NZ: Waipoua Forest and the Forest Gods

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My travel holidays never feel like they have started until the first morning; When you slowly open your eyes and realise you’re in a new bed, a new location, a new world.

The fresh morning light gave us the first real opportunity to appreciate our campground selection—Port Albert Domain (read more in the previous post). B had parked in a brilliant position: good distance away from the public toilets and main driveway in; completely avoiding the horrible potholes; with the rear windows facing the ocean views (perfect as our first outlook for the day). It was a very quiet secluded campsite, with only three other campervans for company.

Shaking off the bad vibes of yesterday, we all agreed to head to the Waipoua Forest and seek an audience with the Great Guardians of the Forest. The Waipoua Forest is home to the largest Kauri trees in New Zealand, some of which are considered Forest Gods and Guardians of Aotearoa. Control of the forest has recently been returned to Te Roroa, the local iwi (tribe) as part of the settlement for breaches by the New Zealand Government (the Crown) against the Treaty of Waitangi (more on that later). While I am sorry to hear of the breaches in both Treaty and trust, I am very glad to learn these cultural and environmental places of such significant importance have been returned to the people with the closest connection and best interests.

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After a quick breakfast and tidy-up (‘take only photos, leave only footprints‘), we were back on the road. Follow the signs back to the State Highway 1 and Brynderwyn, then head west on SH12 to Dargaville. The further north you go, the more infrequent the shopping opportunities. If you are planning on staying more than a few days, make sure you stock up in Dargaville and withdraw cash for any purchases on the road.

On the way, we passed through Matakohe, a tiny little village with nay more than a Kauri Museum for its claim to fame. I’ll be honest: we didn’t go inside.

However, outside is a fascinating cemetery. And yes, I am one of those weird people who absolutely love cemeteries as the story-tellers of a town. If you do stop here to stretch your legs, have a wander around the cemetery and take note of the predominant families in the area. You will soon notice the pattern.

Onwards and upwards to Waipoua Forest, the highway becomes less ‘highway’ and more ‘main road’. This area is the one true highlight of Northland New Zealand, with its windy roads through the stunning forest sanctuary. The forest road is 18km long, with the Waipoua Visitor Centre and Forest Campground located at the southern end. Our plan was to drive through the sanctuary to the northern tip and work our way back to the campgrounds for the night. It meant doubling up on the driving (tripling up, if you consider we were driving north again the next day), but believe me when I say it is worth it. Even the kids agreed.

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We first presented ourselves to Tane Mahuta, named for the Maori forest god. Tane Mahuta is the largest kauri alive, measuring around 51.5m high and about 13.8m around the base. Te Roroa believe Tane Mahuta has been guarding over the forest for somewhere between 1200 and 2000 years.

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No matter your faith or personal belief, there is a presence in the forest. Tane Mahuta, in all his magnificent glory, commands respect. The sense of awe as you look up to this tree… this forest god, is breathtaking.

“In the beginning before the world was light, Ranginui the sky-father and Papatuanuku the earth-mother were bound together, their offspring caught in the darkness between them. Their strongest son, Tane Mahuta, put his shoulder to Papa and thrust upwards with his powerful legs, creating life and light.

– Maori Legend”

Our children were silent. They were stunned. For a moment we each stood there gazing upon Tane Mahuta, soaking up the vibrant emotions all around us. The magic was gently interrupted by a soft curtain of rain. At that point, our eldest child whispered “Thankyou”, and it felt like the perfect acknowledgement. There is so much life all around the forest. It is so natural to feel gratitude for the trees, the sanctuary and the local iwi who are taking care of it.

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Tane Mahuta is the first of many gods in the forest. Heading back to the campgrounds (south), there is another collection of kauri. From the carpark, it’s a 20-minute walk past the Four Sisters to Te Matua. These are four separate kauris standing tall, but fused together at the base. There is a very accessible walkway for most of it, especially around the fenced off trees. The kids were amazed by the connection of the trees at the ground, following it all the way to the separate canopies.

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Te Matua Ngahere is further along. As Father of the Forest, Te Matua Ngahere is not as tall as Tane Mahuta, but he holds the same attention within the forest. Even though he is surrounded by mature trees, they look like saplings in presence. Te Matua Ngahere is the widest kauri, with a girth of about 16.4 metres.

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By this time, we are all tiring from the lengthy walks (even Z up in her backpack carrier). As we walked back to the campervan, S and I slowed our pace and started talking about the forest. It felt so healthy and strong and full of life! It was at the point, talking about life when S turned and exclaimed: “What was that?!?”

We have no picture to prove it. In fact, I was too slow to see anything but the movement of low leaves. But S swears he saw something brown scurrying along the ground. It was until further in our trip when we reached the Bird Sanctuary in Queenstown, where S became convinced he spotted a Kiwi bird!

We were already buzzing from the emotional and spiritual experience of visiting the Kauris; to add bird spotting was just too much! Only minutes down the road, our campgrounds awaited and after a quick dinner of spaghetti bolognese, the kids fell asleep almost immediately.

The Waipoua Forest Campgrounds are a DOC site, with cabins and sites for campervans or tents. Payment is by cash in the box located in the kitchen, and for the facilities, I was a bit disappointed with the price: $15 per person per night for a non-powered site. I know the money goes towards the maintenance of the campgrounds in the Forest Sanctuary, but the facilities were really lacking. For example, half of the kitchen facilities were broken.

I also found out the hot water was turned off for the ladies bathroom. The switch is on mains board in the kitchen, but that’s not helpful when you’re in the shower. I ended up choosing to shower in the men’s bathroom because the women’s bathrooms open directly onto the main thoroughfare. The cold wind straight into the bathrooms was awful, never mind the lack of privacy.

To be absolutely honest, we love the park for location. We had stayed here once before (pre-kids) but this time we were sorely disappointed with the facilities, even knowing it’s a DOCS site.

If you choose to camp with a tent here, be careful in the wet weather. The main area of the campground becomes very squishy in the rain, with most of the water running down hill to the tent sites.

Next stop: Waitangi Treaty Grounds

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