Robin and Jo Burleigh and family of four daughters moved to the Le Bons Bay on Banks Peninsula in March 1985 in a move designed to escape the city (Timaru) and bring up our children in this rural environment which was first settled by many Scandinavians including Jo’s Swedish Great Grandfather who took up land in Lavericks Bay in 1876.
Jo, as a child, holidayed here with her Grandparents and eventually, we did the same as our family grew. This strong connection became a firm pull and we found a house to rent and a job with the Lands and Survey Department. So gave up our city life and my motor mechanics business and embarked on the biggest adventure of our lives.
Shifting to remote Le Bons Bay with four girls under 12 was seen by many friends and family as a bit crazy, but we were determined to make it work. The girls all attended Le Bons Bay Primary School and Akaroa Area School and received a very well rounded education.
I began my ‘conservation journey’ with Lands and Survey as a programme supervisor for the ‘Project Employment Programme’, a scheme initiated by then Labour Government designed to move people from unemployment into meaningful work out in the environment. This worked very well for a number of years and led to a lot of positive outcomes for many of Banks Peninsula’s 40 odd Scenic Reserves including track maintenance and development, fencing, weed control etc. Unfortunately funding was pulled in 1987 but I managed to keep busy with a few short term Lands and Survey contracts, casual farm work and professionalising my hobby of wood turning, which along with Jo’s skills making soft toys and dolls, allowed us to scratch out a living through attending local markets to sell our crafts.
Our strong desire to own our own piece of paradise as a place to raise our ‘flag’, was realised in 1988 when we purchased an 18 acre block on the main road. Inspired by others examples of DIY, I decided to build our own house. Fortunately we were able to become shareholders in the local sawmill and obtain enough macrocarpa trees locally to drag to the mill and then back up to the section to begin building, (something which I had never done before – not even building a garden shed!) With a lot of assistance from friends, family and locals I took a year off paid work and managed to get a liveable dwelling up so that we could move out of the old buses, caravan and shed which had provided our accommodation during the build. Fortunately, Jo had managed to get a great job in Akaroa for that year working on the manufacture of replica costumes for the 1990’s commemoration project.
At the end of 1989 I went back to conservation work, this time for the Department of Conservation which had been formed in 1987, and continued to work in that organisation until 2006. My work involved a wide range of duties including reserve management, fire control, protected species work particularly with penguin habitat restoration and predator control. After managing a comprehensive peninsula wide survey of penguin populations, it became clear to me that the best examples of the remaining native biodiversity occurred in the South East side of Banks Peninsula to approximately Le Bons Bay. This observation led me to propose in 2003 that it should be possible to enhance the many private and agency initiatives (e.g. Hinewai Reserve, Helps and Armstrong flora and fauna protection programmes). I contacted several land managers, local government agencies and runanga and other interested science parties with a proposal to create a ‘Wildside’ area of Banks peninsula where more intensive predator control and regeneration forest management practices could be achieved by combined effort under a set of common goals and guidelines. This idea blossomed and became highly effective and acknowledged initiative which received widespread support and recognition both locally and nationally. (Refer to Maries Wildside History).
In 2005, DOC received a proposal from the newly formed Josef Langer Charitable Trust (JLCT)offering to provide assistance for conservation projects on Banks Peninsula. The Trust was formed as a result of a bequest from the estate of Josef Langer, a European immigrant to New Zealand who had worked as an electronics engineer for Air New Zealand. His two good friends, Simon Mortlock and Oliver Brauer became trustees of his estate and after several field trips and meetings, it was decided that after satisfying Josefs desire to help protect the big cats of Africa (this was done through donations to Orana Park to rebuild the Lion and Tiger enclosures), the remaining funds would be available for projects on the ‘Wildside’!
I left DOC in 2006 to take over running the Eastern Bays Scenic Mail Run business and delivering mail to bays of Banks Peninsula and incorporating passenger tours as we went along. This tour became very popular and it was great fun to be able to share the amazing scenery over here with visitors all around the world. It turned into quite an ‘eco-tour’ and a pleasure to share achievements with them. Prior to the final meeting between DOC and JLCT, I was approached to become the liaison person between the trustees and projects on the ground that required funding. Subsequently I facilitated the support of a number of projects form bush restoration and covenanting, predator and possum control, nature publications, tui re-introduction, weed control, the Stony Bay predator fence, funding for the Wildside Co-ordinator, bio-diversity workshops and school education programmes.
When the opportunity arose in 2009 to purchase a 48ha block of land in Le Bons, it became in 2010 the first tangible memorial to Josef Langer. The parcel includes the striking volcanic dyke and dome structure known locally as Kellers Peak, but more commonly as Panama Rock, which links the area back to the centre of the Akaroa volcano at Onawe Peninsula. Also present is a large area of regenerating native bush which is gradually recovering the area which had been totally cleared of forest during the 1800’s [apart from a few totara trees under the rocky bluff]. Previous owners had built a small lodge as a holiday unit which the Trust now allows people to use especially family, youth and volunteer groups and folk who have a keen interest in conservation and the environment.
In 2012 an adjoining parcelt of 60ha was added and in 2014 another neighbouring 100ha block was purchased. Over the following years several walking tracks have been opened up to allow public access to all corners of the new 200ha reserve all year around and also visitors are able to bring dogs under control. Tracks allow a variety of short and longer walks including up to the top of the Peninsula bays as far as the Kaikoura Mountains. Also present up there are some threatened plants including the beautiful little gentian (gentionella serotine), the only known location for this plant on the peninsula.
Now retired from paid work I thoroughly enjoy managing the area on behalf of the Trust (now as an official trustee as well) and am constantly amazed at the rapid regeneration of the bush and wildlife. Jo and I are also now involved with the Le Bons Bay Environmental Education Trust which has leased the now closed primary school from the owners, Koukourarata Runanga, and operates that facility as a base for groups to experience environmental and sustainable education. It is part of our dream to see greater involvement by young people in this beautiful area and to see both organisations work together to enhance their experience while in Le Bons.