Police and council are trying to throttle the life out of Dunedin’s student culture. We sent a reporter down to experience its exhilarating chaos before it gets too boring.
This story first appeared in the winter 2015 edition of 1972 Magazine by Barkers.
When a party is really cranking, you can hear it long before you see it. At first it’s like putting your ear up to a sea shell, a low and distant rumble. Then the bass comes through; dark, palpitating 808 trap beats. Snatches of conversation, avian caws, aggressive synthesizers and syncopated hi-hats give the scene some top-end. Chuck in the sound of breaking glass, a burning couch and a few crying girls, and you are on Dunedin’s Hyde Street on the first Saturday of Orientation Week 2015.
Home to an annual keg race attended by upwards of 3000 costumed ravers, Hyde Street is the spiritual centre of Dunedin’s uni lifestyle. On the night in question, more than a thousand students swarmed, clogging the small one-lane road, spilling from windows and perching on roofs like gargoyles.
Pulsating strobe lights glinted from the crushed glass that powdered the street and cigarette fireflies danced from a hundred mouths to a hundred hands. Older, senior students reunited with abandon; “It’s fucking good to be back in Dunnaz.”
First years, ‘freshers’, mingled awkwardly, sticking out with the nervous, self-aware smiles of undercover cops. Actual police patrolled here and there, surprisingly at ease, sharing jokes with revellers and turning an occasional blind eye to well-intentioned shenanigans. “Party students blamed for leaving Dunedin street ‘like the Third World’” read the Sunday morning headlines.
Dunedin’s student life is a cultural reference point on every level of the national psyche. Feared, loathed, adored and in some cases worshipped to a frightening extent, everyone has their own vague idea of what constitutes life in that strange Celtic hangover in the South Island.
I had my own conclusions: cold, grey, terrible rugby team, worse beer. Things like that. There’s a residual idea of Dunedin as a place for munters from Invercargill and people who couldn’t get into Auckland Uni. But those are empty, tired stereotypes.
What’s really going on down there? Who are these maniacs who brave freezing conditions, perilous, alcohol-fueled antics and squalid living conditions? And do dark rumors of a cultural decline, whispered amongst returning students, have substance? So many questions, and only one way to find out for certain.
A pilgrimage, of sorts. A journey to the altar of intoxication. Putting brain and body on the line in the name of truth, youth and a hell of a good time.
I would journey south, covering the 1300 kilometres by car in a mad dash to make the opening night of O-Week 2015. Eating, drinking and living as a student, with all of the enthusiasm and none of the assignments. To understand this kind of culture, you don’t consult dry academics or pour over tomes of research by candlelight. No, it has to be felt.
“Bro, are you actually going to be able to write about any of this shit?” asked Angus Hellen, a fourth year surveying student and my best friend from birth.
It was a fair question, standing thumbs out as we were on the side of the main and only road out of Rakaia. Our ride, a borrowed Toyota Carib, sat motionless outside a distant garage.
Our gear remained in the boot, hidden under a picnic blanket and a coleslaw-and pastrami-covered beach towel. We brought with us just the essentials: clothes, a bottle of bourbon, a camera, a couple of cigarettes and two bottles of ginger beer for positive vibes.
“I dunno,” I said. “I hope the car’s not too fucked.”
It had been an eventful journey. Three days out from Hamilton and we had slept maybe one full night between us. Our arrival in Wellington on the first evening was enthusiastic, and as the city turned grey with the first threat of daylight we found ourselves on the 9th-storey balcony of a cheap hotel apartment, just near the museum.
“I’m actually an official lord,” a strung-out young guy in a bad suit raved, brandishing his debit card at arm’s length. “See?” he demanded. There it was – Lord David Thompson. “My ex bought me a bit of land in Scotland, you could totally do it too. I could show you how to do it if you wanted to do it.”
“Far out,” I said, swaying a bit but unimpressed. “Wait, Kurt, when’s the ferry?”
“Two hours bro.”
Like a dark cloud, we rolled south, stopping for no man or beast. Through the Marlborough Sounds and on to Nelson, hoping to rejuvenate in the lakes there at the northernmost point of the Southern Alps. But the collective willpower of the group burned away under the merciless midday sun, and two hours out we re-routed to Blenheim.
After a night at The Grapevines, a backpackers’ lodge run by a short Irish guy, we continued onwards, sweeping down the east coast. On the left, the Pacific Ocean glimmered: here calm, there smashing against the rocks, always vast and humbling.
Past the seal colonies of Kaikoura and deeper into the Northern Canterbury Plains we drove. Barren, ashy hills rose above conspicuously lush vineyards. Sedimented, briny creeks crawled through cracked riverbeds to the sea, catching here and there on the occasional bit of tyre or old shoe. As the scenery dried out, so too did our good humor.
“It’s alright, we’ll just get to this dude’s flat in Christchurch, lax out, and head down to Dunedin tomorrow,” Angus said, probably to assure himself as much as anyone in the car.
“Bro, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again,” said Kurt. “Christchurch flats are worse than Dunedin flats. They’re scummy as.”
The first thing that stuck out was the bus. Parked diagonally across the front yard of a small Christchurch townhouse occupied by 13 students, the bus was 12 metres of maroon-and-white bad news. Old bench seats and internal panelling were heaped on the driveway outside. The skeleton of a couch mouldered quietly.
We spent a long night in the bus, huddled on mattresses. Outside hundreds of people milled about on psychotropics, chanting. Half in a dream, I watched emergency lights dance across the smoke hanging in the roof of the bus. A first year student had jumped from the roof and snapped his leg. The paramedics had come to dose him up a little more and take him off to hospital.
Christchurch was grey as we made our preparations the next morning. The boys from the flat sat around a lone wooden picnic table. A disoriented guy in a black t shirt and trucker cap leaned back in his chair, fresh Speights in hand.
“I’m glad I can take a dump now that I’m not scared to look myself in the mirror,” he said from behind his sunglasses. “You guys want a line of caffeine?” offered another, holding up a kilogram bag of caffeine anhydrous like some fish monger at market. “It’s like having like 35 coffees. Don’t have too much though, anything more than a teaspoon and you might have a heart attack.”
It was time to leave. We could make Dunedin by mid-afternoon. Thirty minutes later, we were stranded outside Rakaia.
There are upwards of 20,000 people at the University of Otago, and the majority come from elsewhere. Like salmon heading for the spawning ponds, freshers through to fourth years make their way back, timing cars, boats, busses and planes as to arrive in the middle of February, ready for O-Week.
The Otago University Student’s Association promotes a number of concerts and other events to get things flowing. It’s a chance to make new friends and get to know the people with whom you’ll spend the next few years living closely. Of course, these are students, many of them away from home for the first time in their lives, and they’re ready to cut loose. For seven days and seven nights the party rages, effectively shutting down North Dunedin.
“My first O-Week was pretty intimidating.” That’s Earl Crowley, now in his last of four years studying marketing and finance. “It was like walking into another world, where getting absolutely destroyed to the point of no return wasn’t just the norm, it was to be expected.”
“O-Week is loose,” Angus told me as the five-hundredth van of disapproving holiday makers drove past us, eyes forward. “You’re going to see some pretty out-of-it stuff.”
“Yeah? How so?”
“It’s the biggest week of the year. The freshers are all at the toga party and paint party, and things like that, but everyone else is partying at their new flats. That’s what Dunedin is about. The flats are what makes it,” he says. “Wait, here’s a ride.”
A white Honda minivan had pulled over 20-odd metres down the road. The yaps of a small dog could be heard from inside. Her name was Molly, and she was white with permanent tear stains under her eyes. I sat in the back, my feet hovering awkwardly over pamphlets scattered across the floor.
While Angus made idle chat, I snatched a glance at the paperwork. “Dealing with the suicide of a loved one,” read the front of one purple letter. Maybe that explains the dog?
From Ashburton we switched track, riding with a pair of Brazilian dairy farmers with suspiciously red eyes.
“You see all this land around you?” asked Juan, the driver. “It’s an illusion. You don’t own your country, man. The banks do.”
Juan’s eyes were glued to the rear-view mirror, searching for something in our expressions. I guess we both kind of agreed with him, but what was there to say? It was a relief when our last ride from Winchester kept the conversation on easy ground; rugby, beer, girls.
As the sun began to set, and the light left the church spires across the city, we reached Dunedin. After two cars, a boat and 1300 kilometres, it was time to get down.
In the corner of Union and Queen streets sits the Mella Casa. Built into a hill, the third story is connected to Queen street by a perilous and rusted walkway. Several metres below, a beer pong table sits on marshy ground, one end significantly higher than the other, alongside a couple seats and an old mattress.
This is the first year that the top storey has been accessible from inside, after a barricade was torn down from the internal stairwell. Ornate, pressed metal ceilings soar in every room.
Thirteen dudes live in the Mella Casa, significantly outnumbering bedrooms. Mostly surfers with short beards and long hair, their boards are strewn throughout the house. The lounge sits high above the street outside. On one wall is a giant poster. A man in dress shirt and pants is riding a picturesque wave, and somebody has drawn an impressive joint hanging from his mouth.
On the night we arrived, spirits were high. Joe Palmer, youngest of the 13 residents, had taken out a local surf comp earlier in the day. The trophy sat atop the central heating unit, the icon of this particular church. Palmer and the award were looked on with equal approval as celebrations intensified and the lounge filled with cigarette smoke.
“Joe’s the young buck of this flat,” Angus told me. “They’re all frothing on this trophy. We better go get some beers.”
Contrary to most of the country, where flatmates are the people you complain about to your friends when you’re out drinking, in Dunedin your flat becomes your family. Thousands of kilometres from home, it’s important to create a support network for the inevitable tough times. When the noodles are gone, the pantry is empty and you can’t quite afford a box of Southern Gold.
The majority of student flats are in North Dunedin, where entire streets are lined with ageing houses, all in various states of disrepair. Couches with torn upholstery and broken legs lay about here and there, jutting from bushes and perched on roofs. There’s a pride in the squalor, though, and the flats have names, signs and an identity. The Duke St Dog Pound, The Yeast, The Gaybox, Boogie Nites, The Aviary, The Lean, The Black Coq, even the iconic Six60 Castle Street, womb of the band Six60. The flats are more than just accommodation: they’re meeting halls, reference points and even concert venues.
Skivvy Jon, a double major in law and psychology, runs an occasional Friday night comedy show in Dunedin.
“I used to study in Wellington, and one night I went on a date to a comedy show,” he says. “By the end of the date, I knew I didn’t like the girl but I really liked stand-up. When I moved to Dunedin I was so pleased to be here, but I was also itching for comedy.”
With an ingrained tradition of Thursday and Saturday nights being dedicated to drinking, students typically take Friday off, congregating for less intensive intoxicants and entertainment. Skivvy Jon saw an opportunity.
“I thought, what would be better than mates, a lounge, some cushions, a few beers and some comedy? So I scammed the living room at Boogie Nites in October last year. Straight away I was like ‘holy shit, this flat thing is cool’.”
The geographic proximity of most of the iconic flats, as well as a lack of liquor ban on the streets, mean that it’s realistic for large groups to move about on foot, washing up to events like a flood.
“There were maybe 80 people in Boogie. There were people on shelves, just total gargoyles. People all over the floor. There might have been a few people smoking doobies. But it was cool, they were just humming for it, and nobody minded being a bit squished so that their mates could get in on it. It’s the sort of environment you just can’t have in a bar.”
This is typical of the special kind of community in Dunedin. Not community in the sense of strangers who happen to live in the same area, but as a shared ethos, a similar worldview, and a tangible feeling of camaraderie.
Former All Black Josh Kronfeld was baptised in the frigid southern waters of scarfie culture. I spoke to him by phone after I returned, tissues and painkillers strewn across my desk. He says his time at the University of Otago laid the foundations for the rest of his life.
“There’s an amazing energy in Dunedin. There’s an opportunity to feel a kindred spirit, a bond with all kinds of people from all different walks of life. It doesn’t matter where you’ve come from, you grow as an individual.
“You know, people go to Otago Uni because they know they can get a quality education, but also at the same time experience something you just can’t anywhere else in the world.”
But while some things remain the same from Kronfeld’s early experiences in Dunedin, other things have changed. In particular, combined police and council efforts have pressured the university into taking a harder line on student behaviour.
“I understand it,” says Kronfeld. “It’s a different world now, and there’s a difference in police culture. But they’re taking these pivotal moments away from people. The big parties, Leith Street, Hyde Street, that sort of thing, those are the times that you take home with you.”
Skivvy Jon believes that events like the flat comedy shows are vital to Dunedin’s student culture.
“This scene is being attacked from every angle,” he says. “The council are trying to push the liquor ban into North Dunedin, bars like The Captain Cook and Gardies are being shut down. Student ingenuity is what will keep the culture alive. And it needs to be preserved, because it’s totally unique.”
I’m an honest writer, and I honestly think that even attempting objectivity here would be distasteful. I didn’t experience O-Week through binoculars from a safe distance behind the wire, and I’d be embarrassed if I did. The only way to describe what it’s like to hold down a sour mouthful of tequila and vomit at the bar of a student pub is to have felt it. Once is enough though – you’d be a masochist to want to choke down the briny froth of cheap tequila spew any more than necessary.
They’re a special breed of freak in Dunedin, though, and it takes some serious endurance to even stay in sight of them, let alone keep up. Perhaps their digestive systems have devolved to some bovine state, capable of surviving on the sustenance of mi goreng ramen noodles and cheap bourbon RTDs, but mine hasn’t. I spent a long night with my head in a garden listening to the sirens across the city and trying to stop the world from spinning. I began to fade.
One night, perched on a garage roof, blood dripping from a cut finger, I felt absolutely capable of clearing a picnic table and landing in the concrete alleyway below, so long as I missed a pile of spew and comatose guy in the shadows. With police barricades at both ends of Hyde Street, it was our only way in. Then the brutal multi-day hangovers started setting in. A certain level of paranoia and angst is natural after several nights of partying with intent, but I tried to remind myself that my blackening thoughts weren’t the only way to perceive the world. By the end I couldn’t even handle using someone else’s soap.
As we got deeper into O-Week, days and nights began to blend. Much of what happened can’t be reported here without putting my livelihood at risk, but suffice to say some of it was illegal and most of it distasteful. The progress of time was marked by the chiming of church bells and the growing pile of empties by the front door. In the news, the council threatened to extend the liquor ban to include one particular house after a flatmate jumped from a balcony onto a noise control officer.
Following several big parties on Hyde Street, an unnamed grad student complained that this year’s residents were the worst and most riotous yet. Meanwhile, the fire service was warning students that setting something on fire inside a house could be considered arson.
But the stories that ran during O-Week painted an incomplete picture of what was really going down on a daily basis. Admittedly, one night I did watch a drunk girl in boots kick out the panes of a bathroom window, splintering the frame and all, but that was an exception.
Even after five days’ consecutive binging, there was very little malice in what anyone was doing. It had been nearly a week of extreme drinking, and yet still the lines outside the liquor stores were relatively calm, despite the DJs who played from carpark booths. There was no aggression, and an incredible lack of judgement or animosity.
Lost and blinded by gin one cold night, I searched an unfamiliar flat for someone who knew where we were. From room to room I stumbled into numerous circles of anonymous tweakers, sitting around powdered mirrors like Ouija boards, trying to summon one last drip of serotonin. Blinking like owls, they’d offer refreshments “Oh, hey man, want a line?”
Awfully generous. In the early hours of the morning we watched a circle of naked guys drum on cardboard boxes, genitals flopping around to the beat, and nobody batted an eye. The next day, someone urinated in their own mouth. It wasn’t a big deal. “Wash your beard bro,” said one guy, “We’re about to go out.” I asked Angus what was going on, why were people so nice?
“Everyone is at the same place in Dunedin,” he said. “They’re sort of coming of age, and experimenting. People just do whatever, and nobody gives them a hard time really.”
There is no such thing in life as a biological free lunch. It was on the plane home that I first realised that, as my throat started to itch and my eyes got hot. Descending to Auckland Airport, I thought that maybe a failed landing would be the easy way out of what felt like the beginnings of a serious viral battle. How could I communicate what I had seen and experienced? What did it even all amount to?
My notebook was filled with scrawlings in red and blue and sharpie but 4am epiphanies and universal moments of truth seemed almost naive under the cabin lights of a Jetstar flight. Without the taste of cigarette and the smell of spilt whiskey and the sound of too much bass, obvious conclusions about Dunedin’s student culture don’t make as much sense.
What remained with me through my week-long flu, and even till now, is an appreciation for the genuine positivity and warmth of the country’s supposed delinquents. Despite what you see on the news, I think student culture around New Zealand could afford to become a lot more like Dunedin, not less. As Josh Kronfeld, and so many others told me, in their own way, “It’s a special place to be young.”
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