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