Kowhai  The Dancing Tree

Stepping onto the small ‘Adventure Craft’ takes me across the Waiau River – that small impediment that keeps people from exploring this section of the park as often as they otherwise might.

The vessel reaches the other side in minutes, disembarking our group onto a small wooden dock tucked into the trees. This place I’ve visited before but what lies beyond is still unknown.

I am on my way to Back Valley, a unique outlier in Fiordland National Park only a hop, skip, and a boat ride away from the township of Manapouri. Despite living in this area for the last year, I only heard of this special place two months earlier. This valley, once the ancient path of the Waiau River, is said to come alive in spring as hectares upon hectares of tall kowhai trees burst into bloom. When I was told this, I instantly put it on my list to visit as the rarity of the experience drew me in. I quickly realized that I had never seen a kowhai tree truly in the wild beyond the margins of society where they are planted to give colour to the changing of seasons and to attract our native birds. A chance to see them as they grow naturally and integrally as part of Fiordland had me giddy with excitement.

We’ve chosen a perfect day – the sun is shining strongly after a day of rain that washed the landscape clean. I can glimpse the lake occasionally through the trees as we follow the winding path above the Waiau River, a band of fog hovers between the surface of the water and the mountains beyond. Finally, I can’t take it anymore and leave the track to step onto the sandy shore of the lake and soak in the sunny expanse fully. Our group assembles on the sand and enjoys the vista complete with two crested grebes floating along just off-shore.

Sun-drenched and ready to move on, we return to the twisting forest path and continue on through the trees. An hour or so in, the track becomes more and more muddy with frequent bogs to negotiate and sections of sparkling small creeks where the track should be. We laugh as we try to get through without slipping over and landing with a face-full of mud. We pull it off, but only barely.

Suddenly, I look up and notice that the forest is changing. Behind me is the typical beech forest that one expects to find in this area while ahead of me light streams in through gaps in the canopy of cabbage trees and kowhai. I seem to be standing just on the line where this change occurs. Even from here the bird song in the open forest ahead is beckoning. Excited words are exchanged as our group moves forward into the boggy flats surrounded by flax and crisscrossed by streams.

Overhead the branches of the Kowhai trees are laden with drooping yellow flowers and the bird song is amplified by the strong wingbeats of tui. Here and there they fly, swooping from one delicate flower to the next, sometimes alighting on a wide branch and just as often hanging upside down from a yellow cluster to reach the nectar inside. It’s whimsical to watch and delightful to listen to. I stop to listen for as long as I can and record the sound so that I can keep it with me.

We cruise happily along the rest of the track to Back Valley Hut, stopping to enjoy a clearing that provides impressive views of Mount Titiroa and its rock tower slopes. Soon, the hut is visible and we gather around for a picnic lunch. We watch as tui and kereru feed in the top-most branches of the trees and talk about the changes we can see in the forest – the clear line where the beech forest melds into the unique seral forest of the valley floor. This place is outstandingly unique in Fiordland and beyond.

Not long enough it seems we are on our way again with a three-wire bridge to negotiate over the curiously named Stinking Creek. We must cross one at a time and thus a backlog forms as each person carefully steps across the wire, some of us tackling this type of challenge for the first time.

Safely across, we conclude the afternoon with a stroll through the red beech and crown fern dominated forest to reach Hope Arm and the return of the ‘Adventure Craft’ to pick us up and ferry us back to the shores of the Waiau.

I watch the spray of water from the boat’s wake as it splashes in and out of view between myself and the mountains and think about how outings like this remind me of why I do what I do.

I know I’m not alone in feeling that a step into the outdoors is a breath of fresh air that can instantly provide a lens of clarity and bring me back in line with the purpose of the work I do every day. There’s something solid here that is tangible, real and grounding.

This is the why behind the madness, the strong glimmer of hope in the darkness, and the simple expression of the thread that connects us all to the natural world. If we venture often, if we take the time to reconnect, our lives will most certainly be better for it.

The kowhai embodies the colour of spring, the brilliance of new life bursting forth, and the recognition of change. On its own each tree is a monument of beauty but as a forest the collective takes on a mauri or life force far greater. Get out this spring and catch the last of the flowers, I’ll wager that a walk through a forest of kowhai will leave you with more than you looked for upon entering.

Wilderlife