Sunday, August 8, 2010

Where in the world is John?

Howdy folks,

I hope you enjoy the two new entries on Queenstown and Dunedin, where I spent most of the early winter. For those I haven't spoken with recently, my plans have changed a bit and my trip has been accelerated. I'll be back in the USA in late August, which I was planning all along so I can be at a friend's wedding, but I decided not to return to NZ afterwards. But I have plenty to write about, and hopefully I'll find the time to write about it. (It's amazing how time consuming these blog posts are. Each take hours).

Here's some of the nifty things I've done since or will do before making it back to the states, as sort of an appetizer (or confusingly, an entree over here):

  • Road trip to Aoraki / Mt. Cook, the highest mountain, and a demanding alpine winter hike to stay at the Mueller hut.
  • Subtropical Paihia, the Bay of Islands, sandboarding on 90 mile beach, and Cape Reinga, where the Maori souls depart Aotearoa to head to their ancestral homeland Hawaiiki.
  • Gold Coast Australia, aka the Vegas of Venice Beaches, and lovely Brisbane
  • Scuba diving the Great Barrier Reef in Cairns! (where I am right now :D)
  • A week in Melbourne and its many fun places to see.
I'll be back in Georgia in early September, and plan on spending time with friends and family for quite a while. Ultimately, if money allows I'd like to take a road trip up to New England, then along Canada and the northern US toward the west coast. I'll be sure to visit long lost buddies along the way. My even more ultimate plan after that though, is to re-enroll at a University somewhere to get an Electrical Engineering degree, so I can do design work in the R&D side of the solar power industry. But more on all that stuff later. For now, it's time for bed and day two of my 5 day PADI scuba certification course, which will include 3 days on the outer reef, and about 8 or so dives.

I miss you all, and look forward to sharing good times with you again soon.

Dunedin

I spent most of June in the city of Dunedin, which is in the southeast corner of the South Island in the Otago region. June would be the US's December, and Otago is a rather chilly place, by New Zealand standards. But the weather wasn't so bad, and was fairly sunny all things considered.

I especially wanted to head to Dunedin, because it is the home of Otago University, the largest and oldest in the country. The town itself is about 120,000 people, and is known for art, music, and booze (like all proper college towns). Considering that could easily describe Athens back home, I had to see what the Kiwi equivalent would be like. My trip was poorly timed though, as a week after I got there most of the students were either graduating or going on holiday. I still managed to find some good people and enjoyed the college life again for a little while. Since money was getting tight, I had to take things slow and not spend too much. Fortunately, I could get free Internet access at the Dunedin library, so I was able to work on web design projects to bring in some much needed cash.

During the week of June 22nd, Dunedin also hosted two festivals to celebrate the Winter Solstice. Both were night-time celebrations, and had a particularly neat feel to them since they didn't have Christmas and New Years dominating the winter theme like we have back home. The first was a small 'Burning Man' styled event for crazy college kids, with fire spinners, a giant bon fire, drums and dances, and chill DJs. The second was much more kid-friendly, and was a lantern carnival in the center of the city. The kids and other supporters built huge paper lanterns shaped like fish, sea horses, and other things. They then paraded around the Octagon (like a big central city square) amidst stilt walkers, band members, and other revelers. The carnival was wrapped up with a satisfyingly big fireworks display, which was about a week before July 4th and counted as my obligatory dose of shiny explosives for the season.

In addition to the festivals, I also got to watch the All Blacks play their last game at Dunedin's rugby field before they finish building the new one in anticipation of the Rugby World Cup next year. The game was fun, but awfully quiet since the stadium was much smaller than ones back home. Still, the most amusing part had to be the wave the crowd got into a few times. They sold beer in tiny plastic bottles, which was only 3.5% alcohol to begin with and hardly counts as beer, but I digress. The bottles made excellent projectiles though, which fortunately didn't hurt too much when they fell down. As the wave went around a hundred or more of these little green bottles went airborn in all directions. The announcer even asked people not to throw them, but they did anyway. The All Blacks went on to crush the Welsh Dragons something like 45-9. The game was much closer in the first half, but became a blowout after halftime.

By far the biggest event while I was in Dunedin was getting up early or staying up for the World Cup most days. Due to time difference, the World Cup games were usually at either 2am or 6:30am. Not that something like sleep would get in the way though. It was really fun watching the World Cup while staying at backpackers in Queenstown and Dunedin. Just about everyone was from a different country and were supporting different teams. The two biggest groups of travelers to New Zealand are the English and the Germans. There were also Dutch and Swiss running the backpacker where I was staying, so there was plenty of rivalry going on (especially between the Dutch and Germans, who get along about as well as Dawg fans and Gators). I was pulling for a Dutch vs. Deutch final in the Cup, but sadly Spain crushed Germany's hopes. The most satisfying game though had to be Germany vs. Argentina, where Germany destroyed them 4-0. I had actually been rooting for Argentina to win early in the cup, but they were so arrogant and rude in the press leading up to the Germany game, that I had to support the impressively strong German team.

But Germany's chances were dashed by Spain in the semifinals. It was particularly unfortunate because the morning of that game was my last in Dunedin; I was heading back north through the Southern Alps with two German friends of mine. Fortunately, we kept busy and had an excellent trip up to Mt. Cook and Lake Tekapo, where we saw the nasty final game between the Dutch adn Spanish (14 yellow cards and some very ill tempered Dutch players).

Before we leave Dunedin though, I must talk about the Otago peninsula and all the marine wildlife there. The Otago is less visited by tourists than other parts of the country, but it has some gorgeous coastline and plenty of animals, which are rather scarce elsewhere in the country. There is the only mainland Albatross colony on the tip of the peninsula. They charged $45 to see the birds though, so we just drove to the parking lot and saw them in the air for free. Nearby was a nice large secluded beach called Sandfly Bay which had lots of sea lions as well as the rare yellow-eyed penguin. The penguins are very timid though, and if they see humans they flee, so we had to hide in a bunker (no kidding) about 500 feet up the coast. They were hilarious though, as they apparently live in the bush above the beach at night, and have to hop and waddle over the rocks and sand, followed by an impressively steep climb up to their homes.

It was in Dunedin where I decided not to stay in New Zealand for the entire year, and instead stop by Australia before heading back to the USA. The original plan was to find work in NZ, but the few jobs that were around were very poorly paid and looked pretty rough. Since I could get by on web design, I wouldn't be tied to any specific location and could keep traveling. Dr. Matthew Dalstrom, one of my best friends, is getting married at the end of August, so I was already planning to visit the US around then, and by now I felt satisfied with having seen an awful lot of New Zealand. So I started planning on heading back to the US instead of just visiting and coming back. Fortunately, I was able to pack a ton into my last month in New Zealand, and with any luck my 3 weeks in Australia will be just as memorable.

Queenstown

Ah Queenstown, the number one destination for partygoers and adrenaline freaks. My buddy Blake from Atlanta works in Queenstown for AJ Hackett, the creators of Bungy jumping where he takes pictures of people terrifying themselves while jumping off bridges or swinging through canyons. Quite a sweet job, eh? I went to Queenstown hoping for work as well, though hopefully with NZSki, who owns the local ski fields. Sadly, hundreds of other foreigners had the same idea, and finding work in Queenstown was a huge pain in the ass.

Queenstown was spectacularly gorgeous though. I can only imagine picturesque little resort towns in Switzerland look like Queenstown, with the snow covered Remarkables in the distance, the town nestled between fir tree covered hills, a gondola, and a gorgeous lake stretching through it all. Queenstown is a town of money though, and I was mostly broke, so I stayed pretty low key. But if you do like to push your limits, Queenstown is the place. Sky diving, bungy jumping, paragliding, jet powered boogie boards, not to mention snowboarding and skiing in the winter. Fortunately, there are also trails, and drunken frisbee golf in the botanic gardens.

I stayed at the Aspen Lodge for about a month with other backpackers who were there long term looking for work. Aside from being rather clean and staffed with friendly folks, what was particularly amazing was how the 10-bed room where I stayed almost never smelled bad or had people snoring in it. Though there was always someone sleeping, and people having to leave at some god forsaken hour before noon. Another benefit of staying at Aspen was joining BBH, a collection of excellent hostels across New Zealand, where I would book places to stay for most of the remainder of my trip.
While the daytime was spent looking for work, or putting off looking for work, the night in Queenstown is about drunken revelry. My pub of choice was the Ministry of Sports, which had both wall to wall big screens for sporting events, and cheap beer. They sold beer in full liter glasses called man handles, and had a club with a punchcard keeping tabs up to 100 beers consumed. Those hardy folk who completed their cards received their own man handle glass with their name engraved on it. I was only there for a month, so I finished a measly 25, but a few of my friends managed to finish the challenge.

The World Cup kicked off during my last week in Queenstown, and one of the earliest and most anticipated games was the USA vs England. Due to time difference, the football games usually started either at 2am or 6:30am. But I wasn't going to let something pesky like sleep get in the way. There were probably about 80 English blokes there for the game, and surprisingly at least about 15 Americans (and Irish, Scottish and Welsh more than happy to wish misery on the English). Ministry was packed, despite the 6:30 kickoff, and the beers were flowing. The US got off to a rocky start, allowing a goal 5 minutes into the game. But it was all made right by the English keeper letting a rather harmless shot score tieing it up for the Americans. The English mumbled and rolled their eyes at another typical World Cup meltdown, and the Americans were elated and more than happy to settle for a draw against one of the tournament favorites.

I ended up watching a few games at Ministry, including Germany ravage Australia, but within a week I was heading to Dunedin and would need to find another watering hole.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Climbing the Kepler Track in Fiordland National Park

Hello again! After spending a couple weeks in Queenstown once I finished the Kepler track, I am now back in Dunedin and enjoying all the sporting events going on at the moment. My Kepler trip was fantastic, and just about tied with my trip up Mt. Doom a few months ago as my favorite adventures so far here in New Zealand.

I timed my Kepler trip really well, as it was sunny with calm winds on the days I really needed it, and never rained the rest of the trip, which is really rare for Fiordland. Sunny can be misleading though, as Te Anau (the sleepy town near the start of the track) is usually covered in low clouds fed by the lake. And despite the clear skies, the tall mountains and far north winter sun left days three and four almost entirely in shade. Still though, perfect weather.

The first day started with a walk along lake Te Anau, and took about 50 minutes before I even reached the official start of the track. I had to cross over the control gates, which is a small dam that maintains the proper lake level and regulates water flow to the underground power station deeper in Fiordland. New Zealand has a unique hydro-electric plant, which is actually several hundred meters underground at the end of one of the lakes. When they were going to build it, there was huge backlash against daming the lakes high enough to make the power station work. So they kept the original lake levels, and buried the power station instead. If I get to visit Doubtful Sound before I leave I'll make sure to check it out.

Once past the gates, the trail meanders through lush forest of beech trees and moss, occasionally giving glimpses of the lake. Most of the trees are likely from North America and Europe, which is unfortunate, but it does give the forest a feel kind of like the Canadian Rockys (I would imagine) instead of the rainforesty fern jungles that cover the rest of the country. While some of these trees were probably intentionally planted at one point, they simply grow faster and better than the local plants, which is why they cover so much of Fiordland. Despite the foreign plants, it still very much felt like wilderness, and clearly had not been logged for 80 or so years.

About three hours into the hike, the trail starts to ascend about a kilometer up the fjord toward Mt. Luxmore. As the lowland forest gave way, the trail climbed through the clouds occasionally switching direction on an otherwise gentle uphill climb. The mid point, and good lunch location, was a wall of limestone bluffs that almost seem out of place. There were icicles dripping from the earlier snow, which were reminders of how close to freezing the rest of the trip would be. By this point, I had already climbed a good 750 meters in elevation, so the second half of the trip was a little easier.

Soon after lunch, the forest changed again, with what looked similar to Spanish Moss covering the most of the trees. For some reason the moss was everywhere near the tree line, but scarce down below. Soon patches of snow started to appear as well, and a couple spots of ice on the trail. While I welcomed the change early on, I'd see plenty more during days 2 and 3, and was glad to be back to more thawed out ground in the end. Day one finished with about an hour of walking above the tree line. The sun was rather low by that point, but the view was spectacular, and the snow covered mountains were glowing in the late afternoon sun.

I reached the Luxmore Hut about an hour before sunset, where about six other travelers had already arrived and were trying to getting the fire going. There were some caves near by, which I checked out before the sun set, but didn't really explore too deeply, since the ground was wet and sloping into black nothingness. After heading back to the hut, cooking some dinner, and setting up my clothes to dry over night, I managed to get some great pictures of the night sky before going to bed. I'm glad I got right on it, as the full moon rose only a couple hours after the sun set. The picture shown here looks like mid day, but was actually a long exposure under moonlight. You can see the stars still in the sky if you click on it, and there's other interesting pictures on my Picasa site.

Day Two was surprisingly warm, thanks to calm winds and not a cloud in the sky. By warm, I mean probably upper 30s, but I was expecting teens. When you are hiking for miles though, the cold is less of a factor, and it's usually best not to wear too many layers. The second day was all in the alpine region, with trails covered in snow and ice, and gorgeous views of jagged peaks, uninhabited dense forests, and low lying lakes usually under a blanket of clouds. I fortunately ran across two of the folks from the Luxmore hut at the fork leading to the summit of Mt. Luxmore, who were kind enough to take this picture for me. Aside from them, and one other hiker going the other direction on the trail, I didn't come across anyone all day which was a nice change.

The trail climbed about half as much as the day before, but also had a big dip in the middle followed by yet another trudge up the saddle. The path was also almost entirely covered in snow and ice, and I was glad to have poles to keep my balance. Generally, the snow was packed down from previous hikers, but there were a few spots with snow drifts about 16 inches deep that were more challenging to climb through with a heavy pack and a steep slope to one side. But the breath taking views, and warm calm sunny day more than made up for any snow inconvenience. This was the perfect time of year to do this hike too. I can't imagine the peaks looking anywhere near as gorgeous without all the snow covering them.

I had lunch later in the day at the final emergency shelter, right before my descent down to the Iris Burn (river). The spot seemed more impressive when looking back to see how high the ridgeline really was, while climbing down the never-ending switch backs. I was ready to be done with the icy paths by now, and I was looking forward to the thawed out trail below the tree line. I was pleasantly surprised at how well I made it through the first two days, compared to my ascent up Ngauruhoe a few months earlier. However, the descent was far worse than I expected. My knees were starting to get really sore, and I could tell I wasn't walking properly as I was leaving the ridgeline. It got much worse as I had to climb down the 50+ switch backs to the river valley floor. I was in a pretty foul mood, and a lot of pain, by the time I made it to the hut. But fortunately, one of the other hikers had a few stretches they suggested might help, which made days 3 and 4 doable. It also helped that the rest of the trail was for the most part level, as it followed two rivers back to Te Anau.

The second hut at Iris Burn was much colder than Luxmore. The sun never reaches the bottom of the valley in the winter, and the valley was covered in thick frost. We managed to get a less than satisfying fire going, since the wood was wet, but our spirits were high all the same and it was time for bed soon enough.

Days 3 and 4 had a very gradual descent as the trail followed the Iris Burn out of the fjords to where it fed Lake Manapouri. Aside from the occasional sound of running water, and a few birds in the distance, it was very quiet and peaceful. My knees were holding out on the flat terrain, but any up hill or down hill parts were slow going and precarious. Despite the gentle ~17k trails, I was very glad to finish up at the third hut, and then back at Te Anau the following day. By day 3 my camera was running out of power too, so I took far fewer pictures on the second half, but that's fine as Day 2 is really the gem of the trip, and pictures of forest typically don't turn out well.

One interesting break from the forest on Day 3 is referred to as the Big Slip, where in 1984 during a heavy rain storm, a landslide sheared off the side of one of the mountains, devastating an area the size of ten football fields (or close to it). While the forest surrounding the area is rather diverse and established, the slip is still covered in shrubs, small trees, and displaced boulders. It was particularly strange that in this area, as well as in any other clearings, the ground was frozen and everything was covered in frost. However, the moment the trail went under tree cover again, the ground thawed and was muddy in spots or otherwise dry. All the same, the Big Slip was huge, very quiet, and allowed time to appreciate just how massive the glacier carved fjords really were (and how destructive nature can be).

The last thing I'll note on this trip was the welcome and surprising sight of a local fisherman once I reached the third and final hut. Where Iris Burn hut had been cold with only the three other hikers for company, Moturau Hut was down right festive, thanks to an incredibly generous Kiwi from near Invercargill, who was fishing on Lake Manapouri for the day and decided to stay at the hut. He brought coal for the fire, beer (!), and even cooked way too much food which he shared with us. It was a welcome change from the hard work of the previous days, and the warm main room was far more enjoyable than the previous night.

Overall the trip was an excellent adventure, and quite a challenge. It took approximately 70 kilometers, with about 1500 meters in elevation changes, given the ups and downs of Day 2. The two high saddles on Day 2 were about 1400 meters above sea level, and both Te Anau and Manapouri are about 200m above. But the trails were never so steep as to be overly difficult to climb. The only down side was not thinking to stretch my quads and hamstrings out properly, which would have prevented my knee problems. It's been three weeks now, and they are just now about back to normal, with only a little soreness here and there. But I'll take the sore knees for an otherwise picture perfect trek through the wilderness.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Catching up on South Island Fun

The last six weeks on the South Island have been pretty laid back and enjoyable. After my week in Christchurch, where I was getting over a throat infection and didn't get out much, I jumped on the Stray bus for about a week and a half.

Stray runs a bus company with set routes across both islands taking travelers to various sites. I bought a pass a couple months ago that will let me cover most of the country without the hassle of planning transportation, booking hostels, or finding some of the main activities for the area. It's also handy for making friends pretty quickly, and having other folks to do things with.

I'll write in more detail about some of the places we went later, but the main bus route left Christchurch and headed north along the coast of the South Island, around the top, and then back down the rugged and rainy west coast toward Queenstown. I went on a nice day hike in Kaikoura with a girl from Norway, followed by part of the bus group cooking green Thai curry and burritos. We spent a lovely day in Picton, on the northern tip of the South Island, and then a perfect day on the Abel Tasman track where I got to walk the middle third of the 3 day hike with eight or so folks from Stray.

The following week was really really wet though, as we drove down the west coast. Due to the Southern Alps, and the moist Tasman Sea air, the west coast gets up to 18 feet of rain per year. Past the mountains, the south gets normal rainfalls, like 2-4 feet... I made a bone necklace in a small village, and spent a couple nights in Franz Joseph, the most popular glacier in NZ. I didn't get a chance to climb up it though, so I'll be back to Franz before I leave. We then spent a night at the entrance of Mt. Aspiring National Park before heading to Queenstown.

In Queenstown, I left the Stray group and stayed in town for about three weeks, trying to find work and otherwise taking it easy and keeping my expenses down. Some of my Stray friends were still in town pretty much until I finally left, and my buddy Blake from Atlanta has been living there since November. But aside from a couple day hikes, some ice skating, and plenty of going to pubs, there are fewer adventures to write about. It's the off season, between the adrenaline filled summer season (Queenstown is the original home of Bungy jumping, and has paragliding, jet boating, canyon swings, and all sorts of other crazy expensive thrill seeking things to do) and the winter ski season which starts up in about 3 weeks. I really like the town, though we'll see when it's in full swing. There's really nice mountains leading right to a big lake, and there's two ski fields half an hour away. It looks like what I'd imagine a small Swiss village on a lake would look like.

Once I said goodbye to Queenstown, I jumped on Stray again and headed to Fiordland National Park to take a short cruise on the Milford Sound. Fiordland is simply stunning. Huge tree covered jagged peaks running right into clear lakes, and almost no development anywhere. It reminds me of Yosemite and the Rockys in some ways, but it is much wetter (and has Fjords!) and far more remote. After our day in Fiordland, we went to Stewart Island off the far south tip of NZ. I walked around in the bird sanctuary of Ulva Island (by Stewart) and spent a night in the tiny town of Oban. Stewart only has about 250 people living on it, is about 90% protected by Rakiura National Park, and is a sanctuary to many species of birds and plants that have been endangered on the mainland due to development and mammal predators. It also is the only place where Kiwi birds are in abundance, but sadly I didn't see one in the wild.

When done with Stewart Island, we headed to Dunedin, where I spent another week taking it easy. Dunedin (~120k people) is home to the University of Otago (25,000 students) which is the oldest and most comprehensive University in NZ. It has a lively music and art scene, theatre, and plenty of pubs, so it most reminds me of Athens back home. But the big difference is that Dunedin is gridded like a city instead of spread out like Athens. So not much space between the city, campus, and resident housing. There's plenty of gardens on the outskirts though, and the city includes the steepest road in the world, Baldwin St. I plan on running up it when I head back there in a week or so.

Today though, I am back in Fiordland, in the sleepy town of Te Anau, the home base for three of the Great Walks and anything else involving this remote and gorgeous park. Tomorrow morning I'll be climbing the Kepler Track, a 60km 4 day circuit which starts by the lake and climbs almost a kilometer to the Luxmore saddle. Day two will be all in an alpine region above the treeline. There'll be snow on the ground, but with any luck it'll be a sunny day. Days three and four will be along two of the rivers back down in the tree canopy as I make my way back to Te Anau. Kepler is one of nine Great Walks, which are highly maintained by the Department of Conservation. While it'll be quite a work out (esp. day one) it'll be well marked. This is still the off season though, and one of the last weeks it can be done before avalanches become a concern (they aren't yet), so I want to tackle it while I have several days of rare Fiordland sunshine.

I hope all is going well back home. It must be nice and warm in Georgia by now. Here it's often chilly and sometimes rainy. Wish me luck on finding work once I'm done with Kepler, as soon enough my money will start to dwindle and I'll have to adapt to the grind.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

So long Coromandel, Hello South Island!

So my time at the valley has come to an end, and I am off to the next phase of my epic trip. I spent a couple months in the Coromandel and shared time with some really good people. I think I'll miss the food the most, especially the daily fresh baked bread, and the lemon honey. There were some truly incredible and rewarding things done in the valley, as well as some aspects that really got on my nerves, but I'm quite happy I chose to spend a couple months there. Honestly, it would have probably been better if I had started the same time as the others. Most of them arrived in early January, while I arrived a little before the midpoint. As a result it took some time to find my place in the group. But I lucked out in that all the volunteers, who I spent almost every waking moment with, were good people and easy to get along with.

Some of the projects I didn't write about included building a dog pen for our delightful poochies. They were living in the van (they just bought the house a month before the program started) before that, which was sometimes a rather gross predicament. I helped build an earth oven, which fortunately Bexie has made a lovely and detailed blog about, so check it out: http://wordsbybexie.blogspot.com/2010/04/earthwise-valley-earth-oven.html And I helped build a composting toilet (which we named Jorge, to go along with the composting toilet on the land named Sonya).

Jorge, and a project build before I got there known as the worm bath, were both really interesting. The collection buckets in both were full of, obviously, worms. The worm bath was literally an old bathtub full of rather fertile soil, lots of compost (worm food!), probably over 1000 worms (heaps and heaps), a blanket to keep them warm, and a lid to keep them dry. The worm poop is apparently super powerful fertilizer, plus it cuts down on any rotting smell. With Jorge, while most outdoor toilets usually smell awful and are full of flies and leeches, you could hardly notice even after constant usage. The worms would convert it all to usable fertile soil and the mulch we threw on top when we were done with business kept the flies at bay.

In the valley, we planted (and harvested) 400 flax, and 200 more before I got there. This involved driving to a swampy area, where the palm/grass like 10ft tall flax thrived and attacking them with spades. We would cut "blades" of flax off the main plant, and as long as we got some of the roots, they could be transplanted the next day in the valley. The flax will provide seeds for birds which can then do our job for us for other species. We also set up stakes for another 500 or so Acacia trees, but since we were in a pretty severe drought, we never had a chance to plan them. Acacias are from Australia, but they grow quickly and pull nitrogen up, plus will provide plenty of shade to kill the smothering (and foreign) grass covering the valley. Those two plants would really help speed up the recovery by a few years, and it was neat to see just how long term planning something like forest regeneration really was. It's a 15 year or longer commitment and we were in year two,
Other fun trips we had were heading out for a sea kayaking trip on Easter. We set out from the bay right by the valley and paddled about 16km or so down to Kennedy Bay, where we collected a bunch of muscles, and set out for a tiny beach across the bay. The beach was only accessible by the sea (or crazy rock climbers like Dave) where we played some hodgepodge mix of baseball and cricket. We also spent plenty of time at various beaches, and went on a neat 3 hour nature walk through the back of the valley.

So what's next? I'm already on the South Island, in the splendidly British town of Christchurch. I spent a few days in Auckland before arriving here five days ago. Tomorrow I begin a tour around the south island. There are a few bus companies in NZ that are tailored to backpackers to visit sights around the country. I chose the Stray Bus, which will take me up to the north of the south island on the 19th, and along the western side during the next week or so. Along the way I'll get to do plenty of more hiking, probably a horseback riding trip, and maybe some more sea kayaking. The two activities I'm most looking forward to (and lamenting the big price tags) will be a helicopter ride to the top of a glacier where we'll hike around for a few house, climb through some ice caves, and experience the alien blue ice landscape of a glacier. I also hope to go hang gliding in the next couple weeks. NZ is the adventure capital, and things like bungy jumping were invented here. But hang gliding is more up my alley, so I'm really looking forward to it.
I hope everyone back home is having a nice spring. I miss you all quite a bit, but I'll visit soon.

Hiking the Pinnacles of Kauaeranga

Back when I had just arrived at the valley, we went on a really great hike to the top of some of the mountains on the penninsula, known as The Pinnacles, in Kauaeranga Park. The hills and valleys of the park used to be filled with ancient Kauri trees (the one pictured here is actually from the valley, but they are quite big, and that one is still pretty young!) The Kauri can live to be 5000 years old, tower over everything else, and while they are conifers they spread erratically and just sort of sprawl. Unfortunately for them, their timber is one of the best ship building materials on the planet, and make very high quality lumber for just about everything else. So most have been logged and much of the country, which used to be covered in these giants, only have tiny babys or none at all.
The Pinnacles hike started down at the valley floor and started in fern covered rainforest and a pleasant hike along a stream. But that ended all too soon. Within an hour or so we got to "the steps" which I clearly didn't pay close enough attention to earlier. What followed was 700 or more ogre sized steps carved out of rock which went most of the rest of the way up the path. Maybe I was more out of shape than I anticipated (weight loss burns a lot of muscle too, sadly) or maybe it was our spider monkey leader Dave's ever cheerful bounding up the mountain at a quick pace, but the steps left me thoroughly exhausted. Either way, we ended up doing what was for most people a two day hike in a rather long day hike.
But the scenery and the view along the way were totally worth it, and that hike really helped me get in shape for later hikes we did. As we climbed in elevation, the forest changed to more broadleaf evergreen plants, then to bushes and a few trees, then to just scrubland. The tops of the pinnacles were practically just rock covered, though the actual height was about 850m (~2250ft). The view from the top was incredible. We could see both sides of the penninsula, which had the South Pacific in the distance, and the Firth of Thames (which goes between Auckland and the Coromandel) closer by. Since the Coromandel is pretty rugged to begin with, the view was goreous, with tree covered mountins stretching into the distance with the less hilly valleys south of the penninsula even further away.
On the way back down we took a different route, which had me cursing a few times due to a couple more half hour ascents (I had no energy left by this point). But interestingly, we came across some of the logging relics of the past era (late 1800s). There was a sign for some bridge, though when we got there nothing remained, heh. We got to walk down an old railway track which was steeper than I thought trains could handle. We also saw some of the waterfalls and dams the loggers would use to gather up the massive Kauri stockpile. The trees were so heavy, and the terrain so rugged, that the most effective way to clear the valley was to build dams on the river. They would dump the trunks in the water and collect a bunch and then blow up the dam. A thundering rush of Kauri and water would the rush down stream toward the lumberhouses near Thames.
I didn't really get to see any truly old Kauri while I was there, but I have a place pegged at the top of the north island to do just that. They can grow to almost 50-60 feet in circumference and stretch branches tremendous distances. Deffinitely not to be missed on my Old Growth Trees to See list.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Climbing Mt. Doom (Ngauruhoe), our epic trip to Tongariro - 3/25/10

Last week was the second epic trip of the summer session here at Earthwise Valley. They plan two week-long trips per season, and did the first one the week before I arrived. But I'm glad I made it for this one, as I had been waiting to get back to Tongariro National Park after my two week trip here last July.

Tongariro NP is the NZ equivalent to Yellowstone. It is the fourth oldest national park in the world, a UNESCO world heritage site (one of three in NZ), and home to three active volcanoes in the highlands near the center of the North Island. Mt. Tongariro and Mt. Ruapehu are quite old (~250,000 years) while Mt. Ngauruhoe is only about 2,500 years old. The latter though looks like a typical volcano, and is a much more convincing Mt. Doom for Peter Jackson's adaptation of Lord of the Rings than the former rather mountainesque volcanoes. Ngauruhoe apparently errupted 47 times in the 1900s, but hasn't blown its top since 1977, and is considered more stable than it used to be. When I head back to Tongariro in the winter, it'll be for Mt. Ruapehu to go snowboarding, as the only two major ski fields live there.

After arriving late the night before, we parked at the lodge in Whakapapa Village (pronounced Fakapapa, also the name of the ski field; yes the Maori have a sense of humor). We took the Tama Lakes trail toward Mt. Ngauruhoe and hiked through a bunch of different types of terrain as we went higher in elevation. The hike took about 6 - 7 hours and covered about 12 miles and about .75 miles in elevation. The first two thirds was fairly level, winding through alpine forests and groves of blooming heather. The last third left the main track, and the Tama Lakes, as we headed toward the base of Mt. Ngauruhoe itself. This area was much more rugged, desert like, and had high winds blasting the hillsides. The plants were clinging to the backs of rocks, where moisture might escape the howling winds to keep them alive. New Zealand is in what is called the Roaring Fourties in latitude terms. Across the planet, this is where winds are strong and constant, but Tongariro (and in a plane landing in Wellington) was the first time I really experienced this, as typically the mountains shield the rest of the country from the fierce winds. But in the highlands of Tongariro, and especially on top of Ngauruhoe, the winds howl at gale force, only to die down when the trail heads below the ridgeline.

We camped on a nice level area at the base of Ngauruhoe. While heading up to the site, I though "oh good, we're already going to be a third of the way up the mountain for tomorrow." How wrong I was... Yet, we were still above the lower clouds and had a spectacular sunset, which one of the girls caught on video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mxtfzNMaXkE (I make a cameo at the 1:01 mark.) Soon after sunset, we went to bed, as it was starting to get fairly cold and we had no fuel for a fire. Sleeping was fairly pleasant once it finally came to me for about an hour or two. Then the winds picked up. And violently shook our tent for 5+ hours. The tent walls would actually hit me and it sounded like hill giants were shaking our tent, which made sleeping rather difficult for the two nights we stayed there. I eventually put my headphones on, and cocooned in my mummy sleeping bag until I could finally pass out for a little more shuteye.

The next day, we got ready to hike to the top of Ngauruhoe, taking a small pack with our raincoat (windbreaker), some warm clothes, water, and a small snack. I had developed some bad blisters on the back of my heels the day before (my laces were tight when we started, but weren't by lunchtime, and by then it was too late...) but fortunately after walking on them for 5-10 minutes, my body could mostly ignore it and trek on, until the next break at least. Climbing the volcano was like scaling a mile high cone of sand with loose rocks on the surface. I figured it would mostly be rocky with fixed places to climb up, but no. Several times I would take a step and cause rocks to tumble down the hill, and plenty of areas we had to dig our feet in to the sandy soil. The last third of the trek up was particularly difficult, with each step sliding back down half a step, and pretty much no solid rocks to hold on to.

I was pretty exhausted by the time I finally made it to the top, and the ferocious winds seemed like they wanted to blow us off the mountain. But the view was spectacular. Our tents were the size of pinpoints below. The two lakes, themselves about a mile apart and rather high in elevation, looked like puddles close to the base of the distant Mt. Ruapehu. The seemingly flat highlands below were far enough for a blue haze to interfere with the view, and the tops of lower clouds in the distance were noticeably below us. After a snack, the group decided to hike down into the crater to see the other side. With my aching feet, and being fairly exhausted from the climb to the top, I stayed behind and eventually walked along the edge to the highest point to take pictures of the group from a distance. With my camera fully zoomed in (55mm) they still were smaller than ants. The crater itself was rather walkable and didn't fall into a giant pit of lava, sadly. But there was a vent of steam coming out of one area, and several sections of the ridge were lots of different colors all mixed from the last firey cataclysm almost fourty years ago.

The way down was rather amusing at first, since each step was accompanied with sliding down in the sand. Slid down much of the top part in what I called the butt luge, which fortunately didn't hurt. My pants still got a little ripped, but not nearly as bad as some of the girls. The rest of the way down was less pleasant, due to Daniela and I getting separated from the rest of the group, largely due to our leaders impatience, and having to make our way down the more rocky base back to camp. All was well in the end tough, and after dinner we wrapped up the day with a game of Yahtzee

Hiking out the next day was rather quick, since it was mostly downhill, and the weather was getting nasty so we were extra motivated. Our group ended up spending the following night at a backpacker (hostel) in National Park village instead of hiking to the hut at the base of Mt. Ruapehu. Since my feet were pretty bad by that point, I stayed back at the backpacker with Daniela for a day while the rest went to climb Ruapehu. Apparently Ruapehu was a blast, but also had a lot of luck on their side. It was cloudy and rainy for the first part of their climb as they went past a couple huts. But near sunset the clouds broke and they were able to get to the top to watch the sun go down, and hike back to the hut under an almost full moon. But that's fine by me, I enjoyed my sandals and the leisurely day planning my next few weeks. And hopefully in a couple days I'll be able to put my boots back on without worrying about messing up my ankles.

More pictures here: http://picasaweb.google.com/mr.intensity/ClimbingMtDoomMtNgauruhoe

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

So the storm I wrote about in the last blog, in fact, did not deliver. It rained quite heavily across the bay, and got very windy here, but that's nothing new. Still no more than a couple raindrops. Our power came back during dinner, which was about 3 or 4 hours after it went out. We had a bunch of candles already lit and were enjoying some ramen with grilled red snapper and leeks (we typically eat much better, but not much water or a stove/oven will do that to you). When the power came on, one of the girls got up and turned off the light so we could continue to enjoy the candle lit dinner instead, which I thought was rather cute.

Yesterday was quite a bit of fun. I got to go sea fishing for the first time, and caught seven red snappers all between a foot to 1.5 feet long. Laura, Daniella and I got up at 6am to drive to Coromandel where we went on a barge to the muscle farms. While we were not hunting muscles, the buoys attract a lot of fish, so the farms make excellent fishing spots.

There was a team of four Kiwis on the boat who were competing for a yearly 3 day fishing tournament. They were amusing and in good spirits during the day and caught plenty of fish themselves, though they doubt it would be enough to win the tournament. One of them still caught a huge red snapper though, which weighed about 6.5 kilograms. That was larger than the largest caught on the previous two days, so they had a shot at it being the largest snapper for the tournament. While snapper can apparently get a good bit larger, they said on average they would only catch 2 or 3 snapper that large all year, so it was still quite a catch for the lucky fisherman, and greatly helped their daily average out on what was otherwise a light catch day. There were five to seven other folks on the barge fishing who were mostly quiet, and occasionally would catch a fairly big fish.

The two girls and I caught a total of twelve snappers that were at least 27cm (10.6in) long, and we caught at least as many smaller fish that were thrown back. I hooked two other fairly large native fish which I can't recall the name, but both managed to break my line and get away. The first was very early in the day and gave me quite a struggle. The second actually was pulled right out of the water about 10 ft from the boat and was about 15in long silver and had green along the top. But it too broke my line before I finished reeling it in, so our keepers turned out to all be snappers. Which was perfectly fine by me, as red snapper is quite a tasty fish and one of my favorites.

The couple that ran the barge were very friendly and patient with us newcomers. They supplied the rods, bait, and spare hooks when lines were broken. They also pulled most of the hooks out and measured to see if fish were big enough to keep. By mid day I was pulling a fair share of hooks out, but between the sharp pointy fins and hooks lodged pretty deep in the poor fish's mouths, I still needed their help on several fish.

We got back to the house pretty late, as we had to stop in Thames (another hour away) to pick up a bunch of supplies, and ate some pizza while in town. Fortunately the salt ice we used to keep the fish cold lasted through the night, but cleaning the fish remained for me in the morning. Since I caught most of the fish, I had no problem offering to fillet our haul. And after watching a video on Laura's computer of Jon instructing volunteers a couple months ago on how to fillet a fish I gave it a shot.

Filleting the fish wasn't that tough, though it took some time to get the hang of it. Mostly, I just had to cut behind the head, then along the dorsal fin and the belly, and then scrape the fillet off the spine/ribs along the side. The fish had only a small area toward the front filled with guts, and the rest was just muscle and bone.

The least desirable part was the flies. There were some 80 files, literally, within 45min of getting started. And filleting all dozen fish pretty much took me all day. I had a bucket where I was chucking the fish carcasses that would erupt into flies whenever a new one was added to the heap. Fortunately, this meant only a handful were interested in my area, and the fillets were in a pot of water which drew no attention at all. But still, the buzzing was pretty crazy. In the end, none of the fish is truly wasted. Tiny bits of extra meat went to the doggies, and the carcasses will be taken to the land and fed to the eels in our stream. Most of the fillets will be put in the freezer and used up in the next few weeks.

We grilled up some snapper for dinner, along with a tasty peanut and pumpkin stirfry Laura and Daniella put together. There's a little more left in the fridge for my cooking day tomorrow with Nicole. We're planning on a Cajun style dinner, with improvised red beans and rice, and some grilled snapper in hot sauce. But the best thing about tomorrow is that it's a free day, so I get to sleep in, until Laura cooks up some french toast which she's pretty pumped about making. It should be a good day. Just two left before our week long trip to climb Mt. Doom.

PS: notice how faded my hat has become? It was pretty much pitch black when I got here only a couple months ago. Super strong sun, salt, and sweat will do that to ya apparently.

A coastal hike on the tip of Coromandel - 3/17/10

The sky is acting like it wants to storm, but its rained so little since I got here that I wonder if it can deliver. Lack of rain has been a serious problem, since our water supply is tied to rainfall. To make things more interesting, the power went out about 2 hours ago. And since our water tank takes electricity to pump, we are without water despite the storm.

The last week has been rather erratic, even more so than the previous few. Our epic trip to Tongariro has been pushed back about 9 days to the 23rd. In its place, we went hiking yesterday and will go fishing on the 19th. Yesterdays hike was at the northern tip of Coromandel, where the highest mountain on the peninsula can be found. The mountain was apparently closed, but the ranger gave us a map of some alternate routes we could take. These paths were for pest control, which means traps and poisons for the mammal pests in the forest. While these are safe to us, the paths are basically service trails and not kept clear.

To make things more interesting, our initial directions were quite vague, and we didn't ever really reach the path we intended. The trails were still really neat, and climbed through thick, yet young, temperate rainforest. The B track, which took about an hour and conveniently went in a loop, was rather challenging. It went along the side of the mountain, and had about a 45 degree or more slope most of the way. We had to hold on to the trees slightly uphill, as our footing slipped quite often on the leaves and loose dirt.

I had strained my back a few days earlier and had tried to get out of the hike all together. Dany was not enjoying the difficult trail, so the two of us left the group once we got back to the start to head to the beach. This worked out well, as the rest of the group never found what they were looking for, while Dany and I took a 6km trek down the well defined coastal path. A bizarre part of the walk was how there were hundreds of dead stick bugs littering the track. Every 3 to 4 feet we'd find another almost the whole way. These are like 'walking sticks' back home, but about 5 inches tall, bright green, skinny, and fragile apparently.
About halfway down the track, we came to the tip of land by the bay with a stunning view across the sea. The picture here doesn't give it justice due to perspective, but that was about two thirds of our field of view. It took two rows of five pictures stitched together to capture it. We were about 450 feet above the sea on a ledge, and could lightly hear the waves below. It was nice watching the wave patterns heading toward the bay in such a large area. And like most coastal scenes in NZ, the water was a bunch of rich shades of blue and clear.
Back home today, we had a fairly light day, with Jon heading to Thames early and just working on projects around the house. I built a rat trap out of spare parts. The body is a 20L paint bucket, with a ramp leading to the top, a circular piece of plywood on a slightly off center rod, and a tiny shelf in the back. The rat runs up the ramp, and as it crosses the wooden disk toward the cheese, the disk tilts down and dumps the rat in the bucket. Some scrap metal is under the front part of the disk to weigh it down, and pegs keep the front side from falling as the rat gets curious.

Unfortunately I cut my hand open in the process, though while kinda deep it was nothing serious. My hand is now bandaged and lightly wrapped in duct tape for extra pressure, and reduced flexibility on the joint. It'll heal up in a few days. Hopefully in time to climb Mt. Doom down in Tongariro next Tuesday!

Early work in the Valley - 2/18/10

My first task in the valley was a bit of weed control. But this kind of weeding too spades and loppers. We removed any wild Ginger or Woolly Nightshade we could find in the valley. There was enough ginger root to fill the back of a short pickup truck. Both plants spread quickly, are not native to NZ, provide little benefit, and compete for resources. To add insult, the ginger isn't even all that edible, so we have to burn it in the end.

The nightshade on the other hand is both easier, and more annoying. We can't rip it out of the ground, since it can grow into a 15ft tall tree. So we lop off the small ones, and chainsaw the big plants. The plant gives off a mildly foul smell when it is cut which can irritate asthma sufferers. By not killing the roots though, the plant tries to grow back eventually. We head back out a month or so after the first cutting and clip any new growth that's trying to survive. By repeating this a few times the plant runs out of vitality and dies, without the need of poisons or digging equipment.

Other valley tasks in the first couple weeks included releasing and mulching the trees and flax which had been planted previously. The valley has tall grasses (also not native) which need to be ripped up surrounding the fledgeling plants and tamped back down as a sort of fertilizer. We dump mulch on top of this to provide a bit of insulation, and also a layer which is more likely to hold on to water for longer. Both steps help the plants chances to survive the transplanting and a rough first year.

Jon is planting hundreds of Acacia trees imported from Australia. These plants are hardy and fast growers. They also help pull nitrogen out of the poor quality pastureland, and will eventually help kill the grasses due to shade, to help other plants have a chance to grow. So while these Acacias will ultimately be chopped down in 5-7 years, they will speed up the recovery process and improve the soil. In a few years native plants, and fruit trees will be able to be planted as well.

Other than the grassy fields waiting for Acacia, there are a few small garden plots which need far more attention, and volunteers in the spring to do them justice. There is also large brambley areas of blackberries which were getting ripe right as I was arriving. We've picked about 6 liters of them by now and make desserts and dressings out of them. There's also a nice tree covered creek, a currently dried up duck pond, plenty of 80 or so year old forest in the back, and a big marshy swamp that's been covered with grass for decades.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Building the Spa Bath - 2/14/10

I arrived at Earthwise Valley right after the group had returned from an epic trip. This is a week long adventure somewhere, and there are two planned during the summer volunteer season. The group had gone kayaking at Lake Waikaremoana where two of the volunteers celebrated their birthday. As a result, the week after was mostly projects and fewer rest days.

The first couple days were spent at the house, where we started to build the foundation for a spa bath. The house where we are staying was just purchased in November, while the land was purchased last year. As a result, not much is set up yet, so this year is more about getting things set up than sustainable practices, it seems. Dave, Rich, and I started laying out the frame for the spa bath, which was attached to an existing covered gazebo like porch.

This was my first acquaintance with the augur, a heavy metal tool used to dig post holes. The outer posts were about the width of phone poles, but only about 6 feet long. The augur twists on the ground while digging down, as long as there aren't any roots or rocks in the way, which there usually are eventually. The area on the back side of the spa bath was rather boggy, and while it was easy enough to walk on while there were ferns, once we trampled them enough it turned into a bit of a mud pit. This was easy enough to dig down, but proved difficult to fill back up and stabilize. But pounding tons of rocks into the sides of the hole came to the rescue, and we eventually got the posts nice and solid. The inner frame was easier, as we used smaller posts and rammed them down with a metal cylinder which pushed the post into the ground inch by inch.

Once the posts were all lined up, we started cutting notches for the boards, brought out the level and built the two sides of the frame. This actually took about a day and a half, with a third day to get the inner joists cut and nailed in place. Almost all the materials used were recycled from existing stockpiles Jon (who runs Earthwise) had on the land, some from previous projects and others purchased from other folks.

Aside from the spa bath, the other activities at the house were pretty simple. We cut up a few big piles of firewood for future use. Some of the girls also looked around the property for small saplings which were growing in bad locations to transplant on the land once the weather gets a little wetter.

Speaking of which, the first week was rather overcast. Hannah, who comes from Yorkshire England referred to the light mist / drizzle we kept receiving as mizzeling, and I'd have to agree it was an appropriate name for what we got. I'll make a post about the valley in just a little bit.

Arriving at the Valley 2/13/10

So! I'm finally posting about the place I've been living for the last month! I really haven't had much free time and I've spent much of it so far on cleaning up photos instead of writing, but I better get to it before I forget, eh? For those who haven't seen my pictures, there's tons up over at Picasa: http://picasaweb.google.com/mr.intensity

Earthwise Valley is a small volunteer run sustainable community located in Tuateawa on the Coromandel Peninsula east of Auckland. For those unfamiliar with NZ, Auckland is on the northern side of the North Island. Coromandel is about 2 - 3 hours away from Auckland, and is rather lightly populated. It is mostly covered by native forests, though there are plenty of farms and ranches as well. Tuateawa is no more than a collection of 15 or so houses on large properties, about an hour away from the nearest stores or gas stations, and two hours from Thames.

On my first day, Dave picked me up in Coromandel town where we drove for about an hour to Tuateawa. We briefly looked at the valley the group refers to as "the land" before heading on to the house where we were all staying. The program accommodates up to ten volunteers, but I was the seventh volunteer for this season. We all work together, though often in teams of two or three. We eat lunch and dinner together, with three food teams rotating each day. And we typically take trips together. So quite the group atmosphere. Fortunately, I enjoy the company of all the other volunteers, so this always around thing works out well.

Our day starts leisurely around 7am. Some days I try some yoga with a few of the other volunteers, others I sleep in till 8. The yoga really helps relieve the stiffness and soreness from the hard work from the day before. By 8:30 or 9 we are ready to go, put some boots and long pants on, and either head to the land, or work on projects around the house. Lunch is usually around 1pm, then more projects until 5:30 or 6. There's a tiny bit of downtime before dinner, and a tiny bit afterward. By 9, the Internet is off and downtime is usually over. We typically either play a game or watch a movie before people start dozing off by 11.

Each week has on average five project days, with the other two either being recreational trips or downtime to recover. The rec trips can still be rather tiring, so it took some getting used to when I first arrived. I think I slept for 12 hours my first free day, about five days after I arrived. But the trips have all been a lot of fun, and I'll be sure to talk about them soon.
The view off our back porch is stunningly beautiful. We eat lunch, and when there's still enough light dinner as well outside. The temperature has been very pleasant, and never very hot. It's now starting to get a little chilly and windy at night. But frustrating enough, it's been unusually dry during the month I've been here. This is bad, since our water supply is based on rainfall and is running rather low. As autumn approaches, the rains should pick up, and hopefully we'll not have to worry about the hassle of running out. While the temperature is almost always in the 60s or 70s, the wind can be rather cool (and it can be really windy here). The sun, however, feels much hotter than back home, and sure enough the ozone hole is worse over NZ than over Australia. Everyone here has a rather dark, though healthy looking, tan. And even I am losing much of my pastiness. But sunscreen is often essential unless we're spending most of the day working in the shade. Fortunately, there's so many trees around that shade can often be found.

The last thing that bears mentioning in this post is the NZ sky. While my whole first week the sky was constantly cloudy, I finally got pictures of a starry night sky, and spent half an hour staring at the Milky Way. There's a huge swath that visibly crosses the sky, with thousands of stars filling the sky. The Southern Cross is almost always visible in NZ, and interestingly enough so is Orion, though the constellation is flipped from what people in the US and Europe are used to. Anyways, that's enough for tonight. Cheers!