Monday, November 28, 2011

Albatross Encounters

            I walked the Kaikoura Peninsular Walk a few days ago, which is a pathway down to the fur seal colony, and across the eastern end of the Kaikoura peninsula.   \ Seals don’t smell as fishy as most people think (though there is a fish component in there somewhere); mostly, they just smell like a really, really sweaty mammal.   How smelly are the seals?   Well, the first two seals I saw, I smelled them before I saw them.   The first sea lion I saw was hauled out on an old dock about ten feet away from the road.   She seemed quite aware of the vehicular and pedestrian traffic, and was half-opening an eye every once in a while to keep track of what we were doing.   Otherwise, she seemed quite happy to lie in the sun, fumigating away on the shoulder of the road.   The next sea lion was actually lying across the pedestrian boardwalk just before the peninsular walk carpark.  If I hadn’t smelled this one in time, I might have actually walked into him before I realized he was lying across the path.   Like the first seal, he seemed totally unconcerned about his proximity to the cars, camper vans, pedestrians, and camera-toting Japanese tourists edging closer and closer to him with their giant zoom lenses.   

            There were signs pointing out that the seals will bite, and can lunge at people more quickly than you’d expect from an animal that spends most of its time swimming.   Apparently, the peninsula car park was built before the fur seal numbers increased.   As the seal population got bigger, the seals slowly took over.    Vehicle traffic notwithstanding, it looks like a pretty decent haul-out from a seals’ point of view – it’s a big, flat concrete surface that’s conveniently been built just a  few feet above the high tide line.   There were signs all over the place warning people that the fur seals will actually sleep in the parking lot during high tides or bad weather.    A few of the signs had suggestions for what to do if a seal has decided to bed down next to your car (walk slowly and quietly past it, was their advice.)   Most of the seals were further out by the beach, sprawled on the rocks, or standing up with their necks arched over their back as though they had decided to take up yoga.   The car park isn’t a breeding haul-out, just a resting place, so there wasn’t a whole lot going on but sleeping.   Occasionally, a seal would shift position, or wake up enough to huff at a tourist who was getting  too close, but that was about the extent of the action.   
Fur seal sleeping on the boardwalk near the Kaikoura Peninsular Walk carpark.

            The peninsular walk itself was really sunny, with great views of the bluffs at the east and south ends of the peninsula.   The environment reminded me a lot of Rathlin Island in Ireland, with the high bluffs, and the seals, and the birds.   Kaikoura is home to the South Island’s largest colony of red-billed gulls, and I watched the colony from the top of the cliff.   Watching a seabird colony is like watching the most argumentative sort of family reunion – everyone running around screeching at each other, and butting into each other’s business, all the while gossiping with each other at the top of their lungs.   That’s if you look at the individual birds.   If you start looking at the colony as a whole, it almost looks like a noisy sort of snow globe.

            A few days later, I got a free trip out on the Albatross Encounter boat, courtesy the company that brought me to Kaikoura to interview me, but didn’t actually give me a job.   Which was disappointing - but a free birding tour that has a sticker price of  $110 is a pretty awesome consolation prize.   It was also a neat thing to do on Thanksgiving.   It would have been nice to spend the holiday with family, but spending it with giant pelagic seabirds was a good alternative.   They’re certainly as big as turkeys, although possibly not as edible.   

            We saw both Wandering Albatross and Royal Albatross, which have the largest wingspan of any living bird.   Depending on how you measure these things, Royal Albatross are also the world’s larges flying bird.   The ‘largest flying bird’ label is debatable depending on whether you’re going by wingspan or weight (condors and bustards being the heaviest, though they have smaller wingspans).   Seeing the albatross flying was kind of like seeing an ellipsis in the sky – there’s a shallow curve to their wings, and they tend to angle themselves to take best advantage of the winds.   When the albatross weren’t flying, they seemed to be at some pains to avoid getting tangled in their own wings.   Most birds are pretty good at tucking their wings at their sides; albatross wings are so big that they seem to stick out at the back no matter how they’re folded.   Albatross, more that any other bird I’ve seen, were built for hanging in the air.   Not flying – that word implies that there is flapping involved.   The albatross literally just hang there in the wind, shearing from one side to another as they speed up and slow down.   Albatross look beautiful when they’re flying, and a tiny bit ridiculous when they’re doing anything else.   On this tour, we didn’t see the albatross flying very much.   Mostly, we saw them eating.

            The main reason behind the popularity of this particular bird tour is that the boats can entice the albatross to approach the boat by using chum, which is a fancy word for fish guts, or anything else that a bird might be tempted to eat.   To start things off, our skipper threw in some chum directly into the water, just to entice birds in and get things going.   As soon as the fish livers hit the water, the birds started showing up.   

            If you’ve never seen it before, a group of gulls feeding can be seen for a remarkably long distance over the water.   From a distance, the white of the gulls’ wings as they dive looks like a cluster of little lights constantly flicking off and on over the water.   The red-legged gulls showed up first, along with a couple of Giant Petrels, and started working away on the bait.   The gulls started to feed, and further out in the water, the other seabirds began to take notice.   If the chum in the water was like the ‘Open’ sign on the shop door, then the mob of gulls flying around our boat was like a neon billboard facing the interstate.   

            Pretty soon we had our first big albatross – a Wandering - showing up, landing in the water by throwing his feet forward and cupping them, using the webbing on his feet as a sort of air break.   The albatross ran the petrel off of the biggest chunk of fish, and started tucking in himself.   The chum was gone in another minute.

            Then, our skipper threw in a larger block of chum, which was tangled inside a sort of wicker cage, and tied off to our boat.   This meant that the birds had to come up to the boat to eat it, and also meant that they had to pull the fish out bit by bit, which limited the speed at which the chum was consumed.   As soon as the new chum hit the water, the albatross started swimming over to the boat, paddling with his feet, and sticking his neck out towards the boat like a dog who suspects you’re holding bacon.   

            I knew the albatross were big, and I expected them to be impressive, but I didn’t expect them to be so noisy.   The birds were constantly quarrelling, and shooing each other off of the food.   Usually, there was only one albatross at a time eating the chum, with the other albatross circling around, voicing their displeasure and keeping their distance.    The Giant Petrels, although smaller, seemed to have a much scrappier temperament, and would snatch mouthfuls as often as they could.   There was also a flock of Cape Pigeons, small enough that the albatross mostly ignored them, who gobbled up any scraps that the larger birds dropped.
Wandering Albatross, Giant Petrels (black), and Cape Pigeons (small,) eating chum at the back of the Albatross Encounter boat.

            The Wandering Albatross had the most luck at the chum, being slightly larger than the mollymawks.   We also saw a Royal Albatross very distantly – our skipper told us that sometimes these albatross will come towards the boat later on in a feeding session, when things have quieted down a little, but for some reason, this particular Royal Albatross didn’t feel like contesting the mollymawks for a spot at the feeding trough.   He swam as close as thirty yards, and then picked himself up laboriously from the water, and flew off again.    

            After about forty minutes with the birds, the supply of chum was running low, and the wind had picked up significantly, so we headed back to the harbor.   

Thanksgiving, and other things that don't happen in New Zealand

            Today was kitchen cleaning.   Tomorrow is Thanksgiving.   At least, tomorrow is Thursday, November 24 in New Zealand – but it will still be Wednesday the 23rd in Alaska and West Virginia, which means that it’s a little premature to be calling friends and family in the States to wish them a happy holiday.   So, I will not be celebrating Thanksgiving today.   I’ll be not celebrating Thanksgiving again tomorrow, too – which is when the holiday will be taking place in the States.   Tomorrow, I will probably be getting the obligatory call from my family  - you know, the one where they pass a phone around to fifteen different people over the course of five minutes while they’re waiting for the turkey to come out of the oven.   And by that point, it will (in New Zealand) already be the next day.   New Zealand, never having had pilgrims, does not celebrate this holiday at all, regardless of what day it is.   But with the confusion brought about by the fact that I am living a day ahead of the US, it seems like it really doesn’t happen here.   Or, that I’m being given the opportunity to not celebrate it twice – once when it’s the 24th here, and again when it’s the 24th in America.

            One immediate benefit to not celebrating Thanksgiving is that there is no kiwi equivalent to Black Friday.   I don’t need to avoid any stores, or prepare for a huge line at the grocery.   None of the sort of ‘cry-havoc-and-release-the-dogs-of-war’ sort of retail event that American shops tend to specialize in.   And the progression up to Christmas seems to be on a mellower trajectory – the occasional sign in front of a shop, or an end shelf full of mince pies at the  grocery store.   No trees are up.   No one’s decorating with Christmas lights.    There isn’t any more red and green that there ought to be, and the radio stations are still playing the music they usually do.    As far as I can tell, Christmas in New Zealand means making mince pies, eating lamb, and cooking a meal or two on the barbeque.   Which is what most New Zealanders seem to do at most other times of the year as well.   So, if there’s going to be a big commercially-driven, free-market assault on the holiday, all I can say is that there’s no sign of it here in Kaikoura.   Just think about how much time that would leave for the Jesus stuff.   I think it’ll be a nice change.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Dolphin Tours

            I’m in Kaikoura at the moment, volunteering as a cleaner at a backpacker hostel in exchange for free accommodation.   I came down here initially to interview with a tour boat company here that specializes in running snorkel-with-wild-dolphins tours.  I didn’t get the job, unfortunately, but I did get to go out on one of the dolphin tour boats.   

            The dolphins are pretty awesome –  one of my main worries about the job was that I would feel that the tour itself was too exploitative of the animals for me to feel comfortable with working on these boats.   But, I was pretty happy with what I saw, and with the regulations that are in place to (hopefully) keep the dolphins from being overly harassed.   Before the tour, all the clients sit through a video where the expectation is drummed into them that the dolphins are wild animals, and therefore do what they want, not necessarily what you want.   The boat operates by a permit, and there are only so  many tours and snorkel sessions allowed in a given day – and there are mandatory rest blocks of two hours where no swimmers are allowed in the water at all.   The captains avoid groups of dolphins with young calves (though the young calves do not always avoid us – several came over to the boat anyway) and breeding groups.

            I was actually impressed with how comfortable the dolphins were with hanging right around the boat and the swimmers.   The swimmers were told a few hints for attracting the dolphin’s attention – swimming in circles, and making noises through their snorkels – and right off the bat there seemed to be a lot of dolphins eyeball to eyeball with the clients in wetsuits.   Dusky dolphins are quite small – maybe four feet long, and are known as one of the most acrobatic marine mammals.   I know I probably saw as many breaches from those dolphins in three hours than I’ve seen breaches in Alaska in four years…   It helped that there were over one hundred dolphins hanging out in a loose group.   The dolphins feed at night – when deepwater fish and plankton tend to come closer to the surface – and so during the day, some of the dolphins seem to tolerate moonlighting as tourist attractions.   Honestly, the snorkeling part looked pretty darn cool.   

            The tours end by driving around slowly through the dolphins, to let the people who were snorkeling watch the dolphins and take photographs.    These dolphins like riding bow waves– surfing along the front of the boat, just under the pontoon,  in a perfect position to catch the pressure wave created by the boat as it passes.   They’re also in perfect position to be photographed by tourists hanging their cameras over the boat rail.   The Dall’s porpoise in Alaska would often bow-ride, but never for very long.   You could get their attention for maybe two minutes, tops – but some of the dusky dolphins seemed content to hang out under our pontoon for upwards of five minutes at a time.

            The boat-based part of the job was mostly looking after the swimmers – keeping an eye on them in the water, helping people who get, cold, or sea-sick, and dealing with gear – showing people how to use it, and collecting it at the end of the swim.   Working continually in moderate sea swell would have been tough – that was probably the worst part of working on the Fjords Tours boats.  But, the tours were also  shorter – three hours on the water, compared with six hours when I was working at KFT. Unlike KFT, the first dolphin tours of the day depart at 5:30 AM.

            In the US it is totally illegal to allow tourists to swim with dolphins in their natural environment – but it is perfectly legal to allow tourists to swim with dolphins who are kept in captivity.   I don’t know what the regulations are regarding captive dolphins in New Zealand – I don’t even know that there are captive dolphins in New Zealand – there are probably some in a zoo or aquarium somewhere.   But I sort of think that NZ might have the right idea about what’s actually ethically defensible dolphin tourism.   

            After spending the day with the dolphin boat company, I took the bus back up to Picton, as I didn’t fancy waiting around Kaikoura sitting on my hands while I waited to hear back.   Picton seemed a nice choice, because there’s a lot of walking trails near town, the areas is beautiful, and there’s a really nice hostel there with a beautiful garden that serves free apple crumble every night.   I took two more all-day hikes, and saw a few new birds on the trails as well.   As it turned out, I didn’t get the job with the dolphin boat, but I am back in Kaikoura anyway, as a hostel here had posted an ad asking for volunteers willing to do cleaning work in exchange for free accommodation.   I called then up, and was on a bus an hour later.

            Dusky Lodge is big – three floors, plus an on-site pool and hot tub.   I’m in a dorm room in the basement with about eight cleaning volunteers.   I can only assume that my fellow volunteers clean the other areas of the hostel better than they do our own living quarters – it looks like some sort of laundry hamper explosion took place down there.   At least the bathroom looks decently clean…   Work starts at nine AM, two to three hours a day, and I’ve agreed to stay a week or two.   Probably, that means I will be staying for as long as it takes to line up something else.   

            The lining-something-else-up is probably the most frustrating part of what’s going on in my life right now.   I came to New Zealand not so much to travel, or bungee-jump,  or drink my way around the country.   Mostly, I wanted to find a little niche for myself in a new country and live there for a while.   I had also thought that since I’ve worked in tourism in Alaska for four years, that getting some sort of tourism job in New Zealand would be a reasonable aspiration.   I’ve been in New Zealand for two weeks now, and so far not any closer to finding that hoped-for niche. 

            I emailed a woman who runs a small tourism company in a very remote corner of the South Island – we’ve been emailing back and forth for a couple of months – and I have an invitation to go down to her location and take a look at the operation.    All she can offer is work in exchange for accommodation – apparently her season is looking scarily slow due to the economic recession, or that’s the impression I’m getting from her.   Work-for-accommodation, theoretically, would be OK, if the job were interesting enough – though there is the nagging worry that I do have bills in the US (medical insurance, for example) that will have to be factored into the equation somewhere. However, she referred to the ferry that services her island as a direct competitor to her business, and warned me that if I took the ferry, I should say nothing about why I was coming out there to anyone who worked on the boat.   It’s hard to judge, not having seen the situation first-hand, but it sounds like there might be some serious bad blood between her business and the locals. Even though I have no idea what prompted her to say that, it’s certainly raised a few red flags.   I mean, there are certainly businesses in Seward that might be considered direct competitors to the Iceberg Lodge.   Usually, whenever I run into their employees, we go out for a beer and talk about how much it rains.

            Also in the category of weird job-hunt-related emails, a guy named Ian has emailed me some information about working at a gold mining dive site in Otago for the summer.   I don’t quite know how, exactly, people manage to seem sketchy over email, but this guy (who I’m sure has got to come across better in real life) is doing really well at being unintentionally sketchy.   After I wrote Ian about the ad, the first correspondence I received from him was a one-line email asking me to look at some pictures he’d taken of where he lived.  Ian’s correspondence reminds me of the sort of emails you get from a guy you met at a bar and didn’t fancy, but gave your email address to anyway – misspelled, badly punctuated, and a little too personal a little too quickly.   

            I did my first cleaning shift at the hostel this morning – cleaning all three kitchens, dealing with garbage, and then making up beds.   The hostel jobs are divvied up between whoever’s working that day, so I might only have to clean bathrooms two or three times in a week.   There’s about eight volunteers at the moment – not all of us are working at the same time, between days off and some people having evening cleaning shifts, but there seemed plenty of people to get everything done.   I’m also told that the Dusky Lodge is usually a lot quieter during the week – and tonight it’s already noticeably less crowded than it was last night.   Partly that was because about a dozen road bikers came through, having biked all the way from Christchurch that day.   The group was definitely of the work hard, play hard mentality.   The room that the volunteers share is directly under the main lounge and kitchen – thankfully, the bikers decided to call it a night about the same time that I decided to go to bed.   I didn’t wake up when the other hostel volunteers came back from the pub – they’re well-versed enough in dorm living to all use flashlights, instead of turning on the main overhead light, which I really appreciate.  

            I walked down to another backpacker hostel with Sarah, another volunteer who’s been at the hostel for two months.   Sarah plays ukulele, and we were trying to meet up with a guitarist and piano player that she knew from that hostel.   We didn’t find him, but we did meet a random guy playing guitar on his front lawn, so we jammed with him instead.   I spent some time in the hostel jacuzzi, which got cleaned today after all the bike riders were in there last night.   (At one point it looked like there were more bikers in the jacuzzi than water.   Possibly, there was more beer in the jacuzzi than water as well, but I digress…)   One of the other hostel volunteers is giving us yoga classes after we’re done with our morning cleaning work, which is great.

            I’m very glad I’ve gotten myself somewhere where I’m not paying for a bed every night, but honestly, I’m a little depressed, and very, very frustrated that my attempts to find a niche for myself here in New Zealand haven’t really gotten me anywhere.     I feel like between worrying about money and job prospects, and sharing crowded, smelly dorms with a continually changing succession of girls that I talk to for one night and then don’t see again because either I or them are heading off somewhere else – it’s starting to wear me down.   Which is a shame, because New Zealand is pretty spectacular, but it’s getting hard at times to remember that.   It also feels a little stifling that there’s a thriving tourism industry down here – dolphin boats, and glacier hikes and all that – but so far I’ve been excluded from the fun.

Monday, November 14, 2011

In Which Mareth Feeds the Animals

            So I didn’t get the job with the glacier guiding company at Franz, though the manager there very kindly sent out an email to a few affiliated tourism companies recommending me as an employee.   I left the West Coast the next day, heading north to see what sort of work I might be able to find in a warmer and drier climate than Franz.

            I spent the worst bus ride ever going up from Franz Josef to Nelson – I felt slightly carsick for most of the time, and the driver was on the microphone frequently to talk about food – mostly, the various food options at the huge number of lengthy rest breaks we made while driving up to Nelson.   The scenery was nice, but I was in no condition for appreciating it – the road appeared mostly as a lot of two-lane switchbacks, with the lane so close to the side of the hill that all I could see from my vantage point was a blurred succession of ferns whipping past the window at various rollercoaster angles.   I think it would have been a great road to drive on myself – scenic, and with very few other cars on the road – but it wasn’t a good pick for a bus.   I’m going to try and not do such lengthy travel days in the future, if I can at all avoid it. 
            During one of the rest breaks, I fell in love with an Australian possum being kept at a roadside tourist attraction.   The place was called the Bushman’s Center, and appeared to be a tiny bastion of Australia-ness nestled into New Zealand’s west coast.   Out of the approximately forty people on buses who were at the Center, I was the only one who paid my four dollars to go in the back and see their animals – four possums, and some deer and goats.    Three of the possums were soundly asleep in their little hidey holes – but the fourth was awake, and seemed very interested in what I was doing.  These possums reminded me more of lemurs than of the possums we have back home.   Their tails are furry, for one thing, and their eyes are really big and cute.   Possum fur garments are a big seller in New Zealand –  possums are an invasive species here, so they seem to be an animal that everyone loves to hate – and subsequently trap, skin, and make into souvenir kitsch gifts.   

            This particular possum seemed so tame that I did something I would never encourage anyone ever to do, and put my fingers up to the bars of his enclosure.   He gave my fingers a perfunctory licking, and continued to stare at me with his big, soft possum eyes.   Eventually I figured out why he was being so attentive: there was a bucket mounted on the opposite wall that read ‘Possum Food’.   The food turned out to be a handful of stale Chex breakfast cereal.   (I hope that whatever his owners feed him is healthier than that.   At least give him some Wheaties, or whole-grain Cheerios…)    I fed him a few Chex bits anyway, and he licked my fingers some more.   I offered to take the possum away with me; I would get a job waiting tables in some seaside town and feed him all of the Chex breakfast cereal he could eat.   The possum declined - he was a carnivorous invasive species, and I was a vegetarian bird-watcher.   It would have been a torrid affair.

            Later on, the bus stopped at Punakaiki, at a place called pancake rocks, which is a bunch of stacked limestone pilings, with an ocean blowhole, and a small (but vocal) colony of white-fronted terns.   The ocean blowhole wasn’t blowing (it was past high tide, so the water wasn’t high enough) but the weather was beautiful (it was actually clear blue skies from Franz Josef all the way up the coast), and it was really nice to get out of the bus, see some birds, and take a little walk.   Punakaiki looks like it could be a nice beach town – but I’m not sure that there is a town component to Punakaiki at all.   At the place we stopped, there was a car park, two cafes, a gift shop, the pancake rocks, and an information center about the pancake rocks.   I am hoping that somewhere around Punakaiki there is actually a town, but I’m not totally sure that there is.

            Nelson was great, once I actually got there.   The hostel I stayed at was called Accents on the Park, and it is, as Lonely Planet described, more like a hotel than a hostel.   The bathroom was amazing – tile floors, really clean, really big, and there were shelves in the shower’s changing area.   How civilized.   I went to Nelson’s town museum – where I discovered that Nelson is the birthplace of Ernest Rutherford, the physicist.   Also highlighted prominently was Nelson’s pivotal role as the site of New Zealand’s first rugby match, held in (I think) 1881.   Had I been in Nelson a few weeks earlier, I could have watched a reenactment of the first New Zealand rugby match, which was held in honor of the World Cup.   I also saw a replica of the first photograph taken of a New Zealand rugby team.   If I didn’t know it before, I certainly know it now – this country is obsessed with rugby to a slightly alarming degree.   

            The second day in the town, I took a walk on the hills just outside, and ended up at the Geographic Centre of New Zealand.   It was on the top of a grassy hill, and commemorated with a tall metal monument looking a bit like the arrow on a compass, or an oversized lightning rod.   The view was striking – not so much that I could see the entire town, but that when I turned around, I was looking at forested hills, dirt roads, and sheep.   For being the largest city in that region, Nelson is surprisingly self-contained.   While I was enjoying the view, two girls came up, lugging video camera and a tripod, and started filming what seemed to be part of a school project on Nelson landmarks.   Over the next ten minutes I learned that Nelson is not actually the Geographic Centre of New Zealand – it’s actually just the most centrally located province, and that someone actually went to the trouble of figuring this out as early as 1841.   

            A day later, I took the bus over to Picton (two hours, fewer curvy roads, and no discussions of food).   I visited the town aquarium; my first impression was it looked like the place used to be a public swimming pool.   The fixtures were old, but it seemed clean enough, and the resident fish looked as happy as fish ever do.   I showed up in time for the 2pm feeding, which was actually more of a thirty minute animal encounter for the five or six people who were at the aquarium at the time.   The keeper showed us a three-year-old tuatara – a dinosaur, basically, they aren’t closely related to any other kinds of living reptiles – fed a few of the fish tanks, and then brought out an eight-week-old little blue penguin.  This fellow was an abandoned chick who came from the penguin colony across the bay.   Apparently, penguin chicks here are sometimes abandoned by their parents before they’re quite old enough to look after themselves, and this happens often enough that the Picton Aquarium has taken it upon itself to run a sort of penguin halfway house.   The staff take the penguins in, feed them for a few weeks, and then turn them back out into the bay when they’re ready to go.   They’re planning to let this penguin go swimming for the first time tomorrow.   They don’t have a dedicated pool for the penguins to swim in - apparently they just throw them in one of the larger fish tanks for a half an hour or so.   (That ought to be really interesting to see for anyone who’s in the aquarium tomorrow.) 

            The next day I went out on the Queen Charlotte Track, and hiked the first twelve kilometers of the 71 kilometer walk.   I went out on the Cougar Line water taxi, with a few other people from the hostel, a guided group who were doing the whole walk while staying in lodges, and a German couple, and a group of Kiwi ladies who were doing the walk and camping.   I kept running into the German couple off and on throughout the walk; everyone else started out before me, as I lingered at Ship Cove to look at the Captain Cook monument and I hiked fifteen minutes up a side path to see a waterfall before starting out on the actual trail.   

            Ship Cove is where Captain Cook first landed in New Zealand during his first voyage, and he apparently liked the spot well enough that he kept coming back to the cove on and off during subsequent expeditions.   Also on the beach was a very dead sea lion – reduced to a skull, ribcage and a mummified pelt.   It looked tiny compared to the sea lions I’m used to seeing, but I think it was probably an adult.  I’ve heard that the sea lions here (Hooker’s sea lions and New Zealand fur seals, which are technically sea lions, and not actually seals) are much smaller.

            The trail started out with an uphill climb to the shoulder of the adjacent hill, where you could see down into Ship Cove on one side, and into Resolution Bay on the other side.   I like hiking in the Marlborough Sounds because the landscape is hilly, but not as steep as the fjords in Alaska.   That means, the hills are easy to hike up, and because they’re a lot smaller, you reach the top a lot quicker.   All in all, the Marlborough Sounds is like a kinder, gentler version of Kenai Fjords National Park.   Part of this has to do with the geology – fjords are carved by glaciers, and tend to be huge valleys with very flat floors, and very tall, steep sides – kind of like Yosemite valley, except with half of it being underwater.   Sounds, on the other hand, are river valleys that were formed when the sea level was lower, and then were flooded by the incoming ocean, so the sides aren’t nearly as steep.   

            There is enough of an elevation difference between sea level and the tops of the hills that you can find different plants growing depending on where on the hill you were.   At least, this is what the informative signs said heading up the hill from Ship Cove, though I didn’t notice much of a difference until I was able to see one of the hills from a distance – some of the more eye-catching species of tree ferns never seemed to be growing more than three hundred feet up from the water.   I suppose that the tops of the hills are too cool or exposed to allow them to grow in the higher areas.   I was initially impressed that there were both interpretive trail signs, and kilometer posts – but once I got to the top of the first hill, both forms of signage disappeared, and the kilometer posts didn’t pick up again until I was nearly at the pickup place four hours later.   Maybe the DOC figured that hikers would be more likely to stop and read a sign if the sign was located partway along a steep uphill climb.   The signs had some interesting information on the native uses of some of the plants in the area, but since I had no idea what any of these plants actually were, the information was only moderately interesting.   

            Two fellow hikers complained to me about the weather – which really irritated me because it wasn’t actually raining.   In fact, it stayed overcast but dry for the whole day.    After living in a temperate rainforest for as long as I have, I don’t have much patience for people who complain about the weather when the weather isn’t actually bad to begin with.   It is OK to complain about bad weather; it is not OK to complain about weather that isn’t perfect.    Perfect weather is what happens in tourist brochures; it is not all that often that a traveller experiences such weather in real life.   

            In addition to great scenery, and interesting plants, there were a good number of birds around.   I saw a few tui, which are jay-sized birds with a little pouch on their chest made of fluffy white feathers.   There were some terns, gannets and shearwaters that I saw from the boats, and a few kinds of cormorants as well.   The woods were also crawling with wekas.   A weka is a native, flightless bird about the size of a chicken, all brown, with reddish legs and bills.   They are tame to the point of being a little scary, as though they wouldn’t think twice about snatching your sandwich out of your hands, or ripping your backpack apart to get at the chocolate bar inside.   A few of the wekas had obviously staked out some of the more popular lunch spots.   At one such stop, a weka would run out of the woods every time a new hiker arrived, and spend a few minutes casing out the new arrival, and assessing the potential for food scraps.   Once the weka was fed (or not), he would disappearing back into the woods, only to reappear whenever a new hiker showed up.   I did what I would never recommend anyone ever do, and fed the bird a bit of my tortilla crust.    If I’d had food with me that I was sure wouldn’t make the weka sick, I probably would have fed him more.   (The wekas choosing to employ more traditional food-gathering techniques were pulling insects out of the ground, and from under decaying branches and tree stumps.   If they eat insects, I’m guessing the wekas would take to sandwich meat pretty readily.   Unfortunately for them, I’m a vegetarian.)    

            The end of the hike (for me at least) was in Endeavor Inlet (all of these coves are named for Captain Cook’s various ships, by the way) at Furneaux Lodge, one of a cluster of private houses and lodges in the bay.   There’s no actual road there; all of the properties are accessed by water, or by the Queen Charlotte track itself, and for about two hundred yards the trail ran basically right through the front gardens of a lot of these properties, between the houses and the docks or beaches below.   That part of the trail was actually lovely; all of the gardens, and the docks and houses themselves were a nice change of pace from walking through the forest.   About forty-five minutes after I got to the lodge, the water taxi picked me up and took me back to Picton.   That night, I got chatting with a New Zealand country music songwriter who was also staying at my hostel, and have an invitation down to Christchurch to play violin with her band for a benefit gig later this month.   (Not sure if I’ll be able to go down there or not; it depends on whether I’m working or not…)   All in all, it was a really lovely day.

Monday, November 7, 2011

How the Other Half Does Glacier Tourism

            I got into Christchurch a little after midnight – six hours late, thanks to a delay at LAX - and got through customs and immigration in about fifteen minutes, which is possibly the fastest I’ve ever gone through immigration, anywhere.   I got into the hostel, where a sleepy manager pointed me in a direction of my shared room, mentioning that I had to go through the back garden to get there.   Unfortunately, there were about three different doors leading off of the back garden, and no lights out there, so I couldn’t read any numbers or signs.   All of the doors led to what appeared to be separate buildings, and as I tried the doors, I was a little afraid that I was actually attempting to break into someone’s house.   I went back into the main building, not soon enough to catch the manager before he went back to bed, and grabbed a girl who’d just come out of the shower and asked her if she knew where room twelve was.   She came down with me, but if anything she could see even less in the dark than I could because she didn’t have her glasses with her.   Fortunately, she had a better idea of which adjacent building was actually part of the hostel– so I didn’t have to try breaking in to all three adjoining buildings to find out which one would actually accept my key.   

            I woke up vaguely refreshed at around six thirty, and spent most of the day walking around the city park and botanic gardens, with a slight detour to a big mall a mile away to buy a local mobile phone.   The weather was pretty darn close to perfect – sunny and warm, with a bit of wind to keep it from feeling too hot.    The park was very nice – at some point in the past it had engulfed a golf course, and there were lots of signs along the path warning of flying golf balls.   How knowing about the golf balls might help me avoid being hit by one, I’m not really sure, but I appreciate the effort.   There were also two small stands of huge maritime pine trees, with a sign saying they had been planted in the 1870s.    Most of the trees in the park were pretty incredible – big, rambling numbers with knotty bark.   The botanic gardens were also really nice – there was a small stand of native forest that had been allowed to run wild so to speak, with ferns cropping up all over the understory.   There was also a formal rose garden, a heather garden that looked withering in the heat, and a bunch of hedges and rhododendrons and azaleas.   The rhododendrons seemed to be a tourist attraction in their own right – I saw a bunch of people with tripods, large lenses and polarizers very soberly setting up angles and taking pictures of the flowers.   Ducks were all over the place – mostly mallards, interspersed with a few European and native species, all happily hybridizing away.   There were some punting boats running up and down the small river than ran through the park, as well as a few canoes, manned by people who looked like they knew what they were doing, and a few paddlewheel boats, manned by people who looked like they didn’t.   

            I caught a bus out of Christchurch in the afternoon, and rode for four hours across the width of the island to the west coast.   The mountains were pretty spectacular, the foliage changing from a sheep-dominated grass and heather environment on the dry eastern side, and getting progressively more green and forested (or maybe here the correct term is ‘ferned’) as we got to the west.   The drive was slightly terrifying, less to do with the condition of the road as with the speed of the driver.   Obviously, he was still driving slower than the locals, because the bus was passed at regular intervals by other vehicles.   They seemed to be operating on the Alaskan principle that since there is so little traffic on the road, the odds of meeting an oncoming car while passing on a blind curve are low enough to make this tactic an acceptable risk.   Also, all of the bridges here are one lane, with signs indicating which direction has the right of way.   I’ve been told that the roads are built this way because it’s cheaper to replace them when they get washed out.   On a few of the bridges, the one lane of pavement also overlapped a row of train rails.   I am assuming that in those instances, the train gets the right of way – though this wasn’t specifically stated in the sign.   

            Easily, the most impressive part of the drive was the two or three miles of road immediately after the town of Arthur’s Pass.   Basically, they built the road down the middle of an avalanche chute.   In a few places, there is actually a roof built over the road to catch the rockfall that would otherwise be tumbling right onto the pavement.   Another such arch channels a waterfall, sluicing it over the road and letting it plummet to the bottom on the far side.   

            I left Greymouth early the next morning, and drove down the west coast, where the landscape had changed from a sheep-dominant ecosystem to a cow-dominant one.   I’ve also seen highland cattle, alpacas, and deer (of the farmed variety) since I’ve been here.   After three hours of driving through progressively wet and ferny foliage, I arrived in Franz Josef, where I was to interview for a job the next day.   

            My basic impression of Franz Josef is that it’s the New Zealand version of the Denali National Park entrance area –the locals refer to it as Glitter Gulch.   The gulch resembles a small town that exists entirely to sell t-shirts, accommodation, food, espresso coffee, and adventure activities to the passing hordes of  out-of-state tourists.   Glitter Gulch exists entirely because of Denali National Park; I feel like Franz Josef has the same relationship with its namesake glacier further up the valley.  There are glacier hikes, glacier ice climbing, glacier valley walks, glacier helicopter rides, glacier hot pools (that sounds like an oxymoron; though if I had the money I think they would be fun to try out)…   In fact, the town seems to be so synonymous with the glacier that the non-glacier stuff in the town didn’t even rate a mention in my guidebook.   There is apparently a kiwi breeding center here – I’m taking a tour on Wednesday, and there are, supposedly, glowworms in a few places nearby.   I hiked up to the glowworm tunnels earlier today, but I didn’t bring a flashlight, so I didn’t go very far in.   The tunnel is a 1500 foot long water diversion, which was initially dug to transport water for gold sluicing operations around 1900.    The tunnel is still open, which is interesting because in the US, the whole tunnel would have either been sealed off, or the entrances buried, to keep people from wandering in and getting into trouble.    Here, the entrance is wide open, and there’s a sign telling you to watch your head.   I didn’t go in more than fifty feet, because the only light I had was the flashlight function on my cell phone.  I didn’t know how fast the torch would drain the phone’s battery – and didn’t particularly want to find out when half-way down a pitch black water diversion tunnel two miles from town.   There was about three inches of water in the tunnel, but the footing was decent.   I also saw several tui on the walk out there; this is a native bird with an enlarged white patch on the throat, kind of like a goiter.  

            I did my interview with the glacier guiding company in Franz the next day.   There were three of us interviewees, and we went up on the ice with one of the senior guides for most of the morning.   It was raining fairly steadily; around 7am when I got up, there were some short deluges – the kind of rain that is so loud and intense that everyone in the room glances at the windows and immediately looks a tiny bit more dissatisfied with their lot in life.   The rain had dropped back to a slower, persistent drenching when we left the main building to head out to the glacier.   We walked for a half an hour to get to the fence keeping out the people who weren’t on guided tours, and from there hiked up a tall gravel moraine to an entry point to the ice partway up the glacier.   

            The sheer amount of logistics that come into play to keep the glacier accessible to these large numbers of tourists is really pretty impressive – I had no idea that keeping the ice trails in such good shape was so labor-intensive.   When we got there, there were maybe four or five people dotted up the face of the glacier all swinging ice axes and gouging out steps.   Apparently the steps all have to be recut, or at least, touched up, every day, and the whole trail network is checked for hazards.   The walking was a little tricky with the crampons at first, but thanks to all of this hard work, the footing was generally good.  The sizes of the groups that go up here are, by my usual standards, enormous – eleven guests per guide on the ice, and something like twenty-seven guests per guide on the level walking portion.    We walked back with a guest group to get back to the bus (AJ was staying on the ice to meet a half-day trip in the afternoon) and the length of the line of people straggling behind us as we were walking out felt a little ridiculous.   At least the glacier tour clients are easy to spot – they’re all wearing bright blue guest rain jackets and red crampon bags.   

            The job, if I get it, will be tough, and I am somewhat concerned that the sheer amount of logistics work and safety concerns inherent in these tours will run roughshod over most of the parts of guiding that I enjoy  the most – talking to people, and sharing with them the things that are interesting about an area.   This came up a little bit in my interview – I don’t particularly want a job that’s all tough labor in the rain without any of the upsides of being able to share a place with people.   With the increased logistics work, and the larger group sizes, I am a little unsure how this sort of guiding might turn out.   

            I ‘ve also been in contact with a boat company in on the east coast, and left a message, but haven’t heard back yet.   This is the same place that was supposed to get back to me last week about a date for an interview, but didn’t, which is partly why I came out to Franz Josef first.   However, if they are as disorganized in person as they appear to be over email, there’s always a chance that they might not have finished their seasonal hiring.   I might bus my way over there later this week.   (I have two more nights booked at the hostel here in Franz, but I haven’t quite figured out where I’m going next.   I might also head up to Abel Tasman and the Marlborough area and see what things look like up there.   I feel like I would really enjoy spending time in the warmer, more ocean-ish parts of New Zealand.   Another undeniable downside of a job at the glacier is that I would be spending my whole time in the country in a place that’s cold, wet, glaciated, and looks like Alaska , but with tree ferns.   I didn’t realize until I got here that actually travelling, and, dare I say it, being a tourist, would in any way appeal to me.   I’m a little worried that since I’ve been staying in hostels, and have been exclusively hanging out with other foreign travellers, that the drinking-in-as-many-cities-as-possible mentality is unduly influencing my own ideas of how I’m going to spend the next six months of my life.   (Though I will note that for the record, I am not in on the drinking scene at all.   Not worth the expense.    Plus, tea at the hostels is generally free, and caffeine is more my drug of choice anyway.)   One thing I took away from my two days on a bus to get down here from Christchurch is that the vegetation and landscapes really do change about every three hours of travelling.   I’ve never lived anywhere else where it was this easy to get from climate zone to another.   Plus, there is the undeniable fact that the weather will be better in almost any other corner of the country that I care to visit.   I’ve said before that the only reason that I can work in Alaska every summer and get soaked, and wet, and grow mold on my clothing, and still stay cheerful about it is that after four months, the lodge closes and I have to do something else.   

            Tomorrow, I have another short meeting in town, and then I’m visiting the kiwi center.   (I plan on asking if there is any possibility that they will be hiring anyone for the busy season, although I feel like it’s kind of a long shot.)   A friend from the aquarium once told me that when he visited New Zealand, one thing that struck him was the noticeable lack of any interpretation in their national parks – at least, not on the scale which it is practiced in national parks in the US.   There were all of these wonderful, fascinating, beautiful scenic areas, but there were very little guided walks or interpretive contact.   Today in the interview, one of the managers mentioned something that seems very telling about New Zealand tourism.   Basically, to make a sweeping generalization about the clientele that tend to come here, they are (according to him) twenty-year-olds on a gap year who are drinking their way around the world, and want to walk around on a glacier before heading off to Queenstown to drink some more, and possibly bungee-jump off of bridges.   This, according to him, is more or less what New Zealand tourism is known for, and a percentage of this sort of clientele just isn’t interested in how glaciers form, or their effect on the landscape, or plastic flow, or how crevasses form, or any of it.   From what I’ve seen, this seems pretty true.   Of course, one can easily make such sweeping generalizations about Alaska tourism as well – newly wed, overfed and nearly dead, is the expression about the folks who visit the state on cruise ships.   But the one thing that I most enjoyed about the clients I worked with at both the aquarium and the lodge is how interested they were about learning things while they were there.   

            One thing  I’ve taken away form this is how lucky I am to have ended up guiding for such a boutique operation as the Iceberg Lodge.   Our clients are interested in the natural history, they’re not (usually) on a booze cruise program, and they’re present in small enough numbers, and for a long enough duration of time that I have a decent stab at learning all of their names.