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.

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.

Alpine Delights

The family spent a delightful hour on the Dobson Nature Walk in Arthur’s Pass National Park on Wednesday. The track is an easy one, and hiking it quickly takes about 20 minutes. But it’s not a walk you want to do quickly, especially in summer. It winds through alpine and sub-alpine vegetation, including some beautiful tarns, and in summer, so many plants are blooming, it’s hard to take five steps without finding another lovely orchid, daisy, or hebe in bloom.

For me, the best part of the walk is the abundance of sundews in the tarns. As an entomologist, I’m naturally drawn to carnivorous plants like sundews. Sundews catch insects on the sticky hairs you can see glistening in this photo. The hairs are sensitive to both touch and taste, and when they sense a struggling insect, they fold inward to further entangle their prey. Enzymes exuded by the hairs then digest the insect, and the leaf takes up the nutrients in order to grow in the nutrient-poor alpine wetlands. 

These sundews were just beginning to flower—many plants had flower buds, but none had yet opened. The flowers sit above the leaves—an important adaptation, since the plant needs to be pollinated by the very insects it eats.

The alpine summer is short, so when these plants are done flowering, the leaves will slowly shrink into a structure called a hibernaculum that sits near the soil surface and protects the plant through the winter.

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.

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.

Still Life with Insects

I’ve written and discarded half a dozen blog posts over the past week. Nothing seems to be quite right. Out of ideas, I resorted to the book of 500 writing prompts I created for my daughter. A random stab at the non-fiction section of the book brought me to the question: What objects tell the story of your life?

I tried to encapsulate everything in four objects:

The fiddle: made by a neighbour in Panama, given to me for my birthday by my husband. The fiddle not only tells the story of our years living and working among the incredible, resourceful people of Panama, but also tells the story of my lifelong interest in learning to play the violin…an interest which always ended up being pushed aside for other interests. Because I’m interested in learning so many things, there simply aren’t enough hours in the day.

The beetle puppet represents my insatiable curiosity about arthropods, and how that curiosity has bled into my other interests. Peanut butter jars full of bugs on my dresser when I was a kid led to the entomology degree, which led to teaching about insects at Penn State University, and then starting the Bugmobile. And the puppet is only one of many insect-themed and inspired artistic projects I’ve done over the years, as art and science mingle in my brain.

The gardening gloves speak of my weeding addiction and my love of growing food. The gloves are never more than a month or two old, because I wear through them in that time. I think that says it all about gardening for me.

The rock represents adventure, the natural world, and the wild places I have visited and lived in. Like me, the rock has traveled far and has been changed by the stresses it has experienced along the way.