When a Dutch tourist couple driving up from Akaroa came across a Kaitiaki slogging on a mountain bike, they were naturally surprised. The old man had a bushy white beard, along with blue eyes- and red face from the onslaught of the climb, he did look like a lean Santa Claus. As they passed him, the tourists paused and asked him his age. Interestingly, the old man couldn’t correctly answer his old age, as he calculated it somewhere between 47 and 74.
This story was narrated by Dr. Hugh Wilson from his couch, where sauntered in Ugg boots, and a red and black Swanndri. The couch is an old velvet one with two possum skins- out of which one of them has been dyed a brilliant red- which rests on the arms of the couch. Sitting on the couch, one could let their gaze flow over Hinewai, the 1250 hectare reserve that Hugh manages personally.
The Story Of Dr. Hugh Wilson
Dr. Hugh Wilson’s, or the Kaitiaki’s house, is a quaint, cozy little timber cabin that rattles threateningly in the wind. It sits at the top of the reserve and offers views down a valley that is covered in stands of fuchsia, kanuka, old-growth red beech, and five-finger. On rare occasions, one can also spot the odd lone podocarp to Otanerito Bay where Hinewai ends and the sea begins.
This all began in 1987 when this same eagle point only offered gorse and stubbly sheep pasture. From the perspective of conservation, the main features of this area were a few eaten-out pockets of old-growth beech. Wilson, however, saw the silver lining beneath the dark clouds. In 1983, the botanist started on a survey of Banks Peninsula for the Departments of Lands & Surveys’ Protected Natural Areas Programme.
Over the course of the survey, the Kaitiaki, who had previously been in operation on similar surveys through Aoraki and Stewart Island, was quite surprised by how much endemic life existed on this peninsula. All but a single percent of the forest of the peninsula had been cleared for farming by the turn of the century. But Wilson saw that native bush, lizards, birds, and insects did cling on in neglected gullies and uninhabitable hilltops.
Kaitiaki dreamed of purchasing some land where he would allow nature to take control over herself, but he knew that he didn’t have the means to do so. Then, at a Bird and Forest meeting in 1986, he met Maurice White, a businessman from Christchurch, who had been in the process of creating a trust fund to buy the land on the Banks Peninsula for conservation since 1977. In 1987, the Maurice White trust decided to buy 109ha of the marginal hill country that surrounds Otanerito Bay. The reserve was called Hinewai, and Wilson became its Kaitiaki.
The Kaitiaki’s Methods Were Unorthodox
From the very beginning, the conservation methods of the Kaitiaki did cause major heat between the locals and the local authorities. He had identified that gorse- which was an exotic weed local farmers were constantly fighting to clear from their land- was quite an effective crop for nursery in the native forest. Many of the natives he wanted to encourage at the site grew best under the shade that was provided by the trees above them.
Kaitiaki is quite quick to stress that using gorse as the primary nursery crop wasn’t really his original idea, but even in 1987, the theory was covered by good science. Today, it has paid off with even more areas being bought by the trust. The extensive reserves are maintained by Hughes along with a full-time employee and a part-timer. Their duties include clearing any stray gorse saplings as well as catching possums.
The lone Kaitiaki has even coined a proverb from his years of stay at the reserve: “People pass away, but the land remains.” Truly, can there be anything more true?