By Elisabeth Easther
When the residents of Rākino Island (population 18) discovered that squads of Aussies were heading to their off-grid Hauraki Gulf hideaway to do ecological restoration work, they were incredulous. "Really? Australians? Coming to New Zealand to pull out Kiwi weeds? Surely you're pulling our legs?"
And while it does sound like the start of a joke, this is exactly what some of our Australian neighbours do for their holidays and, what's more, they pay for the pleasure.
Under the auspices of Wild Mob, a not-for-profit conservation organisation, these gung-ho eco tourists can be found everywhere from the Hauraki Gulf to Norfolk Island as well as various spots around Australia including the Great Barrier Reef.
Focusing on conservation and culture, Wild Mob also bolsters local economies, shopping locally, employing support stuff and, in some locations, even building tourism products.
In April, just as autumn came calling, I signed up for a Wild Mob expedition in the Hauraki Gulf, joining a team of three women and five men led by Dr Derek Ball, Wild Mob's charismatic chief executive. All of the participants had been on at least two trips with the Mob, while one chap, Dave, was on his eighth. Steve, a doctor from New South Wales, explained how Wild Mob adventures are infectious. Once just isn't enough.
Our first morning on Rākino, we marched to a pretty valley with sea views. Donning gloves, we were given secateurs, small saws and bottles of a substance called glyphosate, a gelid greeny-blue goo that we painted on the severed stumps of robust weeds. Fanning out through the foliage, we scanned the undergrowth, cutting and pasting, moth plant, rhamnus and woolly nightshade all in our sights.
Happily there's also a sociable element to the work and we chatted away as we went about our business, with the Australians expressing delight at being able to rustle around in dense bush without fear of deadly spiders or snakes. The morning passed quickly, with the afternoon set aside for leisure, walking for some, snorkelling for others, although everyone said they'd happily work the whole day.
Understandably, meal times are an important part of Wild Mob missions and, because the volunteers are the sorts who like to travel, the menu had an international flavour with Derek Ball taking charge in the kitchen. Aside from having a PhD in marine biology, Derek is also an excellent chef and, as he made chapattis from scratch, he talked about the growing appeal of this sort of vacation.
"These days a lot of people feel disempowered. They feel they can't make a difference because they're not professional ecologists or park managers or fisheries people. But by doing this sort of thing, anyone can make a contribution."
The volunteers also appreciate being able to visit places few tourists get to experiences, because Rākino, with its sporadic ferry service, absence of shops and paucity of rental accommodation, is not designed for day-trippers. Even less touristy is the neighbouring group of islands known as the Noises, where Wild Mob also spend time.
This small ecologically critical archipelago lies about 1km east of Rākino and has been in the Neureuter family since their great aunt married Captain Wainhouse, a former Auckland harbourmaster, who purchased the islands in 1933. Today several generations of that family are committed to protecting the islands they grew up holidaying on, with a view to restoring the once abundant marine and birdlife.
To assist the Neureuters in that quest, the weeders spent time on Ruapuke, (aka Maria), one of the smaller Noises. From a distance this 3ha island resembles a tortoise and at night a wee lighthouse blinks from its peak. Once plagued by rats, that infestation was eradicated in the 1960s following a campaign led by the legendary conservationist Don Merton and today at least three species of vulnerable seabirds are known to nest there. But another predator also threatens these islands, a fabaceous vine known as mile-a-minute, which, if left to run riot, could strangle everything.
As Rod Neureuter transported the group from Rākino to Ruapuke, he manoeuvred his boat up against rocks so the nimble weeders could leap ashore to start the hot and dusty work, much of it on steep and cliffy corners. Because access to Ruapuke is limited, the battle is rendered even more challenging and, once birds start nesting, it's not possible to land until the chicks have fledged. Added complications include rough seas and high winds which can also hamper safe landings. Taking advantage of the brief window of accessibility, the Neureuter family and Wild Mob, waged war on the rapacious mile-a-minute with gusto while they were able.
Come early afternoon over three days, the weeders were shipped to Otata, to the Neureuter's historic bach - complete with penguins playing house beneath the floorboards – where they lunched, explored and swam, full of enthusiasm for what they had achieved.
"When we got under the canopy, seeking out roots, cutting and painting, it's just such a good feeling to know we're laying serious blows," said Steve. "Following the edge of the existing vegetation, seeing those poor trees bowed down by the weight of the vines, some of the stems so broad they need to be sawed, when you paint those real rippers you know you're doing something really useful. And it was so encouraging to see the places we'd worked last year looking so good."
What a joy it turned out to be, defeating weeds with likeminded nature-lovers, good company and a sense of purpose, it's easy to see how spending time with the Mob is infectious.