Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Tongariro: Part I

Last week, we went on an "epic" trip to Tongariro National Park in order to hike/ climb volcanoes.  Tongariro is an awesome place.  The alpine landscape feels pretty desolate, like you're wandering around another planet.  Tongariro is the oldest national park in New Zealand, the fourth oldest national park in the world, and a dual UNESCO site for both its cultural and natural heritage.  This is a quick trip report.

Day 1:  It took a while to get ourselves together in the van to leave Tuateawa.  On the way, we stopped in Thames for some errands, then continued the drive down to the middle of the North Island.  We hastily make camp at 11:00 p.m.

Day 2:  We hastily break camp in the morning when a ranger kindly alerted us to the actual location of the campsite.  We parked the van at Whakapapa Village and set off into the park toward Taranaki Falls.

The first portion of the hike was pretty easy and relatively flat.  Very enjoyable.

We had awesome views of Ngauruhoe the entire time.  Here she is, next to the Upper Tama Lake.

The second portion of the hike was a little more tiring, as we had to climb a long ridge, then traverse it while the wind was whipping around us.  Unfortunately, we then had to descend the ridge, then climb another to get to our campsite right at the base of the mountain.

The campsite was pretty sweet.  The views were great, although it was extremely windy.  I probably wouldn't camp there again; instead, I'd choose a more sheltered spot.  Regardless, I'm not going to include a map of our approach, our campsite, or our ascent line.  Right now, most hikers on the Tongariro Crossing take a completely different approach, and we'd like to keep it that way!

In the evening, I experienced the most amazing sunset I've ever seen in my entire life.  We were above the clouds...  could see Mt. Taranaki peeking through, in the distance...  the colors were otherworldly.  Nothing beats this...

...except this:  while watching the sun set in the west, I turned around and saw the nearly full moon rising over Ngauruhoe.  

This world is one great dewdrop, indeed.

P.S.  Summit day(s) and more coming up later.  Stay tuned!

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Reading a Landscape: Part I

My introduction to reading a landscape was the book, Reading the Forested Landscape:  A Natural History of New England, which I borrowed from Cornell Outdoor Education’s library (thanks, COE!).  This book showed how to recognize the signs of both natural events, such as blow down and beaver activity, and human actions, such as logging and pasturing, based on telling signs.

On our first nature walk as a group, we talked through one of the landscapes in our own backyard.

What can we see and learn from this forest vista?

The bluffs and ridges all around the Coromandel were formed by volcanic activity.  This is interesting to me, because many of the hills here remind me of the hills around Ithaca, which were formed via glacial activity, and the ridges here remind me of the Adirondack High Peaks, which were formed via tectonic movements.

You can see from the picture that different trees grow on the ridgelines compared to the sides of the ridges.  In this landscape, kauri and celery pine grow on the ridges, while kanuka grows on the hillsides.

Different trees fill different ecological niches.  The ridgelines are exposed to more light, but also are exposed to more wind and have poorer quality, more acidic soils.  Overall, there is probably less competition between plant species on the ridges than the hillsides.  On the protected hillsides, the soil is a higher quality, and opportunistic species have filled the valleys.

The trees on these hillsides are relatively small, indicating that the forest is young and still early in its process of succession.  When you are walking through the forest on these hillsides, there is a lot of smaller trees, densely packed.  There was definitely human disturbance which wiped out the old growth forest that preceded this relatively young forest.

Unfortunately, I’m not nearly as good at reading a landscape as I would like to be.  Even more unfortunately, I think reading a landscape is a dead or dying art.  I hope this series of posts will be a small stand against that trend.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Sailing Clouds, No Rain

Right now, we're in a major drought here in Tuateawa.  This is an issue because we use rainwater for all of our water needs.  No water means we get to drink beer (=good), but it also means that we don't shower (=bad).

It hasn't rained during the day since I arrived, one month ago.  We'll get some clouds, maybe a bit of drizzle (it's called "mizzle" here, and "ithacating" at home).  There have been a few rain showers at night, which is very exciting inside the tent, because it sounds like the heavens are falling.  Unfortunately, the showers don't last long and, although they sound loud inside the tent, they're not very heavy.  It's not replacing the water we use, much less filling up our water tank.

On the subject of weather, here's a video I took of the clouds sailing over the bay.  9 minutes, 17 seconds compressed into 16 seconds.  Unfortunately, the clouds didn't bring rain.

A storm brews over the bay...  but no rain.

Mizzle over the water brings rainbows, though.

Monday, March 22, 2010

NZ 2010: We Love Bureaucracy (Major Update)

Dave has the worst luck with bureaucracy out of everyone I know.  To provide an incredibly condensed summary:  in order to get the visa he wanted, he needed to prove that he is leaving the country.  The visa would be issued according to the date on his onward travel ticket.  (Fortunately for me, I already have both a working holiday visa and a work permit valid until February 2011.)  So, we needed to decide when we would leave New Zealand.

Now, most of the following post is total conjecture that we cooked up just a few days ago, and I expect the plans will change a million times, so I've put in bold the parts that are certain.

Here goes...

...we'll be in New Zealand until December 31, 2010 (!), when we fly to Sydney to watch the New Year's Eve fireworks and stay up all night partying.  We're thinking of immediately hopping on another plane (like, New Year's morning) to go straight to Brisbane to tend to our injured livers and go snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef.  Then probably to Singapore, because it looks like tickets are cheap, and immediately to Bangkok.  Maybe.  Or Manila.  Maybe not.

But yeah, shoot, that's basically a whole year in New Zealand.  Three times longer than I thought I'd stay.  Huh.  That's hilarious!  How did that happen?

What will we do for the rest of the year?

For the months of April and May, Dave and I will drive all over the North and South Islands, living in a van when we're not hiking and camping (Milford Track, here I come!).  In exchange for using a program van, we've committed to coming back to Tuateawa for the month of June to work our asses off planting lots and lots and lots of trees.

For the months of July and August, the New Zealand winter months, we may go back to the South Island to look for work in a ski resort.  Dave is an avid and a strong skier and a novice outdoor educator to boot, and I could easily work in the hospitality industry.  We have the option to come back to Tuateawa for the spring program from September through December, if all goes well in June.  Alternatively, we may WWOOF (willingly work on an organic farm(s)) for our room and board and to gain more experience with organic/ biodynamic food production and/or permaculture.  The goal is to more-or-less break even financially when we leave NZ.

This post has a lot of text, so I'll end with a happy image of Dave and I in the spa bath.  We built this, from the hearth to support the vat as the water heats to the deck around the pool.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Coromandel Roads (Subtitle: Motion Sickness)

The Coromandel Peninsula is very rural, and part of that rural character is its unpaved roads, potholes, and one lane bridges (just like being back in Ithaca, minus the snow).  Of the roads leading to Tuateawa, the road from Thames to Coromandel is paved, and the road through the hills across the peninsula from Coromandel to Tuateawa is unpaved and incredibly winding.

Here’s the topography of the peninsula:

View Larger Map

Google Maps doesn’t even show the road between Coromandel and Tuateawa:

View Larger Map

As we were driving the other day, I took some video out the window of our rickety old Toyota van.  Hold on to yer hats (and yer stomachs)…  we’re going for a ride.  You might want earplugs.


Enjoy the quail jumping out of the way?  Not feeling the motion sickness yet?  Here’s another short clip, where you can get a sense of how narrow the roads are as the hillside nearly takes out my camera.


As a note for my Yankee friends and family, Kiwis drive on the left side of the road.  Kiwi vehicles have the driver’s seat on the right and the passenger’s seat on the left.  I’m sitting behind the passenger seat to take these videos.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Mt. Moehau: Traverse, Then Traverse More

On Tuesday, we took a trip up to the far northern part of the peninsula with the intention of climbing Mt. Moehau, the highest point on the peninsula.

When we got to Stony Bay, we found out that the track was closed, but the woman tending the campground had some other suggestions for us.  We headed through a grove of large trees and into the forest to wander for a while.

Laura stands on the downed trunk of a huge tree, with more huge trees in the background.

We ended up on a trail next to a creek, traveling upstream for a while, until we crossed the creek and headed across a ridge. 

into the woods...

We traversed, then traversed some more, then kept traversing across this ridge.  At some point we realized we were going nowhere, and slow, but it didn’t matter: I was there to be in the forest and to be moving, not to get anywhere.  Journey, not destination.

Along the way, I saw my first wetas.  They were dead, but they were still pretty interesting!

Saturday, March 13, 2010

NZ Conservation Ecology & Really Old Trees

We recently took our first nature walk as a group since I arrived.  I really enjoyed tramping around in the woods.  Our program administrator, Ogre Jon, knows a lot about New Zealand forests, which means I get to learn a lot when I’m tramping with him.  For example, we spent a while discussing the landscape around us.  Here he discusses the reasons why we are working to restore native plant species in the valley below:

We went way off the track for the majority of the walk, so I got plenty of exercise climbing and twisting under, over, and around everything in my path.

The highlight of the walk was our end destination:  a 1,300 year old kauri in the back of the valley behind our land.

One thousand, three hundred years old!!!

Here are more pictures from the day.  The album is fairly small, because I left out all of the pictures I took of particular plant species (not terribly interesting).

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Whanake and The Trig

On Thursday, our free day, Dave and I decided to take a little nature walk up the ridge across from the front of the house.  The map on our wall labels it "Whanake," and says it has an elevation of 305 meters (1,000 feet).

We almost couldn't find the trailhead, but a friendly gentleman on a bike showed us the path and told us it would lead us to "The Trig."  What's a Trig?!?  I enjoyed a silly adventure looking for The Trig, as well as some beautiful views and interesting learning opportunities about the New Zealand forest.  Dave has been in NZ far longer than me, so he was able to show me some interesting aspects I wouldn't have noticed.

How about spider webs so strong they can catch fish?

Or a tree that has a very unique defense against parasitic plants?

Or how about a creature that started its life around the time Lief Eriksson landed in North America, 1000 years ago?

Finally, here are some photos from the day:


House Tour

Thursday was a free day, so I had plenty of time to play around on the computer, including uploading photos and making a video tour of my temporary home here in Tuateawa.

Welcome home!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Love is in the Air (Stick Bug Sex)

This might cross the weird line for some, but I thought it was neat.

When Dave and I were working on the spa bath deck, I happened to notice a stick bug on the roof post of the gazebo.  Then I noticed that there was a smaller stick bug on her back!

stick bug sex.  he's got his "arm" around her.  awww.

When both sexes of stick insect exist, the female is always larger.  The smaller males are always more difficult to identify than females, and in some cases, impossible to identify unless seen with a corresponding female.

attempted coitus interruptus?  suddenly, the female stick bug started walking away from the male while they were still attached!

When reproducing sexually, the female will often carry the male on her back for several hours to a few weeks (!), pausing their buggy sex only to lay eggs (they can eat independently during this time--just picture a buffet of leaves instead of strawberries and chocolates).

she dragged the male up the post.  somehow, he held on while waving around his little "arms."

Ladies, have you ever wondered muttered under your breath that you wished men didn't exist?
Well, in some stick insect species, males are not known to exist, or to occur very infrequently!

Elbow Grease

As beautiful as Tuateawa is (and it's beautiful), there's a lot of work to be done here.  We work either on the land doing projects directly related to conservation or at the resident house doing projects to make life more enjoyable for the folks doing the conservation work.

Dave did a great summary post of some of the things he's worked on here.  This is a very quick outline of some of the work I've done in the past 2.5 weeks.  It's definitely not a complete list...  actually it's based on the projects for which I have pictures!

Trail Clearing:
(at the land - one of my favorites)

Planting Flax:
(at the land - flax is a really important plant for stabilizing ecosystems here, especially wetlands and flood plains.  this was the dirtiest i've been in a long time)

"Tree Love:"
(at the house and the land - digging up seedlings, settling them into the nursery, & prepping to transplant them)
(one of my favorite projects)

Building a Spa Bath...
(at the house - a spa bath will make working in the winter much more tolerable, and the cool, damp winter months are the best times to plant seedling trees here.)

...building the deck of the spa bath:
(the "ol' fashioned" way - with a hammer and saw)

...bricks and mortar:
(building the structure to contain the wood fire and support the vat)
(the woman in the picture is laura, not me)

So there you have it:  good days of work in the fresh air and sunshine.  Not always glamorous or interesting, often uncomfortable, always tiring.  Yet for every tree I settle into our little nursery (we prepped 92 the other day), I think of the future, when that little eight-inch seedling will stand eighty feet tall.  I probably won't be around to see that day, which is both a humbling and reassuring thought.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Good Morning, Sun

One of the residents here has a background in marketing and media, and she's been taking a lot of photographs and video of life in the Valley.  One morning last week, we had to wake up before the sun to take care of some issues on the land.  She took the opportunity to create a time-lapse video of the sunrise over the water from our deck.  This is 20 minutes of video condensed into 30 seconds.

The birth of a new day.  Enjoy each one.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Pita Bread

I'm on food team tomorrow; I'm planning on making homemade hummus with homemade pita bread, and I've got some sprouts started as well.  This is my first time sprouting (don't really like sprouts; maybe they're better when they're very fresh) and my first time making pita bread.  I made the pita bread today, and they turned out so well.  It was so easy!

Homemade Pita Bread
Makes 16 breads

  • 4 tsp. yeast
  • 2 tbs. sugar (or honey)
  • 2 1/2 c. cups lukewarm water
  • 6 cups whole wheat flour
  • 3 tsp. salt
  • 2 tbs. olive oil

If using active dry yeast, "wake up" the yeast by mixing it with the water and sugar and waiting ~10 minutes, until frothy.  Otherwise, mix dry ingredients, and then add wet ingredients.  Mix with a wooden spoon, and then your hands.  The flour should all be incorporated and the dough should not be sticky.  Knead for at least 10 minutes.  Lightly coat the dough in olive oil, place in a large bowl, and cover with a kitchen cloth.  Allow the dough to rise until it's doubled in size (it took three hours for my dough to rise).

Preheat the oven to really freaking hot.  At least 400 degrees, 500 degrees if your oven goes that high.  Also heat up your baking surface (cookie sheet, baking stone).  Punch down the dough.  Separate into 16 same-sized balls.  Allow the dough to relax for 10-20 minutes.  Roll out the dough balls with a rolling pin to ~1/4 inch thickness on a floured surface.  Bake in batches until puffy, 3-8 minutes.

My first four pitas.  Only two puffed up...  later batches were more successful!
Hints for puffy pitas:
  • Make sure your oven is really freaking hot.
  • Don't open the oven door while they're baking.  The steam in the bread will help the breads puff up.
  • Don't roll out the breads too thinly.  If they're too thin, they won't puff up.