Postcard from New Zealand: A geologic tour of the country, complete with real earthquakes and active volcanoes

Once again, MV Times summer intern Bella Bennett shares stories from her travels.

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Me in front of Mount Ngauruhoe, otherwise known as Mount Doom to all of you Lord of the Rings fans.

Once again, MV Times summer intern Bella Bennett shares stories from her travels.

Hello my frigid friends! I’ve heard it’s become quite a winter back home, so I’m sending some sweet New Zealand sunshine your way (if it takes as long to arrive as it took me to get here, you should see some rays in about two days). I’ve been in New Zealand for the past month and a half, on a rigorous geologic field camp alongside 22 other American students from all over the U.S. We’ve spent about one week in six different, gorgeous areas. First, we were on the beach in Kaikoura; then in one of the many Lord of the Rings sets in Cass (Castle Hill); next came camping on the beach in Punakaiki; hiking in Westport, studying and sleeping atop the active volcano Ruapehu, and finally, camping in Okains Bay, Banks Peninsula. We saw so much in a relatively short period of time, and I learned loads about rocks. This trip has been such hard work, but very rewarding, and so much fun.

One of my friends on the program classifies fun into three genius categories: type I, type II and type III. Type I fun is immediately gratifying. Type II is intense or rough in the moment, but it makes a great memory or story to reminisce about, while type III fun simply isn’t fun and never will be.

Our field work consisted of huge amounts of hiking in order to map out rock formations and their boundaries, based on our own concepts of what made each outcrop unique from the surrounding (often very similar) bodies of rock. We began at 7 am every morning and were usually able to leave the field at 6 pm, when we’d eat dinner before working on more geology until we couldn’t keep our eyes open. It felt really hard at the time, but looking back, it was definitely a great mixture of type I and type II fun.

We spent the first week in a University of Canterbury field station in Kaikoura, a beautiful beachside town. Unfortunately, I arrived in New Zealand with a flu. I slept for 13 hours my first night in New Zealand, and the next day we hiked almost 13 miles while learning how to use compasses. My poor roommates (of whom there were 7 in tiny bunk rooms) were extremely kind about my late-night coughing fits. Before this trip, I’d only ever taken two geology classes (one of which was a general introductory course), so this has been somewhat of a crash course for me, and that made the first week tough (on top of my general inability to breathe through my nose or stay up past 8 pm). That being said, everything since then has been building in greatness, and the ratio of type II to type I fun has steadily shifted toward predominantly type I.

We stayed in an area called Cass, within Castle Hill, during the second week. We worked in teams of four, hiking through knee-deep rivers and clumps of vicious matagouri bushes (which have 1- to 2-inch needle-like prickers), in downpours and intermittent super-hot-sunshine, to understand the geologic processes that shaped the river basin. We also had the opportunity to hike through a cave in knee- to chest-deep water, which was probably one of the most incredible things I have ever done. If ever you visit New Zealand, do not leave the country without experiencing a “cave stream,” as it is so appropriately called.

After a weekend break spent camping on the beach in Punakaiki, hiking into caves and — best of all for an Island girl — swimming in the ocean, we drove up the coast a bit to Westport, where we spent the third week of seven weeks looking at still more rocks. In Westport we studied metamorphic rocks, which are essentially rocks that have been altered by heat and or pressure. Beyond that, not much else happened in Westport. It is not a very happening place. In fact, despite being the only people there, staying on the active volcano Ruapehu afterwards felt much more lively. We took a day off from field work to hike the Tongariro Crossing, which I later found out Miranda Tokarz, from good old Vineyard Haven, set out on just a few days later. It turns out that Miranda and I have been just short of crossing paths for about a month now. In fact, there are a few Vineyarders my age in N.Z. at the moment, which is an unexpected, yet fun and familiar surprise. I’ve already seen Edgartown’s finest, Sheila McHugh (more on that later), and Jack O’Malley of Oak Bluffs. It’s basically a high school reunion over here!

The final week of field camp was based in Banks Peninsula. We slept in massive, eight-person tents and took ocean showers, and I loved pretty much every moment. Every moment except when I woke up and there was a possum crawling through the side of my tent and running along the edge of my sleeping bag (I should mention that the walls and floor of our tent were not connected, leaving a six-inch gap for creatures to enter and exit as they pleased, apparently). That was not an experience that I feel the need to relive. I also did not enjoy learning that leaving chocolate in tents is never a good idea, first when I came home to a puddle of liquid chocolate next to my backpack, and second when I decided to spend a night on the beach and returned to find my second bar of chocolate (yes, I really like chocolate, it appears to be a genetic quality — thanks, Dad) outside on the grass, torn to shreds and raked over with claw and tooth marks. Whatever stole it may be more of a chocolate fiend than I am.

When I wasn’t getting acquainted with the tenacious woodland creatures, my group members and I were lucky enough to participate in an ongoing research project in which we explored and mapped rock outcrops and lava flows in areas that have previously never been mapped geologically. This required lots of collecting and carrying rock samples, hiking, and sliding down sheep paths (sometimes crawling beneath spiky plants) and slinking past crowds of curious cows. We also got to climb some pretty crazy rock faces. Every group was assigned a different area, and all of our data will be collated and contribute to the first geologic map of Banks Peninsula.

We were also lucky enough to participate in Waitangi Day at Okains Bay. Waitangi Day celebrates the historic day (Feb. 6, 1840) that the Maori iwi (tribes) and the English Crown signed the treaty of Waitangi, which we were told is essentially the founding document of New Zealand. This holiday seems to center around a traditional feast called hangi, where, much like a clambake, food is cooked in a pit in the earth. The particular hangi that we partook of consisted of the meat of an entire cow, a handful of sheep, an estimated 30 chickens, and a bunch of roasted veggies. It was a wild and delicious experience, and the line for food stretched down the street and around the corner. Afterwards, we watched as the waka (Maori for transportation, in this case a boat carved of a single log) was ceremoniously rowed down the nearby river, as is a tradition on Waitangi Day. Later that week we got the chance to row the boat as well, which was nerve-racking only in the sense that these boats are worth an exorbitant amount of money due to their cultural significance, and it was an incredible privilege to see them, let alone row one.

If you’d have asked me where I would be most likely to encounter an earthquake while in New Zealand, I’d likely have answered while living on top of Ruapehu (the active volcano), because volcanoes often trigger earthquakes before eruptions, and naturally when you’re told you’ll be sleeping on the midsection of a sleeping beast, you assume it’ll awaken at any moment. At Ruapehu, I was quickly taught that volcanoes spend about 99 percent of their “lifetime” dormant, and I was reminded of the fact that faults are the main cause of earthquakes in New Zealand on my way to Christchurch at the end of field camp.

New Zealand is really intriguing to me because it is situated on a tectonic plate boundary, between the Australian and Pacific plates. I learned the implications of this geologic setting on Valentine’s Day at a small café outside Christchurch, when suddenly the ground began to roll and water formed waves in the glasses in front of us. It probably lasted less than a minute; however, it was one of the most surreal moments of my life. What better way to realize how little control we have over the earth than to feel the solid ground begin to ripple and boil beneath you?

Luckily, New Zealand is incredibly well fortified against earthquake damage, and aside from a few broken coffee cups, everyone around us just went right on with their daily activities after the ground stopped quivering. I personally went right on shivering for the rest of the day. I’m not sure that watching my water glass dance on the table while I shake involuntarily is something I’ll ever become accustomed to.

After that new experience, we finally arrived in Christchurch and got settled into our apartments for the semester. They’re very nice, with the exception of being oven-less. I love to cook and I’ve been a little sad, but a lot creative, when deciding how to make what I want to eat.

At this very moment, I’m returning to the University of Canterbury, where I’m studying, after a weekend visit to Dunedin to see one of my most favorite people on this planet — Edgartown’s very own Sheila McHugh. Sheila and I met in kindergarten at the Charter School, and while we didn’t really hit it off until around the time I broke my wrist in second grade, there are several photos of us attempting handstands together in neon, jungle-themed leggings from well before then. While I can’t do a handstand, and now spend my days looking at rocks, Sheila has gone the other way and become a glorious dancer, psychologist in training, world traveler, etc. Despite being in the same country, I wasn’t sure how often we’d see each other, as we’re five hours apart. However, after I joined the U.C. Ultimate Frisbee club last week, I learned that our first event is a “rookie road trip” to Dunedin in two weeks to play Frisbee and see the city, so it looks like the adventures will continue despite my more permanent residence in Christchurch.

For more regularly updated stories, and photos of sleeping seals and New Zealand’s own Hector’s dolphins, check out my blog: academics.skidmore.edu/blogs/lordoftherocks/.