Almost appropriately, it was raining for the recent official opening of our newly expanded building that we refer to as our kohanga. Invited guests representing the history of the trust – including its founders and longest serving volunteers, funding partners and community stakeholders gathered to celebrate – and stay dry!

Here is the speech given by David Peters at the opening. David is a trustee and deserves huge thanks for project managing the design and construction of the extension. The timeline proved a challenge thanks to building material delays but he kept the entire thing on budget.

“Most of you are probably familiar with our project already, but I’ll give a brief potted history for those that aren’t.

The Aongatete Forest Restoration Trust was a joint initiative between Tauranga Forest & Bird and Katikati Rotary and registered with the newly formed Charities Commission in 2006. We have some of the original Trustees here today – a special welcome to Basil Graeme, Eddie Orsulich and Nigel Williams.

These prior Trustees and their colleagues who aren’t here today are the tipuna of our Trust and their hard work set the foundation on which we rest. Thank you for starting us up and for all your mahi over the years.

The primary goal of the Trust is “to ensure the long-term protective management of the native vegetation and fauna of the Aongatete Forest.”

Our work is primarily based on animal pest control and the results have been outstanding. Native manu such as rifleman, robin, kaka and the NZ falcon are found here now and whitehead have been spotted too. We have several plants here that are rare in the Kaimai, including pikirangi, green mistletoe – whose name has been given to the short road we are located on.

Now, ‘Alive at Aongatete’ is proudly our slogan.

However, back to the early days. There was no physical base here then for the dedicated and determined founders. A donated garden shed was set up in a local farmers paddock but was wrecked by a huge storm months later.

A trailer was then set up with the necessities to support baiting and trapping operations and this had to be towed up each time a volunteer day was held. The trailer had zero shelter and no home comforts for the volunteers or the organiser who had to stay with it all day, wind, rain or shine.

So in 2014, only 8 years ago, the WBOPDC and the Lion Foundation provided funds for the construction of a permanent structure here. Basil Graeme did the hard work to get the building designed, consented and constructed and the kohanga was opened in March 2015.

It has been an invaluable base for our operations ever since. It has allowed us to provide practical support for volunteers working in their own time, when they choose to, and this means we’re able to operate a pretty large trapping network for a volunteer driven organisation.

It’s also proven to be an essential base for our big baiting campaigns which can number up to 40 volunteers on some days.

The kohanga offers storage, shelter, space to read maps, check gear, eat cake, drink tea and tell tall stories. It has become our campfire.

I salute you, Basil. Having led the work on this new expansion, I really do appreciate how much work it must have taken you to get something up from scratch!

It’s been perfect for our operations and you’re probably asking yourselves why have we expanded it now?
It’s simple – we’re the victim of our own success. There’s a growing demand for access to forest which is comparatively intact. Our Trust rules task us to “Promote public awareness and education programs concerning the preservation and restoration of indigenous biodiversity at Aongatete Forest”.

We want people to know what a healthy forest looks like so they will understand the urgency of pest control for ALL of the ngahere. Every day we prevaricate on this issue we lose more of what have.

Although we have always supported day visits by school groups (and others), after AFP participated in the formation of Bay Conservation Alliance (of which it is a founding member) we asked BCA to provide a professional education service to schools on our behalf.

This program started in 2018 and has been very, very successful. We have seen hosted of Tauranga Boys College students, to name but one of the many local schools that have been to the forest.

Our neighbour, Aongatete Outdoor Education Centre, has also had growth in the school groups it hosts for environmental studies, and at times they make use of the kohanga too. The kohanga has hosted a monthly playgroup visit, several corporate volunteer days, visiting botanist club trips, the BOP Conservation Board, the CEO of Forest and Bird, several politicians and more.

Them, when Bay Conservation Alliance started bringing its Conservation Cadet program here from time to time, it was obvious we had completely outgrown the existing shed. And the single long drop!

So, with generous support from TECT and the WBOPDC, we embarked on the expansion you can see before your eyes.

We have space for about 60 people under shelter here (plus two on the dunnies over there). We’ve put a weather station on the roof, and a camera on the carpark, so on our website people can find out about current conditions (and crowds) before they drive all the way out here from Tauranga, or Maketu, or Paeroa, or Rotorua, or wherever they are coming from – our volunteers really do come from all over the district….

We’ve had to put in a solar power system and a communications link for the weather and the webcam, so we now have WiFi and 230v here when we need it (for a projector, for example).

We are looking forward to having more groups here. Tangata whenua have been invited to use it, the F&B Kiwi Kids Club is keen and one of our newer volunteers also runs a scout group and was very enthusiastic about the possibilities.

We’ve already run a successful Breakfast with the Birds event here, our first in 3 years, while we still had the scaffolding up! The possibilities are endless!

We had to institute a booking system between AFP, AOEC, and BCA a couple of years ago and I suspect that will start running hot.

Anyway, I’m sure by now you’ve worked out that we haven’t made the place too comfortable. We don’t want to encourage people to stay inside here when they’ve come to the forest. It is a staging post, not a destination.

I’d like to thank our architect, Geoff Richards of Apata Architects, and our builder, Brian Sampson of Katikati, for their dedication to what has been a long project over a difficult period.

And finally, I’d like to thank my fellow trustees, the volunteers who’ve spent many hours on the ends of paintbrushes, our funders, Ngai Tamawhariua and DOC for their patience, and trust.”