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Gondwanaland forest in the clouds

Gondwanaland forest in the clouds

GONDWANALAND started breaking up over a hundred million years ago, with a large concentration of heat building up under the middle of the insulation of the supercontinent finally breaking it apart to send the different continent fragments.

Gnarly forest in the clouds

Gnarly forest in the clouds

As the Australia, Zealandia, South America and Africa drifted northwards from the polar continent of Antarctica, the Southern Ocean formed around the entire circumference of the Earth. This new ocean generated the circumpolar current drifting eastwards substantially cooling the planet into a series of ice ages. The once luscious tropical forests that had covered the entire world had to adapt to the much colder conditions. Fortunately the goblin forest growing on this range were amongst the hardiest species and has remained almost unchanged since the days of the dinosaurs. The vegetation growing on the range was hundreds of millions of years older than the rocks that formed these mountains.

We set off along the short board walk beside the hut to the dirt track covered in the leaf litter of the small rounded leaves of the beech trees. The track was wet, but fortunately free of puddles or mud. The rain wasn’t heavy enough, and even if it was, any water accumulating on the track would quickly drain from the top of the ridge where we were walking down into the forested gullies to the left or down the cliff to the right.

The track entered the dense goblin forest as thick mist swirled its way through the gnarly trees. The thick carpets of moss hanging off the tree trunks and branches were reinvigorated from the overnight misty rain still falling sideways from the thick cloud barrelling over the ridge. The wind blowing over the ridge was still rather cold. The trees stood firm sheltering tough ferns and shrubs covering the forest floor in a sea of green.

The orange markers nailed to the tree trunks faithfully led the way along the perfectly graded metre wide track. Yesterday's steep climb over roots and the staircase up the bluff just before the hut were long forgotten now. I wondered though what the descent into Waiopaoa would be like. Even if it is steep, at least the cold wind won't be blasting us from the side once descended below the top of the ridge.

The montane forest we were hiking through mostly had beech trees – silver and mountain beech. Related species of beech tree grows around different parts of New Zealand, and also Australia, New Guinea, New Caledonia, Chile, Argentina and similar varieties found around Asia, North America and Europe. Their wide distribution is due to the trees evolving back in the times of Gondwanaland when most of the continents were joined together. They are believed to have evolved from the birch trees along with the dinosaurs who probably influenced their unique characteristics. The dinosaurs (apart from the birds) obviously died out but the beech trees lived on, developing their own species on each continent as they broke apart and drifted towards their present positions.

The New Zealand beech trees evolved on the constantly changing Zealandia continent until it almost completely disappeared into the sea. It was only saved by the sudden emergence of a new plate boundary from what is now the Tasman Sea to going through the length of what are now the islands of New Zealand. This new fault line created enormous uplift, and the beech trees continue to survive on the dramatically changing landscape as the mountains rose out of the sea.

After initially following the top of the ridge the track gradually dropped down the gentle side and traversed its way around the 1185 metre high peak, the last of the higher peaks along the range. From here the Panekire  Range will gradually lower by about a hundred metres when we turn off and head down into Waiopaoa.

Track winding along the range

Track winding along the range

The track reached a small spur marking the end of the catchment of the Hukanui Stream and the start of the catchment of the main Waihi Stream. Around here Roger caught up to us and headed on past seeming to be in a bit of a hurry to reach the hut.

I used to be in a bit of a hurry between huts in the past, aiming to go from A to B as quickly as possible. If it wasn’t the first time on the track, I’d be in a hurry aiming to beat my personal best time. Although fairly successful, this came at the cost of not fully appreciating the spectacular scenery or amazing flora. Perhaps this came from having grown up here in New Zealand, being so used to everything here, taking it all for granted.

Since moving to Australia 19 years ago, and familiarising myself with the vastly different eucalypt forests and subtropical rainforests so different to the trees commonly found here. I have since also trekked in other parts of the world where forests are different again. From these many trips I have garnered a whole new appreciation for the spectacular forests of New Zealand, particularly these goblin beech cloud forests of subalpine altitudes. Here the forests are unlike anything I’ve ever seen anywhere else in the world.

Coming from the hustle and bustle of a large city, the sheer loneliness of these cloud forests were something to behold. With none of the traffic noise so constant in the cities, these cloud forests were very quiet, apart from the soft creaking of the mossy boughs of the ancient trees from the soft wind, and the soft crunching of our boots walking along the leaf litter covered trail. The harsh contrasts of constant advertising in your face in the city was replaced with the soft greens and browns of the forest deeply diffused in the rolling fog. The smells of city exhausts were replaced with the soft sweet aroma of healthy leaf litter silently decomposing to feed the forest with nutrients otherwise scarce. Despite the ridge being so exposed to the weather, there was a softness pleasing to all the senses.

At the bottom of the small saddle the track continued along the ridge until reaching the next hill. There it continued on its gentle grade around the hill to the following saddle. We rounded the next peak marking the start of an inconspicuous ridge that eventually expands and stretches out over the lake as the Whareama Range with peaks of between 700 and 830 metres above sea level stopping at The Narrows.

We were now officially in the catchment of Wairaumoana, and will continue to be so for 48 hours. We were entering the headwaters of the Whakenepuru Stream which flows into the remote Whakenepuru Bay which has the Te Anaakakapa Cave just off the lake shore. It is very remote though and we will be coming out a lot further along the coast.

Misty view over the edge

Misty view over the edge

This repeated around several peaks until reaching a saddle at around 1070 metres above sea level. From here we had a quick view through the mist, but we couldn't see very far at all, perhaps two hundred metres around the range and a similar distance down the very steep gully with just the faintest view of the forest below. The lake was completely invisible. I don't think we'll be able to see it again until we reach the waters' edge later today.

New Zealand split off from eastern Gondwanaland around 85 million years ago whilst dinosaurs were still ruling the world. New Zealand and Australia have been over 2000 kilometres apart for the past 55 million years, so the plants and animals that have migrated over here only did so either by flight or making the epic crossing on a raft.

The kiwi is believed to be related to the Australian emu. In the 85 million years the continents have been apart, they have evolved into two very different animals adapting well to their polar opposite terrains and climates.

Around 55 million years ago both New Zealand and Australia were drifting north with New Zealand at between 60 and 50 degrees south of the equator. Although those latitudes would be extremely cold these days, the lack of the Antarctic circumpolar cooling current meant much of the sea around New Zealand was subtropical, supporting corals and mangroves.

Despite being apart, both New Zealand and Australia had very similar species of plants. The beech trees flourished in both countries, only evolving slight differences. Eucalyptus trees flourished in New Zealand as well along with banksia, acacia and casuarina which now only grow natively in Australia.

There came a point where New Zealand remained in the southern ocean as the seas cooled creating the ice ages. The trees growing here normally associated with Australia gradually died out along with most of the corals and mangroves. The rainfall greatly increased due to the constant westerly winds and New Zealand was hugely affected by the glaciations with regular breaks of interglacials allowing the vegetation to recover before the next glacial period covered much of the country in ice again.

Windswept trees on the edge

Windswept trees on the edge

As a result of the wildly changing climate, few of the other plants we see today have been in New Zealand for more than a couple of million years. Grasses for instance would have evolved somewhere else in the world in response to the climate becoming drier killing off the forests. From there the grasses spread around the world to eventually arrive here by crossing the ocean.

The beech trees have been in New Zealand since before it split off from eastern Gondwanaland 85 million years ago. That being said, the species we see now all evolved from a common ancestor that was present here 30-40 million years ago, but it is unknown whether this had arrived from another country all together, or was a descendant of the ancient beech trees. No one knows for sure.

Although New Zealand’s unique native fauna is considered very ancient, there is not enough fossil record to verify whether any of them were part of the fauna breaking off from eastern Gondwanaland. Scientists believe some of animals descended from Gondwanaland on the original Zealandia landmass includes the geckos, tuatara lizard, moa, flightless parrot kakapo, wrens, and some of the insects, spiders and earthworms, but nobody is entirely sure whether they were exclusively in New Zealand, or occupied other parts of Gondwanaland.

Most other animals are believed to have arrived around 20-30 million years ago, when New Zealand was well over 2,000 kilometres from the nearest land in Australia, and long before the disputed time when some say New Zealand was completely submerged. Perhaps all of New Zealand has at some point been submerged, but not all at the same time, allowing the indigenous species to continuously evolve into the mysterious forms we now encounter.

Ferns and mosses could have easily been spread by spores being carried across the oceans by wind. Plants growing in wetlands could very well have been transported by migrating birds. Plants with large seeds are a lot more difficult to migrate over the sea, so the larger species of tree would have most likely already been here when the continent split – we just haven’t found the fossil record yet.

Animals are more complex. For an animal to survive to successive generations, both a male and female need to migrate across, perhaps on a large raft of vegetation brought down to the coast of the host continent by an enormous storm.

We continued following the track, mostly passing through the ongoing thick goblin forest with only the very occasional lookout on the saddles. Each lookout was exactly the same – ancient goblin trees perched at the edge of the cliff, and our surroundings diffusing into the thick relentless cloud as the fine misty rain continued falling from it.

Long trail through the mist

Long trail through the mist

The track started winding quite a bit as it passed around spurs. Eventually we reached one saddle where the track extended to in front of the following peak. This was the clue we were looking for. Sure enough the track quickly doubled back at the top of a long wooden stairway down the side of the range. We were now on our way downhill.

The range continued its gradual descent in the south westerly direction until being cut off by a fairly wide valley of the headwaters of the Mangaone Stream. There the stream breaks into two branches, the right one heading up to a 770 metre high flat saddle which the headwaters of the Waikaretaheke River flowing from the range pass by. The saddle was about two kilometres away and our descent will pass the headwards about a kilometre upstream from the saddle before following the opposite ridge to the saddle.

Now we were starting to drop off the top of the range, this will be the last we would see of this ancient hundred-million-year-old goblin forest. Whilst heading down the ridge towards the lake, we will be advancing through time following the evolution of the North Island’s forests over a hundred million years to the modern forests of today.



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01 March 2016


Te Urewera

New Zealand



1040 - 1190m ASL


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