Just a short walk down a wooded gangway into the rainforest of Waipoua, near Dargaville on New Zealand’s north island, is a living giant. Its name is Tāne Mahuta and it’s a kauri tree – one of the largest types (by girth rather than height) in the world. Tāne is named after the Maori forest god and, in the myth, is the fruit of the primordial parents: his growth having broken apart the embrace of Ranginui, the “sky father” and Papatūānuku, the “Earth mother,” allowing the space and light for life to flourish.
Walk beneath Tāne, which is 51.5 metres tall and has a trunk girth of 18.8 metres (a challenge for the most ardent tree-hugger), and you can’t help but feel moved – and incredibly small. It isn’t just physical majesty that brings tourists flocking to Waipoua to visit “the lord of the forest,” it is the atmosphere around the tree.
“Sometimes people are overwhelmed and end up crying,” says Vanessa Rapira of the Te Roroa tribe, who is employed by the Department of Conservation to be near Tāne in all weathers and to serve as its ambassador and its protector. “It is the energy that the visitors pick up, not only from Tāne Mahuta but also the surroundings,” she says.
Kauris were depleted by logging, which started in the 1820s, and the few giants that remain are threatened by dieback disease, a rot that is carried on people’s shoes and by mammals. Today, visitors have to hose their shoes and make sure no soil is on their clothes before entering the rainforest. Even the root structures of Tāne are so fragile walkways have been built to protect them.