Friday 27 April 2012

A Door to the Wild

“We are wandering where the wild wind blows. We are happy here ‘cause the wild wind knows that we are orphans, kingdoms.”  – Brooke Fraser

Two days walk from the nearest road, in the middle of a tangled New Zealand forest, was the last place I expected to find a wooden door. But there it stood, bold as its brass handle, propped up against a mossy ledge, the words “Please Shut the Door” scratched onto it.

The puzzling door on the Greenstone/Caples Track (photo Lynne Grant) 
I’m guessing that some Kiwi track workers had perpetrated this very original sight gag. We duly chuckled, took a few photos, and walked on. Only later did the door start to take on a metaphorical character for me.

Do we actually need doors to the wild? If we loosely define the wild as place, process or object carrying on substantially as it would have without human influence, what paths lead us to that wild? And to an appreciation of wild things?

As a child the bush was my main playground. Out there I could climb trees, chase cicadas, splash in creeks, throw rocks, hide in bushes. And all the while I would be seeing, feeling, smelling, hearing, discussing and discerning the patterns, changes, similarities, differences, dangers and delights of the wild. I doubt that mine was an ecologically rare or special piece of bush. But it was there, and access to that bush was my first doorway.

Time was another. My childhood was not heavily timetabled. Mucking about in the bush for the best part of a day was not unusual. As I grew older, that exploration moved from the local “wild” to the larger wild; from one day outings to multi-day trips; from sneaked fires to campfires; from childish guesses to the actual study of plants and rocks and animals. So study became a further doorway.

But for me wildness wasn’t only found out there, in the bush. To my young mind, the silkworms I kept in a tattered box in my bedroom were wildlife too. Watching, feeding and breeding those exotic creatures was as thrilling as seeing a cicada emerge from its larval shell. My child’s sense of wonder was fed by both invertebrate encounters.

So too in the garden, where the alchemy of seed and soil; worm and water led to the wonder of flowers and vegetables. Food itself, even in those staid pre-zucchini days, was still a source of sensual amazement. While some vegetables were a taste to be acquired, fruit was an early and constant delight. If grapes ever started to feel ordinary, there would be cherries, or apricots, or peaches as the seasons turned. And when apples began to look wrinkly and tired, oranges would come to sweeten the winter and ward off ills.

From seeds to these! Bonfire salvias in bloom. 

Cooking too was a revelation. I would watch as my mother turned flour, butter, cocoa and sugar into superb chocolate cake, ever hopeful of beating my siblings to the spoon-licking. Sometimes that food amazement could turn to painful astonishment when a lack of hygiene put peristalsis into reverse. Even if the ingredients weren’t wild, both taste and the digestive processes certainly could be!

In the sky I could watch birds as well as burgeoning clouds. If ever anything was wild, it was the thunderstorms that shook and shimmered through our summer skies, sending my grandmother into her wardrobe in fear. And when skies were clear by night there were stars: so many, so far beyond us, so immune to our actions.

I recount all of this not as an exercise in nostalgia; or a mourning for lost days. These were simply my doors to the wild. And they are still there, even if we civilized humans imagine we have gone where the wild can’t follow. No, trying to hide from the wild is like running from our own blood. We'd have to stop eating, cooking, walking, touching, looking, smelling, hearing, loving. We would have to cease being embodied. 

That will come soon enough, but even then I doubt we will ever be able to shut out the wild.

Sunday 15 April 2012

Death By Scenery?

Up there on a fine day is like being surrounded by fields of gold that fortify and fuel the spirit.   Brian Turner*

Otago is a dangerous place. Stretching from Dunedin to Mount Aspiring in New Zealand’s South Island, its diverse yet consistently stunning scenery is so compelling that driving can be quite perilous. How are you supposed to keep your eyes on the road when the province’s wide skies, blue lakes, high tawny hills and higher slabby mountains keep demanding your attention? Why is there no tourist guide entitled “Death By Scenery”?!

[Looking across Lake Hawea towards Sentinel Peak] 

And it’s not just drivers who are endangered. The same scenery seeps into the soul of walkers, climbers, cyclists, anglers, skiers, kayakers, and all lovers of the outdoors. Whatever the season, whatever the weather, it never quite stops calling you – be it in a whisper or a shout – go out, go up!

We’d gone to Lake Hawea in north-west Otago for some down time. I’ve finally learned not to be surprised at how long it can take to recover from a big walk. There are aches and pains caused by the toxins that build up in muscles during exertion. There’s also the inevitable dehydration, no matter how much you’ve tried to keep up your fluid intake while walking.

And that diet of freeze-dried meals, dry biscuits and scroggin has its effects too. My digestive system usually takes a while to recalibrate itself to things fresh, green and fruity.
Similarly with my psyche. It too needs time to process all the amazements of a good walk.

We were in New Zealand for nearly a month. So after our time on Stewart Island and the Greenstone/Caples Track (see posts here & following), we’d planned a week in a bach (ie a shack or holiday house) at Lake Hawea to give our bodies and souls some recovery time. South Islanders say Hawea today is what Wanaka was a few decades back; a small village with basic facilities in an achingly beautiful lakeside setting.

And there’s the rub. While I love to relax, and enjoying reading, going out for coffee, or tucking into the excellent produce of Otago, after a few days in this setting the siren call of the hills becomes a banshee wail.

It didn’t help that our bach had superb views over the lake towards 2,000m mountains. Nor that our bodies were feeling fit, and wondering where all this indolence was leading. So when the clearest of blue-skied days arrived, we found ourselves having a “leg stretch”. Isthmus Peak, a mere 1,385m, seemed a suitably modest target, promising views over both Lake Hawea and Lake Wanaka.

[An Australasian Harrier soars over Lake Hawea]

As we wound our way towards the tussocky heights, we struck two problems. First there was some ambiguity about the time the walk would take. Was it 3-4 hours each way, or 3-4 hours return? We’d only allowed time for the latter. And then we noticed a small convoy of 4WD vehicles winding up a steep farm track well ahead of us. We guessed they too were headed for Isthmus Peak. We felt cheated! The thought of expending all that effort walking, only to arrive at a peak that others had driven to, was galling.

We sat down for a drink and a think. We had a grandstand view over a high country stations to the lake and the ranges surrounding it. In the distance, at least a kilometre below us, a farmer and his dogs were rounding up cattle. We could just hear him whistling, tooting his ute’s horn and calling, while cows mooed and dogs barked. We smiled at the idyllic scene: hard and honest labour in a sublime setting. But as we watched, the farmer suddenly shouted at one of the dogs. In a clearly audible voice, adding a short Germanic expletive to the word “idiot”, he made it clear he wasn’t impressed with the dog! We nearly fell off our lofty perches laughing, our bubble of bucolic bliss having burst.

[A grandstand view over Lake Hawea] 

The laughter somehow helped us to make up our minds. Rather than going for the named peak, we would leave the marked track and head straight up towards a nearer rocky eminence. When I pointed out that it lacked a name, Lynne helpfully suggested that we could call it “Grants Knob”. 

[Looking towards "Grants Knob"] 
More laughter and some lung-heaving work eventually saw us top out on the newly named “peak”.

Then the cloud cleared away, the sun came out and we lay in the tussock grass and ate and drank and talked and laughed. The water turned a Prussian blue The world was transformed into deep blues and pale golds, the robes and heraldry of Central Otago. *

While these words from Otago writer Brian Turner show us we were not the first to find such a place on such a day, we truly felt that we were. In youth I would have been restless to “bag” the peak. But now, in a setting like this, going further than our own private peak would have felt perverse. Now was the kind of time you would recall for as long as you told tales of wonderful times in wondrous places.


* from Brian Turners Into the Wider World: A Backcountry Miscellany, Random House, 2008

Saturday 7 April 2012

Whether to Whinge or Whistle

[Greenstone/Caples Walk, Day 4]

[The beautiful Greenstone River, New Zealand] 

Somewhere towards the end of multi-day walks, I usually find fatigue and fitness intersecting. They are uneasy acquaintences, eyeing each other with ill-disguised suspicion. Each perches on a shoulder, leans into an ear, makes its case.

Fatigue is a whinger, whining at me to simply stop walking; to take off my pack, get myself clean, eat some yummy food, sleep in a comfy bed. The whinger, in short, is telling me its time to be a normal, sensible human again. And walking for several hours a day, through rugged terrain in all weathers, carrying everything on your back, is neither normal nor sensible.

Fitness whistles a happier tune, telling me how great I feel, willing me to ignore minor aches and pains, suggesting I consider other wondrous things I can do now that my body is attuned to hard work. The whistler wants to show me that its possible to transcend the ordinary; that mere walking can take me to great heights, literally as well as metaphorically.

At the start of our final day on the Greenstone/Caples Track, the whinger was well and truly on the back foot. We’d had a brilliant time in the Greenstone Hut, literally basking in the glow of the afternoon and evening sun. And then the stars – one, a few, a multitude – had come out to remind us we’re not alone. And when the morning began fine and clear, and our packs went on lighter and more easily than on any other day, we were close to whistling.

But bushwalking rarely stays easy. Even as we moved swiftly down the beautiful Greenstone Valley, through every-varying forest, fatigue trudged behind, ready to overtake us. Sometimes it only takes a brief stop, say for scroggin and water, for your rhythm and energy levels to be upset. Suddenly your body remembers what you’ve been putting it through, and the whinger has your ear again.

[In a steep gorged section of the Greenstone Valley]
Thankfully at such times even the whinger agrees that there’s only one solution. You walk on. And so we did, getting our “legs” back again, marvelling at the Greenstone River, now tearing along, now tranquil, always stunningly coloured. Although its waters are almost green, its name is derived from the pounamu or greenstone (New Zealand jade) that is found in its upper reaches. It was a reminder that we were walking where Maori jade traders walked for centuries.

One of the day’s landmarks was the oddly named Slip Flat. We’d been seeing obvious signs of cattle on the track, both hoof marks and cow pats. Treading in one of the latter would have made it easy to do exactly what the place name said. But as we approached the place we saw a more obvious reason for the name. Across the river was a very large landslip, with a huge volume of rock spread over a long, mainly vertical, distance.

The flat itself is not – not flat, that is. But it’s all relative in this deeply enclosed valley. The steep sidling of the last hour eased off, and we were now in partially open pasture. Here we met the cattle we’d been following: a mother, calf and a young steer. They stared at us in that intensely inquisitive way that only cattle seem capable of. If they also displayed just a hint of readiness to turn and flee, it was overmastered by their curiosity.

Beyond the flat we returned to more steeply forested slopes, the Greenstone Valley gorge-like again. But we were heading downstream, going with the flow, and our bodies were feeling as fit as they would on this entire walk. If the whinger is pushy, the whistler is also capable of being assertive. For most of the walk we had barely kept up with the Department of Conservation’s slow estimates for walking times. Now, the whistler was hinting, we could show DoC a thing or two!

[Confluence of the Greenstone and Caples Rivers, near the end of the walk] 
Amazingly, we did just that, getting back to the carpark in just over the shorter of DoC’s 3-5 hours. Although we recognised this as the “horse headed for home” effect, we were nonetheless pleased with ourselves.

Sandflies tend to curtail any outdoor celebration in these parts. So we took ourselves back to our accommodation at Kinloch Lodge, and indulged in all those things the whinger had nagged us about, even dunking ourselves in the outdoor hot tub. Occasionally it’s good to let the whinger have his way. Soon enough we’d be plotting the next walk.

Thursday 5 April 2012

What's In A Name?

"What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet." - Shakespeare

[A camellia, not a rose, but you get the idea!] 
After nearly five years of blogging as "Nature Writer", I've decided to change the name. It's not a radical move, just a slight change. From now on the blog will be called "Nature Scribe". To be honest the main reason is that it gives me a straightforward web address: ("naturewriter" was already taken). 

But I also like the connotations of what scribes did in former times. Principally scribes wrote; sometimes they copied, sometimes they interpreted. I like to think that's what I try to do in relation to nature - and my experiences in it.

So stay tuned, normal service will be resumed shortly.

Sunday 1 April 2012

Blissfully Bored

[Greenstone/Caples Walk, Day 3]

Leaving a hut is very different from arriving at one. Huts, like summits, rarely sneak up on you. The road to a hut is more often marked by long anticipation, false hopes, spurious sightings and even the odd tear.

It had certainly been like that with McKellar Hut. Wed arrived tired and sore in body and mind, ready to raise a hallelujah, if only a faint one. But leaving the hut next morning we had no equivalent sense of occasion. A couple of dozen steps, across the bridge, turn right, and we were out of sight, back into beech forest, back into our walking rhythm.

[Lovely McKellar Hut beneath Mt Jean Batten]
But McKellar Hut had done its job. Wed been refreshed by food and wine, good company and a welcome rest. Wed traded stories and laughter, exchanged track information, and then gone our separate ways. Oddly (to us) we were the only ones headed for Greenstone Hut, the others scattering in various directions. Opinion on the days walk ahead of us was divided. On the positive side we heard easy; on the negative long. The opinion we found odd was from a Kiwi tramper, who thought it boring.

We carried that word with us all day, looking for any way the walk might deserve that description. We looked in vain. Instead one or other of us would stop from time to time, explaining that we had to get a photo of this boring bit of forest; or marvel at that ordinary bird; or gawk at a very average mountain; or rest along a particularly dull piece of river flat.

[Crossing a rock scree in the Greenstone Valley] 
The further we walked the more we concluded our former hut companion was either a Grinch, or someone with an extraordinarily high beauty tolerance. Yes, there are more spectacular walks in New Zealand, ones with grander, higher peaks, and even glaciers. Still, for us this was a superb days walk. It helped that we had an brilliantly blue day; that we truly had our walking legs; and that Lynnes boot issues were dealt with (joggers on, boots in pack). But however we looked at it, if this day was boring, we were blissfully bored!

As if to reinforce that things were going our way, when we stopped for lunch and a brew, and discovered that our lighter was out of fuel, a couple of other hikers - the first wed seen in three hours - happened by and lit our gas for us! And if the walk ever threatened to get a bit, well, boring, we always seemed to come across something fascinating. Like a pair of damselflies locked in a mating flight.

[Blue damselflies mating, Greenstone Valley, NZ] 
Most easily distinguished from dragonflies by their ability to fold their wings right back (unlike the perpendicular fold of dragonflies), damselflies are swift, often strikingly-coloured hunters. We spotted an electric blue pair mating, first in flight and then on a bush. The male had grasped the female mid-flight first with his legs, and then with the claspers on the tip of his "tail" (abdomen). Receptive, she had allowed herself to be carried in flight, before looping the tip of her abdomen up to the male's genital pouch and transferring his sperm to her body.

We watched them in the so-called "wheel position" - in this case more an inverted heart - for some minutes before they flew off. Apparently they can stay attached for an hour or more, even while the female backs into the water to lay her eggs on the stem of an aquatic plant.

The day ended at the Greenstone Hut. I'd been trying not to build up my hopes too much, having read opinions that rated this one of the best huts in New Zealand. Towards the (inevitably) long final push to the hut, I'd confided this opinion to Lynne. It was meant as a kind of carrot, although she seemed to be finishing more strongly than me.

We made it to the beautifully situated hut by mid-afternoon, and we were not disappointed.  All afternoon the sun streamed into the new (2003) hut, which was completely encircled by beautiful mountains: the Livingstone, Ailsa and Humboldt Mountains.

[The warm, welcoming interior of the Greenstone Hut] 
Amazingly we were the huts only occupants (it can sleep 24), although we did share the larger site with the hut warden. And after dinner he asked us in for coffee and freshly-baked cakes. We were polite, of course, and accepted. We didn't want to appear boring!