Sunday 25 March 2012

Of Long Days and Mattresses

[Greenstone/Caples Walk, Day 2]

We learned years ago that for Australians bushwalking in New Zealand, overnighting in huts is the easiest option. Certainly you can take a tent – thousands do – but why would you bother? Even in remote areas, there are often huts. Most of them are wonderful homes away from home, cosy, comfortable, and great for meeting people from all over the world. They add a special feel and flavour to New Zealand tramping.

Contemplating the view from Mid Caples Hut, NZ 

Exactly why huts are so plentiful in New Zealand is a long story. Let’s just say that it’s down to Kiwi history: a response over time to the needs of trampers, foresters and hunters in remote places. We could also add that the often fierce weather and terrain make safe and solid shelters a sensible option.  What we should NEVER say is that it has anything to do with New Zealanders being a softer breed. That suggestion from an Australian would be taken as an underarm delivery*, even if we could point out that there are such fripperies as mattresses, inside taps and sinks, and even flushing toilets in some tramping huts!

As wonderful as hut-based walking is, not carrying a tent does put a finite limit on your destination at the end of each day. There is no “I’m stuffed, let’s find a good spot and bung up the tent”. You just have to keep walking until you get to the hut. And you’d better hope that it isn’t so full of walkers that you end up sleeping on the floor (with no mattress!)

This all became relevant to us on the second day of our Greenstone/Caples walk. We had overnighted at Mid Caples Hut, an easy walk in from the track head. But that meant that we still had to reach the Upper Caples Hut – around two hours away – before starting a full day’s walk. So we got away early and eased up the beautiful Caples valley, wandering alternately through beech forest and across open grassy flats.

Morning mist rising, Caples Valley, New Zealand 

It had rained a little overnight, but now the clouds were shredding, tearing away from the hill and mountainsides as the sun reasserted itself. In near perfect conditions: cool, windless, intermittently sunny, we reached Upper Caples Hut in time for a coffee and chocolate stop inside the hut. Sandflies made that the only sensible option. We met a father and son from the North Island, who filled us in on who else had overnighted in the hut. There were trampers from Canada, Scotland and Israel, some going our way, others heading in different directions.

You can read guide books and maps all you like, but until you have done a walk – and quite often afterwards – you only have a subjective, impressionistic idea of the shape of a walk. For the next two hours I was sure we were about to start the steep climb from the upper Caples valley onto McKellar Saddle. And yet we kept wandering up quite gentle gradients, even though we could see the slopes tightening all around us when gaps in the forest allowed.

I’m not a big fan of steep climbs, but they do tend to lead you to the best views. And briefly travelling as a quadruped, engaging both arms and legs in an ascent, can spread the effort. McKellar Saddle is just shy of 1000 metres in altitude, hardly high even by Tasmanian standards. But after our early start and around five hours on the track, we were very pleased to climb out of the stunted forest and onto the alpine saddle.

The saddle sits near the Otago/Southland border, Otago to the east and Southland to the west. The weather could have told me as much. To the east was blue sky, scattered cloud and sharp mountains. To the west was grey sky, low cloud and just the occasional glimpse of Fiordland mountains such as the Darrans. Ah the Darrans: one day I will see you fully revealed! Still, lunching in the sunshine and facing the beautiful Ailsa Mountains, was no hardship. Nor was the slow wander across this beautiful saddle, enjoying all things alpine for a change. 

Wandering across the beautiful McKellar Saddle 
By contrast the sudden descent, on newly made track, was somewhat brutal. We’d been on our feet with full packs for over six hours, and they were not happy with the downhill pounding. Lynne in particular was finding it very difficult, and she eventually made the decision to change out of her tramping boots into joggers. She’d had the suspicion that the boots, despite being lightweight (and expensive, and Italian!), were too narrow for her feet, and that that was referring pain up to her knees. The relief of walking in joggers was almost instant.

It made the long descent and the slow trundle alongside Lake McKellar to the McKellar Hut (which is not actually on the lake) more bearable. All up we were nine and a half hours on the track before we finally reached the hut. If we’d had a tent, perhaps we’d have stopped some time before. But the magnet of the hut had eventually dragged us in, albeit at a stagger.

After a rest, a stretch and a wash, it’s amazing how your humanity can return. Add the superb mountain setting, a bit of food and drink, and a handful of fascinating hut companions, and you can start to forget the effort it took to get here. And yes, the mattress helps too!

* Those not familiar with this reference, please see Underarm Bowling

Sunday 18 March 2012

Against the Flow

[Greenstone/Caples Walk, Day 1]

The walking life is a pared down life. Major issues are few, and usually surround necessities like navigation, food, weather, shelter, bodily fitness and function, and the avoidance of hazards. When most of those are humming along, then you can begin to take in the beauty. You might even get philosophical about walking. For instance, whether you prefer to walk upstream or downstream.

[Idyllic walking beside the Caples River, New Zealand]

On day one of New Zealands Greenstone/Caples Track, things are going well enough for us to make that a topic of discussion. We’ve got away in a leisurely fashion, and are happily easing our way upstream along the beautiful Caples River towards Mid Caples Hut, only three or so hours away.

Perhaps our mood is partly a response to our unfortunate prior history with this walk. Eighteen months earlier wed been scheduled to walk the same track. But Lynne had come down with a case of shingles so severe shed barely been able to turn over in bed, let alone bushwalk. We were later advised she probably should have been hospitalised.

The four day Greenstone/Caples walk takes in two broad, mountain-rimmed river valleys. It loops up one valley, over a mountain saddle, and back down the other valley to the starting point. For us the walk has become, in a real sense, unfinished business. Like the Pacific salmon we had once witnessed swimming up Alaska's streams, we have returned across the ocean to be here. If just getting to the start feels like a triumph, the real reward is in keeping on going, mentally as well as physically, against the flow.

Once were into a walking pattern, with packs and boots settled in, the sheer beauty of the surroundings compounds our joy at being here. The Caples Track initially winds through mature red beech forest: one minute high above the blue/grey river, the next dropping close to the stream, nearer to its chuckling conversation.

[Beech forest in the Caples Valley] 

Our mood is further improved by the weather. Just a day before wed met some returning Greenstone/Caples walkers, and theyd talked about having to cross flooded side streams in the upper Caples. For us the rain and clouds are receding, patches of blue sky are promising better, and what side streams we meet are friendly. They fit one definition of the word burn: a stream across which one can leap, and certainly with no Superman-like single bound needed.

At various times the track breaks out of forest onto grassy river flats, complete with cattle and sheep. Here the views open out, and the surrounding ranges the Humboldt and Ailsa Mountains dominate the view on either side. The day before they must have been shrouded in cloud, and lashed by rain and even snow. This day they stand as though resting between games, poised to resume their rock-tearing when the right weather returns.

[A river flat on the Caples, with weather improving] 

We appreciate the benign conditions. These mountains and valleys are geologically active by Australian standards, with ferocious floods and avalanches most years. Mountainsides, watercourses, tracks and even huts cant be guaranteed to stay put in this young and mobile country.

Were reminded of this again during our time at Mid Caples Hut. We arrive for a late lunch, and are greeted by the hut warden. After she checks our hut passes, we get talking and find out that shes from Christchurch. We ask her about last years earthquake, and get back the kind of story we will hear in various different forms many times over the next month. After her shift she is due to return to her place in Christchurch. It will be the first time in 12 months that shell have full access to her home. Thats almost a whole year of suspended living, basing herself with family and friends, unable literally to pick up her own life and move on.

Some streams are much harder to go up than others.

Monday 12 March 2012

In Praise of Posties

[Green and peaceful: on a walking track on Ulva Island, NZ]

Ulva Island, a small green gem off New Zealands Stewart Island, may seem a strange place to ponder the contribution of postmasters to world history. But thats what began for me when the water taxi landed us at Post Office Bay on Ulva Island. If my first thought was to consider it a bland name for a picturesque site, I suspected there might be a story there if I dug deeper.

In this case its the tale of Charles Traill, a Scotsman from Orkney, who established the post office here in 1872. He named his seven hectare property Ulva, after another Scottish island, and the name stuck for the whole island. There was more to this postmasters contribution, but well get to that. First some thoughts about working for the post office.

As it happens my first paid employment was for the post office, as a telegram boy (yes, that ages me!) The following Christmas season I graduated to the exalted status of assistant postman. For the first job I cycled the suburbs delivering telegrams. For the next I walked the beat, hand delivering letters and parcels over the Christmas period. It provided a fascinating view of life in many of its forms: from the quirks and kindnesses of people (I received tips and refreshments, as well as dog bites and verbal abuse) to the surprises of the natural world (the shock of sudden storms; the literal buzz of cicada-watching).

I later learned that Anthony Trollope, author of The Barchester Chronicles, worked for the post office for much of his adult life. He famously incorporated not only the characters but also whole slabs of the dialogue of some of his customers. In the USA author William Faulkner was a postmaster for a time, and so too were Abraham Lincoln and Benjamin Franklin. What may seem an ordinary, even dull kind of occupation, turns out to be both honourable and capable of revealing hidden depths.

And so back to Charles Traill of Ulva Island. This postmaster was also a keen naturalist, who roamed the 3.5km long island observing and collecting plants and animals. He came to recognise the very special nature of the island, and petitioned the government to have it reserved. In 1899 it was declared a Reserve for the Preservation of Native Game and Flora, paving the way not only for the Ulva Island Open Sanctuary of today, but also influencing the declaration of the wider Stewart Island/Rakiura National Park around a century later.

[a koru: new growth on a black tree fern, Ulva Island]  
Today Ulva Island remains a rare jewel: a relatively intact New Zealand forest ecosystem,
a place where the natural processes of pre-European times still shape virtually everything that happens.

Sitting at 47 degrees south, Ulva is in the path of the roaring forties. It receives plenty of wind and well over a metre of rain each year, but surprisingly the day of our visit is sunny and windless. We arrive before 8am, and wander over to Sydney Cove, where the sun is only just rising over a flat sea. The gentlest of waves plap on the sandy shore, and even the birds call in hushed tones. The warm tranquility is not what we expected, so it is doubly welcome.

[Tranquil West End Beach, Ulva Island] 

The tranquility stays with us the whole morning. The island is a profoundly peaceful place, thickly forested, deeply green and full of birds and plants that are rare or absent in much of New Zealand. In the four hours we have there we walk every track, enveloped in a green peace. This is a serious twitchers paradise, and there are rare birds to be had, including kiwi, weka and tieke (saddlebacks). Yet even though I am armed with my long lens, somehow just being there seems the best of all possible options.

As it is we hear and then see a solitary weka. For a moment we think the boom boom call may be a kakapo, but were later told that weka can boom as well, and that kakapo are not currently found on Ulva. The weka somewhat resembles a kiwi, furtively scratching around in the undergrowth. But its legs and bill are much shorter.

 [a shy weka in the undergrowth, Ulva Island]

We also meet some bold Stewart Island robins (toutouwai) along the track. They characteristically approach closely to investigate us, and perhaps to find invertebrates disturbed by our footfalls. One even hops on top of my boot, pecking around half-heartedly. These birds have been re-introduced to the island in recent years, and are part of a study into issues of genetic diversity in the re-population of isolated places. All of the robins here have been banded as part of the study. Our birds bands indicate that it is over ten years old, and if anyone had asked for my medical opinion, Id have said it was in rude good health!

[a very curious Stewart Is. robin, complete with leg bands]

Such could not be said for the general health of native bird species across New Zealand. Introduced predators, including rats, mice, stoats and possums, have made life very difficult for the stunning array of birds that once flocked across New Zealand. Even here on Ulva, Norway rats were somehow re-introduced in 2010. Despite intensive trapping we passed many traplines on our walk they appear close to being re-established.

What that will mean for species like robins and saddlebacks is yet to be seen. But the vision of its first postmaster has been strongly transmitted to Ulvas current custodians, be they professionals or volunteers. For them and for visitors like us it is plainly worth doing whatever it takes to keep the posties vision alive.

Monday 5 March 2012

A Strange Wet Gravity

While we waited for our water taxi, I had time enough to search out and photograph New Zealand bellbirds (korimako). Along with tui, korimako are among New Zealand's most distinctive and charming songbirds. To hear their call is to be suddenly sure you are in Aotearoa. I was lucky enough to hear, see and photograph one near Freshwater Landing Hut.

[A Korimako (New Zealand bellbird) - a beautiful bush singer]

Our walk from the west of Stewart Island to Freshwater Landing had reminded me, yet again, that it's more about the journey than the destination. But once on board, and still basking in the satisfaction of seeing my first kiwi in the wild, I slipped into my default condition. That is I sat in the boat and awaited our arrival back at Oban, as though there was nothing left of this journey; nothing but to travel over the sheltered waters of Paterson Inlet/Whaka a Te Wera back to our night's accommodation.

Wrong again! Over the drone of the outboard I hear the skipper, Michael, saying something about dolphins. I snap to attention, and move nearer to listen and watch. As the boat approaches, Michael tells us it's actually a school of barracouta. Dozens of the large sail-finned fish are rounding up and feasting on bait fish, flying clear of the water's surface at irregular intervals. And as they hunt they are joined by a throng of squealing Pacific gulls and a handful of swiftly dipping terns.

While the gulls concentrate on left-overs, the terns are actively diving, picking off panicked small fish from near the surface. One makes a shallow dive right in front of me, surfacing with a small wriggling fish whose jiggling tail is clearly visible. Above the plaintive mewling and raucous squabble of the birds there is the constant but unpredictable thrash of jumping barracouta shooting out of, then flopping back into, the deep grey water.

[A barracouta flies free of the water, surrounded by Pacific gulls in Paterson Inlet]

I wonder what it must be like for them to break free of water's strange wet gravity, even for just those few seconds. How do fins trained to strain against wet heaviness feel in the unrestrained air? What do eyeballs used to darkly filtered light make of the sky's brightness? Somewhere in our dim evolutionary past some ancestral creatures began finding the answers to such questions, and must have liked them enough to stay.

As our boat putters along we soon notice other birds joining the hunt, including rare yellow-eyed penguins, and later some little blue penguins. The former are several times larger than the latter, but both sit log-like and awkward atop the water in between dives. A few years ago I had seen a yellow-eyed penguin walking down a beach in the Catlins. Its waddle towards the water made a duck look athletic.

[A yellow-eyed penguin in Paterson Inlet, Stewart Island]

This time I spot one diving beneath the boat, its movements now graceful and fluid. It is flying as any bird flies, albeit in a denser medium. Its body anatomy is adapted to suit, with short, strong wings and dense insulating feathers. Because of its diet it also has plenty of omega-3 fat on board, doubtless helping with insulation. And, come to think of it, who ever heard of heart disease among penguins?

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