Fiji-bound Rathkeale College and St Matthew’s Collegiate biology pupils, from left, Alana Barns, teacher Ben Clausen, Briar Tonkin, Briana Smith, Frankie Finn Reason, Amelia Gordon, Zach Dewhurst, Pelle Slothouwer, and Cameron Tyson. PHOTO/ELISA VORSTER

ELISA VORSTER
elisa.vorster@age.co.nz

Eight pupils from St Matthew’s Collegiate and Rathkeale College are getting the opportunity of a lifetime in Fiji, helping set up the country’s first national park.

Biology teacher Ben Clausen and the pupils left on Saturday to take part in the conservation project, co-ordinated by the UK group Operation Wallacea.

“The goal is to help be scientists to help collect data on terrestrial and marine life for the first national park in Fiji,” he said.

The 17-day expedition will have the Year 13 pupils immersed in traditional Fijian culture as they stay with Fijian families in the village of Vusaratu.

The experience is expected to include pupil participation in activities which make up daily Fijian village life, such as weaving mats, making tapa cloth, and cooking in an earth oven.

The pupils will then camp in the mountains of the Natewa peninsula, on the island of Vanua Levy, where they will begin exploring their surroundings and collecting data, before travelling to Natewa Bay to gain their PADI scuba diving qualification to explore the reef in the South Pacific’s largest bay.

When asked what kind of data collecting they expected to do, the pupils laughed – “counting trees”.

However, Clausen clarified the hands-on experience would include exploring plant and animal life around the island, some of which may be undiscovered and may require protection.

This was something the pupils said they could only experience on an island where there were still vast areas of “untouched wilderness” to be discovered.

They were less keen however, on the bucket style shower they would be using and the lack of available technology.

“I’m going to take a solar charger, so I can at least take photos and listen to music,” pupil Briar Tonkin said, laughing.

It was the first time the two schools had offered the trip, which has required 18 months of planning.

Twenty-seven pupils applied, presenting written submissions and undergoing formal interviews before the final eight were selected.

Pupil Briana Smith said although the application process was scary, she was excited the trip would give her a “taste” of the possible career options she aspired to, as well as waking up in a warmer climate where her toes wouldn’t feel “numb”.

“I really wanted to see what it would be like to have a field biology experience, because it’s what I want to study at university,” she said.

Fellow pupil, Frankie Finn Reason, agreed, saying it would be different to regular school trips as this trip had a specific purpose.

“We will be part of something important.

“We’re helping to establish the first national park in Fiji and it’s our efforts which will make that happen.”

Clausen said he was delighted to be able to share his previous life as an environmental scientist with pupils who had shown so much interest in pursuing careers in biology themselves.

“I like teaching biology because you get among the outdoors.

“It’s not theoretical based – you teach, see and smell everything.”

If the trip was successful, he planned on making it an annual event, with the possibility of visiting different countries in the future.