Monday, December 26, 2011

Comets, Sunrise and Disappointment

Mt Kaukau lookout, 24 December 2011

An amazing thing happened recently in our humble solar system. A comet passed closer to the sun than it should have, and survived to come around the other side! For those of us in the Southern Hemisphere, it was significant in that it emerged with an impressively long and visible tail which could be seen in the southern skies without a telescope. The comet's unofficial name is Lovejoy (after the guy in Australia who spotted it first), and who couldn't use a little more love and joy these days?

G and I decided that something so rare and impressive was worth getting out of bed for - even if it meant being up well before the crack of dawn. We implemented our Lovejoy strategy. For the best viewing opportunity, we would get up at 4am, drive to the base of Mt Kaukau (about a 5 minute drive from our house) and hike up to the summit to see and hopefully photograph the comet.

It all started well. At 4am we crawled out of bed and looked out of our front door to the east. There, almost vertical in the sky, was a pale streak of light - Lovejoy! We quickly dressed and headed out for the hills.

Since Mt Kaukau is our local hill, we're pretty familiar with the route up, and had no trouble with our pre-dawn wander using our headlamps.

What we hadn't quite counted on was how long before the actual sunrise the sky would begin to get light. By the time we hit the ridgeline, at 4:45, the sky was getting pale and the comet's tail was nowhere to be seen!

The pre-dawn light at around 4:45am

It was disappointing, but we'd already done the worst of the climbing and since we'd packed a thermos of tea and some snacks, we kept going until we reached the summit at around 5:15. Sitting at the lookout, we were able to enjoy the morning mists over Wellington and the Makara windfarm.

Makara wind farm, and the South Island seen beyond

Finally, at around 5:45, the sun poked out from behind the Rimutaka mountains across the harbour. After taking some photos, we packed up and headed back home for a nap.

Sunrise over the Rimutakas seen across Wellington Harbour

Not ones to give up easily, we got up even earlier the next morning - at around 3:20am. Rather than repeat our excursion, we headed for a small nature reserve just a block from our house, where there's a hill just high enough to let us see over the houses.

While Lovejoy was visible again, it was a bit more faint than the previous day and our attempts to take a photo were once again fruitless.

See the comet? No, me neither. I swear it was really there!

One of these days I need to really work on my photography skills and figure out how to do those super-long exposures. Anyway, I wouldn't want to leave you all too disappointed after all of this reading, so here is a gorgeous photo of comet Lovejoy taken by the fine folks at NASA.

Thanks NASA (show offs!)

Friday, September 23, 2011

Sex in a Tent - Very Funny Review!

The guys over at Camping Gear TV have reviewed Sex in a Tent. It's definitely R18, so don't watch in front of the kiddies! These guys reminded me of a Wayne's World skit, or maybe even Great White North (for those who remember SCTV).

Anyway, it's pretty entertaining, and apparently the drawing of me at the back of the book looks like Jennifer Grey (pre-nose job) - which I'm taking as a pretty good compliment!

Sit back and enjoy :)

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Cross-Island Walk - Rarotonga, Cook Islands

Rarotonga is a small island in the South Pacific nation of the Cook Islands. It's a popular spot for a beach holiday or a destination wedding, especially for Australians and Kiwis. But for those who can tear themselves away from the sandy shores for a few hours, the island does offer some decent hiking opportunities in its volcanic inland mountains.

The longest and most popular hike is the Cross-Island Walk or "The Needle" (which is the common name for the rock outcrop at the track's highest point.) The full walk takes about 4 hours.

We took on the walk from the town of Avarua to the island's south coast, using Rarotonga's circular bus route to take us close to the trail head. We had to walk inland a couple of kilometres from the main road, but it's an easy walk.

The track itself begins with a walk through a village, where taro, banana and other crops are grown. A power generating station marks the end of the village and the beginning of the "wilderness" portion of the walk. This is also where things begin to head seriously uphill!

The climb up the ridge is quite steep and in wet weather can be very slippery. We found the track relatively easy to follow, as long as you remember that you should be heading uphill at all times.

At the top of the ridge you'll hit a junction. To the right is a short walk up to The Needle, which is worth a look for the views. There is a higher viewing point on the far side of The Needle, but it's tricky to get to so we didn't bother with it.

Soon after the junction (taking the left track) you'll start to head downhill. Again this is quite steep and can be slippery in places. A couple of ropes have been put in to help hikers, but they aren't really all that helpful.

Once you get past the steep part of the descent, you begin to criss-cross Papua Stream. There are a number of crossings, but for the most part these can be accomplished without getting your feet wet.

The track ends at a waterfall and swimming hole called Wigmore's Waterfall. It's scenic enough, but tends to attract lots of mosquitoes so if you're going to linger, bring repellant.

From the falls, a paved road leads you back to the main road (and bus route). Just as you reach the main road, you'll pass what remains of the failed Sheraton resort that was built many years ago but never completed.

The road will leave you in the village of Vaimaanga, where you can stop at the local supermarket for a well-deserved ice cream cone.

If you're the sort of person who can't lie on the beach every day, this hike will add a bit of variety to your visit to Rarotonga. I don't think it's worth visiting the island just for the walking (there are several other shorter tracks that you can use to walk into the mountains, but must retrace your steps back again) but if you are going for the sun and sand, why not take a day to explore the lush, tropicals foliage and steep peaks.

I highly recommend doing this in the winter (June-August), as scorching summer temperatures and frequent rainfall are likely to make the walk much less pleasant. If you aren't so confident in your hiking skills, you can take a guided hike with a colourful local named Pa. He walks the track three times per week in bare feet!

Monday, April 25, 2011

Coastal Wairarapa

Castlepoint Lighthouse seen from beach

The Wairarapa is a region to the east of the Rimutaka and Tararua mountains. Normally when we head out that way, we go into the Tararuas for some great tramping. But over Easter weekend we decided to keep heading east, all the way to the Pacific coast!

We went for a couple of walks out at Castlepoint, which is about an hour east of the town of Masterton. The beach is popular in summer, but there were quite a few people around enjoying the long weekend and an unusually warm day. There were even a few surfers in the water, later replaced by a few kayakers.

The walk up to the lighthouse is pretty trivial. It's a concrete path, and then some steps. But the rocky area surrounding the lighthouse is fun to explore. The rocky cliffs tower over the pounding surf, making for a dramatic view.

The other main walk in the area takes you up above Deliverance Cove, a sheltered beach where the peace was disturbed by some kids on dirt bikes and ATVs. That was unfortunate, because apart from the noise it's a lovely spot.

Deliverance Cove

The walk follows a ride behind the cove, then climbs a steep hill to the edge of the cliff overlooking the ocean. It towers above the lighthouse and is narrow enough to worry anyone with vertigo.
View from the ridge to the lighthouse

We were planning to do another walk the next day, called the Honeycomb Rock walk. It's a four hour return walk, which reveals some unusual rock erosion (hence the name) and a shipwreck. But we decided to be leisurely about our long weekend and instead headed to Martinborough for a day of wine tasting. Hey, even hikers enjoy an indulgent day now and then!

Sunday we headed back towards the coast, this time right around the southeast corner of the South Island to a spot called White Rock. We went for a trail ride with some local farmers, which was a real treat. My first ride in around 7 years, and G's first ride in about 25 years!

After that we headed down to the coast itself, and checked out the eponymous White Rock. The sand is black, which makes the limestone boulder seem all the more out of place. It's a deserted and rugged coastal area, at the end of a gravel road. In New Zealand, if you're willing to take a drive an hour or two out of your way you are almost always rewarded with a beautiful coastal scene all to yourselves. (One other car did show up at White Rock as we left, but it was Easter weekend after all!)

White Rock

So we didn't exactly go for "hard adventure" over our little break, but we did see some remote corners of New Zealand that were definitely worth a peek. And we did come home with a couple of very nice bottles of Martinborough wine!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Book Review: Little Princes

Normally I limit my reviews on this blog to books, movies or products directly related to outdoor recreation or outdoor adventures. I have made an exception for Little Princes, a memoir by Conor Grennan.

The book slipped into my review list because it is about Nepal, a country so much a part of the hiking and climbing collective consciousness that I can't imagine the outdoors enthusiast who hasn't either visited the country, or put it on their bucket list. (Unfortunately I am still in the latter category.)

When Conor Grennan arrived in Nepal he volunteered at an orphanage thinking it would make his trip around the world sound less self-indulgent. In the end it became a life-changing experience.

This book is inspirational in many ways. When most visitors walk the streets of Kathmandu and see the poverty of the local children, the vast majority think "what a shame" and carry on with their lives. Conor Grennan learned about what was happening to children in Nepal, thought "what a shame" and then thought "I'm going to fix this!"

His efforts to protect trafficked children and reunite them with their families is a testament to what a few determined people can do if they set their minds to it. He had no training for this, no background in international charities, fundraising, politics, or any of the skills that you would think necessary for such an undertaking. His success is simply a story of willpower overcoming self-doubt. He set up a children's home, trekked through isolated valleys into remote villages to locate families, and stood up to powerful traffickers on behalf of those who could not.

So the next time readers of this book see something and think "what a shame", perhaps some of them will also think "I'm going to fix this!" because if Conor Grennan could do it - why not the rest of us!

Thanks Conor, for opening my eyes to the power of just getting on with it!

Little Princes: One Man's Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal is not just a memoir - it is also a fundraiser for the charity Conor Grennan created to support this work. So buying this book is one small thing you can do to help. Or you can cut straight to the chase and visit the website for his charity Next Generation Nepal, and make a donation there.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Romantic Trail Desserts for Valentine's Day

Laurie Ann March is the author of A Fork in the Trail and the upcoming Another Fork in the Trail - a couple of dehydrator-friendly camping cookbooks if you're in search of more recipes for your outdoor adventures.

She recently wrote an article for Seattle Backpackers Magazine about romantic dining for campers, and included one of the recipes I wrote for Sex in a Tent, called Sex in a Pan.

Sex in a Pan

Serves 2 (or course, you could multiply it if you're into threesomes or whatever!)

There are many recipes for Sex in a Pan, but this one is perfectly suited to camping and so satisfying it truly deserves its name.

8 chocolate chip cookies, crushed or broken into small pieces
2 oz Kahlua
1/2 package instant chocolate pudding
Water as required for instant pudding (see package directions)
12 marshmallows, toasted (but bring a few extra, in case some go “missing”)
1/2 cup chocolate chips

If you have a clean frying pan, you can make this in it, otherwise bring along a disposable pie plate or use a rectangular Tupperware container. Crumble the chocolate chip cookies and spread them in the bottom of the pan. Drizzle the Kahlua over the cookie bits, and mix together to moisten. Press the moist cookie crust into the bottom of the pan. Make the chocolate pudding according to the package directions, then pour it evenly over the cookie crust. Use the back of a spoon to spread it out if it doesn’t pour well. Toast the marshmallows and space them evenly over the top of the pudding. (If you can’t toast the marshmallows, they can be added as is or you can substitute marshmallow from a jar.) Sprinkle the chocolate chips over the top. Now grab your spoons and dig in!

I was happy to have it included, but it's bittersweet for me because here in New Zealand they don't seem to sell instant pudding mixes - so although I came up with this recipe I can't actually make it on any of my own camping trips!

Here's a link to the article.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Great Walk - The Heaphy Track

At the trail head

Christmas break seems to be the only time we get out for a longer than a weekend tramp these days. So this year we decided to tackle the longest of New Zealand's "Great Walks" - the Heaphy Track.

The track is 78.4 km long and can be walked in anything from 4-6 days. (I suppose you could do it in less, but only if you're going super-lightweight.) It's located in Kahurangi National Park, which occupies the north-west corner of the South Island. The track starts (or ends, as you can do it in either direction) around 30 km from Collingwood in Golden Bay, and ends close to Karamea on the West Coast.

We did a 5 day trip, mainly because that was the easiest way to arrange transportation to and from the trailhead. There is no way to do a car shuttle for the Heaphy, as the two ends of the trail are close to 500 km apart by road. So most trampers use some kind of commercial transport, and the most reasonable cost comes from taking a pre-scheduled service like we did. However, you can make arrangements for private transport if you have a specific schedule to keep - and if money is no object you can even get transported to the trail head by helicopter!

You can either stay in huts along the way, or camp at designated campsites (which are generally next to the huts.) We decided to camp as usually the huts are very busy over Christmas, and camping sounded a bit more peaceful. Unfortunately this meant that poor G was carrying our tent the whole way. All I had was the ground sheet. (I'm a bit spoiled!)

Two days before we started our tramp, there was a huge storm which hit the park - the worst in 150 years by some accounts. This caused major flooding and slips along the track, and washed away a couple of bridges. However, the water receded quickly and we were able to go ahead with our walk as planned.

The first day was where we encountered most of the new slips - around 10 of them. They were all crossable, but full of that thick, heavy mud that clings to your boots and makes that "schlorp" noise each time you take a step. It also made our boots super heavy as it clung to them in thick layers until we could find a stream to wash them off. This slowed our progress considerably, so instead of walking 5 hours on the first day (after a 4 hour drive to the trail head) we ended up walking almost 6.5 hours. Although the track was uphill all day, the grade is so gentle that you barely notice it. The track was originally explored as a possible road, so there is nothing tricky to negotiate - apart from the slips which I'm sure will be cleared up by DoC, after all this is a Great Walk.
One of the new slips

At the first hut (Perry Saddle Hut) we met the ranger, Mike. The rangers on the track have their own little huts they can stay in, and a certain range that they are supposed to look after. There were about half a dozen other campers, plus a full hut. Mike had found a brewing kit up at the rangers hut and had made a batch of beer up there, which he shared with the campers later that evening. While I'm not a beer drinker, it's certainly an unusual treat to get in the middle of the wilderness! The hut was located close to a river, where a few people decided to go have a wash. It must have been very cold, because we heard the kind of screams usually associated with horror movies!

View from the campground at Perry Saddle

We also saw our first weka (a native, flightless bird) of the trip that first night, and they would appear at pretty much every campsite along the way, looking for a bit of free grub. One of the huts even had a sign on the door saying "Please shut the door when you leave, and please ensure the weka is not shut inside!"

The wekas along the track are not shy!

The next day we moved out of the forest and onto the downs, which were mainly covered in red tussock.

Tufts of red tussock

We encountered a pole where trampers leave their old boots, and a few other interesting items of footwear. When we passed by there was a pink stiletto and an inline skate tied to the pole.

The boot pole

The next hut (Gouland Downs) was only a couple of hours down the track, and so we stopped for a short break there but carried on across the downs to Saxon Hut. This was a short day, just 3.5 hours of walking with no real hills to speak of. The track was well formed and graded the whole way. We had one slip to contend with at the beginning of the day, which was the only one we had to detour around rather than going across it.

Saxon Hut was in a lovely clearing, and the tent sites were on wooden platforms. They were nice and level, but hard and no matter how many tie-down spots they provide they never seem to be where you need them! Our spot was nice and sheltered on three sides though, which made for a pleasant night.

Tent platform

The following day took us to James Mackay Hut, just three more hours down the track. We crossed a flat section that apparently can be impassable after heavy rain, but the storm of several days before had drained completely and the track was surprisingly dry.

Some small rivers had swing bridges, but could also just be forded if the water was low. We chose to use the bridges, because the novelty of having dry feet on a tramp in New Zealand was too much to pass up! The rivers were quite calm though, and could easily have been crossed. Most were dark with tannins, giving them a dramatic look.

A tannin stained river

Mini swingbridge over a stream

We reached James Mackay Hut and found a tent platform slightly apart from the other ones for added privacy. However, it turned out to be the windiest spot and we had a bit of a challenge putting the tent up. We had the spot to ourselves until about 7pm, when a mother and daughter showed up and pitched beside us. They would have been nice, quiet neighbours except that the mother snored like a lumberjack all night! Not that it mattered, since it was New Year's Eve and several of the other campers were up celebrating noisily into the night. Thankfully we had ear plugs, as we didn't feel like partying with our longest day coming up.

Our fourth day we had to cover 20.5 km of track, around half of which was the descent back to sea level. However, the descent was as gentle as our climb on day 1 - so we hardly noticed it. Once we left the tops behind, the forest thickened and began to look more typical of the West Coast with mossy tree trunks, large ferns and tree ferns. We made our way down to Lewis Hut, which sits above the Lewis River. Apparently the hut had flooded quite badly the night of the storm, despite being around 5 metres above the normal level of the river! There were tons of sandflies around the hut, so after a quick toilet stop (I forgot to mention earlier that all of the toilets along the track are stocked with toilet paper - luxury!) we decided to continue on for a while and find a lunch spot on the track.

Emerging from the forest at the coast

The track followed the Heaphy River all of the way out to the coast, through lush forest full of ferns and Nikau palms - New Zealand's native palm tree.

Nikau palm trees

It was easy and pleasant walking, but still a long day. Heaphy Hut is place within view of the river mouth, as it meets the Tasman Sea. It's a very picturesque spot, with crashing waves and dramatic cliffs.

The dramatic rivermouth

The hut has a very manicured lawn, and a fairly large camping area off to one side. The camping area even has its own shelter, so you can cook under cover if it rains without using the hut facilities. The drawback of the location is an abundance of sandflies. The minute you stood still they would swarm around looking for a nice bit of exposed skin to bite. They had been present all along the track at each campsite, but here they were much more intense.

Heaphy Hut with its manicured lawn

Once we got our tent up, we went for a walk to escape the flies. We went down to the riverside, where a few people were going in to get a bit clean (I wouldn't go so far as to call it swimming - it was too cold for that) and we rounded the corner to the seashore and walked along the beach for a bit. It was out of the way of the flies, but the tide was coming in, and we didn't want to get cornered and have to scramble our way back to the campsite. So it was back to the bugs, and try to make dinner without becoming dinner!

We went back down to the beach later, but the wind must have dropped because the flies were now down there too. So there was nothing to do but escape into the tent and play cards for a while before turning in.

We got a pretty early start on our final day, not wanting to be late for our 1:30pm pick up. There is one spot along the coastal portion of the track which can be impassable when the tide is in and the seas are rough, and we were set to reach it right around high tide. The last leg of the track follows the coast straight south, mainly staying just off the beach at the edge of the forest. There are nikau palms everywhere! Even when you're not on the beach, much of the track is sandy and soft, which is a bit annoying to walk on.

There was a shelter and camping area around half way down, which was the least pleasant place I could imagine for camping. The ground was all uneven and covered in scrubby tall grasses, the sandflies were terrible and the outhouse was really close to where you would camp. Definitely for emergencies only!

We reached the spot where the track crosses the beach, and although we were right at high tide there was plenty of room as the seas were calm. We got there faster than expected, and slowed our pace so we wouldn't get to the trail head too early and have to wait around swatting flies for hours.

Crossing a small stream along the coast

Even taking our time, we were ahead of schedule and looked for some little rest stops where the flies weren't bad. Was another campground (much nicer than the earlier one) with picnic tables and fireplaces but still too many bugs to stay for long.

You cross a small saddle just before the end of the track, and on the top there is a little lookout area, which was thankfully bug free. We hung out there for a while chatting with other hikers, most of whom were on day walks. We also chatted with a German girl who was taking the same transportation as us, and also trying not to arrive too early.

When we reached the end, the bus was there early anyway so we needn't have worried.

The Heaphy Track (without the slips) is a very straightforward walk, and would be a good track for someone with limited experience or skills on more difficult terrain. It is long though, so you do need to be capable of walking up to 20 km in a day, carrying your gear and food. (On a six day version, the longest walk would be 17.5 km.) Both huts and campsites need to be booked in advance, and as this is a Great Walk the fees are higher than normal. Camping costs $12 per person per night. Huts cost something like $32 per person per night.

This winter, the track is scheduled to open to mountain bikers for the first time. This is a trial, with the track open for cycling in the winter season, and tramping in the summer. DoC will then assess whether the bikes are doing too much damage to the track. I'm sure it will have a noticeable effect on the surfaces, especially since the track is likely to be muddy over the winter, so bikes will create deep ruts. But we'll have to wait and see what happens with that.