Arno Gasteiger

Kahurangi: our newest national park

Mantled by the ”Cloaks of the sky” (the literal meaning of kahurangi), the mountain of the Arthur Range guard the eastern flank of the Kahurangi National Park, due to be officially opened in late 1995. This, our 13th national park, preserves one of the country’s largest tracts of true wilderness.

Written by       Photographed by Arno Gasteiger

Boulders shaken from the ramparts of Garibald Ridge by the 1929 Murchison earthquake keep adrenalin flowing faster tan water for rafters braving the wild Karamea River.
Boulders shaken from the ramparts of Garibald Ridge by the 1929 Murchison earthquake keep adrenalin flowing faster tan water for rafters braving the wild Karamea River.

A sandfly crept into my eardrum as I slept. There, in that warm sanctum at the door of my brain, this base creature became an alarm clock from hell. Writhing out of my sleeping bag, I coaxed the buzzing maniac out with a torch beam, then smeared it on to the wall of the tent in sweet revenge.

Annoyed by my rude wilderness wake-up call, I flicked open the tent flap and peered out on to Roaring Lion lake, deep inside Kahurangi National Park. Stumps of drowned trees we had rafted past yesterday appeared as tombstones above the black marble surface. Silken wisps of mist lay tangled in treetops slowly coming alive with a chorus of waking birds.

I breathed a deep, restorative draught of lake air.

Just 66 years ago, this four kilometre-long bulge on the Karamea River did not exist. It was built by the earthquake which struck at 10.15 A.M. on June 17, 1929, thundering out huge shockwaves from its epicentre near Kahurangi Point, on the West Coast.

Nelson and Greymouth sustained major damage, but the real devastation was between these towns. At least 17 people died, and the tiny settlement of Murchison, which gave its name to the 7.8 Richter scale shake, lay in ruins. In steady rain after the shake, settlers watched nervously as major rivers draining the wilderness dwindled to muddy trickles. In Seddonville, south of Karamea, residents waited several days on higher ground for the earthquake debris clogging the Mokihinui River to burst. When it did, the sudden tsunami-like wave tore chest high through the town, sweeping the local hall clean off its foundations.

Nowhere was the earthquake’s destruction greater than in the uninhabited watershed of the Karamea River, an area covering nearly a third of the new national park. Mountain tops crashed down, filling valleys with huge hum­mocks of smoking rubble. The largest debris dams became permanent, forming a series of elongated lakes along the 70 km-long river.

Between lakes, jagged house-sized boulders, hurled down by the earthquake and not yet worn by eons of water, churned the river into a succession of violent rapids. The handful of miners’ tracks in the area were obliterated, and the lower Karamea became a true wilderness, impassable to all but the most determined.

Back in the summer of 1954, the mystery of this earthquake-riven territory had prompted the first white-water rafting expedition in the country. Four “good keen blokes” from Takaka took on the Karamea River in two ex-air force inflatables, and succeeded in reaching the West Coast. Now the same combina­tion of curiosity and derring-do was prompting me to squeeze into a clammy wetsuit and face another day of murderous rapids.

For the Department of Conservation, the last five years have meant negoti­ating a different set of obstacles—the tortuous investigation process—on the path to securing national park status for Kahurangi. Before that lay another 15 years of concerted advocacy from conservationists, recreationalists and an out­doors-loving public.

Until recently, the popular Heaphy Track was the only part of the half-million hectares of crown-owned hinterland stretching between the Buller River and Farewell Spit that most New Zealanders had heard of. The rest was the preserve of a few keen local hunters and anglers and the odd mineral chipper or tramper in search of “real” backcountry. More than once during my mostly lone forays into this wilderness over the last two decades have I signed the tattered but book of one of Kahurangi’s 55 public huts directly under my previous entry several months earlier.

Real wilderness without doubt, but with no fiords or white herons, Mitre Peaks or Franz Josef Glaciers, Kahurangi didn’t quite seem national park material. It wasn’t until 1980 that new national park legislation allowed the possibility of parks created for particular ecological or scientific values; parks that could be wilderness sanctuaries without being icon-centred playgrounds.

“This place should have been a national park long ago,” says Nelson-based plant ecologist Shannel Courtney. “Over half of New Zealand’s 2400 native plant species grow here, including 67 which are found nowhere else. The most that any other national park could muster would be a quarter. On top of that, 80 percent of all alpine plant species occur here.”

Abundant flora means abundant fauna. Eighteen species of native birds keep Kahurangi’s forest alive with song. They include sizeable populations of the threatened great spotted kiwi, rock wren and blue duck, and the area is a stronghold of the kea, South Island kaka and kereru.

"Forward! Hard left! Harder!!" The commands come thick and fast from the team leader (obscured) in the rear of the raft. Determined as a squad of marines, the crew throw themselves into the fray as they attempt the first non-portaged descent of the Karamea River.
“Forward! Hard left! Harder!!” The commands come thick and fast from the team leader (obscured) in the rear of the raft. Determined as a squad of marines, the crew throw themselves into the fray as they attempt the first non-portaged descent of the Karamea River.

And the snails! Polished mahogany giants, the biggest with shells approaching the size of a hamburger bun. They emerge from their hiding places after rain, the huge grey-marbled foot slick with mucus, and methodically probe to left and right, jabbing out their feelers in search of prey. Unlike most snails, these monsters devour large worms and other invertebrates (see New Zealand Geographic, July – September, 1990). Close to twenty varieties, some restricted in distribution to just a few hectares, occur in the area of the park from lowland forest to tussock top.

“Kahurangi’s Powelliphanta snails are unique to New Zealand, and are as precious as the kiwi and tuatara,” claims DOC advisory scientist Kath Walker, who has just completed a 15-year study of the creatures. North-west Nelson is home to more varieties of these superb snails than the rest of the country put together.

Add the best caves, largest spider, oldest fos­sils, rare bats and showcase geology, and Kahurangi adds up to a superlative place. Over 500 km of tracks and routes traverse every type of native vegetation that collectively covers 85 per­cent of Kahurangi, from dunes and bogs through many types of forest up to alpine herb fields and tussock. The virtually unmodified and inaccessi­ble Heaphy Coast, our last true wilderness coast­line left outside of Fiordland and Stewart Island, is one of the few places where there is an uninter­rupted sequence of natural ecosystems stretching from the mountains to the sea (see New Zealand Geographic, April – June 1992).

“Kahurangi is the jewel in the conservation estate crown,” says Nelson-Marlborough Re­gional Conservator Hugh Logan. “If we had to wipe the national park slate clean and pick them all over again, with all the facts in front of us, Fiordland would be our number one choice, and Kahurangi second.”

So why has it taken so long for a huge tract of such pristine wilderness to be finally afforded full protection? Surprisingly, because Kahurangi never had an influential advocate to push the is­sue. Says Logan: “If north-west Nelson had been Sir Edmund Hillary’s stomping ground, it would probably have been a national park years ago.”

It is true; national parks have often been spon­sored to fruition. Without the vision of Chief Te Heuheu Tukino IV, the peaks of Tongariro would not have become our first national park in 1887. An eruption may have put a stop to ex-Premier William Fox’s endless appeals for protection of the famous Pink and White Terraces at Rotomahana, but Nelson conservationist Perrine Moncrieff got her own way when Abel Tasman National Park was created in 1942 to mark the tercentenary of Tasman’s discovery of New Zealand.

Ironically, it took a surge in world metal prices to focus attention on the Kahurangi region. By the bullish early 1980s the highly mineralised parts of the area were a patchwork of prospecting, mining and exploration claims. But no single issue unified conservation support more than Australian mining giant CRNs 1981 application to bulldoze a road up to the Mt Arthur Tablelands, an expanse of tussocky downs which has always been the main route into the park for the whole Nelson area.

Guy Salmon (now chief executive of the Maruia Society) was one of those who led the charge. “We couldn’t believe that this area, ranked as a State Forest Park since 1970 in recognition of its nationally and internationally significant ecological values, didn’t have sufficient protection to keep out miners, hydrodevelopers, even Forest Service plans for huge exotic plantings!”

As a first step, the Native Forest Action Council proposed a series of ecological sanctuaries in the area. In 1988, after further lobbying to the newly formed Department of Conservation, the 83,000-hectare Tasman Wilderness Area was gazetted. It was then just a matter of time before the adjoining pieces were brought in to form a new national park.

[Chapter Break]

Aerated water offers no buoyancy!” The instructor’s voice flashed back to me as I gulped for air amid the white­out of fierce current. “Lie on your back, legs downstream to push off rocks,” I remembered in an instant of sheer panic before thudding shoulder-first into a huge gran­ite boulder. I used every last dreg of strength to reach the rope floating just ahead, reversing it over my shoulder for the pull in. And this was only practice! I firmly resolved that falling over­board was not going to be an option.

White-water rafting is New Zealand’s most popular adventure sport. It is a brawny confron­tation with the elements that tests skill, reactions and courage. In 1994, some 30 rafting companies took 130,000 customers down some of the coun­try’s roughest rapids.

The Grade 5 Karamea River was one of the last major rivers to be opened for commercial rafting. Under a DOC concession granted last year, Motueka-based Ultimate Descents is al­lowed to make two rafting expeditions per month during the September to May season. Portaging, the practice of carrying rafts past suicidal rapids, had, until Anzac weekend 1995, been considered absolutely necessary on this river. Our objective, to make the first non-portaged descent of the river from Karamea Bend, seemed to me (in my less sanguine moments) akin to jumping out of a plane free from the encumbrance of a parachute.

Airlifted in by helicopter, our 300 kg of equip­ment, food and dry gear was stashed in two 4.4-metre inflatables. Accompanying our 11-strong crew were two rescue kayakers. Because the down-river route runs through the Tasman Wil­derness Area, everything has to be airlifted in and rafted out. Campfire ashes must be buried and fireplace rocks re-scattered.

Don't leave your pack outside the Heaphy Hut (where the river of the same name enters the Tasman), because these canny local horses will extract food from it! In the Tasman Wilderness Area there are no such hazards (nor huts). At Bush Flat, on the Karamea River, rafters camp and relive the day's mishaps and magic.
Don’t leave your pack outside the Heaphy Hut (where the river of the same name enters the Tasman), because these canny local horses will extract food from it! In the Tasman Wilderness Area there are no such hazards (nor huts). At Bush Flat, on the Karamea River, rafters camp and relive the day’s mishaps and magic.

Most rapids on the Karamea River remain nameless; they are yet to collect the quota of spills, capsizes and oaths that gradually impose historical character on a rafter’s river. Apt names distinguish half a dozen: Growler, Scarecase, Grey’s Maze, Plughole—plus a couple with less printable provenance. Each river run is different. The challenge is to find the most exciting white-water while staying within the limits of safety and the experience of the rafters.

“Sieves” are common on the boulder-strewn Karamea. These narrowing funnels of water which surge beneath huge rocks are death traps. Guide Don Allardice was driving the lesson home with an on-site inspection of a classic example. “The downstream exit is too small to fit through, and you can’t fight the current back out. Result: drowned.” Thank you, Don.

Rafting is not all non-stop action. Several hours of studying the river, brainstorming the “line,” setting up throwbag positions and being briefed before battle preceded our shooting of the Roaring Lion. “This section has never been rafted,” yelled Don above the thunderous roar. He paused to let it sink in. “Let’s do it!”

There is often a moment of acute slow-motion reflection before disaster. The ultimate “What am I doing with my life?” But here there was no time to ask. One moment our raft was plummeting over a steep chute, the next it was wrapped around a boulder, every second tonnes and tonnes of raging water driving it into the rock which now doubled as a pathetic perch for six stranded rafters. The unbearably menacing roar of the river pressed us together. As if in some crazy Western, a passing helicopter hovered for a gawk, its cowboy-hatted occupants convulsed with mirth.

Rescued one by one using a zip-line—a lateral flying fox that uses the current to sweep the attached person to safety—we then repeated the entire two-hour script scene by scene with a second crew. It was a tedious and exhausting morning, but one made more than bearable by the grandeur of the surroundings.

[Chapter Break]

The analogy of a tectonic raft or ark cut loose from the supercontinent of Gondwana 80 million years ago has often been used to explain the peculiarities of New Zealand’s flora and fauna. In Kahurangi, the record of New Zealand’s voyage around the South Pacific has been accentuated by a complex geology which created landforms where unique plant and animal communities could flourish in local­ised microclimates.

Such enclaves persist. On the exposed Mt Arthur Tablelands, alpine butter­cups carpet the walls of sheltered sinkholes and depressions, protected from the weather and out of browsing range of goats and deer. On the western coast, although exposed to the fury of the Tasman Sea, lush nikau and karaka groves thrive—a little piece of Northland transplanted to the south.

On a two million-year-old map of New Zealand, Kahurangi may well have been connected to Taranaki. Such a land bridge, not possible over deep Cook Strait, may have allowed warmth-loving plants into the area. Being west and north of the Main Divide, parts of the area escaped the ice sheets of the last Ice Age.

“Whole sections of similar biota were just wiped out in other areas,” says botany Professor Alan Mark of Otago University. “Kahurangi’s high endemism rate, both flora and fauna, makes it our ultimate storehouse. I’d rank it in overall importance alongside the South West New Zealand World Heritage Area.”

Such considerations, however, cut no ice with many of the West Coast’s independent-minded residents.

“Irrelevant hogwash!” snorts Pat O’Dea, Buller District mayor and outspo­ken opponent of national park status for Kahurangi. “New Zealand is strug­gling for economic survival. It has massive debt, can’t fund education, health, welfare, yet we continue to lock up significant areas of land from development. The creation of Kahurangi is nothing short of criminal.”

The most bitter opposition to the park came from O’Dea’s West Coast constituents. After a noisy public meeting in Westport in 1991, the 120,000 ha south-west corner of the proposed park area, including the Buller Coalfields, was excluded. Buller Electricity failed in their high court challenge to get the 46,000-hectare Matiri-Owen block in the south-east excluded as well. They planned to flood the Ngakawau basin, tap Lake Matiri and build the biggest generating plant in the country.

At the northern end of the park, Macraes Mining successfully stood their paydirt at Sam’s Creek, off the road to the Cobb. The exclusion of their 4000 hectare gold prospecting claim remains controversial. “It’s not appropriate to have this kind of development on the park’s front door,” says Royal Forest & Bird Protection Society’s regional field officer Eugenie Sage. “Extraction of at least five million tonnes of ore would involve huge tailing dumps, forest clearance, landscape scarring and possible leaching into the Takaka River, a delicately poised system that feeds Pupu Springs, site of the world’s clearest fresh water.”

At the time of writing, some 60 separate pieces totalling 20,000 hectares had been excluded to allow for existing uses around the edge of the park, or for various other reasons. Examples of existing uses include grazing leases, Electrocorp’s hydro operations, sphagnum moss gathering and small mining operations. Farewell Spit was excluded because it was already highly protected and was not contiguous with the rest of the park.

Deciding the final boundaries took 14 months to complete. Despite well-publicised opposition, support for the creation of Kahurangi was overwhelming: al­most 80 per cent of the more than 1000 public submis­sions received were in favour, with nearly half of them from the North Island.

The park’s name arose from DOC consultation with local Maori. Kahurangi Point marks the boundary be­tween West Coast and Golden Bay iwi, and was seen as a fitting name for an area which encompassed their tribal lands.

Human history in Kahurangi began with colonisa­tion by Polynesians at least 800 years ago. A 1962 ar­cheological dig of a settlement dated 1380 A.D. at the Heaphy River mouth turned up 5000 stone flakes, in­cluding greenstone from Arahura and obsidian from Mayor Island in the Bay of Plenty, indicating that na­tional trade routes were well established by this time.

Europeans arrived on the scene in the 1820s in the form of Australian sealing gangs. Within two decades they had almost exterminated the prolific seal colonies of the Kahurangi coast. Exploitation of coal, timber and flax rapidly followed the New Zealand Company’s set­tlement of Nelson in 1841.

A small monument on State Highway 60, just before Collingwood, commemorates the 1856 discovery of New Zealand’s first payable gold just a few kilometres inland at Lightband Gully. The subsequent rush was largely spent after three short years, but it ignited fever­ish exploration of Kahurangi’s rugged hinterland. Aorere goldfields reserve, a focus of mining activity, was excluded from the park to allow continued use by tradi­tional fossickers and less traditional trail bikers.

The effort needed to win some of the gold remains legendary. On the five-hour gut-busting ascent to Boul­der Lake, the South Island’s northernmost glacial lake, I try to imagine what it would have been like working for the Collingwood Goldfields Company, hefting 50 lb bags of cement on my back over this rugged country up to the 1000-metre-high dam site, or building the el­evated water race which ran several kilometres from the dam to a sluice on the side of the Quartz Range.

For sheer isolation, it would have been hard to beat the Golden Blocks of Taitapu Estate, accessible only from Golden Bay’s western flank. Seventeen causeways built during the Depression now bypass the twisting, muddy low tide route the diggers would have taken south through scenic Whanganui Inlet, now a marine and wildlife management reserve.

Roughneck miners working claims such as the Morning Star, Anthill and Old Golden Ridge congregated in two settlements that became known as Dogtown and Pennyweight. The seams were largely spent within a decade, and the last mine shut in 1913.

More recently, loggers found real wealth in Taitapu’s lowland forests, felling thousands of hectares of towering coastal trees. In less accessible parts of the 28,500 hectare block, much virgin bush remains. The NZ Forest Service purchased it in 1985 from private owners for inclusion in the park, but in an ironic twist of fate the area may have to be excluded from Kahurangi. The land had been originally set aside as a native reserve for its 40 or so inhabitants, but was sold in 1884 by its three listed Maori owners to a Wellington solicitor for £10,000. Its purchase by the Forest Service brought it back into Crown owner­ship, and meant it was fair game for a land claim to the Waitangi Tribunal. A decision over whether it remains public land (and can therefore be included in the national park) or is returned to Maori ownership may be years away.

The damage to Taitapu at the hands of loggers was considerable, but not quite as obvious as the Karamea River’s earthquake slips. Some of these giant scars on the hillsides are still bare rubble; others are sprinkled with juvenile beech trees desperately trying to reclaim the unstable ground. Dead trees still puncture the sur­face of the earthquake lakes, though most have rotted off to stumps.

A succession of commercial eeling operations since 1978 have largely cleared the lakes of eels. By all ac­counts, they once grew to a prodigious size in the area. In the Depression, a goldminer was reputedly attacked by eels when fording the Karamea. He had to be carried out over the Tablelands, and nearly died from loss of blood. During the 1954 rafting expedition, Eric Page claimed that while he was having a morning wash two huge eels disputed his right to the soap, leaping out of the water and snapping like dogs.

Present Roaring Lion lake resident Bruce Reay is the last of the eelers. He has trapped the fish along the two largest lakes for the last three (September – April) sea­sons. The first sign of his presence during our rafting trip is an old Janola bottle buoy marking a hinaki (eel trap) midway down the lake. Further on, we prod net bags full of live eels suspended just below the surface. We catch up with him a little further along the lake, his huge waders seeming to fill the tiny blood- and mud-streaked inflatable as he holds up a bag of slithering bodies. “My best day was 400 kg, soon after I started. Nowadays I’m lucky if I get 30 kg,” he says. Bruce keeps them alive in the sunken nets until there is a chopper load to fly out. “Had a slingload of eels burst open recently. Eels everywhere. Helluva mess!” he says.

I picture myself living his life—we are roughly the same age. During the winter he turns his hand to possuming. “It gets pretty cold up here,” he says. “The lake freezes around the edges. Even my possums go rock solid before I get a chance to skin ’em.”

He hands me three letters to post from a well-wrapped plastic bag. “I was wondering when I was go­ing to run into someone. Had them in my pocket for a month.”

There is no wasted conversation, no savouring rare human company. He smiles gently as we say goodbye.

Our rafts are now entering the Tasman Wilderness Area, centred on the exquisite jewel of Lake Aorere but embracing the rugged catchments of the Roaring Lion, Beautiful, Ugly, Spey and Burgoo Rivers, among others. With­out tracks, marked routes or huts, the area takes a week to traverse in any direction. This vast tract epitomises the true concept of wilderness. Who really knows what lurks in here? It is not impossible that a small relict colony of kakapo might still survive. Expeditions in 1984-86 failed to find any birds, despite reports of booming and evidence of track and bowl systems up the Roaring Lion and other valleys in the district between 1934 and 1979.

Where the wilderness area finishes, helicopters begin. Day rafting trips are popular in the lower Karamea gorge. We stop to watch the circus of five rafts negotiating the last major rapids, quietly appreciating the value of our three days of skill honing and comradeship together. Ours had been more than a cameo river appearance. We had witnessed a mighty river growing and chang­ing in character as it gathered momentum to the sea. What is more, we had achieved our goal of a non-portaged descent of the Karamea.

One cannot deny the pride that comes from beating the odds. It was Jean Jacques Rousseau who put forward the argument that civilised people should incorporate primitive qualities into their disordered lives. On the Karamea, I fancied that I had atoned for my sins of civilisation in a bubble of wilderness grace. Now, nearing the end, I felt that bubble about to burst. I could almost hear the telephone ringing.

Pulling our rafts out on to the riverbank for the last time, we sidestepped cowpats as we loaded gear on to the waiting trailer. My limbs had that special sweet ache that comes from vigorous exercise in fresh air. But was I deluding myself? Where once we entered the wilderness in search of meat or purifica­tion, today I fear we leave with only dirty washing.

[Chapter Break]

I shot my first deer in Kahurangi. A stag in velvet, browsing an island in the Stanley River. I forded the fierce waist-deep current to finish it off. I make no apologies; it fed my family for weeks. Red deer were established in Kahurangi by 1910 and the smaller, leaner-meated fallow was released near Flora Hut, gateway to Mt Arthur, in 1912. Back in the early years, hunters were allocated huge blocks all to themselves, with wall trophies virtually guaranteed. Golden Bay branch presi­dent of the New Zealand Deerstalkers Association Roger Price has been shoot­ing in these hills for 38 years, and feels alarm at the changes national park status will bring, potentially depriving the hunter his quarry, and the forest a useful (and free) source of pest control. “We’re losing our Recreational Hunting Area up the Cobb. The most we can hope for is a helicopter-free zone to keep the big boys out,” he says. For “big boys” read commercial hunters, who, according to the recreational shooters, could be called on by DOC to cull deer in the area—even exterminate them.

Others fear that the influx of visitors national park status will bring to the area will spoil the wilderness experience. Nelson Fishing guide Tony Entwistle charges his mainly overseas clients over $500 per day to savour the greatest brown trout fishing in the world. “Good, big fighting fish and perfect sur­roundings. Not a mass market experience,” he says. “Already there are more people in places where we never used to see a soul. I’ve seen Nelson Lakes [National Park] where we can’t even get up some of the rivers for people over summer. Solitude is essential for anglers.”

But people are not the new park’s worst problem. Possums are. A century ago, officials saw little reason to question the liberation of the furry marsupials from across the Tasman. A report from the Southland Acclimatisation Society’s possum catcher in the 1890s observed that any damage would be “very little, seeing that they never come on to open country . . . If a possum is caged up and fed on grass, he will die of starvation.” No one considered—or cared—what they might do to the forest.

Simultaneous liberations into the Takaka, Aorere and Karamea valleys in 1925 were the prelude to an ecological disaster. Zoologist Graeme Elliott, who has studied Kahurangi’s fauna for the last 15 years, says that possums did not make it to Kahurangi’s high country until the 1960s and ’70s. “Now they’re not just defoliating the trees, they’re slaughtering the native snails,” he says. “We’d always assumed that the high numbers of kaka and kea were the main predators. But now we know it’s definitely possums.” He shows me the telltale bite out of a shell, matching the bite marks to a possum skull he has on hand. “The snail attaches itself to its shell by a muscle near the opening. All the possum has to do is to bite through this and then slurp out a tasty lunch.”

There are no economically feasible methods for eradicating possums in areas as vast as Kahurangi. Instead, the Department of Conservation allocates funds—$500,000 this year—to control operations which will have the most strategic effect. One of the battles is to prevent the spread of tuberculosis from infected Karamea/Matiri possums into disease-free cattle in Golden Bay. Here’s hoping that the snails can hold on in this, their major refuge.

The heaphy Track is a natural thoroughfare across the park. For the early Maori, it avoided the difficult coastal route past Kahurangi Point to Whanganui Inlet. Despite it being named after him, Charles Heaphy only travelled the coastal section. The first Europeans to take the “Whakapohai Gap” were a couple of gold diggers, recorded only as Alridge and companion, in 1859. The subsequent migra­tion of miners to the Karamea diggings turned it into the original West Coast highway, but by 1900 the pack track was little used and over­grown.

It took the creation of Northwest Nelson State Forest Park in 1970, amalgamating eight state forests, for the recreational value of the area to be more fully recognised, and walking the Heaphy became fashionable again. The track was cleared and widened, huts rebuilt and rivers bridged.

Its use has doubled every five years for the last two decades. Last year, some 6000 people tra­versed the four- to six-day track, now promoted (along with others such as Milford and Abel Tasman Coast Track) as one of New Zealand’s “Great Walks.” Beginning in the dry beech forest of Golden Bay’s upper Aorere valley, the 77 km trail crosses the rolling tussock of the Gouland Downs before passing through Tolkien-like glades of stunted beech and ending up in the subtropical nikau groves of the West Coast.

The day-to-day diversity, with myriad subtle gradations, makes for a stunning walk. Or bike ride. Come Christmas, bikers will be lamenting the loss of a premier mountain biking trail. Un­der national park law, no bikes are allowed on unformed roads, and the Heaphy will be un­equivocally shut to bicycles once gazetted.

While the Minister of Conservation refused to budge on the mountain bike issue (despite an unprecedented number of submissions from bik­ers) he found time to entertain a delegation of influential Nelson businesspersons calling them­selves Tas-West Link Taskforce, keen to resur­rect the plan for a Collingwood-to-Karamea Road. The idea has been bandied about for dec­ades. In 1983, the Ministry of Works and Devel­opment costed the building of the road at $50-60 million, and called it a low priority. The latest proposal would see a privately funded toll road connect the Aorere valley inland from Collingwood with the Oparara basin near Karamea, across the Gunner Downs with a tunnel under the Heaphy Track near Perry Saddle.

Only three percent of submissions on Kahurangi supported the concept of the road. Tony Ibbotson, owner of Karamea’s renowned Last Resort Lodge, is furious over the plans. “If I’d thought they’d ever put a road through, I would never have built here. This place is just too special to be a goddam pie stop!”

Ibbotson, a big player in Karamea’s tourism stakes, operates four DOC concessions in the Oparara basin, piloting his own three-seat helicopter. Swing­ing it around, he points out the incongruous patches of exotics amongst the pristine rainforest. “What an embarrassment now, and just for a few votes,” he says through the static of the headset. We swoop down over the largest of the three limestone arches spanning the Oparara River. At 210 metres long by 43 metres wide, it is the largest in Australasia.

Kahurangi’s limestone country also boasts the three longest caves in the country and three of the four deepest caves in the Southern Hemisphere.

Westport menswear shop owner Phil Wood and three caving mates discovered the entrance to Oparara’s Honeycomb Cave, just a kilometre further up from the big arch, in 1980. So far, the bones of 27 extinct species of birds—giant moa and eagles, even a goose we never knew existed—have been found in its 17 km of passages.

Also underground—but very much alive—is New Zealand’s largest spider, Spelungula cavernicola, found only in the caves of north-west Nelson and Golden Bay. “The biggest ones are found deep,” says Ibbotson, who has joined me in Honeycomb Cave to look for the spider. Our headlamps illuminate all manner of formations: delicate straw stalactites, pedestal “elephant feet”, soft “moonmilk” and cascades of rougher flowstone. Over 30 entrances to this cave ensure adequate draught, but the air is dank and musty.

Our beams skip around the ceilings until fi­nally Ibbotson calls, “Here’s one!” Our beams converge. The spider is motionless. Its brown, slightly furry 20-cent-sized body sprouts legs that give it an overall 12 cm size. Ibbotson’s tone is affectionate as he talks of the spiders: “They find their prey by vibration—cave wetas, mostly. The biggest I’ve seen is 16 cm overall, body the size of a 50-cent piece.” Silken egg sacks like miniature golf balls hang from the ceiling nearby. I pay my respects to Spelungula, but this is not a cave I would like to spend a night in.

[Chapter Break]

Like the cave spider, many of Kahurangi’s splendours do not advertise themselves in neon lights. The Thou­’ sand Acre and Hundred Acre Plateaux, A for example, receive few visitors. From the head of Lake Matiri, in the park’s southern appendage, it is a solid two-hour haul up the track to the top, from where you can look down into a glaciated limestone abyss. The Hundred Acre Plateau (also called the Devil’s Napkin or the Devil’s Tabletop) is actually closer to a thou­sand acres, but gold prospectors thought it would be confusing to have both called the same name.

Will national park status bring the masses to sup from Kahurangi’s table?

At a foggy press conference on the Mt Arthur Tablelands in April 1994, Conservation Minister Denis Marshall expressed the hope that it would, and that at the very least the park would take some of the pressure of numbers off its hugely popular neighbour, Abel Tasman National Park. Last year 25,000 walked the Abel Tasman Coast Track, and 170,000 visited the park. Kahurangi is a harsher environment, but the two parks are only four kilometres apart at the narrowest place across the Takaka valley. Some overlap is inevitable.

Even so, DOC Takaka field manager Geoff Rennison does not expect the park opening in late 1995 to bring an instant increase in his workload. “It’s an enormous place with no real celebrity features. It’s all there, but it doesn’t shout at you.”

And maybe that’s no bad thing. Nearly a century ago, explorer Charlie Douglas wrote: “Let us keep a few spots* . . . uncontaminated by the ordinary tourist, the picnicker and the photographic fiend, some almost impassable place where what is left inside can be left up to the imagination . . . keep them for those who care to risk their necks and enjoy scenery in a state of nature.”

Kahurangi could be that place.