A Tale of Great Barrier Island by Gus

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For five weeks in June and July 2014 I went with 29 other boys and two teachers from school to Great Barrier Island  in the Hauraki Gulf.  We were there to learn some new skills, have fun, learn about the community who live there and be challenged.

I flew on to Great Barrier Island (GBI) on a tiny little plane, it looked and felt dodgy.  It was a noisy plane so we got given ear muffs.  Mr Hall,  Aaron and I landed at GBI “international” airport, and drove about 1h to Orama.  We arrived at night and put our bags in cabins and went to tea.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe went on two long uphill walks on Saturday and Sunday with just the teachers because the OPC staff were having a break from the girls trip.  Coopers Castle was a long, very steep walk with great views at the top.  We had to keep away from the edge because there was a big cliff with a huge drop but there was a great view over Okiwi.  It was hard to walk up because it was so steep and we had to scramble parts of it.  On Monday we had the power and water tour and it showed us that Orama gets their water from a stream and power from a generator because they don’t have mains electricity.

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Next Monday we went on our first expedition.  My group walked one and a half hours to a bay.  We found a big dead  mako shark on the beach. and mussel barrels that we kept throwing into the sea and they would float back into shore. We descoverd some good climbing rocks that we scrambled on. We also found some kina it looked like a hard spiky ball but you open it with 2 spoons and there is a mussle like fish inside which Teina ate. Mitchell also caught a rat with his bare hands and strangled it to death.

When we got back to Orama it started raining that night. It got really windy and rainy on Wednesday.  We practised how to belay then went white water rafting (aka brown water floating) down the so-called stream that became a river.  It wasn’t very fun and we got  cold,  wet and numb and then we had to carry the kayaks back to the trailer .

On Wednesday night at 11:59 pm we were awoken from our sleep and were evacuated to the Orama lounge because there was a big storm.  We had to get dressed quickly – luckily I had my waterproof trousers so I pulled them on over my fat pants, grabbed my sleeping bag and rain jacket and followed the adult with the torch – we had no idea where we were going because it was dark and wild.  It was tipping it down with rain, my cabin was shaking in the wind. it was kind of scary but not really, it was more exciting than scary.  In the morning  there was mud everywhere, tractors,  trees and a generator were washed out to sea.  We sat in Orama lounge all day because it was too dangerous to go outside because of all the debris around.teenage boys holding mops as if they were soldiers

The next day we helped Orama clean up. My group had the hardest task of cleaning the classroom and gym, which had knee deep mud and took 3 days to get out of the classroom. Then we ripped up the carpet and cleaned the walls. The tables and the couches had been washed from the classroom through the gym and into the foyer on the other side of the gym. I found my student book outside with mud all through it and soaking wet.

great barrier clean up

My group spent 4 days shoveling mud while group 3 went to Glenfern and got on TV, but luckily TV3  came to Orama for a little bit and we were on TV too. Glenfern is an island wildlife sanctuary that Scott and Emma look after, they are trying to regenerate the native populations of NZ  birds and skinks.  I found a Chevron Skink buried in the mud at Glenfern; they are very rare and so it was quite exciting finding one. 10502489_242198045974132_7513004355070039754_n

Shoveling mud was boring but seeing what we accomplished felt great. Orama lounge became our new hang out space which was way cooler than the old classroom. Unfortunately, there wasn’t another gym that we could use.

Sea kayaking was the most challenging activity and I didn’t really like it because we got wet and cold.  The day we did it, it was really windy, there were salty big waves and a big swell.  We had to turn back because it was too rough – the waves were 3m high they had big white caps and the wind was 50 knots gusting to 65 knots.

I loved coasteering, it was so much fun and I want to do it again.  It was epic getting pulled in and pushed out in the swell.  I jumped in off some rocks that were 9m high.  I did a swan dive off a 4m high rock – I was a bit sore after the swan dive but it was great fun.

10336627_236232233237380_5175793285606235730_nMy favourite was surf kayaking and I really want to do it again.  It was brilliant  catching the waves and getting tipped!  I got quite good at it and I came 3rd in competition but I got the highest score  of 7.5.  We had to different heats and do tricks but it was timed and I lost in the semi-final.

Sailing was fun but scary because we were in the middle of the ocean with big waves and it felt like we were going to flip.  I didn’t want to be the first to capsize but once we did, we realised that it was quite good fun and we did it lots!  The thing is once you flip you aren’t supposed to stay in the boat or the boat ends up completely upside down.  But my partner stayed in the boat and it completely tipped it so then we had to stand on top of the upside down boat to try to get it back the right way up!  It was hard but we did it.

Possibly mad….?

Boy drumming on red drum kit
Beat Boy

Well, the boy has a drum kit!  He has spent the last 18 months pestering and we have resisted big time.  However, he has been doing his junk mail delivery round for a year now and has his own money.  He saw an offer in the  local music shop on a starter drum kit before Christmas so he decided he would  spend his own money on it.  Have to say that we had hoped that being away over the holiday period would serve as enough of a hiatus for him to forget again!  Not a chance!  The first – well not quite the first, but one of the things he said when he was sitting in a cold stream freezing his proverbials off when he got scalded on Christmas Day was; “Do you think I could get that drum kit now?  You know, because I have been really brave?”.  Well, what can you say?  So, we found the same chain music shop in Nelson (the offer was only until the end of December) and arranged to have a set couriered to Hamilton.  Picked it up today, assembled it and he is now ensconced in the garage, Youtube tutorials on the laptop, tapping away!  If I close the garage door and the kitchen door, put the radio on and keep busy, I can shut the noise out!

Actually, I am quite impressed with how in time he is but think we will have to get some of the mats you can put over the drums to dampen the sound down….

Oh, and Gus bought Nigel a ukelele for Christmas – not sure which is the worse noise…?!

Heading into winter…

So we’re settled into our new house, started to get to grips with the garden – even bought some plants, a shredder to mulch the prunings and the falling autumn leaves.  We have plans to create a veggie plot and swap some of the decorative perennials for fruit trees.  Aonghas has already planted some carrots and marigolds ( or marlegods as he calls them!) in the boxes outside his window.  The early Camellias are starting to flower and we have a carpet of deep pink petals in our garden.  Roses are still blooming but the trees are wearing their autumnal colours and looking glorious in rich shades of yellow red, red rosethrough orange to red.

Well, what have we been up to..?  Boys have finished summer sports and are training for their chosen winter sports.  Lachlan is continuing with rugby, but has taken up squash and, as he is in Year 10 he is allowed to use the weights room at school.  Aonghas has decided to try hockey this year and is enjoying that – he even scored a goal last week!  Lachlan is also running regularly and still cycling.  Next weekend he is heading to Rotorua to take part in the Moon Ride – a 12 hour mountain biking marathon.  He is riding as part of a team and they will take it in turns to do the 15km circuits from 10amAonghas playing hockey to 10pm.  We were down there a couple of weekends ago and all had a go on the tracks. The Redwoods is a great forest with masses of mountain bike tracks of all levels.  Aonghas coped really well with them and ventured down the Dipper which even I braved, though Nigel decided that caution was the better part of valour and chickened out!  (we won’t hold it against him!)

We were down in Rotorua as I was taking part in a Duathlon, we decided to make a weekend of it as it was the last weekend of the Easter holidays, and our friends Liz and Chaz were also there with their boys, Jamie and Josh.  Liz was competing in the Duathlon too, as well as a couple more of our friends.  We stayed in the Thermal Holiday park – the same one we stayed in when we Aonghas on the "Dipper"were here on holiday in 2005. We rented a self contained unit which, in estate agent speak, made good use of space – compact and bijou!  The advantage of the park are the hot pools, plenty of running around space for energetic boys, a games room as well as a television! After a couple of weeks of glorious weather we had a weekend of rain and wind, so the going was soft and muddy!  We set off with the wind and rain lashing our faces, but once on the way and into the forest, we soon warmed up.  The pressure was off as far as times go because of the weather conditions so we just relaxed and went with the flow.  Obviously a good move because I ended up with a time 5 minutes faster than the last duathlon I did and a top 10 finish!  We hung around in the cold and wet for the spot prizes because you never know ……. that $2000 bike might just have your name on it!  Sadly it wasn’t to be..maybe next time!  But, boy were those hot pools good when we got back to the holiday park!  A couple of hours later and nicely coddled we emerged to head back home!

We stopped off at what has become a bit of a regular, favourite spot for us – the Fat Dog cafe.  Huge portions of scrummy food and plenty of veggie options for Nigel.  Heaps of sald with home made burgers as well as BLATs, fries, wedges ….mmm,  my mouth is watering just thinking of it!

The first term over!

Well the boys have made it through to the end of their first term at school. Lachlan seems to be coasting quite a bit and finding the standard of the work easier than in the UK. Of course he doesn’t mind not having much homework because he finishes everything in class but has intimated that he finds some of his lessons boring because he isn’t really challenged. He is also still quite disorganised – lost his school planner already so doesn’t write anything down (not that he used it anyway!) Whilst he doesn’t have much to remember it’s not a problem but he isn’t getting into the habit of using a planner for when he will have more to remember. (Sorry QES but the good habits he was encouraged to have there have just gone out of the window now there is no pressure from school here!) There is a Parents’ evening after the holidays so we will address those issues then! It may just be the case that the first term is slow because all the students are new and have just come from the different Middle Schools. However having started to study the French scheme of work in readiness for my new job I think it’s more the case that the standard here is just lower than in the UK! There has also been quite a lot of discussion in the staffroom about the low standard of the NCEAs, (external National Exams) which were introduced/revamped relatively recently, being too easy. The idea being that everyone succeeds and so has higher self esteem – where have I heard that before?! The reality, of course being that most kids find them too easy, aren’t challenged and so just doss around in class because they know they can gain credits without putting themselves out too much! Balance is a wonderful thing! That, of course is a crassly simplistic explanation of a complicated educational ethos but one that, I think, has some merit.

Aonghas is enjoying school (though claims he doesn’t as always!) and he is positively challenged. A balance does seem to be achieved in the Primary School although if we had any complaints it would be that he has too much homework! He certainly has a more structured program than Lachlan and spends more time “studying” at home. They have a program called “Have a BALL” (Be a Life Learner). They have a grid of activities that they should do over a two week period which include maths, spellings and reading, as you would expect, but also has activities that involve the whole family in an attempt to encourage parents to take some responsibility for their children’s progress and also to create a healthy work-life balance. Activities include doing a 10 minute task to help out in the house each day (fine by me!), playing a game with a family member, trying out a new activity, relaxing (he’s good at that one!), doing some exercise, using a computer to do research work and so on. All activities which you would expect to do in your everyday life. In theory the children do the activities at their own level but Aonghas does get quite anxious and thinks he has to complete everything so we have had some tears!

The two week blocks tend to be topic related and obviously linked to the topics they are doing in school so last time all the work was to do with birds as they have just had a trip to Maungatautari. For example, there was some research to do about how fantails build their nests, they had to draw a bird and write some notes about their chosen bird, they had a poem as a stimulus and had to write a similar poem about a bird of their choice – all that on top of 10 minutes reading everyday, learning spellings and maths activities! Quite a lot of work and in fact there was some discussion in the playground from other parents about how much there was and how much time parents as well as children were having to spend doing it. Aonghas is quite bright and relatively well motivated – surprisingly! He comes home most evenings and gets his maths book out to complete his maths, though he is less keen on writing activities. We also have time to sit with him but families where the children are less bright or who have little brothers and sisters and parents don’t have the time to sit with them are finding the whole program quite onerous and stressful. Anyway, they have a break over the holidays – all the activities on the homework sheet are just having fun, eating healthily, helping round the house, and doing physical activities to challenge themselves. We can cope with all of those! One of them is to climb your nearest mountain so hopefully we will get out this weekend and do that! We have a few to choose from!

I mentioned Aonghas’ school trip to Maungatautari – Maunga is the Maori word for mountain. Aonghas was delighted that I could accompany him and his class – he has always wanted me to come on school trips and I never could before because I was working full time. Maungatautari is a forested volcanic cone which unfortunately over the last 200 hundred years or so since the European settlers arrived has been decimated of it’s native species – both plants and birds. This is a huge problem all over NZ. The threatened native populations of NZ are mainly ground dwelling birds such as the Kiwi which had no predators until the early settlers introduced rabbits, and then stoats, weasels (to control the rabbits), mice, rats, possums, goats etc. The trees were felled, especially the Kauri, for building which inevitably affected other species in the bush. Anyway the upshot of it is that the Department of Conservation has created an Ecological Island at Maungatautari. It is an amazingly ambitious project to clear the area of all mammalian pests and predators (non-native species) and to encourage native species such as the kiwi and other birds as well as regenerating a healthy diversity of fauna and flora in the forest. To that end they have erected a predator proof fence around the whole area and spent years tracking and trapping all the predators from within the area so that they now are pretty certain there are no predators left. In the last couple of years they have introduced several pairs of kiwi as well as other birds and just this year a kiwi chick hatched. The fence really is impressive – there is a space like a sort of no mans land either side of the fence so that creatures can’t use the tree branches as bridges and there is an alarm system in place in case the fence is breached by, for instance, a tree falling.

We had a lovely time – there were 5 parents as well as two teachers so we had responsibility for a group of 4 children each and of course Aonghas was in my group which he was thrilled about. We met a volunteer from the Maungatautari Trust who told us all about the aims of the project and then took us up to the fence and explained how it worked. The children had already done some work on the project in class so knew some of the information which meant that they didn’t have to take in too much at once and were able to ask really good questions and answer her questions too. We then walked through the forest and tried to keep the children quiet enough to hear the birds! We spotted lots of the predator tracking boxes – these are placed every 20 metres or so throughout the forest so that they can make an accurate survey of what is around. Even though they are pretty certain hey have eradicated the pests they continue the survey to make sure none get in. Just yesterday there was news that on a similar ecological island in the Hauraki Gulf a predator has killed some birds so vigilance is vital. There are Weta houses dotted around the forest too which gave us an opportunity to see these normally nocturnal spiders.

The best part of the walk was when we were entertained by a very cheeky little Fantail. These are delightful wee birds which flit around from branch to branch, chirping as they go and this one led us a real dance! I’ve included a short video I shot on our camera – not very high spec and definitely not professional quality but hopefully you can get an idea of what we saw.

Fantails are quite tame and have been known to come in to people’s houses. This is the poem that Aonghas wrote for his homework (with some parental help – but not much!) about the Fantail.

I’m a little nosey native with a big showy tail

See if you can follow my trail

Spot me in your garden, the park or the bush

I’m never still, always in a rush.

Hopping from twig to twig, flitting all around

My black and white stripy tail bobs up and down.

I love to follow visitors, tell them all I know

Scratching under my wing and squeaking as I go.

WHAT AM I?

Wooden Tower MaungatautariIn the middle of the bush there is a wooden tower which the kids had been talking about the whole trip and it didn’t disappoint. It is a huge structure which is pretty impressive, it sways in the wind and as it is wood it also creaks but the view from the top is stunning. You can look down on the birds’ nests and the crowns of the trees and we had a great view of a couple of very fat looking Wood Pigeons. Unfortunately the sway of the tower added to the number of children running round the top platform and the distance means that the photos are not the sharpest but you get an idea.

If you ask Aonghas and half the kids what the highlight of the trip was though they would say it was that one of the buses broke down on the way back and they got to play on the playground whilst they waited for it to be fixed!

…..the one that got away!

Report from Aonghas

Last weekend we went to the caravan and we went fishing. On the first day we went fishing on the rocks and no one caught anything. Then on the same day we went fishing at night on the wharf and I caught two little fish but no one else caught anything. The fish were too small so we threw them back in the sea. The next morning very early we went fishing in the boat and I caught two Snappers and Ernie caught a Snapper and a Gurnard but only one of my Snapper and Ernie’s Gurnard were big enough to keep. We ate them for tea and they were scrummy. When we came back on the boat Mum took a picture of me with my fish and I had to hold it – it felt disgusting – all slimy!