Paradise . . . Robbie Verhoef lives in explorer William Graves’ former holiday home. PHOTO: RUBY HEYWARD

Despite what some might think, conservation is accessible to the everyday person, however, Robbie Verhoef is no ordinary person. Ruby Heyward finds out why Mr Verhoef was one of eight people recognised with a Waitaki Citizen’s Award this month.

Like many other people, Robbie Verhoef has experienced loss, love and adventure.

But Mr Verhoef has lived a life unlike others.

His story starts at an ending, as his parents left their lives in Holland for New Zealand when he was 10 years old.

‘‘I fell in love with the place pretty much immediately.’’

He grew up in Canterbury, and had a stint of working as a builder in Holland before returning to Christchurch to help in his father’s building business.

With tension rising between the two, Mr Verhoef decided to return overseas — a plan that would be halted for the happiest of reasons.

He stopped in Cromwell to earn some money, finding a job at a pub on his first night there.

Debunking the myth that lightning does not strike in the same place twice, he met his future wife, Barbara Kitto, the next day and did not return to Holland for another 23 years.

The two moved to North Otago in 1987, before settling in Weston in 1991.

Mr Verhoef joined the North Otago Tramping and Mountaineering Club in 1994, bouncing from role to role on the committee since 2000.

He was also a member of the New Zealand Muscular Dystrophy Association and was part of a committee that helped decide who in the country would get free access to a miracle drug used to halt the condition, stopping further degeneration.

This drug was not funded by the government and cost $150,000 per dose — three were needed in the first year, and two more after that to be effective.

Each year, the company that manufactured the drug would give away up to 10 doses and Mr Verhoef was the muscular distrophy representative on the committee who helped decide who got them.

It was a big responsibility, but he was right for the job.

Mr Verhoef’s late son Michael Kitto-Verhoef had spinal muscular atrophy, a muscle wasting condition.

Michael was in a ‘‘power chair’’ from the age of 1, needing help with everything from scratching his nose to having his lungs vacuumed out when sick.

Unable to have children — at least at that point in their lives — Mr Verhoef and his wife adopted Michael.

‘‘Life just seemed magic from then on, even with his disability — it was difficult, incredibly difficult.’’

Apparently quite common for adoptive parents, soon after Michael came into their life the couple conceived the next addition to the family, Jonah Kitto-Verhoef.

When Michael died at 8 years old, Mr Verhoef’s induction to the tramping club was his ‘‘first foray into normal life’’.

‘‘When you have a kid who has this, it sort of makes you think about a lot of things,’’ he said.

‘‘Some of the illusionary stuff doesn’t matter anymore — the material stuff doesn’t matter anymore.

‘‘Your relationships and the people in your life are of paramount importance.’’

The couple moved a stone’s throw away from the very track the club maintained nine years ago, and could not have picked a more suitable place — explorer William Graves’ former holiday home.

Overlooking the Waianakarua River, their property was filled with trees that tui flipped between after filling their bellies with the four litres of sugar water Mr Verhoef put out for them every day.

‘‘If you do the pest control, you’d have some chance of these birds spreading out, and that’s exactly what happened.’’

Tui had only been in the area for about 30 years and it was thanks to people like Mr Verhoef and his neighbours for their efforts in pest control and planting native trees.

Mr Verhoef’s work did not stop at his property line.

Since 2015, he and the tramping club conducted pest control and track maintenance in Herbert Forest.

For him, part of the joy of tramping in woodlands was witnessing the birds flitting and singing through the forest.

The group targeted possums, stoats, rats, weasels, and hedgehogs — luckily the latter carnivore was not very good at climbing trees, he said.

Like father, like son, Mr Verhoef’s son Jonah worked in pest control as a project manager for the Halo Project in Dunedin.

‘‘We inspire each other.’’

Since retiring as a builder in 2017, Mr Verhoef has been a stalwart of Penguin Rescue NZ — a trust that works to get the hoiho (yellow-eyed penguin), also known as the takaraka, off the endangered list.

The trust monitored hoiho colonies at Katiki Beach, Katiki Point and Okahau Point, intervening when they could to save lives.

‘‘I finally know what I’m doing and finally built up enough confidence to do what I do, which is pretty intense actually — it’s incredible what we do.’’

The trust’s work could be ‘‘invasive’’ but was very necessary, leading to a slight rise in numbers over the years, he said.

In its efforts the trust microchipped and monitored each penguin, checked nests daily, hand reared chicks and treated disease, among other things.

It was all worth it, despite the hoiho pecks and flipper-whacks volunteers were given in return, he said.

One year, three chicks were attacked by ferrets and volunteers ended up lifting 48 chicks.

‘‘We saved all those chicks. We had to feed them twice a day — it was a lot of feeding for two months.’’

Many of those chicks had returned to breed, as told by their microchips.

‘‘That’s really cool when that happens — when you’ve made this massive intervention and you can see some really positive results from it.’’

Disease was one of the trust’s biggest issues, claiming 85% of last season’s chicks.

There had been a big increase in avian malaria, which had only been around for about four or five years.

Its rise was probably a result of climate change as temperatures rose, making the area more welcoming to otherwise timid mosquitoes, he said.

To identify the disease, blood samples were taken from the hoiho’s foot and the birds were treated with the same medicine used on humans.

One of Mr Verhoef’s first tasks as a volunteer was to rebuild the penguin rehabilitation centre as mosquito free, eliminating any risk presented by the carrier of malaria.

Upon retirement, all of sudden he felt he could actually choose what he wanted to do.

‘‘[After] a whole lifetime of building things for other people and making their dreams come true, here’s my chance to do something that I feel passionately about.’’

Other people could do the same, he said.

For those who had time on their hands and were fit and able, conservation was ‘‘a pretty cool’’ thing to do, he said.

‘‘I have got two little grandkids, a 2-year-old and a 3-month-old — I want them to be able to see some of the stuff that I can see.

‘‘I don’t want that to disappear and the way that it’s going, it will disappear. If nobody does anything, then boom.’’