Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Haunted Hut?

As we all know, ghost stories are best told out in the wilderness, preferably by the dim light of a campfire, or no light at all.

It stands to reason then, that New Zealand's backcountry huts make a perfect setting for one of those spooky tales. Miles from civilization, cut off from any means of communication, dark, full of strange noises without and within - it's a ghost story waiting to happen if you spend the night alone in a hut.

And yet, I've never had anything spooky happen in a hut, or heard of any spooky happenings. But a recent story in the Timaru Herald (Timaru is a town on New Zealand's South Island between Christchurch and Dunedin) talks about strange experiences at Hooker Hut (pictured above), which is in the Southern Alps near Mt Cook Village.

The original Hooker Hut was built in 1910, and has apparently had ghost stories associated with it for decades. The hut was rebuilt in 1948, then shifted intact in 1963 due to instability in the glacial moraine, and shifted again in 1994. The collapsing moraine walls near the hut make it difficult to reach in its current location, so they are looking at moving it once again.

All of this confusion seems to have annoyed the local spirits. According to mountain guide Jane Morris, who spent a night there recently with a DoC Visitor Centre Assistant, they were not alone in Hooker Hut that night.

Shortly after going to bed, the pair heard footsteps on the deck outside, followed by what seemed to be someone rummaging through a backpack. Then they heard what sounded like an ice axe banging against corrugated iron.

They got up and looked outside, but saw no other people or wildlife. After returning to bed, various noises continued through the night, including the sound of pots clanging and someone shuffling around.

Likely candidates for haunting the hut include a man who helped to build the original hut, and later died in an avalanche in the area.

This is the problem with New Zealand - if this happened in Canada you'd just assume it was a bear! Here - well there's only so much noise birds and possums can make. Anyway, if you're headed to Mt Cook you can check it out for yourself.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

New Zealand Cycleway Update

A lot of people seem to be following the possible creation of a New Zealand cycleway, so I thought an update might be in order.

First, it seems that I was correct in thinking that $50 million to build the thing seemed like an awfully low estimate. A more educated estimate from a company currently paving a shorter cycling route was that a completely paved option that ran the entire length of the country would cost at least $300 million.

Various options are now being discussed, including a network of shorter cycling routes throughout the country instead of one big one, and routes that are not paved all of the way. (ie they may be dirt or gravel.)

Still, it seems like there may be some merit in attracting more cyclists to New Zealand. A recent article in the New Zealand Herald quoted some figures from the Ministry of Tourism:

"For the year to last September 45,000 of the 2,469,064 international visitors to New Zealand took part in a cycling sport.

The cycling tourists spent $199 million on their trips - excluding international airfares - an average of $4386 each. The average spending of all international tourists is $2692.

Cycling tourists on average stayed in New Zealand for 49.2 nights, more than twice the average length of stay of 20.9 nights.

Britons make up the biggest number of cyclists at 19 per cent, followed by Australians at 17 per cent and Americans at 9 per cent."

So cyclists are a small percentage of New Zealand's tourists, but they are good value tourists because of their long stays in the country. Having longer touring routes available can only help to keep them here even longer, so it does seem like a good investment. Maybe not worth $300 million though. That's a pretty tough call.

More as the story unfolds...

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Topping Up the Calorie Count

I'm always reading about how long-distance hikers (especially those in cold conditions) have trouble consuming enough calories to make up for the energy they're burning every day. They tend to lose weight over the course of their journey, in extreme cases to the point of near starvation. Those who can leave the trail for resupply often try to eat as much as possible while they're in civilization, downing huge plates of steak and fries and as many donuts as they can stomach.

Well, if you're looking for the ultimate energy source, I have a recipe for you. Pictured above is a 30,000 calorie sandwich. I kid you not. That's about ten day's worth of calories for the average adult male. Someone not only made this sandwich, but claims to have eaten the whole thing over a 12 hour period. Not a hiker - just a student with a hollow leg and too much time on his hands.

If you're curious, you can read about it (including the ingredients and preparation) here.

I never come back from my hikes any lighter than when I left. Clearly I'm not walking far enough. Ah well.

Thanks to Little Houdini for the link!

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Cycling to Save the NZ Economy?

Not long ago, New Zealand's Prime Minister, John Key, held a "job summit" to try to find ways to save jobs during this global recession. He gathered together a bunch of business and labour leaders to see if a day of brainstorming could produce a miracle solution.

While many ideas were bounced around, one of the ones that seems to have really caught the PM's attention is a proposal to build a cycleway the entire length of New Zealand. This would become a major tourist draw, and help to boost falling visitor numbers. It would also create jobs building the trail, which was estimated to cost around $50 million. (Sounds low to me.)

There's no doubt it would be great to be able to cycle New Zealand from north to south (I don't know why, but that sounds easier than going south to north. For no apparent reason heading north equates in my brain with going uphill.) Is it the best way for the government to spend taxpayer money when people are having trouble paying rent and putting food on the table? I'm not so convinced. In the grand scheme of things, it would make more sense to me if they put the public works money into improving public transit. But then again, I wasn't invited to the "job summit" - probably for very good reasons.

The cycleway idea has also ruffled the feathers of the folks at Te Araroa Trust. Te Araroa (The Long Pathway) is a long-planned hiking route that will run the entire length of New Zealand. Sort of an Appalachian Trail or LEJOG for the Southern Hemisphere. They've been working on it for over a decade, with the major problems being access through private land, and funding.

Certainly the funding needed to complete Te Araroa would be far less than that needed to create a whole new cycleway. On the other hand, it would not require as much manpower, so fewer jobs would be created. Also, as you and I and the whole world have realised, you don't make as much cash from tourists who spend all of their time hiking as you do from people cycling who are more likely to be staying in hotels and eating in restaurants.

I can see where the cycleway may be a winning idea, depending on the cost. But I would also love to see the government throw a bit of cash at Te Araroa to get the damn thing finished. New Zealand is arguably the hiking capital of the world - a title it would really deserve if it had a long distance walkway.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Keeping Track of Tourists

I'm not sure what the numbers are, but every year New Zealand's police and search and rescue units spend a whole lot of time looking for lost tourists in the bush. People from around the world have heard about how magnificent the hiking is down here, and so they are determined to see it for themselves, whether or not they've done much hiking before.

Now New Zealand is mulling over ways to keep better track of visitors who may be wandering aimlessly around the back country, ill-prepared and without any proper understanding of local conditions. The latest proposal is an online service where visitors can register their intentions before they even arrive in the country.

The registry and other information (such as the availability of locator beacons) would be available in several languages, and users would be able to update their intentions as needed. The idea is to get people to take responsibility for their own safety. This isn't Disneyland. You can't expect barriers in place to prevent you from falling down a cliff, or slipping into a crevasse, if you don't have the skills to be there.

I'm guessing this is going to take some time to set up - if it happens. But if it cuts down on the number of people who are genuinely surprised when their cell phones don't work in the middle of a national park to call in a rescue because they forgot to pack a fleece - well, that would be a step in the right direction.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

The Beijing Workout

The Ming Dynasty may have taken track maintenance a bit too far!

First of all, my apologies for not posting anything for a while. I managed to get sent to Beijing, China last week for work, and since they charged for internet access by the minute at my hotel I figured I should save my blogging for the return home.

China was certainly an eye-opener. As you can see from the photo I took of the Great Wall above, everything you've heard about air pollution in Beijing is true! The roads are full of cars where only a decade ago most people would have been riding bicycles. Add to that the coal-generated power for heating and massive factories and you've got an environmental nightmare.

You don't hear much about outdoor recreation in China. I guess in the past there wasn't that kind of leisure time available. And now, it just doesn't seem to be part of their culture to appreciate being out in a natural setting. And yet, on a smaller scale the Chinese do enjoy getting outdoors. Tai chi at dawn is practised in almost every park around the country. Why exercise indoors when you could get some fresh (well, not exactly fresh) air at the same time?

While exploring a small, urban park in Beijing, I saw what I assumed to be a children's playground full of brightly coloured equipment. On closer inspection, however, it wasn't for children at all. It was an outdoor gym.
That's right, a full set of gym equipment in the park for anyone to use. No joining fee, no monthly fees, no pulsating dance music. In the photo above you can see the elliptical cross trainers in the foreground, the stationary bicycles to the right, and directly behind the cross trainers are treadmills. Nothing there used external power of any kind. The treadmills use sets of metal rollers on an uphill slope, and everything else just works with mechanical resistance. It's low-tech, low maintenance and probably quite effective.
So that's how folks in Beijing can get their workout for free. And perhaps that's why you see so few overweight people in China. There it's cheaper to be healthy than it is to be unhealthy - as long as they stay away from the local McDonalds!