How this eco-tour guide is inspiring others through her conservation work
As an environmental tour guide and through her award-winning conservation efforts, Paihia local Stella Kake-Schmid is inspiring others to nurture their own communities.
Two patient Englishmen had a life-changing influence on a young Stella Kake-Schmid. One was Sir David Attenborough. The other was a forestry foreman uncle she calls “Pop”.
It was Pop who at times provided Stella respite from a tough childhood, while instilling a love of the bush. He taught her to catch tadpoles in puddles and showed her how to identify native plants.
From the age of five, Stella aided his pest-control efforts, holding a spotlight so he could shoot feral cats or possums after dark. Together, they rehabilitated sick or wounded native animals. “I thought everybody had seen a kiwi running around in their lounge,” Stella says of the injured birds her British-born uncle would rescue. “We’d nurture them back to health and then release them.”
Then, in the evenings, she would sit alongside his rocking chair and fall asleep while watching and re-watching recorded documentaries by his compatriot, the broadcaster and natural historian Sir David Attenborough.
“I didn’t realise how special my life was,” Stella says. “We ate, drank and watched conservation. My Pop, he was the most influential man in my life. And David Attenborough taught me everything in terms of kaitiakitanga.”
I didn't realise how special my life was.
These days, through her Bay of Islands tourism guiding work, Stella passes the guardianship message onto the travellers, schoolchildren and tertiary students she takes into Opua Forest. The former farm worker launched Papatūānuku Earth Mother Tours in late 2016 to cater to cruise-ship visitors.
Last summer, she and her four employees showed up to 140 tourists a day through the forest. The tour business is much smaller at the moment but her Te Waka Kaitiaki education programme is as busy as ever. And with big numbers of Kiwis travelling north in recent months, she has guided groups of cycle tourists and provided entertaining, educational tours for family groups. Most, she says, have no idea of the risks faced by native species.
“We have 33 million possums and less than 60,000 kiwi. The kākāpō, the largest parrot in the world – we have less than 150 left before extinction. These things need our help. “My tours have a tikanga Māori focus. So when we’re walking through the bush, I talk about the use of natural medicines and about protection of te taiao, the natural world.”
Stella, who is Ngāti Kawa, Ngāti Rāhiri and Ngāti Awa, spent most of her preschool years living with her grandparents behind Te Tii Waitangi marae. She was four when her grandfather died and life took a turn for the worse.
“My nan, she was sad after he died. There was a lot of drinking, fighting, abuse. By age seven, I knew how to turn my nan into the recovery position. But I loved her and she also taught me a lot about our culture and tikanga and Māori medicine. And of course the trials you have in life help you to be stronger.”
Following her grandmother’s death, Stella moved to her cousin’s house. It was only then that her whānau discovered the 11-year-old couldn’t read, and they began teaching her. She’s now an avid reader who works with the Duffy Books in Homes programme. The role has seen her visit Otago schoolchildren, carting her taxidermied kiwi, stoat and weasel onto planes, talking about reading and conservation and handing out books.
The businesswoman knows the power of finding a good mentor. She met Salt Air helicopter sightseeing tours chief executive Grant Harnish while collecting a community award in Rotorua. After hearing her speak – “I did it barefoot, in a singlet with camo pants,” she says – he offered to help her launch a business of her own. “I asked why, and he looked at me and he said to me, ‘Because I believe in you.’ I went to the toilet and bawled my eyes out. All my life, I’d never heard that from anyone. And he was a stranger.”
So she presented Grant with a one-page plan and, with his help, obtained Work and Income funding. He loaned her a Mercedes van to kick-start her tour company and has continued to provide support, friendship and advice. Thanks to him, she’s now a trustee of the Focus Paihia Community Charitable Trust.
Grant, whose business is based on the Paihia waterfront, is quick to play down his role. “Stella’s helped herself,” he says. “She’s been phenomenal, she’s an amazing person. I’ve learned as much from Stella as she’s learned from me and I’m immensely proud of what she’s achieved.”
In February last year, hers was named one of the top three environmental tours in New Zealand. The previous year, she was named iwi conservationist of the year for her work with the Bay Bush Action Trust, which she co-founded to care for Opua Forest.
She’s spent more than a decade working as a volunteer trapper for the trust, and is licenced to shoot and poison pests. She also makes and sells her own kawakawa balm and gives lectures and presentations at marae. And she helped develop Ngahere Toa, a children’s group that helps with trapping while learning about the forest’s ecosystem.
Stella is a mother of two, with two grandchildren. Her 18-year-old son, Miller, started cutting trap lines at age nine and is following in his mother’s conservation footsteps. Miller works alongside hapū and other community volunteers who have collectively placed 2600 traps within a 500ha area of the forest.
She hopes that tour visitors will be inspired to get involved in conservation programmes in their own communities.
“I live in a very beautiful part of the world and I want people to take away an understanding of the natural world – what it was like, how it is now and what it should be.
“I say to visitors, ‘Please go back and help in your own home town. Help with trapping, picking up rubbish off your beach, donate money, whatever you can to help the environment. Go back and be a kaitiaki in your own little bit of paradise.’”
Be a kaitiaki in your own little bit of paradise.
Papatūānuku Earth Mother Tours operates out of the Opua Forest, which lies behind the Northland resort town of Paihia. The guided experience takes people through the kauri forest, covering the history of how Māori traditionally used the trees, plants and birds of the forest to heal, protect, nourish, entertain and support their growing families.