Hundreds of feet in the air surrounded by thousand year-old native New Zealand rainforest is a vantage point not many get to experience first hand.

This is the canopy in the Waikato's Pureora Forest, one of a few patches of original, virgin native forest that has never been logged and is therefore siignificantly higher, grander and more developed than regenerated native bush. Put simply, it's like a scene from Avatar without the CGI.

"When we climb up the tree it is quite a surreal experience," said Epiphyte Ecologist Catherine Kirby. "Especially in Pureora Forest which has a cathedral-like feel, with huge trees which are really, really old.

"There's an atmosphere in itself like no other and once you get up into the canopy you experience a world like no other with plants that don't grow anywhere else but on the branches of these huge trees, birds that inhabit those plants and you also get a glimpse of the insect life that's there as well."


Kirby is passionate about the trees and the wildlife that calls them home. She was the driving force behind a project to collect more than 120,000 images and 1,200 videos for the NZ Tree Project a documentary and exhibition which has travelled the country.

"It's just come home because the Waikato is the home of Pureora Forest, it's the home of most of the researchers involved and it's where the project started," Kirby said.

Andrew Harrison was the tree climbing specialist responsible for getting the research and photography team hundreds of feet up into the tree canopy safely.

"The biggest thing for navigating up in the trees is getting a good high position for your rope at the top and then you can just use the branches to move around and just keeping your balance with your weight and your harness," Harrison said.

The exhibition is the first visual documentation of a forest canopy in New Zealand and researchers say much more needs to be studied about this fragile ecosystem.

"If we don't know what's there we can't protect it, we can't even begin to understand what's threatening these plants or animals. We know some of the plants and some of the animals that live up there like bats and geckos and the insects are threatened too. But we don't fully understand what those threats are.

"The main thing that seems to be threatening the establishment and survival of the epiphytes is the [lack of] humidity. So when the forest has been cut right back down to just a small patch, the winds whip through and dry out the patch so the epiphytes can't establish," Kirby said.

With that awareness, Kirby hopes more people will be inspired to come and learn more about the garden of species that are growing thirty metres high in the tree canopies of Aotearoa.


The New Zealand Tree Exhibition will be on display at Waikato Museum until February 18 and the tree climbing journey can be followed and watched online.

Mr Harrison will showcase his tree climbing skills at a special 'Forestival' activities and exhibition day at Waikato Museum on Sunday

"We'd really love for more people to see it because people only love what they understand and they only care for things that they love and that's our mission is to increase that awareness and increase the passion for our native forest," Kirby said.

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