Joan Wiffen Valley

For two days a week I can usually be found doing copyright administration for Te Ara. This year, as part of my non-Te Ara work, I’ve been photographing sites connected with New Zealand science history. These have included buildings, monuments, streets and landscapes.

Around 7.30 a.m. on Saturday 20 June I met up with Robin Adams just north of Napier airport and, after picking up his friend Frances, we headed into the Mōhaka Forest for the day. Because it’s a commercial forestry area, Robin was my driver, guide, radio monitor (listening out for logging-truck movements) and gate-opener. We were headed for the Mangahouanga Stream – the site where New Zealand’s most famous (amateur) paleontologist, Joan Wiffen, found evidence that dinosaurs had lived in New Zealand.

Dinosaur stream – the Mangahouanga

Dinosaur stream – the Mangahouanga

Robin and Frances have been coming up here for years, joining Joan on her expeditions, helping find fossils in the stream, carting the rocks out of the bush for preparation, and just hanging out.

That Saturday was a classic four-seasons-in-one-day kind of day, quite suited to a day in the mountains just south of the Ureweras. We arrived at the fossil hunters’ huts around 10.30 a.m., just in time for tea and cake. Afterwards, I was directed towards the bush, where I followed the track to Top Beach. Having a deep affection for the bush round here, and with nothing better to do, Frances joined me for some of the walk.

It was a fairly short walk through lovely native forest – I’d hazard a guess that it’s beech forest, but I’ve never been too good with my trees. There are a couple of ladders you need to climb down to get to the stream itself. I spent the best part of an hour down there, photographing, videoing, trying to keep my feet dry, and soaking in the atmosphere. (Visit to view photos.)

I was hoping for a find of my own, but no such luck. Talking to Robin and Frances afterwards they said that summer is the best time for fossil hunting, when the stream is low and the rocks more visible. But even then you’re not likely to stumble across something, as you need to know what you’re looking for in the rocks.

Robin said Joan hadn’t been up there for a couple of years probably, as she was getting on a bit. When you’ve only ever known someone from 15-year-old photos, sometimes you need reminding that they aren’t as young as you imagine them. Somewhat presciently, Robin said he wasn’t sure if Joan would ever be back to the huts.

I never got to meet Joan, though I was planning to pop in on her next time I was up in Hawke’s Bay. Joan was always happy to talk about her work, and I was looking forward to having a cup of tea and a chat with her.

From what I’ve seen and heard, Joan was a rare scientist. Beyond the fact that as an amateur she did incredibly important work, she was also passionate about fossils, and loved to share her passion with others in a way that got her audience truly enthused. She wrote a book about her fossil hunting, and there’s at least one decent documentary about her work, work which changed the geological history of our country.

In my photography notes I’ve usually referred to the Mangahouanga Stream as Joan Wiffen Valley. Now may be a good time to put a case to the New Zealand Geographic Board.

3 comments have been added so far

  1. Comment made by lee thomson || August 22nd, 2009

    hello im lee im Joan’s 13 year old grand son im realy going to miss her as she pass away =( its realy cool to have a nana whos famous and descorvers things anyway just saying something about her

  2. Comment made by carla || October 9th, 2014

    can anyone go and walk this track and discover the area with my kids……or do I need permission ?

  3. Comment made by Andy Palmer || October 13th, 2014

    Hi Carla,

    Thanks for reading. Unfortunately you need permission to head in there. It’s a long way from any main road, and the access roads are forestry roads with locked gates.

    If you’re keen on fossil hunting there is a book out which might help – The Kiwi Fossil Hunter’s Handbook by Dr James Crampton.

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