Thursday, November 6, 2008

Through Ancient Forests to the Far North of NZ

Greetings from the Northland, the area north of Auckland. First a word about New Zealand, with the help of this "handy" map.
It consists of two main islands creatively named North Island and South Island, a modest-sized one (Stewart) to the far south, and thousands of little ones round and about its lengthy shoreline. The entire country is just a little bit (6%) bigger than the State of Oregon, but nowhere near as compact -- it's 1000 miles from top to bottom. North Island where we are currently has 40% of the land but about 80% of the population. Indeed, one fourth of NZ's population of 4.28 million lives in the Auckland metropolitan area, which is at the base of that peninsula that juts up in the northwest corner of North Island.

North of that, the rest of that peninsula, is a quiet corner of the country by contrast, and that's where we've spent the last week exploring its shores and forests and immersing ourselves in the story of the kauri tree. The kauri is one of the largest and oldest trees on the planet, with some survivors in the Northland estimated to have been hundreds of years old even when the first permanent Maori settlers arrived around 1200 A.D., including this majestic one known as Te Matua Ngahere,
the second-largest tree in NZ with a girth of over 50 feet, or about 10 adults holding hands to encircle it! Because the root systems of kauri are fragile,
you cannot generally get up next to them, except for this next one with a board walk next to it, the Yakas Kauri , so-named after a Dalmatian settler. It's the number 7 tree in NZ. For comparison, Louise has a wingspan of about 5 1/2 feet.

Kauri were almost logged to extinction, however, and the forests have old stumps like this one, much as the Pacific NW has old cedar stumps. The trees grow quickly and with lots of branches 'til they reach the top of the forest canopy, then drop the lower branches and start bulking up. The bark is quite unusual --
this is a closeup of about one square foot of it -- and it succeeds in keeping most other plants from climbing up or attaching to the trunk, but the crown is another story.
A typical old kauri may have 30 different species of plants growing in its crown! Other trees nearby have easier-to-grab bark, and are a riot of epiphytic growth, with tag-along plants sometimes having so much foliage you can't tell which are the leaves of the host tree itself!
This is obviously a rain forest, most of it getting over 1500 mm (60") a year, and indeed we have had rain, from sprinkles to short strong rain, more than half of our days up north. It's off-and-on, however, so we Seattleites are right at home in it.

As we explained in our last blog, we're not biking. The roads are so narrow and twisty, they're even a bit scary to drive by car. But we got a killer deal on a small Nissan that's getting 32 mpg (gas works out to about $4/gal US), and the car costs only US$12 a day, insurance and tax included. Such a deal! To compensate for not biking, we're hiking quite a lot, and what hikes they've been. One of the first places we went to, only an hour's drive out of Auckland, was this stunning and empty black sand beach, Karekare,

where Joan Campion filmed the beach scenes for The Piano, her moody film of early life in NZ.

Nearby was Piha, a stunning place to look down on as you approach, and just as stunning when you take the hiking track to the south to look out at yet more dramatic rocks.
With rain, big trees, and mythic beaches and sea stacks like this, it certainly has a certain Pacific NW feel to it.
However, the vegetation is quite different, with lots of trees unlike anything in the US, and we can't recall any black sand beaches
in the NW like this one at Karekare. And as good as the hiking often is in our home turf, NZ has it beat.
Look at this walking track near Piha, or the clear signposting of another trail nearby, complete with a history stop a few km into the woods illustrating the kauri logging that went on in this area.

Kiwis take their trekking seriously, and have wonderful trails, or tracks as they call them.

A bit further on we went to the Kauri Museum, with more photos of the old logging, and a fascinating display of kauri gum, a form of amber. The trees exuded this to protect the tree from injuries, but early settlers learned to use kauri gum for a variety of things, including lacquers -- it supposedly makes the best musical instrument lacquer in the world. If it is old and dense enough, it can also be used for carving,
or just for display. The wood itself was prized for furniture and house construction,
as the walls and ceiling of this 150-year-old church demonstrate.

Still further up was the heart of the remaining kauri forest, with several beautiful trails that took us through them.
We passed many enormous and ancient kauri, finally coming to Tane Mahuta,
"Lord of the Forest," the biggest tree in New Zealand by volume. It's about 45 feet around,60 feet to the first branches, 150 feet tall overall. But the forest is full of many other wonders, including this geometric fern.

Our final exploration of kauri was yesterday, when we visited an ancient kauri forest, actually two ancient forests buried on top of each other. One is too old to be accurately carbon-dated, over 100,000 years old, the other about 45,000 years old.
The "newer" one was almost certainly killed off by a tsunami, as all the trees of that age are flat and pointing in the same direction. Here is a tour guide showing us a digging through the 45,000 y-o layer to the really old stuff. Ancient trees like this are among the oldest non-fossilized plant life ever found. These were excavated decades ago, primarilly from the late 1800s through the Great Depression years, by men looking for deposits of kauri gum that was still usable even after all those aeons. It was a rough life being a "gumdigger," but it kept a number of folks in this area alive during those hard years.
Ancient logs are still being found, and you can buy this one, now refashioned as a sofa, for only US$33,000. Imagine having the oldest sofa in your neighborhood -- or do you already have that distinction, or feel like you might?

The Northland is a narrow peninsula, no point on it more than 25 miles from seawater, and so there are many beaches. We decided to leave the driving to someone else for a bus trip up so-called Ninety Mile Beach (officially only 56 miles long!), and that way got a drive on the beach with its 100 kph (62 mph) speed limit.
Along the way we drove up a quicksand river, the trick being to put your vehicle in low gear and DON'T STOP! We didn't, until we came to a pull-off for some of our fellow-passengers to do some "sand surfing."

Oh, those crazy Kiwis! One of them even obliged by showing us how NOT to do it. At last we came to Cape Reinga, the northern end of NZ. The water is a bit choppy out there as the Tasman Sea between NZ and Australia meets the Pacific Ocean. Maori legend has it that a Maori's spirit takes off back to whence the Maori came across the ocean, from this dramatic point.

Well, yesterday was election day in NZ, but it was fairly anti-climactic. Most Kiwis were far more interested in the American election than their own. We have yet to meet a New Zealander who thought the wrong guy won in the US. Of course we are ecstatic to be done with Mr. Bush and his ilk, and feel we can now safely come back from New Zealand next year. Like the US, the Kiwis voted for "regime change," in their case swinging from a party somewhat left of the American Democrats to one pretty close to the Democrats, even though they consider it right of center.

Meanwhile we are still debating what to do after we finish our tour of the Northland next weekend, with our feelings strongly leaning towards continuing to drive and to put off biking until we go to the South Island, starting in January. A cyclist was very badly hurt by a passing car a few days ago in the area we were going to head to by bike, and we're not convinced the roads in that part of the country are much safer than the ones here, which are almost suicidal for biking. However, the hiking is much much better than we expected, and that will hopefully fulfill our endorphin needs for the coming two months. We'll let you know the final decision in our next blog, and say a little more about Kiwi history after we revisit Waitangi, site of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 that created the modern New Zealand.

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