“We can hear it, see it, inhale it, touch it,” he says, at the start of our Footprints Waipoua twilight tour in the Waipoua Forest, home to New Zealand’s largest stand of kauri.

With equal measures of warmth, sincerity and drama, Carman addresses the night’s whānau, a mix of New Zealanders and Swedish tourists. “It’s great to host someone who doesn’t know what to expect,” he says. “Usually their reaction is one of awe and it helps me remain appreciative of what we have.”

Originally a tour bus driver, Carman co-founded Footprints Waipoua to attract more overnight visitors to his friend’s hotel, the Copthorne in Omapere, and became interested in environmental tourism. “I had the passion within me, but it was when I started sharing my knowledge of the trees and their significance to Māori that it really burned bright,” he says. “Tourism encouraged me to learn more and, going in at night, I felt the deep spirituality of the forest.”

This land has long sustained Carman’s family – his grandfather was head of the Ministry of Works, which was responsible for building the road through Waipoua Forest, and his uncles worked in the construction gangs.

The tour begins with Carman showing the male and female kauri cones, and explaining the pollination process.

Sharing a “very special Māori proverb” – Ahakoa he iti he pounamu (Despite being small, you are of great value) – he then points out a tiny seedling that’s perhaps a couple of years old. When we reach the tree known as the Father of the Forest, Te Matua Ngahere, there’s a gasp from the Swedes at its sheer size. The oldest kauri in New Zealand, its estimated age is around 3000 years.

I’ve visited the tour’s main event, Tāne Mahuta – our largest living kauri – several times before, but the anticipation of its presence builds within me. It’s fully dark now and Carman’s keen ears pick up the high-pitched call of a male kiwi.

In the Māori creation story, Tāne is the son of Ranginui (sky father) and Papatūānuku (earth mother), whose deep embrace kept the world in darkness. Tāne craved light so, using all the force he could muster, he pushed his parents apart to create space and air, giving life to Earth’s creatures.

As we stand in silence in the dark, staring up at Tāne’s huge trunk, Carman breaks into a spine-tingling waiata, and I think of those tiny beginnings and the thousands of years the tree has withstood. Prized for their timber, most of these giants were felled by early settlers – a trip to the Kauri Museum at Matakohe is essential to understand the breadth of this undertaking.

Some trees were destroyed by fire or storm; now the remaining few per cent are threatened by a soil-borne disease called kauri dieback. Driving through the forest the next morning, on the road that Carman’s family built, I’m shocked to see the verdant green of the forest punctuated by ghost-white stagheads of dead kauri, reminders of the full stop that could come to this forest and all the taonga it holds.

This was published in the March 2018 issue of North & South.

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