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My Happy Place


When family and friends from out of town come to visit, I’m inevitably put on the spot to come up with local highlights to show them.

Mentally, I run through all my favourite places in town – cafés, sights and adventures, etc.

Gray’s Bush Scenic Reserve in Gisborne is always in my top five.

In April, two new Toyota Kiwi Guardian adventure sites were launched in Gisborne - one at Gray’s Bush Scenic Reserve and another at Okitu Bush Scenic Reserve.

Toyota Kiwi Guardians is an activity programme helping kids connect with nature by encouraging them to go on epic self guided adventures and earn rewards.

Toyota New Zealand and DOC teamed up on this national conservation programme, which helps families and Kiwi kids explore New Zealand’s outdoors and act for the benefit of conservation.

It’s a good partnership: DOC has a team of conservation education professionals who understand the importance of engaging children in nature early on and the positive impact this has on learning, confidence, and physical and mental health. Toyota New Zealand recognises the value of protecting the natural environment and is supporting DOC with commercial know-how and influence across New Zealand communities.

There are three ways for kids to become a Toyota Kiwi Guardian.  They can visit adventure sites and follow the special map to track down a Guardians Post to locate a secret code word.

Alternatively, kids can complete tasks in their own backyards, for example: build a wētā motel or track their cat. The final option is event medals, which pop up for events like Fieldays and Conservation Week.

I took the Swann family on a trip to Gray’s Bush to do a Toyota Kiwi Guardians adventure.

What really got the Swann family hooked was that families can tailor participation to suit what they have time for and still benefit from being involved.

The Toyota Kiwi Guardians programme focuses on 6 to 10 year olds because research shows this is a good time for them to establish lifelong connections with nature.

Bella is 8 and Hamish is 11, so they’re right in the bracket that DOC and Toyota want to reach (I didn´t tell Hamish he was a year out! After all, it’s not a hard and fast rule). We were joined by Bella and Hamish’s dad, Hayden Swann, who is the principal of Makaraka School. We downloaded the map from the DOC website and made sure they understood they were to follow the map and look for the Guardian’s post, which has a special code word. Kids enter the code online to receive a certificate and medal. Hamish and Bella were excited about this.

Gray’s Bush is one of the most popular and accessible DOC reserves in the region, attracting between 10,000 to 12,000 visitors each year.

Gray’s Bush is a ‘living museum’ – a small relic of what the whole of the Gisborne plains was like when it was covered in native bush before being developed for horticulture/agriculture. It’s a haven for native and introduced birdlife and contains a dominant canopy of kahikatea and pūriri forest. It’s a place where people go to get out into nature, in their own backyard just 10 kilometres from the city centre, a 15-minute drive. Gray’s Bush is one of the most popular and accessible DOC reserves in the region, attracting between 10,000 to 12,000 visitors each year. The bush also offers access for wheelchairs and buggies.

Makaraka school is learning about the kahikatea tree as part of a school play.  Being able to visit Gray’s Bush and see the kahikatea first-hand really helped their learning. 

Hayden told me about the local legend which was being adapted for the school play: ‘Mahakirau’, about a man who wanted to find out if it was true two great Albatross brought kūmara to Aotearoa.  He had heard that a man called Pou had the task of flying the birds from his Pacific Islands home to Aotearoa in time for planting season. Pou was given instructions on how to care for the birds but he did not listen.

Pou plucked out a feather to hasten the descent of the birds and the feather fell on the Aerial Reef (Toka Ahuru). Mahakirau heard the feather had grown into a great tree on the reef. He sent his pet shark to bring a branch from the tree as evidence. His shark returned with a branch, which he then planted near the Makaraka School, starting the great Makaraka/Makauri/Matawhero Kahikatea forests.

Kahikatea trees are known to grow in swamps and wetlands, which were common on the Gisborne flats before they were drained for horticultural use.

Hayden says the Toyota Kiwi Guardians adventure site at Gray’s Bush is a fun way to explore one of Gisborne’s windows to the past.

He says, “From an educational perspective Gray’s Bush is a great place to take our school to learn about the native wildlife and vegetation, especially the kahikatea and pūriri trees that uniquely grow together here. Our students ‘wow’ at the fact these trees are 400-500 years old.”

Having Toyota Kiwi Guardians sites in Gisborne offers local families the opportunity to keep their kids entertained at little or no cost.

Getting out into nature and learning about the many native trees and birdlife is an invaluable experience – however, sometimes that gets crowded out by life and our general stresses and obligations.

DOC and Toyota have made it easy for families to get out into nature.

Gray’s Bush is my happy place – and I’m glad that the Toyota Kiwi Guardians programme is getting kids to connect with Gray’s as well. With a bit of luck, it’ll become a much-loved happy place for future generations too.

For a list of adventure sites and action medals go to we’re also on Facebook:

Happy adventuring, Guardians!