Most people know exactly when Shawn Vennell is busy at his pet project, Wairākei Drive.

His ute with the distinctive kererū logo carrying mowers and other pruning gear is a sign that he's at it again.

Shawn, the owner of Taupō business Quality Print, remembers that in the 1970s and 1980s as a child travelling from his home in Wairākei Village into Taupō for school, Wairākei Drive was a park-like highway.

When the Taupō Bypass was completed in 2010, Wairākei Drive was decommissioned as State Highway 1. Shawn saw his chance to approach Taupō District Council to see if he could help get this northern approach to Taupō back to its previous state.

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He got started under the banner of Vegetator Vennell, with his logo of the diamond-shaped frame with the kereru created by brush artist Charles Williams.

Shawn clearing weeds to make space for native plants.
Shawn clearing weeds to make space for native plants.

He started out just doing an hour after work here and there but soon became so enthused by the project that he began dedicating his weekends to it as well.

His vision is not only to banish the weeds and restore the trees to Wairākei Drive but to bring back an abundance of bird life, sheltered under a protective canopy of native vegetation. The area and its many gullies act as an important bird flight corridor to the Waikato River, where birds can move from the Wairākei Golf+Sanctuary to Aratiatia and along to Taupō township, with food and shelter provided by belts of native plants.

Now in its fifth year of restoration, Wairākei Drive is a road transformed. While there is still a lot of work to be done, large chunks of weeds have been eaten away and replaced with mainly natives. The road-side is gradually becoming more attractive and the stage is set for some finer touch-ups.

A cleared area between Karetoto Rd and Wairākei Drive, Taupō, ready for planting.
A cleared area between Karetoto Rd and Wairākei Drive, Taupō, ready for planting.

Shawn swears by the boost to mental wellbeing that doing something to help nature can provide. He often just spends an hour to maintain a site after he finishes his work. He reckons it gives him a sense of achievement and fulfilment and a little change of scenery is good for the mind.

While Shawn has been toiling on his own for four years, lately he has been helped by a few people who have lent a hand and he would appreciate more.

Last year when Taupō was awarded New Zealand's Most Beautiful Large Town, he was encouraged by the pride and support from the community. A few residents have now become volunteer helpers, including his family and friends.

Shawn Vennell using an auger to make holes for native plants.
Shawn Vennell using an auger to make holes for native plants.

He loves the sense of community input and ownership that comes from other people wanting to help.

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"For example, last year I had these contractors, small and larger ones approach me to ask how they could be of use to upcoming planting sites. A mowing contractor, Murray Drinnan, decided to donate a few hours a month into Wairakei Drive, while Seay Earthmovers carted a massive track digger into a gully to wipe out the blackberry and gorse with a super large disk mower with a 10m reach. Contractor Gary Patterson delivered truckloads of mulch, as well as Complete Site Solutions with its flail mower. It just sets the scene for great planting preparation," Shawn says.

He is also in touch with what is going on with similarly-focused organisations, like Greening Taupō , Predator Free Taupō , Kids Greening Taupō , Bike Taupō , Tidy Taupō , Wairākei Golf + Sanctuary and the Taupō District Council. However with 25,000 people living in Taupo, it would be wonderful to see more community buy-in to this transformational project, with Shawn saying if everyone pulled together and did just a little bit, the results would be inspirational.

"It is always nice to see when a guy comes up to me and says "What can I do for you this week?" It is just amazing how we are gradually gaining momentum. The whole community starts to notice the progress."

Shawn Vennell with Huka Honey Hive owners Mark and Jo Saville.
Shawn Vennell with Huka Honey Hive owners Mark and Jo Saville.

From small seeds grow great things and Shawn says it is wonderful now to walk alongside the Waikato River, look up and see a kererū in a tree, the fantails in the gullies, or the pheasants flying back and forth.

He says with the diversity of groups working together, with the help of everyone, the Taupo district can provide a healthy ecosystem for all and the pride people will feel in 10 years when they see the difference their efforts have made will be amazing.

"We all need each other. There is still a lot to do, but if we plant the thousands of trees now, we will later on have great cover for the birds."