26 December 2013

Making the Great Walks Really Great

As covered previously, our recent tramp around Lake Waikaremoana lived up to the Great Walk title, but was slightly let down by not so great huts.  People we spoke to on the hike had similar stories: no water on the Tongariro Northern Circuit, no firewood (the only way to warm the huts), poor maintenance etc.  This is despite many huts being booked out for weeks or months.

Here is my solution to the above and other issues:

Create a 'Deputy Warden' system of volunteer backpackers and students to undertake basic tasks at the huts year round - checking hut tickets, cutting firewood, sweeping floors, basic maintenance etc.  They would get free accommodation and food provided.  Would backpackers and students be willing to volunteer to do this?  Thousands of people worldwide do WWOOFing and similar volunteer work for an experience like this.  A mandatory training course would enable qualified deputies go from area to area experiencing NZ's beautiful scenery on a minimal budget and with some great stories to take home.

Create similar volunteer groups to undertake weed and pest control during the off-season.  School tramping groups should at least have to do a half day of work to teach the students about invasive species and ecology.

Build small (approx 10m2) 4-6 bed pre-fabricated sleep-out style huts which can be transported by road, boat or helicopter to immediately supplement the existing overbooked accommodation.  These would be available at a higher rate than the dorm beds and could be booked by families or groups wanting privacy and a good night's sleep.  They could be equipped with solar lighting and secure doors, but cooking would still be done in the main building for the communal experience and atmosphere of the traditional hut.

Photo by Eric Martinot

Hold architectural competitions to design new landmark viewing platforms and footbridges to create discrete but memorable photo opportunities for people to take home and for journalists to feature in travel articles.
Roost Treehouse by Antony Gibbons Design

As a structural engineer I also couldn't help but notice that all of the smoke alarms had been removed from the Lake Waikaremoana huts, presumably because of false alarms from the wood burners and food cookers.

Surely this is a major safety issue with everyone bringing their own cooking equipment into the huts (no burners are provided).

This, coupled with somewhat meaningless 'box ticking' signage for exit routes from large single room dormitories highlights a disconnect between Building Code compliance and reality.

Lake Waikaremoana, Great Walk!

While the malls were heaving with zombie shoppers just before Christmas we escaped to the remote Te Urewera National Park to tramp for four days around Lake Waikaremoana.  As with the other NZ Great Walks, the scenery was spectacular.

The track climbs up the Panekiri Range then descends back down to lake level to follow the western shoreline.

What was perhaps less than spectacular was the condition of the Department of Conservation (DOC) huts along the way.  We were told that there are now no hut wardens until Boxing Day meaning there was nobody to check to see whether we had paid the $32 per night fee, or to keep the huts in some semblance of order - no firewood or toilet paper, unswept floors and filthy toilets.

The nine "Great Walks" showcase New Zealand's spectacular environment to the world, but I think the experience of noisy 30 bunk dormitories and dirty facilities may be putting many people off the great outdoors, tourists and New Zealanders alike.  

I certainly don't blame DOC for this.  They struggle with insufficient funds and shrinking budgets, but I think there is room for improvement in a way that would benefit DOC, tourists, Kiwi trampers and the environment and I will cover this in a separate post.

Back on the Air

December has been quiet on the blogging front.  I was preoccupied with the final conclusion of a very stressful three year long battle which I am happy to say is now over.  I hope to be back to posting more regularly from now.

15 November 2013

Four More Things About The Road Code That Are Stupid and Dangerous

Thankfully New Zealand has recently dropped two of the silliest give way rules in our Road Code.  Maybe a few more could be looked at in the future.

1.   Hand Signals for Cyclists

Imagine you are driving your car and you need to turn right into a side road.  What if the Road Code says that you have to take your right foot off the brake and put it out the window?  You've still got your hand brake to slow down but you only have one hand on the wheel.  Sound safe?  Well that's what the Road Code says cyclists have to do.  You have to take your hand off the front brake (the one that does most of the work) and steer and brake with the other hand while sticking a limb in the air for three seconds before you make your turn.

Use hand signals

Hand signals must be used at least three seconds before:
  • moving into traffic
  • stopping
  • turning left
  • turning right
  • moving from a lane.
Turning left
Turning left
Slowing down or stopping
Slowing down or stopping
Turning right, passing or pulling out
Turning right, passing or pulling out
 (NZ Road Code)

The law should say 'where safe to do so' and leave it to common sense as is generally (but not always) employed by the cycling public.

2.   The 20km/h Rule When Passing a Stopped Rural School Bus

File:New Zealand RG-1 (20 kmh).svg

School bus signs
The signs below will be displayed on school buses. If a school bus has stopped to let children on or off, you must slow down and drive at 20km/h or less until you are well past the bus, no matter what direction you are coming from.

School bus signs

(NZ Road Code)

Seriously?  You round a bend at 80km/h on a rural road to see a school bus stopped on the side of the road.  You hit the brakes to achieve the required 20km/h.  Unfortunately, the car behind you thinks you are stopping and so veers out to overtake you right at the most dangerous point when you are overtaking the stopped bus and there are children stepping off.

Either the law should require vehicles to come to a complete stop as is the case in the US or we should ditch this singly low speed limit and replace it with the same limit in urban areas outside schools (50km/h).

3.   The 100km/h Rural Speed Limit

100 km speed limit signDerestriction sign

It is ridiculous to impose the same speed limit on a divided motorway with a wide shoulder, no side roads, driveways or wandering stock as is generally specified on most rural roads in New Zealand.

The open road speed limit was raised from 80 to 100km/h in the 1980's after the oil shock came to an end but it was back in the day when we only really had two settings: 50km/h on urban streets and the open road limit for the rest.  

Now we have 50, 60, 70, 80 and 100km/h limits imposed on many city roads and highways, but not generally on our rural roads.  Sure, there are plenty of rural arterial roads where the conditions would allow a safe 100km/h limit, but the default should be a more realistic 80km/h unless someone can explain to me how a rural road is as safe as a motorway. 

4.   The 100km/h Motorway Speed Limit

100 km speed limit signDerestriction sign

Most of our motorways are not up to the standard of their counterparts in Europe and the US, so the 100km/h limit is probably about right.

There are some notable exceptions though, such as SH1 Orewa to Puhoi and Manurewa to the Bombay Hills where a 110km/h limit would be appropriate and would give the right message about 'driving to the conditions' rather than just blindly sticking to (or exceeding) the limit.  This has been reported in some detail previously by Stuff, the AA and others but I think it is still valid.

13 November 2013

Furniture Supported by Tension

These and other pieces of furniture and sculpture are by young Californian designer Robby Cuthbert

Contour Coffee Table Rectangle glass top.jpg

Contour Lamp Front Lit.jpg

Suspension Shelf Front with Books.jpg

The last one is very reminiscent of cable stayed bridges such as the Millau Viaduct in southern France which we visited in 2010.

This photo is taken from the viewing area.  The highest pier is taller than the Eiffel Tower.

29 October 2013

'Don't Forget the Cannoli'

It wasn't quite a horse head in the bed but the message was clear: 'These cat biscuits you are trying to feed me?  Unacceptable.  I have a message:  The next person who feeds me these biscuits sleeps with the fishes.'

(Apologies to The Godfather)  

The old saying that dogs want to be your friends but cats are plotting to kill you is nicely illustrated by The Oatmeal here.

24 October 2013

"Lucy, I can smell sadness!"

I started barbecuing some home made beef patties this evening and as the smoke wafted away I turned around to see this.

A Pleasant Walk in the Countryside - But Not in New Zealand

We live on a narrow, winding rural road with a 100km/h speed limit.  There are no footpaths, not even a gravel shoulder, just steep sided ditches next to the white line.  It is very typical of many rural roads in New Zealand and makes absolutely no provision for cyclists, walkers, horse riders etc.

If we were to go back thirty or forty years, the situation would have been quite different.  Our road would have been unsealed, potholed, with poor sightlines and wandering stock just around the corner.  The result (completely unintentional) would have been much slower vehicle speeds and as a consequence a much more pedestrian, cyclist and horse rider friendly environment.  This is still evident in less populated areas of the country - kids riding bikes and horses, people walking on the road.  So the current situation is a relatively new phenomenon.

Over the years our road has been improved; the humps and bumps taken out, corners smoothed, and the biggest change, the road was asphalted.  This has undoubtedly been very good for journey times, the economy, dust suppression.  It is arguable whether the improvements have resulted in real accident reduction though.  Cars have become safer regardless, but physics has not changed and the faster you go the bigger the mess as the ad says. 

But there are the other drawbacks mentioned above.  If you want to go for a walk or a run, visit the local store or get your kids safely to school the only option is to first get in a vehicle and drive - or is it?

A quick look at the government's Walking Access Commission website reveals that we are surrounded by public pathways, off the main roads and often connecting two otherwise un-passable dead end roads.  These are of course 'paper roads', originally drawn up by the government but never built by the local council.

Walking Access NZ map extract showing public land in purple

Unfortunately though, the local council does not see any value in signposting these routes, and in most instances the adjoining land owner has assumed possession of the public 'road', built fences and in some instances buildings on what is actually owned by all of us.

Ironically, in the United Kingdom, a country which many of our ancestors left to escape the class system and oppressive land owners the situation is very different.  Footpaths and public bridleways criss cross the countryside.

Photo by Adrian S Pye


In most instances these are just marked trails, requiring very little investment or upkeep by the council and still providing amenity to farmers to be able to move stock around, if suitably fenced off.

A nice idea for New Zealand perhaps.

22 October 2013

Tanks For All The Water

With the latest IPCC Report predicting more extreme weather for New Zealand and elsewhere in the world, water security will become ever more important.  Fortunately we have 50,000L of roof water storage at home which got us through a very dry summer with no concerns.

Our friends wanted to add some capacity to enable them to keep their vegetable garden going so I visited them on the weekend to give Rob a hand to get their new 25,000L tank into position.  It was a simple matter of slinging it behind the Hilux and pulling it up the hill.

Thanks to the other helper, Paul for the photos.  Now all they need is some rain to fill it up!

18 October 2013

Dinosaur Footprints

This photo by Ramon Arellano shows footprints on a near vertical limestone rock face in Cal Orko, Bolivia.  This cliff would once have been a flat muddy shoreline, subsequently buried and then uplifted to an approximately 70 degree angle by tectonic forces.

16 October 2013

Vowel Shortage Hits Auckland Street Signs

Pity the poor tourist.  This is on the main route between Auckland International Airport and the CBD at the corner of Manukau Road and Great South Road - or should that be TH CRNR F MNK RD ND GRT STH RD.  It's a five road intersection where, perversely, you take the very minor looking Alpers Avenue on the left to get on to the motorway and onwards to the CBD. 

Like our motorway signage, it's great if you've lived here for a while and know where you are going.  Otherwise, not so much.

12 October 2013


Chatoyancy is the optical property of the surface of a natural material such as wood to give the illusion of depth or three dimensions.

My lovely wife booked me on a two week course at the Centre for Fine Woodworking earlier this year.  The Centre is based just out of Nelson, N.Z. and runs short and full time courses.

The project was a wall cabinet with a curved or 'coopered' door, and shelves and a small drawer inside.

We were offered a selection of different woods to use for the drawer front.  I jumped at the chance to nab a piece of rippled New Zealand Red Beech (Nothfagus fusca).  When caught in the right light it has the appearance of a drawn curtain.

11 October 2013

Developer Builds Terraced Houses, Forgets Front Doors

For the last year or so I have watched the construction of three blocks of eight terraced houses take shape in Auckland's Millwater subdivision.  Nice, a bit of medium density development to deal with the housing shortage.

One block is now finished, one nearly done and the third is being framed up.   Every unit is the same, with a pleasant garden and a set of steps leading up to a... blank wall.

Now, I'm sure the designer had his or her reasons for this, but it's all a bit post-modern in a post-post-modern world for me.  Maybe the new owners enjoy their isolation.  The message is certainly "Don't knock on our front door - we don't have one!"

About Nothing in Particular and Everything in General

This blog is not about scuba diving or wet sand, or any sand for that matter but as I sit here listening to equinox winds howling outside and cold spring showers periodically sheeting horizontally against the building I wistfully think back to 2005 and somewhere a long way away.
The Republic of Maldives, where I worked for the government for six months, and in my leisure time scuba dived in warm, clear water (There is not a lot else to do in the Maldives).  This photo was taken by my dive buddy Rowan Duval, who insisted that I be his model on each dive.  I must have been the least photogenic dive model he's had, and I'm sure I never made it in to any of his magazine articles but it was a memorable experience and it provided a nice counterbalance to working on the densely populated island city of MalĂ© in the middle of the Indian Ocean.