Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Invercargill and the Rakiura Track

February 27th to March 4th
We left Scott at the Q-town airport on a gorgeously sunny day. We hope he had a window seat on the way back to Christchurch for views of the Remarkables, the fantastically steep mountains he flew over on the way to the Canterbury Plains. And that the blizzard in MN and WI wouldn't stop him from getting home!

Darrell and I headed back along the route we had taken by bus from Milford Sound. We turned south just before Te Anau and camped at Lake Manapouri, near New Zealand’s largest hydroelectric dam. But, as Scott had told us, you can’t see this facility as it is underground! There was widespread concern (aesthetic and environmental as well as engineering issues) among NZ citizens about raising the level of Lake Manapouri as much as 30 meters and merging it with Lake Te Anau to provide electricity for the aluminum plant at Bluff. So, instead of raising the lake, they lowered the dam, blasting through 200 m of rock and sending water from Lake Manapouri area to Deep Cove, a branch of Doubtful Sound, 10 km away.  The dam has now been providing electricity for 40 years without any visual impact!

The next morning we continued to Invercargill, one of the many Scottish-named towns in New Zealand. After checking out a few places, we moved into a campground near Oreti Beach, the long stretch of beach where Burt Munro, an eccentric kiwi motorcyclist, raced his 1920 Indian Motorcycle. A folk hero in these parts, Burt set world speed records at Bonneville Flats in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. The bus driver proudly showed the movie “The World’s Fastest Indian” in the bus as we returned from Milford Sound. It is a sweet movie starring Anthony Hopkins if you haven’t seen it.

It  rained and rained and was still raining when we greeted our friend Vera Markgraf at the airport. The three of us walked around Thomson's Bush and Vera, a palynologist we have known since our Boulder days, reacquainted herself with some of the NZ plants. We also went to Haye's Hardware Store where we saw Burt Munro's famous bike and picked up some supplies for our hiking trip.

The World's Fastest Indian
Vera lives in Flagstaff now, and is as busy as anyone we know, but I got her to squeeze us in between a kayak trip in Baja, and some volunteer botany work in the Grand Canyon! She introduced us to Matt and Margaret (who we stayed with in Christchurch) as she and Matt have worked together before. So Vera came to hike with me and talk geology with Darrell and botony/palynology with Matt.

Darrell drove us to the ferry at Bluff. This town marks the southern end of Hwy 1 which extends all the way to the far north tip of the North Island. The crossing to Stewart Island was a little rough but only lasted an hour, and then we found our way to the DOC office to get our permit to hike the Rakiura Track. We also got some gorgeous and soft fingerless gloves. The brush-tailed possum is an introduced pest, so it was our duty to support its eradication and buy the possum wool!

The rainbow begins where the ferry lands!
We stayed at a backpacker, the name here for a youth hostel. Vera visited in French with Francois, the new owner, and then we had a cup of tea and ventured out to explore. Oban is a town of about 300 people, and if you stay long enough you can almost feel like a local. There are only a few streets, and the one grocery store serves a special lunch to all the school kids on Fridays. The cashier greets everyone and then sings while she is working. A nice place.

View of one of the many bays on Stewart Island
The next morning we began our 3-day tramp of the Rakiura Track. The trail begins beneath a giant anchor chain sculpture by Russell Beck, a renowned Kiwi sculptor. The chain connects the anchor (which is Stewart Island/Rakiura) of Maui with his canoe/waka (the South Island). He is anchored as he pulls up a large fish - the North Island.  The other side of the anchor chain sculpture is across the strait on the South Island.

Vera pointing to the other side of the anchor chain, across Foveaux strait in Bluff

We started out with a bit of rain, but then it was just misty and my feet stayed magically dry despite a lot of mud. Of course, since it is one of the eight "Great Walks", the track was mostly in good shape. Old chicken-wire covered boardwalk is being replaced with a really nice gravel path. Still, there were quite a few detours through the bush though to get out of mud!

Vera shows how to cross a muddy track!
Vera's research has primarily been in Patagonia (Chile and Argentina) and she knows a lot of the New Zealand plants as many share a Gondwanaland connection. It was great to learn more about the trees, shrubs, and ferns of NZ.

Common fern that reminds me of a starfish
We were the first to arrive at Port William Hut, and visited with Toni, a volunteer DOC ranger from Ireland. Toni was energetic and charming, and sported a red sweater and a pearl necklace to brighten up the grey-green DOC uniform. She shared her field guides with us, and we wandered off for a short stroll. When we returned she was hacking away at the omnipresent gorse.

The intertidal zone yields a cute fellow chordate; an ascidian (sea squirt) that looks like a cherry!
And note Vera's nice possum gloves.
Toni's hut talk that night had the good advice to make friends with your hut mates as we will mostly be together the next night as well. We also passed each other on the track. And it is easy to enjoy other people that are on the same adventure; we especially enjoyed visiting with Lena from Germany and Tom and Mandy from Great Britain. I smile now thinking about them.

The next morning Vera heard a morepork, a kind of owl, outside of our window. What a great way to wake up! We also looked for kiwi in the evening and in the morning, but didn't see any.

The second day hike started out with a snafu - I left my binoculars in a tree fern and didn't discover it until we had gone an hour down the track. I dropped my pack with Vera and jogged back, mostly uphill, and found them again. Phew. We were two of the last to get to the hut though, and ended up in the loft. One of the hikers liked to build up the fire so it was a tad toasty up there, but it was still a fun place to sleep. We enjoyed another stroll along the coast, admiring boulders, kelp, and wind-swept trees.

Wind-swept trees along the coast at North Arm
The third day's hike brought us along the coast to Oban again. We celebrated our successful tramp with a dinner of local green-lipped mussels for Vera and blue cod fish and chips for me while looking out at the harbor. Thanks, Vera, for a fantastic tramp!

Just wait until the gulls see this!

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