Exploring the Earth and Sky of the West

Study Abroad

Well…those 5 months went fast

Yes, yes, I have lapsed in the blogging department. I know. I’ve been rather busy flying, unpacking, repacking, visiting with family, and administering the Junior Ranger pledge to roughly 8 billion children (and two 30 year old women as well).  But now, as I sit here in the fourth different place I’ve called “home” in the last 14 days, soaking and suffocating in a pool of my own sweat, I venture it’s time for a little catch up.

By virtue of having tickets on Air New Zealand rather than Jetstar or Qantas, I was able to leave New Zealand without any delays due to the annoying Chilean ash cloud that had parked itself over much of the southern hemisphere, which, coincidentally, is where New Zealand happens to be located.  Not only this, but flying Air New Zealand offered me the added bonus of getting to watch the Richard Simmons safety video not once but TWICE! WAHOO!  Anyways, when I left Dunedin the thermometer read 3.7 C (again, that’s just a hair over freezing for all you humanities/social science majors out there).  Upon touching down in Phoenix at 10:00 PM the pilot came on the intercom and said “The temperature is currently 109 degrees. Welcome to Arizona.”  Welcome to Arizona indeed.

Clock Tower and Moon, University of Otago

I recall writing something in an early post about New Zealand not feeling like home, despite its overall awesomeness.  Perhaps this had something to do with the novelty of being in a new country that I was experiencing at the time, the fact that I was away from Dunedin more often than not during the first couple of months abroad, or maybe I just hadn’t settled in properly yet.  Whatever the reason though, by the time I left, that statement was not nearly as true as it was when I first wrote it and had I not had a summer of park ranger-ing and Mars researching to look forward too, leaving NZ would have been a lot harder than it was.  Despite all of the awesome places I visited, my favorite aspect of my semester abroad was most definitely all of the different people that I met during my time there and I have to say that it was rather weird and unpleasant saying goodbye knowing that I will probably never see many of them again.

I honestly don’t think I could have asked for a better 5 months in New Zealand.  Other than Bank of America shutting down my only source of access to my bank account and a poorly timed adverse reaction to a spider bite, everything else pretty much went 100% as planned. Despite the deceptively small size of New Zealand (at least it always looked so small sitting there in the ocean next to Australia…) I managed to see a pretty darn good chunk of it. I’ve been geotagging my photos all along and the resulting Google Earth map gives a good idea of the geographic territory that I covered:

Where I've been....

There are many things that I will miss about New Zealand: first and foremost, my five amazing flatmates; Jesse, Sarah, Stef, Nina, and Kat and all of the other people that I met while abroad, bacon butties, The Lofts, Dunedin itself, bacon butties, the relatively laid back, low-stress New Zealand lifestyle, the weather (a winter without any snow! what a concept!), traveling and hiking as often as humanly possible,  karaoke and trivia nights at the Baaa, having the time to actually enjoy my weekends rather than spending most of them doing massive amounts of homework, bacon butties, how New Zealanders pronounce “bear” and call the letter Z “zed”, a well-developed public transportation network, and never having class until 11am and consequently getting sufficient sleep for the first academic semester EVER.

Things I will not miss: incredibly expensive food, crummy internet access, only being able to contact people in the US via skype and email…yeah that’s about it I think.

Central Libray, University of Otago

Despite the noticeable discrepancy in the length of the above lists, I am thoroughly enjoying being back in good ol’ America. It’s great to return to Arizona so I can go back to legally carrying around my concealed firearm whenever I go out and knowing that my government will bail me out if I make unethical financial decisions and squander millions is really just one big load off of my mind.  But seriously folks, after two short days at home visiting family and ingesting copious quantities of REAL Mexican food (read: NOT Chipotle or Taco Bell. Yes I did just lump Chipotle in with Taco Bell. Deal with it.), I headed up to Bryce Canyon National Park for 9 days where I began working as an astronomy interpreter/ranger. The final four days of my stint there coincided with the absolutely crazy but loads of fun 12th annual Bryce Canyon Astronomy Festival which is apparently the largest special event put on by any National Park Service unit in the western U.S.  Needless to say, I enjoyed every minute.  With amazing views of Bryce Canyon (which is NOT actually a canyon btw…) just a few minutes walk from my doorstep and easy access to the beautiful and spectacular landscape of southern Utah, I can’t wait to go back for the month of August.  However, as of this afternoon, I am in Lancaster, PA to being work on the planetary geology research project that will eventually become my senior thesis.

Natural Bridge, Bryce Canyon National Park

Oh, and for those of you that were wondering, the Bryce Canyon Junior Ranger Pledge goes something like this:

“As a Bryce Canyon Junior Ranger, I promise to do all I can to help protect our National Parks. I will collect litter when I’m out exploring, and show respect for nature by not disturbing anything wild.”

The worst is when parents get out their little video camera and record you administering the pledge to their kids. I guarantee you I’m in at least half a dozen YouTube videos by the end of the summer. Grr.

Bryce Amphitheater

Hitchhiking and a Last Huzzah

My last weekend in New Zealand has come and gone.  I decided the best way to start if off was to get up at the crack of dawn on Friday morning and stand for several hours on the side of the road trying to persuade random strangers to transport me to the last major remaining destination on my New Zealand “to do” list: Queenstown.  While I could have easily taken the bus, this way just seemed like way more fun. Anyways, during what became a frustratingly prolonged shoulder standing session on the outskirts of Dunedin, I discovered that even in a hitchhiking tolerant nation such as New Zealand, the reaction of drivers when confronted with a hitchhiker on the side of the road is quite varied.  In order to pass the time I came up with a comprehensive classification system for categorizing and stereotyping the thousands of drivers that did not have it in their hearts to give me a lift. My system is as follows:

  • Ignorers:  A common species, ignorers are easily spotted as they are the people who appear to be wearing invisible cervical collars around their neck.  It’s incredible how easy it is to tell when someone is trying very, very hard to avoid even the slightest bit of eye contact with you as they drive by.  I could have been standing there wearing a chicken suit and juggling flaming chainsaws and it wouldn’t make a difference.
  • Avoiders: Avoiders are by far the most egregious offenders.  These are the people that either dramatically accelerate (despite the approaching sharp bend in the road, which necessitated a speed reduction on the part of sane drivers) or abruptly move into the lane farthest away from me as they pass me by (a lane that, I might add, ended 30 yards down the road, thus forcing them to almost immediately return to the lane that had just passed dangerously close to me and my sign).  It was as if they thought I was going to brazenly launch myself onto their vehicle and cling precariously to the roof a la James Bond until they let me inside. I call shenanigans.
  • Squinters: This group made me want to put my head through the speed limit sign I was standing next to.  Fortunately, they are easy to identify ahead of time allowing you to avert your gaze until the danger has passed.  An experienced squinter will, beginning at least 50 yards away, hunch over the steering wheel and intently stare at your sign feigning a lack of comprehension.  They will continue to intently stare at your sign, as if expecting it to do a magic trick, until they have passed you. “Whoops, wasn’t able to read that until it was too late. Guess we’re not picking him up.”  Seriously folks, there’s one word on the sign and it’s in like size-250 font.  Don’t pretend you can’t read it.
  • Nodders: Nodders own the road, or at least they think the do.  To them, you standing there with your backpack and little sign are doing nothing but besmirching the good name of the road they are driving on. They love to give you disapproving glares or stern little head-nods in an attempt to communicate this fact to you.  Demographically, nodders tended to be older drivers, an age group on which my hopes rested on the albeit small chance that, maybe, just maybe, I would bear a striking resemblance to some little old lady’s grandson, prompting them to experience enough compassion to pull over.  As you have probably guessed, this was not the case.
  • Wavers: Most truckers fall into this category, but a lot of other people do as well. Wavers always make the deliberate effort to give you a thumbs up, a smile, or flash you a peace sign in order to show that, obviously, they sympathize with your plight hope you get a ride super soon. However, they are far to worried about getting burglarized or brutally murdered to actually pick you up.  Hypocrites.

Anyhoo, just as I was beginning to reconsider my choice of transportation methods, I was picked up by Lea, an exchange student from Colorado who was heading to Wanaka and would be able to take me to within about 30 miles of Queenstown.  The ride went without a hitch (couldn’t resist..apologies); Lea was friendly, easy to talk to, and (to my relief) a safe driver, although our conversation did reveal that she was a Mac enthusiast but since she was the only person in two hours with the heart to pick me up, I decided to forgive her for this. After being dropped off in a little hamlet by the name of Cromwell, I had barely pulled my sign back out of my backpack when I was picked up by two local girls one of whom was heading to Queenstown for a job interview (I should note that all three girls who picked me up were rather attractive…apparently my conscious decision to shave prior to hitchhiking so as not to look like an axe murderer paid off 😉 ).  They drove me the last half hour into Queenstown and gave me some tips on the best way to hitchhike back out of Queenstown (which I ended up not doing due to bad weather and time constraints), thus completing my short but successful hitching journey.

Me on Queenstown Hill with the slightly humorous side of my sign that I never actually had to use. The hitchhiking community is divided on funny signs apparently. Some say they help, some say it makes you look desperate. I got where I needed to go with just a simple "QUEENSTOWN"

Queenstown itself is an interesting place.  At any given time there are probably more tourists there than permanent residents here resulting in a very resort-ish and touristy, yet at the same time very upscale, feel.  Most people come here to bungee jump, skydive, paraglide, jetboat, zip line, or to participate in a myriad of other adventurous activities in the area. In fact, for the entirely reasonable price of $189, you can even be strapped into a plastic lawn chair, tethered to a steel cable, and pushed off of a 500 foot high platform that is suspended over a rocky canyon as a video showed to me by an English girl in my hostel proved.  My plans centered more on the…er…cheaper activities: namely, hiking.  Queenstown is smack in the middle of the mountain chain that runs along the entire South Island of New Zealand and there are countless trails in and around the town.  In the less than 48 hours that I was actually in Queenstown, I managed to get in almost 25 of hiking in breathtaking mountains surrounding the town.


Shotover St, the main drag through Queenstown

Shore of Lake Wakatipu in Queenstown

The marquee hike in the Queenstown area is the Ben Lomond Track, which ascends nearly 5,000 feet in a distance of only about 4 miles.  I started this hike well before sunrise which made navigating the maze of approach trails on the lower slopes of the mountain rather interesting, but I managed to reach the summit by mid-morning.  I’ve never been skydiving but I honestly don’t know how it can be that much different that what I saw from the summit of  Ben Lomond. The views from the summit were undoubtedly some of the best I’ve seen in New Zealand, or anywhere else for that matter.  It wasn’t even a particularly clear day and yet from my vantage point nearly one mile directly above Queenstown, I could see peaks that were hundreds of kilometers away. To the south was Lake Wakatipu, New Zealand’s longest lake, with Queenstown strung out in a band along its shore.  To the north were the snow capped peaks of the Southern Alps, including Mount Aspiring, New’s Zealand’s second highest peak after Mt. Cook.  My stay on the top was short however given extreme winds that prevented me from even standing up long enough to take more than a few pictures.

Self portrait from the Ben Lomond Summit. It was crazy windy. My fully loaded backpack literally started rolling away in the wind at one point.

Ben Lomond from about 1000 feet below the summit

In the evening, I explored Queenstown with some other friends who had ventured into the mountains for the weekend.  Dinner was at the famous Fergburger (supposedly the best burgers in NZ) where I indulged in the enormous and absolutely delicious ‘”Tropical Swine”, a fresh NZ beef patty topped with cheese, bacon, pineapple, aioli, lettuce, tomatoes, onion, and tomato relish.  I also lost a whopping $2 in a slot machine at a casino (gambling age in NZ is 20) and would have had photo evidence had the security guard not swooped in and politely informed us that photos were prohibited. All in all though, not a bad way to finish off my time in New Zealand.

More wrap up stuff to come once I finish my last two finals and pack my bags for the trip home.

Panorama from Ben Lomond Summit. Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu at left.

College…New Zealand Style!

As hard as it is for y’all to believe that I am actually engaging in academic activities whilst here in New Zealand (judging by the sarcastic comments that have populated my inbox over the past few months), I am indeed enrolled for a full course load (Field Studies and New Zealand Geology, Philosophy of Religion, Intro to Maori Studies, and Intro to Geographical Information Systems) here at the University of Otago.  Consequently, I figured it might be apropos to comment on the educational system here in New Zealand.  I also figured it was time for some procrastination after spending the last 5 hours obediently studying for my philosophy final tomorrow.  Given that I haven’t really left Dunedin in the past few weeks (due to finals studying and my current financial predicament…), all pictures in this post are from places I’ve been over the course of the semester but never actually got around to actually writing about.

Milford Sound

Going to college (or “Uni” in the local lingo) is overall a pretty comparable experience to what it is in the US.  By far the most obvious difference for me is the sheer size of the University of Otago.  With a total enrollment that rivals the entire population of Walla Walla, merely walking from class to class feels like pushing your way through the sidewalks of New York City. The most noticeable consequence of this is that there are roughly 20,000 students partying it up across Dunedin every Thursday and Saturday night.  The most noticeable academic consequence of this is that classes here are large because (with a few exceptions) there is no enrollment cap.  In one way this is great because there is no stress associated with getting into the classes you want to take. My Maori Studies class has about 400 students (of which half are internationals, and of which, perhaps not coincidentally, only about half actually attend class on any given day), philosophy and GIS both about 100, and geology about 70.  Ultimately, the ramification of this is that there is much less discussion and interaction with other students and the professors during class time which, to be blunt, doesn’t really bother me a whole heck of a lot.  In-class discussion is not really the way I learn best nor is it something I am particularly good at (to which I am sure several of my Whitman profs could attest).  However, I know that the complete opposite is true for many people, especially the type of student that is generally attracted to a small liberal-arts school such as Whitman so I’m sure having enormous classes drives a lot of my fellows abroadies up the wall but for me it is pretty much a non-issue.  In my opinion, a more annoying consequence of the large classes is professor can’t realistically do all of the grading themselves so assignments and papers are often marked by graduate assistants, tutors, and TA’s. While I don’t have a problem with TA’s grading assignments and papers, the fact that several different people will grade the same assignment across a class is bothersome from a consistency standpoint.  It’s difficult to see how 5 different people can grade the same assignment and still have grades be consistent across the class.  Watching my graduate Kiwihost grade economic assignments over a glass of wine didn’t exactly reaffirm my faith in the whole grading process either.

My flatmates

Stirling Falls, Milford Sound

I have found the Professors here to be generally very helpful,   freindly, and accessible to students outside of class time. There is always the occasional “dud” lecturer that can’t seem to string two cohesive sentences together or those who will drone on unintelligibly for 50 minutes in a sleep-inducing monotonous drawl, but, like at Whitman, these are the exception rather than the rule.  My philosophy professor is quite possibly one of the best and most engaging lecturers I have ever had at any level and the other professors in my other classes I would say are also on par with an average Whitman professor. One major difference in classes here is that lectures are often delivered by a committee of different professors over the course of the semester. For example, my GIS class has had three different lecturers, each who covered his particular area of expertise in the subject.

Another big difference is that there is shockingly little motivation for actually attending class.  The structure of the courses and the fact that nearly all professors post their slides and lectures online means that one stands to gain comparatively little by going to class as is evident by the fact that in one of my classes, I received a perfect score on an exam that covered material for which I missed a third of  the lectures (due to travel and general apathy) while getting only a pedestrian score on the exam that covered a unit during which I missed no classes.

Milford Road, Fjordland National Park

Grading is a bit different as well.  Grades here consist of two components: “internal assessment” which is basically all of the stuff you hand in during the semester, homework, midterm exams, essays lab reports, etc…and “external assessment” which basically means the final exam.  For my classes, the final exam makes up anywhere from 50%-80% of my final grade which is WAY more than at Whitman where a final exam worth 30% of the final grade is enough to give people nervous fits and night sweats in the weeks approaching finals. I have mixed feelings about this.  On one hand, I’m not complaining about the lack of work during the semester.  Last semester at Whitman, I had at least one “mid-term” every week from the 3rd week of school all the way up until finals week which in my opinion is a little excessive.  I don’t feel like its necessary to have an exam every 3rd week in order to assess how well a student is doing in a class.  But having no midterms (as is the case in two of my classes here at Otago) and placing such a huge emphasis on the final scares me a little too.  With little to no work being handed in during the course of the semester, its harder to gauge exactly how well you are doing in the class and impossible to get an idea of what types of questions the professor is liable to ask on an exam.  Having the final be worth so much of the final grade would seem to put people who just aren’t good at taking exams at an unfair advantage.

Orion, upside down, over Lake Te Anau

There is no debating that I spend significantly less time on school-related activities here than I do at Whitman.  Whereas in Walla Walla, spending at least several hours on homework every afternoon/evening is the norm, doing so here is the rare exception.  After becoming accustomed to working my ass off the last five semesters at Whitman, these four months at Otago have felt like a sort of glorified extension of winter break.  Whether this should be attributed more to the supposed academic rigor of Whitman or the “un-rigourousness” of Otago, I do not know.  Part of me thinks that the experience here at Otago is more similar to what one would experience at large public university in the states given that there are international students here from said large public universities that echo many of the same sentiments that I do means this is probably not a fair comparison.

Along the Milford Road

Ultimately, I am pleased with my educational experience here, even if the thought of throwing myself back into the academic fray at Whitman next Fall is absolutely terrifying right now. My geology class was, if a bit chaotic and confusing at times, a good hands on and practical experience that will likely benefit me down the road and possibly even this summer doing field work.  Same is true of GIS which I will also be using when I do research this summer. I’ve learned tons in Maori Society about the native people and society of New Zealand although given that I knew absolutely squat about the subject beforehand, this probably isn’t saying much.  Philosophy was also rather enjoyable and enlightening especially given my general dislike of humanities classes.

I head for home in 13 days.  The next few weeks will be mostly studying with hopefully one more sightseeing/hiking trip thrown in there somewhere.  Then on the 22nd I will take my last exam at 9:30 A.M and then head straight out to the airport to fly up to Auckland and then onto Los Angeles and Phoenix before a drive home to Flagstaff.

Double rainbow near Lake Te Anau

Sunset at St. Clair Beach

Went for a hike along the beach this afternoon and was rewarded with an absolutely fantastic sunset.

On an unrelated note, I have now been invited to dinner by complete strangers twice in the last 72 hours.  Bizarre.  Huzzah for Kiwi hospitality I guess.

One week of classes to go!

St. Clair Beach at sunset. 1.5″ exposure with graduated neutral density filter

Remains of old pier at St. Clair Beach, Dunedin

The pier…again. White Island on the horizon.

Aspiring driftwood…

St. Clair at dusk. I could totally get used to this whole living near the beach thing…

Sleeping with the spiders

Recently returned from a 4-day unofficial geology field trip (read: glorified sightseeing trip on which we occasionally talked about rocks)  in which we managed to pretty much circumnavigate the entire South Island of New Zealand. Most of our time was spent along the west coast (the “wet side” of the island so to speak) and in Abel Tasman and Kahurangi National Parks. It rained pretty much the whole time and the humidity was so high for so long that some of the inner lens elements on my camera fogged up on day 2 and still haven’t completely dried out yet.  I had a second little point and shoot camera with me but more often than not it decided that it wanted to tell me that the batteries were dead even when I had just put fresh ones in which was incensing to say the least.  Ultimately, not the most productive trip photography wise but we got to see some amazing, off the beaten path places that I never would have even known existed were it not for the leadership of one of the Otago geology professors. Among the highlights were:

Oparara Basin, Kahurangi National Park:

Caves, arches, sinkholes, and tunnels were definitely the theme of the trip.  We slept in them, hiked to them, hiked through them, attempted to avoid falling into them, and much much more.  The Oparara Basin is home to a number of caves, many of which are infested with two lovely creatures: the Nelson cave spider (think tarantula only larger and skinnier) and the cave weta (think giant mutant cricket).  Both of these fall into the category of “things you want to pretend don’t exist in the cave where you are trying to fall asleep”.  However, given that the spiders hunt the weta, and that the weta emit a rather bizarre shrieking cricket-like noise when caught by the spiders, this is easier said than done.  On the bright side, the cave was dry whereas there was a pretty legit thunderstorm going on outside that even ended up spawning a bunch of little tornadoes a couple hours away from us so in hindsight the cave was probably a good call.

In the morning we hiked through a torrential downpour to reach to very photogenic caves/tunnels along the Oparara River, both of which are surrounded by magnificent, dense rainforests.   The larger of the two, Oparara Arch is a tunnel over 200 meters long and 50 meters high:

Oparara Arch

A few km downstream is the smaller Moria Gate Arch:

The Oparara River flowing through Moria Gate Arch

Kahurangi National Park is the second largest national park in New Zealand but one of the lest developed and most remote.  There are no paved roads within the park and we didn’t see another soul during our entire time here.

Harwood’s Hole:

Another limestone sinkhole, Harwood’s Hole is no run-of-the-mill sinkhole; it’s nearly 1200 feet deep but only 150 feet wide.  Standing on the edge, you can’t even begin to comprehend how large it is because even from a ledge halfway down, you can’t even see the bottom.  Sadly we did not possess the equipment necessary to descend into New Zealand’s deepest cave (no one did until the late 1950’s…) so we were forced to settle for this view from the rim:

10 frame composite image of Harwood's Hole

Wharariki Beach:

Wharariki Beach is the most northern beach on the South Island that is open to the public and not closed off as a bird sanctuary.  It’s definitely one of the coolest beaches I’ve seen, with tons of caves, arches, and sea stacks along the coast and an impressive sea of sand dunes just inland.

Wharariki Beach and Dunes

Saltation in action!

On the day we visited it happened to be rather windy and when I say rather I mean you could lean your body back at a 45 degree angle into the wind and be completely supported.  There were times when the wind was so strong that you literally could not move forward if you were walking into the wind.  The seals didn’t seem to mind though:

The Bioluminescent Bay of Islands

Writing a blog entry about spending several days in New Zealand’s equivalent of Hawaii is a bit emotionally trying when its been raining pretty much non-stop here in Dunedin for the past week.  In the interest of my loving readers though, I shall bravely attempt to press on.  Good thing this is written on a computer screen otherwise the copious teardrops would likely render my handwriting even more illegible than usual.

Let me introduce the Bay of Islands:

Panorama from the summit of Waewaetorea Island

Pretty, yes?  The Bay of Islands was the only destination we had reservations for prior to the trip so the first half of our journey was scheduled around being there on Tuesday in order to go on an overnight exploration around the Bay on a ship called The Rock.  We arrived in Pahia, the only town of significant size in the area, on Monday night in some of the heaviest rain I’ve ever seen. We had been intending to camp, but the rain and wind was bad enough to make even Jim Cantore squirm so we ended up pursing alternative accommodations.  We briefly got excited about the prospect of staying at  a hostel with a pet parrot but we ended up negotiating a cheaper rate elsewhere.

In a reflection of the good fortune we experienced throughout the trip, by morning the weather had cleared and our concerns that the cruise we had planned our trip around would be canceled were abated.  We spent the morning exploring Pahia, which essentially consisted of walking up and down two streets, wandering along the beach, and attempting to mask our pasty white skin tones that betrayed our South Island origins.  While a pleasant enough town, Pahia was easily the most touristy place I’d been in New Zealand so far (note: this all changed when we went through Rotorua later in the trip…).  Once of the things that I’ve really enjoyed about traveling around New Zealand so far is the (relative) lack of commercial exploitation of the country’s major attractions compared to the US.  Even though I’ve been here at the tail end of high-season, most of the places I’ve been have been delightfully non-crowded and in many places, finding so much as a single gift shop has been difficult.  Not so in Pahia.  Tacky souvenir shops and gaudy “EXPERIENCE NATURE AT IT’S FINEST! SWIM WITH DOLPHINS AND WHALES!!!” signs and banners advertising cruised on multimillion dollar, noisy jetboats were everywhere.

Late in the afternoon, we headed down to the wharf where we were shuttled out to The Rock on a old, slightly sketchy motorboat named the Climax (for reasons which will not be elaborated upon here).  The Rock is a two story former vehicle ferry that was converted into essentially a floating hostel a few decades back.  The upper deck consisted of bedrooms and dorms for up to 30 people while the main deck was a kitchen, lounge, bar, and general hang-out area.  The first evening on the boat consisted of getting to know the other passengers, fishing for snapper off the back end (ahem…stern) of the boat, watching our friend eat the still beating heart of the fish we caught for dinner, a delicious steak and snapper dinner, and in one of the highlights of the trip, night kayaking around the bay.

Approaching the Rock

Onboard the Rock

The excitement in the kayaking did not lie in the kayaking itself but in what was living in the ocean.  The waters around the Bay of Islands are abnormally clear and also happen to be home to a organism known as Noctiluca scintillans, a plankton like creature that absorbs sunlight during the day, and, due to chemical reactions of which I do not know the precise details, emit shimmering blue light when disturbed after dark.  This phenomenon is generically known as bioluminescence and if you take a long exposure photograph of the Noctiluca, they look like this.  (needless to say I was killing myself for not bringing a tripod…)  The “disturbing” in our case was kayak paddles.  With every stroke of the paddle you were rewarded with a quick flash of glittering blue light alongside the boat.  Jumping off the boat into the water was even more impressive.  It was seriously one of the coolest, and yet most bizarre things I’ve ever seen in my life.

View from the back of the boat at sunset

Day 2 on The Rock was packed with more fun activities.  First thing in the morning we spent about an hour or so snorkeling along the coast of one of the islands for kina, a common and extremely spiny type of sea urchin that was to become part of our lunch later on.  After the snorkeling, we headed over to  Waewaetorea Island, upon which we were the only inhabitants for the next several hours.  Climbing up to the summit of the island offered an absolutely phenomenal panoramic view of the Bay of Islands, which interestingly was one of the first places in New Zealand to be inhabited by the native Maori coming from Polynesia, and also the location of the first European settlements in New Zealand in the late 1700’s.  I would have had absolutely no objections to staying on this island for the rest of the trip, active volcanoes and other attractions be damned.  The weather here was probably the best I’ve experienced during my time in New Zealand, 75-80 degrees and hardly any clouds in the sky.

The delicious innards of the humble kina

As far as I can recall, the 22 or so hours we spent on the Rock was the longest period of time I’d ever spent on a boat in my life.  While I was strongly in favor of stowing away in the engine room, my traveling companions kindly reminded me that if I stayed on the boat, there would be no one to drive the rental car.  Alas, we returned to Pahia in the afternoon to proceed with the rest of our trip.

And thus concludes this blog entry. I’m going to go back to freaking out about the fact that I only have slightly more than a month left here now…adios!

Beach on Waewaetorea Island

A 9-day Quest for Mexican Food

I am reminded of  a Bowling for Soup song in which the protagonist of the ballad exclaims: “Besides, the Mexican food sucks north of here anyways.”  Even though it is quite possibly the most poignant (only poignant?) lyric the band has ever written, it is nevertheless a delightfully insightful rule that I have found applies quite consistently in the United States.  However, it would seem that if one goes far enough south of Texas, this rule gets taken to a new extreme: Mexican food will disappear entirely.

Anyways, last week was Fall Break (or Spring Break as everyone in the U.S. keeps calling it even though the weather is decidedly NOT spring like here in Dunedin) and I seized the opportunity of a week without classes to travel to the North Island of New Zealand for the week.  Since one frequently hears rumors that the holy grail does indeed exist up in Auckland (New Zealand’s largest city at over 1.5 million people), satisfying our Mexican cravings was a major goal of the trip from its infantile stages.

Yup, that's a baby lamb drinking from a bottle. Aww.

The nine days on the North Island (abbreviated NI from here on out…) were absolutely fantastic if not a bit chaotic.  The NI has a dramatically different feel than the South Island, much of which probably has to do with the fact that it was consistently a good 20 or more degrees warmer than it has been here in Dunedin.  In general, it is flatter, more pastoral, and has a much higher population density than the South Island but is most definitely not lacking in spectacular sights and scenery. Over the course of 9 days, we managed to put about 2500 km (thats 1500 miles for those of you who are metrically impaired) on our cheap-as Nissan Sunny rental car.  As the sole member of our group able to legally drive said rental car, all the driving fell on my shoulders, which apart from the fact that it basically meant I could take us wherever the heck I wanted (muwhahaha!) got pretty old after the first few days.  The North Island (and New Zealand in general…) is deceptively large.  It may look super tiny on a map but in reality it takes a shockingly long amount of time to get places since virtually all of the roads are two-lane narrow winding highways (for those of you from AZ, imagine roads like 89A through Oak Creek Canyon being the principal highways in the country and you’ll get an idea of what I’m talking about) on which it is rarely possible or safe to go more than 50-60 mph. Add to this that the fact that NZ radio SUCKS (in retrospect, I am convinces that more than 70% of the songs we heard were either Bruno Mars or Katy Perry) and that our rental car was only equipped with a cassette player and the driving part had the potential to get extremely monotonous. Fortunately, there was good conversation with my three traveling mates (when they weren’t all asleep that is…) so the long drives were bearable.

The whole crew on the summit of Waewaetorea Island in the Bay of Islands

The radio was also our main source of news for the week which was good because it alerted us to the fact that the national guard had been called in to one of our intended destinations to evacuate people due to flooding. (Apart from that little tidbit, there was apparently some sort of wedding in England that seemed to prohibit any station from actually discussing any relevant news.)   Indeed, our visit coincided with some pretty extreme storms across the NI which forced us to alter our intended itinerary quite a bit. When all was said and done, we had only spent a few nights in the places where we had originally intended but we managed to position ourselves so that we arrived about a day after the downpours everywhere we went.

Kayaks on the beach at Waewaetorea


Mount Ngarahoe (a.k.a. Mt. Doom) in Tongariro National Park

We began our trip by driving up to Christchuch the night before flying up to Auckland.  Let me just take a moment to say that domestic air travel here is an absolute joy.  Want to bring a 15 gallon bucket of water (or any other liquid, gel, or aerosol) on the plane?  No problemo!  I get to keep my clothes, shoes, AND boxers on when I go through the metal detector?  Why how considerate of you!  We literally arrived at the airport about 20 minutes before our flight was to depart and had no problem checking in and moving through security before our plane left.  In Auckland we picked up the rental car and spent the first few days exploring the Auckland region, hiking along some fantastic beaches, and touring Hobbiton from Lord of the Rings (before which I had to sign several very official looking contracts promising not to divulge anything I saw or heard because they are currently preparing to film the Hobbit there).  Then we moved north, intending to visit the most northerly point in NZ, Cape Reinga (to which we never made it), taking a boat cruise around the tropical paradise known as the Bay of Islands, and, from the “would have been nice to know that before spelunking barefoot for two hours” department: wading along an underground stream in  an undeveloped cave home to a population of carnivorous eels.  Our last few days we’re spent amongst the mountains and volcanically active regions of Rotorua, Lake Taupo, and Tongariro National Park before finally moving on south to New Zealand’s capital, Wellington, and flying back to Christchurch.

Spray paint street artist, Cuba St, Wellington

My total picture count for the trip was somewhere in the vicinity of 1200 and since I’m going to be painfully re-introduced to the “study”  portion of study abroad this week (I think it says something about the academic rigor of an institution when I can basically ignore schoolwork for a month and then come back and have a week that is only slightly more hectic than an average week at Whitman. But I digress…), it will likely take me a while to get through them all.  As I do, I’ll post more on some of the more interesting places we visited over the course of Fall Break.  For now though, it’s essays, exams, and lots of geology for the rest of the week.

Oh yeah, we found the Mexican food.  A not too impressively sized burrito was $14. Enough said.

Sunset over Lake Taupo

Seven weeks in the Southern Hemisphere

According to the calendar, I have now been in New Zealand for exactly seven weeks, and if my calculations are correct, this puts me just a wee bit more than 1/3 of the way through my time here.  How exactly this is so I am not quite sure but calendars, being rather inanimate objects, rarely lie.  Sprinting across the Auckland Airport with my luggage cart feels like it was such a short time ago that I still feel kind of winded.  Besides being a venue for the dissemination of stories and pictures to various family, friends, and, since it is the internet after all, random strangers, I’m also intending this blog to be a sort of a personal journal for me to remember the trip by so here are my overall thoughts from the first six weeks down south along with some random pictures that I wasn’t quite sure where else to put…

To put it bluntly, New Zealand itself is amazing and I feel like I’ve hardly been anywhere yet.  6 weeks in and I still have a huge lists of things I want to do right here in Dunedin (Brewery tours!!! yeah!!!), much less the rest of the country.  I’m getting incredibly excited for fall break in a few weeks when I will be flying up to the North Island for the week to explore Auckland, chill on some beaches, and climb some active volcanoes.  While I didn’t have time or money to come early or stay late in order to have more travel time, I feel like I will have experienced a pretty decent portion of this country by the time I head back to the states in June.

Dunedin Railway Station

When I applied for study abroad, I had to write a short essay on what I thought would be the most difficult aspect of adjusting to a new country. Given that I wasn’t going to a war zone or tribal village or anything like that, I responded by saying that making the transition from a school with 1400 students to one with 25,000 would be the greatest challenge.  Yeah, totally called that one.  The University of Otago is not a bad place, it’s just different.  I wouldn’t even say adjusting has been that much of a challenge, but its just kind of surreal to have a single class that’s almost as large as the entire class of 2012 at Whitman.  Personally, I feel as though the quality of the teaching here is more or less on par with Whitman although the fact that my smallest class has 75 people and my largest has over 300 makes personal interaction with professors and other students pretty much impossible.  It also makes labs somewhat chaotic and disorganized which can be a little frustrating at times.  The typical weekly workload here is stunningly low.  6 weeks into classes and, not counting the work I put into my geology field camp project that was due the first week, I think I’ve probably done about as much studying/homework as I would do in 5 or six days at Whitman.  No joke.  I am taking 4 classes which is a pretty typical course load here and I literally still feel like I am on break.  Lest you think I’m getting this semester off completely pain free, finals here are notoriously hellacious.  Final exams, which take place over a three week period in June, are generally about 4 hours long and make up anywhere from 50% to 80% of my final grade in each of my classes.  I’m really hoping that the weather is so crappy by then that studying sounds more appealing than traveling but somehow I doubt it will be that simple.

Gore, NZ: The Brown Trout Capital of the World!

While I’m really glad that I’m getting a chance to experience life at  a “big school” for a semester, it’s definitely not something I would want to do for four years.  It’s a lot of fun but I think more importantly it really makes me appreciate what I have at Whitman and all the more happy that I chose Whitman over UofA a few years back.  Despite all the wonderful things about New Zealand, it still feels really weird to be away from Whitman for such a long time and not a day goes by that I don’t miss it and all the people that have essentially made it a home away from home for me.  While the people here are all fantastic, it definitely does not feel like home.  After some in-depth self psychological analysis, I think I can pretty confidently attribute this to the fact that I know in just a few short months, I’ll be packing my bags and not coming back.  Well at least not for a while 😉  While in many ways, being at Otago feels like freshmen year all over again, what with all the new experiences and meeting tons of new people, the knowledge that my visit is extremely temporary and that I won’t be spending the next four years of my life here makes the dynamic quite a bite different that it back at Whitman.

My living situation is turning out to be pretty sweet.  I am in a complex of 6 adjoining flats (think mini-apartment buildings) with a total of 35 other people so there’s always lots of people around and it sorta feels like a miniature dorm minus the professional cleaning and the dining halls.  I have not set anything on fire in the kitchen yet although when you want to cook something on the stove, you must flip an switch on the wall in addition to turning the little dial which is unbelievably annoying to have to remember.  NOTHING sucks more than putting a nice big pot of tortellini on the stove and coming back 15 minutes later to find that your water isn’t even hot yet.  It would definitely be more of an adjustment if this were the first time I was living on my own but having lived off campus myself last semester, it really hasn’t been much of a change in terms of style of living.  I still find myself forgetting to do laundry until I literally run out of socks and/or underwear which here is a slight problem because use of the dryer is discouraged in order to save electricity and its humid enough that things tend to take a few days to dry completely out on the line.

Despite the favorable exchange rate, stuff is expensive here, most notably food.  Milk generally runs about $7 or $8 per gallon and I’m not even going to talk about how much bacon costs.  If you know me well enough, you’ll realize the problem with those statements.  Ramen is still dirt cheap but I haven’t given into that in my 2.5 years in college so far and I sure don’t intend to go over to the dark side now.

Disintegrating septarian concretions on the beach at Moeraki Boulders

Complaining about the weather here is about as popular here as complaining about Organic Chemistry is at Whitman, which is to say, all the rage.  Personally, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the weather.  Yeah, it rains a fair amount but when it is nice, its NICE and for some unexplainable reason, rainy days seems much less dreary here than they do in Walla Walla.  Probably because everything is nice and green rather than wheat-colored.  People don’t deal with the cold here very well either. I woke up the other day to 35 degree temperatures and everyone walking to class looked like they we’re going off to summit Mt. Everest.  Electricity here is so expensive that people don’t often use the horribly inefficient heat pumps in the flats (which inexplicably are located ON THE CEILING.  Last time I checked, heat rises and I’m pretty darn sure the laws of physics don’t reverse in the southern hemisphere) so it can get a little chilly in the evenings but nothing that a layer of thermal underwear and a few blankets can’t fix.  I’ve been told that merino wool clothing is a godsend to have for the cold winters but the cheapest merino wool long underwear I’ve found is over $100 and I could buy like 4 kilos of bacon for that so I think I’ll stick with what I have.

That’s about it for now. I’ll continue to try to post at least once a week. If that’s too little for you, know that the internet sucks here and I have to be on campus in order to upload photos lest I use up too much of the 30GB monthly data allowance for our entire flat.  This is a problem because my computer and campus internet get along about as well as Keith Olbermann and Bill O’Reilly.  On the flip side, if once a week is too often for you, then clearly you don’t like pretty pictures. Like I said, I’m sort of intending this blog to be my personal journal of sorts for this trip so if you are bored by the details, then tough beans.

Moeraki Boulders

Peace out,


A Visit to Aoraki

Oh boy where to begin. I suppose the beginning would probably be a good place to start.  Went with a group of five other people to Mt. Cook this past weekend to do some camping, backpacking, and other touristy type things.  Known by the Māori as Aoraki, visiting the Mt. Cook area has been solidly atop my “to do” list ever since I found out I was going to be coming to New Zealand for a semester (another guy our group has had a picture of Mt. Cook as his desktop background for the last year) so my excitement level was off the charts for the past week or so.  Mt. Cook is about a 4.5 hour drive from Dunedin so we rented a Toyota Previa (didn’t know they still made those…) and I got to continue acclimatizing to driving on the left side of the road.  I was the only driver on a trip to Milford Sound a few weeks ago (blog entry on that to come at some point…) and only almost got us killed once so I was feeling pretty confident heading into this weekend.  Honestly, it’s become so natural that I know its going to be weird to come back to the states in a few months and get back into the right hand lane.

We didn’t have real specific plans for the weekend as the weather at Mt. Cook is notoriously nasty year-round.  Snow and hurricane force winds are commonplace even in the summer and we decided that we would pretty much let the weather dictate when and where we hiked.  Our main goal though was to spend a night at the famed Mueller Hut on Mt. Ollivier just across the valley from Mt. Sefton and Mt. Cook, the highest point in New Zealand and Australasia at 12,316 ft.

The weather upon our arrival on Thursday night was not particularly reassuring.  The campground was located near Mt. Cook Village right at the mouth of the glacial valley that leads up into the mountains.  This valley apparently is very good at funneling rain and wind right down into the valley because even though the skies at the campground were almost completely clear, we had the pleasure of setting up our tents in a downpour that was literally coming at us from the side. My little two person tent went up pretty easily however the large 4-person dome tent that we rented from the school was about as aerodynamic as a tank.  Compound this with the fact that this tent had a pole setup that was analogous to solving a Rubik’s Cube and the inside was pretty much a lake by the time we finally got it up.

Fortunately the weather had cleared by morning.  I was the first one out of the tents in the morning and while I won’t repeat my exact words upon seeing the surroundings of our campsite here, suffice to say they it was pretty spectacular.

Mt. Sefton at sunrise from the campground.

Since the weather was looking promising for the day, we hightailed it over to the DOC (Department of Conservation, essentially the New Zealand equivalent of the National Park Service) Visitor Center to make reservations for a night at Mueller Hut.  The hut sleeps less than 30 people and is first come first served so we wanted to be there early.  Because of the terrain and weather, the DOC at Mt. Cook is understandably strict about making sure all hikers check in with the rangers to inform them of their plans and itinerary.  After getting our permit and having a quick breakfast, we shouldered our packs and started up the trail to the hut.

Note that the word “trail” in this context is used a bit loosely.  The DOC officially calls it the “Mueller Hut Route” which I think conveys things a bit better.  The trail up to the hut is a deceptively short 2.7 miles.  However, in those 2.7 miles, one gains over 3500 feet in elevation for an average elevation gain of about 1300 feet per mile. For comparison, the Bright Angel trail in the Grand Canyon averages about 540 feet of elevation change per mile.  In summary, the Mueller Hut Route is one of those trails where you talk not about “miles per hour” but rather “hours per mile”.  The first half of the trail is relatively well maintained although it consists mostly of crude railroad tie “stairs” implanted in the side of the mountain.  The second half of the trail is marked only by intermittent orange posts and traverses a nasty talus/scree slope where footing is pretty much non-existant.  We made it up to the hut in about 6 hours.

The "trail" about 0.5 km east of Mueller Hut

View from the Mueller Hut route looking back down the valley. The campground where we stayed is just left of center. Mt. Cook Village is the cluster of buildings at the base of the greenery on the right. Lake Pukaki just visible on the horizon.

The setting of the hut was absolutely indescribable.  Rather than trying, I’ll show you a picture instead:

A view of Mueller Hut from Mt. Ollivier. Mt. Cook partially hidden by clouds at upper right.

We arrived at the hut mid-afternoon so we had plenty of time to hang out around the hut, meeting other hikers and exploring the area.  One of the coolest things was witnessing the nearly continuous icefalls that occur on the glaciers that coat Mt. Sefton.  Large avalanches of ice cascading down the sheer face of a mountain sounds remarkably like thunder and the sound travels so far and well that even at our campsite in the valley, miles away fro the ice, I was still woken up several times by the roar of the icefalls.  In the afternoon, 4 of us scrambled up to the top of Mt. Ollivier, the first peak a young Sir Edmund Hillary (the first man to climb Mt. Everest) climbed back in 1939.

Mt. Cook with the terminus of the Hooker Glacier just below it.

The Mueller Hut that we stayed in is actually the fifth-incarnation of  the hut.  First built in 1914, Mueller Hut has been swept away by avalanches on several occasions (The second hut lasted just 4 months before it was swept away…) and the weather conditions are so downright awful that the hut requires rebuilding on a regular basis.   The current hut has been in place since 2003 when it was opened by Sir Edmund Hillary himself.  By normal backpacking standards, the hut was a five-star resort.  It has large tanks of running water outside on the deck, gas stoves, some fairly comfortable mattress pad thingys in the dormitory-style bunkhouse, and even indoor bathrooms in a outhouse about 50 yards from the main building.  The hut is managed in the high season by volunteer hut wardens that stay for a week at a time.  Every night at 7pm, the hut gets a radio call from Mt. Cook base in the village below to inform the hut wardens of the weather forecast for the coming day as well as to confirm that everyone made it up to the hut safe and sound for the night.

The whole crew on the hut deck at sunset

Perhaps the most spectacular part about staying at the hut was what it looked like after dark. Being over 100km from any significant sources of light pollution, the night sky at Mt. Cook is accordingly spectacular.  We lucked out in the fact that our visit coincided with a nearly New Moon so the skies were dark. Real dark.  Literally, you almost didn’t need a flashlight to walk around after dark, the sheer volume of starlight was sufficient enough for me to confidently walk back to the hut without fear of falling into a rock crevasse.  Sunrise the next morning (first time I have willing gotten up before 7am in a LONG time…) was equally spectacular although the winds has increased dramatically by morning.

Mueller Hut and Mt. Sefton at dawn.

The climb down the next morning was much more pleasant on the cardiovascular system although a bit rougher on the knees and calves.  Once we got back to camp (where we had gladly swallowed the extra $6 per person to keep our tents set up for the night we were at the Hut just so we didn’t have to spend another hour setting them up in the rain and wind) we pretty much just lounged around the rest of the day, exploring Mt. Cook Village and driving up the Tasman Valley to look at some more glaciers. Our last night at the campground was a rather sleepless one due to the winds which magically reappeared after dark.  I must say though, even after only a few uses, I am extremely impressed with my new Mountain Hardware Drifter 2 tent (Thanks Mom and Dad!).  The thing is waterproof as a submarine and even though what is supposed to be the ceiling of the tent was in my face most of the night, it didn’t bend or break despite the extreme winds.  Overall, we all felt exceedingly elated that the weather once again cooperated for the most part.  At this point, I can confidently say that I have brought the sunny Arizona weather with me to New Zealand because every weekend it feels like I go somewhere where the weather is notoriously abysmal only to have the sun shine almost all the time.

May the weather gods continue to smile!

The summit of Mt. Cook at sunset

17 ways in which New Zealand differs from the United States

1. Mexican food does not exist. The horror!!!

2. The general population is friendlier and less stupid here.  Even people from the US seem friendlier than they are in the ‘states.

3. Pedestrians do NOT have the right of way.  Look both ways or you WILL die.

4. Short shorts have not gone out of style. Amongst men that is.

5. There is apparently some sort of national law prohibiting the assignment of homework.

6. Everyone drives on the wrong side of the road.  If you try to drive on the right side, people honk at you.

7. People are way less politically correct and aren’t afraid to say whats on their mind.

8. Canadian accents sound totally normal here.

9. It’s totally legal to have a crap ton of alcohol in a moving vehicle as long as the driver isn’t drinking any of it.

10. Starbucks is only found on every OTHER corner.

11. You don’t hike a trail, you tramp a track.  Also, whoever builds all the trails here has apparently never heard of a “switchback”.

12. The mosquito is replaced by the sandfly as the bug most likely to cause you to apply highly corrosive chemicals to your skin.

13. You don’t tip at restaurants.  If you try to offer someone a tip, they look at you like you’re trying to hand them a live spitting cobra.

14. Sportscasts on the evening news talk exclusively about rugby, cricket, and rowing.

15. The words “beer” and “bear” are pronounced EXACTLY the same.  Thankfully, there are no bears here thus avoiding the possibility of a potentially catastrophic misunderstanding.

16. Most Burger Kings and McDonalds have leather couches and are marketed as very “upscale.” A Big Mac and fries at McDonalds is also $13 (about US$10).

17. I get to listen to American music, watch American TV shows, hear about stupid American “celebrities” on the news, order pizza delivery from American chains like Pizza Hut and Domino’s, listen to people talk about American politics…oh wait…

And with that I will leave you with some pictures of a few hikes I’ve been doing in and around Dunedin the past week:

15m-high Nicols Falls

Cascade along creek just below Nicols Falls

Otago Peninsula and harbor from Mt. Cargill

Water, fire, and ice, oh my!

The Hokitika Wildfoods festival was about far more than food.  The entire weekend itself was an experience.  Halloween is not really observed here in New Zealand and the Wildfoods Festival seems to be the substitute.  I had been told that people wore costumes for the event but I had no clue how integral it was until I showed up without one.  The level of creativity and effort that people put into their costumes was simply staggering.  Comparing this with Halloween would be analogous to comparing a junior college football game with the Super Bowl…the general idea is the same but they are on totally different levels.

A few of the more interesting costumes:

Human Jenga Blocks

Where'd he go!?

Another one of my observations was that Hokitika is rather poorly equipped to deal with such a large volume of people.  Our “campsite” was utter chaos.  It was a field adjacent to the beach that the organizers horribly overbooked.  It was almost full by the time we arrived in mid-evening and we had trouble finding a place large enough to set up our 4 tents (I was with a group of about 15 people).  By morning, tents occupied practically every square inch of the field and you couldn’t even walk out to the street without tripping over a couple dozen tent poles and guy lines. Despite the cramped quarters and total lack of water sources, the campsite cost $20 per person per night so total, our group paid like $800 for 100 square feet in a field for two nights.  We could have gotten a suite at a 5-star hotel in Manhattan for that and it would have been a heck of a lot more comfortable. And quieter. And there would have been water.  In short: BIGGEST…RIPOFF…EVER.

Tent city

Complaints aside, after the festival ended, most people migrated down to the beach.  The beach had been pretty much empty the night of our arrival which coincided with the Japan earthquake and tsunami.  Although no official warnings were issued for the South Island, we heard on the radio that authorities were advising people to stay off the beach just in case.  That wasn’t the case on Saturday night.  Fortunately for us, this particular beach was littered with massive quantities of driftwood which meant only one thing: bonfire!  Walking out to the ocean that night was literally one of the most spectacular things I’ve ever seen.  Thousands of people on the beach, each group with their own bonfire.  I would estimate that the total number of fires was over 100, all scattered along a 1 or 2 mile long stretch of beach.  Standing on the beach and looking either direction, it was literally bonfires as far as the eye could see.

A view of the bonfires on the beach. I wanted a tripod so badly at this moment. Instead, I had to shoot at super high ISO just to get this, hence the grainyness.

The drive home along the west coast of New Zealand was spectacular, yet very long and at times unnerving due to the fact that New Zealand insists on making nearly all bridges, even those along the major highways, one lane in diameter.   Driving along Highway 6, the fact that west coast gets the highest rainfall of any region in NZ becomes immediately obvious in the lush vegetation enclosing the road.  Mid way along the coast we stopped at Franz Josef Glacier which might be the world’s only glacier that ends at the bottom of a valley whose slopes are covered in rainforest.  It is a seriously bizarre yet amazing sight.  Sadly, we could only get within about 100m of the glacier terminus without being on a guided trip.  Something about ice falls and river surges and this thing they kept calling “safety”….

Franz Josef Glacier


The Tasman Sea from Knight Point

Finally, we stopped in the quaint town of Wanaka for dinner on the way back where I had a quite tasty yet refreshingly NORMAL dinner as well as a milkshake with this little gem on the cup:

Where the Wild Foods Were: the Hokitika Wildfoods Festival

Imagine the county fair, Halloween, spring break on the beach, and “Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern” all rolled into one.  You would have something resembling the annual Hokitika Wildfoods Festival which I had the opportunity to attend…no, “experience” would probably be a better word…this past weekend.  This bizarre event was started by a local woman in 1990 and is now one of the biggest annual events in New Zealand, attracting up to 20,000 people to a remote west coast town called Hokitika which has a year round population of 3000.

Th entire weekend was an experience really.  I’ll have more on that in the next post but for now I want to focus on the food.  And boy was there food. So much food.  Portion sizes we’re generally small in part due to the fact that everyon wants to try everything and partly due to the fact that many of the things being served aren’t exactly something you’d want to consume in large quantities.  For the sake of posterity, following is a list of all of the different foods that I sampled on Saturday along with some brief comments and thoughts on each one.  For comparison purposes, I have assigned each food a “tastiness grade” which works as follows:

A-Very tasty: I would enthusiastically eat this on a regular basis were it made available to me!

B-Tasty: I actually enjoyed eating this but I would much rather have a Bacon Buttie

C-Meh, it was alright.  Not bad but not real good either

D-Unpleasant: I probably wouldn’t eat this again and I sure as hell wouldn’t pay to eat it again

F-Disgusting: I would need to be offered a very large sum of money and various other benefits to eat this again

Finally a disclaimer: if you are the squeamish type, I can pretty much guarantee you’re gonna want to skip this post.  Come back later this week for some pretty pictures instead.

Alright, onwards!

Huhu grubs: And boy are they fresh! These are the first things you see when you walk in the gates.  Outside a tent was a large stack of rotten firewood surrounded by people wielding axes attacking the wood in search of the huhus.  Once one was found, it was offered up for sale. $3 got me a 2 inch long grub freshly removed from his burrow.  At this point I had the option of eating the thing right then and there or taking him over to the grill first.  Given that I had been at the festival for all of 2 minutes at this point, I opted for the grill.  After a few minutes on the barbie, it was meal time and I must say I was pleasantly surprised.  Not to say that grubs are going to become a major staple in my diet anytime soon but the taste was not that bad.  The best analogy I can think of in terms of taste and consistency is very bland hummus. Unfortunatley, it was rather gritty and tasted as though I was chewing a bunch of sand around in my mouth.

Overall tastiness grade: C

The home of the humble huhu grub

A selection of grilled huhu

Venison sausage: Not exactly the “wildest” food I had today but still mighty tasty!  Deer are domestic animals here in New Zealand and a relatively major food staple.  It is quite common to see large domestic herds of deer on deer farms while driving around rural New Zealand and this was the first time since arriving here that I had had the opportunity to try the venison.

Overall tastiness grade: A

Crocodile: A vendor from Australia was at the festival and their two main offerings we’re crocodile and kangaroo bites, both of which I tried.  The crocodile was a dark white meat, similar to fish in its texture and appearance.  I was not a fan of the flavor however.  It was rather bitter tasting and when bitten into released acidic tasting juices into my mouth. One piece was plenty.

Overall tastiness grade: C-

Michael and I munching on some crocodile

Kangaroo: With the exception of the venison sausages, the Kangaroo was definitely the best meat I had today.  And before you go condemning me for eating such a cute, adorable little animal, let me inform you that certain species of kangaroo are basically considered pests across the pond in Australia and are about as common as deer.  A red meat, Kangaroo really doesn’t taste all that different than beef, although the piece I had was pretty tough and not particularly tender.  Flavor was solid though, nice and juicy.

Overall tastiness grade: B+

Chocolate covered chili peppers: Again, not the most exotic food but a rather novel idea.  Unlike most of my cohorts, I rather enjoyed these.  I don’t know exactly what kind of peppers they were but they weren’t so hot that you couldn’t taste the flavor of the pepper before the heat set in and I thought it went quite well with the chocolate.

Overall tastiness grade: B

Goat Ice Cream: This was perhaps my most disappointing purchase of the day.  When I saw that they had ice cream made from goat milk, I was psyched.  Goat-related products are big here and I’ve gotten totally hooked on this goat cheese feta that they sell in the grocery store here, it might be the most delicious cheese I’ve ever had.  Apparently, the tastiness of goat milk does not translate into ice cream however.  Remove the word “cream” from the name and that’s basically what it tasted like.  Imagine going to one of those little portable sno-cone huts and getting milk flavored syrup poured over your sno-cone. Ew. A huhu grub sno-cone would have been more delicious I think.

Overall tastiness grade: C-

Shark: Fish & Chips are big here but the festival offered an interesting alternative: Shark & Chips!  After trying it, my professional opinion is that they should stick with the fish.  Shark tastes almost exactly like cod or hoki except it is blander and very dry.  Not bad, but why mess with a good thing?

Overall tastiness grade: C

Chocolate covered grasshoppers: I didn’t understand this booths pricing structure at all. For $10, I could have selected my own live grasshopper from a big glass enclosure.  However, for only $4, I could have a pre-selected grasshopper doused in white or milk chocolate.  Duh.  When I first bit into it, this juicy substance squirted out of the ‘hopper and it actually tasted kinda good.  However, after a few seconds, I had made it through all of the chocolate and the easily chewable parts of the grasshopper and was left chewing what were most definitely the wings. That’s never good.

Overall tastiness grade: D

Worm truffles:  This was my only CNF (could not finish) of the day.  Even though the truffle was at least 95% chocolate with only a few tiny worms in the middle, I couldn’t stomach the taste…which I can only compare to that of vomit.  I had to spit it out after only 1 small bite. Absolutely disgusting.

Overall tastiness grade: F

Pig Brain sandwich:  This was an interesting one.  When I closed my eyes and took a bite, it wasn’t half bad.  The meat was extremely tender, mixed in with a relatively tasty cranberry sauce, and had a consistency similar to that of a pulled pork sandwich (it was kind of stringy…)  However, it was so revolting to look at that I think my perception of the taste was probably somewhat altered.

Overall tastiness grade: D

Mountain Oysters: Nope, not seafood.  Anyone from the west will likely have seen these on various menus is the US as “Rocky Mountain Oysters”, a.k.a: bull testicles.  In my own defense, this was not something that I voluntarily purchased myself but I did take a few bites off of one that a friend had purchased.  Again, the perception factor was very much in play here.  The testicle had a very light and fluffy consistency, almost like a marshmallow.  It really didn’t taste like much of anything which makes me wonder why anyone would deliberately order one as a meal.

Overall tastiness grade: D-

Whitebait: This was the surprise of the day.  Whitebait look like this. Imagine 50 or so of these slender, almost transparent fish mixed up with egg batter, fried up on the grill into a patty, and then place on a slice of white bread with all of their beady little eyes staring you down as you move them towards your mouth. This would be the essence of a Whitebait Sandwich which, along with the venison sausage, was the tastiest thing I had all day.  Whitebait are some of the most flavorful, yet least “fishy” tasting fish I’ve ever had.  A little salt and lemon juice on top, and you’ve got yourself a fish sandwich of awesome proportions.  Whitebait is actually pretty common here in NZ and apparently you can catch these things in mass quantities almost anywhere along the coast, might need to try that at some point. Or at least hope the grocery store sells them 🙂

Overall tastiness grade: A

I decided to pass on the scorpions and the freakishly popular Horse Semen Shots.  I guess the moral of the day is that there is, apparently, a limit on what I am willing to eat. More on the aftermath, a beach party, and a glacier in part two in which we will return to the theme of “pretty pictures”


Some things are best left for another day...

To the beach!

There are good and bad things about having no class on Wednesdays.  The good part is that I don’t have class on Wednesday’s which gives me a full free day in the middle of the week to go do and see things relatively close to Dunedin (homework? what homework?).  The bad part is that I seem to be the only person that ended up with no classes on Wednesdays and people don’t seem too keen on skipping class during the first week of the semester. This past Wednesday was perfectly sunny and 23 degrees (that’s in Celsius and if you don’t know how to convert it, you should.  Go do it and then come back…) which means I didn’t exactly feel like sitting around all day so I decided to explore. This is where I went:

Pretty sweet, especially considering it took me less than an hour of bus rides and walking to get there. No offense to Eastern Washington, but it sure as heck beats anything within an hour of Walla Walla.  It’s called Tunnel Beach and the tunnel down to the beach was built in the 1870’s.  A local wealthy bigwig, John Cargill, had it built so his family could have easy access to the otherwise inaccessible (without ropes at least) beach at the base of the cliffs.  I’ve been told by several people that Cargill’s daughter died in the waters here but I have been unable to substantiate these claims so I’m leaning towards thinking that this is a load of crap (That’s right Tara, I said “crap” again.  Be happy it wasn’t in the title this time.)  I didn’t get very far onto the beach because I didn’t feel like getting pinned against the rocks by a tide that was coming in at a rate that I was not aware tides were capable of obtaining.  On account of the 50+ mph winds, the waves crashing ashore were by far the largest I have ever seen, although having lived in a desert my entire life, this is probably a pretty worthless statement.

Sea Arch at Tunnel Beach

The “tunnel” of Tunnel Beach

The sign at the top told me that the walk back up to the trailhead from the beach would take 40 minutes.  Given that I made it back up in 11 minutes, I think I can safely say I would have hit their time estimate even had I suffered a mid-shaft femur fracture en route but I was still quite hungry after getting back to town.  Fortunately, I ran into the Bacon Buttie truck once again on the way back to my flat.  My current theory is that they managed to implant a small radio transmitter that monitors my hunger level inside the first one they sold me because it sure feels like they appear out of nowhere in the most random places whenever I am most famished.  I have received a few complaints that I have not yet posted a picture of the modern wonder of the world that is the Bacon Buttie so I aim to remedy that right now:

If that doesn’t make you want to abandon vegetarianism, I don’t know what will.  Anyways, that’s it till next week.  I am embracing my inner tourist this weekend and going to Milford Sound (which, for those of you who are geologically inclined, is actually a fjord and not a true sound) which is the most popular attraction in New Zealand and has apparently been voted the “world’s best travel destination” for the past several years.  So that should be fun…or a nightmare depending on how many other people had the exact same idea for this weekend.

HOLY CRAP ORION IS UPSIDE DOWN! and other New Zealand stories

So about an hour ago, I was hanging up my laundry to dry outside on my balcony when I happened to notice that there was a star visible in the small slice of sky visible between my roof and the apartment building next door.  This was significant because it marked the first time since arriving in New Zealand that the sky wasn’t 100% overcast at night.  This was further significant because it means I got to see southern constellations for the first time!  The fact that this was definitely one of the highlights of my trip so far may only serve to further affirm my nerdyness but for an avid amateur astronomer and astronomy major, this was big news.  I grabbed my iTouch (upon which I had installed an app called SkyVoyager specifically in preparation for this moment) and rushed outside.  Now the sky was only about half clear and I am in the middle of a pretty good sized city but it was still cool to see stars that I had never seen before.  The Southern Cross, Alpha Centauri, Magellanic Clouds, etc…were all visible.  The Southern Cross was shockingly underwhelming to be quite honest. The Big Dipper could kick it’s you know what (we’ll keep the blog family friendly for now…) any day.

Anyways, enough Astro babble.  I just got back from a 5-day field trip for the geology field mapping class that I’m taking down here.  Disregarding the fact that there weren’t enough cabins at the campground for everyone (as we had been told there would be), the fact that the tent to which I was assigned had fist sized holes in it and leaked like a sieve, the fact that trying to make a geologic map in the rain/wind is rather difficult and unpleasant, and the fact that I still have absolutely no clue what I was eating for lunch every day, it was a great trip.  There were about 70 students in the class making it a far larger operation that any Whitman geo trip I’ve ever been on.  We we’re camped near a place called Maerewhenua (pronounced Mar-eh-feh-new-ah or something close to that….) and spent the better part of four days combing over 70 square kilometers of sheep farms and river valleys making a geologic map of the area all while laughing uproariously (inside at least) at how all of the Kiwi’s pronounce “basalt”.  It was a decently scenic area and great fun when it wasn’t windy and raining.  With the exception of the aforementioned lunches, the food was excellent.  The university hires a local woman to come cook for us all week and on the last night, we even got to eat fresh lamb that she had brought in from her own farm earlier in the day!  Plus I somehow managed to only shock myself once on the 8-billion or so electric fences we crossed so I consider the week a roaring success.

Now for some pictures!   Given that it was raining most of the time, I actually didn’t take many pictures…at least not nearly as many as I would normally take over a 5-day span.  The fact that there is sunshine in many of the pictures does not imply that sunshine was frequent, just that that’s when I actually got the camera out.

Typical view of the field area

Maerewhenua River flowing past the campground

The awesome sign we got to set up along the road wherever we went

Part of the class checking out a limestone quarry

Hedgehog chilling in a cow pie

Elephant Rocks. Apparently scenes from the Narnia movies are filmed here although I'm not sure which ones since I only ever saw the first movie and even that was a long time ago.

Castle set used in the Narnia movies

That’s all for now.  Classes start tomorrow morning…finally. Feels weird to have academic obligations again after a 2+ month break.  I’ll post more pics of the Dunedin area later this week.

So there’s a food here called the “Bacon Buttie”…

And it’s pretty darn tasty if I do say so myself!  It’s basically a big pile of bacon (and yes, bacon in New Zealand is the same as in the U.S, not that ham-like crap they pass off as “bacon” in Canada and Europe) between two pieces of white bread with BBQ sauce and mustard.  Let’s just say that Philly Cheesesteaks now have some serious competition for the title of “Zach’s favorite food”

I’ve been in Dunedin for about two and a half days now and I can pretty much say that New Zealand rocks!  The 36 hour, 5 flight journey went fairly smoothly save for some fun in Auckland where I discovered the joyous process that is going through New Zealand customs.  I also got to sprint for half a mile with a luggage cart in order to make my next flight and ultimately only made it because New Zealand airport security is a complete joke.  Seriously, I’ve been frisked more thoroughly walking out of Wal-Mart than I was at the airport in either Auckland or Christchurch.

The plane that took me from Christchurch to Dunedin

My humble abode

Anyways, I am now settled in my flat in Dunedin which is basically the anti-Walla Walla (except for the weather which has been eerily Walla Walla like so far, only much warmer).  There are people EVERYWHERE, regardless of the time of day or night.  My flat houses 5 other students who hail from New Zealand, Missouri, New York, the Netherlands, and Bosnia.  The University of Otago is large (20,000 students) and despite the size, course registration yesterday went extremely smoothly (Whitman could learn a few things I think…) and now I have a few days to relax and explore Dunedin before leaving on a geology field trip on Tuesday (that’s Monday for those of you in the states).  Classes don’t start till the 28th.  The geology field trip happens to coincide with “O-week” (short for Orientation week) which is apparently the biggest party in all of New Zealand.  Apparently people from all over the country come to Dunedin just to participate in O-week even if they are not affiliated with the college in any way.  Every single hotel in town has a No Vacancy sign on it right now.

In my opinion campus itself is quite beautiful and nice although all of the Kiwis that I mention this too groan and roll their eyes and think I’m crazy.  I’m hoping that this is just a sign that the rest of New Zealand is even better.  There is a creek running right through campus called the Water of Leith that looks EXACTLY like Mill Creek (it flows through a concrete channel…) except is made 100x more attractive by the fact that is is lined with parks, fields, and old looking gothic buildings.  One of the gothic buildings happens to be the Geology building which is kinda cool.

University of Otago campus


The geology building at the University of Otago.

That’s it for now, I’ll get some more pictures out either tomorrow or monday.  Also, if you’re one of the 8 or so people that have requested that I bring them back a sheep, please send $100 (the cost of an extra overweight bag on Air New Zealand) to:

Zach Schierl

5/777 Great King St.

North Dunedin

Dunedin 9016

New Zealand


Cost will be reduced to $50 if you will settle for a lamb.  Please allow 4-6 weeks for order processing. Thank you.




Pre-New Zealand thoughts

So…per the suggestion of several individuals, I have decided to be spectacularly uncreative and “write” a blog about my study abroad experience just like everyone else seems to be doing.  However, before you avert your gaze and dismiss this as simply another study abroad blog, let me inform you that my blog has the potential to be especially uncreative for several reasons. Lets review them shall we:

#1: As some of you may be aware, I am going to New Zealand (Dunedin on the South Island to be precise) which, while quite cool, is itself a rather uncreative study abroad locale.  Based on the fact that I’ve met three completely  random people in the past two weeks who studied abroad there (one on a plane, my airport shuttle driver in Salt Lake City, and a guy in my WFR recert class who ended up staying there for three years) and the fact that a crapton of Whitties go there every semester, I can’t exactly claim to be thinking outside of the box here.

#2: Unlike many of my fellow study abroadees (abroaders? abroadians?), my program isn’t particularly unique or exotic.  I’m enrolling directly at the University of Otago for a semester and will be living in what appears to be a fairly typical apartment style building.  I will not be living in a hut and studying the 20th century social dynamics of Bhutanese monks, or the decline in subsistence farming on the high Argentinean Pampas or any other cool/crazy stuff such as that.  So why am I going?  I’m going to New Zealand BECAUSE IT’S FREAKING AWESOME.  I figure this is reason enough given that it is highly unlikely I will ever again have the opportunity (read: money) to go somewhere for four months purely because it is awesome.  Unless I drop $1000 now on the Arizona Cardinals to win the 2012 Super Bowl (60-1 odds at last check…) and then Kurt Warner decides to come out of retirement.  New Zealand was also a logical choice because English is the only language I speak (except for when I use what remains of my high school Spanish knowledge to annoy people.) and frankly I really don’t have the mental capacity nor patience to learn another one. I think that’s it….oh yeah and I can take a geology field camp class that my college requires for graduation yet doesn’t actually ever offer themselves!  Brilliant, huh?  So while I am sure every country presents its own unique customs and culture and I am looking forward to seeing in what ways New Zealand differs from the US of A, I have determined that there is a KFC, a Dominos, and a McDonalds within a two block radius of my apartment which for now makes Dunedin sound suspiciously like suburban Tulsa…

So why should you read this blog then?  Because New Zealand is also FREAKING BEAUTIFUL. More than 50% of my baggage is devoted to backpacking gear which I fully intend to utilize as often as humanly possible. And since I don’t particularly like writing nor am I much good at it, this blog will likely feature a rather high picture to text ratio.  My current plan is to take lots of pictures, post them in relatively low resolution here on this blog as a teaser, and then sell them for millions of dollars when I return to the capitalistic confines of America.  It’s fail-proof and you know it.

Anyhoo, after a fun week at Whitman and some equally un-fun goodbyes, I am now sitting in the Los Angeles Airport as throngs of people surround me after deplaning from a flight that I venture is arriving from Hawaii given that every other person coming off the plane is carrying a little Dole Pineapple gift box. I am extremely excited and I imagine I will be even more so once my 14 hour plane ride is over and I am actually in the place that I have been looking forward to going to for so long.  I am hoping that a combination of Tylenol PM and Benadryl will allow me to actually sleep on the plane since that sort of thing is normally a problem for me.  That’s all for now, no pics for the moment since the internet here sucks and Terminal 2 at LAX isn’t exactly what you would call photogenic…more to come from Kiwi-land soon!