New Zealand’s Hidden Forest
Belmont Regional Park is a treasured — and secret — nature park that lies just at the boundary of New Zealand’s capital city, Wellington.
It seems unlikely that our small group is about to enter a wild slice of New Zealand. We begin in a parking lot in Lower Hutt, about a 20-minute drive from central Wellington, the country’s small but charming capital. Behind us lies a typical Kiwi suburb, all manicured lawns and two-storey homes with gleaming white siding. In front of us, a trail leads into a hidden valley: Belmont Regional Park.
Our guides are Mike and Adele Cornish, owners of Tours New Zealand, and naturalist Judy Robb. Mere minutes after we set off along the flat, narrow path, the green forests swallow us up. We’re surrounded by a Hobbit-worthy landscape far from the urban hubbub.
Hillsides are bright with yellow Scottish broom and purple Michaelmas daisies, both imports from Europe that have become invasive. Judy regales us with tales of just about every plant we encounter, from the delicate silver fern — the national emblem — to an insect-trapping orchid.
Every plant seems to have a story. “This is called kawakawa,” says Judy, proffering a green, heart-shaped leaf. “It’s very good if you have got toothache or mosquito bites or any itches or rashes.” She invites us to “have a chew,” but few in the group are impressed by the brash, peppery taste.
Further along the trail, she points to a vaguely familiar plant. “If you were a possum, this would be like chocolate to you. Now, you’ll know what it is just by the colour. What colour would you call that?”
“Fuchsia,” someone pipes up.
“Well done,” says Judy.
Our painlessly educational tour continues in much the same vein as we hike a gentle trail to the Korokoro Dam, built in 1903 as part of a project to create a steady water supply for the local fire brigade. These days, it’s popular mainly because it has created a small but photogenic waterfall.
Even though the rolling, jungle-y hills and wild streams of the 3,691-hectare park seem miles from civilization, the area has actually been the scene of much human activity over the last 150 years or so. It was cleared for farming in the late 1800s, but the resulting erosion led local governments to reforest it in the 1930s. During the Second World War, it was home to 62 ammunition magazines.
Robb and the Cornishes point out traces of this history during our leisurely hike. The park opened in 1989 and is crisscrossed by 50 tracks and trails totalling more than 125 kilometres. It is possible to spend days exploring the park — you can even camp if you’re so inclined. Yet it remains largely a Kiwi secret.
“This is real New Zealand. This is where we come,” says Mike. “It’s not a typical tourist trail at all,” says Adele.
And, indeed, we don’t see another tourist group on our two-and-a-half-hour, four-kilometre stroll, but we do encounter lots of joggers and cyclists. Above us, fantails, tuis and other birds chatter. Beyond that, I swear I can sense only silence.
But abruptly, we turn a corner near the end of the trail and emerge on Cornish Street (yes, named after Mike’s great uncle), in what appears to be a small industrial park. Near a building bearing a big sign reading Tile Depot, our shuttle bus awaits. It’s almost impossible to believe that we’ve just been in a secluded forest. Like the children in the Narnia books, I gaze back to the trailhead in puzzled wonder, as though I’ve just popped out of a magic wardrobe. No wonder most of the locals are trying to keep Belmont Regional Park to themselves.