So far I’m loving summer on the North Island. On our way to the Coromandel we stopped at various crags to rock climb, passing through lots of charming little towns full of extraordinarily nice people. In fact, everyone we’ve met here has been so friendly that I’ve actually started to wonder if they aren’t all secretly just a little crazy.
Whakapapa was the most scenic spot we climbed at, and the most fun to say. After a little hike across weird Martian-meets-alpine terrain, we spent the day multi-pitching, a distant cinder cone serving as the perfect backdrop. A bit further north we found our favorite campsite yet, nestled alongside a peaceful little lake that we had entirely to ourselves. The next couple days were spent avoiding a heatwave that rolled through the valley. Mornings were spent climbing, the echoing bleats of distant goats somehow managing to make the entire area sound like a wild frat party. Afternoons we floated in the lake and played Monopoly Deal in the shade, before miserable nights sweating and swatting mosquitos in the van.
Feeling pretty destroyed and in need of a rest, we at last reached the Coromandel Peninsula, our home for the next six weeks. The road to our first campsite wound and wound, through dense jungle and past giant ferns. Our arrival felt like the potential storyline for a horror movie: there wasn’t another soul around for miles, and we were completely out of cell service; we had accepted this job without interviewing and had been told very little prior information; and we’d just discovered that we were located in an old mining settlement, the hillsides full of of abandoned shafts and tunnels. As the sun set we nervously cooked dinner in a secluded clearing next to the river, hoping we wouldn’t be those dumb tourists you read about in the paper.
The next day we had job training, and were relieved to find out that we hadn’t been set up for some Kiwi version of the Blair Witch Project. Currently in New Zealand kauri trees are dying en masse thanks to the spread of a fungus-like pathogen that lives in soil. During the mining boom the forest was heavily milled, so already it had been struggling to bounce back, making it even more challenging to fight this new threat. Kauris are the biggest trees in New Zealand, as well as a keystone species, so their well-being is crucial to the preservation of the entire forest. To stop the spread, the Department of Conservation has created cleaning stations at the beginning of each trail, with the hopes that people will clean the dirt off their shoes before and after walking in the area.
Our job is working as research assistants on a behavioral study. Week one we simply observe how people clean their feet and record that data, then ask them to fill out a short survey. Week two one of us will be an “ambassador,” standing in front of the station and basically acting as an educator for all things kauri related. The other person records that data and gives the same survey, to see if the ambassador has a positive effect on people’s behavior. We will complete this process at three different locations, over the course of the next six weeks. Eventually these cleaning stations will be rolled out on all DOC trails in the kauri zone, and this research ultimately will be used to help perfect the final cleaning station prototype. It’s actually a job I enjoy and that I think is valuable, so I feel incredibly lucky to have basically fallen into it.
Finishing up this first week, life already has fallen into a routine. After grumbling my way out of bed, we eat a quick breakfast and walk to the trailhead just as the first light is hitting the tips of the trees on the highest ridge line. Katabatic winds keep us hunkered in our fleeces for the first couple hours, which is fine because so far we haven’t seen a single person for at least the first two and a half hours of work. Even once people show up they are still usually few and far between- on our busiest day there was only a total of 50 people over the course of 12 hours.
A lot of the passing trampers (see my use of local lingo here?! I’m trying to adapt!) grimace when I tell them how I’ll be spending nine hours a day at the same spot for the next couple weeks, but I actually love it. The cicadas are so loud my chair practically vibrates from the sound of them, and I find their discarded husks everywhere. There’s one bird that sounds exactly like a phone notification, a constant reminder that service is absolutely zero. Occasionally little fan tails will come dance around for our entertainment, and stick insects crossing the road become our play things.
This is most likely the most remote I will be the entire time I’m in New Zealand, and I’m trying to take advantage of it. Being disconnected and forced to be stationary provides the perfect place to think and to read, free from all distractions. I’m working my way through When Women Were Birds on my Kindle, and I finally decided to tackle Murakami’s IQ84, an author I love, but a book length I’ve been intimidated by for years. I’ve also been slowly savoring a paper copy of Braiding Sweetgrass, sent to me by one of my best friends as a parting gift just before I left. So far it is one of my favorite things I’ve ever put in my brain, and I can’t stop singing the author’s praises. I’m only allowing myself a couple chapters a day, like a little treat to look forward to.
Once I’m finished for the day I’ll walk down trail and pick blackberries for a snack, then practice yoga. Afterwards I wade out to the middle of the river where I lay on my back, letting the current gently carry me down stream while I commune with the day’s clouds. Dripping, I then tenderly walk barefoot back to our campsite, where I cook dinner listening to Cat Stevens, or a podcast if I need voices to break up the babble of birds. Once Gary’s off we sit in our little camp chairs, passing a pot back and forth before a little evening walk to search for kiwis (still no luck!) and then crawl into the van and curl up for the night. The stars out here are insane, emerging shivering from the van into the inky blackness and looking up to find the Milky Way slashing dramatically across our clearing feels like the best kind of gift. Honestly, it feels like magic.
Just when I thought this might be the perfect country, it seems Gary has developed an allergy to New Zealand in general, and we’re both kept up by his sneezing throughout the night. My penance has arrived in the form of sandflies. I heard about them before arriving, but for some reason I was under the impression that they only lived on the beaches of the West Coast. I am very aware now that they love being near flowing water, so our prime riverside campsite means trouble.
To make them even more insulting, they are tiny. They look like little flecks of pepper, smaller even than fruit flies. But their bites are killer, they really like to dig in, and I have to pluck each one forcibly from my skin after they bite. Luckily they don’t leave any visible mark… until about 8 hours later, when the bites swell up to about the size of a nickel, and start to itch and burn. The current count is 26 bites on my right foot, and 20 on my left… and that’s just my feet. I’ve never hated any living creature more.