News of the gardening variety

For the most part, it's been a "stick it in the ground and see if it lives or dies" approach to gardening this year.

But, hey!, I'm learning. And some stuff is actually fruiting, so we've been enjoying berries, herbs, peas, salads... I've got several trays of mint dehydrating in the over at the moment, I wish you could smell the house right now!

Left: hazelnut and straberries, behind them currants and strawberries. Center front: pumpkins; behind them are tomatoes, cauliflower, kale, carrots. Left: potatoes and the compost bins.

Timber for next planter boxes is cut up and oiled, ready for assembly, as is compost. More carrots, I say! And watercress! And coriander!

Left to right: tomatoes, strawberries, chives, coriander, carrots.

Un unexpected addition to our family is a little apple tree that's growing from seed. The seed had self-sprouted inside a store-bought apple (Royal Gala variety), so we stuck it inside a pot and, hey presto!, it's growing. I guess we'll try bringing the tree up to full height, then. We'll see.

Reading: Alan's blog

Have spent an evening reading Alan Robinson's blog at alansonabike.wordpress.com.

We met Alan near the summit of Gillespie Pass track. He was heading down, we were heading up, and for about 5 minutes we chatted about our respective plans. Alan is, let's put it this way, a badass!

Originally from UK, Alan is spending a year backpacking in New Zealand. Currently, he is making his way from Makarora to Glenorchy, but rather than take a car (a 2-hour ride), he is going through the mountains on foot. From Gillespie Pass track he was going to 'link up' with Top Forks / Jumboland, then continue on over the Rabbit Pass (which is so steep at Waterfall Face that some people refer to it as "put your foot in the wrong place, you're dead"), from East Matukituki valley into West Matukituki, then on over the Cascade Saddle, onto Rees-Dart track and then to Glenorchy where he was going to buy some more food.

And then he would continue!

He was planning to run the Routeburn in a day. Then, I don't remember exactly, but I think he was going to use Caples-Greenstone track to get to Mavora lakes, then on to Te Anau and from there, did he say, Ducky track? I don't remember.

A long, long walk anyway :D

Alan took a couple of photos of us, so providing all goes well, in a couple of weeks I will hopefully hear from him when he comes back into 'civilisation' and uploads his adventures onto his blog, and maybe even e-mails me the photos of me and my friend going up Gillespie.

He seemed like a really, really cool character! alansonabike.wordpress.com

Hawley's comet

I had always thought that in Halley's comet, 'Halley' is pronounced like 'galley'.

But reading John and Mary Gribbin's book "Out of the Shadow of a Giant" I have now learned that it is, in fact, Halley like 'Hawley'. Starts the same as 'trawl' or 'crawl'. Hmm... "Hawley's comet".

Weird.


Gillespie Pass track: learning about margins of error, and fun

I don't have any photos from my trip to Gillespie Pass because my friend got swept down a river.

There, I said it. Should have everyone's attention now, yeah?

(No, he didn't get hurt. Both of us walked away from the experience with not much more than a scare, variety of bruises and very wet gear. Unfortunately, both our cameras got thoroughly soaked in the process and would not work afterwards so... yeah. No photos.)

***

It happened within the first 30 minutes of our trip. We were crossing the very first river - Makarora - when it became apparent that the water was on the very high end of what you'd call 'crossable' (ie 'fordable'). Water level was up to my hips; the current was very strong; blustery northwesterly wind was sweeping down the river. We were about 6 metres away from the other bank, having already crossed two other channels before that and it really was one of those moments when you kind of think: "Is the next step going to get us out of here?"

I mean... it could've well been, literally, the toughest point of that river. It could've required just one more step to get into shallower water, and then shallower still until we were safe on the other bank - but we didn't know. All we knew was, the channel was about 20 metres across, we were about 6 metres away from the other shore, and we'd seen another couple cross it at an almost exactly the same spot.

And that's what makes it so difficult - decision-making.

When we started our walk, we'd seen another couple cross the Makarora on foot. They were walking in the opposite direction to us, so they'd, basically, crossed the river from the other shore towards us. We had a good chat with them when they were finished, prior to our own crossing, and we enquired from them about the conditions.

"How was it?"
"Hard. But doable."
"Ah yeah. How deep?"
"About crotch. Mid-hip."

They described the channels and routes they had taken, and pointed out that the last, narrowest channel was 'the hardest' for them. (For us, it would be the first channel we'd need to cross.)

We scouted the river one more time, agreed on the routes we would take, and then set to it. Crossing braided rivers is common practice in New Zealand, as many of the walking tracks do not have bridges on them. Wilderlife has a reasonably good article on the topic, as does the Mountain Safety Council.

Me and my friend were 'locked together' in a standard pack-strap method: my arm was between his shoulder blades and his backpack, clutching his backpack strap on the other side; he did the same to me. We took small, measured steps; supported our weights on walking poles (he had one, I had one); moved consistently.

The first channel (that the other couple had described as 'the hardest') was fair: crotch-deep water, decent current, about 8 metres across. We forded it and moved on.

The second was easier: knee-deep water, decent current. Forded it and moved on.

And that's when we came to the third channel.

Knee-deep.
Then mid-thigh.
Then crotch.
Then mid-hip. (I'm 163 cm.)

Honestly, the thing started scaring me when we were about halfway in. The current was strong - it was making my walking pole 'vibrate' under water as I was using it for support. Blustery wind was pushing at one moment, then receding, then pushing again. Although I was laughing nervously and telling my friend, "Bloody hell!", inside, I was thinking, "Shit me."

It was not funny.

I was relying on other people's judgement. The other couple had crossed just before us and they were fine; my friend was a glacier guide with many years experience in the outdoors, he thought it was a suitable crossing. I trusted that their judgement was better than mine, so I simply focused on making strong, stable footsteps and just pushed on.

And that's when it happened.

I still don't know why my friend went down. Maybe a rock rolled from underneath his feet, maybe a gust of wind de-stabilised his upper body (he was upstream, taking both the current and the wind) - or maybe, he was just not strong enough at 67 to be dealing with such a crossing any more. Either way, I remember seeing him suddenly leaning back with a sort of a groaning sound, and then the next moment both of us were under water.

I don't have a clear recollection of what happened next. I remember having my head under water and reaching up with an open mouth to gasp air. My arm was still stuck behind his backpack, so I started yanking on it to get it free. Yank! Yank!

The next thing I remember, I was standing upright in the river, clutching my friend's chest-strap (he had not unclipped it prior to crossing) and he was laid out in front of me, horizontally and chest down, whilst the river was forcefully trying to pull him away from me. (My legs came up in a variety of painful bruises later, so I must've put up a good fight to get upright.) He was struggling to keep his head above water: I watched him take big gulps of air and then get washed in the face again with the cold, glacial water.

I could not pull him up; he could not get up on his own, either.

"I don't know how to get you up!"

Gasps of air.

"How do I get you up!"

Gasps of air. Then silence. And then...

"Let go!"
"What?"
"Let go!"

So I let go. Immediately, my friend was pulled downstream towards a darker blue 'outside' bend of the river, where the channel is deeper, and I remained standing upright in the current, watching him go, and thinking, "Now what?"

I quickly decided that getting myself out of that river was my first priority, so I turned away from where my friend was floating downstream and continued making strong, stable steps towards the shore.

Focus, Maria. 
Pole down, foot forward, other foot forward. 
Breathe.
Pole down, foot forward, other foot forward.
Breathe.

The water was making a 'whoooosh!'-ing sound every time I took a step, creating turbulence in my wake. I listened to it, both scared that, any moment now, I would find myself face-down in the river, like my friend; but I focused on making strong, stable footsteps because, at that moment, there really was nothing else I could do.

I walked out onto the gravely shore, incredulous that I had actually made it - alone - and quickly started looking for my friend.

He was way downstream. I don't know, 100 metres? 150? It's hard to judge the distance. I started walking towards him, formulating a plan even as I was trying not to lose sight of him, but also to not fall on the rocky riverbank.

I have an emergency locator beacon in my backpack. [We had only taken one emergency beacon with us, and decided that I would have it in my backpack.] I will keep walking this riverbank, watching him. If it looks like he's not coming up for air, or I lose sight of him, I am going to activate the beacon.

The emergency beacon we had included a GPS-capability, so had a signal needed to be transmitted, it would've straight away sent coordinates to the company who manages the register and they would've seen that it's in the Makarora riverbed from a party of 2 who had registered their intention to walk the Gillespie Pass track that week. Local Department of Conservation had all our details.

As much as knowing that helped me at that particular moment - I had a definite 'out' plan if need be and I knew that the beacon was waterproof, so it must've survived the water - it didn't take away from my fear that I was witnessing another person drown. I mean... was this, how people drown?

He was wearing heavy hiking boots.
He had his backpack on - I could not tell from the distance if he was using it to float, or whether he was struggling underneath it.
Was he even a good swimmer?

I didn't know.

Luckily, the current brought him close to the riverbank - opposite to where I was standing - and I watched him grab hold of the shore, haul himself (and the backpack) up onto the gravel and then stand there, for what felt like a long time, hands on his knees, bent above his backpack.

"ARE YOU OKAY?" I shouted towards him across the channel.

He looked up at me.

I repeated: "ARE YOU OKAY?"

He couldn't hear me.

I was scurrying through emergency response knowledge in my head, trying to remember hand signals for communicating with someone over a distance, but all I could remember was that one arm up meant 'no, I don't need help'. So much for useful knowledge, huh?

I watched my friend pull his backpack on his shoulders and he started walking back towards the initial crossing point, so I did the same. Then, he stepped in the water and started... crossing again.

I was, like, wtf? Because clearly he was intent on crossing the river again, at the same place, and I was looking at him, thinking, how is he gonna do it alone, if he fell in before?! In a moment of genius - and I am being sarcastic here, people! - I made a snap-decision to cross the river before he did, so I could get across the hardest bit before he did.

And I stepped in the water, and started crossing. Again. Alone.

That was, to sum it up, like: Jesus. F*ckin. Christ.

In the middle of the channel a boulder rolled out from underneath my foot, so I ended up standing in a hollow, waist-deep in fast-flowing water, and for about 2 minutes I actually thought that I would not get out of that intact. "I am stuck!" I shouted to my friend and he looked at me, gradually working his way towards me in that channel, and I had mental images of BOTH of us rolling down the river, this time hypothermic from all that cold-water contact.

I struggled on. A jetboat roared in from around the corner. I lifted both arms up in the air in a 'here, I am here!' wave. "Heeeey. Heeeey!!!" The driver noticed me, so the boat went back up the river to give me space. "Great," I thought to myself. "Now I have a jetboat driver watching me bloody get washed away, and [my friend] is working his way towards here, and how is he bloody gonna do it, if I can't."

I continued trying to work my way out of that waist-deep hole, and somehow - I don't know how - I actually managed to get across. I was back on the initial shore, teeth clattering - not sure if from cold, or shock, or both - and my friend said to me: "So, do you want to find another crossing and try again?"

Ahem... NO.

"No, I am not doing it again. Let's go get the jet boat."
"Okay."

I have taken a screenshot off Google Earth to show, approximately, what had happened but please bear in mind that the river channels WERE NOT THE SAME AS ON THIS IMAGE! The river changes constantly, so this is just a very indicative photo.

***

We walked back to town, paid a jet boat driver $115 to take us up to Kerin Forks hut (we had initially planned on walking it) and the rest of the trip was an absolute fantastic magic! The weather was awesome (contrary to forecasts), the company was excellent, I had a gorgeous swim in Lake Crucible amidst ice & snow floats, Mount Awful near Gillespie Pass was shedding rockfalls off its steep ridges (there are decent photos of Gillespie Pass at www.southernalpsphotography.com), there were keas, rock wrens, I met interesting people...

Again, a screenshot from Google Earth just to show the general area.


...but for the moment, I am tired and I want to go to bed, so I am going to write about it another time. Cheers!