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170-year-old utu trees cleared to widen road

Friday 12 June 2020 | Written by Melina Etches | Published in Environment


170-year-old utu trees cleared to widen road
The coastal Utu forest at Karekare in Tupapa, are cleared for a better road. 20061103

For the first time in more than 100 years, natural light grandly shines through the grove of utu trees on the main road Upper Tupapa.

The trees at Karekare are also known as tupapaku, or ghost trees.

MP and tree expert Nooroa Baker said two utu trees near the road were removed; another was cut right back and it branches trimmed, to make the road safer.

The cutting of the utu corridor is now completed, the rest of the trees will remain trimmed, but standing, said Baker.

Gerald McCormack, director of the Cook Islands Natural Heritage Trust, said: “This utu forest is probably a remnant of the original native coastal forest of Rarotonga – the larger trees are probably more than 200 years old.”

Counting the “rings” of the trees, McCormack and consultant Joe Brider estimate the age of the trees to be at least 170 years old; older trees in the middle areas were too difficult to reach.

Oral history has passed down through generations that the “utu trees” were where tupapaku (spirits or ghosts) gathered.

Locals still recall that when driving past this particular area at night alone, prayers would be quickly said, promises to be good made, church hymns sung… in a hopeful effort to ward off something bad happening.

A 70-year-old papa told of when he was a teenager, having to drive his uncle back to Titikaveka from Tupapa after a night of fishing.

“Driving him there was okay, I wasn’t alone, but on the way back I’d be so scared, and at times would just wait before the trees for a light from another vehicle to come along and quickly follow close behind them,” he laughed.

Vision at the bend is now a lot clearer, as one can now see through to the other side of the bend, and “hopefully now the tupapaku have left as it’s too bright!”

McCormack said the utu forest supported a last population of Sturanya parvula, the False Necklace-shell or Little necklace-shell snail.

Many do not know that of 17 species of coastal lands nails unique to Rarotonga, only two survive – 15 are extinct.

And of seven coastal land snails formerly on Rarotonga and one or more islands in Pa Enua, two are gone from Rarotonga and the five survivors are rare, he says.