Did you know that New Zealand has about 200 species of fern plants? Forty per cent of those fern plants occur nowhere else in the world. Historically, fern plants thrived already on this planet long before the first dinosaurs existed. In fact, fossil finds suggest that ferns existed before the first animals walked on land. Very few plants, especially trees, still exist from this period today and one of those places on earth where you can find remnants of this ancient forests is New Zealand.
Back home in Germany, I have to walk deep into a forest, specifically looking, in order to find a small fern plant here and there. In New Zealand, by contrast, you will find fern, from small 20mm plants to 10m high tree ferns, everywhere you go. What started out as a minor interest in childhood, developed into a full blown obsession during my first trip to New Zealand in 2009. Simple, yet complicated. Bold, yet subtle. The longer I look at the leaves of fern plants, the more I’m mesmerized. Whenever I see a tree fern, I marvel about what came before us. I marvel about distant times and animal species long gone. Whenever I explore New Zealand’s flora and fauna, I’m transported back in time.
During my second trip to New Zealand in 2016, I was consciously looking for activities that would allow me to explore New Zealand’s forests. When you’re able to buy or rent a car in New Zealand, your options are limitless. However, since I relied on public transport and had a limited budget, my list of possibilities was short.
Whakarewarewa Forest near Rotorua
Situated near Rotorua, the Whakarewarewa Forest is spread across 5600 hectares. In 1901, several Sequoia or Redwood trees were planted near Rotorua for building purposes and now the Whakarewarewa forst is known to most tourist simply as ‘The Redwoods’. Most visitors at the Redwoods were there to take the $20 ‘Walk among the Redwoods’, high up in the air on a platform. During my second visit at the Redwoods, I decided to take this walk as well. However, the main reason I was there was to get lost in the forest, surrounded by New Zealand’s fern plants.
How do you describe a place full of new sensory impressions? How do you translate a vague feeling? How can you make sense of a place you never knew you’d miss?
One of the things that struck me about the forest was that there were several tracks available for a variety of fitness levels. When you pick up the map from the I-site, containing all walking tracks, you can chose from 30 min short and easy ‘all access’ walks that are suitable for people in wheelchairs all the way up to 8 hour long hikes for experts. My fitness level is average so I picked one of the intermediate 2,5h tracks called the “Pohaturoa track”.
All in all, this 2,5 hour walk took me almost 4 hours because I stopped so many times to take photos. Once again, desperately trying to capture the essence of the forest with my camera, knowing that’ll be no good. Fern after fern, my camera saves another image. Over six months later, those images trigger memories and feelings. While I’m no longer to recall the smell or sound of that forest, I’m able to recall how I felt. Each image of a tree fern I have once seen along my walk, fills me with happiness. All of my current fears and woes disappear for a brief moment, and I’m transported back to the Whakarewarewa forest.
After having walked, I think, half of the track, I reached the highest point. Looking down on Rotorua, I was finally able to visually orientated myself within the forest. I was so much closer to Rotorua than I thought. As I take a much needed picnic break, I can hear Maori chants down below. Somewhere must’ve been a Maori cultural performance. I try not to fall into the tourist pattern of exoticising Maori as ‘noble savages’ who do nothing else other than performing a haka to tourists. Maori are not just another ‘exotic feature’ in New Zealand as some tourists believe. However, I’m grateful that some Maori decided to teach and share their culture with us tourists. So there I sit, immersing myself in the moment, knowing that it’ll be soon over. I’m a restless person by nature, I cannot sit still for too long. Especially when I’m in a park or forest, I long to see what’s behind the trees at the horizon. So I got up and kept on walking. Few people cross my path, many of which seem to be locals walking their dogs.
My head turns from left to right, from the ground up to the sky as I try to visually capture each passing fern plant. Towards the end of my nearly 4 hour long hike, I was exhausted. Yet, I didn’t want to get to the end, I wanted to keep on walking among the ferns until all my worries disappear forever. Isn’t it funny how it can appear as if every worry you might have falls of your shoulder and you’re left with a pure, content and happy version of yourself just by being surrounded by trees. My fern tattoo on my right arm is a small solace of me missing New Zealand’s fern plants.
Directions: In order to get to the Redwoods, take the bus route 3 to Owhata at the bus stop near the I-Site on Arawa street. Get off at the stop at Tarawera Road. This is a 5-10 min long bus drive. If in doubt when to get off, just ask the bus driver as I did.