Saturday, 26 March 2011


“You can be a student anywhere but you can only be a Scarfie in Dunedin” Mark Wilson looks at the prospect of extinction facing this New Zealand cultural icon. 

New Zealand has an unfortunate habit of removing species from existence or pushing them to the brink of extinction. Since human settlement we have killed off the mighty Moa along with one species of bat, at least 50 other bird species, three types of frogs, three lizards, one freshwater fish, four plant species, and a number of invertebrates.

Both Maori and the early European settlers did little to abate these losses which were caused by introduction of predators, clearing of habitat mainly native forests and wetlands as well as direct predation by humans.

Even now despite efforts to reverse our declining biodiversity we still have a number of species who you could say are touch and go, the Kiwi, Kakapo and Takahe to name a few. We realised University of Otago Toga Parade too late these precious national treasures were in trouble and now invest millions in helping them cling to existence with little hope of ever regaining their former prosperity

Unfortunately even with this awareness of how important it is to protect our unique native species, that diverse range of creatures that make New Zealand such an interesting place to live and visit we are in real danger of losing another unique creature New Zealand the humble Dunedin Scarife.

Scarfies in the annual O-Week Toga Parade

Native to Dunedin this species can travel large distances and is now found throughout the globe with large colonies in major International cities such as London, Brisbane and Sydney.

Scarfies stay in the main Dunedin colony for 3 to 8 years gaining strength and the key life skills that will help them when flourish when they leave the nest. However not all Scarfies leave the comforts of home and can be found many years later still around the main colony offering advice to younger generations.

At the centre of this formally flourishing colony lies common area known as Otago University where the Scarfie goes to learn and interact with other species.

The average Scarfie makes its nest in the areas surrounding the University campus. Most scarifies who are a relatively lazy species when it comes to getting around prefer to live in the low lying areas directly adjacent to the University. This North Dunedin area has become known as the student ghetto. However due to the demand for these flat areas exceeding supply some mature Scarfies and also a few disorganised ones who didn’t get flat hunting early enough end up living on hill tops overlooking the city.

Scarfies seem to prefer to nest in abandoned or derelict buildings often damp with questionable, plumbing, wiring and insulation. A Scarfie nest consists of a central room which is sometimes heated in winter; this room contains a TV and an old couch along with several road signs, Speight’s bottles, crates for extra seating, posters topless women adorning the wall and the occasional pair of female underwear from a past conquest. The nest also consists of 2 to 8 additional non heated rooms where the Scarfie sleeps and if they are very lucky mates with one or more partners in any given breeding season, known as a semester. So as not to confuse the scarfie who can become disoriented after dark due to consumption of a local brew known as Speight’s some of the nests have unique names such as the Pink Pussy, Beaver Lodge, Footrot Flats and Stagger Inn.

Students Flats Dunedin

The Scarfie is social creature and they often congregate in large numbers at their favourite watering holes. Such spots past and present include, The Gardens Sports Tavern (Gardies), The Captain Cook Tavern (The Cook), The Bowling Green (The Bowler), The Fat Ladies Arms (Also known as the Oriental, the Last Moa and more recently Starters Bar).

The Gardens Sports Tavern (Gardies), Dunedin, closed June 2010

There are several cultural traditions and rituals which are dear to the Scarfie and often take place at these waterholes or in the surrounding areas. They Hyde Street Keg Race, O-Week, The Cookathon, Tanker Day, Naked Rugby, Toga Parade and Re O-Week just to name a few.

These creatures have become endeared by New Zealanders over the last 40 years and carry a special place in the heart of many. Older Scarfies often look back with nostalgic lament at their time in the Dunedin Colony as the best years of their life; they regularly get together and share these memories over a few cold brews for the remainder of their adult lives and lately have expressed concern at the future of their species.

So what of the humble Scarfie now?

I headed back to Dunedin earlier this year after hearing about the continued demise of this once revered creature. In the preceding years I had witnessed a steady decline in the Scarfie population and many shocking changes to the Scarfie way of life, but Scarfies are resilient and often find a way to survive even under harsh pressures.

Returned however to see more of the Scarfies precious habitat destroyed. Many formerly great Scarfie watering holes which are so vital to the Scarifies social fabric and courtship rituals had either been destroyed or had deteriorated to such a condition they could longer serve the purpose they were designed for. The Bowler was gone, bought by the University along with Gardies, the Cook was under threat as the University had been applying pressure to their liquor license. Scarfies were being forced into the strange land that is the Octagon to socialise and engage in courtship. This saw them interacting with other species much more regularly and picking up behaviours and fashions from these outsiders.

The area where the Scarfies made their nest was also changing. The University has a stated objective to clean up and modernise the student accommodation stock. It had been purchasing Scrafie flats on Castle Street and other traditional Scarfie strong holds and inserting international students with the hope of reducing the Scarfies rowdy social interaction with each other. The price of these flats had also significantly increased while the student loan and allowance payments the Scarfies relied heavily on had barely gone up in over 15 years leaving them with far less social cpatial to spend on traditional Scarfie pursuits such as Crate Days, Red Cards and Sunday Sessions.

The Scarfies staple diet of Speight’s, wine, cheap spirits, canned food, Gardies toasties, takeaway pizza, stolen meat from other flats, mums rescue packages and cheap BYO Asian restaurants was becoming scarce. Prices for alcohol at the bars had skyrocketed from the humble $4.50 jug and $28 crate to $10.50 jugs and not a crate in sight. Yet large supermarket chains were offering the Scarfies an alternative, they could purchase their staple foods and drinks for a fraction of the cost elsewhere if they were happy to stay in their nests to consume it.

Scarfie behaviour had changed significantly, day time drinking had really dried up, bars were empty as the Scarfie had become a nocturnal creature and only came out of the nest to socialise at 1am and this socialisation was limited to dancing to music enjoyed in the clubs of Ibiza, music that wouldn’t have made the Juke box at Gardies that’s for sure. Couch fires were still in vogue but the numbers turning up to these burnings was much higher than in the past due to the fact all the Scarfies were cooped up in their nests not at the bars, this was leading to more clashes and incidents with the police that due to YouTube and modern media were beamed to the rest of the world in minutes.

Castle Street Riots
Scarfies had always been larrikins but they had a healthy respect for the elderly, often to be seen pushing trolleys for the residents of North Dunedin even if that trolley later on ended up in the Leith. Scarfies flouted the law but respected those who enforced it. They were happy to push the limits but when the Police or Fire brigade appeared it was time to douse that couch fire and head back inside or down to Gardies for a reflective jug.

Scarfies were at university to have fun but realised they needed to sneak a degree in as well to justify their existence and to appease their parents. They worked hard in the Holidays to pay for the fun they would have in Dunedin and while they may not have realised at the time how fortunate they were they could comprehend the lifestyle they had was not a right to all and appreciated that.

Now it seems a visit from the police incurs a riot complete with bottle throwing. Maybe this is a by product of our PC parenting regimes of the 1990’s which bread a generation of “your not the boss of me”, “you can’t touch me” spoilt brats who knew all their rights but had no concept of responsibility. Student Flats Dunedin

The modern Scarfie seems to mirror the modern young adults of today’s contempt for anyone who tells them what to do. There are many who think they are 6 foot tall and bullet proof and know everything there is to know about the world.

The Scarfie I now saw in front of me drunk cheap RTD’s from the super market in their heat pump warmed living room, while watching Jersey Shore on my sky HDI, sent pix’s from their iphone 4 to save wandering over to the neighbours for a yarn, communicated via face book from their laptop, had mums car, dressed in skinny or low riding jeans, threw bottles at cops, didn’t know what a pelican (not the bird) was, couldn’t do a 5 day bender if their life depended on it and went to pubs to dance not to drink.

There were a few traditional Scarfies remaining and these precious few were severely endangered. Their way of life threatened by a changing society, a University which sees them as an outdated class of people who need to be removed to make way for book worms and international students who spend all day in the library and all night in focus study groups thinking of questions for next week’s lectures. They have to face a government determined to further undermine their ability to socialise around alcohol in a way they are accustomed and a apathy among the citizens of Dunedin and its council as to how important this dying culture is to the city.

We need to save the Scarfie!

Otago University needs the Scarfie culture. They remove it at their peril.

I’ve never heard an ex Otago graduate sharing stories about a great lecture they went to or about who much fun they had in the Library, but I’ve heard plenty of stories about fireworks wars, social rugby booze ups, jumping in the Leith, Sunday sessions at Gardies, streaking and the like. The Scarfie memories are the ones that remain long after ones memory of how supply and demand elasticity works.

Ex Otago graduates are your marketing team Otago University and they sell you on your unique student culture, your Scarfie culture, not on your academic prowess. It’s the life skills garnished in this unique social experiment that have made graduates so sort after not the notes they took in a legal history lecture while trying to stay awake after a big night. It’s the ability to interact with diverse groups of people that students learn, it’s the team developed flatting, the budgeting of trying to get enough booze for the week while still paying rent, it’s the innovation fostered through trying to get your power meter to turn more slowly with a potato and a bit of wire. Scarfies are unique they have learned in this unique way this is why a degree in commerce coupled with Scarfie qualifications of drinking 101, flatting 101 and streaking 101 are more valuable than other University’s who simply offer a top quality academic qualification.

18 year olds sitting in Nelson, Hastings and Wellington don’t check out the academic history of a tertiary institution before attending they ask their mates older brothers and sisters where they went, where is it fun, where are the best parties and where will I enjoy my study the most. 18 year olds are not the rationale thinkers you give them credit for they want to go to Dunedin because they want to be Scarfies.

Otago University you have built a brand over decades and a strong one at that, this brand endures now but like any brand if your product deviates away from the perceived brand image for too long the brand will eventually be diluted and move towards the reality. There is always a lags and you are enjoying the benefits of this lag now, but there will come a time when the saying “you can get a degree anywhere but you can only be a Scarfie in Dunedin” will no longer apply and you will have lost your point of difference and the country will have lost another Species.

Every young adult needs a chance to let their hair down, try things, fall off the wagon for a bit and learn how to get back on, make an idiot of themselves, flaunt a few laws and get this all out of their system while having a great time with mates, learning valuable life lesions and educating themselves to be future contributors to society. That is what being a Scarfie is ... it’s the break you get in life before everything gets real, it’s not taking life to seriously, it’s a liberating experience.

An extract from Otago University’s Master Plan states that a major goal for the future is ensure the “Otago experience for students and staff as both positive and desirable”. Looks like those administering this plan are out of touch with reality here as taking away the pillars of Scarfiedom like student bars and Scarfie flats is in direct conflict to this objective.

If these are the famous last words of the Scarfie, If this is goodbye I am at least grateful that I got to enjoy being a Scarfie and it has added greatly to my life, I will always have those memories but the next generation will miss out on this unique experience and that is something we should be ashamed of as a country.

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