Somewhere close to Mount Ruhapehu and the famous Tongariro Crossing, surrounded by hills, parted by the Whanganui River, far away from the modern world and city life is the tiny village of Whakahoro. In Whakahoro you can find a café, some sheep shags, an unserviced post office, stables, some tourist lodges and several staff houses. All of this forms one community. Under the name of Blue Duck Station it recently gained quite a good reputation as a holiday resort. This is where I spent my last three weeks in New Zealand. My name is Djamila König, crazy German, former Campbell student, Demi Pair, backpacker and in the end volunteer. This volunteer project is what I would like to describe a little more, for everyone who is interested in this kind of work.
Blue Duck Station… It is really hard to explain it with one word, it´s a very special and unique place. Somehow it´s also a business amongst other things, so I´ll use this term for now. This business is huge and all the people working there form kind of a big family. Also, you never get the feeling that it´s just about profit, but more about keeping everything running and doing all the work that´s necessary – and maybe even a little more, so it keeps improving. It´s a clean and healthy environment and everybody is there by choice – no one considers this “only a job”. Anyway, this business is split into three different branches.
The first branch is farming. Blue Duck Station is a working farm with approximately 4500 sheep, a few hundred cows, 30 working dogs, a couple of horses, some house pigs, chickens and Manuka honey bees. Since the whole area is rather steep we can´t grow crops, but thanks to our amazing sheepdogs we rock the sheep business! They produce meat, wool and – more sheep. It´s our job to instruct the sheep dogs to bring them into the right paddock, sheer them, check them, sort out lambs and old or sick ones and take care of the `bad` ones.
Most of these jobs require experience, so unless you´re staying there for longer you might not work a lot in these areas. However, at one stage you WILL join the farming boys and it´ll probably be a lot of fun... even though it means that you´ll be covered in poo and mud :D
The second branch is conservation work. Conservation in New Zealand is special, as there´s only one native mammal (a bat) and many of the native birds can´t fly. Thanks to human settlement they and their eggs are now targeted by wild cats, mice, rats, weasels, hedgehogs, possums, ferrets and stouts, one of the world´s most vicious killers, as an easy and nearly defenceless prey.
Another threat for the unique and subtle environment of Aotearoa is given by rather peaceful animals. Rabbits, wild goats and pigs (okay, `peaceful` doesn´t apply here, boars are murderous bastards) destroy a large amount of native New Zealand bush.
That´s the reason we do conservation work. In order to protect the wild kiwi birds and blue ducks in this area we set traps and poison baits for smaller predators and organize hunts for goats and pigs. We are the claws and teeth of the helpless creatures in our care. They can´t defend themselves against the aliens which were introduced to this fragile eco system by early settlers, so we do our best to make this right.
Without the help of volunteers it wouldn´t be possible to maintain this kind of protection. Every single trapbox needs to be checked in a two weeks interval. It needs to get cleaned out, reset and filled with a fresh bait. This process takes three to ten minutes, depending on the state of the trap. We need three hours for thirty. There are around 450 in Blue Duck´s. When we check a trapbox, this is what we do: We open them, secure the traps, clean out the box, remove the old bait, add a new one, reset the trap. Careful now! Close the lid, fix it with a screw and clear the entrances. The result is marked on a sheet.
Our third and last business branch is tourism. Blue Duck Station has several lodges and guests are coming in on a regular basis. Thanks to a partnership with Stray there are several buses with backpackers every week. Independent travellers come for all the outdoor activities and the lovely countryside atmosphere. We do our best to make our guests feel at home. For a little while they join the family. They can go on guided hunts, a bush safari, horse trekking, claybird shooting. In summer there are jet boat and canoe tours on Whanganui River and you can visit the Bridge to Nowhere.
We volunteers occasionally join these activities, share their awesome experiences and sometimes help a little. On the first evening Stray guests often have dinner in the café – cooked and served by us Eco Warriors (that´s cool for volunteer). After serving food we eat with them. At night there is a fire in front of Whio Lodge. Stray guests and Eco Warriors meet up and have a few drinks together. They ask us about our job. What are you doing here? We explain. Farming. Conservation. Work in the café, work in the lodges. We clean them, stock up firewood. Lots of firewood – fire is fun. We change bedsheets and bathmats, towels and teatowels. We clean the showers, scrub the toilet, wipe down the kitchen, dust. Change rubbish bags, vacuum, mop the floors. Mow the lawns. Hours and hours, nearly every day. Do you get paid? Nope. We pay quite a lot, considering the food we get for it. We work hard – eight hours a day, five days a week. We can´t leave the valley, there´s no reception and WiFi only till 2pm in the café, which is about one hour walking distance to Melly´s, our Eco Warrior home. So… why on earth would you work here under these conditions by choice?! Because we believe in this place. We believe in conservation, we believe in friendship and in the spirit of Blue Duck´s. It´s a home far from home, their business is our business. We love the people we meet, the skills we get, life lessons we learn. We love the stunning nature around us and the lack of technical distractions. We focus on the essentials and find happiness. Nobody wants to leave, secretly everybody is planning on coming back. Occasionally one of our guests feels this spirit and gets enchanted by it. He decides to spend some of his precious time with us. The birth of a new Eco Warrior. Days turn into weeks, weeks into months. That´s why.
Vitally important for everyone´s wellbeing is the Blue Duck Café. It´s the heart of the station. It is the only place where you can buy anything at all… although it´s only fizzy drinks and chocolate. The café is the place where we meet all up for lunch, usually soup and buttered toast. Here we have staff dinners, occasionally a party. It´s the café where we welcome our guests and tell them about the station. They can get food, information, WiFi or even souvenirs from our little general store in there. When the weather is bad it´s usually full of Eco Warriors doing all kinds of crazy jobs so they don´t have to go outside. My favourite activity for those times was feijoa skinning and walnut cracking. I worked through more than three large bags of walnuts in two weeks, occasionally by hand since we only had one nut cracker.
I could continue this for hours, there are so many stories to tell. About our games nights, glow worm caves or a certain roof over the fire place… It would never be enough! Blue Duck Station is a precious piece of real New Zealand, one that is worth experiencing. As long as there are people who care about this place it will maintain – for you to visit. Or maybe you even want to join the crew?