Just a short step away from the centre of Kerikeri is a walk that has the ability to transport me to another world. It follows the flow of the river, and once you’re on the track, the town and all its industry melt away.
If it happens to be at the right time of year, you’ll walk past a natural pond carpeted in hundreds of pink waterlilies, their rubbery green leaves shiny and round. Venturing closer here, you can peer down through the water and see the thick, graceful lily-stems anchored deep into the mud below. You may feel, as you look downwards, past the muted and rippling reflections of the surrounding trees, that a kind of magic is about to take place.
Venturing further, you’ll reach an incline in the pathway where jasmine cascades like Rapunzel’s locks—heavy, flower-laden skeins of it hanging down over the river below. If the river is full, this section can be a white, raging froth running powerfully over dark rocks that create an appealing contrast.
The songs of birds now start to increase. This bushland is full of them. Kererū wings whistle past high above, pūkeko strut, and tūī cackle and gurgle their tunes. It’s a sweet and lyrical cacophony.
You’ll reach a place soon after that I have dubbed the Emerald Forest. A friend of mine calls this stretch Jurassic Land, so it obviously evokes feeling in others too that make them want to give it a name. The terrain changes as soon as you enter this forest, and you are greeted by a large, bobbly-covered tree that seems like a sentinel. It’s dark, damp and sensory in this stretch. Thick green mosses cover huge, ancient-looking rocks. If you are willing to walk here while it rains, this turns into a breathtaking experience. Rivulets of water will create what feels like a billion mini waterfalls around you. It’s all twisted trees and vines with dark-green foliage—and a dense canopy above that lets only a little daylight squeeze through.
Coming through to the other side you’ll see the two Dancing Trees (another name of mine). They reach together as if in a twirling, eternal, ecstatic embrace. High above, where their branches meet, a giant natural beehive sits in the crevice they create, buzzing with its industrious inhabitants as they rush around collecting and depositing pollen.
Supplejack grows up, through and around the many other trees in this part. You can look out for the tender, supple end-shoots and snap them off cleanly to eat. They taste like green beans. A fallen trunk to the right, seasonally dependent, delivers a banquet of brown, velvety fungi that is both edible and nutritious. Its layman’s name is Wood Ear or Jelly Ear, and I was interested to learn that in the fifties it was cultivated in New Zealand for export to China.
Soon after the Dancing Trees you’ll hear the sound of water beating down, and rounding a corner you’ll see the Wharepuke Falls. This is a wide, not particularly high waterfall that spills over a lip of flat rocks.
The water lands in a rounded section of pooled river water—a good place to swim. Swallows nest here, generation after generation. They dart and swoop around the place territorially. Sometimes you will see a regal grey heron standing above the falls in statuesque stillness, waiting to catch a fish wriggling by.
And yes, there are many small fish and eels in this river.
If you choose to veer off track a little on a summer’s day, dipping your toes in to cool off, you might just see an eel slowly make its presence known, thinking your feet are dinner. This is both thrilling and terrifying.
Next place of note is the Fairy Pools (their true designated name, not my own invention). These swirling eddies are like a natural spa. It’s another place to bathe, if you dare, though their true beauty can really only be experienced from the other side of the river. Then it becomes a world of wildflowers and long grasses that tumble downwards to the water’s edge.
Further we go, and we will likely see a family of black swans gliding about. I remember when there were only three fully grown swans; then a terrible thunderstorm arrived, shaking everything up, taking tree branches down as if an angry giant had stomped through the land, and flooding the river. Only two swans remained after that, and I presumed the third to be a casualty. However the next year I was delighted to see several fuzzy grey cygnets following the pair that had remained unscathed.
The Rainbow Falls are close now as you continue to wind through tall, straight trees. You’ll start to hear in the distance the thrumming of water cascading down. Turning a corner, you’ll see mists funnelling towards you, the effervescent spray coating your face.
The mists curl up, veiling the large, impressive falls. Finally you are there, and if the sun and mist are just right there will indeed be shimmering rainbows suspended in the air. You have reached your destination, and a simple wooden bench allows you to sit and take time to gaze into the falls, and perhaps contemplate for a while the walk you just had.
From a personal perspective this walk has provided an endless scope of inspiration. I’ve written poetry and vignettes using the terrain as backdrop. In my mind it lends itself to mythical and magical creatures—it’s very easy to imagine it being a portal to a phantasmagorical world of dryads, nymphs and sprites, of oracles and talking trees, with perhaps a taniwha buried deep in a watery cavern alongside the eels.