Stewart Island  by St Paul's Collegiate School

Stewart Island trip

On Saturday 1 October, twenty senior students from St Paul’s Collegiate School, along with Mr Lincoln Churchill, Mrs Angela Bromwich, Mrs Jane Rickman and Revd Peter Rickman, travelled by bus to Auckland Airport to make the journey south to Rakiura (Māori for “Glowing Skies) Stewart Island. In response to the appeal from the Anglican Diocese of Dunedin, we embarked upon an adventure to begin work to restore the gardens of St Andrew's Church in Oban alongside other conservation and environmental projects on the island.

The first night we spent in Invercargill and our dinner guest at a local restaurant was Revd Richard Aitken, Vicar of Invercargill and the Vicar of Stewart Island. Richard visits the island monthly to meet with parishioners and take services there. He gave us an informative talk about the history of the island and the current challenges its residents face. Richard was also able to take delivery of all the gardening equipment and tools that we had ordered from Mitre 10 in Invercargill and deliver them safely to us to save the courier costs across to the island.

On Sunday, after an early morning run or walk by most group members, we travelled by bus to Bluff and took the morning ferry to Oban. The crossing was relatively smooth for that particular part of the world, and only three students suffered the effects of seasickness. After settling into the Stewart Island Backpackers, an enjoyable free afternoon was spent exploring the island in small groups, which also involved some interesting steep climbs up various hills on locally hired e-bikes. The weather on the first day was bright and sunny, giving everyone an excellent introduction to the Island.

On the first night, and indeed on many other nights, we made the steep climb to “Observation Rock” in the hope of seeing the Aurora Australis (Southern Lights) but alas, despite our best efforts and Mr Lincoln Churchill's careful study of a whole range of different astronomical charts and phone apps, it did not put in an appearance for us.

In addition to our search for the Southern Lights, we embarked upon many nocturnal adventures equipped with our red glowing torches in pursuit of a sighting of a Kiwi bird in its natural habitat. Again our self-directed efforts in this respect were unrewarded. Still, once we had employed a local guide from “Beaks and Feathers”, we were successful, with every group member enjoying this incredible experience across two moonlit evenings.

The next three days were spent restoring the gardens of St Andrew's Church. These once previously much loved and celebrated gardens had become overgrown and unmanageable. With 24 people working on them in every possible weather over these three days, tremendous progress was made. One huge area of the garden, representing approximately 60% of the total area was cleared, restored and replanted with native trees and bushes. Around nine truckloads of garden waste and debris were transported from the gardens to the environmental waste centre. Not only were we proud of our achievements in the gardens but the local community was also deeply appreciative of our work and the conduct of our students during this particular project (and indeed in all of our engagements with the local community), with many community members stopping on their walk by the gardens to thank us personally. Everyone worked incredibly hard in some very severe weather at times. Whilst there were intermittent periods of sunshine, the temperatures were close to freezing with every form of precipitation experienced, rain, hail, sleet and heavy snow!

After the garden restoration project, we made our way further north to Mamuku Point as a group. We stayed here for three days and two nights, and here we engaged in native tree restoration, tree planting and pest control. Local rangers from this nature reserve trust acted as our instructors and guides in this conservation work. Once again, our students excelled in their conduct and efforts to get trees planted and see areas where new trees have been planted previously cleared of invading vegetation for better survival. Whilst at Mamuku Point, we experienced heavy snowfall, which settled, and the bush became a winter wonderland; with a snowman and snowballs. Some students experienced a lot of time at the beach on the reserve hunting and gathering paua from rock pools and fishing. On this particular trip, three of our students experienced fishing for the first time and caught their first fish.

On Friday evening, we returned to the backpackers in Oban for our last two days before travelling home. With the ethos of caring for the environment and thinking about conservation always to the fore, the students experienced a boat trip to a former Norwegian whaling station, kayaking, snorkelling, fishing and saving the best till last; nature walks on Ulva Island where a whole variety of bird life and marine mammals were seen. On the final Sunday, students went out on a fishing trawler to learn about marine life and responsible fishing practices in these waters. In seas that were quite choppy at times and in a pitching and rolling trawler, a total of 27 blue cod were caught, which were enjoyed at our final night dinner.

On Monday, we broke up into four small groups and took to the skies in four small planes from Stewart Island Airlines. A white-knuckle takeoff in Oban and landing in Invercargill were enjoyed by almost all!

During the 10-day trip, there was plenty of opportunity for reflection and engagement with the themes of conservation and the challenges of the journey itself. As a group, we spent many occasions sharing what we were learning and what we were enjoying and being challenged by. These were some of the very special moments of the trip, as we each had to be vulnerable in front of each other and share personal thoughts and reflections. The most significant of these was spent on the final night in St Andrews Church, where we gathered for stillness, meditation and karakia.

We ate well during our time on the island, with four teams of students supported by a member of staff sharing all the cooking and clearing up during our stay. Some very creative and ambitious dishes were successfully created for our consumption. We also enjoyed takeaway blue cod and chips on two nights from the local “Kai Kart” in Oban and a visit to the South Sea Hotel for dinner.

The travel to Hamilton on Monday was without event, and 24 exhausted travellers returned home full of many happy memories, stories, adventures and incredible experiences of a special part of the world and Aotearoa, New Zealand.

It was a physically demanding trip, and we always knew it would be right from the outset, not least because of the weather and physical terrain to negotiate but also the nature of the work we were being asked to do. It was also emotionally and mentally challenging. In an experience like this, there is nowhere to hide. Like cream rising to the top of milk, several students surprised us with their remarkable capacity to always be the first to volunteer and always offer help whenever it was required or needed.

I wish to tribute to the adults who accompanied me on this trip. Mrs Angela Bromwich, Mrs Jane Rickman and Mr Lincoln Churchill were all outstanding! They engaged fully with every student and every component of the trip and were each able to bring into the experience their particular skill set and professional expertise. They were busy all of the time, dealing with various issues and challenges, offering care and support to students and supporting all of the various activities. To them all, I say thank you!

In conclusion, I hope to seek the support of the board of trustees for future visits to Stewart Island. There is still work to be done in the gardens and extensive opportunities for conservation and restoration work at Mamuku Point reserve and other places on the island. The whole trip itself was life-changing and engaging for everyone. There is enormous potential for teaching and learning here regarding conservation and the environment alongside opportunities for developing resilience and social/emotional skills for people working hard in often very challenging environments.