Friday, December 13, 2019

Southland 1– Far from the madding crowd

Tulip fields remind me of home

If you aren’t fond of crowds, then Southland is the place for you.  On the whole it is a much more relaxing experience, but alas, I am still rushing.  I’m tired after the Doubtful Sound trip, but have booked into Invercargill tonight and now there's no choice. Not many photos of this section, but bear with me, it gets better.

Scenically, the landscape east of the Sounds could be anywhere in Tasmania. It’s gentler, more rustic and greener than Fiordland and although Southland also lies on the Alpine Fault, it has been shaped more by rifting, lifting and buckling, rather than ice, in the same way Southern Tasmania was, as it tore away from Antarctica. Moderated by the Pacific, the temperature is milder too, though along the coast, the hillocky headlands are savaged by the harsh winds and waves of the Southern Ocean.  The beaches in between teem with wildlife and there are waterfalls hidden in the folds of the hinterland behind them. Sheep, cattle and deer farms dot the hills, even tulips, such as we have in the North West. Although there are now fewer sheep - only about 10 per person, rather than 20 as in 1982, and beef cattle are taking over, there are still plenty of sheep in Southland. At Nightcaps  (loved the name, just had to look it up) there was coal mining from 1880 to 1920, rather like places along the coast in Tasmania – think Margate, Strathblane or Ida Bay, and along with one or two sawmills, there’s at least one abandoned butter factory, another familiar sight. 

So does this abandoned butter factory

 As I drive I think about what I’ve seen that day and how the similarities run deeper than geography. While New Zealand was fighting for Lake Manapouri, Tasmania was having its own battle over Lake Pedder, and for the same reason. We needed cheap power to attract industry and to create employment, the only difference being that Tasmania’s Save Lake Pedder group lost.  Lake Pedder was flooded in 1972, but it galvanised environmental concern and laid the foundation for the world’s first Green Party. In the next battle – for the Franklin River in 1983, the Greens and the environment won. Not that people don't look back fondly and still want to restore it.

One place I particularly wanted  to visit on the way down, even though it was late, were the Clifden Caves, a karst area said to have glow worms.There’s no one around when I get there, but someone has thoughtfully left some hard hats.  There are three sections of tunnels here and they require different levels of skill.  There’s also a sign saying don’t do it alone and don't do it before, after or during rain because of the risk of flooding. That makes me nervous. I don’t know if it’s been raining here or not. It certainly was at the Sounds and all the way down on the previous days. Though I’m apprehensive, I take my cap lamp and a spare torch, thinking I’ll just go in a little way and have a look.

 Twenty metres in my way is blocked by a large and desperate sheep. It is stuck in a hole and bleats beseechingly. I try to get it out by grasping it under its forelegs and tugging, but can’t budge it an inch. As I go back out to get help, glow worms twinkle above my head. I can't stop, but at least I've finally seen some. Back on the road, I ask a man who pulls up in a Ute for help, but he shakes his head. He’s not from here, doesn’t know who owns the sheep, and no, he can’t stop to help. I search in vain for some kind of habitation and then drive back to where I had seen some buildings. The first is a sawmill and it’s closed, but I have better luck at the second one. At least there’s someone home. This man reluctantly promises to do something about the sheep. I’m not entirely convinced, but now I am very late, so I  bolt out the door hoping that Shrek of the Southlands won't end up on someone’s plate. Unfortunately I now smell a lot like a sheep.

I like the hostel when I eventually get there, not the least because my bed hasn’t been given away. It's in a stately Victorian mansion - a former nursing home, and has high ceilings, leadlight windows and lovely china. Magnolias are in bloom in the garden. It's called Southern Comfort. The only thing  missing is the mint julep, but the showers are heavenly.


Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Troublesmiths - beating the Catch 22

Before I launch into the wonders of New Zealand’s Southland, I just wanted to mention a little place I came across on my usual beat between the library and the city.  I also want to say thanks to all our firemen working so bravely in terrible conditions, including those from Canada who have given up their Christmas to help. Now that’s true Christmas Spirit!

Our deepest sympathy to those who have lost homes or family members and also to those who have loved ones missing or dead following the volcanic eruption on White Island in NZ.

Meanwhile, I don’t know if youth unemployment is a problem in your area. It certainly is in Tasmania.  While national unemployment – even given the miserable definition  i.e. if you have only worked one hour in the previous week, you are considered employed, runs at around 6%, youth unemployment remains at a stubborn 12.9%  (266,000 in April this year, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics) and not counting those who have given up entirely.  On the whole, Tasmania is even worse off with some regions e.g. Huonville and Margate, recording rates as high as 16%.

Gift bags ready to go

One of the most frequently cited reasons for youth unemployment is that if you have no experience and/ or no qualifications, it is very hard to break into the workforce. Troublesmiths, a little business I discovered in the city, has found a way to overcome this. Partially funded via the State Government and the federally funded Workskills Program, it offers an eight week course which includes experience in retail, practice in writing resumes, presentation and coaching, and some real world experience in making and selling at least one product. 

Sign on the wall

Testament to their success, is that many of their graduates have now found regular employment and  all havegained confidence and a positive and productive way to spend their time. Their products are sold via a very smart retail outlet, which is what caught my eye in the first place, and also their website. The products look and smell good too. Kyron and Cal are making lip gloss and candles respectively, when I come in and  I am personally very taken with the Bushy Beard Oil (no, not for me, silly), so if you are still looking for a special gift or something different for Secret Santa business, it wouldn’t  hurt to have a look. Your dollars would be doing double duty, that is, doing good, while bringing joy.  If you have a suitable business, they also welcome wholesale enquiries and if you happen to be a young unemployed person, they are now accepting enrolments for the next session. Just apply via their website.

If youth unemployment (or any other kind) is a problem in your area, it could be an idea worth emulating.

These beeswax wraps look good and smell very nice too

Sunday, December 08, 2019

Fiordland 2 – Mysterious Doubtful Sound

Into Doubtful Sound - Deeper, Longer and Greener

To get to Doubtful Sound you first have to take a catamaran across vast Lake Manapouri, about 15 minutes south of Te Anau.  Next you take a hair -raising bus ride over the Wilmot Pass and finally board a second boat for the cruise through the 40 km (23 mi) long Sound. The expense and time involved make it a less popular attraction and hence it is both a more remote and a more intimate experience. Beyond Wilmot Pass, the Sound dominates. People are as insignificant as sandflies.

Looking down from the top of Wilmot Pass

 In 1770 Cook named this fiord Doubtful Harbour, because he was unsure whether he would be able to sail back out. The Maori who came here to gather eels and birds in summer, had their own names and stories. According to Maori legend, the fiords were created by the God Tu-Te Raki-Whanoa to provide shelter from the stormy sea.  While Tu – Te -Raki – Whanoa split the rocks, four young sea gods, cut its subsidiary arms. The Maori called it Patea, which means “The Place of Silence.”

Our Captain, bus driver, coffee maker and cup washer, was a former fireman who occasionally hunted here. When his wife, an airborne emergency medic, took up a position in the area, he took the opportunity to make a tree change and to work in a place which he had always loved. He now calls the Sound his “Office.”As we cruise along, he tells us stories about the Sound – about the Spaniards who mapped the area in 1793 and named some of the features such as Malaspina Reach and Bauza Island, about the sealers who came in the late C18th and almost wiped out the fur seals, about the deer wars, about the early conservation battles sparked by plans to build a power station on it, and about some of the characters who have made their home here.  

Lady Alice Falls are just visible from the top of Wilmot Pass

We travel between high mountains and pass richly clothed islands. The lower slopes of the mountains are a darker green.  “Beech Forest” says the driver, yet on closer inspection the trees look very like the Tasmanian myrtle.  Since the mountains here are made of granite and have virtually no topsoil, the trees survive by tightly interlocking their roots. Every now and then however, we come across a barren streak running all the way down  the mountain. This is what’s known as a tree – slip, since one tree losing its grip, can take all the lower ones with it to a watery grave. Occasionally we come across a place where such a slip is starting to be filled in by mosses.  Apart from the drone of the boat it seems very quiet, though we do see a little family of Weta - ground dwelling birds, not unlike our native hens, from the windows of the bus.  It turns out that they are distant cousins, most likely blown over by the winds in past millennia. The 21 Km road over Wilmot Pass (671 m) which connects Lake Manapouri with Doubtful Sound, was built in 1964 for the construction of the power station. It is said to have cost between $80, 000 to $10,000 per metre, making it the most expensive road ever built in New Zealand, so much so that the costs were hidden from the public for thirty years. 

The mountains are typically  between 1300 and 1600 metres and there are at least a dozen islands.

Sealers and Whalers
The Sound wasn’t always so quiet.  The first to come were the sealers. Seals were valued both for their blubber and  their skin. The Maori too valued seals before the arrival Europeans. Those around Coromandel and Canterbury had been well and truly decimated before 1700, so by this time seals were only found in abundance in the South West.  Captain Cook and his crew made use of them on his 1773 voyage to nearby Dusky Sound. He found them to be a tasty food, used their skins to repair rigging and their oil for lamps.  In 1788 the East India Company, seeking a return cargo, following the delivery of convicts to Botany Bay (now Sydney) landed a party of seal hunters there in order to be able to exchange the skins for tea in China. Although briefly disrupted by the opening up of Bass Strait Islands to sealers in 1797, these were soon exhausted and a Seal Rush began in the Sound in 1803. Over the next three years 140,000 seals were killed. By 1810, seals were becoming scarce and sealers turned to trading other goods such as potatoes, timber and flax. Some became farmers and others turned to whaling. The last legal sealing season was in 1946. 

The cliffs here are not as steep as at Milford Sound, giving Doubtful Sound a greener  and more open look
Whaling followed a similar trajectory to sealing. The industrial revolution was hungry for oil, especially for trains and street lighting.  Whale oil needed no refining and candles made from spermacetti oil from the head of a whale, burned cleanly. The Ambergris from their stomachs was regarded as an aphrodisiac and was also used in the manufacture of perfume, while the baleen in their mouths was used to make corsets and whips.
At first sperm whale were caught using ships, with some 200 converging on New Zealand from America, Europe, France, Britain and Australia. The USA alone sent 392 ships in 1833 and 735 in in 1846, but as the sperm whales diminished, shore stations were established to catch the smaller right whales which came into harbours on their migrations or to breed. When one area stopped being profitable, the whalers just moved on the next. In the 1830’s whaling was New Zealand’s biggest industry and employed around 1000 men.  By 1840 even the right whales had almost gone. Fortunately for the whales, Robert Dietz, an American, invented a clean burning kerosene lamp in 1857. Kerosene smelled better, never went rancid and was cheap to produce. Thirty lamp factories opened in the USA in quick succession and the race for "Coal Oil" was on. The price of whaleoil and with the whaling industry collapsed almost overnight, although small numbers of humpback whales continued to be taken into the  In 1946 New Zealand became one of the founding members of the International Whaling Commission and these days people come to watch whales rather than kill them.

One of several other waterfalls  - to the right are two recovering tree slip sites
 Deer Wars

 The next assault on the Sound came from deer hunters. Remember those seven red deer which were released near the Lindis Pass in 1871. They were part of 300 or so species introduced including Australian possums, by the Acclimatisation Society, because New Zealand didn’t appear to have any mammals, much less game animals.  (This happened in Australia too, and soon both countries were plagued by rabbits).  

 Although other species of deer were also introduced, the red deer did particularly well. Initially protected  and  with no natural predators, they started becoming a nuisance to farmers as early as 1910, eating out pastures, destroying the understorey and causing erosion as well as wreaking havoc on native grasslands. To remedy this problem, the government began to employ cullers in the 1930’s, paying a bonus for each skin or tail brought in, but even this did not slow down the progress of the deer.  In 1956 the Forest Service took over deer control and through a combination of aerial poisoning, culling and allowing private operators in, some 1,400,000 deer were killed, with most just being left to rot after removing the necessary tail or skin. 

Browne Falls, the crooked one in the middle,  is 547 metres tall but doesn't rank in the highest waterfall stakes because it doesn't free fall, making it a cascade

The deer which remained were now mostly in difficult terrain and harder to get. This lead to the use of helicopters. “Heli – hunting” was a phenomenon unique to New Zealand.  Between 1970 and 1980 markets opened up for venison, leading to conflict between bounty hunters and those looking for deer meat to sell.  Then another front opened up. Tim Wallis (later Sir Tim) a helicopter pilot and entrepreneur, who had a monopoly on commercial hunting in Fiordland, could see the writing on the wall.  Instead of killing deer, he pioneered live capture and set up the earliest deer farms.  The Captain tells us about the hazardous occupation of “bulldogging” whereby men leapt from helicopters to jump onto the backs of deer, to immobilize them for transport.  Conflicts ensued.  Shots were fired. Sabotage, arson and fist fights were not unknown. Eventually the NZ Airforce had to be called in to keep the peace. 

 These days most deer are farmed –around 1.7 million of them in 2005 and venison production is a major industry, as is the sale of velvet and other deer parts. Specialised trophy hunting – wild or within private property, contributes another $20 million to the New Zealand economy and the helicopter pilots now transport tourists, not deer.

The Blanket Bay Hotel- fishermen defy the ban on building in the World Heritage Area by building over the water

Power to the People

The most recent threat to the Sound was the proposal to build a hydro -electric scheme on the West Arm of Lake Manapouri. The original 1964 plan involved raising the level of the lake, but because it was regarded as one of the most beautiful in New Zealand, local people began to object. Soon one tenth of the whole population of New Zealand registered their protest. Although this delayed the project for ten years, Guardians of the Lake were appointed to ensure water levels remained within natural fluctuations and the power station itself was built underground to preserve scenic values.

Commissioned in 1971, the power station  took two years to build  and sixteen people lost their lives during construction. Even then there were problems realising the power station's full potential until a second tunnel was driven through the granite to increase the flow through the turbines. Manapouri is now New Zealand's biggest power station,  producing around 800 megawatts of power, with very little impact on the Sound. Our Captain/ driver is obviously very proud of this achievement. 

Mosses and Lichens do well here too
Island vegetation is richer because the deer couldn't reach it

Watersheds and faultlines

We putter past beautiful waterfalls – Lady Alice and another one, which at 547m would break all records, but since it doesn’t leap away from the mountain, it is classed as a cascade, not a waterfall.  Giant tree ferns grow on Wilmot Pass. At the other end of the Sound, near “The Gut” a narrow point explored by the Spaniards, there is a marine reserve which harbours black coral less than ten metres beneath the surface. It is also rich in marine life. Normally there are crested penguins, seals and dolphins here too, but they decline to show themselves today. As we pass one of the islands, the Captain remarks that is was to have been used for the filming of “Jurassic Park II,” but after three months of constant rain, the plan was abandoned, though they may have left a raptor or two behind. A dinosaur would not look out of place. We explore Thompson Arm, one of the northern branches of the Sound and on the way back we pause where a southern arm branches off. The motor is cut and we spend ten minutes or so in quiet reflection to drink in the vastness and stillness of the Sound. Then we return via the torturous route we have come.

Looking back

People are quiet and look a little dazed as they disembark. It has been a long day, but perhaps like me, they are thinking about what they have seen. For some reason I am reminded of a Civil War battleground I once saw, where the guns had long ago fallen silent and grass had grown sweetly over fields which had once run with blood. Doubtful Sound was the place where the New Zealand's wild frontier ended, where unbridled resource exploitation found its limits and its people took a stand and voted in favour of nature.