Polhill Reserve, once an unofficial rubbish tip, is now home to some of the most popular urban trails in New Zealand. The Brooklyn Trail Builders’ tracks have brought together an eclectic community of volunteers and users to transform a gorse-ridden 80 hectares into a recreational and conservational haven.
Pausing on your climb at a seat half-way up Transient, the reserve’s post popular trail, it’s hard to believe the capital city is a five-minute ride away. The pristine medley of greens cloaking the hillside could be mistaken for a remote spot in the Remutakas. Kāka and tui dive and flit amongst pittosporum and fern. Above the waters of Waimapihi, trickling along banks of regenerating bush, you might see a ruru sitting silent in the trees, or if you’re lucky, hear the call or catch a glimpse of the rare tīeke who have made a home here.
I first discovered Polhill because I moved in next door. I write this to the sound of bird calls and brake squeals, looking out over Serendipity, a dedicated downhill trail, as it plunges through a spectacular grove of punga. (I’m also looking at four pylons, a vivid reminder of Polhill’s proximity to urban life). Thirty years ago, my view would have been quite different. There were no punga beneath the pylons, no chorus of native birds, no bite of bike tyres on dirt. Instead, dumped fridges, mattresses, car parts and all manner of debris filled the gorse-covered space stretched out between Brooklyn, Highbury and Aro Valley. Thirty years before that there was only grass and the animals grazing on it. Neither environment was fit for trail walking, running or riding, much less the re-introduction of kiwi, which is on the cards here as a real possibility in the near future.
The story behind Polhill’s regeneration into an urban-wild recreational and conservational haven is about as multifaceted and easy to follow as Finnegan’s Wake without the protagonist: no single group is responsible, with each effort of tree-planting, rat-trapping, trail-building, or other volunteer/rogue interest helping facilitate the next in an unfolding process that is testament to iterative, de-centralised restoration. The presence of Zealandia Ecosanctuary next door also helps more than a tad. No matter how you look at Polhill though, it would not have happened without the Brooklyn Trail Builders (BTB) and the rogue diggers who came before them, because the trails gave a large number of people access to and interest in the reserve and are now central to its continual improvement, maintenance, and protection.
BTB is an informal group under the official umbrella of the Wellington Mountain Biking Club who shepherd BTB’s bureaucratic dealings. Over the years BTB has built 15km of tracks that climb through Polhill and into the hills south, clearing rubbish and weeds and planting natives as they go. Every inch of track has been built by hand and primarily by volunteer labour — what equates to tens of thousands of volunteer hours. Both Kev O’Donnell and Craig Starnes, the unofficial leaders of BTB who have coordinated and lead the trail building for two decades now, say their informality is critical to their success. ‘We have two rules,’ says Kev. ‘All meetings are in the pub. And no minutes are kept.’ While unorthodox, the approach has worked. ‘It keeps it fun,’ says Craig. ‘Take away the fun and what have you got?’
Craig has been running and riding in and around Polhill since the early ‘90s when he would go at lunch with a group of others working in the CBD. The beauty of Polhill was its proximity to the city: you could be there in five minutes. This is still a major drawcard, only now there are multiple, bush-covered, bird-filled trails to choose from. You can climb Transient and Windmill to the wind turbine — a height of 300 meters and a magnificent 360 of Wellington, or keep cool looping Clinical and Highbury Fling in the shade of regenerating and native bush. Even if you’re not mad-keen on birds, the sight of a karerea soaring over the valley, or the kaka playing chicken with the power-lines, or a tui swooshing past your head like a phantom, makes it a dynamic place to ride.
In the ‘90s users were mostly restricted to the edge of what was then called Polhill Recreational Reserve and a 4-wheel-drive track up through the gorse. A few other tracks began to appear around this time, one connecting the top of the reserve through to the city, but subdivision soon saw an end to that access. This, and the fencing off of the Zealandia Sanctuary which barred access to a number of trails that Craig had used and helped maintain, was what initially gave him the impetus to establish trails in Polhill. Enormous amounts of rubbish were cleared and Carparts and Carparts Extension were both built in the mid 2000s but it was Transient, built over two years and opened in 2010, that became the game-changer. Wellington City Council were also firmly on board by this stage, seeing Transient as a potential commuter route, and employed Jonathan Kennet to help with alignment.
The trail, named after someone they found living in the area, officially connected tracks at the top of the reserve down to Aro Street, providing a direct commuter route to the CBD. Within a year of opening Transient had over 60,000 visitors. ‘That was the field of dreams moment,’ says Craig. The opening of Windmill, Barking Emu and Highbury Fling around the same time sealed the deal. The popularity of the trails with runners and walkers as well as mountain-bikers took everyone by surprise and while Craig emphasises that from the outset BTB has wanted to provide access to the outdoors for as many people and groups of varying recreational interests and ability levels as possible, the multi-user element has brought some tensions, including vocal protests about the presence of mountain-bikers on the very trails they’ve built. Ultimately though, they’re good tensions, allowing for truly shared use and creating a dynamic energy that keeps building.
When I first got curious about Polhill, the story in my head was that Kev and Craig had seen the wasteland on their back door-step and had a dream to transform it into a haven for mountain-bikers. That’s a good story, but it’s not true. Conservation groups, such as the Waimapihi Trust, and individuals like Dennis Asher were active in and around the reserve before BTB began trail-building and a community effort in the ‘80s saved the reserve from being developed by the University of Victoria. Garth Baker, who coordinates planting in Polhill and is also a BTB member and keen biker and walker on the trails, started running around the reserve in the 1980s and planting natives along the Zealandia fence line in the 90s. When the trails opened up the reserve, parts of which are extremely steep, Polhill planting sites became more accessible and Garth began planting in the reserve. Over 14,000 trees, provided by Wellington City Council and Forest and Bird, have now been planted by volunteers, including increasingly more ‘old originals’ such as rata, donated by Project Crimson. Garth’s most recent project, Hoki Mai, in an old blackberry patch at the heart of Polhill, has just been completed and is the largest yet with 1600 trees planted by volunteers including school and corporate groups.
Once the natives started pushing through the gorse, Zealandia birds started winging the fence. There’s a story that DOC’s Darren Peters tells from a few years back when his colleague Lisa Whittle told him she had seen tīeke — extinct on the mainland in 1910 — nesting in Polhill. A half hour later Darren was looking up at the first tīeke nest outside of a sanctuary in over 100 years. Incredibly, the nest was just two meters off Clinical, a major trail under construction. Volunteers laid traps around the nest to protect it from predators and both chicks fledged, one making it through to independence, albeit with some lost tail feathers. It was a singular proof of concept, spurring community interest and leading Lisa and her husband Geoff, together with Paul Ward — who were all regulars on the trails — to form the Polhill Protectors. Four years on, with over 50 volunteers, and bait generously donated by Goodnature, the Protectors now maintain over 160 traps along six lines in the reserve, protecting Polhill’s nesting kākā, toutouwai (robin), and tui, as well as tīeke who have successfully nested every year since the originals. Critically, the trails have provided ready access for laying and checking the traps as well as engaging the wider public in the conservation work. Bird numbers are growing and the birds are venturing further into the city. Recently, Paul also launched Capital Kiwi, a project whose goal is to restore kiwi to wild areas around Wellington, including Polhill.
The success of their tracks has also brought more restrictions and BTB is currently building what is set to be its last trail in Polhill, a priority downhill to compliment Transient. Kev coordinates two digs a week on the trail with volunteers, one on Sunday afternoons and another Wednesday lunchtimes. The digs give anyone who wants it an opportunity to learn trail-building: pick up a tool from the bin, take your health-and-safety briefing, and start digging. There’s something great about seeing your small contribution add to the meters as the trail emerges from the ground, but perhaps even better is the sense of camaraderie. Having been on the digs I can attest to this and the way it keeps you coming back. Kev sees community involvement as key to BTB’s approach. He says the digs bring ‘all sorts’ and the more, and the more varied, the better. ‘We’ve had runners, walkers, mountain-bikers, tree-planters, corporate groups, Revolve women’s mountain-biking club, families, randoms, all pitch in. It’s great.’ He’s a relaxed and un-intimidating leader who doesn’t mind amateurs like me digging trails he and Craig will later finish off. He also provides a good incentive with a bbq (in a wheelbarrow) and beer at the end of Sunday digs, initially from his own pocket, but now donated by local super-star brewery Garage Project who generously support BTB and other groups working within Polhill.
Kev sees the volunteer aspect of BTB and Polhill in general as ‘part of that bigger, broader picture’ of volunteering in Aotearoa. He says that internationally, New Zealand is extraordinary in its volunteer sector with a large number of Kiwis giving many hours voluntarily. This might be true, but without super-volunteers like the BTB members the place would not be what it is. When I asked what motivated their dedication of over two decades and thousands of hours to Polhill their answers were mostly predictable — they love it, they want to give back, and it keeps them active and connected with nature. And of course they appreciate the trails on their back doorstep. But the significance of being part of the extensive, diverse and growing community of Polhill was surprising. Garth says it’s what makes Polhill unique. ‘There is an expectation about how ecological projects are managed whereas what I’ve realised is a big part of how it happens depends on the human ecology of the place,’ he says, comparing Polhill’s organic, piece-meal approach where many different groups come in to work together with the more traditional centralised (and often heftily funded) approach. Even though the City Council administers Polhill, local users and volunteers remain the kaitiaki, and despite occasional tensions between different users and volunteer groups, most are keen to acknowledge the importance of each other. All also acknowledge their privilege in having time and effort to give because of good jobs and personal circumstances and Garth emphasises his responsibility as a Pakeha to help restore what Pakeha destroyed not long ago. His vision is a 300-year one, when the nikau and rata now being planted start to flourish — imagine riding through that.
Back to the present though, and at the end of your ride, emerging from Polhill, you could be excused for feeling disoriented. You are not in the Remutakas. You are in the hipster hub of Aro Valley with its bespoke jewellery stores, floral gallery, gourmet eateries, punk-y street art, and of course Garage Project’s taproom and cellar. And a fairly decent Fish’n’Chip place. Just a few more reasons to get your wheels out here and come soar.