It didn’t help that I’d taken the wrong road home and it certainly didn’t help that I hadn’t yet learnt to keep a small torch with my keys, but, still, in the inky darkness of my first night on Waiheke, I found myself terribly, terribly lost.
I’d moved into my first place on the island – a cute, single-roomed pole house on Great Barrier Road, cloaked by old pine trees and overlooking Enclosure Bay – and straightway gone up to a friend’s place at Pope’s Corner.
The afternoon had turned into night. And, as I shouted my farewells from the road, I’d turned immediately left down Karaka rather than the next left 200m further on down into Coromandel Road.
I realised my mistake 15 or so minutes into what should have been a five-minute walk but in the pitch night resolved to forge on as I had a vague recollection that if I made it down to Sandy Bay, I’d probably be able to continue on the loop back up to Great Barrier. If all else failed, I remember thinking at the time, it was a warm summer’s night and I could just sleep on the beach until sun-up and try to find my new home in the morning.
That first Waiheke night’s adventure would be coming up to 17 years ago now and, although not in the same house, I still live in the neighbourhood and cringe slightly every time I walk the dog along Hauraki and remember how I got so lost navigating the roads around what was then the McKenzie Reserve pine forest.
I was reminded of it again this week when I heard that the Friends of McKenzie Reserve – a group responsible for turning what was in 2003 when they first formed a rather scruffy and desperately dark pine-strewn four hectares into a slick and very walkable forest of native species and poignant artworks – had enjoyed what was a rather special annual planting day on Sunday.
Back in 2014, a very small pōhutukawa seedling was given to the Friends of McKenzie Reserve by Russell St Paul, who lived on Great Barrier Road, and loved to wander through McKenzie Reserve. Russell had seen it growing in his garden and potted it up, knowing that it would need some love for five or so years but, in time, it would be perfect for the reserve. Russell, who died in 2018 aged 92, was well known and loved on the island as an environmentalist and for founding Forest & Bird on Waiheke.
In a beautiful piece of serendipity, in 2019 a young couple bought the home Russell have lived in for so many years – Natasha Belezky, committee member and volunteer at Forest & Bird and Whakanewha ranger, and her partner German Belanko, landscaper and also a Forest & Bird volunteer.
They had never met Russell so were unaware that their passions were so aligned but, reckoned Natasha, there was something about the house that felt just right.
“It just had a lovely feeling, despite needing lots of work… I knew it was the one when I opened a cupboard and inside was a Forest & Bird sticker. It was meant to be!”
After seven years of being nursed, that small pōhutukawa seedling was ready to finally plant out on Sunday and Penny Ericson, chairperson of McKenzie Reserve, knew exactly who should plant it.
“It’s been lovingly nurtured and we couldn’t think of anyone better to plant it than Natasha and German. Even more special was the news that they had not long had their first child, a baby girl named Atenea. So now we have our youngest volunteer.”
Atenea was born early on 5 June, World Environment Day, which Natasha and German say is another special coincidence with their commitment to looking after the planet.
Waiheke is changing vastly and rapidly – new faces, new landscapes, new goals and new strategies for reaching them seemingly spring up every new week. But there is also continuity. The sort of continuity embodied in the work of the Friends of McKenzie Reserve and the handing down of a pōhutukawa seedling from an environmentalist who died in his 90s to a seven-week-old baby.
And it’s a fair reminder during these turbulent days of protest and development, that times and people change but values don’t. • James Belfield