After exploring the fate of kauri trees and learning about enviroschools, our freedom is limited when Delta arrives. How long will the lockdown last?

Whangarei (NZL)

“What do you mean there are no restrictions?” our family and friends regularly ask us when we tell them that we can do whatever we like and go wherever we please in New Zealand. While Covid-19’s Delta variant is wreaking havoc all over the world, this country has managed to keep the virus out of the community. Thanks to a strict entry policy – the borders are closed to foreigners and returning Kiwis have to spend 14 days in quarantine – we have been enjoying unfettered freedom since our arrival. The only thing the authorities ask us to do is sign in at stores using an app, so they can contact us in case of an outbreak. It’s almost too good to be true, so we wonder: is it just a matter of time before New Zealand follows the rest of the world?

Winter in Whangarei

When we return to Whangarei from our second road trip with campervan Miss Nissy, the calendar tells us that it is winter. It really is not cold, but it does rain quite a lot. It’s not the best time to go sailing, even if we could. We are still waiting for essential boat parts, such as a new anchor chain and a drive for the electric autopilot. They are still in transit and keep Lucipara 2 in her berth at Riverside Drive Marina. On the plus side, our long stay here has made us part of the RDM family, the international bunch of liveaboard cruisers. Border closures have put us all in the same boat, which creates a bond. Our days are filled with social activities like Sunday evening BBQs, where the family comes together for a potluck of culinary delicacies. We also regularly join dinners at a popular local restaurant in town or have friends over on our boat.

To stay in shape, we try to exercise at least three times a week. We alternate the Hatea loop run (see our video) with swimming in the public pool and hiking to explore our surroundings. Across the street from the marina is a forest with walking paths and some beautiful kauri trees. Sadly, little remains of the vast kauri forests that once dominated the landscape of the North Island. The iconic trees fascinate us, so we are keen to learn more about it.

Experience the Difference

When we go tramping to the top of Mount Tutamoe, an hour’s drive from Whangarei, we see the effects humans have had on the landscape. The track begins along meadows, which have replaced forests all over the country to make room for sheep or cattle. A bit further up, we walk on the edge of a tree plantation. This, too, is typical of what has come in the place of much of the native forest. The uniform, fast-growing pines leave a layer of brown needles on the ground that do not tolerate other plants around them. It’s bone-dry. “It not only lacks biodiversity, it also seems very flammable to me. And the climate here will only get warmer and drier”, Ivar notes with concern.

The contrast with the original forest higher up the mountain could not be bigger. An abundance of trees, plants, and mosses covers every square millimetre. Ferns and shrubs grow under taller trees. Their branches, in turn, provide support for bromeliads and lichen. The result is not only a rich ecosystem with many insects, birds, and soil life. We also see how humid it is here because the native forest retains rainwater very well. However, we do not spot any kauris!

Audience with the King

To see them we head further north. The most majestic kauri can be found in Waipoua, a forest managed by the Department of Conservation (DOC). The Māori named the largest kauri here after the King of the Forest, Tane Mahuta. To them, the kauris are divine symbols. According to Māori legend, in the beginning, there was only darkness. Mother Earth and Father Heaven were stuck together until their son Tane pushed his parents apart with his legs. This is how light, life, and time came into existence. Tane was given the title Tane Mahuta, king of the forest and all life in it. His legs were kauris: the mightiest trees of the forest.

The Māori regard the kauris as protectors of the forest. They gave many large kauri trees special names and declared them tapu, meaning they were not allowed to be felled, or only in observance of strict rituals. It sometimes took them months to cut down a gigantic tree. Skilled craftsmen hollowed them out to make wakas, large canoes.

A Lucky Place of Birth

Understandably, the giant trees and their straight trunks towering above the rest made an impression on the Māori. The largest living specimen in New Zealand has a trunk circumference of almost 14 meters and is more than 50 meters high. In addition to its dimensions, its estimated age bewilders us. It is about 2,000 years old. “Image what this tree has been through”, Ivar whispers. “It was here long before the first people came to New Zealand!”

Tane Mahuta is now a tourist attraction because it is exceptional. The tree is one of the few survivors of the massacre that began with the arrival of the Europeans, who quickly found that the young trees made excellent ship masts. The wood of older trees was easy to work with, seawater resistant, and suitable for everything from ships to houses, furniture and dinner plates. The result: more than 99 percent of all kauris were cut between the mid-19th and mid-20th century. The King escaped extermination thanks to its remote birthplace. Cutting it down and transporting it was simply not profitable.

Kauri Museum?

The fate of kauri trees takes centre stage in Matakohe. We check in at a campsite, after which the friendly owner shows us the way to the kauri museum. There, the focus is on the industry that emerged in the mid-19th century with the arrival of the European settlers and their big saws. Those tools allowed them to fell ancient trees in a short time. They built river dams to transport the trunks, sometimes by the thousands, via waterways to sawmills. There, steam-powered saws would cut the colossal logs into planks.

As a result, a staggering amount of kauri forest disappeared: more than 1 million hectares. The museum exhibits the wood processing steps, the difficulty of the work, and the products that were made of kauri wood. The sheer scale of exports and the seemingly insatiable demand for the wood baffle us. Clearly, the industry was not interested in doing business sustainably. In the middle of the 20th century the industry collapsed because there were hardly any trees left. “From boom to bust in about 100 years. Kauri museum? They should have called it ecocide museum!” Floris laments.

Protection Offers Hope

The good news is that nowadays, the kauri trees are better protected. DOC manages many of their habitats and tries to protect them from new threats, such as a fungal disease (kauri dieback). On walks in the forests of Northland, we regularly come across recently planted kauri seedlings. They are often part of projects to bring back native species. It makes us hopeful that the great kauris can be the kings of the forest once again.

Important Lessons

The kauris’ tragic fate teaches us important lessons. These kings of the original forest show us that species are interdependent. Over the course of millions of years, nature has created an ecosystem that is as productive as possible, sequesters a lot of CO2, regulates water effectively and thus forms an indispensable part of a liveable biosphere. A plantation forest may be economically more valuable, but an original forest is ecologically far superior.

In addition, the kauris remind us that in a system based on economic growth, the plunder of natural resources continues unabated until it is no longer profitable. However, humanity cannot afford to loot forests, fertile land, fish, fossil energy reserves, and other natural resources ruthlessly. If the biosphere dies, we die too. What mechanism can help prevent this from happening?

Protect Nature, Change the Law

We think there are several solutions to limit eco-looting. Better protection starts by recognising that nature has value. One could argue that the Māori used to practice effective and sustainable forest management based on legends and traditions. These days, their beliefs have led to the recognition in New Zealand that nature has legal rights. It’s a sustainable solution that we described here and that deserves to be followed worldwide.

We also remember meeting Earth Lawyer Polly Higgins in England. She founded a movement to embed ecocide in international criminal law. Indeed, criminalizing the large-scale destruction of ecosystems has the potential to keep countries, businesses, and individuals from causing irreparable harm to nature. New Zealand’s last remaining kauris tell us how much this global legislation is needed. (See here for our article and video about eradicating ecocide and how you can join the movement.)

Kiwi Housesitters

After our kauri explorations we eagerly accept another house-sit opportunity, arranged through Kiwihousesitters. We welcome the change of scenery from the boat and thoroughly enjoy the luxuries of a shower, wifi, the Olympics on television, and a washing machine. This time, we are looking after two small dogs, Tilly and Muffin. They are a bit hostile when we first meet, barking, growling, and keeping their distance. Treats and a walk around the neighbourhood soon break the ice, after which they do not leave our side, even at night. We get quite attached to them and are sad to say goodbye after a week.

House- and dog sitting

Becoming Sustainability Advocates at Enviroschools

On a sunny Friday morning, we drive to Kerikeri near the Bay of Islands. Susan Karels, who works as the coordinator for Enviroschools at the Northland Regional Council, has invited us to a special happening. “We will be giving the Riverview School the green-gold award, so you’ll get to see exactly what it means to be an enviroschool”, she told us when we met her a few days earlier. We’re excited to learn more about the national programme that gets children involved in sustainability at an early age.

In the assembly hall, the students welcome us and representatives from the Northland Regional Council with a traditional Māori ceremony. After the formalities are over, we are taken to a classroom, where eight-year-olds have prepared a presentation about their Garden to Table programme. Proudly, they tell us what they grow in the school’s organic garden: tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, cauliflower, cherries, watermelons, bananas, apples, even apricots. We knew that the climate of Northland, New Zealand’s northernmost province, is an ideal place for growing fruit and vegetables but we didn’t expect students were learning to do it at a young age.

All Ages Are Involved

At the classroom next door, the school’s oldest students, 10-11 years old, are ready to show us a mini-documentary about their nature restoration work. While the video runs, they give live commentary about their excursion to Urupukapuka, the largest island in the nearby Bay of Islands. “Large parts of Urupukapuka were once deforested to make room for sheep pastures. Fortunately, nature is now being restored thanks to a rewilding programme”, one of them explains. “We learned everything about the indigenous birds on the island and the introduced predators that threaten the ecosystem”, another one adds while showing us pictures of them planting trees and checking traps for rats or stoats.

A group of students of different ages accompanies us from one classroom to the next. They are the Eco Warriors. Sporting blue vests, they lead the school’s initiatives to reduce plastic waste. “We ensure that all waste is separated and nothing ends up on the ground”, a bright boy of about nine explains. After a short silence, he adds: “And we tell our classmates to bring reusable items, such as containers and drinking bottles. Otherwise we’ll be cleaning up forever!” Their activism is effective: the school grounds are immaculately clean. It’s not difficult to fathom that their ambition to minimise plastic pollution at school spills over to their life outside school.

A National Success Story

Although Riverside School in Kerikeri has been participating in the Enviroschools programme for many years, it is far from alone. About 1,400 New Zealand schools – with a total of 340,000 primary and high school students – participate. The sustainable initiatives include solar energy projects, building tiny houses and insect hotels, and even an electric vehicle competition. No fewer than 145 regional coordinators and support staff advise teachers and provide educational materials. These are impressive figures, especially considering that Enviroschools started as a small project in 1993. It was a response to the 1992 Earth Summit’s call to “think globally and act locally.” The network grew rapidly, thanks in part to its many partners. The programme is mainly funded by the government and is supported by a national foundation.

Its projects help create healthy, peaceful, and sustainable communities. The hundreds of thousands of children who learn from them are a beacon of hope. Generations of New Zealanders, including its future leaders, are getting so accustomed to acting sustainably that it becomes second-nature to them, influencing their decisions and actions for the rest of their lives. What’s more, the children experience the consequences of their actions for the environment and their community, learn to take positive action, and bring about change. To learn more details about this inspiring story, click here for our separate sustainable solution item on Enviroschools.

The Inevitable Happens

New Zealand holds its breath when an Australian tourist carrying the Delta variant spends a weekend in Wellington. Miraculously, he infects nobody. A collective sigh of relief echoes through the country. Yet a short while later, one community Delta case is confirmed in Auckland. August 17 thus marks the sudden end of our unlimited freedom, as the entire country is mandated to go into a stringent level 4 lockdown. Although some commentators in Europe are critical of the move, the vast majority of Kiwis seem to understand the situation and comply with the new rules. The “team of five million” mindset, which we have heard so much about, turns out to be real! We join the team and cocoon on our boat. We spend our days working behind our computers, baking bread and cakes, and occasionally going to the supermarket. Security guards there manage social distancing rules, which leads to long queues at the entrance. Even the playgrounds are closed. The level of organisation and compliance amazes us.

What has become quite normal elsewhere in the world, is absolutely new to us. Being confined to the boat, not having the Sunday BBQs and dinners with friends feels awkward. As the country was spared community infections for so long, it was slow to roll out the vaccine programme. However, the lockdown will not be lifted until high vaccination rates are attained, so as soon as we’re eligible, we get our jabs at a drive-through station. Fortunately, we are still allowed to stretch our legs outdoors, so we have a walk each day or run the Hatea loop. Three weeks pass without the virus having spread outside of Auckland, so our region’s lockdown regime is relaxed. Hopefully, the pandemic can be contained to Auckland, everyone seems to think.

Planting Trees

To celebrate our newfound freedom, we visit our friends Susie and Lane in the Hokianga area. It’s impressive to see how much work they have accomplished on their lifestyle block since we last saw them a few months ago. Naturally, there are always things to do on a farm and we are happy to lend them a helping hand. We make beds of soil and compost in the vegetable garden and plant avocado trees. Fortunately, there is plenty of time left to play with their dogs Maggie and Enzo. They have grown but are still puppies in everything they do.

Then comes the news we feared: there are Delta infections in Northland. A new lockdown is announced. We are so remote here that contact with others is hardly possible, so decide to stay a little longer and form a “household bubble” with Susie and Lane. A few days later, we get good news from the marina in Whangarei: our new anchor chain has finally arrived! It relates to our “essential business”, as far as we’re concerned, so that justifies driving back to Whangarei during the lockdown.

Worth the Wait

“Finally, we can anchor almost everywhere now!” Ivar exclaims as we unpack 100 metres of Cromox stainless steel anchor chain. “It’s made in Germany, so it should last a lifetime!” Floris is also happy. One of the learnings of our journey so far is that 45 metres of anchor chain was not enough for our boat. After laying our shiny new friend on the pontoon, we insert coloured chain markers every 10 meters. They will help us determine how much chain we have put out when we anchor. “And now the big test”, Ivar announces, while we store the chain in the anchor locker that we enlarged before we had the new chain. Will it fit? “Yes!” Floris exclaims in jubilation when he guides the last metres through the hole in the anchor winch. We can’t wait to use it.

However, we are not leaving just yet. We need to tick one last box on our long maintenance list. Fortunately, a new linear drive for our electric system autopilot is fitted within a week. It took a while to find the correct type for our boat and the right professionals to help us out, but thanks to electrician Scott and mechanic Damian the installation is done swiftly and professionally. When we test the new drive, we can’t believe how quiet and energy efficient it is. Herbie, our wind vane, can expect some serious competition from our newest buddy!

Escaping Lockdown

Now that Luci is in a better condition than ever and the maintenance list is empty – an extremely rare condition – it’s time to go sailing again. It’s an opportunity we grab with both hands. We cannot sail west or north of New Zealand, as the borders of neighbouring countries are still closed and cyclone season has just begun. So we’ll explore New Zealand by sail instead. Only one thing still ties us to shore: our campervan Miss Nissy. Is it time to part ways with our trusted companion? Auckland, by far the largest market, is still in lockdown and there are still no tourists. We give it a try anyway and to our surprise, the local Kiwis quickly queue up to buy her. Within one day of placing an ad online we hand over the keys to her new owner and wave them both goodbye.

Bittersweet Farewells

We feel privileged that despite the lockdown, a lot is still possible in our region. It’s a stark contrast with the Aucklanders, who are very limited in their movements. While we wait for good wind, our agenda completely fills up with farewells. Saskia and John treat us to a delicious dinner, Annelies and Joop take us on a beautiful hike, and Victor cooks a yummy meal for us at his home. Steve finds time to cook steak and prepare a salad in-between the chores on his boat Quick Decision. After Anna’s sumptuous hors d’oeuvres, we get to taste Arthur’s famous nasi goreng on “SY Vista”. With Monique and Ad from SY Moneypenny we go out for dinner in town and see the latest James Bond film. We can’t even remember the last time we were in a cinema! We thoroughly enjoy these good times with the lovely friends we made in Whangarei, so we feel a bit sad that we have to say goodbye.

As soon as the weather forecast promises favourable winds, we leave our berth and head back to sea to explore New Zealand’s coasts. Auckland is off-bounds, so we set course to the north, all the while keeping our fingers crossed that the strict lockdown won’t be extended to the rest of the country again…

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