Big Tree Hugging

Hunting for an Akatarawa antique

Take the only tree that's left
And stuff it up the hole in your culture

Leonard Cohen, ‘The Future’

December 2012 is my favourite centrefold. She’s Californian, tall, with long legs and impressive stats: 75 metres high, over eight metres in diameter at the base, two billion leaves, and 3,200 years old. The fold-out image of the snow sequoia known as The President – the second largest tree in the world – resulted in National Geographic magazine’s biggest selling issue.

The image is monumental nature porn. Three climbers are spread apart to emphasise the scale. One is near the top, one is 70 or so metres away near the base and another is a silk worm hanging midway down. They’re orange, red and yellow dots against the frosted brown and green of the massive wooden massif. It is a computer-generated realisation of a kid’s tree climbing fantasy.

New Zealand has some big trees – though we felled most of them in a wood-fired nation-building blitzkrieg. The most famous survivor is Tane Mahuta in Northland: a kauri between 1,250 and 2,500 years old, five metres in diameter and 51 metres high. Kahikatea grow to 60 metres, and in Dunedin’s Orokonui Sanctuary an Aussie mountain ash stands 80 metres tall. In Forest & Bird’s Bushy Park, a mainland island near Wanganui, is a nearly four-metre wide northern rata known as Ratanui – literally: ‘big rata’. Rata is a humungous hemiepiphyte with scarlet flowers, and an in situ sign claims Ratanui as the biggest example of this representative of the myrtle family (a local relative is the pohutukawa and overseas cousins include the feijoa).

When I visited Ratanui with my young family a morepork owl, coolly blinking in a ponga tree fern nearby, had set off air raid sirens. A Buller’s Book of Birds worth of manu – tieke, tui, robin, fantail – was deployed in defence: flapping and shrieking about the predator. The hubbub enhanced the rata’s ‘earth mother’ aura. It’s a giant tree that prompts majestic thoughts.

Back home in Wellington I checked in on a register of NZ notable trees to compare stats of the Kiwi contenders to those of the Arboreal All Stars (redwood, eucalyptus). I was surprised when a mate, ecologist Tim Park, mentioned there was a challenger for the Bushy Park rata’s title belt.

According to the register, the Karapoti rata, “is currently the largest recorded northern rata in New Zealand. Discovered by Gerald Arthur in 2008, this tree is estimated to be at least 1000 years old and could perhaps be as much as 1500 years or more.”

If claims that it was bigger than the Bushy Park rata were true I figured it was worth a squiz.

I geed up Tim for an expedition. Unlike Ratanui, the Karapoti rata is not easily accessible: the route is off-track “in sometimes rough terrain, all in heavy bush”. The ranger dropped us off on a forestry road Tim had plotted would be the best approach. Armed with compass and GPS, we bashed through gorse to a plateau 400 metres up.

The forest had been plucked of rimu and miro by colonial settlers, but was still impressive, with dozens of rata sentinel above its kamahi roof. Perhaps the twisty hard wood of Metrosideros robusta (iron-hearted, solid) was a turn-off to the axe-men.

Our big tree hunting process was to make our way to each rata poking through the canopy and eliminating pretenders – doing yoga contortions through supplejack vines, root scrambling up and down the corrugated terrace. After a couple of hours and several cuddles with three metre+ wide rata (big but not that big) we were beginning to doubt if we’d find ‘the one’. Resting at the foot of another tyro tree, we watched a kereru in the crown get the pip with us: booshing around like its piqued spirit bird. With the sun dropping we considered abandoning our search.

Tim figured out our bearings were off, and we reckoned we had time for one more inquiry. We could see a rata’s cauliflower ears edging out behind the olive green of a tall rimu. When we were within goal-kicking distance, we didn’t need words to confirm that we’d finally located 'the' rata. Tim and I grinned gormlessly.

At nearly five metres its diameter is roughly the width of a couple of buses. This rata would’ve begun life as a seed blown into the tops of a canopy tree before sending down roots in a centuries-long bear hug. The host was long gone and more than a dozen roots were now trunks, each the size of a substantial tree. Its wrinkles spoke of epochs, and fallen boughs of stormageddons.

Circling the rata I struggled for human comparisons to make to its immensity: an open-cast mine, container ship, sky scraper … a Parthenon with gnarly wooden columns? It was humbling to ponder all that this rata had witnessed over its millennia. Here centuries before people, it had seen giant eagles dive bombing moa, felt huia tattoo its skin, had kokako draw a thousand reviews from its kiekie concert hall; manufactured carpet bombs of scarlet blooms, bellowed its great lungs to suck in enough CO2 to change climate, endured the teeth of countless tempests, and lately, possums, saws, and Instagram.

We posed for the requisite hug photos and left, supplicant, sated that we’d met our centerfold.

Following the stream out, Tim and I paused to examine palm-spanning dragon flies and argued the merits of access to such an awe-some experience. Boardwalks and barriers protect Tane Mahuta from damage, but also mediate the encounter, like zoo glass. The Karapoti rata is partially protected by its inaccessibility. Might people’s relationship to nature be different – more rooted – if such connections were made everyday? Selfishly we also savoured the exclusivity of our wild encounter with this big tree.

Wellington city celebrated its 127th anniversary this year. In my Newtown garden I have a northern rata seedling, swaddled in sphagnum moss and bound around a totara driftwood pedestal. On the western skyline the smoke stacks of the hospital’s emergency generator poke out from the canopy. Further away is the city’s tallest tower – ‘The Majestic Centre’ (an architectural embarrassment to its name). Our garden rata’s root has just tapped down a metre and a half into the soil, after three years. Hugging the 1000+ year-old Akatarawa antique sure puts things in perspective.