A True Kiwi Experience: Motutapu Island

May 6th  (Yup, the day after the Americans celebrated Cinco de Mayo)

As part of our Study Abroad program all of the Loyola students have to do an immersion project; we get to choose between interviewing and writing an article about a Kiwi who has lived in New Zealand for all/most of their lives or do a significant amount of service hours with one organization. I opted for the service as I figured I could get the best out of both worlds. A friend of mine who studied abroad here a couple of years ago suggested a conservation project on Motutapu Island, where he did his immersion project. The island’s ecology has been suffering as the introduction of non-indigenous plants have been destroying the native ecosystem and spreading to other islands too. I figured that since I have enjoyed my time here so much the least I could do is try and preserve what makes New Zealand so beautiful as best I can for the next generation of students and maybe even my kids who want to come to this amazing country. I got in contact with the site coordinator, Belinda, and she was more than happy to have me as a volunteer. My friend TJ was looking for a service project to so I gave him Belinda’s contact info and he became a volunteer too. I was excited to have a partner in this new adventure.

We met the volunteers bright and early on Sunday morning at the ferry station. We were given a discounted ferry rate to get to Motutapu and got comfortable on the top deck of the ferry, ready to start our voyage (with a large cup of coffee in hand of course!). Motutapu is located pretty far out into the bar so we got a really nice tour of Davenport the islands of Waiheke and Matuihe along the way. Once we got off the ferry on Matutapu it was a quick walk to the barn where two beautiful horses were waiting to great us. They were dancing around and pretending to be afraid of us when really I think they just wanted to play and satisfy their curiosity for the newcomers. The volunteers broke up into 3 groups; those who would work in the nursery, weeding, and planting. TJ and I volunteered to plant trees. It was a nice 20 minute hike to get to our planting site. The walk really woke me up and got me excited for the day. We broke up into pairs and watched the demonstration on how to best plant the trees and where. The goal was that each pair would plant 20 trees.

TJ and I worked together; he dug the holes while I did the planting. We were planting  pioneer species of trees such as mahoe, ngaio, mapou, puahou, and wharangi. The goal of the planting is to convert about 3.5 hectares of pasture into lush forrest again. During the week planters work on introducing final phase trees that will last for centuries into other parts of the island. All of the species are native and have seen significant drops in numbers due to the inability to compete with foreign plants such as the poplar tree. Before lunch we had pretty much kept to ourselves and focused on the planting, we got 18 trees in the ground before we were halfway done with the day. I’m not going to lie, I did a lot of pep-talking to my trees. I must have looked like a crazy person but somehow I don’t think anyone really minded. TJ thought it was pretty funny. I would just kind of mumble about how they were going to grow up to make New Zealand beautiful and say a little prayer to help them along the way. I hope it works.

After lunch we calmed down a little bit and opened up. There was a team of two older men working near us and we started chatting with them about New Zealand and America. I realized then that I hadn’t had many opportunities to talk with older Kiwis and that their perspective on the country was quite different from that of the students I had been spending my time with. We had a great time chatting and making Australia jokes. We found that they had an appreciation for America that is lacking in the younger generations and I didn’t have to tread so lightly when talking about where I am from. We learned that it is pretty rare for young people to do service of volunteer work of their own volition and we were praised for our efforts. TJ and I managed to plant 40 trees together! We were so proud of our work. Where we were planting was an old sloping pasture so when we finished we stood at the top of the hill and our efforts were overwhelmingly visible. The land looked so different from when we started; healthy and hopeful. The soil on the island is some of the best in the North because Motutapu was created in the last explosion of Rangitoto. Deep down is clay but above that is dense, moist black soil chalk-full of earthworms. As a group we didn’t get all of the plants in the ground that we had wanted to but our leaders said that it was better to take our time and make sure the trees are well places and planted so they have the best chance possible at surviving than rushing to try and get everything in the ground with one go. Nothing in haste.

After we had cleaned up the area a little bit we headed to the homestead next to the barn where we started for a little snack and to get cleaned up (I was a hot and sweaty mess!) before the ferry arrived. We had a cuppa with our new friends and chatted about school and the differences we had experienced in our travels and home.  Something I have observed about all of my conversations with Kiwis is how honest they are. They don’t pull any punches and aren’t afraid to tell you their true opinion. And likewise they want to hear what you really think as well. Once everyone had a chance to have a sausage and something hot to drink we gathered together to hear reports of what the other teams that had joined us did. Everyone had had a really successful day and worked hard. After all the official stuff was over TJ and I took some time to sit quietly and reflect on the day. I can’t wait to go back. There is nothing quite like getting your hands dirty with real salt of the earth, down to earth people. We got back on the ferry and said our goodbyes, promising to be back soon.

One of the reasons why New Zealand is so great is that it isn’t taboo or “liberal” to be environmentally aware or active. One of the Kiwi girls on my floor I was chatting with the other day thinks that this is because the population of New Zealand is so small so it is easier to appreciate the land for what it is instead of constantly looking at it as a resource to be consumed. I think it is because the current population sees how beautiful this place is in comparison to the rest of the world and is very aware of how far it could fall if abused. The cultural Maori connection with the land and the respect that the Kiwis and Pakehas have for that connection keeps New Zealand a Godzone. If you want to see a miracle, look at a full grown tree. If you want to be a miracle, plant one and watch it grow. I will spend about 140 days in New Zealand total and I am hoping that I can plant a tree for every day I’ve loved this place. Only 100 more to go.
Fun Fact: Motutapu in Maori means “sacred land”. The project to restore the natural and cultural landscape of the island started in 1990. Thousands of volunteers plant trees, protect historic sites, attack weeds, work in the tree nursery, and clean the shore lines. This restoration effort has become the most far-reaching public conservation project in New Zealand. I am so proud to be a part of it!

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