What a place to start your twenties. Here I am in one of the most evolutionary extraordinary places on earth….
The world’s largest island or smallest continent? Arguably both.
I would really like to get into just how strange this part of the world is!
“With regard to general problems of biogeography, the biota of New Zealand has been perhaps the most important of any in the world” (Nelson 1975).
“If we want to know what the world might have been like if vertebrates had never conquered the land[:] study New Zealand” (McGlone 1990).
Let’s crack into some biology, eh? New Zealand had five major events that created the plant playground that it is today.
- Origin of Zealandia: From its isolation some 50 mya, its endemism of the lost world of Gondwanan is ever-present. Like a natural Jurassic Park. Of course, vicariance of the species found on Gondwanan is why the islands show such similarity to parts of Australia, Africa, and South America, but New Zealand is also uniquely its own. The separation allowed some species that went extinct elsewhere to continue to thrive here, and dispersal has allowed for new members to join the biota with their own little quarks as well.
- Submergence: Sometime in the Oligocene period (25-38 mya) the island submerged. You can imagine what happened to many of the original terrestrial organisms, yet miraculously some did survive. Ranges vary in how much it was submerged, many suggesting 80%. Evidence of this is present in the limestone found throughout the island, and strange geology of places like the west coast’s Pancake Rocks (will visit at some point).
- Miocene Tectonic Activity: New Zealand rests on the SW Pacific plate and NE Australian plate, and the collision of them is likely what saved the land from drowning. The alps hence formed offering a new alpine habitat to many organisms (rapid speciation/biological radiation occurring). There was also a bilateral horizontal displacement because of the fault line. Think a rectangle turning into a parallelogram, and evidence of this is found in fauna being similar in areas far too separated for dispersal. Large mountains also create new climate, like the Rain Shadow Effect: dry on the eastern side of the mountain, wet on the west. These mountains are so large and plentiful that without erosion they would have been 16-20 km created in just 5-12 mya (that’s freaky fast in geological time). Unfortunately, erosion did occur and continues to this day. It’s why the Canterbury Plains exist. Finally, I won’t fail to mention the volcanism that created the hot pools I swam in Saturday night!
- Post-Miocene Climate Change: Think glaciation carving out valleys and lakes by their movement and melting. These large hunks of ice caused major sea level falling and rising. A bridge even formed for gene flow to occur between the North and South Island. It’s not so nice for the alpine habitats though, as they disappear and then originate further down the mountain slopes. Organisms don’t do well with massive changes like that, and if it was too cold for ‘em they went extinct. Don’t just think animals were not doing well, because glaciation affects soil composition quite a bit. It removes the top-layers, and substrate-specific plants are SOL. Luckily, New Zealand wasn’t entirely glaciated, and refugium (refuges) from the glaciers kept many alive. These places have more genetic diversity than the repopulated alpine areas. One of the greatest examples is the beech gap on the South Island. Very few endemic species exist in the central South Island and Southern North Island.
- Humans: We are jerks. We made a lot of creatures go extinct! Like Moas? Those things are monster chickens! We also brought our own biota that still wreak havoc on native biota to this day, but that’s a story for another day.
Ok. So now we know the origins of this place, what about hiking in it?
I just got hazed by the UC Tramping Club on ma birthday weekend.
I decided to join the University’s Tramping Club! I got a proper backpack, gaiters, a tent, and all that fun stuff. I was ready to go, and when the group offered a trip described as reasonable for beginners, I was down. I’ve hiked the Tetons, Glacier, Smoky Mountains, Estes Park, you name it.
But oh honey, I learned two things very quickly:
- We are spoiled in how well maintained our trails are in the States.
- Tramping does not equal hiking. Tramping is more like hiking on steroids.
That “easy trail” was 6 ½ hours and 14 miles one-way with 7 river crossings, and climbing the side of the mountain with a 40-pound pack, no ropes, and about as wide of a trail as your two feet together. One side you grab onto tree roots, the other is a long fall down.
The final river crossing to the camp was by far the coldest as well, and the sun was setting. I was freezing and the best option was to strip down and run your ass to the hot pools. And as everyone thought the same thing, we were stacked like sardines in those pools.
I will say once you warmed up, the site was amazing. You could see the Milky Way and Southern Cross. I counted 8 shooting stars in the time I sat in those pools.
I should mention, I didn’t go with my roommates on this one. I was a lone-wolf, and man oh man did I meet some characters.
Kiwis are true outdoorsmen, I heard some pretty amazing tales and learned quite a lot from them. One of them handed me a pepper leaf and told me to eat it while in the woods. It makes your mouth numb, but in a good way.
They also helped me find clean water to refill on the way back, and of course I learned how to properly cross a river.
Anyways, after the pools, I was toast. I curled up in my sleeping bag and was out.
By morning, everything was wet if not frozen. My sleeping bag was soaked, but is such awesome quality I didn’t feel it. My boots, however, rock solid.
There’s nothing like slipping on a pair of frozen boots, losing sensation in your toes, and booking it to the hot pools to dunk those puppies in.
Honestly, starting out the next day I was worried I couldn’t do this. I was far passed my comfort zone, but I kept smiling and kept Chance in my head.
“All you need are happy thoughts.”
Not to mention, my companions on the trip felt the same, and were there for extra water and food. Even our leaders were not expecting a track like this. I truly felt a part of the crowd.
I will say I am more skilled than I thought and at many points I was put in the lead (obviously not with the kiwis), because I was able to keep us on the trail.
And despite some butt and shin falls, I made it.
I did it, I can do stuff like this.
Tiny as I am, I am mighty. I can maneuver just as well as the kids from Montana, I am capable.
Much like my teens, there were for sure moments where I wasn’t too sure where I was going, and if there would ever be an ending, but I came out stronger than ever.
I am ready for more adventure.