Arataki Visitor Centre

Waitakere Ranges, Te Wao Nui a Tiriwa
By James Littlewood

“The Waitakere Ranges” is a misnomer. Waitakere is the old name given to a rock a few metres off shore at Te Henga (Bethell’s Beach). It’s also the name of the river which runs into the sea here. For a long time, Te Henga was home to many people of the iwi Te Kawerau a Maki, who bestowed the name Waitakere on both the rock and the river.

When river was dammed in 1910 to make a water supply for Auckland, it became known as the Waitakere Dam. It seems the name’s definition was expanded by Pakeha to take in the entire mountain range in which it is situated. Up until the dam was built, the river was deep, and much of its lower reaches were navigable by waka. Today for the most part it is a shallow stream.

Long before all that, Maori referred to this majestic mountain range as Te Wao Nui a Tiriwa, the Great Forest of Tiriwa. Tiriwa was the chief of the Turehu tribe, a race believed to have come from out of the earth, and who were there to meet the crew of the waka Tainui when it came to the beach now called Cornwallis. Its old name is Karangahape, because there Tiriwa gave a karanga to the tohunga (priest) of the waka, Hape, also known as Rakataura.

Back further still, in a Te Kawerau a Maki tradition known as te unuhunga o Rangitoto, Tiriwa was gazing over Te Tai-o-Rehua (the Tasman Sea). In those days, this was the location of Rangitoto. For reasons we don’t know, Tiriwa decided that Rangitoto was better off elsewhere, so he waded into the moana, gathered Rangitoto up in his arms and carried it across the forested mountains. He strode eastwards, into the Waitemata and out into the channel where the water got deeper, and colder, and at that point, with the waters cooling his body, he dropped Rangitoto in the place where it stands to this day. 

As the ultimate ancestor of Te Kawerau, Tiriwa can be seen atop the pou whenua at Arataki visitors’ centre. He still strides, and you’ll see the shape of Rangitoto in his arms as he wades into the deep waters of Waitemata.

Tiriwa’s forest has had a rough ride under the influence of Pakeha. The dams took their toll on several thousand acres, and the next to go were the magnificent, ancient kauri which grow in abundance there, to be turned into housing and spars. By the middle of the twentieth century, nearly all of them were gone. A tiny portion of the ancient trees were left, but by far the majority of the forest is regenerating. Or at least, it’s trying to.

And then kauri dieback came along. This microscopic, fungus-like parasite (called a phytophthora) can sit dormant in the soil for years. Once activated by water, it seeks out kauri roots which it penetrates and colonises before draining the tree of its nutrients. The roots themselves are a soft target: kauri send out sensitive roots almost on the surface up to three times their canopy width, and then cover them with a thick layer of debris. 

One of the key vectors by which the phytophthora is transmitted is foot traffic, and for this reason there is a significantly positive correlation between dieback-infected trees and the walking paths that pass by them. In many places, human shoes have been treading directly onto kauri roots, and inevitably many of those shoes will have had phytophthora on them. It may have been you, or it may have been me: unwittingly grinding the parasite directly into the roots exposed underfoot.

For a long time, nobody did anything. But in December 2017, the leaders of Te Kawerau a Maki declared a rahui: a prohibition upon entering a certain place. This caused outrage among some Pakeha who were either ignorant of the iwi’s reasoning, or who rejected the notion that an iwi held any authority to make such a claim. It was suggested by others that to willfully ignore the rahui required both a dislike of trees and a disdain for Maori.

Either way, the rahui galvanised action, and before the summer was over, Auckland Council secured legislative changes to enforce trespass notices on anyone entering the forest. Up went the fences and the “keep out” signs. Both Auckland Council and the Department of Conservation increased their investment in research into the causes and cures. And for the most part people stayed out of the ranges: there wasn’t much choice.

As yet there is no known cure. But there has been some success with sulphites, so that infected trees, once treated can survive with the phytophthora for many years, as long as they have a generally favourable environment.

Once the tracks were closed, Auckland Council set about refurbishing them. And, as the refurbishment gets completed, track by track, the forest is opening up again. "At tracks like the one at Arataki, you're met by a full-on scrub station, which you have to walk through in order to reach the track. You scrub your feet, and then progress to a treadle which pumps an organic disinfectant spray all over them. It’s not harmful: you can do it jandals.

The tracks are also a bit different to what they used to be. Gone is the thin, cleared line that’s guided trampers through back country terrain for decades. Now, wherever the track gets anywhere near kauri, a substantial boardwalk - complete with hand rails - elevates walkers right off the ground. Elsewhere, tracks are built up with a kind of metal which semi-cements in reaction to water: it packs down hard.

Sure, it’s a more curated experience than the rugged bushwalk of days past. But it’s the reality for now. Anyway, the only other option is to stay out of the forest altogether, and nobody wants that.

Image Credit: Arataki Visitor Centre