Friday, December 20, 2013

Rangitoto Island

One of the delights of writing my books is the excuse it gives for visiting interesting places. I hadn't been to Rangitoto Island for many years, but when a character decided to go on an outing there in my work-in-progress, I decided it was high time I paid the island a visit.

Rangitoto Island is a familiar sight to anyone who's visited Auckland. The island is roughly circular, so it looks the same from all directions. It's a relatively young volcano, last erupting a mere 500 or so years ago.

We took the ferry over one morning, and set out to climb to the 260-metre (850 feet) summit.

The dominant species of Rangitoto's forest cover is pohutukawa, sometimes called the New Zealand Christmas Tree for its profusion of red flowers at Christmastime (we were there just a little too early for its flowering). Pohutukawa and other species are gradually covering the island, especially since the major pest eradication of recent decades, but there are still large areas of bare lava flow:

Those fields of jagged lava make it all the more impressive to see how vegetation takes hold, survives, and eventually thrives in this challenging environment.

Looking into the crater from the summit:

We walked around the crater, with fine views in all directions:

On our descent, we took a short detour to the lava caves. These were formed when the outside of lava flows cooled while the contents kept moving, leaving hollow tubes:

We made a more leisurely day of this lovely outing than the energetic young visitors of my work-in-progress, but enjoyed it just as much as they did.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Bush-farmer's Scourge

There's a section in Mud and Gold when Frank faces near-disaster after several of his cows get into a patch of poisonous plants:

One of his cows lay on the ground, straining to get to her feet and moaning with the effort. Another was a few feet away, her unnaturally stiff limbs making it obvious she had been dead for some hours. Frank knew the cause even before he saw the scrubby plants around the edge of the clearing with their distinctive pattern of growth, each leaf directly opposite its pair on the long, thin branches instead of alternating up the stem: tutu, the bush farmer’s scourge, and perversely attractive to livestock.

Tutu (Coriaria arborea) is still fairly common in many parts of New Zealand. The eastern Bay of Plenty, where my fictional Ruatane is set, has traditionally had some large concentrations of this plant. Tutu is highly poisonous, and over the years it has caused many stock deaths, mostly in sheep and cattle. It's even been responsible for the deaths of two circus elephants which were inadvertently allowed to graze it, once in 1869 and again in 1957.

Humans, too, have felt the ill-effects of tutu, especially in the 19th century; sometimes attracted by the shiny berries, but more often from eating honey made by bees that have fed on tutu honeydew. My husband's grandfather fell dangerously ill as a young man from eating tutu-contaminated honey; fortunately he made a full recovery.

I rarely see tutu these days unless I'm travelling further afield, as it doesn't seem to grow well in this area (which is probably for the best!), but I did come across a patch on a recent outing. Here's a flourishing plant:

Note the distinctive growth pattern, with the deeply-veined leaves set opposite each other on the stems. Those long trailing stalks will have flowers later in the season, followed by invitingly shiny dark berries.

Maori skilled in plant lore used to make a delicacy from tutu berries, after carefully straining out the toxic seeds, but it's not something to be attempted lightly.

Frank learned a hard lesson in the vital importance of maintaining fences; a lesson he never forgot.