Archive for the 'Carl Walrond' Category

Mica miners

A month or so back I headed into the hills of South Westland – the Mataketake Range near Paringa to be precise. Accompanying me were brother Walrond (a geologist not a member of the clergy), Grant (ex-bureaucrat), Kennedy (founding editor of New Zealand Geographic) and his son Jeremy (one-time online gamer now Capoeira enthusiast).

The purported reason? To find a mica mine of the 1940s (or perhaps to escape domestic bliss and enjoy some ‘wild congress with nature’ as someone worth quoting once described it). Mica occurs in flat sheets looking like cellophane, and many sheets occur as ‘books’ – large overlapping sheets.

A sheet of muscovite mica

A sheet of muscovite mica

We set off down the Haast–Paringa cattle track and soon arrived at the Blue River Hut (also known as Blowfly Hut). From here we bush-bashed upstream past a bluff and camped for the night. The next morning we climbed trying to find the mine site in the bush (we never did). But on the tops, hassled by three kea, we managed to find some pegmatites (dykes containing large crystals) with mica books enough to fashion a pair of lenses.



During the 1940s mica was deemed an essential strategic war mineral, and was used by the Allies for making sparkplug washers in aircraft engines. In 1944 New Zealand’s overseas supply from India failed and the Radio Corporation of New Zealand needed mica for manufacturing radio condensers for the domestic market. Some 1.5 tonnes was mined from the Mataketake Range for this purpose.

We wound up back at Blowfly Hut a few days later by way of the cattle track. For close to a century this was South Westland’s only overland link to the outside world some 50,000 cattle were driven along it between 1875 to 1961.

When the Governor Lord Onslow and Minister for Works Richard Seddon came this way in 1892, they smeared themselves in ‘camphorated lard’ to keep the sandflies at bay. In 1911 traveller Maud Moreland wrote in her book Through South Westland about enduring a horrific night due to mosquitos. Her brother fared better as he ‘smoked many pipes’. The rain had set in. I don’t smoke, but it seemed appropriate to enjoy a plug on the porch wearing mica glasses it kept away the bloodsuckers not that we had seen any.

Keeping the 'skeeters' at bay

Keeping the 'skeeters' at bay

The constant (well, fairly regular) gardener

Wellington Botanic Garden – this may or may not resemble Nancy's garden

Wellington Botanic Garden – this may or may not resemble Nancy's garden

‘Every man should have a hobby,’ the saying goes – and so should every woman in my opinion. High on my list of preferred pastimes is gardening. I spend much of my time indoors working at a computer, so it makes a nice change to put on my gumboots and stride out in the fresh air. In this choice I am not alone – gardening is one of the most popular leisure activities in New Zealand. In 2000 a whopping 60% of New Zealanders got out in the garden, and many are interested in garden design.

Unfortunately, as a resident of Wellington, I picked the wrong place to pursue my hobby. I was raised in Waikato, famous for its colourful exotic trees and lush roses. There, the main problem that gardeners face is rampant growth – plants get too big, too soon. But the possibilities for creative gardening are endless, and Hamilton Gardens showcase some of them.

Here in Wellington, the obstacles are daunting. For a start there is the clay soil – great as a building material, but not so great as a growing medium. During wet weather it turns to cold, sticky mud; in times of drought it sets solid. Then there is the notorious wind, which often rises to gale force. It tears through my garden, ripping at leaves and branches, and literally blowing seedlings out of the ground. In winter it can get so cold at times that to venture outside is to risk hypothermia – making gardening in Wellington an extreme sport comparable with mountaineering, diving or aerial recreation.

All this can be a bit discouraging, but it forces you to adapt. Some people play it safe and go for the ‘low maintenance’ garden style – tufts of mondo grass in a dreary sea of gravel. Others preach the hardy native plant gospel. While I think there is nothing more glorious than pristine New Zealand bush, too many native plants clustered together in a garden can look rather monotonous. To my mind, real gardening is about artifice – carefully mixing different and sometimes surprising elements to create a harmonious effect.

I’m currently experimenting with blending natives and exotics. The highly sculptural and very hardy New Zealand flax is one of our most distinctive and beautiful native plants. Recently I transplanted a small, self-seeded flax from my rose garden into a grey, bucket-shaped container, and dotted thrift around the edge. No, not the sort of thrift described here, but the low-growing plant also known as armeria. Its dusky pink flowerheads are an excellent foil to the reddish strap-like leaves of the flax. Emboldened by this success, I have just planted a larger grey container with a dramatic black flax (‘Black Adder’) surrounded by dianthus. This lovely little plant has blue-grey, spiky foliage and in spring it will be smothered in feathery white fragrant flowers. At least that’s the theory – wish me luck!

Asbestos Cottage

Asbestos Cottage

Asbestos Cottage

A few weeks ago I stayed at Asbestos Cottage in Kahurangi National Park. A track leads there from the road to the Cobb Reservoir. This road turns off the main Motueka–Tākaka road at Upper Tākaka.

It takes about one-and-a-half hours to tramp to Asbestos Cottage, which was Henry and Annie Chaffey’s home of close to 40 years. In 1951 Henry died in the snow with his boots on, aged 83, humping in supplies. In her grief, Annie tried to burn the cottage down, herself included. She acclimatised at a farm outside Tākaka before being moved to Timaru relatives. Deeply unhappy, after a couple of years she secreted away a fistful of sleeping pills to get across the great divide.

Inside Asbestos Cottage

Inside Asbestos Cottage (click for larger image)

In 1997 the Department of Conservation employed Anatoki-valley carpenter Gregor Koolen (assisted by ex New Zealand Forest Service ranger Max Polglaze) to restore Asbestos Cottage. It was built around 1900 from pit-sawn mountain cedar. Constructed like a huge packing crate, the only dimensions in the walls were three-by-twos and six-by-ones. It had no studs, so the weight of the building was carried by nails. The boards were just nailed to the bearers.

As much of the original hut as possible was conserved – the inch-wide gaps here and there testimony to restorers’ authenticity. They found some utensils and other artefacts while excavating around the hut – a log dog (for holding a log still while you saw it), camp-stretcher joint, soldering iron, cobbing plate (for separating asbestos from serpentine), earth-stake (from their radio), file, slasher head, old battery cells, pulley, pick head and half a blade shear. And beneath the foundations they found charcoal – the area was burnt off. In the 1890s scorched earth aided prospecters and graziers.

A seam of asbestos

A seam of asbestos (click for larger image)

Henry was a prospector and wrote letters trying to get the nearby asbestos deposits mined. They were worked on small scale in the 1940s and 1950s, but were too low-grade and the country too rugged to make the cost of mining worthwhile. There are also asbestos outcrops at Red Mountain in South Westland – part of the same suite of rocks which the Alpine Fault has displaced by 480 kilometres – but the rugged country there meant they too were never worth mining.

I had with me Jim Henderson’s The exiles of asbestos cottage (1981) which details the lives of this remarkable couple. It was humbling to read it in their home, and although I had a restless sleep, no ghosts troubled it.

1,000 metres and falling

Inside Nettlebed Cave, one of the caves in Mt Arthur

Inside Nettlebed Cave, one of the Mt Arthur caves

New Zealand’s leading cavers have, for the first time, linked up two previously separate parts of the Ellis Basin cave system, making the cave more than 1,000 metres deep in the Mt Arthur area near Motueka.

It is not, contrary to a TVNZ report, the deepest cavers anywhere have got. Getting more than 1,000 metres down is a momentous occasion for New Zealand speleologists, but it only puts the cave among the world’s deepest. The deepest is the Krubera Cave in Georgia, which has been explored to 2,191 metres.

Still, it is a massive achievement that has built upon decades of earlier exploration. One team of cavers working upwards eventually met another team working down. Among them was Kieran McKay, who knows the system very well – he was also rescued from nearby Bulmer Cavern on Mt Owen after suffering a fall in 1998.

The discovery will mean that we will have to update our caving entry, and will probably have to do so again as the cavers are confident of linking it up to another system 300–400 metres higher up Mt Arthur.

Mackenzie (or mooloo?) Country

Will the free-range dairy cow become a thing of the past?

Will the free-range dairy cow become a thing of the past?

There is a stoush down south in the Mackenzie Country – a large basin that has traditionally been the preserve of dryland pastoral farming and tourism. There are plans to house around 17,000 dairy cows under cover for up to eight months of the year in 16 large farms.

Critics call it industrial farming that could hurt New Zealand’s farming and tourist reputation (the proposed farms’ locations are close to Lake Ōhau and Ōmarama). Proponents say that the sheds will have little environmental impact as the effluent can be collected from the concrete floor and then diluted and spread back onto the land to fertilise it.

This proposal is another step in a trend that began in the 1980s which has seen dairy farming spread from traditional strongholds such as Waikato and Taranaki into other areas, even into dryland sheep farming areas in Canterbury and elsewhere. Critics say that the farmers are profiting at the cost of the environment. On the other hand the industry is a vital export earner.

Such proposals go through the resource consents process of the Resource Management Act, where the focus is on reducing, mitigating or avoiding any adverse effects of proposed developments rather than prescribing what type of activities are appropriate in a given area.

This proposal is interesting as it raises water rights, water quality, farm intensification and animal welfare issues all in a setting that has been recognised for its natural landscape features.

Is intensive dairying appropriate in a setting such as the Mackenzie Country, which takes its name from a sheep rustling rogue?