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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.