The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 12, Issue 9 (December 1, 1937.)
A Land of Mystery and a National Heritage — Unique Scenery of the Urewera
Since the earliest settlement of New Zealand the Urewera Country has been a land of mystery, and only in comparatively recent years has it become more familiar with the people of the Dominion. With the building of an all-weather road between Murupara and Lake Waikaremoana and the advent of motor touring, the dense bush of the Urewera hills has made the area unique as a scenic reserve, and although more adventutous parties have penetrated its fastnesses with pack-horses, it retains the dignity and beauty of a country where nature still reigns in majestic supremacy.
For 50 miles from Te Whaiti, through continuous forest, an extremely tortuous road leads over range after range to Lake Waikaremoana, and here, surrounded by steep bush-clad hills, lies the crown jewel of the Urewera. It is a heritage that every true New Zealander should do his utmost to preserve.
The area comprises approximately 700,000 acres, including native-owned land. It is about 42 miles north to south and 25 miles east to west. The nearest point of access to the north is Ruatoki, near Taneatua, while to the south there is Murupara, 42 miles from Rotorua. The main road from Rotorua to Lake Waikaremoana passes the south-eastern corner of the forest which clothes the Urewera Hills.
Although the Urewera proper extends about 12 miles south of the Waikaremoana Road, steep bush country continues on for a further 20 miles on the Napier-Taupo Road, the latter being either Crown land or State forest. The Urewera provides a catchment area for the three rivers which serve the Bay of Plenty, the Rangitaiki, the Whakatane, and the Waimana Rivers, and it also has a definite, but much lesser influence on the Waioeka River which serves the 10,000 acres of rich Opotiki dairying flats.
Rising from about 300 ft. to 4,500 ft. above sea level, the whole region generally is steep and unbroken, the average height of the ranges being 2,500 ft. to 3,500 ft. The easiest country is a limited area in the Whirinaki Valley, south of Te Whaiti, and there are other small areas of level and undulating land scattered along the rivers. The soil varies from light to medium and pumiceous loam, and the whole area is abundantly watered.
Population Wholly Native.
Generally recognised as the last great stronghold of the Maori, the Urewera Country is inhabited practically entirely by natives, the majority of local origin. Two years ago the population was roughly estimated at 3,000, this figure including the inhabitants of Ruatoki numbering between 600 and 700 people.page 58 page 59
A Government Committee, which investigated the resources of the Urewera Country some time ago, asserted that the farming value of the standing bush land was practically negligible, and that no more felling should be done to provide farming areas. Small areas at Ruatahuna and Maungapohatu had been felled and grassed, but as a result of lack of fencing and stock, they had reverted rapidly to fern, second growth and ragwort. A scheme of regeneration was undertaken at Ruatahuna and the Committee advocated similar measures at Maungapohatu, where about 1,000 acres surrounding the village had been cleared.
Nature of the Bush.
With the exception of the Te Whaiti, Ruatahuna and Maungapohatu settlements and numerous small native clearings, comprising in all about 15,000 acres, the whole of the Urewera is covered with bush of a very mixed variety and with a very dense undergrowth. Despite exaggerated reports regarding the wealth of timber, however, the whole area north of the Waikaremoana road may definitely be rejected as a timber proposition. There are many isolated pockets scattered throughout the area and even along the main road between Te Whaiti and Ruatahuna, but inaccessability and other milling difficulties render them valueless for milling purposes.
In altitude below 2,000 ft., the forest consists chiefly of tawa, tawhero, rata, miro, rimu and mixed bush, but on the higher levels it is almost predominantly birch. The greatest and only extensive area of milling timber is in the Whirinaki Valley, extending about three miles north and 10 miles south of Te Whaiti, and practically 50 per cent. of the belt on the southern side of the road is totara. From Minginui this timber belt extends to the south-east, but here totara is scarce and the authorities consider that this timber should not be milled for at least 20 years.
For many years the theft of timber from Crown lands in the Urewera has been very extensive, and with improved access these depredations have increased. Fortunately there has been little evidence of wanton destruction, although, as in other districts, considerable areas have been felled which should have been left standing. Instead of holding grass, the felled land has only reverted to second growth and noxious weeds.
No decay beyond the natural process of elimination and regeneration was discovered by the Government Committee during its investigations, but it was noticed that in this replacement tawa was predominant, particularly on the poorly-timbered lower contours. Higher up, birch and tawhero were predominant.
Apart from its absolutely unique scenic value, the greatest value of the Urewera lies in its usefulness for water conservation. It has already been mentioned that the Urewera provides the catchment area for three large rivers, but these are also fed by several very large tributaries which in turn are supplied by a multitude of smaller but copious streams increasing in the higher altitudes. Observers near the coast are frequently perplexed by the flooded condition of the main rivers, when there has been only a slight rainfall on the plains, but this is forcibly explained on the higher altitudes where there is a phenomenal rainfall and exceptional natural catchment facilities owing to the steep, broken nature of the country.
The bush not only conserves this water, but retards its progress to the plains. Farming land in the Whakatane County served by the three large rivers comprises an area of approximately 200,000 acres including the Rangitaiki drainage area of 90,000 acres, which was reclaimed at a cost of £500,000. Together with the areas mentioned, the Galatea settlement and the adjacent farming country, and to a lesser degree the Opotiki flats, would suffer very seriously by the destruction of the Urewera forest. If the ranges were divested of bush, the area would be parched in the summer and subjected to devastating floods in the winter, a result which is only too forcibly illustrated by the position in the North Auckland district following similar destruction.
Variety of Bird Life.
As it is the last great stronghold of the Maori, the Urewera is also the greatest habitat of native birds. On the river beds may be found kingfishers, white-headed stilts, bitterns, pukekos, blue and grey ducks, and a few of the rare paradise ducks.
Larks, fern birds, bush hawks, harriers and land rails frequent the clearings and swamps, while the bush is the home of practically every type of native bird which lives on the berries of the forest or the honey of its wild-flowers. Tuis, bellbirds and cuckoos are the most distinguished songsters, but wrens, warblers, pigeons and even a few noisy kaka and parakeets subscribe to the conversation of the bush.
It has been calculated that there are over 30 varieties of indigenous birds still extant in the Urewera in addition to the usual variety of imported birds.