Enderby Island and the rata forest.

By James Wall

rata forestphoto by David Sinclair

We landed the zodiac rubber boat onto the beach. To my left was giant belts of kelp, with one end glued to the rocks, and the other end flapping about as each wave came in. To my right was a grassy area called penguin alley – a no go zone while penguins were in site. The place is Enderby Island, a sub-antarctic Island south of New Zealand.

kelp bedsYellow Eyed PenguinThese rare yellow eyed penguins had right of way. About 20 or so dawdled down to the beach over the next 30 minutes or so. We saw a break in penguin traffic and went for it. Some 300 metres away on a grassy hill we walked into a community of sealions.

sea lions

sea lionThe sea lions are enthralling. There males with large harems, males with no harems and pups playing together in groups, including some paddling in little ponds. Amazing.

We then head to the rata forest. It’s a low height forest maybe 4 or so metres high. There were thick trunks curling upwards. They were flowering. It was then that this dawned upon me that these rata trees the kiwis were going on about were what I knew as metrosiderous. How lucky we were to be here right when they were flowering. This island was truly a gem in the great southern ocean.

Rata trunk

Rata forestThe rata is also marketed in Australia as a New Zealand Christmas tree. Bless this countries marketing skills which resulted in a Chinese gooseberry to become known worldwide as a kiwi fruit. The metrosiderous variety is called  umbellata or Southern rata. It seemed similar in type as one we know as Tahiti. Some of the trees there were believed to be 100 years old. They had thick winding trunks that created an almost semi-tropical overhead canopy. Then there were the younger trees shooting up along the fringes.

Metrosiderous umbellataCattle and rabbits were introduced to this island around the late 1800s. They almost stripped it bare, but both were eradicated by the 1980s and so the island has had time to return to some of its former glory.

The island was near the main shipping route from  Sydney and Melbourne to Europe. This is because the further south a boat goes, the less the distance is to get round the globe that is planet earth. However, some sealers in the area didn’t want other people to find where they were and hence many of the maps were not quite correct. Consequently there were many shipwrecks. So many in fact that the NZ government set up castaways depots that were little sheds full of supplies. There were even signs on the island pointing to where these depots were.

castaway depotAfter the forest, we walked along a boardwalk so as not to damage the ground. This was up on the top of the island and an eery mist was upon us. It was much colder here.  Some bushy hebes were prominent so were some delightful flowering gentians. All of a sudden we saw a baby yellow eyed penguin all fat and fuzzy under a hebe. I couldn’t believe they nest all the way up here. Even more amazing, we then saw 4 nesting albatross. This endangered wonder of the world looked so humble and settled on top of its nest.

Gentiana concinna

hebesnesting albatrossThe boardwalk came to an end, and what was supposed to be a great view, was blocked out by a heavy misty fog. I looked down, and realised there was still something to see. Look at the great colours in the photo below.

Another interesting plant pictured below, was the Macquarie Island cabbage (Stilbocarpa polaris). Yes, it is edible and was eaten by sailors and early explorers to prevent scurvy. There wasn’t much of it around, but without rabbits around now, it has a good chance to prosper. It is called a megaherb, a strange group of plants that can be learnt about here.

Macquarie Island CabbageAnother megaherb pictured below was the Ross Lily (Bulbinella rosii). It was up on the plateau and all the flower heads were dead, which gave it a really nice effect.

Ross LilySo after this short but epic journey, we strolled back across the plateau, through the rata forest, past the grassy lowlands to the waiting rubber dingy at the beach. If there really was a place called heaven, then surely it would be a place like this.

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