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  • Writer's pictureTim Higham

Billy Wii: Passing things on

In 1972 when the track from Mabey Road to Tataweka was put in Billy Wii watched his Uncle Sonny and Uncle Jim on their bulldozers.

“I’d be sitting over there watching, watching, and surprise, surprise Uncle Jim got off his dozer at lunchtime and said, ‘have a go, Billy’.

“Cos I’d been there three weeks watching and it was like it was meant to be. I didn’t have any problems at all. Because I’d watched him so closely and that’s what I wanted to learn.”

Billy has a contract with the Tū Mai Taonga project to carefully clear part of the old track to enable light utility vehicle access as part of preparations for laying feral cat and rat traps throughout Te Paparahi.

Field workers have been operating ahead of him with chainsaws to remove fallen trees and regrowth on the track to allow his digger through.

“Things have changed at smoko. Now everybody’s got a cell phone. There’s one young fellow that’s been asking questions and at some time I’ll ask him to come and get a feel - he’s my sister’s grandson.”

Billy didn’t leave Aotea until he went to boarding school aged 12.

He looked back from the boat pulling out of Port Fitzroy and saw his mum and dad “wearing holey singlets and old bushmen’s gear and I had a bag of new clothes”.

“Being away at school was hard, I was so family oriented. But I looked forward to coming home for the holidays.”

With no power and fridges, families harvested fresh food each week; “fish, wild cattle, goats, pigs, whatever was available.”

In the 1960s and 70s birdlife was more abundant in the area: “Tūī and kākā and you were able to witness the migration of the kererū. The berries came, the birds turned up. After two or three weeks, they were gone. They must have a circuit. Hundreds, then bingo, all gone. When the berries were ripe, we knew the programme.”

Billy also remembers seeing two kōkako near Miners Head. “Their shadows alerted me, two landed close and scared the hell out of me. I asked my dad, ‘what was the bird I saw today’, and he told me it was the kōkako.”

Billy made the most of his education. Having grown up around the water and boats, his first job was on tugboats, before working his way up to become an ocean going master and traveling widely.

He came back for spells, managed the farm on Rakitū for the Rope family, and had a crayfish boat.

He roamed the hills above his home at Motairehe and like many others put his initials on the ‘naming tree’ beside the track to Tataweka.

He says there’s a simplicity that comes from living remotely, having a garden, and hunting and gathering. It’s hard-won knowledge that needs to be passed on between those that have stayed and those newly arrived on the island.

When the Tū Mai Taonga project called for expressions of interest in the track work Billy was hopeful.

He built up a relationship with the owners of Pronto Hire over several months so that when the project “asked me to get involved it was very easy for them to put a digger on the barge the next day. They said, ‘do you want a new one’. I said, ‘might as well, it’s Great Barrier’. I was assuming it was going to happen, the power of positive thinking.”

The Kubota U48-4 five tonne digger “had done four hours when it arrived, it’s simply amazing, has got all the modern controls, and does everything I want”.

The improved access will cut out a grueling three hour walk into the rugged area for field workers and enable gear to be transported to the Tataweka hut site under the terms of an agreement with the Department of Conservation.

Billy is saddened by how few birds he is seeing in the bush but “delighted to be part of a project that aims to bring back the magic that used to be here.”

“Those birds own it, they made it, they built it. A taraire berry that goes through the pigeon is the only one that grows,” Billy says.

“What if we broke the pattern of migration that has existed for hundreds of years?”

He believes the enthusiasm he is seeing in the workers is the secret, and he is keen to pass his knowledge on.

“I’d like to see them walk out of here and say there are no more [feral cats and rats].

“Ultimately that would be the best day if I’m still alive to see it.

“To say ‘we did it’.”

Written by Tim Higham for the Tū Mai Taonga project.

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