First Day of Spring

Last Sunday was the first day of spring, and it was as if all of nature wanted us to know it.

The day dawned crisp and sunny, and by mid-afternoon the temperature had climbed to a summer-like 27ºC.

The weeds in the garden seemed to have put on extra growth, and I hauled almost a dozen wheelbarrow loads of them to the compost pile as I began preparing the garden for the upcoming planting season.

Daffodils, snowdrops, and bluebells nodded in the sunshine, carpeting the yard with colour.

Willows everywhere suddenly burst into leaf, the fresh green of their branches like a beacon.

Bees hummed in every flower, and midges danced in lekking storms that sounded like rain against the windows.

We spent the day outdoors, threw open the windows, and drank in the warmth, going inside only when hunger drove us in to dinner.

Even the sun seemed to linger, painting the evening with golden streaks of promise.

Winter Losing its Grip

When I returned a tool to the equipment hire place yesterday morning, the owner asked if I thought we’d have snow.

At school, the staff were buzzing with the possibility of a snow day. “Don’t tell the kids!” one whispered. “They’ll go crazy.”

The weather forecast is for a southerly storm to blow in on Wednesday. Depending on which forecast you look at, we might have snow to 400 metres or to near sea level.

But regardless of the forecast, it’s beginning to feel like spring.

Yesterday evening when I stepped out to close the chicken house, lambs bleated in nearby paddocks, starlings warbled in the treetops, and blackbirds fought over new territories. 

The sky was still light, though it was nearly six o’clock, and the air was soft and full of promises.

Today I am comfortable in a t-shirt, and have opened the doors and windows to warm up the house in the winter sunshine.

Whether it snows tomorrow or not, winter has lost its grip. Spring is on its way.

Gifts from the freezer

With love, from the freezer.

Our apple trees struggle against the macrocarpa hedge shading them and sucking away nutrients and moisture from the soil. I’m sure many years ago, when a previous owner planted them, they seemed far enough from the hedge, but today, without aggressive pruning, the hedge would engulf the fruit trees. So we rarely get large harvests of apples, and most years we eat them all fresh, long before they go wrinkly with age. 

This past summer was different. We had extra apples after accepting a big box of them from a friend, and then realising our trees held more than we thought. There was no way we were going to use all of the apples before they dried out, nor did I want the kitchen and dining room littered with baskets and bowls of apples for months. I filled the last of our empty canning jars with applesauce and still had more fruit. So I made a large quantity of apple pie filling, cooking the apples just enough to soften them slightly and release some of their juices. Then I froze it in pie-sized quantities. We enjoyed apple pie all through autumn.

We thought we’d finished the apple pie filling off, but the other day, my husband found a container of it on the bottom of the freezer. To find that pie filling on a cold and rainy weekend was a beautiful gift. A gift from our summer selves and from the freezer itself, which hid it until the need was greatest.

So while rain streamed down the window panes, I made a pie, filling the house with the warming smell of baking cinnamon, apple and pastry. We enjoyed the pie warm with whipped cream by the fire on a dreary night—a wintertime decadence to make us forget the damp and cold.

Thank you, freezer, for the wonderful winter gift.

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.

Embracing Autumn

Our summer has finally turned to autumn. Cooler temperatures and more rain mean the grass has begun to grow again, green shoots sprouting through rain-driven drifts of dead vegetation.

The tomatoes are browning, spent after summer’s excess, and while I mourn their loss, I welcome the fruits of autumn—pumpkin, wild boletes, black beans, apples and a return of leafy greens. I welcome warming soups and casseroles. I welcome the smell of baking pie, simmering beans, and sautéing mushrooms.

I welcome the reduced workload in the garden, too. There’s still plenty of harvesting to be done, and I’ll be clearing away dead plants throughout autumn and winter, but soon I’ll release the chickens into the garden to keep the weeds and pests in check until spring.

It’s time now to take stock. Plenty of summer soup, pickles and jam in the cupboard; strings of onions and garlic hanging in the kitchen; pesto, peas and corn in the freezer. Jars of popcorn and dry beans line the shelf, and a basket of apples sits in the kitchen. We will eat well this winter, food and effort stored in jars and freezer boxes to be released and enjoyed on dark, cold evenings. 

So I will savour the warmth and sun that remains, but embrace the cold to come.

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.

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.