Why Fiordland National Park is a must-visit
I've always been a bit of a greenie but a recent wilderness experience in Fiordland National Park transformed me from a wishy-washy pale granny smith to a radiant evangelical emerald.
I have tramped in many a New Zealand native forest, always appreciating the beauty and serenity of the pristine environment but oblivious to the genius of my surroundings, the intelligence of nature.
However last month we had the benefit of a wilderness guide on the Hollyford Track whose knowledge of things green — and many other things — was encyclopaedic.
It was a subtle change rather than a Road-to-Damascus epiphany-type moment and I only became aware of it when I next set foot in a forest and began to wax eloquent about the tiny umbrella moss that carpets the floor of the forest.
Even the little umbrella moss has an important role to play. Photo: Justine Tyerman
My friends of many years looked bemused as I knelt on the squidgy, damp ground and began caressing the bright green moss, talking reverently about the clever little plant whose job it is to protect the forest floor.
They rolled their eyes and carried on hiking as I took close-up photos of my diminutive friends, remembering how I came across our Hollyford guide Graeme Scott in a similar pose, apparently worshipping small green plants at the foot of a tree in deepest Fiordland.
This was his favourite part of the track, he said, a place where his "two best friends" reside — a pair of ferns that have adapted perfectly to their environment.
I found myself entranced by the delicate filmy fern with its translucent fronds and the ingenious kidney fern which cups and tilts its "leaves" to channel rain water to its root system.
Our guide's passion was so infectious, I developed a new reverence for "plant intelligence"... and so the process of my viridescence began.
I loved Graeme's analogy of the forest being constructed like a house with all the components designed to make a comfy, safe environment for its inhabitants.
Ancient large conifers provide the roof or canopy to protect against rain and wind erosion, beneath which are kamahi that further disperse the rain, then a layer of tree ferns, followed by shrubs like pittosporum, coprosma and ground ferns, and finally mosses which form the carpet, binding the ground together.
These are the "furnishings of the forest". Each plant has an intelligent way of protecting the layer beneath. Even the smallest component like the little umbrella moss has a part to play.
The protective layers of the native lowland temperate rain forest. Photo: Ngai Tahu Tourism
When a tree falls over, fern life rushes to shelter the carpet. Everything works in synergy — maintaining balance.
Fungi also have a special role, cleaning up dead trees, sucking the nutrients out of the limbs until they drop off. Early Maori used them as their "Little Lucifers", taking smouldering fungi in a basket from one campsite to the next.
Later in the day I spotted a lancewood and found myself parroting on again about the juvenile and adult forms of the tree and how it had adapted to protect itself from the eating habits of the moa.
I seemed to lack Graeme's gravitas and authority as my friends were highly sceptical at my pontifications, especially the link to a large flightless bird, extinct since the mid-1400s.
Guide Graeme Scott beside an ancient rimu tree. Photo: Justine Tyerman
I ploughed on, talking to myself about this fascinating tree and the way it avoided predation — in the juvenile stage, the lancewood has long thin leaves like spiked sword blades which were inedible to the moa but it changes form radically in the mature stage, growing foliage when it is tall enough to be beyond the reach of its predator. In the Chathams where there were no moa, there is no juvenile form of the lancewood. That proved the theory as far as I was concerned.
My male friends showed a flicker of interest when I remembered something about a certain part of the lancewood having Viagra-like properties. I just couldn't recall which bit. I'll have to ask the oracle.
The lancewood tree has Viagra-like properties. Photo: Ngai Tahu Tourism
Anyway, somewhere deep in the Fiordland forest, the pieces all fell into place — the intelligence of nature, the interconnectedness of all living things and how man can easily destroy the delicate balance that exists between such species as the rimu and the flightless kakapo, our critically-endangered native parrot.
The kakapo is only fertile when the rimu tree seeds which is once every three or four years, depending on the warmth of the spring. In order to thrive, the chicks need to eat a staggering number of rimu fruit per day and yet our rimu are still not fully protected. There are only 126 kakapo left.
The matai and miro are totally dependent on the kereru or native wood pigeon to disperse the seeds of the large plum-shaped fruit. Meddle with one and you risk losing the other. I hugged the pitted trunk of a venerable 200-300 year-old matai to show my solidarity with her... or him. Such co-dependency is both enthralling and terrifying.
Mt Madeline in the Darran Mountain Range. Photo: Ngai Tahu Tourism
We heard about the war being waged in our forests. I knew we had a possum problem in New Zealand but was flabbergasted to hear there are 44 million of them and they consume 25 thousand tons of vegetation per day. The bushtail possum loves nothing better than to feast on the leaves of the southern rata and once a third of the foliage is gone, the tree dies.
It was not all serious stuff though. We met some cross-dressing ferns (males that wear long brown skirts), learned how to determine the sex of rimu trees, and visited a few avian pubs, leafy establishments frequented by kereru who topple off their perches after over-indulging on the intoxicating fruit of the miro. The fruit tastes like turpentine so there were no volunteers to sample them.
Next day, when he thought no one was looking, I saw one of my track-mates scrutinising the sharp barbs on the leaves of a lancewood with a puzzled look on his face... he walked away, shaking his head, much as the moa might have done.
Ahh, the intelligence of nature.
Factbox: The Hollyford Track is an easy-paced, three-day/two-night all-inclusive guided wilderness experience from the mountains to the sea, along the glacier-hewn Hollyford Valley by foot, jet boat and finally helicopter to Milford Sound.
The track is 56km long of which hikers walk 43km. The low-altitude, largely flat track begins 100km from Te Anau in beech and fern forest, descends to coastal podocarp forests and ends at the sand dunes of Martins Bay at the mouth of the valley.
Expert guides, first-rate cuisine, comfortable private lodges, transport from Queenstown or Te Anau, day packs and rain jackets are included in the price.
Hikers carry a light pack with clothing and lunch on their first day and thereafter an even lighter day pack to hold wet weather gear and water.
A maximum number of 16 guests provides for a personal experience.
The author was a guest of Hollyford Track.
Written by Justine Tyerman. Republished with permission of Stuff.co.nz.