The Conservation Area, created in 1996, is home to many native birds but is also home to a range of different and interesting plants which provided the focus of our adventure.
Conservation Area guide Ian Karika and local botanist Joseph Brider from the Natural Heritage Trust assisted the keen youth group, together with myself from Te Ipukarea Society.
The tour started by walking through rows of neatly ordered orange plots owned by the Wigmore family.
Beyond the orange plots marks the start of the Conservation Area is layered with lush green vegetation and tall Albizia (Arapitia) trees.
The Albizia, described by Joseph Brider, is native to the Indonesia-Solomon Islands area and was introduced from Fiji to the Cook Islands in the 1930s to provide wood materials to make crates for our then booming export fruit industry.
After the industry declined, the Albizia remained as a moderately invasive tree in the inland valleys of Rarotonga and was also used to control soil erosion from the abandoned plantations.
Walking past the entrance gates, we were greeted by the sounds of the chattery Kakerori.
Soon we came across another plant of interest, the Mato, a native Homalium tree found on Rarotonga and Mangaia. The Mato can grow up to 15 metres tall and has a central thick trunk with a few narrower trunks reaching to the sky from its base.
It also stabilises soil and is good for controlling erosion on slopes. The Mato has pink flowers but will only bloom after it has been disturbed, for example by a cyclone.
Pressing on further into the green vegetation, the track comes across the Ana’e, our native King Fern. With its massive fronds, sometimes reaching 2.5 metres in length, this fern is very common in the mountains of Rarotonga.
Deeper into the forest we spotted a small patch of the ‘Ora Papua, also known as Derris. The ‘Ora Papua is native to South Burma through to the Philippines. It was introduced right across the Pacific and has been widely as a fish poisoning agent.
The fishing method was once used in the Cook Islands but is not practised anymore due to its destructive nature, not only killing fish but all marine species in which come into contact with its poisonous solution.
From poisonous plants to medicinal plants, we came across the dark green glossy Kavakava-atua. Kavakava-atua received its name because it was once used as an offering to the traditional gods.
The Kava Maori, which is less shiny, has an interesting local population being made up of sterile individuals incapable of bearing seeds. As a result Kava Maori requires some human assistance to ensure its continued survival. This is achieved by people cutting stems off the plant and replanting them.
The find of the day however went to a new species of orchid that has been recently discovered in the Conservation Area! The orchid was found growing on the trail path, having fallen from tree branches up high in the forest canopy, since then three other specimens have been recorded.
Brider and his team from the Natural Heritage Trust are still trying to determine what species of orchid it is and how it reached our shores. It is so far assumed that its tiny seeds have been transported here by the wind.
We have to patiently wait until the orchid flowers to discover the secrets of this mysterious new plant.
[Alanna Smith TE IPUKAREA SOCIETY OPINION]