When I was a kid, back in Britain, we used to visit Sherwood Forest.
Yes, Sherwood Forest – the remnants of Robin Hood’s mystical domain – a symbol of romantic, English woodland.
Except it wasn’t that great.
There are nicer examples of English woodland, though patches of green seem few and far between in England, especially now: now I know New Zealand and its native bush.
It’s often said that New Zealand is green. This, of course, refers to its environmentally friendly image, but it may as well mean its landscape. There is a LOT of green. New Zealand simply has more unspoilt countryside, more patches of green to choose from than England.
Don’t get me wrong: I still love the English woodland. I get nostalgic for those grand, druid-worthy oak trees, cushioned by carpets of bluebells and snowdrops. But the New Zealand bush is something else.
A view of the bush from inside a cave, Waitomo
The first thing you notice is the tree ferns. In Britain, ferns tend to be low-lying and rather unimpressive. In New Zealand, ferns grow tall everywhere, lining the roads and forest paths, delicate fronds lolling above people’s heads, filtering the sunlight. Some of the fronds are huge – my first few months in New Zealand, I kept expecting to see dinosaurs emerging from the foliage!
If you’re lucky, while you’re walking in the bush you’ll spot a fuzzy, brown coil protruding from the trees, a frond on the verge of unfurling. This is a koru, a Maori symbol of new life. When I arrived in New Zealand, having just stumbled exhausted and terrified off the plane, my dad gave me a koru necklace. I can’t say it made me feel any better at the time, but it was a nice thought.
Tree ferns are so abundant in New Zealand that the ‘silver fern’ is recognisable the world over as the emblem of the All Blacks rugby team. The Maori name for the silver fern tree is ponga, and the undersides of the fronds are, indeed, silver. So striking are they that these fronds can be placed belly up on the murky forest floor to create a gleaming arrow, a beacon to guide the way.
When I returned to New Zealand after going back to England for a few weeks, the sight of tree ferns at the side of the motorway when my dad picked me up from the airport evoked a strong ‘we’re not in Kansas anymore’ feeling within me – I was definitely back in New Zealand.
Ferns may be the most conspicuous of New Zealand’s native trees, but they aren’t the prettiest. That distinction, I think, has to go to the Pohutukawa tree.
Pohutukawa in bloom
They’re known as the New Zealand Christmas Tree, not only because they bloom around Christmastime – they bloom in a festive explosion of deep, beautiful red. The vision of bejewelled Pohutukawas gathered upon the edge of the golden sand, facing the gleaming waves, is the epitome of the New Zealand summer.
When you ‘go bush’ in New Zealand, you encounter many strange trees, and many more familiar ones, but what truly sets it apart from the English woodland is the atmosphere. It’s temperate rainforest. The air is hushed and humid. Well, hushed when there aren’t any cicadas around. When there are cicadas, it’s a never-ending cacophony of shrill, grating chirps. If crickets are violinists, cicadas are thrash metal guitarists.
Thankfully, cicadas aren’t the only creatures that serenade the trees. The tui, for example, is a native New Zealand bird that has to have one of the loveliest songs in the avian world. The males are a treat to look at too, with black feathers that shine with metallic purples and greens, their throats adorned with brilliant, white baubles.
There are endless places you can go bush walking in New Zealand, and most have campgrounds attached to them. Camping is an excellent way to experience the New Zealand bush, as you can base yourself somewhere and relax surrounded by nature, rather than driving ages to get there, walking for a few hours, then driving back. I think campervans beat tents in this situation, because you can have a shower when you finish your walk!
There are strict rules surrounding camping in New Zealand. This isn’t a bad thing, seeing as we don’t want these peaceful, picturesque sites to be ruined, but it does mean that you have to make sure you’re doing things right. There’s plenty of information about New Zealand camping out there and it’s well worth a read.
My absolute favourite place to go bush walking is Karangahake Gorge. Not only is it a breathtaking piece of nature, with its dramatic rock walls, carved by a large, winding river, it is a fascinating piece of history. The paths cross abandoned railway tracks, and tunnels delve into the rock, dark and frightening – seriously, I got scared going too far into one. It’s exciting to come out of a tunnel into daylight and suddenly find yourself looking down at the river far below. You can walk along the side of the river as well and even swim in it in places. There’s a pool with a waterfall and a cave you can climb into – an awesome place to have your lunch.
Waitomo again – it’s like you’re Alice walking through a keyhole into Wonderland!
Another great place to bush walk is Waitomo, which is where most of the photos in this post come from. However, bush walking is probably the least amazing thing you can do in Waitomo – I’ll post about that another time!
And finally, as the location of my first ever bush walk in New Zealand, the Waitakere Ranges get an honourable mention as a brilliant bush walking destination, but, as I don’t have any photos of it, (I was only ten and didn’t have my own camera yet,) here’s another picture of Waitomo:
I always imagine fairies here.
So is the New Zealand bush better than the English woodland? Well there’s more of it, and it doesn’t rain every time you go for a walk in it. And there’s exotic birds and weird trees. But the English woodland can be just as beautiful as the New Zealand bush; just as magical. For me – and, of course, I’m terribly biased – the bush simply isn’t as romantic the woodland. It is, however, wonderfully exciting.
I suppose you’ll just have to see it for yourself.