Chasing our biggest trees


Runtime - 08:48

Identical twin brothers, Phil and Kevin Barker, love trees. Especially big ones - their quest is to find the very biggest native trees in New Zealand.

New Zealand may be a relatively young country, but there are huge trees still standing in our native forests that once had moa browsing at their base, and giant pouākai (Haast’s eagle) resting in their crown. Since childhood, twin brothers Phil and Kevin Barker have been going into the bush on a quest to find New Zealand’s biggest rimu, matai and kahikatea and to celebrate their ancient grandeur.

Kevin is a science teacher in Auckland, and Philip spent 30 years as a police officer. These days, he runs a motel in Hokitika. Their shared passion for native trees, which began in childhood, still burns undimmed in both of them. “Some of the biggest trees are well over a thousand years old,” Phil told Frank Film with obvious awe. “It’s so great to see them, and there’s just such a majesty to them.”

After hours of whacking through the dense bush and finding a forest giant, the pair will commence the serious business of measurement and comparison. They use three measures – the girth, the height, and the spread of the crown at the summit of the tree. “That’s what makes a champion tree. A combination of those three things,” says Kevin.

For the Barker brothers, the big tree hunts are as much about just being in the bush as they are about discovering the next big one. They’ve found their own way of appreciating the wonders of New Zealand’s native forests, and the wildlife that it harbours. “We’ve got about eight million hectares of native bush,” says Kevin, “and it’s a real treasure. It’s good for us to go and be in there, and the vibes that you feel from it… “

While Phil lives in the South Island and Kevin in the North, they “share a couple of yarns every day”. Their birth mother had them in 1966 when she was very young and they were adopted. They speak very warmly about the parents who raised them, and about the siblings with whom they’ve shared their lives.

As Kevin says in his understated fashion “We were pretty lucky though, Phil. We had pretty good parents and a pretty good upbringing.” Great brothers and sisters too, he adds.

Their love of nature, and their forays into the forest began early. “When we were kids,” says Kevin, “we’d go to parks for picnics and things and we’d come back with cones.”

“We actually had a little greenhouse that we made ourselves and we put the cones in little pots, and… bingo, up they’d come! And we’d plant them somewhere, strategically, around the garden. It’d drive our mother mad!”

Later, they went up to Pelorus Bridge, as teenagers. “We really enjoyed some of the bush walks up there.” It was there, the pair recall, that they first saw some of the big podocarps growing in that area.

The brothers’ enduring excitement at the possibility of discovering the next big tree is clear as they take Frank Film into an as yet uncharted (by them) area of bush right beside State Highway 6.

“Oh yeah!” exclaims Phil, “Look at that - there's a big trunk over there. Could be three metres across, and that’s never been found. That’s the holy grail!”

There’s always room in their lives for big trees and the brothers are already making plans for the next journey of discovery into the bush.

“I’m looking forward to looking again… and I’ve got plenty of plans. So hopefully, we’ll find some more special trees in the next couple of years,” says Phil.

Phil and Kevin clearly welcome the chance to share their passion for big trees with anyone they come across. “We’ve got these magnificent podocarp trees. And, you know, there they are, in plain sight,” says Kevin.

Producer/Director: Gerard Smyth
Editor: Oliver Dawe
Story Producer: Rose O'Connor
Production Manager: Jo Ffitch
Sound Mix: Chris Sinclair
Production Asst: Romah Chorley