Sun’s Return

It’s only a few weeks past the solstice. Nights are below freezing, and the worst of winter is still to come. In shady spots the frost lingers all day.

Spinach seedlings in the greenhouse
Spinach seedlings in the greenhouse

But plants are already responding to the increase in sunlight. There is a haze of new green growth in the chickens’ winter-bare paddock, daffodils are poking their shoots out of the flower beds, and the grass will soon need to be mown.

In the greenhouse, the lettuce and spinach seedlings that have been sitting there unchanging for weeks have finally begun growing again. The broccoli in the winter garden has begun thinking about heading up (at least until yesterday when the chickens got in there and stripped the leaves).

I too have responded to the sun. I’ve drawn my garden map for the upcoming season. I’ve assessed my seed needs in preparation for the arrival of the new year’s seed catalogue. I’ve nearly completed incorporating manure into the entire vegetable garden.

The weeks will go quickly. Before I know it, it will be time to start seeds, mark out garden beds and spread compost. Now is the time I should be buckling down to complete winter tasks—sewing, organising, cleaning … But like the plants stretching out their tentative leaves, I can’t help but respond to the sun, reaching for spring and looking forward to the new season to come.

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.

Looking back, looking forward

On 26 March 2020, New Zealand went into a nationwide Covid-19 lockdown, and my family moved into a shed. It wasn’t exactly ideal, being homeless during lockdown …

From the comfort of the new home we finally moved into at the end of June, we’ve been reliving that time as we hit milestone after milestone. 

A year ago today, our month-long nationwide lockdown was extended at least two weeks. We were simultaneously devastated and heartened by the news. Covid cases were dwindling—our efforts were working, but would take a while longer.

That day I posted the following poem on the fence:

The storm rages ‘round us
We’re soaked to the skin
Our ship pitched and tossed in the waves.
The captain barks orders,
Hand firm on the wheel.
She knows the relief her crew craves.

But she cannot allow us
Our petty desires,
As much as she longs for them too.
To weather the storm
We must all pull together
Or the tempest takes many, not few.

I don’t think I really understood how true those words would turn out to be. As the world collectively registered over 3 million Covid-related deaths this week, I reflect once again on how different our experience here in New Zealand has been from the rest of the world. Once again I am grateful for the incredible leadership we have in dealing with this crisis, and the collective commitment New Zealanders have shown to doing what needs to be done to protect everyone here.

Yesterday, we reopened our border to Australia, allowing families and friends to reunite, and tourists to travel. It raises our Covid risk as we expand our national ‘bubble’, but both countries have proven quick to respond to the virus, and I believe we will continue to pull together to keep everyone safe.

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. 

Weekend Getaway

Carrington Peak

Over the long Waitangi Day weekend, we hiked up the Waimakariri River to Carrington Hut. Using Carrington Hut as a base, we took day walks to Kilmarnock Falls and Waimakariri Falls Hut.

The weather was glorious, and hiking on the riverbed, it was easy to cool off with a quick dip in icy water. The hike to Waimakariri Falls Hut was particularly rewarding: there are two ‘official’ falls on the river, and dozens of smaller streams dropping off the surrounding peaks in spectacular fashion, so you feel as though you’re walking through a watery wonderland.

Wading in to see Waimakariri Falls.

The upper falls, just below the hut, are hidden in a deep, narrow fissure in the rock. Waist deep in icy water is the only way to see the water roaring down—great fun, but not something you’d want to do on a cold day. 

Above the falls, the river is narrow enough to jump across with dry feet, and flows through a fabulous alpine landscape. We didn’t hike all the way to the snowfield where the river actually begins, but we were close. 

The fuzzy flower of a South Island edelweiss

My favourite two things on the hike were the South Island edelweiss (Leucogenes grandiceps), which looks like it was made out of felt by someone named Aunty Flo, and the river water itself. The water was crystal clear, yet colourful (the gorgeous turquoise of glacier-fed rivers) and full of substance. I could have watched it flow over the rocks for hours (come to think, I did watch it flow over the rocks for hours).

Waimakariri Falls Hut. The snowfield visible to the right of the hut is the source of the Waimakariri River.

Least favourite part of the hike was Carrington Hut. It’s a great hut in a stunning location, but last weekend, it felt as though everyone from Christchurch was there. Carrington Hut has 36 bunks, but only 1 toilet and 1 sink. With about 40 people in the hut and another 20 or so tenting nearby, it was way over its capacity. As usual, everyone was considerate and did their best to make it work, but it was still unpleasant.

All in all, a lovely weekend getaway, and an easy hike, as long as you’re comfortable with river crossings.

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.

Giving Thanks in 2020

Thankful for these glorious blue peas with their cheerful flowers.

Thanksgiving is this week in the US and, while we don’t celebrate Thanksgiving here, I do always still pause and reflect on what I’m grateful for. This year, it feels doubly important to focus on the good things. 

So here are just a few of the things on my Thanksgiving list:

  • Top of the list this year has to be all the Kiwis who have responded with maturity and community spirit to the challenges thrust upon us this year. I am truly proud to be a New Zealander this year, and I’m thankful to be here, where our collective action has allowed us freedom and safety much of the world doesn’t have. 
  • Friends and colleagues who have encouraged those around them to approach Covid-19 as a challenge to develop creative ways to continue to pursue dreams, rather than as a disaster to be lamented.
  • I know I’ve mentioned it before, but I’m still incredibly thankful for our new house. It still often feels like I’m living in someone else’s home, but it is a joy to cook in the new kitchen and to live in a well-insulated building.
  • This time of year, while not exactly traditional harvest time, is rich in early summer fruits and vegetables. Though our new garden is quite young, and the soil is truly terrible, we’re still harvesting good food, and I’m thankful for what we are able to produce.
  • I’m especially thankful this year for my husband and children, who have approached all of this year’s many stressors with good humour, fortitude, and a willingness to pitch in and do what needs to be done.
  • I am more than usually grateful this year for technology which has made the pandemic far less isolating than it would otherwise have been.
  • As always, I’m thankful for the proximity of beach, river and mountain. This year, even more than other years, the natural world has been a solace, and I’m thankful to have relatively wild areas within walking distance.
  • The luxury of time. There’s no question that being in lockdown in a cold shed was awful. I look back on those months and wonder how we survived with our good humour intact. At the same time, having that intense time to spend with close family was something wonderful. We invented stupid games to pass the time and stay warm, we went on looooooong walks together, we sat and talked over the state of the world. I am grateful to have had that time.

There are dozens of other things I could put on my list—big things and little. It’s a year in which thankfulness has been a gift all of its own. I am thankful to be thankful for so much, in spite of the crazy year it’s been.

What are you thankful for?

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.