Seeing is Believing

The Canterbury tree wētā (Hemideina femorata) is endemic to the lowland forests of Canterbury. Like other tree wētā, it is a sizeable insect and an opportunist when it comes to food, eating mostly leaves, but taking advantage of the protein in other insects it encounters.

Here in rural Canterbury, it’s rare to find tree wētā. Old timers talk about how you used to see wētā every time you trimmed the hedge, but in 15 years of trimming, I have seen no wētā. I’ve even put wētā houses (like bird houses, but designed to appeal to wētā) in the hedge, but have never found anything but spiders in them. 

Though I’ve never seen a study of their population changes, anecdotal evidence indicates Canterbury tree wētā numbers have dwindled with the intensification of agriculture and the increased use of chemical pesticides.

I have been fortunate to raise quite a few wētā in captivity, and in doing so, I’ve become familiar with the insects’ strong smell. This smell has been their downfall when faced with introduced mammalian predators—strong enough for even a human’s nose to perceive, it acts as a beacon to hungry rats, and stoats.

But it’s not just in my insect tanks I’ve smelled tree wētā. With some regularity in the early morning I can smell them in the hedge when I pass on my way to feed the chooks.

We humans have a poor sense of smell, as mammals go. We rely much more heavily on our sense of sight for identifying things. So for years now, I’ve doubted my nose, because I’ve never seen a wētā on the property or anywhere nearby.

But not long ago, on an evening walk with my husband, we found an adult tree wētā dead on the road.

Yes! I knew my nose couldn’t be deceiving me, though I was never confident enough to declare their presence based on smell alone. Now I am. I may not have seen them in my hedge, but if there are wētā being hit on the road a hundred metres from my house, I am willing to believe my wētā-scented hedge harbours them too.

Old Friends, New Perspectives

We regularly seek out new places to hike, but sometimes it’s nice to visit old friends.

Kura Tawhiti / Castle Hill is one of those old friends. We’ve been going there since we arrived in New Zealand 15 years ago. Lately, we’ve been there a lot, because the kids enjoy bouldering there.

I never get tired of the place. There are so many nooks and crannies to explore, it feels like every visit is new. And the place shows different faces in different weather—fog, rain, snow, or sparkling blue skies. It never gets old.

Last week when we visited, there was a carpet of daisies blooming in a spot I rarely pay attention to. It made me stop and take note of the location as though I’d never been there before.

On every visit, I make the climb to the top of Castle Hill—the highest point at Kura Tawhiti on which stands a glorious sentinel rock. It’s a stiff climb of about 160 vertical metres. From there you can look down on the rest of the limestone formation.

Looking down at Kura Tawhiti from Castle Hill Peak.

I was lucky to have the opportunity, not only to visit Kura Tawhiti on Wednesday last week, but to look down upon it from a much higher vantage point on Friday.

We hiked up from Porter’s Pass to Castle Hill Peak (1078 metres higher than Castle Hill, and a serious slog on unrelenting scree), from which all of Kura Tawhiti looks like a little bump on the valley floor below. It was interesting to see what I think of as a large part of the landscape put into perspective. And it was a great reminder of just how many places there are to explore, big and small—it’s a great wide world out there!

Nelson Lakes Tramping

Before Christmas, the family spent five days tramping in Nelson Lakes National Park. We have tried several times to plan a trip to the area around Angelus Hut, but something has always happened to cancel it—once it was bad weather, another time it was a gastrointestinal bug at Angelus Hut that laid 30 hikers low, another time it was the Kaikoura earthquake. But this year, we managed, with only a 24-hour postponement due to the weather.

We rolled in late on day one. With only a two-hour hike to the first hut and pouring rain forecast to clear late in the day, there was no reason to start early. We lucked out, and the last raindrops fell as we were getting out of the car. The climb to Bushline Hut on Paddy’s Track was a bit of a monotonous uphill, but with nice views. If I were doing it again though, I’d give Bushline Hut a miss. The place is overrun by mice—if the noise of them nibbling into everyone’s packs didn’t keep you awake all night, their pattering feet over your bed or down your neck did. It was less than pleasant.

Vegetable sheep (Raoulia spp)

Leaving the mice behind in sparkling sunshine the next morning, we followed Robert Ridge to Angelus Hut. Well above tree line, the ridge is one continuous spectacular view of the mountains and lakes in and around the park. We were prepared for wind and cold (it had snowed on the ridge the day before), but enjoyed sun all day with very little wind. My favourite part of the ridge was the profusion of vegetable sheep—some of the most spectacular specimens I’ve ever seen.

Angelus hut dwarfed by the surrounding landscape.

We made good time and enjoyed lunch overlooking a mountain tarn just a few minutes before reaching Angelus Hut, in its dramatic location at the edge of Lake Rotomaninitua. That left us all afternoon to explore the stunning tarns, streams and rocks around the hut. Rain from the preceding days had left all the tarns and streams overflowing, and the sound of flowing water was a constant—trickling through rocks underfoot or rushing in torrents down the mountainsides.

Mt. Cedric Route

The following day was the hardest and most spectacular, following the Mt. Cedric Route to Sabine Hut. I thought Robert Ridge was spectacular, but the Mt. Cedric Route blew Robert Ridge out of the water! Again, we had fabulous weather and enjoyed the views. The route skirts around an unnamed 1880-metre peak, which we summited—an easy scramble without packs, and well worth it for the views. From that high point, the rest of the track is downhill. Fourteen hundred metres vertically, to be exact, most of which happens in the incredibly steep final 1.5 km. While the ridges and scree slopes of the majority of the route are visually and mentally daunting, they’re relatively easy to traverse. But the drop through the forest, on slick wet leaves, was basically one long ungainly fall.

We were rewarded at the end by Sabine Hut on the shore of Lake Rotoroa. A nice swim in the lake and a gentle walk to the Sabine River made for a relaxing afternoon.

Day four was a long uphill, which was actually welcome after so much downhill the previous day, ending at Speargrass Hut. Unlike the previous two days, the Sabine-Speargrass Track is entirely in the forest. And it is a magical forest—lush and wet, but it gives the impression of perching on nothing but great blocks of rock. The track regularly traverses roots with deep holes between them, and you could hear water gurgling underfoot in many locations.

The most magical spot along this section of track was an open bog not far from Speargrass Hut. A long boardwalk climbs to a platform perched in the bog. Benches provide a nice place to sit and take in the view. Coming out of the forest into a landscape so rich in colour felt like entering a painting—colours just a little too saturated, bog falling away a little too perfectly to reveal distant peaks a little too sharp and dramatic to be quite real. 

Day five was a quick, relatively unremarkable jaunt out to the carpark along Speargrass Track, and then a long drive home.

Quite possibly one of the most spectacular pre-Christmas tramps we’ve done. It was definitely worth waiting for.

Obsessive Gardening Strikes Again

It’s done! I finally finished planting out vegetables this past weekend. At both houses. And though I said I wasn’t going to, I ended up with nearly full gardens on both properties (never mind how I managed to start so many seeds in the first place…). 

Of course, I justified it with the observation that plants won’t grow well in the new garden—neither the weeds nor the vegetables—so it’s not like that garden will be too much work (yeah, right). 

And it would be a shame not to plant in the old garden one last time and reap the harvest from fifteen years of work on that patch of land (even if I won’t get to harvest it all). It was only logical to plant two full gardens, right?

Logical only if you’re a problem gardener like me. Once again, I’ve proven I have no self-control when it comes to plants. I can already hear my justifications for excessive gardening next year … The soil is so bad at the new place, I’ll have to over plant just to get enough vegetables to eat. I’ll just plant green manures and till them in to improve the soil. I don’t know which varieties will do well in the new garden, so I’ll have to plant lots of different ones … I’m sure I’ll come up with plenty of other justifications, too. It’s hopeless, really. If you put me in an apartment on the twenty-third floor, I’d find some way to grow excessive plants.

At least I know I’m not alone. Just look at the number of gardening blogs out there. And the number of people I see in the garden centres loading up their cars with bags of potting mix and potted plants. And in a few months, the multitude of gate sales of excess vegetables. And the number of people who post proud pictures of their first tomatoes or strawberries of the season on social media. There’s a whole community of obsessive gardeners out there. Come on, pick up your hoe, spading fork, or trowel and join us. We’re always partying in the garden, and there’s usually great food afterwards.

Sorry, Can’t Stop …

I sat down to write the other day, but all I managed to put on paper for the first fifteen minutes was my to-do list. The combination of late spring/early summer garden work (on two properties), end of the school year madness, and the insane schedule of housework associated with selling our house has me enslaved to multiple to-do lists. Most of the items should have been done yesterday …

The irony, of course, is that the house and gardens have probably never looked better. It would be delightful to sit back with a cool drink and enjoy the quiet ambiance. There’s never been a better time to stop and smell the roses (which are blooming in profusion).

Knowing I wouldn’t actually sit down and enjoy a rest, or walk through the garden without pulling weeds, I brought some of the flowers inside where I’d be forced to enjoy them. Maybe I’m only stopping to smell the roses as I brush my teeth in the morning, but I’m enjoying them nonetheless.

Garden Gifts

Our house went on the market today. We’ve spent the past several weeks painting, tidying and weeding to make the place look its best. On Sunday evening, after a hard three days of work, I wandered around the yard. The air was sultry—oppressive heat slowly giving way to the comfort of a lazy summer evening. The freshly cut grass was soft and cool underfoot as I padded past purple baubles of blooming chives, snow-in-summer spilling onto the path in frosty profusion, multi-hued pansies nodding in the light breeze, and pale irises standing tall. I strolled the rose garden, only just beginning to flower. A lone peony sported golf-ball-sized burgundy buds. The last of the pittosporum flowers perfumed the air.

In short, the garden was at ease in its lush maturity—the result of fifteen years of hard work, on top of the botanical history of a hundred years of landscaping. I thought of all the plants the property had gifted us with—roses, dahlias, naked ladies, camellias, irises, and others. Discovered among the overgrown gardens, often nearly choked out by weeds, the plants responded well to love and care, and formed the core of what we’ve done with the yard.

Then I thought of our new property, a bare paddock, its botanical history limited to pasture grasses and clover. There will be no gifts, discovered among the weeds. No heirloom plants needing only a little love to bloom and thrive.

The thought was depressing as I strolled the mature plantings we will leave behind. Starting from nothing but rock and clay is a daunting prospect.

But this property will gift us plants yet again—hundreds of seedlings, cuttings, bulbs and divisions sit in pots, awaiting transport to their new home. One day, they will be the botanical history of the new property. One day, I will stroll among them in contemplation, just as I did among their predecessors at the old house.

A Day Off

Cathedral of red beech

Sunday dawned warm and sunny, and I prepared myself for another day of hard work in the garden, in spite of my aching back. It would be a crunch to finish what I needed to stay on track—my garden to-do lists get longer each week, and I don’t dare fall behind at this time of year.

Meanwhile, my husband was fretting about the lectures he still needed to prepare for this week. But he’s much better at relaxation than I am. Before I had a chance to gather my tools, he suggested a hike instead of a day of work.

So we ignored our pesky to-do lists and enjoyed a day at Hinewai. 

Hinewai Reserve is privately owned, and encompasses 1250 hectares of the outer Banks Peninsula. It includes a glorious mix of vegetation types.

The track forms an avenue within a dense kānuka stand.

Probably the most impressive are the 50 hectares of old growth forest. The red beech create a green cathedral, shading out much of the undergrowth. The effect is in stark contrast to the dense kānuka stands that blanket other parts of the reserve.

At this time of year, the gorse is in full bloom. Management at Hinewai allows this invasive weed to grow, because it provides an effective nursery for native trees. Eventually, the native plants will overtop the gorse and shade it out, but in areas recently disturbed by fire, the gorse is thick. On Sunday, the tops of the hills looked like they’d been capped with bright yellow snow, for all the gorse.

Gorse in full bloom in a recently burned area.

With 330 species of native vascular plants, and 60 species of fern (including six species of tree fern), Hinewai is probably the most diverse site on the Banks Peninsula. We never fail to see interesting things when we visit. This visit was no exception. A bright purple fungus creeping along a rotting branch was probably the most unusual find on Sunday, but we were treated to tree fuchsia in bloom, kererū swooping overhead, and pīwakawaka and tomtits flitting around among leafy lacebarks, kahikatea, tōtara, and kōwhai. I enjoyed seeing my favourite filmy ferns, with their translucent fronds. Large quantities of ongaonga (tree nettle) supported the red admiral butterflies that were enjoying the warm day along with us, flitting through the dappled light in the forest.

View down to Otanerito/Long Bay

And, of course, as with most spots on the Banks Peninsula, the views from the clearings at Hinewai were spectacular. 

My weekend to-do list forgotten, I had a lovely day enjoying the outdoors. Next weekend’s list is necessarily longer now, but it was good to take a day off. I must remember to do that more often.