Kaka and Kokopu, the Maungatautari Eco Island.
Ian D. Robinson
(AA Directions, Winter 2009)
Wet leaves squelch underfoot in the drip drip smell of the wet New Zealand forest. It’s well past ten o’clock at night and out in the bush is not usually where I’d find myself on a Friday evening. I hang back from the group I’m with on our guided night walk at Maungatautari and switch my headlamp off. The blackness that replaces the light is something akin to being in a tunnel save for the pinpricks of light from glow-worms on the soggy bank beside me. As the footsteps of the others fade ahead the familiar comforting call of ruru, morepork, drifts through the trees. And then comes the call everyone wants to hear, keeee-wi, keeee-wi.
In the heart of the Waikato just a few kilometres south-east of Cambridge and overlooking the lakes of Karapiro and Arapuni stands Maungatautari. It is a mountain of wide slopes and distinct in the fact that it is still covered in a thick blanket of largely untouched native forest. The mature rimu, totara, manuka, miro and nikau were something of an empty house however, as for many decades Maungatautari had been overrun with predators such as cats, rats and the dreaded stoats and weasels, all of whom had decimated the forest’s populations of native birdlife. The undergrowth had been grazed out by deer, pigs and goats and the canopy by possums.
The idea of turning the mountain into an ecological island on land came from a joke made by David and Juliette Wallace, Karapiro property owners who were putting a predator-proof fence around a 16 hectare patch of forest on their land in 2001. David looked across at Maungatautari and said “One day we’ll put a fence around that too!” Like many a great word spoken in jest four years later the joke had become reality when in April 2004 three thousand local school kids joined hands around the completed northern enclosure. What had been created was a predator/pest free ecological island on land and on a scale not seen before in New Zealand, and perhaps in the world.
Three enclosures on the mountain are already free of any introduced mammalian pest and while in the main forest there remain a few stubborn and elusive mice, the odd rabbit and hare, they are all living on very borrowed time.
A trust had been formed, over 16 million dollars raised and a 47 kilometre fence had been built by world leaders in predator proof enclosures across the rugged Waikato terrain. A massive aerial drop of poison baits along with a campaign of hunting has taken care of almost every pest and predator from the 3400 hectares within. The fence, with mesh small enough to exclude even a half grown mouse, a design to stymie even the most athletic leaping cat, and a security system similar to prisons by which alarms are sent to mobile phones should a branch come down on the barrier, means none can get back in.
On an emotional day in 2005 Maungatautari’s iwi Ngati Koroki Kahukura oversaw the release of four kiwi, a precious gift from Taupo’s Ngati Tuwharetoa, into the northern enclosure. In the nights that followed their calls, the first heard on Maungatautari in a hundred years, echoed through the trees. Since then the kiwi population has grown to 23 adults and the first chicks to be born on the mountain in a century have hatched. Kaka have also been reintroduced along with stitchbirds, whiteheads and takahe in an adjacent wetland enclosure, and for the first time in sixty years kokopu, native trout, have been returned to the streams.
On a morning still moist and misty from the previous night’s thunder storm I pull up at the car park at Maungatautari’s sixty-five acre southern enclosure. Being Crown land the entire mountain is still fully open to public access at any time, although being a habitat for kiwi among other treasures, dogs in any shape or form are naturally strictly forbidden as is camping.
The pest proof fence snakes across the landscape around the bend and out of sight. Entry is through a secure double gate system where the second gate won’t open until the first is closed. Inside the first thing to hit me is that unmistakeable and uniquely Aotearoa smell of wet native forest coming from the happily decomposing leaf litter. The next thing is the luxurious-ness of the forest itself, without grazing pests the undergrowth is thriving and thick. The ground is covered in juicy ripe tawa berries that would have once been gobbled up by possums and rats barely before they’d bounced but which now feed exploding populations of native kereru, wood pigeons, among others.
Gentle well constructed gravel paths wander throughout the enclosure for five kilometres in all linking the different walkways to each other. In the centre is a sixteen metre viewing tower which takes me through the different layers of ecosystem and then right into the usually far-above canopy, up to where the birds are. A pair of squabbling tui tumbles past on the wing in a flurry of black feathers and a wood pigeon swoops close enough to shatter the stillness. Since becoming pest free invertebrate life has erupted even more than that of the birds, a massive 300% in the last eighteen months, and as I climb back down to the floor I have to carefully avoid a host of creepy crawlies which wriggle, hop or buzz away.
Further on is the aviary where Marilyn Mackinder and her husband Selwyn, trust members and neighbouring landowners, have devoted themselves to the seven day a week task of feeding the kaka introduced from Auckland and Wellington zoos.
“To supplement their diet,” Marilyn tells me, “we feed them peanuts in the shell, which they absolutely love, and a sugar solution. It’s just to encourage them to stay around and to make them feel at home here until they get used to it. It also helps bring them down from the canopy to where visitors can get a good look at them, we’re not trying to turn the place into a zoo but it’s great if people can get to see them up close like this.”
Five of the reddy-brown cackling characters drop in from the treetops to the sound of Marilyn’s calls. Turning cartwheels on the vines and branches they are soon helping themselves to the complimentary breakfast. Unfortunately they are distracted before long and fly off to call to each other in the branches. “They usually stick around longer than this but I think they’ve been unsettled by the rain last night, and I’m guessing there are wild kaka from Pureora Forest Park about too, attracted by the new comers.”
The Maungatautari Trust has identified 23 species which once inhabited the mountain but have been lost including saddleback, kokako, tuatara and even kakapo. All of the above were at one time common across the entire region and all of which the trust hopes to reintroduce in the years to come. In March stitchbirds from the Hauraki eco-island Tiritiri Matangi were released to join the kaka and kiwi. Native short-tailed bats have survived on the mountain as have, by some miracle, the tiny Hochstetter’s frog.
The numbers of wood pigeons, tui and the likes remaining on the mountain will be left to recover of their own accord as research into the growth of these populations in a mainland pest free environment will provide valuable data not seen before. Already anecdotes of the ‘halo effect’ are providing evidence of the exploding populations of tui and kereru now that they no longer have to lose half their young to predators and half their food supply to rats and possums. These and other species of birds have been spreading out across the entire region. Tui resident on the mountain have been tracked to backyard kowhai trees as far away as Te Awamutu and people have called the trust’s offices exclaiming; “We’ve got kaka in our garden!”
In the evening I join trust members and supporters for dinner at the ‘Out in the Styx’ guesthouse on the main Waitomo to Rotorua road which runs past the southern side of Maungatautari. Trustee Lance Hodgson and wife Mary are our hosts and offer a menu of just two options; ‘take it’ or ‘leave it’. As the dinner bell is chimed and the feast is laid out on the tables the choice isn’t hard to make. Bookings are vital; vegetarians are catered for on request and en-suite bed and breakfast accommodation is also offered making a trip to Maungatautari a very pleasant eco-centred weekend away.
Over dessert Jim Mylchreest, chief executive of the Maungatautari Trust, explains how the trust plans to become financially self supporting in the future.
“We’ve received enormous financial support from dozens of corporate sponsors, organizations, community grants and hundreds of thousands from private donations. We have input and assistance from DOC, the district and regional councils, landowners, local iwi and the wider community. But in the long term we can’t expect people to keep putting their hands in their pockets every year to help us out. We don’t want to commercialize the mountain but visitors should expect to assist with the added value component which is why we offer guided walks and night walks which include dinner here in the restaurant. We aim to become financially secure, and it’s essential that we do as the cost of running the project comes to around $1.2 million a year.”
Replete with a hearty dinner a good walk is a good idea. Head lamps are supplied as the sun sets and darkness falls, it falls even further when we enter the forest and the dense canopy obscures even a nearly full moon. Our Maungatautari Trust guide Phil Brown takes us along the same paths I’d walked earlier in the day and in the daylight, by night I find myself completely disoriented. Phil shines his light up the trunks of totara a thousand years old and grandfather nikau of six hundred.
Phil is so intimate with the forest we are walking through he stops to point out a spider’s web between a ponga and miro that hadn’t been there the day before. Behind fallen logs he coaxes out a cave weta eight inches across, “That’s just a baby,” he tells the less-than-thrilled-by-anything-creepy-or-crawly among us, “deeper in the bush there are one’s twice the size!”
A bit further on, attached to a tree is a slender oblong shaped box. It’s a weta hotel. Holes drilled in the side allow the insects to crawl in to snug little compartments of just the right size for a weta to spend the night, weary from a day spent chewing through dead wood. The hinged front panel can be opened and the guests viewed from behind a layer of clear Perspex. On my morning’s walk I’d come across them but found no one at home, by night they all need to have a ‘no vacancy’ sign as every room has been snapped up. By the time we stumble out the double gates and back into the car park we have seen, along with the glow-worms, wetas and spiders, an eel in the creek, fresh water crayfish and a couple of kokopu, native trout, all this on top of hearing kiwi.
Beautiful by day the New Zealand forest at night is a rare experience for many, there is a primeval ‘Land of the Lost’ feel to this place and on Maungatautari one feels the clock turning on a journey back to what once was. Through the dedication and toil of the Maungatautari Trust’s volunteers and supporters the mountain has the opportunity to become again the unspoiled, diverse and unique ecosystem as Aotearoa’s first human visitors found it. Since that time we have all played a part in messing this place up, it’s great to see some devoted to putting things back as they were.