In the wilderness lies the preservation of the world.
Henry David Thoreau
Research Center in the middle of nowhere – a portrait
I force myself to pedal up the hill – meter after meter. The mount peak seems to be in a far, far distance, but with the ascending altitude difference, the view on the Akaroa Harbour gets better.
Eventually, after a seemingly endless way uphill, I reach the ridge. In front of me the Pacific Ocean with its dark blue colour extends far beyond the horizon.
But what brought me to cresting this mountain?
It is a living, local legend: Hugh Wilson. At least so it seemed to me after catching his name quite a few times. And it was my purpose to find out the reason for him being such a noted personality.
Now I let the bike slide down the mountain, until after a few curves a small house appears in my sight. And as soon as I reach the gate, I am in the Hinewai reserve. I knew that this was said to be a great conservation project on the Banks Peninsula, which emerged from volcanic activities. Since I did not know more about this project, I was really interested in learning more about it and getting to know Hugh Wilson personally.
“Where are you from?” – “Germany” – Guten Tag und willkommen! Es ist eine sehr schöne Tag heute. / Good afternoon and welcome! It is a beautiful day today.” With these friendly (German) words he greeted me. After having introduced myself I was invited to a coffee. Hugh Wilson, 67 years old, is the director of the conservation project, which is the biggest and the most sedulous scientific project on this peninsula.
It is unbelievable, how energetic this man is – one day he decided not to use his car any more, therefore he has to go by bike. And this is how he gets to the city, 700 meters below, and back with all the foodstuffs he bought. Already this seemed very extraordinary to me. But far more fascinating is the story of his life and of the conservation area.
Finally I was lucky to get the opportunity of working here for one week and getting by this a better look into how this project works. Unforgettable impressions awaited me…
A botanist with all his heart – that is how Hugh Wilson could be described. Born in Timaru and grown up in Christchurch, he soon after school left the beautiful New Zealand to teach English in Borneo for an entire year. Deeply impressed by what he had experienced there, he returned to Christchurch to study Philisophy and English. But there was something that he found even more fascinating, and this was botany.
After his studies of phytology (botany) he explored the most remote areas of New Zealand and Stuart Island, a small island in the south of New Zealand. His research was focused on the flora, and the question he asked himself was always: How many and which kinds of plants can you find here? This is also the reason for his famousness under colleagues, because after decades of work he published a few botany books about these regions.
However, 25 years ago he moved again, this time to the Banks Peninsula. Especially interesting is the lively history of this peninsula.
Initially abundantly covered with virgin forest, it was later completely clear-cut because of two settlement waves of the Polynesians and the Europeans. Many, many square-kilometers of Beech-Forest seemed to be gone forever. But most of the residents wanted to change the future that would one day become history. And so it came that they asked Hugh Wilson, if he was able to find a place, which was worth being reforested. There couldn´t have been a more exciting task for him!
The area he decided for, the current Hinewai Reserve, has the remarkable extend of 1250 hectare. With mountains that are over a thousand meters high, and with picturesque bays, this conservation area offers a lot of different landscapes.
Some places, altogether about 50 hectares, contain the untouched remains of the old-growth forest. But mostly you can find there the reforested secondary forest. And exactly this forest is now in the focus of the project´s research. How long does it take to reforest an area completely? Which influence do imported plants have on the original fauna? How much carbon dioxide can this forest absorb in comparison to the old-growth forest? Which consequences does the climate change have for our work?
And these are just a few of all the questions, which are analyzed here. Therefore it is not surprising to hear that this is a meeting point of forest scientists, biologists, climatologists and botanists. Not to forget the geologists who have installed their seismographs here.
All these interesting stories and facts I am told by Hugh while we are sawing wood for the next winter.
25 years ago, when he was asked if he wanted to participate in this project as a manager, his spontaneous answer was: “Yes, Yes, Yeeeees! I can´t imagine something more fulfilling!”
Until today he cannot imagine being in another project and you can feel the passion he has for his work in every second, something that is very precious in my opinion.
The next days we spend hiking through the forests, together with a big group of scientists. They are here to find out how much carbon dioxide the reforested trees can hold.
Meanwhile we get sight of a little bird, a Robin, that is more than curious to see what we are doing. He seems to have lost all his dread and sits almost on my arm. Hugh talks to him in Maori – we are on the land of the natives and all the living creatures are a part of it. For this reason, he respectfully chooses this language.
By now I am not surprised anymore that so many poeple knew Hugh Wilson and that I heard of him so many times. Chris Todd, the manager of “Forest and Bird”, which is the biggest Conservation Organisation of New Zealand, outlined it in a few words: “He´s a wonderful human being”. I am deeply impressed when I get to know such projects, since they demonstrate what you can reach with strong willpower. And unfortunately they are little known, since you can find them only in the most remote places of the world.
In the following days we are busy with another big project of the Hinewai Reserve.
It was the 4th of September in 2010. This day, a dark chapter began for the city of Christchurch and the surrounding regions. A strong earthquake shook the region, which caused tons of rocks to roll through the valleys of the nature reserve.
It is unbelievable, how natural powers can ravage the landscape once they are released.
Unfortunately, also the manager´s house was seriously damaged – I can still see the long cracks in the wall when I sit in the cosy kitchen drinking a cup of tea. This is why we are now working on building a completely new house, and we are lucky to have many friends and relatives of Hugh´s helping us.
His siblings have each similarly interesting live stories to tell – and of course they welcome each other in the Maori way.
The vitality in their faces is wonderful to look at.
After a few days the end of my unforgettable time in Hineway has come.
As a farewell I go in for a day hike through the reserve area. In decades of work tracks have been built to give visitors the opportunity to explore this piece of land.
Not far away from here you can still see very old trees that are called “Red Beech”. But the picture changes quickly and I walk into a forest of charred tree trunks.
Just one year ago, this area was burned down because of a lightning stroke, but this is how nature goes.
Eventually I reach a tiny little bay with a gorgeous sand beach.
On my way back I follow the course of a river and alongside my path I can see impressing waterfalls again and again.
My impression: the project is a great success. And this is also the impression that Hugh Wilson and the scientists share. The research that has been done for years shows that renaturation and reforestation can proceed faster than expected. Sometimes you can even discover how imported plants like for example the yellow blooming, acanthous Gore and domestic plants share a symbiotic relationship. Because the Gore grows faster, they can give the well known giant trees the opportunity to resettle in a protected area.
In total there are 327 New Zealand plants that have been found in Hinewai.
I am very thankful that I have been given the opportunity of being a part of this project and so I leave the conservation area with tons of wonderful memories in my baggage. This time not on a bike, but with hiking boots on my feet and my backpack on the back. Because the journey goes on, further and further into the direction of the unknown…
Greetings from New Zealand,