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September 12th, 2010

New Zealand--Waipoua Forest

We had two treks into the kauri forest--one the first night we were here (as part of our Nature Explorer package at the Lodge), one yesterday in the daylight.  Both were full of delights and surprises and beauty.

The night trek had been billed as a kiwi sighting expedition, and our guide did her level best.  From time to time we stopped on the path, turned off all our flashlights, and stood quietly, listening for a rustle or a kiwi call.  We heard owls in plenty (morporks, and don't you think I didn't wonder if they were actually the official bird of Ankh-Morpork, escaped into the wild from the city fug--they certainly are racous enough).  We heard leaves dropping (kauri leaves are tough and leathery and fall off in bunches), and a few other undefinable noises, but mostly we heard the most profound silence I've enjoyed for quite some time.  When I looked up, I all I could see was a textured darkness--black leaves against a clear sky sown with stars. 

Our guide was a sturdy, middle-aged woman who knew the forest like her living room.  She petted the leaves as she told us about the various plants along the path and shone her red-lighted flashlight through the night forest.  We didn't see any kiwi (this is nesting season, and only the females are foraging now, the males being back at the nest, keeping the eggs nice and warm).  But we did see an eel, grown portly on grated cheese bits, waiting for his nightly treat, and some greyish-brownish fish sharing a very clear stream with several very unhappy crawfish.  The best moment was when the guide asked us to turn off our torches and squat down by the roots of a fallen tree.  Hundreds of glow-worms shone steadily in the rotten folds and fissures, creating miniature constellations of bluish light.

We also saw the kauri trees.  Every once in a while, the guide would take the red cap off her torch and flash it up and up and up a straight, pale trunk until the beam dissipated in the canopy.  "That one's 1500 years old," she said.  "That one's only 50 (or 100 or 500)."  The 30 year old babies have branches all the way down, tipped with leathery puffs of leaves.  The old giants are bare to the crown, which tops the rest of the forest canopy.  The bark sheds a little continuously, as do the leaves, creating a rich compost that feeds and protects the shallow feeder roots.  Mosses grow on the trunks, and ferns and liverworts and various epiphites the size of small trees--an entire ecosystem to each tree.  And there are insects, too.  We saw the tree weta, which looks like a large and semi-transparent cricket, and freaked the two young women on our walk out more than a little.  They weren't too keen on the glow worms, either.  Oddly enough, they were Finns, from Helsinki, and very surprised to hear we'd just been there last month.  At that point, I could hardly believe it myself.

So a kauri forest, for us, was darkness and flashes of tangled vegetation with odd and wonderful names that slid out of my mind like jelly.  We were eager to see it all by daylight, but the next day it poured and we were tired, and so we stayed by the fire and wrote and drank tea and went to bed early and slept for 10 hours.  The next day (Sunday, we're up to), the sun made a brief appearance and it was warmer, so we packed a picnic lunch of cheese sandwiches and drove north to the other end of the forest to take a walk in the daylight.

The kauri are wonderful, of course, but I love the tree ferns best.  When they're young, they look like what we call ferns--kind of leathery and coarse, but down on the ground, ankle-height fronds in rosettes.  As they get older, they grow thick stalks from which the fronds unfurl like ostrich plumes on a presentation headdress (and where that metaphor came from, only my subconscious knows).  The effect is remarkable,  especially on the female ferns, whose fronds don't drop off when they die, but droop into a brown, lacy, rustling skirt around the trunk. 

The males, of course, drop every frond, and go naked to the topknot.  That's evolution, man.

The Dr. Seuss tree, which looks like Horton should be sitting on a branch, is the neinei.  The branchy, curvy one with the fluffy leaves is either the kowhai or the totara, I"m not sure which.  The droopy one with the scaly leaves is the rimu.  The Four Sisters are two double kauri that have grown into a joined circle, like a titan's crown.  I thought they were pretty impressive until we rounded a corner, looked up, and saw the tree called Te Matua Ngahere.

He's only the second-largest tree in the forest, and he's not so tall as all that, but he's very big around--a Gargantua, a Nero Wolfe among trees.  He squats massively in a meadow of fern and scrub.  My mind, being my mind, scrambled for comparisons and metaphors:  the Diabutsu in Kamakura, the redwoods, Gargantua, Santa Claus.  But the fact it, Te Natua Ngahere looks very exactly and utterly like himself, and no picture can possibly do him justice.

I suspect Myazaki has seen him--also Tane Mahuta, just 1 km down the road, who is the tallest tree in the forest, and very glorious and individual and famous and undeniably holy.  But for whatever reason, it was Te Natua Ngahere who spoke to me, although I'm not sure yet what it was he said.  I suspect it'll take me some time to hear it.

It's possible that we were distracted from Tane Mahuta by the busload of tourists that arrived not long after we got there.  It was an Australian senior citizen tour, and they were having a wonderful time, taking pictures and chatting.  One gentleman (his name-tag read "Stan") wanted to know if Ellen and I were twins, and asked us if we'd visited Perth, where he lived, and why not, and we should give him a shout if ever we happened to be in town.  We said we would.

I wonder what would happen if I stood in the middle of Perth, shouting "STAN!" at the top of my lungs.  Something interesting, no doubt.

Twins!  I ask you.

Anyway.  We came back to the Lodge after that, had tea, wrote, made ourselves a light dinner and retired early.  And now we're off to the other side of the island, and I've got to post this, because heaven alone knows when I'm next going to have wifi.

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