Geoff Park, Tony Whitaker and Fred Allen: A personal note

Paul Callister, November 2018

If walking the Paekākāriki-Pukerua Bay escarpment track, when you stop and rest on the seat on the southern edge of the ‘Eco-site’ forest you will see a memorial plaque to the noted New Zealand ecologist Geoff Park (1946-2009). Ngā Uruora volunteers assisted Te Araroa Wellington Trust in installing this seat. We also helped with planting around the area, including providing some northern rata.

plaquePlaque on escarpment, source: Andy McKay

I often sit on this seat after working on our lizard protection project which is situated directly below it. In late October 2018 I sat here with a long-time friend, Oliver Druce. Oliver is the son of well-known botanist Tony Druce (as well as the Wairarapa regional representative of Birds New Zealand). Tony Druce was a mentor to Geoff Park. Both lived in the Upper Hutt suburb of Pinehaven. Also from the same suburb was Tony Whitaker, the internationally acclaimed lizard expert whom the locally once common Whitaker’s skink is named after. Tony, who passed away in 2014, was born just two years before Geoff.  A couple of weeks before he passed away, I had a really helpful telephone conversation with him about lizards on the Kāpiti Coast and how we might best look after them. We were doing the final planning for the three year Kāpiti Coast Biodiversity Project. He suggested we employ Trent Bell of Ecogecko to advise us and carry out surveys, an excellent recommendation.

whitakersWhitakers skink, source: Department of Conservation

While Tony Druce influenced Geoff, in turn Geoff influenced my own thinking, including through his book Ngā Uruora: The Groves of Life – Ecology and History in a New Zealand Landscape. It is this book that our organisation is named after. Geoff, before he passed away in 2009, contributed to an expanding ecological history of New Zealand.

This book has recently been re-released by Victoria University Press.

37146171_10156592779794715_8406952664314675200_nSource: Victoria University Press

But my connection with Geoff goes back much further.

I grew up in the Lower Hutt suburb of Normandale. Across the valley, the hills were covered in gorse, with frequent fires slowing the hillside’s transformation to regenerating native bush. In one chapter of Ngā Uruora, Geoff paints a picture of the landscape that my great grandfather, Humphrey Callister, would have seen looking at the same hills as he sailed into Wellington harbour in 1857, just under 100 years before I was born. Geoff describes a dramatically different landscape to what we see today.

In my teenage years, as part of the Hutt Valley Conservation Society (formed in 1966), I helped plant native trees on the margins of these hills. I owe a debt to Jan and Arnold Heine who were key drivers of this group and who shared their considerable knowledge of ecology and restoration.

river crossingJan and Arnold Heine (right) with scientist, mountaineer, and conservationist Les Molloy, Source: Stuff

However, my lifelong interest in environmental issues was also encouraged by having Geoff Park as a mentor during his brief period as a teacher at Hutt Valley High School.[1]

In the early 1970s Geoff involved his students in a scientific study which then turned into a protest. In Keith George Memorial park, Geoff taught us how to undertake vegetation transects. He helped identify the range of plants growing there and explained why the area was ecologically important. He also showed us how to challenge decision making authorities using science.

stuff articleSource: Stuff

 As a teenager, winning this fight seemed a great victory for us. Unfortunately, it also gave me a false expectation of how simple it was to change the world!

In those early days of my conservation career it was easy to work out what to protect: the beech forests of Westland, the podocarp forests of the central North Island, and Lake Manapouri. Less clear was the aim of restoration.

The goal of restoration is an ongoing discussion within Ngā Uruora. One idea is recreating, as much as is feasible, an ecology of a period just prior to the arrival of Māori. This raises the question as to what the Paekākāriki escarpment would have looked like when Polynesian settlers arrived. In Paradise Saved: The Remarkable Story of New Zealand’s Wildlife Sanctuaries and How They Are Stemming the Tide of Extinction, Butler, Lindsay and Hunt (2014: 8) provide some idea:[2]

“Imagine standing on a New Zealand beach in the 14th century. Around you are the dense forest presses onto the shore. Thousands of shags and terns nest on the cliffs, with albatrosses and mollymawks on the grass slopes above. Seals bask on the rocks, and in the evening penguins come ashore to nest or roost. Dolphins and orca chase schools of fish into the bay and several species of larger whale pass by, or linger at sites such as the Hikurangi Trench off Kaikoura where rich, cold currents bring up food from the deep. The mud of the river mouth hides abundant shellfish and the assemblage of water birds includes unfamiliar characters such as a New Zealand pelican, a large flightless goose and the flightless Finsch’s duck.

Step back from the shore and into the forest margin, and look down. An extraordinary variety of life is all around you. Lizards scurry for cover away from your feet, while giant weta lurk in rock crevices. Peripatus, a beautiful velvet worm unchanged for more than 550 million years, rest under decaying logs; tuatara, whose relatives walked the land beside the dinosaurs, bask in the sunshine. Everywhere around you there is uniqueness. In ground beetles alone, New Zealand has 50 genera found nowhere else in the world. You won’t hear any croaking coming from the forest streams, as New Zealand’s tiny frogs are silent. Considered unchanged in 70 million years, they develop directly from eggs with no tadpole stage.

It’s perhaps at night that the forest is most alive, with short-tailed bats joining the insects turning over the leaf-litter. A ‘rain’ of seabirds falls at dusk in the breeding season while the kakapo ‘boom’ to attract a mate.”

When Ngā Uruora started its work in 1997, we wanted to provide a bird-safe corridor from Waikanae to Porirua. This initially meant protecting our remaining patches of forest. But then we began to expand the area of trees through growing plants in our nurseries and undertaking regular winter working bees. But what guided us in our planting? A key document has been a plant guide prepared by Matt Ward for the Kāpiti District Council which drew heavily, in turn, on plant lists prepared by Tony Druce, Geoff Park’s early mentor.

plant checklist

As part of forest protection, we have slowly expanded our trapping operations. The resulting changes in bird life have been slow. But we are now starting to see more Kererū and Tūī on the escarpment and, in late 2018, we spotted our first korimako (bellbird). Only a few weeks before that we saw a Southern right whale and its calf swimming past the escarpment.

whaleSouthern right whales, source: Chris Paulin

In the last couple of years we have also become conscious of lizards on the escarpment. We now have a lizard protection trial underway. This is taking place on an area of the escarpment directly below Geoff Park’s memorial seat. We are also have a lizard garden at our quarry site. In both site areas are some regionally rare plants grown by well-known nursery man, Fred Allen. We know these plants should be on the escarpment as Tony Druce included them in his plant list for the area.

cook strait mahoeCook Strait mahoe seedlings grown by Fred Allen

While Fred Allen grew up in Porirua, he spent much of his adult life in Lower Hutt. Fred’s Kiwi Plants nursery at the top of Stokes Valley in Lower Hutt is a just a short Kererū flight from where Geoff Park and Tony Whitaker grew up. Fred was well known in Wellington restoration circles and his trees are planted throughout Wellington. Fred’s plants are not only helping the local lizard populations that Tony Whitaker so loved but are also helping recreate the forests that Geoff Park described in Ngā Uruora. Fred passed away in October 2018.

lizard protection siteLizard protection site

Eventually on the Paekākāriki-Pukerua Bay escarpment we want to see the return of: bats, Cook Strait weta, a wider range of forest dwelling birds, and more species of lizards, including tree dwelling lizards. But what we increasingly realise are missing are the thousands of seabirds that were once likely to be living permanently, or during their breeding season, on the escarpment. There would have been lots of burrows. Given our knowledge of the preferred habitat of Whitaker’s skink, it is likely many made use of these burrows, as would have tuatara. We have yet to figure out how to achieve this goal, but one day we hope to see the seabirds return.

Recently, I visited a new lizard site at Manor Park opposite Keith George Memorial Park. This was on the way home from picking up plants from Fred Allen’s nursery. While checking out lizard homes it was great to look across the motorway and feel some satisfaction that I was part of a group that helped save an important area of local forest.

Geoff Park, Tony Whitaker and Fred Allen are all connected to Ngā Uruora in various ways. But it was Geoff who inspired my early conservation efforts. I am sure he would have approved of Ngā Uruora’s efforts to ‘restore’ the escarpment. We are privileged to have his memorial seat on Te Araroa track.


[2] Butler, D., Lindsay, T. and Hunt, J. (2014) Paradise Saved: The Remarkable Story of New Zealand’s Wildlife Sanctuaries and How They Are Stemming the Tide of Extinction, Auckland: Random House.