Many of us at some time have climbed to bushline on the Urchin or Umukarikari Tracks and gazed across at the imposing massif of Tongariro National Park. Then most of us retrace our steps, turning our backs on one of the North Island’s true wilderness landscapes – the Kaimanawa Mountains, source of the great rivers of the North Island (Tongariro/Waikato, Rangitikei, Ngaruroro, and Mohaka).

I first experienced the vastness of the Kaimanawa wilderness landscape 50 years ago, when I tramped in early winter from the Desert Road to the remote Ngamatea Station in the Taruarau valley far to the east. The three of us were university students, united in our desire to meet the challenge of travelling for a week without tracks and huts through mountainous country unknown to us. It was a memorable wilderness adventure. I still vividly remember the beautiful blue pools of the Waipakihi River; waking to severe frost in our tentcamp on the summit of Thunderbolt and then crunching through 10cm-thick frost-heaved erosion pavement along the tops; the thrill of watching the eleven blue duck we encountered as we waded through the pools of the upper Rangitikei River and the gorges of Ecology Stream; the striking magenta colour of the groves of curled-leaved nei-nei (Dracophyllum recurvum) as we emerged into the fellfields above the Mangamaire valley and along the rolling summits of the Tawake Tohunga Range; and eventually descending in snow flurries into the vast tussockland terraces of the ‘Golden Hills’ locality in the headwaters of the Taruarau.

Four years later in 1969, Kaimanawa Forest Park (KFP, currently 74,603 ha in area) was formed and the NZ Forest Service was very open to the concept of a Kaimanawa-Kaweka Wilderness Area promoted by Federated Mountain Clubs of NZ (FMC) at their 1981 Wilderness Conference. FMC’s concept was a large wilderness area of 47,000 ha (including 13500 ha of Maori and Defence Department land), straddling this most remote part of the North Island – from the south-eastern edge of the Central Volcanic Plateau eastwards to the Kaweka Range beyond the upper Ngaruroro River. The proposal was then evaluated by the Minister of Lands & Forest’s Wilderness Advisory Group, who recommended a much smaller 21,000 ha ‘Kaimanawa Wilderness Area’ which contained 7000 ha of Maori land – the inclusion of which was essential for wilderness area criteria to be met.

Subalpine shrubland south of Pinnacles in the Rangitikei REZ, looking NW towards Karikaringa (1694m). Photo: Les Molloy

But 35 years ago trampers, hunters and government agencies had far less regard than today about the views of the traditional Maori owners of the lands at the heart of the Kaimanawa Mountains. To us it was a wilderness of open space, devoid of any visible signs of human occupancy, and who would worry about a few hardy trampers threading their way through it from time to time? Two small wilderness areas (Te Tatau Pounamu and Hauhangatahi) had already been established in remote corners of Tongariro National Park and two sizeable ones have since been declared elsewhere in the North Island (Raukumara in Raukumara Forest Park and Ruakituri in Te Urewera). But the vision of a large ‘Kaimanawa-Kaweka Wilderness Area’ gradually got ‘lost in the wilderness’!

When the Department of Conservation was formed in 1987, the Forest Service’s interim concept of a ‘Rangitikei Remote Experience Zone’ (REZ) within the park was carried on. Because of the awkward shape of Kaimanawa Forest Park, this ‘remote experience zone’ covering 15,841 ha of the upper Rangitikei River and the entire Otamateanui Stream catchment, was not large enough to constitute a legal wilderness area.

A Kaimanawa Forest Park Management Plan – ‘To be or not to be?’

Nearly 20 years later, a change in senior management in DOC precipitated several years of uncertainty and conflict with the conservation boards through a desire to do away with conservation park management plans. Boards rightly considered that both the National Park and Conservation Acts were quite clear about the need for detailed ` park management plans – as distinct from the more generic and generally- worded ‘conservation management strategies’ (CMSs) being promoted as all that was necessary. The Tongariro-Taupo Conservation Board (and indeed the Conservancy staff) objected strongly to the likelihood of DOC doing away with decades of valuable and effective citizen input to the Kaimanawa Forest Park management plan.

During 2003-6, the Tongariro National Park Management Plan was reviewed and the two wilderness areas within the national park confirmed as important zoning entities. All the other conservation park (mainly ‘forest park’) management plans ceased as stand-alone documents (but were hopefully subsumed into regional CMSs). Kaimanawa Forest Park alone among the 20-or-so conservation parks was allowed to continue with a specific management plan. Indeed, the KFP plan drafts produced by DOC Tongariro/Taupo staff generated 224 submissions during 2005-6 and several days of hearings were required to hear many stakeholders vigorously submitting in person.

Interestingly, the critical need for a robust KFP management plan (and process) was clearly demonstrated to out-of-touch DOC senior management in Head Office by the fact that the Kaimanawa issues – threats to biodiversity, public access, the management of deer and recreational hunting, and the protection of wilderness values in the Rangitikei Remote Experience Zone (REZ) — were sufficiently controversial to generate 50% more submissions than the number for the Tongariro National Park management plan review (despite the latter being one of our most important national parks and a world heritage area to boot!). Indeed, the reviews of both the Tongariro NP and Kaimanawa FP management plans spanned 5 years (2003-7), and the successful outcome was the result of a lot of hard work by both DOC staff and members of the Tongariro/Taupo Conservation Board, and their willingness to listen to the views of a wide range of stakeholders – iwi, skiers, trampers, hunters, concessionaires, fishers, conservation NGOs, etc. It was a good demonstration of how much a wide cross-section of the interested public care about the wise management of their natural and cultural heritage.

The Wilderness Character of the Rangitikei Remote Experience Zone

It is now 10 years since the release of the Kaimanawa Forest Park Management Plan (KFPMP) in July 2007 and it is worth reflecting on some of its excellent provisions for wilderness protection – and how well DOC and park users have respected them. The preface to the plan states:

“Kaimanawa Forest Park is a place with unique values. Its wilderness character, natural resources, and outstanding recreational opportunities attract people looking to ‘get away from it all’. Protection of the park’s wilderness character is emphasised throughout the plan.”

Looking from Middle Range across upper Rangitikei to Makorako (1727m) at the north-eastern edge of the Rangitikei Remote Experience Zone.  Photo: Les Molloy

Accordingly, the plan stipulated that there would continue to be no facilities in the Rangitikei REZ, and helicopter operations would only be for emergencies and management purposes. The previous policy of allowing landing on the Whakamarumaru and Otamateanui tops and within Ecology Stream to facilitate recreational hunting of deer was to be discontinued. The “ecological benefit of the number of deer shot has been minimal and the noise and presence of aircraft conflicts with ……. the Rangitikei REZ’s wilderness character” (KFPMP, p.102).

Other provisions to retain the wilderness character in the REZ were the restricting of any new concessions, limiting the total number of concessions, and restricting the number of people in any commercial party to three (including the guide).

Finally, the long-standing idea of a fully-fledged ‘Kaimanawa Wilderness Area’ is not dead and the option is there for any future park users and/or kaitiaki to pursue. For the final word in the KFPMP leaves the door open….

“The possibility of establishing a Kaimanawa Wilderness Area has not been abandoned. A remote experience classification is established over this area to prevent irreversible management decisions which would compromise any future Kaimanawa Wilderness Area option.” (KFPMP, p.47)


(this article first appeared in Tongariro – the journal of the Tongariro Natural History Society).