This short walk gives a taster of the famous tramp.
The Routeburn Track is comprehensively signposted from Glenorchy. Follow Glenorchy Paradise Road the turn left onto Priory Road.
After 2.6 km turn right onto Glenorchy - Routeburn Road, cross the Dart River and bear right.
The road is unsealed to the roadend, 25 km from Glenorchy.
From the shelter and carpark, follow the main Routeburn Track for 10 minutes. Take the signposted track to the left and weave down to the valley floor.
Continue following the sinuous track until you reach Sugarloaf Stream. Don’t cross the swingbridge but head right to complete the loop.
Fiordland’s greenery hides many secrets. For many, the innumerable hues of green, entwining lattice of vines, mantle of moss and luxuriance of the foliage, fools trampers into feeling they are in a tropical jungle. Indeed Fiordland’s rainfall totals put tropical figures to shame and it is this abundance of moisture that nurtures the enlightening world of green.
The most dominant forest type in Fiordland is beech, with ancestors stretching way back to Gondwanaland, the ancestral landmass for the southern hemisphere continents we know today. Relatives of the New Zealand beeches occur in South America, Australia, New Caledonia and Papua New Guinea and fossil evidence in also present in Antarctica.
Red beech grows on more fertile sites, while mountain beech tolerates both drier conditions and shallow infertile soils.
The beech’s means of seed dispersal is rather rudimentary - a seed drops from the tree and lands where it lands. Unsurprisingly this slows the advance of a beech forest. As seedlings also need a mycorrhizal fungus, which only lives on the roots of adult beech trees, young trees cannot survive far from their whanau. Beeches however, once established, leave little room for other emergent species in Fiordland, save a few podocarps in lower altitude forests.
On many specimens large wart-like galls grow on the trunks, formed by a fungus. The soft fruiting bodies resemble golf balls and are sometimes sprinkled on the floor at the base of trees. They are sometimes referred to as ‘beech strawberries’.
The genus for the southern beeches is Nothofagus, or false beech. This naming arose in the early 1800s, when European exploration and interest in the scientific world exploded. Botanists often accompanied explorers (Joseph Banks was aboard Endeavour) and the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew set up mechanisms for the collecting, naming, growing and classification of plants.
It was not an easy task for early botanists, encountering flora completely removed from anything they had hitherto witnessed. All they had to go on was what they knew. It was thus unsurprising everything they came across was described according to the northern hemisphere counterparts. On Cook’s voyages, beeches were collected from South America, Australia and New Zealand. These were later described by Sir W.J Hooker, director of Kew and son of the famous first director J.D Hooker in the 1840s. In 1850, a Dutchman, Blume, managed to separate the northern from the southern beeches, conferring the name Nothofagus on the southern genus.
The remarkably similar species collected from disparate parts of the globe, separated by thousands of kilometres of ocean, now confounded plant geographers. How could such strikingly similar species occur so far away from each other, when the seed’s only vehicle is gravity? From the 1960s fossilised southern beech pollen grains were also discovered on Antarctica, further confusing the botanists. The obvious conclusion to draw was at some time these southern continents must have been joined. It was not an easy theory to gain credibility in a dogmatic scientific world, however with a growing body of evidence from other earth science disciplines, the theories of plate tectonics, continental drift and the existence of Gondwanaland soon became the accepted explanations of the day. Nothofagus had played it’s part in the story.
One interesting note was that after analysis of the fossil record of pollen grains, plant palaeontologists were able to deduce that the southern beeches actually pre-dated the northern beeches.
South Island ▷ Queenstown Region ▷ Glenorchy
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Thanks to all the good people working for the NZ Department of Conservation - for all your hard work - making NZ more beautiful, accessable and healthy! Cheers 😍