New Zealand – The Rest of the Trip

Our first morning in Greymouth we woke up and got a new tire for the car as soon a shop opened.  We were lucky find something before 8 AM since few businesses in New Zealand are open that early, even coffee shops. Once our little Corolla hatchback was fixed up we headed south along the coast for Franz Josef and Fox glaciers. After a few hours of driving, with a couple stops thrown in for sightseeing, we made it. It was then only a short hike out to the glaciers for an up close look.

This is a view of Franz Josef Glacier.  I think other tourists were more impressed with a big chunk of ice than we were at the time, but it was still an impressive sight worth the hike.
This is a view of Franz Josef Glacier. I think other tourists were more impressed with a big chunk of ice than we were at the time, but it was still an impressive sight worth the hike.

The hike along the glacier valley was incredible. The river is seemed fairly large considering it all comes from glacial runoff.

The valley left behind from the retreating glacier made for a good hike to stretch our legs.  Only 80 years ago this entire valley was filled with ice, so it was cool to see the glacier before it melts completely!
The valley left behind from the retreating glacier made for a beautiful hike to stretch our legs. Only 80 years ago this entire valley was filled with ice, so it was cool to see the glacier before it melts completely!

I thought the coolest part about the hike is that you actually start in a rain forest. In the span of only a couple miles you go from palm trees to a huge block of ice.

The lush forest makes for a pretty stark contrast once you get close enough to see the glacier.
The lush rain forest makes for a pretty stark contrast once you get close enough to see the glacier.

After a long day of looking at big blocks of ice we headed north back to Greymouth. The following morning we got up even earlier to catch high tide at a place just north of Greymouth called the Pancake Rocks. High tide is supposed to be the best time of day to see blowholes active there, but I think we must have caught them on a bad day.

These layered rock formations just outside of Punakaiki are absolutely incredible.  Up close they really do look like huge stone pancakes.  The waves were pretty violent that morning but apparently not enough to drive the blowholes.
These layered rock formations just outside of Punakaiki are absolutely incredible. Up close they really do look like huge stone pancakes. The waves were pretty violent that morning but apparently not enough to drive the blowholes.

After an hour of watching the waves we jumped back in the car to head east back across the island. This time we drove over Lewis Pass, which is much lower in elevation than Arthur’s Pass. The drive was equally as beautiful, although in noticeably different ways. Whereas Arthur’s Pass reminded me most of the California mountain range, this drive reminded me most of the Appalachian Mountains.

The drive across Lewis Pass was very green and heavily forested.  There were also places that looked like they were straight out of the Shire, although we didn't see any hobbits on this trip.
The drive across Lewis Pass was mostly very green and heavily forested. There were also places that looked like they were straight out of the Shire, although we didn’t see any hobbits on this trip.

The drive took us most of the day since we stopped frequently whenever something grabbed our interest. Eventually we reached our destination for the day: Kaikoura, a town on the east coast of the island, north of Christchurch. The town has beautiful black sand beaches and was ringed by mountains, although it’s probably best known for tours to swim with dolphins and other marine wildlife.

The weather was mostly overcast the night we spent in Kaikoura but it cleared up a little just before the sun set.
The weather was mostly overcast the night we spent in Kaikoura but it cleared up a little just before the sun set.

Once more we got up early, this time it was early enough to catch the sunrise over the water. We had one more long day of driving so an early start was necessary but the views were worth it.

The waiting list for swimming with dolphins was several weeks long, so we didn't hang around for long.  The sunrise was a great way to finish the visit.
The waiting list for swimming with dolphins was several weeks long, so we didn’t hang around for long. The sunrise was a great way to finish the visit.

On our last day we drove all the way down past Christchurch to the Southern Alps. This time the drive up into the mountains reminded me of the Rocky Mountains, so it’s almost like we hit all three major American mountain ranges in the span of a few days.  Lake Pukaki sits at the base of Mt. Cook, the tallest mountain on the island. We had a chance to see Mt. Cook from the other side at the glaciers but it was too overcast that day, so we had to try again.

We drove all the way to Lake Pukaki hoping to get a good view of Mt. Cook, but once again the weather was uncooperative.  We could see the base but not the peak.
We drove all the way to Lake Pukaki hoping to get a good view of Mt. Cook, but once again the weather was uncooperative. We could see the base but not the peak.

Next to Lake Tekapo we had to check out the observatory on top of Mt. John. From there you can see both Lake Tekapo (on the right) and the smaller Lake Alexandrina (on the left). Lake Alexandrina is spring fed, so it’s more of a “normal” lake color. Lake Tekapo is fed by glacial runoff and here you could really see the difference in color.

The view of the lakes on top of Mt. John was pretty impressive.  The silt in glacial runoff gives Lake Tekapo its characteristic bright blue color.
The view of the lakes on top of Mt. John was pretty impressive. The silt in glacial runoff gives Lake Tekapo its characteristic bright blue color.

This was our last sightseeing destination of the trip. From here we headed back to Christchurch to catch our flight the next morning. It was a long few days but totally worth every mile. I can’t wait to go back someday, there is so much more to see!

Until next time…

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New Zealand – Arthur’s Pass

Our time in McMurdo was short and hectic, but we got a lot done in 12 hours. Sadly, I did not see any penguins so I have to call the mission slightly incomplete. I guess I will just have to go back again.

There were lots of breaks in the ice around McMurdo.  This seal popped through a smaller hole to say hello before disappearing again.
There were lots of breaks in the ice around McMurdo. This seal popped through a smaller hole to say hello before disappearing again.

After a short eight hour flight on the C-130 we were back in New Zealand. Peter and I rented a car and the next morning we hit the road for a few days of sight-seeing.

The drive to Arthur's Pass is pretty easy and you get out of town pretty quickly.  The hardest part is getting used to driving on the left side of the road.
The drive to Arthur’s Pass is pretty easy to navigate and you get out of city limits pretty quickly. The hardest part is getting used to driving on the left side of the road.

We headed west out of Christchurch first thing in the morning and drove up into the mountains toward Arthur’s Pass. The drive was incredibly scenic and we stopped many times along the way to check things out.

One of the stops on the way to Arthur's Pass was the cave streams.  With a few hours you can hike through the caves along the water, but we just poked our heads around to check it out.
One of the stops on the way to Arthur’s Pass was the cave streams. With a few hours you can hike through the caves along the water, but we just poked our heads around to check it out.

Every few kilometers it seemed like there was a sign marking something new to check out. We only had a limited amount of time so we couldn’t see everything but we tried to squeeze in as much as we could.

Lake Pearson is clearly visible from the road and is well known for its mirror surface views.
Lake Pearson is clearly visible from the road and is well known for its mirror surface views.

The weather on the first day was beautiful. It was definitely a great change from the constant subzero temperatures at the South Pole. I even got a sunburn on my neck the first day there.

It only took us a few minutes to get the donut on the car but it made for much slower going the rest of the drive.  I felt bad for all the drivers stuck behind us on the windy roads.
It only took us a few minutes to get the donut on the car but it made for much slower going the rest of the drive. I felt bad for all the drivers stuck behind us on the winding roads.

The drive wasn’t completely uneventful. Trucks driving through the pass were pretty aggressive going around the hairpin turns. One of them ran our poor little Corolla hatchback off the road and we blew out a tire! Fortunately we had a spare to get us through the day.

There are signs posted everywhere warning tourists not to feed the birds: "A fed kea is a dead kea!"
There are signs posted everywhere warning tourists not to feed the birds: “A fed kea is a dead kea!”

There is very little wildlife in New Zealand, especially in terms of large animals. Most animals you do see are birds. The island is famous for the Kiwi, a small flightless bird that has almost been eradicated by foreign species like the possum. In Arthur’s Pass we spotted Kea in town, another flightless bird that looks similar to a large parrot.

Devils Punchbowl falls was one of the shorter, easier hikes accessible from the pass.  There are a dozen other hikes that I would love to go back and try.
Devils Punchbowl Falls was just one of the shorter, easier hikes accessible from the pass. There are a dozen other hikes that I would love to go back and try.

We hiked a few trails up at the pass and just enjoyed the green scenery. We stuck around for a few hours before heading down the other side of the mountains. With all our stops we spent all day driving across the island  but really it only took about four and a half hours of driving time to get from the east coast to the west coast.

Greymouth was a beautiful coastal town on the west coast of New Zealand.  It was pretty quiet at night but the scenery was great.
Greymouth was a beautiful coastal town on the west coast of New Zealand. It was pretty quiet at night but the scenery was fantastic.

The first night we stayed in a town called Greymouth. It was a quiet little seaside town that served as our base for the next couple days.

I have more pictures from the following days that I will post eventually.

Until next time…

Day 46 – Back to civilization!

No pictures this time, just a quick update. We were only in McMurdo for about 12 hours before catching the next flight back to Christchurch. It’s been a pretty hectic 36 hours, but it’s good to be back in the civilized world again. The time on the ice was incredible but it’s nice to be allowed a shower longer than 2 minutes and to sleep with the sun set (first time I’ve seen it go down in over a month!).

Peter and I have already rented a car and plan to see a little bit of the country here before heading back to the US. Should be lots of pictures to share, I’ll try to post some when I can.

Until next time…

Day 45 – Leaving South Pole

We ended up stranded at the South Pole for a week after finishing all our work.  An unfortunate combination of bad weather and mechanical issues meant flights were cancelled daily.  The South Pole may sound like a great place to be stuck, but cabin fever sets in rather quickly with no work to do.  The NSF finally pulled together support and got a Basler to retrieve 12 of us who had been waiting for a while.

All aboard! The Basler is a  refurbished DC-3, a WW2 era design.
All aboard! The Basler is a refurbished DC-3, a WW2 era design.

The Basler is smaller than a C-130 but much roomier than the Twin Otter, especially without all the extra camping equipment.  The best part is that the windows are plenty big.

There are seats for over 20 people but when half the aircraft is occupied by luggage and survival gear the maximum passenger capacity drops in half.  Still, the plane was plenty spacious and ride was very smooth.
There are seats for over 20 people but when half the aircraft is occupied by luggage and survival gear the maximum passenger capacity drops in half. Still, the plane was plenty spacious and ride was very smooth.

The first couple hours of flying looked like the South Pole, just a whole lot of flat white horizon.  Eventually we came upon the Trans-Antarctic mountains.

The mountains seemed to just rise up out of the snow in the plateau.  It was exciting to see a ground feature that wasn't white for the first time in over a month.
The mountains seemed to just rise up out of the snow in the plateau. It was exciting to see a ground feature that wasn’t white for the first time in over a month.

The Basler doesn’t fly over the mountains very well so instead it navigates a pass through the mountains.  Before long we were looking out the window directly at rock faces.

The scenery was absolutely stunning.  We were lucky to be in the Basler since the C-130 flies too high and its windows are too small to get this sort of view.
The scenery was absolutely stunning. We were lucky to be in the Basler since the C-130 flies too high and its windows are too small to get this sort of view.

This went on for more than an hour before we got through the pass and past the range.  Before we got out of the mountains, the clouds started to roll in.

It was difficult at times to tell where the snow stopped and the clouds began.  It really played tricks on my eyes.
It was difficult at times to tell where the snow stopped and the clouds began. It really played tricks on my eyes.

The clouds made for incredible photos but proved to be an issue when we got close to McMurdo and wanted to land.  The pilots had to wait for the clouds to clear up so we circled the area for about half an hour.  We had plenty of fuel so there was nothing to worry about except keeping ourselves occupied.

The first glimpse of McMurdo was a welcome sight after the long travel delay.
The first glimpse of McMurdo was a welcome sight after the long travel delay.

Once the clouds cleared we got a good view of the base before coming in for final approach.  We landed safely a little over a month after we left for the South Pole.  There is 12 hours before the next C-130 leaves for New Zealand, so our time here is short.

Our ride back to New Zealand is waiting for us.
Our ride back to New Zealand is waiting for us.

I better get out and look for penguins, I don’t have much time left!

Until next time…

Day 38 – Last days at South Pole

Our last few days at the South Pole have gone by pretty fast since we returned from the field. The first day back we mostly just slept to recover. Once we were well rested, we had to re-install a system outside the station since we were unable to get out to the field for a second trip as planned.

After spending several days before Christmas digging this system out of the snow, we dug new, shallower holes and put it right back into the snow outside the station.
After spending several days before Christmas digging this system out of the snow, we dug new, shallower holes and put it right back into the snow outside the station.

We’ve had plenty of practice so the installation was done in about a day’s worth of work, even with extra components for the newer model.  We made a slight change this time, however, by stringing the sensor cables a couple feet above the ground so they will hopefully be easier to recover whenever someone returns to retrieve it.

Hopefully by stringing the sensor cables above the surface we will have saved a future group many hours digging them out.
Hopefully by stringing the sensor cables above the surface we will have saved a future group many hours digging them out.

The last part of the station I had heard about but I hadn’t gotten to see yet was the ice tunnels. Most of the infrastructure for water and power is buried underground in ice access tunnels. As long as you ask one of the facilities workers nicely they will show you around, so that’s what we did.

Building and maintaining the tunnels is difficult work so the tunnels are a tight fit.
Building and maintaining the tunnels is difficult work so the tunnels are a tight fit.

This tour was actually the coldest I’ve been since we arrived on the continent.

Temperatures hover around 50 degrees below zero in the tunnels.  Some folks spend all day working down here to keep the station operating normally.
Temperatures hover around 50 degrees below zero in the tunnels. Some folks spend all day working down here to keep the station operating normally.

Super low temperatures and dry air mean that any water vapor that gets released into the air crystallizes very easily. Above some of the release points in the system where water vapor is allowed to escape you see can see crystals on the ceiling like this.

The ice crystals are fascinating to look at but can pose a risk if too many are allowed to accumulate.  A close eye must be kept on the tunnels to prevent any danger.
The ice crystals are fascinating to look at but can pose a risk if too many are allowed to accumulate. A close eye must be kept on the tunnels to prevent any danger.

The tunnels are by no means a danger free area, however, which is why we were required to find an escort. The tunnels are an average of about 30 feet below the surface.  Since the ice is always moving the tunnels must be constantly watched and maintained.  If things are not monitored closely enough, tunnels and even escape hatches can fill in.

People who work regularly down in the tunnels know which ways are safe and accessible, helping us tourists avoid unnecessary risk.
People who work regularly down in the tunnels know which ways are safe and accessible, helping us tourists avoid unnecessary risk.

Other facilities buried under the surface include the power plant and fuel storage area. Tunnels always need escape routes for safety and the rear exit out of the fuel storage area is the escape hatch I’ve had my eye on since we arrived.

I think if Super Mario ever built an Antarctic Station it would have tunnel entrances just like this.
I think if Super Mario ever built an Antarctic Station it would have tunnel entrances just like this.

With our work at the South Pole now complete, we now just have to wait for a ride back to McMurdo. Logistics are always a challenge here and no one is immune. Dealing with the harsh weather conditions causes delays every season, it’s just a part of working on the continent.

Until next time…

Day 37 – Field Camp, Part 3

After letting the system run for a day we discovered we had some difficulty keeping the sensor level. In order to fix this problem, we decided to anchor the sensor by turning the base to solid ice.

Peter gently poured water around the base of the sensor, spoonful by spoonful, to freeze everything in place.
Peter gently poured water around the base of the sensor, spoonful by spoonful, to freeze everything in place.

With the sensor level and firmly in place, we had a couple days remaining before the plane could pick us up.  This meant we had some time to kill so we found lots of ways to keep ourselves entertained. The first and most important was grooming the ski-way for the plane.

With nothing but our shovels we tried to make the skiway as smooth as possible for the plane to take off.  With all our gear loaded the plane needed a lot of space to accelerate.
With nothing but our shovels we tried to make the ski-way as smooth as possible for the plane to take off. With all our gear loaded the plane needed a lot of space to accelerate.

We also decided to take advantage of the skills we learned at happy camper. By that, of course, I mean we built an igloo.

The work was divided into quarrying the snow into blocks and shaping the blocks so they fit together snugly.
The work was divided into quarrying the snow into blocks and shaping the blocks so they fit together snugly.

Building an igloo requires excellent masonry.  A solid base is necessary to support the weight of the rest of the structure.  Once the dome was capped we excavated the interior of the structure.

By digging down into the snow we made the interior of the igloo tall enough for me to stand up inside.
By digging down into the snow we made the interior of the igloo tall enough for me to stand up inside.

The igloo made a nice addition to camp. Plus moving all that snow around is an excellent way to keep the blood moving.

With a doorway arch for a finishing touch, the igloo was complete.  It was a little smaller than the last time but still pretty good for three of us working an afternoon.
With a doorway arch for a finishing touch, the igloo was complete. It was a little smaller than the last time but still pretty good for three of us working an afternoon.

Another way to keep warm and pass the time was to simply go for a walk. Getting away from camp was a great reminder of just how isolated we really were.

Those little black dots on the horizon are our camp.  The rest of the view was nothing but flat, white horizon in every direction.
Those little black dots on the horizon are our camp. The rest of the view was nothing but flat, white horizon in every direction.

Once we got word on the radio that the plane was on its way to pick us up, fun time was over. We quickly got to work dismantling camp. Everything except the main tent came down until we sighted the plane, just in case something went wrong and the plane had to return the South Pole.

We worked quickly to pack up almost everything once we got the good news that the pilots were on their way.
We worked quickly to pack up almost everything once we got the good news that the pilots were on their way.

The Twin Otters in Antarctica are extremely busy and we were lucky our plane and its crew finished their other commitments a day early.  The pilots were very generous working a long day to come get us.  Finally, late on day five of our camping trip, we spotted a very welcome sight on the horizon.

We were all pretty excited to see our ride show up.  We didn't have time to celebrate, though, since we had to take down the main tent and load up the plane.
We were all pretty excited to see our ride show up. We didn’t have time to celebrate, though, since we had to take down the main tent and load up the plane.

Very quickly the main tent was down, packed up and ready to go. All that remained of our camp was a couple wind walls, an igloo, and the solar panel sticking up out of the snow.

The only signs of our work were the tower sticking out of the snow and a handful of flags marking the buried equipment.
Soon all that will remain of our work will be the tower sticking out of the snow and a handful of flags marking the buried equipment.  The snow walls and igloo we built will not last long.

Everyone was exhausted as we headed back to the station.  We were all pretty satisfied with the result of the trip. The system is in place and running well, and we made it back safe and sound. Our trip wasn’t quite over yet at that point but it was certainly a good job done.

Until next time…

Day 36 – Field Camp, Part 2

Our first morning at camp “dawned” almost exactly the same as the previous day, eighteen below with a light wind.  In fact we were lucky with good weather, we had almost exactly the same weather every day.

This is how we spent breakfast, lunch, and dinner, as well as time for snacks and hot drinks in between meals.  Fighting the cold works up quite an appetite.
This is how we spent breakfast, lunch, and dinner, as well as time for snacks and hot drinks in between meals. Fighting the cold works up quite an appetite.

We had a warm breakfast to start each day.  The tent wasn’t enormous but we had room to sit and enjoy our meals.

Our "kitchen" was a pretty standard camping setup.  The mountaineers who keep us safe on trips like this spend a lot of their time keeping water hot by melting snow on the stove.
Our “kitchen” was a pretty standard camping setup. The mountaineers who keep us safe on trips like this spend a lot of their time keeping water hot by melting snow on the stove.

Our mountaineer, Carrie, spent the majority of the trip keeping us supplied with hot water.  Not only is hot water important for cooking meals, it also really helps you warm up when the outside temperatures get to you.   Staying hydrated is important both because the camp was at about 11,500 feet in altitude and because your body works so hard to stay warm.

This system design required putting together small nuts, bolts, and washers, which was no fun with freezing cold hands.  Newer designs have simplified things with pins and large T-bolts that are easier to handle with gloves on.
This system design required putting together small nuts, bolts, and washers, which was no fun with freezing cold hands. Newer designs have simplified things with pins and large T-bolts that are easier to handle with gloves on.

After breakfast we got right to work.  When assembling the system, the first thing to do was to put together the tower.  That was one of the worst (i.e. coldest) parts of the assembly since it required dealing with very small parts, which was difficult to do with mittens on.

Getting the tower vertical went smoothly without any issues.  To secure it in place we bury three large deadmen and attach them to the top of the tower with guy wires.
Getting the tower vertical went smoothly without any issues. To secure it in place we bury three large deadmen and attach them to the top of the tower with guy wires.

With all the solar panels and the antennas attached we raised the tower and anchored it in a small pit.

Excavating the main pit was slow work in the thin air but I didn't mind.  It kept the blood moving and the snow blocks helped build the wind walls behind our tents.
Excavating the main pit was slow work in the thin air but I didn’t mind. It kept the blood moving and the snow blocks helped build the wind walls behind our tents.

The rest of the day was spent digging the main pit and filling it with the electronics and battery boxes.  The big blue box contains almost all of the electronic components for the system.  The box is so large mostly because it’s lined with lots of insulation.  The wooden crate contains 16 large, car-size batteries for storing the energy collected by the solar panels.  With everything hooked up we were almost done, but exhausted, so we called it a day.

The hole required for the sensor itself was much smaller.  The tricky part was getting the thing perfectly level and aligned with magnetic north.
The hole required for the sensor itself was much smaller. The tricky part was getting it perfectly level and aligned with magnetic north.

The next morning all we had left to do was dig a small hole for the sensor, the fluxgate magnetometer.  This sensor is the whole reason for the system installation so we took our time to get it right.

All of the shipping crates stay with the system.  if and when this system needs to be removed, we need everything you see here to pack it up again.  The 2x4s support the plywood that we use to cover the pit.
All of the shipping crates stay with the system. If and when this system needs to be removed, we need everything you see here to pack it up again. The 2x4s support the plywood that we use to cover the pit.

With everything completely hooked up we filled the main pit with the remainder of the extra equipment and materials.

We use flags to mark everything that we bury.  The ground drifts over in a hurry due to the constant wind and turns very quickly into a featureless surface.
We use flags to mark everything that we bury. The ground drifts over in a hurry due to the constant wind and turns very quickly into a featureless surface.

All the pits are covered with plywood to prevent everything inside from getting saturated with snow.  With the pit covered we were pretty much done.  It was a pretty tiring couple of days.

We worked pretty hard the first couple days to get all the real work done just in case the plane was able to return early and pick us up.  The timing of flights didn't work out that way, so we ended up with plenty of time to rest and recover instead.
We worked pretty hard the first couple days to get all the real work done just in case the plane was able to return early and pick us up. The timing of flights didn’t work out that way, so we ended up with plenty of time to rest and recover instead.

All that remained for work after the third day was to let the system run for a day to make sure it worked properly.  We still had to wait a few more days before the plane could make it back and pick us up but since we were basically done with work, we found ways to entertain ourselves.

Until next time…