A first visit to Paekawakawa Reserve feels like the discovery of a secret garden.
Unassuming signage on a suburban street in Island Bay points you down a private driveway, and it’s not until you get right to the end that you see the narrow entrance to the Reserve.
Then it’s up a zig zag, round a bend carved into the side of a hill, and down into a gully where a stream once ran strong.
Looking up the valley you can see a little of the 1.5 hectares of regenerating native bush that has been lovingly nurtured by a small group of passionate locals.
They’ve planted more than 5000 native trees since 2013, which have settled in nicely with the already established mahoe and kawakawa, and hope to get another 900 in the ground this year.
It all started with Robert Logan.
“He must have been the poorest lawyer in Wellington,” jokes Jennifer Bennett, who now runs the Trust behind Paekawakawa Reserve.
Jennifer describes Robert as a “great environmentalist” and goes on to list several important green spaces that he was instrumental in the protection and development of.
He must have been a force to contend with — using a mix of activism, pressure on local council and pro-bono legal work to achieve what he did — because the list includes Te Kopahou, Tawatawa and Long Gully Bush reserves, all now feathers in the cap of Wellington’s outer green belt.
Paekawakawa Reserve was another of Robert’s — largely successful — attempts to save land from the clutches of developers.
When the land that Paekawakawa is now on went up for sale in 2006, it was already in the hands of a housing developer and it was being pitched, plans and all, as a 30-townhouse development.
“Robert, who wanted to save every bit of land he could, approached the Trust [already established for another conservation project] and said we should get this bit of land,” explains Jennifer.
In an inspired move, the Trust then set a vision that the community could buy into — a native bush reserve in the heart of its suburb for the enjoyment of all — and pamphleted the whole community asking for help to make it happen. The donations flooded in.
Robert’s campaigning had also solicited an interest-free loan from the always controversial but generous Gareth Morgan, and the Trust had plans to split up the land so the two houses on the property could be sold to pay for the rest.
They put it in offer, but were ultimately unsuccessful — another housing developer won the bid.
And then he had a change of heart.
“I think he felt he would have the community in opposition to him, so he onsold to us one day later — but it cost us another $25,000. So he got something for it,” says Jennifer.
Over the next few years, the complicated but necessary work of dividing the property, selling the houses, and agreeing and creating access was the focus for the group.
But then in August 2010, Robert went missing.
“It’s just a mystery. He just disappeared,” says Jennifer.
“His car was found at the quarry at Owhiro Bay, but we searched for days, the police, and lots of people were searching, but we never found any trace. There never has been.”
Jennifer met Robert in 1997 when he put out a call for seedlings for another of his conservation projects, Tawatawa Reserve.
”He was very particular about the seedlings that he did collect, they needed to have not come from a nursery or anything, they were to be naturally grown and of the area. He came and checked my garden out and told me what was suitable to take.”
Jennifer laughs to think of how particular he was, but he knew what he was doing — the seedlings Robert collected gathered in the late 90s were the genesis of a nursery that now serves Tawatawa, Paekawakawa and other conservation projects with hundreds of natives plants each year.
Robert wasn’t the chairperson of the Trust but had been a driving force behind the work, and there was still a lot left to do when he disappeared.
The group carried on the work the best they could, each picking up different parts of the project. There are too many people who have put time into to it to mention them all by name, but Jennifer says it wouldn’t have happened without them.
“So many people have put work in over the years. It has meant the gradual transformation of Paekawakawa.”
Jennifer eventually ended up becoming a co-chair of the Trust, but she’s always been a reluctant leader.
Despite that, Jennifer — and those that came before her — have rallied a group of volunteers through an incredible amount of work.
“We removed three trucks of rubbish, the whole place was covered in weeds, because it had been neglected after being rented out for a number of years.”
The last tenants of one of the houses on the land were a group of young men who had built an international standard BMX track in the garden, which you can still see the remnants of.
The industry of the BMXers was admirable, but they also diverted an ephemeral stream that still hasn’t quite recovered.
After several years clearing weeds and rubbish, planting and track-building, the Reserve was finally opened to the public in April 2013. The Mayor was there to plant a kōwhai tree, the Morgans — who had forgiven the remainder of the loan they had given the Trust — and a couple of hundred locals.
In June though, an extreme storm hit the country.
“We had just opened the Reserve, had our first working bee, and a month later — it was devastation and we had to close it.”
It took them until November to clear the fallen trees, which thankfully had mostly hit the exotic trees — the natives had held strong.
“In a way it was quite a help, because we didn’t really want the exotic trees, but because they had been a part of the original garden they were covered by the [QEII Trust] covenant, we couldn’t cut them down. The storm did it for us.”
Since then, the work has mostly been trying to keep a regular group of volunteers to maintain and further the work in the Reserve, says Jennifer.
There have been times where she was the only person who turned up for a working bee. It all changed when she connected with Conservation Volunteers though.
That’s where Natalie Jones comes in. Her introduction to Paekawakawa was as a Conservation Volunteer a couple of years ago, and she fell in love with the place.
“It just kind of stuck with me, this little place, and then talking to Jennifer and hearing the story moved me. There was also that desire to have a little community that I don’t have living in the city. Everything fell into place.”
Natalie has since joined the Trust and is part of the new blood that Paekawakawa needed.
Paekawakawa, like many conservation projects around the city, are in need of people to help drive them, says Natalie.
“I think a massive amount of community projects in Wellington are being driven by a single, or a couple, of retired people who are super passionate and thankfully have the time to dedicate to it.
“A lot of people are facing the same struggle that Jennifer is — engaging younger people and a workforce to come and help out.”
Natalie has built some momentum at Paekawakawa by using social media to get people along to working bees — if you can get them to a working bee or planting day, you’re most of the way there, she says.
The day I turn up to take photos, and despite menacing-looking rain clouds, the working bee draws in about a dozen people. Over two hours we manage to clear a steep bank of a felled tree, a couple of sacks full of rubbish and a good layer of weeds, making room for us to plant about 50 new trees and shrubs.
After we’re finished, Natalie’s there to reward us with cake under the canopy as the clouds finally give in to rain.
“People are time-poor, but once people feel like they’re needed and see the project first-hand they’re pretty willing to get involved. There are some awesome people out there.
“A lot of it is not knowing what to get involved in and how. And lots of little barriers, whether it’s transport or time or the tools.”
Natalie now works at Conservation Volunteers, so gets to be one of the people that breaks down those barriers to get people doing the work needed and achieving something together.
“It’s that amazing feeling of accomplishing something. Looking back and seeing all these trees you’ve planted in something that was a bare patch before.
“Also, particularly for me, it’s the connections you make. Feeling like you’re part of something bigger than yourself, and everyone working together for the same cause, and a bit of hope.
“If you are interested in the climate and you read too much news it gets very depressing, very quickly.”
The new energy for the project is coming at the right time – the Trust have just started on a track-building project which will see the Reserve connected up with Tawatawa Reserve and Manawa Karioi.
Jennifer says she feels the project has really taken off, and she is finally feeling like she might be able to take less responsibility.
“I did say at the last meeting that this was my final year for being in charge. I wouldn’t give up, because I just love the Reserve. I love it. Because I’ve been there since the beginning, I just want to see it develop. It’s amazing, what’s happened.”
Natalie’s motivation is both in building a knitted-together community, and the good they can do for the environment.
“Firstly we need to replace some of the forests that have been felled and removed. New Zealand lost more than 70 percent of its forests after people came here — so we need to regenerate some of that for carbon sequestration, but also for things like flood control.
“The benefits are not just in having a green space that birds can come to, it’s all about people as well. People forget that. People think that only greenies or people who like wildlife should plant trees — but it’s for everyone’s benefit. Clean air, clean fresh water, bringing the wildlife back.”
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