A walk in the Waitutu forest

A walk in the Waitutu forest Keith Swenson
Southland's remote Waitutu district is considered by many to hold the finest spread of native lowland forest in the country. From shoreline to treeline, a diverse range of forest types unfurl their branches across 500 square kilometres of misty ridges which eventually merge with the harsher mountains of Fiordland. The subject of fierce conservation battles in the 1980s and ยด90s, all of Waitutu has now been given formal protection from logging: an ancient wilderness saved.

Symphony penetrates my sleep. Melodic, liquid sounds grow louder until I realise that what I am hearing is not a dream but birdsong. Rich, colourful sequences fill the air, flowing like creek water over rocks. Through the tent flap I can smell the forest and feel the cool moisture of early morning. I spy the singer: a kaka perched in a rimu tree. I am deep in the Waitutu Forest.

From previous days I know another voice of the kaka: hoarse shrieks as a whole gang of them played in the treetops, mocking my slow progress through the undergrowth. I also know another face of the forest: rushing, rain-swollen rivers; howling southerlies that send tree branches crashing down, turning a night in a nylon tent into a nightmare and the next day into a climbing expedition across a chaos of fallen timber.

I know other mornings, too: when, after days of heavy rain, dawn brings only the sound of a fine drizzle on your tent, it may not be a last receding shower but a legion of sandflies sharing your shelter.

Fellow photographer Keith Swenson and I first went to Waitutu prompted by curiosity and concern. A long-running controversy between conservationists and logging concerns was reaching a peak in 1993, when cutting rights to a Maori-owned portion of the forest were sold to a Christchurch-based timber company and logging seemed imminent. Few people except hunters, ecologists and off-the-beaten-track hikers seemed to know much about Waitutu, and there was next to no pictorial record of the region.

Once we had started, we kept coming back to Waitutu for nearly two years to document what was for ecologists the ultimate lowland forest, for loggers a desirable commercial opportunity and for Maori landowners a valuable asset.

What we found was not only a magnificent forest at the heart of a great landscape but a diverse region rich in human and natural history. As we explored its remote reaches, Waitutu rewarded us with a wealth of images, from tide pools to alpine tarns, from the forest floor to the high canopy, from mirror-smooth lakes to the windswept coast of the Southern Ocean.

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  • Author: Sabine Schmidt
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