Elliot's Forest

New Zealand

Rotorua: Several witnesses claim they have seen the shape of a full-grown dragon amongst the city's Redwood trees.

Elliot's Forest

By Stefan Roesch

"They say it lives in these very woods. That you can hear its roar at night. They say this, they say that, but... As far as I know, not one soul has ever actually seen this dragon." - Meacham, talking about the mythical Millhaven Dragon (by the name of Elliot) he once saw as a child. 

Rotorua's Whakarewarewa Forest, a very popular scenic reserve for locals and tourists alike, was chosen by Disney in 2015 for a number of scenes in the feature film Pete's Dragon which is actually set in the US state of Oregon.

Meacham, played by Robert Redford.

Meacham, played by Robert Redford.

I visited the forest in January 2018, the height of summer in New Zealand. It was a very hot day and the prospect of a walk through the shady forest sounded perfect. After parking my rental car next to the (excellent) visitor centre, I set out on the Redwood Memorial Grove track. The main feature of this 30-minute track is the magnificent grove of Californian Redwoods that was planted in 1901.

A scene from Pete's Dragon: Wild child Pete, who lives in the woods with his Dragon friend Elliot, meets Natalie from the nearby town of Millhaven.   

A scene from Pete's Dragon: Wild child Pete, who lives in the woods with his Dragon friend Elliot, meets Natalie from the nearby town of Millhaven.   

Admittedly, Rotorua's Redwoods are dwarfs compared to their counterparts in North America, but it was fascinating to see two iconic plants from two entirely separate land masses growing next to each other: Redwoods and tree ferns (known here as ponga trees).

The second highlight of this track is a boardwalk bridge over an old thermal pond.

Back at the carpark, I bought a ticket for the tree top walk that starts next to the visitor centre. Suspended 12 metres above ground, the walkway connects 22 Redwood trees via swingbridges that are attached to wooden plattforms around the tree trunks.

All constructions have been installed with the utmost care to ensure the wellbeing of the trees, and the local Maori - the guardians of the land - were consulted during the building process.

My personal highlight was the tower platform pictured above. Not only do you have an amazing 360 degree bird's eye view, it also gives you the feeling you're literally floating above the forest.

My personal highlight was the tower platform pictured above. Not only do you have an amazing 360 degree bird's eye view, it also gives you the feeling you're literally floating above the forest.

The newest attraction was added in December 2016 - called 'Redwoods Nightlights'.

For the nighttime experience, 30 special lanterns were created by David Trubridge, a well-known sustainability designer.

For the nighttime experience, 30 special lanterns were created by David Trubridge, a well-known sustainability designer.

My personal tip: Get there just before dusk. It's less crowded and you get to experience the beautiful change of light.

My personal tip: Get there just before dusk. It's less crowded and you get to experience the beautiful change of light.

So what about Elliot, the dragon? Well, Rotorua's Redwoods weren't the only forest location used in the movie. In fact, a number of tree scenes were filmed in New Zealand's South Island near the small rural town of Tapanui.

By the way, Meacham was telling the truth: He did have an encounter with Elliot as a little boy, and here's the proof:

Useful sources of information and additional tips for planning your visit:

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