While most of us are fishing or sunning ourselves, others are working to cloak the islands of the Gulf in green again. FIONA OLIPHANT joins them for a day's work.

It's hard to pick them from the tourists and day-trippers packed aboard the ferry to Rangitoto Island, but these people have not come for the harbour cruise or to climb the volcano. They are about to spend the best part of their Sunday painstakingly pricking out hundreds of native seedlings to grow a forest they may never see mature.

When the ferry berths at Rangitoto wharf and the other passengers disappear - some around the volcanic rock, others to begin the climb to the summit - the volunteers for the Motutapu plant nursery day cluster around the two Department of Conservation utes.

They are an ordinary-looking bunch dressed for the outdoors in boots, shorts and T-shirts, a group of 12 men and women, aged from teenage to elderly.


Perched on the back of the ute as we drive through Rangitoto's pohutukawa forest to Motutapu are Deb (short for Debashis) Dutta, Steve Moss and his two teenage daughters, Rachael and Sarah. Dutta, aged 35, is marvelling at the luxuriant vegetation sprouting from the volcanic rubble.

He is from Shillong, in the northeast of India, and this is his first trip to New Zealand and his first time out of Auckland. Judging from his smart cream cotton trousers and casual jacket, he is not expecting dirt.

Suddenly we emerge from the trees and rumble across the small wooden bridge and narrow estuarine gap between the two islands. The contrast between Rangitoto and Motutapu could not be more marked. We go from lush shadowy forest and ambient insect choir to the bright nitrogen-green of spring pasture dotted with grazing sheep and thistles.

The farm track sweeps up to the ridge. Looking back, there is an arm of bush snaking up a gully from the bay, a remnant that has been fenced, and a hint of what is to come.

Motutapu's restoration project has value beyond its shores. Rangitoto, which lies just metres away, has the largest pohutukawa forest in the world. As the elder of the islands, Motutapu was once a source of plants for Rangitoto's fledgling forest. The islands are biological siblings - what happens on one affects the other, which is why the control of weeds and animal pests on Motutapu is important for both islands.

So far DOC, with help from Auckland rotary clubs, has removed possums and wallabies from the islands, but rats, mice, hedgehogs, rabbits, stoats and wild cats remain, denting the bird, lizard and insect populations and hampering revegetation.

Releasing endangered birds on Motutapu, a real highlight on Tiritiri Matangi, an island seven times smaller than Motutapu, cannot even be considered until the island's predators are dealt with.

While a feasibility study into controlling these pests is underway, it will take a lot more funding if there is to be any hope of relieving the island of its pests and weeds.

Motutapu Restoration Trust chairperson Rob Fenwick says it is always difficult to raise money for community conservation projects and they are constantly on the lookout for new sponsors.

But the Whitney Charitable Trust gave them $25,000 for an information kiosk to be built on the island this summer to raise awareness about this otherwise low-profile project.

So for our volunteers, discovering the Motutapu restoration project was an adventure in itself. Dutta, who teaches botany in India and says he was enticed here by New Zealand's unique plant species (our kauri looms large in India's botany circles), discovered it on the DOC website.

Although he has travelled further than most, each of the volunteers made some effort to get here. One came from Hamilton, while another drove in from Pukekohe, foregoing a race with his running club. Everyone paid $16 for the discounted return ferry trip.

For nearly half of the Motutapu restoration volunteers, trips like these are a regular pastime. But not all have done this type of thing before. They are here because they love nature, think that replanting Motutapu in native trees is a worthy, special project and enjoy meeting people who share these interests.

June Holbrook, the eldest in the group (her age is a secret), has been planting on Motutapu since the project began in 1992. As soon as we arrive she busies herself in the potting shed, while resident DOC manager, Sandra Wotherspoon shows newcomers and novices how to transfer seedlings into the root trainer trays.

Soon Holbrook is carefully teasing a carpet of moss from a seed tray to let the ngaio seedlings through, her head down, striped blue hat pulled low over her glasses. She is pleased to be interrupted and explains how she was looking for something useful to do in her retirement.

"It's no use sitting at home watching TV," she says. "You've got to keep busy doing something useful and learning. I don't want to vegetate."

Holbrook gets out to the island whenever she can, particularly during the winter planting season which she enjoys, although increased care for her 92-year-old mum has restricted her trips this year. Dubbed the matriarch of Motutapu, she prefers to see herself as just a senior citizen who loves life and nature.

Russel Greenwood, aged 58, a teacher at Selwyn College, gets stuck in filling the trays with potting mix as soon as we arrive. An energetic, grey-haired figure in overalls, he is something of a ringleader and helps to run the planting days, regularly staying overnight on the island to set things up.

Greenwood first read about the Motutapu project seven years ago and now goes to most of the dozen planting days and six nursery days each year. "I love coming here," he enthuses. "It's such a fascinating project, just a 30-minute ferry ride from downtown Auckland. It's extraordinary that two such different islands are connected."

Replanting Motutapu is a labour of love. The goal, over 50 years, is to restore about half of the island's 1500ha to something of its original ecology and to protect relics of the island's long and rich human history.

Motutapu was settled before Rangitoto erupted from the sea some 600 years ago, showering its neighbour with ash. Generations of Maori gardened Motutapu's friable soils, sculpting the landscape with their settlements and storage pits.

The arrival of Pakeha and grazing animals changed the land and today pockets of straggly bush and wetlands adrift in pasture are all that is left of the island's former vegetation.

The plan is to build on these remnant areas, fill in the gaps and radiate outwards with plants grown from seed collected from both islands.

When completed, only half the island will be planted to preserve the many archaeological sites, early farming settlements and Second World War military sites that thread the land.

So far, 100ha has been fenced, and around 60ha planted. Over the past decade, some 1400 volunteers have planted more than 200,000 plants.

Areas such as the head of Home Bay valley are now young forest. Cabbage trees, fecund with wheat-coloured flowers, stand sentinel along the fenceline and manuka and karamu, grow to four metres. The glimpses of grass between the plantings are shrinking.

One veteran volunteer - "just call me Trevor" - describes the sight as "just so satisfying", the palpable evidence of progress. Along with others in the group, Trevor started off helping to replant Tiritiri Matangi.

While progress on Motutapu may be slow, the volunteers have time to spare. But, possibly because of lack of publicity, volunteer numbers have dropped over the past couple of years.

Planting days used to peak at 250 people, but during the planting seasons of 2000 and last year, the biggest days drew only 100.

Sandra Wotherspoon suggests that people who have been out a couple of times may have lost interest. Also, there is increasing competition from planting days on the mainland, which for many people are cheaper and more convenient.

But she is not too worried about the decline. "It doesn't mean the project is less successful because we're planting 10,000 fewer trees a year," she says.

"It's still a significant amount of land going back into trees - and the time not spent organising planting days can be used to focus on pest and weed control, which are probably more important than planting at this stage."

The volunteers say they will all be back. As they loiter in the shade house to admire the day's work - 3000 seedlings lined up ready for next season's planting - the newcomers especially seem ready for more.

Dutta, who is looking for work in New Zealand and awaiting the arrival of his wife and son from India, says he will return.

Walking down the farm track to Rangitoto and the Islington Bay wharf in the amiable glow of the late afternoon sun, we re-cross the bridge and leave the paddocks for the trees.

The boat trip back is almost empty, but the volunteers sit packed into several booths snatching the conversations they did not have time for during the day. "There is no need to prick them out now. Will you be back?" they ask.

* Motutapu volunteers can book with Sandra or John Wotherspoon, ph (09) 372 5560. Nursery workdays will continue through January.