Koromiko newsletter 2006 and some of 2007....
Andy's year June 06 onward.
Since the last newsletter was published (June 06), I've had a busy and exciting life.
In late June, I headed to England for my usual stint of locum work in Horncastle, Lincolnshire. This year, I didn't want to be away from NZ for as long as before, so I suggested I only work for a month, though this somehow got negotiated up to 8 weeks. I flew straight to the UK, and after a few days rest in London I travelled to Lincolnshire to work.
I stayed with David and John again, but this year I didn't have my own car (Felicity the Citroen Dyane having been sold last year), so the practice supplied one. Initially, it was the one Jef used (as he'd just left the practice), and later a hire car.. This proved useful, as I was able to extend the hire when I left, visiting Edinburgh, then leaving the car at the airport when I left the country.
Unusually, Britain suffered a heatwave in July, with record temperatures (36 degrees somewhere in southern England), and most days were around the 30 degree mark. Not great to work in, when the practice buildings are flat roofed, and the branch surgeries are in portacabins. But at least it finally persuaded Julian (the practice owner) to order air conditioning - in time for winter!
As usual, I visited family and friends in the UK, and Chris also came over a few weeks later, and did his usual job selling tickets in the Edinburgh Festival. At the end of my stint in Horncastle (late August), I visited Chris in Edinburgh for a few days, and saw lots of shows! I really enjoyed my few days there, helped by glorious weather.
Before leaving Europe, I joined up with Kiwi friends Fred and Hazel (currently working at Bradfield College near Reading), and visited the Picos de Europas in Northern Spain. We flew to Santander, and hired a car to drive to the mountains. I'd visited the Picos before, twelve years previously for a mountain bike tour. I'd loved them- the rugged limestone peaks offer some of the most dramatic mountain scenery in Europe. That time, I'd seen the iconic peak of El Naranjo de Bulnes from a distance and wished I could climb it. A 2500m high mountain, the top 500m or so is like a popsicle of white limestone, clean and sheer sided. The only way up is with rock climbing gear, with the easiest route about English grade Severe (NZ grade 15). This time though, we were here to climb it!
Our first adventure was finding a food shop. Easy, you'd think, but after driving around a medium sized town a couple of times and ending up at a corner shop, we had to wonder whether Spaniards always ate out! Eventually, we had enough food for several days in the mountains, and after a night camped in the foothills, we set off for El Naranjo. An 800m climb from the road head with heavy packs (lots of fruit and veg!) to the refugio at the base of the 'popsicle' was the very worst day of the holiday. The weather worsened, freezing rain and wind contributed to misery, and we decided to spend the night in the refugio rather than camp. These refugios are common on popular mountains in Spain, like staffed mountain huts in New Zealand, but vastly bigger, and the kitchen / dining room / toilet facilities are available for campers to use. Useful, since Fred and Hazel's two man tent (used on subsequent nights) was a little crowded for three!
The weather cleared slowly over the next couple of days. A walk round and up El Naranjo to the highest point reachable on foot, through mists and cloud, filled our first full day. Our second day was more adventurous- a walk to El Cerrado, the highest peak of the Picos (and all of northern Spain). It was an interesting exercise in navigation to reach, through a maze of almost vegetation-free limestone circques and valleys.. Cloud banking up on the Atlantic slopes left us as we crossed the first ridge, leaving clear skies for the spectacular scramble up the peak in the afternoon.
The following day, we attempted El Naranjo itself. Rather than the easiest route, I chose a nine-pitch classic, going at (English grade) HVS 5b (though only the 7th crux pitch was this hard- mostly VS 4c standard). The route guide suggested 3 1/2 hours. Climbing as a rope of three, I knew it would take longer (and Fred and Hazel were less experienced climbers), but seven hours later we were only at the bottom of the crux pitch! I lead the pitch (I'd lead most of the pitches of wonderful, clean rock), and thrutched up with all the style of a lame seal (being very tired by now!!). A hole in the rock allowed access to the Amphitheatre of the easy route (on the other face of the mountain), so after virtually pulling Fred and Hazel over the crux move, we called it a day and abseiled down the normal route without summiting.
The next day we did summit, via the normal route (severe), which took four hours. The day was cloudless, with fantastic views from the top. My first summit that could only be reached by technical climbing!
With our objective achieved, the next day we headed down the mountain - from beautiful sunshine through an inversion and cloud, to an overcast day at lower elevation. We celebrated with a meal out (for eight euros) at the first village we came across, then drove the rest of the way down to the foothills. Passing through the delightfully named village of 'Poo de Cabrales' (Goat poo!), we camped at a proper camp ground. From there, we had a day trip to the Cares Gorge, and walked the length of it and back.. This is one of the most awesome sights in the world - a must see before you die place. The limestone peaks rise up to 2000m straight out of the gorge, and griffon vulture soared them in flocks. Wow!
Following our return to England, I had a day rest in London before heading to Thailand. I spent a couple of days in Bangkok - a hot, humid city - not a place to spend too long in, but a great place to buy an entire wardrobe of new clothes and still get change out of a farthing. I then flew to Ko Samui, where I had arranged to go diving with 'Rainbow Divers' - a gay dive company run by Adam, an English guy who lives in Ko Samui with his Thai boyfriend. Adam met me at the airport, and took me back to Ban Bofut on the north coast of Ko Samui, where I was booked into a hotel next door to Adam's house.
Ban Bofut (or Fisherman's village) is one of the nicer spots on the overdeveloped island. People expecting a tropical island paradise on Ko Samui are twenty years too late - its been sacrificed to poor planning and greedy developers. The island is circled by an unbroken urban strip, with giant shopping malls and 'Tescos' superstores. The backpackers have largely moved on - to nearby Ko Phangan (which is still unspoilt). Resorts for the rich are popping up like beansprouts. But if I was rich, I'd go somewhere else!
The island is famous for its beautiful beaches, and they are lovely. But the snorkelling I usually enjoy in the tropics was, unfortunately, absent - the visibility of the water being only a metre or so (due to the island's proximity to the mainland). As you can see, I wasn't too impressed by the island. However, I had a nice time exploring by moped, and mountainbiking with Adam, until Chris flew in a few days later (after finishing the Edinburgh festival). Then we went diving.
Our diving started with 2 days at Ko Tao, an island three hours to the north by fast ferry. This is one of the top spots in Thailand for diving, and we had some nice dives, though the visibility was not that great - 10 to 15 metres. We stayed in a hotel in Ko Tao overnight, and I was very impressed with the place. It was like Ko Samui should have been - a small, pretty town. Developed, but not overly so, and lots of forest crowding in at the edges. Nice restaurants, and one of the best bars I've been to - the Amsterdam Bar. The bar was on a rooftop with a great view, and great music. One of the bizarre things about Thailand is the severe penalties handed out to people caught with drugs at airports, and yet bars with names like 'Amsterdam Bar' or 'Rasta Bar' sell weed and/ or magic mushrooms quite openly and apparently without the police bothering them!
Returning to Ko Samui, we had one more day's diving - at Sail Rock, north of Ko Phangan. Here, the visibility was stunning - well over 30m. The rock breaks the surface and drops vertically for 30m or so, and is swarming with life - huge shoals of plankton eating anthias, big groupers, healthy coral. By far our best dives.
Aside from the diving, we'd had a good social life on Ko Samui with Adam and his friends (mostly Europeans living in Thailand with Thai men) - eating dinners at beachside restaurants, going to parties, and seeing 'ladyboy' cabaret! A good time, but we decided to move on to Ko Pha Ngan for a few days.
Ko Pha Ngan is the island next to Ko Samui- but is much less developed (mainly due to its mountainous terrain), and popular with backpackers. We caught a boat to Hat Rin on the south-east tip of the island, and then a water taxi to Hat Yuan. No roads go there, so the beaches are quiet, with small scale development. We found accommodation in a beach hut on Hat Thian. Close by was Hat Wai Nam, a beautiful small beach with a beachside cafe. Never more than 4 or 5 people on the beach, coconut palms fringing it....The perfect beach! Only the cloudy water spoilt it. The 'hippy trail' roots of the place was evident in the many fly-posters on the palm trees advertising such things as 'Chaotic breathing classes', 'Group re-birthing' sessions, or 'Past life channelling'. I resisted the urge to join in.
The famous 'Full Moon Party' was on in Hat Rin whilst we were there. Originally an unofficial hippy party on the beach, it now attracts thousands of backpackers, and locals have taken advantage and turned it quite commercial. Competing sound systems blared out pop music at various 'dance floors' along the beach, and hundreds of stalls sold highly alcoholic cocktails, mainly to gap-year English as far as we could tell. And, as you'd expect with teenage English, there was a lot of drunkenness, falling over, and vomiting. Not our scene, though it was an interesting anthropological experience. I'd never seen so many teenage English before when travelling - I guess Thailand is seen as a 'safe' exotic destination for parents to send their gap-year kids, unaware of the excesses of the full moon.
After Ko Pha Ngan, it was time to return home. A short stop in Bangkok for some Xmas shopping, then home to New Zealand.
The day after returning to NZ, I headed north for three days skiing at Whakapapa (Ruapehu), with Colin Iles and Ken Anderson. We stayed in the Tararua Tramping Club hut on the slopes, where I met a vet and a vet group manager from the Animalz vet group, leading to two weeks work in Auckland in November - a welcome change from my Wellington based work.
The skiing was great - conditions were rather spring-like, but there was at least plenty of snow, and the weather was good. I'd not skied for 3 years, so was happy to re-acquaint myself with the sport.
I then had a couple of months at home (shock horror!). Adventures in the New Zealand spring include cycling the Otago Rail Trail (photos), and the Paragliding Nationals in Rotorua (photos). In November, one of my best friends, Anjali, departed for a two year stint on South Georgia with British Antarctic Survey, working on fisheries stuff. I was sad to see her go - I rather rely on her to go mountain biking, tramping, diving and other exciting stuff with me. I was in Auckland, but went back to Wellington to see her Indian dance graduation performance (the culmination of several year's work) and wish her goodbye. (Here is Anj's blog of her experiences on South Georgia)
I myself was also heading to the sub-Antarctic, but to the Auckland Islands, for the forth time, in early December. I was 'Expedition leader' (ha ha) for the first six weeks of the Dept. of Conservation's sea lion programme. The work is now very familiar, though the weather this time was considerably more miserable than the previous year. While we had no really bad weather, we also had very little good weather- only three sunny days in six weeks. The rest of the time was 'permacloud', cool, and surprisingly light winds (for the furious fifties).
Amelie (from the team last year) and I were joined by Clayson, a DOC botanist. We all got on well, having similar degrees of messiness and relaxed attitudes.
The excitement for the year came in the form of a Great White Shark - a whopper of about 6m length - which ate two adult male sea lions one day. We had a front row seat for the second attack - a once in a lifetime experience! (Click here to read more).
Another welcome change this year was the replacement of our transport - the 'Marine Countess', our usual ship to the island, was an uncomfortable boat (I think the 'Dockside Slapper' would have been a more appropriate name). Due to the imminent sale of the ship, a replacement was found for our return journey in the shape of the 'Clan McLeod', an altogether more comfortable ship designed for passengers rather than freight.. The food on board was excellent, and the skipper made a detour to see the Snares Islands - another group of subantarctic islands. The Snares are much smaller than the Aucklands, but are snaggle-tooth vertical, and bursting with concentrated wildlife.. Snares Crested Penguins and White Capped Albatross were present in huge numbers.. The penguins were climbing en mass up a steep rock slab, the only weak point in the cliffs around the largest island. What a sight!
Shortly after arriving home in mid-January, Chris and I, along with a friend Deborah, bought 1.77 hectares of land in Horopito, near Oakune, on the slopes of Mt. Ruapehu in the central North Island. It is an area of mostly pasture, with a stream running through it, lined with manuka scrub. We intend to build a small kit-set house, which will have a beautiful view of the mountain. I hope to then go 'Carbon neutral' (which seems to be the buzzword at the moment) by underplanting the manuka covered area with native trees (eventually leading to about 1/3 hectare of native forest), and planting an arboretum on much of the rest of the land. Our cottage will have a great view of Mt Ruapehu, and I intend to be a ski bum over winters in future years.
In February, Kris and I went to Bright in Australia for a paragliding contest (click here for more details), and we had a great fortnight flying, both of us making goal on the last day! Back in New Zealand, Kris and I crossed to the South Island for the St Arnauld fun competition (paragliding) in early March. (Photos) The venue was in an area of big mountains, and the weather smiled on us for two of the potential 5 days of the competition. The first day we flew from Mt Murchison (1400m), and I flew 16km over mountains to the St Arnauld valley- a fairly good flight for me in NZ. The next day, though, was spectacular.. Flying from Mt Blowhard (1370m), on a day that was forecast to be stable (in other words, poor thermals and difficult flying), I wasn’t expecting to go far. However, the day kept improving, and as I flew down the ranges, the thermals got higher and higher, till I was flying at 3000m over 2000m high peaks, on a cloudless day with views as far as Mt Cook! A group of seven pilots (including me, but sadly, not Kris) flew over 70km, nearly to Hanmer Springs. Absolutely awsome flight, at 73km,my longest in NZ (and second only to an 89km flight last year in Australia), and probably the most enjoyable flight I’ve ever had.
Writing this at the end of March, the weather is still warm and summery, and I’m planning my trip to England again - this time bringing the paraglider!