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Colin Skinner
My Visit to
Haast Rainforest
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As I walked through the rainforest with my guide, sandflies hovered around us, biting our hands. Fortunately, we were also followed by a small bird called a fantail, which ate the sandflies we attracted. The moist forest around us was filled with all shades of green. About 180 different types of fern flourish here, from delicate, filmy ferns (one cell thick!) hanging from tree trunks, to thirty-foot high tree ferns. Spiky-leafed astelia plants perched on the trunks of rimu trees, and rata vines hung down from tall kahikatea trees. The forest floor was carpeted with fallen trees and branches covered with umbrella moss. I was joined by Steve Edwards, a guide at the Moeraki Wilderness Lodge, in the rainforest north of Haast.

On a day without rain, we wandered through the forest and explored the variety of life all around us. Little red mushrooms dotted the floor of the forest, spiders hid among the mosses and ferns, and small flies buzzed through the air. Small tea-colored streams flowed through the dense forest. A small fish called a whitebait flitted through the water. In a larger river, a dozen longfin eels appeared as Steve waved some bacon rind in the water. The air was filled with birdsong.

I also saw a Kahikatea tree, one of the many ancient plants found in the rainforest. The Kahikatea tree, which grows only in New Zealand, is related to trees that existed 100 million years ago. These unusual trees grow in swampy areas and rise 60 meters into the sky. Male kahikatea trees produce small cones, which spray the air with pollen when the wind blows. Female kahikatea trees grow little fleshy receptacles, which catch the pollen, then grow into berries containing a seed. Kahikatea means "food basket of the forest" in the Maori language. You see, the large New Zealand kereru pigeon eats the kahikatea berries. Maoris used to set snares on the trees to catch the birds!

For the Maori people, the forest plants are both food and medicine. The starchy roots of the bracken fern are a main part of the diet, but they are also used to prevent sea sickness. Toothaches are soothed with a concoction made from cabbage tree roots, and fevers can be lowered by drinking the oil from miro tree berries. The "seven finger" plant contains an anti-fungal compound, and the flowers of the rata vine contain an antiseptic that can prevent wounds from becoming infected. Scientists are now discovering that many of the rainforest plants produce chemicals that can alleviate disease and illness.

Why is there rainforest in this part of New Zealand? On the west coast of New Zealand, rain comes in from the Tasman Sea, drenching the forest around Haast 200 days of the year. As much as seven meters of rain can fall each year, although the local people like to claim the average is only five or six meters. Steve explained that the high rain levels and the temperate climate promote the great abundance and variety of life here. There are fungi, lichen, and mosses on the forest floor, ferns and leafy shrubs growing in the sub-canopy, and tree tops forming the canopy 60 meters above. All of the life in the forest needs other creatures or plants to survive -- for food, or for protection from elements like sun, wind, or rain. The rainforest is a living community, where all life is interconnected.

Although rainforest covers only a tiny fraction of the earth's surface (7%), half of all the different types of life on this planet are found in that small area. The forest around Haast is now a protected area, but much of the rainforest in other countries is now being cut down or burned. If you count to sixty, an area of rainforest equal to sixty football fields will have disappeared during that time…all the life in it gone forever.

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A damp Dr. Skinner in the rainforest near Haast.

Tree ferns have been on earth for 190 million years. Kidney ferns, just one inch thick, are only found in New Zealand.

A longfin eel being handfed near Lake Moeraki.

Rata vines strangle their host trees.

Bracket fungi help decompose a dying tree.

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