Mick Abbott discovers that when life and nature intertwine, the result is even more beautiful than the sum of its parts
It was our love of the hills that brought us together. Going for a trip together to the Daslers and returning, slowly, down the Hopkins a couple.
We didn’t realise it during our first years together, that having time to get into the outdoors isn’t constant. It’s easily caught up in a cycle of our wider lives.
Pre-kids we had amazing times of exploration in places like Kahurangi National Park, the valleys and passes in the Huxley, Hurunui, Makarora, Borland and Copland catchments, and many places in between.
But then suddenly things changed and going to Marks Flat together got marooned on our wish list. Instead, with the kids just walking, we sought out nature closer to home, particularly on our native bush block above Otago Harbour.
We looked for koura down by the creek and had expeditions late at night to see the glow worms. We floundered through the tracks in the snow, watched our favourite trees grow and change shape, and took in the enduring rhythm of moon and sun rises across the ocean.
Two years of homeschooling, half on the farm and the other half travelling around North America’s conservation parks, changed the way we connected with nature. Rather than being somewhere to simply visit, it became a place to play, make, live and belong.
We learnt to understand our native plants by making things with them, including little boats and seeing how well they floated. Manuka was more than a nursery species for the bigger plants to get established – it also produced honey and tea. Kotukutuku – tree fuschia – produced papery bark to write on and konini berries we would pick to make jam.
When our youngest was two we started returning to the hills. But rather than backcountry huts it was the base huts at Arthur’s Pass and Aoraki/Mt Cook that were the main use of our Alpine Club membership.
It was on those trips we realised how little in our National Parks was of interest to young kids. The focus was all about adults. Visitor Centres obsessed with presenting interpretation in encyclopaedic quantities, giving warnings about danger and telling backpackers what trips fitted their skills.
To the kids it was a world of signs, words, maps and boredom. And it was from their frustration that an idea to set up a kids’ programme in our favourite parks took root.
With support from the University of Otago, we set about designing the activities, booklets and badges from which the Kiwi Ranger programme grew. A chance meeting between my wife Carli and Annabelle Studholme, a ranger at Arthur’s Pass with a passion for getting kids excited about conservation, led to the launch in Christmas 2009 of the first of the 16 places you can now become a Kiwi Ranger.
The activities are designed to let people really get to know a place. Grab a booklet and according to your age choose a certain number of activities. For instance, at Franz you can make a simple rain gauge, at Whakatane grab a stick and use it like a kiwi beak to move around the forest. In Nelson Lakes there’s honeydew tasting, at Wanaka there’s freezing your feet in a glacial-fed river, while in Arthur’s Pass there’s standing barefoot on a mossy bank with your eyes closed feeling the earth. And of course at Punakaiki you’re encouraged to make pancakes. There’s also scavenger hunts, sculpture making and other activities that suit wet weather.
As a family, the greatest experiences have been in getting to meet the frontline DOC rangers and local volunteers who are, as Lou Sanson puts it, the real heroes of conservation in this country. Pam and Hugh Mytton showed us their secret eel spot at Totaranui, and the kids were gobsmacked to be feeding them. In Te Urewera, Aniwaniwa Tawa had us hugging a tree – I am the land and this land is me – while on Otamahua/Quail Island, Yvette Couch-Lewis walked us into a world of volcanoes, and her absolute love of an island vital to the Rapaki Runanga. Peter Hooper, of the Rimutaka Forest Park Trust inspired us with the scale of their Kiwi Recovery Programme, while at Tiritiri Matangi, Mary Anne Rowland had the kids rolling up tea towels with flax strands to help with their fund raising.
It’s been a real pleasure coming up with activities and creating the artwork. The kids have got stuck in too. And the emails and ideas from some of the 20,000 Kiwi rangers out there have been inspiring.
However, this year feels like the start of a new cycle in our lives. All of a sudden there are more adventures possible. We’re planning to head back where we first went tramping together, but this time as a whole family. It’s camping, mountain biking, hunting and some multi-day tramps for us as our collective interactions with the outdoors shift up a gear.
Over the summer we transferred Kiwi Ranger over to DOC. We’re excited about their plans to develop the programme so more young Kiwis and their families can take those first steps into the wonderful natural world of this country.
And truth be told, we’re also excited that one day soon we’ll hopefully be able to sneak up the Huxley onto Broderick Pass, then over the Solution Range and out onto Marks Flat.