Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Snow Day!


We finally got out skiing. On our very own skis to boot. Stephen's mom was kind enough to lug our skis across the Pacific Ocean with her and I promised upon their receipt that I would tell her about the absolute joy we got from their being here (we HAD to use them).

We decided one Monday that neither of us had really important things to do and so it was decided skiing was to be done. We took one of the many ski buses leaving from Christchurch at 7am to one of the many ski hills within 2 hours driving time of town. 2 hours of course is accomplished in summer, with no traffic, and a driver who knows how to work the vehicle in question, not to mention a vehicle with more than a 1.6 Litre engine. 3 hours after we left, we were climbing into the ski bus that would take us up to the field.

There is a distinct different between ski 'hills' like there are in North America and the ski 'fields' here in New Zealand. Ski hills have trees and very distinguishable tracks to follow. Ski fields are bare with random 'tracks' drawn on a little map for you to use as you're making your way down the hill to ensure you don't accidentally end up on a black diamond. However, despite my initial sceptisism I thouroughly enjoyed skiing in a giant bowl, following naught but the good snow.

The other exciting discovery for me were the tow lifts. Unfortunately, the novelty wore off after about half way up the first lift (there are three to reach the top) as there is no chance to rest the legs or relax and survey the scenery (in case you cross your skis, fall down and get run over by the following 12 skiers and boarders). Once at the top though, the view was phenomenal and we could ski along the ridge top to reach some unskied portion of the mountain (and thus more powder).

It was a glorious sunny day and on the last run down from the very top, powder flying up behind at every turn, my ski decided not to stop when I did. Regrettably, my binding simultaneously decided it did want to stop. So on the last run, I was left with one ski on my foot and one ski slithering down the last 200m of hill to Stephen's feet and no chance of putting it back on. I have a new level of admiration (and awe) for people who ski with one ski, a skill I was unable to pick up in the last 200m to the bottom (much to the pleasure of many an onlooker I'm sure). As it was the end of the day there were no tears shed and all in all we ended the day on a high note smiling as we waited beside the highway for our bus (which drove home in an amazing 1 hour 45mins - however it works I know not).

So now all I have to do is fix my ski and we'll be back on the slopes once more.

Monday, July 13, 2009

North Island

The train trip took us up the East coast of the South Island, the 'mainland' as most New Zealanders (at least southislanders) call it. We passed through the plains of Canterbury, amognst the sheep and many vineyards, through the hills, and then onto the coastline south of Kaikoura. Trundling along the shore alongside the road, we would watch for the abundant fur seals dotted along the rocky shores. Some had even made their way up to the side of the road to bask in the warming rays of sun. After Kaikoura, we wove between the shore and the nearby hills. Passing over the salt lakes where ~90% of all New Zealands salt comes from, through tunnels, and into Picton where we diembarked and made our way to the ferry.

The ferry was huge. With multiple restaurants, a bar, two movie theaters (showing the most recently released screen films), and several childrens play areas, not to mention the abundant space for vehicles and people. The two-and-a-half hour trip passed quickly and before we knew it we were in Wellington.

We caught a cab into town and found our hotel tucked back into the steep hills that delineate the city. Wellington is a very different city to Christchurch. Where Christchurch is spread over the vast plains of Canterbury and makes little use of its vast ocean shoreline, Wellington is tucked neatly into the hills that surround the town, making good use of every space available right up to the water. A very pretty city indeed. Te Papa is the national museum located in Wellington ( and what a museum it is. We were told that it was the one thing not to miss while there and we were glad to have a full day to devote to exploring its vast winding halls of exhibits. There are still parts I had to leave unexplored until next time. . .

We were also able to spend some time walking around town. Along the beach drive, that took us below the ever-more cleverly built houses that protruded from the side of the ever steepening hill, the lights of the city sparkling on the dark waters of the harbour at night. Up the hill with the help of the cable car to the botanic gardens, where we saw our first keas and tui. Two essential kiwi birds.

On our third day there we packed up and head to the airport for our trip to Auckland. Flying in New Zealand is easy and relatively cheap. Especially if one is lucky and quick enough to snare a ticket from the Air New Zealand grabaseat sales they have on every Wednesday (we were not). We arrived in Auckland in the late afternoon and caught the extraordinarily expensive public transportation into town.

Stephen and I stayed at the conference hotel, while Jan stayed around the corner at a lovely hotel complete with kitchenette and clothes washer. The most obvious difference between Christchurch and Auckland is the topography. Built on a field of extinct volcanoes Auckland is not flat, nor has it allowed the steep slopes to guide it's building other than the curving of the roads. There are ~41 volcanoes within the Auckland area ranging from tiny hills that the hotel was on to enourmous volcanoe islands like Rangitoto. Fortuantely, I was able to mix in a bit of wandering during the conference and was able to join Stephen and Jan on many of their explorations.

On the second day of the conference Jan left for home and Stephen and I attended the conference dinner. What an event. Held at a local Antarctic attraction, Kelly Tarlton's Antarctic Encounter and Underwater World, the dinner was phenomenal( It began with wine and beer (yes, free) and nibbles in the aquarium. This included a large underwater passageway that took you beneath a salt-water aquarium full of ocean fish, sharks, and other sea life. After an hour we were ushered into 'Stingray Bay', which is a huge room half filled with a waist high tank holding three dinner table sized stingrays and some fish. Tables were laid out and we were invited to dig in. Several buffet tables were laid to near collapse with salads, pickles, mussles, raw oysters, steamed prawns and dozens of sauces and breads. The food was delicious and apparently only the beginning as shortly later more tables were laid out with cooked lamb, pork, chicken, fish, and pasta. After almost two hours at the tables, we waddled back onto the buses and fell into our beds at the hotel.

After the conference, Stephen and I had an extra day in Auckland and we took full advantage of it by going out to explore the volcanic island of Rangitoto. Having spent the previous day there with his mom, Stephen was able to give me a tour of the parts they had visited. Of major interest to me were the tiny ferns called kidney ferns. Highly adapted to the climate, these ferns have a very small surface area meaning they reduce the amount of water loss in the long dry summer months. They also have really neat spore capsules along the outside edge of their leaf. Rangitoto is also an interesting phenomenon in that it is completely owned by the government (Department of Conservation), but there are lingering private baches (cottages) sprinkled along the shore.

That afternoon we climbed aboard the plane and made our way home. Back to Smaug and school and work. Oh well, I'm already looking forward to my next conference. . . .ACUNS in Whitehorse in early October.

Thursday, July 9, 2009


I suppose, with the brief exception of sharing my office space, I have avoided the whole topic of school up to this point. We have been here in New Zealand for 5 1/2 months now and I'm approaching my first deadline; the submission of my proposal. And I've also presented my work at my first conference, the Antarctica New Zealand conference held this year in Auckland. So I figured I should take a moment and share with you all what I'm actually doing here (besides taking in stray cats, shopping at markets, and being cold).

I am studying at Gateway Antarctica, the Antarctic research centre associated with the University of Canterbury ( We fall under the Faculty of Science and are located in the geography building, but Gateway is a seperate entity that has links to pretty much all the faculties at the university. If someone is studying anything to do with "the ice" (that's what New Zealanders call Antarctica) they come through Gateway. The people at the office are absolutely wonderful and I'm pretty sure we have the most worldly faculty (not one of them is from New Zealand ironically). My superviser at the uni is Bryan Storey, the director of Gateway and a geologist, he pretty much guides the paperwork aspect of the project and keeps an eye on me (from Ireland). Gary Steel, my other supervisor, actually works out at Lincoln University (on the outskirts of Christchurch - they have a very strong agricultural focus) but is an adjunct faculty at U of C and is an environmental psychologist (and from Prince George). Others at the office include an Austrian couple (Wolfgang and Ursula), an american (Michelle), a welshman (Irfon) and an east german (Daniella). Lunchtime is always great with conversations ranging from Micheal Jackson's funeral and the newest movies to East German space technology and the intricacies of rugby. But once again, I'm changing topic.

My main underlying question is "How does 'sense of place' develope in remote and extreme environments?" Sense of place is an intriguing topic to me, as it explores the connections, meanings and values we place on the space we inhabit. There has been lots of work done on how sense of place developes in and around where people live (eg. home, neighbourhood, city, etc.), but there has been little to no work done on how we project meaning onto places (or spaces) we have not been. Antarctica intrigues me as well due to its common associtation with tabula rasa (which means 'blank slate'), with relatively recent human physical presence, it plays host to a newly developing culture based mostly on science.

The poster is the one I presented recently at the Auckland conference. It won the 1st prize for student posters. A thrilling result for my first foray into the research community here.

But now, I'm off to the pub.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

A visit from mom

On June 22, Stephen's mom arrived at the Christchurch airport. She had just flown halfway around the world from Canada to come and see us in New Zealand. Stephen was on a break from school and I, well, graduate work is flexible.

We spent the first couple of days around Christchurch, sharing our favorite sights and sounds and places for feeding ducks. We also rented a car and did some out of town travelling. Which was great as it allowed Stephen and I to try driving for the first time here in someone elses car. We first went to Akaroa, a small french community on the southern side of the Banks Peninsula. The drive over was windy and pretty steep, as the peninsula is made up of a collection of old volcanoes, with Akaroa resting in one of the old craters where the ocean now caresses the tree covered shores. Once we got there we hopped on a boat and went out for a harbour cruise. The trip was wonderful, I hadn't realized how much I missed being out on the water until we got there. And to add to that, we also saw a couple of white-winged fairy penguins and a more than a couple Hector's dolphins (the smallest dolphin in the world at 1.2 meters long).

The next day we drove north to Hanmer Springs, a natural hot springs in the foothills of the Southern Alps. We went for a hike to see some unplanted forest and find a waterfall, and returned for the main attraction (the hot springs) before heading back home for dinner. On Saturday we took ourselves over to Lyttelton to partake of the farmers market there and get some food for our dinner and our trip north the following day. We hiked back over the volcanic rim (same peninsula as Akaroa) and into Christchurch, meeting hikers, runners, and a couple pigs along the way. That night we bundled ourselves up and tore our voices to bits cheering on the All Blacks as they played against Italy. The game was complete with opera singers, maori warriors and more than one haka. It was a great way to share our place before heading north for the rest of Jan's visit.

Early the next morning, Stephen and I trundled over to Jan's motel to catch the shuttle to the train station. We pulled ourselves onto the train and headed off into the dark morning towards Picton and the North Island.