Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Life's a Beach...

Hello, hello.
Just off my latest, glorious tramp.
Last week I reunited with Glacier friend and bomber hiking companion, Nate, and we hit the Abel Tasman coastal track for a gorgeous five-day hike.

We camped by the beach, right next to the waves, every night. We probably walked down a dozen sandy shores. The sand and shells exfoliated our nasty feet until they were smooth and clean, then kept grinding them down until they were nasty once again... Red-billed gulls begged for food. Soot-black variable oystercatchers regarded us with their bright red eyes. Fur seals paid us no mind as they sausaged and blorped about on sharp rocks, oblivious to any edges felt under such generous layers of blubber.

Fatty MaGoo
The tide tricked us... calling us out on our nonchalance and poor-planning. Turns out tidal charts do matter! We found this out one afternoon when we waited, tucked behind a grass tussock, hunched out of the wind and rain, waiting on a thin sandy island spit for a few long hours, waiting for the tide to lower enough to cross the water. I believe the last thing I said out loud as we walked ahead of a large camp of people waiting was "let's teach these softies something about tough!" Ha. The ocean. So humbling. Anyway, that waiting delayed us substantially, and we didn't make camp that night until after dark. In the rain. But we did cook dinner in the tent. First time I was glad to have no bears around.

But oh! In the last hour of daylight, we stumbled out of the darkening maunka and fern woods, and on to another beach. Cue the most incredible double-rainbow over the ocean, all glowing pink in sunset light. I held my breath, expecting to see baby dolphins breaching under the arc, splashing up candy-scented, heart-shaped bursts of golden sea spray. It was like that. Like a trapper-keeper folder from the early 90s, all done up in pink and purple bubbles and glitter, koalas and unicorns. It was amazing.
Feels just like livin' in paradise...
Those pesky tides also urged us to get up at 5am, in the dark, to battle an army of hideous mosquitoes, to hike the four hours fast, to make the low tide crossing. And for this we received an perfect seaside sunrise.

Naturally, all of this is highly, highly recommended behavior.

Thanks, Nature!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

So I Met this Eel...

Just off the Nydia Track from a quick overnight mini-tramp.
The highlight?
Petting an eel.

Walking along the trail, we came upon a beautiful pool, deep and clear, in a river bend. Nailed to mossy beech tree above the water was a homemade, hand-painted sign, sort of in the Winnie the Pooh vein, which simply read:  "No Fishing, Pet Eel"

I stood there for a moment, trying to make sense of this sign. Until, as if on cue, appeared said eel. And oh, what an eel! Even looking back on it now, I am surprised by how much I liked this eel. How quickly, and how completely. It charmed me. It just looked, well, friendly. It looked like a Hayao Miyazaki character. About three feet long (that's a meter to all you metric-lovers!), it sidled on up along the shore, side fins softly whippling, and said hello. Okay, it didn't actually speak, but honestly, the whole scene was so magical, it would not have surprised me if I were offered three wishes by the lithe fish. It had pale blue eyes. It opened its mouth just above the water's surface. It appeared smiley. And slimey.

Taking the sign language as a verb and not an adjective, I pet the creature. Well, I touched it on the snout with my fingertip (then promptly jumped back and started laughing like a delighted maniac). Actually, I did this three times, in between offering it bread... which seemed like the best of bad trail food options (being fairly certain that eels don't enjoy raisins or cous cous). Eels are not big fans of bread, evidently. I contemplated taking a swim, but wasn't quite brave enough for that. Instead I just crouched down low by the water, utterly mesmerized by this amazing, happy, animal. It was the strangest thing, how much I wanted to be near to it.

I'd been wanting to see a New Zealand eel since before I even arrived here. While at Orion I helped read and edit James Prosek's essay on eels and Maori culture. During that time I also read the manuscript for the book (reviewed here) the essay was taken from, which is highly recommended. Incidentally, James is an incredible artist, who you should check out.

Read his Orion essay here.

Incidentally, I am pretty sure this one was a longfin eel (Anguilla dieffenbachii) to Linnaeus, kaiwharuwharu to the Maori. They are endemic to New Zealand, can grow up to two meters, and don't reach breeding age until they are 90. They live most of their lives in freshwater, but travel to the open ocean to spawn. Then they die shortly there after. They get old. Their conservation is very important here.

Off tomorrow for a five day tramp on the Abel Tasman coastal track....
wishing you all well!

Monday, January 17, 2011

In Preserves is the Preservation of the World

Plums. So many, many plums.
Shiny happy tops, straight out of the 1950's box.
Apricots in their sweet sugar bath.
Air bubbles: Search and Destroy.
Sticky fingers.
A taste of summer, for the rainy winter.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Vitis Vinifera

Wine. I love it. You love it. Bacchus loves it. But where does it come from?

Paul and Jacqui grow about seven acres of vines. They grow Sauvignon and Pinot grapes and are Bio-Gro Organic certified. Vineyards are planted in long rows that run north to south. Round about this time of year, it is time to leaf-pluck around the east-facing bunches. And so we spent some time walking down the rows, thinning select leaves to let the sun shine on the small, bright green Sauvignon bunches. You don't thin on the west side because the sun gets too intense and the little guys can actually get sunburned, eventually cooking on the vine.

I can relate. My skin is forever greasy with thick layers of 85 proof sunscreen. The sun is more intense here. You can really feel it's power. Sometimes I think it is trying to kill me. I could probably get sunburned my moonlight if I tried. It is a problem. But. I digress.

So you walk down the line, plucking a leaf here and there, enjoying the rhythm of the rustle and snap, letting the grapes get some, but not too much sun. Apparently these shaded grapes produce a taste rich in gooseberry flavors, while more tanned grapes give a sweeter, more tropical, passionfruitish flavor that is so desirable in Sauvignon Blancs.

Because they are organic, their vines are a bit wild. Some plants thrive in great leafy towers, tossing new vines out and up like shaggy arms raised to the sun. Some plants limp along, humble and yellowing, but still bearing fruit. Those vines get a little extra compost love. There is something friendly about the rows, something inviting. I found a birds nest in one. Perfect cup with five bright blue, speckled eggs inside.

This happy scene provides a stark contrast to the vines next door, over the fence, and all over the region. Sprayed with chemicals, beefed up then trimmed back, conventional vines seriously look like a crewcut green army, bulging with 'roided out super vines. They look like they are marching, like they are coming to get you. Conventional Grapes hold on to more pesticides than other fruits and vegetables. They can be especially dirty with toxins. Big growers sometimes harvest their fruit too early, then spray it with sugar water to achieve maximum sweetness. And that's just naaasty.

We all know this... but buy small, when you can. Buy organic.

Friday, January 14, 2011

O, Possum

Alright, so I've been getting questions about the possums. I feel the need to clarify that we are not talking about that rat-faced, pink-tailed, dead-acting Opossum of North America. (Sorry too disappoint those among you who were reveling in the idea of kiwis walking around in barbaric ragged, gray fur capes fringed with bare tails swinging...)

Turns out these little brushtail possums  are reasonably cute.

Unfortunately they are also hideously invasive, procreationaly gifted, night-stalking, tree-killing, diabolical bird-murderers. These crimes and others have landed them the dubious title of Public Enemy No. 1, although stoats are a close second. Both species are destroying the native flora and fauna, taking an especially heavy toll on the beloved flightless birds, like kiwis and keas, by eating their eggs and chicks.

New Zealanders are quick to bitch about these fuzzy pests (first introduced by settlers to start up a fur trade, go figure, they are often called "squash-ums"). They trap and kill them with chilling enthusiasm. Traps are everywhere, poison is dropped from the skies into certain areas...water is poisoned... The DOC says this warpath has reduced the estimated population from over 70 million to around 30 million over the last two decades. Well that is promising... Only 30 million to go, boys! Maybe the government should think about introducing some predatory cane toads next. Teach them to hunt possum. With small spears. Brilliant.

But in typical kiwi do-it-yourself fashion, there is some lemonade to be had with all of these lemons. They call it merinomink, or possumdown, or Eco-fur. While the names are ridiculous, the notion is a good one and all of the fur comes from wild-caught pest animals. No matter how unnerving it is to see a truck drive by with the side painted "cashmere extermination," I have to say, I am glad the animals are used for something. I don't know what PETA would say.

Maybe the idea will catch in the states and your next pair of fancy Christmas socks will be made of rat-fluff or pigeon-suede...

Thursday, January 13, 2011


Oh, and they have a few cats, the king of which is the biggest house cat I have ever seen.

He is a main coon, of course, and must weigh thirty pounds. I have no idea what that is in kilos, and refuse to learn. His regal countenance is only slightly diminished by his recent, unfortunate haircut...a sort of shaved sides Mohawk.

He is nearly the size of a bobcat, with a foxtail. When we watches you, it is a bit unnerving, because he seems not unlike a human who was turned into a cat by a witch's curse.

His name? James Brown.

Hot pants!


I feel like I hit the wwoofing jackpot.

I am at my latest farm...a small family operation just outside of Renwick in the Marlborough wine region of the northern south island.

We have been picking plums and preserving them and boxes of apricots all the long morning (a deliciously tricky and sticky business), and are now free for a while... I am sitting outside of my bedroom, which is within a cottage near the main house...barefooted on the shady, jasmine-vined, sun-dappled veranda, a cool breeze ruffling my red and white checked shirt as I look out toward the vineyard ahead, and the mountain ridges beyond. The first is green with trees, the second distant enough to appear a shadowy blue, crowned with clouds.

The olive groves are behind me. The make their own oil here, and call it Antipode, which was a new word for me. It means exact opposite, or a world apart from all others. They only produce small, award-winning batches of organic, cold-pressed, extra-virgin olive oil, made from three varieties--Leccino, Frantoio, and Pendolino. God bless the Italians for their beautiful language. Those names make you want to lick your lips. Those olives make the best oil I have ever had.

To my left is the main house, framed by French gardens lined with young lemon trees and bunches of fading lavender. Rows of roses and more flowers to my right, then the veggie gardens and tomato plants, then old walnut trees whose nuts you can crack open with your hands, the fruit trees, bent to the earth, laden with small but bright and bountiful plums. Plums you pull off by the handful. Plums that look more like cherries.

Tomorrow we will work with the vines. Pinot and Sauvignon grapes. They grow about seven acres worth...they don't make their own wine yet, but instead send all the fruit to one winemaker, who makes his wine only from their grapes.

It is called The Darling.

Oh, sweet thing.

Monday, January 10, 2011

More Learning before the Boat Left...

Back on the mainland after a four hour cruise on the mailboat. Let's just say it was an interesting week. I did manage to learn a few more things before leaving though:

1. Dead sharks make good eel bait, though smell more than a little unfortunate.
And yes, that shark lived in the bay you have been swimming in all week.

2. Stingrays have a web-like skeleton of cartilage, and a meaty texture when grilled.

3. Glowworm congregations are gorgeous, and shine like a shrine of constellations in a cup of cave, tiny and blue.

4. If you pull out the beloved angelica herb, you will be sent home. Like, now.

5. Dead! Possums! Everywhere!

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Some Things I Have Learned This Week

1. Ostriches have enormous ear-holes on the back of their heads, and are obsessed with shiny objects. And they are fun to pet.

2. Noah's Ark probably housed baby dinosaurs.

3. A zealous donkey's bray sounds like a hurricane alarm.

4. Competitive gumboot tossing can be both tricky and dangerous.

5. Peacock feathers go for a lot of money in Dubai. Oh, and that possum-fur cape will cost you $1500. And yes, those possums were trapped in our back yard.

6. Tails are popular in New Zealand. Whether they have made a comeback or never left is unclear to me. And yes, by tail I mean the popular 90s rattail hairdo, not the potentially prehensile appendage.

7. Tug-of-war is a serious and difficult business.

8. It is possible to get sunburned through two shirts here.

9. A vat of Porridge for breakfast everyday is as tedious as it sounds.
Praying over it does not help.

10. Swimming in the ocean is so, so good. And the saltwater makes you float like a buoy. I guess I already knew that, but it is a pleasure to be reminded.

11. The Maori Haka dance is a damn soul-stirring thing to watch.

12. New Zealand men like their shorts short. Really short. 

13. The Pelorus Sound is the green-lipped muscle capital of the world. This does not change my opinion that they look like and have the texture of chewing gum.

14. Composting toilets are less effective when near overflowing.

15. New Zealand has bad coffee. Instant coffee. Bad. Baaad.

16. Group philosophical conversations (in English) between multiple people of different nationalities are usually hilarious. Especially when you are the only native English-speaker.

17. Powdered milk is better in New Zealand. As in, it is actually palatable. Who knew?

18. Kawa-Kawa leaves are delicious to munch on or drink in tea.

19. Sandflies = devil spawn.

20. There are some really odd places in the WWOOF directory.

Monday, January 3, 2011

He Ain't Heaphy, He's my Brother

Happy New Year!

If the first day of 2011 is any indication of how the rest of the year will follow, then I feel very fortunate indeed. Last week, after the floods subsided and all eccentric arc-building was put on hold, I was itching to do another hike. Or tramp, as they call it here. I don't know why, but I still find this term amusing.

So I met up with a friend from Glacier, the tremendously awesome Nate Muhn, who is also traveling around the island, and we decided to hike the Heaphy Track in the northwest corner of the south island. Being well-seasoned field workers and fool-hardy hikers, we decided that 80k in five days seemed we did it in three. It is true, the last few hours of the long, 40k middle day were murder on our feet, but still, I literally walked down the trail like a grinning fool. It was one of my favorite hikes of all time, anywhere. And that is saying something.

And what was it like?

Rainforests wild with thick vines, towering palm trees, ferns, and hanging lichen. The woods have so many different ways to be green. Then open stretches, reminding us of the southwest, sagebrush bushes replaced with a fragrant New Zealand shrub, whose name I have not yet found.

Rivers to cross, some soft with green mossy rocks, some raging with flood waters, and beautiful bridges to walk across. Stunted beech tree groves, families of twisting, crooked trunks, pale as the most delicate of camouflaged patterns. Eroded limestone mazes, castle ruins, hidey holes covered in more moss, velvety, deep, and thick. Curious birds leading the way, singing fantails, android tuis, bellbirds. The trail sun-dappled, mosiac of shade and light, thick with leaves and crunchy palm fronds.

And then the sea. The confluence where fresh and salt water collide...the hypnotic waves, crashing again and again. The sand, so powdery fine it sticks to skin in dark flecks. The clouds. The sky. The breeze. The blue.

Tonight I rest in Havelock.
Tomorrow I catch a ride with the mailboat to a remote bay in the Pelorous Sound, where I will WWOOF at a place called Tira Ora. The plan is a little vague and mysterious at the moment. But I was promised a litter of eight new puppies, so, I am pretty much willing to put up with anything that might come.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

By the Numbers

A brief account of the past week since Chirstmas, strictly by the numbers,
in no particular order:

187: inches of rain. Okay, that is a false number, but the rain was epic. Biblical, even.
36: hours, at least, of rain.
2: big, badass glaciers I could not hike to because of said rain.
3: infrared sauna sits I sat in place of glacier-hiking.
3: whiskey drinks consumed while waiting for said rain to cease.
950: kilometers driven.
80: dollars it costs to fill up Gina with gas.
30: kilometers of drive-time spent worrying Gina would run out of gas.
80: kilometers hiked on the Heaphy Track.
40: of those kilometers hiked on the last day of the year.
1: live possum seen lurking in the dark.
43: dead possums on the road.
200: steps it takes to get across your average Indiana Jones trail swing-bridge.
16: number of inches of creek water an industrious shuttle-van driver was willing to ford.
2178: estimated sandfly bites. I look diseased.
100: estimated number of times the word "glorious!" was shouted.