The Heaphy's Enchanted Forest
OPINION: Without a doubt the most dramatic part of the Heaphy Track is the coastal section which runs south from Heaphy River to the end of the track at Kohaihai.
But for sheer magic, nothing for me beats a small section of moss and fungi-draped beech forest now routinely referred to as the 'Enchanted Forest'.
For the tramper, the experience starts almost immediately after leaving Gouland Downs Hut, that's heading east to west towards Saxon, all primo l Takake country thanks to the liberations last May. From start to finish without a pause the kilometre or so section of track through the Enchanted Forest can be done in a bit over quarter of an hour.
And let's face it, both rat racers and mountain bikers do rush through, fairly oblivious to their surroundings, eyes fixed on the track and keeping good time to the next hut. But for anyone who pauses, the Enchanted Forest can be an unforgettable experience.
It pays to get appreciate context, that this elevated patch of not-overly tall silver beech trees stands out like an island on the Gouland Downs, perched as it is on a big outcrop of limestone which somehow managed to escape the erosion which reduced the Downs to a raw peneplain.
It's a remnant of landscape if you like, ancient too, some of the rocks around here are over 500 million years which makes them some of New Zealand's oldest.
Much time can be spent exploring and admiring a totally different world by just dropping off the track, which most trampers do not appreciate crosses over several limestone arches, the remains of old caves.
One is 'Fossil Cave', accessed by dropping off the track on a bend around midway through and then going back under the track through an arch tunnel to find the cave entrance on the other side of the mossy glade.
A shine around of one's torch will reveal the cave walls are all embedded with big scallop-like sea fossils.
Keep aware of your position in relation to the track. A turn here, a turn there and suddenly you have no idea where the track is. Always drop your pack on the track so at least searchers will know where you started from if they do have to come looking for you!
Just as you come out of the Enchanted Forest on the far side from Gouland Downs Hut, one little side track straight off the bank on the right takes you down to a small waterfall which flows out of another cave passage. People who know this place call it 'Waterfall Cave', although for serious cavers this big opening is GD 101, the cave where the bones of our now extinct laughing owl were found.
A skylight opening in the roof can be seen looking into this cave, but care must be taken if approaching from above through the forest here. Sloping gravel dropoffs in sinkholes are everywhere and are a trap for wary players.
One of the big mysteries of the Enchanted Forest was the disappearance of Californian tramper Roselyn Rae Tilbury, 23, who disappeared without trace somewhere on the Gouland Downs in 1972, quite possibly while exploring the Enchanted Forest.
Her male tramping mate searched more and more frantically for her for three days before raising the alarm, but an extensive two-week search revealed no trace of the missing woman.
The Heaphy Track may be safe, but anywhere off it – even a few metres – can be disorientating and downright treacherous. No more so than in the Enchanted Forest.
The most accessible cave in this area is named Hut Cave because of its proximity to Gouland Downs Hut, little more than 100m away. Its big mouth opening in a depression is clearly visible, just drop off the Heaphy Track on the edge of the forest there and make your way into it under the big bushy overhang.
This cave was widely used by Forest Service rangers when they were based here and their big food safe can still be seen perched on a ledge not far into the cave where the temperature is always cool. This place with its little trickling stream is just a perfect natural fridge.
If you've gotten this far in, it's worth a short scramble up past the safe and up into another chamber where you can cast your torch around the ceiling and see some of the many cave weta which inhabit this cave and live their lives entirely in the dark, going about their business entirely unnoticed.
This whole forest domain of festooned beech trees and limestone outcrops smothered in luxuriant mosses is also worth examining in close up. After rain, you may come across a carnivorous powelliphanta snail, hunting for slugs or worms, which they suck up like spaghetti. The Enchanted Forest is the range of golden yellow-shelled powelliphanta superba, which routinely grows up to 95mm across, big as a hamburger bun!
But it's the little plants which I find truly captivating. Some which grow on the outcrops and are worth a scramble include a fine-leaved grass with restricted distribution. Simplicia buchananii, which colonises the more gritty areas. There's also the shiny-leaved red-tinged willow herb, epiloblum gracilipes, and a small grey-leaved member of the carrot family, gingidid enysii.
Amongst the mossy and dappled meadows under the beech trees can also be found little colonies of a tiny herb, ourisia modesta, once thought only to exist in Fiordland and Stewart Island until little pockets of them were discovered not only in northwest Nelson, but also western Ruahine limestone plateau.
If it wasn't for the little white flowers in pairs which this little herb produces, hardly anyone would know this delicate plant existed amongst the mossy undergrowth.
Near invisible aside, it's amazing what botanists now know about this tiny understory herb. Like how its minuscule seed capsules don't split open like every other one of its genus, rather the fruit wall disintegrates to release the ripe seeds.
Trivia I know, but still another one of Kahurangi's small wonders.