Monday, June 6, 2016

Stairway to Heaven (continued)

Looking south to Tapuenuku from the high point of the escarpment track
What's the most popular section of Te Araroa, the pathway from Cape Reinga to the Bluff?  The Tongariro Alpine Crossing, springs to mind, but a new section, the Paekakariki Escarpment, may be set to rival this.

Back in 2014, I walked the "Stairway to Heaven" south from Paekakariki along the escarpment that rears up above the railway line and the Centennial Highway. It was incomplete, but in April 2016 the trail was completed through to Pukerua Bay.

Surface pressure map, Queens Birthday Sunday
With a Queens Birthday high on the weather map, Marg and I set out to complete the trail. We got the train (which turned out to be a bus replacement) to Pukerua Bay. Marg doesn't quite yet qualify for a Gold Card but invested a Day Rover. The bus pretending to be a train took us on an interesting tour of Tawa backstreets before climbing to Pukerua Bay, cunningly giving us a 100m altitude gain for a "mainly downhill" northerly trip through to Paekakariki. Any doubts about where to go from Pukerua Bay station were dispelled by simply following the crowds of day walkers. Along Sea Vista drive on the southern side of the station, to the redundant Muri station platform, and alongside the train tracks carefully isolated by fences and warnings of the danger and fines exacted on transgressors. Soon we were on the track proper, climbing up and down gorse clad slopes.

Marg started counting steps but gave up in the hundreds, then started counting people, reckoning over a thousand for the day.

Two indented gullies are crossed on sturdy suspension bridges, circular cable structures stabilising them against gales sweeping in from Kapiti. While the track is of good standard, it's narrow and some people were clearly a bit uncomfortable on the steep slope, although scrub would likely stop any fall. The long staircases alternated with sidling across the face. I was pleased that I'd taken two poles to ease the strain on my newly irradiated hip, which gave me the excuse to slow down, alternating pole placement with foot movement. Solid pre-rusted iron girders were thrust into the ground as kilometer markers, ten in all.

At the high mid point, around 5km from each end, and 200m above the sea, we stopped for lunch at a semi circle of seats looking out to sea. Tapuenuku loomed above Pukerua Bay to the south, and the bulky smudge of Ruapehu was visible to the north. We descended on more staircases, at one stage a kārearea contouring the hillside swooped over the track metres above my head. As we crossed patches of  kohekohe forest we heard tui, and and the wingflap of the occasional kereru. The last kilometre or so was close by the railway line, then we ducked under the SH1 bridge and on to Ames St to Paekakariki, five hours from Pukerua, somewhat more than the official 3-4 hours.

A debate about whether to rush for the 2:45 "train" or wait for the 3:15 was short circuited when the bus masquerading as the train stopped in the main street to load up with escarpment walkers. So many in fact that the driver announced he didn't have the ability to collect fares so we were getting a free trip. Thanks, GWRC!

Close to major urban centre, easily accessible by public transport, with spectacular views, the Escarpment trail is likely to earn its nickname "Stairway to Heaven" and become one of the most popular sections of Te Araroa.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

In the wake of Abel Tasman

As I went to launch my kayak at the Marahau boat ramp, a tractor driver expertly backed a boat trailer into the water. "Got a boat to pick up?" I asked "Got 14 to do in the next half hour" he replied, jumping off the tractor and running back up to the parking area to collect the next tractor and trailer as a water taxi ran up on to the trailer. In a moment the tractor driver had a trailer in place for a second water taxi, jumped onto the first tractor and drove the first boat up the ramp. I hurried to get my kayak out before I disrupted the smoothly oiled operation, part of Abel Tasman's burgeoning tourist industry.

Marahau local
"Canoeing along the coast is becoming increasingly popular" according to my 1989 edition of the Abel Tasman National Park Map. I'd tramped and sailed the Abel Tasman coast, but had never kayaked it. Back in Wellington I'd spotted a good weather window with no meetings, so booked the car on the ferry and drove across to Marahau. I set up base camp at Mcdonalds farm, a pleasantly shady camping ground up the valley from the coast, populated by Llamas and the remnants of the summer camping rush. I chatted to a fellow camper with an eBike, which he used to commute between his Moutere home and his permanent camper van at the camping ground.
Base camp at Marahau
That first morning I headed south to giant spheroid of Split Apple Rock, and on to Kaiteriteri. As I paddled through the gap between the shore and Kaka Island I met a squadron of tourists heading north, the first of many encounters confirming the 1989 prediction.
Doing the splits on Split Apple Rock
After coffee (on land, despite a floating coffee bar moored off the beach) I headed north again to Fisherman Island, beaching on golden sand along with several groups of kayakers, and a family picnicking on hors d'oeuvres ferried across from their speedboat. The clear water was inviting, so I snorkeled along the rocks, spotting paua and starfish along with fish. Back on shore, the other kayakers said "did you feel the earthquake?" Fortunately, I hadn't - I suspect knowingly snorkeling in an earthquake would be scary.
Fishermans Island
I paddled around Adele Island, trying not to disturb the seals slumbering on the rocks, and marveling at the birdsong blasting out from the predator free bush. Back when Cook visited the area, the noise of birds was so loud they couldn't sleep on shore. Places like Adele, where the threat of predators is being removed, have some hope that we'll be able to experience pre-European NZ, perhaps having to use ear plugs when we camp! At the beach on the western side of Adele, I spotted a notice on the shore that I couldn't quite read, so landed to check it out. The sign turned out to to be one that politely suggested you didn't land, and if you did, to carry out a full fumigation and pest eradication programme on your boat.
Kayaks being repositioned by water taxi
A feature of the Abel Tasman coast is a reliable northerly breeze that picks up in the afternoon, so I rode this back to Marahau. Water taxis zipped past, laden with kayaks being repositioned for people taking a kayak + tramp option for experiencing the park. At the beach, now with low tide a couple of hundred metres from the boat ramp, I foolishly spurned the offer of a lift on one of the fleet of kayak trailers. I attached my trolley wheels and trundled the kayak up to the carpark, finding the sand less hard packed than I'd imagined. To cap it all, at the car I realised I'd left the stand I used to help load the kayak onto the trolley back at the shore, so got to walk back again.

After a beer from the chilly bin at Base camp, and Terning down the road to a fine pino gris and pizza, the day seemed to be complete.

The next day I decided to see how far north I could go before the afternoon breeze kicked in. An earlier start at low tide meant trundling the kayak across the mudflats to the shore, but soon I was heading up the coast with a slight Sou'Easterly pushing me along. Lots of inviting beaches dotted the coast, but I decided on Watering Cove for my morning scrog stop - the beach was slightly sweltered from the swell. I chatted to the multinational hiking group filtering water and packing up their postage stamp sized camp, then headed around Pitt Head to Torrent Bay. A yellow blob floating past turned out to be Linus and Snoopy, presumably abandoned by a family yacht.
Snoopy and Linus after rescue
I kept going north to Bark Bay. Back in the 80s we'd camped here, thinking it crowded with 10 of us, and generously distributing our tents and flies around to discourage the following party of scouts from setting up camp on "our" beach. Now DOC limits campers to 40, kayak guides are continuously marshalling their fleets in and out of the beach, and a row of yachts occupy the back of the sandspit. A young camper was noisily dissatisfied with his parents choice of holiday - I handed on Linus and Snoopy as a pacifier, which was effective for at least for a few minutes.
Kayakers enjoy their isolated wilderness experience, Bark Bay
After lunch I picked up the afternoon breeze and headed back south. At the mouth of Torrent Bay, I found a deserted beach to snorkel from - despite the crowds on accessible beaches, there are still quiet spots, although we can't afford to lose access to beaches such as Awaroa. I passed Adele close enough for the birdsong concert, and headed down to Marahau, following a guided party that had rafted up and deployed a tarp as a sail to get them home.
Tarp sailing back to Marahau
While the kayaking had been great, my hips were telling me that three nights camping was enough, so I packed and headed back to Wellington, and a home that I didn't have to crouch to get into.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Clarence Clear Water Revival


How can baby boomers with failing hips and knees get the wilderness experience of tramping without the tedious business of putting one foot in front of the other for days on end? An email from ex Auckland University Tramping Club mate Alan had the answer: a five day rafting trip down the Clarence River. A few months and many emails later, Alan had organised a party of ten and a rafting company to take us on the adventure.

The Clarence River is the eighth longest in Aotearoa, 230 km from its source at Lake Tennyson, making its way north east between the Inland and Seaward Kaikoura ranges, before turning to reach the Pacific Ocean just north of Kaikoura. It's true wilderness country, with only a few four wheel drive tracks offering access to the outside world. Part of it lies in the Ka Whata Tū o Rakihouia Conservation Park.

We gathered at Hanmer Forest Camp - in itself a trip down memory lane, staying in two bed forestry workers huts. Next morning the Ultimate Descents bus arrived with three rafts in tow, and we were on our way to the Acheron confluence, to start the rafting journey. Dressed up in life jackets and helmets, we set off in our two passenger rafts, accompanied by Whio Nui, the Big Blue gear raft carrying our overnight gear in large drybags.
Tim and Alex take raft Karearea down to the river at Acheron
Alex gives us a crash course in basic rafting skills


Although our guides Alex and Ariel handled the general direction and speed of the rafts, we were the reserve power for the raft, tweaking the accelerator with the commands "back" "forward" and "relax". The latter, which meant to stop paddling, often because were heading for rock, was sometimes emitted in the same tone that actors in medical dramas use for "Clear!" as a patient gets a life saving defibrillation.


Team Karearea: Bernard, David, Ariel, Sheryl, Jocelyn.
Whio Nui aground
The river was relatively low, making for more obstacles as we headed through the first gorge. At one stage we formed a queue behind Whio Nui which, despite Sonny's steering skills, had obstinately gone though a gap sideways and got stuck. However this and other obstacles were soon overcome - sometimes by the "Clarence Bounce" where everyone on a grounded raft jumps up and down to free it.
Big Eddy campsite
We camped at Big Eddy, a willow-skirted backwater with an established camp, and our guides got to work on lighting a fire for a brew, and establishing the latrine with a guide rope and helpful yellow bag to indicate occupied status. Given that I didn't have to carry my gear, I'd decided to eschew the closed cell foam part of the wilderness experience, and slept soundly on a Warehouse LiLo in a generous sized tent.

Team Kereru paddle hard for the camera
Next morning we carried on down river, the occasional rapid providing variety as we observed the wildlife: pied stilts, paradise ducks, herons lower down - and frequent herds of goats clambering the hillsides. A hole in one of Whio Nui's pontoons necessitated an early lunch stop opposite Palmer Hut, accessible by four wheel drive from the inland Kaikoura road, which got me thinking about possible combined mountain bike and raft trips - perhaps a future adventure. Patching completed, we headed down to Quail Flat, where Solana introduced us to the traditional rafters' dessert of chocolate stuffed bananas baked in the campfire.
Solana demonstrates chocolate stuffed banana
I went for an early morning walk up to the Quail Flat homestead, a 1870's cob cottage, still in use by farm staff. Alongside, the old shearing shed has been restored by DOC.

Interior of Quail Flat homestead
Solana doles out mid stream treats from Whio Nui
The day turned sunny and hot, and we got views of Alarm and Tapuenuku on the Inland Kaikoura ranges. David and I had climbed "Tappy" in 1972, and of course a view of the snow capped peak is a feature of biking the south coast of Wellington on a clear winter's day.
David downs paddle to photograph the Clarence side of Tapuenuku
We were glad of a swim at our lunch spot near Goose Flat, though less enthusiastic to be battling wind in the afternoon as we made our way to the DOC hut at Snowgrass Flat. Robins explored our gear while Solana topped off a generous meal with a camp oven crumble.

A glance at the Snowgrass Flat hutbook showed that packrafting in individual lightweight rafts has become a popular way to navigate the river - following the lead of John Mackay and Piers Maclaren who went down the river in the 1970s on "chariots of tyre", an adventure recounted in John's 1978 book Wild Rivers.

Next morning marked the end of the fine weather. We breakfasted in the rain, and broke out the wetsuits for the first time on the trip. A small hole in the meticulous planning appeared - we'd run out of toilet paper. However this helped us to remember our youthful adventures - I recalled the AUTC trip leader who only took one roll for a ten day trip, doling out two sheets at a time on application.

Red Peak rendered in rock
As the river cuts through the rock, it reveals the tortured patterns of metamorphic folding. At one point, a very creditable reproduction of the Red Peak flag design appears, created geological aeons before the 2015 flag consideration project.

As we descended the valley, cabbage trees and Kowhai started to appear, along with seagulls signalling the approach of the coast. At Boundary Stream, where the valley opens up, we made our final camp, dining on camp oven corn bread and chili, followed by pear topped cheesecake. Solid rain during the night made us glad we were no longer in AUTC 6'x8' japara tents, but turned the river brown with mud, and pushed the tethered rafts in towards the shore.
Ruth, Alan and Juliet supervise the chili, Boundary Stream camp
The higher river, and difficulty seeing obstacles in the muddy water, meant it was time to don helmets and wetsuits again. But we raced down the flats without incident to the final challenge, where Ariel found a perfect line past concrete and steel flood protection works debris, and delivered us to the take out point beside the SH1 bridge. For lunch Solana created a final culinary highlight, fresh sushi.

So is rafting the new golf? Maybe not, but in the hands of an expert guiding team it provided a unique wilderness experience where we could relive our youthful wilderness adventures without challenging our failing bodies too much.



More photos of the trip on Flicker



Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Terns on the Trail: Otago Central Rail Trail


"What? You haven't done the Rail Trail?" was a common response when I mentioned that we were going to bike the Otago Central Rail Trail. In fact I'd done part of the trail with "The Men of Steel" mountain biking group (which with increasing age and joint replacements is now "Men of steel, titanium, and surgical bioceramics"); and Marg had cycle toured Central Otago when there were actual trains on the Rail Trail.
I could claim family history of travelling in the area: my grandfather had spent the 1890s touring the gold workings in an effort to convert the Chinese miners to Presbyterianism.

But we hadn't got around to doing the actual "Rail Trail" package.

We decided folding bikes would simplify the logistics of the Rail Trail, so a fine spring morning saw us hopping on the Terns at Queenstown Airport, next to the bike assembly stand that bizarrely needs a notice asking that it not be used as an ashtray. We had most of a day before the shuttle left for Clyde, so pedalled around the Lake Shore to Kelvin Heights, passing the Kawarau Falls bridge: due to become a cycle bridge when a new road bridge is built to hasten tour buses on their way to Milford Sound.
Marg and (sculpted) wildlife, Kelvin Heights
The rugged tussock slopes of Peninsula Hill now sport modern apartment blocks. Outside the Hilton Hotel we admired the ChargeAbout rental Moustache eBikes, but decided to stick with unassisted pedalling on this trip.

From Kelvin Heights it's only a few hundred metres across the water to the Queenstown side, so we phoned up the water taxi; although we lost the "they're baggage not bikes" argument, costing us $40 for the short trip with our folding bikes. After a coffee at the elegant Victorian Bathhouse on the Lake shore, it was time to get the shuttle, again not being able to persuade the driver that the Terns were baggage. Lesson: always pack the folding bikes in their bags. However it was a fine trip through to Cromwell and Clyde, enlivened by our driver's efforts to dob in a driver "of Indian or Pakistani persuasion" who was travelling at less than the speed limit and occasionally touching the yellow line. The gale blasting down Lake Dunstan made us glad we hadn't tried riding to Clyde from Queenstown, instead starting by riding down the river trail on the true right of the Clutha from Clyde to Alexandra.
River Trail to Alexandra
"Snow" blossoms on the river trail
Trailside furniture
At Alexandra we checked into the "Middle Pub" - actually now the end (or "bottom" in local parlance) pub, since the original end pub has been sacrificed to a risen Clutha. That night the weather turned, with a gale like an express train blasting the hotel's garden furniture across the road. Next morning we tarried until the rain had eased to drizzle, then set off along the Rail Trail proper as it skirted the heather fields of Tucker Hill, where the gold miners had barely made enough to pay for their meals, let alone accumulate the fortunes they dreamed of.

Gents toilet, Chatto Creek
Jonathan Kennett of Nga Haerenga had told me that the Rail Trail was a "mature" trail: most of the required services have been developed, and sure enough morning coffee time coincided with the charming Chatto Creek tavern, where a notice warned us not to feed the gluten free donkeys. Tiger Hill was well within the gear range of the Terns so we had no trouble making Pitches Store in Ophir for lunch as sun started to replace drizzle. After a loop over the historic O'Connell bridge, we headed up the straights to Lauder and the tunnels and viaducts of the Poolburn Gorge, making the Hayes Engineering works just before closing. Ernest Hayes was a classic kiwi inventor.
Toy car, in its own garage, Hayes home.
As well as creating a wire strainer that his Hannah wife peddled (and pedalled) around Central Otago on her bike, Ernest added lots of technology to their home, including an early home entertainment system that enabled music to be broadcast to all rooms in the house.
Pitches Store, Ophir
At the Old Store B&B in Oturehua we discovered another aspect of the Rail Trail infrastructure: concerned that Oturehua Pub was the only place to eat, we trotted across the road to book a meal. "That's OK - you're already booked in". The Rail Trail has a bush telegraph auto booking system.

Idaburn Dam
Next morning I explored the Idaburn dam, where Black Swans shepherded their fluffy cygnets on the far side. Then we did the final climb of the rail trail to the summit, which coincides with the 45th parallel, and the descent to Wedderburn and its iconic goods shed. Grahame Sydney must wish he had a dollar for every tourist photograph imitating his painting.

Ranfurly Manse, 1960
Wall mural, Ranfurly
At Ranfurly I sought out the Presbyterian Church and Manse where I'd stayed on a visit to my cousins in 1960 - still on the edge of town, though more protected by trees. On to Waipiata, where the trail starts to bend again as it follows the Taieri River to Hyde and the Otago Central Hotel. The war memorial in front of the hotel chronicles the gradual decline of the town - a dozen names from WW1, only two for WW2.
War memorial and hotel, Hyde
Fencepost bikes, Rock and Pillar
On the last day we parallel the snow dobbed Rock and Pillar range as we head down the Strath Taieri plain, past the dreadful bend that in 1942 a sleeping train driver took at 120km/hr, resulting in the deaths of 21 passengers. Middlemarch marks the end of biking, as we fold and bag the bikes - no arguments about bike charges - for the goods car of the Taieri Gorge Railway and Dunedin.

So we've finally done the Rail Trail. Surprisingly, it didn't feel like an ideal trail for beginners. Although the surface, gradient and services are easy, the monotonous straights could be a barrier for those unused to biking - particularly if going against the wind. The busy bike hire businesses to some extent recognise this by including options to just do the interesting bits of the trail. It will be interesting to see how other trails such as Pureora develop: will they acquire the same level of services that the Rail Trail has, or will they retain their wilderness feel?


Monday, June 8, 2015

Gadding around the Galapagos


Active Galapagos tour [from http://www.intrepidtravel.com/]
At San Cristobal airport, the official snapped his blue latex gloves and beckoned us out of the immigration queue. For a moment I had nervous thoughts about body cavities and Galapagos biohazard restrictions. But then he motioned us to the head of the queue, indicating that my walking stick and obvious decrepitude gave us priority.

You really need to join an organised tour to explore the Galapagos, since you can only visit the national park areas with a guide. This means either  a boat based tour where you stay on a motorised yacht that cruises to the different islands, or a land based tour staying in hotels in the towns on the islands. Of course, if you're really environmentally responsible, you stay at home, avoid contributing to carbon miles and tourism impact (180 000 year hit the Galapagos), and watch David Attenborough's excellent Galapagos video series.

We persuade ourselves that our bike commuting justifies an occasional long haul flight, and battling seasickness in the confines of a motorised yacht didn't make a boat based tour attractive. So we went with an Intrepid Active Galapagos tour, which promised walking, biking, kayaking and snorkeling on four of the islands. Only trouble was that as our departure date approached, my hip pains got worse, and I was feeling less and less active. To cap it off, I started developing a cold the week before I left - with my depleted immune system this is now often the precursor to a lung infection and a stay in hospital. Our old tramping friend Mike who was planning to join us had similar problems - a treadmill test a couple of days before departure resulted in a major reduction in his insurance cover for heart related events. Mike wisely went for the Attenborough option, but I got a bunch of antibiotics and decided to go. Marg bookmarked the hospital admissions section of the phrasebook.
Intrepid descent of the Quito Basilica spire.
It took a couple of days in Quito to adjust to the 2800m altitude, but by the time we met up with our group and our Quito based guide David, I'd sort of acclimatised and shaken off the cold. David checked whether we were truly "Active" by leading us on a walking tour of the old town, which included a dizzying ascent on flimsy ladders to the central tower of the Basilica. Next day we flew to the Galapagos, and our queue jumping at San Cristobal airport.

Our guide, Juan Zambonino, known as Zambo, was a youthful but knowledgeable Galapagos naturalist. After a brief stop to unpack at our base for the next couple of days, Casa de Nelly, we walked down to the shore and into town. I'd been concerned that on a land based tour we wouldn't see as much wildlife as on a boat based tour. But just on the trip to lunch we saw frigate birds, blue footed boobies, Sally Lightfoot crabs, sea lions, and herons.
"We preserve what is ours" - a sea lion preserves its seating spot on the San Cristobal waterfront
Sea lions were ubiquitous everywhere in the Galapagos, and seem to have achieved a great lifestyle. Apart from the occasional geographically confused orca, they don't have natural predators, and the Humboldt current sweeps fish from along the South American seaboard and out to deliver a constant stream of tasty morsels to the Galapagos. The narrator of Kurt Vonnegut's 1985 novel Galapagos is a human from a million years in the future when people have evolved into something very equivalent to sea lions - the narrator blames the overcomplexity of the human brain as the reason why it took so long to reach this state of perfection.

That afternoon we picked up bikes from "the Darwin shop - since 1835" - and indeed some of the bikes looked like they may have been rented to Charlie Darwin on his 1835 velocipede tour of the island. We biked over to La Loberia beach, a popular Sunday afternoon destination for local families, not just human but also sea lion and iguana. Snorkeling was rewarding - lots of equatorial fish, and some lucky snorkelers had a turtle encounter.
Beach life at La Loberia
Next day we boarded a boat for Isla Lobos, a low scrub covered island just up the coast from the town. There's a rule that tourists are supposed to stay 2m from wildlife, but no one had told the young sea lion lolling on the landing jetty, so we gingerly stepped past it.
Isla Lobos landing
Keeping 2m from the marine iguana, Isla Lobos
Spots of scarlet in the scrub were male frigate birds, advertising that their nests were open homes. The impressive puffed chests require a significant investment of energy - 45 minutes to inflate, 30 to deflate. Simply catching fish must be restful by comparison.
Male frigate bird
A pair of blue footed boobies, a bit like NZ gannets that had had an  encounter with a Resene paint tray, unselfconsciously strutted their stuff for us. I was a bit disturbed by the smelly brown deposits along the trail - surely our fellow tourists weren't that careless in their toileting? Zambo enlightened me - just sea lions doing their thing.
Blue footed boobies on Isla Lobos

Back on the boat, we donned snorkels and masks and dived in to follow Zambo along the shore. Apart from the bright yellow tailed angel fish and the kina-like sea urchins, from the water we had good views of nesting pelicans and herons. Our route, though, needed to take a wide berth around a cove occupied by a territorial alpha male sea lion.
Parrotfish off Isla Lobos
In the Wellington Film Festival we'd seen the Galapagos Affair - about several groups of Europeans who settled on Floreana Island in the 1930s, with mysterious and tragic consequences. So we were keenly anticipating  the next day, a 3 hour speed boat ride to Floreana.
1930s article on Floreana Island [http://coaliciongranadilla.com/]
Maybe we'd find answers to questions like (a) "how come the vegetarian doctor was poisoned by chicken soup?" and (b) "Did the Baroness disappear to Tahiti, or was she summarily executed on a cliff top?". At Floreana, sea lions and equatorial penguins gamboled by the breakwater, and we walked around to Black Beach, where there is still a hotel run by the Wittmer's, one of the 1930's settler families. I'd read Margaret Wittmer's Floreana, and thought I saw her philosophy reflected in the saying over one of the hotel doors, "If you help yourself, God helps you".

We had lunch (serendipitously chicken soup wasn't on the menu) and ambled back to the wharf, The original Galapagos mail service was a mail box on Floreana Island - people dropped mail in it, and passing ships would pick up and deliver. Today people still check the post box for mail to deliver to their home country.
Marg and Heather check the mail, Floreana
For the record, local consensus on the Floreana mystery questions is (a) "Yeah Right (in the Tui billboard sense)" and (b) "definitely the clifftop".

Another 2 hours of pounding the waves saw us at Isabela Island, our home for the next couple of days. Isabela is one of the geologically newer islands, formed by a string of several volcanoes, the northernmost one of which erupted shortly after our stay. our tour group climbed Sierra Negre, the southernmost volcano. I decided, to Zambo's relief, that my hip wasn't up to the ascent, and hired a bike instead. "Watch out for thorns - they puncture the tires easily" said the woman at the bike shop. My objective was the Wall of Tears, a stone wall built by prisoners in the 1940's and 1950's when Ecuador saw the Galapagos as a place to exile undesirables, rather than a ecotourism goldmine.
"To those who suffered and died" Wall of Tears, Isla Isabela.
The road ran about 7km along the coast, passing the picturesque town cemetery, lagoons, an iguana nesting area, surf spots, and a lava tunnel.
Isabela cemetery

Adult marine iguana stands guard at nesting area
I occasionally had to dodge Iguana basking on the gravel road, although despite the "don't touch tortoises" signs the route seemed to be tortoise free. I paused to climb a small hill with a view back up the coast, accompanied by frisky lava lizards. At the Wall, which seems to have had no purpose other than making prisoners move large rocks around, I rested in the shade, and snapped away at the local birdlife.
Galapagos mocking bird, Isla Isabela
Yellow warbler, Isla Isabela
Back in town the bike had developed a slow puncture "I didn't ride over any thorns" I told the bike shop guy. "What's this then?" he said as he extracted several thorns from the tires. "oh!"

Marg was back at the hotel, buzzing from the views of lava flows and the massive caldera on Sierra Negre.
Marg on Sierra Negre
Next day we were back on the water, exploring Tintoreras Island just off shore. Penguins, descended from Antarctic ancestors swept up the South American coast by the Humboldt current, shared rock space with Blue footed boobies. We snorkeled along the sheltered side of the island. At one stage I surfaced by a rocky dropoff to find a penguin peering quizzically down at me. Pelicans hung out hopefully beside a fishing boat where the crew were gutting their catch.
Penguin and booby, Tintoreras
Tourist and pelican, Tintoreras
Galapagos' penguins, a bit larger than the Blue Penguins I help monitor in Wellington, are the most northerly penguins in the world, and are victims of climate change - they're dependent on La Nina currents to bring fish from colder regions, and the increasing frequency of El Nino patterns has caused periodic famine. It's a grim thought that the fossil carbon we spew into the atomsphere to reach places like the Galapagos ultimately threatens the wildlife we come to see.
Flamingo, Isabela
In the afternoon we admired the flamingos that have populated a flooded quarry, and visited the Isabela tortoise centre, where tortoises are hatched and spend the first three years of their life before being released into the wild. Although the giant tortoises are icons for the Galapagos, they're not secure. Although passing ships no longer stock up on tortoises for dual duty as ballast and long term meat supply, imported pests and human activity continue to threaten them. The tortoises on Isabela, for example, are only just recovering from a plague of goats - goats can browse higher up a tree than a tortoise, and it took several years of helicopter shooting to restore the habitat.
Baby Galapagos tortoise demonstrates its egg escape technique - when it reaches maturity in 2055 it will weigh in at a quarter tonne.
Always one that doesn't follow the crowd. Isabela Tortoise Centre
For our last morning on Isabela, we kayaked out to Tintoreras, getting another close look at the penguins, herons, and boobies.
Kayaking off Tintoreras
A couple of hours speedboating - by this stage we'd got our sealegs and sick bags were no longer in demand - took us to Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island, the largest town and Zambo's home.

They even have protected bike lanes!
Bike lane, Puerto Ayora
Next morning Marg and I had an early snorkel at Playa Estacion, close to the Darwin Research Station. A brown shape sped past me, did a quick turn and I was face to face with a sea lion. After a few seconds it decided I was too big to eat, but too ungainly to be a threat, flicked its tail and headed off in search of breakfast.

A bus trip into the Santa Cruz highlands, via a coffee roasting shop, took us to a dairy farm. As it happens our group had a preponderance of dairy farmers, who enjoyed checking out Ecuadorian farming practices, until it was pointed out to them to we were here to see the Giant Tortoises that also roam the farmland. Although it takes them 25 years to reach sexual maturity, the tortoises seem to make the most of it - the quick way to identify a female is by the wear marks on the shell from the three hour mating sessions.
Santa Cruz tortoise
Marg explores the lava tunnels
Volcanic origins mean that the Galapagos are laced with lava tunnels, formed by air bubbles as the lava cooled, and we got to troop through some fine examples before busing to lunch at Fundar Galapagos, where we learned about their environmental  work supported in part by Intrepid.

In the afternoon we walked through opuntia forest to Tortuga Bay, a golden stretch of beach and Zambo's favourite surf spot, dampened somewhat by the onset of unseasonable heavy rain. Back in town the harbourside park had flooded, and the local lads were enjoying sliding down a sloping wall and into the water.
Surf scene Santa Cruz, Tortuga Bay
Next day was the last on the Galapagos. We had a dawn tour of the Darwin Research Station, getting to see a yellow land iguana, and visiting the female companions of Lonesome George, the last known Pinta Giant Tortoise who died in 2012, unfortunately without passing on his DNA. This musical tribute to George is touching.

A bus ride across the island took us to the small ferries that connect to the airport on Baltra Island - originally a WW2 US airbase for patrols seeking U boats. Intrepid has a philosophy of using local transport where possible, though we'd largely avoided this so far. We made up for this in the crush to get on the airport bus - "use your elbows" Zambo commanded as he lead us forward.
Airport ferry, Baltra
Soon we were back in Quito where the air hadn't got any thicker. A final dinner with the group, and the tour phase was over. Although we'd enjoyed the well organised tour and our interesting companions, it was a bit of relief the next morning to get up when we felt like it, and decide for ourselves where and when we were going. We got a taxi up to the Ophelia bus station, and the bus to Mindo in the cloud forest west of Quito.

The route to Mindo involved crossing the equator, at the Mitad del Mundo "middle of the earth". Crossing the equator used to be a big deal - on ships a crew member dressed up as Neptune dunked equatorial newbies with sea water or worse. Fortunately our bus conductor was too busy to organise a ceremony, instead drumming up extra custom, running alongside the bus with cries of "Al Mindo, Al Mindo" at the bus stops.

At Mindo we stayed at the Dragonfly Inn, run by a jovial giant German and his petite Ecuadorian partner. A babbling brook ran past the deck where we could knock back  a beer while watching the hummingbirds dart around the sugar water feeders. Best of all, at 1200m I was no longer gasping for breath at every step.
Hummingbirds, Mindo
Hummingbird sculpture, Mindo
Next day we got a taxi up to the Tarabita cableway, a version of the classic NZFS river crossing solution, except that it whisks you half a kilometre across a bush clad gorge to a series of tracks linking pretty waterfalls, very reminiscent of the Waitakeres with even a few tree ferns thrown in.
Cascada Ondinas, Tarabita

Canine passenger, Tarabita cableway
A dog came padding along the track and hopped confidently into the cablecar, acting as if he had a season ticket. "is he yours?" asked the operator, as  bemused as we were, before heading back with his canine passenger. Later on our return trip we have a small world moment when Marg notices that the woman sitting opposite is wearing a St Clair Half Marathon T shirt, the same run that our daughter had done some weeks earlier. Sure enough, she's a Cantabrian on her OE.

Back in town, a big semitrailer, courtesy of the Ministry of Culture and Patrimony, has been parked across the main street and is being converted into a sound stage for the talent quest component of the annual Fiesta that starts that evening.
Mobile sound stage, Mindo
Next day we explored the Yellow House tracks, bush tracks on farmland leading up to a lookout from where we could hear the Fiesta drumming  practice in the valley below. Marg had spotted a Toucan doing a flypast on a previous visit, but it clearly had an urgent appointment for a Guinness ad, and wasn't available that day. We did however see a bright blue morpho butterfly fluttering along the track, and a raptor (I thought about an Andean condor, but more likely a turkey vulture) wheeling overhead.
Dairyman, Mindo
Morpho butterfly, underwing
Morpho butterfly, top wing
We headed over to the Mariposa butterfly farm for lunch. Here several hundred butterflies flutter around a netting enclosure, and can be persuaded to settle on your finger if you dip a bit of banana juice on it.

That evening the demands of the Fiesta trailer blew the town electricity supply, so our hotel staff spent the evening dashing between taking food orders and tending to the temperamental generator.

Next day it was time to start the trek home. We caught the early bus back to Quito and the Real Audiencia Hotel on the Plaza San Domingo in the old town. I was still no better at altitude so Marg did the sightseeing for both of us, though I did manage a dusk taxi ride to the Winged Virgin overlooking the town, Quito's answer to Rio's Christ the Redeemer.
Virgin of Quito
On the flight back across the Pacific, I watched the Morgan Freeman/ Jack Nicholson Bucket List movie, in which two men with terminal cancer work through a list of things to do before they die. When asked why we were going to the Galapagos, I'd flippantly said that it was ticking off another destination from the Bucket list. Of course, it was a lot more than that: the wildlife, the evolution connection, the mysteries of Floreana. But day after we got back, the doctor scowled as he scanned my Myeloma test results. "There's a limit to how long we can keep pulling rabbits out of hats, you know". So perhaps the bucket list wasn't that far from the truth.

More photos of the trip on Flickr