A former Huntly coalmine is set to transform one of New Zealand's much maligned townships into a tourism and recreational destination, that could see national waka ama tournaments, music festivals and sports events take place on the newly formed wetlands.
The Huntly wetlands project is the vision of long-time local business owners Murray and Jennifer Allen of Allen Fabrics, who seized the opportunity in early 2018 to buy the former Huntly East opencast coalmine, which neighbours their family farm.
Their goal is to restore the lake they used to enjoy visiting when growing up decades ago, as Raahui Pookeka-Huntly's own version of both Lake Karapiro near Cambridge and Lake Rotoroa in Hamilton.
The mine's huge pit is filling with rainwater and is expected to be full in about five years, creating a 1.2km-long, 500m-wide and 59m-deep roto. The rising water will eventually top out at a culvert and start draining into the adjacent remnant of the original shallow Kimihia peat lake, saving it from toxicity and dry off.
Rehabilitation of the site's environment began two years ago and water birds are already gathering, such as families of the previously endangered New Zealand dabchiks (also known as weweia or grebe), which like the lake's clear water to deep dive for the abundant fish.
The Kimihia Lakes Community Charitable Trust has been set up to realise this dream, and they are now well on their way with the help of the Huntly Karioi Outdoor Trust and Momentum Waikato.
"A lot of people don't realise the opencast mine was dug out of the bed of one of the largest lakes in the Waikato, after the mining companies drained most of it in the 1950s," said Murray.
Early on the Allens' vision received strong support from their long-time friend Brian Curle, a life member of the Huntly Karioi Outdoor Trust, which owned the Karioi Lodge Outdoor Recreation and Education Centre near Raglan as the 'school camp' for Huntly College students.
"It was Brian's idea to move the trust's investment closer to home so it could help establish a new lake-based outdoor education centre for Huntly's youth and community," said Murray.
"We on the Karioi Trust have never lost faith in that aspiration. We embrace the fact that as long as the organisation and the students who reap the benefits of outdoor education have a purpose, we will continue to face challenges."
"We appreciate the togetherness that has emerged through the collaboration of the Karioi Trust, the Kimihia Lakes Trust and Momentum Waikato," said Brian Curle.
"There are so many all-round benefits from such groups all being on the same page and working towards a common goal."
That co-operation has been on several fronts. Charlie Young, the former long-time leaseholder of the Karioi camp and founder of the international surf school and other Raglan tourist ventures, is assisting with the Kimihia site masterplan and leading the associated planning and consent engagement with the Waikato District Council.
"I salute Murray and Jennifer, it takes great vision, imagination and local knowledge to gaze into the pit of an abandoned opencast coalmine and see nothing but opportunity for the surrounding community and its environment," said Young.
"This is exactly what Raahui Pookeka-Huntly needs after the losses it has suffered over the years."
The Karioi Trust sold their coastal camp a couple of years ago and, in an agreement recently signed, transferred $1 million of their resulting capital to the care of Momentum Waikato, which will invest this new Karioi Projects Fund.
In keeping with Momentum Waikato's commitment when it takes on such responsibilities, the resulting income will be used to realise the Karioi Trust's expanded purpose of providing outdoor recreation opportunities to the youth of Huntly and the North Waikato, centered on the new Lake Kimihia and its facilities.
Momentum Waikato chief executive Kelvyn Eglinton says they are proud to be partnering with both groups.
"The new Karioi Projects Fund is just one of the synergies we will facilitate as the Allens seek to realise the full potential of the Kimihia site for their community," says Kelvyn.
"For instance, we are looking to underwrite the cost of the master plan required to unlock the site rehabilitation fund left behind by Solid Energy and held by Treasury. Our nimble nature allows us to quickly and decisively provide such a bridge to success.
"Momentum Waikato exists to create 'A Better Waikato for Everyone, Forever' and the Kimihia-Karioi project demonstrates how we can 'connect and convene' and generally provide the strategic leadership and overview needed to accelerate and multiply the impact of such local efforts."
Murray Allen says the support of Momentum Waikato has been invaluable to their project.
"Momentum has connected us with a range of organisations and individuals, which has energised our team with a passion to make it happen as soon as possible," said Murray.
With the assistance of the Karioi Trust and the Perry Outdoor Education Trust, Huntly College students have already made use of the former mine site in its raw state, for an overnight camp, swimming, waka ama, kayaking, mountain biking and forest walks.
Meanwhile the college's design students have come up with ideas and created models and plans for various parts of the site, gaining them exam credits. Once it is rezoned from 'Rural' to 'Recreation', they will be able to take pride in seeing their concepts realised.
Charlie Young says there will be some exciting employment prospects as the project progresses.