It was a hot, sunny day. A Tuesday. November 9, 1852.
A man named John Jolliffe set off on foot with a party of travellers to walk from Tauranga, along the coast, to Maketū.
They left at low tide when the sand was hard, damp and cool.
We know this because Jolliffe kept detailed journals and described what he saw while walking along the beach that day.
He was a surgeon on board the British Royal Navy's H.M.S Pandora, which was conducting a survey of the New Zealand coast and was anchored in Tauranga Harbour.
Jolliffe's words offer a window back in time and provide some much-needed context to a present-day debate.
His story meets this story where fresh water met salt – at the mouth of Wairākei Stream.
"At about noon we halted at a stream the Wairaki (sic) and got our dinners," Jolliffe wrote.
"This was the first fresh water we met with since leaving Tauranga. There were plenty of ducks swimming about and apparently very tame but we had no gun with us. A pretty bird with long red legs, black and white body, long neck and black bill was also plentiful, the first I remember seeing of the kind."
Jolliffe identified that "pretty bird" as "a kind of stilt" and, based on his description, it is likely he was describing the pied stilt – poaka, a dainty wading native bird of Aotearoa.
Fast forward 167 years to today, and there are no longer plentiful poaka wading along the Wairākei. You would be lucky to see just one.
In fact, the Wairākei is no longer a stream.
Over time, it has been cut off from both its headwaters in the Pāpāmoa Hills, and its natural coastal outlet into Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa (the Pacific Ocean).
The Wairākei once teemed with native fish and birds. It was connected to and fed into, the vast wetlands that once stretched across the Pāpāmoa coast behind the sand dunes.
To enable large-scale flax harvesting, then farming, and, later, residential development, those wetlands were gradually drained.
What exists now – a few streets back from the beach, wedged between residential subdivisions – is a substitute waterway that's main purpose is flood control and stormwater disposal, treatment and storage.
That is why, for a long time, the Wairākei was known as the Papamoa Main Drain.
Now, it is called Te Ara ō Wairākei – the path of Wairākei.
The new name reflects the fact that, yes, this waterway is no longer a stream, while, at the same time, acknowledging its rich ecological and cultural history that has long been forgotten.
But more can be done. A name is not enough.
While this meandering network of stormwater ponds and canals remains a highly modified remnant of the original coastal wetlands, it is a far cry from the stream that was named "Wairākei" for its translucent water.
In summer, after long dry stretches without rain, algal blooms now often flare up and the water starts to stink.
Where Wairākei Stream once flowed freely through this corridor and emptied out into the sea, the water now sits stagnant.
And yet, remarkably, life remains – including some native species. Taonga.
This Wairākei corridor and the surrounding landscape – comprising of the Pāpāmoa Hills, Mangatawa, Kaiate Falls and other forested areas and waterways – have significant historic, cultural, spiritual, and ecological value to Ngā Pōtiki. They are closely associated with Ngā Pōtiki's history in this area and its cultural worldview.
And so, Ngā Pōtiki has been working with Tauranga City Council and other iwi and hapū partners to make sure those native species are given every opportunity to re-establish themselves and flourish in Te Ara ō Wairākei reserve.
Ngā Pōtiki views the Te Ara ō Wairākei project as an opportunity to preserve and enhance what is left of the natural environment along this significantly important 15km green corridor, and maintain its mana, not just for Ngā Pōtiki people and native wildlife, but for all residents of Pāpāmoa and the wider Tauranga community to enjoy.
One way of doing that is by carrying out native riparian planting along the waterway. Already, hundreds of thousands of native plants have been planted.
But now a group of residents whose houses sit alongside a small section of the reserve have decided they do not want native riparian planting along 'their' section of the waterway.
Some plants have been pulled out in protest, despite being on public land managed by the council.
And so now the native planting has stopped – not just in that section, but across the whole reserve.
Some of the native planting along Te Ara ō Wairākei will provide edge habitat for īnanga (which have an "At Risk – Declining" DoC conservation status), in anticipation of these fish returning to spawn.
Other indigenous plant species have been chosen to improve water quality (especially temperature), stabilise banks, and provide aquatic habitat for native resident species such as tuna – shortfin eel, and longfin eel (which also have an "At Risk – Declining" DoC conservation status).
The type of plants chosen will also reduce the potential for public/pet contact with water that is unsafe, reduce lawn clippings entering the ponds (which contributes to the algal blooms), and provide an easily maintained edge for mowing contractors.
But especially important for Ngā Pōtiki, the native planting will improve water quality and biodiversity, and that is something everyone will benefit from.
At a time when the consequences of habitat and ecosystem destruction which could not be clearer or more alarming , here is a local project that is trying to do the opposite.
I applaud the council for taking on such a large project for the benefit of the community.
I recently showed Jolliffe's journal to one of the ecologists working on the Te Ara ō Wairākei project.
She said the presence of the pied stilt in 1852 gives you a good sense of what the Wairākei must have been like back then.
Stilts have specific requirements for foraging, the ecologist explained, and so their plentiful presence in the Wairākei suggests the stream was likely surrounded by estuarine and wetland systems with a lot of shallows and abundant aquatic insects for that species to forage on.
Old maps of the area and Ngā Pōtiki oral histories confirm the scale of the Pāpāmoa wetlands that surrounded the Wairākei.
Te Ara ō Wairākei reserve will obviously never return to that kind of landscape but it is possible that residents of Pāpāmoa and Tauranga who cycle, walk and run along the adjacent paths could once again see the pretty pied stilt wading through the water.
The native planting used in the Te Ara ō Wairākei project will increase insect life and provide a buffer to encourage these shy wading birds to return.
That same planting will support increasing numbers of tūī, fantail (pīwakawaka), kingfisher (kōtare), fluttering groups of New Zealand scaup (pāpango) and brown teal (pāteke), and maybe even the stealthy banded rail (moho pererū), marsh crake (koitareke) and bittern (matuku).
People will start to see and hear native birds in the surrounding trees and shrubs. The water will be cleaner and not smell as bad in summer, and the birdsong might even start to drown out the rumble of passing cars.
Below the still surface of the water, there will be īnanga and tuna.
It will be a thriving green corridor in one of the fastest-growing areas in Aotearoa.
But only if the planting continues. Like people, nature cannot return without a home to return to and food to nourish it.
- Scott Yeoman is a communications adviser at Ngā Pōtiki ā Tamapahore Trust.