Dedicated collectors keep the coast clean

NEIL RATLEY
Last updated 10:30 07/11/2012

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Being asked to spend a few days collecting rubbish is not the kind of job most people would jump at. However, when Neil Ratley was asked to take part in the Great Coastal Clean Up, he quickly volunteered to join Fiordland's biggest and isolated beachcombing missions.

We've lost plenty of hats but not many passengers," Johan Groters quips as he leans on the throttle of his jet boat.

We're flying across Lake Hauroko, one of New Zealand's southern-most lakes and the country's deepest.

Hemmed in by the snow-capped peaks of Fiordland to the west and surrounded by beech forest from all the other points of the compass, Lake Hauroko's metallic grey surface is a blur beneath the speeding jet boat.

The roar of the jets drops to a murmur for a moment and I fall from my state of suspended animation in mid-air into my seat.

Groters takes the opportunity to point out some of the features of the lake. Mary Island, covered in vegetation, is the resting place of a Maori princess. A sitting burial was uncovered in a dry cave on the island in 1967 - the body was that of a high-ranking woman - dating from the mid-17th century.

Lake Hauroko is 150 metres above sea level and its deep waters eventually find their way into Foveaux Strait. Under the power of the twin V8 engines, it doesn't take long to cross the lake. Following the contours of the southern shore, Groters spins the boat nose first into Lake Hauroko's drainpipe, the Wairaurahiri River.

The river, and its drop to the rugged south coast via the rock-strewn, whitewater rapids of the wild Wairaurahiri, is the office for Groters and his partner, Joyce Kolk.

My berth on the custombuilt jet boat is the result of a project close to Groters' and Kolk's hearts: the Great Coastal Clean Up. For five days, more than 30 volunteers, with the financial backing of nearly 20 businesses and organisations, will comb the isolated beaches and sounds from Resolution Island to Te Wae Wae Bay picking up rubbish.

Initiated as a five-year project in 2003, the cleanup was the brainchild of Southland fisherman Peter Young and helicopter pilot Wayne Pratt. Between 2003 and 2008, hundreds of kilometres of coast were scoured, about 200 volunteers acted as refuse collectors and more than 500 cubic metres of rubbish was removed.

"It is time to go back and see what we can find," Kolk said when she convinced me to become a rubbish collector in one of the most remote parts of New Zealand and one that is considered the most pristine in the world.

"Most of the coves and beaches are rarely visited by humans, but rubbish drifts in from the sea after being lost off boats.

"Increasingly, land-based refuse is also finding its way into rivers and streams," she says, answering the question forming in my mind: where does the rubbish come from?

I have never ridden on a rubbish truck, but I imagine that the WJet boat moves a bit faster as it scours the banks and waters of the Wairaurahiri River.

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Our destination is the Waitutu Lodge, hidden in dense virgin podocarp forest at the mouth of the Wairaurahiri River.

The lodge will be base camp for the group of volunteers I am embedded with. During the next five days, the southern team of rubbish collectors will forage its way north along the coastline, eventually meeting up with a team moving south from Doubtful Sound.

I am teamed with Groters and four other volunteers who have taken time off from their jobs to take part in something they feel strongly about - the conservation of a unique part of the world.

On our exhilarating passage to the lodge, we skirt rock walls, duck under low-hanging trees, whose mossy branches reach out to pluck unsuspecting passengers from the boat, and bounce across rapids. But we do have time to dock and disembark and head into the bush.

At an old deer hunters' hut, I get to know my fellow volunteers a little better as we collect old beer cans, discarded bottles of bourbon and a rusted stereo system. Tracker is an old Bluff fisherman, John is a horticulturist, Ray is an artist and environmentalist and Geoff is a dairy worker who traps possums when the dairy work is slow. In a diverse group, everyone is united in the importance of the cleanup.

With several bags full of rubbish on board the jet boat, we power on to the lodge for a hot meal and a night's rest before the real work begins.

The early morning is crisp and while we wait for the helicopter to drop us into our designated area, Kolk equips the teams and hands out some last-minute instructions.

Her passion is obvious. It has taken months of planning and the logistics of such a remote operation are challenging. There have been tireless hours on the phone getting sponsorship and it has taken a lot of money.

"We needed more than $100,000 to make this happen," she says.

The southern fishing industry gave cash and Environment Southland also supported the project with funding. Many other businesses and organisations also donated goods and services, Kolk says.

"The majority of funding for the cleanup is a great example of many groups, who rely on the natural environment of Fiordland, joining together to tackle a serious problem."

The wind whips up around our ears and the sound of the helicopter blades reverberates through the Waitutu bush. Soon my group of volunteers is drifting above the verdant green of the coastal forest. The Helicopter Line's Gaven Burgess is a big supporter of the cleanup and with his company's support, willing rubbish collectors can access the isolated beaches and coves of Fiordland.

The helicopters will also be used to airlift the full fadges (huge bags) of rubbish from the shore to the Department of Conservation's boat, The Southern Winds, skippered by Peter Young. He is still committed to keeping the coastline clean a decade after he started the project.

Led by Groters, my team begins to fill smaller bags to be emptied into the fadges. Among boulders and driftwood rubbed smooth by the constant wash of the southern sea we mostly find rope, buoys, bait pots and plastic drink bottles.

We break for morning tea and wait for the tide to drop.

"I hate beachcombing," Tracker says between mouthfuls of food. The irony of his comment makes us smile before we all get wet feet wading out around a headland to access the next stretch of bouldery beach.

Like hermit crabs, we inch our way down the south coast and at any stage when the work begins to feel tedious, a quick scan of our surroundings reinvigorates our efforts. By mid-afternoon, our allocated fadges are full. Groters gives us a choice. We can either wait several hours for the helicopter to return or tramp our way out. The lure of a cold beer back at the lodge plays a big part in the group's decision.

Groters' knowledge of this part of the world comes to the fore. His instincts guide us along the escarpment, at times perilously close to a steep drop to the rocky beach. We wind through windswept and sculptured coastal scrub. In a clearing with grand views across Foveaux Strait is a deer-trapping enclosure.

While we rest, Groters explains how a tripwire inside the perimeter closes the gate and traps the deer when they come to feed in the clearing. A few decades ago, the hardened deer hunters could make a dollar or two from taking live deer out of the bush. Because of commercial deer farming, overnight sorties and the backbreaking work of carrying out a heavy deer is reserved for pleasure, not business.

Pushing on, we enter the canopy of the dense podocarp forest. The sun's rays dapple through the leaves of rimu, miro, totara and southern rata, kamahi and ferns. The Waitutu forest is part of the largest area of lowland coastal forest in New Zealand and provides a safe haven for wood pigeons, tui, bellbirds and many other native species.

But it's another flying creature that signals we are getting close to the lodge.

The canopy roof above us shakes when a helicopter descends to drop off some of the other volunteers. It seems it would have been faster to wait for a ride, but I am not complaining. On land, air and water, I have been privileged to experience the Fiordland wilderness, made even more pristine by the efforts of dedicated volunteers and organisations.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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