Georgi Fogarty (University of Queensland, Australia)
After a whole month of not leaving Australia, my restless nature got the better of me and I decided to give myself a well-deserved holiday from the permanent warmth and sunshine of Brisbane. So after careful deliberation (about ten seconds of it), I booked myself onto a flight to Wellington for a few days. This was particularly exciting for me as not only was this a country I had never visited before, it was also a chance to see family members that I hadn’t seen in upwards of ten years; one of whom had graduated from the University of Manchester with a PhD back in the 1970s. So now that I was already approximately 11,600 miles closer to this branch of my family due to living in Australia, I seized the chance to visit with arms wide open. This made me particularly appreciate my choice of Brisbane for my year abroad as it dawned on me what an amazing platform Australia is to travel the Southern hemisphere, opening up opportunities that would have seemed like a distant pipedream had I still been living in England.
I’m aware my last blogpost mentioned that I was struck by the similarities between Australia and England, so I won’t dwell on what I’m about to say next; but getting off the plane, I felt like I’d stepped directly into the heart of Wales. The low-slung clouds and rolling green hills could have easily convinced me that I had actually been flown to the Wellington in Shropshire, minutes from my home town in England, rather than New Zealand. Over the last month I’d spent in Australia it had begun to get noticeably warmer as winter has been starting to edge to a close, so it was a rude shock to the system when New Zealand rained solidly on me, temperatures peaking at around 16 degrees. What I also had failed to research and prepare for properly was that Wellington is incredibly windy, so I spent a lot of time adopting a 45 degree slant in an effort to not fall over.
Complaints about the weather out of the way I had an amazing time being guided around by my Kiwi family, who were keen to show me what the North Island had to offer. One of many highlights for me was visiting a bird reserve called Zealandia, where an area of land approximately a mile squared had begun to be restored back to its original state before colonialism of the island, part of a 500 year long project in an attempt to recreate how it would have been had humans never set foot on it. This was home to thousands of endangered species of birds and reptiles including Kiwis (of course), Saddlebacks and Takahēs – a beautiful native bird, extremely endangered with less than 300 left in New Zealand. Needless to say my 3-6 year old cousins didn’t quite grasp the majesty of most of the species but did enjoy seeing the ‘funny chickens’.
Naturally as a huge Lord of the Rings fan in New Zealand, I was incredibly keen to see the famous sights. First up on the film agenda was visiting Weta Studios in Wellington, where all the special effects and costumes are fabricated for films such as LOTR, Jurassic Park, King Kong and Power Rangers. Better yet, the next day we drove 7 hours north towards Matamata to visit Hobbiton, the film set of the Shire in all of the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films. Despite the long drive and constant drizzle I was in absolute awe, and as much as I hate to admit it I did release my inner Fangirl, squealing at every tiny round hobbit door we passed. What added to the experience was finding out that our group’s guide, Deborah, had also graduated from the University of Manchester with an Economics degree many years ago, and after a long career in finance in London had moved back to Wellington to peruse her dream of living in Middle Earth: a small world indeed, and an inspiration for those aspiring to see careers in both fiction and fantasy.
The drive back down to Wellington was long and winding, and I was informed that the main reason for the twists and turns was that direct roads couldn’t be built through Maori land as the government doesn’t wish to impose. What was beautiful to see was hundreds of acres of protected Maori land acting as nature reserves up and down the North Island; unfortunately I couldn’t stop myself comparing this to how I’d seen Aboriginal land treated in Australia. With news stories centering around issues like the Adani land mines in North Queensland where the government is proposing to build the biggest oil rig in the world on sacred Aboriginal land it’s easy to contrast how Natives appear to be treated across what I’ve seen of Australasia. But I’m sure this is only a scratch on the surface of how much native land has been protected or exploited, and I can’t judge a book by its cover, only hope for continuous evolution towards mutual respect.
Although I have only spent a few days in New Zealand, I feel refreshed by it’s totally different charm (and freezing winds). Although I’m looking forward to getting back to the constant sunshine in Brisbane for now, this short experience has made me incredibly excited to get back on the road to explore the South Islands of New Zealand; but maybe I’ll wait until the weather gets a little warmer!