We were about to set off on an all day hike through the rainforest in Whangamata with guide Doug Johansen (alias Kiwi Dundee).Doug, a local identity and passionate conservationist, is well known for his campaigns against gold mining and logging. His good natured bantering and stash of jokes kept us amused all day.
It was the first weekend of autumn. We were fortunate to strike sunny weather but a few days later it would be raining cats and dogs here causing much flooding and slips.
It was the weekend of John’s veterinary class re-union and we had planned to actively explore some of the local area as well as well as wining and dining together.
The years have passed all too quickly since these 69ers were classmates at Massey University. Now hitting 70 most have put themselves out to pasture and love it. A few are still happily working including Iris. One of only two women vets in this class she runs a high country station in Glenorchy as well attending to her small veterinary practice.
The re-union had started on Friday evening with a barbecue at the home of our hosts Dick and Jo Mahoney. Whangamata is the perfect spot for Dick. A passionate surfer he loves catching the waves at Whangamata’s ocean beach.
We’d had a great catch-up over a perfectly roasted lamb, sausages, buns and salad. Dessert was a scrumptious dish of figs poached in sherry and brown sugar which had been harvested from the gigantic fig tree shading their garden.
Now, after a good night’s sleep, we were ready for action. But would the few of us with wonky knees and hip replacements last the distance? Any fears we had soon dissipated when Doug told us he had recently got himself a new hip and may soon need another.
At the entrance to the forest Doug showed a historic photograph to show how bare this part of the forest became as a result of kauri milling in the 19th century. The forest, though still young, has now regenerated and it was wonderful to see hundreds of new kauri seedlings growing.
A multitude of cicadas were making a deafening noise but we heard very little birdsong. Sadly the kauri felling had destroyed the habitat of many of our native birds. And now that the trees are back predators like rats and stoats are a continuing threat.
We did see quite a few fantails, which can catch insects on the wing, flitting through the trees. Not wary of people at all these inquisitive little birds came right up close.
Deeper into the forest we viewed the remains of a goldmining settlement where Doug’s grandparents had once made their home. Much of the old iron machinery has been removed but remnants are still littered around.
To extract the gold out of the quartz miners initially used stampers which crushed the rock into powder, and then used mercury, a difficult and inefficient process. Later on cyanide (in which the gold would dissolve) was used and this allowed far more of it to be recovered.
Doug led us into a couple of old mining shafts which were narrow and pitch dark. When we turned off our torches it was magical to see glowworms twinkling above us.
In the first shaft we were exceedingly lucky to spot a tiny puddle hopping hochstetter’s frog with bulging eyes. It belongs to an ancient group of frogs that have changed very little in the last 70 million years.
The walls of the second shaft were full of cave wetas. They are not aggressive and don’t bite but these large browny black insects with their spindly legs and long antennae sure look fearsome!
While some were availing themselves of the unique photo opportunity Doug was surreptitiously tickling some of the ladies from behind with a twig to scare them into thinking that the cave wetas were jumping down their necks (Ugh!)
It was good to be back in broad daylight and to head for our picnic spot a short drive away on the banks of the Tairua River. Here we tucked into substantial packed lunches and enjoyed listening to tui and bellbirds singing.
After lunch Doug unpacked the boot of his car and brought out his large and very valuable stash of gold, silver, gemstones and ancient kauri gum which he has fossicked for over the years. It was a rare opportunity for us to handle rocks sparkling with gold and silver and run our hands over the smooth patina of the gum.
So far it had been a very relaxed walk with many interludes during which Doug shared his extensive knowledge of the local fauna and flora so we were ready for a more energetic afternoon.
Partway through our afternoon walk through another rainforest Doug stopped to tell a cautionary tale of how some years ago he had got himself a hernia carrying a rather large lady who had broken her ankle. Not wishing to risk further injuries to himself he now carries a pistol in his pocket to put anyone unfortunate to fall and injure themselves out of their misery. (Just joking of course!?!)
He had picked the right moment to tell this tale as from there on the terrain was covered in tree roots which I gingerly picked my way around.
Our walk finished up at a crystal clear swimming hole. A large black eel slid through the water. Unexpectedly it jumped out and bit the toes of one of our party, drawing blood but not doing serious damage.
On the way home there were plenty of short stops to admire native trees such as kauri, rimu and rata which some suspected was to give not only us, but Doug as well, a small breather.
We’d been on our feet much of the day but the pace had been fairly slow. The terrain proved not to be too challenging at all and being in this beautiful natural environment had been stimulating and relaxing.
We had just enough time for a short breather, a shower and time to put on our glad rags before heading to a local restaurant for a splendid meal.
Words: Lyn Potter. Photographs by Neil Haigh