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Tree's plight parallels that of isles' koa

  • Veteran Hokule‘a crew member Billy Richards surveyed one of New Zealand’s largest kauri trees, Tane Mahuta, or “God of the Forest,” Wednesday at Waipoua Forest on North Island.
Veteran Hokule‘a crew member Billy Richards surveyed one of New Zealand’s largest kauri trees, Tane Mahuta, or “God of the Forest,” Wednesday at Waipoua Forest on North Island.
Veteran Hokule‘a crew member Billy Richards surveyed one of New Zealand’s largest kauri trees, Tane Mahuta, or “God of the Forest,” Wednesday at Waipoua Forest on North Island.

WAIPOURA, NEW ZEALAND » It’s a giant tree so awe-inspiring that the local Maoris named it Tane Mahuta, or “God of the Forest.”

But a sad truth, they add, is that before industry and disease claimed most of this country’s large kauri trees, Tane Mahuta wasn’t so extraordinary.

“There used to be thousands of them standing here in our forests,” said Warren Morunga, gazing up at the 2,000-year-old tree’s sun-streaked branches, about 170 feet off the ground.

They’re “gentle giants,” he said of the kauri. Morunga serves as an environs manager for Te Roronga, a local Maori tribal trust that works to protect the native trees at Waipoua Forest.

Hawaiian and Maori cultures share much in common, as the Hokule‘a and Hikianalia voyaging canoe crews learned in their first week of a lengthy six-month stop in New Zealand, part of their sail around the world. They visited Waipoua on Wednesday during a marathon excursion through the heart of the country’s North Island.

One Hawaii experience the Maori hope to avoid, however, is the near-depletion of a once-thriving and venerated native tree. Hawaii’s voyagers once used abundant, large koa trunks to create the hulls of their long-distance canoes. Most of that koa was cut down and wiped out in modern times, and much of that was for ranching.

In New Zealand, the Maori tribes still retain some pockets of their large kauri trees, most of them on North Island. In recent decades they’ve even used them to build several voyaging canoes, or waka, in the fashion of their ancestors.

But logging dating from the 1800s, combined with a new disease that started killing the large trees in the mid-1980s, has decimated the kauri. The tree’s population stands at just 4 percent of what it was before those factors, said Heni Mati, who handles special projects for Te Roronga. About half of those trees are at Waipoua, she said.

Much of the hilly pastoral land on the winding road to Waipoua was once covered with kauri forest, local conservationists add. The kauri that remain today — even those on private land — are protected under New Zealand law, according to the country’s Conservation Department.

Currently, when a kauri tree falls, its timber by law cannot be sold for profit, Morunga said.

Signs across New Zealand, in outdoor areas near the trees, implore visitors to clean their shoes and boots, because the disease killing the kauris, commonly known as “kauri dieback,” is thought to spread when the roots come in contact with invasive soils. Visitors to Tane Mahuta walk on a wooden path with a guardrail at a distance from the mighty tree’s 45-foot diameter, or about the same as 13 people in a circle with arms outstretched.

While Hawaii’s Hokule‘a is designed like the traditional voyaging canoes sailed hundreds of years ago, the wa‘a (“canoe” in Hawaiian) is made with mostly modern materials, such as the Fiberglas that sheathes its hulls.

In the early 1990s, Polynesian Voyaging Society leaders looked to go a step further and replicate a Hawaiian voyaging canoe with large koa trunks.

After searching extensively in an area outside Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, they came to the harsh realization that those trunks either were too rare or didn’t exist anymore. To build what eventually became the 57-foot Hawaii Loa canoe, they relied on spruce trees from Alaska instead.

“It became clear to us how degraded our forests were” and that Hawaii’s residents were losing their connection to their surrounding natural environment, PVS Vice President and Hokule‘a Captain Bruce Blankenfeld told Te Roroa staff members. “Our koa trees are like your kauri trees: They’re sacred.”

Maori tribes historically used the kauris to fashion the hulls of giant voyaging canoes or any other use decreed by local Maori priests, Morunga said.

At Tane Mahuta, Hikianalia crew member Matt Kanemoto sprinkled water from Lake Waiau on Hawaii island near the base of the tree, as a gesture of respect to the local landmark.

Hokule‘a crews also spent the day reflecting on their shared history of voyaging and navigation with the Maoris. At Hokeanga, they visited an ancient monolithic stone situated on rolling hills overlooking the harbor there. The stone has an ancient map of the North Island carved on its face, and it’s believed to have been left there by Kupe, the explorer widely credited with discovering New Zealand about 1,000 years ago.

The voyagers from Hawaii stood around the approximately 9-foot-tall stone in silence at first. Then, as the weight of the moment grew, they recited in Hawaiian the same chant uttered back in 1975 when the Hokule‘a was launched for the first time, at Kualoa on Oahu.

The crews from Hawaii later ascended a hill above Hokeanga Harbor where they could see strong surf of the Tasman Sea pound relentlessly against New Zealand’s west coast.

The Hokule‘a is scheduled to sail in the Tasman next year. When it does it will mark the 40-year-old canoe’s departure from the Pacific for the first time in its history. Ultimately, it plans to push across the Tasman into new frontiers as part of its 50,000 journey around the globe.

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