Monday, June 30, 2008

They Sell Sanctuary

After our inpiring visit to Kapiti Island, we decided to take advantage of a cheap-admission day to check out the Karori Wildlife Sanctuary in the suburbs of Wellington. The sanctuary is set up as an inland island in order to encourage the repopulation of native birds in the city.

What is an inland island, I hear you ask? Basically, they have surrounded a large area of parkland with a predator-proof fence, and eliminated all of the mammals that lived inside the area.

The fence is made of a tight mesh that even the smallest mouse can't creep through. It goes down into the ground to prevent tunneling, and along the top is a rounded metal barrier, which prevents anything from climbing up and over, sort of like the squirrel guards on bird feeders.
So far this seems to be working, and a network of traps around the sanctuary is in place in case any stray rodents do manage to get in. With no mice, stoats or rats around, the birds can flourish. The results are already obvious to locals who have notice more birds in their neighbourhoods over the past few years.

Despite this, we didn't see a whole lot of birds while we were there. There was one kaka (North Island parrot) at a special feeder. Other than that, we only saw and heard a few birds around. So instead we had to enjoy the greenery, and the historic elements of the sanctuary.

One historic site there is an old dam, built around 1910. It creates the Karori Reservoir. I'm not sure if the reservoir is used for drinking water. There doesn't appear to be a pump house or anything around. But the dam seems to be in good shape.

There is also a small tunnel you're allowed to visit, which remains from an old gold mine. New Zealand had a gold rush in the 1860s, and although most of the gold was found on the South Island, it appears there was actually a bit in Wellington too! There's not much to the tunnel, but there are cave wetas inside, so we got to see a big bug.
All in all, it was a nice enough place to go for a walk, but it paled in comparison to Kapiti Island in terms of bird life. On the other hand, it costs $12 to get into Karori Sanctuary (although the day we went was a $2 special), while just the return ferry to Kapiti Island costs $55, and the permit to go there another $10. Still, if you are interested in birds, and visiting New Zealand, I'd go for the more expensive, more impressive version.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Book Review - Outdoor Leadership

Outdoor Leadership is not a new book. I picked it up at a charity book fair recently, and decided it looked interesting. It turned out to be a good choice (unlike some of the other books I picked up at the book fair!)

Back in Canada, I used to organise day hikes for small groups. However, I was never really comfortable with the idea of being the "leader" of these hikes. I didn't feel I had the skills or the experience to be a leader in the outdoors. The fact that I have a terrible sense of direction didn't do much to boost my confidence either! Thankfully, my leadership skills were never really tested in an emergency situation. Nobody was ever seriously hurt, and we never got so lost that a bit of backtracking wouldn't fix it.

Outdoor Leadership doesn't teach you about outdoors techniques. Instead, it focuses on what leadership means, and how to apply it to outdoor adventure situations. Even though I don't currently lead trips, I think it taught me a lot of valuable things. First of which was - even if you don't think your trip needs a leader (because it's just a group of friends or a family) that need will become apparent if something goes wrong. It also reminds us that you don't have to be the most experienced, skilled or fittest person on the trip in order to be a good leader.

The book outlines approaches to leadership which help you to improve your planning, keep everyone safe, encourage those who are struggling or not enjoying themselves, keep bad situations from getting worse (or dangerous), and keep the peace when the group disagrees about what to do.

There was a lot of thought and experience put into this advice, not only from the author, but through contributions from other leaders of outdoor pursuits and organisations. Much of the advice is useful in everyday life, as well as the wilderness.

He includes a chapter on women as outdoor leaders, which was one of the reasons I picked up the book. Women still face certain stereotypes when it comes to the outdoors, and often have to fight for the respect of their male peers and group members. But women can be very effective in the outdoors, even those who are not exceptionally physically strong. And women do take a different approach to leading than men, if they believe they can pull it off. Less secure women will often mimic male leadership styles they've seen because they think it's the only way to win respect.

Anyway, the book is well worth reading if you ever take groups out into the wild, whether working for a outfitting business, or volunteering with a hiking club. Even if the only group you lead is your family, you will appreciate some of the techniques for keeping everyone safe and happy, and getting the most out of the trip.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Discovering Your Inner Caveman

With apologies to G, I am going to reveal one of his little obsessions to the world. He has a thing for making fire. Not that he's a pyromaniac by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, he is more reluctant to start a fire than almost any camper I know. But his collection of flints and tinders rivals some outdoors shops.

Still, a flint firelighter is not quite primitive enough. G also wants to be able to light a fire by rubbing sticks together, like primitive cultures once did before white man got them hooked on matches. Now there are just a few elders out there who know this stuff - and Ray Mears.
The first trick is choosing the right wood. Having read up on native trees here in New Zealand, G knew that for his soft base he needed to find mahoe, also known as whiteywood. The nickname comes from the fact that a white lichen often grows on the branches of the mahoe. Once we started looking, we found that there was lots of mahoe growing around Wellington's parks.

The hardwood to use for the drill is traditionally from the kaikomako tree. At first we could not find this tree at all. Then on a nature walk in the Rimutaka Forest Park, there was not only a tree, but a helpful sign telling us that it was indeed the right kind. However, cutting branches off trees along nature walks is not the most noble practice, so we left it alone.
Later, however, we found an alternative hardwood tree called the kawakawa that is much more common in our area. Eventually we were able to gather a dry branch of kawakawa and a short section of mahoe to experiment with.

G wanted to try the bow and drill method, which is arguably the most effective and easiest on your hands. Two pieces of softwood are used as a base and top. You need to carve out a depression in each piece for the drill to sit in. On the base you also need to cut a groove on one side where the hot ash can accumulate.

The drill is a length of hardwood stripped of its bark and slightly trimmed at the ends to sit nicely in the depressions. The bow is also made of hardwood, with a length of cord tied to the ends.

The cord gets wrapped once around the drill, and by moving the bow back and forth, you spin the drill against the base (presumably more quickly and less painfully than you could using your hands.)

The softwood gradually heats up and creates burning sawdust, which you can then use to start your tinder burning. If all goes well, that is.
While G managed to get his wood to smoke, the ash was not hot enough to get a fire started. He thinks that his drill was both too short (making it awkward to keep the bow string on it) and too narrow (making it drill all the way through the base too quickly.)

More experiments may be coming your way in the future. I'll certainly let you know if we get a flame.

On a related note, G also tried out a flat, plastic magnifying 'glass' that came with a survival kit. Although it was not consistently effective, he did get a piece of newspaper to catch fire with it.
Cartoon at top via

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Sticks For Chicks

There was an interesting post over on Two Heel Drive today debating whether there was any reason to make "women's" hiking poles (other than trying to expand the market), and how they might differ from men's.

It seems that women's poles are available from Leki, who are arguably the top company for hiking poles. They have something called the Wildflower Series, which, thankfully, don't actually have flowers on them! That would just be sad. The poles are about 10cm shorter and 15% smaller in every dimension according to an old article from Backpacking Light. Komperdell says their women's poles are slightly shorter and lighter than men's.

So what would a woman want in hiking poles that would be different from men? For me, the biggest problem I have with my poles (which I don't always use) is that they hurt my hands after a day or two. This could be party due to the grips being man-sized. If there were a shorter, narrower grip on the poles, it would fit my little hands better. According to MEC, the Komperdell poles have this feature. Unfortunately, the pole didn't score well with many reviewers for other reasons.

I expect that women's poles would actually need to be less shock-absorbent than men's poles, since women are smaller and lighter, therefore putting less pressure on their poles. Since the length of all metal poles is adjustable, there shouldn't be any issue with height, no matter how short a woman is. (I have experience with this!)

So all I can think of is the grip. If you have any other suggestions on what you would do differently on a women's pole design leave a comment. Maybe we can shoot some suggestions off to Leki for next year's models!

Monday, June 16, 2008

Urban Walkways

One of the great things about Wellington is the amount of urban green space that has been preserved around the city. This includes a network of "walkways" which cater to hikers and sometimes mountain bikers who want to get out into the wilderness without the bother of a long drive out of the city.

Taking advantage of a warm, sunny afternoon on Sunday, we headed to the Eastern Walkway, which begins at the southern tip of the Miramar peninsula, near the airport. From our parking spot near the coastline, we could see across to the South Island, where some of the taller peaks in the Seaward Kaikouras range are now dusted with snow. (But the snow doesn't really show in the photo.)
The Eastern Walkway is the shortest of the bunch. Just 2.5 km from one end to the other. (The Northern Walkway is the longest at 16 km.) It follows along a ridge, overlooking both sides of the peninsula. This is a suburban area, so at times there are houses right next to the track. Still, it's a nice trail with great views to the harbour and Cook Strait. We could even look across the harbour entrance to the Pencarrow Lighthouses which we visited recently.
We had a view down to some of the houses lining the shores of the harbour. Great places to live, as long as Wellington doesn't get hit by a tsunami! Maybe I'll stick with the hilltop homes instead.

One thing that struck me about this particular walkway was the lack of birds. Most visits to the New Zealand bush are accompanied by a constant soundtrack of whistles, chirps and other birdy noises. This one was unusually quiet, even for a city park. We did, however run into some local wildlife. The rabbit was surprisingly unconcerned about us, especially considering the large number of dogs we saw on the track.

Overall it was a short but pleasant walk. But I prefer some of the other walkway options more, like the Southern Walkway which extends from Oriental Bay over Mt. Victoria and across to Island Bay.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Sex in Antartctica

The title for my next book? Perhaps, if I can get myself selected for the "Artists to Antarctica" program.
In the mean time, I came across this story about a shipment of almost 16,500 condoms to McMurdo Base - the US research centre in Antarctica. With a winter population of just 125, and a summer population of 1,100 - that's quite a high nookie ratio (especially for scientists!)
I guess there's not much else to entertain yourself with during those long, dark winters. And at least they're playing safe! The condoms are made available for free, to make sure that people don't avoid getting them out of embarrassment. So for those of you in the US, that stack of condoms represents your tax dollars at work.
I'm on a mission to find out whether anyone has ever give birth in Antarctica. Any of you know?
I originally saw this story posted on the Environmental Graffiti blog.
Addendum - I actually did find some information about the first person born in Antarctica. Emilio Palma, born in 1978 to Argentinian parents. I guess their shipment of condoms didn't get through.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Another tourist/tramper dies in NZ

On May 31, Polish tourist Jacek Gryzbowski, an experienced hiker, went for a day walk in the Rimutaka Forest Park near Wellington. His plans were ambitious, but he was well equipped and had done lots of hiking before. He was 28 years old.

A week later, after several days of searching, rescuers found his dead body in a log jam in a river. River crossing is a common part of tramping in New Zealand, but it's also the most common cause of tramping-related death.

It's not really clear why this particular river crossing ended so tragically, but it's possible that Gryzbowski underestimated the amount of water flowing in the mountain stream. He seems to have chosen a very bad place to attempt to cross. Once pinned in the log jam, it would have been very difficult to recover.

People come from all over the world to experience New Zealand's amazing parks and tracks. So it's always disturbing when someone loses their life doing it. Often they are unskilled and unprepared, and get into trouble because they haven't got the skills to tackle the trails they have chosen. In this case, however, it was someone with every reason to think he could handle it.

The more of these stories I hear, the more it reminds me how much riskier the wilderness becomes when you go in there alone. If anyone had been with this guy, he might be alive right now, laughing about his tumble into the river over a beer. It's hard when you're travelling alone to find people to hike with, but if you can I think it's a much safer way to go.

For anyone who is considering a trip to New Zealand, and hoping to do some tramping while they're here, this is my advice: find other people who want to do the same trip as you and go together. Or find the local tramping club, and see if you can go on one of their organised trips. Having someone around to raise the alarm, go for help, or pull you out of a tight situation, is priceless.

I know that a lot of people like the solitude of tramping alone. I get it. But it comes with a much higher risk or getting into trouble. Well, maybe the risk of getting into trouble is actually the same, but your chances of getting out of trouble are greatly reduced!

If you're interested, there's coverage of the Jacek Gryzbowski story here.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Captivating Kapiti Island

Kapiti Island viewed from the coast
Last weekend we took a long overdue trip to Kapiti (prounounced CAP-it-ee) Island, about an hour north of Wellington, and about 5km off the coast.

The island is a nature reserve, and all non-native predators (such as rats, possums and stoats) have been removed. The previously-cleared bush has been allowed to regenerate for over a century, and the bird life has returned to this safe haven.

Visiting the island requires a permit from the Department of Conservation. There are 50 issued for one landing spot and 18 for another. This keeps human impact down, and makes it much easier to control potential re-introduction of pests. DoC has licensed two companies to ferry permit-holders out to the island, and they are certainly taking advantage of their duopoly. A round trip that takes 10-15 minutes each way costs $55.

Each landing area has a set of well-defined tracks for visitors. We visited Rangatira, which is the main destination. The track leads up to the highest point on the island (512 metres) and back down in a loop. Visitors to the other drop-off point, North End, have the option of staying at a small lodge overnight, but at $265 per person, that was not in the cards for us.

We were welcomed to the island by a member of the local Maori iwi (tribe) who own the land. While DoC manages the island, the crown does not own it, so the local Maori do have some say about what happens there. We got a briefing on the island's history (both human and natural) and what we could expect to see.

The first thing you notice on Kapiti Island is the sound. The bush is alive with birdsong - far more than you hear even way out in the wilderness on the mainland. This must be what all of New Zealand once sounded like, before humans arrived. Millions of birds, and no predators to make them stay quiet! I'm going to mention several birds that I don't have pictures of, but if you want to see what they look like they should all be pictured here.

We started uphill, and although we heard bellbirds and tuis, we could only see the occasional robin or saddleback, and some stitchbirds (or hihi) at feeders. The hihi are an example of why the islands are so crucial, as they were extinct on the North Island by 1880, only surviving because of these offshore islands.

Occasionally we'd hear something shuffling along in the leaf litter, and spot a weka. We'd seen lots of wekas on the South Island, so we were used to how unafraid of humans they are.

On the summit, we stopped to have lunch and take in the view. It was a bit overcast, so we were denied views of the South Island and Taranaki, but we could see back to the mainland at least. There were a couple of wekas hanging around the hikers, hoping for a free meal. We weren't too concerned about them, until one lunged forward and took a huge bite out of G's sandwich! Cheeky bastard! He ran off with his prize before we could even react.

On the way down we spotted a kaka up in a tree. They are native parrots, but not as infamous as the kea. This one, however, was obviously used to having his way with people's stuff. He flew down and landed on G's backpack (which he was wearing at the time) and started trying to find an opening! I had to shoo him off. He later went after another hiker's hat, but didn't get it.

Down at the bottom of the hill, we saw a takahe. These are odd-looking blue and green endangered birds, that resemble another New Zealand favourite, the pukeko. However, these guys are bigger with shorter legs, and can't fly. (Pukekos can fly, but generally prefer not to.)

Also hanging out in the area were a bunch of kereru (wood pigeons). These guys are huge, and look like they'd be very good to eat. I'm a bit surprised that they weren't hunted to extinction by either the Maori or the Europeans. But I guess when you've got so many flightless birds to eat, it's not worth the bother of catching the ones that can fly.

Overall, it was a lovely day. I'm not a big bird watcher, but the sheer abundance of them on Kapiti Island makes it a fun place for a day hike. The only residents we didn't manage to spot were the kiwis, who prefer to come out at night.