Thursday, July 30, 2009

Raoul Island Paper Aeroplane Day

Before Gaye and I left the mainland we called in to a Takapuna bookshop to stock up on reading material for the island. One book that caught my eye was the World Record Paper Airplane Book– plans, pre-cut models and much, much more.

At just $5 it was a bargain too good to miss, so it came with us and has been donated to the library.

We decided to ensure it was read by presenting a trophy for the best endurance flight of a paper dart from the flagpole.
Johnny B launches forth

It was a keenly contested event on Monday afternoon, with most of the island’s residents exercising their option to enter six separate models. The planes themselves represented a stunning range from design genius to totally naive optimism. Some were five minute knock-ups and others had been labours of love for many lonely evenings prior to the competition.

Unfortunately the conditions proved challenging, even with the natural launching advantage of a cliff top 100 feet high. We had strong gusty southerlies blowing, which meant a tailwind launch into rotor.

Gina's effort
Gaye chose a Cessna

Dave's hi-tech machine

Chauncy's effort
Bas lets fly
It proved too much for some of the models with their flights measured in milliseconds rather than minutes, but Craig took the title with an impressive 13.59 sec flight. He used a recycled conventional dart.

Craig and trophy

What did we learn?

1. Timing is everything.
2. Simple is always best.
3. A university education counts for very little in such events.

Monday, July 27, 2009


Sunday started early with movement beginning to happen around here at 5am.

We expected the helicopter at dawn but it had a mishap; the paramedic felt unwell over White Island on the journey out, and had to be returned to the mainland. The two Taupo-based pilots set out a second time and the clattering helicopter blades announced their arrival here at 9.50am.

It had been decided that we would collect Holger, the ill sailor Marika’s husband, from their yacht so he could bring ashore her bag and see her off.

That was no small task, as launching a boat from Raoul means at least a couple of hours of preparation. We have to get the inflatable out of storage, warm the motor up, drive it 3kms to Fishing Rock, attach it to the foxway wire, run it down to sea level, attach it to the derrick and swing it out into the water. There is no natural launch spot or even a safe mooring on the island.
The boat on the way down via foxway...
....and into the water on the derrick
An added problem was the question of what would happen to the yacht Pytheas while Holger was ashore. No boats are permitted to be left unattended here as rapid weather changes can lead to disaster. Our solution to this was to leave Bas there as boatsitter – he is an experienced sailor and aspiring boat owner so it was a win-win situation as far as he was concerned.
Bas's dreams come true
With the pilots fed and watered, the helicopter refuelled and Marika all psyched up, they finally left at 11.30am. Luckily for us, Gaye was not needed as an escort this time. Marika was flown to Tauranga hospital that evening, where she was admitted and her difficulties seen to.
The helicopter prepares for the long trip back to Tauranga

The two yachts sailed north this morning and hopefully all concerned will be reunited in Fiji, when Marika is well again.

In yet another weird coincidence, all this drama was accompanied by three house-rattling earthquakes. The largest was 5.6 on the Richter scale, 31.7 km deep, centred 70km south of us.

Exactly the same thing happened last time someone was helicoptered off the island.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Déjà vu all over again

On Friday afternoon Craig trotted off to Denham Bay for a quiet weekend away from it all. Last time he made this trip, GNS man Andrew had his accident and had to be medevaced off the island by helicopter.

This morning the HMNZS Canterbury loomed into view, with the intention of slowing up slightly as their Seasprite helicopter dropped us some supplies, then carrying on to Samoa for manoeuvres once their chopper was back on deck.

Unfortunately, one of the two yachts anchored off our southern coastline called for medical assistance right about the time the Canterbury made its appearance. They don’t have a doctor on board, so the only one for a thousand kilometres in all directions was pressed into action once again.
Seasprite in action today
Yes, our own DOC doc, Gaye.

This meant the Seasprite had to pick her up as the Canterbury circled the island in order to heave-to close to the yachts. They landed on the ship, while the ill sailor was retrieved from her yacht by the Canterbury's small boat.

Gaye is now on first name terms with some of the Canterbury crew, having sailed back here with them after her last adventure with a medevac.

Further tests were made on the warship and it was decided an evacuation was necessary, so Gaye and patient were flown back on to the island in order for that to be arranged (manouevres can't wait).

The unwell sailor is staying with us. The medevac helicopter leaves from the mainland for Raoul at midnight tonight and will arrive here at dawn, while Canterbury steams on to sunny Samoa.

Tomorrow afternoon, Craig will walk back in from Denham Bay and say, “Did you have a nice weekend?”

Friday, July 24, 2009

Scurvy? Not likely!

It has been quite a while since the last official re-supply here on Raoul so our supplies of mainland fruit and vegetables are slowly dwindling away to nothing. Luckily, though, there is a ready source of fruit in the shape of citrus trees, some of them planted here as long ago as 1840.

One of the early settlers, Tom Bell, brought his family to Raoul to settle at a time when the only contact with the outside world was through passing whalers and the odd island trader. The Bells were plagued by misfortune in the early part of their stay here, enduring abandonment, isolation, eruptions, earthquakes, voracious rats, ferocious storms and the theft of all their valuables by passing vagabonds.

In the 1880s the captain of a visiting island trader the Richmond left a case of Tahiti oranges with the Bells and each of the pips was saved and planted. More than a hundred of the resulting trees still survive in an orchard not far from the hostel where we live. The trees are huge now and their fruit is delicious although we find ourselves competing with the birds in the race to get to one that falls.

In 1996, botanist Carol West started collecting budwood and cuttings from the trees here, recognising that the cultivars are a very old and potentially valuable source of genetic material. They may even be a “missing link” through to some very early cultivars that emerged from Asia.

Oranges alternate with the gigantic grapefruit in our front garden as the kick-start drink of the day, freshly squeezed at breakfast. What better beginning could you have?

Saturday, July 18, 2009

For Exercise! For Exercise! For Exercise!

When we travelled up here with the Navy, each of their various dramas began with this announcement.
Blood! I'll show you blood!
Yesterday was our day for similar scenarios.
Dave responds to the question "How bad is the pain?"
First Dave sustained a compound fracture to his tibia while listening to heavy metal music on the beach,
The stretcher party heads for hospital
then one of the parcels that arrived on the yacht caught fire while Gaye was opening it in her room. So we had a medevac and a fire emergency all in one day - lots of fun all round!
Chauncy arrives in his own fire engine
and the blaze is extinguished (below)

Friday, July 17, 2009

Good News!

Good news! The Campaign ( a passing yacht) dropped in two fish bins of mail and parts for broken down machines.
Thanks, Tony!
The goodies included my replacement underwater camera - thanks, Tony! In celebration we jumped in with Big Boy the grouper and his mate after we had seen off the yachties, and I put the new camera through its paces.
Big Boy the grouper


Gina pats Big Boy
As an extra bonus I discovered my wetsuit had expanded in the weeks we have not been in the water, so it was MUCH easier to wriggle in and out of....

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Meyer Islands

Last weekend we had the strongest winds in a year – more than 50 knots was recorded on the anemometer at Met. By Wednesday the bad weather was all a distant memory and the sea had almost calmed down, so we headed off to the Meyer Islands in the two boats to do some weeding.

Meyer Islands viewed from our base
The Meyers are not far offshore at all, but far enough to have escaped the worst depredations of the rats, cats and goats that ran riot on Raoul. The islands’ landscape has been shaped by the millions of seabirds that nest there, most of them burrowers like our own muttonbirds. This means that the ground is almost completely honeycombed by nesting birds and very prone to collapse under the feet of the unwary weeder. Perhaps because of this, it is also steep, soft and crumbly and if you add to that heady mix the prospect of an earthquake (small one yesterday, mid morning) it makes for an exciting time on the hill. Normally we can rely on trees, particularly the ever-reliable pohutukawa, to provide us with a solid hand- or foot-hold, but in this terrain even they seem to have had trouble establishing themselves.
'Jabba the Hutt' on the main ridge of the island

All movement was slow and cautious, mainly because no-one wanted to crush any of the thousands of furry puffballs that were baby petrels on the ground or in the entrance of burrows. Even the adult birds appear to have no fear of people and just emit the occasional warning squawk if they feel you are stepping too close to their nests. Or maybe it was the “feed me” squawk – who can be sure?
John Mac and friend

Birds zoomed in and out all day. They have a distinctive putt-putt squawk like a Vespa throttling back as the lights turn red.

Anyway, all this talk plus a little incident before breakfast* elicited an interesting discussion at the dinner table – should we even have been there? Was our haul of gangly alien buttercup plants worth the potential damage to the birds and their burrows? Essentially the “Twitches” thought ‘No’ and the others were more cautious in their judgements. One view asserted that we humans were part of nature too and that death and killing were unavoidable realities. Craig had a useful and pragmatic response – that good intentions and careful actions in an attempt to fix the thoughtless damage done in the past will always be worthwhile.

Ah, the dilemmas of modern conservation!

*The Breakfast Incident – as predicted by yours truly some days back, the East Side Pukekos dealt to Boy George yesterday morning. This was a major showdown, four of them on to him and feathers flying everywhere. Gaye heard the ruckus from the kitchen and came rushing out to the rescue (“They’ll kill him! They’ll kill him!”) while I was busy saying “No, No, you can’t intervene!”
She was restrained from administering mouth to beak resuscitation and BG limped away to contemplate his position and maybe fight again another day.

Monday, July 13, 2009

The weather with you

Raoul Island has long been an outpost of the Meteorological Service, faithfully gathering all sorts of data that will ultimately assist Karen to make her forecasts for you on the TV1 Weather at 6.56pm.

Many of the instruments in use here are fairly straightforward, so we can record the temperature (max, min and grass), we can note how much rain (and the barometer) has fallen and the nifty little outside prism focuses direct sunlight onto a piece of card so that there is a permanent burnt-on record of sunshine hours too. Most spectacular and trickiest of all them is the weather balloon.
Filling the balloon in the Bombshed
This is a hydrogen-filled latex balloon that carries with it to great altitudes a radiosonde. This is so that the radiosonde will transmit valuable upper air data before the whole thing expands, blows up and falls back into the ocean. The aim is to get the balloon to at least 30 hectopascals before it bursts. A hectopascal is just a different name for a millibar, which is a measure of air pressure. The higher you go, the less air pressure you will encounter. Naturally, there is a bit of competition between the three accredited operators here and each of them is usually pretty keen to get a gold standard release – one that gets to 15 hectopascals, or around 30,000 metres. That’s approximately four Mt Everests high!
Balloon ready for release

So how far does the balloon actually go? The release photo here is one of Chauncy’s efforts on a windy day last week and it disappeared from the computer screen some 300km away.

It’s a reasonably pricey operation. Each set of balloon, batteries and radiosonde transmitter costs around NZ$300 and it’s not unheard of to have to release three in a day before Karen's exacting standards are attained.

Hydrogen being the volatile and highly flammable substance it is, the filling and releasing process is potentially a hazardous operation. Static electricity is the enemy; to reduce the chances of an unwanted spark, the operator must wear a surgical gown with hood and gloves. He must attach an earthing strap to his wrist and his wristwatch must be left outside. While it is filling, the balloon has a fine mist of water sprayed onto it. All of this happens in a little building called the Bombshed, which is as far away from everything else as is practical. Just in case. Operators have a “met buddy” each day, someone who receives on the two-way radio a report that each step in the balloon release process has been completed safely.

Presumably if there is no radio call, the met buddy must go out to the Bombshed and sweep up the ashes. Thankfully, this has never happened here.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

A week of it

The most amazing thing about weeding on the island is that the terrain encountered each day can be so different. The views are always breathtakingly beautiful and often the bush is strikingly unlike that seen previously.

We have just had a week blessed with calm, still, partially-overcast days and mild temperatures. I have been out weeding with Craig and Neil as the rest of the vollies and Gareth camped out at Denham Bay to work over on the other side of the island.

On Monday we completed a block up behind the hostel. The slope was approximately 25-30 degrees and we followed the contour lines sweeping east-west. We were mainly looking for passionfruit and Brazilian Buttercup in open, mixed pohutakawa forest.

Tuesday saw us back in the crater on a flat section to the east, bordering Blue Lake. The forest here mainly comprises young 40-45 year old pohutakawas with some patches of high fern. This area was within the blast zone of the eruption in 1964, hence the uniform age of the trees. At the edge of the plot we were blocked by a wall of windfall trees which had come down in the 2006 eruption. We encountered very few weeds in this area as it seems most of the ash had probably covered and killed off the buttercup and guava seeds and seedlings previously there.

It was back into the crater on Thursday but this time to the western side and a place called Dry Crater. The area we had to weed is approximately 4 hectares, so quite compact. It’s like a large amphitheatre with a flat base which was quite easy going once we had dropped down the walls. Brief settlement in this area was attempted between 1889 and 1892 as part of the Kermadec Island Fruit and Produce Association settlement. During this time the government sold blocks of land with the aim of producing fruit and shipping it to markets in Sydney. However, a lack of fresh water, the challenging topography of the land and the hardships encountered by the settlers meant the scheme was doomed to failure. We were looking for signs of grape, figs and purple guava but encountered none of them at all.
The Dry Crater

It is a lovely spot and an excellent site for a concert, we decided. (Mechanic Dave buys a Lotto ticket on the interweb each week and has plans to fly in AC/DC to entertain us when he strikes it big. It would work extremely well if the tech support could time an eruption for the climax of the music.)

On Friday we went to a steep, sunny slope on the north side of the island, hunting for madeira. This is a creeping vine that climbs up surrounding vegetation, potentially smothering it. Aside from the aerial plant, it has an extensive system of underground tubers. These are very friable and break off when pulled, so need to be meticulously dug out as this plant only needs to look at the ground to shoot away again. Thankfully Madeira only exists at a small number of sites here on Raoul. It was first noted in 1967 but control is now well underway thanks to a regime of spraying the vines with an Escort/ Pulse mixture (Roundup is ineffective). The vine is very hard to kill with herbicide because of its numerous branching tubers. Sprayed plants will defoliate and the nearest tuber dies but it will re-sprout from the next tuber along, so you have to carefully prise out any surviving bits with a hook-shaped wire. After gathering the plant it is brought back to base and burnt.
Weeding for madeira

We were roped for this site as the ground is very loose and the plant grows on the slopes at the top of vertical cliffs with the sea crashing in on the rocks way down below where we work. Between the three of us we got 35 kg of madeira vine and rhizomes this time out – a good haul.

Madeira and rhizomes
At the end of the week we all felt a great sense of satisfaction at what we had achieved.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Set C – Dead!

We all take weekly turns at starting up and shutting down the generators. They provide the electricity for cooking, hot water cylinders, fridge and freezers, computers and all the meterological services. Sixteen hours running time is the minimum needed to keep the food in the chillers and freezers from spoiling. There are three generators but only one is in operation at any one time, with the others providing backup in event of a malfunction.

As I’m (Gaye here) a morning person, I have swapped with Gina so I do all her 0600 start-ups and she does my middle-of-the-night shutdowns at 2200. Initiation to start up is given by a team member who shows you “the ropes” one morning then you take over the next. A written protocol of essential actions does exist if you experience “brain fog”. The process first involves reducing the load on the generator at start up by switching off nonessential and high load services. We also have to switch off the water cylinders and chargers so they are not fried by a surge when the power comes on. The fuel and water have to be checked, the nominated generator turned on, the circuit board activated and eventually all services brought on line.

If any problems are encountered in the morning start -up ritual, we have to go and wake Dave, our mechanic. Amazingly, he never grumbles but struggles out with a smile and says “What’s up?”
Dave at the generator
During my first week of start-ups, I had a trouble-free run. However, last week I struck problems. On the first morning the nominated generator (C) wouldn’t start (flat battery, it turned out) so I switched to the back-up generator (A). That also failed to fire up. I dragged Dave out of bed and he managed to sort things out.

Next morning I started C, only for it to suddenly conk out. Then I noticed an electrical smell, so I switched to A but again “click…. click” and no life at all in the engine. Back to the hostel I trudged and Dave obligingly came to the rescue once again. I explained the problem to him and he was intrigued.

“Let’s try C again,” he said. I switched the system over and to my surprise it started straight away. The engine sounded OK but as we both wandered around the machine I could still smell that hot electrical tang. Then, all of a sudden, BANG, smoke, flames and “HOLY SHIT!” from Dave. We were both well and truly awake then, switched everything off and ran for the door it case it blew up. Eventually, Dave ventured back in with the fire extinguisher.

The status at the moment is- alas, C is no more. Dave yesterday repaired the starter motor for A and we are currently running B.Power here is certainly not taken for granted.

Monday, July 6, 2009

A neat photo

Photo: John Mac
This is a neat photo, taken at the Meyer Islands a few weeks back.

I like it because of the muted colours, the balanced composition and the detail in the rockpool. The fish are clearly visible at the top and the weed amazingly detailed at the bottom of the frame. Also you can see the reflected image of a seabird in flight on the right hand side, in the middle, so you get a clear sense of all three dimensions here.

Best of all is the distinctive hatted silhouette of John Mac, the photographer, spreading the fingers of his right hand out wide to block off the light and show off the fronds of seaweed in the rockpool. Most photographers (and viewers of photgraphs) consciously pretend they are not part of the scene they are attempting to capture, even though science tells us that an observer always has an influence on the thing being watched.

It’s my new desktop image on the laptop.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Sunshine Camp

This weekend was a long one for us – Vollies’ Day Off– so Gaye, Gina and I went across to Sunshine Camp via Mahoe Hut for the night on Friday.

Sunshine Camp is on the eastern side of the island – this map will show you exactly where.

The camp itself looks a little like a Christmas tree as all visitors seem to have taken it upon themselves to hang at least one stray fishing buoy on the branches of the trees as a commemoration of their stay there.
Sunshine Camp
There are lots of these buoys on the coastline around here, as well as the wreckage of the Picton, which went aground at the campsite, and plenty of other detritus too. Most striking of all the various ornaments are the whale rib and backbone segment which have been propped up against a tree since the whale beached itself there in 2004.
Whale rib and backbone segment
We had a pleasant evening under the stars and set off up the coast, rockhopping, the next morning to make our way the 13 km or so back to the hostel.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Once Were Pukekos

Photo: Gareth Rapley

Pukekos are alternately a source of irritation and great entertainment.

They are rarely popular when they screech outside our bedroom window at 3am and unwanted incursions onto our deck are also frowned upon, as the video in this section shows (note for the SPCA: no birds were harmed in the filming process. Except by each other.)

We have two pukeko families in and around the hostel and in a strange sort of way they mirror the cut of modern day NZ society. First we have Lone Wolf and his consort Boy George, who control the garden immediately outside the kitchen and the front verandah area. These are two lucrative food sources, but they are difficult to defend as they are on opposite sides of the building. We refer to these two birds as our civil union pukekos – they are sleek, well fed, aggressive and upwardly mobile but singularly unsuccessful at producing offspring (Wellingtonians, perhaps?) Alas, physiology is against them.

This means that ultimately they can only lose in a showdown against the more fecund East Side Crew. There are seven of these birds and they have a very stroppy dad, who rushes in to defend his rather thick offspring when BG or LW attack them for trespassing. One of these youngsters is so dumb it inadvertently tried to beg food off Boy George in his own territory. The interaction ended very badly for him.

Attacks usually happen when boundaries are crossed. As with the continent of Africa when it was carved up by the 19C European powers, these boundaries bear no relation to logical demarcation lines and seem to become fuzzy when one of our two blokes is having an off-day or is preoccupied with another hapless attempt to procreate. Basically, Boy George will defend up to the water tray, he will look after the grapefruit tree if he feels like it but the eastsiders venture into the front deck area at their own peril.

Our entertainment is derived from the fact that they do just that with monotonous regularity.

A face-off is signalled by a warning shriek. This is followed by major posturing as the two male combatants stare each other down and try to look as tall and imposing as possible. It is essential at this stage that a bird does not turn its back as this action will precipitate an attack, which takes place when one bird is able to get the jump on the other – literally. They use their powerful clawed feet to rake and slash at each other from a height, and will kill without compunction if the opportunity arises.
Pukeko picking over the carcass of a bird that crossed the line
However, they will also retreat swiftly if it looks as though ‘collateral damage’ is possible, so most fights are just hot air and noise.

Retreats usually involve a show of studied indifference, but from an imagined position of strength. Typically a pukeko will show its rear end to an opponent while pretending to look at the ground for food, but its wing feathers will be fluffed up and tucked back in order to make the bird look as intimidating as it can manage. Size is everything in this game.

Clan loyalties are strong and any altercation will bring the cuzzies rushing over to see if they can get a shot in at a turned enemy back. This is why I think the civil union birds are bound to fail – it is only a matter of time until the eastsiders grow sufficiently to outnumber them.

I watched an unfortunate Grey Heron land close to the boundary of the Workshop Pukekos and almost immediately he was attacked by one of their larger males. Normally this would mean a hasty retreat, but for some reason the heron did not move fast enough and within seconds he was encircled by pukekos, all squawking and looking for an easy hit.

Substitute a few Year 10s for these belligerent birds and it could all have taken place in any school ground in the country.