You can't get any further from the Fox River than the Far North – but that hasn't stopped local students putting their hands up to help clean up one of New Zealand's worst environmental disasters.

Eight teenagers from Te Kura Taumata o Panguru, or Panguru Area School, and the same number from Taipa Area School left at 6am on Tuesday morning, August 6, on a two-day journey south to brave sleet and rain picking rubbish out of a river in South Westland.

They are accompanied by Panguru principal Mina Pomare-Peita, parents, Department of Conservation senior ranger Doug Te Wake and other Kaitaia-based DoC staff.

It's not even the first time Panguru's environmentally-minded students have travelled south to lend a hand. Last month a group of 10 gave up part of their holidays to volunteer in the trash-strewn valley.

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Danni Morgan-Te Wake, former Northland Age employee Lorien Meyers and Toni-Marie Eramiha-Waru take a break from rubbish picking. Photo / Doug Te Wake
Danni Morgan-Te Wake, former Northland Age employee Lorien Meyers and Toni-Marie Eramiha-Waru take a break from rubbish picking. Photo / Doug Te Wake

The disaster occurred on March 26-27 when floodwaters washed tens of thousands of tonnes of rubbish from a disused landfill into the once-pristine Fox River. Decades worth of waste was scattered across 1270ha of river bed – more than the area of 1800 rugby fields – and along 64km of the west coast.

When the clean-up overwhelmed the cash-strapped Westland District Council, DoC and the NZ Defence Force stepped in and organised Operation Tidy Fox. About 100 volunteers have been taking part each day alongside more than 50 army personnel.

Mr Te Wake said the first group left on July 11 and returned at midnight on the 18th. The trip took two days each way in a mix of DoC and private vehicles. The students would start collecting rubbish each day at 9am and knock off around 3.30pm.

"We'd get sun, rain and sleet in one day. Our fingers got absolutely numb. We seemed to be the only ones who noticed, for the people from the South Island it was the norm.

"The kids were full of beans and gave 100 per cent on the first day, even though they hadn't caught up on sleep. It was very demanding, physical work, and by the last day everyone had run out of petrol."

Any volunteers who got too cold or tired were able to rest in vehicles where they were monitored by army medics.

Danni Morgan-Te Wake surveys the enormity of the work still to be done. Photo / Doug Te Wake
Danni Morgan-Te Wake surveys the enormity of the work still to be done. Photo / Doug Te Wake

Mr Te Wake was motivated by the overwhelming response from around the country after Panguru was devastated by floods in 1999.

"Ever since then our little community has been paying it forward. When DoC put out the call we were in a position to help."

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As for the kids, who hadn't even been born in 1999, it was natural to want to help.

"We are encouraging them to be kaitiaki. They will be the decision makers in the future and will inherit what we leave behind."

The students took home many lessons, Mr Te Wake said. They saw how dumb decisions could have far-reaching consequences – such as the decision decades ago to locate a landfill next to a flood-prone river – and learned to question what happened to their own rubbish after they had put it in a bin.

Oliki Foliola, 14, was among the first group of volunteers.

"I've seen heaps of videos of how the environment has been destroyed and polluted, so I thought it would be a nice thing to do.

"Some of it was fun and some of it was cold but it was worth it. There was a lot of rubbish. It was upsetting to see," she said.

Apart from the chance to help out, highlights included seeing snow-topped mountains for the first time and riding in army trucks.

Glen Makaua, Danni Morgan-Te Wake and Hinepito Wijohn at work in the Fox River bed. Photo / Doug Te Wake
Glen Makaua, Danni Morgan-Te Wake and Hinepito Wijohn at work in the Fox River bed. Photo / Doug Te Wake

Principal Mina Pomare-Peita said, in a video recorded by DoC, the aim of taking part in Operation Tidy Fox was "to ensure the next generation learns about re-engaging with the whenua, with the mountains and the rivers".

"They can't do that just by sitting in the classroom," she said.

None of the students complained, despite the hard work and conditions.

"It was cold, of course, we're from the Winterless North, but that was part of the adventure and excitement as well."

Mrs Pomare-Peita said the students were made to feel at home as word got around about how far they had come.

"It just makes you feel great to be hanging out with and working alongside people who have the same whakaaro (thoughts), not only about cleaning up this place, but also about wanting the best for our country. We all want a healthy, sustainable environment," she said.

The second group is expected to return home on August 13.

Despite the huge effort, conservation group Forest and Bird says the river may never be fully cleaned up.

Their fear is that much rubbish remains trapped under boulders and be will be washed out in future floods.

■Go to youtu.be/A1Bn1iJYZgATo watch Mina Pomare-Peita's interview.