New Zealand 2019

   July 2019 - April 2020

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Baffin Island

Thursday July 4th 2019

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It's a long way from the UK to New Zealand. I made sure I got a window seat for the first leg from London to LA, because I knew it would be flying over polar regions and I hoped I'd have a chance to see a bit of them. I wasn't disappointed. A brief glimpse of Iceland through breaks in the cloud was cool enough. Then we had a spectacular view of the Greenland ice cap. And then we flew over Nunavut, starting with Baffin Island. It is very high on my list of places I want to go, but it seems unfathomably expensive to get there. So, for now and for quite some time yet, the view I got on my way to New Zealand will have to suffice.

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Rangitoto

Saturday July 6th 2019

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I arrived in New Zealand in darkness. Sadly, my bag did not, having got left behind in Los Angeles. For years and years of travelling, I was lucky and never had a single bag delay. Then the laws of statistics seemed to realise they hadn't been working properly, and it happens all the time now.

So, I left my details with the ground handling people, and headed out. John met me at the airport and we headed out for a look around. We got the ferry to Rangitoto Island and hiked briskly to the top. Despite two long flights and having maximal jet lag, I felt fantastic at first. But by the time we were coming back down I was in danger of walking into trees or just slumping to the ground in a stupor.

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Christchurch

Sunday July 7th 2019

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I flew to Christchurch the same day I arrived in New Zealand. I had two days to spare in which I needed to recover from jet lag and yet be ready to spend three nights on a plane doing science. The first day I was there was a Sunday, and after waking up at 4am and finding the earliest-opening cafes in the city, I then slept all day and did not go out again until the evening, by which time the city was largely deserted.

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Ruins

Sunday July 7th 2019

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Christchurch was devastated by an earthquake in 2011. The cathedral partially collapsed and was subsequently condemned, but later it was decided to eventually reconstruct it. When I was there, it was still in ruins.

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Aurorae #1

Monday July 8th 2019

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After two nights on planes, I had two nights in Christchurch to recover, before spending three more nights on planes. This was what I'd come all this way to do and I was incredibly excited. I would be flying on board SOFIA, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, a modified 747 which carries a large infrared telescope up to 43,000ft, where there is almost no water vapour and the observing conditions are vastly better than anywhere at ground level.

Each night I was on board, the flight route took us south. I was really hoping we would see the aurorae, and it was exciting for everyone on board when indeed we did. I spent much of the flight looking out at the eerie green lights all around, slowly drifting in the night sky.

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Southern Alps

Tuesday July 9th 2019

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On the first night, I'd been allowed to sit in the cockpit for takeoff. That had been an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. On the second night, another guest got their chance and I had to be content with a normal view. It was still pretty incredible as our flight path took us west first of all, over the Southern Alps.

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Aurorae #2

Tuesday July 9th 2019

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We flew further south on the second night, skirting the edge of the Antarctic Circle. And the aurorae were even better than they had been the night before. Tonight I could see them moving, swirling around right before my eyes. There are few things more mind-blowing.

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Flight #3

Wednesday July 10th 2019

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I was approved to fly on three flights. I wondered, before the first one, if that was a bit excessive. Maybe after one I would be over the whole "fly to the upper atmosphere in a modified observatory" thing. Maybe the second would be boring. Maybe the third would be extraordinarily boring.

It was not so. I was as excited before the third flight as I had been before the first, and wondered if there was a way I could wangle myself onto a fourth flight.

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Aurorae #3

Wednesday July 10th 2019

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Yet again the aurorae were spectacular. They were so bright that they began to interfere with the observations, causing the telescope to lose tracking as the stars it was locked onto were lost in the light. The plane was much busier than it had been for the first two nights, as a group of local councillors and Christchurch dignitaries were on board. They really lucked in - the telescope and instrument operators on board said the lights were just about the brightest they'd ever seen them.

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Aurorae #4

Wednesday July 10th 2019

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My target was being observed for an hour each night. During that time I watched the data coming in, happy to see that it looked to be high quality. Outside of my hour, I just watched the aurorae.

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On board

Thursday July 11th 2019

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We had the possibility of extra adventures during the third flight. There was a possibility of fog at Christchurch around our scheduled landing time, and this would have meant a diversion to Palmerston North. It would be a bit awkward for me if I found myself landing on the North Island; John and Juliet were on their way south so that we could all do a trip around the South Island.

Luckily, the weather in Christchurch stayed good enough, and we landed on schedule at 3.30am. I would have dearly loved another flight on SOFIA, but my time was up.

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Train to Greymouth

Friday July 12th 2019

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I had a day to recover from all of my flying, in which I managed to wake up at 4pm and struggle into central Christchurch for some coffee. Then I had to get up before dawn to get to Christchurch station, to meet John and Juliet and head off for a journey to the far south. The sun was just rising as we boarded the TranzAlpine.

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Arthur's Pass

Friday July 12th 2019

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The weather wasn't brilliant for our journey to Greymouth, but we didn't expect otherwise for midwinter on the South Island. At Arthur's Pass, the highest point on the line, it was drizzling heavily.

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Drive to Fox Glacier

Friday July 12th 2019

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We picked up a car in Greymouth and headed south. Our final destination was Queenstown but first we headed for Fox Glacier. The weather forecast was apocalyptic - 40mm of rain per hour was on its way. The heaviest rain I ever remember experiencing was about 10mm per hour. Admittedly that was while doing a 24 hour mountain bike race, but rain four times heavier definitely did not sound good. So we headed south and hoped all the roads would stay passable.

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Franz Josef Glacier

Saturday July 13th 2019

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We were supposed to do a heli-hike on the Fox Glacier. It sounded pretty awesome, getting a ride up onto the glacier in a helicopter and then hiking for a couple of hours. But in the end we were defeated by the weather. The apocalypse hadn't arrived yet but it was on its way. They said that if they went up to the glacier, they couldn't be sure of being able to get back off.

So the tour was off. We didn't have time to wait for another go tomorrow, which looked unlikely anyway. They advised us to basically flee if we didn't need to stay.

So we fled. But we drove quickly back up the road to catch a glimpse of the Franz Josef Glacier, which formerly filled the valley but is now disappearing rapidly.

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Thunder Creek Falls

Saturday July 13th 2019

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We had to cross the Haast Pass. With the weather that was expected, I really thought it could be a bit of a nightmare driving up into the mountains. But in the end, we were ahead of the rain. We had drizzle but nothing more, and we could relax and stop off in a few places on the way over.

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Monkey Creek

Sunday July 14th 2019

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We made it over the pass and to Te Anau. From there, we went to Milford Sound. The road to the sound gets so epic it's absurd, and we stopped off at many, many viewpoints.

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Mitre Peak

Sunday July 14th 2019

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We had left Te Anau before dawn to drive to Milford Sound in time for a boat trip. It was an overcast day but calm and dry.

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Milford Sound

Sunday July 14th 2019

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Milford Sound was pretty spectacular. We sailed out along it to the ocean, passing a pod of dolphins on the way. At the ocean, the dead calm waters became choppy and for a few minutes we swayed violently. Then we headed back into the calm of the fjord.

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Sun coming out

Sunday July 14th 2019

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The weather improved as we headed back in. It even got quite sunny for a short while.

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Milford Highway

Sunday July 14th 2019

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We drove back from Milford to Te Anau, stopping at more photogenic viewpoints along the way.

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Drive to Queenstown

Monday July 15th 2019

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Our southernmost point had been reached and we drove back north to Queenstown. The South Island scenery was incredible and I felt tempted to abandon normal life, build a wooden shack here in the mountains, and live as a recluse.

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Northern Explorer

Wednesday July 17th 2019

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John and Juliet flew back to Auckland. Ideally I'd have travelled overland all the way from the far south back to the north, and I really wanted to cross the Cook Strait by boat. But the timetables didn't work out and it was impossible to do. So instead, I flew to Wellington and spent a day there, before getting the train to Auckland. I crossed the whole North Island, in weather which varied from bright sunshine to lashing rain.

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Hike across New Zealand

Friday July 26th 2019

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Back in Auckland after my travels in Tonga, I had one more day before I had to head back to Europe. We decided to hike across New Zealand, from Onehunga on the Tasman Sea, over to Auckland Harbour on the Pacific side. It's an awesome urban hike. We followed the trail up to One Tree Hill first of all.

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Mount Eden

Friday July 26th 2019

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Auckland is dotted with hills, which are all extinct volcanic cones. The hike took us from One Tree Hill, to another one of the old voclanoes, Mount Eden. The whole city is built on extremely volatile foundations. At some point, inevitably, there is going to be an eruption right underneath modern Auckland. Hopefully there will be plenty of warning signs long before it happens.

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Auckland Domain

Friday July 26th 2019

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The hike took us finally through Auckland Domain. It was wild and dense, and it seemed implausible that we were in the middle of a major metropolis.

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Flight home

Sunday April 26th 2020

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Finally it was time to leave New Zealand and head home, just when I was starting to get over my jet lag. I flew via Los Angeles, and got a good view of the Channel Islands as we descended.

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