Walking New Zealand

New Zealand Walk: Withering Heights -Tawarau Conservati­on area, King Country

- By Phillip Donnell

You cannot help but feel dwarfed by the towering escarpment­s of Tawarau. They rise abruptly either side of you, and at times it seems you could touch them if you stretched out your arms. Few people, however, know that Tawarau exists, so its unique scenery is perhaps the King Country’s best kept secret. Tawarau is one of the best remaining examples of a virgin forest growing in a karst (limestone) landscape. It is dominated by hardwoods, such as hinau, kamahi, and rewarewa, with emergent podocarps. At the same time, it is known for its “cool climate” vegetation and you’ll find species such as Cordyline indivisa (the mountain cabbage tree) at an unusually low altitude.

Yet another draw-card is the variety of native birds that make their home here, including the falcon, grey warbler, tomtit, kereru, rifleman, bellbird, whitehead and, in summer, long-tailed cuckoo. Long-tailed bats frequent the area. Tawarau also has an exceptiona­l diversity of land snails, with 82 species recorded.

But the primary attraction is its spectacula­r gorge. The Gorge Track can be walked from Speedies Road in the north to Were Road in the south in about four hours, or just as easily in reverse. Because the two road ends are 50 kilometres apart,

there are transport difficulti­es if you complete the track one-way. Deposit a car at the end you exit, or start a group from each end and swap car keys when you meet in the middle (the solution we chose). This descriptio­n is from north to south.

Just before Te Anga, we swung left into Speedies Road. There was no signpostin­g, but the walk began at the end of the road. The first part is on private land, so it’s important to leave gates as found and don’t disturb stock.

Basically, we followed a series of farm tracks traversing the terrace above the river and below the ridgeline. It was tempting to drop down to the river, but this would have resulted in rough going and a long climb up to the start of the track proper. The track was not marked until we reached the boundary of the conservati­on area, an hour from the road.

Once in the bush, the track was a little overgrown and muddy in places, but generally easy going. Twenty minutes or so after entering the forest, we met the Tawarau River. The track meandered along slightly above the river bank, with enticing glimpses of the cool, clear water. Here and there you can push through the trees to find a suitably deep swimming hole.

Shortly after reaching the river, we broke out onto a small clearing, appropriat­ely named Blackberry Flat. This is a designated campsite, or a good place to pause for lunch. In our case, both groups entered

Wuthering Heights - Tawarau Conservati­on area, King Country

the clearing simultaneo­usly from opposite directions.

The Bull Ring Route branched left from the Gorge Track some 500 metres (or 20 minutes) south of Blackberry Flat. Double Falls are a possible side-trip from this point (3-4 hours return). The source stream disappears undergroun­d and reappears at the top of these twin cascades. Beside them a track descends to a grassy area with big mossy rocks – an ideal picnic spot.

The main track continued south along the Mangaohae Stream, and as the bush thinned out a little, we started to see the majestic limestone cliffs and outcrops for which the area is famous. The views were indeed stunning. Bluffs, turrets and pinnacles rose up to 70 metres above us, laced with clinging plants and sometimes crowned with trees and shrubs. Little wonder the location

was utilised as a set for Lord of the Rings.

Too quickly, the gorge transition­ed to rolling green hills, and we arrived at the southern edge of the park. It was 15 minutes from the boundary to the end of Were Road. Once again, we were crossing private land.

It is well worth wending your way into the heart of the King Country to find this trail. The impression of impregnabi­lity and grandeur lingers long after you have left. Footsteps Walking Club of Aotearoa New Zealand

includes this trail in its Waikato itinerary for next summer, just one of 20 regions where they offer the very best day-walks available.

They welcome your enquiry: 021 172 3244, 07 544 9509, footstepsa­nz@gmail.com.

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