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Shawn “The Vegetator” Vennell with his 12-year-old daughter Georgie, at work on the Wairākei Restoration Project. Photo/Ken Downie

The Vegetator: Wairākei’s homegrown superhero

Wairākei’s homegrown superhero, Shawn Vennell, is known for his green fingers – and his iron fist.

Shawn Vennell was 17 when he made his first big donation to Greenpeace of $100, no small amount for a teenager in the 80s. Not long after, French agents blew up the Rainbow Warrior. “It felt like my money didn’t go far that day,” he says.

More than 30 years later, the father of two – now known as “Vegetator Vennell”– is still putting both money and energy into fuelling his environmental beliefs. Drive between Taupō and the Wairākei BP – a neglected 7km stretch of SH1 decommissioned after the bypass opened – and most weekends you’re bound to see Vennell and some of his fellow volunteers hard at work.

The director of a local printing company, he takes very seriously that old motto of planting three trees for each one you chop down. Since 2015, he and his supporters have laid down some 22,500 seedlings, with a target of 50,000 by the end of next year. (To follow their progress, visit “The ‘Vegetator’ Vennell Team” on Facebook.)

In the 70s and 80s, when Vennell used to travel from his home in Wairākei village to Taupō for school, he says Wairākei Drive was a park-like highway, with neatly trimmed grass and native bush dividing the main road from the Huka Falls below.

His vision is to restore the ecosystem, creating a carbon sink and bringing back the bird population that once flourished here. As well as the back-breaking work involved, raising money to buy thousands of mostly native seedlings (toetoe, koromiko, flax, mānuka, lancewood, tōtara, mataī, rimu) has taken some real brawn, too.

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Most weekends you’re bound to see Vennell and some of his fellow volunteers hard at work in Wairākei. Photo/Ken Downie

In 2015, Vennell put on his boxing gloves for the Zero Risk King of the Ring charity fight in 2015 to raise money for Greening Taupō, a community initiative that’s thrown its support behind the Wairākei Drive restoration project. “I had 10 weeks to train,” he says. “I think my opponent took that part more seriously than me – I was knocked out in the last round.”

Vennell was still declared King of the Ring and won a $10,000 bonus, having raised $95,000 in donations, compared to his challenger’s total of $4500. “I lost the battle but won the war,” he says.

That’s paid for all the seedlings planted so far, although the money is likely to run out this year. Local businesses have also donated manpower, mulch and machinery. Some of the trees are already an impressive 1.8m. “The bones were still there because of the wonderful [original] design,” says Vennell, who often hears locals talking about how the birdlife has improved.  

Still, saving the planet is no easy job, even for a superhero like The Vegetator. The first three months of last year were so dry that 19,000 litres of water was pumped in to irrigate the young seedlings to ensure they survived. “That’s putting every little sapling happily to bed and tucking them in at the same time.”

This article was first published in the February 2020 issue of North & South. Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to our fortnightly email for more great stories.