Lessons from the Wasteland

My latest story for New Zealand Geographic LESSONS FROM THE WASTELAND

photo by Bryce McQuillan

photo by Bryce McQuillan

Rust, lichen and wild Central Otago thyme combine forces to consume and cover the last traces of human industry at the Earnscleugh Dredge Tailings near Alexandra. Mined and washed of their gold from the 1890s, the river gravels have become a sanctuary for rare species, and one of the country’s most unusual wildlife reserves.

Between Alexandra and Clyde, on the true right bank of the Clutha River but walled from its swift flow by a thicket of willows, there is a patch of the most unusual landscape you will find anywhere in this country. Dunes of river gravels, loose, barren and arid, wind-blown and burnt by the fierce Central Otago sun and frosts. Their forms are surprisingly regular, with parallel ridges and troughs and frequent cone-shaped craters, though only an aerial view fully reveals the place for what it is—a man-made moonscape, an undulating heap of industrial wasteland from a century of mining for gold.

The Earnscleugh Dredge Tailings are a historic reserve, a 170-hectare memento from heady days when plundering the land while pursuing its riches and simply walking away when no longer profitable was considered an acceptable use of a valuable resource.

From the outside, the reserve appears desolate and lifeless. The gates to it are locked, and now the footbridge over the Fraser River is washed out too, requiring a detour. Not that anyone seems to mind; even locals avoid the place. Earnscleugh is a most unlikely wildlife refuge, unless you visit with Brian Patrick.

photo by Bryce McQuillan

photo by Bryce McQuillan

Patrick is New Zealand’s butterfly and moth man, an ecologist specialising in insect-plant relationships, with particular and life-long interests in Central Otago’s weathered rockscapes. He knows the name of every plant and every insect here, making distinctions out of the multitude.

“Walking around the Earnscleugh and following Brian Patrick, I cannot shake an impression that, if by some grandiose human folly, life on Earth was completely wiped out, this is what its rebirth might look like.”

One spring day, just as another rainstorm was clearing and its spent clouds were drawn like a heavy drape off the Otago sky, I walked into the unlikely wild of the Earnscleugh Tailings with Patrick. What from the outside appeared like an industrial apocalypse proved to be an oasis of wildlife—a treasure trove of beauty, small and delicate, though apparent only if you are prepared to get down on your knees and look closely to see what poet William Blake called “a world in a grain of sand, and a heaven in a wild flower.”

photos by Bryce McQuillan

photos by Bryce McQuillan

The world’s first gold dredges were developed near here. No one in particular can claim the credit for them as the process of evolution and refinement was at once collaborative, competitive and decades long, but the machinery perfected on the Clutha, with upgrades and modifications, is still in use today, in gold-mining operations as far afield as Alaska and Malaysia.

In just two months of work prior to August 1862, prospectors Horatio Hartley and Christopher Reilly washed up and collected some 1100 ounces (34 kilograms) of colour in the Cromwell Gorge, instantly earning the Clutha and its tributaries worldwide fame as rivers of gold. But with the subsequent boom and massive influx of diggers, the easily found gold was quickly exhausted and extraction became more industrial in scale and technology. The dredges—scooping out the auriferous gravels from the river bottom and washing, sorting and separating them in tumblers and over mesh screens—proved the most productive.  Continue reading here …


Tales from the Underworld

Celebrating 25 years of New Zealand Geographic magazine …



In Motueka – a small town renowned for its fruit, housetrucks and organically conscious hippies-the stress level was undetectable. Along the main road muscle cars lazily rumbled for attention, and somewhere a child was hammering out a chore of piano scales. The town felt safe and friendly, like a place where nothing can ever go wrong.

That was an hour ago. Now, with the clammy hand of fear at my throat, I am starting to wish I had stayed in town. Though only 10 kilometres away, I am in a world so different that I could well be on another planet. Underground and underwater, inside the bowels of a marble mountain, I am finning against the gentle current of the Riwaka River. My hand slides along a nylon version of Ariadne’s thread, strung out by my guide. All I can hear is my breath hissing in and gurgling out through the mouthpiece of my air supply-until the steel air cylinder on my back hits the rock ceiling with a loud clang. In this silent, liquid gloom, the slightest sound has the intensity of a Chinese gong.


My torchlight zigzags across the grey walls, revealing an austere and surreal landscape like a derelict railway tunnel. The passage-its walls as cold as glacial ice-slants down, then turns upwards and opens like the wide end of a horn. I surface next to my guide, Sean Mitchell, resting on a pile of boulders, and take a draught of moist cave air.

We are in a chamber the size of a circus tent. When we turn off our lights, the darkness is absolute, and so thick I can feel it pressing against my face. These walls have never seen sunlight, yet we have only passed the entrance sumps, flooded siphon-like passages that form a kind of Lewis Carroll mirror gate into another world. Ahead, through clay-coated chambers and tunnels, through twisting squeezes which corkscrew like deformed keyholes, and through yet more sumps, the cave continues for no one knows how far.


Sprawled on the riverside rocks in total darkness-monsters with black wet suit skins, flippered feet and faces distorted by hoods and masks-we may look a natural part of this subterranean world, but it’s only an illusion. Caves make you feel alien and out of place in a way that no other earthly landscape does. They are black holes in the imagination; cold, eternally dark places inhabited by creeping and slithering creatures, places where early explorers found themselves involuntarily slicing the air with crosses and mumbling paternosters. They epitomise our fear of darkness, of confined spaces, of unfathomable depths and, ultimately, of the unknown. Continue reading … 

You will also find this story in my upcoming book GOING TO EXTREMES” which will be published in 2014 and launched at NZ Mountain Film Festival in Wanaka and Queenstown 4-11 July 2014



The Odyssey and the Lost Gold of Alphonse Barrington

 When I asked my friend Mick Hutchins, a one-time Oxford University scholar in Icelandic mythology and then a Mt Aspiring National Park ranger, to join me on a two weeks’ adventure following the footsteps of Alphonse Barrington, I envisaged a romantic journey amid splendid scenery and campfire stories thickened with pipe smoke.

Three days later, clinging for dear life to a handful of roots overhanging a mossy and near-vertical river bank, I was beginning to think, perhaps we were in for much more adventure than we had ever wished for. It also occurred to me that Barrington’s diary, unduly spare as it seemed, was in fact a quiet masterpiece of understatement.



The Odyssey of Alphonse Barrington

When the walnut stock of the McCarthy shotgun touched Captain Elchold’s cheek the fate of yet another pigeon seemed inevitable. With the precision of a gun turret he tracked the bird across the sky and was about to pull the trigger. Suddenly, he stopped. The pigeon crash-landed into the mop of a mira tree, but Elchold’s attention was now elsewhere. He lowered his weapon, watching in disbelief.

Three haggard men were crossing a branch of the Dart River, dragging their feet against the swift current. Their hair and beards were long and matted, their faces scratched and streaked with caked blood. Bedraggled guernsey shirts and fustian trousers cloaked their angular bodies like oversized potato sacks. A half-starved dog swam ahead and shook itself dry on a gravel bank. Its shaggy coat was stretched over protruding ribs like the bellow of a concertina.

The first man across wore a ragged tunic made of a crudely stitched blanket. His eyes were lost in the cavities of his skull. Approaching the captain, he muttered a feeble plea for tobacco.

Like both of his impoverished companions, Alphonse Barrington was a gold miner. Six months earlier he set out to prospect in the unmapped mountains of South-Westland. His journey, full of misadventures and unspeakable hardship, was to become one of the most heroic episodes in the history of New Zealand exploration.

Barrington_4The three men who staggered out of the wilderness in such emaciated state this crisp June morning were later described by Captain Elchold-skipper of a whaleboat which ferried supplies across Lake Wakatipu-as “living skeletons covered with skin.” so weak they were barely able to speak. “Wrecks of humanity,” recorded another witness.

The year was 1864. Abraham Lincoln had just been re-elected president of the United States, and the population of Australia had reached one million. In New Zealand’s North Island, racial tempers ran sour and exploded into war when the punitive expedition of General Duncan Cameron crossed the Mangatawhiri River and entered the King Country. Meanwhile, in the South Island,  men in their thousands scarred the mountains and diverted the rivers in a frenzied search for gold.

The first great gold-rush, in Gabriel’s Gully, had been on for almost a year when, one March Sunday in 1862, shepherd Thomas Arthur wandered off to the Overshot Creek (later the Shotover) and with a milking dish and a knife gave it the fame of being the richest gold-bearing river in the world. That same month, in the Upper Shotover, where the river twists and foams through a steep gorge, Dan Ellison and Hakaria Haeroa rushed to rescue their drowning dog and found a beach paved with nuggets. On their first day they gathered over eleven kilograms. Continue reading … 

You will also find this story in my upcoming book GOING TO EXTREMES” which will be published in 2014 and launched at NZ Mountain Film Festival in Wanaka and Queenstown 4-11 July 2014



25 years … who would have thought!

We are celebrating 25 years of New Zealand Geographic magazine!

In 1993, I did my first assignment for Geographic about glaciers, which involved climbing Mt Cook and marked the beginning of my journey with the magazine. Thanks to the enormous effort of the current editor and publisher James Frankham, all issues of the magazine are now digitally archived so you can download them and read wherever you are in the world. With this post on, I will offer you snippets of some of the favourite stories and adventures I’ve had done over the years working with Geographic. And it all started with glaciers …

Hacking his way up the brittle flanks of Linda Glacier, alpine guide Charlie Hobbs leads his climbing partner towards the summit of Mt Cook, New Zealand´s highest peak. Vast snowfields that lie within the shadow of Cook and its neighbour, Mt Tasman, are the source of some of this country´s mightiest rivers of ice.

Hacking his way up the brittle flanks of Linda Glacier, alpine guide Charlie Hobbs leads his climbing partner towards the summit of Mt Cook, New Zealand´s highest peak. Vast snowfields that lie within the shadow of Cook and its neighbour, Mt Tasman, are the source of some of this country´s mightiest rivers of ice.

Glaciers – ice on the move

 Thump, thump-ice-axe, ice-hammer -thump, thump-left foot, right foot-thump, thump-axe, hammer … Each kick of cramponed boot, each jab of ice-axe sends showers of tiny crystals hissing down the slope into the whiteness below. I watch them free-falling over the polished surface until they disappear.

The wall of ice, like stale sugar glace crudely plastered on to the mountain, sprawls out in all directions. Beneath me, it sweeps down some 500 metres to dissolve into the glacier. Ahead, the summit is a stark white wedge that splits the sky.

I am one of three beetles crawling up the flanks of Mt Cook (3755 m). Beside me, Charlie Hobbs, a weathered mountain guide, is hacking his way up the lustrous ice couloir. Roped to him is his client, Aucklander Bruce Mellor.

Some ten hours ago, under the shimmering blackness of the mountain night, we crossed the fissured hollows of the Grand Plateau and began to climb up the Linda Glacier. For long hours before the sunrise our world had shrunk to the small cones of yellow light cast by our head-torches. Around us, the icefall lay like a prehistoric metropolis that had been reduced to rubble.

Séracs (blocks of ice several storeys high) leaned forward at precarious angles. Crevasses, mouths agape, sliced the surface like knife wounds. Bridges, caves, arches, tunnels, spires and towers-every imaginable type of ice sculpture was there, garlanded with icicles and frosted with wind-swept frozen crust.


Thump, thump … we chip and scar our way up the glassy wall. Seventeen… eighteen … nineteen … I count the steps. Every twenty brings a blissful rest. Ahead, Charlie climbs with the casual confidence of a taxi driver cruising his favourite suburb. He leads up the entire rope length, hammers a half-metre-Iong snowstake into the slope and calls for Bruce to come up.

The summit nears as we make our way along the ice cap. A strong sou’westerly howls over the ridge, forcing us to hug the steep, wizened slope. We reach the summit cornice and can go no further. In its lee we cut a narrow platform: somewhere to rest, to celebrate, to quench the tormenting thirst.

Here, from the top of New Zealand’s highest mountain, I can take in one of the country’s geographic ”signatures”: Tasman Glacier, New Zealand’s mightiest river of ice, meandering some 2000 metres below.










The analogy to a river is remarkably accurate. Just like rivers, glaciers move down their valley beds responding to the principles of flow. Like frozen waterfalls, they cataract over steep escarpments, shattering into spectacular icefalls. They rush (relatively speaking) through narrow gorges and splay out across the valley flats.

The degree of turbulence is reflected by the crevasses. Where a glacier takes a sharp turn, flows over an obstacle or joins another stream of ice, the inner forces exert immense pressure on its surface, causing it to crack and open. Further downstream, after overcoming the impediment, the crevasses close up again, healing and smoothing the battered glacial surface. Continue reading at New Zealand Geographic …



You’ll want these for all your Natural Running

Work gloves for the feet, that’s what they look like, at least at a first glance. Fashionable if a little eccentric, well-cut certainly, but all too easily dismissed as just another gewgaw you don’t really need. Until you put them on and take a few tentative steps.

Already Leonardo da Vinci told us that “the human foot is a work of art and a masterpiece of engineering.” It comprises 26 bones, 33 joints, 20 muscles and hundreds of sensory receptors, all working in harmonious fluidity, reading the ground, adjusting to it. If you let them, that is, and most of the shoes we wear do not. They keep the feet locked in a state of sensory depravation, making them feel like clods.

Most of us love to kick off our shoes on the beach or a lawn, and walk barefoot, feeling the graininess of sand or the softness of grass with our soles. But what if you could walk barefoot anywhere you like? Around town, in the forest, even along a mountain trail?

The Vibram FiveFingers – those gloves for the feet which evolved from non-slippery boat shoes – make this perfectly feasible, protecting your feet and toes from harsh surfaces while maintaining the sensation of walking barefoot.  Continue reading