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The Chatham Islands were almost a surreal experience. This tiny group of islands is about 500 miles off the coast of New Zealand, and about as close to the definition of “middle of nowhere” as you can get. With a roaring population of 600, this isolated community makes its living on fishing, mutton and wool.

The history of the Chatham Islands is a sad one. The native people, the Moriori, were wiped out, cannibalized, and enslaved by a Maori group who came from New Zealand. Most of the people living there are of Moriori and Maori descent, because Moriori were forbidden to marry each other, and most had children by their Maori masters.

Modern day Chatham island is a rich fishing ground and a well-managed resource that supports most inhabitants of the island. The biggest town there is Waitangi, and the town consisted of the local bar, and a couple small shops. Our tour guide drove us through dirt roads, dodging sheep and even a few emu as she whisked us off to see a unique formation of basalt columns and a hike up one of the tallest peaks on the island.


Basalt columns – one of two unique formations in the world


A little hike up the mountain!


It appears that the island is somewhat of a small gene pool. Our bus was given a more than warm greeting by the Chatham bachelors who were hanging out at the bar, as our bus driver announced our arrival with “I’ve got a bus full of American chicks!” Our bus driver herself was quite friendly with our assistant engineer as well, taking many ecstatic photos with him. Everyone joked that we were all more than welcome to marry into the island community, but as these jokes were told time and time again, it seemed like they were maybe a little more than just joking.


Simon getting lots of love from a Chatham Island puppy

 On our way back to the ship, our bus driver stopped suddenly on the side of the road with a rousing cry of “MUSHROOMS!” There, she herded us all out of the bus, over an electrified fence, and into a field where fine culinary mushrooms grew. Slightly more electrified, toting mushrooms, we returned to our ship, Mama Seamans, to prepare for our long voyage. It would be twenty five days before we saw land again.

WEEK ONE: April 3 – 7

And here we are, a month later. My time at sea was filled with struggle, puke, lots of sweat, but also many moments that made the whole experience worth it. I’ll try to summarize my voyage in a few late blog posts.

…And we’re off! The first week of the voyage, we sailed from Lyttelton, New Zealand to a small spit of land known as the Chatham Islands, one of the more remote places I’ve ever been to.

The first week was hard adjusting to life at sea, but also full of amazing moments. My watch had the first dawn watch, meaning we were woken up at midnight, and stood watch from one to seven in the morning. Aside from the exhaustion of being awake at those hours, we were learning to assume our responsibilities on the ship: Standing lookout, being at helm, sail handling, deploying science gear, processing lab samples, and cleaning every inch of the ship before our watch was done. This was all done in the dark, and in varying degrees of seasickness. It was a tough transition, to be sure.


Sunrise at lookout – one of the perks of Dawn Watch

And yes, to answer everyone’s question, seasickness is a thing. Medicine helped most people, including me, but for some, seasickness was a real struggle of the early leg of our voyage. Although I didn’t throw up (or “donate to Neptune,” as Cap liked to refer to it), I certainly wasn’t feeling peachy. Seasickness was worse the more time you spent down below, say on your knees scrubbing the ship’s floors for an hour while your water buckets slid around the hallway as we rolled.

While we were busy either puking or consoling those who were, the ocean was busy celebrating for all our seasickness. As vomit hit the water, bioluminescent sparks would flare up and leave smokey trails of light as all the critters enjoyed our dinner secondhand. Our ship was soon surrounded by dolphins, who flipped and played through the nutrient-rich waters. Dolphins are naturally attracted to the ship because of the sounds that it makes, but gifts in the form of vomit can definitely encourage them to stick around. One of the most magical moments on the trip for me was seeing the ghostly shadows of dolphins flit through the water, as they stirred up bioluminescence around them. Such set the theme of most of the trip – suffering and struggle that lead to absolutely unforgettable moments, making everything worth it.


The first time I stayed in a KOA was last spring break. It was a surreal experience. Dusty and sweaty from days of hiking in the Colorado desert, we pulled up into a green oasis of lush grassy campsites, complete with mini-golf, a playground, and a hot tub. We were welcomed into a reception area that doubled as a gift shop, selling lace doilies, ceramic figurines, pink flamingos, and little wooden signs adorned with hearts and curly lettering saying things like “God Bless our Home,” or “Mom is Boss”. The woman there even gave us complimentary cookies.

Our family trip to New Zealand has been in KOA style. Traveling with parents is great. Their old bones ensure that your young and spry bones get to rest on comfy beds, that you don’t have to clog your innards with the cheapest food at the grocery store, and that you even get to shower more than once a week. It is a refreshing change from college-style camping trips.

Our trip in New Zealand has been via camper-van. This van is a modified minivan with a bed in the back, an attachable table and stove, and even a mini-fridge packed away underneath the bed. We’ve road-tripped across the Southern Alps, seeing both coasts while staying at cute little KOA-style trailer parks.


Our van – named “Draco”


Here I am, driving our van. Are you afraid yet? If not, you may not have noticed that the driver sits on the right side of the vehicle, instead of the left. One of the most exciting parts of our trip was the driving. It takes a little time to adjust to driving on the left side of the road. Strangely, however, I find that the most difficult part of the driving here is not the actual turning, but rather the turn signal. The turn signal is located on the right of the steering wheel while the windshield wipers are on the left, exactly opposite of what we’re used to in the US. This results in our van careening around corners without a turn signal, windshield wipers slapping across the window at full-throttle. Needless to say, this leaves drivers behind us slightly baffled.

Aside from the driving excitement, we’ve seen some amazing landscapes, including glaciers that reach down into rainforests, jagged mountains covered in ferns, and tropical coastlines. We’ve also seen some amazing wildlife. We visited a kiwi bird reserve that raises kiwi chicks for conservation efforts, and got to see a couple little kiwis snuffling around in the dirt, looking for bugs. Today, we visited an inland waterfall where baby seals were playing in the pools. Since the seals have no inland predators, the mothers leave their pups here while they’re out hunting. The place was swarming with seal pups, enjoying their time unsupervised by grown-ups.


Seal pup pool! If you look closely under the waterfall, it’s swarming with pups splashing around, or play-fighting.


They’re furry and on the move!

Aside from critters, New Zealand has incredible geography. It’s obvious why they call the mountains the “Southern Alps” – They look almost exactly like the alps, with stunning peaks and glaciers, only forested with ferns instead of deciduous trees. As is typical of glacial melt, the river water in these areas is bright, Gatorade-blue. The bright blue color is from “rock flour” – tiny bits of rock ground up by the glacier. I imagine that it’s probably full of electrolytes, too, and might work just as well as Gatorade.


Gatorade, anyone?


Just a taste of the many landscapes in New Zealand.

Our trip has been much shorter than I anticipated – Tonight is our last night on land, and tomorrow we’ll be meeting the ship. The beautiful landscapes we’re seen these past few days have felt almost like a last minute romance with the land before we’re thrown, puke and all, into a life at sea. Goodbye, greenery, mountains, and hiking. It’s time to set sail!