The big OE in the new millennium: Charlie Hamilton

Students taking a gap year typically try to get away from it all and do or experience something well away from the classroom or lecture hall.

Te Uku teen Charlie Hamilton did his OE a little differently. While he certainly got away – to the other side of the world – he didn’t fully escape the education system, working as a teacher’s assistant along with other “gappies” at what he describes as a posh prep school in England.

Like Charlie – who’d recently completed his secondary studies at Hamilton Boys’ High School – most of the other “gappies” were school-leavers. Only they were from Aussie and England.

“I was the first Kiwi there,” Charlie told the Chronicle last weekend as he relaxed back at his family’s lifestyle block in the newish Three Streams subdivision on the upper harbour.

Charlie says he loved working at Orwell Park School in Ipswich. The primary school – which had both day pupils and boarders – catered for the very wealthy, and whole families of Nigerian and Spanish children for instance lived and were educated there while their parents remained in their home countries.

Six of the “gappies” lived together on the school premises in a flatting situation but with everything including meals provided, Charlie explains. And while they worked five days a week in and out of the classroom – hearing the young children read, supervising sports and so on – they were paid for their efforts and had regular long weekends to see the sights.

But Charlie particularly loved the opportunity to go travelling abroad during term breaks, and to experience being able to literally step from one country to another.

“I went to 23 countries,” says the now 19 year old who was born and bred in Raglan. A family trip to America and the UK had been his only real travel till this, his big OE.

Charlie first explored England, Ireland and Scotland by train this time around, and had some contacts through his mother Hayley – who’s originally from Peterborough – to catch up on.

Then at Easter he got a “ridiculously cheap” fare to Budapest, Hungary’s capital, which he now rates as his favourite city.

“Lots of nightlife, cheap beers, so much to do, massive thermal spas, markets … and we stayed in a party hotel on the top of a bar,” he says.

The long summer holidays in England gave him the chance to splash out on a camping-style bus tour of 17 countries on the continent with ‘Topdeck’ – the same company, incidentally, that his parents had travelled with a couple of decades earlier.

“I met so many people … not many Kiwis but lots of Aussies.”

At the end of the European summer Charlie took another trip with friends, spending a week in Lagos – a coastal town in southern Portugal’s Algarve region with “the best beaches I’ve ever seen”.

Having been a volunteer lifeguard with the Raglan surf club, Charlie reckons he couldn’t help but be impressed by the Atlantic Ocean’s glamorous white-sand beaches “like in magazines and the movies”.

His final fling to Romania – despite some doubts around travelling to the formerly communist European states – topped off an unforgettable gap year. “Chilling” at Dracula’s castle in Transylvania was a highlight of that trip, along with a visit to the renowned Libearty Bear Sanctuary for bears rescued from captivity.

It was only when Charlie ventured south to Bucharest, the country’s capital and commercial centre, that he felt a bit unsafe.

“It felt quite communist … unreal,” he says, describing an incident in which he and his friends were served by an eight year old at a bottle store. “We were never IDed in Europe, only in the UK.”

Charlie returned home just before Christmas and will head down country to Wellington’s Victoria University at the end of next month to study building sciences.                       Edith Symes