Nearest town: Tuatapere, Southland
Type of track: there and back with a little loop at the end
Official distance: 600 metres
Official time: 30 mins
Jenny’s time: about 45 mins
Tips: To get there, take the Lillburn Valley road West from Highway 99 just South of Clifden Suspension bridge, between Tuatapere and Manapouri. After 5km turn right onto Lillburn Monowai Road. Follow that for about 8km to the start of the track. You’ll see it!
The road started wide, winding up a hill and through farmland, the thick layer of fresh gravel on it making my car skid on the corners. There were no signs for the Big Totara Walk, and I stopped a couple of times to check the directions and my Google map.
I’d already gone the wrong way once, missing the unmarked road. I realized several kilometres on that I must have missed the turn, and went back to try again.
I was hoping I’d gotten it right this time.
But the Big Totara Walk is not on Google maps, so all I could do was assume that I must be on the right road and that if I continued on, I would eventually find it.
My brochure said the Big Totara Walk was 12 km from the main road, and I’d been to places that were much further off any main road, such as the Rob Roy Glacier track, which involves driving 30km down a gravel road to get to the carpark.
But that road was wide and through an open valley, and I encountered other cars coming and going along it (not a lot, mind you, but a few). There were signs and it was very clear that I was going the right way.
This one was very different.
I kept going, through farmland and forests, the road getting narrower all the time and the forest closing in more and more, until it was not much wider than a single lane track and my little car was surrounded by trees with not another soul or another vehicle in sight.
I was mildly concerned, only because I am a worrier by nature and my car was nearly 20 years old. While it had been exceptionally reliable up to this point, you just never knew what might happen and by this time my phone had lost all reception. I tried to remember how far back the nearest farmhouse was, should my car break down and I had to start walking.
I wondered if (assuming I was not on the right road) the narrow road would suddenly end without me having reached my destination, leaving me with nowhere to turn around and having to drive my car in reverse all the way back to a place where it was wider.
I speculated about what would happen if a large vehicle came the other way, because it would be a pretty tight squeeze to pass each other.
I worried that I’d finally get there and discover a wild bushman, madman, or rapist waiting to do me harm and rob me of all my belongings and leave me for dead out there in the woods where no one would find my body for years.
Yeah, my imagination can get a little overactive sometimes.
Finally I came across a sign, proclaiming that the walk’s start was only 2km further. Yay! My relief at being on the right track was tempered slightly by the same sign mentioning that hunters required a permit. Was I supposed to bring a bright orange jacket to avoid being shot like a deer in the forest?
I arrived, pulling off the road into the small lonely carpark. The walk to the track from here is just about as long as the track itself, through a tunnel of trees inhabited by shy wood pigeons and friendly, chirping robins.
Imagine my surprise when, arriving at the start of the track, I found another vehicle parked on the side of the road! A family I’d encountered earlier in the day was also visiting, one of the children throwing a tantrum, his screaming destroying the peace and quiet of the place.
I avoided them, taking the opposite branch of the loop, but the walk is not long and the entire forest echoed with earsplitting cries. I was reminded once more why I am glad I don’t have children.
Finally they left, shrieking child trapped in his car seat, and I was relieved at the silence, while once again worried about what I might do if my car didn’t start when I returned to it.
I followed the short loop track along a boardwalk over a swamp, between trees hung with moss and jungle-like ferns, the sunlight from above barely visible, the green of it all barely penetrating the dark mood the forest creates.
And then, finally, I reached the Totaras.
The trees towered above me, their hulking bodies dwarfing my very existence, their age making me think of all the changes they must have witnessed in New Zealand over the past millennium.
A fully grown Totara tree can reach up to 30 metres high, and the forest here has never been logged, so these are some of the biggest and oldest trees in New Zealand. The largest tree on the Big Totara Walk is the Hall’s Totara (one of several varieties of Totara), which is over 1000 years old and has a girth of 8.31 metres. That’s one giant tree.
I spent some time admiring them, taking photos, or at least trying to, unable to get far enough away through the forest to fit an entire Totara tree into one frame. I even hugged them, stretching my arms as far as they could go while realizing that my entire wingspan did not even cover a quarter of the tree.
As I made my way back out to the car I enjoyed the peace of the forest and the non-silence that filled the air, the sounds of chirping birds and leaves rustling in the wind.
Have you ever gone somewhere and felt like you were heading into the middle of nowhere, wondering what you might find at the end of the road? Tell me about it in the comments!
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