Saturday, June 27, 2009

To travel hopefully is a better thing....

“To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive, and the true success is to labour.”
Robert Lois Stevenson

Last week Tony B. sent me an email reminding me that if I parked in the wrong place at QE2 Park in Christchurch, I would be towed away.

No, he’s not so badly out of touch that he didn’t realise I am no longer there, he had just sent out a missive to a group without editing its members. Nevertheless, his kind thought has prompted me to write about how we get around here on Raoul. I have included a short video of our Monday morning commute to work, as it occurred this week.

We have four vehicles on the island – two tractors and two ‘mules’. The tractors are only driven by people with special privileges (hey! I am one – it means I get to drive up and down the airstrip towing a mower for hours on end, getting intimately acquainted with the music on my iPod). The mules are little 4WD vehicles that act as people- and gear-transporters. They can go forwards or backwards - not too complicated - and apparently have a max speed of 40kmh, although this is only hearsay of course.

One of the mules needs a new wheel bearing, which means it cannot be driven until the HMNZS Canterbury returns late next month, as we do not keep a supply of obviously needed spare parts in the workshop (I know….go figure! I guess DOC has a tight budget….)

It is a constant source of concern that the roads should remain passable, not least because we may need them to evacuate if we have to. This means they have to be maintained so John, Bas and I have volunteered to do road maintenance and we have used the opportunity to introduce Bas to ‘Kiwi Work Practices 101’. Notice the nonchalant way he leans on that shovel? This took hours of practice.

Most of our work involves shovelling pumice and sand out of one of the ravines and then tootling off to find potholes to fill. We have to keep a wary eye out for drooping pohutukawas as they form a virtual tunnel in sections of our small roading network and can catch out the unwary driver by slowly sagging to the point where the top of the vehicle will collide with a very solid tree trunk.

All our vehicles are very sturdy, but would inevitably come off second best in a clash with a pohutukawa.

Northerly winds and global warming

This morning we awoke to a welcome change – northerly winds. The air temperature was noticeably milder.

It also meant that we had to swing into action with the CO2 sampling programme, which has to be conducted with a not-too-strong and not-too-light breeze moving in off the sea. Raoul Island is part of a world-wide network of sampling sites that contribute data to the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in the USA.

This is part of a continuing scheme of work begun by Dr Charles Keeling in 1955. He was the first scientist to recognise that the amount of carbon dioxide did not vary from place to place (apart from seasonal variations as trees drop their leaves and return to the atmosphere the CO2 they have absorbed over the growing season).

His insistence on continuing to measure the air samples at remote and unpolluted places has allowed him to construct the Keeling Curve – a graph that tracks the levels of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere; over the years, it climbs almost as steeply as do the walls of our volcano.

His discovery alerted other scientists to the potential dangers of global warming. They surmised that a build-up of carbon dioxide in our air would act as an insulator – the so-called greenhouse effect. One predicted result of this build-up is the wild swings in weather that the world seems to experience more and more frequently.

Ready to hold breath!

Bas and I had to carry two sealed glass flasks down to the beach, stand 10 feet apart, face the wind, hold our breath and open the nozzle to collect the air samples. Apparently the measurement of these samples is so precise that it can be determined whether the air has passed over vegetation or the person holding the flask drank alcohol during the previous evening. This is why we had to hold our breath.

Bas packing off the samples ready to go to the USA

Now we have done our little bit for science, we are able to relax and enjoy the weekend.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Shortest Day - let's get wet!

Not sure why Blogger has this posting timed on Saturday evening - this is the dawn swim we all took on Sunday 21 June. Sunrise here is at 6.45am and we were in the water shortly afterwards. Water temp at the moment is slightly warmer than the air at 19.4C.

It was a refreshing start to the day!

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Getting away from it all

Last week Gaye, Gareth and I went across to Mahoe Hut for two nights.

We had two missions – to clear the fern away from the solar panels that power the birdcaller on the track to Smith’s Bluff and to search for and destroy an infestation of mature weeds that had been spotted from the helicopter when the GNS scientists were here recently.

Solar panels for the Smith's Bluff birdcaller

The birdcaller is one of three that have been installed to try to lure some of the seabirds back from the smaller outlying islands. They had pretty much abandoned this place as a nesting location after the rats and feral cats kept wiping out their young, but now that we are free of predators they need to be encouraged back here. Gareth kindly demonstrated the caller for us while we were there – it makes a noise that is uncannily similar to the sound of his sneeze.

Our second mission was to drop down off the main ridge through three old Mysore Thorn sites to try to find a clump of mature Brazilian Buttercups on another ridge across a ravine.

Mysore thorn - mature and seedling stage

Mysore was originally brought here to keep the wild goats out of the gardens and it’s shocking stuff as the pic shows: bristling with needles. Luckily our predecessors have dealt to most of the mature stuff with the big spikes, but the little fellers keep making a comeback as our tally of 131 seedlings shows.

The search and destroy mission went perfectly as per Gareth’s plan. Thank goodness for GPS – we had to bash our way down a near-vertical face, clinging to scrubby bracken, and then ascend the one opposite. It could easily have gone wrong as there were steep bluffs both above and below us, but the GPS told us exactly when to leave the spur and cross onto the slip face that had allowed the weeds to flourish. We walked straight into the weeds plot.

Mature Buttercups are increasingly a rarity on the island as DOC’s cleansing project takes hold. We are much more likely to encounter puny little seedlings than the 4m plants that had settled in comfortably at this sunny little spot, and were seeding prolifically. Some days we cover many kilometres and don’t encounter a weed at all.

This trip was a full day out and my tired body was grateful to get back to the hut and curl up with a book and a hot mug of milo.

As with all of Raoul’s little spots, Mahoe hut has its own flavour.

Mahoe Hut

The piles are a bit loose, so it feels a bit like an earthquake is happening each time someone ventures across the floor. Sometimes there ARE earthquakes, like the one we read about in the hut book that tipped the entire contents of the pantry on to the floor.

The three hut books span back in time to the Forest Service and professional goat and cat hunter days. My favourite weather girl Karen Olsen has an entry in one of them (Gaye sniffed rather unkindly that it records the fact that she couldn’t find her way down to Sunshine Cove from Mahoe Hut).

Pohutukawas -under

Many of the earlier entries moan about getting lost and the #@&* windfalls that have already become so familiar to us.

Pohutukawas -over

One poor soul had to abandon his pack and rifle to crawl up to the hut as he was exhausted and his legs were cramping badly.

Anyway, with mission accomplished we returned to base via Moumoukai, the highest point on the island.

Looking across Blue and Green Lakes to Nugent and Napier Islands

We were rewarded with spectacular views across the crater lakes to the offshore islands out to the north of Raoul and meandered back to hot showers at base.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Two Strange Photos

GNS man Andrew, before his accident. How does he get his legs to come out of his head like that?
Gaye, viewed through the 'cardburner' that records sunshine hours at the meteorological station

Cooking night tonight

With ten of us living on the island, cooking night only comes around once a week or so. It is usually shared between two of us and the roster seems to accommodate vegetarians and omnivores equally.

We have a fine array of cookbooks to provide the necessary inspiration when your turn comes around.

A good proportion of these books come inscribed with loving messages from anxious mums who were sending off sons to what was once a remote all-male environment. They probably imagined them starving in the absence of a maternal figure, so the Edmonds Cookbook was obviously seen as an acceptable surrogate (we have about four of these: not surprising since it's NZ's best selling book of all time). One in this broad 'maternal' set caught my eye- it’s called “ma cuisine” and once belonged to someone called brownie. Spooky. Another is a very early edition of Alison Holst’s “Food Without Fuss” and doesn’t Alison look a mere slip of a girl in the photo on the back cover?

Another I really like is the Rere School Cookbook, 1992. Rere is 45km west of Gisborne and boasts one of the most beautiful waterfalls and the longest rockslide in NZ. The rockslide’s probably been banned by Health and Safety rules since the book was published.

The cookbook is full of great practical recipes like Babies’ Nappy Soakers and Elephant Stew (feeds 4000). However, I hope I am not breaching copyright by sharing the following listing with you:

How To Preserve a Husband
Be careful in your selection. Do not choose too young. Once selected, give your entire thoughts to preparation for domestic use. Some insist on keeping them in a pickle, others are constantly getting them into hot water. This may make them sour, hard and sometimes bitter. Even poor varieties may be made sweet and tender and good by garnishing them with patience, well sweetened with love and seasoned with kisses. Wrap them in a mantle of charity. Keep warm with a steady fire of domestic devotion and serve with peaches and cream. Thus prepared they will keep for years.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Living and working on an active volcano

We have been living and working on the island for a month now.

Raoul Island and the other Kermadec islands are the summits of large volcanos that have been built up on the Kermadec Ridge. This ridge lies along the collision zone of two major structural plates, the Pacific plate to the east and the Australian plate to the west. The Pacific plate is being forced beneath the Australian plate, thus causing the characteristic deep ocean trenches that surround these islands. The movement of these plates has been estimated to occur at a rate of about 7cm per year on average and the earthquakes commonly felt in this area are likely to be associated with the convergence of these plates.*( Volcanic Hazards–MINISTRY OF CIVIL DEFENCE –Information booklet 4,1992).

The island has been shaped by its explosive history. It consists of two main craters or calderas which have been formed due to subsidences immediately after large eruptions. The Raoul Caldera centrally is 3km by 2km and the Denham Bay Caldera approximately 3km long and wide, but this had been flooded by the sea.

Witnessed volcanic eruptions on Raoul have occurred in 1814, 1870, 1964 and 2006. Future volcanic activity and earthquake activity is likely and this is now being more closely monitored on Raoul Island and at other sites along the Kermadec Ridge. GNS (Geological and Nuclear Science) have recently installed new monitoring equipment to assist with the monitoring.
Crater vegetation damaged in the 2006 eruption
For example, a web camera looks down into the crater located from the top of Moumoukai, the highest point of the island, so you can see what the crater looks like twice each daylight hour if you click here. Seismic and temperature measuring devices are located in the Raoul crater and other devices to monitor tsunami activity are installed around the coastline. This information is monitored 24 hours a day back in New Zealand.

Protocols are in place for evacuation in the event of an earthquake or volcanic eruption. We practised an evacuation drill last week.
Emergency evacuation practice
We all packed warm clothes, tents, sleeping bags and gathered up the emergency bins containing such things as the portable generator, chain saws, fuel, food, water, satellite phones and flares.

Duties like our weeding involve searches of most of the island, including the crater. Prior to us entering the crater, John (our team leader) makes contact with GNS in order to obtain a permit to enter it. The GNS team back in New Zealand will only issue this permit if they are satisfied that their instruments show the volcano to be inactive. When we go into the crater either as individuals or in groups, a radio is always carried and we make scheduled radio contact daily at 1000 and 1500 hrs to advise of our position and well being. Weeding in the crater is pretty much like everywhere else on the island (steep hillsides, deep ravines, bluffs and huge windfall Pohutakawas to skirt around) except for the fumeroles. These are deep vent holes and care always has to be taken to look where you put your feet.

This fumerole was found while weeding last week. It was 40cm in diameter and at least 5 metres deep.

Earthquakes and eruptions cannot be predicted. We don’t spend our days worrying about these events but instead make a conscious effort to marvel and revel in our spectacular surrounds.
Also it helps to know that if shit happens, we are as prepared for it as we can be.

Friday, June 12, 2009

A Kermadec bird and a Lionfish

Kermadec Petrel on Meyer Island photo by John Mac
Lionfish at Boat Cove, taken last Saturday

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Rat and Tui Brewery

My first brew is maturing in the brewery.

The process is fairly straightforward – you mix in the commercially prepared brewer’s mix, add the sugar and 23 litres of warmish water, tip in the yeast mixture and then wait for the bubbles to gloop their way to the surface as the yeast eats the sugar and makes alcohol. After about a week you clean up some bottles, tip a teaspoon of sugar into each one and pour the mixture in. Seal with a cap and wait at least another week (they recommend more) before refrigerating and imbibing.

Each new brew must have a name and date, which are inscribed on the brewery wall in felt tip pen. This little ritual provides a strange sort of history of the island – the ups and downs, the dramas, hopes and little victories. Some names commemorate the preoccupations of their time, as in the KZ series of brews which are terminated by the fatefully named Alinghi beer. Others range from the gloomy to the just plain zany:

The Devil Looks After His Own Draught
No Mail Ale
The Sentence is Nearly Over Pilsner
Al’s Pale Hole of Calcutta
Zymurgy Special
The Golden Tears of Allah

My lager is called "X Marks the Spot."

Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Air Force delivers too

Recently we had a mail drop.

These are always exciting events and so the whole island (all 10 of us) usually gathers on the airstrip to see if the plane will get it right. Last year a pallet of ready mix concrete bags came down under a parachute and missed the entire strip; it lodged itself in the branches of a pohutukawa on the sea cliffs and had to be written off. This time we had quite a small package from an Orion, and they used a well-cushioned cardboard box with flaps open at the top like a propeller. In theory, it rotates and falls to the ground reasonably slowly.

The other exciting thing is that you never know what's going to be inside - have a look at this brief footage to see what we got!

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Who's who on Raoul Island

The “Permanents”

Johnny B Johnny B is our Team Leader. He has a lengthy background in conservation as well as having run his own building company in Gisborne. Johnny B is an enthusiastic ornithologist and has been for as long as he can remember. It is to him we turn when we need to know which pukeko belongs to which clan, where their territory extends to or even whether they are male or female (two of the house pukekos, Lone Wolf and his partner, are apparently in a homosexual relationship).
All of the permanent team are contracted to DOC for a full 12 month stint. Like Gareth and Chauncy, Johnny has been here before as a volunteer.
This island seems to draw people back to it.

Dave Formerly employed by Toyota in Lower Hutt, Dave is responsible for all things mechanical on the island as well as our water supplies and the provision of electricity via our diesel generators. This is a pretty responsible position for a 22 year old, so occasionally he cuts loose when we have a party. His “shock the troops” trick is swallowing a live cockroach, but he only tends to do that when dressed in some sort of warrior garb. Actually, that’s pretty much every gathering so far. In keeping with Raoul tradition, Dave has not shaved or had a haircut since he arrived here and is sometimes referred to by Johnny B as “The Wookie.” He is the most experienced and dedicated poker player on the island and we recently had a big night of Texas Hold’em where Bas and I took him to the cleaners (twice) but he explained that he was just using this game to suss out our pattern of calls. He has an incredibly broad and eclectic selection of music and at any one time you can hear Johnny Cash, The Sex Pistols or Beethoven blaring out at full volume from his speakers in the workshop. Dave is the organiser of the weekly viewings of Deadwood on our DVD player.

Gareth Gareth is in charge of all things electrical on the island. He is from a military background, having served in Afghanistan and Bouganville and he is currently training hard for the shortest day “Hut to Hut” challenge for which you must visit all six of the island’s huts between sunrise and sunset. Last year he was back at the hostel by 12.30pm. Gareth is an excellent photographer and has set himself the task of shooting off 2000 frames a month while he is here. Most of these are of birds and he is steadily ticking off all the seabirds known to Raoul on his “done” list. There are quite a few. Not renowned for his early morning conversation with humans, Gareth nevertheless seems to commune effortlessly with the “pooks.” He has trained up Lone Wolf to collect daily rations of Nutrigrain from him as he eats breakfast on the verandah steps each morning and usually has a few affectionate things to say to the bird each day.

Chauncy Chauncy has to be the most non-judgemental person I have ever met. An expression he must use a thousand times a day is “that’s cool, you know.” He has an encyclopaediac knowledge of film and music, possibly as a result of his having watched every film that was ever made. Or so it seems to me anyway. He can list actors, directors and previous roles without even pausing to think. And did I mention his collection of 30,000 albums?
Chauncy is our plant specialist and is in charge of the weeding programme. As part of our routine in the field, we are supposed to continually call out in order to keep up with each other’s location in the bush. He is almost always somewhere above us – either on a near vertical slope or up a tree. He is incredibly nimble on steep ground and often seems to just skip over the windfalls that force us to crawl along on our bellies.

The “Vollies”

Bas A Dutchman, Bas came to us directly from Argentina where he had been living and doing some volunteer work. He saw the Raoul position advertised on the internet and doesn’t know NZ so well at all, so we are guiding him through the integration process carefully by making him watch the entire four seasons of Outrageous Fortune. Already he can “Kia ora, bro” with the best of us and is looking forward to getting to the mainland to meet all those other people like the West family. Bas is an ‘island nut’ and whooped for joy when the last of the interlopers left on the Braveheart. He has visited all sorts of islands, large and small, since he quit his AI (that’s Artificial Intelligence, not the other) company. He also has a Master’s degree in Physics so can be relied upon to enliven our dinner conversation with an erudite exposition on the Theory of Relativity. Or any one of the 400 movies he brought with him, or the role of the Xylons in Battlestar Galactica.

Craig Craig is a sailmaker and boatbuilder and occasionally plots with Bas the type of boat they will build or buy together in order to do the round-the-world voyage. Craig lived for a long time in Germany and has sailed as crew in ocean racers, including the one they inadvertently beached and had to abandon on the Brazilian coastline. Bye-bye ten million dollars! Craig is distantly related to Gaye, a fact that revealed itself when Gaye’s mum Val was in hospital in Nelson recently. He has done a couple of seasons as warden on the Heaphy Track and cannot go anywhere here without compulsively sweeping nikau palms off the track as you walk with him. To his eternal credit, he has never taken out a loan in his life and doesn’t trust banks.

John Mac A resident of Cambridge, John is here courtesy of his long-service leave provisions (yay, the government!) Another ardent conservationist, he can be relied upon to identify any plant that puzzles you and give you the full botanical name too. If the walking is uphill, and it all is, he can usually be seen disappearing up ahead in the distance. He entertained us all with the story of a camping group that included teenage girls who kept leaving lipstick kiss marks on the bathroom mirrors. Nothing could persuade them to stop this practice, so in despair the cleaner called everyone into the bathroom, seized a mop and dipped it into the toilet bowl. Scrubbing fiercely at the red lip marks on the mirror’s surface with the murky water, he turned to the girls and said “Look. I want you to stop kissing this glass because it’s just too difficult for me to remove the marks.”

Gina The machine. Gina is an engineer, based in Wellington. For a while she was queen of the island, but now she regularly has to be reined (sorry, bad pun) in by us blokes because she will charge headlong through any activity and then finish the day’s work with a run and a swim in the sea. It makes you tired just thinking about it. If there is a piece of ground that looks too steep we will usually confer about whether or not we should get out the rope, and then just follow her down because she has shot off and done it while we were busy deciding. Formerly a team cyclist in Europe, Gina brought a mountainbike with her and often zips around on the tracks with it. Last week I realised not only had I met Gina before, but she has been away kayaking with us when she was about 14. Since then she has many adventures like climbing Mt Cook or descending the 600 feet into Harwood’s Hole and having to free up the belay device part way down when it jammed on her hair. Gina’s definitive quote when offered assistance by Gaye for her ankle, hurt while running: “Pain doesn’t matter.”

Monday, June 1, 2009

Olympus Mju 1030 waterproof to 10m! Yeah, right.

On Saturday the sea was so smooth and inviting that we launched the two inflatables and went off to the Meyer islands on a snorkelling expedition.
It was good to get out on the water again, although the water temperature seems to have dropped a little in the last few days. Visibility was stunning. We found ourselves accompanied by some large skinny kingfish and a few kahawai but my general impression was of a rather impoverished submarine environment: there was no hint of the huge spectrum of colour and form that you would expect to see in tropical waters or even in NZ with its colourful kelp and seaweed. The range of fish was also diminished with no sharks at all encountered this trip.

Big casualty of the day was my camera, which let in water to the battery compartment and shut itself down. Probably forever. Here is one of its last recorded images – Bas snorkelling above me.The dead camera joins many other items of electrical equipment that struggle here with the humidity and heat. I have now taken to storing my other electrical bits and pieces in dry bags with sachets of silica packed away with them, in an effort to reduce the rate of attrition.

Happy Birthday Ma’am

As we are almost certainly living on one of the furthest-flung corners of Her Majesty’s vast dominions, we decided to celebrate her birthday with a formal dinner. Coincidentally it was also Gina’s 27th birthday on the same day so we went for the double whammy. Imaginations ran wild with the royal theme, as you can see from the photos. This probably reflects NZ’s increasingly cosmopolitan heritage, although I was a little offended that my attempt at formal attire resulted in persistent enquiries about any good real estate deals or used cars I might be able to put people onto.

In another example of the six degrees of separation that connects us all, we realised this week that Gina is actually Franz’s daughter. Franz was a good friend and outdoor companion of Neil S. and Shona; I met him on a number of occasions in the mountains and out kayaking. I remember him for his determination to make his seakayak and his river boat himself. Tragically he died in an accident in Alaska some years ago.

Roast lamb was on the menu last night, followed by fruit salad and a chocolate cake the size of a cannonball. There were a few rousing toasts to the health of the queen (and Gina) and a good time was had by all.

The left-foot jandal conundrum

We get a lot of jetsam washing up on our beaches here. There are a heck of a lot of fishing buoys, too many plastic bottles and a surprising number of left-foot jandals.

Why left-foot jandals? It’s hard to provide a definitive answer to that question, but one has been suggested after a lot of careful thought and analysis. It goes like this:

At any one time, the Pacific Ocean has a lot of people making that critical step out of the water and into a dinghy. Most will be goofy footers (ie they lead off with the right foot. Take a look at a snowboard hire shop near you and you’ll see by the binding configuration that “naturals” or left foot leaders, are in a minority)

A good proportion of these dinghy boarders will have had a drink or two but they have enough nous to clamp their right toes down onto the jandal as they make their first critical move. However, once committed they realise that their weight must continue the boarding process or they are going to get mighty wet. So they lunge forward, forgetting to lock down the toes on their left foot as it drags out of the water behind them.

Off comes the jandal, it floats out over the water to end up sometime later on our beach.