Whangaroa: Up the Duke's Nose
“Phormium tenax, cordyline australis, pseudopanax crassifolius.” My sweetheart, Sam, has taken an interest in native plants in the last couple of years and periodically drops their scientific names into our conversations. I rather grumpily thought, “Why can’t you just call them flax, cabbage tree and lancewood?” but then, through the osmosis of daily living, I became interested in native plants too.
So, to celebrate Sam’s 49th birthday, we decided to head Northland, to Whangaroa Harbour, take a guided bush walk with a serious botanist, spend the night on a houseboat and then explore the harbour’s difficult to access but reputably magnificent western arm.
Tony Foster, widely known in Whangaroa district as Coprosma Foster, did a degree in botany a long time ago, taught biology in high schools for 25 years and, when his kids left the nest and earning pressure was off, he stopped school teaching and devoted himself to native plants, collecting their seeds and selling them over the web (wwwbushmansfriend.co.nz) and taking people on bush walks.
We meet Tony, tall, lean and fit looking, at Totora North wharf, leave our car under a pohutukawa tree and put our stuff on the houseboat, Maple Leaf, that tussled-haired and sunburned-nosed owner Neil Deverell is fussing with. Four hours and six kilometres later we will meet the boat at Lane Cove, in the harbour’s western arm, where, after a quick run down of nautical essentials, Neil and Tony will leave us.
The beginning of the walk, at Totara North, is on a path that once was the bullock track to Taupo Bay so it’s a long gentle puff up the ridge, with plenty of botanical stops. Tony, with a teacher’s skills for holding interest, starts with general botanical information then moves onto specifics. There are, he says, 2,200 species of indigenous plants, 1,800 of which are endemic, that is, only found in New Zealand.
Within this, because of 60 million years of isolated evolution since plate tectonics separated New Zealand from Gondwanaland, there are many botanically unique plants. “For instance,” Tony explains, “205 species are dioecious, in that both male and female trees are needed to breed. The wonderful thing about dioeciousness is that it provides variation in the gene pool and gives plants a greater chance of adapting to changing circumstances.”
Iconic dioecious plants, biggies we know and love, are totora, rimu, matai, and kahikatea, and we take time to stoke the drooping leaves of two rimu, growing close, to feel the difference between sexes; the male is much more prickly.
We are, in turn, stroked by the soft fronds of young nikau when we walk through a cool dell of them and the feel-good factor is added to, according to Tony, by forests having more than the usual amount of oxygen as, “trees are pumping it out and we are breathing it in.”
Another specialty of New Zealand forest is that many species, including lancewood, totara and mingimingi, have juvenile forms that look totally different to the adult plants. The juveniles are often quite spiky with small leaves and this is, in theory, “an adaptation to grazing moa’s because young plants evolved to be unappetising moa’ food until they grow out of reach of moa’s beaks and then they become lush and leafy.”
We are shown some of Tony’s “specials”, flora weirdos, botanical exceptions, including tree daisies, olearia, the world’s tallest daisies. Tony points one out, a shrub that grows to be a couple of meters tall, “pretty in spring when it has cute little flowers with white petals and purple centres.”
We see the world’s tallest moss, dawsonia superba, that can grow half a metre high and, to the uninitiated, looks like a bunch of baby pine trees in a huddle. And, at the other end of world records, the smallest geranium, geranium microphyllum, a favourite for its lush greenness and dainty white flowers. A fancy hybrid, pink spice, is now a common garden plant.
Tony shows us useful plants, “much appreciated by gum diggers and bushmen,” and we fondle Rangiora’s big lush-leaves, waxy green on top and velvety white underneath, “treasured because the underside was perfect for writing messages and handy in the absence of toilet paper.”
Kawakawa is his “favourite herbal tea, related to Pacific Island kava, and an infusion leads to a mild laid-backness and has healthful properties particularly for bladder and unitary tract maintenance.
“Tanekaha is a treasure because its branches are extraordinarily strong and supple - he demonstrates by bending a Tanikaha branch a full circle - and makes superb fishing rods and supplejack, a vine, whose segmented stem makes great pegs when cut correctly.”
At the top of the ridge the air is shrill with cicadas and they zoom around landing on my shirt, my head and Sam’s hand. They are not fazed by humans and sit shrieking when I take off my specs and examine their details close up. These bush cicadas are particularly grand creatures; emerald green and black with intricate, perfectly patterned, shiny transparent wings and big ball bug eyes.
Down the other side of the ridge and along the Wairakau Valley the scenery is so stunning it hijacks our focus from flora. Great rock knobs punctuate the skyline, a waterfall cascades over a towering precipice, and the Wairakau River, crystal clear with deep swimming holes, has carved a tall cliff-edged canyon. The valley floor is steamy, hot and lushly subtropical with ponga, nikau and filmy fern flourishing in rocky crevices and shady glades. Puriri are huge, scattering shiraz flowers across the path, and audaciously acrobatic pohutukawa spread their branches extravagantly while clinging to cliff edges with long gnarly toes.
The geological reason behind this rocky scenery is that, 40 million years ago, this was a particularly active volcanic area and it’s the weathered remains of fissures, lava flows and plugs of old volcanoes that define the landscape and give it its fantastical uniqueness.
Wairakau Valley finishes at the harbour’s edge and deep-water turquoise adds brightness to the subdued palette of greens and browns of bush, rock and river. We sit on a headland between Lane Cove and Rere Bay, with fine views across the harbour, and wait for the houseboat to arrive and, sure enough, exactly on time, Maple Leaf plods around a bluff, towing Tony’s fizz boat.
Maple Leaf is built for comfort, not speed or beauty, and she is boxy in comparison to the tall, elegant yachts anchored in other coves, but with big comfortable beds, ample headroom everywhere, sun decks back and front, a decent-sized galley and a spacious saloon we think she’s perfect.
Neil gives a once-over of engine, anchor winch, pumps, charts and then Sam takes the helm to park her in another nearby cove, “just for practice” and, when Neil is happy that Sam is shipshape, he and Tony zoom off in the fizz boat and we have Maple Leaf to ourselves. The corrugations of their wake scarcely flatten before I fling off my sweaty walk clothes and plunge into the water. It’s toenail-seeing clear and hot-day refreshing.
We wake to a silver morning and a white moon. The towering pinnacles, cliffs and rock-topped mini-mountains are touched with sun. The water around us is wobbly-mirror calm, disturbed only by the plop of fish jumping and bigger plops of gannets diving after them.
The tide is high so we take the dinghy - wooden, stable and sedate with its two-horse outboard - up the Wairakau Canyon enjoying its beauty from the water and in a different light. We putt a kilometre or two along its snaky curves, until it’s too shallow for the outboard, and then stop, motor off, drifting down, in the company of big dragonflies, swallows swooping after tiny insects and friendly fantails.
Overhanging river edge bush gives away to mangroves, so perfectly reflected in the still water we can’t tell where the trunks end and the image of them begins. I’m entranced, like Alice having fallen though the looking glass into a strange and beautiful world, and Sam, who has a lower boredom threshold for magnificent mornings and stunning scenery, is amusing himself steering the dinghy with an oar, into places that the current would not naturally take it.
We decide, while it’s cool and we feel fit and fresh, to climb up the Duke’s Nose. This aptly-named 500-metre rocky outcrop protrudes into the harbour and, from some places, looks like a face in profile, with a royally hooked hooter. On the walk up, through the bush, we test ourselves, competitively, identifying all sorts of plants we learned about yesterday.
The last 10 metres, a rock-climb up a cliff face, is challenging and not for those with height phobias. Three metres are near vertical, but with plenty of knobbly handholds and rocky cracks to wedge toes, and the seven metres above are less steep but are a nerve-wracking all-fours scramble. It’s worth the angst to get to the Duke’s Nose’s flat top, where we sit, water-drinking and chocolate-eating kings, and survey the world below us.
Spiky rocks, a sea monster’s protruding teeth, shimmer on the horizon near the harbour mouth; closer, at the water’s edge, rocks look like massive mushrooms as the sea slowly nibbles away their stems; boulders, as big as houses, are split from mother rock by huge crevices and seem about to break free and plummet down cliff faces and, around this, beautiful blue tendrils of sea rise and fall to the tune of the moon.
This is a small fantastical slice of Tolkien territory, hidden away in a remote part of Northland, and it is, as explorer, RA Cruise noted in his dairy 186 years ago, “a singular and beautifully romantic place.”
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