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Rare journey of discovery

Students Alana Barns, left, and Amelia Gordon studying the Fiji forest. PHOTOS/SUPPLIED

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A bird in the hand in a Fijian forest was priceless for a group of eight Wairarapa students, recently returned from a life-changing visit.

The Rathkeale College and St Matthew’s Collegiate year 13 biology students visited Fiji in the term two school break this month – but were quick to point out it was no holiday.

The trip was co-ordinated by the UK group Operation Wallacea to help scientists collect data on terrestrial and marine life for the first national park in Fiji

The pupils spent the first five days exploring the reef in Natewa Bay, on the island of Vanua Levy, the South Pacific’s largest bay, and gaining their PADI scuba diving qualification.

“The days were full on – we were up at 6.30am, in the water by 7.45am and had to have lectures every day from the scientists after dinner,” biology teacher Ben Clausen said.

The students’ camp in the Fijian forest.

They then camped in the muddy Fijian forest, where they slept in tents, were visited by giant moths, and grew accustomed to the resident cockroaches in the toilets.

“We were definitely roughing it, that’s for sure,” Clausen said.

The students caught and observed birds such as a bush warbler, a strike bill, and the extremely rare ground dove – which delighted the scientist with the group.

“It’s the second one ever to be caught in the peninsula,” student Cameron Tyson said.

“Our scientist said he doesn’t usually ask the students to take photos of him, but he was so excited that he did.”

Their sighting of a swallow tail butterfly made it the third such instance, which Clausen said quantified its existence in the area, meaning it will now be made a protected species.

“It’s opened my eyes to real science and what we can do out there, and how important our work can be,” Zach said.

In the final days of the trip the students stayed with host families in the village of Vusaratu, which proved to be a major culture shock.

“They live so sustainably,” said Briana Smith.

“They’re less materialistic and they’re so happy.”

Fellow student Amelia Gordon agreed: “It put a perspective on people who live with so much less than we do.”

Clausen said the life-changing experience forced the group outside its comfort zone, but in a positive way.

“It challenged us all in different ways – mentally, physically and emotionally.”

The students’ main diet in the village consisted of taros, plantains and cassava chips.

Sometimes there were freshly made chocolate donuts for breakfast, as well as a few surprise delicacies at a buffet style meal.

“I accidentally ate turtle,” Smith said.

Pelle Slothouwer was not to be outdone: “I ate mongoose – it was cooked but still fully intact.”

The students enjoyed travelling on an open-back truck as the villagers would call out ‘Bula’ — ‘hello’ in Fijian.

Not all attempts at conversation were 100 per cent successful, however.

Tyson politely called out what he thought was a appropriate Fijian phrase in return, much to the amusement of his peers.

“It means corned beef but Cam though it meant ‘how are you?’,” Smith said.

Slothouwer also learnt how to open a coconut the hard way after struggling to complete the task.

“I eventually got one open after an hour of trying.

“A local was watching me struggle and got a pike from one of the houses and opened it in about five seconds.”

Clausen said there were no real surprises on the trip – except for his experience involving a fire built for a hangi.

“When they lit it, a huntsman spider came out with egg sacks on its back.

“[The locals] didn’t even blink an eye.”

The spider shock hasn’t put him off returning with another group of students next year, and he has already started the paperwork.

“Maybe 10 years down the track we can see the change we’ve made.”

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