Stepping into the forest is stepping into the past. Towering podocarp trees of all types – ancient rimu, totara, and rata – reach for the overcast sky, sheltering a multitude of ferns and shrubs and orchids. The forest floor is yet another forest. Mosses carpet the ground, bursting like little green stars in the dappled light. Seedlings sprout alongside them in determined abundance, with mushrooms of all shapes and colours. Tannins from the organic leaf litter stain the tiny forest creeks red, as though it is the lifeblood running through this living, breathing landscape. All around, the diverse plant life presents a truly humbling glimpse of what once was, before the rise of human civilisation.
And then, the birdsong. Melodious notes from the tui and bellbird contrast with the raucous screech of the kaka, the haunting whoops of the morepork, and the high-pitched chatter of New Zealand parakeets. Flocks of the tiny yellowhead, fantail, and tomtit flit through the foliage, and the friendly Stewart Island robin follows hikers to gorge on insects stirred in their passing. The whoosh of the wood pigeon’s wingbeats commonly echoes through the treetops, and on the ground weka forage, relentlessly picking at the leaf litter and entirely unperturbed by the presence of these tall, two-legged mammalian visitors.
In fact, this bold nature towards humans is common among all of the birds on Ulva Island. An open sanctuary off the coast of Stewart Island, New Zealand, it is entirely free from rats and other introduced mammalian predators which have plagued ecosystems across the rest of the country. Multiple native plant and animal species have been reintroduced, and the success is tangible. Birdsong rises and falls in dulcet waves, a rare treat for the ears. Plants are diverse and abundant. Life thrives here. Stepping into the forest is stepping into the past…and the future.