A small coastal town in the Bay of Islands is mourning the loss of a much-loved member of the community.
She was known and admired by Ōpua residents and visitors alike. Children were especially fond of her, and wildlife flocked to her in summer. No one had a bad word to say about her, though admittedly she never said a word to anyone.
She was – as far as anyone knows – about 600 years old.
Neighbour Linda Harris was on her deck when the venerable old pōhutukawa finally succumbed to gravity and toppled slowly into the sea.
Harris said the tree had been creaking for weeks, but she thought just one branch was about to fail.
“I was really surprised when the whole tree went. The whole trunk just disappeared. It was quite slow-motion. It was a lot of noise, and she went magnificently. She just toppled.”
Another Ōpua resident, Cynthia Matthews, was visiting Harris at the time.
Matthews feared walkers could have been crushed under the pōhutukawa’s enormous branches, which reach over the popular Paihia to Ōpua Coastal Track.
The walkway is also part of Te Araroa, the long-distance trail from Cape Reinga to Bluff walked by thousands of people every year.
“It made a terrible creaking noise when it went over,” Matthews said. “That was quite upsetting. Then we thought of the people who might be coming along underneath it, so we grabbed pieces of paper and scribbled danger signs and went down there as quickly as possible and told people to stay back. Luckily nobody was right under it when it fell.”
Neighbour Rob Pringle heard the tree’s groans as it splintered and fell.
He was surprised the pōhutukawa had survived centuries of storms and the torrential rain of the past year, only to fall on a perfectly still day.
“It was dead calm, absolutely no wind. It was a beautiful afternoon. That was the surprising thing.”
Pringle also said the giant seemed to fall in slow-motion.
“It was quite an eerie sound, it wasn’t a crashing sound, it was a gentle easing of a tree.”
Everyone in Ōpua knew the tree, he said. It had been impossible to miss because anyone walking the popular coastal track had to duck under its huge limbs weighed down with other plants, like a forest growing upon a tree.
Pringle said it was a sight to behold, especially in December when it was in bloom and swarming with tūī.
Matthews said the pōhutukawa was one of several ancient trees along the coast where Ōpua Forest descended from the hills to the water’s edge.
“Somehow these big, ancient trees have survived the onslaught of clearing, myrtle rust, and whatever else was going on, and got to these amazing ages. It was here before Cook. It’s in a whole different lifespan, hundreds of years old.”
Once the women were assured no one had been crushed under the branches, their concern turned to the council and whether the tree might be deemed a safety hazard requiring removal.
An arborist they commissioned to inspect the tree determined four massive limbs could be saved, but the rest would likely have to be cut up and removed by barge.
A spokesman for the Far North District Council told RNZ no action would be taken until their own arborist had completed a report. That section of the walkway, while still well used, was already officially closed due to a nearby slip.
Forest and Bird Northland conservation manager Dean Baigent-Mercer applauded Ōpua residents’ concern for their trees.
“These great, sprawling pōhutukawa are just coming into flower now. We’re so lucky to have these left because there are so few. Most pōhutukawa forests have been wiped out throughout the country.”
Baigent-Mercer said possum control was vital, not just to ensure pōhutukawa could survive to great ages, but also so they could flower and release their seeds, allowing their offspring to live into the future.
Harris said she felt like she had lost a much-loved neighbour.
“I’m just absolutely devastated that she’s gone. She’s given me so much protection and interest and excitement when the tūī are in and out. I’ll miss her. She was magnificent. That’s all I can say, really. Really magnificent.”
Matthews said the tree had been blessed by a local kuia, and a hui would be held in coming weeks to decide how to best use the wood from branches that could not be saved.
Suggestions so far included making seats to be placed along the walkway.
The hui would also discuss proposals for preserving surviving parts of the tree, and how to ensure tikanga Māori was followed when the wood was removed.