Wilbur Dovey - Voices of the Kaiwharawhara
Interviews and text by Janel Hull
Wilbur Dovey is an Ōtari-Wilton’s Bush volunteer who has over 50 years of family history in the park, and has spent the last 16 years restoring native bush.
On a walk along the Kaiwharawhara trail, Wilbur pauses to diligently pull a handful of weedy Scotch’s Broom from under a native tree.
Ōtari-Wilton’s Bush has been a special place for 79-year-old Wilbur for over 50 years.
He first discovered the park in a uniquely Wellingtonian way. “My history with Ōtari goes back to 1970 when I was looking for a flat. I hardly knew anybody here in Wellington at all.” Wilbur chuckles recalling damp and dingy flats one after another before finally finding the right one on Wilton Road. He would wander through the park but “didn’t really realise what Ōtari was” until he started a family.
In 1974, Wilbur and his late wife Liz were pregnant with their first child. “We had a very hot summer and a totally un-insulated house, so it used to get really hot in the afternoon.” Liz struggled with the heat, “so we often came down to Ōtari around dinner time and would bring a picnic down and sit under the trees.”
Once the couple had two kids, Ōtari became their playground. The girls would drop sticks off the bridge over the Kaiwharawhara and watch them float down in a game of Poohsticks. They’d also run loops around the Circular Track, getting all their energy out.
Listen to Wilbur talk about how Ōtari was a special place for him and his pregnant wife.
After their kids grew up, Liz and Wilbur decided it was time to give back to this special reserve. Liz began volunteering as a weeding volunteer, and Wilbur followed suit.
16 years after first signing up as a re-vegetation volunteer, Wilbur wears many hats. He is the board secretary, a weeding and re-vegetation volunteer, a tour organiser and leader, and a political advocate for conservation policy.
Of all his many volunteer roles, Wilbur has a soft spot for pulling weeds and planting native trees. He enjoys the un-glamourous but rewarding process of slowly turning a thicket of weeds into a thriving native forest.
Each Saturday morning at 9am, Wilbur meets in the Information Centre with a group of about 10 other “reveg” volunteers, some in their 70s and 80s. They trek together to a weedy bank face at the edge of the reserve that is home to a retired tip. The polluted site leaches some contaminants, so these hearty volunteers wear gloves as they pull winding threads of Tradescantia from the soil. Each year, the council gives them about about 400 eco-sourced native trees to replace these pest plants. In the winter time, the group folds new seedlings to the muddy banks.
Wilbur and two other volunteers, Jim Tait and Kathy Ombler, overlooking the native bush that surrounds the Kaiwharawhara Awa.
As we walk through the reserve together, Wilbur gestures to a grove of native trees lining the awa on the Kaiwharawhara trail. Twelve years ago, he planted these dense trees with other volunteers. In just over a decade, the under-story is now thick with regenerating kawakawa and the soil duff is dotted with seedlings of kahikatea, māhoe, and tawa that will one day fill the canopy.
These kind of community-led re-vegetation projects have brought many endemic birds back to the reserve. Wilbur says “there’s been a big increase right through Wellington.” “The tūī started coming back in about 2000, that was a rarity, but of course they’re all over the place now.” Wilbur has been particularly excited about seeing ruru in the reserve. In 2007, Wilbur woke up at dawn to stroll through the Troup Picnic Area and heard “morepork, just calling all the way through the reserve.” He also enjoys the “kākāriki. And of course, the kākā. They’re exciting, noisy, raucous birds.”
Wilbur attributes this resurgence in bird life to the hardworking volunteers and staff that trap predators, remove weeds, and plant trees in Ōtari year after year.
A re-vegetation site in Ōtari-Wilton’s Bush along the Kaiwharawhara Trail.
But for Wilbur, restoring native biodiversity doesn’t just have to be something reserved for parks, it also starts at home. He urges all Wellingtonians to identify pest plants in their own backyard. He recommends using the DOC Plant Me Instead Booklet to replace garden weeds with Wellington native plants. Even one native tree in a backyard can make a big difference to a tūī searching for a site to nest or a kererū looking for dinner.
As our walk comes to an end, Wilbur reflects on how important the reserve has been for his children and grandchildren. “Our kids loved the stream when they were young, and still do. And I’ve got a couple of grandsons they live quite close to us. They’re the same.” With all Wellingtonians planting native trees in reserves and their own backyards, Wilbur knows that his grandchildren will grow up in a very different Wellington than he arrived to in 1970. A Wellington filled with towering native trees and raucous kākā.