Monday 29 December 2014

Father to the Man

Has he been caught unawares, or is he posing? It wouldn’t be the first time he’d struck a posture for the camera. Perhaps I’m being harsh. After all he’s not yet familiar with these ancient Gondwanan forests. And that look – he is gazing up with a mix of deep contemplation and awe – is a fitting response to the total sensory embrace of a Tasmanian rainforest.

[In a Meander Forest, 1982: photo by KM] 
All these years later he still feels it. I know because he is me. A 28 year old me, a me flying free of the gravity of now. But  still me.

It’s 1982 and a different world. He has no internet and no computer (they’re for mathematical types, and he’s not one of those). His television is of the smallish, black and white kind, like his sheep dog.

He loves his wife and his wee daughter. He doesn’t yet know he’ll have two more children, and that they’ll go on to have children of their own. Being a grandfather is vastly far from his mind, even if it will be as unexpectedly full of marvels as stepping into that forest. No, right now he is freely swimming in the green timelessness of that Meander forest.

How to respond to that 28 year old me? Do I frown and judge; do I condescend; or do I just smile and leave him to his thoughts? If I’m tempted to pick on him, I might start with his naïve beliefs. A Christian AND a conservationist? Isn’t that two lost causes in one unlikely combination? I could suggest he’s a fan of Saint Jude, the patron saint of such things, but his theology doesn’t yet have that bent.

[The grandeur of growing things: inside a West Coast rainforest] 
It might be easier to stick with superficialities. For instance could I resist sniggering at his “hippy” looks; his long hair and Cat Stevens beard? And what’s with the hand-knitted beanie and hand-made, checked woollen shirt? Is it solidarity with the poor? Or is he inventing the “bogan” look before its time? Sure there might be an economic imperative too. I see hints of penny pinching in his army surplus trousers and cheap japara/oilskin rain jacket. But trousers tucked inside red socks? Really?!

While this is flitting through my mind, I realise I may have it all wrong. If, as Gerard Manley Hopkins had it, “the child is father to the man”, the same surely holds for the young man and the older man. That inverts the whole situation for the present me. If anyone is going to be “fatherly” towards the other, then it is the younger me who should be having words with the older me.

If he speaks to me of forests and other wild things in Tasmania, I will speak of my ongoing love and struggle. Struggle against that which would diminish the wild; or belittle it as a minor issue. If he speaks of my faith or of my relationships, the same two words will come up again: love and struggle.

[Love's a beach: Lake Rhona, Tasmania] 
Because these things are hard, and they matter. The “stuff” that so often dominates the now – houses, cars, clothes and gadgets – will fade away. But the grandeur of growing things; of abiding love; of a questing spirit, things of which any Creator could be justly proud, these will remain.

Getting away from the pull of the present must be good for you. Certainly the younger me has passed on a few pearls, and has more to teach me yet. Still, I might pass on tucking my trousers into red socks.

Sunday 21 December 2014

Abel Tasman Coast Track 4: A Short Walk, A Long Road

Sometimes, on some walks, you’re glad to be getting near the end. Sure signs of this include constant thoughts of showers, soft beds, fresh food and  clean clothes. And of just not walking for a good long while.

[Pleasant walking on the final day] 
Our final day on the Abel Tasman Coast Track isn’t one of those days. The weather is fine, we are feeling fit, and the walking is interesting. We have the bonus of a walking companion in young New Zealander Brad. He is sociable, as Kiwis invariably seem to be. Is it the result of living in an isolated place at the end of the earth? If so it works well for Tasmanians too. We find plenty to chat about as we meander above the nearby coast.

[Looking towards Adele and Fisherman Islands] 

We’ve now drawn level with Adele Island, which we’d paused alongside on our first day’s water taxi ride. That day we’d seen sea birds galore, and were also thrilled to see New Zealand fur seals on the shore. The island is a focus of environmental restoration, with the biggest job being to bring back the dawn chorus. The Abel Tasman Birdsong Trust, Project Janszoon, DoC and various private donors have combined to trap and poison introduced predators such as rats, possums and stoats. Adele Island has been a pilot for a larger project which has seen 70% of the Abel Tasman National Park covered by the trapping program.

[New Zealand fur seals on Adele Island] 
We come across one of the newer humane traps. The traps are powered by compressed C02 gas. The possum version is activated when a possum bites on a lure. The rat/stoat version requires the animal to move aside a leaf to investigate a lure. Either way the animal activates a steel piston, powered by C02 gas, which strikes the skull of the inquisitive animal and kills it instantly. Once the animal has been struck, it drops to the ground, leaving the trap set for the next pest.

[A CO2-activated pest trap] 
Even though this method of pest eradication is much less labour-intensive than the older tunnel traps, there is still a huge commitment required to simply keep pest numbers down. Complete control is but a dream, and the the incredibly beautiful dawn chorus of native birds like tui, tieke, korimako, kakariki and kaka, is heard in relatively few localities.

English botanist Joseph Banks, while in this region aboard Captain James Cook’s Endeavour in 1770, wrote this about the local birds.

‘This morn I was awakd by the singing of the birds ashore from whence we are distant not a quarter of a mile, the numbers of them were certainly very great … Their voices were certainly the most melodious wild musick I have ever heard, almost imitating small bells but with the most tuneable silver sound imaginable.’

Even Cook, not one to wax lyrical, was moved to describe the korimako (bellbird) as sounding ‘like small bells exquisitely tuned’.

[An epiphyte colonising a trackside rock wall] 
As if predatory mammals were not enough of a threat to New Zealand’s native species, pest plants have a significant impact here too. As we walk towards our finishing point, we see signs of wilding pine infestations. These are any of ten different introduced conifers that have gone wild in New Zealand. A significant effort in this park has seen many of the infestations poisoned. For the moment they are evidenced by ugly brown stands of dead trees on the steep green forested slopes of the hinterland. In the longer term the dead pines will be – and already are being – replaced by native bush, much to the advantage of the bird species.

[A local newspaper story on wilding pine] 

By late lunchtime we have reeled in the small settlement of Marahau. We cross the final few bridges across the tidal flats, and walk into the café that marks the start/end of the track. There Brad joins us for a celebratory hot lunch and cool drink. We raise a glass to a great walk on this Great Walk.  

Sunday 14 December 2014

Abel Tasman Coast Track 3: Win Some, Lose Some

What a difference sun and warmth make! An afternoon of exposure to sun and a wood heater lifts our spirits and dries our gear. I hope it's doing the same to my camera. We share a pleasant night in Bark Bay Hut with three others, a young Malaysian man and a Spanish couple. In the morning they walk north to Awaroa, while we are going south to The Anchorage.

[Coastal Glimpses, Sandfly Bay: photo Lynne Grant] 

By now we’ve settled into the Abel Tasman pattern. You stay at a seaside hut, walk uphill in the morning, undulate a bit throughout the day, sneak a few views of the ever-varying coastline, pass through forests that change from wet and deep green to dry and straggly, before dropping down to the next coastal hut. None of the days is long.

But variations to the pattern are part of this walk’s charm. Today, towards the end of one of the undulations, we glimpse our destination in the distance. The Anchorage is at the far end of a convoluted embayment that we can only reach by crossing Torrent Bay.

[Above Torrent Bay, with The Anchorage in far left background]
Our first surprise is the settlement around the bay. Private land has been excised from the park, and more than a dozen “baches” are nestled into the forest around the bay. Quite a few are noticeably grander than the traditional weekend bach. There’s an exclusive lodge here too, made all the more desirable no doubt by being accessible only by boat. There are no roads anywhere near this beautifully tranquil bay.

We sticky-beak at a few houses, dream fleeting sea-change dreams, before finding the tidal flat we have to cross. We’ve aimed for low tide, to avoid the long detour we’d otherwise have to take. It’s a small moment of triumph when we see that we’ve almost exactly hit low tide. We hope this might mean we can walk right across dry-booted. This looks possible for the first couple of hundred metres, but then we reach a stream. It’s the Torrent River, one of the “torrents” after which the bay was named. At low tide it is a small sinuous creature winding a slow and shiny path across the flats. It’s only calf deep and a few metres wide, so we take off our boots, don crocs and wade across.

[Wading across Torrent River & tidal flats: photo Lynne Grant]
At the far end we climb over a short bushy isthmus then drop down to the beach that leads to Anchorage Hut. The beach is steeply sloped, golden-sanded, and busy. We’ve heard a few references to “The Anchorage Hilton”, built large because of the popularity of this beautiful bay. Opened just a year ago, it certainly is impressively spacious and comfortable. But it is still a hut, with the usual shared dining and bunk rooms and other typical DoC hut facilities.

[Anchorage Hut, aka the "Anchorage Hilton"]
Solar powered lights are probably the main novelty, unless you count the wryly humorous hut warden. Bill (not his real name) entertains the fifteen or so in the hut with droll Kiwi-style stories, variously tricking the naïve; bating the Aussies (us!); and generally teasing everyone else.

He helps to create a convivial atmosphere, and we’re soon exchanging stories with Danes, Poms, Swedes and Germans; the United Nations of hikers that typically peoples these Great Walks Huts. Happily my camera has started working again, so I snap a group shot before getting into a fun teasing chat with “Bill”.

 [Inside Anchorage Hut]

Australians and New Zealanders have a sibling affection that is strongly tinged with sibling rivalry. We exchange professional stories (I too work for a national park agency) and good-humouredly try to catch each other out. But eventually he pulls out his trump card. In the just completed rugby test New Zealand’s All Blacks have beaten Australia’s Wallabies by 29 to 28. That’s enough to shut me up. Lynne and I slink off to our bunk room, which we’re sharing with Brad. He happens to be the only New Zealander walker we meet on the track. We’re thankful he’s a non-gloating one!

Sunday 7 December 2014

Abel Tasman Coast Track 2: Weatherproofed?

During the night there is a pattering, pittering, scratching scatter of sound. I hear it only vaguely as I drowsily toss and turn on the bunk, but I know well enough what it is. It’s raining.

The sound of rain on a tin roof is supposed to be soothing. Not this morning. We were hoping to avoid anything but light showers. We're in New Zealand for three weeks, and with cycling, tramping and everyday gear to cart around with us, we’ve chosen to carry lightweight, basic waterproofs. It’s October, we reason; high spring. What could possibly go wrong?

[Climbing into the gloom above Awaroa] 

We prepare slowly, giving the rain a chance to scoot by and leave us with clear skies. It intensifies. Our hut mates pull on their full gore-tex gear, smile, shrug and walk off into the gloom. We tidy up a little more methodically than usual, then come up with a plan. We’ll don our gear and wander around the expansive bay until we find Awaroa Lodge. A hot coffee will brighten up our day, and the delay might even brighten the weather.

The jacket I’m depending on is a light and breathable “2.5 layer” job, whatever that means. By the time we find the Lodge – about 45 minutes later – I’m soaked. I’m not sure if it’s the 0.5 of missing layer, but it leaks. And wet is wet. Lynne’s jacket – a cheap-and-nasty single layer thing – is even worse. As we arrive at the lodge, our former hut mates are leaving. The lure of coffee and cake has tempted them in too.

The Lodge is palatial, quiet. More importantly, it’s warm and dry. Feeling we must look like Visigoth marauders, we sheepishly take off our dripping gear before heading up to the bar. They smile welcomingly and take our orders as though we’re royalty. Five minutes later we’re sitting in leather lounges and tucking into large coffees and a slab of carrot cake.

To say it's all downhill from there would not strictly be true. After the lodge it is steeply uphill. But yes, the weather deteriorates further, and our level of wetness with it. We pause above Awaroa and take a few photos. I have stowed my camera in my pack, thinking to keep it out of the wet. But after reaching the top, I decide I’m being overly cautious. The camera is a high-end one, and it's supposed to be “weather sealed”, so I figure it should be fine in this light rain. Besides, I want to take some “real conditions” photos in the rain, and not just fine weather ones.

[It's wet! Looking back to Awaroa: photo c/- Lynne Grant] 
So I carry the camera in its neoprene cover, and put a plastic bag over that, just in case. As we slush through the sodden track, I pause to take a few “here-we-are-in-the-wet” photos. Suddenly the camera makes a horrible noise – a kind of shuddering, repeated clicking – and refuses to take any more photos. I try to dry it off with a cloth, and try another shot, but it is not going to work. I put it back in my pack, exchanging “what-have-I-done?” looks with Lynne.

We keep climbing towards Tonga Saddle. The Department of Conservation (DoC) has been doing work on the track and it is very muddy. The rain persists, and my anxieties about the camera swirl about under my ineffectual rainhood. We follow the roaring Richardson Stream down to Onetahuti. It is probably a beautiful beach, but rain and wind make it look as bleak as I feel.

[More rain at Onetahuti: photo c/- Lynne Grant] 
Knowing how the potential ruin of a great camera is affecting me, Lynne tries the jollying along approach. She points out the beautiful coastal glimpses, takes special interest in the disused Tonga Quarry, even grumps about the confusing times on some of DoC's signs. All of these are my default positions, but today I just want to finish walking and try to dry out my camera.

[Sunshine and smoke welcome us to Bark Bay Hut: photo c/- Lynne Grant]  
The swirl of smoke coming from the Bark Bay Hut is a welcome sign. So too is the blue sky that has beaten back the clouds. There’s only one other walker inside the hut, a young Malaysian, and he’s making full use of the fire he’s got going. He quickly moves some of his gear aside to allow us room for our sodden kit. Crucially there’s some drying warmth for my camera too. I take out the battery and card, put a silicon sachet in the battery well, and leave it to dry, fingers crossed.

[The beautiful estuary at Bark Bay: photo c/- Lynne Grant]  
After changing into dry clothes, and despite my worries, I can’t help but enjoy the beauty of Bark Bay. It is yet another stunning estuarine beach, shining afresh after the recent soaking rain. It is surrounded by thick coastal forest, and there are birds in profusion, variously calling, flying, wading and strutting. Lynne takes her camera out on the beach, making a special effort to take photos that I might have taken. Not for the first time I’m thankful for such a wonderful friend and partner.

[Happy to be here: Bark Bay]