Exploring Wellington’s urban eco sanctuary Zealandia, I discovered this nature wonderland is more than meets the eye.
On a flying trip to Wellington, I decided to check out the city’s ecosanctuary, Zealandia, That was October. Arriving back home, national headlines flashed a story that a rogue weasel had somehow managed to weasel its way inside this protected haven. It couldn’t have followed me in. Entry is protected with a double-gate security cage, while the 8.6 kilometre fence is built to a height predators cannot scale, or burrow beneath.
Apparently no-one told the weasel. Known for its wily ways, one critter somehow managed a break-in; the first in more than 10 years. It prompted an immediate response by Zealandia staff and volunteers; supported by DOC, Wellington Regional Council and Predator Free Wellington.
It made headlines for good reason. Wellington deserves to ensure this exquisite reservoir valley remains predator free. It’s an extraordinary place and Wellingtonians are lucky to have it on their doorstep. Embracing 225 hectares, Zealandia represents a 500-year vision to restore this valley forest and freshwater ecosystems as closely as possible to their pre-human state. An admirable dream – given those involved will never see it to fruition. Nor will their children, their grandchildren or great grandchildren for that matter – Zealandia is just 20 years into its journey.
Hailed at the world’s first fully-fenced urban ecosanctuary, Zealandia already reflects what this country was like centuries ago. Eons before colonisation – even the arrival of Maori – New Zealand was part of the greater land mass known as Gondwana. It makes a visit to Zealandia a lesson in the wider planet’s evolution, let alone this isolated country now straddling volatile tectonic plates.
A stopover first in Zealandia’s exhibition centre is a must. Poignant birdsong is an instant invitation to discover New Zealand’s native species. Sadly, some are extinct, others are threatened, others thrive. Zealandia’s data shows that, since human arrival, at least 51 bird specials; three frog, three lizard, one freshwater fish and one bat species are now extinct. Four plant species and a number of invertebrate species also suffered their demise.
A masterful, computer-compiled adaptation on Zealandia’s big screen is sobering. It’s probably fair to accept the sheer ignorance of colonists who introduced stoats, possums, pigs among others, while also bringing ship rats. This film is a stark observation of the disastrous result, however. The destruction of vast swathes of native bush hasn’t helped either. Zealandia has re-introduced 18 species of native wildlife into this unique valley, which makes its existence even more important – particularly given this area’s history.
The Karori valley supplied Wellington’s first water system. Its earth dam is deemed an important part of New Zealand’s engineering heritage. Completed around 1874, this water system’s history is acknowledged within Zealandia. The old valve tower offers an intriguing observation platform in the lower reservoir lake, while the old boat house points out other historical aspects.
Trails then weave through the sanctuary to the upper dam – around two hours for the round trip – either self-guided or led by a volunteer. Serious trampers can meander into other tracks to delve deeper in search of wildlife. Tasty meals and refreshments in the cafe are the reward.
More than 40 different species of native birds have been recorded at Zealandia – 24 of them endemic. There are dozens of reptile species, hundreds of plant species and thousands of invertebrates. The magic spreads: Tuis, kaka and kereru – once rare in the region are now common around central Wellington, while other vulnerable species thrive safely in the sanctuary.
Managed by the non-profit, community-led Karori Sanctuary Trust and, with a small staff, Zealandia relies on hundreds of volunteers, donors – and cafe diners – to fulfil its vision for future generations.
Hopefully any weasels will be long gone.
Where: 53 Waiapu Rd, Karori
Free shuttle: City i SITE and top of Cable Car in Kelburn
When: Open daily except Christmas Day