Sunday, February 14, 2010

Paddling the Whanganui

My family have been visiting from Canada for the last two months. They arrived while I was still down on the Ice and have been touring the countryside over the last six weeks with little rest (which seems to be catching up with them now). I've been able to join them on a few trips and have enjoyed being able to show them around our new home. A week after we got back from Antarctica, my parents, my brother and myself headed north to Wellington on the Transcoastal train and then up to Taumarunui by car, to paddle the longest navigable stretch of water in New Zealand - the Whanganui. After two weeks in Antarctica, the forested gorge we paddled through was teeming with life, colour and with sound. It was wonderful to be back.

We took the same train as when Stephen's mom was here. Heading up the East coast of the South Island to Picton where we got on the ferry and crossed the Cook straight to Wellington. The train was much more full at this time of year and the landscape was somewhat different, but much of it was the same, sheep, sheep, and more sheep. Oh and a little bit of salt too (the picture is of the New Zealand salt lakes where ~90% of our salt is produced by flooding several lakes with sea water and then letting the sun evaporate them until there is nothing but salt left).

We didn't have much time in Wellington, only the afternoon of our arrival, as we left pretty early the next morning. But the ferry arrives at around 4pm, so we had a few hours to wander through the city before tucking into some dinner and going to bed. It was amazingly windy that afternoon, at one point a gust of wind actually knocked me backwards. I can't imagine what it would have been like to try and paddle in that wind.

After a dinner of pizza (the best in Wellington), we settled into bed and slept. The next day we drove north to Taumarunui where the Whanganui becomes paddleable. Kitted out with barrels, boats and paddles by our local outfitter we were set to tackle the water - and all 197 rapids in the ~200km of river we would paddle.

The "rapids" it turns out include every rock, tree and foreign object located in the river, no matter the size. There was certainly some white water to reckon with, and mom and I did end up in some tight spots on the first day, but all in all, it was a pretty relaxed river (as you can see). Just what I needed.

It was great to be with my family, sharing an adventure we have regularly enjoyed together, but in a place completly different from what any of us knows. I could identify a few plants and birds, but it was a new and exciting experience to be a place with so many new and amazing things to learn about.

The first camp site was located up on a little grassy bench in the gorge. It had phenomenal views both up and down river, and in the middle of the night a thunder storm pelted us with rain. We woke up to a misty river and a landscape of vibrant greens, echoing with bellbirds and tuis.

The Whanganui River flows through a deep gorge, carved into the lava flows from thousands of years ago. The walls of the gorge are pock-marked with caverns, caves and holes of varying size and shape. The river is also in the home of several Maori iwis, with marae dotted along the river shore like mile posts - only you need to know where to look. We saw one, and it, Tieke Marae, was only visible due to the ~160 maori camped there on their annual journey to learn and pass along knowledge to the next generation.

Despite the lack of charismatic megafauna (the only "wildlife" we saw were some feral goats and one owl - a morpork), we did find some other cool critters. This is a baby cicada sitting on my thumb. They grow up to about double this size, but no matter how big they are, the sound they make is huge. Everywhere here in the summer, the trees almost vibrate with their chirping.

The weather on our trip was pretty good. Not great (ie., not nearly warm enough), but good enough. Mostly sunny, we did get one good deluge of rain, but the afternoon sun dried us off and warmed us up (mostly).

These narrow side gorges brought in tiny streams of water and drew you into them to see where their winding passages ended up. It was fun to stop and claw your way up the passages, filled with cool, deep water and cool, deeper mud. Unfortunately it wasn't quite hot enough to think about swimming up some of the deeper streams, but we did get in quite a ways.

The Whanganui River is considered one of New Zealand's great walks (go figure). This means it can get really, really busy. We got really, really lucky. The group we essentially traveled with included ourselves, a couple from Germany and a couple from England, seven people in all. This is compared to the 70 people one day ahead of us and the 50 behind us. We felt pretty lucky when we learned this and thoroughly enjoyed eachothers company along the way.

The trip was wonderful. An absolutely gorgeous environment to be in, rich with plants, with birds and with history, the Whanganui River does not disappoint. I can't wait to bring Stephen up here and share it with him. There is just nothing like paddling through 40-50 metre high gorges reverberating with the calls of birds and the sound of waterfalls trickling down ancient, hidden gorges.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Christmas on Ice, Part 4 - Scott Base

Arriving back at Scott Base after 10 days in the field was absolutely wonderful, if a little shocking. Hot showers, other people, no need to spend hours melting snow into water so you don't dehydrate the next day, flush toilets. Ahhhhhh, all we had to do before we could enjoy any of that (except of course the toilets) was clean up all our gear. . .

Clean up included washing and drying all sleeping bags, all dishes, all cook boxes, stoves and cutlery, emptying food boxes of any leftovers, airing the tents and then putting it all away. Oh yeah, and someone had to deal with all the shit.

Finally we could enjoy the pleasures of the kitchen. . .

the common room. . .

and yes, even the hallways that connect everything together.

Of course, with McMurdo Station only a 2km walk away, a trip over (or two) was essential, if only to visit the gift shop ;) Observation hill is the tall mountain-like thing on the left.

McMurdo is very different from Scott Base. Mostly it's just bigger.

And a little bit messier.

But it has a really cool collection of weird and wonderful toys to play with. We were lucky enough to catch the tail end of an art show that took place at the carpentry shop there. Chrissie and I are demonstrating the joys of a homemade seesaw.

Someone had also made one of those cool executive desk bouncing ball type thingys out of bowling balls. It was cool.

It was amazing to see and experience the differences between Scott Base and McMurdo. Where Scott Base reminded me more of a mining or exploration camp with its tight knit community and completely self-suficient lay out, McMurdo reminded more of a mining town, sprawling, mucky, and big, everything there was big. You can see Discovery Hut in the foreground here, unfortunately, due to proximity to people, this hut has been heavily looted.

The view of McMurdo from atop Observation Hill. The big white circle tanks are holding all the fuel needed for Scott Base and McMurdo to run for a year, including petrol, diesel, and jet fuel.

Scott Base on the walk home from McMurdol. So different.

Just a pretty picture of the pressure ridges around Scott Base.

Why didn't they show this to me earlier? It so would have helped me avoid all the awkward situations I had with penguins on my trip. I thought he just wanted to dance.

Sign says it all. The building in the background is the kitchen and common room.

Erebus out beyond the pressure ridges on the day we left. A lovely farewell from a cold continent.
Everyone waiting for the plane to park.

Then we were off. Back into the great, grey warehouse, into the sky and home again.

Christmas on Ice, Part 3 - Camp

With thousands of pictures to sort through I've tried hard to keep it light, but have admitted a certain defeat with this next lot. I have decided to let the images do most of the talking. So browse through them, read the captions, and if you want to know more, just ask. This is my photo essay of our time while camping in Antarctica. Enjoy.

Putting up the polar tents. Two people slept in each tent, but the more help you got putting it up the better.

The toilet. Antarctica is a "bring it in, bring it out" kind of place, so the yellow bucket collected poo and the white box collected pee. After 10 days of living in the field a certain level of finesse was acheived for peeing into small openings.

Camp. Crystal and my tent is on the left, in the foreground is our little snow kitchen.

Flags marking the way to Scotts Hut at Cape Evans. The flags are left in place until there is nothing but bamboo left, this takes anywhere from 2-10 seasons depending on the location, whether is protected from wind and snow.

Captain Scott's hut built at Cape Evans. With strict regulations in place and extensive restoration work, this is one of the most amazing museums I have ever been to.

A chemistry set from Scott's Hut.

Lots and lots of cocoa.

Preserved for almost 100 years both the penguin and the paper show little sign of decomposition.

Inside the hut.

Driving the hagglund with Girard. Built in Sweden, these machines are also used for warfare in desert countries as they work well in sand. If you look around the machine you can see the various mountings for machine guns and other things.

Off to look for seals. The long poles are to test the sea ice as we walk along. Because seals come up and hang around holes in the sea ice, we have to be careful not to fall into any nearby cracks or breathing holes.

One of the highly photogenic seals. Proabably a pup from that year.

Our Christmas feast. Some of the students spent Christmas eve digging out this table for us to share our meal around. On Christmas day, Santa (and his twin and three elves) came out to deliver us a delicious and HOT dinner of turkey, ham, gravy, kumara, veggies, cookies, cake and merangues. It was amazing. Unfortunately, it was also the coldest day. No matter. Everyone enjoyed the food, the company and the stunning view from the dining table.

Most days we were out of camp, driving around in Hagglunds to carry people to various places. This is on one of the lovely crystal clear days we had after Christmas.

One of the fanciest kitchens built, but really it wasn't all that fair, they had a carpenter in their group.

One of the projects the students did was on snow compaction. This is a 6 metre long drill core they took to examine crystal deformation.

Another project was looking at the geology of Castle Rock.

Part of that project included climbing to the top of it.

The view as I emerge from my tent on a bright sunshiny day, or is it night, I can't tell.

Late on boxing day night, Crystal, Sean and I took off on the skidoos to get a better view of Erebus and just generally escape camp. It was amazingly still, quiet, and wonderful. We just sat there for almost an hour and didn't get back to camp until about 1am.

On the last day in camp we pulled up some ablation stakes a "real" scientist had set out the previous year to measure loss of snow or ice mass in the area. It was a hard four hours of trudging through thigh deep snow stopping every 100 metres to pull up a 2-6 metre tall stake. Despite the overcast sky and chill temperatures, we ended up in nothing but sweaters and gloves. Once we had pulled up all 81 stakes, we headed back to camp and packed up for our return to Scott Base the next day.