Tuesday, January 29, 2008

A visit to the Waitekere Ranges, New Zealand

I landed in Auckland on January 23rd. My first visit to New Zealand, a country of which I have heard so much over the years. Off I went to my hotel, the Langham (voted Best NZ Hotel in 2007 - certainly a very nice place), noticing very quickly that Auckland is like most cities: mostly concrete and steel and brick, full of smelly vehicles and so on.
I vowed to get out of the city as soon as possible....

I landed in Auckland on January 23rd. My first visit to New Zealand, a country of which I have heard so much over the years. Off I went to my hotel, the Langham (voted Best NZ Hotel in 2007 - certainly a very nice place), noticing very quickly that Auckland is like most cities: mostly concrete and steel and brick, full of smelly vehicles and so on.

I vowed to get out of the city as soon as possible, and explore the natural environs. So I finished up my two days of training for Oracle (with a small, but very engaged and friendly class) and then on Saturday morning was driven to the Waitekere Ranges (pronounced Why-TAK-er-ay) by George of Bush and Beach for an "eco-tour." Waitekere is due west of Auckland City and is now a large reserve that goes all the way to the west coaches and the black sand beaches there.

George was a food processor analyst for some 25 years, advising food companies on FDA regulations (for import into the US). A transplant from Scotland, he decided a few years ago to stop doing anything he didn't really like to do, so he quit that job and switched to eco-tour guiding, since he loves the outdoors and heads over to the Ranges almost every weekend anyway.

Well, it was a very fine day. I won't go into all the details, but instead offer some highlights. As one reads, New Zealand was a very isolated place (multiple islands, large and small) so flora and fauna developed in some unique ways. No snakes, no mammals naturally occurring on the island; and the Maoris who arrived hundreds of years ago lived in a sustainable way in the rainforests and other ecosystems that developed there. Unfortunately when the British (directly or indirectly as Australians) hit the beaches in the 1800s, things changed quickly....

** Captain Cook came to the island several times, and often dropped off pigs on the island to breed and provide meet for the settlers. To this day, Kiwis (that is how New Zealanders refer to themselves) say things like "I'll put a Captain Cooker on the barbecue for dinner." Well, at least pigs didn't take over the island and destroy whole species.

** Unfortunately, Brits also introduced rabbits and deer and possum and stoats. Now, many of the unique birds on the island were flightless, so they lay their eggs in nests in the ground. Stoats went wild, growing madly and unchecked, gorging themselves on the eggs and eradicating many species, or coming close to it. The possums ravaged many trees due to overpopulation. In later years, the NZ government has led highly organized campaigns to beat back the possums, and now some of the bird species are returning to the forests. George told us how when he was much younger, he and the boys would head out to the west coach beaches, like Piha, and see how many possums they could kill along the way (the animals would lie on the warm roads at night). What good citizens!

** Wood pigeons are one particular breed on the mend. We saw one as we walked through the Auckland City Track. These birds are big, fat things and like to eat the fruit of the palm trees that grow on the island (no coconuts, though). The fruit often ferments while on the tree, the birds eat the fermented fruit, and then they get drunk. Back in the day when the birds could be hunted (and probably still done by some Maori claiming indigenous privilege), you could simply toss a stick up at the bird and knock it off the tree. It would be too drunk to fly away.

** The Pururi grub has an interesting lifecycle. It bores into trees, creating a hollowed out area. Then it builds a cocoon and emerges during the summer months as one of the largest moths on the planet: the Pururi Moth. Its wings are bright flourescent green and it doesn't have much of a life to look forward to. It is born without a mouth or digestive system, so it lasts at most a few days time, in which it mates and leaves behind the next generation of grubs, or is food for some other animal. http://www.terranature.org/gigantism.htm

** The Manuka Bush is another one of those incredible stories of how the rainforests are full of plants that may hold cures for lots of what ails us. I didn't know this before, but honey generally serves as a natural antibiotic. Well, the Manuka takes that a step further. When the plants, which grow prolifically all over NZ, starts to bud, beekeepers move the bee hives near the bushes. The bees visit the flowers and take back whatever the active ingredient of the Manuka is to their hives and it goes into the honey. This Manuka Honey, in strong enough concentrations, serves as a powerful antibiotic that is effective at killing off the super-resistant strains of viruses that are rampaging through hospitals, immune to all of the pharmaceutical companies' antibiotics. You spread it topically on wounds and infections simply don't occur. It is being used in Iraq by the US Armed Forces, according to George. I bought a couple bottles of medical strength (25) Manuka Honey, as well as version (strength level 5) that you can eat like you would regular old honey - it's supposed to be very good for digestive problems, as well. I hold out hope that the medicinal version could help some members of my family who are having serious problems with hives.

** The kawakawa plant is another very interesting resident of the forests. You can readily identify the plant by its leaves, which are usually full of holes from caterpillar munching. Caterpillars are abundant, because birds to not like the flavor of the leaves - a somewhat basil-ly sort of taste. You chew the leaf and it makes your breath fresh - but chew it for too long and gets very bitter. And don't swallow, cause it could you give you a stomachache.

** Rangiora is known as the Bushman's Friend. Its leaves are strong and resist tearing, but they are supple. Plus the underside of the leaf is velvety soft. Let's see...soft, supple, doesn't tear easily....yes, it is nature's own toilet paper.

** The rata vine - now this was really amazing. George pointed out a fern soon after we started on the first Waitekere track that had lots of very small (a 10th the size of a fingernail) roundish green leaves growing on it. It was a young rata vine. These vines creep up the trunk of a tree or plant, and then blend into the surface of the tree itself, growing with the tree. Overtime, the rata vine gets thicker and thicker and after the tree or plant dies, it basically takes over, growing in the place of the original plant. He showed us a rata vine that is estimated to be over 600 years old! Here are a variety of photos: Young Rata - Ancient Rata - Young and Old Rata - Explanation.

** Finally and most awfully, the Kauri tree. Kauris were abundant up through the first half of the 19th century. They are (mostly were) the giants of the rainforest. They are, like many New Zealand trees, a hardwood. So hard, in fact, that a Kauri trunk that was buried for 30 million years was excavated and found to still be wood - it had not yet rotted or fossilized. The Kauris grow straight up, shedding branches from the trunks until 20-30 meters up (60-90 feet). They live (used to live) for thousands of years, with the biggest growing to 9 meters in diameter, or more. Their bark also sheds as the trees grow, naturally casting off vines, moss and other growths that might harm the tree. Amazing, eh? Too amazing. The British Navy realized that the trees would be a great source of timber for masts and for planking (they lasted a long, long time in the seawater). And so the clear cutting began. Massive devastation and waste ensued. And it gets worse. It was discovered that the gum of the tree (cut into the trunk and it "bleeds" gum), when mixed with linseed oil, created a very hard and durable resin. So trees were bled by the thousands, and then left to die. Now NZ is working hard to replant and save any remaining Kauris. I saw some trees that were certainly massive to my way of thinking, but puny compared to what had been cut down.

I tell you, a visit to New Zealand does not make a person of Western Europe proud. Actually, a visit to and education about so many places on the globe (the Americas North and South, Africa, Australia - where it was legal to hunt down, shoot to kill, Aborigines until the first half of the 20th century, New Zealand, and so on) is enough to make any Caucasian with a conscience burn with shame. Of course, in New Zealand, it was the Maori, Polynesians who arrived hundreds of years before the British, fought hard against the settlers and were massacred over and over again. Now, their remnants struggle for dignity or are assimilated. Oh, and as with the aborigines of Australia, their art is highly prized.

More on my visit to New Zealand to come...I still need to tell you about my visit to a very young piece of land - the 600 year old Rangitoto Island!

In the meantime, here is a link to all the Waitekere photos...


1 comment:

Michael said...

Looks like another successful trip and some more beautifu pictures... Are you sure you want to keep being a speaker about PL/SQL? You could probably make some good money on photos of Great Places to Visit :-) Thanks for sharing