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Rough Science 3 New Zealand: Ellen McCallie's diary: Treasure hunt

Updated Tuesday, 27th February 2007

The team are on a treasure hunt and need to fashion an altimeter to help them on their expedition.

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Kate, Ellen and Jon with the altimeter Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Production team

Day 26 – rest day

I had talked to the local air safari company about flying from Franz Josef to Milford Sound, a fiord, and back. Kathy, Angie, and I were able to fly out this morning at 10:30 am, fly down the coast to Milford Sound, spend an hour and a half there, and then fly back over the mountains. The views were breathtaking. The flight was so smooth, only two small bumps, during which I just about crawled out of my skin. But it was excellent flying weather.

Most fun was picking out the geological features. Finding glaciers, hanging-valleys, and fiords became simple. Practice for the eye in real time works so much better than books. We flew over glaciers that were 28 km long - they just seem to go on forever. They start of as big snow piles at the top. They then look like white rivers of snow. When they move over steep areas they fracture into daggers and cathedrals, icy blue and green in color. At, or just below the snow line, they become littered with debris. The crystal white turns to a messed-up malt grey and black with chunks of rock. Finally, they either end, melting into a river, or are holed up as a lake, if a former terminal moraine has blocked the river outlet. Fun, fascinating, excruciatingly beautiful.

Day 27 altimeter

Today, Jonathan and I helped Kathy collect black sand, which we assume has tiny gold flakes in it, from a beach. It was almost disastrously funny though. When we hit the beach, we quickly found it covered in pebbles and rocks. As it turns out, the weather changed last night and what is normally a black sand beach with some rock and gravel became a pebble beach. Thankfully, we were able to find two good patches of black sand far down the beach. I was amazed that our plastic buckets didn't fall apart under the weight.

Basically, black sand is high in iron which is dense, thus it is heavy per unit size. Most, if not all, white sand is made of silica which is not so dense, thus is not so heavy per unit size.

While we helped Kathy, Jonathan and I got on with our discussions about how to measure change in altitude in order to retrieve the treasure. As it turns out, the map we received was a bit misleading, so we asked for another one! We should have an updated version tomorrow so that we can build a useful altimeter using the same equipment one would use to make a barometer. The basic difference between the two is that a barometer is stationary and is designed to measure pressure changes that occur as weather changes. With the kind of altimeter we're making, we need the weather to stay constant so we can measure the natural changes in pressure as altitude changes. How fun!

Day 28 altimeter

Raining, raining, raining, raining. All last night. Off and on all day. Actually it was quite warm - or it felt so with the four layers I'm wearing. In terms of science content and filming, the day was very pleasant. Jonathan and I made the altimeter at the sawmill, took it to the river bed below Sentinel Point and sealed one end of the tubing. We carried it to the top of Sentinel Rock to get a calibration reading for a 40 to 50m change in elevation. We then checked to make sure the metal detector Jonathan made in a previous programme was still working.

In between times, we made tea. Brits do like their tea, particularly with milk!

I helped Mike L smash up rocks. I asked if I could help Kathy with the gold but everything was pretty much under control. The bad part is that several people are under the weather.

Day 29 altimeter

It has literally poured with rain all day. We had a bit of thunder but mostly a constant downpour. As we all brought our waterproof gear and as it isn't particularly cold, the constant rain is kind of amusing. It can't still be pouring down rain but it is - hour after hour, day after day. We do almost all the same things in dry weather as we do in rain, so I'm pretty happy. I just love being outside, tromping around and investigating what is about. The main difference the rain brings is in the camera and sound gear. Sensitive electrical connections are not very rain-friendly.

Helicopters don't fly through clouds or up to mountain lakes we cannot see because of the clouds. Thus, we couldn't find buried treasure at Ice Lake today as our original map indicated. Instead, we hiked up a river bed with Chris, a local hiking and glacier guide, up to a point at which we were on our own to follow the new treasure instruction:

"Go up 80m in altitude from the river bed, find an island of punga trees (tree ferns), look for a clearing with a slippery log, and then use the metal detector".

A beautiful wet walk led us up a riverbed and into the rainforest. With so many plants that are similar to the ones that were alive in the dinosaur days, I sometimes expect to go around a bend and see a dino feeding on tree fern fronds - no such luck yet!

The altimeter worked great, as it should. When Jonathan and I were convinced we had gone up 80m in altitude from the riverbed, we saw an 'island' of tree ferns, locally called 'punga'. Chris, our guide, would give us no reassuring words, nor would the director or crew. We decided to trust our instrument and our calibration, which was good because we quickly found a clearing and a slippery log. Jonathan then set to work with the metal detector he had built for an earlier programme and soon the treasure box was found.

I couldn't believe it. They locked the treasure box. What good is a treasure box with a padlock? We figured Kate had the key. But the metal box wasn't very strong. I was about to rip it open when Jonathan suggested we play along and take the box back without opening it. Kate did have the key and inside was a dime-sized blob of gold. It looked like it had already been purified, so we can start working with this one immediately in the next programme.

The other teams did quite well, too. Kathy got a very respectable amount of gold out of the black sand by using a very gentle sluicing system. Mike and Mike ended up with a black potato with gold in the middle. Quite strange, but very impressive. Particularly as Mike B had harvested the mercury from actual rock in order to extract gold from rock.





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