Prince Charles and his wife Camilla took up all the headlines last week in New Zealand as our mostly fairly-apathetic-to-being-a-Commonwealth-country went into a royal fervour over their appearances at various walkabouts, openings and country shows.
It is a time when despite our feelings about the royals, a lot of people get a kick out of seeing these quaint reminders of our colonial history on our patch (not all, this guy was obviously annoyed enough to bring a bag of horse poo to hurl at them).
But for all the republicans vs monarchists debate, personally, I like the royals - well the ones I've met so far anyway. This isn't some misguided fondness driven by a biscuit tin collection, rather a genuine respect for the passion that they show for conservation and nature.
Me and my mate Prince William after our Kapiti Island bushwalk in 2010.
In 2005, Prince Charles came to Dunedin while I was working for the Department of Conservation. As an international advocate for the protection of albatross and other seabirds, he was offered the opportunity to visit the (aptly named) Northern royal albatross colony on Taiaroa Head to learn about the conservation work done there. Though I met the prince on this trip, it was only briefly, since my job was shepherding the international media who follow him around, some of whom were permitted to photograph him visiting the albatrosses.
When the paparazzi first arrived, I thought I was going to have my work cut out for me since they were all tired, jaded and grumpy and quite demanding. When I got us all settled up on the side of the hill where we were waiting for the Prince to come around they had quietened somewhat. But when Prince Charles arrived around the side of the headland and an albatross with a three-metre wingspan glided over his head, they were dumbstruck. By the end of that little opportunity I think we had created some budding wildlife photographers.
To give the prince his due, during the speeches afterwards he struck a real chord with his passion and knowledge of threats facing seabirds. While the speeches by government ministers and officials dodged around the subject of the tens of thousands of seabirds killed in fishing bycatch every year, the prince met those topics head on, cautioning the audience that we all had a part to play in the protection of these great ocean wanderers. Among other things, he said:
"I find it hard - no, impossible - to accept that these birds might one day be lost for ever. Yet that does now seem to be a real possibility unless we, and others around the world, can make a sufficient fuss to prevent it."
(You can read his whole speech here.)
So that was my beginning of thinking that the royals (well certainly Prince Charles) might not be such bad old sticks after all.
In early 2010 I was offered the chance to take Prince William on a one and a half hour bushwalk on Kapiti Island during his visit to New Zealand. He was only here for two or three days and his office had requested on his behalf that he could have a bit of time to enjoy some New Zealand nature. We combined the trip to Kapiti with a bit of a photo opportunity for the Prime Minister and a couple of other politicians, and the Prince was able to show three lucky schoolchildren from the nearby schools a kiwi that was due for a transmitter change. After the associated paparazzi pinged off hundreds of photos, the bewildered kiwi was returned to the bush and we kicked everybody off the island (including the PM!).
From that point it was just me and Wills on a walk up to a lookout on Kapiti for the next hour and a half. I wasn't sure how that would go, but it turns out that he loves to yarn about nature almost as much as I do! We chatted all the way up the track, almost stumbling over a couple of takahe (he was very interested to know that up until sixty years ago they were thought to be extinct). Of course I was so busy burbling away about all the amazing nature in New Zealand that I missed seeing most of the wildlife, but luckily Prince William was a great bird spotter and he pointed out kaka, tui, robins and even three moreporks that were perched on a branch above the track only a metre or so above our heads.
I also let the Prince know that as a kid, one of my favourite books was in fact the one his father had written "The Old Man of Lochnagar". He burst out laughing saying that he'd never met anyone outside the family who knew that book and that he couldn't wait to tell his father (I hope he did).
All in all it was a successful wander, we discussed the big issues both our countries faced when it comes to people not being connected to nature these days and how to combat this growing problem, and before we knew it we were walking back to the waiting chopper. At this point the Prince got the last laugh, because he started pretending to limp and called out to the nervous looking officials (mostly from the NZ contingent) that "She pushed me! She pushed me over!". Luckily for me the grin on his face betrayed his naughty fib and I didn't get thrown in the tower for that one.
Have you ever met a royal? did you know about Charles and Wills' passion for our natural world?