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The Sanctuary Mountain

Published
May 27, 2019
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THE largest ecological reserve so far enclosed by a pest-proof barrier fence, anywhere in the world, can be found south-east of the town of Cambridge, New Zealand, at Maungatautari Reserve. The reserve is close to Hobbiton and the Waitomo caves with their famous glow-worms. A visitor to the region could take in all three attractions over a couple of days.

Since 2008, a 47-kilometre (29 miles) long pest-proof fence has enclosed Maungatautari: an eroded volcano with multiple peaks and valleys, which has been officially designated as a nature reserve since 1912.

The main entrance to the reserve is at the Southern Enclosure end. An information centre and set of tourist facilities known as Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari is located there as well. It’s run by the officially-sponsored community trust that helped instigate the fencing project in 2001.

The overall location of Maungatautari and its tourism facility, indicated as ‘Sanctuary Mountain’ at the southern end of the Maungatautiri Reserve. Map data ©2019 Google, name ‘Maungatautari’ added for this map.

Maungatautari has been a nature reserve since 1912. The decision to fence it off came after the discovery of several rare species hiding in its rugged terrain, indicating that it was more significant than some other nature reserves. These included a population of the silver birch, an ice-age survivor thought to have died out entirely in the North Island, and a new population of Hochstetter’s frogs, a rare and ancient species confined to New Zealand.

By fencing off the reserve it became possible to eliminate introduced mammals and thus prevent further species loss. And, even, allow the natural ecosystem to recover something of its former glory. New Zealand’s ecosystems evolved in the absence of land mammals. The control of land mammals — cats, stoats, weasels, dogs, rabbits, rats, mice, goats, sheep, deer, and so on — is absolutely central to any ecological restoration project in New Zealand.

Within the outer fence there are three more intensively-managed areas: the Northern Enclosure, the Southern Enclosure, and the Tautari Wetland to the southwest of the Southern Enclosure.

Mice are being eliminated in these special areas, the jewels in the mountain’s crown. Mice are not the worst pests. But they’re small and, of course, they breed like mice. Thus they’re the hardest to control and at the moment it’s not deemed realistic to eliminate them across the whole mountain right now, although the fence is mouse-proof.

Here’s a more detailed map of Maungatautari itself. The outer fence is described as predator-proof on the map. But as it also keeps creatures such as mice, rabbits and goats out, pest-proof is a more accurate expression.

A detailed map of Mangatautari showing the 47 km pest-proof fence around the whole mountain and the Northern and Southern enclosures, highlighted in red for this map. The Tautari Wetland is to the southwest of the Southern Enclosure. The boundary and fence details are out of date in the area southwest of the Southern Enclosure, not yet reflecting the gift of land from a farm owned by the Tauroa family around the small pond shown. ©Land Information New Zealand, 2019, via topomap.co.nz.

The detailed map shows a set of trails running between the Northern and Southern enclosures. The heights are in metres; Maungatautari’s main peak, which one north-south trail crosses, is 1296 metres above sea level, or 4,252 feet. There also some quite prominent lesser peaks such as Pukeatua, the Hill of the Gods, which is also on a north-south route and comes in at 753 metres. Pukeatua lends its name to a little hamlet just outside the southern entrance.

The trail that leads over the two peaks of Maungatautari (main peak) and Pukeatua is called the Wairere Traverse. I bet it’s hard going!

There are also quite a lot of trails inside the Southern Enclosure itself, even though it’s not very big.

Here’s a video about the ecological restoration project. It includes scenes describing the details of the fence system.

For nearly ten years, I’ve belonged to a Meetup group called Feet First, which specialises in ‘Urban walks and hikes in and around Auckland’.

All over the world people have formed groups online with Meetup to do things, bypassing established clubs that are sometimes staid and set in their ways. What’s good about these less formal groups is that you can talk about life, your problems, your joys, your losses, your sorrows — and so on.

This May, some of us Feet Firsters decided to go to the Sanctuary Mountain for a day.

Maungatautiri was a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Auckland.Unfortunately, now that many of the more accessible tracks in the Waitakere Ranges west of Auckland are being closed due to kauri dieback disease, Feet First may have to range this far afield for its walks more often.

Concerning the disease that’s killing the kauri — ancient trees that evolved in the warm forests of the dinosaur age, still common as far south as Auckland but generally not seen any further south than that — I’ve deliberately not linked to a dry technical reference but to a recent article called ‘Death of the Gods’, that’s well worth reading in its own right.

On our trip to Maungatautari, I was accompanied by the founder of Feet First, Stephen French, who is passionate about the Waitakeres, and by an artist from Wanaka named Esther, as well as several other people. It was just a day of taking photos and walking and looking.

Stephen French, who founded Feet First in 2010

I’d been to Maungatautari before, but the bush was taller now, with more birds. Also, the understorey was getting much thicker. Before, it had been browsed out, and the seedlings eaten by rats and mice before they had a chance to grow tall.

Scenes from the forest at Maungatautari

I saw North Island robins, stitchbirds, saddlebacks, and fantails, as well as kākā, the large forest parrots that are cousins of the more famous, alpine kea. The two look fairly similar and are roughly the same size, of the order of 45 centimetres or 18 inches long. The most obvious outward difference is that the kea is mostly green while the kākā is mostly brown.

Both species have crimson underwings and powerful hooked beaks for getting into things: the kea being, notoriously, the bane of alpine carparks, where it is fascinated by windscreen rubber and what might be found underneath if it were to be peeled off. The kākā is less adventurous in its diet, no doubt because food is comparatively abundant in the forests where it lives, so there is no need to try and find out if cars are edible.

A kākā feeding on spring buds in the Wellington Botanic Gardens. Photo by Kate Macbeth (2018), CC-BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This time, we were especially looking for fungi (mushrooms and toadstools, and their relatives). There are thousands of species of fungi in New Zealand, many of them native to damp and dripping forests like those of Maungatautari. In fact if we were to come across any extra-weird mushrooms or toadstools, or ones completely new to science, Maungatautari would be the place to find them.

The author beside a log covered in fungi, possibly the wood ear, which was commercially exported from New Zealand for a long time. This photo was quite blurry so I gave it the concrete texture in Powerpoint artistic effects, a good way of rescuing such images.

We walked very slowly along the trails of the Southern Enclosure, which is also known as Te Tui a Tane, from 11:30 to 3:30. These trails are named after two native forest trees, a native palm, and a native tree fern: Rātā, Rimu, Nīkau, and Ponga.

This information panel shows a much larger area of reserve around the pond southwest of the Southern Enclosure / Te Tui a Tane than the topographic map above. The lower map on the panel shows the whole Maungatautari Reserve with Northern (blue) and Southern (orange) enclosures, to a much smaller scale, plus the two peaks of Pukeatua and Maungatautari.

In total, these tracks are just over five kilometres long. The longest is the Rātā Track, which is 2.2 km long.

We went up the Rātā Track first. That’s where I saw the most fungi and then we came down and had lunch at the wooden lookout tower.

Maungatautari scenes from our trip, mostly of fungi

We went up the tower for a look, naturally enough. It only took twenty people, and had been built by volunteers. It swayed in the wind, but you got a bird’s-eye view of the forest canopy.

The Sanctuary Mountain lookout tower (image copyright Hamilton & Waikato Tourism, Waikatonz.com)
View from the top of the tower (image copyright Hamilton & Waikato Tourism, Waikatonz.com)

There were a lot of tawa trees, a hardwood which produces valuable timber, largely logged out in other places as a result. Tawa have large berries that were very useful to Māori in earlier times. The Māori used to cook, store and eat the kernels after removing the berry pulp, which unfortunately tastes like turpentine.

At the tower, we also saw kākā, which the staff encouraged to arrive by shaking bird feeders. There wasn’t any food in the feeders yet but the kākā turned up all the same, knowing there soon would be.

Then we took the Nīkau Track which was another small walk.

The Rimu track had a fallen tree on it, and went up a mountain.

Close to the Tautari Wetland, there is a ‘tuatarium’, home to the prehistoric tuatara of New Zealand, an ancient reptile which looks a bit like an iguana but is from a much older lineage dating back some 220 million years.

‘Henry’, a 100 year old-plus tuatara at the Southland Museum and Art Gallery in Invercargill, in 2007. Photo by KeresH, CC-BY-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The large blue flightless takahē, once nearly extinct, also now thrives on the margins of the wetland.

Takahē at Te Anau, photo by Harald Selke (2011), CC-BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

In the wetland we also saw kōura, or freshwater crayfish. It was pretty exceptional to see that, as kōura are another rare species that has mostly died out in New Zealand outside of places like Maungatautari. I took photos of kōura in the water, but it was muddy and I didn’t have a polarising filter, so they didn’t really come out. Instead, here’s one from a display:

And after that we wended our way back to Auckland and its fearsome traffic, another two and a half hours, which fortunately wasn’t too bad.

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