Back in July my PhD supervisor Brad was invited to go to the Queenstown Molecular Biology (QMS) meeting in Queenstown, New Zealand. Fortunately for me he couldn't make it but offered to send me in his place. The deal was they'd pay for me to fly over, Brad would pay for my accommodation for three days, and all I'd have to do was give a 20 minute talk. Score! :-P
When I was very young my parent went on a camp-a-van trip around the South Island of New Zealand, however that was a very long time ago, so of course I was keen to go again and stay a few extra day so I could try skiing! I booked my flights with Air New Zealand (wayyy cheaper than Qantas) via Campus Travel (UQ requirement). The recommended accommodation was a bit expensive, so I asked around and a guy called Michael from our building who had been before recommended "Bumbles Backpacker", which was only a couple of minutes walk from the conference venue (Rydges Queenstown) and only $30 a night (instead of $160), so I booked myself a twin room. Like most trips I go on, I'm was very excited about it when I booked, but the excitement only re-appeared when I found myself on a plane.
The conference itself was really only two-and-a-bit days - from Sept 2nd-4th - but I book my flight down Sept 1st via Christchurch [left 8:50am, arrived 4:10pm] and my flight back on Sept 8th via Auckland [left 11:00am, arrived 5:50]. On our descent into Queenstown I was in a fairly small plane with two propellers, which was rocking all over the place and like a few other people I came perilously close to throwing up.... which was a shame, because the view outside was fantastic - not as green as I imagined, but the lake and mountains looked fantastic and it was winter I suppose. Queenstown boasts itself as New Zealand's number one tourist destinations - attracting droves of backpackers and thrill-seekers, and I thought it was a great touch that they had a lady who gave us a free guides on arrival. It was a fantastic little airport, framed by huge snow-capped mountains, and I caught a shuttle bus ($20) to Bumbles Backpacker. After unpacking into my cozy little room (which fortunately had a heater) I took a walk around and it was immediately obvious the place was full of young people and extremely touristy - there were brochures and travel shops EVERYWHERE along the main streets. After some shopping for basics - milk, cereal and meat pies on special for $1 (I bought six) - I had Indian take-away and went to bed. If you stay at a backpaker make sure you label and continuously re-date everything you have in the fridge or people will take your precious pies!
02/06 | First Day in Queenstown (Tuesday)
I wasn't exactly sure what I wanted to do on my first day, but because the conference started at 5:00 I decided I should go for a walk. In spite of a poor forecast, it was an absolutely stunning day, and I decided to walk around Lake Wakatipu to see their botanic gardens. The walk was so breathtaking I stopped several times along the way to sit down, and just watch the lake. As well as ducks there were some very colourful, interesting birds around the garden, and looking on the lake could see people canoeing and parasailing. The walk was so calming I decided to continue... and just kept on walking around the lake all the way to Frankton, which is obviously where all the "real locals" live and/or retreat to avoid all the tourists. One thing I found really cool was that lots of little dingys tied up on the edge of the lake and several kids had obvioulsy built cubby-houses as well - suggesting that it's not only allowed but that people there are very trustworthy. All the locals I passed were friendly and smiled and on the way I had a chat to a Jet Boat operator, and asked if hitch-hiking was safe (since it's illegal in Australia) as I knew it would be a LONG walk back. After having a good look at the bridge and the airport, I put my thumb out and a few minutes later a nice four-wheel drive stopped for me. The guy who stopped was a private pilot, and had just dropped his girlfriend off at the airport - she about to start work in Mackay as an optometrist. He seemed like a really nice guy actually - I should have given him my card. After picking up another hitch-hiker he dropped us in town and I had plenty of time to have lunch before the conference.
The QMS meeting was about 200 people I'd estimate, and right from the start it was obvious they were a friendly group - many of them had been to QMS before and large number of speakers were from the University of Auckland. The plenary speaker was Dr Kary Mullis - the inventor of PCR and a nobel prize winner... his talk was pretty amazing in that the first half he told us "the story", and when he did start his slides he jumped all over the place - almost in random order. He went a bit overtime, but he was quite entertaining. We then had our first mixer in the "trades area" which wasn't terribly big, but I still had my work cut out over the next couple of days to visit all the stands so that I could answer all the question on my "meeting passport", to put me into the running for an iPhone. It sounds like most people decided it wasn't worth the effort so fingers crossed I win that phone! :-)
During the mixer Edmund (the only person I knew there) walked up to me, introduced me to some of the people in his group and we all went out to dinner together at a classy little heated restaurant. Dr Edmund Crampin was chairing the "systems biology" session (of which I was part of), and I'd met him in in 2007 during the "IMB winter school in computational biology" where he gave a fantastic talk about investigations into the mechanics of the heart at the level of organs, cells, and pathways. Edmund is a really fantastic guy - not does he have that dry British sense of humour I love, but he seems like a real gentleman too. The members of his group (mostly computer people) were awesome too, and I learnt that two extra Auckland students that came to dinner with us - Anita (originally from Malaysia) and Lee (originally from China) - were staying at the same place as me.
03/06 | First (full) day of conference (Wednesday)
The conference started pretty early, with the first session chaired by Andrew Shelling - who turned out to be Anita's supervisor - and a real mix of "new genetic technologies". In the afternoon there was a good talk by Professor Ming-Wei Wang from China who was doing terrific work in diabetes, and I had a chat with him later, although sadly I think he left before my talk on Thursday. Unfortunately it was around that time I felt a little sick, so I skipped the last session to rest. At 8:30 I was feeling better (and stayed better) and witnessed the legendary "fashionomics" - which I was told was the highlight of these meeting. Several sales reps, students and Andrew Shelling himself dressed up in costumes made primarily of "science consumable items", plus a lot of extra sticky tape and glad-wrap. It's always surprising how creative scientists can be when given the chance. Everyone won prizes, and I had a few drinks and had my photo taken with Dr Kary before going back to my room to practice my talk and go to bed early. It sounds like a lot of the others carried on drinking and partied till early - which would explain why the morning session the next day wasn't as well attended as it should have been.
03/06 | Last day of conference (Thursday)
I was really looking forward to the first talk on Wednesday. Mark Ellisman from San Diego has a huge electron tomography group doing all kinds of cool stuff. Mark knew Brad from Boulder, and he was probably the only other electron tomography person at the conference so we had a chat during afternoon tea. The next talk was Rob Parton, who I play soccer with at the IMB! Rob's talk was pretty cool - Tobias from our group will be happy to hear Rob showcased a lot of his images and animations. The next session was ours, and Edmund opened the session with some very amusing, vague definitions of "systems biology" from various websites. Cris Print then gave an excellent talk which helped explain what systems biology was since most of the audience (including me) still weren't totally sure! Then came my talk, and since it was such a friendly open crowd I did really well.... I started with a joke "could I have some mood lighting", which is totally unorigional (you hear this phrase used a lot in our building), but I hadn't heard it at QMS yet, and was happy when it got some laughs. I got heaps of compliments after my talk actually .... and Mark walked right up and said if I ever wanted to work in San Diego I'd be more than welcome. Edmund, Rob, Cris, Andrew.... actually pretty much everyone said really encouraging things.
Later that day it was time for the QMS Dinner, and as a speaker I got a free pass. Wohoo! To get to the "Skyline restaurant" we had to take a gondola 60 meters up the mountain, and the view up there was great. The food was also really amazing.... and it was a really wonderful surprise that they gave out several prizes at the end and I won a prize for "young investigator". Cris said it was the best visitor talk and he though it was amazing that they'd all been studying cells for years, but never actually seen one (in 3d). And it comes with $250 NZ.... wohoo! I might be able to buy me an iPhone anyway. Actually it turns out I spent almost all of that money the following day. :-)
04/06 | First Day of Adventuring (Friday)
I deliberately didn't book skiing after the conference in case I had a late one. I met two lovely ladies at the conference - one of whom was convinced the University of Auckland should go off and buy a electron microscope (she didn't realize they cost >$6M) - who both suggested I should do the "high five" ShotOver Jet combo. Now this wasn't a cheap option, but it did include a LOT of stuff, and I'm glad I took their advice! I spent the morning visiting a wildlife park I'd noticed at the base of the gondola the night before. For $33 it wasn't really the best "wildlife park" I've ever been too - it was fairly small and had a school-yard full of kids right behind it - but then again, NZ's only native fauna is birds (possums, stoats, rabbits and ferrets are all introduced pests), and it did have quiet a few rare species.... plus I guess most people only go there to see the two kiwi houses. Kiwi's are such bizarre birds, and were fascinating to watch inside the enclosure as they lugged themselves around (it was near meal time and they were a lot more animated than I expected) and periodically buried their entire beak and head in the ground looking for food. It takes a good five minutes for your eyes to adjust to the dark, during which time you can play with the audio guide device they give you.
After lunch at the famous FergBurger (everyone told me I had to go there and the burgers didn't disappoint) I boarded a bus and my little thrill-seeking adventure began. The bus took us about twenty minutes towards our jet boat ride - jet boats being a NZ invention which sucks water from below and eject it out the back (rather than use a conventional propeller). There are a couple of less expensive jet boat operators who take you on longer rides, but "ShotOver Jet" is the only-one which operates in "shotover canyon" - one of the narrowest regions of canyon in the area - and therefore is supposed to be the most exciting ride. On arrival they gave us a water-proof garment and life-vest and ushered us onto one of two jet boats .... and boy was it fast! Obviously all the drivers are professionals who know how to handle the boats, but it's still very scary for the first two minutes picking up speed and turning within such a narrow canyon. Along the way you do several 360 degree spins, where you hold tight onto the rails and get drenched. I had to be very careful with my camera, but managed to get a few shots when we were stopped (since I didn't want to pay $60 for the shots they took). The ride itself was only 25 minutes, with about four little "stops" (where our driver talked about the boat and the canyon) but you probably wouldn't want much longer than that - the ride is a bit bumpy. It was lots of fun, but something you probably only want to do once.
After the jet boat, four of us were put on a little bus and taken up the mountain towards a small helicopter which was waiting for us. I've never been in a helicopter before, and what I found most awesome about it was the fact the ride felt so seamless and dream-like. Taking off was almost surreal because I could see the helicopters shadow getting smaller, but I didn't even feel us taking off, it was that smooth. The view was amazing, and all too soon we arrived at the Skyline. Included in the package were five rides on the recreational luge track, which was built fairly recently above the skyline, and that was awesome! Basically the luges look a *bit* like tiny go-carts, except instead of a steering wheel and engine, it has handle-bars which you pulled back to brake, and gravity does the rest. The really cool part was that they had built a specially designed ski-lift to carry people and automatically pick up the luges at the bottom of the track and return them to the top! I have to say the luge was heaps of fun, and like their little slogan "once is never enough"... they had two tracks and I used up all five rides. Although it looks fairly tame, I almost had a nasty accident though. On my last ride I saw a costumed man called "captain gravity" - their mascot, and after taking a photo with him, I decided to race after him down the "advanced" course. It was just as I was catching up to captain gravity and heading toward a sharp corner that I realized I'd picked a luge with low handle-bars, and because of my long legs, I didn't have enough space to brake. Out of control and at high-speed I jumped over the grass corner, and smashed into the side of captain gravity. To captain gravity this must have looked quite deliberate, as I smacked him into the little side-barrier, and the impact not only prevented me from going over the side, but I effectively overtook him and the young kid behind him. I yelled out an apology, but for the rest of the way down I was had my eyes over my back as he kept ramming into me.... and I felt like I deserved it too. On his costume was a big smile, but underneath I'm sure he wanted to kill me.
After my run in with captain gravity I decided it was time to leave, so I took the gondola down and booked my skiing for tomorrow. One of the great thing about bumbles is that they pretty much did all my bookings for me and had discounts on most of them. Hiring ski-pants and a ski-jacket for $20 (almost as much as the ski-gear!) was a bit of a pain, but had I worn jeans I'm sure I'd have gotten very wet.
04/06 | First Day Skiing at Cardrona (Saturday)
What was good about skiing is that I was going to a place called Cardrona on the same bus as Anita, Lee, Andrew Shelling and his fourteen-year old daughter Madeline. Cardrona is one of the furthest ski fields, but apparently one of the best, and as part of my beginners package I had two 2 hours lessons - so as it turned out I really only saw the others (who had all skied before) during lunch! The bus picked us up near Bumbles at 7:10 and it was about a one-hour drive to Cardrona, but I found it quite interesting to look at all the sheep and deer farms along the way. When we got there, I joined the "production line" to get the ski-boots, skis and pole inclusive in my package. There were heaps of people, but eventually I got through, found the beginners slope and immediately feel over. When our lesson began I joined a group of eight people, most from Australia *sigh*, but when two more joined late, and they took five minutes just putting on their skis I realized I may have accidentally joined the "slow" group. Doh! After teaching us the basics, our instructor Laura got us all to line up and take turns pushing ourselves 10 meters and using a "pizza" shaped to slow/stop ourselves. It was slow going, but eventually we got to get on a funny cable-line which pulled us up the learners slope. After that the lesson was over, but I went all the way up the slope and surprised myself by making it down without falling.
One thing I forgot to bring was sunscreen, but luckily there was a big snow boarding half-pipe competition and LG had a big tent up where I got a free beanie, chap stick and what looked like one of those tiny break-and-squeeze tartar sauce packets, but with sunscreen. During lunch I had fish and chips for $9 (not as expensive as I thought), and had a good talk with Lee. Lee is a pretty awesome guy, although it was obvious he'd tired himself out skiing.
After lunch was our second lesson, and the really good news was that many people didn't show up, and so Laura put a girl called Francesca (who did quite well in the lesson) and I into an "advanced" class. With just two of us it was almost as good as a private lesson. Laura taught us to turn and stop really quickly and we had lots of runs down the learners slopes before the day was over. It was lots of fun, but what I really wanted was to go up a proper ski-lift and do ski a proper slope!
Unfortunately Lee wasn't keen to ski the next day, but I managed to convince Anita to come with me to The Remarkables - a ski slope on the big mountain facing queenstown - and since she hadn't been the before she agreed. On the bus ride down I noticed none of the corners had barriers, and right at the bottom we actually saw a bus which had skidded 50 meters off the road, hanging over a creek bed and school kids getting out the back window. Not very reassuring, and they were really lucky they went off the road near the bottom, and not up the top where it probably would have been fatal.
04/06 | Second Day Skiing - The Remarkables (Sunday)
Anita and I met at 7:30 to book our ski-pass and free bus ride. Our bus didn't leave till 9:15, but that was okay - we bought a hot breakfast near the lake and chatted. The day wasn't as clear as Sunday, but still fantastic considering the forecast for the weekend was rain! All in all I was extremely lucky with the weather actually - I went at the right time for skiing (towards the end of the season) and apparently it was one of the best ski season they've had.
The drive up to The Remarkables had some great views and soon we were there. The ski-field was smaller than Cardrona, but looked pretty darn big to me. Anita and I put our bags in storage and tried to refresh our memories using the learner's slope. There were heaps of people around and when I asked a lady there where was the easiest slope she told me she was an instructor, and if this was my second day skiing she'd recommend just staying on the learners slope. I'm glad I ignored her warning, because otherwise I would have spent $85 on a lift pass for nothing! I took the ski-lift to the start of the first beginner's slope and almost fell off dismounting the ski lift - there is a nasty small, steep slope at the end - but somehow stayed up.... and although it was scary I managed to make it all the way down without falling. Wohoo! For the next couple of hours I kept riding the ski-life up the first and second beginners slopes and I was loving it! I was really proud of myself for not falling over and I was suddenly pretty confident, and loving the feeling of gliding down the mountain. It was peaceful and surreal. Sure enough I then started to push it a bit and when I went down the steep side of a slope I felt the terrifying feeling of being out of control. There were two skiers below me so I yelled out "trouble" and then took a big tumble. Fortunately I didn't hurt myself too bad.... instead I hurt myself exiting a ski-lift about fifteen minutes later. The ski-lifts are not only tricky for tall people, but there were heaps of snow boarders at the Remarkables, and it was awkward sitting next to them in the lift. When I fell I twisted my right knee, and although it hurt, I knew I had to ski down.... but after that fall, my confidence was shattered, and so all of the sudden the same slopes seemed much tougher. The fact my knee was weaker didn't help either. Meanwhile Anita had also taken a few tumbles, and after lunch we decided we could either go snow-tubing ($17 one hour) or take a "hike" to the peak to see the view over Queenstown. We chose the latter, but it was kind of hard to know what to expect, because one lady told me we'd need ski-boots and it was a "hike", while the guy behind the "baggage storage" (for $5 they store your bag in washing baskets and give you a number) told us we could do it in normal shoes. Now the ski-boots are sold plastic and REALLY awkward - painful even - to walk in so we wore our normal shoes and took ski-poles "in case". As it turns out the "walk" from the top of the advanced ski-lift to the lookout was not so easy, so Anita and I were both glad we went together (in case one of us fell) and had the ski-pole. We had to walk along an almost 45 degrees slope covered in hard-slippery snow... and although it was probably only 200 meters, it felt very, very dangerous, and there was no rope or fence to stop us from falling over the edge. This walk was actually scarier than the luge and jet boat combined. I really think they need to put some kind of fence/barriers to protect people and/or cars from falling over ledges, but they just seemed to be pretty relaxed about that in NZ. Anyhow, we obviously survived our walk and the view over Queenstown actually was worth the risk of broken bones.
By the time we got back to the base station, it was time to get our stuff and leave on the 4:15 bus. Skiing was heaps of fun, but like many things it obviously takes a lot of time to get really good, and has a lot to do with confidence. I felt like I did really great; except for that damn ski-lift. The day after my knee was sore and I had to limp everywhere, but hopefully it will keep getting better, and considering all the horror stories I heard about people breaking bones, I was pretty lucky just to twist my knee. All in all it I had a fantastic time in Queenstown. It's touristy, and there are thousands of different ways to hurt yourself and run out of money, but it is also a beautiful day, and in the end my best day was probably my first full day in which I walked around the lake; and that cost nothing at all. :-)
For any young people visiting Queenstown I'd definely recommend Bumbles Backpacker (although strangely all the friendliest people I met there were Australians) as somewhere cheap and very close to town - since you'll probably want to spend the money you save on the canyon swing, bungy jumping, parasailing, sky-diving, jet-boating, luge-riding, helicopter-rides...... or if you have more time you should book a tour to the famous Milford Sound (I went there once when I was young) or plan some serious hiking. There are heaps of young tourists from all over Europe, as well as some Americans, although oddly enough the friendliest people I talked to in the big communal kitchen and lounge turned out to be other Auzzies. Three things you should definietly do in Queenstown are: walk around the gardens, go up the gondola (to see the skyline and try the luge) and yes, eat at fergburger. If you do try sking try to do it on your last days (weather permitting) because even if you don't injure yourself, two days of sking will leave you tired and sore!