The Big Tiki Tour

Alright, let’s do it. While I’ve got lots of cool pictures to share from the South Island trip, there’s too much science to get to to dwell forever on it, so let’s get the rest done in one fell swoop. I’ll go light on the paragraphs, with most of the commentary contained in snarky photo captions… Ready? Go!


Where the cool kids go to ski! And do other outsidy stuff! No snow when we were there, but a pretty cool town on a pretty lake with some pretty mountains, and lots of restaurants and buzz going down at night.

The most obvious and touristy (but still worth it) thing to do was to take the gondola up to the top of Bob’s Peak above the town, with a great view down over Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu. Bob was a pretty savvy businessman to build his restaurant/viewing platform/luge track up on His Peak. Maybe Donald could learn a little about winning from Bob. I bet Bob is tired of winning from winning so much. Anyway…

With a little more time to kill before dinner, we used the internet machine to look up more things to do, and settled on the drive north along Lake Wakatipu to the small town of Glenorchy at the top of the lake. It is apparently regarded as one of the world’s top scenic drive. Having now driven it, I won’t dispute that. The views all along were absurdly beautiful, and the windy road was pretty fun to drive on, too!

Back in Queenstown, we got to enjoy a nice dinner and a sunset-ish from the lakeshore. The next day we also took a little walk around before heading out.

After finishing, we set off on the drive to Te Anau, the southernmost point of our journey, stopping for a few diversions along the way.

Te Anau and Milford Sound

After a long drive through not much of anything, we got to Te Anau–the last outpost of civilization on the way to Fiordland and Milford Sound. It’s possible to take a multi-day hiking trip out that way, but that will have to be for another time. Instead we opted for a bus to boat tour. We stopped a few times along the road back up to the west coast, finally arriving at a boat terminal where we’d get floated out to the sea.

The ferry took us out to the mouth of the Sound where it meets the Tasman Sea. Despite clouds earlier in the day, it was actually so sunny at first during the boat ride that all the photographs were super washed-out. So I sat back and let all the silly people take all their photos and enjoyed the view and waited for better lighting.

And then on the way back, I leapt into action!

After the Milford Sound part of the tour, we made a couple more short stopoffs on the way back to Te Anau, then headed towards Dunedin to start working our way back around to Christchurch.


A lot of my colleagues make a lot of jokes about Dunedin having really crappy weather all the time. So of course when we got there it was raining. But contrary to the stereotype, it was actually quite nice there while we explored for a couple hours before moving on. So by my calculation, it rains 50% of the time in Dunedin.

On the drive back to Christchurch, we stopped at an interesting geologic site, the Moeraki Boulders. Located on the beach near the town of Hampden, they’re a bunch of super nice and round, sometimes interesting fractured…boulders. I know, you’re thinking only a geologist would care about a bunch of big rocks on the beach. But actually they were pretty cool! And lots of people were there, so I’m not alone in my nerd-dom.


The second time around in Christchurch we actually got to look around for a short bit. It’s pretty easy to see the impacts of the huge 2011 earthquake that caused so much damage. Pretty good 1st-world example of the devastation natural disasters can cause.

Back to the North Island!

Having had a pretty low-key New Years Eve at a little park gathering in Christchurch, we flew back up north to Auckland to start the new year with a short trip around the North Island. Since I’ve been to a lot more places up here, I could play tour guide and take my parents to some of my favorite spots. Unfortunately, the weather that was so perfect on the South Island was long gone, and things were pretty ugly for most of the second part of the trip. The biggest downside to this: NO VOLCANOES!!! Seriously, I look at volcanoes for a living and the few days we tried to go to Taranaki and Ruapehu, there was more or less nothing to be seen. What a bummer. At least we got half a look at Taranaki from the plane.

We did stop at a bird sanctuary, which is cool, because I like birds (#birds). And we got to see a Kiwi! They’re nocturnal so no pictures, but they’re super big and fluffy and awesome. And the place is on my way to do fieldwork every time, so I will get my fill of Kiwi-watching while I’m in NZ. We also took a stop to see the Waitomo gloworm caves. A bit touristy, but pretty cool to take a boat ride through the darkness with all the little glowy dudes on the ceiling (but, obviously it was dark so no pictures).

After an ill-advised drive over some pretty treacherous dirt roads in a torrential downpour, we arrived at Ruapehu, where we saw…nothing. I thought if we drove up to the ski field, we might punch through the clouds and get a view. Alas, still nothing. So on to Taupo, where we at least got to see a waterfall. We also stopped by some hot pools. I’d been to them before at night during the winter. In that setting they’re pretty creepy…but still better because they’re far less crowded than daytime during the summer!

Finally, it was on to Rotorua for the final bit of the trip. On the way we stopped at the Waiotapu thermal area, kind of a Yellowstone-lite. Nice enough, but nothing quite compares to Yellowstone, so it’s not really a fair fight. We also took a look at some of the lakes that I’ve been to on previous trips.

And that’s the deal! Lots of things! It was a bit rushed, but not too bad for two weeks. With those things covered, my glaring areas in NZ that I haven’t been to include the northern part of the South Island, and the North Island’s east coast, among other things. I’ll have to fix that soon!

In the meantime, coming up…science, geology, volcanoes!


Two Kiwis, a Swiss, a German, and an American Walk onto a Volcano…

If you’re going to a country to do lots of geological fieldwork, then there’s no better way to get started than to just get out there and pee in the woods as soon as possible, and that’s exactly what I did. When I arrived in New Zealand at 7:30am, my adviser and a couple of his postdocs picked me up from the airport, and within half an hour of my arrival in the country I was already on my way to a volcano. Along the way we picked up a PhD student, my future officemate. Since these are the people I’ll probably be spending a lot of time with over the next few years, it’s fortunate that they are all pretty awesome. A German, a Swiss, a Kiwi, and an American–good to have a group just as geographically diverse as I’m used to from the last year in Houghton. We stopped for lunch in Taupo, a medium size town (about 25,000 people–that’s biggish in NZ–everything is relative!) on a huge lake (Lake Taupo) that is in one of New Zealand’s main volcanic zones.

In fact, Lake Taupo itself is part of a huge volcanic caldera (calderas are super huge volcanoes so big that they don’t even really look like volcanoes–think Yellowstone) that formed around 26,000 years ago by the largest eruption the Earth has seen in the last 70,000 years or so. The last time it erupted is estimated to be about 2,000 years ago and was on the magnitude of 1815 the eruption of Tambora the eruption usually taught about as the largest eruption in recent times. The volcano is still technically dormant, not extinct, so I’ll keep my eyes peeled and let you guys know if you have anything to fear. From there we headed down to the mountains of the Taupo Volcanic Zone, which contains a number of active volcanoes, including Ruapehu, the one we were planning to work on for our trip. While I won’t be doing any of my own work there, it’s still good to get a look at NZ geology. In this case, we were looking to map and identify different types of deposits from the volcanoes recent and past eruptions.

The first day was pretty laid back, just stopping the van at a few interesting places to dig around a bit, look at the different layers, and maybe collect some plastic baggies of rocks and ash to take home. It was the second day that provided the most interesting part of our trip. We hiked the main track out in around the northern side of Ruapehu (the tallest peak on the North Island at about 2,800 meters), running between it and Mt. Ngauruhoe, the youngest volcanic vent in the area. If you zoom in on google earth you can actually see the track. After a while, we cut in towards Ruapehu off the track and started climbing in and out of the valleys and river basins–a lot more direct than the path, but pretty strenuous stuff.

As we got further in, the weather got nicer, and the views got better. We stopped every time we saw good exposures of the particular layers of deposits we were looking for to do more mapping and sampling.

On a mostly unrelated note, there was this awesome fluffy white moss stuff all over the place in certain sections–in some places it was like the whole area was covered in a really comfy rug. It made for an interesting landscape, and later on, in harsher times, I would very strongly consider using it as a pillow.

I say harsher times, because though we traversed the tricky route quite quickly on the way out, we might have made too good time for our own good. We planned to meet up with the track much farther on and then take it all the way back. Only problem was, we misjudged our return trip by a bit. And by a bit, I mean by a couple hours. Oopsa. I mentioned the track was long and windy. It was the “easy” route back, but not exactly a stroll in the park. There were tons of hills and staircases and bends and bridges. The last hour plus was in the pitch dark–lucky I happened to throw my headlamp in my backpack and not my suitcase when I was packing! All in all it was a 30km day–pretty hard work, but I guess I’d better get used to it! There’s probably lots more of those in store for me. The third day was back to van-ology–driving to interesting places and taking short walks.

Just a little more sample collecting, and then it was a late drive back to Auckland for a team-bonding dinner at my adviser’s house.

Originally we had planned to go back for more fieldwork this week. Unfortunately, the weather there for the next few days is supposed to be exceptionally bad, so it will have to wait. Luckily, we’re already planning a trip to Taranaki a week or two from now so I can get some quality time with my volcano. In the meantime I’ll have to satisfy myself with copious amounts of reading about the volcanoes of New Zealand.