New Zealand: Christchurch and Akaroa

The day finally came when we were slated to leave Antarctica, but in my case hopefully not for too long…the time flew by quickly, as it always does when in places so exotic, and I was wishing that we could have stayed longer. But the summer season was over, and we were on one of the last planes out. The passenger load on our flight was indeed packed to the limit – over 260 people. A lot of them were rambunctious Kiwi “Nav Chaps” who had been hired and flown into McMurdo for the sole purpose of helping to offload the cargo ship (American Tern) that had brought in all the winter supplies (which had in turn been able to come in only because of the channel carved into the ice by the Oden). This task usually took about 10 days, but they finished it in a week’s time. During their stay, no alcohol was sold or served throughout McMurdo…I think this fact alone attests to their notorious unruliness!

There were also several scientists heading back after successful seasons on the Ice. Dr. Ainley (leading penguin biologist) had left with his crew a few days before. The atmosphere at McMurdo in that last week was one of a sort of tense expecting, as we watched the serious preparations for the impending winter. Labs at McCrary were closing up, and the building was much quieter as experiments were packed up and data was finalized. I grew a sense of awe at the people that had signed up to winter over – including my roommate, Tonya, who was doing it for a second time. I listened in wonder as she told me the consequences of wintering over – dried out skin and hair, lack of sunlight leading to T3 (a temporary vitamin D deficiency leading to ), and possibly the hardest part – no fresh food! There are also inevitable problems concerning the close quarters, little privacy, and small group (200-300) of constantly interacting people – supposedly lots of drama and interpersonal friction. Sometimes people can go stir crazy. I heard a credible story about one winter, when the lead medical doctor went missing for a few days, and was finally found, having been hiding from the aliens he believed were coming to invade Earth. But at the same time, people also return for the feeling of closeness and intimacy in the community, where strong friendships can be forged. Some meet their soulmates and get married in the “Chapel of the Snows.” Still others have “ice wives/husbands”…whether previously married or not. But I digress…

The night before our departure, we had to do “bag drag” – where we had to pack up all our belongings and take them to the mail building to be weighed and packed into crates for the trip. We also had to dress in ECW, which we would be wearing on the plane. The next morning, we were scheduled to leave for Pegasus airfield around 11:15 am, but the plane wasn’t scheduled until 3:00 pm. I woke up, ate a quick breakfast, and went to the lab for one last goodbye. Then I had to tidy up my room and take off all the sheets, return my room key, and make sure I was ready to leave. When the time came, I walked over to the mail building, where Ivan the Terra-Bus (along with some other buses) picked all 260 of us up, and we drove over to the airfield. The ride was 45 minutes long, and I used it to soak up as much of the barren, beautiful landscape as I could. When we got there, the plane had not yet arrived (it was bringing in more winter-overs and supplies).

Ivan and me

waiting for the C-17

We waited about 2 hours before it finally came, freezing, standing around on the ice. It got COLD! Even in my ECW I was shivering. We watched the plane land (an impressive sight) and taxi around back towards us. Its size and presence still amazed me. About 30 people came off and were bused away back to McMurdo with the longest, hardest winter in the world ahead of them. The rest of the gargantuan plane was packed with crates of supplies, which took another hour (and some) to unload. Everyone was getting really impatient, especially the Nav Chaps, who began horseplaying around…and one of them had his lip busted open, but seemed pretty happy about it. Finally, we got the go ahead to board the plane, and there was a semi-mad rush as everyone wanted to choose good seats. I ended up sitting exactly where I had on the flight down. I was a little nervous, imagining the conditions under which the plane had to take off (off of frozen sea ice!). Just like when we had taken off from Christchurch on the way down, the incredible mass of the plane meant it took that much more power, and that much longer, to lift off – what a feat of engineering! The flight back was uneventful, and saddened me a little more the further we got away from that amazing continent. But I was heading for new adventures ahead of me…

full passenger load

We landed around 11 pm in Christchurch, which meant that it was NIGHTTIME- I hadn’t seen a night in a month, and stepping out of the plane into a warm, dark night was a strange feeling. The next immediate sensation was that of green. Having breathed in Antarctica’s sterile air for a month, I was shocked to find that I could smell all the plants in the air! Dr. Emslie had told me about this, and that people that have spent even longer there, like a winter, are able to smell New Zealand’s plant life from the plane while still in the air!

Once we disembarked the plane, we had to head over to the USAP center to return all our ECW gear. This is the point where some people steal their Big Red’s…supposedly the USAP loses about 12 of these a year! I reluctantly returned mine, along with the bunny boots and the endless layers of fleeces, and the boomerang bags. I picked up my big Australia suitcase from storage, excited to be able to wear lighter clothes for once. We checked out with the CDC, and then were gifted a USAP patch. Supposedly you can also apply for a senatorial medal for “serving” in Antarctica.

We finally arrived at our accomodation – the YMCA – at around 1 am. My Antarctic friend Lee, also happened to be staying there, and we decided to explore some more of Christchurch together for the next few days.

The next morning, we all met in the lobby and decided to split up – Lee and I were going to explore the Botanic Gardens, and the Art Centre/Old Canterbury College – both across the street from the Y. The Art Centre is really neat – it used to be Canterbury College when it was built in 1873 – the old neo-gothic buildings are beautiful, and there is so much history that you can feel, and it combines well with the art. The Centre contains several art galleries/shops and a couple of cafe restaurants, and a wine bar.

old canterbury college courtyard

old chemistry

Afterwards, we headed across the street to the Botanical Gardens, a large, well-maintained park that the Avon River flows through. Lots of people were spending the early afternoon lounging around in the greenery – the colors still all seemed so bright to me. On the grounds of the garden is the Canterbury Museum, which I had visited with Dr. Emslie a month earlier. Its a surprisingly large museum filled with many different exhibits, ranging from the natural history of NZ to the Maori culture, and there is even a nice exhibit about Antarctica. It is free, and well worth spending a few hours there if you ever visit Christchurch. We spent a couple of hours exploring the gardens, and it was so nice to be around plants and trees and flowers again. There was a rose garden that was bursting with color – I felt like all my senses were enhanced as we gazed at and smelled the different blooms.

botanical garden

giant tree

overwhelming colors

The next day was a bit rainy, but having explored Christchurch thoroughly (its a nice town but it can be explored in a day) we decided to go on a day trip to Akaroa – a town 75 km away. There was one company operating tours there, and it was with them that we went. We were going to leave at 8 am, but there wasn’t enough room for all of us, so just Dr. Emslie and Dr. Smykla went. We bought tickets for the next one, at 10 am, for $55. We grabbed a quick breakfast, and then headed quickly back to the Y to grab rain jackets. The bus ride to Akaroa was a pleasant one – the driver was very friendly and talked the whole way about New Zealand, explaining our surroundings as we passed through. Once we left Christchurch, we were in rural farmland right away, and he told us some interesting facts about NZ agriculture – sheeps, asparagus, etc. As we passed the large Lake Forsyth, he told us about the infamous black swans that inhabit its waters. We stopped in a little town called Little River that had a charming little artist co-op in what used to be the train station. Who doesn’t love a renovated, recycled train station? It was cute, and had lots of neat little trinkets that unfortunately I just couldn’t afford. After 15 minutes there, we drove off and continued the beautiful scenic route.

NZ South Island countryside

We started gaining some elevation, and eventually stopped at a point overlooking Akaroa harbor. The area has a lot of Maori history, but I couldn’t really keep up with the story he was telling us about New Zealand’s most fierce Maori leader, Te Rauparaha.

Akaroa harbor

Akaroa itself is the oldest European establishment on the South Island. It was established by Captain Jean-Francois Langlois, a whaling captain in the South Pacific waters on one of the 60 French whaling ships that regularly sailed to NZ (and whose prey provided oil to light the streets of Paris). Since Great Britain had annexed the North Island, France was desperate to stake claims on the South Island. Langlois decided that the Banks Peninsula (where Akaroa is) would make an excellent French establishment. He met with several Maori chiefs and bought most of the Banks peninsula from them for 150 French francs in goods: 2 cloaks, 6 pairs of trousers, 12 hats, 2 pairs of shoes, some pistols, axes and 2 shirts. However, a month before the first emmigrant ship had left France for Akaroa, the Maori had resold the land to the British and signed a treaty with them. The British then sent a warship to Akaroa harbor and planted a Union Jack there. The first wave of 40 French emmigrants arrived on the “Comte de Paris” in Akaroa in 1840, unaware that they were to settle in a now-British colony. Fortunately, due to much diplomacy, no major incident arose from this event. The French Government requested the British Government to protect the rights of French landowners in New Zealand, and this was agreed upon in 1841. Eventually 60 French colonist settled down in two small towns, one of them being Akaroa, which still has French influences – several of its streets begin with “Rue” and still carry French names.

We finally arrived in Akaroa, and were met at the bus stop by Dr. Emslie and Dr. Smykla. They were about to eat lunch, but told us about a dolphin sightseeing cruise that was leaving in 20 minutes. I wasn’t too sure about it – I was doubting that there would be any sightings (especially since many of the companies claimed you could swim with them as well), but Lee convinced me to go (and pay the $68 for a ticket). The trip turned out to be great. The yacht itself was really nice and clean, and it wasn’t crowded – there were maybe 10 other people on board with us, plus the captain and his helper.

leaving the harbor

The weather was fine – while it was a little overcast, at least it wasn’t raining. The water was a beautiful turquoise. We wandered around the yacht a little bit, trying to spot some Hector’s dolphins. After about 45 minutes on the boat, I think I was the first (by a few milliseconds) to spot them and point them out to the captain. Hector’s dolphins are the world’s smallest (adults are around 5 feet long) and rarest dolphins – they are endangered, found only in waters around the South Island. Once we spotted them, they actually came in close to the boat and rode our bow waves for a good 10 minutes. It was so exciting!

Hector's dolphins playing near the yacht

riding our bow wave

We also saw blue penguins (!) and some shags (cormorants). The dolphins were still in the harbor itself, but we actually went out of the harbor to go into a neighboring bay to visit a colony of New Zealand fur seals, which was another treat. The coastline was so beautiful as we got further away from the town…but the water also got rougher, throwing our boat around a bit. But we made it out and into the next little bay, where the seals had their colony. They were so cute!

fur seals, on the rocks


It was here, where our boat was really thrown around, that I began to feel sea sick – I took a dramamine but I think it was too late. Lee was feeling it too. We were told to sit at the back of the boat (where it moves the most) but it didn’t help. Luckily we both held out, but it just reinforced my notion that seasickness is one of the most miserable feelings in the world! On the way back we even saw a mother dolphin with her calf, but they were a little hard to appreciate because of the waves of nausea I was riding. The mother made sure they kept their distance from us, anyways.

Once we made it back into the calm waters of the harbor, I instantly started feeling better. We got off the boat after thanking the captain for such a nice trip, and headed off to look for some food. The cruise had been a little over 2 hours, meaning that we got back into town around 3:00 pm. We tried finding the cheapest locale for food, but its kitchen was closed until dinnertime. Which was fine, because we ended up in a cozy little cafe that served some delicious sandwiches (with salad!!). Our pick up was scheduled at 4:30, which did not leave us a lot of time to explore. Akaroa is a tiny little town, but it would have been nice to have a few more hours to walk to the other end. But I had a wonderful time there – seeing the dolphins was a real highlight of my time in New Zealand. Even the drive back was pleasant because the scenery was amazing. The South Island is really green and beautiful, and it seems with a lot of wilderness. And it would be so amazing to have more time to spend exploring that wilderness….but alas, my time there was short. I was awaiting my Australia visa approval, which I had put off till the few days before we left Antarctica (thinking it would take no time to get approved). Raytheon Polar had scheduled my flights to leave the next day, but I told them to push it off for another day since it wasn’t approved yet…and it was no problem! Really awesome. Ethan was my saving grace, though, because he was the one that told me about the ETA – basically instant internet-approved visa (for up to 3 months)…so I applied for that and could go to Australia while I waited for my student visa to go through.

So I left for Townsville, Australia, and a whole new set of adventures that Friday, February 12th…

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