Thursday 23 February 2012

Not Missing the Boat

"Most of us spend so much time thinking about where we have been or where we are supposed to be going that we have a hard time recognising where we actually are." - Barbara Brown Taylor

[Duck Creek and Mason Bay, with weather threatening]

There is nothing like the fear of missing a connection to panic a traveller. When you are walking, and the connection is with a boat that must leave at a fixed time because of tides, that sense of panic can be amplified.

We'd spent the night in remote Mason Bay Hut on the wild west coast of Stewart Island, New Zealand's southern extremity. It had rained all night, and we were out of bed well before a pale, wet dawn. We had a three, or four, or maybe five hour walk - it depended who you listened to - before we'd get to Freshwater Landing for the water taxi we must not miss. That meant getting walking by 6-30am, unheard of in my usual walking company!

Such time pressure, in concert with steady rain and a flat track, doesn't make for ideal walking. Talking loudly to hear each other through our rainhoods, Lynne and I discussed our disappointment at not having seen a kiwi here in one of their few wild strongholds. I had once held a kiwi during a behind-the-scenes tour of Auckland Zoo with a colleague, but there is nothing like seeing such a creature free and in its natural habitat.

We had planned to also go to Ulva Island, a bird sanctuary in a Stewart Island inlet, so were starting to pin our hopes on seeing a wild kiwi there, when we were suddenly startled by the real thing. My experience of a captive bird's mute docility had, I suppose, lead me to think it would be a little like that in the wild. Far from being slow or placid, the large and lively bird flashed rapidly across our path, literally stopping us in our tracks.

[A fast-moving kiwi barely pauses for the camera, Stewart Island, NZ]

We watched for maybe fifteen minutes as the kiwi probed the damp forest floor for morsels: dipping, prodding, twisting, lifting its head, shaking, stepping, prodding again, its beak clacking like chopsticks in an expert hand.

Its body shape reminded me somehow of a small wallaby's. But rather than hopping or loping, it walked with short purposeful steps, and ran like a pole vaulter with long strides, head and beak lowered as though ready for take-off. Of course it can't actually fly, instead relying on speed and camouflage to escape predators, of which there were few before predatory mammals were brought to Aotearoa.

Now kiwi are rare on mainland New Zealand, making this sighting all the more precious. That we came across another one half an hour later added to the wonder. The sightings also slowed us down by a total of maybe twenty minutes. For such a privilege I decided I would be willing to miss my water taxi. But for the record, we made it with more than hour to spare.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Monday 20 February 2012

The Whisper of the Wild

Melbourne has a lot going for it. The city - and anyone wanting to damn it with faint praise - seems ever ready to remind us it's one of the world's most liveable cities. I have friends who love its bustle, who get a buzz from its urban whirl, who crave the retail gratification and constant entertainment it offers.

But by the time we fly out of Melbourne on our latest trip to New Zealand, I realise I have a different opinion. After just a few days there I am glad to leave behind the rush, the noise, the sheer sensual overload of this city, liveable or not.

While I tell myself I'm ready to slow down, part of me is curious as to the deeper reasons for my urban aversion. What is so good about "slow", and why am I so much more attracted to the whisper of the wild than the shout of the city?

I don't have to wait long to start finding some answers, even if they come from an unexpected quarter. On our second night in New Zealand we dine at the Loan and Merc restaurant in Oamaru. The emphasis is on food that is both local and slow-cooked. Despite its busyness, and the undoubted hard work put in behind the scenes, it is a delightfully relaxed and literally fulfilling dining experience.

The food we are served is a reminder of our proper connection with the natural world. Instead of arriving anonymously on our plates, freighted in from who-knows-where, food in the slow and local food movements has a known and nearby origin.

There are reminders everywhere in the menu that this food connects the diner with the earth - and sea - from which it came. It is no faux connection, no equivalent of wilderness posters in windowless urban offices. For instance as the chef carves the pork for us, he quietly tells us that he knew - and butchered - the pig which we are about to eat. He has an unsentimental pride in the process, something our taste buds would say is justified. On the same premises other local produce is smoked or pickled or preserved.

There are other surprising signs of the natural world leaking in. Beneath the floor of the old warehouse that houses the restaurant, some little blue penguins (Eudyptula minor) have taken up residence. Oamaru is a coastal town, and these penguins are one of its proudest tourist attractions. They happen to be the same penguins we know from our local Tasmanian coast, and when I go to the toilet in the back room, I recognize the whiff of penguin guano. It contrasts with the rich smells of roasted meats and brewed ales back in the dining room, yet somehow seems perfectly apt.

After our sublime eating experience, we waddle penguin-like towards the water front to get some air, and to allow the rich meal to settle. Only metres from the restaurant we find people gathering along the shore to wait for those same penguins to come ashore.

As the light slowly fades to grey, we can just make out a handful of penguins swimming ashore. They bob like logs in the waves until their feet touch sand. Once upright they are suddenly clumsy, struggling up the slope like underpowered wind-up toys. Some are tumbled over again by the wash, but eventually they all make it to their destination.

The adult birds have been at sea all day, eating local - if not slow-cooked - produce. They will disgorge much of it into the mouths of chicks waiting in the burrows beneath our feet. There is even a link between their menu and ours. For them whitebait is part of a seafood smorgasbord; for us the tiny local fish is a seasonal delicacy flavouring Loan and Merc's featured omelette.

In places like this it's easier to remember that we, like every living thing, urban or wild, are intimately involved in the food chain.

Sunday 5 February 2012

Pages from the Book of Time

"Sleep by the ocean, letting yourself unfurl." - John O'Donohue

Before the descent to Ketchem Bay, SW Tasmania 

The roar of waves on the shores of Hidden Bay is our accompaniment all night; that and the intermittent shoosh of showers on the tent.

When the showers continue through till a late breakfast, we’re not too concerned. This is to be our rest day, although that is a relative term when you’re bushwalking. To us it means not packing up our tent and all our gear; not carrying a full pack; and not bothering too much about our destination. But we do want to go exploring.

We leave Hidden Bay late in the morning with light packs and varying degrees of spring in our steps. Fifteen years before I had walked the track from here to Ketchem Bay, and I recalled a series of steep ascents and equally steep descents. Both ups and downs were prone to dispiritingly deep and difficult erosion gullies.

Today’s track, by contrast, is a testament to modern trackwork. Instead of making a contour defying bee-line between bays, the re-routed track now takes a long, gently undulating detour along the contours, arcing inland like a spinnaker tethered between the bays.

A quartzite gravel track high above the southern coast 

High above the sea we crunch along the narrow quartz gravel track. Here and there crags of quarzite stand beside our path, miss-shapen in a Dali-esque manner. With the exception of South West Cape itself, most of this part of the south-west is fashioned out of quartzite. This ancient rock, some of the oldest in Tasmania, began life as sediments (sand and silica-rich silt). After hardening into sedimentary rocks – probably more than 700 million years ago – they were subsequently heated and tilted and buckled over many millions of years, eventually forming the tough and resistant rock we wander through for most of our walk.

Deeply folded quartzite, SW Tasmania 

At one point I pause to examine one of these outcrops. Layers of once-horizontal sediment now stand almost vertical, each layer separated out like the pages of a book. It is like gazing back into the book of time itself, though it is a book which poses more questions than it answers.

Layered quartzite: pages from the book of time 

I wonder, for instance, what kind of world wore away to form these base layers. Back then there were no plants and no animals on earth, only rudimentary life forms like fungi and algae. There was no Tasmania, no Australia, indeed no recognisable continents at all. And we can only conjecture about the weather systems that wore away at the mysterious geography of the day. If the historical past is a foreign country, the geological past is an alien planet.

But our gaze is not only backward. The views towards the Maatsuyker and De Witt group of islands, through a moist, sometimes showery haze, are equally compelling. And when our high meandering path reveals the magical – and more intimate – views over Ketchem Bay, we struggle to find superlatives.

We make the steep descent to the bay, our exploration of which somehow brings me forward to the time of pirates. It’s the kind of nooked and closeted place that we can imagine holding buried treasure. Near our lunch spot we find two sea-eroded caves, while behind the campsite is a tanin-tinted creek and waterfall with an ink-dark plunge pool. 

 The ink-dark pool near Ketchem Bay
But just as my imagination – and manner of speech – are trending piratical, rain showers threaten again. While Tim and Liz are all for going on to the next high point, the rest of us head back towards the tented safety of Hidden Bay. After all, it is a rest day!