Friday, November 16, 2007

Because, because, because, because

Miraculously, they have wireless at this hostel. It’s actually the most incredibly well-organized hostel we’ve been to, so I guess it’s unsurprising. We realized at the eleventh hour that we didn’t have any place booked in Cairns and that our flight was arriving at 9:30pm. Whoops! A frantic internet scramble and a phone call later, and Caravella’s Backpackers had us booked into a room and left a key in a lockbox for us. As it turns out, we made it out of the airport quickly enough that we caught the desk manager (an ex-pat Kiwi woman named Gloria who is a story in her own right) before closing. Seven hours later, we woke up for the dive boat.

Here’s the front page of the paper that morning:

If you could zoom out, you would see us standing in the customs line in the background. Turns out there was a suspect in custody on our flight from Auckland to Cairns! The subject of a month-long, international manhunt! And what heinous crime did he commit, you ask? It turns out he held up an old lady and stole her purse. With a gun! I am in a country where armed robbery will make you the target of an international manhunt, and garner front-page headlines on your capture. Say, you don’t suppose that has something to do with tougher gun control laws, do you?

One of the really fascinating things I’ve noticed on this trip is that there are no Americans. It’s easy to find someone from Germany or Sweden or Japan in a hostel – backpacking culture is very much international – but I think we’ve met a grand total of four Yanks out of the hundreds of people we’ve traveled with. Talking to other backpackers corroborated this observation. In addition, despite the fact that tourism in the US has gotten dramatically cheaper for most of the world over the past five years, we’ve seen a large decline in visitors to the States. The numbers I read said something like a 30% drop, resulting in tens of billions of dollars in lost revenue and hundreds of thousands of lost jobs. I think this is a tragedy on a number of levels. If we see other parts of the world for ourselves, we can learn from them (how does state-sponsored health care actually work? why aren’t your police packing heat?), they can learn about us (hey, Americans aren’t actually all that bad!), and we can have a real, human basis from which to make decisions about foreign policy. If I meet and befriend some cool Iranians while traveling, I’m going to think much harder about what it means to “Bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran,” as John McCain so flippantly and disgustingly put it. Thinking harder is a good thing.

Sorry. On to more pictures.

The dive boat was unquestionably exactly the right thing to do. I think it cost us something like AU$500 each, and that included two nights’ accommodation in very nice rooms, three good meals a day, transport to and from our hostel in Cairns, and, of course, diving on the reef. When you consider that the reef is an hour and a half at 20 knots away from the shore, you’re talking about a pretty good deal. I suspect this may have something to do with the twelve other dive boat companies competing for your dollar... Mmm, delicious invisible hand. Still, I think we lucked out with Deep Sea Diver’s Den and the OceanQuest. Just about everything was top-notch.

So here’s my new desktop background. I’m actually not sure what this is – I’m pretty sure it’s some sort of echinoderm, making it related to sea stars, cucumbers, and urchins. But it also kind of looks like a crinoid, which is a very ancient type of echinoderm of which only a few species still survive. My money is on a type of ophioroid—sometimes known as brittle or bristle stars—called a basket star.

I also went on a night dive, which was fantastic. The most dramatic part was the safety stop in the dim blue glow of the boat’s bow light. Sharks are attracted to this light, so we got to watch (small, harmless) grey reef sharks swimming circles around us while we offgassed nitrogen. Here’s a few videos of that.
You can barely make out the shark in this one:
We also saw a woebegone, which is a really cool kind of bottom-dwelling (benthic) shark. It’s vertically compressed like a ray or skate, and has feathery skin flaps which help it blend in with the ocean floor. Can you see it in this video? There are about six of us lighting it up like an escaping convict.

*note: I couldn't get the videos to upload properly. I'll give them another shot later.

After the delightful dive trip, we booked in on a journey up to Cape Tribulation. This is part of the Daintree National Park, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It happens that Australia has remained in roughly the same climatic zone for the last 110 million years, so many of the plants that were around back then have been able to persist until today. So basically it’s a Triassic jungle and you keep expecting dinosaurs to pop out and eat you. (Crocodiles are happy to oblige if you get too close to the river. Crocodiles ate dinosaurs here 100 million years ago, too.)

We were fortunate enough to have Jeremy as our guide and bus driver on the way up. Not only has he been hiking around the jungle for his whole life, but he’s totally excited to share his substantial knowledge, and in an Australian accent and manner that exceeds hilarious and enters into the realm of surreal. Actual quote: “The thing with cyclones, you see, is that they sort of draw in, you could say they SUCK, that’s not actually a good word for it, suck, but they SUCK the moisture in, and things like that.” You can’t fake that. We’re actually going to have to hire this guy to play himself in the movie about this trip. I wish I’d had the presence of mind to record one of his excellent little lectures. Anyway, here he is picking some “bush tucker” for us to try. These are bluetongue berries, so named because:

Anyway, Meg and I cut our stay at Cape Trib short so that, should the cyclone swing inland, there won’t be swollen, crocodile-infested rivers between us and the airport. We’re going to try and figure out what to do in this insane, perpetually spring-break (spring-broken?) resort town for a day and half. Sweet as!

Busted flat in Cairns, waitin' for a hurricane

Okay, so that was a stretch.

Anyway, we're hoping that the hurricane (or 'Cyclone' as they delightfully call them in the Southern hemisphere) hits north Queensland after our flight to Auckland so we don't get delayed. It's hard to find any sort of information about it, though, and no one seems the least bit concerned that there's a cat 3 storm nearby. Maybe because 'cyclone' sounds so much less threatening than 'hurricane?' Anyway, I'm sure we'll be fine.

Here are some pictures I've been owing:

The winery in Marlborough that Meg and I stopped at on the way to Nelson.

This is looking across the mudflats at the south end of Abel Tasman national park in New Zealand. Those are are horses from a tour -- sort of a little Lord of the Rings moment.

What was that sound?

One of the beaches we pulled out on while kayaking. It looks tropical, but the water's only a bit warmer than that in Monterey.

Mountains near Arthur's Pass, which we took on the way back to Christchurch from the west coast.

It's a beautiful place, to be sure. Next up: Oz!

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Last night in New Zealand

Well, I thought I was all set to post pictures, but at the last moment, the computer I'm on chose not to recognize my USB drive. Why?

Anyway, we had a good drive over the mountains today. Absolutely spectacular.

Tomorrow we head to Cairns, where we will somehow check into a hostel and then leave again at 7:30am to get on a scuba boat. Don't ask me how this is supposed to work.

Friday, November 9, 2007


Another short post. Tired.

Kayaking today in Abel Tasman was fantastic. It's really a kayaking paradise -- sheltered, sandy beaches and clear water. You can have a water taxi take you and your yak up to the top of the park, then paddle down over three or four days. I hope to do this at some point.

Today, we just went up and back. Coming back was a bit more exciting, as a strong northeasterly had developed and pushed us back at a pretty good clip. Once we'd made it back, we set off to Westport, where we are now. Westport is probably the second biggest town on the South Island's west coast, and it's quite a bit smaller than my birthplace of Davenport, Iowa. This is a small country.

Still no wireless. Hopefully we'll have pictures soon. We're heading back to bustling Christchurch tomorrow!

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Abel Tasman

Had a nice hike today in the amazing Abel Tasman national park. We'll be headed back early tomorrow morning for a day of kayaking, and then continuing on to either Westport or Greymouth, depending on timing. No pictures today either, I'm afraid -- hopefully we'll find some wireless here soon.

Traveling is perpetually more expensive than you think it's going to be. Gah.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

On the South Island

We made it to the South Island, and I've managed to drive on the left side of the road for 5 or 6 hours without crashing. We're currently staying in Nelson, a nice little town which seems to shut down around dinnertime. This is the jumping-off point for exploring the famous Abel Tasman national park, so tomorrow we're going to jump off and explore.

On the drive up, we passed through Malrborough, which is famous for its Suavignon Blanc. This wine is internationally renowned, and descriptions range from "Kiwi fruit" to "cat piss." The bottles on the former end of the spectrum are pretty spectacular. Although we only managed to hit one winery before they closed down for the day, we were lucky, and it was pretty good. We ended up buying three bottles of the Suavignon Blanc, which we will either drink or take home at our discretion.

Well, off to dinner, wine, and kayaking. Hopefully I can find some wireless soon and show some pictures -- this place is absolutely stunning.

Monday, November 5, 2007

I'm on my way...

...I don't know where I'm going. Or at least, not after Christchurch.

Picked up Meg at the airport and we're wasting time in the city before our flight out. Should be awesome!

Sunday, November 4, 2007


Well, now that we're over all that testing unpleasantness, I can get on with an enjoyable vacation!

Good strides made on that front yesterday, when the Rainey family and I went out for a day hike up and around Rangitoto. This whipper-snapper of an island appeared suddenly about 600 years ago in a fit of fiery, explosive eruptions. This was all witnessed from the neighboring island of Motutapu, a much older cindercone that was home to a group of recently-immigrated Maori.

Can you imagine? "Oh, man, am I glad to be done with that canoe trip over hundreds of miles of treacherous ocean and back on the solid, unchanging land. Wait, what's that sound?"

Once things quieted down, there was a 6km island of black basaltic rock where before there was only water. It must have been quite a contrast to the fertile green Motutapu! Probably not much to recommend it for a weekend hike back then. But before long lichen began breaking down the rock, and soon after came the indomitable pohutukawa trees. It took a while -- drawings of the crater from the mid 1860s show it barren but for a couple scraggly trees -- but now virtually the whole island is covered in vegetation.

Looking out from Rangitoto, you can see many of the 50 or so other volcanic islands and peninsulas that mottle the gulf. This would be an incredible place to have a kayak. Imagine putting out a few blocks from home and having a good day's paddle out to an island camping spot! *major selling point* What a bummer that PhD's here only take three years...

One more day then until Meg makes it out here and we go off for some real adventuring. I can't wait!

Saturday, November 3, 2007


Not much to report today. I took the GRE Biology subject test -- three hours of grueling, frequently tediously obscure questions. I'm beat.

Thursday, November 1, 2007


Take a look a this picture.That is a reconstructed moa. Moas were the tallest birds ever to have walked the Earth -- and they were kicking about New Zealand until at least 400 years ago. There are even a handful of intact moa eggs still extant, even though their shells are much thinner that those of the related ostrich.

Though the tallest birds ever (as far as we know), moas weren't the heaviest -- that honor goes to crazy 'terror birds' of South America, which probably grew to over 350 pounds and made a living hunting hapless South American mammals before the closing of the Isthmus of Panama allowed big mammalian predators to move down from South America. Still, the moas are totally incredible to behold. They are the most vivid representatives of how evolution works with what it has to fill ecological niches with the materials at hand: in the absence of mammals, birds in New Zealand diverged to an incredible degree. Moas even had predators in the form of ginormous, Tolkeinesque eagles.

So what happened? Same thing that happened to the terror birds of South America: mammals showed up. You see, birds had a leg (or wing) up over mammals when it came to these large islands: they, or their ancestors, could fly. This fact allowed birds to get to big, detached landmasses like New Zealand and ancient South America long before mammals could, and when they had enough habitat to support gigantic inhabitants, some of those birds became giant. But evolution works with what it has; it doesn't craft organisms according to some sort of ideal. That means that some of the very adaptations that allowed the moa's ancestors to make it to New Zealand in the first place, like delicate bone structure, presence of wings instead of grasping forearms, and weight-saving absence of true teeth, hampered the moa's ability to compete with mammals when they finally did show up. Of course, it didn't help that the moas were competing with the most devastatingly successful mammal ever: us.

Archaeological and cultural evidence suggests that the ancestors of New Zealand's native Maori people first came to the islands around 1000 years ago. Around 600 years later, the last of the six or so species of moa were extinct. Like the terror birds of Tertiary South America, moas were no match for invading mammals.

It's immediately obvious that this is a totally natural phenomenon: the natural history of life on Earth is really the story of new species driving old species extinct. Human-mediated extinction is really just a special case of a pervasive pattern. (It is even arguable that some of the first species modern humans drove extinct were their contemporary hominid relatives!) The problem, of course, lies with the fact that we're so much better at driving other species extinct than anything ever before -- well, except maybe for giant asteroids.

What of it? Well, natural history is also full of species that drove themselves extinct -- organisms that evolved, or invaded, and used up the available resources so quickly that they perished. Again, humans offer great case studies: Polynesians related to New Zealand's Maori people colonized almost every island in the South Pacific; and on many islands, they drove themselves locally extinct. They didn't make it. Sometimes, like on Easter Island, they almost went extinct, losing their entire culture and social organization in the process. Even the remarkable Maori, who so successfully adapted to New Zealand's challenges, found that their centuries-old social structures nearly collapsed with the sudden influx of new technology from Europe.

There's nothing that we've found in Nature's rulebook that says that successful species necessarily stay successful. In fact, in terms of persistence over evolutionary time, the species that seem to do the best are those that tread lightly: cockroaches, ants, mosses, and chitons have been around for much longer than their flashier, and more impactful, relatives.

I thought a lot about this today as a walked around downtown Auckland. Europeans haven't been here for all that long -- heck, even America seems old compared to this -- but already there are pieces that seem ancient against the backdrop of the city. Tucked under a bridge near the university district, for instance, there's an old graveyard predominantly from a brief period in the mid 1800's. Many of the headstones are already fallen over or broken, testament to the truly transient nature of our species's monuments.

Those headstones were also a reminder, as I walked through the wonderful Auckland Museum, of the unique opportunity we humans have to learn from the past. Much of the Museum is devoted to preserving and communicating the incredible cultural heritage of the Maori for future generations, and I think New Zealand's (comparatively) exemplary efforts to value and nurture its native culture represents one of our successes on that front. If we are to succeed as a species, we will need to save much, much more of our collective cultural and biological diversity to provision ourselves for an uncertain future.

And, of course, the way to do that is through our children. These two characters reminded me of that: evolution is simply the story of children doing things better than their parents. We would be well served to give our children the best opportunities possible for doing things better than we did.

Today was good. Perhaps for reasons unrelated to how the world is actually doing, I have hope.