I recently spent a night at Tiritiri Matangi Island. Even though it’s less than four-kilometres from the Whangaparaoa Peninsula and 30km from central Auckland, a visit, especially overnight, is like stepping back in time to our primordial past – back to an era ruled by birds; a time when birds were fearless of men.
Tiritiri Matangi evokes the first settlers arrival in Aotearoa with the notable resounding chime of birds. As you walk the track to the iconic lighthouse – installed in 1865, prefabricated in England, painted red and once the brightest in the Southern Hemisphere – you are surrounded by swooping, chattering, melodious birds. Because the island is only a 220ha, two-kilometre square gem, in two days you can walk every track. There are pa sites on prime vantage points – defences of successive iwi. First came Kawarau, then Ngati Paua, then Kawarau again and then Ngapuhi with guns. There are the traces and scars of those who came next, settlers and farmers, and by World War II, the army. But in 1984, after 120 years of farming, another army arrived – the “Spade Brigade”. These were visionary planters committed to a greater idea of a place where endemic plants and animals thrive, a sanctuary open to the public, where species conservation could occur, and where people could learn about our natural heritage and be inspired to protect it.
Between 1984 and 1994, almost 200,000 trees were planted. They were eco-sourced from the island and dug into its pastures, transforming them into forests. The project helped establish the restoration concept in the conservation lexicon. Tiri is now nationally and internationally acclaimed for the successful establishment, not of a replica of the original ecosystem, but a replacement. An ecosystem that is informed by the elements present prior to human influence, but deviating in important ways to enhance advocacy, species protection and management, and public learning.
You can see the kowhai and pohutukawa forests that once cloaked the shoulders of Tiri, enhanced with endangered tecomanthe (a native climber) and kaka beak (Clianthus). You can see and hear the bird species that originally filled the sky with song – the tui and the korimako (bellbirds), and the caw of kaka. You can also encounter the flightless takahe in all their quirky glory, and the hihi (stitchbird) chipping away through the branches. As well as the naturally occurring shore skink, you can see a living dinosaur, the tuatara, beside the tracks. You can see and hear the little spotted kiwi (kiwi pukupuku) roaming tracks at night. There are rare and shy spotless crake and the sky is full of kakariki. Kokako hop through branches at head height. You’ll see ruru (morepork) as common as garden sparrows. There is the copper butterfly (pepe parariki) and the yellow chafer beetle, the weta, the wetapunga and the giraffe weevil. So, if you make one trip overseas this year, go back in time – to Tiri.