Nikau Palm Gully

May 16 2021

Although probably rather ho-hum to West Coasters, the Nikau Palm Gully Reserve near Akaroa is a rare commodity on the eastern South Island, it being the farthest south that nikaus, New Zealand’s only endemic palm species grows naturally. Speculation that early Maori distributed nikau seeds there does not apparently stand up to scrutiny. These nikaus are also the world’s southern-most naturally growing palm, at least on mainland New Zealand. Pedants will be quick to point out that Pitt Island in the Chatham group, where they are also endemic, can lay claim to that fact by being almost one degree further south.

After two attempts to find the (well sign-posted) road that leads from Akaroa town, eight of us finally set off on a farm track leading from the Onuku Farm Hostel. Winding in and out of several headlands we had expansive views of a very calm and quiet Akaroa harbour; the Black Cat's engine and a few other boats being virtually the only intrusive noise. After about an hour’s walking to reach the gully, which is encased by sheer rock walls, not unlike a hanging valley of glacial origin, a steep descent led to the creek that flows through it. Hitherto scrubby vegetation had now transformed into thick bush, including kawakawa and pigeonwood, also species at their southern-most east coast limits. The bush floor hosted hundreds, if not thousands, of seedling nikaus up to 10cm high, indicating good recent germination conditions.

After a few hundred metres, the track breaks out of the bush and terminates on a slope that provided a fine view overlooking sea cliffs and the outer harbour. We had a lazy lunch there, admiring the full vista of over 200 mature nikaus growing in the gully, their large shaving-brush fronds breaching the bush canopy.

The return walk had us back at the cars by mid-afternoon, where half the group went gathering nuts in May below a nearby, large walnut tree.

The size and number of nīkau palms in this reserve makes it one of the best coastal forest remnants in Canterbury and it is certainly a most worthwhile day-walk. An article in the Akaroa Mail almost to the day 112 years ago, illustrated how such a remnant could have been lost. The local boating club had their annual knees-up at the Oddfellows Hall and decided to decorate the room – with nikau palms. Not just their fronds as several of the trees from the gully were cut down and transported back. The Mail lambasted such practice, warning that if trees were plundered on a regular basis, within a few years the palms would be gone. They suggested “that the Beautifying Association take the matter up and protect these areas from the hands of the Goths”. Thankfully conservationists prevailed.

We were: Kerry Moore, Wendy McCaughan, John Robinson, Barbara Purcell, Mike Wong, Peter Umbers, Kyung Sang Lee, Graeme Paltridge (leader). GP

A plethora of palms