Fall Colors in May

My alarm went off this morning at 7, and as usual I hit snooze. Rolling back into bed I expected to doze for at least another half hour, when I noticed my entire room was lit up in a ruby red glow. It wasn’t a house fire as I initially feared, but rather a blazing skyline which forced me to prematurely jump out of bed, grab my camera, and take a few shots.

Dunedin sunrise

Fall is in the air, trees are shedding their leaves and the rose gardens have started to disappear. In this post I’ll introduce two local animals I’ve met, and briefly complain about my final exam.

Tubs the Beautiful

The native birds of New Zealand are absolutely stunning. In Fiordland I encountered Kea, remarkably intelligent green alpine parrots, and in Abel Tasman I fought off Weka, chubby chicken-like birds which frequently raid campsites for food. Even here in Dunedin, there are birds in town the likes of which I’ve seen nowhere else.

While working on an audio clip for Maori language class, my recordings were interrupted by an unusual “kraaww” out my window. Easily within three meters of me was this beautiful, stocky bird perched on a branch. I lovingly named it Tubs because of it’s tubby stature and entrely content attitude. Tubs spend the next few hours in the same spot, giving me the chance to try some animal photography.

Tubs

Tubs is a New Zealand Pigeon, a species unique in that its population has not been particularly impacted by habitat loss. The NZ Pigeon has adapted to living in urban environments, often roosting on power-lines and comfortable being close to people. However like all birds in New Zealand, their greatest threat comes from predation by introduced stoats, possums, and the domestic cat.

Gretchin of Castle Street

Gretchin is a mysterious wanderer, no one knows where she’s come from, where she goes at night, or if she’s a he. It all started one sunny afternoon a couple weeks back. Our flat had both front doors swung wide open, letting in a gentle breeze as we had lunch together.

In stepped Gretchin, without anyone noticing. She quietly walked through the lounge, ducked under our chairs and made her way into the kitchen where Anni was cutting some vegetables.

“Mew”

Gretchin of Castle Street

We immediately welcomed Gretchin into our flat with a bowl of milk and some tuna. She wasn’t here at the start of the year, and without any sort of collar or tag we don’t know where she’s come from or who takes her in at night. Within a week of her arrival, she could be regularly spotted patrolling our Castle Street flat complex. I assume she’s fed at every college flat in the area, as she’s put on some noticeable weight since our first meeting.

She doesn’t claw at anything, and is generally well mannered except for her habit of trying to jump onto the counter. Someone managed to put a colorful collar on her, but Gretchin had ripped it off by the end of the day. Whoever this cat is, she’s a force to be reckoned with.

Recently I’ve heard a wild rumor that Gretchin actually is a male cat named George who lives in a house a few streets down. The Gretchin I know is definitely a she and belongs to Castle Street, but perhaps there is a look-alike or distant relative? Regardless, the legendary Gretchin continues to roam Castle Street and grace us with her imploring mews.

Final Exam of Doom

On a completely unrelated note this is my last week of physics lectures, and I haven’t had a single quiz or test all semester. The final exam in three weeks is worth 60% of my grade, and it’s incredibly disconcerting to have no real idea what to expect. My classmates are great at group study and collaboration, and we have a few meetings planned before the exam. I’ll certainly make the best of these opportunities, and I think I’ve been performing fairly well but it’s still the most terrifying final exam I’ve ever had.

 

Life Updates: Hitting the Block

My adventures in New Zealand have begun to wind down, I’m 11 weeks into my program and have 5 more to go. Most of my trips haven’t made it into this blog, and there are certainly more to be had in the coming weeks. I’ve been hitting a block over the past few weeks which I believe could apply to any study abroad program.

The Block: Friends, Academics, Money

My new friends and flatmates are great, and I genuinely enjoy every day I can spend with these fun people. After a while though, I miss my friends and family back home and at Whitman, and there’s no way to really fill that gap.

Flatmates Anni and Claire, Otago Peninsula

With my light course load, academic demands here are much lower than at Whitman but I still have to study. This past week I took my geology final exam (which was also my first formal test in any subject) and a Maori language test back to back. Both were 2-3 hour tests, and worth about 30% of my final grade. I wasn’t particularly worried about either, but putting in the effort to study for the first time made me realize how inadequate my study methods for my third course, Physics, have become. It’s difficult to establish an academic regime in between long weekends travelling and weekday events, and so I’ve started to cut some trips for academic reasons.

I took a 2 hour study break to visit Lovers Leap, Otago Peninsula

It’s easy to spend money when you have it, but hard to make ends meet as your savings dwindle. I’ve spent nearly all of my money travelling over the past few months, and that lifestyle is now coming to an end. Living in a foreign country with a meager income is not great, but with a tighter pocketbook I’ve started to look harder for free events and volunteer activities in the immediate community. Unfortunately this also means I’ve adopted a stricter food budget.

Old dudes jamming at the farmers market

Running

I’ve taken up regular running, which is easier to stick to when I have weekends on campus. Running has given me a more personal view of Dunedin, and given me access to places I would never see by car. There are excellent tracks running along the Otago Harbor, the Leith River, Ross Creek Reservoir, and a grueling hike to the top of Signal Hill. Frequently I take interesting detours, all of which have reward me with a new view of the city. Fun Fact: Baldwin St. in Dunedin is the steepest street in the world!

A napping seal, St. Claire Beach

Piano

In times of stress I usually spend a few hours at the piano, but there aren’t well organized practice rooms at the University of Otago. The situation seems to be that each residential college has a piano, the student clubs building OUSA has one practice room which is regularly booked solid, and the occasional lecture hall has a neglected piano sitting in a corner. The music department has no public practice rooms. I’ve adopted a couple of the lecture hall pianos when the room isn’t in use; the only thing I’m worried about is absent mindedly walking in mid lecture!

Despite the block I’m currently hitting, New Zealand is still a wonderful place to be living!

Borland Geology Camp

Borland Lodge is nestled into the foothills lying just outside Fiordland National Park in Southland. I was particularly excited because this excursion marks the farthest south I’ve ever been. Borland Geology Camp is a week long geology trip, and the second such camp for my geology course. My week there was filled with breathtaking mountain views, vast pastures, and of course, cool rocks!

This metamorphosed monster consists of two different granite dykes (white) and a biotite raft structure (black) squeezed between a younger block of granite (grey)

Despite threatening storm clouds and dire weather forecasts, the entire week gave us beautiful sunny weather. The trip was led by three different professors: James, James, and Chris. Each James specialized in different geology and led separate excursions, but still it was a bit confusing.

Although we were in the field all day (except lunch break) and doing bookwork late into the night, geologists always find time to have fun and act like kids!

FYI: there was also a seesaw and friendly neighborhood dog!

You’ll notice we’re all wearing fashionable neon orange vests. These hi-vis vests are required on all geology trips because many outcrops are along a roadside, and because it is currently hunting season in Southland. An army of Search and Rescue set up camp at the Borland Lodge a day after we arrived, looking for a missing hunter somewhere in the park. They had two helicopters, a motorboat, and at least 20 personnel. Amazingly, the hunter walked into camp two days later!

The first half of the trip we spent down in the Waiau River, studying interbedded sedimentary rocks.

Sunnyside Bend, studying McIvor Sandstone

The second half was spent in the mountains studying massive plutons and metamorphic processes which had changed them.

Giant garnets were found in the surrounding mountains

After taking notes at countless outcrops, we each drew up a geologic map of the region and a Geologic Vertical Scale (GVS). We had done theoretical work like this in class, but it was great to make these with my own data.

Yes, I’m proud of my coloring skills

Each map was slightly different, so half the fun was hashing out with everyone else as to what the basin structure was. I highly recommend this course for any aspiring geologist. I’ve had a wonderful academic experience, field exposure, and made a few new friends along the way!

During one of our excursions along a mountain ridge, our group was graced with a flyby of three very talkative Kea.

As well as geology and birds of Southland, the local flora is equally remarkable. Native beech forest dominate the rugged southern landscape, and are descendants of the great beech forests which once populated the Gondwana supercontinent.

Beech forest near the Borland Lodge

Native mistletoe and fungi depend on the beech forest environment, and are also remarkable specimens to stumble across. Straight out of a fairytale (or Mario), this mushroom is about the size of my fist!

No, it’s not an apple

Fiordland: Barrier Knob

This post continues from the previous entry: Fiordland: Track Clearing & Gertrude Saddle.

The following morning on Gertrude Saddle rewarded us with sun and clear views down to Milford Sound and back into Black Lake.

Gertrude Pass, looking towards Milford Sound

 

Gertrude Pass, looking into Black Lake

Breakfast consisted of muesli (granola) in milk, and a few cups of tea. As breakfast was finishing up, a few Kea soared by camp and graced us with a few “keeeeaaaaww” to make sure we knew they wanted to raid our camp. Kea are the world’s only alpine parrot, and are endemic to New Zealand (native nowhere else). They are reportedly very intelligent, but notorious for ripping through tents, backpacks, and unguarded equipment. Taking this as our cue that it was time to go, we started to pack up.

One gorgeous Kea
pc: Isabel La Plain

Rowan packed up first and started up the ridge to Barrier Knob on his own. Calling back “it’s a quick hike” and “no need to bring any gear”, Rowan made it sound like a quick jaunt to the top, which was still shrouded in cloud. Aiden and I packed up the tent, then ran up after Rowan, Max, and Cameron who had by then made some progress into the clouds.

Ascending Barrier Knob with Aiden and Cameron

After an hour and a half hike through an alpine meadow, shimmying up giant fissures, across a boulder slope filled with deep chasms, slipping along an alpine ice field, and scrambling up a scree slope, we reached the top of Barrier Knob.

An ice field on the way to Barrier Knob

The view was completely obscured by clouds but I took some photos anyway and enjoyed a hot cup of tea. Another Tramping Club group had ascended Barrier Knob from a fiord on the other side, and had brought full climbing gear, tea, and warm coats.

Celebrating at the top of Barrier Knob

The route down was even more treacherous than the climb because of rockfall (we had no helmets), slipping while descending, and disorientation in the mist. Our group pushed on through the clouds, inadvertently approaching a sheer 600m drop into the fiord we had ascended yesterday.

Being lost in the mist

Eventually we made our way safely down and loaded onto the bus for a long drive back to Dunedin. My knees (and legs in general) are completely worn out, just walking down stairs makes me sore, but I’ll rest up and hopefully be in tip-top shape for my geology trip next week. We’ll be returning to Fiordland, this time staying cozy at Borland Lodge. The following week is fall break at Uni, so I’ll be travelling with Danni and Claire to the west coast to visit Fox and Franz Joseph Glaciers, and up into the sunny beaches of Abel Tasman National Park. The Tramping Club has loaned me a hiking pack, sleeping bag, and sleeping pad all for free during these travels.

On a completely separate note I’ve had my first test in Maori pronouncing nearby place names of which I am very confident, and several Quantum Physics workshops which I continue to struggle through, but that is to be expected with quantum. So far my experience at the University of Otago has provided me a mix of phenomenal outdoor activity, engaging academics, and countless encounters with interesting people.

Fiordland: Track Clearing & Gertrude Saddle

This past weekend I visited Fiordland and had the exhausting but incredibly rewarding opportunity to complete three hiking trips over the course of two days. The Otago University Tramping Club is a student run group which organizes tramping (hiking) and climbing trips. This weekend there were several Tramping Club trips to Fiordland, totaling about 60 students. We drove out Friday evening, and made it into Cascade Creek Campsite at midnight. I set up my tent in the fog, but woke up to clear skies and chilly winds in the bottom of the fiord.

Cascade Creek Campsite

Our first tramp was conducting trail maintenance on Hollyford track. We took machetes, hand saws, and clippers to cut back ferns and fallen trees blocking the path. In some places the trees with trail markers had fallen down, so we had to search for the track among the overgrowth and mark new trees for the trail.

A few minutes along the track is a highly questionable bridge made simply of three cables. These bridges are gradually being replaced for safety concerns, but in no hurry. Some river crossings consist of only two cables, one to walk on and one to hold above your head, so we actually had a fairly safe bridge.

Our tramp leader, Rowan, works for DOC (Department of Conservation) and told interesting stories about conservation methods in New Zealand, particularly about the war on stoats. Another trip member, Aiden, had taken two gap years to train as an arborist. About 2 hours into our hike we met Max. This shirtless guy wearing sandals (we were all in boots) came running up behind us waving at Rowan. Max had graduated from the University of Otago a few years ago, and was working full time in the conservation field. Max stayed with our group for the rest of the weekend, and proved to be an invaluable hiking partner and all around cool guy.

Track clearing on Hollyford Track

After a full day on Hollyford Track, our group drove out to the Gertrude Saddle trailhead. We started hiking at sunny 7pm but as we ascended to the saddle, mist rolled over us and the sun began to set. At the trailhead I realized that my rented backpack had a broken back; the main back brace was cleanly snapped in half rendering the pack useless. Luckily Rowan lent me his spare day pack, but I had to ditch some gear (spare socks, a few layers, and my extra water bottle) at the van and awkwardly strap my tent onto the small pack.

Heading up to Gertrude Saddle

Crossing the basin was flat and easy enough, but at the back of the fiord we essentially climbed a track along a waterfall. The water is so pure in the mountains of Fiordland, and there are no local mammals to transmit disease, that we drank directly from these alpine streams. At first it felt weird drinking directly from a stream, but hydration is key to maintaining myself on the trail. Thick, rolling layers of fog had slicked the sheer rock face, even making the steel climbing cables slippery to hold onto. At the top of this waterfall is Black Lake, which we skirted around in the fading light.

Skirting the slopes of Black Lake

Next we navigated up a treacherous boulder slope in the near dark, still thick in the mist. Visibility dropped to about 6 meters, so we made loud whooping calls to the other groups camped at the saddle. Navigation by whoop-o-location brought us to the Gertrude Saddle camp at 9pm, where three other University groups had set up earlier in the day. I promptly found a lovely spot to pitch my tent, out of the wind and with only a few boulders. Once inside my tent I ate 8 kit-kats to recover some energy, then went off to help with dinner.

We almost lost Aiden, who had gone to collect water without a radio. After about 10 minutes of waiting for him to get back, Max set out whooping into the darkness. A big problem with whoop-o-location are echos bouncing off alpine cliffs. Aiden followed the whoops right to the foot of a cliff on the opposite side of Black Lake, realized his mistake, and retraced his path back to the saddle.

Now provisioned with cooking water, we made veggie pesto pasta and instant cheesecake for dessert. After dinner Aiden, Cameron (out other group leader), and I squeezed into my tent and hunkered down for the night. I set my alarm to wake us up for our morning hike to Barrier Knob, then promptly fell into the deep sleep one only gets while camping.

Kiwi Living

In this post I’ll give a brief life update on my initial impressions of academics, housing arrangements, and the prevailing party culture of the University.

Academics

In New Zealand grades are largely determined by a final exam or a series of large exams throughout the semester, rather than by regular homework and quizzes. Another quirk of the New Zealand system is that undergrad lasts only 3 years!

In New Zealand there is a rigorous path to become a “professor”, and teachers who have not achieved this title refuse to be addressed as such. Every teacher that I have, regardless of official title, prefer to be addressed by their first name.

GEOLOGY 252 Field Studies and New Zealand Geology:

My geology professor Steve, is an excellent structural geologist, lecturer, and teacher; and he has a distinct Scottish accent. In the few weeks that I’ve had class with him I’ve learned to use a field compass-clinometer, map complex underground structures, and analyze maps that I’ve drawn to identify useful features such as likely spring locations. He takes the time to get to know everyone in class, and works with individual students. Our class has 30 people, about half are American exchange students. While there is regular homework, it is not for credit. The final course grade is weighted on field reports from our two excursions and a final mapping assessment.

PHYSICS 331 Quantum, Atomic and Particle Physcis:

My physics professor Ashton is one of the best professors that I’ve ever had. His lectures are well paced and crystal clear, and he makes the effort to personally check in on each student during tutorial sessions. We have one tutorial session a week, where Ashton and Ron, a physics tutor, help us work on the homework and answer any questions we have. There are 16 students in my class, so we’re getting heaps of attention and support. While the true nature of quantum theory is still a confusing mystery, we have subscribed to the popular “shut up and calculate” attitude of modern quantum science. I’m genuinely excited to be in class because of how approachable Ashton has made quantum mechanics.

MAOR 110 Introduction to Conversational Māori:

Taipa begins every lecture with a 5 minute address in Māori. One of my biggest goals this semester is to understand what he’s saying in this. Taipa learned Māori as a second language, and was given his name by a Māori elder during his second year studying the language. (Taipa translates as “costal village”) Our class is at least 150 people, but Taipa has gotten to know many student names and calls out individuals to demonstrate pronunciation during lectures. This always puts me on my toes, and keeps the class fully engaged in the lesson. The unique sounds of the Māori language require control of every muscle on my face, tounge, and jaw. For example, the “u” sound must roll out, your lips must be rounded, and you must push your lower jaw out. It’s a much more involved process than any language I’ve studied before, which makes it exceedingly fun to practice with friends.

Flatting and Food

My flatmates and immediate neighbors are some of my best friends at Uni. We’ve established a cooking schedule where we each cook a group meal for one night of the week, and cook for ourselves on the weekends. I’ve mastered the chicken-veggie pasta, Timothy makes a phenomenal sausage and vegetable rice noodle dish, Claire cooks quinoa like no-one’s business, Anni likes anything with potatoes, and Danni makes an unhealthy amount of homemade hummus.

My flat on Castle St.

When we’re not eating at home, there are a number of well-recommended restaurants in the immediate Dunedin area. Last week a group of 30 students from our street packed India Garden, where I ordered a very hot lamb curry and barely managed to hold back tears while finishing off my plate. A popular spot for students is The Bog, our local Irish bar. To purchase drinks you need a special 18+ card or a New Zealand drivers licence, but if you’re like me and haven’t yet bothered to get those you can order a pint of delicious local cider (which comes in pear, berries, or apple). I’ve joined the University Tramping Club, which organizes regular outings, climbing trips, and hikes, but which also grants me discounts at the pub. There are frequently trivia nights, sports viewings, and other community events organized at The Bog. The pub is a social hub where student life mixes with Dunedin locals. It’s a shame Walla Walla doesn’t have the same pub culture.

Parties

Parties are a regular event at the University of Otago, and at least one every day on my street. Castle St. has the reputation as the most party heavy street in town, and living here has its ups and downs. I’ve met some of my best mates (friends) at parties, and everyone I’ve met has been incredibly welcoming to have a total stranger join them. As a general rule, Kiwi’s party in large groups with music and alcohol. Party culture in town is monitored by the campus watch, who exist primarily to protect students, but their presence tends to moderate wild parties. The watch is available to escort students home, even if their home is across town. Their strong presence is reassuring especially when parties seem to be growing out of control. Not all parties are in town though, some are set on the beach or in the surrounding countryside.

The morning after our cave-bonfire party

My flat recently went to an overnight party at the Long Beach Sea Caves, in the middle of a massive open sandstone cave chamber on the beach. Farther along the cave system were nesting Little Blue Penguins, the worlds smallest penguin. I chose to sleep out on the beach, but penguin echos resonated out from the caves throughout the night. It was decidedly a once-in-a lifetime experience that I could only get at Dunedin.

Waking up to a Long Beach sunrise

 

Maerewhenua Geology Camp

The University of Otago is a major party school, and the first week back from summer “O Week” is one of the biggest party times. My flat on Castle St. is in the middle of the action, meaning that it is easy to meet new people and a short walk to class, but it tends to stay loud late into the night. My flat consists of Timothy (Hong Kong), Claire (Chicago), Anni (Massachusetts), and our kiwi host Danni (New Plymouth, NZ). Something that I hadn’t realized before coming here is that over 50% of international students at Otago are American.

O Week lasts a full week, but I only enjoyed two nights of it before heading out to Maerewhenua River with my geology mapping paper. In New Zealand “paper” is the word for course. The week-long trip had spectacular views, was a great way to make friends, and I learned valuable mapping skills. Cyclone Gita delivered heavy rain the first two days, making note-taking difficult and camp life absolutely miserable. By the second day every river in the region was flooding, so our instructors cancelled the scheduled visit to a river outcrop, instead taking us to the Valley of the Whales. This limestone outcrop, in the middle of a sheep pasture, is the richest marine fossil record of the Oligocene Age, about 23-33 million years ago. Half excavated and protected by an outdoor display case are early whale bones; the surrounding cliffs are full of other ancient shells.

Valley of the Whales

The weather cleared up for the remainder of the week, giving us a chance to visit an outcrop below Benmore Dam, a giant hydroelectric dam. In New Zealand about 85% of electricity is generated by renewable energy, dominated by hydro and geothermal. Here we learned to use a stereonet and draw a stratigraphy log. The following day we visited the coast near Oamaru and were evaluated on out strat log of a great sandstone cliff. Nearby was a silky seal lounging in the sun, lazily watching us work.

Seal on sandstone cliffs near Oamaru

Near the end of our trip, we spent a day practicing triangulation near a lime quarry in Tokarahi region (incidentally Tokarahi translates as “many rocks”) . The Tokarahi Lime Quarry is on the top of a limestone plateau and, separated by small farming valleys, similar plateaus were visible all across the region. While breaking apart chunks of discarded limestone I found a perfectly intact shark tooth.

A 3cm shark tooth, about 25 million years old.

The final day of our field paper was on the pasture lands of Tokarahi. Our final assessment for the trip was to map a basalt layer across an area 2km long, and this was done largely by walking along the top of a cliff, plotting the location and elevation of the layer. Views of the surrounding country were excellent from up high, and the peaks of the southern alps were just visible above the rolling countryside.

Pasture at Tokarahi

The Maerewhenua Geology Camp has introduced me to the beautiful landscape of NZ and helped me to immediately make friends. This week I’ll be starting my other papers, and diving into the bustle of Dunedin life.

Endless Waiting & The Haka

Today I attended a reception in Waikiki with Whitman President Kathleen Murray, meeting with Whitman alumni and current parents, to communicate campus updates and the future of the college. The whole event was a bit bizarre for me because I was the only current student attending and I had to explain why I was still enjoying winter break at home in mid Feburary… to the president of Whitman! When choosing my program in September I hadn’t seriously considered the scheduling implications of studying in the southern hemisphere, but it’s really quite obvious: southern summers occur in January and their winters occur in July! While New Zealanders are enjoying their long summer off, I’m enjoying a long winter. Thankfully Dr. Kathy Murray is very understanding and promised that I won’t be expelled for skipping school.

I’ve enjoyed 9 weeks of winter break, escaping the northwest chill to be back home in tropical Hawaii. During this extended break I’ve relaxed, refueled, and refocused myself, and although I love Hawaii the suspense has made me even more excited to discover what’s waiting in New Zealand. I’ve connected with the “flatting” or student housing community at the University of Otago, read through a few travel guides on the region (I highly recommend this guide book by lonely planet) and poured over literature about the charming kokapo and kiwi, two indigenous and critically endangered flightless birds.

Adding to the excitement, this evening I received the itinerary for my geology field course which will take me up the heavily braided Waitaki River. The Waitaki is a crystal blue river draining glacial lakes in the largest inter-mountain basin in all of New Zealand, the Mackenzie Basin. Geology of New Zealand is almost completely different from anywhere else I’ve visited, and the opportunity to take this field course is a significant reason I chose this off-campus program.

A few days ago a cultural exchange from New Zealand visited and volunteered at my neighborhood loi, Ho’okua’aina. A loi is a wetland farm for taro root, a staple of the Polynesian diet in Hawaii and New Zealand. After working in the mud patches all day, these young Maori men performed a haka, Maori war dance, as a symbol of friendship between Maori and Hawaiian culture.

They chose to perform Ka Mate, a haka made famous by the New Zealand “All Blacks” rugby team. Hopefully I’ll get the chance to view another haka in New Zealand, they’re very powerful dances to watch.

During the Whitman reception today I had the opportunity to talk with alumni and parents about the off-campus experience, and I encouraged tentative parents to seriously consider off-campus studies as a valuable part of the college experience. Surprisingly, I met with the parents of a student who had gone to Dunedin last spring and had thoroughly enjoyed the field geology course. I also met with the parents of two separate sophomores considering study abroad in New Zealand; if you’re reading this feel free to reach out at any time with questions.

When I finally fly to Dunedin this Friday I’ll immediately be out in the field, digging up cobbles in the Waitaki River and taking pictures everywhere I go. My next post will have real content about New Zealand and the unexpectedly Scottish city of Dunedin, but I hope this post gives you a taste of the agony I’ve been in while waiting to visit the southern alps.