October 2006


All,

Here are the links to our two-part first installment, which also should be linked at the Friends of the Earth website by now. It’s up on Gather.com.

Part 1:
http://www.gather.com/viewArticle.jsp?articleId=281474976821714

Part 2:
http://www.gather.com/viewArticle.jsp?articleId=281474976821718

We just got off the Milford Track, “the best walk in the  world,” and were scheduled to hike the nearby Routeburn Track but it’s closed for avalanche danger. So we’re headed south the Catlin Mountains instead. More later.

Moving south along the Wild Coast, we saw the famous Pancake Rocks of Punakaiki, a curious limestone formation, and moved on toward Fiordland National Park for our scheduled walks in Milford Sound and Routeburn.

The Wild Coast must have been named for the size and ferocity of its waves. All up and down the coast seems like a surfer’s paradise, if not for the deadly rocks and breakers that litter the water to the horizon. (Who knows, maybe it is anyway. But we’re here in the off-season.) Waves coming in rows like battalions six or seven deep, six, seven, eight feet high, crashing into the rocky shore, sometimes right along the road, so that it seems stormy and dangerous on even the most peaceful days. It’s spring here, yes, but the beaches still seem strangely deserted.

This place resembles nothing so much as Washington State, or some parts of British Columbia, with obvious differences in flora and fauna. Imagine the San Juans with palmettos … or the Hoh Rainforest with parrots … and better, longer beaches.

Along the way south we stopped in Franz Josef Glacier, a tiny hamlet at the base of – you guessed it – the Franz Josef Glacier, but insistent rain precluded any hikes. Later we spent my birthday on a heli-hike at nearby Fox Glacier, which is far less visited but just as amazing.

The two glaciers sit near the west coast halfway down the South Island and are the only glaciers in the world that are advancing: As global warming worsens, all the rest, all over the planet, continue to recede. Fox, where we spent half a day clambering clumsily around the ice dunes, advances about a meter a day but loses 80 centimeters of that, making its total gain miniscule, negligible. Effectively a standstill. It is between 135 and 350 meters deep and 13 kilometers long.

I’d never been in a helicopter before, and I’d never been on a glacier, so it seemed like a decent way to spend my birthday. As many of you know, I just turned 25. It was of course very costly – the equivalent of US$200 for each of us. I’ve been called a cheapskate and I don’t mind, because for that kind of money I like to know I’m getting good value. Some gold soup, or a bionic limb. Or a good old-fashioned human hunt – something like that. But in the end I had no complaints.

They have 200 wet days a year at Fox Glacier – “like England, only wetter,” according to one of our guides – and this is the wet season, so it was extremely fortunate that we got a good, mostly clear, day to go up. Our chopper pilot was a bit of a showoff, zooming close to the canyon walls that enclose the glacier, giving us a close-up of a fleeing chamois  (mountain goat, introduced in 1908 and flourishing) and dive-bombing the spectacular Victoria Falls that empties into the glacier’s northern edge. Okay, I thought, there’s my money’s worth.

We landed on a “helipad” amid the moulins and pillows and spires and plinths of ice and were given crampons and hiking sticks. Our lead guide, Andy, has been doing this sort of thing five days a week for three years, so we were in good hands. Before that he worked as a guide on nearby Cook Mountain, New Zealand’s highest. He led us around several cracks and crevasses of deep turquoise that streaked the endless ice, through a couple ice caves shaded a similar greenish-blue hue, and to Victoria Falls, where snowmelt from the high rock wall that makes up the glacier’s northern enclosure pours over a bed of scree onto, and under, the ice. Great ramparts of ice on the edge of the falls are constantly breaking loose and crashing fantastically into the rocks. Red rata trees and a mantle of temperate-rainforest scrub cover the steep-sided walls that have been scooped out by the glacier; a seasonal curtain of fog hangs over the top of the cliffs, hemming us in like a blanket, obscuring views of the snowy peaks beyond.

The only sound besides our panting: the trickle of melting ice as rivulets and streams and waterfalls fill pools of turquoise crevasses. Glacial water is of course the purest on earth: we had many mouthfuls as we went along.

***

Never enough time. Before we knew it we were back on the road, zooming across yawning pastoral valleys, past muddy furrows of farmland, homestays and farmsteads and coffled cattle, sheep, deer, horses, goats, more sheep, chugging uphill under the shadow of cloud-shrouded Mount Tasman. Through tiny townlets like Haast, Makarora and Maungawera, curving along highlands roads, Trey on guitar, one Scenic Reserve after another. Past vast sweeps of beech, oceans of kiekie, glacial rivers light blue like swimming pool water, soaring kea, swooping tui, the singsong trill of invisible birds, galumphing in poor groaning Melba across plenteous one-lane bridges and whining uphill again. And just around the next bend will be a placid icy mountain lake just like – and totally unlike – all the ones we’ve seen before.

We think of the people on those “Kiwi Experience” buses and have a good, long laugh.

The first installment of our Positive Vision Project for Friends of the Earth. … We’re working out the kinks with Gather.com and the FoE people and should be able to link it to here within the next few days.

CONTINUED FROM LAST WEEK

 

“Go away, possum!” Lisa clapped her hands emphatically. “Go ‘way!”

 

It was late – I don’t know how late. The birds were silent. We were alone in the campground. We’d gone to sleep soon after dusk, crawling, sorely, into our one-and-a-half-man tent following a long day’s hike. After the customary tossing, turning and grumbling, we’d fallen into the usual uneasy slumber.

 

It was soon disturbed. In the vestibule outside Lisa’s door, where we’d stashed our food and garbage, there came a rustling – at first tentative, then more deliberate. It woke Lisa. She waited for the sound to repeat. It might have been the wind. It repeated. It wasn’t the wind. She clapped her hands as she would when addressing a dog and shouted:

 

“Go ‘way, possum!”

 

Her shout had one immediate effect: it cleared the drowse from my head instantly. It did not, however, disturb in the slightest the snooping of our marsupial marauder.

 

Then, on my side of the tent (where there was no food) came a brushing sound, much like a hairy rodent moving past the rain-fly. Very much like it. And another. And, at our feet, another.

 

We were surrounded.

 

It was a Blair Witch moment. All our food was imperiled. We were alone, the sole target of a hungry possum army. We had to save the victuals. (All that oatmeal, that precious, precious oatmeal … ) And stop our garbage from being spread all over the campground. But that meant leaving the safety of the tent.

 

Before the full weight of our situation had sunk in, Lisa had unzipped her mummy bag, unzipped her door and pulled the food inside. But the garbage had been seized.

 

I barely had a chance to register what was happening and she was gone. Then I heard the screams.

 

“What is it?”

 

No answer.

 

“Are you all right?”

 

Another scream. Or rather, a startledcry. “Oh!”

 

Lisa had gathered up our garbage, which was strewn about the camp, bits of banana peel, a salmon tin, crumpled noodle packages and granola bar wrappers. She scared the chief offender up a tree. Then she turned around.

 

Beady red eyes stared at her out of the darkness. Two, four, six, eight of them, shining menacingly in the dim light of her headlamp. Suddenly one of the fuzzy reprobates charged. Really it was just going for a stray wrapper, but it looked like a charge. And Lisa yelped.

 

Before I could get out of my sleeping bag she was back in the tent, panting, her face pale in the faint moonlight. “They’re everywhere,” she confirmed. “Possums everywhere. Big as cats.”

 

“If they try to take the tent, we’re doomed,” I said, marshaling my thoughts for a plan of action. None emerged. (I have no head for strategy.) All we could do was wait out the night, hoping these nocturnal nasties weren’t advanced enough to attack en masse.

 

It was the least restful night of our hike, possibly of our trip so far. A few hours before dawn we lapsed into sleep. By 7:30 we had to be up to prepare breakfast, pack up and hit the trail: We had to reach our first tidal crossing by low tide, at 9 a.m.

 

On our way out of the Bark Bay camp we ran into Lew one last time. I mentioned our experience of the night before, expecting some sort of surprise, as there were no signs warning campers to protect their food from four-legged bandits.

 

“Oh sure,” Lew said matter-of-factly. “Possums. You would see lots of them hereabouts. Lots of possum trouble around here.” He gave us a big toothy smile to send us on our way.

 

***

 

The rest of our hike was blessed by unseasonably warm weather, without a drop of rain. Not until we were in the process of boarding the water taxi that took us back to Melba at the trailhead in Marahau did we see any kind of inclemency, any high winds, any dark clouds. It was a perfect hike.

 

We were lucky in more than just the weather. Our third night, at the campground in Awaroa, was also spent in uninterrupted privacy – besides the nonstop pelt of sandflies on our tent roof, a sound like sprinkling rain. We had no further possum trouble after our Bark Bay night of terror.

 

Our last tidal crossing, at the often-tricky Awaroa Inlet, went flawlessly. We tramped over muddy forest tracks and serene beaches, beaches without footprints beside sun-smeared bays, twinkling with whitecaps, sprays of mist hovering across the water’s surface. (Greene, describing Africa: “The long fingers of the palm leaves quite still which in the smallest suspicion of a breeze begin to play like fingers on a piano.” Here it was the same, until the last day, when the winds picked up, threatening gale.) Then, suddenly, we were done. Totaranui loomed up abruptly, just as we got into the Day Four rhythm.

 

A day after we left the track the big storm came down off the highlands and lashed the coast with whipping curtains of rain.

 

So ended the first of our three Great Walks. Up next, after some 10 days moving south along the west coast of the South Island: the Milford and Routeburn tracks, back-to-back. Eight days of cold, probably wet, wilderness, some of the best in the world. It will be early in the season. We can hardly expect the kind of good fortune we had on Abel Tasman.

Abel Tasman was a Dutchman, an explorer and the first white man to see New Zealand. Zeeland is one of the old names for Holland. Abel Tasman never set foot on the soil here. His ship, anchored off the northern coast of the South Island, was approached by curious Maori in December of 1642, and after some predictable miscommunication and misunderstanding, there was even more predictable bloodshed. Abel Tasman sailed away never to return.

Tasman also discovered Fiji. He didn’t get off the ship there, either.

The part of New Zealand that Tasman saw but didn’t touch is where we recently spent four days. It’s hard to imagine seeing this coastline and not feeling compelled to reach it. These days it’s one of the most popular hikes in the country, a “Great Walk” that stretches some 51 kilometers northward from Maranau to Wainui Bay. While North Korea was being rebuked by the world and the Tigers were shelling Oakland to move closer to their first World Series in 22 years, we threw 35 pounds of camping gear and food on our backs and headed for the woods. It was the right decision.

Abel Tasman National Park comprises 15,000 hectares (one hectare = 2.47 acres) of second-growth forest that has been a protected area since 1942, the 300th anniversary of Tasman’s abbreviated visit. Before that it was the province of the timber conglomerate. Had it not been for the work of one woman, Perrine Moncrieff, the park may never have been established, and one of New Zealand’s – and the world’s – best places would likely have become just another denuded monument to industry rapine.

Every step we took in the park made us gladder for Moncrieff’s efforts. We are not alone in our views. It’s obvious, when you first step foot on the track here, that this is a well-visited place – the country’s most-visited park, according to the literature. The path is smooth (we hiked ¾ of it in sandals), the signage ample, and even at the end of the supposedly slow season (mid-October) we saw plenty of visitors. The campgrounds are staffed and well-groomed –grass cut, leaves raked, no sign of garbage. The toilets even have little magnetic counters on the doors to determine when they’ve serviced enough trampers and need to be refurbished.

All very British, really. Efficient. Orderly.

Abel Tasman did not entirely escape what’s known as “the milling era.” Many acres were lost: most of the park is second-growth, with very few large, old trees remaining: kiekie, supplejack, black and hard beech predominate, and some old stands of kanuka and manuka remain. (I don’t know these trees by sight, aside from the beech and kiekie, but the guidebook is very detailed. Admit it, for a second there you were impressed.) I can say firsthand that the terrain is unpredictable, ranging from subtropical to desertine. Long precipitous ravines of vine-wrapped forest – dark, wet and cool – give way starkly to coarse scrub and an almost western-U.S. dryness: hot, sandy, knuckles of thorny root reaching up from the loamy soil: a profusion of sunlight baking fields of thorny brush. Great outcroppings of lichen-covered granite jut into the trail, which winds in places like a terrace around mountainous humps, before leading steeply down the rolling rock to secluded beaches.

The fauna is equally diverse: The birdcalls were beyond us but on our own we were able to identify wood pigeons, kingfishers and quail, of course tui (very common: resembles a magpie but trills sweetly), and what I’m pretty sure was a New Zealand falcon. As well as gannets and seagulls on the beaches. And ducks, lots of ducks.

Seals – big, brown, blubbery seals – cavorted in estuaries and rivers in several areas of the park. They tell you to stay at least 20 meters from seals when they’re on land, because it’s not their natural environment and they get jittery and may charge. A charging seal is more problematic than it sounds. In water, though, they’re always playful. Lisa, standing on a suspension footbridge 30 meters overhead, recorded a group (pack? herd?) as they sunned their sleek fat bodies on the rocks. For a while they seemed to play a game with the falling leaves, batting at them with their rubbery flippers. Seal language sounds like angry coughing.

They say there are no native predators in New Zealand, but they’re wrong. They lie. I speak here of the dreaded sand fly. It didn’t take long for us to get acquainted with this evil bug.

No more ravenous creature exists under the sun or moon. On this hike we actually longed for mosquitoes (mozzies, in the local parlance), we were so weary of the ubiquitous sand fly. Mosquito bites, after all, stop itching after a few minutes. A sand fly can bite you and you’ll be scratching the same red welt two weeks later. They look harmless, about a quarter the size of a normal housefly, but sand flies attack in swarms and are undeterred by all but the most potent bug sprays. They are near impossible to kill by swatting. I got lucky and killed a few of them with point-blank shots of repellent. I enjoyed watching the little bloodsuckers writhe in agony before expiring: payment, in part, for the sins of their cousins. I wish I’d killed more, and I’m not sorry.

Ask a ranger and he or she will tell you the biggest problem in New Zealand’s parks is not sand flies, but possums. All along the track we spotted small, oblong cages marked “Predator Control” and designed to capture the possum, an invasive rodent much villainized by Kiwis. Seems they raid nests and garbage cans, and deprive birds of food. Some Aussie is said to have illegally imported them in 1837 or thereabouts, and now they number in the millions and can’t be eradicated. Even as New Zealand tries, they celebrate the effort by putting possums on postcards.

No word on the success of the effort, but none of the boxes we saw was occupied.

Later, we learned firsthand just how big the possum problem is in this country.

In the meantime, we thought we’d discovered a bigger problem. Our first night we camped at Anchorage, the park’s largest campground, and were quickly surrounded by a group of twenty kayaking Americans who stayed up late into the night, drinking and talking and seemingly encouraged in their rowdiness by their guide, a young Kiwi woman with a voice like a rooster. She spoke only in capital letters. I used to live with a guy like that, in college. Exclamation points at the end of every sentence: I WENT TO THE STORE AND BOUGHT SOME MILK! RIGHT ON!

Not good. But we weren’t going to be killjoys. It happens, we said, no big deal. Let it slide. But we were a little worried that it be the norm on this trip.

Our second night couldn’t have been more different. At a place called Bark Bay we were all alone. Campsites for eighty and we had the place to ourselves.

I asked Bark Bay’s ranger (they may call them something else here, don’t know) if it was unusual to have so much elbow room.

“Nothing’s unusual,” he said with the air of a country philosopher. His name was Lew. “It’s early in the season.”

“I only ask because last night we were at Anchorage and we had a large party of kayakers and they were up late – ”

“How late were they up?” he asked pointedly.

“Oh, only till about 10:30, 11 – ”

“And they were noisy?”

“Yes.”

“And they kept you awake?”

“For a while, yes, but – ”

“Were they on a guided tour?”

“Yes. But ” – I laughed a bit, nervously – “she, the guide that is, was the loudest one.”

He fixed me with a hard, inquisitive look. “Young woman? Short, lots of pep?”

“That’s the one.” I noticed suddenly that he was writing all this down. “But listen, I don’t want to get anyone in trouble – ”

“No trouble. But we’ve had this problem with them before. I know just who you’re talking about.” Lew finished his note-taking. “Now listen” – and he looked very seriously at me – “people come out here to get away from that sort of thing. I want you to have a nice, quiet night tonight. Sleep well. All right? Cheers.”

And off he went to make sure the bathrooms were well-stocked with toilet paper. I never got to tell him before we left in the morning that we would have slept perfectly well – if not for trouble of an altogether inhuman nature. Trouble that as much as he might like to, Lew couldn’t have done much to help us with.

Trouble the whole nation of New Zealand has struggled with.

Possum trouble.

TO BE CONTINUED

Hey everyone, just wanted to drop a note to let you know you can now view our New Zealand North Island pics by clicking here or by clicking on the photos on the right hand column in the blog. Enjoy! More photo brilliance with the South Island as our subject coming soon.

 P.S. If you haven’t already checked out our other amazing pictures, click here.

Okay, all right, here’s my first blog post. I can’t help that Marc, with all his writer’s pretensions, is an unabashed computer hog.

And despite what you all may think, I am still alive.

And I’ve been keeping notes. So I have to go back a bit and talk about Fiji. Fiji: the land where shoulders are sexy, the beer is warm and the showers are cold. But other than that, it’s paradise. Marc has already filled you in on most of our adventures so far, but here are a few tidbits I thought I’d add.

In my first few moments in Fiji I learned my first world travel lesson (especially for the visually challenged). I forgot my glasses in my checked luggage, which, to my dismay, stayed an extra day in L.A., and having taken out my contacts during the 11-hour flight to Nadi I spent my first day in Fiji blind as a bat.

After regaining our bags and my eyesight (God bless Air New Zealand), we headed off to the Yasawa Islands, a backpackers haven, and some much-needed unplugging from our hypercharged D.C. lives. At Mantaray Island Resort, many fruity drinks were imbibed and, despite my pathological fear of sharks, I had my first experience swimming in a coral reef.

After some trepidation (and figuring out how to use a snorkel and mask without inhaling massive quantities of saltwater and tiny reef fish), I set out. The water was crystal clear down to 30 feet, the coral is still healthy for the most part, and the variety of fish of every color, shape and size was truly astounding. There were stripy neon yellow and blue fish; schools of little, iridescent blue fish that suddenly turned yellow with the change of light; giant clams; a long-snouted, yard-long fish the shape of a walking stick; even a fish that flapped its fins up and down so that it looked like it was flying. And the coral! The colors ranged from red to yellow, blue and gray. Some were shaped like giant brains (remember the movie Cocoon? they were just like those … only I don’t think there were any glowing, fountain-of-youth-spewing aliens inside), and others like shelves or elk horns. We glided over it with our sea kayaks watching the fish of every sort watch us. And then there was the manta ray.

The special thing about this particular island we were staying on is that it was next to a virtual highway for that gentle giant of the deep—the manta ray. We happened to be visiting during the right season, when streams of nutrients brought in the krill, which the manta rays funnel into their mouths with flaps of skin that act like the paddles of a pinball machine. When they are sighted moving through the bay, the locals bang a large hollow tree—a kind of Fijian drum they once used to call warriors, now mostly used to call tourists to mealtime—to summon everyone to the boats.

With Pavlovian zeal, I answered the call and ran to the boat with snorkel and mask.

Several boatloads of us piled in and after taking our names (to later call roll to avoid abandoning us to our fate in the middle of the Pacific—see the movie Open Water), we were off at top speed. We jetted farther and farther and the water went from a shallow turquoise to a deep navy blue. Suddenly the pilots spotted our quarry and we were instructed to don our gear and plunge into the deep. Suddenly I was immersed in water too deep to see the bottom, surrounded by a dozen other thrashing humans turned clumsy aquatic creatures.

The adrenaline kicked in and I forgot this was my second day ever swimming in the ocean. Also I figured if there were sharks, chances are they would nab one of the other tourists first. The fatter ones were good candidates. Anyway, our guide called out “Manta ray!” and we swam in a school in that direction.

There it was, about 20 feet below us: a huge, black ray the width of a minivan, serenely coasting through the blue waters. Floating and swimming above it, I felt serene as well, despite a leaky mask and the fact that I had been deposited in the middle of the ocean with no instruction or experience. It was, truly, one of the coolest things I’ve ever done.

After what seemed like hours following our aquatic friend, one by one we flopped back into the waiting boat, glowing with glee. We were the few, the proud, the manta ray swimmers.

___________________________

Fiji gave us our fair share of culture shock. As I mentioned earlier, for women, baring of the shoulders, as well as the knees, is considered quite provocative. Hence I spent my time there – except of course the time I spent on the beach in turisto land – swaddled in my sulu (sarong) and tucked away in heavier tops. Marc also had a change of wardrobe during our visit to a local village—donning a sulu (skirt) as a sign of respect to the local chief. Tee-hee!

(No photographic evidence exists of this alleged event. – Marc)

(Drat! – Lisa)

Aside from the change in attire, Fiji was a wonderful country. The people are friendly, the environment relatively pristine, and the society in general pretty darned sustainable. Most food is locally produced and organic and delicious. More than eighty percent of the land is still owned by native clans, and most people still live traditionally. If the apocalypse hit tomorrow, this little corner of the Pacific would still be doing all right.

So maybe I’ll move here—depending on the outcome of the next election. Put that way, I’m not sure whom I want to win in November. J

So there it is – I finally posted to my own blog. At this rate, you’ll get my thoughts on New Zealand once we’ve been in Australia for three weeks.

Until then. . .Bula, vinaka vaka levu, adios and aloha!

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