Kahurangi - hiking in a national park

Imagine hiking for six days, never seeing another soul and not even stepping out of a national park - that's Kahurangi National Park.

If you don't believe there's such a place left on earth, then you haven't discovered Kahurangi National Park, in the north western corner of New Zealand's South Island.

Kahurangi is a national treasure and an international phenomenon where total immersion in the unique, natural environment comes with a mental and physical health warning - beware, the experience is bound to be life changing.

Kaitiakitanga - treading carefully

With 452,000 hectares of wilderness, Kahurangi is New Zealand's second largest national park, and offers seclusion and rugged grandeur with imposing mountain ranges, rolling tussock lands and unspoiled forest valleys and coastline.

The flora, fauna and birdlife native only to this region heightens the attraction and, while eco-tourism is alive and well here, there's a strong message of kaitiakitanga - the Māori philosophy that promotes guardianship and urges people to tread softly on the Earth.

No-one treads more carefully than local guides Bill Rooke and Maryann Ewers. Their highly specialised company - Bush & Beyond - is Kahurangi National Park's original guiding service and the committed conservationists have been hiking this terrain for more than 15 years.

Great guides, great walks

Both guides have extensive knowledge of flora, fauna and the history of this area and they live and breathe it, to the advantage of hundreds of international tourists and locals who enjoy Kahurangi every year.

They offer a variety of guided walks, including the popular Heaphy Track - a five-day hike of about 80km. It is renowned as the 'flora walk', and designated one of New Zealand's 'Great Walks'.

While the average person will do a walk like the Heaphy Track once in a lifetime, Maryann and Bill complete it up to 16 times a year while educating their clients about the local environment - endeavouring "to leave our clients with a greater understanding of the need to protect what we have left of our wilderness and to encourage people to support conservation projects".

The guides passion for the environment and frank treatment of visitors pays off with most taking the message on board and offering voluntary donations towards local conservation projects - including wetland restoration, 'Friends of Flora', and their own trapping and bird monitoring project.

Trapping and monitoring

Bush & Beyond was instrumental in forming the 'Friends of Flora' conservation group, which is now trapping introduced predators in the Mt Arthur area. The society was formed in 2001 and has more than 80 volunteers who've laid more than 30km of trap lines.

In the Cobb Valley, the latest conservation project involves setting stoat trapping lines. They monitor 48 traps that are baited with egg to catch the stoats and rats that threaten native bird life.

Working in conjunction with the Department of Conservation (DOC), volunteers look after 460 traps. It's hoped that in the next five years all trap lines set within the park will join up - a major step in the bid to make Kahurangi Park predator-free.

Bring back the birds

Bush & Beyond also monitors bird life in the area involving clients in listening and recording bird sounds as part of their treks and tours.

They say data is providing interesting patterns on a month-by-month basis and the hope is to see a rise in the numbers of native birds. Already the signs are good with a pair of rare blue duck / whio successfully breeding for the first time in 12 years.

Bill and Maryann say there is also a sign that great spotted kiwi may be venturing back into the area, and it's hoped the trap lines will protect these and other species such as parrots, kea, kaka and falcons which are all struggling to survive. Every client booking adds a donation to one of the three conservation projects.

International awareness

Bill and Maryann say they are impressed with the knowledge many international tourists have of ecology and New Zealand history, and say most have done their homework before they visit the park.

"We're not afraid to be frank with them about the impact humans have had with deforestation and loss of habitat, but in the time we spend with visitors here they see how things are being turned around and we end on a positive note," they say.

On the last day of the Heaphy Track hike, Bill and Maryann hold a 'bush tucker night' where the group collects treats like native spinach, watercress and mussels for a final celebratory dinner.

Bill and Maryann are quick to acknowledge that - with the national park in line for the prestigious World Heritage nomination, and the resulting publicity that brings - they face a double-edged sword in operating their business. But those who come for the right reasons, with the spirit of kaitiakitanga, will always be welcome.