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: 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: (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: