The Real Jurassic Park

October 4, 2023
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ANOTHER curiosity of the Rotorua region is a forest of Californian coastal redwoods — sequoia sempervirens — planted as part of an experimental logging scheme at Whakarewarewa from 1901 onward and never harvested.‍

From a genus (sequoia) that was widespread in the age of the dinosaurs, but with their natural range now confined to California, the redwoods now growing at Whakarewarewa provide shade for an understory of equally ancient tree ferns.

This is a type of plant that was also common in the dinosaur age, but which later died out in North America.

Tree ferns did, however, survive in New Zealand and Australia, as well as in the tropics.

You can see this re-created ecosystem from the ground-level trails and mountain bike tracks of the Whakarewarewa Forest Park just south of downtown Rotorua and adjacent to Te Puia.

Map of the Rotorua Area showing some of the attractions outside of town as well as in town. The Whakarewarewa Forest Park is just south of the city. Map data ©2022 Google. North at top.

Map of trails near Whakarewarewa, including paths through the Redwoods to the northwest of lakes Rotokakahi and Tikitapu. North is toward the top left in the main map on this panel.

And in a special subset of the park called The Redwoods, where you can go on the Redwoods Treewalk. In the big map above, you can see that this is really close to the city, actually just five minutes from downtown.

Here is a photo of the headquarters of The Redwoods.

The Park Headquarters

And the carpark.

The carpark

Here’s a map of the Redwoods Treewalk, and some photos of the Treewalk itself.

Treewalk information panel

The beginning of the Treewalk

The Treewalk among some medium-sized ferns

The next photo shows some more towering ferns, and the Treewalk amid them.

Some giant tree ferns at the Redwoods

The Treewalk among some older and more towering ferns

Along with the regular Treewalk, there is a newer and more extreme attraction called Redwoods Altitude, for which you have to have a guide.

Redwoods Altitude, the higher and more extreme treetops adventure

Redwoods Altitude really is pretty far up!

There are lots of signs pointing to various hiking trails and lookouts.

Although the first redwoods were planted in 1901, planting went on for some decades. As such, the redwoods come in a range of sizes. But even the junior ones are quite tall now. One of the staff at the Redwoods said that the North American coastal redwoods grow three times as fast at this location as they do back home, and that, ironically, this rapid growth was one of the main reasons why the planting never paid off, as it made the wood spongy and weak.

As to the association with ferns, it is a fact that, even in their native North America, coastal redwoods have a fern understory. Coastal redwoods have a lot of water in their tissues and thus require a rather damp environment. They don’t tolerate much frost either. And so, they thrive in places where ferns find it easy to grow as well.

Coastal redwoods and their fern understory occur naturally in a foggy coastal environment that stretches from Washington State down to northern California.

However, the ferns of North America are low and small, because giant tree ferns of the kind that we have in New Zealand don’t tolerate extreme cold of the kind that you get even quite far south in the great continental landmasses of the northern hemisphere.

But things would have been different in the dinosaur age when the world was warmer, and that is the ecology that has been re-created at Rotorua’s Redwoods Park.

Technically, these exact species or ones very much like them would have been found in association in the Cretaceous, that is to say toward the end of the dinosaur age, as redwoods did not grow so tall in the Jurassic.‍

Here is the video that conveys that message. It focuses on the dripping, steaming moisture of the site, which is perhaps one reason why the redwoods grow three times faster than they do back home.‍

The whole area is indeed quite humid. Early in the day, I found that it was damp and cool …

B‍ut then it started to warm up and get steamy …

Ironically, though they are deliberately planting tree ferns, it seems that the people at the Redwoods are not seeking to deliberately re-create redwood habitat as it would have been in the dinosaur age.‍

Infant tree ferns at the Redwoods

Instead, it seems that the reason they are planting tree ferns under the redwoods is to prepare the way for their replacement by New Zealand native tree species, many of which belong to ancient groups now extinct in the Northern Hemisphere themselves.

Groups such as the podocarps: conifers that spread their seeds not from hard cones but from berries that birds like to eat (yes, you read that right, conifers with berries!)

As of the time of writing, access to the Redwoods Treewalk costs NZ $39 for a single adult at the standard rate on the ticket website, though access to Redwoods Altitude is NZ $110 on the same basis, in part because you have to have a guide. The Treewalk is accessible in the daytime or in the form of a night-time ramble under lights, called Redwoods Nightlights.

For more, see my book The Neglected North Island: New Zealand’s Other Half, available on my website


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