Mt Taranaki’s montane forests are found only in Egmont National Park, and extend up to about 1,000 metres above sea level. Kāmahi, Hall’s tōtara and rātā dominate the forest, with kaikawaka (mountain cedar) at higher altitudes.
Forest of goblins
Part of the forest on the eastern slopes of Mt Taranaki is known as goblin forest. Trailing ferns and moss hang from the gnarled kāmahi tree trunks, creating a mystical, slightly eerie atmosphere. Kāmahi became the dominant species in the area after volcanic eruptions destroyed rimu forest about 400 years ago.
The subalpine and alpine zones occur only on Mt Taranaki and the Pouākai Range. The subalpine zone consists mainly of scrub, especially leatherleaf and inaka (turpentine bush). The alpine zone, above 1,250 metres, consists of red tussock grasslands, herbfields, and at its upper limit, moss fields. It is an area of extreme temperatures and very high rainfall – often more than 8 metres per year.
The original forests of the Taranaki ring plain were mostly cleared and turned into pasture. They survive now only as scattered remnants in reserves and covenanted areas. Eruptions and debris flows from the Egmont, Pouākai and Kaitake volcanoes also destroyed forests.
The lowland area features tawa forest, with kahikatea and pukatea forest on the swampy flats. Rimu grows on the lowlands and extends into the lower reaches of the mountains. Kāmahi and rātā become increasingly common as the altitude increases. Everett Park near Inglewood is one of the best remaining reserves of lowland forest in the region.
More forest survives on the inland mudstone hill country, some of which forms part of Whanganui National Park. On the steep ridges of inland Taranaki, black and hard beech forest is found, and isolated pockets of silver beech occur in the Waitaanga area.
The fringes of the coast contain cliff or dune plants, and there are some areas of coastal herbfields. The forest cover includes taupata, karo, whau, flax and the introduced boxthorn.
The semi-coastal zone reaches 10 kilometres inland. Its canopy of tawa combined with kohekohe, karaka, pūriri and ngaio is mostly restricted to gullies, riverbanks and the slopes of the Kaitake Range.
The canoe tree
New Zealand’s last two naturally occurring populations of tainui trees are in a couple of small gullies between Tongapōrutu and Mōkau. The species is also found in Australia (Victoria and Tasmania). The Mōkau trees were recorded in 1879 by botanist James Hector. Māori told him that tainui came to New Zealand from the Polynesian homeland of Hawaiki as timber used in the construction of the Tainui canoe.
Animals and birds
The region is home to a number of rare native animals, including the gold-striped gecko (found only on the Taranaki coast between Waitara and Pātea, and on Mana Island near Wellington), the short-tailed bat, and Powelliphanta ‘Egmont’, a large carnivorous snail that lives only in two small areas of Egmont National Park.
Some indication of the spectacular bird fauna of the past can be gained from the remains of a moa-hunter camp at the mouth of the Kaūpokonui River, near Hāwera. The site has been radiocarbon-dated to 1300–1400 CE.
The bones of 55 bird species have been identified. As well as six kinds of moa, the remains of weka, pigeons, kākā, kiwi, tūī, kōkako, ducks, parakeets and takahē were the most common. Also present were at least 18 other now-extinct or endangered species, including New Zealand quails, saddlebacks, kākāpō, adzebills, huia, New Zealand crows, piopio (thrush), blue ducks, cave rails and little weka. There were also elephant seals and Hooker’s sea lions, as well as the introduced kurī (dogs) and kiore (Pacific rats), and even a rare native tuatara.