Steeped in legends, kauri trees are an integral part of Maori culture and faith. On a visit to New Zealand’s Northland, I understand the urgency of the fight for their conservation. By Phorum Dalal

A male haka warrior, dressed in a black, white, and red tāniko kilt, comes out of the meeting house on Waitangi Treaty Grounds in Bay of Islands, New Zealand, pointing a Maori spear at us. Each move is made in caution and defiance, ready for war. After a dramatic presentation of aggressive moves that include manoeuvring the spear and stamping the feet to loud chanting, he places a green leaf on the ground. Dan, a volunteer ‘tribe chief’ from our group, accepts it—a sign that we come in peace.

We are welcomed into the meeting room and take our seats on wooden benches before a stage where a group of eight ceremonial dancers present the haka, a Maori war dance as well as social performance. The rhythmic stomping, amplified by the sharp thud of their wooden spears on the ground, generates an adrenaline rush—completely different from the one I experienced while skydiving a few hours ago.

Kauri Trees Maori Culture
A troupe of Maori warriors at Waitangi Treaty Grounds.

The dancers move in a synchronised rhythm, their palms tremble like leaves, eyes glare to evoke fear, and tongues stick out. The men slap their intricately tattooed bodies while the women show their power with widened eyes and chin tattoos. It is extremely special to observe haka on the very grounds where the Maori and the British first formed a relationship—signing the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840.

The Maori folk have their traditions deeply rooted in nature—fine patterns seen in ocean waves and fern fronds find a place in their carvings, weaves, jewellery, and face tattoos. In worship, too, they turn to 150 elemental nature gods. The most popular is the 2,000-year-old kauri tree Tāne Mahuta, the God of the Forest, in Waipoua Forest on the Northland, which is home to 75 per cent of the country’s kauri trees.

The performative war cry in haka strikes me as a symbol of the battle the country is fighting against phytophthora agathidicida, a soilborne pathogen that is killing kauri trees. First discovered on the mainland in 2006, this pathogen latches onto the root system of the kauri tree and starves it to death. The disease itself has been called kauri dieback.

Kauri Trees Maori Culture
Tāne Mahuta in all its mightiness.

THE TREE GOD

On a walk through the museum at Waitangi grounds, we are introduced to the legend of Kupe, the man who discovered the land and set his people out on the great migration from Hawaiki, their homeland in Eastern Polynesia.

Next day, on our way to Waipoua Forest, we pass Hokianga, or Te Hokianga-nui-a- Kupe—which translates to ‘the place of Kupe’s great return’. It offers a clear view of the harbour where Kupe and his people entered the land. At the entry of the trail that will take us to Tāne Mahuta, our Maori guide Charlie Naera, who is a fifth-generation descendant of the Ngāpuhi tribe, chants a prayer to the kauri tree, “who is as old as Jesus,” telling him about the guests who come to meet him from a faraway land.

Before we enter, we must pass the cleaning stations as per the guidelines of the kauri dieback programme, an active movement to curb the pathogen’s spread. A jet of antiseptic cleans the soles of our footwear, one foot at a time.

Kauri Trees Maori Culture
Te Matua Ngahere, or the Father of the Forest.

A five-minute walk through the foliage reminds us of the tattoo patterns of the haka dancers. We stop short before a 51-metre-tall kauri tree. No doubt, he is the lord of the forest. With a girth of 14.5 metres, how could he not be? A forest within a forest, he has 40 plant species thriving in his arms. Something looks amiss though, and as I crane my neck up, he seems to be upside down. I replay the legend Naera narrated to us minutes ago, picturing the realm of life drowned in darkness as Tāne’s parents, Ranginui, the Sky Father, and Papatūānuku, the Earth Mother, in an eternal embrace. Tāne has his feet up in the sky and his head is burrowed in the ground as he pushes the sky into heaven with his powerful feet. When it rains, they say it is the tears of the sky longing for his Papatūānuku. The ochre clay is the stain of the blood spilled during their separation.

As we walk around, we notice that the kauri tree bark is scaly, and like a snake, it moults to rid itself of vines and parasites. I know our guide has another story up his sleeve when he points to the whale bone pendant strung around his neck. It represents an ancient legend. “One day, giant of the sea, the big whale, spotted a kauri tree on the shores, swam up to him, and asked if he would like to be a giant of the sea with it. ‘I’d love to be but I don’t have scales,’ the tree replied. To this, the whale said, ‘It is no problem. I will give you mine.’ This is how the kauri tree has a scaly bark. But before the kauri tree joined the whale in water, he saw his family standing on the shore. He told the whale, ‘I am the giant of the land, I can’t leave my people.’ So now we know why the whale doesn’t have scales and the kauri trees does.”

Before we leave, we get a glimpse of Te Matua Ngahere, the oldest kauri tree—aged around 3,000 years. Known as the Father of the Forest, he is shorter than Tāne, but has a wider girth. There is also the possibility of visiting Tāne’s four sisters—on another trail—but we leave that rendezvous for another time.

Kauri Trees Maori Culture
The lighthouse at Cape Reinga.

A LIGHTHOUSE AND A TREE

We end our time in the Bay of Islands with a visit to Cape Reinga, the northernmost tip of New Zealand. Here, a lighthouse on the edge of a steep rocky cape stands testament to history. Originally located on Motuopao Island, the light mechanism was relocated to Cape Reinga near the beginning of WWII. Standing 10 metres tall, this was the last watched lighthouse to be built in New Zealand. It is no longer watched though—the last lighthouse keeper having been withdrawn in 1987. The now electric lighthouse is managed remotely by computers, and continues to be the first light to signal the shores of New Zealand to incoming sailors.

What can be more iconic than the lighthouse? A tree, of course. More specifically, a singular pohutukawa tree that juts out of a rocky headland on the confluence of the Pacific Ocean and the Tasman Sea.

The hike down is beautiful and gives an expansive view of the coast. It takes me a moment to spot this tree, which survives awkwardly and against all odds on a cliff-face lashed by salt-laced winds. Compared to the gigantic Tāne Mahuta, this tree called Kahika looks like a shrub from afar.

Kauri Trees Maori Culture
Kahika, a pohutukawa tree at Cape Reinga, is considered the gateway for Maori spirits leaving New Zealand.

Legend has it that nine days after a Maori dies, the spirit travels north. The Kahika is the passing point as it leaves New Zealand towards Haiwaiki in Polynesia. Bent by the constantly slapping breeze, its roots form the channels for the spirits to reach the seas, which they navigate to reach their homeland.

As I take in the view of this sacred site, the snaking bio-security line at the airport after immigration makes sense. If only, all the Indians who watched in shock as their thepla and pickles were dumped in the bin, could see this tree. They would understand, too. The country has its rooms firmly set in Maori culture and the Maori belief system is anchored in nature. Saving these sacred trees and forests then is more than just an environmental cause in New Zealand, it’s about upholding the ancestral legacy of its people.

THE DETAILS

GETTING THERE

Multiple airlines serve connecting flights to New Zealand. The welcome mat rolls out at international gateways in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, and Queenstown. Three hours from Auckland and two hours from Paihia, Waipoua Forest is best accessed by road. Stop at Omapere to pick up your Footprints Waipoua walking tour with a local guide. Waitangi Treaty Grounds is about three hours from Auckland and just two kilometres from Paihia. There are many day tours you can avail from Paihia to go to Cape Reinga.

STAY

Waipoua Lodge: Nestled on a ridge overlooking the vast Waipoua Forest, Waipoua Lodge offers luxury accommodation in an original homestead surrounded by native forest and pasture. From INR 24,328 per night.

Bed of Roses: The stay is at walking distance from the historic landing area of the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, and is centrally situated to Northland’s beaches, forests, and walking tracks. From INR 12,743 per night.

Related: The Maori Haka Sets a New Guinness World Record