Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The fun of orienteering

We've been orienteering for a while now, and all to often it gets all too serious, so its fun to kick back and do something low key on a sunny day in a beautiful place somewhere new. Thats what we got up to last night over in Seatoun on the edge of the Harbour entrance, where you can sit on a big sandy beach and gaze over at the forested Hutt valley. Fellow elite orienteer Lizzie Ingham one of the organisers for the evening had the same idea...

Lisa Eagle was down from Hastings, where she lives the pampered wife of a local optometrist. Lisa's given up the pretense of been an athlete now (unlike us...we stick with the pretense) but she used to be damn good. You know the older you get the better you were! But nah, she seriously was a talent and Penny and I were both lucky to be in the same team as her for Junior World Champs, me in 1999 (Bulgaria), Penny in 2000 (Czech Republic). And we got her back out there, heres the evidence.

I have a real soft spot for old war time gun emplacements and home guard sort of relics. So it was great to rise from the streets and school of Seatoun onto the wild slopes of Point Dorset where eyes once scanned the harbour entrance for lurking dangers from concrete bunkers. Penny scrambled down into one to clip the checkpoint and the girls posed by the graffitied wall (unfortunately the camera shook).

We sprinted off (well sort of) down the windswept ridge with the Interislander chugging out of the harbour. It wasn't far back to the finish, the greasy groper and fish n chips on the beach.

Monday, February 23, 2009

The sticky stuff

After an hour of psychometric testing (testing designed to make you go psycho) the best thing to quickly get me back in a good mood before getting out there on the road bike was a bit of the Flight of the Conchords, and more specifically the legendary sellotape song, makes me laugh out loud everytime.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Wellington: Exploring

I love Wellington! If it wasn't for the absence of family (well one side) and mountains it would be the perfect city. There is so much to do and see. Today we meandered up to the bird sanctuary, a bargain at $60 for a years membership. The place is an oasis, well there is some construction going on out front, a new multi million dollar education and interpretation centre...

But once past that it is hard to believe that the area was ever clear felled and grazed or sifted over by goldminers. Heres a quick photographic comparison; 100 years ago and today...

We wandered in past the first lake, plucking and crushing the lemonwood leaves to release the scent and listening for the first bird song. What strikes you immediately is the health and nutritiousness of the forest. There are berrys and flowers everywhere, spared the rodents ravage. Kawakawa are noticeably holier, like paper snowflakes, their caterpillars enjoying something about this place. We catch a fantail taking a bath in a pool of light.

Deeper in the bush we find a clearing with a picnic table and an old bearded man, the ornithological type. Its an amazing spot, the canopy isn't too thick and light stream through in places. We are lead there by saddlebacks flitting through the supplejacks. They must be the avian versions of monkeys, quick and accurate in their movements. But then a bellbird attracts our attention, then two playful fantails then a flock of energetic wax eyes.

It's somewhat of a metaphor for our lives at the moment, too much to look at, too much to do. Yesterday we decided to stretch ourselves with a running race, the Mt Lowry Extreme Challenge, a 22km frolic through the native forests of Eastbourne. The day before we were at the Cuba Street Carnival a time of expression for creative Wellington.

Further back in time we have really indulged in the outdoors in recent weeks exploring the hills and backroads of Wellington, not to mention all the flat hunting in the city. We noseyed up Smiths Creek at the foot of the Tararuas, eying up more substantial missions and we have acquainted ourselves with Fergs climbing wall, oriental bay and the city library. Now we just look forward to moving into our new flat in a week or so's time!

Thursday, February 19, 2009



On my other blog I was reflecting on our visit to Tikal - Guatemala 2006 and looking through the photos the memories came flooding back, so I thought I better write a trip report.

We journeyed to Tikal on the overnight bus from Guatemala City. It was one of our few trips to the big, scary city that we had deliberately avoided because of the prolific violence. The bus however was relative luxury. We zoomed through the nights on the good roads linking the capital with its biggest tourist attraction. Guatemala really is the most beautiful country, it is the closest thing we have found to New Zealand in terms of the variety and compactness of its geographical wonders, but many tourists only visit for three days, visiting the colonial city of Antigua and it's live volcano Pacaya and the wonders of Tikal.

We arrived early morning in the lakeside village of Flores and arranged transport to Tikal. Flores itself is a pretty little backpacker hub with cobbled streets and lake views

View Larger Map

Arriving at Tikal we were surprised and happy that we could camp on a nice piece of grass outside a fancy hotel. Sweaty jungle camping but value nevertheless, especially given after three months in Xela we were used to (close to) locals prices. I can't remember the entrance fee for the ruins themselves, only that it was worth it. The temples soared above the canopy just like the images from unrecallable cartoons, movies and books. We climbed some of them by the precarious wooden steps and explored the jungle paths. Attacks on tourists do happen here so its pays to be wary.

Our favourite structure was the "lost world" pyramid, a more ancient structure than the complex temples, but you could climb the stairs and sit on its summit. After a siesta in the heat of the day we returned to this spot and sat for hours watching the birds and monkeys in the canopy below us, and watching the sunset over the Grand Jaguar temple until the guards moved us on.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Oh yeah, we got married..

I put this one in the too hard basket. What a few days! So lucky to have such a great bunch of family and friends to share it with...what a superb bunch of athletic dancers. Penny was unsurpassingly beautiful and my head shone brightly (judging by the videos that we have been consequently cringing over). Highlights included my little bro's "speech from the heart" and the stunning surrounds. Thanks to everyone who made it and made it possible, especially our parents.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Kea Catching

We had always thought of kea as an alpine bird. At home in ski-field carparks and the top of mountains. I was a bit put out when I heard that Franny and Brent were studying kea at sea-level in Okarito forest. Franny tells an amusing story of a worried and kea phobic Okarito retiree, terrorised by the keas of Franz Joseph throughout her working years and worried about the "kea people" calling the keas into town. Franny and Brent as the kea pipers of Okarito! Little does she know they say that there is a strange old loner bird living just a couple of hundred metres from her seaside bach.

We had happened on a good day. A quick boat ride across Lake Mapourika in the early morning, a casual walk through the forest to Alpine Lake and a thrilling chopper ride out to Franz, back loading on the DOC Meet the Locals TV crew. It was great been in the bush. We stopped regularly while Franny and Brent released their pre-recorded birdsong on the jungle. Horace, our stuffed Kea decoy, was placed enticingly in a carefully planned spot surrounded by nooses. Nooses are sort of like lassoo's except you don't have to throw them and they're not made of rope. They're of a fine filament and they are carefully pre-arranged where the kea is most likely to land. The noose is linked up to a fishing rod device ready for the snatch to be made.

The first two suspects weren't impressed. One sat screeching at us on top of the giant stump (or remains) of an old kauri tree, the other flew powerfully past, then back, like a pendulum. Suspicious, Franny radio tracked the other and identified it as an already tagged bird. The third kea we encountered though was naive. Horace was one attractive looking kea. She flew in, first landing immediately above Penny and I nestled in prime spectator viewing positions, and then hopped over to ask Horace what on earth we were up to. With a snap of the wrist the noose was tightened and the kea flew seemingly into the arms of Franny and Brent (it may have been more complicated than that, but I was too slow to watch it all). They were stoked.

Penny's prize was to learn to hold a kea, cradle the bird and use one hand to control its head and beak. She handled it like a pro.

The kea was then "processed", you know like processed food. Out of Frannys bag of tricks came a radio transmitter, with nylon string to attach it, a beak measuring device, scales and other fandangos.

I think the kea was pleased to finally fly off back into the bush, leaving Horace to return to his bubbllewrap and us to wander down to the beautiful Alpine Lake and its idyllic hut to wait for the chopper. And what a way to get out of the bush, lifting quickly and skimming the rugged little hills of Okarito forest before the terrain plummets away to the Waihao river bed. Awesome.

Oh yeah, I was going to talk about 1080 and keas. Well the story as far as I can make out is that despite years of scepticism from DOC scientists, recent studies of kea mortality following an aerial 1080 drop have shown keas dying from 1080 poisoning. See the Kea Conservation Tust website here. One point it is always worth making is that much of the 1080 poisoning in NZ is undertaken by the animal health board in its ongoing battle with TB. A recent report states, "The combined total annual area of public conservation lands within AHB control operation boundaries in the eight regions over the period 2000/01– 2003/04 ranged from c. 250 000 to c. 460 000 ha."

But whatever way this does seem to be a big problem. Don't quote me on this, but about 1/3 of the keas habitat is under rotational TB control. Alarm bells seem to be ringing and DOC has teamed up with Landcare Research to investigate an effective bird repellent. It will be interesting to see what happens and if the planned drop in Okarito forest goes ahead.

Monday, February 2, 2009

A Day Out in Okarito

I'm not sure how many times I have driven past the Okarito sign. Too many. I always suspected there were better places to go on the coast, and thought there would be too many tourists stuck down there. There aren't. It's a windy road in, you are heading for the ocean but there are low hills in the way. There is generally forest on one side of the road or the other. What has drawn us in finally is friends, Franny and Brent are rumoured to be living down here somewhere in a cosy little seaside cottage living the dream.

Franny and Brent are bird people. Through and Through. They used to go on bird camps when they were kids and between them they have worked everywhere where bird people work; Anchor Island, Whenua Hou, Titi Islands and other places more unique. They have done hard yards in Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia with the Blue Throated Macaw and stalked a rare ground parrot way out west in Australia. Hang on, here's a quick profile and blog from Brent. But anyway we find their little cottage, just, and are quickly enchanted with the interesting souvenirs and trinkets accumulated during their adventures. And of course its great to catch up :-) For the record Franny is as crazy as Brent, but as far as Google is concerned she is still most famous for retracing the footsteps of Nathaniel Chalmers

We had suggested to Franny that we could help out wandering around in the bush. So the next day she sent us off with a big laugh on her face...

She gave is a map and some instructions to follow some old stoat trap lines and find these little ink pad things which record which nasty voracious predators have been passing by, heres an example here with lots of little footprints all over it..

The map is fascinating, and graphically shows what a unique area the Okarito forest is. The forest runs from sea-level up to the slopes of the alps and contains rugged hills up to few hundred metres of height. It is bounded on three sides by the Waihao River, the Tasman Sea and the Okarito River. The dense rimu forest has provided a sanctuary to the final population of Rowi and people have helped buffer the defences in the last ten years or so. Read here about the Okarito Kiwi Sanctuary.

Interestingly that article states the "stoat trapping operation in this sanctuary is thought to be the largest in the world". The extensive network of tracks and dots (representing traps) enabling this operation can be seen on the map we used...

Sometimes the vagaries of computers defeat me

A decision has been made now to mothball the trapping programme, relying instead on strategic use of 1080, which is actually why Franny and Brent are here, but I'll discuss that in the next posting. But what is left is an amazing network of tracks, and that is what we were wandering around in. It's a jungle. Fallen Rimu leaves with their long tiwsting bodies and comb like edges have this amazing ability to ratchet up the iside of your trousers and irritate the backs of your knees. Supplejack is breeding hard this year. The red berries provide a splash of colour in the canopy. There are not enough gatherers like Brent mixing their fresh shoots in their salads.On the forest floor fluorescent mushrooms gather where some miracle of life has provided them sufficent motivation to sprout.

It's damn hot too. We find our way around the trap lines alright, then get distracted by a white heron. We tail it down a small stream to three mile lagoon, and pause for sometime to appreciate the pristine estuarine environment. How many estuaries with unmodified catchments are left in New Zealand bar this one? The clear but tannin waters suck us in for a swim and as we are dressing Harold comes cruising past, giving us the evil eye and letting us know in no uncertain terms just who is the boss.

It's a struggle back to the village, the track deteriorates into 5 metre high Kiekie at the end, but we soon pop out on an old pack track, surely they could allow mountain biking here? And are back to our supplies for lunch.

That afternoon Penny drags me out to the lagoon, and I drag the Canadian canoe. We paddle for an hour or so up the estuary, stalking white heron and listening to the sea thundering on the otherside of the narrow spit. It always amazes me how smooth the paddling stroke can be and how fast you can get along. As the mist thickens we power back into the light breeze to the peaceful seaside village underneath the forested point.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Rock Climbing

The turn-off to Hanging Rock is on that boring bit of road between Geraldine and Fairlie. You are yearning for the McKenzie Basin, but there is this interminable and messy jumble of hills and valleys as you head inland. Leaving the main road the surface quickly turns to gravel and limestone outcrops peer out from amongst the mohawks of scrub on the ridge crests. We have been in this area orienteering, its well known for its "dolines", giant limestone plateaus covered with circular depressions.

View Larger Map

A google map of the doline formations in the south canterbury hinterland

The crag is easy to find with the guide "Rock Deluxe" and the routes close to the carpark. We sign in, not much action here recently, and go looking for the easy routes. Speed King a highly recommended 15, about my limit if previous performance is anything to go by. They make it sound easy in the book:

A wandering line of pockets that kicks off with big moves under the arete. Meander up the slab and eventually move left at the last bolt to a rounded top-out

Its been a while. Not enough kayaking or work. I am like T-Rex going up the rock. Big fat legs hanging off piddly arms. The start is steep. I swing round into good hand holds and stretch off them to put in the second draw. I try to reach up, too far, to make the clip, burnt arms. Penny has never belayed a lead climber before, my arms are so weak, the rest of my body is hanging off them like a big lump of jelly, elvis has entered the building, I am arched away from the rock like a stretching cat. I slither down hastily and take the fall. Penny is wedgied into the air before the stretch in the rope smoothes things. Haha, this is why we have taken this sport up, a bit of teamwork, a bit of trust, some skill development?

Problem is my goose is cooked now and that second draw is laughing at us from up on the face. I try briefly but it ain't going to happen. Penny has a go to, but not having led before she lacks confidence. We retire to plums and museli bars, out of sight of that smirking draw, looking out over the river and the mottled play of light on the rolling hills.

Right! This is going to happen. I bite the bullet and make the most ungamely of moves. A giant anteater imitating the tribe of monkeys. But the clip happens and the pockets get bigger. I work my way up, not exactly gaining in confidence or agility but determined to succeed. The last section is a rounded arete with a lovely view and belay perch, awesome! This is the story. I engage in safety overkill, not confident in my skills; a safety on the chain, then the rope, clove hitched to the chain and back to my harness and back to the chain and back to my harness. On belay!! And minutes later Penny is up there too, smiling after the final slab is overcome. I haven't taught her to abseil yet so I lower her and rap off, again with caution, a prussik to supplement the double rope, although I suspect the greater risk is jamming the prussik. We wander back to the car satisfied and head for the McKenzie Basin.

Mt Cook glistens behind the climbers memorial in the Hooker Valley

After an overnight camp at Whitehorse Hill, chocka with campas and campers. We head for Sebastopol Bluffs and Red Arete. It's easier, thankfully, a low angled 13 on enjoyable rock. Penny cruises up behind me and I continue up the second pitch. Its an adventure for us novices this caper, great fun. The wind starts howling at the top, buffeting me as I look for the safety chain. But what a spot! A flat ledge looking out over the Hooker and Tasman valleys, the sun is rising over the mountains to the north east and down below us on the first pitch a mountain guide is nonchantly instructing a bunch of tyros on some sort of anchor instruction. He looks so at ease in this vertical environment. Strolling up the rock face. Penny follows and we sit for a while taking in the view.

Sebastopol Bluffs, Red Arete at right

The descent reinforces the need for rope management, four abseils and the rope gets more and more twisted. I start putting Penny on the rope above me, but she expresses confidence to lace herself in, so I abseil and belay her from below. We can do this safely but painfully slowly at the moment. Its a relief to hit the bottom and take off the climbing shoes, second hand several years ago and not getting any bigger! We rest in the shade of the scrub at the foot of the bluffs as the sun starts to hot up, its only a quick waddle over to the car out at the main road, in the middle of that vast landscape.

Penny approaching the top of the second pitch

Down to Wanaka and we give Sam Kane a ring, cousin of Pennys and now accomplice in outdoor adventures. He is available to show us the ropes of Wanaka sport climbing. Penny and I, and another cousin Leo pick him and girlfriend Kate up the next morning and we head up towards the Matukituki, scene of many previous adventures, but this time we stop where the road crosses the Motatapu. The "riverside crag" is the one they tell us, for beginners like us. We look in our book and the easiest route is like 24, but fortunately the book is out of date. Its a great little crag a complete sprectrum from 12 to 16. Kate is better than us and she leads the latter, leaving the top rope set up for us to muck around. All the climbs have a blank section in the middle and we focus on getting the feet up first and maintaining balance. A good learning experience. Sam leads one of the other climbs and hesitates before making the final clip...

Sam thinking about making the final clip

Great fun and now we are in Wellington we can't wait to hone our skills on the Freyburg Wall, Fergs, Titaki Bay and then the Central North Island Rock.

Destination Wellington

A couple of days ago we arrived in Wellington. A destination rather than a thoroughfare this time. Finally. Its not a bad life the constant holiday we have had for the last 8 months, broken only by a brief spell of work in Arthurs Pass (me) and Welly (PK), but we have been yearning for some sort of routine and the chance to be reunited with some crucial possessions like bikes and kayaks, and some of the other opportunities that go with a settled city life, like gigs and community groups and all sorts of stuff that happens in cities like Wellington.

Yesterday was a settling in day, sorting out a room for ourselves in Crieff Street (staying with the in-laws). We cruised down to the live music at the soundshell (every January the city council provide free music at the soundshell every night) with the hordes. It was packed and we first sat on the path with a view only of several more well prepared groups of people, complete with deck chairs, wine and other luxuries, like blue cheese “mouldy gold”. It was the uncomfortable smell of a Sunday Roast when its someone elses. We moved on just 50metres and by a great stroke of fortune bumped into a group of friends; Kendyl, Ryn and Richard, with Kendyl's flatmate Thomas, who were indulging in similar decadence. There was delicious picnicing, conversation and music to last until the festival of lights struck the silence and darkness with a technicolour force field...

Today, in our first positive action, we joined the Karori Bird Sanctuary, recently rebranded as Zealandia. I'll write more about this as I think I will be spending quite some time there but some first impressions. Saddleback! Choice! A two-tone rasping shriek. And a nimble little bird with those distinctive colours hopping through the supplejack. A kaka swoops us, hooking like a low swinging drive down the track. The Tuatara that Penny nearly stood on is still there, close to the track, in its rootstock burrow. Scaly dinosaur. And the running is great. Awesome!

Sea kayaking in Totaranui; seals, sea, shags and sky...

And then there was the journey, I have plenty to blog about from the last month, but from when we left Arthurs Pass, the last time, we drove hard through the sunstruck Buller to the greyness of Totaranui, to see friends,recently engaged. It was only one night here, camping back up the road to avoid the fine (deja vu), but at least the next morning was sunny and Totaranui was at its golden best, before the families hit the beach. One of NZ's favourite paradises, and apparently the fishing was good this year too. We even saw some when snorkelling, which isn't always the case here. The little mission for the day was sea kayaking out to Separation Point, an easy hour away, the easternmost point of golden bay. The seals out there were putting on a show. Synchronised swimming. The recent pups prodded suspiciously at the water. A nice way to spend the morning. I'm suspicious about heaven, aren't we here already?

Zoe and Nick looking the part

But anyway, we stayed that night at Hang Dog, the famous climbers ghetto out by the Takaka river and two of the best swimming holes in the world, not to mention some outstanding rock climbing. Our new hobby, which we indulged in rather clumsily. Hang Dog was developed by wacky and outstanding local Willie Butler, who died several years ago in a climbing accident, it remains a meeting place and sifty climbers pad, an honour to his memory. All too soon we were dipping in the Pelorus, as custom, and on the Arahura (the older but much superior interisland ferry), and here in scorching Wellington. Further reports to follow.