Monday, October 11, 2010

North and South Mackenzie Country New Zealand - some contrasts, some environmental dilemmas

My son Dougal has always been keen on science, and with Uni. looming next year, I had the idea these recent school holidays to visit the Mt John astronomy observatory at Lake Tekapo in the northern Mackenzie country, so he could see first hand what goes on at this University of Canterbury outpost.

Before our "appointment" with manager Alan we left the beaten track the day before to spend the night in the seldom visited area encompassing Mt Cook Station. The trip and locality give a unique experience that is very different to the normal approach road to Mt Cook National Park. Essentially the route leaves Tekapo and heads overland to Lake Pukaki.

Enroute to Mt Cook Station...

En-route to Mt Cook Station still - Braemar Dome. I've always fancied skiing these gentle big slopes, but access ain't easy..

Mt Sefton on the left and Mt Cook on the right. Our companions for our camp out in the truck just beside the wild and cold Tasman River. However the Dept. of Conservation seems to be doing a wonderful job here, as many banded dotterel actually wandered around the truck - curious I guess. How wonderful to witness this as they're an endangered species...

A nesting banded dotterel shot I made a year or two ago, while helping DOC on a braided river bird survey...

Heading back to Tekapo we were witness to some impressive stock handling and dogs...

And we met John the grader driver. He'd got his 18 ton machine bogged. While I had no hope of pulling him out with a 2.5 ton Land Cruiser, his colleague nearby in another grader did so in short order. John has spent 27 years, summer and winter keeping all Mackenzie Country secondary roads clear and in order...

Our NZ military use a great swathe of land to practice on. It says what they leave lying around could kill you...


It seems a real shame they've laid claim many years ago to what is a fragile environment then driven and shelled hell out of the place, leaving wounds in the landscape that may never heal...

Mt John Observatory...

Alan gave a fascinating and insightful tour. Here Dougal inspects the new 1.8 meter [mirror] telescope. What Alan, his wife, team, and University of Canterbury astronomers are doing there is very inspirational [see link below]...

So what are some of the contrasts and dilemmas?
The Mackenzie is just one of many unique areas in this compact country, but I know it quite well - I used to live there, so did my grandfather who was a musterer, fencer and shearer.

Lately it's increasingly been coming to the forefront of news. I think people are noticing the unique landscape more, maybe because quite recently it's been changing due to new intensive farming styles. Many want it back how it was, but for this we sadly have to go back much more than several years.

But times are a changing and just last week the head of the Department Conservation (DOC) was calling for urgent and "radical" change in a refreshingly honest presentation [see link below].

Anyway this is some of what I've seen and figured out [with massive thanks to many conservationists, soil conservators, Dept. of Conservation staff, farmers, visionaries, historians, restoration ecologists, and friends - you know who you are!]...

The Tekapo area is actually quite high altitude - cold and windy. But the southern Mackenzie is a bit more user friendly. Trouble is it's all suffered degradation from the late 19th century onwards, when it was all apparently waist deep in snow and red tussock. I should imagine moa would have roamed there a long time ago.

But for most of my life time vast areas have looked like this...

Hieracium infestation seems to kill off snow tussock and most other grasses. It's very invasive in some areas - rabbits have been part of it. It's only saving grace is it looks pretty in Nov. each year, but stock cannot eat it. Note the Twizel township and Twizel and Fraser rivers in background...

Down by the Twizel and Fraser rivers it becomes evident that irrigation totally changes the eco system, just like hieracium and rabbit infestation. However in this instance the irrigation is more natural and much less energy dependent - this is probably reclaimed wetland, point being that the grasses are deep rooted and not superficial, therefore more able to cope with the extremes of climate typical of the area, and maintain old time habitats...

And the hand of man also changed the scenario in yet another way in the 1970s, with a series of canals and power stations. The project developers did an amazing job under budget always [politicians kept at bay so there was minimal ego informed bungling], and gave us an asset that actually [unlike the Clutha's Clyde dam debacle], produces a lot of energy. But there was a cost, despite their mandate to leave the land better then they found it: We lost wetlands, wild rivers and even a gorge so wild and remote few know about it, for back then these features were not seen as assets...

Old time locals have been pushed into smaller areas. And what they live on has been altered by all scenarios so far mentioned. It seems minor, but that green blur is a "wilding" pine tree. Yet another highly invasive weed in NZ's high country, that is especially a huge almost incomprehensible problem down-wind from the above mentioned Mt Cook area...

So just as maybe a hundred years ago, the landscape is changing yet again! Now we have the New Zealand version of crop circles, but in our case there is no mystery or aliens - they're called pivot irrigators...

So we have two extremes down on the flats in this photo looking towards Lake Ohau, and neither are favorable hosts to the native snow or red tussock, and all the bugs and birdlife that can live with them...

The latest mooted change in the southern Mackenzie, is diary cattle will have huge sheds to live in - so called cubicle farming. These plans of a few farmers are causing quite a fuss right now, with claims this will improve things, and counter claims from conservationists, [who in some instances perhaps think the status quo of 2-3 years ago is desirable]. The intensive farming lobby argue that they're stopping the scarce soil from eroding away, and actually creating new, but seemingly almost as an aside, water quality issues compromised by effluent get glossed over.

But all this irrigation is actually making even more changes to the eco systems - those places where numerous bugs live. Many are rare apparently.
I might be more impressed if their grasses and techniques could survive drought - in other words be less dependent on technology [it often costs a lot to pump water to irrigators]. I don't seem to see enough evidence of sound dry-land farming techniques that have been impressively employed by the established fine wool farmers for many years. And, yes, rabbits don't like it green, but neither will snow tussock establish easily [once mature/established, they're more tolerant]. Sadly I see few attempts to establish corners, corridors or shelter belts comprised of these natives, and others.

So for our children and future generations, how do we get back more areas to something approximating this scene...?

As I drove back home over the Lindis Pass, a reserve of snow tussock, yet again, just as I've noted for years, they're just surviving and not really recovering at all to waist deep status...
Restoration ecology is a huge challenge in the Mackenzie because of the scale, but one we could easily win at with cooperation, less greed and more education.

More treasuring what we've been gifted by nature would help, as would more acknowledgement that there are many old time farmers who've achieved great insights and land management skills, and a Dept. of Conservation that is staffed at ground level by people with a passion for their work, and now headed by a manager who sees things with a big picture in mind, and is not afraid to speak out.

We have more resources than we think!

It's all about perception! We need to lift our awareness that we are the land, and not stuff it all up - then we'll all be healthier in mind and body.

NZ "trashing our environment" - Dept. of Conservation chief speaks out
Dept. of Conservation's efforts in the Twizel area
Mt John observatory
Mackenzie Guardians...
Forest and Bird's Save our Mackenzie Country

It does not seem to help that either end of the Mackenzie is administered by different Councils. Environment Canterbury and Waitaki

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Blogger Ruahines said...

Kia ora Donald,
What a great trip and so cool you and Dougal could experience it together.
Some of the photos remind of a book I am currently reading on the mountaineering history of Everest, particularly the one of Sefton and Aoraki looming up. You can get a feel why Kiwis were so successful in that Himalyan environment.
Been busy with work, but have a window coming up to escape into the mountains and get away from the din out here. I need it. Hope all is well. Kia kaha.

October 14, 2010 at 9:46 AM  
Blogger Donald said...

Hi Robb

Good to hear your news. I thought of you yesterday with all the bad weather impacting the Ruahine, so maybe good you're not stuck in there right now.

Yes, I think the expedition mindset for hard wilderness travel can be practised in NZ, and was no doubt a big factor all those years ago. Also snow craft as that sort of climbing was more preferable the the rotten rock that abounds.

I hope you get away soon. I have ideas of a trip next week ski touring for 3 days, but a few things have to line up before I'm out the door.

I did have a great ski yesterday...

What an amazing winter... usually this time of year the snow is awful. Not this year!

Lots was groomed where I normally cross country ski, but off piste was great too, so I went wandering with camera. It was amazing to have the contrasts of thawed creeks and snow for example.

Just nobody about either!



October 14, 2010 at 10:06 AM  

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