Phormium, dear Phormium. Never shall I say a bad word about you again. I’ve seen you beachside, mountainside, roadside and bang in the middle of highly exposed plains. I’ve seen ancient plantations of you; self seeded, solitary examples of you; and even farmers’ hedges formed of you. I’ve seen deep red ones of you, bright orange ones of you and cheery yellow ones of you. In fact, I’ve quite fallen for you. In your native New Zealand homeland, you look absolutely spectacular. I didn’t tire of you once.
And so I will now view Phormium with more sympathetic eyes, when seen lost amongst acres of rough stone mulch in the landscaping of new production homes. I will lovingly remove any tatty leaves to restore them to their beauty and I will be more creative and persistent in finding spots where they blend perfectly with other plant forms. I am a Phormium convert.
Observing plants in their natural environment allows you to see them in a new light. Quite literally, in some cases. Who couldn’t love the orange-flowering species above, with its shimmering greeny yellow leaves and strong, sculptural flower stems? Aside from copying other people’s ideas (which most of us do, directly or indirectly, most of the time), taking a walk into nature is the most effective way of finding garden design inspiration.
Just before Christmas, I headed out with Sally and Sarah, two horticulturist friends, and Sally’s younger daughter, Carma, to do by far the longest walk in nature I had ever done. Eighty kilometres, in fact. Eighty kilometres with no hotels, no restaurants, no shops; just plants, plants and more plants and a remarkably heavy pack on my back. This was all quite scary new territory for me.
I loved it. I loved it so much, that within 24 hours of returning, I had convinced Paul that we needed to do another four day walk. Immediately. (And I’ve got some wonderful photos to show you of that walk, too.) But for now, we’ll stick to the Heaphy track, in the north west of New Zealand’s South Island. It’s nearest main town is Nelson, although 156 kms by road on the way and 463 kms on the way back from the walk is a bit of a stretch to be called ‘near’. This is proper, remote wilderness and the walk is known for its diversity of vegetation. I was up for the challenge!
On Day 1, we hiked (or ‘tramped’ as the Kiwis refer to it) some 17.5kms through beech (Nothofagus) forests to the highest point on the walk, some 950m above sea level. Having not started the walk until 1.30pm, due to our transport forgetting to pick us up, and with pouring rain for much of the afternoon, this was a fairly heavy start to the walk. We had five days worth of food in our packs and my shoulders were sore: it was the first time I had ever carried a big backpack.
The sun greeted us the following morning and we had a beautiful tramp across the Gouland Downs. The vegetation was amazing, changing almost by the minute, but it seemed to always fill every available space.
The movement of the tussock grasses was spectacular as the wind blew, and the light in the limestone ‘Enchanted Forest’ certainly enchanted us. It felt like some kind of fairyland.
We stumbled across native Hebe and complex ecosystems with each and every step. How wonderful untouched nature is.
On Day 3 Carma finally spotted a real, live, carnivorous snail; the only one of its kind in the world and an endangered species.
A rare peak through the trees, exposing the location of tomorrow’s overnight base was a little daunting – it really didn’t look very close at all – but some fun rope bridges and amazing epiphytes took my mind off the fact that I was a very long way from civilisation at this point.
That night was my favourite evening of all. We were staying in a small hut and had the most fantastic company. Two Department of Conservation workers, who had been helicoptered in to look at Fuchsia trees; a very engaging father and son; and Derry, the hero of the Heaphy Track; were staying there with us. Derry, in his seventies, drives people’s cars to the end of the walk and then runs their keys back to them along the track. He completes the 80km walk in just a day and a half. The most modest, interesting man you will ever meet; a pure delight to spend the evening with.
Day 4 brought us incredible examples of rata trees, growing over 30m high, starting as a vine growing up an existing, unsuspecting (and later to be strangled to death) host tree. A water break was enough time for Carma to whip up an incredible watercolour of the area; how I wish I was as talented an artist.
I quite wanted to eat her school sketch book by the end of the trip; it was so gorgeous, with close ups of flowers and leaves and stunning colours throughout.
Again, the vegetation was incredibly diverse, from almost meadow-like clearings to grassy sand dunes and Nikau palm forests.
We spread out at times today, and as I walked by myself, I felt as though I was the first person to discover these forests.
I had a broad grin firmly etched on my face; quite overwhelmed by the beauty in front of me.
Now in a rainforest setting, everything was lusher than ever and we had the added spectacle of rushing streams and sandy beaches.
Despite the fact that the rain had returned, I didn’t want the walk to end. It was almost tempting to turn around and do the whole thing in reverse, but the weight of my pack told me I’d get a little hungry if I tried. I had been quite hypnotised by the magic of the forests and of the delicate (non-Australian!) tweets of the birds, at times sounding like a full orchestra playing. I still couldn’t remember most of the plant names; you have three to remember for each: the Maori name, common name and Latin name was all a bit much for me. But the feeling of walking through, over, under and around those plants for five days will stay with me forever.
It’s tricky to articulate how this inspires garden design for me. But I instinctively know that I’m a better designer for experiencing it. Subconsciously, you see how nature arranges itself; how the light produces magical effects; how beautiful, happy, healthy, thriving plants look, perfectly selected for their habitat; and how full plantings, jostling for each and every tiny space, give a wonderfully strong feeling of life.
These photos may not be enough to inspire you in your garden, but they might just be enough to inspire you to get out into nature and find some direct inspiration yourself. Not only did I come back with a clear mind, the pressures of day to day life a million miles away (and a similar number of unread emails to pick up!) but I came back refreshed in my approach to design somehow. Absorbing details of things around you can be just as powerful a learning method as reading a book; I’d thoroughly recommend taking some time out to absorb nature whenever you get the chance.
15 thoughts on “The diverse vegetation of the Heaphy track”
Oh wow! I have been to the South Island many years ago and remember how beautiful it was, but your trek…stunning. And I so agree that nature is very inspiring. Wouldn’t I love an environment where plants could ‘drip’ off every surface, but I have to cut my coat to fit my cloth and just lust over those beautiful images.
I love your ‘dripping’ expression, Suzanne; it was exactly what it was like. Yes, we have to adapt to our own environment but I think that’s half the fun and challenge of gardening (and you are an absolute expert at that). New Zealand is such a long way from you, sadly, but I hope you get back there again one day. On the plane home I was sitting next to a NZ couple that were moving from Wellington to Perth. There will be some readjusting for them!
Just looks incredible Janna. How exciting. Lovely photographs too, I feel quite transported! I realise I owe you an e-mail – I have not forgotten but Christmas preparations rather eclipsed everything else in December. Hope you had a very Happy New Year – we enjoyed watching the Sydney fireworks on the TV last night.
It was incredible, Dan, and your kind of temperatures, too. I reckon you’d be hopeless at the walk though; it would take you a full day to do the first kilometre as you’d be stopping so often to examine every plant! It’s amazing what you see. No problem on the email; it’s a busy time for everyone and probably even busier for you.
That looks amazing. So lush. I’d love to see tree ferns growing naturally like that. But crikey what a walk, especially with a back pack. At least it got lighter every day!
Yes, by day five I was positively throwing the pack around. Not sure I’d walk with food for five days again, but it was a great adventure and achievement to do it once.
Amazing experience for you Janna. How wonderful to walk through an enchanting beech forest. I remember being totally spellbound just driving through one in Northern Tasmania. There is something magical and other worldly about a beech forest – but you do need to see it to sense it.
Hope you will forgive me though if I remain unconvinced by phormiums.
Can’t wait to read about your walk in Tasmania too.
I think it’s the light in beech forests; such small and light leaves create amazing dappled, twinkling shade. Light is going to be my new learning focus for 2016, I think.
Of course I forgive you for your Phormium thoughts, but I challenge you to remain unconvinced when you get to fully immerse yourself in them in New Zealand!
Have just started sorting through my Tasmania photos; so incredibly different to these (especially the light) but the landscape was absolutely stunning. Will get the post written asap!
Hi Janna, what a treat, thank you for sharing this journey! Just amazing and so beautiful! It brought back memories of when my father was the locum doctor in Karamea and I attended the local school. My memories are of horse back riding along the wild coastline. Inspired, to return for the Heaphy! We are presently in beautiful Queenstown, heading to Milford Sound and then to down to Stewart Island.
See you back in Sydney. Heather X
Wow, you lived in Karamea? What a small world and goodness me, Sally and I have some Karamea stories to tell you! It is such a very beautiful part of the world and riding horse back along the beach sounds completely idyllic. Enjoy the rest of your time in New Zealand; I’m jealous you are still there! I felt quite emotional leaving it this time. Can’t wait to catch up and swap tales of our adventures.
Oh those photos are so beautiful Janna, I’m inspired, to garden AND to hike. I’m interested in your coming musings on light. I thought of you the other day, when I found two lovely big pots of adenanthos (top of the list in the last post) reduced from $60 to $20 because they’d run out of space. (Yay!!!) I was so excited to bring them home, only to slump with the effort of finding the right place for them in relationship to everything else. It was only when I put them in a completely unexpected area that they suddenly clicked, and it was because of the way the light properly lit up their featheriness. Learning,learning. Also found out a bit too late that they have red flowers, which will be a challenge in my white and blue garden. Have you ever seen them in flower? Happy new year!
Happy new year, Nicola! How wonderful that you got such bargains with the Adenanthos. You can feel their beautiful texture every day now! It is so often the way that we find the best locations/combinations in the garden purely by happy accident and as you say, often it is the light that makes it so right. The flowers are very subtle – a deep, dark red, small and hidden a little amongst the foliage – so I think they’ll be just fine in your white and blue garden. In fact in my last garden I had a huge white and blue border and I ended up added a bit of repeated deep red as it really gave the area some extra depth and life. Let me know what you think when the flowers do come!
Great blog Janna, I posted a link on the Heaphy Track FB page:
Thanks very much; glad you enjoyed it. The walk is pretty good, too!
For anyone interested in more information about the Heaphy Track, please visit: http://www.HeaphyTrack.com