—- Story and photos by Jan Power
An Open Day for Kohimarama Forest on Saturday, April 22, was an opportunity for neighbours and Aucklanders from further afield to venture into this rare ancient fragment of one of our last remaining inner-city forests, containing an ecosystem untouched since pre-European times.
The phrase “hidden gem” can be over-used, but it is an apt description for this small (2.3 hectares/22,000 sqm) bush area in the heart of suburban Kohimarama. It is steep and inaccessible from the top, except through privately-owned gardens of adjacent properties in Allum Street. A stream runs from the top to the bottom and continues through Madills Farm Reserve to the sea at Kohimarama Beach. The forest’s bottom border is a small, triangular grass reserve at the end of Pamela Place cul de sac.
Pamela Place Reserve is a perfect picnic spot. But who would think of plunging into the bush behind the reserve and hacking their way uphill through a tangle of native bush and rampant introduced weed species? Well, not many, it seems. Inaccessibility has been the forest’s saving grace, preventing it from being used as grazing land for settlers and, later, for housing development. Although some steep slivers of it belong to the Allum Street properties above, most of the forest is part of a landholding owned by the Anglican Church’s Melanesian Mission.
Two years ago, the Melanesian Mission offered the land for sale. Neighbours and conservationists, including the Eastern Bays Songbird Project (EBSP/ Te Tī Oriori), banded together to advocate for the preservation of Kohimarama Forest as a vital stepping stone in the ecological corridor that links the predator-free islands of the Hauraki Gulf to the Waitakere Ranges, Hunua Ranges and Riverhead Forest. The Melanesian Trust Board agreed to put the sale on hold whilst conservation groups and Ōrākei Local Board discussed how the forest could be purchased and put into public ownership.
For Open Day, comprehensive storyboards were set up under canopies by The Eastern Bays Songbird Project and Whitebait Connection. There was information about the birds, trees, insects and reptiles that live in the forest, the banded kokopu and other native fish that live in the stream, and the forest’s value as a wetland and stormwater catchment.
“Wetland” was the appropriate term on the day. After a brief respite around the midday start time, the rain hosed down. For visitors willing to follow Kohimarama Forest champions like Edward Duff and St John Steer up the muddy, slippery loop track, it was the perfect opportunity to experience what this ecological gem is all about. On all sides, soaking up the rain, were very tall tree ferns, Nikau palms, Titoki, Kānuka and Kohekohe whose size supported their age, estimated in some cases to be more than 100 years. There has been some limited planting in places where weeds have been cleared, but our guides were really excited about lots of small but sturdy Tõtara, Nikau and Tī Kouka/cabbage trees that have sprung up beside the stream thanks to seeds spread by the birds.
Our group was led by St John Steer, who volunteers as a weeder for half a day every week, as does Edward Duff and a band of other dedicated workers. As any home gardener knows, weeding can be one of the hardest and most thankless jobs in the world, but we saw areas where weeding had made a notable difference. Ginger plants, for instance, had been chopped back to rows of stubs, while their foliage and seeds were being dissolved in barrels of water. At one point, stopping to show us a fern struggling to survive under a smothering canopy of morning glory, St John methodically wrenched off the weed as he talked.
We were followed most of the way by an endearing little fantail/Pīwakwaka, hopping from branch to branch and tweeting at us, and we heard aTūī chorus overhead. The rain probably discouraged other birds, because the forest is also home to Ruru (morepork), Riroriro (grey warbler), Kõtare (kingfisher) and nesting Kēreru. Kākā have also been sighted. Constantly beside us or beneath us as we stepped over it was the gurgling, fresh-flowing stream, which continues through Madills Farm and ultimately to the sea at Kohimarama Beach.
The walk was hard work and we got soaking wet. Hot coffee and fresh scones at the end were a welcome reward. I remembered that on a previous attempt to see what Kohimarama Forest was all about, I’d given up and retreated after a short distance. This time, wearing a rain jacket, gumboots and with a helping hand from an excellent guide, I managed to do the whole loop. I could appreciate how the incredibly hard mahi of a relatively small band of volunteers has steadily cleared weeds and formed a defined walkable track. It was easy to imagine that in the not-too-distant future, there will be a well-formed track and a boardwalk to lead visitors through this ancient enchanted forest.