A walk in the Waitutu forest

Southland’s remote Waitutu district is considered by many to hold the finest spread of native lowland forest in the country. From shoreline to treeline, a diverse range of forest types unfurl their branches across 500 square kilometres of misty ridges which eventually merge with the harsher mountains of fiordland. The subject of fierce conservation battles in the 1980s and ’90s, all of Waitutu has now been given formal protection from logging: an ancient wilderness saved.

Written by       Photographed by Sabine Schmidt and Keith Swenson

Rusty rails and derelict machinery near Port Craig recall a 1920s sawmilling venture in which timber was extracted by means of a tramway and carried by barge to Bluff. The Waitutu coast is rich and rugged, and regularly feels the the lash of southerly storms.
Rusty rails and derelict machinery near Port Craig recall a 1920s sawmilling venture in which timber was extracted by means of a tramway and carried by barge to Bluff. The Waitutu coast is rich and rugged, and regularly feels the the lash of southerly storms.
A high rainfall carried in from the great expanse of the Southern Ocean ensures that Waitutu's mainly low-altitude forest is particularly lush. Birdlife is abundant: kaka, for instance, are more numerous here than in any other mainland forest. At higher altitudes forest gives way to shrubland and open marshy areas where insects and insect-eaters, such as these sundews, thrive.
A high rainfall carried in from the great expanse of the Southern Ocean ensures that Waitutu’s mainly low-altitude forest is particularly lush. Birdlife is abundant: kaka, for instance, are more numerous here than in any other mainland forest. At higher altitudes forest gives way to shrubland and open marshy areas where insects and insect-eaters, such as these sundews, thrive.
Slick as green cellophane, sea lettuce algae festoon tidal mudstone at Knife & Steel Harbour, a shallow embayment in the reefs west of the Waitutu River.
Slick as green cellophane, sea lettuce algae festoon tidal mudstone at Knife & Steel Harbour, a shallow embayment in the reefs west of the Waitutu River.

A symphony penetrates my sleep. Melodic, liquid sounds grow louder until I realise that what I am hearing is not a dream but birdsong. Rich, colour­ful sequences fill the air, flowing like creek water over rocks. Through the tent flap I can smell the forest and feel the cool moisture of early morning. I spy the singer: a kaka perched in a rimu tree. I am deep in the Waitutu Forest.

From previous days I know another voice of the kaka: hoarse shrieks as a whole gang of them played in the treetops, mocking my slow progress through the under­growth. I also know another face of the forest: rushing, rain-swollen rivers; howling southerlies that send tree branches crashing down, turning a night in a nylon tent into a nightmare and the next day into a climbing expedition across a chaos of fallen timber.

I know other mornings, too: when, after days of heavy rain, dawn brings only the sound of a fine drizzle on your tent, it may not be a last receding shower but a legion of sandflies sharing your shelter.

Fellow photographer Keith Swenson and I first went to Waitutu prompted by curiosity and concern. A long-running controversy between conservationists and logging concerns was reaching a peak in 1993, when cutting rights to a Maori-owned portion of the forest were sold to a Christchurch-based timber company and logging seemed imminent. Few people except hunters, ecologists and off­the-beaten-track hikers seemed to know much about Waitutu, and there was next to no pictorial record of the region.

Once we had started, we kept coming back to Waitutu for nearly two years to document what was for ecologists the ultimate lowland forest, for loggers a desirable commercial opportunity and for Maori landowners a valuable asset.

What we found was not only a magnificent forest at the heart of a great landscape but a diverse region rich in human and natural history. As we explored its remote reaches, Waitutu rewarded us with a wealth of images, from tide pools to alpine tarns, from the forest floor to the high canopy, from mirror-smooth lakes to the windswept coast of the Southern Ocean.

Waitutu—literally “vehement water”—is the name Maori gave the river that rushes from Lake Poteriteri to the coast. Today it also stands for the forest land beyond the large southern lakes, bordered on the west by Lake Hakapoua and Big River and on the east by Lake Hauroko and Hump Ridge.

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With New Zealand’s biggest national park for its neighbour, Waitutu lies somewhat in the shade of Fiordland’s fame. History has also attributed to Fiordland observations which are now known to refer to Waitutu. The most famous took place in 1770, when the Endeavour pulled into Te Waewae Bay near the mouth of the Waiau River. Captain Cook wrote that “the face of the country hears a very rugged aspect, being full of high craggy hills, on the summit of which are several patches of snow.” Cook’s logbook entry has been cited as the first-ever description of Fiordland, but it is likely that he was looking at Hump Ridge and the Waitutu coast when he penned these words.

Despite its relative obscurity, Waitutu is an important part of our natural heritage. Among its landforms are a series of marine terraces that shape this southern tip of New Zealand like a giant stair­case. They extend inland for up to 12 kilometres and rise to an altitude of 650 metres above the coastline. Fragments of 10 terraces have been discerned, the oldest laid down almost a million years ago.

At Waitutu's higher altitudes the lushness of the forest understorey gives way to a harsher, more open shrubland where stunted mountain beech forms a "goblin" forest of contorted tree limbs crusted with growths of lichen.
At Waitutu’s higher altitudes the lushness of the forest understorey gives way to a harsher, more open shrubland where stunted mountain beech forms a “goblin” forest of contorted tree limbs crusted with growths of lichen.

Grey mudstone is the main underlying rock type, but gravels overlie this in most places. Over the years, streams and rivers have cut through the soft rocks, modifying much of the staircase pattern and weaving steep-sided ravines into the landscape. Earth movements on the several active faults in the region have been responsible for bouts of uplift which have created the terraces.

For geologists, the terraces are like pages in the book of New Zealand’s earth history. For ecolo­gists, their importance lies in the sequence of ecosystems they con­tain, running from shoreline to alpine summit. Such sequences could once be seen along much of New Zealand’s coast, but most have been distorted or destroyed by human activity, with Waitutu one of the last complete remnants.

Seen from a helicopter, Waitutu’s terraces look like a low flight of steps. Down in the bush, however, one learns a different reality. Steep, slippery slopes in the lower regions give way to scrubland areas of yellow-silver pine, pink pine and manuka which form nearly impenetrable thickets that reduce travel to a crawl with backpacks being dragged behind.

A traverse of the terraces takes the visitor through a picture-book of forest types: dark rainforest deep in the river valley, the trees laden with hanging moss; podocarp/silver beech forest of the lowland, the trunks of rimu towering through a subcanopy of tree ferns; mixed forest where the kaka had accompanied us and where from a steep slope we could look down on the black surface of a glacial lake; high beech forest, with ravines covered in herbs and, as the canopy became lower, with a thick moss carpet of a multitude of greens. At last, after crossing subalpine meadows, one reaches stunted “goblin” forest, where the mountain beech are gnarled and grey with lichen and more and more give way to the park-like scenery of the treeline zone and open tussock land.

On Hump Ridge, more than 1000 metres above sea level, alpine tarns lie like oases in a tussock savannah. From such vantage points the serried marine terraces of the lower country stand out as the "ecological staircase" to which they have been likened.
On Hump Ridge, more than 1000 metres above sea level, alpine tarns lie like oases in a tussock savannah. From such vantage points the serried marine terraces of the lower country stand out as the “ecological staircase” to which they have been likened.

Waitutu’s high country has an almost magical appeal, with sweep­ing views to the sea across wooded ranges that look like dark ocean waves. From the alpine tussock land on Hump Ridge one can look down on the pastures of Southland and follow the wide, gentle curve of Te Waewae Bay. To the south­east, Stewart Island lies in a silver ocean like its own little continent. Waitutu’s own coast below is pounded by big rollers of the southern ocean, their white fronts moving in steadily but strangely silent from this distance.

As Keith and I absorbed these views, my thoughts went back a few years to when we had stood on the shores of the same ocean, but on Ross Island. In the twilight of an Antarctic autumn day, we had looked north across the frozen sea, knowing that somewhere beyond a thousand kilometres of winter ocean was New Zealand, whence our ship had departed, leaving us on the ice for a year. The memory was vivid, and I was glad I had now come to know the distant green shore we had looked towards.

On a less poetic note, and with another southerly looming on the horizon, I reflected that we had come from the “Great White South” to the “Great Wet South.”

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Hump ridge, with its characteristic scenery of rock towers, tarns and tussock, is a fragile landscape. As we followed the ridgeline westward we noted tracks in the soft sphagnum moss which marked the path of previous visitors. In the first stands of mountain beech we watched a South Island robin, perching with­out fear in the branches tight next to us. In an open area, surrounded by fields of sundew, a pond was alive with hundreds of red dragonflies. The boggy ground vibrated under our footsteps as we passed. Waitutu’s obscurity has so far saved this wonderland from the heavy human traffic that could so easily destroy it if not handled carefully.

From this high vantage point the great diversity of Waitutu’s coastline can be appreciated: wide sandy beaches in the east, a rocky shore in the west. At Sand Hill Point, vol­canic rock forms a spectacular headland. The point, now a reserve on account of its historic values, was an important stopover for early Maori during expeditions along this part of Southland’s coast.

Along the coast of central Waitutu, mudstone escarpments rise above extensive tidal flats. These cliffs are highest west of Waitutu River. At low tide, broad platforms covered in sea lettuce and Neptune’s necklace are exposed here. A walk on their slippery surface is often accom­panied by the calls of gulls nesting high in the adjacent grey walls.

On consecutive journeys a visitor will notice the changing face of the cliff walls and be witness to the same geological processes that once shaped the platforms that are now forest-covered terraces. Iron oxide solutions from within the sediment and green algae growing on the surface create beautiful paintings on the wet rock-tempting the photographer to linger until fear of the incoming tide prompts a running exit from this stretch of coast.

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"If a tree falls in the forest..." Though there may be nothing especially Zen-like about a leaning rata, Waitutu enriches its visitors with enclaves of timelessness and solitude, both in the forest and on the coast.
“If a tree falls in the forest…” Though there may be nothing especially Zen-like about a leaning rata, Waitutu enriches its visitors with enclaves of timelessness and solitude, both in the forest and on the coast.

Walking into Waitutu via the coastal route saves having to negotiate the endless gullies of the inland route, but if the tide table so dictates you might have to make a very early start for the trip to Port Craig. Unfortunately, passing through on a tight tide schedule never allows much time to enjoy the wealth of intertidal life: pools with anemones and sea urchins, orange reef stars on purple rocks, beds of black mussels and vivid green algae. Dallying is not an option, however. Along some stretches of the route the cliffs are vertical, and gambling with the tides would prove disastrous.

The wealth of the coastal waters is obvious. At night, fishing boats anchor offshore or pull into Te Whata Bay to shelter from storms. Depots of crayfish traps are kept by boat owners in some concealed bays, and paua divers are active both for recreational and commercial gain.

Driftwood is plentiful here, and southerly storms throw heavy logs ashore, sometimes covered with “very rugged aspect” that Captain Cook mentioned.

A wetland area behind Waitutu Beach is a breeding area for lampreys, an ancient form of veterbrate, and giant kokopu, a native freshwater fish.

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Travel in the Waitutu region has always favoured the coast. In the late nineteenth century, gold prospectors used the beach route to reach Preservation Inlet, and sawmill workers followed soon after. Accounts from these years describe hardship and starvation, severe weather and high-running rivers.

Today, swing-bridges and walk- wires have made river crossings easy, and Department of Conservation huts provide comfortable shelter. Hut book entries show that the Waitutu wilderness touches the imagination of many who venture into the area. New Zealanders and a growing number of overseas visitors praise the solitude they find here, on a track less well known man the country’s classic walks. But the notes of hunters and trampers often curse the mud and sandflies, and com- ments on tile weather tend to be equally disapproving. The sting of a winter southerly remains the same as for the pioneers, and anybody exploring Waitutu can testify to the”very rugged aspect” that Captain Cook mentioned.

If there is one popular image of Waitutu’s coastal walk it is that of the wooden viaducts spanning deep gorges west of Port Craig. Built from Australian hardwood as tramline bridges for timber transport, they are impressive monuments to a busy period of logging in the eastern parts of the forest during the 1920s.

The 125-metre-long viaduct across Percy Burn is one of four trestle bridges built in the 1920s to enable logs from the eastern region of Waitutu to be hauled to the Port Craig sawmill. At its height, the mill employed 150 men, but in 1928, a victim of economic recession, the operation was closed.
The 125-metre-long viaduct across Percy Burn is one of four trestle bridges built in the 1920s to enable logs from the eastern region of Waitutu to be hauled to the Port Craig sawmill. At its height, the mill employed 150 men, but in 1928, a victim of economic recession, the operation was closed.

At the time, Port Craig was the site of the biggest timber mill in New Zealand, but its success was short-lived: economic recession silenced the saws in 1928. Restored in recent years, the viaducts are twin-railed and safe, even if the view from the 36-metre-high Percy Burn bridge remains a thrill. In previous decades, when this viaduct had deteriorated and decking was nonexistent, crossing it meant walking on a single timber bar on top of the swaying structure.

Traversing the coastal forest, one can still encounter more subtle remnants of the logging days. A conspicuously straight line among the trees might catch one’s attention. The eye follows a channel filled with bright green moss, the trace of an old tram track that fades after some distance and vanishes into lush vege­tation, obscured by regrown forest.

The track to the Wairaurahiri River is straight, following the old tramline through steep-walled cuts roofed by overgrowing fern and forest. Then, beyond the river and the old logging frontier, it reaches virgin forest.

This is forest primeval, recalling times more archaic than even Waitutu’s geological features do. Individual trees may be several hundred years old, yet the lineage of their species goes back 190 million years. Podocarps, an ancient form of conifer, developed in the Jurassic period and were widespread over the Gondwana continent when it started to break up. As New Zealand became a separate landmass, the forest heritage of the great southern continent prevailed here. Later, cooling climate and glaciation affected the land, but the forests never dis-appeared totally.

Leaching minerals and clinging algae colour the surface of the coastal cliffs between Sand Hill Point and the Wairaurahiri River mouth. The patterns are constantly changing as the soft rock is shaped by erosion.
Leaching minerals and clinging algae colour the surface of the coastal cliffs between Sand Hill Point and the Wairaurahiri River mouth. The patterns are constantly changing as the soft rock is shaped by erosion.

Findings of palaeobotanists suggest that some podocarps have barely changed through time. Today’s rimu, for instance, probably resembles its ancient predecessor very closely. In this light, the protec­tion of Waitutu’s forests, with their extensive rimu stands, gains another dimension of meaning.

The podocarp and rata trees, which thrive in Waitutu’s mild lowland climate, make the region a refuge and food source for bird species rare in the rest of the coun­try such as yellowhead, yellow-crowned parakeet and kaka. Of course, much has been lost. Kakapo were once common here, and takahe were reportedly found at sea level in the nearby Fiordland sounds.

Introduced species have not only eliminated native fauna but also modified the forest itself. The undergrowth has been thinned by deer, while the descendants of the pigs released by Cook’s crew are doing their part in damaging the forest floor. Possum numbers are still comparatively low, as healthy rata and mistletoe populations indicate.

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Along with its dramatic “ecological staircase” and status as our largest intact lowland forest, Waitutu has a further superlative feature: the Wairaurahiri River, New Zealand’s longest low­land river which is still in a natural state, its entire course undisturbed by dams or other manmade struc­tures. To follow its wild waters was part of our Waitutu explorations.

The Wairaurahiri begins its journey to the coast at Lake Hauroko, a jewel of navy-blue with snowcapped mountains towering above. Maybe because we had come to associate sizeable rivers with a heavy silt load, and therefore dirty water, the Wairaurahiri’s crystal clarity made us think that this was more an oversized creek. Any notion of a small water body, however, was quickly dispelled when we saw the gorges it has carved and the logs it has heaped up along its banks.

Although this is wild country, there are signs of human activity past and present near the river: hunters’ trails, traces of campsites and the remains of deer pens and traps. Several times throughout our journey we heard jetboats on the river. One morning as we were enjoying a hot brew at the water’s edge a boat came shooting past. Steering a jetboat on this unruly river is no easy task, and there was barely a moment for a quick wave before the surprised crew sped away.

Storm-weathered sandstone and limestone tors stand sentinel over an alpine tarn on Hump Ridge. Waitutu has weathered political storms, too, in its journey towards preservation. The forest stands today as a tribute to the commitment to protect an ancient heritage.
Storm-weathered sandstone and limestone tors stand sentinel over an alpine tarn on Hump Ridge. Waitutu has weathered political storms, too, in its journey towards preservation. The forest stands today as a tribute to the commitment to protect an ancient heritage.

They would be at the hut at the river mouth in a few minutes; for us, it was another half day’s walk until we reached the hut, a meeting point for trampers, whitebaiters, pig-hunters and possum trappers.

Wairaurahiri Hut completed a full circle for us: we had explored Waitutu’s wealth and were back at the dividing line, the old logging frontier in the pristine forest. Our project had taken place during a decisive time for the forest, with hearings, protests and negotiations going on far from tracks we walked.

The disputed forest is now protected, but the challenges of integrating conservation and devel­opment in Southland remain. Local people realise the asset they have in the area’s native forests, but they also need to make a living. Some think in terms of sustainable forestry schemes. Others believe the empha­sis should be on tourism.

Our own involvement with Waitutu had come to an end. With food rations low, our film used up and our tent damp and dirty, we said our last goodbye.

True to form, the farewell was full of contrast. A last downpour drenched us just before we made camp for the final night above Te Whata, but rain and wind gave way to a beautiful morning. As we walked along the beach towards the roadhead, flocks of birds appeared from offshore. We paused to watch them—shearwaters in their thousands, filling the skies with life.