Auckland Zoo's new Te Wao Nui exhibit celebrates our unique flora and fauna, writes Dionne Christian
Imogen and Christopher are only 6, but they've already got some fairly grown-up (and entirely self-directed) goals: they talk about sailing the seven seas to save whales and other endangered species, cleaning up coastlines and, when it's too windy to sail, working in Imogen's "Super Vet" clinic.
Auckland Zoo's latest attraction is made for these aspiring conservationists - and anyone else who wants to stay in town but see New Zealand in a day and learn - or be reminded - about our truly unique flora and fauna.
Te Wao Nui, opening next weekend is the largest and most significant project in the zoo's 88-year history. For $16 million, a 17ha New Zealand precinct, which offers locals and tourists alike an immersive journey through six distinct habitats, has been created.
Authentically landscaped and including features to highlight human influence, The Coast, The Islands, The Wetlands, The Night, The Forest and The High Country house 100 native plant species and 60 different animal species.
That we share our islands with so many animal species is the first surprise we got when we heard about Te Wao Nui. Zoo director Jonathan Wilcken has championed Te Wao Nui, saying New Zealand is home to some of the world's rarest but most threatened birds, reptiles, marine mammals and insects. But as Jonathan says, they're not the natural "tigers" of the world.
"They tend to hide their lights under bushels but once you get to know them, you begin to see how amazing they are so we want people to build an appreciation for them and you do that by showing the habitats they live in."
Treated to a sneak preview of Te Wao Nui, Imogen, Christopher and his younger brother Jeremy, just turned 5, quickly start marvelling. We walk past the entrance to The Coast where a life-size replica of a whale skeleton elicits the awe-inspired "whoas" kids do so well. We don't stop here but head to The Islands.
This represents the rugged and often windswept dots of remote land scattered off New Zealand. Because they are too inhospitable for humans and too distant for predators, they have become accidental refuges for a number of species long gone from the mainland.
They include Cook Strait tuatara, Antipodes Island parakeets and Campbell Island teal.
It's here the kids meet a New Zealand icon. Toa, a 16-year-old tuatara, seems as fascinated by them as they are by her. She appears to size them up, figure out the threat level and decide, because they speak quietly and look totally rapt, that they're friendly.
Chris and Imogen are struck by how soft Toa feels while Jeremy mentions she is cold. Older brother explains this is because reptiles are cold-blooded, adding Toa could live until she's more than 100.
Saying a reluctant goodbye and whispering "we just saw a tuatara - whoa!", they head toward The Wetlands, home to long-finned eel, pateke (brown teal) and New Zealand kingfisher.
The kids thoroughly enjoy walking across Te Wao Nui's swing bridges and wondering what lives in the streams and waterways which are a prominent feature of the precinct. "No crocodiles - we don't really get them in New Zealand," Imogen points out as Chris nods sagely while Jeremy looks wary and somewhat unconvinced.
That water has such a central focus makes sense, given we're not only a coastal nation - ours is the 10th longest coastline in the world - but also one where rivers, streams and wetlands are important.
In The Forest, with its towering stands of native trees and babbling brook, the kids forget they are anywhere near the city and begin looking for North Island kaka, tui, kereru (wood pigeon), yellow-crowned and red-crowned parakeets and bellbirds.
We walk - and they skip - from The Forest to The Night. Darkness is when New Zealand really comes alive with kiwi, ruru (morepork), weta and short-tailed bats emerging. As the kids point out, we hear about these creatures but don't see them often.
Other species in The Night include Archey's frogs, kauri snails, Duvaucel's gecko and banded kokopu, a fish found in rivers, lakes and swamps.
Walking through The High Country, we're fascinated to learn the whio (blue duck), who will live here, like fast-flowing streams. The exhibit includes such a stream because one of the zoo's many conservation projects is to breed whio for release and they need to learn to, um, swim!
"A bit like us - for when we might want to swim with whales," says Christopher matter-of-factly.
The tour ends back at The Coast, watching New Zealand fur seals swim in the deep blue and then - as a special treat and not a regular feature of Te Wao Nui - helping to hand-feed some cheeky and inquisitive little blue penguins.
They are completely won over by the penguins - and we parents know what is coming next.
"Do you think we could have a penguin? PLEEEEEEEEEEEAASE."
The big reveal
The Department of Conservation and Ngati Whatua o Orakei are key partners with Auckland Zoo in Te Wao Nui. Te Wao Nui opens Sunday, September 11 at noon. Friends of the Zoo access from 9.30am. Normal admission prices apply.