Monday, January 10, 2011
Last night I stayed at Matterhorn south, which had a nice vibe. The TV room was full of Israelis and French speaking their respective languages in little clusters, but the kitchen had a big group of odd-looking Canadian college kids playing cards. The girls all had half-shaved heads etc. Things drifted into a game of slap-nose, but the girl who lost was so scared they all just gave her little love-taps with her deck of cards.
In the morning I went to the rodeo. It was awesome. Things started out with perfect weather and the 2nd division- entertaining due to the number of falls and mishaps. I was hoping to see a woman in the bull- or broncho-riding events, or even in steer wrestling, but they were only in course-races. And there were quite a lot of female contestants in those. The first one out was a little thing in a bright green shirt. She spurred her mount hard and bounced around so much I was amazed she stayed on and figured that must have been what I looked like on the Dart Stables horse. Second class had steer-riding, steer roping, steer wrestling (fun to watch), 2-person steer roping (featuring several husband-and-wife teams and one father and son team with a 14 yr old, broncho riding, and the barrel course. Some really little kids did the barrel race- the youngest looked about six and fell off at the end. He was carried off crying into daddy’s shoulder. NZ is awesome, have I mentioned that? Around the time the second division ended, it started to pour rain. Of course the hardy kiwis just stayed for the most part, many of them just sitting out getting soaked in sweatshirts and shorts. There were a lot of romantic old-timey-looking types in dusters and cowboy hats. One woman I sat near was telling stories about breaking her back and being medevaced by the Flying Doctors. First Division was quite exciting. I went down off the hill and took up a position right next to the ring to watch the riders’ technique. The broncho riders really got tossed around- made me want to try it! Most of them leaned way back, almost laying on the horses’ back. Most, but not all, made the requisite eight seconds, and were awarded points based on skill and style. Some of the horses made a lot of noise kicking at their pens, and a couple burst forth on two hind legs, rearing high as soon as they had room. More than one rider was stepped on, but none spent more than a couple minutes doubled over in pain afterwards… The highlight of the rodeo came last- the bull riders. The bulls were big and looked like they were made of pure muscle. They averaged 1500 lbs. A couple guys ended up getting stepped on here too, but didn’t seem to suffer any permanent injury. They had only a rope wound round the bull’s middle to hold on to. After they fell most bulls would continue bucking until the rope came off too, giving the rider some time to move away. When a bull went for the rider, the young, nimble bull fighters (dressed in rugby uniforms, what else?) would deftly distract him, working in teams to allow each other to escape if the bull came to close. Everyone was wary of these animals, leaping up onto the fence if one came to close. One bull went into a rage and rolled a barrel all around the ring, which was hilarious. They were all worked up and great strings of snot hung from their noses. A lot of the games seemed cruel to the livestock, but then again I suppose they’re all destined for the meat market soon anyway. At times throughout the day the bull fighters would have a hard time getting one back into the pens, and the announcer and his friend would clown around and entertain the audience with unflagging energy. Of course this included a few oaths, dirty jokes, kissing of random ladies, and buttock-baring, in spite of the family venue! I’m very excited to start riding now. My first lesson is the day after tomorrow, and I’ll be telling her I’m interested in riding fast and jumping.
Wednesday, January 5, 2011
I stopped at Goldfields Mining Center at Gee’s Flat in Otago for a $25 tour. Gold was discovered here in the 1861 in the Lawrence River near Dunedin - 20 years after the California gold rush and 10 years after Australia’s gold rush. Many of the men who had worked claims in these rushes traveled to New Zealand to try their luck here. After the finds petered out, they were followed by Chinese miners who kept to themselves and were discriminated against. They averaged half as much income as the European miners. The first miners took up to 40 kilos a week out of the river. Nuggets are fairly common; last week a German gold-panner found a pinky-sized nugget. Gold nuggets are worth 4-5 times their weight, due to rarity. Most Cromwell gold is quite pure. Gold is very ductile - a matchbox sized piece can be hammered into a workable sheet the size of a tennis court. The source of the Cromwell gold has been traced to the hills up the river, but never found. If it hasn’t been eroded away, it’s probably a rich deposit. The mined area is an old river bank. The current river has downcut below the level of the mining field to create the Kawarau Gorge. 200-foot deep layers of flood-deposited, gold-bearing gravel alternate with clay blown in during dry glacial periods. The gravel beds are now protected, but the gravel of the riverbed still contains gold and is still panned by individual entrepreneurs. The tour guide, a nice older fellow, passed around some gold flakes and valuable nuggets. Then he took us up and ran some still-operating 1890’s machinery. The machines were simple affairs, run off head pressure created by twin dammed lakes 180’ up the hill. One unit, called a stamper battery, contained water-driven weighted stampers that crushed gold-bearing quartz to a dust, which was then run in a water stream over a mercury-plated copper ramp, which attracted the gold dust and held it. He also showed us a California sluice gun- basically a monitor gun which flowed 200-500 gpm out of variable-sized tips to hydraulically erode the hillside. Numerous hand-dug tunnels and shafts penetrate the landscape. Miners dug down to explore deeper gravel layers as the upper ones became worked out. Mining continued off and on at Gee’s Flat for 130 years, until it became a protected historical area. Now many visitors and ticket holders from the nearby jetboat operation take tours and pan for gold in gravels borught up from the river. I tried my hand at panning- filling a shallow broad dish with gravel and some small lead pellets, then rinsing it several times and swirling water through it until all the light gravel was washed out. I was very happy to find a bit of gold-bearing quartz at the bottom. Retention pond built by miners to provide reliable water pressure to operate equipment.
Huts of Chinese miners.
Inside a hut
Hydraulic sluice guns made the work of digging out gold-bearing gravel easier.
Hydraulic power for the stamper battery.
19th century stamper battery- still operating! Ore-bearing rock was crushed by the large weighted rods of the stamper. The resulting wet slurry ran down the ramp seen in front. The ramp's coated in mercury, which has an affinity for gold and picked up the gold dust out of the slurry.
Tuesday, January 4, 2011
The weta is one of NZ’s most infamous creatures. The Maori called them Devils of the Night, or Gods of Ugly Things. An early scientist, Sir Walter Buller, once attempted to collect and kill some wetas for studying. One was held underwater for four days but survived; another was still alive after being dropped into near-boiling water; while yet another ate its way out of his handkerchief. But in spite of their fearsome appearance they are quite harmless, and very rarely aggressive.
Wetas are found in several Southern Hemisphere countries apart from NZ. The largest species found here are the heaviest insects in the world, weighing up to 70g- however there are over 70 species of weta in NZ. Even older than the tuatara, wetas are a very primitive creature. Our wetas have changed very little since NZ was isolated from the rest of the world many years ago. In fact some species are very similar now to when they lived with the dinosaurs.
Wetas can be divided into four major groups - cave wetas, tree wetas, ground wetas, and giant wetas.
Cave Wetas can be identified by their small bodies with relatively long legs. One species in Northland has a body length of about 2.5 cm - but its total length from antennae to hind legs is 35cm. They choose to live in dark places- not just in caves but in crevices and mine tunnels, and under logs and houses. Deep in caves, there is not always a good food supply, so they are seldom found far from entrances.
Because they live in little or no light, they have very small eyes- so their long legs and antennae are needed to help them feel around in the dark. The antennae are also waved around in the air to detect air currents. If disturbed, they can move very quickly and can jump up to 2m.
Cave wetas occasionally eat each other before their shells get hard, but usually they just eat soft plants like algae, as well as fungi and dead animals. On dark moonless nights, they often come outside in large groups to feed.
Tree and Ground Wetas: Tree wetas (or bush wetas) are NZ’s most common weta, found everywhere except in the far south. They are often unearthed hiding in piles of firewood, and are distinguished by their large heads. Like grasshoppers they have ears on their front legs, while the back legs are rubbed against their stomach to produce mating and fighting noises. Fighting is common amongst males competing for a group of females- the winner is usually the weta with the biggest jaws.
Tree wetas eat the leaves of many different plants, but prefer the softer leaves of some species such as mahoe or karamu. The females will sometimes eat their own discarded skins or other dead insects, to get extra energy for egg laying.
Ground wetas are much smaller than tree wetas and don’t have such big heads. As the name suggests they live in the ground, often in holes left by other insects, such as grass grubs and cicadas. Ground wetas, like cave wetas, are silent and have no ears.
Giant Wetas are the least common, but most fascinating type of weta found in NZ. Ten species have been discovered so far, in a variety of habitats - some live in burrows, some in the tops of trees, and some on alpine rock slopes. Most species are found in only very small areas, such as the Mahoenui giant weta - found only in a 300 hectare area of gorse in the King Country.
They are too large to jump (some are up to 8cm long), and are quite slow moving. This makes them readily preyed upon by rats, more so because the burrows of some species are large enough for a rat to enter. Because of this, and their limited distribution, most species are in danger of becoming extinct. Many of the largest species are now found only on offshore islands where rats have been eliminated. All our species of giant weta are protected by law.
The various types of wetas lay their eggs in various ways, because of their diverse habitats. Female cave wetas use their ovipositor (an egg laying organ extending form the rear end) to find soft cave mud of the right texture and depth, then lay just one or two eggs per hole. Tree wetas lay roughly 250 eggs in the soil (about 15mm down) near the base of their tree- the only time in their life that they descend to the ground.
Ground wetas lay their eggs in the burrow walls, where the young wetas end up spending much of their early life; giant wetas lay up to 400 eggs when they reach their maximum size (just before dying), usually in soil near their natural habitat.
Most wetas live for around two years, during which they evolve form an egg to a series of immature forms known as nymphs, in instars, and finally to full adult maturity. However, the details of the life cycle are poorly known for many species. Cave wetas lay their eggs in late autumn. The eggs take about 8 months to incubate, after which the nymph goes through three moults (each moult is an instar) before reaching maturity. A typical ground or tree weta goes through 10 instars. Each stage is only slightly different from that before it, so that by the time the weta reaches the sixth or seventh instar it is almost mature. Giant wetas also go through about ten instars. The often break their antennae while shedding skin between instars, but can easily regenerate them.