To call me a rookie world traveler in the late summer of 1990 would be to
give me credit much undeserved. Looking back now, I'm certain a stowaway would
have been better prepared for the journey. With only one airplane trip to my
name and a pile of unnecessary luggage in the cargo hold, I waved a tearful
goodbye to my family and girlfriend (now wife JoDee Wilson McKenna '92) and
crammed into a seat one row from the smoking section for the first of four
flights on my 23-hour journey to Wellington.
My Watson project was to travel
to New Zealand to do conservation work, primarily with the Department of
Conservation (DOC). I was excited to visit New Zealand and do environmental
work, but I was equally pleased to be postponing for a year the "real-life"
decision of attending law school or finding a job.
In hindsight, I should
have prepared a bit more for the trip. I arrived in Wellington with little more
than a fax inviting me to DOC's headquarters to discuss project options. That
promise of a meeting and a well-thumbed travel guide were about the extent of my
My initial meeting at DOC headquarters was disappointing. The
people I met were concerned that having an unpaid American volunteer would be
politically unpopular as the recession had left many New Zealanders without
work. While exploring other options to do conservation work, I decided I would
find a place to stay in Wellington.
Looking back, my lack of travel
experience actually enhanced my trip. Instead of going the easy route of a youth
hostel, I answered "flat mate wanted" ads and ended up renting a house with a
group of great local guys my age. These guys introduced me to the best spots for
a good cheap meal, taught me rugby and cricket, and became my surrogate family
during my trip. No matter where I was in New Zealand, I would return to
Wellington at least once a month to hang out with these guys.
The setback at
DOC headquarters only delayed things for a few weeks, as I soon received a call
that the Turangi DOC office wanted my help with projects in Tongariro National
Park. This proved to be a wonderful stroke of luck. The regional director in
Turangi had found a spot for me at the park. I later found out that he had
traveled the U.S. years earlier and had been helped out on occasions, so this
was a "pay it forward" moment.
My initial assignment was to help with a
three-day adventure race called Mountains to the Sea. As a time keeper, I was
whisked by helicopter through the various legs of the race — mountain trail
running, kayaking and biking.
My second assignment was just as amazing. I
was given the keys to a four-wheel drive truck, water testing equipment and a
map of various remote mountain streams to test for water quality. Driving from
one crystal clear stream to another, I figured the testing was a formality.
Unfortunately, when the results came back from the lab, Giardia was present.
This made national news as it was the first time Giardia had been confirmed in
the park streams and led to a push for park users to treat or boil their water
before drinking it.
Other highlights of my trip include working as a hut
warden on Mt. Tongariro and Mt. Ruapehu and doing research with the rare species
legislation team for the DOC headquarters in Wellington. I was awarded "player
of the match" in my first cricket match with the DOC team. During my rotation as
bowler (pitcher), I accidently "bowled" out the first two batters on one pitch
each. My delivery was unorthodox and the ball slipped from my fingers both times
leading to a lofted slow pitch that both batters whiffed at taking a full swing.
I also met the famous Hendrix graduate Kim "Kiwi" Stevenson '77 from Rotorua who
was a standout distance runner for Hendrix in the mid-1970s. He was leading high
school physical education in Rotorua, and I joined his school in their annual
outdoor camping week where they repaired trails, completed a ropes course, rock
climbed, rappelled and learned an overall appreciation for the outdoors.
course any trip this long has low points as well. I bought a heavily used car
that needed a new radiator after only 30 miles, leaked exhaust fumes into the
car, and drank a quart of oil every fill up. I also experienced severe motion
sickness a mile off the cost of Kaikoura at the exact time a group of whales
surfaced by our boat. All of my pictures were out of focus and off center.
After much prodding from my friends, I concluded my trip with a bungee jump from
the 150-foot Kawarau Bridge near Queensland in the Sound Island. Like so much of
my year, it was done with a strange mixture of apprehension and naïve
enthusiasm. Would I have done it had I not steadied my nerves by quickly downing
a warm beer that I found in the trunk of my car? Who knows? But I'm glad I did
the jump just as I'm forever grateful for having the opportunity to spend a
Watson year of wonder in New Zealand.
Tim McKenna '90 is the director of
staffing at Acxiom Corp.