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.

Respite on the Rakaia

The temperature is squatting at 37 degrees C. Body temperature. I’ve experienced hotter, but when it hits 37, it’s just hot, no way to argue it’s not.

So we headed down to the Rakaia River, just a short drive from our place.

The walk in from the settlement of Rakaia Huts is green and humid. The track is maintained only by the feet that tread it and winds through a magical scrubby forest. Non-natives brush leaves with natives, feral fruit trees share space with hydrangeas. The worst of Canterbury’s weeds coexist with a remarkable array of native shrubs and ferns—it’s the Peaceable Kingdom of the plant world.

Twenty minutes of walking through this green glade brings you to the river. The Rakaia is a braided river, so you cross and re-cross channels to reach one suitable for swimming. Down near the mouth, there are many swimming holes—deep and turquoise with suspended loess (wind-blown rock dust)—separated by sparkling riffles. We followed the river to the sea, testing each pool to find the best one.

They were all delightful, all ours for the taking, because there was no one else there.

Back home, we stayed in our wet togs until they dried, bringing the cool river with us.

In the time it’s taken me to write this blog, the temperature has risen further. The river water has long since evaporated. Now we have just the memory to keep us cool.

Awesome Alpine Plants

Whipcord hebe flowering in the snow

My daughter and I went for a hike on Saturday after being cooped up in the house all day Friday by a rip-roaring southerly storm. The storm lashed us with rain and hail, but in the mountains, it brought snow. Saturday morning, the beech forest at Cragieburn Forest Park was a winter wonderland.

Climbing up out of the forest into the alpine areas, the intensity of the storm was clear—thigh-deep drifts filled the path in some places, while other areas had been blown clear down to the scree. Every tussock had a long train of sculpted snow on its leeward side, so you could almost feel the howling wind and the sting of blowing snow, in spite of it being a clear calm day.

Nestled among the rocks, we found this lovely whipcord hebe, flowering in spite of its slowly melting blanket of snow. And there were other plants peeking out of the snow, clinging to the scree.

Alpine plants are some of the toughest organisms around. They have to cope with intense sun, wide temperature fluctuations, drought, wind, and ice and snow. They have evolved a variety of adaptations in order to combat these dangers.

Short, cushion-shaped growth: A tight ball of branches and leaves resists damage and drying from fierce wind. The pinnacle of this growth form has to be plants in the genus Raoulia. Known as ‘vegetable sheep’, they form hard, tight masses of tightly packed leaves (akin to the texture of a head of cauliflower). Inside the mound, dead plant material builds up around the branches and acts like a sponge, soaking up rain when it’s available. Adventitious roots on the plant’s branches tap into this reservoir of water when the weather is dry.

Long roots: Unstable rocks and shifting scree make it difficult for alpine plants to stay put, and water is often far below the surface. To cope, they have long roots that anchor them deep into the rock. Some are also able to regrow from their roots if the top of the plant is snapped of by rockfall.

Drought-resistant leaves: Many alpine plants have leaves that are fuzzy on the underside, where the stomates (the breathing holes) are located. The hairs trap a layer of calm air against the leaf surface, slowing down water loss from the stomata. Other plants have narrow, vertically-oriented leaves that minimise exposure to the intense alpine sunshine, reducing evaporation.

Sunscreen: A waxy coating on many alpine plant leaves protects against intense sunlight and high temperatures.

Antifreeze: Ice crystals forming inside a living cell break the cell walls and kill it, so organisms living in cold environments have to somehow avoid freezing. Alpine plants protect themselves from freezing by manufacturing antifreeze from proteins in their tissues. The antifreeze prevents ice crystals from forming in the plant’s cells.

Energy conservation: The growing season in alpine areas is short, and nutrients are scarce. Many alpine plants respond by not reproducing every year. Instead of producing low-quality seeds that may not survive, they hoard resources until they have accumulated enough to reproduce successfully.

All these adaptations give most alpine plants a similar look—low, mounded, small-leaved and tough. But one plant in particular stands out as oddly showy and out of place.

Mount Cook buttercup (Ranunculus lyallii)

The Mount Cook buttercup (aka Mount Cook lily), is an unusual alpine plant, in that it has big leaves and large, showy flowers. But even so, it is well-adapted to the alpine environment. Most plants have stomates on the underside of their leaves, because the underside is generally shaded and cooler, leading to less water loss. But in the alpine environment, sun-warmed rocks radiate heat, making the underside of the leaves warmer than the upper side on sunny days. The Mount Cook buttercup and its relatives have evolved stomates on the upper side of the leaves, in addition to the ones on the underside. The stomates on the top open when the underside of the leaf grows too warm.

Ice and Fire

One of the things I like best about springtime here is the juxtaposition of hot and cold, especially in the high country. The sunshine is warm, but winter lingers in the shade. I’ve gone hiking in shorts and t-shirt through 15 cm of snow in past years.

This weekend, we didn’t make it up to snow, but there was spectacular frost on our little Saturday jaunt. Hiking up the shaded side of a hill, we were treated to glistening plants as the first rays of the sun hit thick frost.

In addition to the frost, we crunched over a lot of needle ice. Needle ice can occur when the soil temperature is above freezing, but the air temperature is below freezing. Liquid water rises through the soil via capillary action and freezes on contact with the air. As more water is drawn upward, the ice needles grow in length. They’re common in the high country in springtime, when warm sun heats the ground during the day, but the temperature drops quickly after dark.

Ice needles are more than just a curiosity. They’re a significant factor in soil erosion, because they often push soil upward along with the ice. This loosens the top layer of soil, making it prone to erosion by wind and water.

The air was cold on Saturday morning, and as we started up the hill, we were well-bundled. But like all good tracks in New Zealand, this one started off by going straight up. Between the climb and the sun, we were soon stripped to our t-shirts, enjoying the crunch of ice underfoot and the warmth of the sun overhead.