This year has been a fun and action packed year- so much so that I haven't had time to write much for this Christmas newsletter, or send christmas cards out!
I'm writing this from a motel room in Invercargill, the last outpost of civilisation on the southern tip of New Zealand. It's the 28th of November, and tomorrow I head south on a scungy fishing boat, heading for Enderby Island in the Auckland Islands, one of New Zealand's sub-antarctic islands. I have a job with the Department of Conservation, helping with the Sea lion monitoring program for the next 6 weeks. My main job will be to post-mortem sea lion pups, to find the cause of death. I'll also be conducting a trial of a worming treatment (ivomectin) to see if mortality rate in pups from hookworm is reduced.
Xmas will be spent with my fellow co-workers, Wally, Louise and Bruce, hundreds of miles from the nearest human settlement, amongst colonies of sealions, fur seals, elephant seals and penguins. The Southern Rata forest (also called NZ Xmas tree) behind the hut should be ablaze with scarlet flowers, as should the megaherb fields. Altogether a quite different Xmas from usual. I'll be writing a report for everyone to read when I get home, and I expect to have enough stories to bore people with for many dinner parties to come!
The year started with Chris and I running two adventure tours, with a total of five clients. They went very well, despite inclement weather early in the year. Our first was based around Autumn Farm in Golden Bay, and we took Steve, Huw and John kayaking around the Abel Tasman coastline, and tramping over the limestone massif of Mt. Owen, along with several day trips in the area. Our second tour saw John and Leonard visiting Mt Cook (with Leonard and I doing the Ball Pass on the flanks of the mountain), and then travelling up the West Coast, to Golden Bay via Mt. Owen.
Between the tours, Kris and I once again entered the New Zealand paragliding nationals, and took a cross country course (both in Wanaka). The weather was good (for a change), and we both got excellent flying, with me achieving a position nearly half way up the field in the Nationals, and Kris getting a personal best (in New Zealand) of 30km- on a day I failed to get beyond the bomb-out paddock!
One of my most memorable experiences in NZ this year was a cycle ride Chris, my friend Anjali, and I did on the Queen Charlotte Walkway in the Marlborough Sounds in June. We took the ferry to Picton, and a water taxi to Ship Cove at the start of the walkway, where at least 20 bottlenose dolphins played around the boat. The weather was perfect as we climbed over the first pass, and around a large bay to a backpacker lodge. Unfortunately, we started a bit late in the day, and had to cycle the last hour in darkness! The following day was blue and calm, with a frost on the ground, as we gained the ridgetop (700m) on beautifully ridable singletrack, with views of the sea on both sides. The track decended to sea-level at lunch time, then up to 450m, before a fantastic fast downhill to Anakiwa, where the water taxi picked us up again. An unforgettable experience in great company!
My big trip of the year was to England via the Singapore and the Philippines, returning via Amsterdam and California. The original plan was to go trekking around Shimshal, in Northern Pakistan near the Kashmir border, with Pam (Chris's ex wife), and Tama (his son) and others. However, in an act of deliberate sabotage, they reached for the nuclear buttons just two weeks before our departure date, and tensions only cooled after we cancelled our trip! I had to make quick travel alterations, and decided on a month in the Philippines with Coral Cay Conservation, who run diving expeditions using volenteers to gather data. I had previously been to one of their expeditions in Belize, several years previously, which had been a high spot of my life, and I was looking forward to an equally good time this time. Unfortunately, it wasn't to be. Rapidly breeding beaurocracy was not a good sign- CCC had affiliated to the American dive organisation PADI since I last went with them, and American legal overkill went with the package. It also meant restricted freeedom on the expedition- you could hardly sneeze without permission from London, and driving the dive boats (one of the fun jobs in Belize) was totally out of the question. This would not have been too much of a problem if we had been able to dive all the time, but a week into the expedition, the (previously glorious) weather broke. Whilst most of Asia missed the monsoon due to El Nino, the Philippines had about 40 inches of rain over 8 days! Hillsides washed into the sea, covering and smothering the corals, and we were unable to visit more distant reefs as the locally made boats (bancas) could not cope with even the mildly rough seas the storm brought. Endless reading, games of scrabble, and 3 eagerly awaited meals a day were the only distractions.
On the plus side, I learnt a lot about pacific fish and corals (I ticked off 180 or so fish species in the fish guide book, and many more went unidentified), and logged nearly 40 dives, many of which were in the most fantastic dive sites I've ever visited. I also met some great people, especially the local staff, who were wonderfully friendly.
After a soggy Philippines experience, I returned to a soggy English experience, arriving during one of the wettest Julys on record. Working once again in Horncastle, I had a fairly uneventful summer- no cow caesarians this time- but it was nice to meet friends, family and work colleagues again. Chris came to the UK too, but didn't work this time (except for a period in a box office at the Edinburgh festival), so I saw less of him than last year, as he flitted around Britain and Europe on holiday.
The weather broke earlier this year- mid October so I was glad to leave for the warmer climes of California. David (a botanist friend with an interest in NZ plants and a house in Vallejo, near San Francisco) looked after me for most of the time. He took me on a great road journey upstate to the snowy volcanoes of Mt Larsson and Mt. Shasta, to Ashford in Southern Oregon, and down the coast back to SF. The high spot for me was the Humboldt Forest, with its massive old growth redwoods, most well over 300ft high. We saw the largest of all, a 363ft giant, truly impressive,( though some 5ft shorter than the world's tallest redwood). The majesty of the forests can only be appreciated by people who have seen them, and at this time of year, they were especially beautiful with the maple understorey shining in bright gold and yellow autumn foliage.
Getting back from winter in San Francisco (23 degrees, sunny) to summer in Wellington (8 degrees, rain and wind) was something of a shock. That was a week and a half ago. Little time to spend time with Kris (having been away for 5 months), straighten the garden, do all the other jobs needing doing, and get ready to leave again. Luckily, we had two WWOOFers (willing Workers on Organic farms), Ginger and Astrid, who gave sterling work clearing away 5 months of weeds this week, leaving me more time for everything else. Chris and Kris went off caving to Kahurangi yesterday, and I flew to Invercargill, which brings me back to where I started.