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July 2020 Issue
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Silver beech forest near Dracophyllum Knob, Tararua Forest Park. Photo: Shaun Barnett/Black Robin Photography

How to explore the mossy majesty of a silver beech forest

As you approach the bushline, the trees grow progressively more stunted, cowed by the combined effects of altitude and the punishing weather.

Trees, possibly hundreds of years old, have canopies barely taller than the average tramper. Lichen cloaks their trunks, and wispy moss too, plus a range of liverworts and filmy ferns to create a miniature ecosystem in itself.

Mist swirls through the trees, rendering those farthest away a ghostly grey, while the closer ones are draped in vibrant green moss. It’s almost like a colour photograph has been superimposed on a monochrome one, such is the colour-stripping qualities of mist in a high altitude forest.

Even the most tops-addicted tramper can admit there is a singular beauty to stunted silver beech forest growing just below the limits of its endurance. And many a tramper has blessed its life-saving shelter when escaping a tempest on the tops.

New Zealand has five species of beech trees. Botanists have recently placed silver beech in its own genus, separate from the other four, so it is now Lophozonia menziesii (formerly Nothofagus menziesii). While mountain beech dominates the bushline in most mountain areas, in the Tararua and Remutaka Ranges it is silver beech that holds reign.

Here are four places where this tree reaches mossy majesty.

1. Kahiwiroa to Anderson Memorial Hut Ridge, Tararua Forest Park
Most North Island trampers aspire to complete the classic 4–5-day circuit over the Tararua Peaks at some stage in their outdoor career. It’s a tramp involving an arduous section of tops, across rugged knolls and the infamous Tararua Peaks ladder. Exquisite sections of high altitude beech forest exist on the route, notably the 2km section between Kahiwiroa and Anderson Memorial Hut.

2. Dracophyllum Knob Ridge, Tararua Forest Park
This ridge is the defining home of high altitude silver beech. It’s also the route of the Te Araroa Trail, which traverses part of the Tararua Range between the peaks of Pukematawai and Crawford. Forest along the 12km ridge is almost pure silver beech, extending the whole way above the crucial 1000m altitude, which means the trees remain stunted. The entire route from Ohau to Otaki takes 3–4 days.

3. Mt Matthews, Remutaka Forest Park
Silver beech in the Remutaka Range makes its most impressively stunted appearance on Mt Matthews, the area’s highest peak. The Mt Matthews Track climbs from the Orongorongo Valley towards South Saddle, then traverses a narrow ridge of gorgeously dwarfed silver beech to emerge on the 941m summit. Allow a full day, or two if staying in one the valley’s huts.

4. Papatahi Crossing, Remutaka Forest Park, Wairarapa
The two-day Papatahi Crossing track begins from the Battery Stream, in the Wairarapa, and climbs over Papatahi, a forest-clad knoll of 902m, where wizened silver beech trees mingle their mossy branches together in the low canopy. The route then descends steeply beside large erosion scars into the Orongorongo River to complete a crossing of the Remutaka Range.

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