What if you could get paid to climb trees? As Ngati Kaihau discovered, a love for doing physical work outdoors and respect for the land could make you a natural arborist – and create a wealth of opportunities for you and your whānau. Find out how this father of three with a fear of heights became a talented arborist, competitive tree climber and business owner.

For Ngati Kaihau, being an arborist is in the blood. Following in his dad’s footsteps, he discovered a natural passion and respect for trees and the physical, hands-on work that comes with caring for them. 

Now that he’s qualified, his mission is to pass this knowledge on to his three young sons, and expand his business to help others. 

“I love it. It’s crazy cos if you sat down and had a korero with my dad, you’d see the same drive in him. And now when I’m out with my oldest son, he just wants to climb trees too. I’ve already got him a little harness and I’ll put it up in the tree and he swings around from branch to branch. So, it’s just going to roll on and roll on.

“That’s the ultimate goal for me, to get a business flowing so that it not only helps me, but also sets up a future for my sons and wider whānau.” 

Being an arborist is about much more than cutting down trees, says Ngati. He and his whānau are passionate about their role as kaitiaki (caretakers), protecting and nurturing this country’s ngahere (forest). 

For Ngati, being an arborist is far more than a job — it’s about fulfilling a role as kaitiaki of New Zealand’s trees.

“If I’m on the job and I see a stand of karaka trees, I’ll be looking at those trees and thinking they were possibly planted there for their abundance of kai 150 to 200 years ago. So that’s what I see, the strong history between those trees and the land.

“Respect needs to be shown to the tree itself, because of the history it’s seen. It changes things when you see it that way.” 

Chip off the old block

Ngati learned the basic skills of the trade from his dad, experienced arborist Pehi Kaihau, before enrolling in a NZ Cert in Horticulture Level 4 (Arborist) at Manukau Institute of Technology, with help from an MPTT scholarship. 

Completing the course in 2017 really took his knowledge to the next level, he says. Now just a few years into his career, the 26-year-old is already running his own business and working as a contractor, including doing work for his iwi Ngāti Te Ata, around Awhitu Peninsula.

“As a representative arborist, I work alongside council and give that opinion on the Māori aspect and help them see our cultural approach towards everything to do with nature, from cutting down trees to planting out streams.”

Having a qualification adds weight to his experience and has opened up opportunities, he says.

“Because I obtained my arboriculture ticket through MIT, I hold a title through my iwi. For iwi to be cleaning up a streamline that’s on marae land, it’s much better than getting someone else in to clear it out. We might be looking at clearing out old wāhi tapu (burial grounds), so it’s a sign of respect to send our own people through those lands to plant it out or clear out trees.”

His work with iwi offers huge variety, including site observations, pest control of native bush, or riparian planting. Alongside this work, Ngati also has jobs across Auckland as a contract arborist, which sees him climbing trees with a chainsaw.

Carefully following safety procedures is an essential part of the job, says Ngati. 

“I’ve been climbing for quite a while but I do get scared of those heights. It’s crazy cos I’ll be doing my cutting and I’ll take a look down and realise, far out, if I make a mistake and cut my rope or miss a procedure, that’s my life just gone. And that’s always in the back of my mind. I just have to keep those steps and procedures.”

Ngati says the industry offers high-paying work to qualified and capable workers.

“You can make ridiculous money if you do your job well.” 

His former MIT lecturer Zane Wedding (Ngāti Kuri, Ngāti Pikiao) says arboriculture is a great career for people like Ngati who love doing physical work outdoors.

“Ngati came with a real enthusiasm to be a climber, and had a natural passion for New Zealand native bush. And that was a real catalyst for his success. He’s also very physically able. He was just a young Māori kid with heaps of energy, and when I put him on a rope, he was just racing around.” 

Out on a limb

A talented climber, Ngati won the Auckland Young Arborist competition in 2017 and then competed in the Nationals in Dunedin, taking fourth place. He also travelled to Australia to compete in a competition sponsored by Red Bull, and placed 48 out of 100 of the best climbers in the world.

“For a young Māori boy who’d never been on a plane, I was quite shocked – big eyes and looking everywhere. Just placing in that spot, I got so many job opportunities. People were asking me to move over to Australia and work in their company. It was awesome,” he says.

“You get to see the best climbers in the world, you get to meet the best climbers in the world – and then when they see you climb, they offer you jobs. That networking opportunity at comps is wicked.” 

Zane, who’s currently ranked fourth best tree climber in the country as well as being a senior lecturer in arboriculture(tree maintenance) at MIT, says competitive tree climbing is a replication of best practice within the arboriculture industry, at speed, without actually cutting a tree. 

Ngati (left) refers to Zane (front) as one of his biggest role models: “That guy changed my life.”

“So, we race around and climb a tree just like we would at work, but instead of cutting a tree, we have a bell that we ring to simulate where we would have cut a branch off. 

“When it becomes a competition, you find these kids who have grown up playing rugby in the competitive sporting environment are like, ‘What? This job is actually something I can compete in?’”

Zane says there’s a shortage of qualified, skilled arborists around the world, and competitive success and industry success go hand-in-hand. 

”If you do well in competitions you can go out and say, ‘I’m capable and I charge this much’. It puts money in the pocket.”

Ngati says his ultimate aim is to grow his business to be able to offer employment to many others in his community. 

“It’s a massive goal. We have such a big family where there’s so many of our young people who get into trouble. I want to give them that opportunity to have a job, even if it’s just planting hundreds of plants or cutting down trees. That would make me feel better, that everyone else is happy as well.”

How can you become an arborist?
Arborists are in demand in New Zealand and overseas, and earn good money for their skills. 

Manukau Institute of Technology lecturer Zane Wedding says the New Zealand Certificate in Horticulture Services (Level 4) in Arboriculture at MIT means you can get qualified in a year. The course includes both the theory and practical work required to enter the industry.

“There’s so much work in arboriculture but it’s really dependent on qualifications. This qualification is your foot in the industry door — and there’s just so much work. Everyone from my course basically leaves with a job.”

You can also get qualified through an apprenticeship, such as through a company like Treescape, although this takes more time.

The course also offers vital cultural context to working with trees, says Zane.

“For young Māori and Polynesian students, what we teach at the course is they become kaitiaki. They’re looking after the trees within our urban environment and that’s something they can really dig. When they first come in, a tree is just a tree to them. But as the course progresses, they start to understand that ‘wow’, this is a living thing. In tikanga Māori, even a tree has mauri (life force).”