Born out of the determination of the surrounding community and landowners to protect the maunga itself and the endangered species that make their home there, Sanctuary Mountain Maungataurari has moved on from the uncertainty created by the Covid-19 restrictions of the past two years.
It is an ancient, predator-free, forest right here in Waikato, just 30 minutes drive from Cambridge. It is the largest conservation 'island' on mainland New Zealand and one of the country's top eco-tourism destinations.
Not only are the tours and encounters in the southern enclosure and Tautari Wetland up and running again, but Sanctuary Mountain has also recently launched a range of wellbeing experiences - Rongoā Rākau, an introduction to traditional Māori medicine, as well as two experiences where participants can take a break from their busy lives to immerse themselves in the ancient forest environment. These are Forest Serenity and one designed especially for corporate groups, the Nature of Work.
The new experiences - together with the dedicated day-long Meditation in the Maunga coming up on June 26 - have been developed following a social impact survey that found Sanctuary Mountain engenders a higher sense of wellbeing amongst the volunteers who help out there and the local community, in particular those who visit regularly.
Sanctuary Mountain's chief executive Phil Lyons, a firm believer himself that being in nature has a beneficial effect on people's health, says the survey was conducted by Huber Social in collaboration with Impact Hub Waikato, which is part of an international organisation inspiring businesses to not only thrive but also do good.
Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari covers 3400ha and has been a reserve since 1912.
Today, the maunga is one of the largest areas in the world to be protected by a pest-proof fence. Measuring 47km, the fence ensures a safe haven for many of our endangered native species, including birds and bats, frogs and reptiles, tuatara and giant wētā.
To find out more about the special mountain that looks out over the Waipa countryside and help encourage local Waikato residents to experience this significant international conservation project, the Waikato Herald spoke with Phil Lyons.
Waikato Herald: What's the drawcard for visitors to Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari?
Phil Lyons: Being able to experience an ancient native forest that is completely predator-free is the major drawcard for visitors. The birdsong - the variety and the volume - must be heard to be believed. The lush density of the native trees and plants has to be seen, and walked through, too.
WH: Where do most visitors come from?
PL: Typically, 80 per cent of our visitors are Kiwis, mostly from throughout the Waikato, Auckland and Bay of Plenty regions. We are looking forward to being able to welcome international visitors again as the border restrictions free up, beginning with Australia this past week.
WH: What's up and running for visitors now?
PL: All Sanctuary Mountain experiences are up and running. While it was necessary to close our visitor centre for periods of time over the past couple of years and our visitor numbers are down due to the lockdown periods and restrictions, with the Sanctuary Explorer Pass visitors have been able for some time to safely experience the southern enclosure on a self-guided basis. As the greater part of our tours are in the outdoors, we have been able to continue with them too, of course, with the necessary Covid protocols in place.
WH: What's new?
PL: We have a range of exciting new experiences - three new tours and the meditation day on June 26. All have all been developed following the social impact survey which revealed spending time at Sanctuary Mountain greatly benefits people's sense of wellbeing.
We conducted the survey as part of confirming that Sanctuary Mountain is meeting the needs of our surrounding community, as well as being beneficial to visitors, and to identify where we can improve in being the fully sustainable tourism business called for under the New Zealand Tourism Sustainability Commitment. Developed by Tourism Industry Aotearoa, this commitment covers not only environmental, but also community, visitor and economic benefits.
The new Rongoā Rākau tour is an introduction to Māori herbal medicine where visitors join Sanctuary Mountain's rongoā [traditional Māori medicine] practitioner, Ringi Morgan-Fifield, on a gentle hīkoi in the ngahere [forest].
Forest Serenity is a retreat where participants are invited to leave their cares behind and immerse themselves for the day in the ancient forest environment on the maunga. The aim is to refresh your energy levels and renew perspectives on life as you appreciate the surroundings and yourself.
We believe the day-long Nature of Work experience is the first of its kind in New Zealand. It takes the team out of the office and into the ngahere, away from the stresses and distractions of work, allowing people to slow down, reflect and revitalise. It is a great way to reframe and explore potential.
The Meditation in the Maunga on June 26 is about health, meditation and breath work in a forest setting. Renowned meditation practitioners Elizabeth Day and Willa Thaniya Reid, who are based at Kihikihi Meditation and Yoga, will lead the experience.
WH: Tell us more about the findings of the social impact survey.
PL: There were six key findings including that:
• Visiting Sanctuary Mountain and the maunga is linked to higher wellbeing.
• The community connection and job opportunities Sanctuary Mountain provides are meaningful.
• Volunteering at the maunga helps people feel part of a community.
• Longer and more frequent volunteering leads to higher levels of wellbeing.
• Volunteers feel connected to their culture and community.
• Volunteers feel more mentally healthy - happier and calmer, and experience less anxiety.
WH: Where do most of the volunteers come from?
PL: For many years Sanctuary Mountain was run by volunteers and they are still our backbone. Today, we have more than 270 active volunteers, many who are from the surrounding community while others are from further afield. Collectively, they contribute more than 12,000 hours each year helping with guiding, nursery work, predator trapping, planting and weeding, and taking care of our native species, including kiwi, takahe, hihi [stitchbirds] and kokako.
The mana whenua of Maungatautari deeply connect with the maunga and passionately contribute to Sanctuary Mountain's progress.
And I want to add that we also owe a lot to the farmers and other landowners who surround the maunga. Without the great relationships we have with them we would not be as efficient at protecting the fence and sustaining the maunga. They have supported Sanctuary Mountain from the outset and allow us access points through their farms that make our job much faster.
WH: What's your favourite visitor comment?
PL: We receive some great comments from visitors about how they have enjoyed their experience. One of my favourites is from a couple who visited just before the March 2020 lockdown and commented that the southern enclosure is a beautiful, mature bush setting with an abundance of birds and birdsong - and not something you get in unprotected bush. The couple walked all the tracks on the maunga and told us it was very exciting to see a ruru [morepork] and saddlebacks [tieke - these little birds with their bright orange-red wattles are plentiful at Sanctuary Mountain with populations increasing around the country, but still at risk].
WH: What makes you proud?
PL: Every day, we are proud of our volunteers - and we are really honoured to have been a winner at the recent Waikato Chamber of Commerce Business Awards when we received the Social and Environmental Sustainability Award, sponsored by Wintec.
We also won the Community Engagement Award in the 2021 New Zealand Tourism awards when the judges said Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari achieves a broad community reach with a true community engagement programme that could become a legacy initiative for the wider community and for the country.
Judges also said they felt strongly that our model is how tourism will survive in New Zealand; that our sanctuary is the way the country's tourism industry should be in the future and the kind of offering that will make Kiwis proud. We are humbled by the judges' comments - and by both awards.
WH: What is next for Sanctuary Mountain?
PL: We are building a dedicated education centre which will be used by schools as well as anyone interested in learning about the New Zealand environment and the conservation methods being used to keep the sanctuary pest-free. The centre will also be an ideal venue for special events. It is scheduled to open in the spring.
We also look forward to bringing kakapo to Maungatautari, which will make the maunga the first mainland location for kakapo for many years. First, we need to make some alterations to our predator-proof fence, and we have some activities coming up to help raise funds for this project.