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:
A few km downstream is the smaller 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.
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:
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.
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:
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.