If you need some planting done, you can give a bunch of kids some spades, and you’ll get some planting done – possibly quite a lot of it. But if you take a bunch of kids, get them to explore an area, find out a bit about its’ history and create some links between them and the planting site, you’re going to get a whole lot more than just plants in the ground. You’ll get kids with skills. Kids with ideas and questions. And kids with a sense of connection to a place that is way more likely to transform into a long-term relationship that benefits both the people and the place.

And making those connections is at the heart of what the Mokomoko group is all about. Drawing on students from four nearby schools, Mokomoko is exploring and restoring an area of the Waipoua River, facilitated by Joseph Potangaroa of Ngāti Kahungunu ki Wairarapa and Rangitāne o Wairarapa.

Mokomoko is the reo name for torrent fish – tiny, tough endemic fish who are found in the rapids, riffles and torrents of fast flowing gravel-bottomed rivers. They were once plentiful in the Waipoua, as were massive eels, lamprey, grayling and all three species of kokopu and inganga/whitebait. “But people have taken their toll on the river,” says Joseph. “There are a few eels left, maybe a few inganga, but definitely no flounder/patiki. And you’re never going to find grayling because now they’re extinct.”

Even parts of the river itself no longer exist. In the 1930s, the river was straightened to carry flood water away from town as quickly as possible. Many of Masterton’s best known facilities have been built over the natural riverbed.

There are some mokomko/torrent fish however, somehow still clinging on to their home on the riverbed, in a river plagued by toxic algae, urban runoff, and erratic flow. And it’s these fish whose name has been chosen to represent the restoration group and embody the hope they hold for the Waipoua’s future.

Facilitated by Joseph, students and teachers from Makoura College,Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Wairarapa, Lakeview School, and Ko te Aroha Early Childhood Centre have all spent time getting to know the Waipoua and then getting to work on ideas to protect and restore her.

“I like going out and learning about things with Joseph,” says Ngahuru Smith, one of the students involved. “One of the things he says a lot is ‘back in the day’ and it makes sense when you’re out there and the things he’s talking about are right around you. We’ll just stop and he’ll show us something and he’ll talk about the trees or the history of the river or whatever. And you can see the stuff and it makes it real.”

“As a facilitator, I don’t have to be there all the time leading the learning,” says Joseph. “All of the connected schools are doing things their own way, and my job is to link in to what they’re doing, promote ideas, and connect the kids with nature and the community. There is a lot already going on and for these kids to connect with the community and with people already involved, has been really great.”

“The Greater Wellington Regional Council, the Masterton District Council and Recreational Services have really come alongside this in a collaborative way, while the Department of Conservation has been hugely supportive. When we had a day recently, planting and mulching below the Columbo Road bridge, they were there, working alongside the students, sharing sweat and doing the mahi.”

And what’s particularly cool in that kind of situation is the kids get talking to the adults and everyone’s learning off each other and sharing ideas. I love seeing that interacting happening – it’s connecting people together but also connecting those people to those places. There are lots of possibilities and that’s what’s happening in terms of getting people together.”

Some of those possibilities include connecting with other groups who are focussed on the river, doing some more clean-ups and water testing and maybe doing some bird surveys to find out what is thriving and what is missing. Mokomoko is a group that is coming up with their own ideas and questions, as well as one that is primed to respond if opportunities come up that they can respond to.

“The CCEM model is flexible enough that it can be juggled to meet the directions chosen by the students involved, as well as take advantage of local expertise and experiences,” says Joseph. “Mokomoko is held by Ngati Kahungunu and is the only Iwi – led CCEM group in the country. The strategic leadership group is really hands on – small on talk and big on actions. They all have direct expertise in terms of the river, the community and the environment, so they’re as keen as the kids are to get on with things.”

And those kids sure are keen. At the end of a day’s planting and mulching, one of the Makoura College students looked downstream to the next section of the riverbank. “Why can’t we just carry on,” she said to her teacher, Jo Paku. “Ahh,” said Jo, “we’ll see what can happen.”

You can bet your life we’ll see what can happen. Just watch that space.