Study Abroad

On the trail of the Tuatara – more from student blogger Kaia.

Two glossy grey, green, and blue birds in a field of grass.

Kaia Desai Fihn will be HECUA’s student blogger for the New Zealand program this spring semester. Kaia is a junior, majoring in History and minoring in Race and Ethnic Studies at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. You can read Kaia’s first impressions of New Zealand here.

Week 2: Sustainability

From Masterton, we traveled to Turangi for one night. Here, we had the opportunity to enjoy some hot springs! They were not exactly as we imagined. We expected picturesque, clear, bubbling, steaming waters surrounded by perfectly rounded rocks and palm trees. Though not as we pictured, we spent the evening swimming in safe, contained warm waters with good company. It was a time of relaxation after a long day on the road. We stayed one night in Turangi at a backpacker’s hostel. This was the first time we connected to wifi since departing Wellington. After spending a week disconnected from today’s “social world,” it was almost uncomfortable to be amongst each other divided by our devices. We chatted with our families and posted pictures for our friends, but we were eager to head to our next destination to once again find comfort in being connected by being disconnected.

We traveled to Paeroa, on the way stopping in to visit local farmers Mike and Sharon Barton. The couple owns a beef farm on Lake Taupo, the largest lake in New Zealand. Mike and Sharon are at the forefront of implementing pastoral farming activities that reduce nitrogen impacts. In the area, farming emits ninety-three percent of the manageable nitrogen entering the lake. Nitrogen levels are not based on any kind of fertilizer, but solely from stock animal urine. Due to the suffering water quality of the catchment area of Lake Taupo, the regional council placed a nitrogen cap on local farming operations. The cap required the amount of nitrogen runoff in the Taupo catchment to reduce by twenty percent. Consequently, this is essentially a cap on stocking rate and production. It is an income cap. Prior to the legislation, there were 105 farms around Lake Taupo, but the number of farms drastically reduced to 78 once the law was passed.  Many of the farms that did not survive under the law became pine tree farms or sheep farms. This water protection law is the only one in New Zealand, perhaps the world. Mike and Sharon are thus pioneers of finding ways to continue business under such a law. They have sectioned off a part of their land and have dedicated it to research. This research is underground. The input and output levels of water contaminants (nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment) per hectare are recorded. This research ultimately aids in the future of farming and land care so that farms can comply with nitrogen caps and not go out of business.

The Bartons spoke with us about the changes a farmer has to make to live within this nitrogen regulation. They recognize that the biggest individual environmental impact is in regards to food. People often fail to factor environmental cost into the price of food. No economy has ever survived overly increased food prices and this will not change overnight. Yet, over time, if people understand the issue, have the income and care about the environment, they will pay a premium for the food they purchase. To access the Ted Talk Mike and Sharon gave, visit…

We spent the afternoon at Taupo Beef farm. After learning “heaps” about this issue, we had the opportunity to take a walk through the farm. As soon as we head out the door, we were welcomed by Lulu, an extremely friendly sheep that is perhaps more obedient than my dog! She accompanied us for the extent of our stroll and even walked us out to the van to say goodbye before our drive to Paeroa.


It was a short drive to Paeroa, where we stayed with Mike O’Donnell and Trish Waugh at Tarariki Pottery and Healing Centre. We were welcomed to this land in a traditional way. We filed in through the drive in silence to a soft, whistling tune and met around a smoky fire. Mike set fire to a bushel of dried lavender and sage and waved it in front of each of us. The smoke was very welcoming. After this introduction, Maori words were shared and we all greeted each other with a hongi. We then walked through Trish’s garden. Peas, hops, tomatoes, kale, you name it, it was there in abundance. All of the farms and gardens we have visited are maintained permaculturally.

We gathered in a meeting house to share our connection to water. On the floor of the meeting room Mike drew a unity circle, which is a circle with two lines crossing at the circle’s center. We each got up, drew a line (in whatever shape or form) from the center of the circle and shared a little bit about ourselves and what we regard as our river. “Our river” indicates the body of water with which we connect most deeply. We then massaged our hands with clay, rinsed them in a bowl of Tarariki river water and rubbed Trish’s homemade balm onto our hands.  On the front lawn Mike introduced us to some breathing exercises. These breaths were intended to release and relieve body energies. Mike then showed us around the woodlands near Tarariki river. He introduced us to some more exercises. These exercises revolved around group connectivity. We shared a phenomenal meal together (anytime the group sees potatoes on the table, our smiles are endless). Once the sun went down, Mike took us on a water journey. This was not just any water journey… One at a time we walked into the deep water of the river, keeping in mind the breathing exercises we had learned that evening, before submerging ourselves completely in the cold water. It was a cool, refreshing burst of energy and I suddenly did not feel cold anymore. Right when I opened my eyes, all of my energy was diverted to the cloud of glowworms on the cave wall. It was incredible. Initially, all of us were hesitant to participate, but once we did, we realized the purpose.  It seemed ridiculous, but the feeling afterwards was unexplainably euphoric.  It was an indescribable sensation in which we felt as though we and nature became a synonymous and unilateral being.

One thing that I found really compelling during our time at Mike and Trish’s was the focus on our ancestry. Today, so many people are disconnected from their heritage that the importance of where we come from has become such a distant concept. Especially from a Māori perspective, ancestry is so sacred. Not knowing much of my ancestry, I was moved by how Mike could speak as if he personally knew each and every one of his ancestors. It has generated a curiosity within me to trace my roots, for I believe it will awaken a new understanding of who I am.

The time we spent at Mike and Trish’s was very reflective that sparked new courses of thought and open-mindedness that I had not previously been introduced to. We were all pushed past our comfort zones, which allowed us to learn more about ourselves in terms of overcoming challenges and maintaining open-mindedness throughout the rest of our time in New Zealand.

From Paeroa we traveled to Cambridge. We stayed at a nice hostel with warm showers, laundry machines and our own queen-sized beds. It was a luxury! We were situated near town, so we had the opportunity to walk into town and eat the typical fish and chips. Our time in Cambridge was short, but filled with exciting adventures, particularly a day trip to Hobbiton. When we arrived at the site, we were welcomed by hundreds of tourists. Our excitement, however, was not rattled by the swarm. We took a bus to the film site, which was relatively hidden within the Alexander Family Farm. When we arrived, we felt as if we had truly entered Middle Earth. Our smiles were endless as we peeked through hobbit holes and made toasts at the Green Dragon. It was a happy, sun-filled (and sun-burned) day in Tolkien’s imagination.

In Cambridge we also had the opportunity to hear from Waikato Regional Council member, Stu Kneebone. He is the Catchment Services Chair who actively promotes sustainable land use, particularly in regards to freshwater policy for river health and its implementation. Hearing from Stu, we were able to conceptualize how policy and practice align. For instance, what the council must do to persuade farmers to adjust their practices. This conversation allowed us to put into perspective the struggles not only farmers have dealt with due to legislation, but also the Regional Council’s struggle of implementing that legislation. Our conversation regarding policy translated into our next stop.

We traveled to Raglan, the surf capital of New Zealand! On our way there, we drove up to Maungatautari Ecological Mainland Island, a sanctuary mountain. We heard from the environmental educator, Tom Lynch, before exploring the forest. Endangered species are provided protection from intruding pests in this multi-million dollar enterprise on 3,400 hectares of enclosed mountain land.

Over four-hundred volunteers work to fund and maintain this project. Surrounding the entire premise is a nine foot high, predator-proof fence. This allows endangered birds to relish in their once natural environment. Rats, mice, possums, stoats, and rabbits are the biggest pests in New Zealand. The goal of this mountain is to keep pest numbers low, not eradicate all pests. In order to restore biodiversity, national parks, state forests, offshore islands, mainland islands and environmental legislation are crucial. When we had the chance to visit the forest, we saw Takahē, Tuatara, and Kaka.

image of a tuataura posing in the leaves

Can you spot the Tuatara? 

As we walked through this sanctuary, I felt enchanted by the uniqueness of my surroundings. I was captivated by the Kaka’s song and the Tautara’s gentle state, hoping that this would not be the only time I would hear and see their exceptionality. These creatures were astonishingly friendly which created an atmosphere of the world’s natural wholesomeness. It was a beautiful privilege to learn about and engage in the hard, restorative and successful work Tom has put into this project.

This week was filled with many new, exciting experiences and learning opportunities. It reinforced putting our studies into action.


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