Rotorua: a not-so-cool place to be

A steaming stream in Rotorua.

I spent the weekend in Rotorua at GeyserCon, the national science fiction and fantasy convention.  I had a great time hanging out with other writers and learning new things about writing, but being a science geek at heart, the one thing I can’t stop thinking about is a presentation by Peter Brownbridge, the Rotorua Lakes Council Geothermal Inspector.

For those unfamiliar with New Zealand, Rotorua is a town on the North Island known for its extensive geothermal activity. And when I say extensive, I mean extensive. The whole town bubbles and steams and smells of sulphur. There are geysers, boiling mud, hot pools, and hot springs all within the township. In some places, the footpaths are broken, gently steaming, and crusted with mineral deposits.

As you might guess, Rotorua sits inside a volcanic crater. The volcano’s last major eruption happened about 240,000 years ago, and molten rock still lurks below, heating rocks and the aquifers above them. 

It makes for some unique urban planning and maintenance issues.

Peter spoke about the ongoing need to monitor existing and new hot springs and geysers. He spoke about how the layers of ash and sediment overlaying the old magma dome are prone to erosion by hot gassy water, leading to huge underground holes that need to be filled before they become giant sinkholes. He talked about the challenges of repairing ageing geothermal bores when the pressure in them can be as high as 200psi. He mentioned the need to use alternate materials for underground pipes to avoid damage by corrosive gas. He talked about having to evacuate homes and schools due to poisonous gases belched out by hot springs. He described a median strip in the middle of town that spontaneously catches fire every summer because of highly flammable gas oozing from the ground there.

But what I found most remarkable was, after Peter described all the crazy things the city has to do to maintain services, he said, “Yeah, we’ve pretty much got it under control. The only thing we struggle with is delivering cold water to some homes.”

Think about that for a moment. Let it sink in.

I’ve been to Rotorua several times, and have visited stunning hot pools and geysers, but that one little fact has given me an entirely new appreciation for the nature of the earth beneath the town.

Music of the Night

Photo: Marcelo Zurita (CC BY-SA 4.0)

One of the pleasures of the short days of autumn is doing morning chores in the dark.

I know that sounds weird. I don’t particularly enjoy tripping over the tools someone forgot on the lawn the day before, nor am I overly fond of the cold wind slicing through my jacket.

It’s the sights and sounds of early morning that I enjoy.

Yesterday morning was particularly spectacular. The sky overhead was clear and star-studded—shimmering glitter strewn across the blackest velvet.

But the stars to the south were blotted out, and lightning flashed and forked far out at sea. The storm itself was silent from my distance, but the surf roared with a storm’s fury.

By the time the sun rose, birdsong, barking dogs and the drone of tractors drowned out the sound of the waves. Sunshine masked the flash of lightning as the storm stalked along the coast. The day dawned serene and mundane.

Other wonders have been revealed to me on my morning chores over the years.

A bioluminescent worm in the chook paddock.

Shooting stars streaking from zenith to horizon.

A bioluminescent sea creature frozen in snow and deposited in the garden.

The aurora australis pulsing green in the southern sky.

Rats tiptoeing along the top wire of a fence (I know, rats, ick. But it was an amazing feat of balance).

Little owls cackling in the treetops and swooping silently overhead.

The graceful undulation of a fence during an earthquake.

The comforting warmth of a goat’s flank on a frosty morning.

The gentle caress of a nor’west gale before it turns violent.

The rhythmic heartbeat of the sea at rest.

The clarity of thought on a crisp dark morning, before the stress of the day intrudes.

Skink Snap

Stepping out the door one day last week, I met with this lovely skink on the porch. It’s not unusual to see them on our property, but it is unusual for them to sit still for photographs. The cool morning must have made this one sluggish, because he happily waited while I snapped a few pictures. 

I’m always pleased to see skinks; native vertebrates are pretty rare out here in the middle of the Canterbury Plains. We’ve deliberately landscaped to protect and encourage skinks, as I’ve blogged about before. It’s nice to know our efforts have been successful. On sunny days the native plantings rustle with unseen skinks, and the rocks sport basking lizards. I’ve learned not to leave garden hoses lying on the ground, lest a lizard take up residence in the open end.

The common skinks in our yard aren’t in any danger of extinction (unlike many of our native lizards, which are), but it’s nice to know they thrive here. Seeing them makes me smile.

Mingha-Deception Track

Last Wednesday was a glorious, chilly, sun-sparkling autumn day. A perfect day to climb up over the main divide on the Mingha-Deception Track. The track starts where the Mingha River joins the Bealey River. It follows the Mingha upstream through beech forests to the tussock-covered Goat Pass. On the way, it passes a spectacular hanging valley over which tumbles Kennedy Falls—150 metres tall. Kennedy Falls reminds me of one of the reasons New Zealand is so special. This spectacular natural feature sports no access road, no interpretive signage, no gift shop, not so much as a footpath to reach it. It spills down the mountainside in all its glory, unsullied by tourism. By the time you get to view the falls, you feel you’ve earned the privilege.

Goat Pass Hut, set in a hollow just north of the pass, is a spacious hut which we shared with just one other group of trampers Wednesday night. As we ate dinner, a group of noisy kea flew overhead. Thankfully, they didn’t call in at the hut to tear apart our shoes drying on the porch. About ten-thirty, while we all lay snug in our sleeping bags, great-spotted kiwi began calling around the hut—males and females duetting and answering one another. The great-spotted kiwi is a nationally vulnerable species, with a population around 15,000, and I always feel lucky to hear them in the wild.

Thursday morning saw us scrambling down the boulder-strewn upper Deception River on the other side of the main divide. 

Formerly known as Goat Creek, the Deception River got its name in 1900 when surveyor Mr. N. A. Harrop warned engineers building the rail line along the Otira River that the water level in the little river was deceptive—they had no idea how much water could come down the river where it flowed into the Otira River. Three months later, the river flooded and crossed the Otira Valley, damaging the new rail line. It has been called the Deception River ever since.

The day we scrambled down the Deception was one of those deceptive days—the river was lively and powerful, but the water was clear and low enough to cross on foot. Tumbled and scoured boulders left no question about what the river could be like, however. It’s not a place you’d want to be in a storm.

A few hours downstream, we passed a pair of whio (blue ducks) sitting on the rocks preening and ignoring us. Like kea and kiwi, whio are threatened with extinction. There are fewer than 3,000 remaining, so seeing a pair of them was a treat. 

The Deception Valley is narrow and steep, with many side streams pouring into the river, often in waterfalls that would be tourist attractions in their own right if they were anywhere else. Old slips, scoured into crumbling cliffs by the river, speak of a landscape in constant motion. A section of the river smells of sulphur from warm springs nearby—a reminder of the intense geological forces that have shaped the land.

As we emerged from the valley onto the wide flat where the Deception meets the Otira river, the deceptive nature of the river revealed itself again. Freshly tumbled rocks lay in drifts on the forest floor, far from the river’s current flow, showing the extent of recent flooding.

We had a glorious two days, with perfect weather, great wildlife encounters, and good company. Definitely a track to recommend.

Stand Together, Every Day

It has been a difficult few days for all of us here in Christchurch. Shock. Horror. Sadness. Fear. Anger. We have been through so many emotions, it’s hard to know what we are feeling at any given moment.

But one emotion has come to the fore—love. 

Even before we understood the full scope of the horror unleashed in our midst, ordinary people were mobilising to help. Within hours, there were community Facebook groups organising walking buddies and rides for those who felt unsafe on the streets. Other pages were organising meals for the families of victims. Donations poured in on multiple Give-a-little pages (when I went to one of them to donate, less than 48 hours after the attack, the total was already well over $3 million). The NZ Red Cross quickly announced they had plenty of blood after being inundated with donors. People from all over the city left flowers at the police cordons outside the mosques.

Everywhere, people stood together in love.

It’s something Christchurch is good at. We’ve had a lot of practice coming together in the face of adversity in recent years.

It’s tempting to focus on this outpouring of support, to acknowledge the love, and reject the attacker as the enemy. It’s tempting to look at the last three days and pat ourselves on the back for how we’ve responded.

But no matter how good we are at standing together in adversity, the fact is, we’re not good at standing together in the normal times.

We still speak of the Muslim community as though it is separate from the rest of the community. And it is. We need to ask ourselves why. What unacknowledged biases keep us apart? What unacknowledged prejudice prevents us from reaching out to one another in friendship in the good times? Why do we use our differences as an excuse to stay separate, rather than as an encouragement to enrich our lives by learning from one another?

Facing these questions may be uncomfortable—the answers will reveal things we may not want to acknowledge about ourselves—but we must confront them. The man who attacked on Friday may not have been a New Zealander, but there is no question the same attitudes are present here. They are fed by our separateness, fed by our unwillingness to stand up against the little things—the racist comments, the perpetuated stereotypes, the marginalisation of those who may look different to ourselves. These little actions nurture hate. Only by vocally and visibly standing together in the good times can we prevent this from happening again.

Today, wherever you are in the world, step out of your comfort zone. Reach out to someone different from you—make a new acquaintance, a new friend. Shut down an off-colour joke. Push back against a racist comment. Show your love. 

Kia kaha katoa.

Stay strong. Stand together, every day.

Beach Hangout

We nipped out to the beach after dinner on Saturday. We had a nice walk on our lovely, lonely bit of coastline.

But the beach was busy with youth hanging out (up to no good, probably). Some were alone, and some were in groups, strutting their stuff.

But these youth weren’t your usual crowd of city kids, they were juvenile spotted shags, Strictocarbo punctatus punctatus, also known as spotted cormorants, parekareka, and kawau tikitiki.

Shags were once heavily persecuted as pests. Fisherman believed they destroyed the fisheries, snapping up all the commercial fish and decimating their numbers. Research has shown, however, that their impact on fisheries is minimal. On the other hand, there is some evidence that, in our area at least, shag populations are hurt by commercial fishing. Spotted shag populations on the Banks Peninsula rose from 9,787 pairs in 1960 to 22,123 pairs in 1996 following a reduction in commercial fishing around the peninsula. Illegal shooting can also cause local population declines.

The spotted shag is a marine species, never venturing far from the sea and feeding in deep water up to 16 km from shore. They’re gregarious, breeding and roosting in colonies with up to 2000 birds. The groups of juveniles on our beach were small—a few dozen birds at most. These birds were probably born on cliffs around the Banks Paninsula, and when mature, they’ll head back to those cliffs to lay eggs and rear their young.

So they really were just hanging out on the beach, just like teenagers from Christchurch hang out on the beach on weekends, away from the adults, goofing off and getting takeaways.

Mystery Maggots

Caterpillar, not maggot–see the six true legs and 10 prolegs?

The weather has been hot here, and all the doors and windows stand open all day. With no window screens, that means an array of bugs (and the occasional bird) pops in and out of the house. It’s not unusual to find flies, butterflies, damselflies, etc. on the windows. 

Still, I did a double-take when I saw maggots on my desk the other day. I knew they hadn’t flown in on their own—they must have been hatched nearby. I checked for unseen dead things on the shelves above, but found nothing. There was another maggot this morning, and I did a second unsuccessful check for the source. Then, while I was away from my desk for fifteen minutes, another appeared.

This time I pulled out the microscope and had a closer look.

It wasn’t a maggot at all. It was a tiny caterpillar.

I could think of no reason for a bunch of caterpillars to be living on my bookshelves and dropping onto my desk.

Then I remembered earlier in the day I’d shooed a wasp out of the office several times.

Bingo!

The wasp was a European tube wasp. These little insects seek out cracks and holes to nest in. They fill their nests with up to 20 caterpillars as food for their larvae and then seal the nest with mud.

That would explain the bits of dried soil that accompanied some of the ‘maggots’.

We’ve seen the same thing with our native potter wasps. Last year I had to put tape over all the screw holes in the underside of the dining table, because potter wasps were stuffing them with paralysed spiders (and the spiders kept falling out all over the floor).

As I write, the wasp has returned. Empty-handed this time, she’s fossicking around for a new place to raise her young. Maybe she’ll find one her caterpillars will stay in this time.