Geologists find Fiordland to be their rock

By Alina Suchanski

Geologists Christoph Zink and Alessandra Menegatti could’ve earned big bucks working for oil drilling companies. Instead, they chose a quiet life in a small town with Fiordland National Park at their doorstep. Alina Suchanski talks to the couple who care more about the environment than they do about money.

Christoph grew up in Waldshut, a small village on the river Rhein near the German-Swiss border that boasts to be the “Gateway to the Black Forest”. “I’d go on a 15-minute bike ride across the bridge, to Switzerland, because Swiss chocolate is better than ours,” he smirks.

As a young boy, Christoph spent a lot of time looking for fossils in a Jurassic limestone area near Waldshut, so it didn’t surprise anyone when he chose to study geology at the University at Freiburg, 80 kilometres away from his hometown.

By Alina Suchanski

Geologists Christoph Zink and Alessandra Menegatti could’ve earned big bucks working for oil drilling companies. Instead, they chose a quiet life in a small town with Fiordland National Park at their doorstep. Alina Suchanski talks to the couple who care more about the environment than they do about money.

Christoph grew up in Waldshut, a small village on the river Rhein near the German-Swiss border that boasts to be the “Gateway to the Black Forest”. “I’d go on a 15-minute bike ride across the bridge, to Switzerland, because Swiss chocolate is better than ours,” he smirks.

As a young boy, Christoph spent a lot of time looking for fossils in a Jurassic limestone area near Waldshut, so it didn’t surprise anyone when he chose to study geology at the University at Freiburg, 80 kilometres away from his hometown.

Having completed a Bachelor of Science with Honours, he was employed by an environmental and engineering geology consultancy, where he worked for two years. But the job didn’t spin his wheels. He started to look for overseas opportunities in his field and received an offer for a PhD study at Otago University, New Zealand. The subject of his studies was to be the geological evolution of the Te Anau/Waiau Basin over the last 45 million years. That really fired young Christoph’s imagination. He came to New Zealand in 1996 and took four years to complete his PhD in geology.

“I had a great time at Otago. It felt like a big adventure,” he recalls. “Every month I’d go to Fiordland for a few days to do field work, which involved getting across Lake Te Anau in an inflatable motorboat owned by the university, walking up rivers and ridges, and collecting geological data. I camped in the wilderness and soon got a sea kayak and did some fishing.

He remembers the staff at Otago University being very cosmopolitan, and the atmosphere between students and staff relaxed and friendly – very informal compared to similar relationships in his own country. “Lack of hierarchy – that’s what I enjoyed. At a German university a student is just a number. In New Zealand, you are a member of the family,” he reflects.

Alessandra was born in the town of Monza, Italy, world famous for its historic Formula 1 car racing track. In her teenage years, she showed interest in archaeology, and from the age of 15 started volunteering at archaeological digging sites. She also had a talent for drawing, which saw her  completing her studies at the Monza School of Art. Later, she went on to the Brera Academy of Fine Art (Accademia di Belle Arti di Brera) in Milan to study theatre stage design, but her passion for archaeology outgrew her love of art and after two years at Brera, Alessandra moved to Ferrara to study geology. She continued to spend all her summer holidays at archaeological sites in Tolfa, near Rome, helping uncover the remains of a Roman villa and an Etruscan necropolis (burial site). She worked with a shovel but also with a pencil, drawing the objects dug up at these sites.

After graduating with a degree in geology in 1997, Alessandra worked for a few months, but wanted to take her education a step further. She was lucky enough to win the Leonardo Scholarship to work abroad in the fields of micropaleontology (study of tiny fossils) and biostratigraphy (use of fossils to establish relative ages of rock). She moved to Alton in Hampshire, UK to take up a post at Millenia – a consultancy to the oil industry companies.

When her scholarship ended, she decided to stay in the UK and applied for funding for a PhD research project, while working in a nursing home as a care assistant and also teaching Italian to support herself. In 1998, she was accepted for a PhD research project at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland.

The area around Aberdeen has been settled for at least 8,000 years and prehistoric villages lie around the mouths of the rivers Dee and Don. Alessandra would’ve loved to do some archaeological work in this area, but since the discovery of North Sea oil in 1969, Aberdeen had been known as the offshore oil capital of Europe, and most university research projects (including hers) were closely linked to this endeavour.

Meanwhile, Christoph completed his PhD at Otago University in 2000 and went to Aberdeen to join a team of geologists working on river deposits in Amur River in Siberia. For Christoph, Amur soon morphed into ‘Amor’ (god of love in Roman mythology).

 

“One day, this good-looking, tall and handsome, blue-eyed German research fellow came to Aberdeen University. It was love at first sight,” Alessandra muses. “It was during a fire drill that I scanned the assembly point and stood next to him, so we could talk.” She smiles at the memory.

By early 2001, they were a couple. When Christoph’s funding for his post-doctoral research dried up, he got a job with a geology consultancy in Lincolnshire, England. Alessandra followed and continued writing her PhD thesis there. She spent some time in Dubai doing fieldwork and when she finished her PhD, the company that had sponsored her research offered her a job.

Meanwhile, Christoph had to travel to Algeria and Norway for work, and in time, would’ve had to move to Houston, USA.

“When I was in Dubai and Christoph in Algeria, we were both living in oil company compounds, with parks, exclusive beaches, air-conditioned buildings and opulent surroundings. But the compounds had barbed-wire-topped fences around them and were protected by guards with machine guns. You have luxury accommodation, and get paid very well, but you must turn a blind eye on the reality of life in these countries,” Alessandra explains.

“We were allowed to leave the compound once in a while, but I could only walk from one armed guard to the next, or risk being taken hostage for money. This way of life is fake and it’s not conducive to family life,” Christoph adds. “What we couldn’t stand while working for the oil industry – even though we enjoyed the research – was, it didn’t feel right that our research was being used for oil exploration.”

They realised that living in a golden cage for an industry that was irreversibly exploiting the environment was not for them and decided to switch to a teaching career. At that time, there was high demand for science teachers in the UK and, after completing a one-year teacher training course, Alessandra was accepted for a teaching position in Alford. However, Christoph was dreaming of moving to New Zealand. In 2004, they flew to the Land of the Long White Cloud for a holiday to see if Alessandra would like the country.

She didn’t like it – she loved it. So much so, that she had tears in her eyes on the flight back to the UK.

Six months later, Christoph was on his way to Aotearoa to start a job as a physics teacher at Fiordland College in Te Anau. Alessandra continued teaching at Alford till the end of the school year and joined him in August 2005, also becoming a member of the Fiordland College science teachers’ team.

In 2007, Alessandra gave birth to daughter Nina, and five months later, the couple married in a simple ceremony held on a sailing boat moored in a secluded bay on Lake Te Anau. The wedding was attended by their closest friends, and both sets of parents from Italy and Germany.

It’s been 16 years since Christoph and Alessandra moved to Te Anau – the longest they’ve stayed in one place since they left their respective home countries. They both enjoy their lifestyle. Christoph goes hunting and fishing, and as a family, they go kayaking and tramping, exploring their adoptive country.

The environment is important to the Zinks, who prefer cycling and walking when visiting friends or going shopping – easy to do in a small place like Te Anau. They love their home with its view over Lake Te Anau and the magnificent Fiordland mountains. In their garden, a cute little glasshouse full of tomatoes shares space with a tiny chicken house, home to Nina’s two hens.

Nina grew up speaking Italian, German and English. Now aged nearly 14, she doesn’t think she’ll follow in her parents’ footsteps of becoming a geologist. “I’m passionate about animals and living things,” she says.

She is in the right place, for species preservation is at the forefront of Fiordland’s community focus. At her young age, Nina has already given speeches on; acted in a play about; and been actively involved in conservation, clearly inspired and encouraged by her proud parents.

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