October 19, 2009
Ohakune and points north
I recently had the opportunity (OK, OK, I was on honeymoon, kind of) to spend more time in Ohakune. It’s a place that still feels novel to me, so I think I can write about this trip without the complacency that makes it hard to say anything fresh about more familiar parts of New Zealand.
Ohakune is one of the highest inhabited parts of the North Island, and serves as an entry point for Turoa skifield on Mt Ruapehu. As a consequence it spends much of winter over-run by Aucklanders and Wellingtonians wearing beanies, fleeces and interesting sunburns. Even with them, it’s beautiful. It’s a very New Zealand thing, I think, to be constantly over-shadowed by a mountain; Ohakune takes the experience to extremes. You can’t go anywhere without seeing Ruapehu looming in the sky, in whatever mood he happens to be displaying today. The North Island has recently had a spectacular and unseasonal dumping of snow, so the mood was pretty icy for much of our trip (for the rest, it was the old coyly hiding behind clouds routine).
Ohakune is famous for growing carrots (and for erecting a big fibreglass carrot), but it’s also within spitting distance of some remarkable old-growth forests. New Zealand’s native forests are fairly sharply split between Southern Beech forest (Nothofagus species, unrelated to northern hemisphere beeches) and what’s often called called podocarp forest; actually a mix of podocarps, various conifers, proper angiosperms, plus whatever climbing, scrambling, divaricating and creeping plants can find a toehold in a riotous temperate ecosystem that has more in common with the rainforests of the tropics than with most temperate forests. Ironically, the beech forests are ultimately the dominant form: their litter is highly acidic, and they both create and do well in low-nutrient conditions where the podocarp forest can’t compete. Fortunately for the podocarps, New Zealand has rather a good line on disturbance regimes. If the floods and landslides don’t keep the beech forest scattered and battling, the volcanic eruptions certainly will. We walked in bush to the south of Mt Ruapehu, and found it dominated by huge silver beech, some of them probably 1000 years old. Closer to town were forests pierced by towering rimu with shaggy bark and drooping foliage. Mosses and fungi were everywhere, and as the token Kiwis we were doing our best to identify everything for visitors. Bush-walking with botanists and zoologists is drawn out and enjoyable experience, but not one that burns many calories.
This trip has crystallised a feeling I’ve had since returning to New Zealand, that I now appreciate aspects of the landscape that I previously took for granted. One of those things I’ve come to appreciate about New Zealand after seeing them anew is the humble flax bush. Flax (or Phormium tenax, to it its formal scientific name and avoid confusion with the unrelated European flax) is a monocot, vaguely related to grasses, but flax is to temperate grasses as The Incredible Hulk is to David Banner. A mature flax bush is over two metres tall, more when it bears flower spikes. It is resistant to salt spray, snow, howling winds, and waterlogged soils. Both chainsaws and lawnmowers choke and die when confronted with flax. Its distinctive and unmanageable shape is as evocative a symbol of the New Zealand landscape as any forest giant, and more ubiquitous.
Flax flowers provide food for birds and lizards, and the plant itself shelters insects, snails, lizards, and the seedlings of less robust species. Some varieties are highly prized for weaving and handcrafts, and with a little more scraping and processing those same green blades yield a natural cord of high quality and strength (well, for a natural fibre, anyway). Flax grows on the side of roads, in swamps, on the coastal cliffs and the high alpine plateaus, and until i re-made my acquaintance I didn’t realise how much I liked it.
Our time in Ohakune was followed by a brief jaunt in Kawhia. Kawhia is a traditional New Zealand West Coast fishing village, at the end of a narrow road with about eleven million corners and almost as many hills. It’s also an awfully nice place, home of what I think are some of the best fish and chips in New Zealand (it helps that the fishing boats tie up to a wharf right across the road from the shops). I have to recommend the Blue Chook, a pub and restaurant run by two sisters from Wellington (and points north, south east and west, by the sounds of it). Kawhia harbour is huge, heavily tidal and largely empty, probably because the harbour mouth is the typical West Coast bar with strong currents and permanent breakers. Outside the harbour is the wild blue Tasman sea, and black-sand beaches stretching north past Aotea, Raglan and Port Waikato to the Kaipara, and south to Taranaki. Did mention that I like Kawhia?