Sub-Alpine Idyll

We recently went on a lovely hike up Peak Hill, overlooking Lake Coleridge. The start of the track crosses paddocks, but once on the reserve land, the vegetation changes to a beautiful sub-alpine spread of daisies, Spaniard, matagouri, and tussocks. The daisies, in particular, were spectacular—so many were in bloom that the whole hillside looked frosted. The Spaniard was blooming, too, spiky flower heads rising above the daisies like something from a Dr. Seuss book. Native bees, mānuka beetles, and syrphid flies were all taking advantage of the abundance of nectar and pollen. The air hummed with insects.

You could be forgiven for thinking it was a beautiful, peaceful place. And it was, for us. But among the insects buzzing around were predators—pompillid wasps hunting for spider prey, robber flies snatching unwary insects out of the air, and birds snapping up bugs to feed to their young.

And then there were the plants themselves. At least one hapless beetle impaled itself on a Spaniard leaf. 

It may be pretty, but it’s a rough world out there when you’re insect-sized.

A Little Bit of Crazy

On the lower slopes, looking up to the clouds.

You have to be some kind of crazy to summit Mount Herbert in a raging Nor’easter. Apparently my family and I are some kind of crazy.

To be fair, we didn’t set out to summit. We’d hoped for a day at the beach, but the wind and cloud cover wasn’t promising. So we pulled into Orton Bradley Park thinking we’d do a nice little hike.

We thought, ‘Let’s go toward Mount Herbert; we haven’t actually hiked that track before.’

It’s a typical Banks Peninsula track, winding through non-native forestry blocks, pasture, and scrubby native bush on its way up the mountain. As we got higher and higher, the wind picked up. The ridge line and summit were shrouded in cloud. It certainly wouldn’t be nice up there.

But, hey, it was great hiking weather down lower—not too sunny, and the breeze was nice … until it started whipping off our hats. We carried on up the slope.

By the time we reached the bottom of the cloud layer, the wind was getting a bit ridiculous. We checked our location on the topo map.

Well, it wasn’t too much farther to a shelter where we could eat lunch. Surely we could go that far. We carried on, around a switchback so the wind was blowing full in our faces. I laughed and shouted, ‘This is silly!’ But no one heard me over the wind.

We were in the cloud now, hiking blind to the shelter. When we found it, we tumbled inside, laughing and a little breathless. As we ate our lunch, the sturdily-built shelter shimmied and moaned in the wind. Billowing waves of cloud poured in with each gust.

It would be ridiculous to go on in this weather. What would there be to see, anyway, in the cloud?

But it was only a little bit further to the summit …

We donned our raincoats, shoved our useless hats into our bags, and made for the top.

And so there I was, leaning into the wind, a cramp in my left thigh and a blister on my right heel, condensation dripping off my hair and running down my glasses, unable to see the rest of my family just ten metres ahead of me through the cloud … and stupid-grinning the whole way.

At the summit (the highest point on the Banks Peninsula) we should have been able to see a huge expanse of the South Island spread out around us. We could barely see each other. We cheered our accomplishment, admired the view, and then set off back down.

Our little walk ended up traversing 15 kilometres and climbing 900 vertical metres. It was a ridiculous walk to do, given the weather conditions, but it was absolutely brilliant.

And we got our beach time in, too. By the time we made it back to sea level, it was sunny and hot, so we had a little splash in the sea before returning home.

Sometimes a little bit of crazy is perfect.

Respite on the Rakaia

The temperature is squatting at 37 degrees C. Body temperature. I’ve experienced hotter, but when it hits 37, it’s just hot, no way to argue it’s not.

So we headed down to the Rakaia River, just a short drive from our place.

The walk in from the settlement of Rakaia Huts is green and humid. The track is maintained only by the feet that tread it and winds through a magical scrubby forest. Non-natives brush leaves with natives, feral fruit trees share space with hydrangeas. The worst of Canterbury’s weeds coexist with a remarkable array of native shrubs and ferns—it’s the Peaceable Kingdom of the plant world.

Twenty minutes of walking through this green glade brings you to the river. The Rakaia is a braided river, so you cross and re-cross channels to reach one suitable for swimming. Down near the mouth, there are many swimming holes—deep and turquoise with suspended loess (wind-blown rock dust)—separated by sparkling riffles. We followed the river to the sea, testing each pool to find the best one.

They were all delightful, all ours for the taking, because there was no one else there.

Back home, we stayed in our wet togs until they dried, bringing the cool river with us.

In the time it’s taken me to write this blog, the temperature has risen further. The river water has long since evaporated. Now we have just the memory to keep us cool.

Catlin’s River Walk—a little bit of magic

My family and I were in the Catlins last week, in the southeast corner of the South Island. It’s a wild and remote area, home to more penguins and fur seals than humans. No urban adventures here—it’s a place for outdoor recreation.

One of the things we did was to hike part of the Catlins River Track (we didn’t have time to do the full track). It was unlike any other place I’ve been in New Zealand.

In fact, it reminded me most of eastern Pennsylvania, in spite of the fact that it shares not a single common species of plant or animal.

The track follows the Catlins River, a beautiful waterway that cuts through layers of limestone in one little cascade after another. Swing bridges cross the river several times, providing great aerial views of the water (and a little excitement for those who don’t like heights). The forest is old-growth beech which provides habitat for myriad native birds, carefully protected by intensive predator control. 

In addition to the beech, we were delighted to see two species of orchid on the forest floor, red-flowered mistletoes in the treetops, several species of slime mould, some lovely mushrooms, and a beautiful native harvestman. The birdlife was noisy and varied, but we weren’t lucky enough to see any endangered mohua. And, amazingly, there wasn’t a single sandfly! 

The whole effect was one of an enchanted forest. We were certainly enchanted.

The track is relatively flat—easy hiking for kids or those who can’t face the usual Kiwi hiking track going straight up a mountain, and because there’s no “goal” to reach, you can simply walk as far as you’d like, and then return. The entire length is 12 km one-way, with a return loop option through forestry land away from the river. 

I highly recommend this track. I’ll certainly be going back when I have enough time to do the whole thing.

Awesome Alpine Plants

Whipcord hebe flowering in the snow

My daughter and I went for a hike on Saturday after being cooped up in the house all day Friday by a rip-roaring southerly storm. The storm lashed us with rain and hail, but in the mountains, it brought snow. Saturday morning, the beech forest at Cragieburn Forest Park was a winter wonderland.

Climbing up out of the forest into the alpine areas, the intensity of the storm was clear—thigh-deep drifts filled the path in some places, while other areas had been blown clear down to the scree. Every tussock had a long train of sculpted snow on its leeward side, so you could almost feel the howling wind and the sting of blowing snow, in spite of it being a clear calm day.

Nestled among the rocks, we found this lovely whipcord hebe, flowering in spite of its slowly melting blanket of snow. And there were other plants peeking out of the snow, clinging to the scree.

Alpine plants are some of the toughest organisms around. They have to cope with intense sun, wide temperature fluctuations, drought, wind, and ice and snow. They have evolved a variety of adaptations in order to combat these dangers.

Short, cushion-shaped growth: A tight ball of branches and leaves resists damage and drying from fierce wind. The pinnacle of this growth form has to be plants in the genus Raoulia. Known as ‘vegetable sheep’, they form hard, tight masses of tightly packed leaves (akin to the texture of a head of cauliflower). Inside the mound, dead plant material builds up around the branches and acts like a sponge, soaking up rain when it’s available. Adventitious roots on the plant’s branches tap into this reservoir of water when the weather is dry.

Long roots: Unstable rocks and shifting scree make it difficult for alpine plants to stay put, and water is often far below the surface. To cope, they have long roots that anchor them deep into the rock. Some are also able to regrow from their roots if the top of the plant is snapped of by rockfall.

Drought-resistant leaves: Many alpine plants have leaves that are fuzzy on the underside, where the stomates (the breathing holes) are located. The hairs trap a layer of calm air against the leaf surface, slowing down water loss from the stomata. Other plants have narrow, vertically-oriented leaves that minimise exposure to the intense alpine sunshine, reducing evaporation.

Sunscreen: A waxy coating on many alpine plant leaves protects against intense sunlight and high temperatures.

Antifreeze: Ice crystals forming inside a living cell break the cell walls and kill it, so organisms living in cold environments have to somehow avoid freezing. Alpine plants protect themselves from freezing by manufacturing antifreeze from proteins in their tissues. The antifreeze prevents ice crystals from forming in the plant’s cells.

Energy conservation: The growing season in alpine areas is short, and nutrients are scarce. Many alpine plants respond by not reproducing every year. Instead of producing low-quality seeds that may not survive, they hoard resources until they have accumulated enough to reproduce successfully.

All these adaptations give most alpine plants a similar look—low, mounded, small-leaved and tough. But one plant in particular stands out as oddly showy and out of place.

Mount Cook buttercup (Ranunculus lyallii)

The Mount Cook buttercup (aka Mount Cook lily), is an unusual alpine plant, in that it has big leaves and large, showy flowers. But even so, it is well-adapted to the alpine environment. Most plants have stomates on the underside of their leaves, because the underside is generally shaded and cooler, leading to less water loss. But in the alpine environment, sun-warmed rocks radiate heat, making the underside of the leaves warmer than the upper side on sunny days. The Mount Cook buttercup and its relatives have evolved stomates on the upper side of the leaves, in addition to the ones on the underside. The stomates on the top open when the underside of the leaf grows too warm.

Kaitorete Spit: An Overlooked Gem

Earlier this week, my daughter and I hiked onto the Banks Peninsula from Birdlings Flat. The walk afforded us gorgeous views of Kaitorete Spit.

Kaitorete Spit is only about 6000 years old, but is an important natural and cultural resource. Te Waihora / Lake Ellesmere, formed by the spit, is home to or visited by 166 species of birds and 43 species of fish which support commercial fisheries, recreational fishing and hunting, and traditional food gathering. In spite of its harsh, exposed environment, Kaitorete Spit is home to a remarkable number of threatened plants and animals, including pīngao (a native sand sedge prized for weaving), a flightless moth, and the katipo spider. A variety of lizards also flourish on the spit. The lake and spit have been important sources of food and fibre for Māori since they arrived in the area. Fragments of the oldest known Māori cloak were uncovered on the spit, dating to around 1500 AD, and many other signs of early Maori use of the spit have also been found there.

In pre-European times, Māori used the spit as a convenient highway as they travelled up and down the island. Unfortunately, the shifting gravel of the spit and the regular opening of the lake to the sea mean the spit isn’t passable in anything but the most capable of four-wheel drive vehicles. Today, travellers make the long trek all around the lake, so our home near the pointy end of the spit is a 40-minute drive from Birdlings Flat, just 25 km away on the fat end of the spit. But I’m happy to leave the spit to foot traffic—it helps protect the unique plants and animals that live there.

On a windy, wet day, Kaitorete Spit is a miserable, exposed place to be, but visit it on a warm sunny day, and you’ll see why it is an overlooked gem.

Ice and Fire

One of the things I like best about springtime here is the juxtaposition of hot and cold, especially in the high country. The sunshine is warm, but winter lingers in the shade. I’ve gone hiking in shorts and t-shirt through 15 cm of snow in past years.

This weekend, we didn’t make it up to snow, but there was spectacular frost on our little Saturday jaunt. Hiking up the shaded side of a hill, we were treated to glistening plants as the first rays of the sun hit thick frost.

In addition to the frost, we crunched over a lot of needle ice. Needle ice can occur when the soil temperature is above freezing, but the air temperature is below freezing. Liquid water rises through the soil via capillary action and freezes on contact with the air. As more water is drawn upward, the ice needles grow in length. They’re common in the high country in springtime, when warm sun heats the ground during the day, but the temperature drops quickly after dark.

Ice needles are more than just a curiosity. They’re a significant factor in soil erosion, because they often push soil upward along with the ice. This loosens the top layer of soil, making it prone to erosion by wind and water.

The air was cold on Saturday morning, and as we started up the hill, we were well-bundled. But like all good tracks in New Zealand, this one started off by going straight up. Between the climb and the sun, we were soon stripped to our t-shirts, enjoying the crunch of ice underfoot and the warmth of the sun overhead.