Friday, February 26, 2016

Love's Labour's Lost

How to relax after a hard day’s digging? Why, with a Shakespeare comedy, of course.

But wait…what’s this “hard day’s digging”? As part of my employer’s community involvement, we spend one day of the year volunteering. Our team also try to combine this with a team-building effort. Past years have included doing maintenance and cleaning at a kindergarten, and doing environmental work on Matiu/Somes Island.

This year’s activity was to help extend the Makara Peak mountain bike network. The network of tracks, for mountain bikers and for walkers, is entirely built by volunteers, under the supervision of the Department of Conservation. Our task on this day was to excavate a new track along a marked course. This is all done by manual labour – you can’t get diggers and excavators in to what is essentially bush terrain.

We started early, with me picking up a few colleagues along the way, then drove up to Karori, where we stopped at the Marsden Village Café for a bacon butty. We arrived at the end of the sealed road, and were then driven up the track to a place where we were to begin the new part. Almost immediately, there was a rocky outcrop, and the first team was delegated to break up the rock and make it passable. As we progressed further, more teams in groups of three or four were given various tasks. Ours was to cut into the ground to make a level track, at a height previously marked out. Part of this involved digging out rocks and roots of plants that had already been cut down. Pretty tiring work!

At lunchtime we downed tools and headed for a local pub, One Fat Bird, where we’d pre-booked for lunch. We sank a couple of well-earned beers as well. At around three we headed back to the city.

After dropping everyone off, I headed home to prepare the picnic for the evening show. After parking the car we walked up the hill through the graveyard to the Botanical Gardens, to The Dell. This is an area behind the café, where the Summer Shakespeare Trust put on a different play in the open air each year. This year, Love’s Labour’s Lost was the production.

We claimed a space on the grass and set up our picnic, then settled in to watch the play. It became apparent almost immediately that there was something up with this production: all the male characters had distinctly high-pitched voices, and all the female characters were suspiciously hirsute. Nicola explained to me that the play was set in France, but even so, I suspect that the director had switched the genders. This seems to be confirmed by the fact that the director, Ania Upstill, is artistic director for a company call the Lord Lackbeards…I think there’s a clue in that name.

If you want to know what goes on in Love’s Labour’s Lost then read this synopsis. They seemed to get through it competently enough, and in the end they finished with a song and a dance. The whole thing finished up at around 9:15 and we walked back through the now-dark graveyard, and thence home.

Monday, February 15, 2016

The Routeburn Track

We got up early, packed our rucksacks, and walked down the hill to our rendezvous with breakfast at The Bakery, where we got coffee and baked goods to sustain us until mid-morning, when we would get our second breakfast. Then on to the Ultimate Hikes bus, and we set off for three days tramping along the Routeburn Track.

The Routeburn Track is one of New Zealand’s Great Walks, of which there are nine. I’ve been on one of these, the Abel Tasman Coast Track, on a day trip when we visited Nelson in – crikey! – 2012! But this is the first time I’ve done one end to end, with stays at huts in between. We’re doing the luxury version of this, natch – we have guides and are fully catered. Other options for doing the track range from camping (gotta carry all your camping gear, food and drink for 3 days), staying in huts (no catering – again, you have to bring your own eats), and for some severely mentally disturbed people, running the track in one day (don’t need to carry anything except the weight of disbelief from the people you pass).   

The start
Around mid-morning, we stopped for a bite to eat at Te Anau, before continuing on to The Divide, which is the starting point for the Routeburn Track. The start was a quite steep uphill, so most of our kit remained in our rucksacks as we climbed in shorts and t-shirts. After about an hour’s climbing, there was an optional diversion up Key Summit. Unfortunately, we were into cloud by this time, and so I decided to turn around and rest a bit rather than get to the top. Those that did make it all the way up reported that there was very little to see as it was mostly obscured by cloud, so I didn’t miss much. Nicola got almost to the top before being turned around by the guide.

We carried on to Lake Howden where we ate our lunches, provided by FergBaker. After two breakfasts you’d think we wouldn’t be hungry…you’d be wrong.
Earland Falls
The second part of the day’s walk was a more gentle uphill, with quite a lot of level walking in between. The final part of the day was a descent to Lake Mackenzie hut, where I was relieved to get out of my boots! We went for a quick paddle in the lake (Alison bravely went for an actual swim) before getting a hot shower, laundering our clothes and hanging them out in the drying room, then heading for the bar.

Lake Mackenzie (may contain scenery)
The first beer made a sort of hissing sound as it went down. The next lasted a bit longer. We’d pre-ordered our dinner for the evening so the staff knew how many of each dish to prepare – there were three options for main course: steak, chicken, or vegetarian. I had the steak, naturally. It was cooked medium rare, the way it’s supposed to be. We shared our table with some of the Brisbane Tramps, a group of a dozen ladies who get together once a year for the purpose of walking. Calling yourselves the Brisbane Tramps is funny in every English-speaking country in the world except New Zealand, where they just say “Yeah, makes sense. You’re from Brisbane, and you like tramping.”

We didn’t stay up much after dinner. We had a briefing on what to expect the next day, then went to bed.

First thing in the morning, you make your lunch for the day, with your bread of choice and fillings provided, add fruit, chocolate and other assorted snacks. Then breakfast is served. It’s done this way round, I guess, as some people (weird people) don’t want to think about their lunch when they’ve just finished breakfast. Anyway, breakfast was eggs benedict (there was also hippie food for those that like that sort of thing), and I had a double helping to sustain me over the day ahead.

By now the water was hot, so a quick shower, repack of the rucksack, and we were off. We would be doing some genuine alpine climbing above the tree line today, so were advised to keep warm clothing and rainwear handy at the top of our packs. Sure enough, by the time we reached Ocean Peak, the weather had turned to rain…but just a gentle occasional smattering, and actually it was quite refreshing. Nevertheless, we added another layer and put raincoats on over the top. I also blagged a baseball cap from one of the Brisbane Tramps, who was carrying a spare…just to keep the rain off my glasses.

there's a mountain growing out of your head!
The walk up to our lunch spot, Harris Saddle shelter, took us to the high point of the track. At the saddle there’s a hut, where we could take off our boots and relax a bit. Some people took the second optional side tour up Conical Hill, but we decided to carry on and finish the day’s walk. This involved some fairly steep downhill stretches, and we passed some people going the other way, whom we didn’t envy in the slightest. How people can run this track baffles me. 

Health and safety gone mad
We were on the lookout for rock wrens and kea (the world's only alpine parrot) but failed to see any, although we heard plenty of kea with their distinctive call (it goes “kea!”). We did see a South Island kaka, which has a whiter head than its North island counterpart, which we are used to seeing at Zealandia.

The final section down to the hut also involved some fairly steep clambering, assisted in part by a railing to hold on to, as we were by the Routeburn Falls, which provide a spectacular backdrop to the Routeburn Falls Lodge.

The drill in the evening was pretty much the same as the day before, with a variance to the menu (lamb and salmon). Again, the beers were very welcome.

The final day involved a downhill walk to the Routeburn Shelter. We stopped for lunch by a bend in the river, where some brave souls went for a swim, jumping off the rocks into a deep pool. 

A nice spot for lunch
We crossed and recrossed the river on various swing bridges, some of which were seriously swingy. 

It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing
As we approached the car park at the Routeburn Shelter, we took in the final section: a nature walk. Logan, one of our guides, gave us a detailed explanation of what we were looking at and the nature of the forest. Logan can talk for ever on the subject of botany, and gave us an explanation of beech masting, and why the scientists were shooting branches off the trees (we could hear the gunfire in the distance).

Finally back on to the bus, we drove down the road past Paradise and into Glenorchy, where presentations were made in the Glenorchy Hotel, with a beer or two.

View out the bus window
That was it! I’d survived my first Great Walk! OK, we’d definitely done it the easy way, but hey, that’s just the way we roll. As the bus dropped us in Queenstown, we promised everlasting friendship with our fellow trampers, and I caught the bus out to the airport to make my way home, whilst Nicola and Alison stayed in Queenstown to continue their adventures in Doubtful Sound, Arrowtown and Wanaka

Sunday, February 14, 2016


Guess what? Summer’s arrived. Long, lazy days on the beach, watching cricket whilst drinking beer, all that sort of thing. Of course, this is mostly restricted to the weekends, except for those times when one of New Zealand’s multitudinous public holidays rolls around. A couple of weeks ago, it was Wellington Anniversary day, and we went off to watch The Black Caps hammer Pakistan at The Basin Reserve. This week just past is when New Zealand celebrates the document which underpins the nation, the Treaty of Waitangi, on Waitangi Day.

And what were we doing to celebrate? Well, we’d already flown south to Queenstown to rendezvous with Alison, who was on an extended holiday from the UK. We’d entertained her in Wellington the previous weekend, before putting her on the Interislander to explore the Queen Charlotte Track by herself.

We arrived in Queenstown by lunchtime, and after settling in to our digs at Amity Lodge (scary name much?) we went for an explore in the 30° heat. After a quick lunch at Pier 19, we went to the Minus 5° Ice Bar, ostensibly to cool off, but also to sample one of their many delicious cocktails, all based, unsurprisingly, on flavoured vodka from Absolut.

That's pretty cool
Alison arrived from Christchurch in the early evening, and we all headed back into town for dinner at Roaring Meg’s. We had ravioli and prawn salad to start, followed by salmon and steak. The chef seemed to have some difficulty understanding medium rare, and I decided not to send the second medium-cooked steak back, as I figured if he couldn’t get it right on the first two tries, he was unlikely to do so a third time. I think the waiter knew this as he scooted off and hid as soon as he served me. The salmon, though, I’m told, was excellent. The puddings were pretty good too.

We decided not to avail ourselves of the various night-time debauchery options available in Queenstown, and went up the hill to our room, and bed.

The following morning we rose early-ish, and walked into town to find some breakfast. We looked in at Patagonia but decided that we wanted something more breakfast-y. We looked at their range of gelati and frozen yoghurts, however, and marked their card for later in the day, before taking the recommendation of Alison’s guide book and going to Vudu. A fairly substantial special of the day included toast, spicy beans, eggs and chorizo, while the girls had something a little more ladylike. We then booked ourselves onto the Million Dollar Cruise, which fortunately costs $999,965 less than the price would suggest. We also took a look underwater at the Shotover Jet pier, where there is an underwater observatory. You can pay $1 to release some food into the lake, which keeps the population of brown and rainbow trout forever nearby.

A little before 11 o’clock we boarded the Million Dollar cruise boat, which took us out around the lake, whilst the captain pointed out local points of interest, some history from around the lake, and commentary on the wildlife.

Southern crested grebe
We weren’t hungry by the time the boat got back, so decided to defer lunch in favour of a walk through the around the headland that contains the Botanical Gardens, to an art gallery that the captain of the cruise had pointed out. What he had failed to point out was that it closed by 2pm on Sundays, as we arrived at 2:05. Bah! We walked back through the Botanical Gardens, interrupting various games of Frisbee golf that were being played on the course along the way. By this time we’d worked up a bit of an appetite, so we joined the continuous queue that forms outside Fergburger from about breakfast time onwards. Fergburger have cornered the market of tasty burgers in Queenstown to the point where it’s practically obligatory to try one, thus continuing to fuel the hype. That said, there wouldn’t be any hype if they weren’t serving up a superior class of burger. The Ferg double cheese did the job, alright.

Next on the agenda was the briefing for the activity we would be undertaking over the next three days - walking the Routeburn Track. This is held at the offices of the tour operator, Ultimate Hikes. they gave advice on what we could expect, the weather conditions, and what to take. We duly noted this and went downstairs to their conveniently-located shop to add to our equipment as necessary.

We went out in the evening, even though we weren't particularly hungry, then decided to get an early night before setting out at 6 o'clock the following morning.