Wednesday 29 March 2017

The Lady of the Lights


I can die happy!

Lady Luck shone down on me last night. Well actually, it wasn't Lady Luck but Lady Aurora Australis, the elusive and shy Southern Lights. 

Here's the best of a small bunch of shots taken around 11pm on a dark and spooky beach last night. The upward pointing beams dance from one side to the other of the aurora. It's a good aurora if you see them and even better if you manage to see a 'picket fence', a group of smaller, very bright fence stakes floating above the beams. In a cloud free sky these beams would be dancing well up into the heavens. 

I've been waiting four years to capture the Aurora, I follow a couple of Facebook Aurora pages and a website with up-to-date information regarding solar wind and flare activity (they cause the lights) and predictions on when to expect some action. 

I've often been in the wrong place on the right night, or in the right place on the wrong night, or it's been raining or there's thick cloud, or I've forgotten to check the alerts, or there's been no internet so I can't check the alerts, or it's been too cold (many good Auroras happen in the depth of winter) get the picture. Can you tell I've not been bitten too hard by the aurora bug? There are Aurora chasers out there who'll drive miles and stay up all night when the lights are playing. And then go to work the next day and do it all again the following night. I'm keen but not that keen. Yet.

Back to dunes and away from the house lights.
Unfortunately the best night in this recent burst of activity was the night before last while we were tucked up in a valley in the middle of Dunedin surrounded by bright city lights. So we moved out of town and down to Taieri Mouth on the coast. Not the best place but a good spot given the short notice. No water for reflection but at least with a  reasonably clear view looking south. I still had to contend with house lights as you can see in the first photo. I walked down to the water's edge hoping the Lights would be reflected in the retreating tide, instead the house lights came into view and just as the aurora kicked off! Not long after the cloud rolled in and the show was over.

As you probably already know, the aurora is not often visible to the naked eye. Many people are disappointed after seeing them, they're expecting to see brilliant greens and crimsons or for them to be bright like the Northern Lights. If they are seen, they're usually in various tones of white with a hint of colour. Last night the lights were clearly visible once the beams started dancing, the sky was a moving spectacle, bright with just a shade of colour.

This photo (with a little less colour) is roughly what I could see with my eyes when I arrived. The camera is much more sensitive, it picks up a lot more detail and colour as the shutter is held open for several seconds allowing more light in than the eyes do. Camera settings and good processing bring out the colours, although sometimes people can be a little heavy handed with their colouring.

I got a bit distracted while waiting to see if they'd be any more activity and took a photo of the stars looking north over the river towards Dunedin. The night sky is such a fascinating and magical place.

I'm easily distracted. Here another one looking out to sea, that's Moturata Island just off the mouth of the Taieri River. You can see my shadow on the sand...several shadows as I move about during the 20 second exposure. I'm silhouetted against the orange light coming from the wharf, a long way behind me. Those curves through the atmosphere low down in the sky have a name. I need to research a little more to find out what they are called and why they happen.

Earlier in the evening I captured this lovely sunset over the river estuary- until I have a little more experience with Aurora shooting I think I'll be just as happy with my sunsets.

And actually, I'm only halfway to dying happy, I still have that hoar frost to catch. 

Tuesday 28 March 2017

Macraes Giants- Otago; Part 2

Continued on from Part 1

After walking around the wetland we carried on through Macraes heading north, not too sure if we'd go much further as it was getting late. We'd given up on looking for lizards, we'd not found any suitable habitats since leaving the rocky tors back at the beginning of the road. We thought we'd take a drive down Golden Point Road, just out of town, to the old historic stamper battery reserve towards the end of the road.

But we got sidetracked. It was a huge surprise to come up over the hill just out of Macraes to find ourselves in the middle of a huge mine, with a massive dirty grey haul road passing under our road bridge...

...and a sign pointing the way to an observation and lookout point. Of course we had to take a look.

We parked beside one humongous spare tyre- our fifth-wheel? 

Unfortunately the wind was whipping through the site and the dust and grit being blown about was diabolical. David was not very happy that he and the rig were being sand-blasted every few seconds. 

Luckily the track lead to an Observation Hut with large glass windows overlooking the huge open cast mine pit (click to enlarge). Check out the size of the 'little' ute behind the truck on the right.

Oceana Gold's Macraes Mine is New Zealand's largest gold producing mine, producing over 4 million ounces of gold to date. The area leased by the mine covers around 27,500 hectares. There are two mines, Macraes Open Pit which has been operating since 1990 and Frasers Underground which began in 2008. Frasers is 740 metres below surface and 200 metres below sea level, with over 48 kilometres of tunnel drives.

The majority of of haul trucks used at the mine are CAT 789Cs, there are 18 in use and we watch as a steady stream of them climb up the road full, disappearing around the back of the administration buildings and returning sometime later empty. You can see a mine portal in the background of this shot.

Here are some facts for you- the tray can carry 191 tonnes of rock, that's about 91,680 shovel loads or 7,640 wheelbarrow loads of rock. 

It takes about two and half minutes or 4-5 scoops to fully load the tray. It would take a man 382 hours or nearly 10 working weeks to fully load a 789C tray with a shovel.

More facts- 
Overall Height- 6.2mtrs, Length- 12.2mtrs, Width- 7.7mtrs
Operating Weight- 317,520 kgs
Empty Weight- 126.48 tonnes
Gross Power- 1750rpm:18sec
Fuel Tank Capacity- 3,218 litres
Engine Horsepower- 1900hp
Maximum Speed on 12% gradient- 10kph
Each Tyre costs $35,000

Here's a closer view of the size comparison between a standard vehicle and a haul truck. Note the bendy fibreglass pole with orange flag attached to the smaller truck (a bit like the ones we had on our bikes when we were kids). We passed a few utes with them attached back near a mine at Piano Flat, they looked quite strange waving about high in the air, driving along on a normal road at 100kph. Of course they need them on the mine roads so the big boys don't run over the top of them!

In amongst the haul trucks was an equally huge water tanker driving continuously up and down the haul road damping down the dust (we needed him up the top) and making a very slick surface for the trucks to pass over. 

The water tanker has a massive 52,000 litre capacity, it stopped beside a small pond on the haul road and took about a minute to fill, and then it was off again.

Imagine the cleaning job on any vehicles that travel this road. Although if you were behind him in your little truck you'd get an instant car wash when he tuned on the jets!

We never saw another vehicle while on the Macraes Flat Road so I'm sure we must have been the mine workers only entertainment for the day, especially driving around with our home on the back (or perhaps it was because I was hanging out the window taking photos as we crossed back over the bridge). 

We got a few toots (or should I say honks) from the drivers as they passed underneath on their way to the processing plant which is quite a distance from the mine.

We headed off down Golden Point Road- farmland on one side and reclaimed mining land on the other, most of it a huge terraced hill. At one point a bulldozer was smoothing out the side of a new tailings hill, and on a very steep angle too.

Towards the end of the sealed road we came across the processing plant, this is what we could see from way across the valley on the way in.

And there, approaching the plant from behind were the haul truck, water tanker and 'little' truck that had passed under the bridge while I was taking photos. Their road was more direct.

I took a screenshot of the Google aerial map over the top of the mine, it's pretty impressive and frightening ugly at the same time. Although as David, who hates all the old historic mine tailings and what they've done to the landscape says, at least this will be left clean, tidy and environmentally friendly when they finish.....even if a couple of hills have been moved in the process and a giant bird has been left behind to pacify the locals!  (Click the map at the bottom of the blog if you'd like to see more detail)

We didn't make it to the historic battery, just after the processing plant the road turned to gravel and dropped down into a gorge, the wind was still blowing hard, it was hot, dry and dusty and we were getting weary, so we turned around and headed out. Back along the Macraes Flat Road, heading back towards Hyde, wondering where we might bed down for the night.

Well, it just happens that while I was taking photos of that old iron bridge on the way in, I spied...

...a couple of potential freedom camping sites off a gravel track alongside the river...

...which was how we found ourselves sandwiched between tinder dry overgrown grass with several beehives as neighbours for the night. I didn't have the heart to tell David we were parked on the track from the ford over the river. I figured they'd be no large farm machinery crossing over at this time of the day. Although the farm traffic that 'flew' along the track in front of us did a double take.

Sunday 26 March 2017

Macraes Giants- Otago; Part 1


We went looking for giant lizards at Macraes Flat, instead we found a giant bird, a giant mine and a giant collection of pig skins!

We travelled through some new territory on the way to Macraes Flat, following the eastern end of the Otago Rail Trail which finishes (or starts, depending on which way you ride it) in Middlemarch. We stopped at the old Hyde Hotel where many bikers call in at the cafe for refreshments on their way through.

I also took the obligatory church photos (both now decommissioned) and one of the the old school, which is now a cyclists accommodation lodge.

A little further on we turn left and head up onto the rocky plateau ahead of us. We're on a bit of wild goose chase, one I don't hold out much hope in being successful in either. But we have all day ahead of us and nowhere we need to be in a hurry. And we have our home on the back, so we'll stop where and when the fancy takes us. 

We're looking for Grand Skinks and their slightly larger brothers the Otago Skink, they are New Zealand's largest lizard at 300mm (11 inches) long. They are very rare, very endangered and found only in three or four small areas in Otago, including in the Macraes Flat conservation area.

We've only ever seen them at Orokonui Ecosanctuary in Dunedin where they are successfully breeding- that's a young lizard riding on a parent's back with two juveniles on the rock below. The baby is about the size of the usual skinks people see in NZ.

I took these photos also at Orokonui- that's an adult top left and a baby bottom right and look how well camouflaged they are in the bush. You've probably guessed due to the lack of photos from elsewhere that we failed to find any skinks at Macraes Flat. Which actually isn't that surprising considering the fact that, in the end, we ran out of time and didn't even look! 

Here we are crossing the Taieri River for the upteenth time on our travels. This isn't surprising given that the river is 318km long and flows from the upper reaches of the Maniototo Valley, makes a dramatic U turn around the northern end of the Rock & Pillar Range and flows down through the Strath Taieri Valley (where we are) all the way to the ocean.

We've crossed back and forward over the Taieri River numerous times while exploring the Maniototo and Otago, we've been to the top in the Maniototo Valley and seen the Upper Taieri Scroll Plain where the river begins its journey (click to enlarge) and to the bottom, staying at Taieri Mouth not long after we started this journey and everywhere in between.

This beautiful old iron lattice truss bridge over the Taieri was built in 1879.

It was a long, slow and steady haul up onto the plateau where the views back over the valley to the Rock & Pillar Range behind were absolutely stunning. The Rock & Pillars rise to 1450m and are named for the impressive tors along the ridge. 

We pass many hundreds of tors on this side of the valley too, in fact we could still be in Central Otago as the landscape is so similar, and then travel on past farmland atop the Taieri Ridge. It took a few moments to register what we were seeing strung along the fenceline ahead of us as we passed here.  As far as the eye could see ahead... 

...and once we stopped, back behind us, at least a kilometre of animal skins! Collected over the past 20 years they are mostly wild pigs but deer, goat and wallaby skins are in there too, some complete with skulls. Eeuw!

There are many bizarre fences in New Zealand; Cadrona's famous bra fence, several shoe fences, a jandal (flip-flop) fence or two, bike fences, hubcap fences, number plate fences but now we've seen it all! No wussy collection here, this is a true Southern Man's fence! 

Further on, and as we drop down into the a huge basin of Macraes Flat, far across the valley we can see some terracing on the hills and steam rising from chimneys near what looks like a very large mine site (I've zoomed in here). I wonder if we'll get close...

Eventually we pull into the old gold mining settlement of Macraes (pop. 54). where there's neither sight nor sound of people about, even though it's a holiday Monday. In 2014 the settlement changed its name from Macraes Flat to Macraes so as to distinguish itself from the surrounding district.

We have lunch parked beside the old stables of the historic Stanley's Hotel (1882) which is across the road.

Stanley's Hotel was owned by Oceana Gold, the gold mining company that runs the nearby mine. In 2015 it was returned to the community in exchange for some impressive artwork....well one piece of impressive art, I'm not so sure about the others.

Located behind where we're parked is the Macrae Heritage & Arts Park and wetland, originally given to the community by the mine it has now been exchanged for the hotel, other heritage buildings, land and money. 

Eventually, I'm sure, the park will be given back to the community. I mean what's a gold mine going to do with a 9m high, 750kg big bird, a tussock planting and numerous large billboards (a very odd contribution if I must say so myself).

The bird on the other hand is a stunning sculpture and such a pity it's not seen by many people. You could drive straight through Macraes and not spot it, or even visit the settlement and not know of it tucked out the back.

With a 12m wingspan, it is of the long extinct Haast's Eagle, a bird that in reality weighed about 15kgs and had a wingspan of 3 metres. It was known to attack and eat moa, the sculpture is in attack mode here. As befitting a bird of this size the eagle was flown, beneath a helicopter, from sculptor Mark Hill's (son of jeweller Michael Hill) home in Arrowtown to Macraes in 2008. Now that would have been an impressive sight. 

This little dog's grave stone and plaque has been moved to near the entrance to the walkway around the wetland and sculpture park. What a sad little poem; David & I couldn't decide whether the driver ran back and forth over the dog until she died or just ran over her and killed her outright. Either way it was obviously a very traumatic time for her owner, and just before Christmas too.

I took a quick walk up the road to locate the local church, and as with many of NZ's abandoned or nearly abandoned country settlements, this is another church that has seen better days. This is the former St Patrick's Catholic Church, a Category 2 listed Historic Place building, now located in a horse paddock and in a sad state of disrepair.

To be continued... Part 2