Sky Walker

By: Jill Malcolm, Photography by: Bill Savidan


Jill Malcolm shares her latest adventures in the wild native forests around Hokitika

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The air-walk winds past rimu trees that can be up to 300 years old

Eleanor Catton’s complex Victorian novel, The Luminaries, has helped put Hokitika on the itineraries of modern travellers. Now that the mini-series of the book is being aired on TV, this might further boost interest in the small West Coast town, despite the real Hokitika not actually featuring much at all.

Filming was mostly undertaken in Auckland. But as in the novel, the settings illustrate the West Coast of the 1860s, delving deep into life in a town of the gold rush era in a way that has never been portrayed before.

Fast forward to the early 1900s, and the Hokitika’s time of prosperity, built on the gold, is apparent in the few extravagant public buildings that remain. And today there are constructions near Hokitika that have more to do with the town’s rugged environment than they do with the buildings of its past.

One of the most impressive is about 15 minutes’ drive out of town on one of the routes to the spectacular Hokitika Gorge. Here, a modern edifice, equally as extravagant as Hokitika’s most venerable buildings, rises from the dense bush. It is in the form of a monumental mesh-steel gantry that takes punters on an ‘air-walk’ through a dense canopy of tall rimu and kamahi trees 25 metres above the forest floor.

The walk is 450-metres in length and before I even set foot on the structure, I was awed by the amazing feat of engineering. It looks sturdy and reliable, which is just as well as all my instincts warned me that only birds should rise to such heights. The innovators and builders of this $7million attraction were two Tasmanians, Shane Abel and Neil Wade, who own eco-tourism company Canopy 01, and who had already designed and built four successful treetop air-walks in Australia. The walkway was prefabricated in Australia and assembled like a giant Meccano set on the West Coast site.

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Seen from above, tree ferns look like whirling skirts

Our footsteps clinking against the metal sounded intrusive, a reminder of how foreign we were among the tops of those sky-reaching trees, some of which are 300 years old. I felt as if I should tip-toe so as not to interrupt the sound of the light wind that was fingering through the foliage. From the perspective of a hawk, I gazed down through the layers of forest and the entangled limbs of trees that were decorated with ferns, lichens, clumps of red berries, orchids, saprophytes, and vines. The branches of giant tree ferns spread like whirling skirts.

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In the distance the Southern Alps were dusted with snow

It’s well-known that the weather on the coast can be unfriendly but that day, although icy cold, the sky was as clear as polished glass. A fresh fall of snow had glazed the summits of the Southern Alps. 

At one point along the walk, a steel springboard unfolds like a long tongue across the forest tops. Walk to the end and it affords close views of adjacent Manapouri Lake which that day was dotted with tiny yachts. The structure bounced under my footfall and although it’s undoubtedly safe, my acrophobia began to kick in. I admired the view but didn’t linger.

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Looking down on the walkway from the tower

Feeling the fear, I also climbed the 115 steps that spiral up a tower to a platform that is 47 metres above ground. It swayed enough to give full meaning to term ‘giddy heights’, but the view reached to the mountains on one side and over the dark waters of the lake and beyond to the Tasman Sea on the other.

Back at ground level near the entrance to the walkway there is a café. After flying so high, a little sustenance was a good way of coming down to earth.

 

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