STAFF SPOTLIGHT: BEN DOWN UNDER
Staff Spotlight: Ben Down Under
By Ben Blaylock
All photos copyrighted Ben Blaylock, © 2017 Ben Blaylock.
On December 9, 2017, I left San Antonio, Texas, for a work trip to New Zealand. Once the work was done, I tagged an additional 10 days on to my trip, rented a car, and set out on an adventure. Over those 10 days, I drove 3088 km, or 1918 miles exploring the North and South islands. That’s 200 miles further than San Antonio to San Francisco!! This country has some of the most breathtaking scenery in the world… it was a truly memorable experience I won’t soon forget.
My formal destination was Tauranga, NZ, where I was set to monitor data for one of the trials we are working on at HCC.
It took two days to get there–all in all close to 30 hours of travel time. After a one-night layover in Brisbane, AU on December 10th, I arrived in Auckland, NZ on the afternoon of Monday, Dec 11th. It was then another 2.5hr drive from Auckland to Tauranga.
I worked from Tuesday through Thursday, Dec 12-14th, and had from Dec 15 – 24th of personal time to get out and explore. Most of the trip was spent in NZ (10 days, Dec 11 – 21). Our winter is their summer, so long daylight hours meant I could get out and explore after work until about 9 pm or so when the sun went down, so even though I had to work the first 3 days, there was plenty to explore in and around Tauranga until I was officially done with work on the afternoon of Thursday, Dec 14th.
Visited the Hobbiton movie set in Waikato NZ, filming location for the Lord of the Rings film trilogy and The Hobbit film series. The Shire was truly spectacular. It’s like walking into Middle Earth… they have over 14 acres dedicated to the movie set alone, with 40 hobbit houses, each unique, meticulously decorated, and designed to reflect life and personality of the hobbit that lives there. So much detail…… just like out of the movies.
Went spelunking in the Waitomo caves in Waitomo, NZ, which is about 2 hours southwest of Tauranga,
One of my travel days was 17 hours long, which surprisingly, was one of the highlights of the trip. On this particular day, I woke up at 4 am in Wellington, NZ and took a 3-hour car ferry across the Cook Strait from the North to the South Island to Picton, NZ. From there I drove 10 hours southwest to Mount Cook, the tallest point in New Zealand. On the way, I saw beautiful flora. These are Lupine beside a creek near Mount Cook, NZ.
Mount Cook and Tasman Lake, nestled in the Southern Alps
Mount Cook is an international dark-sky reserve and has some of the darkest skies on the planet… and I had an observatory tour and time with the telescope booked that night. Before making the drive, I learned they had canceled the night sky tour the last 5 nights in a row because of cloudy weather. They couldn’t make any promises that the tour would happen that night, but I had to try… Turns out it was a beautiful, clear night, the tour was on, and the sky was spectacular!! Even with a few clouds, you could see the stars right through them, the sky is so dark there. Here’s some of what I saw through the telescope:
- Seven Sisters (Pleiades) open star cluster
- Five diamonds – star cluster. Had a couple of Red giants!
- Orion Nebula – beautiful! No clouds over Orion, very clear and sharp
- 47 Tucanae – oldest star system – 11 billion years old – through a telescope just a cluster. So beautiful!!
- Small Magellanic cloud- 200 million light years away
- Large Magellanic Cloud – 160 million light years. 3rd closest galaxy to the Milky Way. It contains tarantula nebula, we looked at it through the telescope
- and of course: the Geminid meteor shower!! It was mostly over, but because it was so dark there, I saw a good dozen or so shooting stars over Gemini… so bright!! No telescope needed.
Such a rare treat to see a part of the sky we just don’t see on this side of the world…. The southern cross wasn’t visible through the telescope, but I stayed up late until it crested just above the mountains about 1 am… and with the sky so bright, it was a sight to see.
It’s not often I’m on this side of the planet, so the last three days of my trip I took the opportunity to visit Cairns, Australia and check off a bucket list item: dive the Great Barrier Reef. It was my first dive ever, and I’m sure I’ve spoiled diving forever. The water was crystal blue, the coral was alive and vibrant, and the sea creatures bigger than life. Well worth the trip!
School of Bumphead Parrotfish. Each of these massive fish was about the size of a small human
I ended my trip in Sydney, Australia for one last look at the Southern sky
Sunset from the Sydney Observatory
One of the biggest challenges driving in New Zealand was roundabouts! Just when I got comfortable driving on the left side of the road, I’d come to one, and usually got the horn from other drivers, or have to jam on my brakes to avoid a catastrophe. That definitely kept me alert and on my toes!
The odd thing about driving on the left side of the road, though, was that for the first few days, I had to keep telling myself over and over, “Keep left, keep left, keep left.” There was even a big sticker on the dash that said those words in big bold red letters, which helped. But after a week or so, driving on the left started to really make sense… we read from left to right, right? When we’re scanning the horizon, our eyes naturally start on the left… so driving on the left started to really make sense. So much so that when I got home, driving on the right felt weird, unnatural even. Thankfully, I quickly adapted back to driving on the right, but I still think about that sometimes and how we may be the ones who are driving on the “wrong” side of the road….
Tips for travelers
CRA work provides an amazing opportunity to get out and see the world. Even when I take trips in the US, I always try to make time to leave the hotel room and see what’s around. Sometimes that means arriving earlier in the day or staying an extra day to see some sights.
Tip #1: Stay at hostels when extending a work trip or traveling for fun. They’re usually situated right in the action, within walking distance to major sights and activity, bus/rail lines, etc. Many hostels are in older historic buildings as well, with a great history. Hostels are also much better than hotels for getting the low-down on walking tours in your area, sights to see, talking to fellow travelers, etc. In addition to shared rooms for really cheap, most hostels have private rooms available as well, for much cheaper than a hotel.
Tip #2: For extended trips, mail your souvenirs or gifts home, rather than lugging them around your entire trip. It’s a great way to lighten your load–and make room for more stuff!
I’m so excited and grateful for the chance to explore Australia and New Zealand and that my role with HCC provides diverse opportunities around the world.
As always, thanks for tuning into the HCC blog!!