D&D 003 (1)

Denise and Dougal MacKenzie

Beyond the fence which local landowners donated to protect the nesting grounds, and behind the “please stay on the track” signs, the wheel marks of a vehicle form overlapping loops in the sand. They crisscross the archaeological remains of midden and fire pit site, where local iwi harvested tuna in days gone by. The tyres have torn up the fragile mats of the tiny raoulia plant which work to hold the sand in place in the fierce face of the southerly.

Denise and Dougal MacKenzie look over the damage with both despair and resignation. They’ve seen it all before. They’re just glad that the breeding season has finished and there are no young banded dotterels or caspian terns to disturb. The couple have spent over a decade caring for, protecting, and promoting this unique and precious little ecosystem. It only takes one ignorant joyrider to wreck it.

Ōnoke Spit is a tiny strip of sand and gravel between the sea and the foot of Lake Ōnoke|Lake Ferry, where the Ruamahanga River enters Kawakawa|Palliser Bay. The finger of land points to Lake Ferry Hotel, which perches on the other side of the narrow channel of water. Sometimes wind and tide shift the sands and close the gap between the two narrow shores, enclosing the lake and creating a temporary land bridge.

Onoke Spit

Ōnoke Spit

Dougal and Denise, who live nearby, established Friends of Ōnoke Spit in 2010. “We felt it was a gem of a coastline that didn’t get the respect it deserved,” says Denise. Gorse had overtaken the bush and wetland area at the edge of the sandbar and was encroaching on the spit itself. Rats, mustelids, wild and feral cats, and hedgehogs preyed on the nests of the banded dotterel and caspian terns, camouflaged amongst the stones.

“We got together a group of volunteers and had great support from the Department of Conservation (DoC), who supplied and helped set up traplines at regular intervals which the volunteers clear and reset,” Denise says. DoC also helped get rid of pest plants, clearing some 20 x 20 metre plots amongst the gorse, which were planted with natives. The standing gorse provided shelter while the natives became established, and the plan was that the natives would eventually shade out the remaining gorse. Denise used her long-term relationship with local schools to set up planting days with the students of Pirinoa and Kahutara Schools. With the community and organisations on board, and planting and pest control underway, things were starting to look up.

Then a fire, perhaps from a campfire on the beach, destroyed the newly-emerging native habitat. “The fire got into the dry gorse, destroyed the planting areas, and stimulated the regeneration of the gorse,” Dougal says. “In some ways, it was back to square one, but we weren’t deterred.”

Nowadays, the work of this retired couple and their ability to not be deterred by setbacks is evident. There’s the native plantings on the approach to the spit, the footbridge to the end of Ocean Beach, the information boards and notices, and a fence donated by local farmers to protect the dune area and then replaced by Wairarapa Moana (“but someone’s come and pinched the gates,” says Dougal with a sigh.) While the MacKenzies are quick to acknowledge the help and support of many others, it’s clear that they’ve been the driving force behind this group – organising, researching, applying for funding, photographing and recording, holding meetings, bringing people and projects together, and reaching out into their community to inform and inspire.

“Education has always been a big part of what we wanted to do,” says Denise. “A lot of people just didn’t know, didn’t understand the importance of the ecology in our area and just what it is we have here.”

So, as well as talking to locals, getting the nearby schools involved, addressing service groups and procuring “wonderful support” from Wharekauhau Lodge and the Wellington 4-wheel drive club, the Friends of Onoke Spit did a pamphlet drop to the nearby holiday baches. “The response was really great,” says Dougal. “It really made a difference to the amount of damage from bikes, and the owners are quite protective of the spit. They use the centre track, watch out for the birds, and report in if they see any birds in trouble.”

Banded Dot

Banded Dotterel

“Our goal is enhancement – of the area and of people’s knowledge and enjoyment of it,” says Densie. “But there is also friction here, between the role of education and the role of isolation. The more that people know, the higher the chance that they’ll want to protect it and deepen their understanding of a very delicate ecosystem. They might just speak up if they get the chance to protect it. Yet the more people that know about it, the more people come here and that isn’t necessarily a good thing. We have ongoing discussions about bringing this area to people’s attention.”

The couple continue to share their passion through their birding tours and chatting with the regular visitors to the cabins on their bird and bush-rich property. But they have wound up Friends of Ōnoke Spit, due to no takers for the roles of treasurer, secretary, chairperson etc which are a mandatory part of being an Incorporated society. The Wairarapa Moana group is now invested in the area as part of their wider focus.

Along Ōnoke Spit, the colony of black-billed gulls is thriving. Most people visiting, stick to the main track and stay away from the fenced-off nesting areas. Local farmers all actively trap animal pest species or allow others to do so on their land. The native re-plantings are thriving and reproducing and the pingao plant – which holds the sand together but has almost disappeared from much of our coastline – is gradually returning, creeping forward.

These are small, but beautiful wins. Perhaps there is still more to be done here, but plants and creatures that are meant to be here, are hanging on in some cases, and thriving in others. What better tribute to a couple who have invested so much time, love, energy and knowledge into this unique and precious spit of land. It faces towards the vast Southern Ocean, but they have its back.

Ali Mackisack for WaiP2K