I love being back in New Zealand, but I think Berkeley will always feel like a second home to me. It offers the best of many worlds and has a little bit of something for everyone, from tranquil nature reserves to the urban bustle of nearby San Francisco.

Here are some of my favourite things that the region has to offer.

Suburban hiking
Berkeley is a beautiful city full of gardens, hiking trails and quirky houses. Countless tracks wind their way through the Berkeley Hills, wandering through forests of towering redwoods and twisted oaks.
Many of the trails run alongside suburban streets and flow seamlessly into people’s backyards, leading to trickling streams and the occasional waterfall.
Suburban hiking is also a good way to see the eclectic mix of styles that characterize the houses of Berkeley. Styles range from humble Victorian cottages through to ridiculous mansions that teeter precariously on hillsides.

Tilden Park
Tilden Park is the perfect place to chill out on a sunny Berkeley day. It’s less than 30 minutes by bus from Berkeley campus, and is a cool spot for wandering through nature, swimming across the lake or just sunbathing on the sandy beach.

Indian Rock
Another one of my favorite spots is Indian Rock, an old volcanic boulder that has panoramic views of the entire Bay Area and the Golden Gate Bridge. The sunsets are amazing!

Albany Bulb
Once the site of a landfill, the Albany Bulb is now a seaside reserve featuring a cool collection of graffiti, sculptures and art installations. There’s also a shantytown of squatters who have built their homes on the peninsula, using only scraps of wood and tin.

Biking the Golden Gate
Biking across the Golden Gate Bridge is an unforgettable experience that leaves you with a lingering sense of awe. The journey from Embarcadero also takes you through a number of spots worth visiting in their own right, such as the Palace of Fine Arts, Pier 39, and the seaside town of Sausalito.

Nightlife
If nature and sightseeing isn’t your thing, then the Bay Area is also home to some great nightlife. Countless bars and nightclubs have everything you can think of, from rock bands and DJs to twerking drag queens…

Street Art
The Bay Area is also home to some amazing street art, which decorates buildings and walls throughout the region. Some of the best spots to explore include the Mission and Castro districts.

Museums and exhibitions
In addition to the street art, there are a number of art museums with exhibitions from artists around the world. Some highlights include the de Young museum and the Museum of Modern Art.
Some of the world’s best science and natural history museums are also in San Francisco, such as the Exploratorium and the California Academy of Sciences (which has its own collection of exotic snakes, lizards, frogs and sea creatures).

Bay Area Events
The Bay Area is home to some of the world’s biggest and best events, attracting hundreds of thousands of people and bringing together diverse communities.

Chinese New Year
In February the city celebrates Chinese New Year, culminating in a 2 hour parade that snakes its way through the streets of Chinatown with dragons, lions and acrobats.

Holi Festival of Colours
In April, hundreds of Cal students gather in the Berkeley hills to celebrate the beginning of spring with the Holi Festival of Colours.

Art Murmur
Every month, Oakland’s Art Murmur attracts artists and performers from across the region. It’s a great way to enjoy the work of the creative community, and to create your own art too.

Hoodslam Wrestling
Oakland is also home to a monthly wrestling meet-up called Hoodslam. This classy event brings together sworn enemies face to face in battle with their bare hands and a variety of household objects. Fake? Nah, “This Shit’s Real”!

Bay to Breakers
Bay to Breakers is one of the world’s largest footraces, with over 100,000 people running 12 kilometers through the streets of San Francisco while dressed-up in full costume. It makes the Wellington Sevens look like a Wiggles’ music video.

Pride Parade
Each year over one million people flow into San Francisco to celebrate Pride, with thousands of people participating in the parade.
During the week of Pride celebrations, a sea of people floods the streets of Castro to enjoy its nightlife. Saturday’s Pink Party is one of the biggest events of the year, featuring five outdoor stages in addition to Castro’s many bars and nightclubs.
And there’s more…
I only saw a small slice of Berkeley and the Bay during my exchange, so there’s still plenty left to explore. I’m looking forward to going back one day, hopefully soon!
 
 
One of the best things about living in California is the diversity of great places to explore. Here’s an overview of my favorite spots.

Mt Diablo
Only an hour inland from Berkeley, Mt Diablo features some amazing wind-carved rock formations and awesome views looking out across Northern California.
Sonoma Coast
The coastline north of San Francisco is wild and rugged, reminiscent of New Zealand’s West Coast. It’s a refreshing escape from everyday life, and only two hour’s drive north of San Francisco.
Rock Climbing at Goat Rock
There are also some really nice rock climbing spots along the Sonoma Coast, such as Goat Rock. A couple of outdoors clubs at Berkeley organize trips to spots like this most weekends.
Point Reyes
Point Reyes features a diverse range of micro-climates, including lakes, beaches, waterfalls and lush forests draped with fog. It is also home to elephant seals, mountain lions, lizards and hundreds of bird species!
Davis Picnic Day
An hour inland from Berkeley, Davis is home to the University of California’s agricultural campus. Every April the town celebrates Picnic Day, one of the largest university open-days in America with more than 100,000 visitors!
In addition to dozens of house parties and a street parade, the campus hosts a range of exhibitions, events and entertainment that showcase agricultural life and the many courses that UC Davis has on offer.
It’s definitely an eye opening experience…
North Fork American River
The turquoise waters of the American River wind their way down from the Sierra Mountains, through spectacular gorges and tranquil forests before eventually flowing under the Golden Gate bridge. A great spot to set up camp and relax in the refreshing waters.
Sykes Hot Springs
Nestled beneath towering redwoods, the Sykes Hot Springs are a highlight spot within the wilderness of Big Sur. Definitely worth the 10 mile hike!
Zion National Park
For Spring Break I travelled to Zion National Park with a few friends from my co-op. The trip there was a journey in itself, taking over 11 hours by car!
The first night we set up camp on a dirt road in the middle of the Nevada desert, surrounded by stark open spaces and some spiny Joshua Trees.
In the morning we headed to an Indian reservation to salivate over a range of tax-free goods, many of which were illegal in other states. Some of the fireworks cost more than $100, and may have been used as weapons of mass-distraction during the Iraq war…
It was a fun evening…
The next day we continued our journey across the barren landscape, driving through countless towns built upon solid rock.
The landscape once we reached Zion was breathtaking.
Every corner of the park is decorated by vivid red rock that has been shaped by the wind and rain for millions of years. The result is an impressive array of honeycomb boulders, hanging arches and deep canyons that stretch as far as the eye can see.
Zion is also home to dozens of micro climates, including barren deserts and haunting forests of dead trees, as well as river valleys flowing with water and blanketed with towering groves of pine. There were even a few spots with snow!
After hiking for four days we reached one of the highlight attractions of Zion National Park, Angel’s Landing. Some sections of the track were barely six feet across, with sheer cliffs dropping over a thousand feet to the valley floor.
Even though it felt like I was inches from death, the view at the top was definitely worth it!
 
 
I’ve now been at Berkeley for two months, and really love studying here. Not only are classes fun and stimulating, but the campus is a vibrant cultural hub.

Berkeley has a rich history as a center for important scientific advances as well as a number of powerful social movements. The university has been home to over 70 Nobel Prize winners, played a key role in the computing revolution, and has overseen the discovery of 16 atomic elements on the periodic table (including berkelium)…
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The world’s first Cyclotron particle accelerator, used to make discoveries in nuclear physics.
The campus was also the focal point of the Free Speech Movement during the 1960s, with thousands of protestors fighting for the right to free expression during a time of political suppression both on campus and beyond.
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Free Speech protestors gather on Sproul Plaza in 1964.
Conservative politicians feared that the university was a threat to social order and national security, with Ronald Reagan dismissing protest groups as a bunch of “beatniks, radicals and filthy speech advocates.” During a particularly large protest in 1969 Reagan declared a State of Emergency in Berkeley, and sent 2,200 National Guard troops to restore order. The militarized crack down included the use of shotguns loaded with buck-shot against protestors, as well as a military helicopter flying over campus and spraying nausea gas over thousands of students. The use of force resulted in one student being killed, another blinded, and over a hundred seeking hospital treatment for their injuries.
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Military helicopter spraying nausea gas on student protestors.
Thankfully life has been a bit more peaceful during my semester at Berkeley. Even a provocative performance of the Harlem Shake only attracted a lone police officer on a bicycle…
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Armed police presence is kept to a peaceful minimum during the Harlem Shake…

Life on campus

The Berkeley campus feels like a garden park, with amazing architecture nestled alongside groves of redwoods, oaks, cherry blossoms and eucalyptus. There are also several grassy fields perfect for relaxing and hanging out in the sun.
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Berkeley Campus
Berkeley is also home to a number of competitive and social sports teams, ranging from American football and rugby all the way through to Quidditch. There are also dozens of clubs for a wide range of interests, including hiking and climbing clubs for anyone that wants to explore beyond Berkeley.
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Quidditch players compete on Memorial Glade.
The heart of the university lies within the amazing selection of classes it offers, taught by lecturers who are leaders in their field. While here, I’ve been lucky enough to take some of the most rewarding classes of my life. Within the law school I’m taking a class on Cyberlaw, which looks at the many ways that legal systems are adapting to the complex realm of the Internet and digital technology. At the business school I’m studying entrepreneurship, looking at the processes involved in the development of technological innovations. I’m also taking a class on media and social change, looking at the close relationship between social movements and media culture.

My Wealth and Poverty class has been one of my favorites, and explores the dynamics of inequality within America and other advanced economies. More than 800 students cram into the auditorium each week to hear the lectures of Robert Reich, who was the Secretary of Labor under Bill Clinton. Reich’s classes are fun and interactive, and feature challenging material from across the political spectrum. He also shares funny anecdotes about his time within the White House, and snippets of details about his college friendship with Bill and Hillary Clinton (he went on a movie date with Hillary before she knew Bill, and takes credit for introducing them to each other)…

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Robert Reich lecturing at Berkeley (screenshot taken from the film ‘Inequality for All’).
Campus is also home to a diverse range of events. Dozens of conferences and seminars are held every semester, hosting experts from around the world. Sports fans flock to the on-campus stadiums to watch Berkeley’s ‘Golden Bears’ compete in basketball, football and baseball. The Berkeley Art Museum displays works from around the world, and also hosts music events and film festivals. There’s also a pretty cool improv club that performs comedy shows every week.
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Watching the Cal Bears beat UCLA by 76 to 63.
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The Berkeley Art Museum.
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Jericho improv club.
It’s hard to believe that I’ve already been studying at Berkeley for two months, and even harder to think that I’ll be finishing in a month. I’ve had an amazing time, it will definitely be hard to leave!
 
 
My time in Austin has sadly come to an end, but thankfully moving on has been made a little bit easier by a month of travel and exploration around North America. Here are some of the highlights from my journey to Berkeley, via New Jersey, New York, Mexico and Canada…

Saying goodbye to Austin

After university finished I spent my last couple of weeks in Austin exploring the spots that I didn’t have time to visit during the semester.

It turns out Austin still had a number of weird and wonderful sights that had somehow escaped my radar, and it was fun uncovering some of the gems I’d overlooked.

First on my list was a trip to the South Congress district, home to a number of fun and quirky shops. My favourite was Uncommon Objects, an eclectic store that collates the most diverse range of useless artefacts known to man.
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Some of the oddities housed inside Uncommon Objects
The shop is home to a collection that includes life-sized anatomical posters, a lamp made of three bounded deer-hooves, a Jesus crucifixion statue surrounded by shells, paraphernalia from secret societies, and a creepy doll with a black & white photograph inserted as a face.
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Some of the oddities housed inside Uncommon Objects
Just down the road from Uncommon Objects is “Lucy In Disguise With Diamonds,” a HUGE costume store with almost any outfit you could desire… including a Michael Jackson Beat It Onesie for toddlers…
In addition to visiting South Congress, I had the chance to randomly wander the streets and soak in some unexpected sights hidden off the beaten track. My most unusual find was a home-made executioner’s guillotine, custom built for the sadistic decapitation of innocent soft-toys. The rusty blade had ended the lives of many fluffy-hearted souls, whose remains had been left scattered at the guillotine’s base as a tragic warning for the living…
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The pink unicorn lord of Austin watches over his many decapitated victims
Austin is also home to its very own “Museum of the Weird,” which showcases a collection of oddities from around the world. Although the authenticity of a few objects is slightly questionable, they’re all definitely infused with unusually high levels of weirdness…
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A 100% genuine collection of mermaids and men-fish.
The University of Texas campus is also home to a dozen museums, art galleries and libraries, and I took the time to explore some of them during my last week. The Lyndon B Johnson Presidential library celebrates the life of one of Texas’ most loved presidents, with artefacts collected from throughout his life. Highlights of the collection include Mr. Johnson’s custom-built presidential cowboy boots, as well as a replica of the Oval Office as it appeared during Johnson’s presidency (complete with a futuristic telephone-table!).
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Presidential cowboy boots. (Only in Texas)...
About 10 minutes walk from the Presidential library is the Texas Natural Science Center, which is home to one of the world’s largest complete pterodactyl skeletons and a number of other prehistoric fossils.
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A MASSIVE pterodactyl skeleton
In addition to the city sights I was also able travel with friends to explore some of the natural sights on the outskirts of Austin, including the breathtaking Hamilton Pool. This natural swimming spot features a beautiful limestone overhang with stalactites, and even has a small waterfall too!
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Hamilton Pool
The weekend before I left Austin, I was lucky enough to be introduced to the Little Longhorn Saloon. In addition to cheap drinks and lively country dancing, the Little Longhorn is home to the world-renowned sport of Chicken Shit bingo…
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The Little Longhorn Saloon, home to Country music, cowboys and Chicken Shit bingo
Chicken Shit bingo is a highly competitive sport, involving a well-fed chicken placed inside a cage containing a wooden board with a numbered grid. Pundits purchase tickets, and wait patiently for the chicken to poop on their number. Games have been known to take anywhere from 15 minutes to a full hour…
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Dozens of pundits wait patiently for the “shit to hit the grid”…
My time in Austin was wrapped up with a visit to the city’s annual Trail of Lights, an hour long walk through Zilker Park decorated with thousands of coloured lights and dozens of cool quirky sculptures.
A white Christmas in New Jersey

After leaving Austin I headed straight to my friend’s place in New Jersey to enjoy an authentic American Christmas, complete with a towering supply of beverages and traditional jelly shots…
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Einstein, the Christmas Elf-lizard
I was treated to a dusting of snow on Christmas Eve, which was the perfect way to enjoy my first wintery Christmas. It felt slightly strange to be shivering in the snow while friends and family back home had a BBQ outside in the sun or chilled at the beach…
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My first white Christmas
New Years in New York, New York

After spending Christmas in New Jersey I caught up with some friends in New York City for New Years. On the first day it snowed solidly for several hours, blanketing Central Park in a magical carpet of pure white. I took the opportunity to try ice-skating for the first-time (and managed to fall over only once)…
Even though Christmas was over, New York maintained its Christmassy vibe for several days after the fat man had headed back home to the North Pole… Almost every shop was decorated, inside and out!
The Guggenheim Museum near Central Park is an architectural gem that reflects a 1950s vision of the future. Inside, a single spiralling exhibition space circles its way several stories to a central skylight. Even better, the museum hosts some of the world’s most widely acclaimed artists. During my visit, the gallery featured a special exhibition of paintings and sculptures by Pablo Picasso.
Times Square was absolutely packed during the holiday period, with huge rivers of people flowing through every corner of the iconic landmark. Even Elmo couldn’t resist a visit.
Little Italy was pretty packed too, with hundreds of people flocking to the dozens of restaurants that line the streets. We headed along to the famous Ferrara bakery and waited in line for 30 minutes to pick from their incredible selection of Italian pastries, cakes and more. Worth every minute!
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Little Italy, and the delicious selection of treats at Ferrara bakery
New York is also home to some cool nightclubs. Webster Hall is located in the middle of Greenwich Village and boasts 4 different levels, each with its own unique environment and featuring a wide range of music and entertainment (including burlesque dancers on stilts and several DJs). There was even a mini tattoo parlour!
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Webster Hall nightclub
On New Year’s Eve we watched Pretty Lights perform at the Roseland Ballroom on 52nd street, and were treated to great music, a midnight balloon drop, and an incredible laser-show that lasted well into the early hours of the morning…
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Pretty Lights concert at the Roseland Ballroom
¡Hola Mexico!

After New York I swapped sleet and snow for a warm week of sand, sun and snorkelling in Mexico. It was a bit of a shock to begin the day flying over endless fields of snow, before landing in the middle of a muggy Mexican forest near Cancun.
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Climate shock: from the USA to Mexico…
Soon after landing I quickly discovered the dire need to leave the tourist trap of Cancun. Although the beaches looked beautiful, they were overshadowed by a mini-America of supersized hotels, cheesy souvenir stores and overpriced nightclubs. Probably a fun spot for a rowdy Spring Break, but not the best option if you want to see the heart of what Mexico has to offer…

After escaping Cancun I headed down the coast and explored some of the coastal highlights of the Yucatan Peninsula. About an hour and a half south of Cancun lies the small seaside village of Akumal Beach, home to a sheltered bay of coral reefs with tropical fish, sting-rays and sea-turtles.
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A Parrot-fish eating coral, and a sea-turtle munching on sea-grass
A 30 minute walk north up the coast from Akumal Beach is Yal-ku lagoon, which offers even more opportunities to snorkel with tropical fish.
Thirty minutes drive south of Akumal lies the small town of Tulum, a humble spot free of the touristic excesses that proliferate further up the coast. It’s the perfect central spot to visit beaches, ruins and cenotes (underwater caves). While in Tulum I stayed at Posada los Mapaches, a homely hostel consisting of rustic tree-houses surrounded by jungle vines and palms. The hosts were super friendly too, serving up an awesome breakfast every morning, providing free bikes for exploring the area, and sharing great advice about the best spots to visit.
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Posada los Mapaches: my favourite hostel in Mexico
Tulum became the base for most of my travels around the region. About 15 minutes drive up the road was the Dos Ojos collection of underwater caves. Snorkelling through the crystal clear blue water was a surreal experience, especially when swimming alongside massive formations of stalactites and stalagmites. Even better, roosts of bats huddled upside-down within the crevices of the cave’s roof!
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The crystal-clear waters of the Dos Ojos cenotes (with an illusion of dirtiness created by my damaged camera…)
About ten minutes bike ride from the tree-house hostel at Posada los Mapaches are the ancient ruins of Tulum, a former Mayan defence and trading post located atop a cliff overlooking the Caribbean sea.
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Tulum ruins
Several other ruins are easily accessible from Tulum. An hour inland you will find the ancient city of Coba hidden amongst the dense Yucatan jungle. This is an extremely well-preserved and restored site, featuring Mayan ball courts and a variety of different types of temple. Best of all, you can rent a bike for less than $3 NZD and explore the entire site on two wheels!
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Biking through the Coba ruins
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Ancient Mayan ballcourt
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Nohoch Mul pyramid – the tallest on the Yucatan Peninsula
Even further inland from Tulum are the ruins of Ek Balam (2 hours approx by bus), which feature some extremely well-preserved stucco facades as well as several restored temples.
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Stucco facades at Ek Balam
One of my favourite highlights of travelling around Mexico was renting a scooter and exploring the bumpy dirt road through the rugged jungle of the Sian Ka’an national park.
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Riding through the Sian Ka’an
Thankfully I managed to get through the entire trip without killing a single one of the lizards, iguanas and snakes that narrowly escaped the wrath of my wheels…
It took over two hours to cover just 55km of road, but eventually I reached the small fishing village of Punta Allen. This humble little town is literally at the end of the road, and is home to less than 500 people.
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Punta Allen village
Although Mexico is home to some amazing sights, it still features many areas where living conditions are pretty harsh. Many communities lived in wooden huts with thatched roofs, or extremely old and simple houses that were pretty run-down. Thankfully there didn’t seem to be any starvation or extreme poverty, but life still seemed kinda tough.
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Housing in the poorer communities of the Yucatan
Chilling in Canada

After Mexico, I headed up to Vancouver to present at the Technology, Knowledge and Society conference. I was in for yet another climate shock, going from hot, humid weather of Mexico to the harsh chill of a Canadian winter (complete with frozen lakes and swimming pools!). Although I didn’t have much time to explore due to the conference, I managed to visit Chinatown, experience a few cool bars and eat some awesome Japanese food. Definitely a city worth exploring more in the future!
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Sun Yat Sen Park in Vancouver’s Chinatown
After the conference in Vancouver I flew straight to San Francisco, and moved into my new home in Berkeley. I already love the city with its lively culture and fun people. I’ve also been able to enrol in some awesome classes with some really stimulating topics and engaging lecturers. To top it all off, the hilly tree-lined landscape feels just like home in Wellington, and it looks like the region has some great nature spots to explore too. I’ll post some more details about life here in a couple of weeks once I’ve settled in :)
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Sunset overlooking Berkeley campus

 
 
Nestled in the heart of the Guadalupe mountains of New Mexico are some of the largest, deepest and most diverse caves within the U.S.A.

Over thanksgiving I spent five days with a group from UT exploring three of the caves in the region, each with a different environment ranging from the vast and expansive rooms of Carlsbad Caverns through to the wet and narrow crawlspaces of Parks Ranch Cave.

Getting there

Our trip began with an overnight stopover in Balmorhea State Park, which is home to a small desert oasis called San Solomon Springs. The fresh blue-green waters of the natural spring are home to hundreds of small pup-fish, and the nearby swamp and stream is also home to turtles, water-snakes, crawfish and catfish.
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San Solomon Springs
The total drive from Austin to our campsite in New Mexico was just over eight hours (made slightly longer by some car problems)…
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Car trouble on the road…
The New Mexican landscape is vast and arid with desert plains spreading out towards the horizon in all directions, scattered with prickly cacti and sparse scrub. Although everything looks a little bit barren compared to New Zealand, the open vistas are impressive and beautiful in their own way, especially when the setting sun paints the sky with pastel hues of purple and orange.
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New Mexican sunset
While New Mexico is home to a multi-billion oil and gas industry, it is also home to a lot of hardship (some estimates place approximately 20% of the population below the poverty line). Many of the towns have abandoned houses and factories that are falling apart, as well as empty main streets that resemble ghost-towns.
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Abandoned house in New Mexico.
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Abandoned factory in New Mexico.
It’s not all sad and drab though, especially when you visit the bustling township of White’s City (pop. 79) which is home to one of America’s most interesting information centres. Once you walk past the imposing green aliens outside, you’ll find a unique mix of candy, souvenirs, stuffed animals, and billboards for Mitt Romney.
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White’s City’s glorious Information Centre

Camping

We set up our tents on the semi-arid desert surrounding Parks Ranch Cave, a landscape that was hot during the day and freezing at night. Apparently the desert is also home to bears and scorpions, but thankfully we didn’t have any encounters during the trip… (We could definitely hear a few coyotes at night though)…
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Camping at Park’s Ranch
Although our campsite was relatively primitive, we still managed to eat a surprisingly classy diet. Best of all was Thanksgiving, when we pigged out on a meal of turkey, cranberry sauce, stuffing, sweet potatoes (with marshmallow sauce), and a selection of pies for desert!
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Thanksgiving dinner

Carlsbad Cavern

Carlsbad Cavern is a truly impressive cave system, taking nearly an hour to walk down into its depths over 300m below the surface.
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The bat-cave at Carlsbad Cavern
Once at the bottom you enter the “Big Room,” a single area that is over 1.2 kilometres long, 200 metres wide and 80 metres high (taking another hour just to walk around the perimeter).
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Giant columns at Carlsbad Cavern
The room is filled with countless formations, including stalactites and stalagmites, massive columns and a voluptuous mound named after Venus de Milo.
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Stalagtites at Carlsbad Cavern
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Wall formations at Carlsbad Cavern
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The “Witch’s Fingers” at Carlsbad Cavern
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The “Breast of Venus” at Carlsbad Cavern
Once the tour is complete, you get a very abrupt reintroduction to civilization when you realise the cave is home to a rest area with an underground elevator, souvenir store and fully functional toilets.
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Elevator and souvenir shop at Carlsbad Cavern
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Toilets at Carlsbad Cavern

Slaughter Canyon Cave:

Although smaller than Carlsbad Cavern, Slaughter Canyon Cave is still home to a number of interesting formations (and also doesn’t have any touristy additions).
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Walking down into the depths of Slaughter Canyon Cave
My favourite formation was the towering “Christmas Tree,” which has a crystallised surface that glitters under torchlight.
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The “Christmas Tree” at Slaughter Canyon Cave
There’s also “The Hooded Klansman” (who looks remarkably similar to He-Man’s arch-nemisis, Skeletor).
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“The Hooded Clansman” at Slaughter Canyon Cave, aka Skeletor.
Another interesting formation was the “Chinese Wall,” an ankle-high rimstone dam that fills with mineral-infused water whenever it rains.
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The “Chinese Wall” at Slaughter Canyon Cave
I also managed to find a pretty impressive unnamed formation too.
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Unnamed formation at Slaughter Canyon Cave

Parks Ranch Cave

The most untamed caving system that we explored was at Park’s Ranch, a network of underground passages that acts as a drainage system for the surrounding desert landscape (and is subject to flash flooding without warning). Thankfully rain is rare, and we didn’t see anything more than a few wispy clouds the whole time we were there…
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Warning at entrance to Park’s Ranch Cave.
After getting past the initial fear of potential death, we immersed ourselves into a “real” caving experience consisting of claustrophobic crawlspaces and long twisting passages that snaked their way through white gypsum rock.
The caving involved a combination of crawling on our hands and knees through muddy pools of water, climbing up and down different layers of rock and wading through underwater streams. Although it was a little uncomfortable at times, it was an amazing experience with some beautiful sights!
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Cave crickets at Slaughter Canyon Cave
 
 
Here are some highlights from the past month in Texas, enjoy =)

Sea Kayaking on Mustang Island

It was awesome being able to see the ocean again after spending nearly three months surrounded by land. Mustang Island lies on the Gulf Coast of Texas, and is only about 4 hours drive from Austin. The water is a balmy 20 degrees, the sand is white and powdery, and the skies are home to nearly 500 species of bird including pelicans, ibis and pink spoonbills.

Halloween

Halloween is a pretty big deal in America. Nearly everybody dresses to celebrate, and countless shops, restaurants and houses are decorated with a haunted theme in the weeks leading up to the big day.

Diwali

Austin’s Hindi community recently celebrated the Diwali festival of lights on campus, gathering together for prayer, song and dance before a finale of fireworks.

Middle Earth Party

The Eye of Sauron burnt brightly at Pearl Street co-op’s Middle Earth party, which hosted dozens of elves, hobbits, wizards, ents and a DJ.

Playing with fire…

21st Street co-op recently celebrated its birthday with an evening of fire-dancing, live bands and dozens of kegs. It was the perfect way to commemorate nearly forty years as a cooperative housing community (although the cops didn’t seem to share our enthusiasm)…

Austin Graffiti Park

The Austin Graffiti Park was born from the ruins of a failed construction project, abandoned because the hillside was too unstable to support the weight of a housing complex. It’s now a vibrant artistic hub featuring work by some of the best graffiti artists from Austin and beyond. (There are even a couple of works by Banksy here).

Norman Bell Geddes exhibition

The University of Texas is currently hosting an exhibition of works by Norman Bell Geddes, a quirky futurist who helped shaped American conceptions of modernity. Amongst the items on display are his designs for flying cars, super-sized sea-planes, streamlined ocean liners and convertible houses.

Horses

Cowboys still roam the streets of Austin, using horses as a vital mode of transport. Some statistical models predict that all vehicles in Texas will be replaced by horses within the next 58 years.
 
 
The history behind Austin City Limits: from television show to festival

Live music is at the heart of Austin, a Texan city that claims more performance venues per person than anywhere else in America. A typical weekend boasts over 200 shows by bands from Texas and around the world. I’ve lived here for over two months now, and still find it overwhelming just looking at the local gig guide!

Austin City Limits (ACL) is one of the musical institutions that has helped fuel Austin’s live music scene for nearly forty years. The weekly television series was first broadcast in 1976, and has featured live performances and interviews ever since. It has become the longest running music television show in America, and was initiated into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2010.

Johnny Cash, Coldplay, the Foo Fighters, Kings of Leon, Muse and Pearl Jam have graced the screen, along with a few Kiwi musicians including Crowded House and Kimbra.

The ACL Festival was initially an extension of the television series. The first festival in 2002 was a two-day event attracting 40,000 fans. Ten years later the three-day festival lines up 130 acts and pulls 75,000 people each day. For two years tickets have sold-out before the line-up has even been announced. To cope, the festival has been expanded to run twice during consecutive weekends in 2013.

ACL 2012: the highlights

This year’s festival featured a number of outstanding performances. On Friday, Florence and the Machine mesmerised the audience with her emotive vocals and friendly banter.
Later that evening the Black Keys duo performed highlights from their catalogue of garage-blues rock, including Lonely Boy and Howlin' for You.
AVICII pumped out an array of electro-house dance hits – performing on top of a giant white head, lit up with psychedelic projections.
On Saturday, the Roots performed a range of their hip-hop hits before launching into a collection of medleys, performing extended covers of classic songs such as Sweet Child O’ Mine and Bad to the Bone.
In the evening, Jack White rocked the audience with hits spanning his entire career including the White Stripes, the Raconteurs and his recent solo material. He played with his six-piece all-female band, the Peacocks, who added a vibrant
dynamic to his performance.
On Sunday Kiwi songstress Kimbra performed a crowd-winning set to thousands of fans, playing her hits Cameo Lover, Settle Down and Warrior. Dancing with the energy of a hyperactive pixie, Kimbra's show was fun to watch and complemented by powerful vocals and the upbeat energy of her band. The vibrancy of her performance was echoed within her quirky pink dress, heavily decorated with layers of bright accessories that provided a cascade of shimmering colour with every movement. Performing with a permanent smile on her face, it was clear that she was genuine when declaring ‘‘I love you Austin!’’
Later in the afternoon, Die Antwoord took to the stage with their unique brand of ‘‘futuristic rap-rave’’. Their performance was crafted for maximum shock and awe, featuring gratuitous amounts of vulgarity and more crotch-grabbing than a Michael Jackson concert.
To wrap up the festival, the Red Hot Chili Peppers performed non-stop hits for nearly two hours. In addition to their recent songs, they delved deeply into their back catalogue by playing 80s favourites such as Give it Away, Under The Bridge, Suck My Kiss and Sir Psycho Sexy. The infusion of other monumental hits from albums such as Californication and By The Way resulted in an unforgettable show that wrapped up the weekend perfectly.

I also discovered a number of new personal favourites at ACL, including the catchy electronic/indie/dance/pop hits of Alt-J, the soulful rock of Michael Kiwanuka, the hard-hitting funk/reggae/dub remixes of Lance Herbstrong, the haunting melodic harmonies of the Eastern Sea, the overpowering vocals of Alabama Shakes, and the thick and funky basslines of Thundercat.

Catching up with Kimbra

I caught up with Kimbra shortly after she had seen Rufus Wainwright perform, and learnt that Austin City Limits is also a memorable experience for the musicians who perform. Kimbra described the joy of being able to experience “that feeling of being a fan in the audience again,” and also shared her love for Austin, particularly “the passion of the people [who are] all so pumped up to get out and discover new music.”

Her show at ACL was part of her wider global tour that has seen her perform throughout Australia, America, Canada, Europe, and even Turkey. Her American tour has been particularly successful, with many shows recently selling out in New York, Washington DC and Boston.

She’s also had the chance to meet a few of her idols, such as Faith No More’s Mike Patton. They recently dined in San Francisco and drank Japanese sake over a sumptuous meal of pig intestines (apparently Patton had gone to the chef and asked for ‘‘the craziest shit on the menu’’).

Although she’s been enjoying her tour, she’s definitely looking forward to being home again at the end of the year, when she will perform at Rhythm and Vines. She’s particularly keen to meet up with family and friends, and immerse herself in the ‘‘chilled out and relaxed’’ Kiwi culture that she has missed while touring overseas. If she gets the chance she might even visit one of her favourite spots, such as Raglan or Lake Rotoiti.
Picture
Interviewing Kimbra at ACL
Fancy festival fare

In addition to the music, ACL features a wide range of dining options that are far superior to traditional festival staples such as fatty hotdogs and soggy chips. The ‘‘Austin Eats’’ section of ACL is home to about 40 food stalls, providing food prepared by some of the top restaurants and food carts throughout the city.

There’s something to keep everyone happy, including Greek gyros and gorditas, Indian tikka masala and deep-fried pakoras, Mexican tamales, tacos and burritos, all the way through to American cheesy fries, burgers and sloppy Joes. There are even some Kiwi favourites like steak and potato pies.
Picture
One of the many dining options at ACL
Beating the heat

Although a sunny music festival may seem better than a Glastonbury mudbath, the Texan heat can be overwhelming. Festival temperatures hovered above 30 degrees throughout the weekend, and have exceeded 40 degrees in the past!

Topping up your water bottle at one of the many refilling stations is essential, and you are guaranteed to have sweat dripping down your face throughout the day. Thankfully the festival grounds are lined with trees, providing an oasis of shade where fans can take refuge.
After the party

Each night the festival resembles a bursting dam. The last performance sets off a flood of people flowing over the grassy   grounds before gushing out onto the streets.

Once the crowds are released, Austin’s streets temporarily resemble a chaotic third-world intersection as tens of thousands of people walk alongside hundreds of cyclists, dozens of rickshaw ‘pedicabs’, and a handful of motorbikes.

As the crowd disperses throughout the city, some are happy to head home and let rigor mortis run its natural course through their worn bodies.

For those with the stamina, a smorgasbord of ACL after-shows are scattered throughout the city and extend the party well into the early hours of the morning.
My coverage was completed on assignment for Stuff.co.nz, click here to view the article that was published.
 
 
Here are some highlights of life in Texas since my last post. Enjoy

Party Barge

The international club at the University of Texas (Planet Longhorn) recently threw a massive boat party at Lake Travis with 150 people. The two-story barge boasted a DJ, sound-system, free food and drinks, and even had a waterslide! It was the perfect way to enjoy a hot Texan afternoon, even though I ended up looking like a cooked lobster...

21st Street co-op

This place looks like a tree-house on steroids, and the people that live here host some of the most fun/crazy/unusual events in Austin. Some highlights from the past month include:
Baby oil wrestling @ 21st
Every year competitors fight with an intense passion to dominate their oily opponents, and be crowned victor. A high-class event that puts the WWE to shame.
The MF 100 bike race @ 21st
Another annual event, the MF 100 requires competitors to complete a 100 lap bike race around the grounds of 21st Street co-op. What makes the bike race unique is the infusion of countless gruelling challenges that are humiliating, painful, unsanitary and bizarre. I won’t go into details, but I can tell you that I will never look at E.T. the same again...
Gigs @ 21st
21st street is also home to its own stage for gigs and shows, and hosts a wide range of performers. The most recent show I went to featured a girl wearing nothing but a white bed sheet, screaming lyrics at the top of her lungs. Towards the end of the set, she put down her microphone and flipped the bird for five minutes.

The Alamo drafthouse

Austin has introduced me to my favourite movie theatre in the world, The Alamo Drafthouse.

Firstly, you can buy your tickets from a talking robot.
Best of all, he speaks with a Kiwi accent!
Robot: “Please take your ‘tuckut’, and proceed to the theatre”

Secondly, you can order a meal or purchase drinks throughout the movie. Waiters take orders while you sit, and delivery promptly.

The most impressive feature though is their wide range of eccentric and interesting cult films which are offered in addition to more mainstream recent releases. They also have “action pack” sessions which involve audience participation, such as sing-alongs and quote-alongs.

I recently went to a Boy Band sing-along, which featured over 200 people singing cheesy 90s hits from bands such as N’Sync, Backstreet Boys, Hanson and Boyz II Men. It felt more like a giant karaoke bar than a movie theatre, especially when dozens of people started dancing in front of the screen.

Oktoberfest

Texas is home to its very own Oktoberfest, hosted by the small German town of Fredericksberg. Residents celebrate their German heritage every year with traditional songs and dances, including the popular Polka dance. The festival also features a massive bubble machine, and a giant 20-foot-tall puppet. Although it has a slightly different vibe to the real Oktoberfest in Germany, it was still a lot of fun!

Torchlight Parade

Every year Texans show their Longhorn pride at the Texas vs. O.U Torchlight Parade. Fans dress in team colours (or cowboy suits) and walk through the streets with torchlights behind the world’s largest Texan flag. They then converge on campus to chant for their team, listen to speeches by the coach and players, and celebrate how much they love Texas (and hate Oklahoma).

Gay Pride parade

Austin comes together each year to celebrate its LGBT community, with participants from all walks of life marching down Congress Avenue with a variety of vibrant floats.

Food

Austin has a lot of great places to dine. Some highlights include:
G'Raj Mahal
This outdoor Indian restaurant has a great range of dishes to suit all tastes, from the mild and sweet through to the intensely spicy. Patrons are able to sit at tables out in the sun, or within open-air tents lined with red felt and decorated with fairy lights.
Buca Di Beppo
I had my birthday dinner at an ‘immigrant-Italian’ themed restaurant called Bupa Di Beppo. The restaurant is decorated with quirky Italianesque statues, and the walls are overflowing with photos of Italian women showing gratuitous amounts of cleavage and bum-cheek. Great food, and massive desserts too!
The Cheesecake Factory
I’ve never seen so many cheesecakes in all my life, and had a pretty tough time choosing just one. Surprisingly enough, the cheesecakes are just a small slice of what’s on offer. There’s also a wide range of meals, all of which can be eaten while enjoying the restaurant’s bizarre architecture (a fusion between ancient Egyptian, Greek and Indian influences with a large serving of Americana).
 
 
University is now in full swing, but thankfully life has been about more than just study. I’ve had my eyes opened to the beauty of junk. I’ve been taught big things about small ponies. I’ve discovered that friendship truly is magic…

The University of Texas

I’ve now had 2 weeks of classes, and Austin is starting to feel a bit more like home. My classes have all been really interesting and do a good job of examining the conceptual foundations of new media, while also exploring new opportunities within the media industry itself. My lecturers are also really inspiring and many of them are leaders in their field. Several have experience running media companies themselves or working in the field of journalism, while others have held positions advising government bodies about communications policy.

I’ve also been lucky enough to get a four day weekend, and only have classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Unfortunately this doesn’t mean that university will be a walk in the park though. The workload is still quite intense, and I have between 150-250 pages of readings each week. I also have several quizzes, exams or essays due nearly every week for the next 13 weeks. As a result, my utopian dream of chilling out for four days each week is unlikely to ever become reality.
The University of Texas campus

Bro + Pony = Brony

A My Little Pony (MLP) craze has been sweeping through the American nation, and is reverberating around the world with its message of “friendship is magic.” It was only a few months ago that I found out my own little brother is a fan, and identifies as a “Brony.” It turns out that there’s actually a pretty large community of guys who like the show, which is aimed at a much wider audience than just pre-school girls. Bronies enjoy being part of a community that doesn’t take life too seriously, and appreciate the show’s jokes and themes that would otherwise go over the heads of younger viewers..

As my brother has explained to me, “People should try watching MLP Friendship is Magic because then they will see that the show is beyond one’s expectations […] It is suitable for people of all ages and genders and is not just a sissy cartoon. If you watch it, then you will understand why I am a Brony. BRO HOOVES TO EVERYONE.”
My Little Pony fan-art
Brony Conventions have been popping up throughout the USA, including one in New York City which attracted 4,000 people. Although I haven’t quite been converted to Bronydom, I decided to go to Austin’s own “Brony Fan Fair” last weekend to get a taste of what it was all about. The whole weekend was full of events, including a costume contest, pony Olympics, a group sing-along, and a workshop on sewing techniques for costumes. In the evenings there were even a couple of restricted events, including an R18 improv show called “Whooves Line is it Anyway,” and an R21 BYOB party with a DJ. I wasn’t quite dedicated enough to go to all the events, but a three hour visit was definitely an eye-opener.
A fan at the Austin “Brony Fan Fair” convention.

One man’s junk is another man’s cathedral…

I was lucky enough to visit the Cathedral of Junk last week, which towers up from the suburban backyard of a guy called Vince. He began building his junkyard paradise back in 1988, and has been going strong ever since (despite snobby neighbours campaigning for its demolition). The framework of the structure is an architectural wonder, created from a random assortment of welded pipes, iron rods, ladders, bicycle wheels, sections of demolished houses and more. Overlaying this skeletal framework, Vince has interwoven a nostalgic collection of old toys, telephones, watches, road-signs, calculators, computers, surfboards, televisions, radios, water-guns… and basically any other household item you can imagine. After walking up a staircase of concrete-filled tyres, and climbing up a flimsy old ladder, you are free to explore the roof. It’s a tiny bit nerve-racking considering the whole structure vibrates with every step, but definitely worth a visit.

My first football game:

I also recently went to my first ever football game, which had a crowd of more than 101,000! It was an amazing experience being surrounded so many people in one place, especially when everyone began chanting for the Longhorns. I’m just glad I wasn’t supporting the other team…
Anyway, that’s all for this week. Thanks for reading, I look forward to posting again in a couple of weeks.

See ya!
 
 
I’ve only been here 3 weeks now, but I think it’s safe to conclude that Texan life is definitely a bit different to lil’ old New Zealand. Here are a few insights into what I’ve experienced in Austin so far.

Life, Supersized

A wise person once said that everything’s bigger in Texas. It doesn’t take long to realise that this is more than just a stereotype.

The first thing most newcomers will notice is that Texans love driving big vehicles. If a Texan car were a person, it would be an obese seven-foot-tall Irishman with a chronic drinking problem. Some SUVs here consume more than 18 litres of fuel per 100km, so it’s not hard to understand why Americans fight so hard to keep their fuel prices low! (Petrol costs just $1.20 NZD per litre)…
Vehicles like this mate in Texas (after marriage), and give birth to baby New Zealand cars. Once they reach our shores, a lack of cheap fuel stunts growth permanently.

Alcoholic cars obviously need a good place to get drunk, so thankfully Austin is also close to one of world's largest petrol stations. It's on the i35 highway, and has 60 petrol pumps lined up side-by-side!
Buc-ee’s is home to 60 petrol pumps, delivering enough fuel each week to power all NZ cars for 2.2 years.*

In addition to big cars, Texans love big food. Many meals are about 50% bigger than your typical New Zealand serving, and in extreme cases they can be even larger. As for the soft-drinks, the small cup is about the same size as a New Zealand large. If you’re brave enough to upgrade to a Texan large, then be prepared for a cup that could be used for bathing a newborn baby. (Actually, maybe just litter of newborn kittens).
My first Texan meal (there were some leftovers).

Enduring such a large intake of food can have some unwelcome consequences. At orientation, we were all warned that freshman students often gain 15kg in their first year. If this is true, I might return to New Zealand with slightly different dimensions...

Keeping cool

Texas is a giant sauna, with temperatures currently averaging around 38° C (100° F). Thankfully the stifling heat isn’t quite so bad if you’re taking refuge in one of Austin’s many swimming spots. Surprisingly the university itself has half a dozen pools on campus, but the real gem of Austin is Barton Springs Pool. It’s fed by a natural spring, and the temperature is always a refreshing 20 to 22 degrees Celsius. The blue hues of the water are pretty cool too.
The natural pool at Barton Springs.

Off the wall

You’ll find quite a few quirky paintings covering walls throughout Austin, which creates a pretty cool vibe as you walk the streets.
There are also some really nice sculptures here too, especially at the Umlauf Sculpture garden.

All cooped up

I’m living in a ‘co-op,’ which is co-operative housing collectively run by everyone who lives here. It has an awesome community vibe, and has been a great way to meet some cool people. It’s pretty cheap too, and actually works out less expensive than Wellington.

There are at least a dozen co-ops within walking distance of the university, and they cater to a wide range of people. Some co-ops are perfect for the quiet and studious; other co-ops wouldn’t complain if you started a naked drum circle at 3 in the morning. My co-op lies somewhere between these two extremes, and is also home to a pet snake and a family of tarantulas.

House parties

Texans love to have house parties, and they can get pretty big sometimes. In comparison, most parties this size eventually get shut down by the cops in New Zealand...

Sixth Street

Sixth Street is where Austin comes to party, and it always surprises me how packed this place can get. Every weekend the street gets closed to traffic, and swarms of people fill the countless bars that line the streets. There’s plenty of live music to suit a wide range of tastes, as well as some nightclubs too. There’s even a dueling piano bar!

“Rush Week”

Hundreds of freshman girls have been working hard this week to secure a place in their sorority of choice. The whole process is known as “Rush Week,” and involves an intense week of girls visiting countless sororities and subjecting their mind, body and soul to the scrutiny of their peers. Each girl is individually judged based on her compatibility with the sorority, which often involves an assessment of whether she meets some minimum standards of beauty, intelligence and sociability. At the same time, the girls learn about each sorority and judge which one suits them best. On the up side, sororities often contribute to the community through volunteer work, and can be a great way for members to make lasting friendships and connections with like-minded people. On the downside, there can sometimes be a fine line between positive social bonding and elitist snobbery… 

Country music

Texas is the heart of country music. Popular themes include trucks, whisky, trucks, adultery, murder, love, trucks, nostalgia, and trucks. I might not be the world’s biggest country fan, but some of it is pretty catchy…
Tim McGraw’s country hit, “Truck Yeah,” playing on the car stereo.

Texan pride

Texans love being Texan. Sometimes this can feel a little bit confrontational, especially considering that Kiwi culture usually avoids blatant displays of pride. Despite this, it’s still kinda nice to see a society which isn’t scared to celebrate its successes.

I reserve right to laugh when patriotism goes too far though... I’m sorry, Texas, I just can’t keep a straight face when I hear things like “America invented the future”!
:P
A warm and welcoming Texan souvenir.

Rollercoastin'

Texan amusement parks have some pretty intense rides. The worst/best rollercoaster at Six Flags caused me and my friends to briefly black out, all at the same moment…
The Poltergeist: one of the tamer rollercoasters at Six Flags...

San Antonio

Last weekend I went on a trip to the historic San Antonio, and gained a some insight into the Texas' past. The city is home to a number of old historical sites, including San Fernando cathedral, the Spanish Governor’s Palace, and the world-famous Alamo.
The Alamo, often hailed as the birth-place of Texas, was the site of Davy Crockett’s famous last stand.

Thanks for reading :)

I hope I haven't put y'all to sleep.
If I did, then I hope you had sweet dreams.

In my next post I’ll write about the University of Texas at Austin after my first full week of classes.




[*Margin of error for this calculation is approximately plus or minus 2.2 years]