18 July 2017

Youthful beginnings - mountains - influences

Looking through an old NZ Geographic magazine recently I came across a short article called "Alpine Start" - someone's musings about the beginnings of his mountain climbing. I'd been thinking along similar lines myself of recent years so his article has prodded me into writing some of my own musings.

My main question seemed to be the eternal one about which was more important - nature or nurture - or some combination of the two - of course. After my father was away for almost four years during WW2 he returned to a well-mothered boy who was eager to break out. To his eternal credit he insisted that my mother "let him run free" - I was given a dog and together Chum and I roamed the paddocks, hunting and murdering rabbits about Hastings. When we moved to Kaponga, Taranaki, the prey became possums in the bush about the local mountain, then Egmont.

Mt Egmont (now Taranaki) from our house, Kaponga

One day when I was about 12 I biked from Kaponga up to Dawson Falls and started up the track towards the top of the mountain. Of course I didn't get to the top (about as far as the snow line in the photo above) but was amazed to discover that just by planting one foot after another you could get  above the bush and scrub line and into the tussock. I loved the changes in vegetation and in retrospect I think this was where it all started.

First Mountain Top 1952 - Torlesse (my father, centre)
When we shifted to Christchurch in 1950 the adventuring continued about Banks Peninsula. My father included me in his trips into the hills with some of his work mates. There were hunting trips after deer in the Canterbury foothills - mainly about Lake Sumner and Mt Thomas and several tramping and climbing trips up Mts Torlesse, Hutt, Cloudsley and Enys. Torlesse was an epic with us descending into the wrong valley (Staircase Gully) and having to climb up and out in rain.

I became quite driven about  my climbing ambitions and was soon under the wing of the CMC; going to their Easter Climbing camps up the Waimakariri.  Soon the peaks about Arthur's Pass were being climbed. From there it was just a matter of progression on longer and longer trips towards the peaks about Mt Cook and southwards. I also joined the New Zealand Alpine Club. My mother just kept herself back and worried about me until she heard my footsteps on the drive most Sunday nights. She always managed to find a train fare for me from the stressed family budget she operated.

Tasman Arete
Happy Climber - early 1950s

Along the way there were sprains and cuts and bruises but they all healed and from them and experience the skills of climbing developed. The mind seems to have a propensity for eliminating the unpleasant experiences of life and so my main memories are of glorious dawns and dusks, mists clearing to reveal snow and ice covered ridges and faces, moonlit valleys and mountains and happy laughing companions. Short or long doesn't matter; the important thing is the quality of your life. Life is so much better for having loved the mountains.  

Upper Waimakariri River - Mt Carrington
Old Mates Resting and Reminiscing

There were sacrifices of course. One was getting kicked out of the school choir for chosing to go climbing rather than attend the final rehearsal for the combined Christchurch schools' performance of Handel's Hallelujah Chorus arranged in many parts by Vernon Griffiths. My mother insisted that I went to the performance with her and, regretfully, I wished I was part of it.

Now, at 80, I'm still planning trips with the 'old climbing mates'. The peaks are lower. The jury is still out on how much nature and how much nurture was involved in those early alpine beginnings. Other views?

19 June 2017

Harper Avoca Days

Back in 1956, as a first year university student, I found a summer holiday job (with two other students, Tony Hooper and Alan Depree) with the NZ Forest Service. The job was made in heaven for me; constructing a boundary fence between a high country station (Glenthorne) and the Avoca River (to reduce sheep incursion onto the NZFS research area) and then building deer exclosure plots for a research project in the NZFS area. Peter Logan was the boss and he supervised our activity from the NZFS base at the Harper Avoca river junction in behind Lake Coleridge. Apart from the fencing we also had to pack in our fencing and food supplies with pack horses (some fencing materials were also airdropped and the posts ended up as match sticks!). We had occasional contact with the deer cullers in the area who were part of the project.

Loading a Pack Horse in1956 - Russel Toose, centre.

Tony Hooper, Alan Depree and BLS - Triangle Hut 1956

For the first part of the project we were based at Triangle Hut and worked daily from there on the fence line. It started at the river near our hut, went up a steep scarp across some downs area and then up to some bluffs above the true right side of Triangle Creek. It was constructed of #8 fencing wire, droppers, steel standards and waratahs. Even if I say so myself it was quite well constructed. Some years later (about 1990) I tramped down the Avoca Valley and found our fence on the Avoca flats - boulders from a flood had banked up against the fence on one side and formed a waterfall! And, as you do these days, I 'Google Earthed' the area and could faintly discern our fence - so I could even say it was visible from space - just like the Great Wall of China. Yes, well.

Our fence in 1990
Triangle Hut in 1956

We had a few days off at Christmas. Some of my pay was spent on a BSA single shot open v-sighted 22 rifle. Peter had said we could shoot for food. So when we returned to the job I'd often take off after work and manage to bring home a few rabbits, hares and even venison. Some hunts were not so successful. After a few days we finished the boundary fence and moved on to the next phase; constructing deer exclosure plots. These involved more pack horses and camping in tents. From memory we constructed about four plots. These were about 20 x 20m and about 2.5m high. We did hear later that one of our plots was so good that over winter a snow bank formed on the uphill side of it. A deer had used the snow ramp to jump into the plot for a feed. But it couldn't get out and was still there in the summer when the botanist came to record the plant growth. Maybe it starved to death?

Our work had been very enjoyable. I left at the end with enough time to do our first climbing trip in the Mt Cook region. My climbing mates had to put up with their insufferable mate storming through the valleys bellowing his battle cry of "they breed 'em tough in the Harper Avoca" - it had been a great summer. I'm not so sure if opportunities like this exist for young people these days.

I recently talked to Alan Depree and two main memories of our time there coincided. One was of a forestry shingle gang coming in to maintain the roads and how they used one of their trucks to bring in a keg of beer at the end of the job. All the cullers and students came in from the hills and the antics of the evening are best left unsaid, The other memory is of one of the cullers (an Aussie) who was said to have shot 17 deer in one glorious fusillade from the bottom of a shingle slide. After that his nickname became "Machine Gunner Toose". The deer were thick on the ground in those days.

In 2014, I visited Triangle Hut with my brother. The fence was still there but the hut had been destroyed in the 1996 earthquake. Glad we weren't in it at the time.
BLS and JohnS 2014 - earthquake wrecked Triangle Hut

16 May 2017

Vo Nguyen Giap - Vietnam - UNDP

Back in 1990 I travelled to Hanoi in Vietnam to give a course for UNDP on biochemistry and toxicology. This was in response to MAFTech, my then employer, asking its staff to put themselves out 'there' with the view to making money for the organisation. I was snapped up immediately :-), but I have to say I felt somewhat stretched and had to work harder than I'd ever worked before, preparing the next days work each night and  each dawn running through Hanoi and its surroundings. I occasionally ran over the French Bridge and out into the countryside. It was quite moving running through these hardworking people as they made their way towards the city markets with their goods.

When I flew in to Hanoi over the rice fields I soon realised that the circular patterns about the airfield were in fact bomb pocks and I began wondering if I'd had much conscience about the war, what the hell I was doing there and how I'd be treated. After an amusing processing at immigration I was greeted by Tam Nguyen Duc, a friendly Vietnam veterinarian who was to be my efficient interpreter and helper for the month I was in Hanoi. That afternoon I was taken to a decorated hall where I was introduced and asked to give my (unexpected) introductory lecture. I managed to conjure up an introduction to the subject matter, a background to toxicology, myself and Ruakura. The course itself began in earnest the next morning.

Sitting in the front row during that induction were several administrators for the Vietnam organisation hosting the course. I didn't know it at the time but one of them may have been Vo Nguyen Giap who, at that stage was in charge of science and technology in Vietnam - this was then about 15 years after the end of what they called "The American War".

The course proceeded and I was very well looked after by both UNDP and the Vietnamese, especially Tam who had a difficult job interpreting for me and looking after my day to day needs for the course. He taught me a lot. One of the women on the course had been an anti-aircraft gunner during the American raids on Hanoi.

The Course Group and Ho Chi Min

Part of Course Group

Study Group
Repaired War Damaged French Bridge on Red River

I was very impressed with the Vietnamese, their friendly hospitality and especially their pragmatism.
One story I remember is of an attempt to do a deal with America. "No, this couldn't happen", the American contingent explained, "The American people could never accept this so soon after our war". "Why not?"the Vietnamese explained, "We have been fighting the Chinese for a thousand years. We were only fighting you for ten years - you are our friends!" It said a lot about their attitude of getting on with things.

Anyway, when I returned to New Zealand, someone drew my attention to a General Giap; and hadn't I met him as he was in charge of science at the time. To my shame I said "Who is Giap?"

General Vo Nguyen Giap

Well, I had it explained to me that he was regarded by some as one of the greatest military generals ever. He had been in charge during the defeats of both the French (famously at Dien Bien Phu) in 1954 and the Americans and South Vietnam in 1975. Interestingly one of his last duties after his stellar military career and a post war period of being Deputy Prime-Minister was to be in charge of birth control in Vietnam. What else would you do with one of your great strategic thinkers? He died in 2014 at the age of 102. One morning I was taken to visit Ho Chi Minh in his mausoleum but I don't think I was important enough to meet Giap.

27 April 2017

Southern Islands about Tasmania

Catherine and I had visited Tasmania a couple of times before (and liked it) so decided to do one more trip with a difference; Flinders Island, Cradle Mountain and Maria Island. We went with a variable group - the mainstays were Jim and Rosemary (C's sister) Millar, Doug and Ruth Arcus (NZ friends) and us. Other friends of J and R joined and left us at different stages. The island stages were guided. Rosemary organised it.

Our first stage was a flight to Flinders, a large island in Bass Straight. We arrived in a 60 knot wind and were glad when the aircraft came to the end of the runway and didn't soar back into the sky. C had to struggle to avoid being blown away when she emerged from the aircraft. Anne and Ash, our guides took us to our camp spot on the north end of the island, a delightful spot at the mouth of the NE River. Over the next four days we hiked along pleasant and colourful beaches and climbed granite mountains. Unfortunately I managed to stumble into a rock on the first day and caused a large haematoma on my lower right leg which caused me to hobble for the rest of the trip and miss a bit of the climbing - but I did manage to climb Mt Strezlecki at the other end of the island. The weather apart from the wind on the first day and the rain on the last day was excellent, the food was good and the guides excellent. The camps were good too - the tents perhaps a little strenuous for pensioners. But I'd still recommend this trip to younger folk - our average age was 73. More permanent camps with 'glamping style' cabins are planned.

Coast Near NE River Mouth (Flinders Island)

Boulders Near Castle Rock (Flinders Island)

Mt Strezlecki from Coast (Flinders Island)

We visited Wybalenna, the remains of an Aboriginal community set up of about 160 Aboriginal from mainland Tasmania.  Here, we learned about an attempt to 'Christianize' them. It failed and 47 of them were transported back to Oyster Cove on the Tasmanian mainland where most died. The remaining few were assimilated into the white population. The last full blooded Aboriginal died in1876. The whole story of the Tasmanian aboriginals is very sad and moving - reflecting attitudes of the time. In all a very good trip with pleasant companions.

We moved back to the mainland and up to Cradle Mountain. We had perfect weather and a wonderful day walking around Lake Dove and up to Boulder Lake. We saw several echidna, wombats and different wallabies - great photo opportunities. The National Park was very well managed, the wildlife abundant and the area must be one of Australia's most attractive places.

Cradle Mountain Area (Photo: CHS)


Start of Walk About Lake Dove (Cradle Mountain)

We travelled on to Hobart and then, Maria Island. This visit, organized by Maria Island Walks had everything; excellent guides, superb food and accommodation, beach walks and climbs and lots of fascinating history. We started the trip with scallops, wine all the way, and oysters and champagne for lunch on the last day. Midway on the trip we learned about the interaction of the French, of Baudin in 1802, with the local Aborigines. The interaction was quite successful and resulted in one of the best ever descriptions of Tasmanian Aborigines.

Wallabies Observe Our Lunch Stop
Glamping (Maria Island Style)

Beach Headland Travel (Maria Island)

Lonely Cottage at Darlington (Maria Island)

The last day had its poignancy when we discovered the grave of a Maori chief banished to Maria Island from NZ for "open rebellion against the Queen". He had died of tuberculosis before he could be rehabilitated to NZ with his three Maori companions. His bones were repatriated in 1988 amid much open grieving. Tasmanian did not have a good record with indigenous peoples - although it has to be said - Maori on Maria Island had considerable sympathy at the time from the people of Hobart.

21 March 2017

Flying With Godwits - Tapuae o Uenuku - 1998

Flying With The Godwits

The previous day we had slogged up the Hodder Valley- 50something river crossings – and we're now standing on the top of Tapuae o Uenuku (2885m) the highest peak of the Inland Kaikoura Range of New Zealand's South Island. This day in early March 1998 was perfect; blue skies, no wind, and Warren (my son) and I were congratulating ourselves on our effort and tucking into some food and drink when it happened - quickly.

A glance to the south revealed a dark fast growing smudge. In a matter of seconds my eyes focused on it as it passed, heading northwards, passing about 20m from our perch on the summit.  It was a peloton of godwits – about 20 of them – birds drafting at speed, packed together, beaks extended, wings pumping, working, eyes fixed on the northern horizon. In a matter of moments they were gone.

"Did you see that?" I exclaimed to Warren. "Yes - what were they?" They were godwits and I was stunned and excited. I'd never dreamed of having a moment like this on a mountaintop. Once, at 7am on the top of another high inland peak, I looked up to find a seagull hovering directly overhead. I'd once ridden with the Morochucos in Bolivia too – special moments - but nothing like this. This time – for a split second – it seemed like I'd flown with the godwits. I've never forgotten that moment – a special moment in a good life. Moving.

Good Day for Viewing Godwits on Tapuae o Uenuku
Godwits in Flight (Photographer unknown)

Godwits April 2017 Miranda - most have departed.
The migratory flights of the godwits are one of natures great events. Recently several godwits flights have been recorded by satellite telemetry. When the first complete flight of one of these birds (E7) was recorded bird lovers from all over the world were riveted to their computers as they followed her flight across the pacific from NZ to the Yellow Sea - and beyond. Click here to find out more about this amazing flight.

09 January 2017

A Two Week Autumn Tour of Central Japan - 2016

Recently Catherine, her sister Margaret and I visited Japan for two weeks during the autumn season. Although about a week too early for the best of the colours we saw enough of them to appreciate the beauty especially in mountainous central Japan. We started in Tokyo - seeing the usual things and had a short attempt at printing Japanese woodcut blocks with David Bull in Asakusa, near the old Senso-ji Temple.

Tokyo - Reflection of Tokyo Tower from our room.

Japanese Printmaking Bench - Tokyo
We journeyed westwards into the mountains to Kamikochi and then across to the west side of Japan by an amazing variety of transports. On the Trans Alpine route it went - train, bus, tramcar, trolley bus, walk, underground cablecar, ropeway, trolley bus again, bus - and finally by cable car down through forest to Tatayama. I was amazed by the huge Kurobe dam with volcanic activity of the Tateyama thermal area only a short distance away - Japanese fatalism perhaps? Our highlights were the day walk in the Kamikochi area, the crossing of the Alps, the train journey up the Kurobe gorge and the overnight stay in the traditional Gokyama village. And later, of course, Kyoto where we met Tsukiko a friend who lives there.

Kamikochi Valley (Photo: Catherine Smith)

Kamikochi Lake

Kamikochi Forest
Alps Autumn Colours
Autumn Colours
From Kanazawa we travelled by fast express down to Kyoto. Here we visited several gardens on our first day and next day were delighted to meet Tsukiko, a friend we had met in New Zealand. She gave us a generous tour of some gardens - more spacious and less populated than on our previous day.  She also honoured us with a sumptuous meal at her home in central Kyoto.

River Fish Cooking in Traditional Way

Arashiyama Bamboo Walk (Photo: CHS)

Traditional Dress in Kanazawa Garden

Golden Temple, Kyoto

Margaret, Tsukiko, Catherine - Tokyo

Kyoto Garden

Kyoto Garden

And so back to Tokyo in the 'Bullet Train', shinkansen. Very fast, very efficient and as we found in all our travel by public transport, you can set your watch by the train times. I was nearly cut in half by being half a nanosecond late getting off a train!

Japanese Excellence in Food Presentation (Sashimi)

Geisha (Photo: Catherine Smith)

I was deeply impressed by Japan and its people. Despite their high population and modernism they adhere to their traditional customs. They are hard working and disciplined people with very polite, kind and respectful attitudes. While I admire the different cultural characteristics of the world's peoples I do like the idea of adopting the best of all things - at the same time preserving our own cultural identities. As we have with food.

Our tour was organised by Journeys to the East; it was guided by excellent English speaking local guides and we thoroughly enjoyed it.

15 December 2016

Siggy - a school friend mountaineer lost. 1961.

You were awkward and accident prone, Siggy, all elbows, heels and knees in a ruck, and quite capable of drowning a team-mate on a flooded Westland rugby field. "Get off me (gurgle, gurgle) you bastard". It was OK though, the local priest was not far away to deliver the last rights.

Sigmund Huston - Siggy

And then there was that infamous weekend. The front wheel of your motorbike lost its grip on the newly creasoted planks of the Porter River bridge on our way to Arthur's Pass - and you and your motorcycle bounced your way from side to side of the bridge onto the shingle at the far end. Following behind, I was grateful for the warning. And later that weekend after a good, but slow, climb of the Otira Face of Rolleston we found that, and on a moonless night without torches, we'd had to spend a cold night on some Waimak river flats - without any gear or even a match - and found everything covered in hoar frost in the morning. After my motorbike chain broke that morning near Klondyke Corner we pushed my BSA up to Arthur's Pass and onto a train. Then we doubled up, packs and all, on your Norton for the return to Christchurch. And on the Castle Hill straight you opened the throttle full. The rear tyre blew out and we became three projectiles heading for home down the shingle road: me tied to the two packs on my back, you and the bike. Petrol was pouring from your damaged tank and after we righted your bike, you passed out from the shock of it all.  Luckily the first vehicle on the scene was a Ministry of Works truck and they saved our bleeding bacon and gave us a lift to Springfield, together with your motorbike. The weekend stands out in memory.

Pete Brandford and Siggy

But the final accident got you Siggy.  With Pete, another class-mate from school, you - an acolyte in all senses - climbed over your first and last high pass, Pioneer. The avalanche cut you both down on your final traverse. I often wonder where you both are these days - even if the summit of Cook did come down to give you both your final burial - a few years ago.

We always had one foot on a banana skin in those days. One night, on my BSA motorbike, I fell asleep and ended up in a farmers paddock. The bike had gone down into a ditch at 70 mph - I was projected through a fence and rolled into the middle of the paddock leaving behind a trail of feathers from my ruptured down jacket, the BSA cartwheeling on down the road. I always wondered what the farmer thought next morning when he discovered his ruptured fence and the feathers - low-flying bird? I was glad not to have hit a post or strainer.

27 November 2016

Japanese Print Party

We had a free day in Tokyo, Japan recently.  On the basis of a recommendation from a Whangarei printmaker at a workshop I attended a month or so ago, I arranged for Catherine and me (and Margaret, her sister) to have a morning shot at Japanese printmaking. This happened at Mokuhankan a print making facility in the Asakusa district within a short walk of the Senso-ji Temple - the oldest temple in Tokyo. The print workshop is run by David Bull, an English-born Canadian, who has lived in Tokyo for over 25 years. The procedure for the event is to pay a fee of $20 and for that you have the opportunity and guidance to make your own prints from existing woodblocks.

I learned a lot from David Bull.  The design, woodblock production and printing are traditionally carried out by separate craftsmen in Japan . Unusually, David does both block cutting and printing. He also has a staff who also assist with both. I was interested in the differences between the Japanese and other printmaking methodologies that I'm used to. For instance the ink is water based, it is applied by brush rather than roller and a baren is used rather than a press. The effects are very pleasing.

Print Bench (red, blue, yellow, black colours) and blocks

Note brushes for applying ink and baren for pressure. (Photo: Margaret Prentice)

Catherine and I both did three prints each and Catherine produced the least flawed print! Margaret took photos!

Back home, I looked at David's videos of his production of his own woodblock and prints of the famous print by Hokusai, "The Great Wave" - a marvellous exposition of attention to detail and craftsmanship. Very well worth looking at the "Wave ..." production here and his work more generally here.

Catherine's Print