Today the rain has stopped and sunlight edges above the clouds, awakening the forest to a multitude of emerald hues. Camera in hand, I amble in awe through the Kepler Track and observe the complexity of prehistoric Gondwanan growth. Imagine a surreal place on Earth of an old unrecognizable strange that to contemplate it would take a lifetime.
The air is cool and crisp, and I can see my breath hang in the air, akin to the clouds that hover above the treetops which slope up the mountains off in the distance on the other side of Lake Te Anau.
Sunlight makes its way through the canopy of Nothofagus beech and palm. Leaves above me shed heavy drops of water in sudden showers as I make my way further into the forest.
I find a place to sit atop a moss-covered tree stump, fronds unfurl and clothe the canopy in fresh green. Tall and slender trunks reach the sky and fingered fronds spread out like huge fans. I observe my surroundings in solitude.
Everything is so new and spectacular.
A fingerprint of the past is still imprinted on the forest floor un-smudged by human-doings. A verdant oasis of moss blankets the hillsides and under the coverage shapes of fallen trees form green pillow-like mounds. As my eyes scan the forest floor more and more trunks and limbs and branches lay underneath the overgrowth of sphagnum, bladderworts, sundews, sedges, rushes, and mosses.
A constant temperate climate perpetuates a state of mist and dew-covered foliage. Fungi grow everywhere. Roots are exposed and snake up under the track. Trunks are split in half and remnants of the other half are scattered about like fresh tan splintered wood on the soggy ground. I hear a snap and crash echo through the forest.
This forest eats itself slowly and lives forever.Poisonwood Bible
I get up from sitting on the mossy stump and squint to see the path that lay ahead but suddenly get distracted by something so alien that I’m drawn in to inspect further. I make my way over to a massive bulbous crème brulee spongy-like mushroom. I have never found one the size of the palm of my hand before.
The beige stipe appears as if someone whittled into a branch with a dull pocketknife leaving rough, unsmoothed grooves. Upon closer inspection, the veiny stipe stretches up from the ground and into the web cap. The top is tawny, and ochre blotched in color like a blow torch had been taken to the top of the crème.
Beneath the cap, the underside has a spongy surface with hundreds of minute spore-bearing holes or tunnels that run perpendicular to the forest floor so that spores may fall out. The tubes are also ideal for insects to crawl into to eat and spread spores. The Austroboletus novae-zelandiae typically get around 120mm in height and 80mm in width.
Uprooted trees that look like contorted hands digging out the Earth form walls. These snarled hands that scoop out a pit are spotted every now and then along the track. Vines wire down the remaining dirt, holding patches of clay and stone into place. Up beyond the crown ferns, a hairy patch hangs on the side of a decaying tree stump. A sister to Lion’s Mane, the Maori named it as pekepekekiore.
This native wood decay mushroom was traditionally consumed by the indigenous Māori people. The species is edible, medicinal, and tastes like crab. The texture of the mushroom is also an excellent pulled-pork substitute when barbecue sauce is added after frying up in the pan with butter.
At the entrance of Rainbow Reach just past the draw bridge that goes over the powerful rushing Waiau River I am met with switchbacks to zigzag my way up to get to the track that lines the cliff-side carved out by the river. Signs are posted to warn against getting too close to the ever-eroding cliff-side. Before I reach the top, I am greeted by hundreds of thumb-sized Calostoma rodwayi.
Also known as “pretty mouth” or “hotlips” these guys have brightly colored raised openings that resemble lips. The genus name Calostoma is derived from the Greek kallos or “beauty”, and stoma (στóμα) or “mouth”; similarly, several species are referred to in the vernacular as “prettymouths”.
In the 2000s research has shown the genus to be evolutionarily related to Bolete mushrooms and are thought to have diverged evolutionarily between 52–115 million years ago. And in Korea, they’re called Yongi, or “red cheeks”
In general, Calostoma species are not considered edible; because they typically begin their development underground, by the time fruit bodies appear they are too tough for consumption. However, a 2009 study reported that in the community of Tenango de Doria (Hidalgo state, Mexico), Calostoma cinnabarinum used to be collected by children and consumed “like a tidbit”, although the tradition seems to have been abandoned in recent years. Locals called the young fruit bodies “yemitas”.
I continue along the trail and spot many large silver fern fronds that litter the forest floor near the track. The Maori would use them to guide their path by laying the silver-side up to catch the moonlight at night.
During the day the berms are covered in limelight moss and crown ferns scattered about stretch out as far as the eye can see.
Gallacea is a genus of fungi that contains six species found in Australia and New Zealand. It’s a brilliant purple fungus that’s mycorrhizal with beech and the fruiting body can get up to 100 mm in diameter.
These brightly colored fungi are believed to mimic the appearance of berries that birds would typically eat, as to better spread spores. Remembering this, I look up and am greeted by a cheeky South Island Tomtit that hops around and cocks its head inquisitively. I’m unsure if the bird is interested in the Gallacea or the flies and tiny insects I inadvertently kick up while hiking. This Tomtit got about arms-length away from me and was keen on posing for a photo.
Also known as Pixie’s Parasol, this is a Gondwanan mushroom that has caps that range from 0.8 to 2 cm. These brilliant cyan blue colored fungi were found growing from a rotting beech limb that caught my attention. The water droplet on top of the cap formed a spherical shape and the striations resembled a pupil and iris that made it feel like an eye was watching me.
Towards Brod Bay, there is a flat plane of moss that is the greenest part of the entire track. Poking out like pancakes on fire are red and orange caps of hypholoma.
In New Zealand, they’re different from the original species in Australia, but not enough to warrant a different name. The New Zealand hypholomas can be distinguished from the other genera treated here by their consistently dark brownish-purple spore print, which is paler brown in the other genera.
These fungi found in the Fiordlands over the winter months are but a fraction, a tiny scratch on the surface of what lay on the forest floors here.