Wednesday, February 27, 2013

We Survived Orientation!

Things are finally settling down in Dunedin after the insanity of Orientation Week (O-week). Avoiding the piles of burning couches and impromptu street parties, we went to a few of the school sponsored events including a hypnotist and a crazy concert by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. I never want to be in a mosh pit again. Ever.

The weekend of Orientation Week we took a bus down to the beautiful St. Claire's beach for a morning of surf lessons. Our instructor was a super nice Canadian surfer named Garret who spent plenty of one on one time with everyone in the class. I picked it up pretty quickly and had a ball. If I can figure out how to get my hands on a surfboard for cheap I'd love to go back and do some surfing on my own.

St. Claire's Beach, taken with a GoPro
The day after that we went on a tour of the Cadbury Chocolate Factory and the Speight's Brewery. The Cadbury tour guide (who reminded everyone of Sheldon from the Big Bang Theory) took us through each of the floors of the facility and up a mysterious giant purple silo that he refused to explain until after he had shown us what it did. After climbing up the dark sticky spiral staircase inside the silo, the tour guide gave a small speech about a large, intimidating machine hanging in front of us, and then pressed a big red button. There was a metallic clang and a cascade of chocolate came rushing out and down to the very bottom of the silo. I made the mistake of standing too close to the railing, and the splashes from the chocolate fall got all over my shoes. According to the tour guide this device serves no functional purpose whatsoever besides dumping one metric ton of liquid chocolate onto the tour groups that get taken through the factory. Cool.

He handed out a variety of candies as he took us through the rest of the factory, most of which I've never seen before. New Zealand has a type of candy called "Crunchies" which are little bits of honeycomb and toffee covered in chocolate. There are also "Jaffas" which are basically giant M&Ms with an orange flavored candy coating (although our tour guide was adamant that the Cadbury chocolate inside of a Jaffa is way better than the kind in M&Ms). If you've been following my blog, you may remember I mentioned that the steepest residential street in the world is Baldwin Street, found right here in Dunedin. Once a year, Cadbury sponsors an event where they release 25,000 giant Jaffas at the top of Baldwin Street to race all the way to the bottom. You can read more about the event at

Jaffa Race
After the Cadbury tour we headed over to Speight's Brewery for a tour and tasting session. The Speight's Brewery is currently undergoing some heavy renovations as a result of the earthquake in Christchurch last year. The brewery there was completely demolished so the one in Dunedin is in the process of becoming the number one brewery in all of the south island. Our guide for this tour had an awesome south island accent and absolutely loved Speight's beers, especially the "Gold Medal Ale," which gets its name from the two gold medals it won at the Melbourne Exhibition in 1880. We were shown around the entire gravity fed factory, from the water extraction and treatment rooms (Speight's pulls all its own water from underground) all the way to the massive copper fermentation vessels. Once the tour was over our guide told us he was going to "Buy everyone some beers!" and led us to a small bar inside the brewery where the tour group had open access to taps of a number of different varieties of Speight's beer (and cider!). I tried a little of everything (there were 5 types of ales to choose from and one cider) and although I still haven't developed much of a taste for beer, the cider they make is fantastic.

Speight's Brewery, Dunedin NZ

This weekend we're heading back to Queenstown! This time we're tramping the Routeburn Track (eight hours of hiking) and possibly going bungy jumping again depending on how things go.

See you later! I miss everyone back home!

Monday, February 18, 2013


Last Thursday six of us piled into a car that was supposed to seat only five and set off for Queenstown, the adventure capital of the world. Besides the fact that I knew I wanted to go bungy, we really didn't have much of a plan. The car ride up was probably through some of the most beautiful scenery I've ever had the pleasure of admiring. My tablet, loaded with books and games for the trip, lay forgotten in my lap for the entirety of the ride.

White sky, blue water, and stony banks

After arriving in Queenstown we got settled in the hostel, and then argued over what we should do the next day. One of the hosts at the hostel began to rave about how amazing river surfing was, so we all bought tickets to that. River surfing is essentially white water rafting, but instead of a raft everyone rides a boogie board.

That night Donna and I separated from the group and went out for a fantastic valentines day dinner. It was one of the prettiest (and most expensive, but totally worth it) meals I've ever eaten.

The next day we woke up bright and early to catch the bus to the Kawarau bridge for my bungy. The Kawarau bridge sits 43m above the surface of the beautifully blue river below. It is also the first commercially opened bungy jump in the world.  

When we set out for the bridge I was going to be the only one of our group that was jumping. By the time we got there however, three other members of our group had nervously agreed to jump as well.

I was up first, and after getting my harness and GoPro set up, made my way to the edge of the bridge. Looking down made my head spin, but there was a line behind me so I tried not to hesitate. I thanked the goofy bungy operator who had set up my harness, and leapt into the blue below.

Look out below!
The few seconds of freefall were intense, and the water rushing up to me exhilarating. As the bungy stretched to it's limit, I was plunged face first into the water below, and then immediately yanked back out, soaked but laughing.

There's GoPro footage of the jump on Facebook if you want to get a better idea of what it was like.

The rest of the group who were jumping followed suit, and soon we were all piled back into the bus and on our way to the next activity for the day, river surfing.

We arrived at the part of river we were surfing, a few kilometers upstream of the bridge we had jumped from over the Kawarau river just a few hours ago. The section of the river we were to be riding is known as the Chinese Dogleg. We struggled into our wetsuits and fins, grabbed our boards, and splashed into the water.

After some basic training from our guides, we set off downstream. The calm parts of the river were absolutely gorgeous, and we passed a number of beautiful views. One of them was a set piece for the Fellowship of the Ring, where the fellowship passes under the pillars of the kings.

Pillars of the Kings

There were no kings to be seen from our boards below as they were computer generated for the film, but the cliffs were still amazing to see.

The rapid parts of the river were a different matter entirely. It's hard not to appreciate the raw power that water can hold after you've been subject to it's wrath with nothing more than a life vest and a boogie board to keep your head above the surface of it's boiling madness.

It was a blast getting tossed around by the crazy white water, but after the end of our two hour trip we were all exhausted from clinging to our boards and kicking frantically to make sure we didn't get smashed into the sides. The guides had their hands full rescuing those of us that were pulled off the safest paths, but they did an excellent job and I'm sure none of us were in any real danger.

We headed back home to Dunedin the next day, much of our group complaining of being sore but sorry we had to leave Queenstown behind us. Donna and I will be headed back up there in a few weeks, and can't wait to see what we do next time.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Settling in Dunedin

The town of Dunedin (pronounced du-nee-den) is our home for the next few months. It is the second largest city on New Zealand's south island and sits right on the head of the Otago Peninsula. There are a number of unique attractions, such as the Dunedin Railway Station, the Dunedin Botanical Gardens (literally right up the street from my flat!), Baldwin Street (considered to be the steepest residential street on Earth), and more pubs and bars than you can shake a mug at.

Dunedin Railway Station
Dunedin Railway Station

Dunedin is also home to the University of Otago (where we will be attending this semester) and the brand new Forsyth Barr Stadium, home of the Highlanders Super Rugby team. The stadium is unique because it is the first (and for now only) covered stadium on the planet with natural turf. We'll be going to watch the Highlanders take on the Chiefs late next week!

Otago Clocktower
University Clocktower
The Otago Peninsula that lies below Dunedin is considered one of the best cycling destinations in New Zealand. It provides magnificent views of the ocean and overlooks of Dunedin as well. I haven't seen it for myself yet but I can't wait to find some bikes and give it a ride.

Even though we've just arrived in Dunedin we'll be heading out to Queenstown early tomorrow for a weekend of tramping and exploring in the adventure capital of the world. I'll post an update of our adventures there as soon as I can (hopefully with bungy jumping videos as well!!). Once we have our student cards and don't have to worry about overusing the internet in our flats I'll upload all of the pictures we have so far and go into greater detail on some of the stuff we did during orientation on the north island.

See you later, and Kia Ora!

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Kia Ora from New Zealand!

(Kia Ora is the typical greeting used by the native Maori people of New Zealand. It translates directly as "be healthy" and can be used for greetings, farewells, thanks, and a variety of other purposes)

Hi everyone! We've finally made it to Dunedin, New Zealand, our home for the next 5 months. Both Donna and I are alive and well and and having a blast. The last four days have been spent bouncing around the north island while participating in a slew of activities that introduced us to our new home. It's 11 o'clock at night here so I'm not going to get into everything we've done, but I'll try to list them off for now and maybe I'll go into more detail later. Internet has been nonexistent during our orientation period or I would have updated sooner, but now that we've finally settled at the University of Otago that shouldn't be a problem.

Anyhow, some of the activities we've participated in:

  • Hiking (called tramping here) up a long dormant volcano to an overlook of the city of Auckland and then going for a swim in the sea at it's base
  • Stopping in Matamata, aka "Hobbiton" for lunch. I had a delicious steak and mushroom pie alongside some ginger beer and took pictures next to a few hobbit-hole styled buildings.
  • Watching an experienced farmhand demonstrate how to quickly shear a sheep, milk a cow, and how they use their dogs for herding. Gus and Gandalf (two of the herding dogs) showed us their ability to jump from the back of one sheep to another in order to quickly get across an entire flock of sheep. They were amazing to watch.
  • Exploring a conservation center to see the native (and endangered) Kiwi bird and a bunch of other native and non native animals
  • Bathing in natural hot springs in the town of Rotorua
  • Jogging around smelly but beautiful sulfur lakes as the sun rose
  • Experiencing an eruption of the Lady Knox geyser
  • Touring a volcanic area with a ton of amazing volcanic activity such as boiling mud and the "Devils Bath,"  a bright yellow surface pond with a pH of only 2
  • Zorbing, an outdoor sport where two or three people and a small amount of water are put inside a giant inflatable ball and then rolled down a steep grassy hill. Fantastic fun.
  • Visiting the Tamaki Maori Village to gain a better cultural understanding of the native Maori people
  • Learning the traditional Maori dance, the "Haka" (Donna has video evidence, oh boy)
  • Eating food cooked in a traditional Maori style in an underground oven called a "Hāngi"

Pictures and further explanations to come. Kia Ora!

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Last Thoughts from the United States

We're currently sitting in the LAX airport next to Gate 25, waiting to board. The last couple of days have been a blur. Between chalky rock climbing and bouldering, exploring the bustling streets of Hollywood, watching whales leap from the water off the coast of Santa Monica, and enjoying sweet frozen yogurt in Old Pasadena, the last couple of days have slipped into the past.

In Hollywood
In Hollywood

Now we only have a few hours remaining before leaving the United States for six months. It's been a blast visiting Allen in California but I'm super excited to finally be leaving. Donna keeps telling me stories about her memories in New Zealand and I can't wait to have some of my own.

There are plenty of other Study Abroad students waiting to board, so I'm gonna turn my computer off and attempt to socialize a bit before we get moving.

My next post will be from New Zealand! See you then!

End of Route 66
End of Route 66

Saturday, February 2, 2013


Allen took us on a tour of JPL yesterday. It was entirely too educational and extremely fascinating. The MSL Curiosity Rover Test Rover and the Mars Yard were the stars of the show.

Donna, Drew, Al, and Curiosity
Drew, Donna, Al, and the Test Curiosity Rover

The thing I found most interesting was the autonav system that enabled the rover to be completely self sufficient while following it's objectives on Mars. It has binocular cameras that allow it to see a three dimensional image of the land in front of it and judge distances in those images. Then it uses that data (along with other data and algorithms I'm sure I'm unaware of) to plan a path through the environment to it's destination.

Al also took us into the DSN (Deep Space Network) building. Seeing the live communications coming from the ancient Voyager Satellites was really cool. We also saw the battle station for when the flight model Curiosity touched down on Mars.

Next Allen took us to one of the labs he worked in to show us his project, Cube Sat. It's quite an impressive project given the size of the team.

After our tour we went out to eat and then headed to the Griffith Observatory to enjoy an outlook of the city.  I still can't get over how big LA is.

Friday, February 1, 2013

California - The Cat Throne at the Ice Palace

I woke up this morning to the mewing and howling of what sounded like a clan war between two clowders of cats outside the window. Apparently stray cats are a problem for any outdoor furniture here, they are extremely territorial and have a tendency to "mark" anything they consider within their territory. The house Donna's brother Al and his roommates live in has a couch on the front porch they call the "Cat Throne." I don't think I need to explain why..

The house itself is known as the "Ice Palace" to Al and his roommates. It's a cool house (literally, it's freezing at night, hence the nickname), apparently historic, and has a distinct western red mesa kind of vibe to it. Al is letting Donna and I stay in a cozy unfinished room upstairs. The room is reserved for a new roommate who will be moving in before we leave, I think Al said Monday next week.

Al and his roommates are all really nice and I had a good time messing around with them last night after we arrived at their house from the airport. I was amazed by how bright and lively LA is at night. Right outside the airport there was music playing in the street and giant illuminated pillars decorated a nearby building. I'm usually not a city person, but LA seems way nicer than I expected. I can't wait to see more of it.