Eastwood Hill Arboretum, Gisborne

Autumn visit to Eastwoodhill Arboretum

There is a beauty and tenderness to Autumn that gives the season a special allure for me



It is a season of farewell that has all the tenderness of saying goodbye to something held close. The days shrink and deciduous trees throw off their summer clothes ready for winter, their leaves putting on a final triumphant cloak of brilliant colour - saying "look at me" -  before they die.

And yet ... accompanying Autumn's slow surrender towards winter, is a seductive promise of new growth. The tenderness coming then perhaps in the uneasy meeting of ending and beginning as though they are two strangers trapped inside a glass ball. 


These thoughts come jumbled and unformed as I stand by a pond on the Yellow walking trail at the Eastwoodhill Arboretum on the outskirts of Gisborne. The pond is covered in a soft peppermint green algae with colourful Autumn leaves sprinkled like confetti on its surface.

Yesterday a friend and I had driven up to Gisborne from Hawke’s Bay on a stormy, rain-soaked Autumn day that had downed trees, closed roads and left flooding in some parts of the region. At Waipaoa River Bridge roundabout we headed for the hills winding up through green farmland to Ngatapa where we spent the night at Eastwoodhill Retreat: a cosy, warm farm cottage for rent only five minutes from the gates of the National Arboretum.

Now we have the 135-hectare park – home to more than 3,500 varieties of trees from around the globe – to ourselves. 

Armed with a brochure and map of walking trails – the longest 5.1kms – we weave our way through the middle of the park.  Everywhere Autumn is showing her exquisite face: golden-leaved poplars at the entrance, the brown- fingered leaves of North American oaks, the orange, reds and purple colour of the Liquidambar and scarlet oaks, hundreds of maples, deep butter yellow Persian Ironwoods and Lombardy Poplars, elm trees and flowering cherries.

This must’ve been the sort of scene the founder of the Arboretum, Douglas Cook, envisioned when he first started bringing seed back from Europe in 1918.  Cook was just 25-years-old when he bought 250ha of farmland from the Ngatapa subdivisions in 1910 and named it Eastwoodhill after his mother’s family home back in Glasgow.

“Then he went off to World War 1,” a volunteer at the Arboretum tells me later over a cup of coffee and homemade egg sandwiches at the visitor’s centre.  “He became very worried that the Northern Hemisphere could be subject to acid rain and he wanted to protect the trees that he’d come to know and love in England and Europe.” 

So Cook collected seed and returned to New Zealand after the war intent on starting an arboretum at Eastwoodhill.  As he made repeated seed collecting trips back to Europe, so the vision of Eastwoodhill began to take shape.  By the time of his death in 1967, he’d planted thousands of trees and shrubs from nurseries in New Zealand, Japan, America and Europe.

As we climb high up to the outer edge of the park on the Green trail, a sign tells us that when one 70-year-old tree dies [some] 1200 tonnes of carbon is released into the atmosphere - no longer absorbed by the tree. It is these sorts of facts that must spur Eastwoodhill’s 50 odd volunteers and 600 Friends on.  Plans are currently afoot to expand the park and plant more trees.

We puff the last steps and then stand in the wind on a narrow ridge where we get big views into the rugged Gisborne interior.  We could spend most of the day exploring all the trails in the Arboretum but we’ve got other plans. We weave back down passed the Mexican Way – where there are a collection of trees from central and southern America, pausing at an open green area and one of several Ha-ha’s in the park.

It’s lunchtime when we reach the Fibonacci spiral sculpture – based on the ancient mathematical theory, which connects the opposite corners of a square. It is the only sculpture I’ve seen in the park and is a tribute to Gisborne farmer H.B. (Bill) Williams and his wife Elizabeth who bought the Arboretum in 1965 and gifted it to New Zealand.

As I rest near the Spiral, my eyes involuntarily sweep across the green lawn and lift off taking in the greens, yellows, golds, reds and browns of trees doing their individual dance with Autumn.  In a few weeks most of this colour will have leached out of the Arboretum. The trees quietly re-grouping ready for a new beginning in Spring.

See www.eastwoodhill.org.nz

Eastwoodhill Retreat: Cottage