Walking in the air gives bird's eye view

A rare white heron flaps past laconically only a few metres away at eye level, 25m above the forest floor.

Its timing is immaculate, appearing moments after CYB Construction worker Peter Fountain mentions that frequent visits by kotuku have wowed builders on New Zealand's largest treetop walk.

This $7.7 million tourist attraction near Hokitika, due to officially open next Friday, gives visitors a unique opportunity to stroll through West Coast rainforest canopy.

Its 25m-high steel walkway brushes past towering rimu as it winds through trees for almost half a kilometre, giving a birds-eye view of forest life.

A reward for climbing the 40m tower's 115-step spiral staircase is incredible views of surrounding forest, Lake Mahinapua, snow-covered Southern Alps and sparkling Tasman Sea.

"It encapsulates the beauty of the West Coast in one view," says Neil Wade, director of Australian eco-tourism company Canopy01, the walkway's owners.

Last week he visited the site about 15km south of Hokitika to check building progress and had his closest encounter ever with a kotuku as he stood on the walkway's cantilevered section, overlooking the lake. "It landed on a tree about 10m away at our height then it flew under the walkway's span nine . . . It was really quite terrific."

The company has a 45-year concession lease from the Department of Conservation to develop and operate the walkway on 1.2 hectares of conservation land in the Lake Mahinapua Scenic Reserve. It includes a visitor centre with an 80-seat cafe and 40 outdoor seats plus a small craft retail outlet built on nearby private farmland.

Kotuku often feed on whitebait in a small stream beside the cafe, providing another chance for visitors to view the elusive, elegant birds.

Wade predicts the walkway will inject more than $7m into the local economy annually and attract 175,000 visitors, a small percentage of the 2 million-plus domestic and international tourists who travel down the West Coast each year.

About 15 locals have been employed to operate the business.

Friday's opening will include a Maori dawn blessing then an official ceremony at 2pm.

Westland Mayor Maureen Pugh lavishes praise on the new attraction, saying the district is "honoured" to become its host.

"We were so thrilled when they chose a spot in Westland for this project because we knew it would add a hugely significant tourism product to New Zealand and it's in our backyard," she says.

It is Canopy01's fourth treetop walk but its first in New Zealand. The other three are in Victoria, Tasmania and New South Wales.

The prefabricated structure was constructed in Australia and shipped to New Zealand, erected by locals and Australian workers.

Although it is the largest and highest treetop walkway in New Zealand, several smaller wooden treetop walkways operate in the North Island, including in Whangarei and Rotorua.

It will cost $38 for adults and $15 for children but annual passes of $55 will also be available.

A similar proposal for an airwalk in the Hokitika Gorge attracted much opposition and was blocked by DOC in 2006.

Sunday Star Times