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Rough Science 3 New Zealand: Ellen McCallie's diary: Gold rush

Updated Tuesday, 27th February 2007

Ellen McCallie's diary about travelling to New Zealand and the challenge for the Gold Rush programme, from the BBC/OU series Rough Science 3

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Ellen hammering the gold flat Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Production team

Day 3 – rest day

The flight on the way over was decent, very good as flights go. It took several hours to get to Phoenix, then an hour to LA. I got in at 11 am and my flight out to Auckland wasn’t until 9:45pm, so I caught a public bus to see a bit of LA.

Back at the airport I whisked through Customs without problem and sat down at a restaurant for a dinner of nachos with everything. A couple hours later I saw Kate and part of the crew wandering by. I whistled and ducked. It was good to see them.

Kate and I sat together on the flight. Arriving in Auckland was uneventful until we tried to transfer our luggage to our Christchurch flight after clearing Customs.

We were on the ground in Christchurch by 8:15am. The hotel rooms weren’t ready so we had our third breakfast in the hotel. Wonderful omelets. To stay awake Kate, Kathy and I ran to the Christchurch Botanic Garden, which doubles as a public park. I love small scale, well thought out gardens. Very manageable and beautiful. The Missouri Botanical Garden has used this concept as we have continued to grow and add more specialty gardens. I already miss my daily walks through the gardens.

By 3:30pm we were really dragging. It was also heading toward sunset. Back in my hotel room I was dying to sleep so I set the alarm and slept an hour, before getting up for dinner out with the entire gang. The tastiest, most amazing calamari ever. Maybe it’s like this all over New Zealand.

We gathered the next morning at 7:45 am to load the bus for an eight-hour ride crossing from the east to the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island. It started off quite flat with perfectly square paddocks with sheep, deer or ostrich. We got into hill country and were soon up our first mountain pass. Everyone drives so slow. We passed glacier-fed lakes with perfectly still water, beautiful reflections of the green hills.

By 4pm we were checked into “Tree Lodges” in Franz Park, South Island, New Zealand. They are brand new – still smell of paint. Our first meeting with the production crew was this evening, a toast to Rough Science 3 actually. Then out for pizza. This town is four blocks long and two wide, plus a national park visitor center down the way. Lots of trails, plus the place we are staying has a sauna with water to pour over rocks. This may work – yoga, sauna, running if we ever get back before dark – enough stress and tension relievers to keep us all going for six weeks. Plus, it is a tourist town, so it isn’t like we’ve descended on a tight-knit community that isn’t used to the presence of outsiders.

Day 4 – rest day

Mike Bullivant and I went with Martin, one of the directors, and Derek and John, cameraman and soundman respectively, to learn to pan gold. There is a technique to it, so we better learn before program 1, day 1. Kevin Hill, the co-owner of the rights to the land, gave us a great tour and practicum. This is very hard, cold work.

The tree ferns' “forest” on his property is luxurious. I don’t know if this means hardwood or conifers were cut down from amongst them for building material, or if it’s just a tree fern canopy. In any case, it is so moist that seeds of all sorts of plants have logged and germinated in the stems of the tree ferns. Plants are dripping off of plants; Vines are strangling their hosts and becoming “trees” themselves. It reminds me of a really wet version of the Atlantic rainforest outside of Rio de Janeiro. Either that or Jurassic Park and the dinosaurs.

That afternoon I read and read and read. (I had also woken up at 5am that morning and read.) Basically, once I am on site and get a look at the surroundings, I need to read and read to get a better feel for what is going on. This is a job after all.

I spend the evening looking at stars from the Southern Hemisphere perspective. Like geology, this is my other diversion for this excursion thanks to Uncle Spencer and Mike Malopeski.

Day 5 – rest day

I am not booked for this day, so I get up, gather an armload of plant and bird books and set off as soon as it gets light, which happens about 8am. I keep forgetting to get a bird list from the visitor center; I hope they have one. I do see the native pigeon, a huge bird, as well as some passerines, also natives, but most of the birds seem to be British introductions – how disappointing! Thank goodness we are now learning to appreciate our native plants and animals. All these introduced species just cause havoc to ecosystems.

I spend most of my time trying to sort out the various species of tree ferns. It isn’t that there are so many species – only six or seven if I remember correctly – it’s that I have to train my eye to see the differences in them quickly. Thinner stalk vs other kinds of stalks? Rough leaves, soft leaves, or other? Scales or hairs on the new leaves? Aerial roots? It takes time touching and looking over and over and over and over. Four hours later, I felt like I had a solid hold on the two genera and thus could distinguish tree ferns from each other at a distance.

At noon, Kathy came trucking by in a sleeveless shirt and jeans. I was bundled up completely. I stripped down to two layers and set off on a brisk jaunt with her. Very refreshing. We hiked to the Callery River, heading toward the glacier. We had to take another track back instead of hitting the glacier because we had a 2:30pm planning and safety meeting. When we got there, Steve, the producer, had his head in his hands, worried sick. He just needs to get over the first day of filming. He’s been preparing for this program for almost a year.

Now, it’s 2am your time. Kate’s cooking for Kathy and me. If lunch is like last year, it may be a bit light or depressing. We need food!

Speaking of the need to keep warm, most of us are wearing every bit of clothing we brought – at the same time. I’ve even got to pick up an extra thermal top from Kate. It is freezing.

Steve called a meeting to discuss the dinner and filming situation. They hired a very good local cook, Ricky, to prepare dinner for us and to interact with us in the evenings. Pippa is filming it on a small DV camera. It was made very clear that the idea behind these filmed dinners is to create a casual way to see another side of our personalities. It is not to be like the survivor-type shows. Let’s give it a try.

Day 6 properties of gold

I invited Kathy and Kate for a nice omelet breakfast, but instead of waking up at 5 am, I jumped out of bed when Kathy knocked on my door to eat at 7am. Kathy began cooking as I dressed. Then the three of us finished cooking, ate, and headed over to the helicopters.

That first helicopter ride was, well, full of great views, but two turns just turned my stomach and head over. I felt quite sick afterwards. The second helicopter ride was incredible. Just like watching one of those wide screen specialty movies in museums. Whoosh! Voom! Up. Over. Turn. We found a river and followed it. Beautiful, exquisite, and no sharp turns, just some pretty immediate verticals - that’s what helis are good for! Tuckey is a fabulous pilot.

I felt really good about the filming Mike B and I did today. We got most of the science points made during our short flight to the river. In terms of panning, I was really surprised we didn’t hit on a more concentrated gold line. It is going to be a whole lot of lugging rock and water for an itsy-bitsy bit of gold tomorrow.

Some have already asked how I feel about doing a non-botany project. My basic reaction is that I’m trained as a scientist. You can’t be a botanist without a decent chemistry, physics and biology background. I’m not offended nor are my feelings hurt that I am not working with plants. In fact, I am pleased that I’m allowed to cross over when needed.

Another question I’ve gotten was about how “we scientists” know so much about stuff. Heck, if you were being sent to New Zealand to solve challenges, what would you do? I’m a field scientist mostly, with botany/ecology being my specialty, so I read everything about the natural history of New Zealand before I go. I read and read and read, not just about plants, either. I also check out websites. The reading provides me with some related background usually, but then we are on our own to actually do something that applies the knowledge we’ve gained.

Day 7

We ended up with some gold, not as much as I would have thought. We must have been pouring the water down the sluice too quickly. Humm, how to fix that? Also, when Kevin, who owns the rights to the land, talked with us, he was surprised we weren’t getting flakes of gold – we’ve been limited to “colors” or specks. He tested our tailings, the stuff that comes off at the bottom of the sluice and found a bit of color, so we know we aren’t catching everything we could.

The idea of gold panning! Who would have ever thought? Isn’t this the stuff of storybooks and lottery tickets?

Kevin and Rob, who own the site, do a bang-up job in terms of providing tourists with a quality experience. The guys work really hard, outdoors in the cold. For example, today it rained or misted from the moment we got up until about 6 pm. We were wet all day but not cold – only because we were working hard physically. We lugged buckets of water and sand most of the day. Imagine doing this all day everyday. The life of a prospector. Yet, perhaps the majority of people on Earth still do backbreaking work every day. What are we doing to make their lives better? Do they have choices?

I think about the research Missouri Botanical Garden does all over the world, often in developing countries. We continue to make major commitments to train and educate local people wherever we work, so our work is collaborative, not extractivist. Basic plant research and conservation is critical for healthy communities. Our mission is to “discover and share knowledge about plants and their environment, in order to enrich and preserve life”.

Day 8

I’ve almost gotten the alarm clock to work. The first night I forgot to set the thing. The second night I set the alarm for 6pm, not am. Last night I got the time right, but didn’t check the volume!

As Jonathan is basically done with his challenge – a radio has metamorphosized into a metal detector – he’ll get to help us with the gold. He really wants to pan for gold. He gets this glint in his eye and smile on his face whenever he talks about it. I hope he strikes us rich.

Mike, Mike and I are moving along. Martin, the director, used to pan for gold during university. (Should I mention he never found any?) Derek and John, camera and soundman respectively, are as knowledgeable as ever. Heck, we should just film them! They have a tendency to solve our challenges before we even get started.

Evening, same day

It rained and rained and rained and rained. Others stopped for coffee breaks. I didn’t dare, I didn’t want to get cold. As soon as any of us stopped doing rigorous physical labor, we froze. The wet chill got us. Jonathan and I kept warm by tending to the punga fire. We were burning the aerial roots of the tree fern riffles we’d caught gold in – or at least we hope we’ve caught gold in them. Once the organic matter is burned to ash, we can pan it for the gold that got trapped in it. But the punga aerial roots are very dense and they were very soggy. It took all evening to just burn the first batch. We haven’t even separated the gold out yet.

We filmed the ending sequence. It went pretty quickly, only one take. It was amazing how well it went, but by the time the pick-up shots are done, it was an hour or two later and I was chilled to the bone. We drove home, jumped out, got the sauna going, and eventually got warm.

A good, solid episode full of sloshy, wet rats, running around acting like scientists.





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