Sunday, December 7, 2008


I grew up in Waitati, the decaying hippy town cosied in Blueskin Bay north of Dunedin. It used to be 20 minutes into hockey on a Saturday in the boot of someones Kingswood. Its now 10 minutes over the straightened motorway, but Waitati is still another world from Dunedin and most of the traffic whizzes right on by. Waitati was a great place to grow up, a beautiful beach to walk along with a cave at the far end backing onto rugged coastline, an estuary where we used to fish and Rabbit Island. The island was the scene of my first major kayak journey across the channel from the beach and I also remember coming home from town in the dark one night to see the pine trees on the island ablaze.

Out the back of Waitati was a wooded valley. Orokonui. The giant eucalyptis grove contained "New Zealands Tallest Tree" which was a regular family outing. To get there we crossed the swingbridge, it was a very unswingy swingbridge, and wandered along Orokonui Road past the spooky old cemetry. We passed the site of the school cross country and the green waste tip where we cut firewood. There was a heavy wooden gate that led to the track through a narrow riparian strip between paddocks of Wapiti. I knew from an early age that Orokonui stream was a hotbed of biodiversity. In fact in one school project I was going to survey the entire stream, a couple of desperate field-trips later the project was abandoned. The riparian strip was replanted by my and other schools with the Department of Conservation, we checked the progress of these trees and debated whose was whose.

I remember when my Dad and John De Vries (who seemed to own half of Orokonui), and me, hacked a track down from Blueskin Road to link up with the walkway to the tallest tree. The old plantations were everywhere. Later we had community service work parties, dodgy dudes with slashers. Later this track grew into disrepair. When I went to University in Dunedin one of my favourite runs to show friends from out of town was to park up in Waitati, run through Doctors Point to the Beach, then through the Cave to Purakanui (it all seems much smaller now). We would either run around or cross the inlet and run over the hill to Long Beach, then the headlands to Kaikai and Murdering beaches. Rare spots frequented only by the lucky locals. The hill back up and around to Blueskin Road was a test and the last descent down Orokonui the reward. The memories of the old track flooding back and a quick check out of the tallest tree.

The predator proof fence at Orokonui: credit Otago Natural History Trust

It was with some excitement that I heard about the idea of an Orokonui Eco-Sanctuary, Dunedins answer to Wellingtons Karori Wildlife Sanctuary. There was some initial discussion that maybe a bigger area, or an area with a wider range of habitats may be more suitable, but the people with the drive and the power went ahead and got the job done. I was also slightly disappointed recently when I heard the main entrance to the park would be from the top, rather than from the valley, but I guess when local concerns and landowner issues were considered this is reasonable. Flicking through the site everything seems to be going very well, it seems to be very professionally organised. I am also pleased to see the tradition for using the Community Service people to build tracks is continuing!

The latest development is the release of six Kaka into the sanctuary. The first reintroduction of this species to an area on the mainland. This is a brave move with the Kakas tendency to stray and the vast area of suitable, if more dangerous, forest nearby.

The planned visitor centre at Orokonui: credit Otago Natural History Trust

Visiting scientists have also identified some terrific looking fungi in the sanctuary, which you can see photos of if you look through the site, and I now learn that the Orokonui stream has 11 (or is it 9) species of native fish. That is amazing. The Orokonui sanctuary sure is a special project and I wish it all the best. When I am next down I will visit and take some photos to update this blog. In the meantime there are more of these projects to familiarise yourself with on the excellent sanctuariesnz website. People and communities making things happen.

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