A southern hemisphere summer

Simon Hird  / /  Geography  / /  University of Auckland  / /  NZ

This summer has been pretty special.

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Summit of Mt. Armstrong, Southern Alps

It’s been almost four months since the end of last semester but the time has absolutely flown by. It’s been a pretty full on summer and now that I am back in Auckland for the start of my next term, I thought it was time to write something down about it. I’ll try to keep it brief…

The business end of last semester came to a close with my final exam on Friday 11th November and I found myself on a flight to Melbourne with 5 of my friends two days later. The plan was to meet up with a couple of other friends out there and travel up the East Coast. Australia was so different to anywhere else I have ever been. The diversity was extraordinary and the vastness phenomenal.

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Australia is a place I have wanted to go since I was a little boy watching Steve Irwin on the television, so to finally go was really awesome. It’s definitely a country I will go back to, most likely to explore the interior and the western and northern coastlines. Some advice I would have from my relatively short amount of time in Australia is don’t expect to see it all in one trip (unless you are coming here for several months or years) – there is literally so much to see. I’ve tried to keep it short here but definitely check out some of the other blog posts from some of the Manchester students studying in Australia for some amazing stories. I have put together a little video of the 5 weeks we spent on the East Coast though if you’d like to have a watch:

I flew back from Brisbane on 17th December to Wellington to meet my Mum and Step Dad for Christmas! Mum and Glyn had already been out in New Zealand for a week before this traveling in the South Island, but had flown up to Wellington from Christchurch and met me as I got off my flight an hour or so later. Seeing and hugging my Mum after 6 months of FaceTime and WhatsApp calls was really lovely and I was so grateful that her and Glyn were able to fly out to spend Christmas in New Zealand. Well, I mean it didn’t take much persuasion on my part…

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Mum, Glyn and Pizza on Lake Taupo

We spent the next week or so seeing the sights of the North Island, with a brief stop in Auckland to show them around the city, the university and my apartment at Carlaw Park. With Facebook, Instagram etc. it is so easy to share this Study Abroad experience with your friends and family, but actually being able to show someone from home around, pointing out all the places you’ve been talking about, showing them your favourite spots and sharing your new home is a really good feeling. We carried on our journey northwards to the Bay of Islands where we stayed for a few days over Christmas. Christmas in New Zealand is very different from home. I guess this was compounded by the fact we were in a hotel but it was altogether a very different but equally lovely experience. We started the day as per usual with opening Christmas presents in our pyjamas, but that’s about where the similarities end. We spent most of the rest of the day lounging in the Sun and swimming, I think it was ~23°C, a bit chilly after Australia but a definite change from an English winter for Mum and Glyn.

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Boxing Day in the Bay of Islands

I said goodbye to Mum and Glyn on Wednesday 28th December as they boarded their flight back home via Singapore. I think it’s safe to say they thoroughly enjoyed their time in New Zealand and were sad to say goodbye. The next day Ben, Rory (Ben’s friend from home) and I set off on our New Zealand roadtrip. We had bought an old Subaru Impreza just before leaving for Australia so we loaded the car up on Thursday morning with camping gear and all that we would need for the next month or so on the road.

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Start of the NZ Roadtrip

The joy of having everything in your car is that you can wake up each day and decide where you want to go. After having more of a structured traveling experience in Australia where everything was pretty much booked in advance we now had complete freedom. There are also loads of free campsites around New Zealand (try the CamperMate App) and some of them are in incredible locations, which brings down the cost of traveling around New Zealand significantly if you are willing to say goodbye to a few amenities… Ben and I added up that over the month we travelled around New Zealand we spent a total of ~NZ$150 (~£85) on accommodation, which included a few nights in hostels and a couple of paid campsites for when there were no free campsites nearby. Obviously you need a tent and a car but these aren’t too expensive to buy/rent if you have a look on websites like TradeMe, or on some of the Facebook groups you will no doubt join when you get out here. Equally if you don’t want to drive the bus system around NZ is really geared up for travellers.

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Room with a view / / One of the many free campsites around New Zealand

We spent the majority of the month down in the South Island as we had visited a lot of the North Island already and we decided to save the bits we hadn’t explored for next semester when we wouldn’t have such a long period of free time to travel. The South Island is probably the New Zealand you’ve seen on Instagram, travel websites or Geography textbooks. Not to take anything away from the North Island but the South Island is really something. The South Island (approximately the size of England) is home to around 1 million people, less than the city of Auckland. That’s 1/50th of the population of England. This meant that sometimes we were in astonishingly beautiful places all by ourselves. There are definitely hotspots of people around the South Island and more touristy areas, say Queenstown for instance, but it’s very easy to get out into the wild.

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First light on the Tongariro Crossing

Probably some of our best experiences in the South Island were in some of these wild places, often on hikes. The Department of Conservation (DOC) has huts dotted around the country for overnight stops for ‘trampers’ (walkers or hikers) some of which are in some pretty awesome spots. One that stands out for me was our first NZ hut experience in Nelson Lakes. We had just spent a fun impromptu night in Nelson for New Years Eve and decided to go for a hike in the nearby national park of Nelson Lakes. There was this hut I had spotted online a few weeks ago located by the side of an alpine lake that I really wanted to go to. We arrived in St. Arnaud and went to the DOC visitor centre to get some advice about doing the hike up to the hut. This was peak season but luckily the very helpful lady had a few spots left in the Angelus hut and phoned up to the hut warden to let her know we were coming tonight. Most of the huts are pretty small, usually housing less than 20 people a night, so it’s often wise to pre-book them – particularly the more popular huts. So we set of on this 6/7 hour hike up the track with our rations for the next two days in the mountains.

Angelus Hike
Tramping in the South Island

Tramping here can be really variable in terms of difficulty but the majority of tracks are well marked and are manageable if you make sure you are prepared. We finally arrived at the top of the mountain ridge which looked down over the hut and the beautiful lake. The sun was setting as we made our way down the ridge to the hut nestled in the mountain top. We could see candles through the windows and glowing faces watching as we made the descent. We were welcomed into the hut with kind smiles, warm handshakes and some hot tea as we we settled into this rather civilised but basic hut. Most people staying in the huts are really friendly (I think not having electricity and often no phone signal helps) and we were soon exchanging stories with others staying in the hut. I woke early with the sun and got out to take a few pictures:

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The Angelus Hut / / Nelson Lakes, South Island

I think we managed to cover the South Island pretty well but I think you could probably spend months down there. We visited Nelson, the West Coast, Arthur’s Pass, Fiordland, Dunedin, Oamaru, Queenstown, Wanaka, Mt. Aspiring National Park, Mt. Cook and the lakes, Christchurch, Kaikoura and a load of places in between. I think if I was to go back (highly likely!) it would be to spend more time in specific areas (Mt. Cook and Mt. Aspiring National Park) and go on some longer hikes out into the wilderness as I think that’s where I had some of my most memorable days in the South Island

After a month in the South Island I flew back to Auckland for a week to prepare some work for a conference. Towards the end of last semester I was asked to present a poster at the ANZGG Biennial conference in Greytown to Geomorphologists from Australia, New Zealand, Europe and North America. This was based on work from an individual research course I took (Geog 330: Research methods in Physical Geography) where I used drone imagery to assess morphological change in the Te Weraroa stream in the East Cape compiled with work by Alan Scandrett and Jon Tunnicliffe on the Tarndale Slip. It was really cool opportunity to meet some of the people I have referenced whilst studying Geography and to hear them talk about some of the current research going on in the field of Geomorphology. It was also an interesting insight into what a potential future in academia would look like.

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ANZGG Biennial Conference / / Greytown

After the conference I was back in Auckland for another week or so before setting off on one more adventure before the next semester started. This time is was on a fieldcourse to the Maldives. I guess this makes the title of this blog slightly misleading as the majority of the Maldives archipelago lies within the northern hemisphere. But the island of Fares-Maathoda, where we were based on for the majority of the trip, was only north of the equator by about 12 nautical miles.

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Afternoon stroll around the island / / Fares- Maathodaa

The Fieldcourse was EarthSci 706 – Coral Systems: Form and Function and was taught in it’s entirety out in the Maldives. A lot of people didn’t seem to appreciate how far the Maldives are from New Zealand. I essentially flew over halfway home to Malé, the pint-sized capital of this island nation. We landed in Malé late at night and caught a little ferry over from the reclaimed land that the airport now sits on over to the main island. The city was alive with thousands of scooters racing around the narrow streets. Land costs here are supposedly only second in price per square metre to New York so everything is incredibly packed together. It’s estimated that over 120,000 people live on this 1 square mile island and I’m pretty sure every last one of them owns a scooter, there are literally thousands parked up on the streets… Malé is probably one of the most interesting places I have been to but not necessarily for all the right reasons. I won’t get into that here but for tales of corruption, political unrest, rising sea levels and growing population feel free to have a search online – there are some really interesting documentaries out there.

We spent a full day in Malé before catching an internal flight the next morning to Kaadedhdhoo where we were met by Ali from the Small Island Research Centre (SIRC) who took us by speedboat to the island of Fares-Maathodaa. We spent the next week collecting data from some of the nearby uninhabited coral islands. Much of the focus was on island and reef morphology, so we conducted a number of topographic surveys around the islands. We were also looking at calculating carbonate budgets of the coral reefs. We did this by conducting ecological surveys, where we swam 10 m transects and recorded the type of cover at each 10 cm interval i.e. Corymbose live coral, rubble, Coraline Algae etc. These transects were repeated a number of times at different stages of the reef flat to give a proportional idea of live coral cover. Using this data and published calcification rates we were able to calculate gross carbonate production i.e. how much calcium carbonate the reef is producing, giving an idea of how the reef is growing.

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Carrying out ecological surveys of the reef

With rising-sea levels, rising CO2 emissions resulting in ocean acidification, warming sea surface temperatures, amongst other threats, coral reefs are under a fair amount of pressure but there is reason to be cautiously optimistic. The low-lying nature of the Maldives alongside rising sea levels does not at first seem like a great combination and in many popular science narratives the end is definitely nigh for the island inhabitants. But what is often forgotten is the dynamic nature of these islands and coral reefs, some of which actually formed under rising sea levels. As a result the importance of understanding how islands respond to change is hugely important to work out which islands are growing and which ones are in decline, which reefs are suffering and which ones are thriving. It is likely that reef islands will still be here at the end of the 21st Century. There is of course no doubt that they will have significantly changed following rapid sea level rise but what is important is managing that change, because it won’t all be for the worse.

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Kandahalagalaa base camp

Alongside the data collection we had a number of lectures in the mornings and evenings focused around the key processes that dominate coral systems as well as some student presentations on recent or seminal papers (10% of the assessment). 30% of the course assessment was producing some meaningful data and some brief preliminary analysis of the data we collected in the field with a further 10% coming from a short video based on our time there. Here is my group’s video:

Whilst we had pretty full days of work in the Maldives it didn’t feel too arduous while in such a beautiful place, and there were obviously times when we could just enjoy the islands. One morning Ali took us out in the boat as the sun was rising to go look for dolphins. We quickly found a large pod of maybe 30 dolphins that started playing alongside the boat and surfing up at the bow.

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An early morning in the Maldives
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Dolphins playing off the bow

The Maldives are probably one of the most beautiful places I have had the chance to visit and I am so grateful I had this opportunity. I came home from the Maldives already having 50% of one course done for this semester, with a report due in a month that would bring EarthSci 706 to a close. But now it was coming to the end of my summer, I just had a couple of days before next semester started to relax, shake off my jetlag and get everything together for another few months of uni.

Writing this blog and looking back over the memories from this summer, it’s hard to not smile and be grateful for such an amazing few months of adventure. Never have I had such incredible opportunities for travel in such concentration. It’s been so different to anything I have ever done before but I have absolutely loved it, being on the go constantly but in such a wonderful way. I have just finished my first week back at uni and I’m starting to get back into a steady routine, which is a definite change. It’s crazy to think that I am now way over halfway through my time here, it’s gone so quickly yet so much seems to have happened.

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Back in the City / / Auckland

Simon

🤘 🖖

P.S. If you guys want to see a few more photos feel free to check out my Instagram: @simonhird 

and…

the Instagram run by study abroad students at The University of Auckland: @studyabroad_auckland

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