Better Together

Words Denise Irvine

The unique Te Kāroro Nature Precinct unites taonga at Rotokauri.

It doesn’t get much better than this Nourish assignment, and for a moment it’s all about food: ring-tailed lemurs at Hamilton Zoo are gently and delicately nibbling almonds and peanuts from my outstretched hands, jostling for position and treats.

Their leading lady, Noelle, manages the queue in the leafy enclosure, nudging a few young ones aside. “That’s a bit bossy,” I tell her, after she has a hissy fit at a lemur who puts herself in the wrong place. It’s very hierarchical at this feeding table.

I’ve been briefed for the encounter by Mark Turner, the zoo’s curator of exotics, and Colten Marcum, a primate keeper. Colten says there are 14 females and one male in this group. They’re a non-breeding outfit at present, and when they’re not vying for almonds the elegant Madagascar lemurs are engaged in the important business of grooming and sunbathing.

“They’ve already had breakfast,” Colten says, as he rattles the container of nuts, “but they’ll come for the treats.” The opportunity to meet and greet the lemurs is an added extra for me this morning, and a taste of things to come because such encounters will shortly be part of new packages for the public at the zoo.

I’m here on a story about the development of Hamilton City Council’s Te Kāroro Nature Precinct, west of the city at Rotokauri. Planning and construction began about three years ago; the precinct was completed in several stages and officially opened just before Easter this year.

It is an ambitious project that physically connects four different places: the 25ha Hamilton Zoo, showcase for native and exotic animals; Waikwhakareke Natural Heritage Park, the country’s largest (65ha) inland ecological restoration project that is a paradise for native wildlife; Hamilton Observatory, adjacent to the zoo, operated with the assistance of the Hamilton Astronomical Society; and Everyday Eatery, the café in the contemporary new building at the zoo entrance.

My tour-leader at Te Kāroro today is Lee-Ann Jordan, director of council’s Visitor Destinations Unit, which manages the precinct. Over coffee at Everyday Eatery, just ahead of the lemur visit, Lee-Ann says that in the past, the zoo and Waiwhakareke – a few paces from each other – were co-located rather than connected. It made perfect sense for council to unite the sites, and develop and market them as a package along with neighbours Everyday Eatery (independently operated) and the observatory (community-run, on land leased from council).

The Visitor Destinations Unit also manages Waikato Museum and Hamilton Gardens, and the Te Kāroro precinct complements these popular places.

“The mission here is conservation,” she says. “The purpose is connecting people with nature. It is about experience and education. The precinct shares stories of animals and plants; past, present and future. We want people to have fun, to make a memory, to inspire them to act in some way.”

Lee-Ann says the umbrella title, Te Kāroro, honours the ancient cultural heritage of this locale and it was chosen by Te Haa o te Whenua O Kirikiriroa, a local hapū collective that partners with council. The precinct is on a famed, unnamed walking track, a strategic pathway, thought to have been used by Tupuna Te Kāroro as a route between the west coast and Kirikiriroa, and the area is named after the reigning Chief Kāroro whose pā was on a nearby ridge now covered with suburban houses.

The $15 million Te Kāroro development includes the design, construction and fit-out of the building at the zoo’s entrance, and also new roading, car parking, and the covered walkway that links the zoo and Waiwhakarere. It’s been done in stages in the past two years, and the precinct smashed visitor numbers at Matariki Weekend (July 14–16) with around 1,500 visitors on the Friday and 2,007 visitors on the Saturday. This year’s Easter visitor numbers were also the highest recorded.

Hamilton architects Edwards White have created an impressive entrance for Te Kāroro: the low-slung veranda of the new zoo building mirrors the roof of the walkway that leads across to Waiwhakareke, the design inspired by the outstretched wings of the kākā, the native parrots that once flourished in the area. The earthy red and green colours of the roof linings match the under-wings of kākā.

There are also sturdy pou, complemented with artwork by children from local kura, a beautifully carved waharoa (archway) and a viewing tower with 360 degree views of the native forest, and wider town and country landscapes.

The Edwards White design was one of three winners in the public architecture category of the 2023 Te Kahui Waihanga New Zealand Institute of Architects Bay of Plenty and Waikato Awards, announced in June. Hamilton Mayor, Paula Southgate, has commended all involved with the project. “It is a stunning and top-class addition to our visitor offering and it’s wonderful to see it formally recognised with this win.”

Lee-Ann Jordan says although the precinct now physically unites the spaces and places, each has its own strong identity. “The zoo and observatory are more curated experiences, Waiwhakareke has self-guided walks. But they’re better together.”

There’s a strong sense of connection as we exit the zoo and head across the boardwalk to Waiwhakareke. We’ve said goodbye to exotic and native animals and birds in the lush zoo, and in a couple of minutes we’re in lush vegetation of a different kind, on a well-maintained pathway with a flirty little piwakawaka for company.

Ken Millwood, Hamilton Zoo’s education team leader, joins us on the Waiwhakareke walk; he and Lee-Ann recount the history of this council-owned former farmland that has been transformed over almost 20 years into a stunning green oasis that aims to represent the major vegetation types once found in the area.

The Waiwhakareke restoration was originally community led and council supported; nowadays it is led by council, and supported by the community. About 40ha has been planted, 500,000 trees in total, in five different ecological areas. Water quality in the reserve’s lake has vastly improved, natural regeneration is beginning to take place, and five wild kākā have been seen. There is also the possibility of a predator-free fence being built to further safeguard the precious flora and fauna.

Lee-Ann points to the uniqueness of Te Kāroro: “We can’t find another example of such integration of an indigenous ecological restoration project with a modern zoo.”

The uniqueness is echoed by Professor Bruce Clarkson, who chairs the Waiwhakareke Advisory Group, and was on the ground-floor of the restoration two decades earlier. He always knew an integrated approach would be beneficial. “There is a natural synergy between the zoo and Waiwhakareke, a sharing of expertise, a total systems approach.”

He says international reviewers who visited Hamilton Zoo and Waiwhakareke during an earlier council review said they’d never seen any other place in the world where the integration was so obvious and worthwhile: ecosystems from the other side of the world across the road from natural ecosystems.

Bruce Clarkson says in the beginning, Waiwhakareke seemed like a “100 year project” and he’s been amazed by the extent of the forest’s vigorous, healthy growth.

Lee-Ann Jordan says there’s something at Te Kāroro for everyone, “education, research, relaxation, and amazing opportunities for kids to explore”.

Note to self: next time the grandkids are in Hamilton, bring them to meet the lemurs and sample the other delights.

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