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Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Chapter 10 ~ The Island Hills Miracle

Come morning, the sun wakes me with warm rays shining through the window of my little, cosy bedroom. Looking outside, I behold the majestic landscape in the light of day for the first time, and stand in awe by the beauty of...

With a total size of 45,346 km², Canterbury is New Zealand's largest region, but with the majority of the area being taken up by mountains, well over half of Canterbury's 600,000 inhabitants are living in the Christchurch metropolitan area. This leaves huge stretches of the epic landscape untouched, which, in turn, was probably the reason why this area was chosen to shoot a number of famous scenes from The Lord of the Rings.

For the very first time so far, I'm not staying in a settlement of any kind, but rather on a family farm in the middle of the mountains. The closest settlement is Culverden with only about 400 inhabitants, and even that's about half an hour's drive away. Having a car is a must in these parts, for without it, one would constantly be walking for hours at a time. This place is also the starting and ending point of the Hurunui High Country Track, which is a three-day hiking trail through the nearby mountains.

I quickly take a liking to this area, and after getting ready for the day, it's time to start with...

The High Country Helpfulness

My WWOOFing hosts this time around are Mandy and Dan, who run this place all by themselves - with the occasional help of a few hired hands, as well as WWOOFers such as myself. They're also parents to Amalia, a girl of 11 years, as well as Hugh, a boy aged 8, and have a cute little she-dog named Bitty, who is already quite advanced in age.

Also, near the end of my stay here, two new WWOOFers arrive on this place. Their names are Leah and Simon, and they're also from Germany. Unlike me, however, they're both only 19 years old, and are doing this road trip as a journey of self-discovery in the gap between school and university.

Would that I had thought of that option when I was that age - it would have saved me a year of wasted university when I started to study physics, but the found that it was not right for me. But then again, my life might have gone completely differently, and I most certainly wouldn't be here writing this right now. So I shall not dwell on matters of the past, and instead tell you about...

The Place

The property I'm working on this time around is mega-freacking HUGE! The entire farm covers 17,000 acres, which amounts to 26.5 square miles, or about 68.7 km². That's almost a quarter of Munich, and 1,5‰ of the entirety of Canterbury. Most of the area consists of pastures for their 1,000 sheep and 700 heads of cattle, as well as meadows for the 350 hives of Manuka-honey producing bees.

The heart of the farm is a collection of small buildings: The main family home, the Cook House, a spare home, and an assortment of sheds, garages and storage houses...

...and getting even there from the boundary of the property already takes 10 minutes on foot.

I'm staying in the Cook House, a small set of cabins, which is one of the three night-time stops of the Hurunui High Country Track.

It's self sustained, and even has its own outhouse... well as showers in the annex.

The inside features a number of sleeping rooms, a lounge with a fireplace, as well as a little kitchen...

...and then, of course, there's my own cosy little bedroom.

Since this is a well-stocked farm, one shouldn't be surprised to open the door in the morning and find the lawn populated by sheep...

...or even horses.

The surrounding area is, as mentioned before, quite astounding...

...and even though I'm only here for one week, I still manage to find the time to set a foot outside the gates of the extensive property...

...and go exploring around the area for a bit.

On my way, I cross precarious bridges... well as narrow cliff-side roads, all of which my hosts normally traverse with their minivan.

The river flowing through this valley is known as the Mandamus, and it's flow occasionally separates to give birth to little gravel islets.

Eventually, I follow the signs back to the Island Hills Station...

...past fields of yellow flowers...

...and the neighbouring Glens of Tekoa.

Another day, I set out to climb one of the nearby hills together with Hugh...

...and even though the boy is not determined enough to follow me all the way to the top, we still have a good time along the way.

Eventually, I arrive at the hill-crest, and am rewarded with a marvellous view.

The wind up here is quite strong though, so I have to be careful not to be blown off my feet...

...and from the far side of the ridge, I can see across the river valley and all the way to the pasture I am working on...

...which brings us to our next topic:

The Job

With so many livestock around, one wouldn't be surprised to hear me tell about how my daily duties revolved around herding sheep and cattle alike. Alas, that's not the case at all. The animals on the pastures are, in fact, pretty independent, and don't need anyone to look after them. They're, in fact, pretty shy, and without the help of a proper sheepdog, like the one kept at a kennel near the farm... will quickly find that it's pretty impossible to herd the sheep, since they start running away if one gets even within 50m of them.

Rather, one of my jobs is stringing fence gates with mesh wire, which is a lot more arduous than one might think. Even at my best, it still takes me two and a half hours to finish a single gate by myself, and when working together with Leah and Simon, the three of us manage to get one gate ready per hour.

It's a pretty straightforward job, though, and the most exciting thing that happens during it is a small herd of horses passing by on their way to visit the Cook House.

Another job is clearing away the rubble of a demolished chimney.

This, too, is a task which I would not have guessed to be so time consuming, but since there's a total of two piles to be cleared up...

...and since the bricks need to be sorted by condition (usable VS busted) and stacked neatly atop the trailer, it takes me a full 4 hours to finish this task.

That's long enough for Bitty - who's been keeping me company the whole time - to curl up in the nearby grass, and start snoring with exceedingly cute little noises.

This job also happens to be the time when I learn how to drive in reverse with a trailer, and everyone who has ever found himself having to do that will agree that it can be quite tricky - especially when doing it the first time.

The most extraordinary job, however, awaits me at a pasture about 30 minutes away per car. The drive alone is already quite exciting, since it involves crossing a river...

...without such highbrow infrastructure as a bridge. No, one simply has to drive the car right through!

That's quite a shaky experience, especially when one is driving the vehicle and has to operate the pedals against all that rocking. Fortunately, my work vehicle, an old but sturdy Toyota Hillux, is up to the task.

Yup, I have my own work vehicle for this job. Since the pasture is half an hour away, my hosts have granted me this workhorse of a car to drive to and return from the site every day. However, this vehicle is nothing compared to the beast I get to ride while on the actual job.

That's right, my third job at this place actually involves me operating a freacking bulldozer, and there's so many levers and pedals to this thing that one would imagine spiders to be the ideal crew for this vehicle.

My objective this time is to convert several acres of fallow land...

...into an open pasture, perfect for cattle to graze on, and while it pains me to tear out trees and bushes by the score using this fearsome metal beast, I also understand the necessity of this measure from an agricultural perspective, and do my best to fulfil my duty as thoroughly as possible.

Naturally, however, I still avoid running over any of the local wildlife, such as a pair of quails running across these fields...

...and on the final day, even cows are already starting to take an interest in these newly flattened lands.

Altogether, I enjoy the experience these jobs give me. However, there's also one experience that I hope I won't have to repeat any time soon... or ever. Namely:

The Earthquake

It's my second night on the Sky Islands Station, and I've gone to bed early after a busy day of stringing fence gates. After a nice, hot shower, I curl up in my blankets and quickly fall asleep.

Two hours after midnight, I am roughly awakened by a bulldozer slamming into the side of the Cook House, tearing it clear of its foundations, and shoving it down the side of the hill - or at least that's what it feels like.

A rush of adrenaline floods my system, and my thoughts are highly focused as I analyse the situation almost instinctively. Most importantly, I realize that this is an earthquake, and don't panic. I was aware that I was entering earthquake territory when I came to New Zealand, and have mentally prepared myself for this eventuality.

Now, the normal procedure for a case like this would be to get under a table and wait until the shaking stops. Unfortunately, my little room doesn't have a table, and getting to the nearest table would involve leaving the room, and crossing the kitchen with its assortment of loose sharp or heavy objects. As such, I discard that idea, and instead opt to stay in bed. The shaking is so strong that I probably wouldn't even be able to walk if I got up.

Fortunately, my bedroom is rather safe. There's no high shelves, and no objects on the walls which could fall down. Nonetheless, I'm afraid that the entire house might come down and bury me, or that I might get electrocuted by cables that might break free. But I don't really have any other options, and consciously I'm only too aware of the fact that the best I can do right now is to stay at my current position and hope nothing happens.

The shaking continues for minutes, which feel like hours to me, but eventually, the quake subsides, and only relatively small aftershocks rock the building periodically.

With this having been my very first earthquake (or the very first I consciously registered as one), I have no point of reference as to whether it was a big one, or just an ordinary quake for these parts. However, a few minutes later, Mandy and Dan come by to check on me and evacuate me to their place - it was one of the strongest quakes they ever experienced, and they were genuinely worried about me.

Since the power failed, we get the emergency generator from the shed and take refuge in their house. There, my hosts start calling their friends and family to check in with them and see if they're alright too, while I contact my family via Telegram, and comfort Bitty and the children.

We stay up for a full hour afterwards as aftershocks continue to rock the landscape. After that, Mandy and Dan accommodate me in a small side building for the night, and I try to get some sleep - not an easy task when another aftershock shakes the house every few minutes. Eventually, however, I manage to fall asleep again and dream of - how could it be any other way - earthquakes.

In the morning, we inspect the damage. It turns out we were rather lucky - only one window of the family home got broken, and two chimneys were damaged to the point where they had to be completely demolished for safety purposes. The Cook House didn't suffer any damage at all, and a couple of water pipes got broken in the spare home downhills, but that's all.

Other parts of New Zealand were not as lucky. The city of Kaikoura took the brunt of the damage, with all land-based routes of travel being cut off due to slips, landslides, or both. In fact, the Coastal Pacific railway line, which I used to get to Waipara only two days ago, pretty much got destroyed, and repairs are estimated to take up to a year - meaning I was aboard the second-to-last train running on that route for a long time.

This earthquake, which measured up to a magnitude of 7.8, was, in fact, the second-biggest earthquake New Zealand has ever had in recorded history - right after the 1855 Wairarapa Earthquake - and one of the three strongest earthquakes worldwide in 2016. Geologically, this quake was the result of a complex series of ruptures on at least 6 faults. The largest movement occurred on the coastal Kekerengu Fault, where slips of up to 10m were recorded. On top of that geologists identified a new fault beneath the Waipapa bay, which had been either dormant for some time, or was newly formed as a result of the tremors. Another fact that makes this quake special is the fact that the largest release of energy was not at the epicentre, but rather 100km to the north of it - which is probably the reason why the Island Hills Station received relatively little damage despite being only 20km away from it.

The total damage of this beast of a quake is estimated to go into the billions, with the capital of Wellington also having sustained considerable damage. More and more buildings are being condemned, and the ferry service across the Cook strait was suspended for some time, and yet...

...the most amazing part about this disaster is the fact that, in spite of the severity of the event, only two people died. One was crushed in the historic Elms Farm homestead near Kaikoura, which now exists no more, while the other died of a heart-attack. Considering that the 2011 Christchurch earthquake, which wasn't even one-tenth as strong, claimed the lives of 185, the low death toll truly is miraculous, and a homage to how far New Zealand has come with earthquake protection measures.

More aftershocks keep occurring for the days to come as the continental plates are now free to move again, what with that snag removed and all. It's been pretty earthquake-free so far for me, but from now on out, little quakes constantly keep reminding me that the earth is moving beneath my feet.

And with this quake, all the pieces are falling into place: The reason why I didn't experience an earthquake so far was because there was a huge snag in the faults, and the tension just kept building up for months, until one night, it simply snapped, and caused one of the strongest earthquakes in New Zealand's history. Now, that the snag is gone, the plates are moving at their normal pace again, resulting in a number of smaller, more frequent earthquakes. Personally, I prefer it this way, having the ground shake a little bit every day, as opposed to one disastrous discharge every few years. Sure, the next big quake is guaranteed to happen one day or another, but with all the tension taken out of the faults, it's bound to be another few years before this level of energy manages to accumulate again. So for now, I sleep easily, knowing that it's not likely that another quake of this scale is going to hit again in the next 50 or 60 years, and acknowledge the occasional tremor as a sign that the earth is still alive beneath my feet.

The Food

With that dreadful quake out of the way, let's talk about more tasty matters, such as the food I received in this place.

As I mentioned before, Mandy and Dan are keeping an army of bees to produce premium Manuka Honey for them. As such, I have the opportunity to get some of this delicious spread onto my bread before it even hits the store shelves, and do not hesitate to make it part of my start into the day.

And while I usually make myself sandwiches to take out with me for lunch (after all, when I'm out on the pasture with the bulldozer, it would be kind of a hassle to drive all the way back to the house for lunch), Mandy does prepare tasty meals at noon on the days when I'm working around the house.

Finally, at dinnertime, there's always a balanced and wholesome meal to look forward to (although the kids do not quite fancy the green peas).

The Flair

One of the first things I learn after arriving is that 8-year-old Hugh already has a kid-sized motorcycle, which he really enjoys driving around. More than once does he accompany Dan and me on it while we're out with the truck, and when around the house, he likes to practice his jumps. That's one step the kid is ahead of me at handling motorcycles.

At the gates of the farm, I notice an array of warning signs cautioning against all sorts of potential hazards. Going by them, you'd guess there'd be a dozen work accidents every day, but fortunately, apart from the occasional scratch, I'm pretty much okay.

I try to get a good picture of the supermoon, but unfortunately, my camera doesn't seem to be designed to take pictures of the moon...

...or the spectacular starlit firmament for that matter.

It does, however, do a pretty good job of capturing the amazing, eerie sheen in the western sky during the twilight hour.

I also manage to capture the sunset, which here in the mountains, occurs already at 20:00, despite daylight saving time being in effect...

...and on my final day, I get up early to watch the sun rise over the eastern peaks.

As power sockets go in this place... well, sometimes you just have to stack them...

...and by the way, that's not a spoon...

...that's a spoon!

The Retrospective

Staying with Mandy and Dan on the Island Hills Station was definitely a nice experience. Looking back on it, the thing I enjoyed most about it was, in fact, the diverse work, which kept every day exciting and diverse. I knew that I might have to drive in New Zealand - which is why I got my licence prior to my departure - but for one, I would never have expected to operate a bulldozer.

The breathtaking scenery ranks a close second, and I'm quite happy that I got to this slightly remote spot thanks to WWOOFing. Think about it: Even with the Hurunui High Country track around here, how many people will get to see this amazing view? For one, I didn't meet a single hiker during my week here, so it can't be that many.

The atmosphere was nice too, and while there was only limited WiFi - and even that only at the family home, not in the Cook House I was staying in - I was positively surprised they had internet at all this far off the beaten track.

Sure, the Cook House was not exactly the sort of place you'd want to spend a prolonged amount of time in, but then again, Mandy told me that they're currently setting up the spare home as an accommodation for future generations of WWOOFers. And hey, the place held strong despite the earthquake, so it can't have been that bad, right? Even the slightly damaged fuse box (which already was that way when I moved in) stayed intact despite appearing to come off at any minute.

All things considered, I'd call this a pretty decent place, and am glad that I came here. However, at the end of the day, I'm probably too much of a city fox to properly appreciate the flair of a rural setting like this, and while I can picture myself working at another place like this in the future, I'm quite happy that I'm mmoving back into a city for now.

The Road Ahead

After one week of staying at the Island Hills Station, my time here is up, and the road calls out to me once again. Before I depart, however, I gift my hosts a piece of artwork I prepared earlier, which depicts the entire family together.

They're all very pleased by it, and my little gift promptly earns a place of honor on the fridge.

But then, it's time to depart. The entire family takes me down to the village of Culverden, where I have several hours to spend before my bus arrives. Fortunately, the entire place has free WiFi (!)...

...and so I set up my workstation in the nearby park to work on myblog while I wait for my bus.

Incidentally, if you're not happy about your family, you can do something about it here in Culverden, because they have a...

Due the aftermath of the earthquake, the bus is just a little bit late. I start getting nervous after 15 minutes, but fortunately, the carriage arrives in the end. This one is also just a small bus, similar to the one I took from Auckland to New Plymouth...

...and just like that, I'm off onto the next leg of my journey. My destination this time: the bustling city of Christchurch.

It's not even two hours, but the route there sure is spectacular. It takes me across the Hurunui River, which is the eponym of the entire district...

...and through the Weka Pass with its amazing rock formations.

And after driving through this idyllic landscape for a little longer...

...I eventually arrive in Colony 6 Christchurch, which has recovered nicely after the Mechon attack 2011 earthquake. In fact, it looks better than ever, and even the playgrounds are amazing.

Okay, so some parts of the city are still under construction...

...and the people here seem to have a quite literal understanding of "vertical parking"...

...but the parts of the city that have been reconstructed look fantastic! The central bus terminal alone looks more than an airport than a station...

...and some of the abstract sculptures in this city appear to be floating in mid-air.

From the central terminal, I take a bus to take me to the district of Shirley, where I'll stay for one night in the...

In spite of its dark and foreboding name, it's actually a nice little house in a sunny neighbourhood.

The person who invited me here is Rachael, a Furry and passionate fursuit maker...

...and even though she already has quite a number of people staying in her place, she still offers me a Harry Potter-style place under the staricase.

One of the other people living at this place is a nice girl by the name of Carla, who keeps a pair of young, cute pet rats in a cage in her room.

That evening, I whip up a delightful mean of Naleiayafero for Carla and me - as well as anyone else who likes some. I deliberately made a portion big enough to feed a fair number of people. I have a good time talking with Carla over dinner. Turns out she has just returned from a trip to Munich, and much like me, is now looking to get a job in Christchurch. She's also a fellow Undertale player, and after dinner I help her past a particularly troublesome boss, and we end up playing it for some time afterwards. Eventually, however, time disintegrates...

...and it's time to turn in for the night. Tomorrow, I'll continue on to my next stop, the Renegades Community Centre down in the district of Woolston. But for tonight, I rest in the cosy little alcove under the stairs.