After 50 years of mapping, Whangārei Department of Conservation (DoC) near-retiree Terry Conaghan knows the layout of the land like the back of his hand.
Back in 1971 when he began as a drafting cadet, land mapping involved drawing up and then repetitively tracing over plans with a pen and paper. Half a century later, the geospatial information co-ordinator has himself to thank for life made easier with the evolution of digital mapping throughout DoC.
Conaghan was 18 when he took a job in Auckland at the Department of Lands and Survey.
"I was interested in conservation and good at draughting so the idea of being a draughtsman drawing maps and plans in an organisation running national parks appealed."
Two years later, the Whangārei lad was transferred back to his home town before being moved into Department of Survey and Land Information (DOSLI) and later joining the Department of Conservation draughting graphics team and becoming supervisor.
His job entailed identifying the best potential use of the land based on the soil type for the likes of horticulture, pastoral farming or forestry, then drawing plans and producing maps.
Not only was it mapping the land, but the assets of the land such as its inhabitants and archaeological features. High weed and pest areas were also identified, supporting the work of the rangers in the field.
"I remember when the first possums arrived," the 67-year-old recalled. "Along with a greater number of pests, we also now have more problems with weeds and climate change."
One of the biggest changes he has noticed is the higher population with more people using the land for walking tracks – one of the recreational facilities his team caters for with its mapping, along with huts and bridges.
"These were all hand-drawn before we started using computers in the late-90s."
Conaghan has been instrumental in DoC's transition to digital technology. His team was one of the first in New Zealand to switch to computers for the use of mapping and they trained teams around the country.
"We went from pen and ink, scribing, photographic processes, etc, to now fully geographic information systems that reuse data for many things. It sometimes took a bit of convincing to get staff to move with the new technology. When you look at what we have now with mapping apps to enable operations staff to plan their work and record the results, we have come a very long way."
He was also behind the evolution and a champion of Geospatial Information Systems (GIS) mapping at DoC, the technology behind Google Maps and computer navigation systems.
"It meant, once we had good data, we could reuse it and make maps more easily. I was making a map this morning and it took three-quarters of an hour, as opposed to two to three days.
"It's a matter of capturing data and reusing it multiple times, whereas we once would have had to start with blank paper. It's made New Zealand's productivity increase dramatically and freed up time for more analysis to help decision-making."
Wild fire mapping is another element to the job; the team carry out thermal imaging and identify plans for fire response.
This involves capturing hotspots using thermal imagery from a helicopter, predicting where the fire will spread to and providing the data to firefighters on the ground.
"We map those positions using GPS, which the firefighters pick up through their GPS units, and, at the same time, we mark the site with a pink ribbon weighted down so the firefighters can locate it on the ground," he explained.
But even this technology is likely to evolve intro drone use, allowing flying in more adverse conditions, Conaghan said.
Although he mainly focused on Northland, his job entailed managing a team for the North Island along with jointly managing a workload across the country. As a result, he is very familiar with the layout of the country, in particular Northland terrain.
A highlight of his career has been helping locate Northland's highest point.
"The heights mapped using photogrammetry showed that part of the Tutamoe range was the same height or higher than Waima but the contours were showing from the mapping and surveying that Waima Forest was higher than Tutamoe so we set out to prove it. My climbing skills were needed to erect a flag above the tree canopy for the survey crew on the valley floor."
Another stand-out memory was running the GIS team supporting the urban search and rescue teams for a week following the Canterbury Earthquake.
"Our team supported the urban search and rescues providing data on which areas had been searched and what needed to still be searched to ensure no one was trapped in buildings," he explained.
"It was pretty fraught. It was helping out in terrible circumstances and it was pretty emotional going into the city centre."
Not that Conaghan's a stranger to trauma. Alongside his DoC work, he was involved in search and rescue for around 35 years, first as foot soldier on the ground, before moving into managing searches. In 1975, he spent days searching for bodies after the Capitaine Bougainville tragedy.
"(Search and Rescue) use similar skills. I know the layout of the land and my personal knowledge of the forest (he has tramped extensively throughout the country) certainly came in handy."
Then in the early 80s, he wound up on the other side of a rescue operation after a huge storm flooded the Motu River where he and a group were on a rafting trip, leaving them stranded for days.
"(The helicopter crew) thought they'd find us dead. But we were eating possums, eels and goat," he said, adding that the cuisine was so good, they took the leftover smoked possum home with them.
Conaghan has no plans to step back from the rugged outdoors with retirement this week; intending to continue tramping, kayaking, caving and mountain biking.
"The intention is to retire and go off and do things like camping. I've always gone to remote areas but now that I'm slowing down, I'll be using those huts and tracks."