New Zealand: 8 Days of Quarantine

Posted: April 16, 2018 in 2018, Adventures, New Zealand

“Are you Carolyn?” After getting off the 18 bus I walked a short distance and met Dries (pronounced something like Drees), Keeper of Quarantine Island, and his two kids. They’d ridden their bikes to meet me, so I instantly decided they were good people. Cycling is, after all, the best form of transportation. 😉

I followed them along the coastal path to the jetty where we’d ride in Dries’ boat over to the island. 6 1/2-year-old Noah blasted off ahead on his bike while Dries attempted to ride slow enough for me to keep up on foot. Lucia, the almost-4-year-old seated at the back of the bike, asked me question after question as I plodded along with my almost-too-heavy bags (why must orange juice and yogurt weigh so much?!). “What’s your name?” “Where are you from?” “How did you get here?” “Are you sleeping here?” “Are you a mum?” “Where are your parents?” “What’s your name?”

The slew of questions continued as we boarded the little boat, with Noah now chiming in as well. I did my best to pass their test, but it was clear that for Lucia I was currently a bit of an invader. That month she was the only girl on the island, so what was I thinking coming there? “My hair is longer than your hair. Your hair is getting shorter and shorter while mine is getting longer and longer.” She proclaimed. Noah, meanwhile, proudly showed off everything he knew about boating, the island, etc. and was overjoyed when his dad agreed to steer the boat in a fast circle – a bit of a parking lot doughnut on water, you could say. Awesome!

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Heading to Quarantine

Between the flurry of questions Dries was able to interject to point out highlights of the area and explain a bit about the island. There are three islands off the coast of Dunedin: Pudding Island/Titeremoana (“look out over the sea”), Goat Island/Rakiriri (“angry sky”), and Quarantine Island/Kamau Taurua (“place to set nets”). Of the three, Quarantine is the largest and the only one with inhabitants. It’s roughly 1 km from Port Chalmers, making it quite accessible from the mainland. Only the Keeper and his family live on the island, but visitors regularly ride over for volunteer projects, retreats, or a relaxing escape from day-to-day life. For six decades the island was used as a quarantine site for ships carrying immigrants from Europe and other areas, and from 1861-1924, passengers of 41 ships were quarantined on the island for various lengths of time. 15 people were born on the island, and 72 are buried in the island’s cemetery.

Over the course of the week I learned more about the island’s history by talking with Dries and community members and by reading Quarantine Island/Kamau Taurua – A Short History, a fascinating and informative book written by community member/archivist Lyndall Hancock (who I was lucky enough to meet during my stay). Reading the book allowed me to appreciate the work we were doing on the island even more, as I learned about the early days of the island, its Maori associations, the early settlers, and the efforts to preserve the place and protect its native flora and fauna. The dedication of community members preserving this amazing ecological environment is so impressive. I won’t go into too much detail on the history of Kamau Taurua in this post, but you can find more about the island’s history here, or about the work being done here or on the Island’s Facebook page.

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This is my favorite photo of my entire trip so far. It was taken from the doorway exiting my room at Quarantine, when I metaphorically exited what was my reality and was able to reflect on what I like about my life thus far, what is missing (for instance, I haven’t volunteered much during graduate school, and I really miss that), and what I want to accomplish moving forward over the next few years. Sounds deep, but really, this place is great for exiting one reality and stepping into another while reflecting on life and living in a piece of paradise.


My Search

So…Quarantine Island. Where do I begin? I almost can’t put this experience into words. I stumbled across this jewel of a place in an extremely roundabout way, after countless hours searching online for volunteer experiences. Ideally I was hoping to find a free conservation project with accommodation provided, but finding such a project that didn’t require at least two weeks’ commitment proved to be surprisingly difficult. Likewise, searching for disaster recovery work with accommodation – something that’s pretty easy to find in the US – proved fruitless. In February I actually gave up and instead, after scouring the Department of Conservation website for single day projects, contacted the Dunedin Trail Crew, a trail maintenance group that seemed pretty active. The woman who runs the crew was kind enough to recommend Quarantine Island and another place called the Sinclair Wetlands, two nearby conservation projects that provide accommodation in exchange for volunteering. Hooray! I emailed both places, Quarantine replied first, and the rest is history.

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Boat docked at the jetty – we have arrived!

Quarantine Haere Mai

When we arrived at Quarantine, Dries gave a bit of a “haere mai,” a welcome to the island. I learned about the albatross sign off of the jetty, erected in 2008 to welcome visitors, and other aspects of the island including kayaks I could use. Awesome! Noah and Lucia gave me a tour of St. Martin’s Lodge, where I’d be sleeping, and made sure I knew all the rules. Perhaps most important: All water on the island comes from water basins that collect rain, so it’s important to preserve water whenever possible, limiting showers to 1-2 minutes every few days. For the same reason there are drop rather than flush toilets, but they’re a bit fancier than the typical outhouse style, being indoors and using a “Rota Roo” system. After the tour Dries took the kids to their cottage to get ready for bed while I unpacked and explored the Lodge.

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Check out the remains of an old ship in the bottom right photo here.

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Some of the rooms at St. Martin’s Lodge: Left is the sun room, top right was my room, bottom right is the living room. There was also a kitchen, two other rooms of bunk beds, toilets, and little benches outside with great views.

I’m still processing the week that followed at Quarantine. I could write pages and pages about this place and my experience there, but I will do my best not to get too wordy. Here are some of the highlights:

Volunteering

Quarantine Island offers endless opportunities for volunteering and learning new skills. During my stay I mowed the lawn, weeded hemlock and nightshade, collected firewood, helped paint the Married Quarters (a building being fixed up to use for events, where married couples were housed during the quarantine years), carried lumber from the jetty to the Married Quarters, etc.

Surprisingly the task I enjoyed most was checking the A24s, rat/mouse/stoat traps created by a company called Goodnature. The A24s – which can be set off 24 times – are extremely important because rodents in New Zealand are an invasive nuisance with no natural predators; if their numbers are not kept in check they could take over an area. Rats, mice, and stoats are threats to native flora and fauna in the area. Stoats, for instance, were originally imported into the country to help keep the rabbit population in check, but now they are the number one killer of the rare New Zealand kiwi birds. Rats can swim up to 3 km, and with Port Chalmers less than a kilometer away from Quarantine they can easily find their way to the island. No good! Reducing the numbers of rats and mice should result in an increase in biodiversity, so the A24s serve an important purpose.

I enjoyed learning about the A24s and getting to check them. Not only was finding them a good way to get to know the island (there are 26, placed all over the island just off the paths), but also it felt like a conservation scavenger hunt. On the first day of checking, Dries came along to show me what to do and pointed out flora and fauna I should know on the island such as wild spinach (much saltier than North American varieties) and fantails and bellbirds (more on those later). I also learned about the tracking tunnels used to attract rodents and monitor their presence and about ACOs (Artificial Containment Objects…very original name) which are placed around the island as sort of skink “hotels.”

Volunteering made me appreciate the island in a new way. With each task I completed I felt more at home on the island and more satisfied with my experience there; I spent a lot of my free time walking the island paths knowing that I was helping to keep this place beautiful. What a fulfilling experience…

Birding

Over Easter weekend I participated in an island-wide bird survey. Both of my parents have an interest in birding, so although I don’t know as much as I should about birds, I appreciated the opportunity to get to know the local birds of New Zealand (which make up the majority of native animals in the country). One of the birders participating in the survey was Derek Onley, who illustrated The Field Guide to the Birds of New Zealand, which is essentially New Zealand’s version of the Audubon bird book I grew up with, Guide to North American Birds, so it felt pretty special to be included in the bird survey. I learned about silvereyes (also called the wax-eye), small sparrow-like birds that are EVERYWHERE, fantails (named for the their fan-like tails, which cause them to fly rather erratically), bellbirds – called korimako in Maori -, various kinds of cormorants, etc. During the survey we also witnessed an incredibly loud school of fish along the coast, plus some larger fish enjoying the opportunity to snack on the smaller ones. They were louder than the birds! Claire, a community member participating in the survey, explained that these surveys are conducted over multiple weeks in a season to track the numbers of birds that frequent the island. After the survey I found myself recognizing the calls of some of the birds I learned about, knowledge I have continued to put to use throughout my time here. Here are some photos Claire took of the bird count:

School Visits

I have to say…I really enjoyed interacting with the school groups that visited the island. First, I was far too excited when Dries asked me if I could greet the high school PE class coming for an overnight visit. I jumped at the chance to share my newfound knowledge of the island’s history with the students and teachers, and I’m happy to report that I was able to answer most of their questions! The group spent the night in the lodge, so I got to spend time talking to the students about schooling in our respective countries, places to visit (many of them dream of one day visiting New York), and learning about different cultures; three of the students were Maori, so they taught me some Maori words, including how to count to ten!

Next, Lucia’s kindy group (in New Zealand, “kindy” – aka kindergarten – is for kids ages 3-5, sort of like pre-K in the US) came for a day of exploration. My “volunteering” for the day would include hanging out with the group, which was perfectly fine with me! We explored the water, explored the grass, explored the chicken coop, found some cool insects, ate lunch, and learned more about the island from Dries’ presentation. The kids also got to hunt for Easter eggs and we all ate some celebratory chocolate and homemade cookies. A beautiful day for all!

For me, the school visits were a reminder that I love teaching anything; regardless of the subject or age group, I love exchanging knowledge and participating in experiential learning. Most of you reading this are probably thinking “Carolyn, duhhhhh” but nonetheless, I think I needed this experience to remind me that even if it’s not music, I still love teaching.

Open Day

Visiting Quarantine Island over Easter weekend was worthwhile in many ways, one of which being that I got to participate in the island’s monthly Open Day, when community members visit the island to help with projects, relax, spend the night, and share in communal meals. Over the weekend I met community members such as Lyndall, the archivist who has been researching the history of Quarantine Island since the 1960s, Kristen and Chris, two extremely dedicated board members whose passion for the island is one of the reasons it is in such good shape today, Claire and Leonard, two community members from the bird survey who quickly grew to be like friends, and Wiremu – who taught me a great deal about painting houses – and his partner Roxy, who wowed us all with her ability to weave a backpack for her daughter our of flax reeds. Meeting community members and volunteering together, sharing meals and drinks (including some local Dunedin beer and a hearty Easter breakfast…not at the same time), hearing their stories and reasons for being there, etc. was meaningful on many levels. They welcomed me into their community and made me feel at home in a way that doesn’t always happen in established groups, and for that I am extremely grateful; I think their openness and kindred spirits are two of the reasons Quarantine Island has grown to be such a special place for me. And…a late-night adventure to rescue the lawn mower that had gotten stuck in some high grass was a humorous bonding experience as well! 🙂

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The late-night lawn mower spectacle. We managed to get it un-stuck!

Music Teacher, Au Pair

Months ago, when considering options for my semester off, my friend Genai suggested I look into becoming an au pair. I thought seriously about the possibility, reasoning that I’d be a great candidate for an au pair position and might enjoy it, but ultimately decided to search for conservation-based volunteer projects instead. However, Noah and Lucia quickly became an integral part of my island experience and I found myself with the opportunity to help out as both a volunteer and a sort of au pair. Noah, Lucia, and I played on the trampoline, read stories, played in the dirt, played on the playground, cleaned the lodge, sang songs, played games, and – thanks to their begging – shared meals together in their cottage (during which I also learned some Flemish – now I can count to ten, say hello, thank you, you’re welcome, etc. Hooray for language learning!). They are extremely bright and spirited kids and I greatly enjoyed hanging out with them during my stay. There is also a piano in the cottage, so I got to give Noah piano lessons and play some of my repertoire of kid songs for them and Wiremu and Roxy’s kids. Just like with kids in the States, “Superhero Song” (written by yours truly) and “The Duck Song” (not written by me) were the popular requests. Kids + music + volunteering + nature = Happy Carolyn. 🙂

Island Exploration

In my free time I made a habit of walking the island, stopping at memorable, isolated spots to reflect on my experience that day, on the island’s history (a different reflection each day as I read more of the book), and on life in general. I spent time in the reserve watching the island sheep grazing, found my way to the island’s cave to explore, visited the graveyard to think about the people who died there, sat on benches around the island watching the birds, the waves, the boats, the changing tides, etc., visited the chapel to reflect and take advantage of the acoustics through song one rainy afternoon, and visited the somewhat-hidden bench dedicated to Ken Mason, a community member who led the Kiwi Conservation Club before passing away. I visited that bench many times; I think it has the best view on the whole island and is a great spot to relax and feel peaceful. I also enjoyed sitting outside the lodge, gazing out over the jetty, watching the sky and the sea, and listening to the waves and gulls. One day I took a kayak out, exploring the waters surrounding the island to see everything from a new perspective.

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Views from my various excursions around the island.

Thinking back on all these adventures, I found them to be extremely worthwhile mentally and physically. Walking the island hills provided a bit of a workout while allowing me to experience a sense of peaceful satisfaction I don’t find in regular day-to-day life. For those of you reading this who remember Shelter Island, Quarantine is a bit like the AYM retreats of my high school years, or perhaps even a bit like the feeling you get from sitting in the Sanctuary at Saint Rose, one of my favorite places on the planet. I don’t feel like I spent enough time walking the island yet; visiting this place is good for the soul and I certainly don’t feel like my time there is complete.

Conclusion

Although I have enjoyed all my New Zealand adventures, Quarantine Island has definitely been the most memorable and meaningful. The people I met, the experiences I had, the opportunities for quiet reflection, for volunteering, for exploration, etc. were the whole package of what I was searching for in this semester of “voluntouring.” Quarantine Island and the people dedicated to its preservation have grown to hold a special place in my heart, and I am extremely grateful to have found this place and had this experience; my New Zealand voyage would not be the same without it. One night near the end of my initial week’s visit, I found  myself in a sleepless sort of panic, realizing that I was leaving soon and feeling like I needed more time in that beautiful place. So…I cancelled my flight home and will be returning for two weeks before I leave New Zealand (and not just to Quarantine…I’m going to explore the Sinclair Wetlands and a brewery with Claire and Leonard, check out the Dunedin folk music club’s weekly sing, possibly go practice a marimba I got permission to use at Otago University, etc.)! Thank you to everyone who made this experience so meaningful for me; I appreciate you all and look forward to returning later this month. Tot ziens!

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I’ll be baaaaaaack 😉

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(maybe I had a little too much fun in the sheep reserve)

 

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