Friday, October 22, 2010

I stay alive

Long time, no write. Sorry about that, but I've been away from technology for awhile, first doing some day hikes along the west coast, then going on my first cruise, then tramping around the remote and rugged Stewart Island for over a week. Five of us decided to book a Real Journeys cruise in Doubtful Sound before tourist season began and prices were hiked, so I got to experience my first cruise in one of the most magnificent places I've ever seen, even more so than Milford Sound, which I wrote about earlier. Doubtful Sound is ten times bigger, and though it lacks the imposing Mitre Peak, it seems all-the-more majestic and mysterious for its size and wildness.

To get to Doubtful Sound you must take a ferry across Lake Manapouri and then a bus along the most expensive road in New Zealand, with stops along the way for photo opportunities.

The cruise was fantastic, with the best weather we could have wished for. The trip included an all-you-can-eat buffet, and they even cooked a special vegan meal for me: roasted avocado stuffed with cashew, red bell pepper, and dried apricot. Yum! I also kayaked for the first time, and when the crew called for anyone who wanted to swim, we five and one more were the only ones to volunteer to dive off of the boat—no matter how sunny it was, the water was still pretty cold. Later, we cruised out to the mouth of the sound to see bottle-nosed dolphins, fur seals, Fjordland crested penguins, and little blue penguins (the smallest penguin in the world at about one kilogram).

Flat three on a boat!

After Doubtful we rushed to Bluff on the southern tip of the South Island, where we caught the ferry to Stewart Island. The Island is home to four hundred residents, varied wildlife (including pests), and a continuous series of adventurous hikers. It is one of the largest and most wild collections of tracks and huts in New Zealand, and it has been a goal of mine since hearing of it that I go there and see what there is to see with a pack on my back and adventure in my intentions. I got all I wanted.

New Zealand is afflicted with all sorts of environmentally inimical introduced animals and plants, among which are rats, possums, stoats, and, of course, humans. These compete with endemic species over resources as well as eating endemic species, though the Department of Conservation does its best to limit their effects. They were largely successful with Ulva Island, a small island neighboring Stewart Island that we visited on our second day. Since all dangerous mammals have been eradicated, it is a sanctuary for native birds, and a person walking the island will see weka, oyster catchers, fantails, bush robins, parakeets, saddlebacks, and more. Stewart Island is not so lucky, so Ulva Island is constantly in danger of deer, rats, and possums swimming to its shores. We were lucky enough to see many animals on our trip, including kiwi birds, which few New Zealanders have even seen.

Weka tracks on Ulva Island.

A pair of oyster catchers.

This is either a possum print or very little men walk around on their hands on Stewart Island.

My friend Miguel walked right in front of this male fur seal and didn't notice it until it roared in his face. Fortunately, they're usually too lazy to actually charge. Don't get between them and the ocean!

There are three main tracks that one can walk on Stewart Island: the Rakiura Great Walk (three days), the North Circuit (10 days), and the South Circuit (7 days). My flatmate Michelle and I were walking the South Circuit while five of our friends with upcoming finals were doing the shorter and easier great walk. Michelle and I split from the others after the first day of hiking and discovered what Stewart Island has to offer.

Me and Michelle at Fred's Camp Hut.

There are many outstanding features in this place, but by far the most noticeable is the soil. The dirt here is "peat," which when mixed with water forms a highly compressible sucking mud. The Wikipedia page makes for interesting reading, especially the bit on its characteristics: "". The trails on Stewart Island are consequently difficult to walk on, though often beautiful. Here is a sampling of the trails we tramped:

Mud crossable by way of dead sticks.

Swampy mud.

Me after two hours of slogging through aforementioned swampy mud.

Rooty mud.

Mud with a top layer of hail pellets.

Nonexistent track.

Boardwalk! This was on the most developed leg of the tramp.

Unfortunately even developed tracks can flood completely.

Or become mud highways.

This was the longest tramp I had ever undertaken, and 10 days' supplies weigh heavy on the back. Incidentally, Michelle is in better shape than me :). I knew that it would be hard, and it was, but it was also beautiful, rewarding, and unique. Some of the most pristine beaches and forests I have ever seen are in this place, and we made new friends along the way, including possum hunters, a DoC worker, trampers, volunteers, other Otago students, a guy living out in the bush surviving on possum and fish, and acid-tripping treasure hunters. It's amazing who you meet when you put yourself out there.

Doughboy Bay—a welcome sight while coming down from the hills.

At the end of our journey we took a water taxi out, and watching the rainforest go by while floating down a river out to sea was a fitting close to the trip—a shake back to modern reality from a different place with different rules. Even the weather there plays out according to a different plan, with hot sun at one moment and a windy hailstorm ten minutes later just as you're rappelling from the rainforest onto the beach.

The fun did not end with the taxi, however. I am a fan of thrill rides, and the ferry back over choppy seas was a thrilling ride. It moves very quickly, and the constant wave-jumping is bane to the weak of stomach but boon to me. Michelle and I also threw a message in a bottle from the ferry, hoping that it would reach a faraway land and inspire someone to come to Stewart Island and have a similar adventure.

The sea spray washing over the side of the ferry.

Once back on the mainland, we hitchhiked part of the way and one of our treasure hunter buddies from the island gave us a lift the rest of the way. I must say that it's nice to have fresh food and showers again, along with the other amenities of modern living, but time in the bush—or in any different environment—helps to define our lives and open our minds to new or forgotten wonders, and it was one of my favorite tramps I have ever done.

Much love from Dunedin. I hope that this finds everyone well.

The treasure hunter's car.