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Te Wahipounamu: New Zealand's pristine wilderness

UNESCO Courier,  April, 1997  by Ann-Marie Johnson

Extraordinary flora and fauna flourish in Southwest New ZeaLand, one of the world's most spectacular wilderness areas, which was placed on the WorLd Heritage List in 1990.
Maori people see more than a mountain when they look at the snow-covered heights of New Zealand's highest peak. Members of the Ngai Tahu tribe see their ancestor, Aoraki, first born son of Raki, the Sky Parent. In mythical times, Aoraki was shipwrecked after his canoe overturned as he sailed in the South Pacific. Trying to save themselves, he and his crew clambered to the high side of the hull . . . and remained there for eternity. Today, the canoe forms the South Island of New Zealand, while Aoraki and his crew, still clinging to the hull, have become the great mountain chain known as the Southern Alps.
In due course, Aoraki's son, Tuterakiwhanoa, came searching for his father. Finding the remains of the shipwreck had turned to stone, he began to reshape it into a suitable home for his human descendants. Other atua (demigods) with skills in landscaping, fisheries, birds and horticulture helped him, creating the South Island eventually inhabited by the Ngai Tahu.
The results of their ancestors' labours can be seen today in one of the world's most spectacular and pristine wilderness areas, southwest New Zealand, known in Maori as Te Wahipounamu. Since the atua created this vast region, man has had virtually no impact on it. In fact, no humans at all lived there until about 1,000 years ago. For millennia, the only sounds to be heard were the rustling of leaves, the rushing water of mountain streams and birdsong echoing through the densely luxuriant dark-green bush. In the absence of predatory mammals, plants did not need to develop defence mechanisms, some birds lost the power to fly and did not develop the bright plumage seen in the birds of more dangerous countries. Unique species evolved, their development hindered only by the effects of the climate.
When the Maori arrived, they found a land rich in resources they could use to sustain their existence and around which they could build their culture. Abundant birds and fish provided food, the bush gave them timber. But the most valuable prize was hewn from the rock of Aoraki's mythical canoe and was reflected in the name the Maori gave the region: Te Wahipounamu, or the place of the greenstone.
Greenstone (nephrite) was the most precious of all stone to the Maori. It was used for tools, weapons and ornaments, and in some forms is believed to have spiritual force. It was certainly the most important item the Ngai Tahu had to trade with other tribes, and the stone from Te Wahipounamu was spread throughout New Zealand.
In 1642 the Dutch navigator Abel Tasman became the first European to sight Te Wahipounamu, but no one landed there until the arrival of the English explorer James Cook in 1773. He and his crew spent six weeks in Dusky Sound, clearing a small part of the native forest to make way for an astronomical observatory. The tree stumps left behind can still be seen today.
But the first real effects of European settlement where not felt until more than twenty years later, after sealers began to harvest the fur seals found along the coast. By 1820 the seal population had been almost wiped out. Fortunately they were given legal protection in 1875, and the population has since recovered to the point where there are now thousands spread along the coastline.
Europeans were also largely responsible for perhaps the most devastating impact on the wilderness of Te Wahipounamu. The introduction of browsing and predatory mammals such as red deer, the Australian brush-tailed possum, rabbits and rodents wrought havoc in an ecosystem ill-equipped to defend itself against such creatures. Several bird species have become extinct, while others are among the world's most endangered. Some palatable plants were eliminated from accessible areas and severe damage occurred in many places.
But the untrained eye does not notice such things. Te Wahipounamu's remoteness and isolation have saved it from the worst encroachments of human civilization, and there are still areas where human beings have never set foot. The first major land-based explorations were carried out in the second half of the nineteenth century, but a number of the remote valleys were still considered to be unexplored as late as the 1970s.
Today experienced trampers can find huge expanses which offer neither tracks nor huts nor any other sign of human inhabitation, giving them the opportunity to revel in the rare and sometimes frightening sense of complete solitude. With no roads, houses, traffic or noise, walkers easily find themselves overwhelmed by their insignificance in the midst of the magnificent mountain and forest scenery that surrounds them. They are left to depend on their own resources in the knowledge that they are hours away from outside help.
But less hardy - or more gregarious - visitors can enjoy Te Wahipounamu's wonders in a little more comfort. The world-famous Milford Track offers guided or independent walks of two to five days through spectacular scenery, as do several other less well-known trails, such as the Routeburn, Greenstone or Holyford tracks. Numerous shorter walks, ranging from thirty minutes to a full day, are spread along the length of Te Wahipounamu, giving safe and easy access to the wilderness. Several of these walks have been equipped with informative displays to help explorers understand the surrounding landforms, wildlife or vegetation.
But such displays cannot tell all there is to know about Te Wahipounamu. The region's 2.6 million hectares are breathtaking in the extent and variety of their natural beauty. Forming fully a tenth of New Zealand's entire landmass, the area is united only by its diversity. Changes in vegetation and scenery which span thousands of kilometres on the continents are compressed into an area only about 450 km long and between 40 to 90 km wide.
The area contains New Zealand's highest mountains, longest glaciers, tallest forests, wildest rivers and gorges, most rugged coastline, deepest fjords and lakes, and largest populations of forest birds. It is home to the world's largest buttercup, the Mt. Cook Buttercup; possibly the highest sea cliff, Mitre Peak; the world's only alpine parrot, the friendly but mischievous kea; and the total wild population of the rare takahe.
There are dozens of bird species in Te Wahipounamu, including many found only in New Zealand. Among the best known is the kea, which shows no fear of intruders, and in fact often seems to actively seek contact with humans - often to their discomfort. With its strong hooked beak, this inquisitive bird can destroy sneakers left outside overnight, canvas or vinyl bags and anything else it decides to take an interest in.
New Zealand's smallest bird, the rifleman, lives in the region's mountain forests, and the tiny rock wren can be spotted in alpine areas. One of New Zealand's few alpine birds, the rock wren survives the harsh mountain winters by sheltering in openings within the rock debris beneath the snow. Further down the mountains, the beautifully echoing song of the aptly named bellbird, or korimako, is commonly heard, and careful observers can also see the tui, bush robin, flocks of screeching kaka (forest parrot) and kakariki (parakeet). Tawaki or Fjordland crested penguins inhabit parts of the coastline, while about 50 pairs of the beautiful kotuku (white heron) regularly nest at the northern end of the region. Although common in other countries, the kotuku is rare in New Zealand and has great spiritual significance for the Maori, who see it as a symbol of all that is beautiful and rare.
Scientists tell us that Te Wahipounamu is the best modern representation of the ancient flora and fauna of Gondwanaland, the southern super-continent that broke up to form New Zealand, South America, India, Africa, Antarctica and Australia. New Zealand broke off 80 to 100 million years ago before the appearance of marsupials and other mammals, and the country's subsequent long isolation enabled ancient life forms to survive to a far greater extent than elsewhere. The great forests of rimu, southern beech and kahikatea are the closest links with Gondwanaland, as are unique birds like the flightless kiwi, which New Zealanders have adopted as their national symbol.
The magnificent chain of the Southern Alps lies along the boundary of the Pacific and Indo-Australian plates, two of the six gigantic plates making up the earth's crust. This is one of only three places in the world where a major tectonic plate boundary can be found on land. Earthquakes caused by the collision of these two plates have helped New Zealand gain its reputation as the "Shaky isles", but the fault line has also given rise to a dramatic landscape of deep fjords and high mountains.
The glaciers of Te Wahipounamu are also evidence of the movements under the earth's surface. These glaciers, particularly those named Fox and Franz-Josef, were among New Zealand's first tourist attractions for those wealthy enough to undertake the arduous trip into the wilderness. But the movement of the glaciers is so rapid that visitors a century ago saw a different sight to those we see today as both glaciers are 2 to 3 km shorter than when they were first surveyed in the 1890s. Fox Glacier is 13 km long, while Franz-Josef is 10 km, and both flow very quickly, averaging as much as 1.5 metres a day, although rates of up to 8 m a day have been recorded. Nearby, the 28 km Tasman Glacier, which flows from Mt. Cook (Aoraki), is one of the longest glaciers in the southern hemisphere.
The glaciers are very sensitive to climatic changes, advancing during periods of heavy snowfalls and receding under less severe weather conditions. However, Te Wahipounamu's weather is rarely extreme, even though the region lies across one of the world's windiest latitudes, the Roaring Forties. The large amounts of ocean surrounding New Zealand moderate temperatures, so the climate is temperate and avoids major seasonal changes. The Southern Alps form a barrier to the prevailing moisture-laden westerly winds coming off the Tasman Sea, with the result that the West Coast is subject to heavy and sometimes violent rainstorms at any time of the year. The coastal lowlands receive 3,080 to 5,000 mm of rain a year and this level rises with the terrain, so that the western flank of the Southern Alps can receive more than 10,000 mm a year, although much of it falls as snow.
Today, the Ngai Tahu are not the only people who have reason to be grateful that Aoraki was shipwrecked in an isolated part of the South Pacific. Visitors from around the world, as well as New Zealanders themselves, are increasingly discovering the magnificence of this untouched part of the world. Even in this age of easy travel, Te Wahipounamu's remoteness means that tourist operators and administrators have had time to benefit from the lessons learned from the effects of uncontrolled tourist development elsewhere. Although recreational use of the region is generally encouraged, the activities that are available, such as boating, fishing, hunting and mountaineering, have little impact on the environment.
Growing awareness of the importance of conserving the world's few remaining areas of untouched wilderness ensures that Te Wahipounamu will continue to be preserved as far as possible in its pristine state. If Tuterakiwhonoa ever returns to survey his handiwork, he will not find Te Wahipounamu very different from the way he left it.
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group


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