In my last post, I wrote about my explorations of two remnants of bush in Wellington – small areas of native forest preserved from the mass clearance of bush from the Wellington peninsula within a few decades of the arrival of the first European settlers.
I found out that there is a much larger area of preserved native bush just outside Wellington in the Wainuiomata Water Collection Area. The area has been closed to the public since the early 1900s to protect water quality, and the vast majority of the forest here has never been logged. The only way to see this area is to go on a guided tour run by the Greater Wellington Regional Council, and this is what I did on a cold Sunday morning a few weeks ago. The walks are free but have to be booked – you can (and most definitely should!) do this here.
From the carpark of the water treatment plant, we could see bush-covered hills all around us, the canopy punctured by tall podocarps. At the plant we were given a cup of tea and watched an information video about Wellington’s water supply, presented by a woman in an outrageously 1980s jacket. We learnt that the plant provides a fifth of the water used in the greater Wellington area and that as the water is very clean it needs minimal treatment.
We set off on the walk with two council rangers. First off, we followed a track that led through dense bush to the pipeline tunnel. I’m not a fan of group walking, but fortunately there were only five of us on the walk, along with the rangers, and so I was able to ask them to help me identify the tall trees where the foliage is so far away that it’s difficult to see it. I learnt that rātā trees look like broccoli, that rimu fronds hang down, while kahikatea fronds are feathery and upward-pointing.
One of the most awe-inspiring features of the New Zealand native bush for me is its ancient-ness – types of plants that have become extinct elsewhere have survived here due to New Zealand’s eighty million years of isolation and mild moist climate. More than 80% of New Zealand’s native species occur nowhere else in the world. Rimu and kahikatea are podocarps, which are among the tallest trees in New Zealand’s lowland bush and are an ancient type of conifer, endemic to the ancient super-continent of Gondwana.
The podocarp-broadleaf forest that would have covered much of the Wellington peninsula is very similar to the tropical rainforests that I remember learning about in geography lessons, with their five different ‘strata’: from the very tallest trees, the dense canopy trees below them and then, below the canopy, smaller trees such as tree ferns, then shrubs and ground plants. The vines and ephiphytes that grow on and in the taller trees are also very typical of tropical forests.
We stopped at the pipeline tunnel, built in 1926 to transport water from the Orongorongo Valley. There’s a little train that runs through the tunnel for maintenance purposes, but sadly this wasn’t included in the tour. On the way back towards the treatment plant, one of the rangers stopped by a tangle of supplejack and cut off and peeled one of the tips. He told us it tasted like asparagus and handed it around for us to try. It did indeed taste asparagus-like as well as being refreshingly juicy. We ate red coprosma or taupata berries and stopped at a hīnau tree, where the rangers explained that Māori pounded hīnau berries into flour to make ‘dampers’ that would keep through the winter.
The forest was an important supply of food for Māori, and Geoff Park explains that Māori carefully preserved the eco-systems of the lowland forest so it could continue to supply the plants and birds that they needed for survival. He quotes naturalist William Swainson who in 1859 described how Māori valued their land: ‘forests are preserved for birds; swamps and streams for eel-weirs and fisheries’. He and other historians suggest that this sustainable approach was developed over time. Early Māori appear to have cleared large areas of bush, particularly on the East Coast of New Zealand and hunted unsustainably, leading to the decimation and/or extinction of species such as the moa and large seal populations. However, once the big game had disappeared, Māori became more dependent on gardening, foraging for food and hunting birds.
When Europeans first arrived in New Zealand, the Wellington area was relatively sparsely populated, with small settlements of Māori around the coast. Māori would travel inland to hunt in the forest, activities reflected in the names they gave to different areas, for example Karori was originally called Kaharore which means ‘ridge for snaring birds’.
Walking back towards the water treatment plant, I hung back from the group to take photos, but also to try to get more of a sense of the bush we were walking through. Peering into it from the track, it seemed incredibly dense – I could barely see more than a few metres ahead. I could see how difficult it would be to make my way through the looping supplejack and the decaying branches on the forest floor. But the rangers kept waiting for me, so I couldn’t dally too much.
We set off along another track which went through an area of high kānuka, the only part of the area that had been cleared before the land had been set aside. But then we were back in even more dense bush, following the undulating track past monumental trees. The kahikatea trees were in fruit, the small orange seeds just about visible in the high branches. The birdsong around them, mostly tuis, was almost deafening.
The whole of the forest would have been much louder however, when Europeans first arrived. The destruction of eco-systems, hunting, and the ravages of introduced mammals such as possum and stoats resulted in the forest falling silent in a very short space of time. Charles Heaphy, writing in 1878, was astonished at how the abundant birdlife he saw and heard in the 1840s had all but disappeared from the Hutt Valley.
Part of the water catchment area has been designated a ‘mainland island’, surrounded by a fence to keep out larger mammals such as pigs and deer, and with intensive trapping for predators such as possums, rats, stoats and mice so that native bird species (the ones that are not yet extinct at any rate) can return. One of the rangers removed a dead hedgehog from a trap by the path and demonstrated the fearsome trap mechanism. There was another trap attached to a tree, the remains of a long-dead possum on the ground below it. North Island robins have been released into the area recently, but they were keeping a low profile and we didn’t see any.
I was still peering into the bush, feeling more disconnected from it than I wanted to be. It occurred to me, walking along this vehicle-sized track, that I was looking from the perspective that early settlers might have had, as they followed newly-created roads cut through the bush. I was reminded of the words of Godfrey Mundy, a British army officer from India, who visited Wellington in 1846 (quoted by Geoff Park). He describes the forest he sees from the new road through the Hutt Valley as ‘tall, tangled and impervious’, where ‘innumerable parasites and climbing plants, vegetable boa-constrictors in appearance, flung their huge coils from tree to tree’, and ‘enormous mistletoes hung upon, and seemed like vampires, to exhaust the life-blood of the plants on which they had fixed their fatal affections’. When he did venture into the bush, he found that ‘I was completely made prisoner by its prehensile webs and did not escape with a whole coat or skin’. He considered that roads would be fatal to the continued resistence of Māori ‘as the thrust of a rapier through that of an individual foe’.
Even when European settlers learned to love the bush, once most of it had been chopped down, it was viewed from a distance, as ‘scenery’, the backdrop to a picnic. These attitudes persist even now, of course, in the way New Zealand’s ‘Middle Earth’ landscapes are presented as an appealing backdrop for high-adrenaline activities.
For Māori, the forest was, and still is, experienced not only as a source of food, but through a deep and complex spritual connection with the land. Tāne Mahuta, the god of the forest, created plants, insects, birds and also the first woman. Through the Māori concept of whakapapa which explains the relationships between living things, Māori can trace their ancestry to the trees and the birds and beyond that to the beginning of life.
I’ve been thinking about how I connect with a flora which is so different from the trees and plants that I grew up with. I find it difficult to learn the names of the trees, even the ones growing in my garden, which feels frustrating when I could instantly identify most of the trees I came across on my walks in the British countryside. For me, being able to identify and name the trees, and to know something about them, helps me connect with them, but at the same time, this urge feels suspect, as if I am a child once more, ticking things off in my ‘I-Spy’ book. As if the bush is something to be learnt and mentally collected, and in the meantime, I am still standing on the road peering into it. And it occurs to me that even when we go beyond learning the names and ordering them tidily into taxonomies to understanding that the forest is a system of interrelationships too complex to fully understand, unlike Māori we still tend not to include ourselves in those relationships.
Belich J (1996) Making Peoples
Dawson J and Lucas R (2012) Field Guide to New Zealand’s Native Trees
Gabites I (1993) Wellington’s Living Cloak: a guide to the natural plant communities
King M (2003) The Penguin History of New Zealand
Park G (1999) Ngā Uruora (the groves of life) (this fantastic book is out of print and quite difficult to get hold of, but you can listen to a series that Geoff Park made for Radio New Zealand on the same topic here)
Riley M (2001) New Zealand Trees & Ferns
Wikipedia – Podocarps
Information boards in Botanic Gardens, Otari Wilton Bush, and Zealandia
Burton Brothers (Dunedin, N.Z.). Burton Brothers (Dunedin), 1868-1898 : Forty Mile Bush, Wairarapa. Ref: 1/2-004700-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22835885