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AOTEAROA (April 2015)

As I alluded to in my previous post, I’ve just spent a month in New Zealand – or Aotearoa, as named by the Maori people who colonized the islands just less than 1000 years ago.  The country's had a strong presence in my imagination since high school, with it's recent colonization and unusual natural history.  When people finally arrived on this very isolated landmass from Polynesia around 1250 A.D., they found it swarming with birds – small and large, airborne and grounded.  One type, the Moa, was probably the largest bird ever witnessed by humans, standing up to 12 feet tall and weighing up to 240kg.  Another, the extraordinarily massive and deadly Haast’s Eagle, prowled the skies hunting creatures that included the great Moa, and eventually, probably humans as well.  These species competed with the early settlers, and didn’t last long after their arrival.  Before this time, in finding so remote an island group, birds had secured for themselves a gargantuan ocean oasis free from mammals, (excepting 2 species of bat) and other predators, who weren't able to to cross the vast seas surrounding it.  The fact that it's at once so remote (it lies practically at the centre of what some geographers call the Water Hemisphere), so large, and so temperate, is what makes it so interesting for me.  It always seemed like my kind of place from afar.

  Upon my arrival in Auckland, I was greeted by my friends Mikayla and Andrea, who had just spent 2 months in the Solomon Islands doing research for National Geographic.  After a couple of days acquiring some camping gear and supplies, we hit the road in a cheap rental vehicle, keen for adventure.  After about a day of travel, we became entranced by the landscape, even laughing at times about how absurdly beautiful it was.  Starting off in the Bay of Islands at the northern tip, jumping off waterfalls and snorkelling in some lively waters, we started making our way all the way down south.  This excursion included beach camping on the Coromandel peninsula, swimming through big waves, gazing at colourful geothermal pools near Rotorua, volcano hiking near Lake Taupo, hanging out in cool cities like Wellington, ferry riding, hiking in enchanted Middle-Earthian forests, dipping into lakes, tramping through giant mountain ranges, and of course many hours of driving, which was enjoyable enough in such an otherworldly location...

Before all this, part of me (only a small part) thought it might not have the same impact on me as my summer experience in Australia had, if only because of the sheer contrast I felt after being immersed in the drab Canadian winter immediately before that.  Such a notion was instantly swept away upon leaving Auckland, as so much of what I had my mind blown by in Oz (particularly in Tasmania) was not only matched but amplified here.  I recalled an Australian friend, who shortly before my departure from Tasmania told me that in many ways NZ was "Tassie on steroids”.  While I would definitely still say that there are tons of highly unique features of southeastern Australia, he certainly wasn’t off by much in summing it up that way.  

Like in Australia, the plethora of fascinating textures is endless, at all scales.

After spending an excellent final handful of days based in Queenstown, which is arguably the country’s most lively and interesting town (despite it’s tiny size of 13,000), I split off with Andrea and Mikayla, who flew to their next destination,  Indonesia.  It was a bit rough to travel solo again after being part of such a socially amicable adventure-team, but on the upside it gave me a chance to turn inward and focus (in 2 senses of the phrase):  

Moving down to the southernmost tip of the South island to the small city of Invercargill, I hopped on a tiny airplane to the very isolated Stewart Island, a place that is just about as far south as it is possible (for people of ordinary means) to get on on the planet. In a sense, Stewart (or Rakiura as it is traditionally known) is New Zealand's version of Tasmania, at least in terms of relatively small size, scant population, and endemic species richness.  Here I had the opportunity to spend days hiking alone in pristine coastal forest without seeing another soul, taking my time to seek and collect wild specimens that I could photograph at the micro-level.  My dream of exploring 'inner space' in a remote antipodal corner of the planet was now very much realized.

Feathery animals, feathery plants – the islands of New Zealand are home to hundreds of temperate pterophyte species (spore-producing vascular plants), including many types of fern and fern tree. It’s hard to avoid the image of the fern in New Zealand, especially the 'silver fern' (Cyathia dealbata), which is the country’s more prominent national icon (along with the elusive Kiwi bird of course).  From an ordinary perspective, these types of plants appear to have fairly minor differences, but under the microscope their true diversity becomes a lot more apparent.   In the identification of many fern types, frond or leaf structure seems almost less indicative of species than the morphology of the sorus (pl. sori), which are the plants' spore producing structures.  At least when you look at them up close…

(The images here are made up of samples collected on Stewart Island, as well as some specimens from the botanical gardens in Christchurch and Wellington )

Overall, my time in this part of the world was perhaps the best experience I’ve had to date.  I absolutely could have stayed a lot longer given the means, and indeed there were many places we wanted to see, hear, feel and smell but didn’t have the time and/or money to. Back in Auckland, after a whirlwind tour from the southern point on my own by bus, plane and train, I sat in a crowded downtown hostel, somewhat melancholically wondering what I was going to do back in Tasmania for another full month without project funding.  My travel-mates, now in Bali, were hinting that I should come join them, sending me images of its exotic luxurious wonders, and even more enviably: its baffling affordability.  After a good deal of reflection, I managed to break through the stubborn denial that it was too late to change my plans and find my way there, realizing it made more sense than bumbling aimlessly around pricey Australia again for several weeks on end, spending all my remaining cash solely on sustenance.  After an anxiety-ridden and sleepless night in that hostel, I miraculously found a cheap last-minute round-trip ticket to Bali that fit perfectly within my flight plans, and required minimal cancellations.  I thanked the Gods profusely, and very excitedly prepared for this next, highly unexpected chapter of my travels.  I have never set foot in the tropics.

I’m launching this blog post onto the 'nets from Lembongan, a tiny and  beautiful island off the coast of Bali, Indonesia.  You can bet that I’ll be taking a pile of photos here and sharing them when I bounce back to Oz in mid-April.  

Until then, peace and love to everyone out there!