Tiptoeing in the treetops
The new treetop air-walk about 15 kilometres south of Hokitika is proving a hit, writes Roy Sinclair.
Walking softly among the treetops is no vague dream on the West Coast. It's a breeze wandering along a mesh-steel gantry a heady 25 metres above the forest floor. If you are disabled or push children in a pram, you can participate.
For those with a reasonable head for heights, the 450m air-walk stroll leads up a steep spiral staircase to land you 47m above the forest floor. This highlight offers expansive views of nearby Lake Mahinapua and the spectacular mountains of South Westland.
The mountains are best viewed early in the day, but the predominantly rimu and kamahi forest that is interspersed with tree ferns and specked with reddish horopito also looks great in the soft afternoon light.
West Coast commercial developments typically attract objectors. The West Coast Treetop Walk and Cafe, which opened just before Christmas, appears to have been the exception. In 2006, the Department of Conservation blocked a similar project proposed for the Hokitika Gorge.
The treetop air-walk about 15 kilometres south of Hokitika is proving a hit. Those I speak to agree the $38 admission charge is good value. They enthuse over seeing orchids and other plants that can be found only high above the forest floor.
A visitor centre with 100-seat licensed cafe is on private land. Treetop Walk and Cafe manager Rusty Donnell says the Department of Conservation has been totally supportive, the air-walk being on 1.2 hectares of DOC estate.
"Hokitika Rimu Treetop Walk Ltd has a 45-year concession lease with DOC," he says.
Early visitor numbers have been encouraging, with discounted entry offered to seniors. Most successful sales have been from the $55 annual pass.
The drivers and builders of the $7.5 million attraction that employs 13 local staff were two Tasmanians, Shane Abel and Neil Wade. Their eco-tourism company, Canopy 01, had designed and built four successful treetop air-walks in Australia. They were keen to extend their expertise to New Zealand. The company also finances and operates their projects.
To be financially successful the venture needs to attract 175,000 visitors a year, or about 8 per cent of the average 2.17 million annual visitors (2007 Tourism New Zealand figure) to the West Coast.
Canopy 01 directors predict their newest air-walk will inject $3m annually into the Hokitika regional economy, principally through wages (13 staff currently) and goods and services.
The air-walk was prefabricated in Australia and assembled (mostly bolted) on the West Coast site, much like giant Meccano. It was completed in six months, which included the wettest October in memory. According to one joke, the 400 millimetres of rain in one month even drowned the whitebait.
Ten lightweight steel spans thread their way through the 200 to 300-year-old trees for minimal impact. Each span comprises 1200 components. Topping some guyed towers are pavilions where visitors can meet or shelter. A gentle, minimal, swaying of the structure creates a realism of being among the treetops.
West Coast Treetop Walk and Cafe assistant manager Kim McPherson recommends an hour as the minimum time to enjoy the experience.
"Those spending the time are seeing a lot more. They pause to listen to bird calls - the bellbird or tui, the swish of a wood pigeon's flight, and get more from the experience.
"Seeing a white heron is a rarer possibility. If it happens it is a special treat."
I ask how the West Coast "greenies" have reacted to the treetop air-walk. "Oh, they have paid to have a look and left very satisfied," she laughs.
The air-walk complex is open daily 9am to 5pm; last admissions 4.15pm.