Whirinaki, verdant cathedral

I don’t really remember why, but I wanted to see Blue ducks (Hymenolaimus malacorhynchos) again. Maybe because they are super cool? I discovered that Whirinaki Te Pua-a-Tāne (in Maori: the abundance of Tāne, the god of forest and birds) Conservation Park, north of Napier, was a prime location for this endangered species: the conservation project there worked so well that Blue ducks were numerous enough for the effort to be ramped down. After reading that, I expected to find a duck at each turn of the river!

On State Highway 5 from Napier via Taupo, I turned left 25 km before Rotorua. At first, the drive on long straight stretches of road was not very exciting: on both sides of the road were exotic coniferous forest, very good for the forestry industry and carbon trapping but a disaster for biodiversity. After Murupara, the landscape changed and I entered hilly country covered by native-looking forest. I followed a twisting road up to a pass and down into a gully, until the turn-out to Minginui. There, a marae standing in the middle of a field reminded me that the region was one where the Maori culture was most lively. The village’s surroundings screamed of forestry again, but I knew there were wild places around. A slow and bumpy drive along a rocky track took me to the car park where I would spend the night.

I took a short evening walk into the forest, the perfect occasion to stretch my legs and play with long-exposure photography.

That’s me!

The Whirinaki Forest is a temperate rainforest with no real season. It’s one of the last primeval forests left on the North Island of New Zealand, a survivor with podocarp trees standing up to 65 meters. It was the stage for a face-off between loggers and conservationists in the 70s and the 80s, fortunately won by the latter in 1984, when the conservation park was created (as a Forest Park back then). I visited in April, when Notre-Dame’s roof burnt down in Paris. The outcry that event provoked, while justified to some extent, seemed futile compared to what our planet suffers at our hands every day. I was sad to see what happened to Notre-Dame, but I realized the Whirinaki was more like my kind of cathedral, and I was relieved that some brave women and men stood against native logging decades ago.

Night were cold in the hills, but also quiet and beautiful. In the morning, I walked along the Whirinaki River, to the waterfall and back, keeping a sharp eye for any Blue duck… I saw a few!

On many aspects, Blue ducks are New Zealand’s dipper: they depend on white-water rivers, and are particulrly skillful at navigating rapids. Long-exposure shots of White-throated dipper (Cinclus cinclus), with a still bird alongside a fast-flowing stream, are in fashion nowadays, especially in Finland, and I wanted to replicate that with a Blue duck. I was foolish to think that I could pull it off without a tripod, but I felt too lazy to carry mine on the walk. I still managed a few images I’m happy with, so here they are!

Blue duck (Hymenolaimus malacorhynchos)
Blue duck
Blue duck, or a ghost?
Blue duck

On the way back, I met a family of 2 adults and a younger bird, the latter having a blueish bill and a duller yellow eye than the adults.

Blue duck
Blue duck, adult (top) and young (bottom)
Blue duck (young one on the left)
Blue duck (young one on the right)
New Zealand fantail (Rhipidura fuliginosa)

Another remarkable spot in the Whirinaki Forest is the walk to the H-tree. Among giant podocarps (rimu, kahikatea, miro…), I learnt more about local flora than anywhere else in New Zealand, I think, while enjoying the raucous calls of invisible New Zealand kaka (Nestor meridionalis) high in the canopy. The H-tree is actually two rimu trees: one had a branch that pointed straight to the other’s trunk. By rubbing against each other, the branch and the trunk lost their bark, and the inside tissues merged together… now they look like a big H letter 😀

This process is named “inosculation”, and is similar to grafting used by gardeners.

The H-tree

The Whirinaki is truly a remarkable forest, and I’m glad I took that detour before reaching warm Rotorua.

To be continued…


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