Geology and stuff

•April 5, 2017 • Leave a Comment

Napier is a city on the East coast of New Zealand’s North Island. On 3 February 1931, a magnitude 7.8 earthquake – subsequently known as the Hawke’s Bay Earthquake – struck 15 km away, killing 256 and injuring thousands. Napier was leveled; the ‘Dominion’ newspaper reported ‘Napier as a town has been wiped off the map’.

One consequence of the earthquake was the uplift of land around the coast. Nearby Ahuriri Lagoon was lifted 2.7 metres and became dry land. It’s now the Hawkes Bay airport and farmland and industrial developments. The 2016 Kaikoura Earthquake resulted in an uplift of Kaikoura by 70 cm and its movement to the northeast by nearly one metre.

New Zealand is particularly dominated by its geology. I suppose all earthlings are to a certain extent. Australia is relatively earthquake-free, as we aren’t grinding our way over the top of any major tectonic plate. Nevertheless we have experienced earthquakes of up to a magnitude of 7.2 (Meeberrie, Western Australia, 1941) and the 1989 Newcastle Earthquake (magnitude 5.6) which resulted in the deaths of 13 people.

If, like me, you are a disaster nerd, you will be all over New Zealand’s restless and overactive geology – volcanoes, earthquakes, liquefaction, bubbling hot springs, unpredictable, volatile earthworks. But here’s the thing. Keep reading for long enough, and you will reach a dead end, with the best seismologists eventually admitting, quietly, furtively, in obscure articles, that seismology is definitely, like continents, a work in progress. We humans actually don’t know very much at all about the earth’s quirks, a fact which was validated by the tour guide on my trip to Milford Sound yesterday. The Kaikoura Earthquake, he said, came as a bit of a surprise to the scientific community, as it did not occur on a major tectonic fault line.

Yup, New Zealand sure is dominated by its geology, and as we detoured south and south-west of Queenstown through gorgeous valleys and beside Tolkeinesque lakes on our way to Fjiordland, the tour guide pointed out areas carved out by glaciers 11,000 years ago, explained to us the difference between a fjiord and a sound, and said that just about the only warning you get of an impending earthquake is your dog getting edgy and upset.

A short way of describing Milford Sound is ‘breathtaking’. I took a couple of photos but it was difficult to get decent images and video with the movement of the boat. Besides, as my hotel receptionist said when I returned later that day, Milford Sound’s awesomeness just can’t really be captured. By camera, a phone, or any kind of device.Milford Sound1Milford Sound



Otago, New Zealand, April 2017

•April 3, 2017 • Leave a Comment

I didn’t know what Grayson had given me but the mountains looked wonderful that day….huge grey/green monsters that grappled with Satan-like demons of the cliffs and crags…I could hear sheep talking and the grass reciting poetry. My father always said that Nansen was ‘on something’ when he explored Greenland and now I could understand it. I felt I could hop forever, anywhere….’

Tomkinson, the long suffering school boy from Michael Palin’s ‘Ripping Yarns’ (‘Tomkinson’s School Days’) after he is sentenced to the Thirty Mile Hop against St Anthony’s. There are those lurking among us who would rather poke their eyeballs out with a stick than torture their legs and feet by subjecting them to a medium to long distance walk.  Tomkinson’s description of how he feels after the School Bully gives him a sniff of ‘smelling salts’ to help him on his way is pretty much how I, and other walkers feel when WE do this, but then, miraculously, we reach a stage when it stops being torture, and we float away on a high. Then we reach our destination and flop on the couch, sip a beer, chill out in good company, jump in a spa and let the water jets work their magic on our sore muscles. Or maybe do all all those things at the same time. And as our muscles are glowing and singing happily, the high reaches a kind of zenith. It’s GLORIOUS.

That is why people walk. In the wilderness. In crappy weather. Along dodgy paths, watching out for snakes. For hours. Just for a taste of that feeling at the end.

In late 2015 I caught up with two university friends in Melbourne, and a partner of one of them. The conversation got around to our favourite travel destinations, and it turned out that all three had visited Queenstown in New Zealand, and two had worked there for a year. They raved about the walking culture and the huge range of things to do around the Otago region, assured me that it was safe for a solo walker, so I jumped on a plane to Queenstown.

Plus, what Lord of the Rings tragic could resist a trip to the river where the Ambush of the Nazgul at the Ford of Bruinen was filmed? Not me.

The aforementioned Arrow River, which burbles through the old restored gold mining town of ….you guessed it, Arrowtown, is startlingly clear and so picturesque that it Arrowtown river trail1screams ‘FILM ME! FILM ME! FILM ME!’ Arrowtown, a hop skip and a jump from Queenstown, was home for my first three nights. It’s lovely, really, with scores of heritage buildings and fruit trees growing randomly all over town. Around Canberra we have to try to outwit the cockies and parrots to get to anything that that grows on a tree, but in pest-free Arrowtown, the trees were conspicuously laden with autumn fruit. After a two hour walk along the golden banks of the Arrow I was experiencing a pleasant post-walk high and I was in an ambitious frame of mind for the following day’s activities.

A bit too ambitious, as it turns out. The next day I jumped on a hired bike and headed for Lake Hayes, in between Arrowtown and Queenstown. Very agreeable scenery and all, Lake Hayes, near Arrowtownbut it was, as it turned out, an 18 km return trip. Along bike paths with sheer drops on one side straight down into the (very pretty) lake, and a killer incline on the final leg called, rather sweetly and innocuously, ‘Christine Hill’. WTF? Who thinks of the names of the hills in New Zealand? How about this? ‘Ha ha Aussie Tourist, You Think you are so Fit, Snicker, Snicker Hill.’ Right at the top I encountered a French cyclist who said that it was no mean feat to be even able to get to the top because it was the absolutely worst hill around the area. Or maybe I was so tired that he was actually a hallucination. He had a nice accent, anyway.

After that epic biking episode I wafted the remaining few kilometres back into Arrowtown in a state of semi-delirium. Fortuitously the ‘Fork and Tap’ pub was about two doors away from the bike hire place. It was almost 2.00pm and I had not had anything to eat since breakfast. And here we are returning again to why people subject themselves to strenuous exercise. The words ‘never had a beer and a burger tasted so good’ don’t cut it. Sipping on that beer was pure ecstacy. The bubbles sang and danced their way down my throat and the beef burger was like the Nectar of the Gods.

But the next day I was a dead woman walking.


Final dig days

•August 10, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Thursday 8 August. After a few days of helping out in different squares, it’s the end of the dig season. And the last day at the site. It’s a 5.00am start zzzzzzzzzzz so we can all be at the dig site to sweep tortously so that Pam can take final photos in the pre-sunrise gentler light. Cries of ‘that hasn’t been swept! ‘It’s still messy there!’ ‘DON’T STEP THERE! I JUST SWEPT IT!’ Pam arrives majestically at the site atop a cherry picker. ‘EVERYONE OUT OF THE SQUARES’ Then, ‘OH CRAP! THE SUN IS RISING! PICK UP EVERYTHING! CHELSEA, THERE’S STILL A DUSTPAN IN YOUR SQUARE! EVERYONE OUT! Archaeologists, students and volunteers scamper in all directions trying not to be in the final photo of the whole dig site.

Then after the photos were finalised, Pam showed us sections of a Roman Road alongside the 21st century road adjacent to the dig site.

And with that, the dig was finished! Some post-dig cleaning of the school where we had stayed, then off to Larnaka for some R and R….

And since this is my last post relating to my Cyprus adventures, I thought that I would include some info about Cyprus and its austerity adventures.

I have not met a single Australian tourist whilst here. But there are heaps and heaps of British and Russian ones. Lots of British people are buying real estate here and making Cyprus their permanent home. This is for a variety of reasons. The climate, of course. Fringe benefits such as the fact that the Cypriot equivalent of the Poll Tax is way less onerous than the British one (or whatever they call it now in the post-Thatcher era). And the real estate here has become more affordable due to the economical situation.

Here’s an article from Wikipedia about the Cypriot economical adventures of the last 12 months which sums it up….it’s kind of complicated:

The Cypriot economy has diversified and become prosperous in recent years.[88] However, in 2012 it became affected by the Eurozone financial and banking crisis. In June 2012, the Cypriot government announced it would need €1.8 billion of foreign aid to support the Cyprus Popular Bank, and this was followed by Fitch downgrading Cyprus’s credit rating to junk status.[89] Fitch said Cyprus would need an additional €4 billion to support its banks and the downgrade was mainly due to the exposure of Bank of Cyprus, Cyprus Popular Bank and Hellenic Bank, Cyprus’s three largest banks, to the Greek financial crisis.[89]

The 2012–2013 Cypriot financial crisis led to an agreement with the Eurogroup in March 2013 to split the country’s second largest bank, the Cyprus Popular Bank (also known as Laiki Bank), into a “bad” bank which would be wound down over time and a “good” bank which would be absorbed by the Bank of Cyprus. In return for a €10 billion bailout from the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the Cypriot government would be required to impose a significant haircut on uninsured deposits, a large proportion of which were held by wealthy Russians who used Cyprus as a tax haven. Insured deposits of €100,000 or less would not be affected.

The upshot is that a lot of Cypriots, especially in the middle classes, have lost a lot of money. Although they are friendly and helpful, they are a bit disgruntled. The Government has gone in arbitrarily and taken their money, there’s basically very few jobs around, and quite a few people want to leave….

But despite this, Cyprus is a really safe country to travel around (you have to watch out for the drivers, though, who are a bit enthusiastic). Cypriots are great. They love their meat (ask for the lamb dish on the menu and you’ll be served a whole one) and they invented haloumi cheese, Food of the Gods. And EVERYONE has been here, poking around. The Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Persians, the Romans, the Ottomans, the British, etc etc.

And the Cypriot Museum is sensational!

Sediment. Rocks. Sediment. Rocks. Etc etc

•August 3, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Dave's trench at PellaWednesday

Opposite: David Thomas’s trench at Pella, Jordan, with several pits. Photo taken during the 2009 season

31 July. Continued lowering the level of the probe by 10am. Big pick, small pick, an occasional stress attack that I was undercutting the correct level. Checking the sift ratio (every 15th, 20th or 25th bucket of dirt, depending on the square, is sifted for pottery). True to my Pella form, I’m continually confusing rocks for pottery. ‘Is this pottery?’ ‘No, it’s a rock.’ Imagine that repeated about 90 times throughout the day and you’ve pretty well got the picture.

Thursday 1 August. Moving to a new square and I’m excavating a pit. Pits are the bane of archaeologists’ lives. They are random holes dug in to stratigraphy by Bronze or Iron Age troublemakers who simply WEREN’T thinking about future volunteers on archaeological sites who have to scoop out every last grain of dirt from them to that you know what’s the pit and what’s not the pit.

You can get a good idea in the photo above of how pits look in a square/trench when fully excavated by a conscientious volunteer (Pella, Jordan, January 2009). (long melodramatic sigh)

It’s 5.30pm on a 37 degree day. You’re hot. You’re tired. You’re working hard. And all you want is angels to carry you away to an air conditioned mansion and serve you up iced sherbert and wipe your brow.

And then you hear the best, and I mean the best thing in the whole world.

The tinkling sound of ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’ through a terrible sound system.


I had heard of his existence but he hadn’t been sighted for a while. Rumours were sweeping the dig that as a result of a disagreement, the Dig Director had scared him away. But no, mercifully no, he hadn’t abandoned us – it was just that his refrigeration equipment needed repairing…

Fifteen dehydrated archaeologists pushed and elbowed each other out of the way to get to the van. And man, that ice-cream was the BEST I have ever tasted, I hoovered it up in record time.

Three cheers! I’m getting used to the heat

•August 3, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Tuesday 30 July. Digging,some more. We’re lowering the level of the probe. Can’t wait to see if the walls actually do intersect! Then, instead of working at the dig during the afternoon session (4.00pm to 7.00pm, by which time the sun has mercifully faded to a dull roar) I’m pottery reading. Pottery is laid out according to type and where it is a ‘diagnostic’ piece (handle, rim, etc) which then enables the Dig Director to analyse it.

Wednesday 31 July. Digging, and lowering the level of the square. Every now and then I assist with taking elevation readings, which is to ensure that the surface of the square is level, amongst other things. And sweeping. This has to be done ALL THE TIME, so that the area in question is cleared of excess dirt and sediment. You sweep when the archaeologist wants to see what the surface looks like. You sweep and clear the sediment away every time the level of the square is lowered a few centimetres – or several. You sweep at the end of the day. You sweep when the season is finished so that final photos can be taken. You sweep when the moon is in the right house, at the equinox, and on special feast days. You sweep, and you sweep, and you sweep. At the start of the season, when I wasn’t around, the students spent a full week clearing the site of weeds, and sweeping all the squares before excavation had started. Except if you are anything like me, you sometimes smear the dirt on the surface instead of getting it in the dustpan and you have to sweep the area again. And again. And again and again and again.

(On my very last day on the dig, (Friday 9th August) everyone pitched in to help clean the school where we were staying before moving out. I cleaned the ladies’ bathroom. Can you imagine how enjoyable I found sweeping A LAMINATE floor after spending two weeks making dirt pits on the dig site neat and tidy?)

So I swept, dug, levelled and cursed my too-tight shoes. And at approx. 7.10pm at the end of an exhausting working day I shuffled in the gates of the school ready to be extremely anti-social for quite a while – or, at least, until it was time for me to assist with chores.

Then I witnessed something so completely extraordinary that it made me forget how tired I was.

As we were walking in the door (most students were ahead of me because I was shuffling), a few had had the energy to climb up onto the roof of the school, fill balloons with water, and then proceed to joyously and enthusiastically water-bomb those at ground level. Well, of course, there was no way they were going to take THAT lying down. Quick as a flash two or three shimmied up the drainpipe, climbed the roof, and scampered after them.

The ensuing water fight went on for TWO WHOLE HOURS whilst I was curled up on my bed in a foetal position.

Keep in mind that these kids – average age around 21 – had been working extremely hard all day on the dig site, in conditions that I have outlined in previous posts.


Settling in

•August 3, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Monday 29 July. Settling in. Acclimatising to the constant heat. Realising that my shoes are too narrow in the toes and they make my feet hurt by the end of the day, especially as they swell in the heat. I’ll just have to put up with them until the end of the dig as I don’t have another pair of closed walking shoes with me.

Today I assisted with establishing a new square. The purpose of the square is to dig a ‘probe’ down to see if two stone features discovered in neighbouring trenches (walls at a 45 degree angle to another) intersect. Laying the square out with string boundaries. Ensuring they are straight. Then digging the probe. ‘Big picking’ it (as the phrase suggests, lots of macho pick swinging to dislodge all that pesky compacted soil) but not to enthusiastically. You don’t want to suddenly find you have gone 10 cm down when the surface is only supposed to be 5 cm down….then levelling it. Then carting interminable buckets of soil and rock away…..

Digging. And digging. Then digging a bit more.

•August 3, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Saturday 27 and Sunday 28 July. First day on the dig. The first three words of my scribbled down notes are: ‘Fuck I’m tired’, written in handwriting which has deteriorated considerably since I turned 40. Arrived at the dig house in Dhali last night…eventually.

It was a revisitation of the challenges getting to the Pella dig in Jordan in late January 2009. I arrived in Amman, Jordan after being in Syria for a week. I had loved it, but I was nervously hoping the Gaza conflict, which was at that time unfolding a short distance away, wouldn’t escalate….and, well, very slightly culture shocked because it was my first time in the Middle East and I was travelling alone. I stayed overnight at the ‘Palace Hotel’ in Amman the night before (why are the names of so many hotels a direct contradiction in terms? Do they do it on purpose?) and a Palestinian guy tried to hit on me. The next day was the date of our rendesvous at the British Institute for Archaeological Research in the Levant before travelling to Pella. It took about three Jordanian taxi drivers, a petulant, stressed, and slightly culture-shocked loss of temper on my part, and some phone calls by the staff of a hotel just around the corner from the Institute where a taxi driver had unceremoniously dumped me, before I got there. After my adventures, the kindly wife of the Dig Director then proceeded to served me real tea, with real milk, which improved my mood considerably. Never had a cup of tea tasted so, so good.

This time, despite some fears that I would take the wrong bus and instead of the dig, I would end up in the middle of a demilitarized zone patrolled by the UN, I actually got to Dhali itself (the local town adjacent to the dig) and waited at a cafe. BUT. I was then unable to place a call to the Dig Director to let her know that I arrived. Neither could the owner of the cafe. And I had no idea where I was supposed to be staying. Turned out that Pam’s phone had been stolen about an hour before. There was, apparently, no hotel accommodation in the town, and it was looking increasingly like I was going to be perched atop my luggage by the side of the road…….all night. Eventually, after a stressed few hours ‘There’s a big group of Americans staying somewhere around here! Someone must know where! They can’t just slip off the radar!’ the owner of the cafe phoned one of his friends who confirmed that they had rented a local high school. I had found my dig. No-one had died. And I slept pretty well that night. Doesn’t sound like much in the retelling, but it did my head in at the time. Ahh, these things are sent to try us, and a big thank you to the cafe owner who drove me around the Dhali burbs, and eventually to the school.

The next day (Sunday 28 July) I was hard at it. I’m glad I was a volunteer at Pella before coming here as it had helped prepare me for dig life. Dig life here has a lot of similarities with Pella. The main difference is cultural, and NOT related to the fact that the Pella one is directed by Australians and this one by Americans. It’s to do with the fact that the majority of fee payers on the Pella dig are volunteers (working to experienced archaeologists) with perhaps a couple of people being trained as archaeologists by the Dig Director.

Here, it’s the exact opposite. It’s an archaeological field school with a smattering of volunteers. The majority of fee payers are students – and very young ones, in their undergraduate years at Lycoming College in Pennsylvania – being trained as archaeologists.

They work hard, in temperatures which range from around 32 to 40 degrees. You start at 6.00am, after a ten minute walk from the school where we are staying to the dig site. (At the school, we’re sleeping on camp beds donated by the British Army). Breakfast is from 8.30 to 9.00am. You work until 11.00am. Then it’s back to the dig house, then pottery washing to enable the Dig Director to correctly identify the pieces, then lunch and a siesta. Then back again from 4.00pm to 7.00pm. Then chores around the Dig House – sweeping, cleaning etc.

That’s been MY daily routine, and it’s been enough to have me tucked up in bed at around 9.30pm and snoring loudly….but on top of all of that, the students also study and attend to their study commitments and paperwork relating to the Dig – mapping, reports etc.

And what did I do on my first day? First I levelled and cleaned up a surface. Every trench (or square, as they call them here) surface has to be perfectly straight to you can take measurements that make some sort of sense. So I chipped away at the lumps and bumps. Then scraped it flat. Then brushed all the dirt away. Then carted the dirt away.

After that I assisted with some of the jobs associated with closing a square down – taking measurements of rocks in the trench so they could be mapped and taking elevation readings so that all the information about the square would be available should anyone else want to reopen it.