Volunteers flock to Zealandia
Many new migrants have discovered this wildlife wilderness in the middle of Wellington city.
Six kilometres from the downtown bustle of Wellington lies a very different world. Here, nature rules. Overhead, bush parrots called kaka have noisy conversations, while on the forest floor, tuatara – the last representatives of an ancient group of lizard-like reptiles – chase insects among the dead leaves.
In some ways, in those six kilometres you have travelled back more than 200 years to a time before European settlers arrived in New Zealand, bringing with them today’s ever-present enemies of native wildlife: rats, cats, stoats, weasels, ferrets and possums.
This is Zealandia, a 225-hectare island of regenerating bush centred around two disused water collection dams and surrounded by 8.6 kilometres of predator-proof fence.
In Zealandia, birds like the kaka, which is rare on mainland New Zealand, and the little spotted kiwi, which now only survives on predator-free offshore islands and sanctuaries, are thriving.
Indeed, every day flocks of kaka fly out from Zealandia to feed and play in the bush and gardens of suburban Wellington.
It was shortly after moving to Wellington from Germany that Nikki Oesterle, Zealandia’s volunteer coordinator, decided to apply to join Zealandia’s community of volunteers.
She liked the beauty of Zealandia and the good work it was doing, and she saw volunteering as a good way of establishing herself in her new home and getting to know New Zealanders.
“As an immigrant, you don’t know that many people in a new city,” she says.
“To get to know more people, build a network and learn more about this place, I figured volunteering would be a good thing to do.”
Volunteering as a visitor guide eventually led to a temporary position. This led, in turn, to her current job, working to build and maintain Zealandia’s 600-plus volunteer workforce.
I have met with Nikki and volunteers Margot Meuleman and Sarah Young in Rata Café, in Zealandia’s magnificent new visitor centre.
Volunteering is very common in New Zealand, says Nikki – and the figures support her. According to the International Charities Foundation, in 2013, 44 per cent of New Zealanders spent time volunteering, significantly more than Australians or Europeans.
To get to know more people, build a network and learn more about this place, I figured volunteering would be a good thing to do.
Zealandia could not function without volunteers. Volunteers check the fence line is intact, maintain more than 32 km of tracks, help feed and band the birds, host visitors, guide tours, and provide biosecurity control. In terms of the hours they donate, they make up half of Zealandia’s workforce.
At regular recruitment meetings, Zealandia interviews potential volunteers. Those who are accepted are matched with roles suited to their strengths and trained in the skills they need.
Trainee volunteer guides spend hours accompanying guided tours, learning about Zealandia before leading tours themselves.
The work of the volunteers is acknowledged with awards and an annual Volunteer Appreciation Dinner.
Many of the 125,000-plus annual visitors to Zealandia are from outside New Zealand, making foreign-language skills among the volunteers highly valued. French, German and, increasingly, Mandarin Chinese are languages in demand.
Recently Nikki has worked with the Victoria University International Leadership Programme to attract more international volunteers, and she works alongside local colleges to recruit Mandarin-speaking guides.
“Volunteering is an opportunity for the students to practise their Chinese with Chinese speakers,” she explains.
Overall, about 20 per cent of Zealandia’s volunteers are migrants, says Nikki, while among more recent recruits the figure is close to 40 per cent.
Qualified in environmental education in the US, Margot saw volunteering for Zealandia as a way of understanding what was, for her, an exotic environment.
“Whether you come to New Zealand on a holiday or extended visit or you are moving here permanently, in order to get a sense of place, it is really nice to learn the fauna and flora,” she says. “It is worthwhile volunteering for that reason alone: once you can identify what is around you, you see and understand so much more.”
For Margot, as for Nikki, volunteering has led to a paid position with Zealandia.
A love of nature and wildlife prompted IT professional Sarah to volunteer for Zealandia. In the UK, her life was dominated by work; in New Zealand, a better work-life balance meant she had the time to volunteer.
These days she knows the New Zealand bush better than some locals. “Kiwi friends sometimes say, ‘You know more than me,’ and I can say, ‘Yeah, probably.’”
One of her pleasures is pointing out wildlife visitors often miss.
The tuatara, which often lie motionless are a good example.
“They are also well camouflaged, which doesn’t make spotting them any easier,” says Sarah.
Unique to New Zealand, they are a highpoint of any Zealandia visit.
“You’d be amazed, if you stand over by the tuatara, how many people would walk past them if you didn’t point them out.”
Zealandia is located at the end of Waiapu Road, a 10-minute drive from downtown Wellington.
A free 11-seater shuttle picks up and drops off Zealandiavisitors from outside the city i-SITE and from the top of the Cable Car.
Many of Wellington’s public buses will stop at the end of Waiapu Road. This is about a two-minute walk from the sanctuary.
Zealandia features a café, information centre and souvenir shop. A range of tour options, including night tours, are available.
Admission costs start at $18.50 for adults, $10 for children aged 5-14 years, and free for children under five. There are also student, senior and family prices.
Both day and night tours are also available.
You can find all the details on the Zealandia website.