Standing like an island in the green sea of the Waikato wilderness, Sanctuary Mountain is the ultimate nature reserve for native New Zealand flora and fauna. Hiking the trails throughout this mountain haven is like stepping back in time to an era before humans ever came here.
Since 1912, Maungatautari – the Maori name for this 50km-circumference 800m-high mountain – has been a nature reserve. But it wasn’t until 2001 that the vision for this incredible project really took shape.
With a symphonic combination of careful conservation, brilliant engineering and good ol’ hard graft, Sanctuary Mountain is a paradise for native species. Not only is it a safe habitat for rare birds and plants, it’s a wonderful, peaceful place for visitors to come and experience true New Zealand nature.
Check out our quick video of Sanctuary Mountain here:
Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari and its ancient forest is now one of the last remaining places you’ll find wild kiwi and other endangered species like the kaka, hihi and kokako.
And it’s all thanks to a very special enclosure. But the fence isn’t here to cage the birds within, but to keep all other animals out.
The problem Sanctuary Mountain faces is the same problem the whole of New Zealand is struggling with: introduced animal pests.
Humans only arrived on New Zealand around 2,200 years ago. Before that, there were no mammals anywhere on the islands – only birds and reptiles.
But with mankind came rodents, carnivorous mammals and other creatures that damage the delicate ecosystem and have decimated bird species.
The great wall of Maunga
Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari has a perimeter fence that goes all the way round. At some 47km long, it’s one of the highest-tech barriers and the longest pest-proof fence in the world.
It has multiple defences to keep the pests away.
At over three metres high and with a curved top, the fence stops even the best climbers. The 100,000m² of steel mesh the fence is made of is so fine, even a baby mouse is too big to get through.
And the buried polythene ‘skirt’ that lies a metre out from the bottom of the fence repels the most ardent of diggers.
So with all the pests in one place, it’s been a battle of attrition and extraction to remove them. But 2014 saw the last rabbits and hares leave the sanctuary.
It’s the end of a long list of unwelcome animals introduced into this ancient environment. Deer, pigs, ferrets, stoats, weasels, possums, hedgehogs, rats and goats are all gone now. Only mice, which breed too fast and are often too small to catch, remain.
Hiking in the ancient mountain forest
Even a few steps inside the walls of the sanctuary, you feel the atmosphere somehow change. For certain, it’s cooler under the canopy. We were there on a warm day, but a few minutes in and we were glad to have jumpers with us.
But as our feet took us deeper into the woodland, a sense of peace and ancient wonder – almost spiritual in its harmony – came over us.
And as we explored further, the mountain quietly told us a few of its secrets – a living land of verdant luxury.
Far into the forest, hidden amongst the great and ancient trees of the mountain is the Canopy Tower, which you can climb to give you an entirely different perspective of the landscape.
From 16m up, you get to see life amongst the canopy – the way many of the bird species see the forest.
We were lucky enough to be accompanied by a guide from Sanctuary Mountain, which is the best way to experience this remarkable place. Our guide, Tali, was able to explain so much that we’d have otherwise missed as we walked through the forest.
Tali also showed us hidden elements to the conservation project that’s still in progress. We saw how they keep a track and also trap the animal pests still at large in the reserve. And of course, she could tell us the names of the bird species we could hear and see on our walk.
There are several tracks that take you through this incredible, unique ecosystem. From a quick 130m track that goes into the forest and back out to a full day’s trek over the mountain for 11km, there’s plenty here for keen hikers.
Sanctuary Mountain is accessible to wheelchair users and pushchairs, with 5km of wide metalled tracks. Bear in mind though that this is a mountain, so you’ll be going uphill at some point, so a certain level of fitness and stamina is necessary.
Security is key
Sanctuary Mountain really is an impressive place. So many risks of pest intrusion have been mitigated by some really smart thinking. The barrier is obviously the main defence from animals getting in, but there’s also a wide clearway between the fence and any tall plants or trees the other side.
Tali explained that if a tree within the perimeter falls due to storms and takes out a section of fence, on-call engineers are about 20 minutes away at any time to repair the barrier.
And to get into the reserve, you have to go through a double door locking system and also have your bags checked in case of stowaways.
Getting to Sanctuary Mountain and where to stay
Sanctuary Mountain and its visitor centre is about two hours from Auckland and an hour from Rotorua by car.
However, it’s only half an hour from Cambridge and the beautiful Henley Hotel, where we stayed.
From here, you’re close to the incredible Waitomo glowworm caves and the superb Black Water Rafting experience. Also just down the road is the Hobbiton Movie Set, which is also well worth visiting.
You can find more details on all of these experiences and more at the Mighty Waikato Tourism website here.
Sanctuary Mountain is a birder’s dream, a hiker’s paradise and a magical experience for those of us who enjoy the peace of perfect nature.