A Shaky Decade

Today marks 10 years since we were shaken out of bed at 4.35 am by the M7.1 earthquake that started the Canterbury earthquake series. Those quakes ultimately took 185 lives and changed downtown Christchurch forever.

A decade on, the scars remain—half-crumbled buildings, hastily repaired roads, a generation of anxious children …

At the time of the first quake, I knew my relationship with the earth below my feet had changed, but I couldn’t know how lasting that change would be.

Ten years later, I’m still primed for earthquakes, sensitive to every vibration. If a big truck rumbles down the road, I have to pause until I’m sure it’s not a quake. Every distant train is a quake until proven otherwise. And large construction works set me on edge.

I have no trust in buildings any more, especially multi-storey ones. Just three days ago I was in Christchurch’s new central library, Tūranga, when I felt a tremor through my feet. Tūranga was constructed post-quake and includes the latest technology for earthquake resistance. Any vibrations I was feeling were likely coming from inside the building, not outside—someone running down the stairs, probably. I knew this, but it didn’t prevent the spike of adrenaline that zipped through my body.

I don’t trust my new house, either. The old one proved itself through quake after quake, riding the waves like a sturdy ship, coming through every quake virtually unscathed. The new house, though certainly scoring higher on any quake-worthiness measure than our 135 year-old villa did—is untested. Its foundation may crack, its bricks will almost certainly tumble in any large shake. Until I know for certain how it fares, I cannot trust it.

Any building I enter, I scan for earthquake hazards, safe places, and exits. Every track we hike, I consider rocks that could be shaken loose, hillsides likely to collapse. Anywhere I drive, I take note of power poles that could fall across my route home and waterways whose banks might slump, taking the road with them.

I wouldn’t say I’m afraid of another large quake—I know one will happen, and I’m okay with that—but I am still more on edge than I was ten years ago. I’m more aware of the earth underfoot, more wary of the danger of living on the Pacific Ring of Fire where Earth flexes her joints, more observant, more in-tune with the planet.

That’s not a bad thing.

So today I’ll listen for the pulse of the planet, double check I am prepared for another quake, and simply enjoy life in this beautiful place.

Kia kaha, Christchurch. 

Welcome Spring!

It’s the first day of spring.

So, naturally, it’s snowing.

But the daffodils are flowering, the willows are greening up, and pine pollen billows from the neighbour’s trees. Regardless of what the sky is dropping on us, spring is here.

And not a moment too soon. Like most people around the world, we feel like the past six or seven months have dragged on for decades. Can I even remember the TBC (Time Before Covid)?

For us, lockdown began during a glorious Indian summer. Warm sunny days begged for last-chance trips to the beach. Trips we couldn’t take, trapped in our bubbles and stuck on foot.

By the time we were released from lockdown, summer had given way to chill autumn rain and frosty days.

Living in our shed through lockdown, then beyond and well into winter, we felt the season’s bite early and hard. We lived in the cold shed forever, and we would live there always … at least that’s how it felt. Every icy day was a year long.

Finally, we moved into our new house. It was (and still is) glorious—a warm dry refuge from the weather.

But winter was still grinding away outside. With landscaping only partly finished, the yard was a mire of wet clay and puddles. We were still trapped indoors. Even the novelty of a warm dry house wasn’t enough to speed the days along. Time dragged its feet. Winter moved at a toddler’s pace. I couldn’t go yet—it had to get its coat and shoes. Then it lost a glove and spent a month looking for it among a drift of discarded outdoor gear.

So it was a spectacular feeling to boot winter out the door—gloveless still—when I planted the season’s first vegetable seeds last weekend. It was an act of defiance to turn garden beds, and ready the greenhouse for newly-sprouted seedlings.

I look forward to the growing season ahead. Welcome spring!

Alpine Therapy

Last week was a difficult one for all of New Zealand. On Tuesday, four cases of Covid-19 cropped up outside of managed isolation facilities at the border. The virus was circulating in the community again.

Auckland, where the cases occurred, was placed into alert level 3, with schools closed, and movement and business activity restricted. The rest of the country moved to alert level 2—not as strict, but in some ways more stressful, because we weren’t confined to the safety of our home and personal ‘bubble’. Once again, we navigated work and the rest of daily life knowing the virus could be lurking among us. Once again, we looked on every sniffle and cough with suspicion.

I’m proud to report that New Zealanders once again have stepped up to the challenge and are doing their part to stamp this new outbreak out so we can all return as quickly as possible to alert level 1. Still, stress levels were high in our household all week. So Saturday we took in some alpine therapy.

It was a shivery -3 degrees when we started up the Bealey Spur Track. We’d hiked the track many times when the kids were young, but never got far. On Saturday, we set a rapid, stress-relieving pace, reaching the Bealey Spur Hut (and the official end of the track) in just two hours. The peaks above called, so we carried on past the hut along Hut Spur, enjoying stunning views of the Waimakariri River below, and Mount Rolleston and Crow Glacier above. 

We relived memories of past hikes, tracing their routes along the ridges and through the valleys around us. We watched cars snake across the wide bed of the Waimakariri River, noting how easily the river could wipe out the road. We examined plants and fungi and slime moulds. We contemplated the uncertain future of Crow Glacier. 

And, yes, occasionally we discussed Covid-19, particularly as we descended, meeting dozens of people heading upward for their own alpine therapy. But somehow it was all easier to manage with tired legs and lungs filled with icy alpine air. 

Weeding Magpies

Photo: Eric Weiss

We’re still getting to know the local wildlife at the new house. The marauding sparrows are pretty much the same—devouring young lettuce and chicken feed in large flocks. The black-backed gull’s evening flights to their nightly roos on the gravel banks of the Waimakariri River are also familiar—though at the old house, the birds were headed to the sea.

The magpies are also familiar, but I’ve noticed some intriguing behaviour here that was absent at the old house.

The magpies here are weeding my garden.

Well okay, not really. Not on purpose. But they’re doing a nice job of it, regardless.

Our yard and garden here are cursed with wire weed. This aggressive plant’s long tough branches sprawl up to a metre or more from a strong central tap root. They tangle in the lawnmower and garden tools, and can trip the unwary. Their only saving grace is that, at least in our lousy soil, their foliage is small and sparse—they may tangle all through my crops, but at least they don’t smother other plants entirely.

And apparently, they make superior magpie nesting material. For weeks, the local magpies have been avidly stripping wire weed from the garden and hauling it to the tops of the pine trees across the road. They started with the easily obtained dead plants that I’d pulled out and left lying about. But now they’re ripping up live plants and taking them away by the beakful.

All the more reason to love these feisty feathered thugs.

Caroll Hut, Arthur’s Pass National Park

Impressive old southern rātā along the track.

Just beyond Otira, the main highway snakes along, with the Otira River on one side and impossibly steep slopes on the other. A track takes off from Kelly Creek and shoots straight up. My husband said he’d often looked up at those slopes thinking, “Glad I’m not going up there.”

But that’s exactly where we went Friday. Eight hundred twenty-five vertical metres over a mere 2700 metres horizontal distance, if the topo map is to be believed. That’s an average slope of 17 degrees, which doesn’t seem like much, except that parts of the track are flat or go down, so many sections are practically ladders, and require hands and feet.

In spite of the steep grade, it’s not a difficult climb—tree roots and rocks provide plenty of hand and foot holds. And the slow climb upward affords plenty of time to gaze back up the valley towards Otira, watch a train rumble down the tracks below, enjoy a waterfall, examine the flora, and listen to the bellbirds. The forest is full of gems like southern rātā and mountain neinei (a tree that could only have come from Dr. Seuss’ imagination).

View towards the west coast from above Caroll Hut

You emerge above tree line to a gentle climb to Caroll Hut. A little further uphill, cresting Kelly’s Saddle, the view opens to the west coast, and you can see all the way to the Tasman Sea. 

It’s not a hike you’d want to do in bad weather, but Friday’s calm clear air was perfect. A lovely day out.

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.