Kia Ora

June: A week-long coach tour of New Zealand’s north island, in the company of 35 grade 5 & 6 students, and on a separate coach, a supporter’s tour of approximately 40 parents.

The sport, in brief: the soccer team I coached featured individual brilliance, but was outplayed in all three matches, whilst the rugby team on tour with us snatched a controversial draw in their final game after being out-muscled in their first two games. We played in driving sleet, bitter frost, and glorious sunshine.

The climate presented almost as many challenges as team selection. As our (small) school adopted a very inclusive policy regarding eligibility, the soccer team bulged into a squad of 17 boys of sharply differing abilities. Cohesion was just another word in the dictionary. The attitudes, ethusiasm, and effort contributed by each player, coach, and parent, was immense, and this created a fantastic week, both at the host schools where our matches were played, and throughout our travels.

Our journey commenced in the Kiwi capital of Wellington, at the south of the North Island. A strong sense of community, magical scenery, and bitter weather. Driving along the Bay of Islands we were blessed to observe a complete rainbow, both ends vanishing in the bay.

New Zealand’s National Museum, Te Papa, is located here. Many of the exhibits are interactive, each is creatively staged, and currently hosts an amazing Lord of the Rings exhibition.

The journey north to Rotorua was both rewarding and fortunate: the road behind us was snowed in and littered with accidents just hours later. Rotorua is … pungent … the sulfur generated from geothermic pools does take some getting used to. It’s also a place rich in earthiness and offering a connection to the land.  It was in Rotorua that I was first struck by the level of integration between the indigenous Maori people, and the White settlers.

After a whiz around the lakes on jet boats (I find these a little tame, but for the less adventurous they are great fun), we were treated to a tour of Tamaki Maori Village. I’ve been to Australian and American cultural equivalents, but the authenticity of Tamaki makes Old Sydney Town and Knott’s Berry Farm look like comic strips.

The highlight of the whole trip: the luge. Take a hill, wind a concrete road about 5m wide down it, buy yourself 50 billycarts and an equal number of helmets not designed to fit the human head – there’s got to be a Nobel Prize in it for this bloke somewhere.

Massive, massive fun. Staff shunt you off single file, you congregate before the first corner, and it’s on. I raced my students, their parents, fellow coaches, randoms … there are no rules, just hammer down, slice and dice, take the apex, get in tight on a corner if you need to push the driver in front of you wide, all’s fair in love and luge … we were all having such a ball here we stayed on and canned our trip to Hobbiton.

The kids have been an enthusiastic handful, the parents have been generous and entertaining (they really let go when the kiddies aren’t around!), and every local I met has been welcoming, kind, and engaging. So much so that there seemed to be a temporary embargo on our trans-Tasman rivalry, with every Kiwi we encountered full of good wishes and support for the Socceroos at the World Cup. New Zealand has never been on my travel radar, so I am grateful for this opportunity, and am looking at delaying my return home through Auckland to spend a few more days here.

Ka kite ano, New Zealand.

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