Call of the wild

From kayaking and rafting to rock climbing, mountain biking, nutrition and leadership, an Otago Polytechnic programme prepares learners for a world of wild adventures.

Having come to the realisation that selling cars was not a career journey she wished to continue, Wānaka local Yasmin Smith did a U-turn a few years ago, and she’s never looked back.

“I grew up in Wānaka and always wanted to work in the outdoors. However, after I’d been selling cars for six years, I was prompted to study when the government introduced the Fees Free programme,” she says. “I was 28 at the time and thought, it’s now or never.”

Smith graduated from Otago Polytechnic’s New Zealand Certificate in Outdoor and Adventure Education (Level 4) in 2019. “It definitely changed my path, that’s for sure.”

Otago Polytechnic’s main campus is in Dunedin and it has others in Cromwell and Wānaka. The latter campus is the base for the programme, which prepares learners with the core skills and knowledge required to work in the outdoor adventure industry, including kayaking, rafting, rock climbing, tramping, mountain biking, nutrition, health, physical and psychological performance, as well as leadership.

“The rock climbing definitely appealed to me,” she says. “Climbing is my passion and following this path all stems from doing the programme at Otago Polytechnic. I’m now a professional rock climbing instructor working for Wildwire, a via ferrata adventure tourism company based in Wānaka.”

Having recently completed a national rock climbing instructor assessment, Smith has an “ultimate goal”: to run adventure counselling for underprivileged youth.

“I’d like to combine my outdoor qualifications with other qualifications, such as counselling, so I can open my own programme helping others.”

Location, location, location

Otago Polytechnic Programme Leader Peter Eley, who is based in Wānaka, says location is an all-important component in students’ success.

“For us, it is about authenticity of learning. Wānaka is an amazing playground in which we can teach students. Rivers, mountains, lakes… it’s all on our doorstep. It is full-immersion learning.

“We offer a skills-based environment, versus more traditional lectures. This environment solidifies the experience for our learners.”

Eley loves sharing his passion with others. “It’s incredibly rewarding watching people grow. For example, I’m passionate about white-water pursuits, so I’m able to witness people starting on flat water, to progressing to rapids and big multi-day journeys.

“We see people as lifetime learners. We will always be there in the background to support them.”

Embracing the natural world

Otago Polytechnic offers a broad range of programmes for those who love the natural world.

Those interested in sustainable building solutions can head back to the future and enrol in the Certificate in Stonemasonry, the only full-time programme of its kind in New Zealand.

Taking inspiration from Central Otago’s rugged landscape, students gain a wide range of stonemasonry skills, as well as extensive practical and work experience as they learn how to design and construct stone features, work with various types of stone and be introduced to many traditional and modern stonework styles.

The Central Otago region is celebrated as a leading summer fruit producer, as well as being famous worldwide for its Pinot Noir wines, and the Central Campus offers students the chance to gain hands-on experience as well as learning to grow in a sustainable way. Facilities include a commercial vineyard, cherry orchard, plant production nursery, hydroponic herb and vegetable unit.

Bees are crucial to our ecological cycles and apiculture is one of New Zealand’s fastest-growing industries. To cater to this demand, Otago Polytechnic has introduced a certificate that gives learners the skills and knowledge to work as an assistant beekeeper for commercial operators, an independent beekeeper with a small number of beehives, or to develop their own business.

Surrounded by cycle trails, the Cromwell Campus is the perfect place to study bike mechanics. Students learn how to service and assemble a wide range of bicycles, components and bicycle systems, including e-bikes, in the New Zealand Certificate in Bicycle Servicing (Level 3) and can take it even further with the Level 4 course. And after class, they can take advantage of the varied and world-class riding opportunities right on their doorstep.

In-work and in-environment

Dr Megan Gibbons, Chief Executive Otago Polytechnic, says people sometimes don’t understand that vocational education delivered by polytechnics can be both in-work and in-environment.

“It’s all about the best context for learning. A critical part of our teaching is about assessing and managing risk. That takes on a whole extra element when confronted by reality. Our graduates need to have this hardwired into their thinking as future guides and tourism operators. That is why the environment is such an important part of our programmes.”

She likes to think of the adventure programmes as ‘serious fun’.

“Sure, they are fun, exciting, challenging and in the great New Zealand outdoors. But they are also about training the future workforce to support others to have that sort of experience in a safe manner. There is some real responsibility to ensuring this training is done right.”

For more information about Otago Polytechnic’s programmes, visit

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