Before ZEALANDIA became ZEALANDIA – a boyhood tale

ZEALANDIA is one of the hot tourist attractions in Wellington boasting a regenerative programme of native bush and wildlife. They have a 500 year plan to bring back the area to what it once was, gradually introducing into the region threatened species and nurturing them back to a flourishing existence.


This blog post, however, is a snapshot of ZEALANDIA before it became ZEALANDIA – when it was just a couple of dams and straggly bush, from the eyes of a boy who grew up there.I want to share with you one particular Saturday afternoon when we stumbled upon something that even in our wildest dreams we couldn’t have imagined.

I had the privilege of living on the cusp of this great wilderness that was an explorers dream. Laced with old man’s beard – a creeping vine that smothered struggling canopies, and strangled with climbing vines that we used to swing on, ZEALANDIA was New Zealand bush bereft of birdlife and cluttered with suffocated native trees.

Yet when I was a kid, I had no concept of nature and its challenges. The bush was the bush – a playground for mischievous and curious young lads’ intent on unravelling its secrets.

Many days were spent surveying the forest in hope of stumbling upon gold. We would carve out trails, build huts and even give our favourite trees personalities. However, the time had finally come after a few years of ‘playing in the bush,’ to organise an epic, formal adventure.

There was this very steep, dark valley which as slightly younger kids, we had never dared to explore. But now that we were eleven, and with confidence in numbers, we decided that this was the opportune moment.

So down we went, grabbing onto trusty vines as we eased into the valleys floor.  As we stumbled over fallen trees and loose rocks, the valley opened up into what we affectionately called ‘stick valley’ – thin trees shorn of branches sticking out of the valley floor. It was a welcome sight given the density of the bush we were used to.

As we progressed further down we suddenly realised to our amazement that the valley came to a sudden end. As we peered nervously over the precipice we realised that we were on the verge of a trickling waterfall. The valley we had come down did indeed have a gentle brook running through it, but we had hardly noticed it. It was a truly glorious sight and the feeling of discovery was just so exciting.

We worked our way down, by going around the waterfall, and were greeted by a flowing stream – a result of the dams above.

As we headed down the stream, we were to discover our greatest dream. There, about 8 metres above the stream and embedded into the embankment was the mouth of a cave. Surely not. A cave!? We hastily clambered up the embankment and were greeted by a large cave opening that disappeared into darkness.

As eleven year olds, we had no fear. One of us had a torch, and we headed into its murky depths. The floor was frequently covered in puddles, and littering the walls were cave wetas which we chose to ignore. The cave went on and on. Our only disappointment was that it didn’t seem to bend. It just stayed straight. And then, it came to an end.

But to have discovered this cave (of course we thought we were the first) was something that will stand out as a flagship memory in my childhood. We found out later that the cave was in fact man made by the early pioneers in search of what we always searched for – gold. We also later found out that there are two more caves in the region, one of which is a feature for ZEALANDIA tourists.

As an adult, as I walk paths that didn’t exist, but in the same area that I explored, it’s truly phenomenal how the bush has transformed into a cacophony of birdlife with native trees flourishing. Even though our adventures as kids had an authenticity about it, I am truly glad and proud that Wellington is grabbing this challenge and making a very good fist of it.

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