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!

Friday, March 12, 2010

A night in Auckland before heading to Earthwise 2/11/10

My two nights in Auckland before heading to Coromandel were less busy and drier than the previous week in Australia. But I was still recovering from the sunburn at Bondi, and getting over losing my iphone. The costs of electronics in NZ is ridiculous. A new ipod touch cost about $650, while a new iphone without a contract would be something like $1200 to $1400. The Kiwi currency being about two thirds the value of US dollars helps cushion the blow, but not by much. If I get an ipod any time soon, I'll likely ask my parents to mail me one purchased from eBay, as there's no way to justify $650 for a fancy music player.

I ate at a really good Indian restaurant called Satya which I had tried back in July, and picked up a Kebab the following day. The food prices in NZ are a little shocking at first, but when you realize that both tax and tip are included in the price, it's not so bad. The Indian was actually cheaper than back in the States, but sadly I'll likely never find cheap Mexican down here (or real barbecue).

My first night turned out to be pretty awesome. My roomates were two Brazilian guys who had
been in NZ for a year studying English. They were heading home the next day and invited me out to party with their friends for their last night. We headed over to their friends' flat and gathered a group of about 15 or so to get nice an toasty before heading to a local club. About half the group were Brazilians while the rest were from various European countries and two from Japan. I hadn't really talked to that many Brazilians before, but I really enjoyed my time with them and their friends. They were overly gracious and concerned how I was enjoying the evening. Overall quite pleasant and friendly people.

We went to a club on Queen Street, ironically called Brooklyn, as the place was playing Brazilian party music all night long. There were tons of people there, mostly foreigners, and close to no other Americans. Everyone was in a festive mood and there was lots of dancing. Carnival was starting in a couple days back home, and that particular night was Brazilian night at the club. We stayed out till 4am when the bar closed and took our time heading back to the backpacker. I felt particularly bad in the morning as I had let them use my alarm clock, so they'd have time to pack their bags before checking out of the hostel. However, I had forgotten to change the time from Sydney to Auckland, so the clock was two hours behind. The backpacker staff woke them up late, and they had to rush to get everything out the door. But true to their character, they were not upset and told me not to worry, and were happy we had a good time the night before.

My second day was rather uneventful. I slept in (staying up till 5am will do that to you), bought a new cell phone and a couple DVDs, and packed my bags for the early morning ferry ride across the bay to Coromandel.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Sydney finall dries out

Okay, enough with the backpacker. It continued to rain the first couple days at the YHA, and I was getting sick again so I stayed low key and slept quite a bit. This was definitely the right move since I quickly recovered for the second half of the Sydney trip, when the weather was much nicer. Just up the road from the backpacker was nice park right under the Sydney harbour bridge. I ate breakfast there a few mornings with a lovely view of the Opera House across the water. One day there was a young family with the dad kicking a rugby ball to his 5 year old, who occasionally passed it to his 3 year old little sister. Down the road from the park, and down some steps, was a festival with lots of shops and types of food. My wallet was hurting, so despite getting a burger and some chips (aka fries) at a pub, I kept moving.

Across the Quay (KEY!!) was the Sydney Royal Botanic Gardens, which stretched between the Opera House at the tip, to past most of the skyscrapers into the heart of the city, across from Hyde Park and the ANZAC memorial. The most bizarre feature of the Botanic gardens wasn't any sort of plant, but the literally thousands of giant bats roosting in the tops of the trees. They were called Flying Foxes, but they sure looked like bats to me and they made tons of noise. At dusk they'd leave in massive groups, fly across the harbour and the city, apparently heading to other nearby parks to devour flowering plants and other things. They probably had up to a 2ft wingspan and bodies the size of rats.

There was a gorgeous cathedral just outside the Botanic garden, and along Hyde Park. I'd love to show you pictures, but they were stuffy about absolutely no photography. I get the no flash thing, and I guess it's not entirely reverent, but if a service isn't active it seems rather dumb to ban photography of such a gorgeous place. It was nice to cool off though, as Sydney shares Atlanta's summer woes in both heat and humidity.

Hyde Park was pretty, and meticulously planned out. There were a few large statues and a big fountain. At the back end was the ANZAC memorial, which pays tribute to the NZ and Aussie troops who fought in WW1 and WW2. Apparently Darwin, the capital of the Northern Territory was bombed a bunch by the Japanese, and the Aussies were very worried about a Japanese invasion during WW2. Most of the able men for both Aus and NZ were away in north Africa and Europe, so both countries were very vulnerable, and greatly welcomed the US Pacific fleet's protection.

Walking around Sydney was fun and all, but the best trip was a day trip to Bondi Beach in the southeastern suburbs. The bus ride took over an hour, but the beach was amazing. The waters were deep and vivid shades of clear blue and green, the sands almost white. Thousands of people hit the beach and swam in the nicely warm waters. Though, it was disturbing how unnaturally dark some of their tans were. Like, white people with skin the color of stained cherry wood... Consequently, I got sunburned as well, but that was almost intentional since I was super pasty white from winter till that point. The definite low point of the Aussie trip though was having my iphone stolen on the bus ride back from the beach. I didn't notice it was gone until I got back to the hostel. Oh well...

I flew to Auckland six days after I arrived in Australia and stayed there for a couple nights before finally making it to Earthwise Valley. But you'll have to wait for yet another post before I finally get to talking about this place.

Stayin at the YHA Sydney Harbour

For those heading to Sydney, check out the YHA Sydney Harbour backpacker. I give it 5 stars for a backpacker. It's 1/3 the cost of a hotel and is less than a year old. This entire entry is just about the YHA, btw. They are all over NZ and Aus, and I'll be staying at them whenever I can.

The place I stayed for the remainder of my time in Sydney was fantastic. It cost $42 a night, which is very high for a backpacker but obviously nothing near a hotel price. But it might as well have been a hotel with roomates. The hostel was located in The Rocks, which is right below the Sydney Bridge, next to Circular Quay (pronounced Key... wtf English?!) and across from the Opera House. The first floor of the backpacker was actually an archaeological dig site, with half excavated ruins of the first settlers of Sydney. The rest was on stilts above this area, which was still visible through the building in the large central atrium. The rooms had four clean, new beds, a private shower, and large lockers for personal stuff. There were plenty of energy saving features too, like a gray water system, and shutters which helped keep the rooms cool while still letting some light in.

On the fourth floor was a balcony which had the bridge to the left, followed by the Quay and the Opera House, and then all the sky scrapers to the right. On the third night, they had a barbeque (aka tailgate or grill cookout, not REAL bbq...) where they grilled up some kangaroo for burgers. It was surprisingly delicious. My roomates included a German guy named Alex, who had come down to Melbourne for the Australian Open a couple weeks earlier and was wrapping up his aussie trip. There was also a guy from Korea, another from Toronto who looked Thai, and on other nights a Portuguese salsa dance instructor who worked on a Canadian luxury cruise ship. The final night our roomate was a elderly Irish gentleman who had a delightful accent, but sadly didn't have time to chat with me since it was late, and I had to get up at freakin 5am to catch my poorly chosen 8:30 am flight.

Other features of note included a laundromat, a huge restaurant sized kitchen with free to use fridges and freezers, and common area with a computer lab, a TV lounge, and a 24hour staffed information / check out desk with plenty of planned activities.

A rainy night in Kings Cross, Sydney

Heading back to Sydney from Canberra wasn't as bad as the drive there, likely due to expecting it to take a while. But I had to give up the freedom the rental car provided and hoof it from then on. The hostel I wanted to stay at was booked the first night, due to waiting too long to reserve. But I was able to stay there the remaining nights. The first night, however, was an interesting experience to say the least.

I stayed in Kings Cross, which is likely the closest thing to Vegas as Australia gets, without the casinos. There were strip clubs and brothels mixed with night clubs and sex shops. The girls who weren't open for business still dressed like they were, and the place heavily reeked of sugary cocktails. While the spectacle was rather amusing, the rain was not, and I was rather tired.

My hostel was far from accommodating. The room had twelve other people in it and was not air conditioned (it was in the mid 90s during the day and very humid). The cleanliness of the bed was questionable, and the windows which had to be open to get any kind of air also let in plenty of noise. What was worse was the torrential storm which made a racket for several hours, and the lights on downstairs which kept screwing with my sense of time.

I didn't sleep much at all, mainly due to a mishap I had to fix first thing in the morning. The clerk at the car rental said I could ignore the tolls on the expressway (they were called freeways but were NOT free...) and just call a number to pay for them later, as long as I did it within 48 hours. Well, she failed to mention that wouldn't be available over the weekend, despite that being when I was renting. My only option to avoid a likely ludicrous fee was to get online to file before the 48 hour mark of when I hit the first toll, which was... 8:00 am. Fortunately, the desk worker was up by 7am, so I could use the Internet and got it taken care of in time. But I was further freaking out due to having lost the very important sheet of paper with the rental car's license plate number.

In the end, I got the license number and finished it all in time, but the stress and pouring rain kept waking me up constantly so I didn't accidentally oversleep. I skipped the grungy shower, packed my bags, and tried to dodge the worst of the rain as I went toward the Subway, rode to the harbour, and went to the much much nicer hostel in the fancy historic area of the city. Sadly, the rain, stress, and exhaustion caused my recently vanquished winter cold to come back. But by the time I made it to NZ all was well again.