Christmas Adventure–Gillespie Circuit

The family’s Christmas tramp this year took us to the Gillespie Circuit Track in Mount Aspiring National Park. The trip was a good adventure, through a dramatic landscape we don’t often hike in.

Day one started with a jet boat from Makarora to the confluence of the Wilkin and Makarora Rivers. It was my first jet boat ride, and I’ll admit my inner teenager was grinning as we slalomed down the river in a noisy, environmentally unsustainable fashion my adult self disapproves of.

From the mouth of the Wilkin River, we hiked upstream. It was decidedly the least interesting four hours of the trip—the area is grazed, so it was primarily a slog through a cow paddock. The track then turned into the forest and climbed steadily up Siberia Stream to Siberia Hut, where we spent two nights.

On day two, we took a day trip to Crucible Lake. The track to the lake is quite steep, but worth every step. The lake sits in a basin behind a massive glacial moraine. The glacier above the lake drops chunks of ice into the water, making it look like an enormous punch bowl. Apparently it’s popular to take a dip in the lake, but we were deterred by the ice and the cool morning air. The scale of the landscape is deceptive, and photos don’t come close to capturing it.

Day 3, Christmas Day, dawned lightly overcast—perfect for the next stage of the hike, over Gillespie Pass. The track climbs steeply over 1000 metres to the pass, first through the forest, and then into alpine scrub and tussock. Mount Awful looms over the pass, and the surrounding landscape is dominated by jagged peaks and glaciers. The taller peaks, including Mount Awful, were shrouded in cloud, but the views were nonetheless spectacular. We even got a slightly white Christmas, hiking through a couple of snow patches near the top of the pass.

If we thought the way up was steep, the way down proved us wrong—it was even steeper, dropping down a precipitous ridge to the top of the Young River. From there, the nearly flat hike to Young Hut afforded plenty of opportunity to admire the rocky ridges above and the many waterfalls cascading down from them.

Day 4 was a long but relatively gentle hike along the Young River to the Makarora River through the forest. Crossing the thigh-deep Makarora River back to the car was a refreshing end to the trip.

Being a Christmas hike, the trip naturally inspired another bad tramping Christmas song. This year’s song is to the tune of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.

Have yourself a merry tramping Christmas.
Make the trailside gay.
From now on our cars will be so far away.

Here we are as in olden days,
Happy tramping days of yore.
Faithful friends who are dear to us
Sleeping near to us—they snore!

Through the years we all will tramp together
If the joints allow,
Even when we’re eighty, though I don’t know how.
So have yourself a merry tramping Christmas now.

May you all have a lovely holiday filled with your favourite people doing your favourite things!

Christmas Baking Makeover

I grew up in North America, with all the traditional Christmas things—snow, dark days and long nights, crackling fires, Christmas lights, cookies, pies, hot drinks—Norman Rockwell might have painted my childhood Christmases.

Nearly 17 years ago, we moved to New Zealand, to summertime Christmases. Here, strawberries, cherries, and long summer days herald the season. 

I always loved the baking aspect of Christmas in North America—Mum amassed dozens of types of cookies in the freezer in the weeks leading up to Christmas. The kids always got involved in the baking, and we’d gorge on cookies through the holidays.

I still love baking, but I struggle to dredge up much enthusiasm for Christmas cookies here. With fresh early summer fruits in season, it seems ridiculous to bake cookies that capitalise on stored foods like dried fruits, nuts and chocolate. What I crave is strawberry tarts, black currant pie, and gooseberry crisp. Or better yet, fresh fruit salad—forget the baking altogether.

Out of a sense of nostalgia, I’ve continued to bake a few Christmas cookies every year, alongside the fruit desserts, but 2021 might be the year that changes.

As everyone has experienced this year, supply chains are disrupted worldwide. It has led to shortages of various items from foods to electric cars. A few weeks ago, most of the brown sugar in New Zealand was recalled, because of lead contamination that occurred during shipping. We all dutifully threw away our brown sugar, and wanted to buy more. Of course, there was none. There’s still none, weeks after the recall.

It looks like a staple of Christmas baking will be unavailable this year.

I admit I’m not terribly upset by it. I’ve been wanting to move more toward using locally produced honey instead of imported sugar, and this looks like the perfect opportunity to break the brown sugar habit. Also, it gives me an excuse not to make Christmas cookies, but to focus instead on enjoying the fruit that is already ripening in the garden.

This might be the year that my baking finally makes the switch to the Southern Hemisphere.

To make it even more tempting to go full Kiwi, Matariki has finally been made an official holiday. The Māori new year happens near the winter solstice in June—the perfect time for eating cookies and enjoying hot chocolate. I may have to start making Matariki cookies instead of Christmas cookies. I will enjoy them so much more at Matariki.

So bring on the fruit, some icy lemonade, and the sunscreen! Hold the brown sugar—I won’t be needing it. Christmas baking is getting a makeover.

The Little Things–Hakatere Conservation Park

As usual, I spent most of the long Labour Day weekend in the vegetable garden. I weeded, prepared garden beds, and planted my cucurbits in trays.

Lake Clearwater with mountains
Lake Clearwater was a mirror in the morning’s still air.

But as they say, all work and no play … I didn’t want to spend the whole holiday weekend sweating in the garden.

So on Monday my husband and I went to Hakatere Conservation Park and sweated on Mount Guy instead.

The Ashburton Lakes region is a glacially formed landscape dotted with lakes and tarns. The land around the wetlands is largely tussock grassland studded with spiny matagauri bushes. An unforgiving, windswept landscape that can feel downright bleak.

That was my impression the first time I visited. Fifteen years ago, I was hired to develop an interpretation plan for what was then a proposed park only. I had the great fortune to tour the area with a Department of Conservation ranger who had worked in the area for decades and had a great love of the landscape. He showed me the little things—not necessarily obvious at first—that set the region apart. Rare insects (including an aquatic moth!), waterfowl and lizards. Unique and diverse plants. Historical use of the land, and massive changes over geologic time. There’s a lot more than meets the eye.

skink
One of the many skinks we saw.

On Monday, we were treated to a glorious day—sunny and calm at first, with a brisk breeze kicking in just when the day began to feel too warm. We parked at Lake Clearwater and hiked the track to the summit of Mount Guy. On our return, we followed the tussocky ridge down to a saddle where we picked up Te Araroa, following the track back to the edge of Lake Clearwater where we completed our large, loopy circuit of the lake.

mountains and river valley
View from near the top of Mount Guy. Mount Sunday is a small mound in the river valley, just to the right of centre in the photo.

The hike afforded stunning views of jagged, snow-capped peaks, and a view of Mount Sunday down in the river valley.

Oddly, out of all the “mountains” in the park, Mount Sunday may be the most famous. The hill was used as the location for Edoras in the Lord of the Rings movies. In the enormity of the surrounding landscape, however, it is an insignificant lump of rock.

Perhaps, like the hidden insects, birds, and plants, it is the little details that are the interesting bits.

Lichens Rule

Not long ago, I spent a glorious sunny day wandering around Cass Field Station while my husband met with some students there. It was nice to take a solo walk and go at my own pace, stopping at whatever plants, bugs or rocks caught my fancy.

Once nice find was this beautiful lichen, Rhizocarpon geographicum.

Lichens are strange organisms comprised of an alga living within a fungus. The alga provides food through photosynthesis and the fungus provides protection and nutrients for the alga.

R. geographicum is an alpine/subalpine lichen and, like many lichens, is sensitive to air pollution, thriving only where the air is clean. It is not, however, a fragile organism.

In 2005, R. geographicum was one of two lichens launched into space. The lichens were exposed to 14.6 days of open space—vacuum, wide temperature fluctuations, intense UV light and cosmic radiation. Upon return, R. geographicum showed little harm from the experience.

Not only is R. geographicum tough, some individuals in the Arctic are estimated to be 8,600 years old, making them the oldest living organisms on Earth. Their longevity and predictable growth rate make them useful tools for determining when glaciers retreated from an area.

But I didn’t know all this about R. geographicum when I found it on the rocks at Cass. I simply admired its beautiful mottled colours and soft texture. 

Nature Red in Tooth and Claw

Photo: Eric Weiss

It’s not often you witness outright thuggery in nature. Predators hunt prey—they have to, because otherwise they starve. Predation is never pretty, but it is what it is. 

Sitting at my desk, procrastinating … er … writing this morning, I saw brutality, pure and simple. 

A pair of magpies was chasing a starling. They caught it and brought it to the ground. Standing over it, they pecked at its eyes. At first, I thought they were trying to kill and eat it. But after a few minutes, they got bored. The starling managed to fly off. The magpies followed, caught it and brought it back, only to repeat the eye pecking routine. Three times while I watched, they allowed the starling to escape, then brought it back to peck at it. Always at the eyes.

Eventually, they bored of the sport. They wandered away from the hapless starling to forage in the lawn nearby. After a few minutes, starling and magpies flew off in opposite directions.

I suppose it shouldn’t come as a surprise. Australian magpies have a reputation as aggressive, intelligent birds that like to play. They brazenly steal food from the chickens, fighting right back when a chicken lunges at them. And I’ve watched as gangs of juvenile magpies have tormented my cat, swooping low over him as a team, trying to get a peck in while he swats at them. And I’ve been on the receiving end of magpie parents defending their nests with noisy dives at my head.

In general, magpies eat invertebrates—they were originally introduced to New Zealand to help control crop pests. Research on their effects on native birds indicates they only rarely kill other birds, and their aggressive pursuit of larger predators like harriers may even provide some protection to smaller birds.

Still, I can’t help thinking magpies are the bullies of the playground. They’re fine as long as you’re not their target. Fascinating for me as an armchair naturalist, but I’m thankful I’m not a small songbird.

Wild West

On a whim, my husband and I spent last weekend on the west coast. We stayed in our favourite west coast town—Hokitika—and hiked in the mountains nearby.

view from Mt Greenland
The view from the top of Mt Greenland

Having lived in a rainforest for two and a half years, I know I wouldn’t want to live on the west coast (where rainfall ranges from 2 to 11 metres per year), but I love visiting.

On this visit, we hiked up Mount Greenland. The path up is an abandoned road that used to connect the small gold mining settlement of Veronica to the township of Ross. An article in the West Coast Times in 1888 records Veronica as a promising settlement, complete with a hotel and two stores. Even then, the road from Ross was apparently atrocious—other newspaper accounts from the 1880s colourfully describe knee- and waist-deep mud on the way to Veronica.

The mine near Veronica was abandoned in 1940, and the rainforest has been reclaiming the road ever since. The day we hiked it was sunny and cool, but even without active precipitation, the road streamed with water in places. There were a few short stretches without washouts, deep puddles or slips, but only a few. Ferns leaned over the edges of the narrow track, so that in spots, even hikers were forced into single file. It is clear some informal maintenance of the track still goes on, but the forest is doing its best to erase it.

rainforest

And this is probably what I appreciate most about the west coast—nature is in charge, and humans maintain only tenuous grip. The settlement of Veronica has all but vanished under vines and tree ferns. The gold rush of the 1800s left no ghost towns—the forest has swallowed them all up. Other west coast townships, like Franz Josef Glacier, Fox Glacier, and Kumara Junction, feel equally under siege by Mother Nature, as though it would only take a few moments of inattention before the trees would creep down the streets, and the vines snake over the houses.

As apocalyptic as that vision is, it gives me hope. Hope that one day, the planet will erase the scars of our fleeting presence here and carry on in a riot of life.

Christchurch Quake, 10 years on

My 9 and 10-year-old students filed into the room today. 

“Where’s William?” one asked.

“He’s gone to the earthquake memorial,” I answered.

“What earthquake?”

I explained about the series of quakes Canterbury had endured, starting in September 2010 and including the one on 22 February 2011 that killed 185 people. These children had been babies at the time, or not even born yet.

“People died?” Fear shone in the girl’s eyes.

“Was it scary?” asked another child.

I paused, the memory of that day and the days after it playing through my mind.

“Yes. It was scary.”

“Even more scary than Covid? More scary than lockdown?”

Well … different.

These children were born into a quake-damaged city. A broken Christchurch is all they’ve ever known. They do not understand the ‘before’ and ‘after’ we adults do. They grew up in a landscape slowly settling into quiescence, and don’t know the sudden rupture of the solid foundation of life beneath them.

Or perhaps they do. Covid has shaken their world as much as the Canterbury quakes shook ours ten years ago. Perhaps they are not as physically rattled as we were, but their lives are disrupted, and life as they knew it is gone.

Ten years on from the quakes, the city’s scars are still visible. Empty lots remain where buildings once stood; the cathedral stands half-collapsed; in some places, shipping containers still protect passersby from the risk of building collapse.

But the quakes gave us opportunities to rethink the city. We now have more green space along the river. We have a spectacular central library that serves as a community hub. We have the Margaret Mahy playground, the High Street eateries, pocket parks, art and community spaces that didn’t exist pre-quake. We’ve got the Dance-O-Mat!

Covid hasn’t brought down our physical structures, but it has devastated social structures worldwide. It has shone a light on our ‘essential’ workers, highlighting that many are the most underpaid and overexploited people in society. It has emphasised the critical roles played by schools and preschools, whose staff are historically underpaid and poorly supported. It has highlighted the importance of local communities, science-based decision making, and disaster planning. It has reminded us painfully of the imbalance in gender roles and expectations in our society.

We need to allow Covid to change us as much as the earthquakes did. We need to let it drive us to rethink our values, our society, our expectations. Encourage us to find new ways to live our lives, to reflect upon those things we should be valuing more.

In the days and weeks after the February quake, help poured into Christchurch, much of it grassroots efforts by individuals or small groups. As a community, we remembered what we had perhaps forgotten in our daily rush and bustle. What is the most important thing in the world? He tāngata, he tāngata, he tāngata! The people, the people, the people.

Disaster allows us to rise again, remade. Let us remember the lessons of the past as we move forward and envision a post-Covid world in which we remember what is most important. 

Christmas on the Heaphy Track

Our pre-Christmas tramp this year took us to Kahurangi National Park to walk the Heaphy Track. The trip was simultaneously spectacular and miserable.

The Heaphy Track follows the path of a proposed road, and as such is gently graded—it’s a technically easy walk. So easy it’s almost boring. But it passes through some spectacular landscapes teeming with remarkable flora and fauna.

Day 1 began for us at 5.30 am when we awoke in the Collingwood Campground to our tent being blown flat by the wind and rain. We quickly decamped and retreated to a shelter to wait for the rain to let up before starting our hike.

Unfortunately, the rain outlasted our patience, so we started out under a heavy fall that had us soaked within minutes. The steady climb was largely unremarkable. The rain eventually cleared and we reached Perry Saddle Hut under a sunny sky.

Day 2 was more eventful, with two endangered species sightings by 7 am. The first was a takahe browsing the grasses just outside the hut as we finished breakfast. This critically endangered bird, the world’s largest rail, was presumed extinct for 50 years. Its population now numbers just 445.

Minutes down the track, with rain setting in again, we nearly stepped on our second endangered species of the day—a Powelliphanta snail—a fist-sized carnivorous snail. Without the rain, we never would have seen these nocturnal, moisture-loving animals. We counted ourselves lucky.

Under increasing rainfall, we made our soggy way across Gouland Downs and then the weird and wonderful Mackay Downs. We explored caves and admired huge glacial erratics tossed like giant bowling balls over the landscape. Weka (another endemic rail) with chicks in tow scurried around our legs every time we stopped for a break, waiting for us to let down our guard so they could make off with a snack.

We reached Mackay Hut drenched, but the worst of the rain was yet to come. Half an hour later, the sky opened up and the wind rose. The torrent sheeted down, spilling off the hut roof like someone was tossing buckets of water over the edge. It didn’t let up until nearly 4 am the following day.

Again we set out in the rain, this time into a landscape scoured and still gushing water. But again the rain held delights—another giant snail, sundews lining the track, enormous 700-year-old southern rata trees, waterfalls in all directions, sprays of flowering bamboo orchids dripping from tree trunks, a mistletoe with scarlet flowers … That evening—Christmas eve—drying out in Heaphy Hut, we composed a New Zealand tramping ballad as a family:

T’was the night before Christmas, and all ‘round the hut
I sure wasn’t stirring; I was sitting on my butt.
A cup of tea nestled warm in my hand.
I ate lots of scroggin, expanding my waistband.
Out on the porch, the weka did play,
Hauling our shoes and our stockings away.

When up on the roof there arose such a clatter
I limped from my bench to see what was the matter.
The sun on the roof of the dunny nearby
Made me shade my eyes as I peered up to the sky.
And what to my wondering eyes did appear
But a trio of cheeky, mischievous kea.
With can opener beaks and curious minds
The birds tore apart everything they could find.
When done on the roof they moved on to our packs
Eating their fill of our Christmas Day snacks.

With our stockings all gone and no snacks to eat,
We still had a Christmas that couldn’t be beat.

Christmas morning dawned and the last ragged storm clouds blew away, leaving brilliant blue skies and blooming rata trees for our last leg along the coast under dense stands of nikau palms.

We ended with a quick dip in the Kohaihai River (very quick—it was ice water) and the long drive home. A most enjoyable Christmas!

Hanging Out with the Locals

Sunday’s family hike took us to Avalanche Peak in Arthur’s Pass National Park. Several years ago we’d been to the peak on our way to Crow Hut, but we’d never done the day hike loop from Arthur’s Pass Village to the peak and back. So in the interest of leaving no track unwalked, we did the loop.

Last time we were there, we reached the peak to find it packed with people. So many people jostled to stand at the top, I was worried about being shoved off. Stretched down the mountain, a line of hikers ascended to join us. We didn’t stay long, but quickly dropped off the peak, sidling up the ridge toward our destination, which was similarly crowded (there were 16 people staying at the 10-bunk Crow Hut that night).

Looking down on the Waimakariri River

Sunday’s experience was entirely different, in spite of it being a similar beautiful summer day. With no foreign tourists in the country, the only hikers were Kiwis. 

The long slog to the top was rewarded with a prime seat on the jagged peak (it’s the most uncomfortable mountaintop I’ve ever sat on—rocks like razors). We shared the summit with just two other hikers and three kea.

The weather was perfect—light winds, cool air, warm sun—and we took our time over lunch, chatting with our fellow hikers and fending off the the kea, who angled for our sandwiches, considered ripping open our backpacks and took a swipe at my daughter’s apple.

It was the most intimate kea encounter I’ve had (excepting the time one bit me on the butt). 

Wade, the cheeky kea

For those of you unfamiliar with kea, they are endemic to New Zealand and are the world’s only alpine parrot. They are an endangered species (estimated population of 4000 adults). A large factor in their endangered status is their lack of fear of humans and their incredible curiosity. Combined with a huge beak like a can opener, it means they get into all sorts of things they shouldn’t They have a deadly fondness for the lead heads of roofing nails, they like to tear apart automobiles and camping gear, and they irritate farmers by killing sheep (yes, a sheep-eating parrot—scary eh? Don’t mess with that beak!). 

Two of the birds hanging out with us were banded, and we were able to identify them on the kea database. ‘Wade’ was the most in-your-face bird of the trio—of all the photos I took, only a few didn’t include Wade. And, of course, I took lots of photos, in spite of the fact I have dozens of photos from previous kea encounters. I swear, it’s part of their strategy—one poses for the camera while the others rifle through your bags looking for treats. 

Eventually we said goodbye to our fellow hikers and our feathered companions and descended to a quiet Arthur’s Pass Village—so different from the frenetic activity of summer with overseas tourists. I feel for the tourism industry, suffering this year with a lack of business. But I love the opportunity to enjoy our backyard without teeming masses of people.

I look forward to the day we can invite our overseas visitors back—international tourism is not only an important part of the economy, but also a strong impetus for protecting the stunning and unique natural landscapes, flora and fauna we have here in New Zealand. It’s good to see Aotearoa through the eyes of tourists now and again, to remember just how special our natural heritage is.

But until then, I’ll enjoy hanging out with the locals.

Mount Somers Adventure

The Two Thumb Range with Aoraki peeking up from behind.

The family’s weekend hike took us to the summit of Mount Somers last week. 

We’ve hiked the Mount Somers Track more times than we can remember. Our first visit to the old coal mine along Woolshed Creek was with both children on our backs. Since then we’ve hiked the whole Mount Somers Track both directions and explored all its side tracks and variations. 

Except the summit track. By the time the kids were old enough to do it, we were all bored of Mount Somers. So it was good to tick the summit track off our list.

The summit track isn’t as popular as the other tracks on the mountain. We learned why when we hiked it. At 1688 metres, Mount Somers isn’t the tallest peak, though its volcanic origin is unusual on the South Island. Striking geometric rhyolite columns form cliffs that make finding a good route up or down a challenge and provide homes for an array of unique native wildlife.

The track rises steeply through beech forest from the Sharplin Falls carpark. The climb is unrelenting, taking you over 1200 metres in elevation into the alpine zone to the summit. We reached the summit in 3 1/2 hours, but it’s rated at 5 hours, and I wish we’d taken our time on the punishing ascent. On a hot early summer day, we’d all drunk most of our water by the time we reached the top. Luckily we were able to refill with snow. 

The view from the broad peak was stunning, with the Canterbury Plains spread out on one side, and the Two Thumbs Range jutting into the sky on the other. Aoraki / Mount Cook was visible, looming up behind the Two Thumbs Range.

To make a loop, we took an unofficial route down from the summit following widely spaced cairns to the Mount Somers track’s high point between Pinnacles Hut and Woolshed Creek Hut. It was steep, and involved a fair bit of scree sliding, but it was doable. And once you found the route, there was no getting lost, as you could see the track below.

On the track, we turned toward the Sharplin Falls carpark. An hour’s walking brought us to Pinnacles Hut where we had a welcome rest and chatted to the hut warden.

The track down from Pinnacles Hut follows and crosses numerous streams, and we enjoyed the cool water of the streams and waterfalls on the way. Aside from the relatively short climb over Duke Knob, it’s a gentler way down than the summit track.

All up, it was 8 1/2 hours of pretty steep up and down. Not for the faint of heart, but worth the effort for the views from the top.