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Cokato boy serves as youth ambassador to Australia

July 21, 2008

By Roz Kohls
Staff Writer

Some of the things Jacob Refsland of Cokato saw in Australia and New Zealand in June were so strange, they could have been from another planet, not just another hemisphere.

Refsland, 13, saw not only dazzlingly-bright-colored fish swimming right up to his face, but also steam from bubbling-hot volcanic springs in which the local tribesmen cooked their food, and clams that were bigger than tabletops.

Refsland, the son of Lisa and Howard Refsland, lives with his parents and sister, Becky, 15, on Mooers Ave. He was anonymously nominated in October to the People to People program, which sponsored the trip June 23 to July 11 for 40 youth. The program was started by President Dwight Eisenhower, he said.

Although June and July are the middle of the winter in the southern hemisphere, the weather was tropical when Refsland arrived in northern Australia. The group was able to go snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef, the highlight of Refsland’s trip, he said.

Six youth at a time were taken by boat an hour out into the ocean. They wore body suits to keep from getting stung by the Smurf-blue jelly fish, he said, that seemed to be floating all over the reef. Everywhere Refsland looked under the water was an amazing array of color. Even the color of the coral in the reef varied from red to green and everything in between, he said.

Brilliant blue fish with dazzling yellow fins swam right up to his face, and stared at him. Fish 2-feet long with big mouths and red eyes swam past him, Refsland said.

The youths in his group also rode in a mini-submarine to view the reef.

Refsland’s favorite place in New Zealand, which was a much cooler 50 degrees, was the Huka Falls. The group went on another boat ride up the Huka River. The volume of water pouring over the falls was enough to fill an Olympic swimming pool every four seconds, Refsland said.

In addition to seeing the waterfall, the boat they rode was particularly agile at maneuvering around the river, and made the trip more fun than the usual boat ride.

In addition to having spectacular waterfalls, New Zealand is mountainous. Refsland climbed down a cliff near Rotarua. He wore a harness during the climb, but it was still difficult, he said.

New Zealand also is riddled with volcanoes and bubbling hot springs. Maori tribesmen often used the steam from the boiling-hot springs to cook their food, he said.

The group went to an invitation-only performance by Maori dancers while in New Zealand. The Maori are the indigenous people of New Zealand, and it was an honor to be invited to the performance, he said.

Refsland especially enjoyed a wildlife refuge near Sydney. Kangaroos nearly three feet high ate out of his hand. Refsland also viewed a 17-foot-long crocodile from a safe vantage point, and cuddled a koala bear, he said.

In addition, the group toured a Catholic school. The school was very different from Dassel-Cokato Middle School. Instead of having indoor hallways connecting classrooms, the school had outdoor walkways going from room-to-room, Refsland said.

They also watched Australian Aborigines dance while wearing their traditional costumes. Refsland brought a didgeridoo from them as a souvenir. It is a wooden branch hollowed out by termites. When the Aborigines blow into it, the didgeridoo makes a buzzing sound. They painted the outside of the branch with traditional designs, and used it as a musical instrument, Refsland said.

Refsland also toured the world-famous opera house in Sydney. The opera house is covered with millions of tiles that shimmer and change the way they reflect according to the sunlight, he said.

Refsland was tired when he returned to Cokato July 11, and had trouble adjusting to the different time zone. Altogether, he went on seven airplane flights. However, he thoroughly enjoyed the trip, he said.

“It was fun, and I’d do it again if I could,” Refsland said.

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