Onwards towards Abel Head!

By Benni

It was the 7th of November. An almost innocent day in an almost innocent country. A country full of – almost innocent – rocks, sheep, kiwis, kiwis and kiwis (the people, the birds and the fruits). A country also full of almost innocent seals as we will see.

Rumour has it that just on this innocent day there was an unusual high number of incidents involving kiwis eating kiwis that had eaten kiwis (locals eating birds that had eaten fruits as you would have figured), but these reports could never be confirmed and have just been made up by me. Now, of course, dear reader, I am fully aware that for a blog like this you are our most valuable commodity. You are almost as valuable to us as gold, diamonds, ophiolites or uncontaminated Precambrian biomarkers (or whatever other freakish affection might be found among us) and should under no circumstances be repelled by bad jokes, a lack of humour and a general poor style of writing. I will continue like this anyway.

It happened that just on this almost innocent day, in an almost innocent country, a brave and adventurous party was making their way barefoot through the heavy mud of the tidal flats of Whanganui Inlet. The expedition was led by a wise little man, Alexplorer, who clearly enjoyed fullest authority and furthermore clearly possessed an exceptional skill of judging distances. Also, he had developed the custom of using the word ‘clearly’ to emphasise that something that he was about to say was most likely wrong or not going to happen (for example, “Clearly, we are almost there!”).

If you would have been there, that day, out on the tidal flats, ankle-deep in the cool muds with mirads of tiny crabs running around and a fresh breeze coming in from the sea, you would have sensed that something exceptional was about to happen. The air was filled with excitement. The brave party crawling through the mud was in hunting-mode. The expedition party was hungry and eager, hunting for dinosaur-footprints. They had been told that there would ‘clearly’ be dinosaur footprints, right there on the shoreline of this seemingly innocent bay. The party was excited. The party now only had to find them.

After thoroughly exploring the entire bay without stumbling upon the slightest signs of dinosaurs, the mood started to change. The smell of adventure, excitement and sweat was suddenly joined by the smell of disappointment and the occasional silent fart of one of the explorers. In this hopeless situation a scout was send out to fight his way through the mud back to the cars. When the shoreline was reached just below the spot where the cars where parked, it was suddenly realized that the dinosaur footprints where right there – just next to the cars! At first the party was very sceptic. “How can you tell that these depressions are dinosaur footprint and not a simple sedimentary feature?”. “Doesn’t this look just like common soft-sediment deformation?”. “Why foot the two adjacent footprint be in different stratigraphic layers separated in time by hundreds or thousands of years?”.

Then something miraculous happened. Mike started humming the ‘Jurassic Park’ soundtrack and suddenly everyone could see clearly that these must be dinosaur footprints. There was no doubt: the expedition was a great success and we had ‘clearly’ discovered rare dinosaur footprints! See our photograph below which is a close yet rather unconvincing match to the description given by our palaeontologist source. Reluctantly satisfied,  the party (or “what comes before Part B?”, Mike) went on heading towards the next awesome adventure.

Evan “clearly” convinced that these are dinosaur footprints.

At Abel Tasman head, it was all about mapping geological formations…and seal pups. Sandstone, limestone, mudstone, conglomerate – you name them –  they were all there outcropping by the sea. The perfect spot for 2nd year field mapping. Alas, the PhD students only had eyes for the seals. Two large seals were sleeping on rocks and curiously looking at the strangers with their big black eyes. They were accompanied by three seal pups whose cuteness was enough to melt even fearless Alexplorer’s heart.

Another two seals were afraid of the mud-walking strangers and fled into the nearby water where they played around for a while.

Seal at Abel Head.
A spotted shag. Yes, this bird was in the field trip guide that no one read. 😉

The mud-walkers meanwhile went on exploring rocks. They discovered some neat coal measures – in this case small hand-sized patches of coal. This was Mike’s opportunity for the day: “How do you know how much hydrocarbons are in a rock?”, he asked the innocent crowd. “Use a coal measure!”. Clearly, everyone laughed. A couple of fossils were also found in the limestone, but the experienced geologists were hardly impressed.

Coal measures
Farewell Spit

At Abel Tasman Head Thomas jumped on the opportunity to crack his joke of the day: “Why could Tasman discover New Zealand?”. Just when the suspense was hardly bearable any more the he gave the answer: “Because he is Abel”. This bad joke was for once rewarded with genuine laughter. To make matters worse, we could now (almost) quote Bill Bryson who realized that rocks “are not the places where history is made (except for the Stone Age maybe), but where (geological) history ends up in”. By now, dear reader, you will have figured how geological jokes work: the punchline is as brittle as a sandstone at room temperature. The Tasman Memorial was quite disappointing (a white pillar of nothingness) as would fit a person who was able to sail by Australia on his great voyage of discovery when he had already stumbled upon Tasmania. Fossil Point beach, the next destination, although announced again as New Zealand’s finest beach (by Piers) was slightly disappointing as well but was good enough for a little swim and a couple of fossils were finally also encountered. Cape Farewell, which – as about every destination in NZ required a little extra walk to get there – was quite impressive, however. It was announced by a brochure as the “Northernmost cape of this spectacular untouched corner of the South Island”. An impressive cliff and a seal was swimming in the waters below.

Fossil shells at Fossil Point

Expectations were low when another beach, Wharariki, was announced as the final destination. Again, a long walk through the endless pastures was required to reached it. Once that was done however, everyone was breathless. The 15min. walk might have contributed, but the beach was most splendid indeed. Described by a a rather dubious looking brochure as “one of the most spectacular West Coast beaches” with “undisturbed wildlife, caves and rock pools to explore” it was a beautiful sight to experience. The empty, white beach tempted most explorers to have another swim, while I went for a stroll along its length. A beautiful rock formation with two bridge-structures was standing in the sea, providing a most picturesque background, while the shoreline conglomerate yielded an amazing cave system. The first conglomerate-caves I have seen. The highlight for me, though, was a seal pup playing in the waves just meters away, lying on his back and turning around like a playing dog whenever a new wave arrived.

This archway of sedimentary rock is the northernmost point in South Island.
Wharariki Beach, and its massive sand dunes.

After a mandatory refreshment in the geology field hut, our heroes went on another great walk heading towards their next adventure. This time the destination was the local pub, the famous Mussel’s Inn. Not only the food probably the best found in the whole Monteith’s country, but the self-brewed beers were also splendid. The self-proclaimed (by myself that is) Alexpert was wise enough to try the ‘Monkey Puzzle’ but didn’t have the strength to finish that beer that was almost 10%. This was a pommy’s job of course. On the way back to the hut the explorers took their torches to discover the most amazing glow worm walk – a truly remarkable and memorable sight. Later, Adi gave us a tour of the stars, explaining the amazing southern night sky. This shows us, dear reader, that on this awesome field trip knowledge was acquired even on the way back from the pub! And how could such a perfect day better end as with another cold tea (or beer, whatever your taste, not judging) in front of the open fireplace in the hut. Dinosaur footprints, seal pups, stunning beaches and – of course most importantly – rocks, almost a usual day for a geologist in this almost innocent country.

Farewell Formation Conglomerate (presumably – I got this info from the field guide).
The day’s stops involved going through cattle and sheep pastures. How cute!