1 November 2019 News

Motu Trails and Rere Falls at Eastwoodhill

Falling Leaves & Tumbling Water.

With an internationally significant arboretum, an impressive waterfall and an exhilarating rockslide, Rere Falls Trail makes for a memorable journey through heartland New Zealand.

On a grassy field in the Ngatapa Valley inland from Gisborne, a cathedral is quietly rising. It’s 158m long, the same footprint as London’s Westminster Cathedral.

To be precise, just as yet, it’s only about a metre high. But once young Redwoods and Linden trees get their roots down, they grow fast. In another few years, what’s currently a raised field crossed by neat rows of saplings will have become a clearly defined cathedral of living wood. 

Looking ahead a lifetime, all going well, walls of thick trunks will soar dozens of metres to a vaulted canopy of foliage. It’ll surely be a place of resonance — irrespective of spiritual belief. 

In early April, I visited the ‘new cathedral’ with Dan Haliday, the friendly, gumboot-wearing head curator of Eastwoodhill Arboretum, the National Arboretum of New Zealand. Dan’s been at Eastwoodhill since the start of 2015 and the cathedral’s establishment has been one of the key projects he’s overseen. 

“We looked at quite a few trees and their pros and cons,” Dan explained. “We were going to use Plane trees, but in Europe they’re affected by disease. If disease were ever accidently introduced into New Zealand our feature trees would be decimated. So the columns are represented by Redwoods and the walls by Linden trees. Other trees forming the cross and chapels are Dawn redwoods and Gingko. We’ll put in something like Red maple trees to represent the stained glass.” 

“Trees start off slowly. Then they exponentially take off, then as they reach maturity they slow down again,” he said.

The new cathedral is one aspect of a 100-year-plan developed for the arboretum a few years back by top US landscape architects Nelson Byrd Woltz. The vision revolves around the concept of Eastwoodhill being an arboreal ark — substantiated by the fact that New Zealand is to a degree buffered from tree diseases and other environmental challenges that face today’s world. 

“Our borders are tight. We have a good opportunity to preserve trees,” said Dan. “We have a big reserve of genetic material [at Eastwoodhill]. Part of my job is to increase the number of species here and to propagate the rare and unusual trees that are here already.”

A century after the arboretum’s founding by Douglas Cook — visionary and eccentric — Eastwoodhill has 131 hectares of exotic and native trees, shrubs and climbers. The restful, rolling expanse includes over 3500 northern hemisphere tree species, the largest collection in the southern hemisphere. 

There are around 85 Pinus species alone. In autumn the deciduous trees are ablaze with colour.

“There’s hardly any empty space left in Eastwoodhill,” Dan remarked as we looked round and I can believe it. Paths head off in all directions; panoramas pop up round many corners. The day I visited, leaves everywhere were starting to colour and fall.

About 10,000 people visit Eastwoodhill each year, including 1500 school children. The operation has run as a charitable trust for 40 years and as well as paid staff many dedicated volunteers help out with gardening, catering and more. Rotary and ECT have been two of the major funders. 

One of the arboretum’s established features is the old cathedral, planted by Cook in the 1930s. While in size it’s really more of a church than a cathedral, it’s still impressive, rows of tightly packed Eucalyptus regnans and Lawson cypress soaring up to a far sky. The light is muted and the air cool. The day I was there, flowers were being arranged for a wedding. 

When I think back, however, what I remember just as strongly about Eastwoodhill are the smaller things: a tree full of brightly coloured bird boxes; directional arrows cut from rounds of timber; a stone dragon; a wooden lion; a pear tree laden with fruit; paths twisting beyond view; planting that is neat in some areas, haphazard in others; precocious Fan palms and Kanuka rising up through deciduous species. 

Character comes from a mix of order and random, linear and haphazard. Eastwoodhill might be an arboreal ark of global significance, but it has a sense of freedom. A dash of quirkiness. “I like all trees. I like all plants, not just trees,” said Dan about his passion for the job. “I’ve got a huge collection of bulbs, I love bamboo, cactus. I just like any plant, annuals, perennials, it doesn’t matter.” 

“My grandfather was collector of customs in Gisborne. [In the 1950s-1960s] he would release the trees, so he was an acquaintance of Douglas Cook and was invited out to Eastwoodhill for a visit.”

“I’ve been coming here regularly since I was three. I can remember coming here when I was 10-years-old. Spending time at the arboretum definitely inspired me and my love of plants.”

Eastwoodhill sits on Wharekopae Road, which is part of what’s now termed the Rere Falls Trail, part of the New Zealand Cycle Trail. The trail is an on-road cycle route stretching from Gisborne to Matawai, from where riders can connect with the Motu Trails Great Ride to Opotiki. As such Rere Falls Trail forms part of a coast-to-coast crossing of the Eastland interior. 

If you’re not a cyclist, you can drive all of the Rere Falls Trail, so long as you’re comfortable with roads that are partly unsealed and mostly winding. 

Take it carefully. Be prepared for farm vehicles and of course cyclists. The road from Gisborne to Eastwoodhill is all sealed, well formed and clearly signed. 

A dozen kilometres inland from Eastwoodhill you’ll find Rere Falls, and 2.5km beyond that, Rere Rockslide. Both are on the Wharekopae River.

Rere Falls is at its best when there’s a good water flow, creating a hanging sheet of white five metres high and 20 metres wide. If you’re adventurous and careful, you can walk right behind the sheet. When there’s flow, this experience starts with a total drenching, but once you’re through, it’s relatively dry. 

The falls were once the site of a small hydroelectric station that powered the local hall and farming community. The facility was removed in 1948, when Rere was linked to mains power.

Rere Rockslide is a 60m long natural rock formation, angling down at about 30 degrees, forming a giant water slide. Boogie boards, tyres and inflatables are the best mode of descent. There’s lots of footage on YouTube and Vimeo for instruction and inspiration.

I only went down once as, being autumn, the water was brisk to say the least. But it was certainly a rush, bouncing down at speed before whoomphing into the water at the bottom — my second face-full of water for the day. 

It must be said, to do the slide, you need to be able to swim. And take care when walking to a good position at the top of the slide. It’s very slippery.

A kilometre above the rockslide, on the opposite side of the road, look for an unsigned track cutting down steely through the bush to the river, and a spot known as Champagne Pools. It’s a bit of a scramble, but well worth it. The river has sculptured the rock with a couple of huge pools, into which the water cascades in mini-falls.

I was told it makes a great place to sit or slide. I’d had enough cold water for the day, but I’ll be back next summer to enjoy the bubbles, preferably travelling by bike and pausing beforehand to check out the new cathedral’s growth.  

Building the ark

Eastwoodhill Arboretum was born out of the inspiration and effort of Douglas Cook, who first settled in the Ngatapa Valley in 1910. 

Following WWI, Cook acquired a large area of land by ballot. He set about planting the largely-bare land with trees and shrubs from around New Zealand and England. His focus soon broadened to include Asia and the Americas. 

Cook is recalled as something of an eccentric. A display panel in the arboretum’s wonderful Douglas Cook Centre for Education notes that this perception “was fuelled by the fact that Douglas enjoyed working in his garden absent of clothes.” 

Regardless, his efforts were something remarkable. As the Cold War years brought the threat of widespread nuclear devastation he looked to the preservation of species by planting more northern hemisphere trees. Today, the threats have shifted, but the benefit is the same.

In 1965, Bill Williams purchased the property. Two years later, Cook died, having created a heritage “for future generations of New Zealanders to enjoy”. In 1975, Williams established the land as a trust, effectively gifting Eastwoodhill to all New Zealanders.

Today, as this wonderful spot pushes towards its centenary, it is recognized as one of the most significant arboretums in the world.   

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