“But Daddy touches your butt,” Milo argued to me, demonstrating the sensual caresses remarkably accurately on his own body.
“Yes, but Daddy’s my husband,” I said, “and the way he touches my butt has a sexual connotation, so you shouldn’t do it to Naomi, because you’re not supposed to have sex with your sister.”
Milo was grinning in delight now. He’d gotten mommy at a matter-of-fact moment and was getting some juicy morsels of gossip on a rarely-mentioned topic. “Why can’t I have sex with Naomi?” He cocked his head and the buck-tooth grin challenged me to drop some more pearls of wisdom. The year 4 students started sex ed last year and he has an anatomical idea of what sex is (“You had to do that TWICE to get me and Naomi, didn’t you?” he has asked me recently. “Yes, Milo, twice…..”).
“If you have sex with your sister it’s called incest, and it’s considered taboo by society, and your children could have weird genetic problems.”
“What’s Taboo?” he asked, dancing around like a joker, considering, I’m sure, how scintillating a conversation topic this would make with his next door buddy. Naomi was also listening in delight, rubbing her bum and waving it around.
“It means you’d be an outcast of society and no one would talk to you or play with you! Now, GO TO BED!” I insisted, pointing to the bedroom.
They retreated, and I moved back into the kitchen where Jeremiah was making pasta salad. “I just explained incest to our kids, did you hear?” I said, fishing for a congratulations on doing some hard-yards parenting.
“Yeah, thanks, good job,” he grinned. Milo turns 10 next week. Explaining Incest is easy compared to the years we surely have ahead.
The last two Christmases we did bike trips. They were good, but I felt it was time for an easier (less kid whinge) activity. I have good memories of canoe trips with my grandparents on Adirondack lakes, and I don’t remember putting out much effort as a youngster….my infinitely patient grandfather taught me to paddle, but I was doing well if my whirlpools reached to the stern of the boat. And we spent significant time just watching the water trails we made as we dipped our fingers over the side of the laden canoe.
The Whanganui River Journey is classed as a “Great walk.” It’s a 5 day, 145 km route down part of the Whanganui River, one of 9 iconic journeys promoted and maintained by the NZ Department of Conservation. We figured a silver lining to Covid is a summer with limited tourists, a good time to visit the relatively “crowded” north island.
We rented a canoe and Jeremiah paddled his sea kayak. After a rudimentary kiwi-style safety briefing we shoved our gear into six barrels, two dry bags and a cooler, and launched from Taumarunui.
“If you don’t tip within the first hour, you won’t tip until the last day,” was the reassuring outlook from the canoe hire guy. The Whanganui has a couple rapids approaching grade 2 white water, mostly on the first and 5th days. While I’m happy to paddle that in a kayak, I’ve never paddled a canoe in any rapids. Odds are that one in three canoes takes to the drink during the trip, and my aim was to be squarely in the dry 2/3rds of that statistic. I was comforted by the fact that the NZ Greatwalks are suitable for novices; with a reasonable level of fitness I didn’t expect anything untoward.
The first couple rapids had me nervous, but they were straight-forward and I was able to direct the canoe where I wanted to go (basically a straight point and shoot, no fancy manoeuvres required). We splashed through with only a few gallons of water sloshing inside from waves, and my confidence increased. Unfortunately no photos, cameras and rapid navigation don’t mesh!
We pulled into our first tent site by mid afternoon, and managed to set up camp before the rain started. It rained all afternoon and all night, a steady gentle rain.
Next morning we dressed the kids in their wetsuits, wrung out the tents, and anxiously checked the river level. It had only gone up about six inches from the night before, and maybe another inch while we packed, but the water had gone from tannin-tea brown to milky capucchino. Milo surveyed the turbulent flow. “No logs or dead animals floating along, so it’s ok to paddle,” he stated, quoting our safety briefing. He’s a funny combination of worry-wort and bravado, that boy; he likes precision in the rules, and as long as they aren’t his parents’ rules, he follows them. We launched and sped along amid rain squalls and gorge sides cloaked with fern trees and waterfalls. Some time after noon the sun peaked out and the outlook improved.
“Whakahoro campsite, 400 meters upstream.” The sign pointed up a chocolatey brown torrent lined with treacherous willows. I raised my eyebrows at Jeremiah. “I can’t get up that with just the kids in front. There must be a trail up from the main river somewhere.” We scoured the bank—thick bush and no trail. We tied up the kayak and paddle all together in the canoe. Zigzagging up the current with willow branches clawing at the edges felt mighty precarious, and despite our best efforts we had to pause in a boily eddy. “I certainly didn’t expect anything this sketchy in a Great Walk,” I panted. Quite possibly our sense of river hazards has been heightened by our whitewater kayaking experience, especially my own recent encounter with a side-stream willow. A Danish couple had clawed their way to the submerged landing just ahead of us, and they generously came back to offer help with their bow rope towing from land, so we made it eventually. Hauling our barrels up the slippery bank, we saw a sign pointing another 300 meters uphill to the campsite. “Whakahoro” sounds like a swear word (it’s pronounced “faka-whore-o), and I’d certainly suggest giving it a miss in favour of a friendlier riverside site. On the plus side, we met Becs from Taupo at this campsite, and she very generously carried a pair of our barrels up to the camp each night for the remainder of the trip.
Next day we were staying in the hut at Te Keiki, where there’s a marae. Reading the informational panel at John Gould hut, we learned that we’d need to be prepared for a traditional maori greeting—the man of the group would need to say what mountain and river we’re from, along with the necessary family introductions and thank you’s. The woman of the group would need to sing a song, preferably a folk song from your country of origin. I spent the paddling day practicing Yankee Doodle, which seemed a bit irreverent but was a favorite with the kids. Alison Krauss’ “When I went down to the river to pray” seemed fitting, this being a river journey and all, but I doubted I could pull that off tunefully. I settled on the Amish song “Tis a gift to be simple.” In the end I was spared. Marilynn, the hostess/caretaker of the marae, suggested that the whole group sing one song together. The one kiwi family among the group was more familiar with the requirements of the occasion, and chose a maori song that the kids learn in school.
Marilynn’s husband is the DOC officer in charge of the hut, and Marilynn is the person in her iwi (tribe) who has taken on caretaker job for the marae, which includes welcoming visitors each day. Her dad did this role before her.
The land on which the DOC hut sits is a contested bit of ground; DOC built it without the permission of the maori group who historically controlled the land around the Whanganui River, so the iwi staged a live-in protest where they occupied the hut until a suitable arrangement was reached. Thankfully the arrangement allows for regular people to use the hut. I didn’t realize upon booking that the maori consider that to be their land which they graciously share.
In this delicate balancing act for control, Marilynn was most gracious, explaining our roles in the ceremonial greeting and making many allowances for us being from a different culture. Apparently there is no other marae that allows their visitors to speak, she told us proudly. Though they still hold the tradition that a woman must not speak and must enter behind the men. “That’s not very 21st century,” whispered the Danish woman. I heartily agreed; of all the traditions to bend, treating woman as second class citizens seems to be a logical starting point.
We started our last day’s paddle expecting the river gradient to increase; this last day had four named rapids to negotiate, as well as a few numbered ones between. We put the kids in wetsuits and tied every loose bit of gear to the boat. But the first long stretch was flat, with a wicked headwind, and I worked hard for every meter travelled, aware that our shuttle was booked for 1:30. We passed the first described rapid in puzzlement—where was the rock mid-stream that we were meant to go left of? We slowly realized that the water must still be high enough that the challenging waves were “washed out,” the term whitewater paddlers use to mean the features are so far under water that they aren’t tough to negotiate. The real challenge was the headwind.
We made our shuttle time, but another family were waiting for didn’t turn up on time. The canoe hire guy checked his clipboard. “Powell, that’s the group with two kids in front and the mom in back who’s a really good paddler, right?” I hesitated; we were waiting for a family with three kids and two adults; they had two canoes, but I wasn’t sure how their kids were arranged. Jeremiah chimed in; “No, you’re thinking about us. The family we’re waiting for has three kids.” Realization dawned sweetly. That “really good paddler” he was referring to was me. I let the accolade go to my head; I figured my battered self esteem needs all the help it can get these days.
Eventually the canoe hire guy organized a local jet boat to launch in search of the other family, but much to our relief they rounded the bend just before the boat hit the water.
Looking back on the trip, one of the major enjoyments was the little cohort of people who we spent the evenings with at the huts. Since Christmas morning the personalities had been the same, and the comradery grew day by day. There was the Christchurch family Milo called The Freckles, who kept strictly to themselves the first day but by day three had thawed sufficiently to be cordial. There was a friendly hippie German couple living in Golden Bay, as well as generous Becs and her paddling friend Andrew (not partners, she carefully clarified), who had spent two years teaching English in Armenia, and had interesting things to say about a wide range of topics. Then there was the nice aforementioned Danish couple, who had interesting things to share about Scandinavia. I find this with all the Great Walks that I’ve done, oddly enough. We plan the trip to get out into the wilderness, but the most memorable part is the people we meet along the way.
Back in Taumarunui we treated ourselves to a hotel room, soapy showers, and a nice Indian restaurant. Stage one of the family trip had been a success.
I know I’m not “supposed” to like broom, or gorse. It’s an invasive plant, and in NZ, non-natives are considered evil. (this may apply to non-native people too….not going there today) But I don’t care. I like it, as long as there’s a good path like this one cut through it. It’s gorgeous, and smells nice, and wouldn’t be a weedy problem anyway if the native forest was allowed to grow back.
I biked up Kennedy’s bush this afternoon, then over the Summit Rd and down through the Christchurch Adventure Park. It was a fantastic ride, not only because of the gorse, but because I had one earbud in listening to Dire Straits on Spotify. I encountered the old favorites, but also a bunch of songs I had never heard before. Listening to music has such a profound affect on mood. With Dire Straits I was a more aggressive rider on the downhill trails, and I’ve never enjoyed them as much as I did today. What a fabulous ride!
This pansy was covered in perfect spherical melted frost drops, glisteningin the morning sun. I passed it planter yesterday on my way into work, and actually doubled back to take a photograph. I wonder what microscopic characteristics of the petal surface make it so hydrophobic.
Last weekend I went hiking with some friends to Youngman Stream hut, in the Lees Valley. We came off the tussock-covered tops and down to the beginning of the beech forest, and inhaled the peculiar scent of those woods.
Here’s Carrie entering the high bit of the beech forest, where the old man’s beard lichen hangs thick.
The beech forest has a heady fermenting smell, not disgusting but not particularly pleasant, in an objective way. But that first big whiff was my Delight of the Day, because it means we’re in the NZ east coast bush.
The smell is the mold growing on the honeydew of the particular species of scale insect that coats the trunks of these beech trees. The black mold grows in thick cushiony mounds along the tree trunks and even the ground. Even if I go blind, I’ll love this smell because it means I’m in the New Zealand woods.
At work I’m on a mission to better utilize our waste nutrient water. The latest tool acquired for that mission is the light green nitrate meter in this set. The purple potassium meter is also on order.
A product designer after my own heart–rainbow colored meters.
I took it out of the packaging yesterday, squinted at the instructions that come in seven different languages printed on crinkled light weight paper, calibrated it with the sleek little bottles of calibration solution, and checked the nitrate level in one of our recirculating fertigation tanks. 730ppm NO3-
I was confused. According to my Mega-Fancy Fertilizer Spreadsheet, I expected that nutrient solution to be at approximately 170ppm N, since the EC was 1.7 I checked it with the nitrate test strips–the reading was off the chart, above 500ppm. Had my spreadsheet been grossly wrong for all these years?!
I went and measured another familiar solution, a “high N” feed at EC 1.6. Again, the answer was way higher than I expected, 640ppm nitrate. I pulled out a text book and looked up that calcium nitrate mixed at 0.84g/L should make a solution with EC 0.8 and 100ppmN, then went to the fertilizer room to measure out the solution. The tester showed 440ppm nitrate. Eh??
Back at my desk I phoned the guy I bought the meter from. I must be doing something wrong, but I wasn’t sure what. We talked about calibration, checking the meter in clear water, using a standard solution….nothing was ringing a bell, until I looked at the container of test strips I was using as a comparison. There were two scales to read: nitrate-N ppm or NO3-ppm. I hadn’t registered that there was a difference, but the scales had different numbers–500ppm NO3- equals 113 ppm nitrate-N. That’s when I figured out my error. My fertilizer spreadsheet is calculated in N mg/L, which is different than NO3- mg/L by a factor of the molecular weight of 3 oxygen molecules. I glanced over at my nerdy wall poster of the periodic table of elements. A molecule of NO3- weights 62g/mole while N itself only weighs 14g/mole, so ppm calculations in NO3- are 4.42 times higher than those in solo nitrogen molecules.
Adjusting for the extra weight of the oxygen, suddenly all the numbers made sense. My Mega-Fancy Fertilizer spreadsheet was still telling the truth, albeit in a different language. SUCH a relief.
Delight of the Day: Chemistry WORKS. Math WORKS. And so does my nitrate meter.
I make a point to never check the weekend forecast for an upcoming tramp before Thursday, Wednesday night at the latest. It’s not a superstition, exactly, more my way to cope with an ever-changing forecast and an aversion to decision-making. Better to see the forecast just once, close enough to departure to be pretty solid, and make one decision about where we’ll go to avoid the rain.
But THIS time the whole of our weekend driving range looked amazingly good. Cold, for sure; it IS winter after all. But dry, sunny, and with calm winds. Carrie and I reveled in the unexpected luck in getting yet another winter tramp in fine weather. We both have kids and partners and jobs, so overnight tramps don’t happen spur-of-the-moment, and if the calendar appointment happens to fall on a good weather weekend, it’s cause for joy.
We opted for Edwards Valley. We had both been there before, but it’s less than two hours drive from Christchurch, and has a snug hut above the tree line, and side trip potential.
The walk up the Edwards starts with crossing the Bealey and the Mingha Rivers, which aren’t bridged, but in low flows are straight forward. I even kept my boots somewhat dry, with the aid of gaiters and a walking pole. The track isn’t technical, but, as we were reminded by a couple staying at the hut, it IS a big step up from the Abel Tasman great walk. The track bounced between a steep wooded path around gorges and stretches of gravelly river bed, but since you’re going up river and the hut is on the river, you really can’t get lost.
When we arrived at the hut it was basking in afternoon sun. The wisp of smoke coming from the chimney showed that someone was already there, stoking the fire, always has a welcoming feel.
We had a snack and a cuppa, and headed up the valley towards that snowy mountain, now called “Falling Mountain.”
“During the magnitude 7.1 Arthur’s Pass earthquake on 9 March 1929, a 900-metre-high section of mountain peak collapsed onto Taruahuna Pass, close to the epicentre. The landslide continued partway up the flanks of Mt Franklin opposite. It then slid about 5 kilometres down the remote valley of the west branch of the Otehake River. The collapsed peak was later dubbed Falling Mountain.” https://teara.govt.nz/en/photograph/4493/falling-mountain-landslide
I’ve been in the Taruahuna pass several years ago and I remember the landscape–huge rip-rap type boulders fill the entire pass, your entire field of vision for at least an hour of hiking. Can you imagine a land slide big enough to shoot rubble 5 km down the neighboring valley? It did occur to me that one would have to be extraordinarily unlucky to be in the mountains during that kind of event, and of course it’s not unprecedented…. But you can’t live your life worrying about these things.
Here’s the Falling Mountain rubble. We chased that warm sun all the way up the valley but never caught it before we decided to turn around and head back towards dinner at the hut.
The last of the day’s sun, reflected off a peak.
The hut was unexpectedly busy for a winter weekend; of the 16 bunks, 13 ended up full. Around one table that evening we had cool range of accents, and countries of origin. Chinese, Canadian, German, Kiwi, Dutch, Zimbabwean, American and Australian. The sky was cloudless and the moon hadn’t yet risen; the milky way was more spectacular than I’d ever seen it.
There was a good hard frost that night. Note to self–next time fill the cooking pan with water in the evening, before the tap freezes.
The next morning the fire’s warmth was all gone, and we waited for the sun to crack over the hill before setting off on our day adventure.
Carrie’s husband gets excited about routes and maps, and he had picked out a creek bed near the hut that, based on the aerial photos and the topo maps, should be climbable without needing any technical gear, as long as we exited the creek bed before the bluffs at the top. We left most of our stuff in the hut and set off with day packs, crossing the river and pushing through a little bit of friendly scrub to the frosty creek. Just for reference, “unfriendly” scrub would involve the well-armored matagouri and speargrass, which we luckily didn’t encounter. Jeremiah often comes home from his hunting trips picking bits of thorns out of his skin, but “bush bashing” through spines and prickles holds no appeal for me!
The hut below looks both close and far away.
In the end we climbed up that rocky bit, which we could have avoided if we’d come out of the creek earlier, but which turned out alright in the end.
After our unexpected rock scramble near the top of the hill, we finally popped our heads over the crest, and our vista suddenly expanded. “It’s like the Sound of Music! I called to Carrie, delighted not only with the view but also that we hadn’t gotten ourselves into trouble on our chosen route.
We strolled along the low alpine grasses, and had an early lunch by this frozen tarn. “We should have carried our stuff, we could have gone down the other side to Lake Mavis, and back along the Mingha!” I enthused, regretting that we had to turn back down to the woods so soon. Consulting the map, we realized that I might have been a little over-enthusiastic with that plan. It would be a fantastic mission some day, but we had a whole lot more ridge to go along before we could even see Lake Mavis.
Still, we felt pretty accomplished. Once you’re confident with navigating off-trail, all kinds of amazing adventures open up. Carrie and I are working on building those skills and that confidence, while at the same time being aware that a whole lot can go wrong while making up your own route in the mountains.
As we turned back down the hill, we chose a different route to avoid the rocky bits. I always feel tentative lowering myself down through sections that would be really difficult to back-track up, in case we meet a cliff and get stuck. But this time we were fine. And again, no speargrass!
Comfort zones nudged out a bit towards more adventure–yay!
“I can’t find a plastic fork….maybe I could use a knife to cut up the noodles and eat them with a spoon?”
If I was a more keyed-in person, I would have realized that my friend Teena was a bit worried about our planned tramp, if she was fretting over the cutlery. But I was blithely unaware, and simply told her I’d throw in an extra fork.
We had had this tramp on the calendar for months, a daintily coordinated weekend date between various other weekend commitments and travels for the three of us, one of whom still couldn’t make it at the last minute.
We met at my house at 7:00, as I was keen to get up to Lewis Pass early. Teena, good communicator as she is, had been clear that tenting wasn’t a preferred option, so I was anxious to stake a place in the popular hut in case it filled up.
“Should I bring one pair of spare socks, or more than one?” “How many pairs of leggings do you wear?” “I’ve got my eye shades, ear plugs, pillow, three jumpers, puffy jacket…..” the gear list sounded extensive, but when I lifted Teena’s pack, I was reassured. It was very practical, probably lighter than mine.
Lewis Pass is just east of the divide, and the forests get a lot of rain. As we moved into the woods, the green enveloped us from above and below. The noise of the road faded behind us.
We moved at a leisurely pace, stopping for photos and to fondle the moss and lichen coating every surface.
The diversity of non-flowering plant life is staggering. I’m reminded of a package my college roommate once sent me, a parcel of tree top greenery fallen from the western Oregon forest, soft textured greens palpating with the will to grow.
We crossed various side streams on their tumble down to join the Nina River, gentle little babbling affairs. You can drink directly from these streams. Teena later told me that balancing on the rocks and picking her way across was a good challenge, and I must say she rose to it well; clueless me didn’t realize that she was concerned.
The weather for Lewis Pass was cooperative and Nina hut is a straight-forward three hour walk into a nicely situated 12 bunk hut, with a potential climb to a saddle another couple hours beyond the hut giving options for the afternoon. The two river crossings have swing bridges, another important consideration. Here Teena is, enjoying the luxury of teetering ABOVE the water rather than splashing through it.
This one was more of a seep than a stream, the moss obscuring much of the water flow.
We at lunch at the hut. It is situated on a clearing in a knoll some way above the river, a cozy hut with double glazed windows and a good wood stove.
We took a short walk in the afternoon up the valley. The trail eventually comes out at a saddle with a gorgeous little two bunk hut, though we didn’t go up that far this weekend. I wanted to stay there a couple years ago after a walk along the Sylvia tops, but it was inhabited already, so I had taken the track on down to Nina hut for the night. I hadn’t remembered the trail being difficult to follow at the time, but this time we had to keep a keen eye out for the orange markers to avoid going astray.
We passed a few more picturesque streams. They always remind me of my Dad, who loves woodland streams.
Back at the hut we spent a little time collecting fallen beech branches for the fire. New Zealand beech is a different family than north american beech. It might technically be a hard wood, but my experience collecting it to burn is that it’s nearly always squishily saturated with water. The dead branches must do a fair bit of rotting on the tree itself, and when they fall they encounter deep moss on the forest floor where they somehow absorb even more water, to the point of literal sponginess. It doesn’t bode well for a hot fire.
Luckily, on our afternoon walk we passed a tree that had been blown down a few years ago, its branches held safely above the forest floor. We eyed it up as good fire wood, and returned to it later. The hut woodshed had an excellent saw, which is unusual for a hut, so we soon had an impressive stock of firewood ready.
I had forgotten how satisfying it is to make a nice fire! It’s a skill I want to teach my kids, I reflected. Maybe this year would be a good one to get them tramping again. Jeremiah had suggested it only the week before and I had recoiled in haste, remembering the coaxing and energy-sapping cajoling it took to keep them moving on past trips. But maybe….maybe I can muster the umph again. And maybe they’ll be better now that they’re a bit older.
After dinner Teena taught me a new game, after which we basked in the wood stove warmth on top of our sleeping bags on the bunks. So much for being worried that we’d have to compete with hordes of trampers for bunk space! We had the hut to ourselves, so we yip yapped like school girls for a couple hours before we called it a night.
Teena’s enthusiasm for the experience was gratifying. She enjoyed the peacefulness of the forest, ate well, slept well, was not eaten alive by sandflies, remained bouyant after tripping and sliding on a section of trail, and coped well with a stomach ache (not related to my cooking!). I enjoyed seeing the tramp through a new tramper’s eyes, and I felt a renewed energy to bring my kids out into the woods.
Thank you, Teena, for reimagining the tramping experience with me. I’ve gained renewed sense of wonder at the lush forests and streams we’re so privileged to have in our NZ back yards.