Published: Weekend Herald – October 2015
Colossal ancient native trees and the purest of bird calls – Debbie Griffiths discovers the wonder of Bay of Plenty’s “Dinosaur Forest”.
I laugh out loud as our guide mimics my reaction: head tilted right back, mouth hanging open.
“I’ve brought so many people out here and they all do the same thing,” Foris Eco-Tours owner, Tom Lynch, tells me.
It’s impossible not to stand and simply gape at the massive totara, rimu, matai, kahikatea and miro trees in Whirinaki Forest, south-east of Rotorua. Some of these primordial giants are estimated to be 1000 years old and tower more than 60 metres above us. If Tane Mahuta grew here, he would be left in their shade.
Tom’s passion for conservation and sustainability is infectious. He points out birds (tui, pōpokotea/whitehead, kakariki and the North Island robin), the flaky bark of the totara and two trees that have fused together (“ever heard of inosculation?”). Tom explains tree-ring dating (“can you spell dendrochronology?”) and around the next bend in the track, he shows us three different species of orchid that had been growing at the top of a tree before it was blown down in a recent storm.
“It’s a good example biodiversity in our forests with numerous species even growing in the crown of the trees.”
Whirinaki is considered the best example of lowland podocarp forest left on Earth, but is still not on the radar of most Kiwi travellers. It was described by one visiting expert as “New Zealand’s forgotten forest”.
“It’s the most complete forest canopy in New Zealand.”
Tom is chatting away as we walk – but he’s listening to two different conversations. He pulls out his phone and plays a bird call. A tiny grey warbler responds and within minutes is sitting just above our heads – its feathers quivering as it answers loud and long with its distinctive call.
Then there’s the powerful flap of dark wings above our heads and the screech of the endangered kaka.
“Whirinaki is hot spot for wild kaka population. I once counted about 70 during one walk.” Tom grins. “Although it could’ve been the same group following me.”
Rather than tempting the birds down to ground level to be counted, studied or to be more easily seen by visitors, the practice here is to leave them be. This – along with DOC’s pest control programme that Tom is helping with – means the rich biodiversity is flourishing naturally.
Foris Eco-Tours also offers rafting on the Rangitaiki River but today we’re winding down after our walk at Waikite Valley Thermal Pools. The complex has pools of varying temperatures as well as private spas. They’re emptied every night and replenished by Te Manaroa Spring – the largest single source of pure boiling water in New Zealand. It means there’s no smell of chlorine or sulphur. It’s worth the short bush walk to the spring to see the water bubbling up under the surface. The Pergola Pool was our favourite – shallow enough to sit in under the shade, looking out across the rolling green hills.
If you don’t have family in Rotorua, staying with Angie and Leigh Ratcliffe at the City Lights Boutique Lodge will give you a similar feeling. Their warm smiles and home baking welcomed us to their luxury bed and breakfast overlooking the city from Mount Ngongotaha. The kids loved feeding the alpacas, the teddy bears on each bunk and Oscar the cat who wandered inside for a cuddle. Angie and Leigh are enthusiastic about Rotorua’s attractions and if they hadn’t tried it themselves, they were keen for our opinion on those we visited.
The 2015 Ford EcoSport Titanium made the drive down to Rotorua a smooth, comfortable trip. We loved the SYNC voice activated phone system and the clever auto censor headlights and windscreen wipers. As we travelled through the regions, the radio seamlessly found the local frequency of the station we were listening to and we were able to set it up to jump to the news station in time for each bulletin. For more on this slick, stylish vehicle: ford.co.nz/suvs/ecosport