Bush tour helps the blind connect with nature through sound, smell and touch

Wellington’s Zealandia has a new sensory-based tour guiding blind and visually impaired visitors through the stunning eco-sanctuary.

Terese McLeod leads a group of people along a trail which meanders through a picturesque reservoir into the heart of Wellington’s ecosanctuary Zealandia. She stops at a tarata tree, picks one of its glossy, yellow-green leaves from the ground and rubs it between her fingers.

“This is what we used as perfume,” she says. The passionate nature guide, a Māori of Taranaki Whānui descent, hands it to Ra Smith, who lets go of his guide dog Dendi’s harness to feel the surface of the leaf and take in the lemony scent.

McLeod is guiding a group of blind and visually-impaired guests through an area of bush that is the home to some of New Zealand’s rarest and most extraordinary wildlife.

Nestled in hills a mere 10-minute drive from Wellington’s busy city centre, Zealandia is the world’s first fully-fenced urban ecosanctuary. The groundbreaking conservation project has managed to reintroduce 18 species of native wildlife, including the little spotted kiwi and tuatara in this 225-hectare natural park.

McLeod encourages the guests to take a deep breath and to take in the earthy odours of the bush.

“It’s a freshness by the absence of modern influences. It’s really a smell of mauri (life), a smell of constant renewal,” she says.

After the tarata (lemonwood) tree, the participants stop to take in the peppery smell of the heart-shaped kawakawa leaves and the musty bark of the tī kouka (cabbage tree).

As the group makes its way deeper into the park, they leave behind traffic noise, and more birds make themselves heard.

“Confident tūī soloists never fail to be active in the bush,” says McLeod, describing the sound of Zealandia. “But there’s often a bird choir medley with a range of soprano (tūī, pīwakawaka, korimako), alto (kākā), tenor (kawau, putangitangi / paradise shelduck), bass (takahē).”

The group stops again to touch the generous leaves of rangiora (Bushman’s Friend). “It makes excellent toilet paper,” she says prompting a few chuckles.

The idea of native bush tours for the blind had been close to McLeod’s heart for a long time, but developing “Te Ara o Ngā Taringa i Kite” or “The Pathway of the Ears” has been more challenging than she ever imagined.

The name stems from the Māori proverb: “It’s the ears that see". "Traditionally, the chief would ask all the students to learn in the dark because it shuts out other stimuli. When you’re focused on listening, you learn much better," she explains.

McLeod, knows what she’s talking about. In her early 20s, she lost her eyesight to bilateral keratoconus, a corneal thinning disorder.

After nearly a decade McLeod’s sight was restored when she received cornea transplants. Shortly after, she rekindled her love for the outdoors and has been active for the Department of Conservation (DOC) for more than 20 years.

“It’s not just about leading people with impaired sight through the bush. It’s about enhancing and boosting their experience. Trying to convey what a particular bird or tree looks like to someone who can’t see is really difficult.”

With the experience of sight loss and her devotion for the bush, the idea of setting up tours specifically for the blind community had been in the back of her mind for decades.

Even before developing the tours she naturally paid attention to sound, touch, taste and smell. “It’s bloody difficult to cop a good look at a bird,” she laughs.

The tour was partly put together from trial and error. She fitted friends and colleagues with simulators for various eye conditions and walked with them through the bush.

She says while it wasn’t rocket science, a lot of thought went into how to narrate a story that goes beyond ticking off boring bullet point, facts and figures.

“I’m much more interested in giving people a mihi whakatau (Māori welcome speech) or whakawhanaungatanga (relationships) with the environment. Introducing people to the moods and characters of the natural world, meeting the various members of my family who feel like meeting you.”

Māori have a unique relationship with the natural world and their traditional knowledge says that everything in the world is related. People, birds, fish, trees, mountains, rivers and even weather patterns are all members of one cosmic family.

McLeod is a natural storyteller and a walking encyclopedia, who shares her knowledge about Māori customs freely and explains multiple uses of the bush as a dispensary pharmacy.

She enlisted the help of a former Wētā workshop sculptor to design bird and other fauna’s beaks and feet to give an idea of scale. She recorded bird sounds and collected nests, feathers, egg sizes, plant material that can be touched.

Sometimes the group even gets the chance to touch a tuatara, the lizard-like reptile which are often described as a living fossil from the dinosaur age and are only found in New Zealand.

She laughs as she remembers what her brother said about the tuatara. “It feels like a cold wallet.”

With growing interest in tours for the blind community McLeod has been asked to develop more for other New Zealand destinations. She hopes they will enable many blind or visually impaired people to experience nature in its rawest form, receive some "vitamin N for nature shots”.

From early 2019 the sensory tours will be offered twice a month and on demand.


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