About charise.currier@mail.utoronto.ca

Hello! I`m a third year biology major at U of T, and I absolutely love studying the living world. I chose to go on exchange to the University of Otago in New Zealand this semester, and I can`t wait to share my adventure with you!

As our Kiwi adventure comes to a close

 

The morning we went to watch the penguins wake up.

The morning we went to watch the penguins wake up.

Hello Everyone!

It is truly unbelievable how quickly these 5+ months have gone by. There are so many things that we saw and did that I never had a chance to tell you about (Fox Glacier, Paparoa’s tropical forests, Arthur’s Pass, Oamaru’s high tea and steampunk, the rugby game when we won, dinners out, and nights out dancing, starry walks on the boardwalk, achievements and disappointments at school, marine dissections and the fishing trip, meeting a weka, our Speight’s tour, Tunnel beach, Larnach Castle, and a million other things). Instead, as my last post, I want to tell you more broadly about what this experience has meant to me.

Life abroad is a lot like life at home, and at the same time it is very different. There are still the days when you wake up not wanting to get out of bed. There are still the days when you just want to watch TV and do nothing. But the wonderful part about being abroad is that most of your days are distilled, concentrated versions of life. You cram more into every moment. For the short time that you are away from home, you get a glimpse of what it must be like to get old. You feel like you just don’t have enough time to do and see everything, and so you have to experience the most you can before the clock runs out. I think you appreciate each moment more, because you know that this weird, transient, indescribable part of your life is always slipping away, and one day very soon it will be gone, and you’ll be on the plane home.

But you don’t just gain appreciation for now, you also gain a nostalgic appreciation of home. You miss silly little things that shouldn’t matter. Like food that you are fairly certain you didn’t even like that much at home. Or your pillow. Or your cat waking you up at 8am because he feels, quite frankly, that you have slept long enough.

Do you want to hear the wonderful part? Unlike when you get old and really have run out of time, this time, you can go back. You can take all those nostalgic memories and go relive them. Sure, they won’t be the exact same, you will have changed from your time abroad, but you can still go back home and taste those foods again, and hug those friends again, and move back into your apartment. You can actually go back to your big family gatherings with new appreciation and enjoy the company. I guess it is true that absence really does make the heart grow fonder. Going abroad gives you a chance to put your life into perspective, and to see all the wonderful parts of your life from a sort of “outsider’s” view.

Last time I went abroad, I struggled. It was really hard to be away from everyone I loved and to feel all alone. The culture shock felt like fire in my chest. I hated the local people, I missed home, and I just wanted to go back. And then? I let go of all the anger and frustration, and I just let the culture in. And I fell in love. I met new people, ate new foods, immersed myself in the language. I stopped fighting everything that was different, and I just accepted that there was an opportunity for me to be different too. I learned, and grew, and met people who have become a part of who I am.

I went home and I didn’t know how to communicate with the locals. Strange isn’t it? Canada felt cold and foreign. It was both suffocating (people everywhere speaking loud obnoxious English), and lonely (the people I had learned to lean on were gone, and the language I had to speak seemed inadequate). Just as the culture shock hit me hard, so did the reverse culture shock when I got home.

So you might say to yourself, “That sounds terrible, I don’t want to feel like that!” You actually do want to feel like that, you just don’t know it yet. Almost everyone gets culture shock while abroad, and most people feel wonky when they get home too. But this shouldn’t be a reason not to go! I never learned so much about myself as during that first trip. I grew so much that I came home a different person. When I did come home, many friends said things to me like “I’m so jealous of you! You’re so lucky!” Sure, I was fortunate to have met so many loving, wonderful people while I was there.

But let me tell you a secret: it wasn’t luck. I made it happen. I took the plunge and I bought the tickets. I looked back, I won’t say I didn’t. Looking back now, though, I am so glad I went. If you attend a university, you are wasting your time staying at your home university. Go abroad! You will never have a better chance to go abroad for so cheap or with so much support (for dealing with the emotional roller coaster). I can’t state it any more clearly. If you are reading this, thinking, “I’d really love to go, but…” then stop saying but and do it! If you aren’t part of a university, then it will be an even bigger adventure, won’t it!

This time, for many reasons, my culture shock has been small. It is in part because the culture is not so different, and the people speak my language (more or less). It is probably in part because this time I’m not alone, I brought Andrew with me. This time I had a community in which to belong: my university. Maybe it was just easier because this time I was ready for it: I expected culture shock. But what ever it is, I have had the chance to learn about myself, meet new people, and see a part of the world that is so beautiful and unique, and usually so inaccessible. I have lived more in these few months than I have in the last two years. It has still had it’s hard moments. I have still missed home, but it is all worth it. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

My next trip will be to Greenland or Scotland… or Brazil. Or maybe Malaysia. Or Croatia! Meet me there?

The first snow of the year.

The first snow of the year.

P.S. If you have any questions about my experience abroad, feel free to write a question below in the comments!

Fiordland National Park: kayaking, hiking, and cruising

Hello!

Since we arrived in Dunedin, we have taken several big trips out of town to explore the South Island. I’ve already told you all about our trip to the Catlins when we swam with Hector’s dolphins. I actually went to the Catlins the first time with my class for an ecology field course, and since swimming with the dolphins, Andrew and I went back with a friend. So all in all I’ve been there three times.

Today, however, I will not be telling you about the Catlins. Instead, prepare yourself for Fiordland National Park. Luckily for you, my descriptions will be supplemented with pictures, because I really don’t think words alone could do it justice.

Fiordland photos 001

Fiordland photos 004

Our first stop on the trip was Te Anau for a sunset cruise on lake Te Anau. We were expecting a large boat with about 20 people on board, but we ended up getting a private tour because no one else booked. Anyways, it was all very romantic, but I’m sure you don’t want to hear about that. Gag, I know.

Fiordland photos 008

Even if you haven’t heard of the park, many of you will probably recognize the name “Milford Sound.” Milford Sound is a fiord (not a sound) within the park, and it is one of the most famous and easily accessible. We decided to do the tourist thing and go kayaking there. It was stunning. There is something called the dwarfing effect when you are in a fiord where you really can’t tell how far things are, or how tall mountains are. Everything looks smaller than it is. While we were there, we saw a pod of bottlenose dolphins. Unfortunately, because of the dwarfing effect, they were actually much farther than I thought, and it turns out they swim faster than I paddle. They decided to go out to sea, and we had to head home, but we saw them from a distance, jumping and spouting.

Fiordland photos 009

Fiordland photos 012

We were able to take over a week to travel around that area, because I was on my mid-semester break. We stopped at many viewing areas and we went on lots of hikes. One of the best hikes, called Gertrude Saddle, was halfway up a mountain to a small glacier. The track had many warning signs that were rather funny in retrospect. “Are you prepared? Do you have an ice pick? If not, turn back!” “Are you avalanche aware? You are entering a high risk area.” Andrew and I decided that we would just do part of the hike in (the flat part in the valley), and if things started to look sketchy we would turn back.

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Well we ended up doing almost a 4-hour hike to about 1000m elevation. Since we weren’t planning on hiking for long we didn’t bring the camera up, but it really was spectacular looking back on mountains from half their height. Just so you know, the safety warning were geared at people doing the hike in the winter and spring. Although we touched snow (a glacier). There was almost no snow in the area we were hiking in.

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We climbed up the mountain in the background

On our way home, we stopped in Queenstown, and an adorable old gold town called Arrowtown. There were many picturesque areas around there that reminded me of Lord of the Rings, and for good reason. It turns out that there was a lot of on-site filming around there. It was neat to recognize places and find out what scenes were filmed there.

While we were in Queenstown,  we went up the very high gondola and went luging! I was very hestitant at first, but in the end it was amazing! Don’t laugh at the dorky photos. That’s just mean.

Fiordland photos 018

Fiordland photos 019

The luge track! There were actually two interweaving tracks of varying difficulty

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Anywho, that is all for now. You will hear from me at least once more before the end of the month. Take care! Some more photos just for the fun of it:

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A pretty nice place to camp!

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Looking down on Queenstown from the top of the “hill”

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For Sale! I wish! Oh, and I guess there was another house on the property, but this was the selling point for sure

Fiordland photos 022

The South Island: first impressions

New Zealand just seems packed with national parks, and we decided to start our adventures through the South Island at one of the most famous: Abel Tasman National Park. Although New Zealand suffered a pretty severe drought this summer, when we were there there had just been a week or so of non-stop rain. On the steep roads leading up to the park, there were about 4 or 5 places where the left lane (our lane) was just, you know, missing. It seems that these parts of the road had fallen off the mountain. But, as you can tell, we lived! Hurray! New Zealand roads are just so much more hardcore than Canadian roads: yet again, I am ever so glad that I don’t drive.

While we were at Abel Tasman, we did one day of the “great walk” around the coast. We taught two German trampers and an Israeli traveller how to build a campfire. Apparently campfires are not a necessity everywhere.

Since this post is lacking on the photo front, I am just going to add lots of food pictures. Like these ones!

Half the homemade dough waiting to be made into perogies

Half the homemade dough waiting to be made into perogies

Yum!!

Yum!!

On our way down the east coast, we stopped at Ohau for our first encounter with fur seals! It’s hard to keep in mind that they are wild and potentially dangerous when they look at you over their shoulders with those big watery eyes. They are “take-me-home” adorable.

Andrew's birthday perogies all lines up in rows. Happy happy perogies

Andrew’s birthday perogies all lines up in rows. Happy happy perogies

I know you get the point. Perogies. But really, when you can't get something you love in another country it's nice to be able to make it yourself

I know you get the point. Perogies.

Continuing down the coast, we passed through Christchurch. Now, don’t judge too harshly (I’d been travelling for weeks, and I was a bit dull of mind), but I had a total mind blank as we were entering the city. I noticed a fallen building. Then another. “Wow,” I said, “there must have been a bad fire or something around here.” Andrew did not correct me immediately (he gave me too much credit and thought I was joking). Ten minutes later, after even more fallen buildings and strangely no burn marks on the buildings, it dawned on me: the earthquake. You would swear, walking through the city, that the earthquake was a few months ago. The whole of the downtown was in ruins. For those who don’t remember, the earthquake was in February 2011, two years before we were there. We even went back last weekend, and not much has changed. It’s hard to see any progress being made, and it’s very easy to understand the frustration of people living there.

We went out on Banks peninsula, an ancient volcano. It was beautiful up on the volcano mouth looking down at the harbour. Since you can look out over the whole peninsula from the top, it is very easy to imagine it as it once was, before the volcano mouth gave way to the ocean.

We skipped far too many places on the way south to Dunedin simply because the start of school was coming up fast, but luckily we’ve been able to go back to those places since then.

Think Atlas. I think I pulled it off.

Think Atlas. I think I pulled it off.

One of the last places we visited before Dunedin was the Moeraki boulders. By some quirk of nature, there are perfectly round boulders (concretions) that form in this area with much softer rock around them. As the tide washes away the surrounding rock, the boulders are left on the beach. The perfect roundness of the boulders makes them look unnatural, but I guess nature is surprising, isn’t it?

He looks peaceful now, but you should have seen him when the tide came in!

He looks peaceful now, but you should have seen him when the tide came in!

Dunedin, my home of three months so far, is surprisingly similar to home. It is a small university town on the water. There are many shops and restaurants (mostly all on one main street) that mostly close by 8pm on weekdays. There is an active bar scene among the students, and sunny days are filled with students lounging on the grass around campus. It sounds more like Kingston every minute doesn’t it? But despite the similarities, there are some cultural differences. Kiwis take everything at a slower pace. Not much of anything is a really big deal. If I had to choose a word to describe the culture or people, it would probably be relaxed. That aspect is very different from the “mad rush, super competitive, never-sit-still, high achieving, a million possible activities, jump-on-the-subway-before-the-doors-close” feeling of Toronto. Now that description of Toronto may sound hectic, and it is, but to be honest I sometimes miss the rush. Ask me again in October, and I will be missing the slow pace of Otago University! It’s always a struggle to appreciate where you are for what it is.

Infusing milk with fresh herbs so I can make bechamel sauce (this later became harvest/root vegetable lasagne)

Infusing milk with fresh herbs so I can make bechamel sauce (this later became harvest/root vegetable lasagne)

Also of note, now that I have so much extra time, I cook lots (see pictures throughout). It seems that I bake more cakes than anything (note: usually healthy versions), but I also make lots of home comfort foods like perogies (you can’t buy them here), chili, curry, lasagne, homemade macaroni and cheese, and pumpkin pie. The foods here seem to have many more chemical additives than at home, so homemade is probably healthier. It is also pretty hard to find vegetarian food here, so cooking is just easier.

Homemade chili in the works! It turned out very spicy and delicious!

Homemade chili in the works! It turned out very spicy and delicious!

Since we’ve been here, almost every weekend has taken us out of town, and those stories are coming, but I have also just enjoyed being a student and the day-to-day stuff. When the competitive element of university is taken away, it feels like you have more time and energy to just learn.

Check in soon for more stories from the south. We don’t have very many posts left to cover everything!

The Last of the North Island: caves, museum, and ferry

Hi People!

Anyone who has travelled abroad will know the feeling of “the unknown” that you have before you leave for your adventure. Before you arrive in the new country, you really don’t know what to expect, or even what is worth trying to see. Luckily for me, one of my best friends has done a lot of travelling herself, and when she was in New Zealand she went black-water tubing. She loved it so much, that she and her lovely mother covered the cost for Andrew and I to go (thanks!).

About to enter the caves

About to enter the caves

Based solely on the description of black-water tubing, I would have never enrolled without encouragement…but I’m so glad we did! Basically, the adventure is composed of suiting up in a wetsuit and helmet, grabbing a tiny inner tube, and climbing into an underground cave. THEN, without hesitation, we all jump backwards off a waterfall into cool, dark, eel-infested waters. Okay, so it was a small waterfall, and the eels are pretty friendly. But still.

Learning how to raft up. Look Mom, no hands!

Learning how to raft up. Look Mom, no hands!

Oops! Almost stepped on a 3-inch diameter eel. Sorry bud!

Oops! Almost stepped on a 3-inch diameter eel. Sorry bud!

It was so dark down there that we had to sit very still for a slow shutter on this one.

It was really amazing! The caves are in Waitomo, and they are actually filled with glow worms. It is so dark down there that the worms are all you can see. To be honest, I would have turned around and done it again if I could!

The light at the end of the tunnel! What an awesome ride

The light at the end of the tunnel! What an awesome ride

One of our tubing guides, Scuba, suggested that we go on a short hike near where we exited the caves. After hot showers and lunch, we headed back to that area, and started the trail. It really was amazing! There were all kinds of caves along the way that you could go into and explore.

The last city on the North Island that we visited was Wellington. After a long two weeks of camping and wilderness, we were glad to have a friend (nickname “Quiche”) in Wellington to stay with. Even though she was a new friend, she generously offered her couch to our aching backs. We were only in the city for one day, so we took advantage of that time to visit the national museum (Te Papa), which was absolutely great (and payment by donation). Quiche brought us out to a local pub to meet some of her other friends, and then we left early the next day for our ferry to the South Island (finally!).

The day we took the ferry was a real milestone for me: the first time I’ve ever had seasickness. The Cook Straight is not known for its calmness. Andrew, who was also seasick, just reminded me that I pretended I was not seasick, and instead mocked him mercilessly for being a wimp… he just found out my secret.

Check back soon for road washout, Abel Tasman park, and maybe even fur seals! Take care!

Hot Stuff: Thermal Activity in NZ

New Zealand just happens to lie on the edge of two tectonic plates. This leads to a thermally/volcanically active area running down the middle of the North Island and many parallel mountain ridges running along the west coast of the South Island. This tectonic activity caused the recent earthquakes in the Christchurch area (Canterbury).

So we should avoid these potentially dangerous areas, right? No! They are a huge tourism centre, and there is so much cool stuff to see! There are brightly-coloured mineral pools, geysers, hot springs, bubbling ponds, deep sunken pit craters, gargling mud pools, brightly-stained rocks, and best of all: the constant smell of sulphur! Okay, so the smell of sulphur isn’t so great, but the rest is awesome.

Most of the thermal tourist attractions are near Rotorua and Lake Taupo, however that means that these areas are also really expensive. We tried to see as much as possible on a student’s budget.

Early in the morning on our first thermal day we went to a small town called Te Aroha. A small area of the town is a historic thermal spa complex, and it has been restored beautifully. We watched a small geyser erupt and went for a walk around the town to look at the old buildings and gardens.

Gurgling, steaming, sulphur-smelling, bubbling mud pools. Awesome, right?

Gurgling, steaming, sulphur-smelling, bubbling mud pools. Awesome, right?

We carried on south and soon arrived at Rotorua. After getting some directions at the iSite (wonderful nationwide information centres staffed with knowledgable locals), we continued on to Waiotapu (Wai-o-tapu: sacred waters) to see some amazing natural thermal phenomena. It is all rather hard to describe, and even harder to get on camera, but hopefully you will get some idea of what we saw from the photos below. We stopped at some bubbling mud pools on the way to the welcome centre.

Steaming crater in the ground filled with black bubbling mud at Waiotapu. The paths get surprisingly close!

Steaming crater in the ground filled with black bubbling mud at Waiotapu. The paths get surprisingly close!

 

The minerals at Waiotapu create awesome colours. This lake was very turquoise in person.

The minerals at Waiotapu create awesome colours. This lake was very turquoise in person.

No, I did not edit this photo. It really was that crazy.

There was an eruption of Lady Knox geyser at 10:15am (daily… daylight savings time the same; figure that one out!), and then a self guided tour through some amazing scenery.

Waiting for the eruption of Lady Knox Geyser

Waiting for the eruption of Lady Knox Geyser

We stopped at “Craters of the Moon” thermal area as well. It is smaller than Waiotapu but also very neat.

Craters of the Moon thermal area is very new and constantly changing, so new craters can form through collapse of the surface ground at any time, plus there is hot steam constantly rising from the craters. Stay back!

Craters of the Moon thermal area is very new and constantly changing, so new craters can form through collapse of the surface ground at any time, plus there is hot steam constantly rising from the craters. Stay back!

I am simply amazed at where plants can manage to grow. This pit had several steam vents (fumaroles) that released water vapour well above 100 degrees C, and yet all these ferns, shrubs and mosses seem quite happy.

Lake Taupo is the largest lake in NZ, and the most closely monitored thermal area in NZ. It’s nothing to worry about, but the lake is actually the flooded mouth of an active volcano due to erupt any time now. No big deal. Kiwis are pretty chill about these things.

Beautiful Lake Taupo (photo taken from narrowest bay)

Beautiful Lake Taupo (photo taken from narrowest bay)

Northeast of Lake Taupo are the Huka Falls. They may not be tall, but they are very fast-flowing and they’ve carved a small gorge out of the rock around them. Unfortunately, I can’t find the photos we took of the fall, but you can look them up online!

Next time: underground adventures in caves!

Heading South from the Cape

Hello everyone!

Today I am going to tell you more about our adventures in Northland. To update you from the trip up to this point, we arrived in Auckland, then we headed north all the way up to Cape Reinga to watch the seas collide and play in the sand.

At this point we were headed back south, and while we were still in Northland we took some time to check out the 90 mile beach. Now picture this: a very long, flat, shallow, perfect beach that spanned as far as the eye could see in both directions. When we arrived, the beach was almost deserted but for several locals. We thought we were pretty much alone, but then we went out to wade in the waves. As the first wave washed out, the washout revealed a layer of mussels beneath our feet. I scooped up some sand in my hands, and let the water wash it away. I was left holding 7 mussels. The mussels absolutely covered the beach under a thin layer of sand. Apparently they are a very common, free, local food source. I would take a trip to the beach over a trip to the grocery store any day! It seemed we weren’t alone at all! Andrew, however, was rather creeped out, and just wanted to put shoes back on.

Ferry from Rangiora to Rawene

Ferry from Rangiora to Rawene

Continuing south brought us across a small ferry and onto wonderful roads that wound back and forth through native forest and along the western coast. We stopped to see a tree…I know how it sounds; I wasn’t too keen myself. It turns out to be the coolest tree I’ve ever seen! Tane Mahuta is a giant Kauri tree (Kauri are already pretty big) that is believed to be older than Christ! This single individual tree has been standing in that spot of the forest for over 2000 years. It kind of makes you feel inconsequential, doesn’t it? This tree has spiritual significance for the local Maori people, and I totally understand why; it’s astounding to see.

 

Andrew with Tane Mahuta, the ancient Kauri.

Andrew with Tane Mahuta, the ancient Kauri.

In New Zealand, the Department of Conservation (DOC) runs very inexpensive campsites on reserve land all over the country. The sites range from free to $12, and are usually fairly basic. We planned to stay at one of these the night we visited Tane Mahuta, but I had no idea what we were in for! The site was within the Trounson Kauri Park Scenic Reserve, and had a night-walk path that began right at the campsite. When it was completely dark, we left with our dimmed flashlights (so as to not damage or scare the nocturnal wildlife), and high hopes. We were told that Kiwi (the bird, not the people) live in this area, as do glow-worms. We were not disappointed: around each corner, more glow worms became visible against the backdrop of giant Kauri trees, silhouetted against the night sky.

Shallow estuary bordered by boulders; Another stop along the way.

Shallow estuary bordered by boulders; another stop along the way.

I am Canadian, as many of you know. And, as a Canadian, when I am in a forest at night and I hear loud rustling, I am scared… it could be a coyote, or a fisher, but it is most likely a bear! So when I heard loud rustling, despite my best efforts, Andrew pushed me towards the sound instead of letting me escape to safety (he remembered that NZ doesn’t have bears). And I am so happy he did; we had the very rare opportunity to see a native Kiwi bird foraging in its natural habitat. Most New Zealanders haven’t even been able to come across this wonderful sight. Kiwis are huge! I was picturing a chubby sparrow. Instead I found a noisy chicken-sized ball of fluff poking around in the leaf litter. What a wonderful end to the day!

Our trip brought us through Dargaville the next day, where we stopped at the Dargaville Pioneer Museum. It may not look like much from the outside, but it is one of the best museums I have ever been to. There were endless artefacts to see, and even live-action displays. The staff were wonderful, and I learned lots about the early Kiwi culture and lifestyle.

The next time I write, it will be about the other side of Auckland and the main North Island. It gets very colourful and stinky very soon! Check back soon for that post!

A Fantastic Day in the Catlins

Have you ever had such an amazing experience that you just felt stunned with happiness? Well let me tell you about my weekend. Sure I’m supposed to be telling you about our trip south, but I can tell you about that any time!

We hadn’t seen much of the South Island yet because we skipped most of it on our way to Dunedin. Instead, we are taking every weekend and holiday to see what we missed. During our travels in January another young couple told us that there are dolphins at Porpoise Bay that swim right up to the beach in the summer. Since it is almost fall, and things are cooling down, I was worried that they might have already moved out to sea. So, of course, Porpoise Bay was our first weekend excursion in hopes that we might spot some dolphins.

Walking out to McLean Falls through a pretty forest walk.

Walking out to McLean falls through a pretty forest walk.

Saturday morning we left early for the Catlins. Along the way, we stopped at McLean Falls. There was a lovely walking path leading to the falls, and the rocks around the falls were shaped in such a way that they were almost steps, and you could climb right up to the base of the main falls.

The higher region of McLean Falls.

The higher region of McLean Falls.

From there, the next stop was Porpoise Bay. Luckily, I had been talking to my professor of marine biology, who specializes in researching Hector’s dolphins, on Friday and he suggested bringing wetsuits. Just so you know, Hector’s dolphins are the world’s smallest dolphins, and the rarest, and Porpoise Bay is the only place in the world where any dolphins come so close to shore naturally.

So excited for Hector's dolphin swimming time!

So excited for Hector’s dolphin swimming time!

We arrived at the long sandy bay around lunch, and suited up. Even from up the hill near the shop and toilets you could see the dolphins leaping all the way out of the water, twisting in mid air and landing in almost the same spot they left. It was amazing!

Now don’t get me wrong…the water was cold. But really, how cold is cold when there are dolphins? We waded into the water with all the safety precautions: do not enter water near dolphins, do not swim towards them.

So we went all that way just to look at them from a distance? Of course not! Within minutes the dolphins had swum over to us and were swimming all around us. They were swimming between Andrew and I, they were catching waves right in front of us. Oh, you didn’t know that dolphins love to body surf? They are great at it. They always catch more waves than the human surfers. If you turn and watch the wave breaking behind you, you can even see them diving out of the back of the wave and swimming back to catch the next one.

[Hopefully there will be real dolphin photos to follow when we get the film developed on the waterproof camera. Developing film…is that still a thing?]

Several hours later we had to get out of the water. We couldn’t feel our hands or feet, and almost all the dolphins had suddenly left. We later learned that dolphins don’t mix well with sea lions, so maybe there was one approaching.

At our hostel at Slope Point that afternoon the hostess suggested that we wait until sunset to visit the petrified forest at Curio Bay. In the meantime we walked out to Slope Point. It is the farthest south point on the South Island.

Slope Point is the farthest south point on the South Island.

Slope Point is the farthest south point on the South Island.

Did I mention that the hostel was more of a hotel than a hostel? It was so comfy and nice, and they even let us feed the lambs. We had dinner and headed over to the petrified forest.

A neat juxtaposition of new and ancient life in the petrified forest.

A neat juxtaposition of new and ancient life in the petrified forest.

The petrified forest is exactly what it sounds like: an ancient forest turned to stone. There were fossil logs, tree stumps, and sapling stumps. It was a beautiful rocky shelf that is only fully visible at low tide, as it is right in the bay. Luckily we were there at low tide so we could see everything. As soon as we arrived, we saw a big fluffy animal sitting on the rocks near the forested area. Guess what it was! A juvenile yellow-eyed penguin!

Curio Bay, with fossilized fallen trees and stumps

Curio Bay, with fossilized fallen trees and stumps

Fossilized log (yes, that is rock) with lots of new life around it.

Fossilized log (yes, that is rock) with lots of new life around it.

As the sun set, the adults came up on shore from their day at sea. We saw about 7 or 8 adults before we left. They are so cute! We all know that penguins waddle when they walk, but this is a rocky shore, so they spend most of their time hopping around. Unfortunately the photos are terrible; these animals are threatened, so approaching them too closely could have a detrimental effect on their behaviours towards their young (e.g., refusing to feed the young). Since we like yellow-eyed penguins, we stayed well back!

Can you find both penguins?

Can you find both penguins?

So there you go! Our first penguin sighting, and the first time we’ve swum with dolphins. Add to that the fact that they were Hector’s dolphins (the rarest in the world) and yellow-eyed penguins (the rarest penguin in the world). And that was all on Saturday!

And so begins my Kiwi adventure

Traveling half-way around the world takes some time, but 30 hours and 8 time zones later, the plane finally arrived in Auckland, New Zealand right in the middle of summer. I should probably mention that I brought my fiancé Andrew along for the trip, and what a trip we have had so far. I’ll start at the start.

Walkway in downtown Auckland

Walkway in downtown Auckland

We want to see as much of the country as possible before school starts in February near the southern tip of New Zealand. Auckland is the biggest city in NZ, so what better place to start! The harbour sparkles, and the parks are the brightest shade of green you can imagine. I thought it might just be the novelty of it all that made the city seem so sunny- it turns out there is a huge ozone hole above New Zealand. That also explains the sunburns. The Auckland Domain park had these amazing trees with long branches that are so heavy that they touch the ground, and then bend and start growing back up. The strange part about NZ parks is that every time you hear rustling and look up expecting to find a squirrel there is a bird instead. The only mammals native to NZ are a couple species of bats. This makes for a very unique faunal assemblage, with many birds filling typical “mammal niches.” In other words, they have birds to do what our squirrels and mice and rabbits do.

Can you spot that head peeping up from inside the tree? That's Andrew, 190cm tall, standing inside the tree hollow.

Can you spot that head peeping up from inside the tree? That’s Andrew, 190cm tall, standing inside the tree hollow.

As soon as we were packed up and ready, we headed north. North is not the direction most tourists head for when leaving Auckland, but since we had almost a month to tour, Northland was our first stop. The first thing you notice when travelling around New Zealand is how quickly the landscape changes. You quickly go from grassy pastures to native forest (with palm trees and tree-sized ferns), back to logging forest (pine trees row on row), and on to golden beaches. And that’s just the Northland peninsula.

New Zealand highways and roads are grouped into three types: scenic highways, alternate highways, and roads that Canadians would really probably call paths or perhaps rural driveways. Many of these alternate highways even aren’t paved and are only one lane wide through switchbacks and endless blind corners. I suppose you get used to them eventually, but I’m glad I’m not driving. New Zealand is absolutely breathtaking; the scenic highways are certainly called that for a reason.

I bet you wouldn't guess New Zealand!

I bet you wouldn’t guess New Zealand!

The trip to the northern tip of the north island took several days with stops along the way. Eventually we made it to the most unexpected place: the Te Paki sand dunes. It turns out that most of the rolling hilly landscape of Northland is just overgrown sand dunes, but right on the northern tip of New Zealand, the sand dunes are bare and enormous. They are absolutely spectacular.

I am standing on a sediment of sea shells and sand... at the top of the sand dunes. Explain that!

I am standing on a sediment of sea shells and sand… at the top of the sand dunes. Explain that!

Once you climb to the top, all you can see is sand; there are no trees within view and no water around. You can easily imagine that you are stranded in the middle of a desert…but you shouldn’t; it makes you terribly thirsty. While we were up there, we took advantage of the strong wind and lack of trees to fly a kite! I even found an area at the top with fossilized sea shells; it must have been at the bottom of the ocean at one time!

Ironically enough, it is a kiteboarding training kite that I am flying... with no water in view.

Ironically enough, it is a kiteboarding training kite that I am flying… with no water in view.

The last stop on our northward trek was Cape Reinga. This is the farthest north you can go by road in New Zealand (the northernmost point is inside a scientific reserve). In the waters north of the cape the Tasman Sea meets the Pacific Ocean. The two meet in wild, turbulent waters that are impassible by boats. Each body of water has its own colour and direction of waves, and the meeting point is spectacular.

The northern cape where the Tasman Sea meets the Pacific Ocean. It's even more beautiful in person.

The northern cape where the Tasman Sea meets the Pacific Ocean. It’s even more beautiful in person.

That concludes the northbound part of our journey, with more to come for the trip south.

Canada made the sign! Yay for Vancouver! This beautiful little lighthouse sadly put a man out of business, since it does not need to be manned, unlike its predecessor.

Canada made the sign! Yay for Vancouver! This beautiful little lighthouse sadly put a man out of business, since it does not need to be manned, unlike its predecessor.