Sringtime Snowshoeing in Les Gets

This year I headed to the Chablais Alps for some very late-season snowshoeing. So late in fact, that the Portes-du-Soleil ski area was already in full-on shut-down mode on the day of my arrival. Basing the trip in the ski-dominated village of Les Gets, at 1100 m, Sunday 15th April was the last day of the 2018 season. Time to get the mountain bikes out? Well not quite as given the sheer volume of snowfall throughout the 2017-18 winter, the pistes (and much of the surrounding terrain) was still loaded with over a metre of snow right down to the village. Great news for planning snowshoe excursions as from the Monday, the whole valley fell silent and with it came the ability to go-anywhere; up, down and across the pisted area without the usual restrictions on access for the ‘piétons’ that comes with the clatter of chairlifts and the swooshing of ‘la glisse’.

The outward Eurostar and TGV journey via Paris had been planned many months ahead of time to benefit from the usual low fares, but unfortunately the ongoing SNCF strike halted all my intended trains from London though to Thonon-les-Bains. Luckily I had a weeks’ notice and could make alternative arrangements for a flight with British Airways from Gatwick to Geneva, and then onward by bus to Thonon. Arriving in Thonon just a little earlier than according to the original itinerary, I spent a lovely spring evening wandering down early flowering terraces to the marina on the lake front.

Perfect snowshoeing terrain on the Plateau de Lœx.

Meanwhile, up in Les Gets and arriving at my tiny studio apartment Sunday lunchtime, I set to work exploring the numerous options for snowshoe excursions. There are a wide-range of excellent venues for introductory and intermediate snowshoeing on the periphery of the main Mont-Chéry and Chavannes ski pistes that adorn the west and east slopes of the valley respectively. Les Gets straddles a broad trough on the watershed between the Dranse and Giffre rivers and is on the main thoroughfare through the Chablais from Lake Geneva to the Arve valley (Route des Grandes Alpes). Access to the 1500 m contour, the ideal altitude for setting out on snowshoe excursions is possible with a vehicle thanks to a number mountain roads that are kept clear for winter as they provide access to surrounding hamlets. However, as this was a car-free trip for me, each morning I enjoyed a good warmup ploughing up a piste or through forest with snowshoes on or an arduous plod up one of the tarmac roads (snowshoes strapped to the pack). Typical for the time of year, the temperature plummeted to around zero overnight and it remained cool in the shade of the forest until late-morning. But from midday onwards, the heat of the high sun raised the air temperature to a very comfortable 20ºC!

My snowshoe outings included the north and south ends of the Mont-Chéry ridge, where a lovely mixture of Alpages, forest and clearings can be explored. There are many fine viewpoints and lookouts providing excellent panorama’s of the surrounding summits of the Chablais, Aiguilles-Rouges, Mont-Blanc and Aravis ranges. I also spent a good deal of time exploring the periphery of the expansive Plateau de Lœx. This is a rolling, largely forested and untouched area to the south of the Chavannes ski area. It is an area of special protection under the EU habitats ‘Site Natura 2000’ directive. Specifically, it is a breeding and nesting ground for the Capercaille and as a result there is a central exclusion zone with no-access during the winter and spring.

The Lancaster University Management and Sustainability group at Le Mont-Caly.

The main purpose of my visit was to deliver a client excursion with a group from Lancaster University. The group were in attendance at the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) Liaison Delegate Meeting in Montreux, Switzerland as part of a Management and Sustainability field course. They joined me on the Friday, at the end of their trip, for a snowshoe outing, where we discussed sustainability in the context of the Alpine Environment. The excursion was based on the sun-bathed, southern slopes of Mont-Chéry, the route being a short loop from the hamlet of Les Places up to the Alpages and hamlet of Le Mont-Caly. Through the course of our journey we discussed the geological and ecological story of the Alps as well as the human heritage of ‘la montagne’. While exploring the challenges facing the most accessible and densely populated mountains on the planet, we reflected on the mechanisms required to bring about transformational sustainability in modern society.

Luckily, the journey back to the UK did not coincide with an SNCF strike day, and thus all my connections were scheduled to run as planned. Starting out early from Les Gets on the bus, I trundled down via Morzine to Thonon-les-Bains. After a quick dash across the town and down the steep terrace leading to Lake Geneva, I boarded one of the passenger ferries of the Compagnie Générale de la Navigation sur le lac Léman (CGN). This sped across the calm waters of the lake with superb views of the surrounding Alps and Jura to Lausanne in Switzerland. All in little over 45 minutes. Lausanne was in perfect spring condition, with the floral displays of the gardens around the Château d’Ouchy in full and scented bloom. A perfect conclusion to the trip and prelude to the pretty much non-stop journey via four trains from Lausanne via Paris and London, back to Lancaster. This seamless perfection of European rail was unfortunately only interrupted at the final hurdle; a rail replacement taxi for the final leg Preston-Lancaster due to engineering work (and a late-running and packed train from Manchester missing the last rail-replacement bus)!

Springtime in Lausanne & the Château d’Ouchy.

Aotearoa; Journeys into the Long White Cloud; Part 4; Utopia Islands? Reflections on the Long White Cloud

During his brief visit on the Voyage of the Beagle, Charles Darwin noted with optimism the potential that New Zealand presented for the development of a ‘new England’ in the South Pacific. The pre-eminent naturalist was notable for his discoveries in the taxonomic lineage of the fauna of the South Pacific islands as well as for progressing evolutionary science. And despite this voyage taking place in the fading days of merchant imperialism, he also made the case for greater equilibrium in the anthropologies of the Southern lands having experienced firsthand the dire consequences of slavery in Brazil before the final leg of the journey back to Falmouth. Fast forward to the 21st century and New Zealand finds itself on a progressive footing, with the concept of a New Europe/New England confined to history, as the country builds a strong individual identity. One that respects the bicultural roots of the nation but also embraces the multiculturalism that makes New Zealand an exciting and dynamic place to live or visit.

The revival of Maori heritage in modern New Zealand is celebrated with increasing prominence of dual place naming. From the naming of protected landscapes such as Aoraki Mont Cook National Park to Te Wahipounamu – South West New Zealand World Heritage site to the Lonely Planet Guidbook series to New Zealand (Aotearoa) including guides specific to North Island (Te Ika a-Māui) and South Island (Te Waipounamu). Maori is a spectacularly illustrative language, fittingly appropriate to the grandeur of the landscape and the sense of intrepid adventure this conjures up. This is no better illustrated than by the Maori name chosen for the New Zealand Railways Interislander Ferries (a most typical description-based name as is common in the English language); Ngā Waka, directly translating as ‘Our Canoes’, a far better metaphor for the grandeur of the sea voyage across Cook Strait and through the Marlborough Sounds from Wellington to Picton.

But in a country built around the Koru, tree fern identity where outdoor recreation, pristine landscape and wilderness take centre-stage in all the tourist literature, what does the developed side of New Zealand have to offer? The main cities of Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch present a modern, global outlook with vibrant centres. By global standards, they are a far-cry from the megacities of Asia and the Americas. Auckland, being the only one with a population exceeding the 1 million mark, occupies a geographical footprint the size of Greater London. This is low-density living at it’s finest, with a vast suburbia-land sprawling around the intricate coastline of the Hauraki Gulf. Also known as the City of Sails, Auckland has some of the highest levels of boat ownership of any city in the world and often ranks high for quality of life. However, this is not suburbia built around the ‘Metroland’ principle of London’s Metropolitan Railway in the early 1900’s (Forrest, 2015). This, as with much of New Zealand’s urban landscape is very much automobile-land. New Zealand’s railways amount to a few short suburban lines around Auckand and Wellington and three long-distance services operating more as executive tourist trains than a mode of transport for getting from A to B.

Turning to Wellington, Aotearoa’s tiny capital city, the Windy City, home to the parliament building and the Westpac stadium or ‘biscuit tin’. Sweeping around the natural harbour of Port Nicholson, Wellington commands a fine waterfront and compact CBD largely built on a re-claimed shelf, jutting out of a landscape of otherwise steep hillsides.

South Island’s population only just exceeds a million and over a quarter of this resides in Christchurch and it’s surrounding Canterbury plains. The vulnerability of the urban environment to the dynamic Earth forces at play in the South Pacific was demonstrated most catastrophically in Christchurch with the two major Earthquakes of September 2010 and February 2011, along with hundreds of aftershocks. Christchurch’s skyline has been significantly transformed by these natural forces, and the cleanup and rebuild is an ongoing project that will reach well into the 2020’s.

Outside of the ‘big three’ a splattering of other small cities and large towns define the rest of urban New Zealand. From Art Deco Napier to adrenaline fuelled Queenstown and steaming Rotorua, each has their own unique character.

On the open roads in-between, and away from the celebrated National Parks and protected areas, rural New Zealand is for the most part defined by agricultural land, with arable and pastoral farming being big-business for export. The wines of the Marlborough vineyards, Merino wool and New Zealand dairy products are shipped globally from the ideal fertile lands that have seen farming reach industrial scales. Sheep outnumber humans 10 to 1 and there are more dairy cows than people in these lands.

But for many this farming on an industrial scale is at loggerheads with the 100% pure, green image that the country portrays to the world. The Environment Aotearoa 2015 report by the New Zealand Ministry for the Environment exposed some of the inconvenient truths, particularly those related to intensive dairy farming and pesticide use. Nitrogen is up 12% in rivers from 1989, 192 million tonnes of soil enters waterways each year and 78% of soils under dairy farming are badly affected by compaction (Ministry for the Environment).

The solutions to the environmental issues of commercial farming, like the challenges of transport, energy, resources and biodiversity are as clear as a mountain stream draining sublime native bush in the Kahurangi National Park far from the menaces of landscapes severely modified by humans. New Zealand has the opportunity to take transformative action on sustainable development with a thriving society and economy built around sustainable, community-level agriculture and ecotourism. And this transformation must start now if the clean-green New Zealand image is to amount to anything more than just clever marketing. The pathway to a sustainable future is set out for the Land of the Long White Cloud, and as once said by wise old Gandalf, all that one has to do is ‘decide what to do with the time you are given’.

Aotearoa… Heare ra, Mā Te Wā – New Zealand… goodbye, until next time!


Forrest, A., 2015, ‘Metroland, 100 years on: what’s become of England’s original vision of suburbia?’, The Guardian, accessed 28 February 2018, <>.

MFE, 2015, ‘New Zealand’s environment at a glance’, Ministry for the Environment Manatū Mo Te Taiao, accessed 28 February 2018, <>.

Aotearoa; Journeys into the Long White Cloud; Part 3; Predator Free; the battle for New Zealand’s native Forest and Bird

Long isolated, with remnants of the supercontinent Gondwana in it’s rocky foundations, New Zealand has developed a unique assemblage of native flora and fauna. Giant evergreen conifers and vast swathes of ancient beech trees, both stemming from ancestral roots in the Mesozoic. Flightless birds and endemic reptiles that have evolved over millions of years without the threat from mammalian predation. This is a land of unique appeal to the naturalist, ecologist or conservationist.

But far from being a Lost World landscape-museum locked in time, the 800 year human occupation has come down hard in terms of impact. The contemporary challenges in human-landscape interactions in New Zealand are equally as fascinating as the individual histories and pathways behind them.

Twenty-five percent of New Zealand is currently covered by native forest (Manaaki Whenua/Landcare Research, n.d.(1)). Whilst that not alarmingly low by comparison to some European countries (Hemery, 2017), it is nowhere near the 80% cover before the arrival of humans (Dawson, 2007). The great ‘New Zealand bush’ as it is often referred to consists of two main types of native forest type; mixed conifer-broadleaf, largely typifying the stands of the North Island, and beech forest, dominating the south island (Orwin, 2007(1)).

The Podocarp family, largely southern hemisphere dominant and consisting of over 17 genera, represent the most numerous conifer trees of New Zealand. These include a variety of species including the Rimu, Kahikatea and Totara (Encyclopaedia Britannica, n.d.). Once common among the sub-tropical forests of northern North Island, but now restricted to a few precious stands in Northland and the Coromandel Peninsula is the ancient and giant conifer Kauri. Prized by both Maori and European settlers for it’s strait grained wood, Kauri was ideal for fabricating their waka (canoes) and sailing ships respectively. Kauri trees often stand proud of the surrounding canopy of ‘smaller’ trees, growing to well over 30 metres with an incredibly straight trunk with diameter of anywhere between 2 and 7 metres (Orwin, 2007(2)). Whilst the threat from logging may have subsided, the survival of this iconic tree is seriously threatened by disease; Kauri dieback. The offending microscopic pathogen, (Phytophthora agathidicida) was only identified as recently as 2009. It spreads through damp soil, ‘swimming’ using it’s tail-like flagella. Upon making contact with Kauri root it will reproduce and colonise, and in doing so infect the trees root, leading to the mortality of the whole tree through blocking nutrient transport. Unfortunately, the pathogen is incredibly prolific and can be spread from one area of forest to another, by just a pinhead worth of soil (Keep Kauri Standing, 2016).

Heading onto South Island, we enter the domain of the New Zealand stands of great Southern Beech forest. Stretching as an almost continuous band from Nelson Lakes through Westland and on into Fiordland, the Nothofagus or false beech as it was called by a Dutch Botanist in 1850 is also present in part today and extensively in the fossil records of SE Australia, New Caledonia, Eastern Polynesia and Antarctica and South America from the late-Cretaceous onwards. The leaves of the Southern Beech, whilst similar in appearance to those of the European Beech are generally much smaller with just 5 lateral veins. The four species of Southern Beech found in New Zealand each have their own ecological niche and thus the great swathes of forest are often all-dominated by that one species. The Silver Beech for instance, tolerant of cold, wet conditions, thrives and dominates in Fiordland. The forests are relatively light and open, with an understory consisting of young beech trees, few epiphytes or climbers take hold (Orwin, 2007(3)).

The canopy of New Zealand’s forest should sway to an overture of songbirds, from the Bellbird to the Tui whilst the flightless Kiwi, Takahe and Kakapo scuttle around the understory. Unfortunately, the 21st century reality is of relative silence. If something scuttles away under your feet whilst tramping through the bush, it’s more likely to be a furry Australasian or Eurasian import of the mammalian class than one of these iconic birds.

So what went wrong, both in terms of the land surface forest cover and the feathered inhabitants that are such a vital part of New Zealand’s identity? At this point, the great Southern Beech re-enters the story, in a strange and complex way. A reproductive characteristic of the beech is the cyclical yet random nature of exceptional flowering and seeding years, known as masting. During mast years, high quantity of colourful flowers develop and consequently later in the season the forest floor is awash with beech seeds. This in turn leads to a boom in marsupial and mam-alien predators in the New Zealand bush who chew their way, both through young saplings and predate on birds and their eggs, in particular those of the ground dwellers.

This great ecological challenge is of course, just one of the impacts that our own species has inflicted during it’s short tenure of New Zealand. Research by Landcare Research has used evidence from radiocarbon dating of Pacific rat bones and rat-gnawed native seeds to place human arrival at 1280 AD. This is the most robust arrival date identified for Polynesian settlers in New Zealand, backed up by evidence from archeological sites and ecological changes in flora and fauna (Landcare Research Manaaki Whenua, n.d.(2)). The Pakeha/European settlers of the 1800’s brought with them larger nomadic and domesticated herbivores such as deer, cows and sheep that brought further complexity to the relationships between landscape, flora and fauna.

And it is complexity that defines contemporary conservation debates in New Zealand.

In response to the bush and bird munching predators (or pests), the Department of Conservation (DOC) has long promoted it’s Battle for our Birds programme. This is largely based around the aerial drop of biodegradable 1080 pesticide (Sodium Fluoroacetate) as well as ground-based trapping. Concerted efforts over the years have led to the eradication of pests from 100 offshore islands and significant knock-back of the populations of rats, possums and stoats on the mainland (DOC, n.d.(1)).

The Battle for our Birds campaign has obtained further traction with the July 2016 NZ government commitment to an ambitious ‘Predator Free 2050’ target. The company ‘Predator Free 2050 Ltd’ has been tasked, in collaboration with DOC, landowners and conservation groups to undertake research and landscape scale predator control solutions to achieve this target (Predator Free NZ, n.d.).

At a political level, the implications of the NZ Biosecurity Act of 1993 created some of the most rigorous biosecurity practices anywhere. A response to the vulnerability of the New Zealand landscape, flora and fauna to alien and invasive species, the implications are evident on the landing card completed by all arriving international visitors before they clear customs. The emergent principle of ‘Check, Clean, Dry’ has become best practice to counter a range of invasive pests (MPI, 2017). The water-borne diatom Didymo (Didymosphenia geminato), a Northern hemisphere import (ISSG, n.d.), that has infected many pristine water courses with its massive blooms and the microscopic pathogen leading to Kauri dieback have one thing in common, they can be spread by single drops of water, fragments of damp soil or plant material, all at the single cell level. Thus ‘Check, Clean, Dry’ is of paramount importance and cleaning stations have been setup at recreational sites, such as boat slipways and trailheads (DOC, n.d.(2)).

The grand restorative conservation plan outlined by Predator Free 2050 is not universally celebrated however and there are various critiques, particularly around the widespread use of the 1080 pesticide (poison). Indeed, a political party, named ‘Ban 1080’ promotes the preservation of native birds through more humane and targeted approaches rather than the lag-time and suffering caused by oral-intake pesticide. They also cite the impact on non-target animals such as farm animals and pets as rationale for a more precautionary approach (Ban 1080, 2014). These concerns as well as those around the deliverability of the ‘Predator Free 2050’ target itself have led to calls for a more Integrated Landscape Management approach to creating connected ecological networks and habitat corridors rather than the more polarised procedures of predator eradication schemes (Linklater, 2017).

More than anywhere, issues caused by human-induced imbalance of ecological processes resonate strongly in political debate but also in everyday discourse in New Zealand. The ‘100% Pure’ brand and Silver Fern icon illustrate a strong connection between New Zealanders and the land on which their society is built. These challenges, driven by the dynamic earth-ecosystem processes of Aotearoa, require agile responses but also critical and ongoing debate of the efficacy or ethics of any responses. Nothing is a foregone conclusion.

Aotearoa; Journeys into the Long White Cloud continues with Part 4; Utopia Islands? Reflections on the Long White Cloud


Ban 1080, 2014, ‘Ban 1080 Look after our native birds’, Ban 1080 Party, accessed 16 November 2017, <>.

DOC, n.d.(1), ‘Battle for our Birds’, Department of Conservation Te Papa Atawhai, accessed 18 February 2018, <>.

DOC, n.d.(2), ‘Biosecurity’, Department of Conservation Te Papa Atawhai, accessed 23 November 2017, <>.

Dawson, J., 2007, ‘Conifer-broadleaf forests – Loss of conifer-broadleaf forests’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, accessed 5 October 2017, <>.

Encyclopaedia Britannica, n.d. ’Podocarpaceae’, Encyclopaedia Britannica, accessed 11 February 2018, <>.

Hemery, G., 2017, ‘Plant a tree for every year of your life’, Gabriel Hemery, accessed 11 February 2018, <>.

ISSG, n.d., ‘Didymosphenia geminata’, Invasive Species Specialist Group, Global Invasive Species Database, accessed 23 November 2017, <>.

Keep Kauri Standing, 2016, ‘What is Kauri Dieback?’, Keep Kauri Standing, accessed 5 October 2017, <>.

Landcare Research Manaaki Whenua, n.d.(1), ‘Prehistoric Settlement’, Landcare Research Manaaki Whenua, accessed 7 February 2018, <>.

Landcare Research Manaaki Whenua, n.d.(2), ‘Dating Human Arrival in New Zealand’, Landcare Research Manaaki Whenua, accessed 18 February 2018, <>.

Linklater, W., 2017, ‘Predator Free 2050 is scientifically flawed’, Sciblogs, accessed 16 November 2017, <>.

MPI, 2017, ‘Check, Clean, Dry’, Ministry for Primary Industries Manatū Ahu Matua, accessed 23 November 2017, <>.

Orwin, J., 2007(1), ‘Southern beech forest – Souther beeches’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, accessed 5 October 2017, <>.

Orwin, J., 2007(2), ‘Kauri Forest’, TeAra – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, accessed 5 October 2017, <>.

Orwin, J., 2007(3), ‘Southern beech forest – Southern beeches’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, accessed 3 October 2017, <>.

Predator Free NZ, n.d., ‘Predator Free 2050’, Predator Free NZ, accessed 16 November 2017, <>.

Aotearoa; Journeys into the Long White Cloud; Part 2; Dynamic Earth; a land forged from fire and ice

The imagery conjured up by Tolkien’s map of Middle Earth depicts a tame and comfortable homeland of rolling English pasture and oak woodland, appropriately named The Shire, bounded by mystical extremities formed of wilder, primeval forest, fiery volcanic landscapes and mountains gripped in severe glaciation. It’s not hard to forgive Peter Jackson and the production team from the Lord of the Rings trilogy for the temptation of bringing this fictional world to reality with Aotearoa. The New Zealand landscape took centre stage in the cast list of these big screen films; the North Island Volcanic Province starring as the fiery slopes of Mount Doom, the Southern Alps as the Misty Mountains high and the arid grasslands of Canterbury High Country featuring as the wild Kingdom of Rohan.

But what of the story of the real-life Middle Earth. As with the story of it’s human occupation, New Zealand is a land of relative youth by geological standards. In the latter stages of the Mesozoic period (80 million years ago), with the breakup of the great southern sub-tropical continent of Gondwana in full swing, a fragment of continental crust jettisoned off on an eastward trajectory. This rifting, and the gradual wearing down of former mountainous continental terrain created a low lying, often submerged landscape with extensive coal measures and limestones being deposited in a shallow sea environment. This lonely fragment of the supercontinent gradually assumed it’s present day position in the Western Pacific (DOC, n.d.). Very recent research work by a collaborative international team of scientists led by New Zealand’s GNS Science has led to a remarkable advance in an otherwise long-accepted geological principle. This 5 million km2 piece of continental crust, 94% submerged but with the large islands of New Zealand and New Caledonia protruding above the waves at the present day should be recognised as Earth’s eighth continent; Zealandia. It is only through committed and extensive sea bed drilling and seismic surveys that this remarkable discovery has been made, and in a most convincing way that turns a the (mis-)concept of a continent being predominantly formed of present day land above sea level on it’s head. In the paper, Zealandia: Earth’s Hidden Continent, Mortimer et al. (2016) make the case for Zealandia as a continent through the relative elevation compared to the surrounding abyssal plains of the Pacific, the geological assemblage of it’s basement rocks, the structure and thickness of crust (being between 10 and 30 km and always thicker than the average for oceanic crust at 7 km) and its separation from the Australasian continent through the existence of the Cato Trough, whilst only 25 km across, being 3600 m deep and formed of oceanic crust (Mortimer et al., 2016).

So once thought of as an isolated fragment of the paleo-supercontinent Gondwana, but thrown in rather awkwardly to the Australasian or Oceania geographical regions consisting of such an inconvenient splattering of islands littering the South Pacific, New Zealand as part of the continent Zealandia suddenly finds itself even more critically connected to it’s biogeographical cousin New Caledonia out on the western extremity of the new continent.

After a relatively passive period lasting almost 60 million years, things suddenly came to life 24 million years ago on the eastern edge of Zealandia. Earth processes started to re-elevate the land surface and fabricate the modern day New Zealand archipelago. Renewed movement along the Pacific/Australian plate boundary created magma and the formation of the volcanic provinces forming Northland and the Coromandel peninsula. This volcanism continued with the volcanic hills of the Otago peninsula erupting up out of the Pacific plate at around 13 million years ago followed by the Banks Peninsula of Christchurch at 10 million years ago. In the present day, these processes are still active with the subduction zone focussing the activity under the Central North Island leading to the ongoing formation Volcanic Province of Taupo, Tongariro and Taranaki. Isolated hotspot shield volcanoes have even popped up in the Auckland region in very recent times (Auckland Museum, 2009). This is displayed most strikingly by the coarse and exposed basalt boulders, scant vegetation and poorly developed soils of Rangitoto Island. This perfectly shaped volcanic island erupted out of the Hauraki Gulf just 600 years ago and was observed by early Maori settlers from the adjacent Motutapu island (Jamieston, 2004).

Putting aside the scattered distribution of mountains of volcanic origin, the spine of New Zealand’s South Island, the Southern Alps/Kā Tiritiri-o-te-Moana are one of the youngest and most active Alpine mountain ranges in the world. Throughout the last 3 million years, compression, faulting and crumpling along a 500 km margin between the Pacific and Australian plates has created South Island’s Alpine fault and resulted in an average uplift rate of 7 mm per year (University of Otago, n.d.). If it were not for equally as enthusiastic weathering and erosive forces, the mountains would stand proud at 20,000 m above sea level (GNS Science, n.d.). The net result, a solid wall running parallel to the fault line and the general orientation of South Island, culminating at 3724 m atop Aoraki/Mt Cook; the Cloud Piercer. This is a land of active Earth; frequent Earthquakes and landslides regularly occur with most spectacular and catastrophic consequences.

A transect through these mountains from west to east reveals a remarkable geo-climatological phenomenon. Covering the short coastal plain and cloaking their western slopes is dense temperate rainforest. Moving up through impossibly steep slopes of greywacke rock, there is a rapid transition to the pristine white of the heavily glaciated basins, and faces of the Southern Alps. The moisture laden air of the Tasman Sea is slammed violently by the roaring forties against the 3000 m wall of the mountains dumping anywhere up to 10,000 mm of precipitation annually, firstly as rain but increasingly snow. The mountain landscape has, as a result, been pasted thick with glacial ice. To the east, the mountains rapidly give way to the undulating plains of Canterbury, gradually descending to the Pacific coast. The strong orographic forces create an incredibly pronounced rainfall gradient. At Mount Cook Village, just 40 km as the crow flies from the Tasman Sea, average annual rainfall can be just 2500 mm and on the dry, grassy plains of Canterbury further east, below 500 mm (NIWA, 2016).

The Southern Alps have been, and continue to be a landscape shaped by the current ice-age. Geomorphological evidence from the New Zealand landscape points to four main glacial periods through the Pleistocene epoch, matching the global trend dictated by the more widely documented evidence from the northern landmasses (McClintock, 1966). It was the activity during and following the most recent Otiran glaciation, culminating around 20,000 years ago at the Last Glacial Maximum, that put the finishing touches to the New Zealand landscape of today. Continued tectonic uplift, supplemented by the isostatic readjustment of the land surface elevation through the Holocene epoch of the last 10,000 years created the final outline of New Zealand, consisting of three main and many subsidiary islands. The isolated volcanic provinces and the great fold mountain chain of the Alpine fault bridged by lands of rolling hills and sedimentary basins. In some cases these sediments are a product of Holocene Earth surface processes themselves. The case example being the low-lying sedimentary plain upon which the City of Christchurch is built. This is the result of sediment from the Southern Alps having been deposited as a delta-like plain, building continuous land between the mountains and Banks Peninsula (formerly an island). However some of the rolling sedimentary hills of the north island take us right back to where it all began; the limestone exposures of Waitomo Caves for instance having been deposited in the shallow seas of the Zealandia continent 30 million years ago as it drifted eastward across the Pacific (Waitomo Caves, 2013).

Aotearoa; Journeys into the Long White Cloud continues with Part 3; Predator Free; the battle for New Zealand’s native Forest and Bird


Auckland Museum, 2009, ‘Zealandia the ancient continent of New Zealand – Auckland Museum’ (online video), accessed 20 January 2018, <>.

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GNS Science, n.d., ‘The Geology of New Zealand’, GNS Science Te Pū Ao, accessed 13 January 2018, <>.

Jamieston, A., 2004, ‘Rangitoto, Island volcano in the city of sails’, New Zealand Geographic, accessed 20 January 2018, <>.

McLintock, A.H., 1966, ‘Glaciation’, from An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A.H. McLintock, originally published in 1966. TeAra – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, accessed 11 February 2018, <>.

Mortimer, N., Campbell H.J., Tulloch, A.J., King, P.R., Stagpole V.M., Wood, R.A., Rattenbury, M.S., Sutherland, R., Adams, C.J., Collot, J., Seton, M., 2016, ‘Zealandia, Earth’s Hidden Continent’, GSA Today, v. 27, pp. 27-35, DOI: 10.1130/GSATG321A.1.

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Waitomo Caves, 2013, ‘Waitomo Caves Geology’, Waitomo Caves, accessed 11 February 2018, <>.

Aotearoa; Journeys into the Long White Cloud; Part 1; There and Back again…*

*a Hobbit’s Tale, by Bilbo Baggins

Aotearoa/New Zealand. Describing the geographies of this small yet proud archipelago on the edge of the world requires the contemplation and sometimes imagination of a primeval world. The  cumulative effect of the solitary evolution of this terra firma over millions of years has produced quite individual and at the same time epic results. A strange land of trees that go by the name of kauri, rata, rimu; birds such as the takahe, weka and pukeko; and mystical mountain ranges of the Tararua, Kaikoura and Kahurangi.

Being a fragment of the supercontinent Gondwana cast adrift in the near ubiquitous blue of the South Pacific, New Zealand is the product of a constantly evolving landscape residing on tectonic, climatic and cultural crossroads. Superimposed on this land of geological and ecological fascination is a unique multi-cultural identity named after an endemic flightless bird. A small yet proud population of just under five million people present a bold global outlook built around a strong appetite for sport, adventure and the outdoor lifestyle.

But behind this adventurous, outgoing spirit of a nation lie critical challenges for the 21st century. The scale of landscape and ecological change within the short human tenure of these islands is self-evident to the itinerant traveller. The responses require a complex combination of cutting edge science and spatially specific, nuanced debates that challenge the ethics of conservation and human involvement in natural systems. But if anyone is up for the challenge, then surely the Whenua Aotearoa, people of modern day New Zealand are up for it?

Strong personal connections with far-flung corners of the world do not always seem the most logical of phenomena. When pondering over my interest for long-haul inter-continental journeying, the only rational explanation that seems to enter the mind is a phrase famously coined by Mallory when contemplating his appetite for attempting to summit Everest; ‘because it’s there’. Alas, my connection with New Zealand goes back just over a decade to when I embarked on my first journey to the upside-down world at Heathrow in late-June 2007. I was destined for a study abroad placement at the Victoria University of Wellington. Drawn by the unique appeal of exploring the real-world Middle Earth, I sat back and absorbed with great anticipation, the vast 18,000 km journey across Europe, Asia, the Malay Archipelago, Australia, finally touching down on the Tarmac of Auckland over 24 hours later.

Being located almost located almost at the antipodal point to the U.K. on the Earth’s surface, travel to New Zealand is, and always has been committing. Today’s modern 787 Dreamliner and A380 Super-Jumbo airliners make the journey something of relative ease by comparison to the commitment and ambition required of the pioneering explorers, firstly of Polynesia and latterly the merchant seafarers of the Netherlands and England.

The limited temporal extent of human involvement in New Zealand is something that I always find staggering. It is estimated that Polynesian settlers first arrived from the tropical Pacific in the thirteenth century. These people were East Polynesians, and the ancestors of the Māori people (Wilson, 2005(1)). Four centuries later on 14th August 1642, the Dutch East India Company despatched seafarer Abel Tasman from Batavia, East Indies (today’s Jakarta, Philippines) in search of their suspected Terra Australis Incognita (the great unknown and unexplored southern land that was believed to exist in the South Pacific). On 13th December of the same year, approaching from the West across what would later become the Tasman Sea, ‘a large land uplifted high’ was spotted. Tasman anchored in Golden Bay at the northern tip of South Island on the 18th and 19th December but did not go ashore following a clash with a native tribe. Tasman then returned to Batavia via Tonga, Fiji and New Guinea, naming the new discovery Staten Land, suspecting a connection to an area of land going by the same name near Cape Horn. Soon after, this Western Staten Land was identified as an island and named Nieuw Zeeland after the Dutch maritime province, adding to New Holland (Australia). The Dutch East India company determined Niew Zeeland as a land of limited material profit and thus against the will of Tasman, further exploration was put on hold (Wilson, 2005(2, 3)).

Captain Cook’s landing at Poverty Bay in October 1769 marked the start of the British connection with Nieuw Zeeland, and by doing set in motion a process that would, over the course of the next two centuries, transform the landscape like never before. Cook’s voyage on the Endeavour had previously visited Tahiti to track the transit of Venus. Following this, heading onward and westward the intention was to find the eastern limit of New Zealand and extensively chart the extent of this little-known land. During this circumnavigation, Cook discovered the narrow and important tract of sea separating the North and South Islands (later Cook Strait) before heading down the east coast of South Island. On board was naturalist Joseph Banks who gathered a wealth of information on the unique flora and fauna of the country. Cook made a total of three expeditions to New Zealand and the South Pacific region, with Banks finally concluding on the nonexistence of Terra Australis incognita in the Pacific Ocean at least after probing out on transects in many directions from the known lands (Wilson, 2005(4, 5, 6)).

But what did the pioneering explorers make of this new, most significant and sizeable landmass in the otherwise limitless blue that dominated their journeys?

Tasman simply remarked that it was ‘a very fine land’ and saw in it great potential’ (Wilson, 2005(2)). Banks on the other hand was not so convinced from the outset, postulating over the scene at Poverty Bay before going ashore as ‘not altogether fruitful’ (Captain Cook Society, n.d.).

Charles Darwin, visiting the Bay of Islands in December 1835 on the Voyage of the Beagle noted, ’I believe we were all glad to leave New Zealand. It is not  pleasant place’ (Darwin, 1839, p.408).

The legacy of the merchant travellers is nowadays reflected in place names and geographical features around the country; Cook Strait, Banks Peninsula and the Abel Tasman National Park.

Today the New Zealand tourist board goes for the ‘100% pure’, a brand built around multi-faceted definitions; pure nature, pure adventure, pure discovery. A country proud to present a clean, green image to the outside world. The critical question of course is the extent to which this holds true in such a highly developed land that has undergone transformational change under human watch. Indeed, to begin answering this question first hand as a Euorpean today requires an immediate commitment to a significant contradiction of this image, the journey there and back again being undertaken not on foot as in the case of old Bilbo, nor ocean going sailing vessel as with Kupe, Tasman and Cook but most likely by modern aircraft burning fossil energy and transferring this to the atmosphere as climate-changing greenhouse gases. What a world of complex challenges we have created for ourselves.

Aotearoa; Journeys into the Long White Cloud continues with Part 2; Dynamic Earth; a land forged from fire and ice


Captain Cook Society, n.d., ‘The Circumnavigation of New Zealand – Along the East Coast’, Captain Cook Society, accessed 20 January 2018, <>.

Darwin, C. 1859, The Voyage of the Beagle, Reprint, Wordsworth Editions Ltd, 1996.

Wilson, J. 2005(1), ‘European discovery of New Zealand – Before Tasman’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, accessed 25 January 2018, <>.

Wilson, J. 2005(2), ‘European discovery of New Zealand – Abel Tasman’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, accessed 25 January 2018, <>.

Wilson, J. 2005(3), ‘European discovery of New Zealand – Tasman’s achievement’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, accessed 25 January 2018, <>

Wilson, J. 2005(4), ‘European discovery of New Zealand – James Cook’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, accessed 25 January 2018, <>.

Wilson, J. 2005(5), ‘European discovery of New Zealand – Cook’s three voyages’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, accessed 25 January 2018, <>.

Wilson, J. 2005(6), ‘European discovery of New Zealand – Cook’s achievement’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, accessed 25 January 2018, <>

Land of the Mojito and Metropolis; Part 2 – Western Mexico and the Pacific

After an action packed and fascinating week in the high altitude, hustle and bustle of the Mexico Megacity, I headed west on a downhill-dominated overnight bus ride. Indeed, after the short climb up and out of the city basin, where the altimeter peaked at around 3000 m asl. (on a motorway!), I was swayed to sleep in the comfort of a primera class seat as the coach rolled on down, down and down to the Pacific Coastal town of Zihuatanejo (0 m asl.). After a week of early starts, late nights and non-stop business, I was ready for a coastal wind-down, bobbing up and down in the tropical surf. Zihuatanejo provided the perfect transition to this new way of life. Dawn was just breaking as I stepped from the air-con coach into the heat and intense humidity. The small bus station was located a couple of kilometres inland from the town centre and its perfectly formed horseshoe-bay. The tropical birds (mostly parakeets) were fluttering around in large flocks as the dawn light gradually revealed steaming, densely vegetated slopes all around. In a sleepy haze, I gradually adjusted to this new climatic experience.

Possibly a result of a combination of the high altitude and air pollution in Mexico City, I had suffered from an element of mild pressure and congestion in the sinuses throughout my stay in the City. The rather instantaneous displacement to sea level seemed to provide instant cure. Zihuatanejo was a great staging point for the 400 km journey that lay ahead along the Pacific Coast. Over the next 6 days I planned to traverse the states of Guerrero, Michoacán and finally Colima before a fleeting visit to inland Jalisco (if only to access Guadalajara airport).

Playa la Ropa at Zihuatanejo

A full day in ‘Zihua’ was ample time to wander through the cobbled-brick streets, traverse the seafront and visit the Playa la Ropa, one of Mexico’s finest beaches according to the Rough Guide. It certainly lived up to expectations and was a great introduction to Mexican coastal life. The first time indeed that I’ve not felt cold in the sea without a wetsuit. I enjoyed the evening floating around in the waves and watching sunset with a fruit smoothie beneath a thatched parasol at one of the beachfront restaurants. My airbnb hotel was located in a residential area of the town and following my twilight walk back from Playa la Ropa, I was able to cool off in the courtyard pool whilst the lizards darted around the potted cacti.

Moving on from Zihuatanejo on the Monday, the next objective was around 200 km north along the coast; the Michoacán village of Playa Maruata. Objective, was the key word, as it had been impossible to obtain information on the bus times in this remote and rural part of Mexico. Putting full trust in ‘the system’, I headed out early on a bus to Lázaro Cárdenas a bustling, industrial city just into the state of Michoacán. Upon disembarking the bus, I must have looked like I was ‘winging it’ as the driver asked me with good intentions (and in Spanish of course) where I was heading next. Following a rather cobbled together conversation, involving several people from the bus station and pointing at my destination in the Rough Guide, the net result was that I was swiftly escorted on foot by a kind fella a couple of blocks through the dusty streets to the other bus station and correct one for buses onwards along the coast! After just a couple of hours on the ground in Lázaro Cárdenas, I was on the bus that would take me right through to Maruata, some four hours or so away along the intricate, precipitous and vegetation-clad coast of Michoacán.

Spectacular Playa Maruata and the Cabaña of the Centro Ecoturistico Ayult-Maruata.

This part of the West Coast contains some of Pacific Mexico’s most untouched landscape, with a few small coastal villages dotted along coastal highway 200. As a major south-north artery, this road is unfortunately noted for its role in Mexico’s ongoing drug-smuggling battle. This is largely fought between rival drug gangs and the police. Roadside checkpoints and truckloads of heavily armed police were a very visible insight into this ongoing and notorious problem.

By early evening, I found myself deposited roadside at the village of Maruata. A sleepy little place formed of blockwork single-story shacks with sheet metal roofs and a whole raft of beachfront lean-tos complete with palm thatch to provide much-needed shade from the heat of the day. The village, along with many others in Michoacán, exists largely on the laid-back beach tourism of itinerant travellers. I had been attracted to Maruata by its focus on ecotourism, and was aiming to stay at the Centro Ecoturistica Ayult in a thatched Cabaña. As I wandered through the village, I was once again hit with a spot of travellers’ good fortune as a local guy in a shirt with the easily recognisable turtle logo of the eco-centre embroidered-on was wandering through with his kids. As I was clearly identifiable as a ‘tourist’, he stopped and after a short and broken Spanish-English (him speaking the former, me the latter) conversation and some gestures/pointing (which seemed to work), I found myself being escorted by his ten year old boy across the ford and on to the cabañas of the eco-centre.

Maruata and in particular the positioning of the eco-centre cabañas, was spectacular. Intense Pacific swells have carved a series of intricate bays, headlands and islets, with the cabañas themselves having been built on successive terraces carved out of the steep granite cliffs of the northernmost bay. I spent all of the following day exploring the coastline, walking several kilometres south from the village of Maruata along the long, sweeping and steeply shelved sands. The most striking feature of the beach was the sheer frequency and density of turtle trails leading up the beach to egg-laying pits above the high-tide mark. The turtles themselves were conspicuous just off shore splashing in amongst the breakers, awaiting the cover of darkness before coming onto the beach. The tropical heat and humidity rendered physical activity tiring though the afternoon so I waited until early evening to head to the main beach to take some time bobbing around in the breakers with the locals, largely school children putting in some impressive rides on surfboards.

Sunrise and sunset were extraordinarily spectacular at Maruata.

After this, it was a case of waiting a couple hours after the incredible sunset for a unique wildlife spectacle on the beach right below the cabañas; the aforementioned haul onto the sands of the turtles, to lay their eggs. Thanks to the efforts of the eco-centre team, with support from the locals, the turtles in Maruata are celebrated and well protected from illegal egg collectors. I saw no-fewer than three of these incredible and peaceful marine reptiles during a short wander on the beach under the moonlight.

Next day (Wednesday) it was onwards and northwards. Given the ever-elusive bus timetable, I aimed to pitch up on the main road around lunchtime and be ready for what could be a wait of up to a couple of hours in the midday heat. Again, travellers luck was on my side as shortly after dumping the sack on the dust, a bus pulled around the bend! I was soon back in the world of air-con, heading for Tecomán and the state of Colima. My destination for my final two nights in Mexico was the small hispanic city of Colima, nestled at around 800 m in a wooded basin. The city is overshadowed to the north by the twin stratovolcano complex of Nevado de Colima and Volcán de Colima the former topping out above 4000 m and the latter being the most active vent. After roughing it and making do in Maruata with little in the way of vegetarian food to be found, I was a little under the weather and settled in for the night at the hotel room to recuperate for a final day of exploration.

A typical view of the Nevada del Colima volcanic complex from the colourful backstreets of Colima.

Colima is archetypal Nueva España; hispanic, neoclassical architecture, with roman style churches, courtyards and lush garden squares. Under the Spanish conquest of Mexico, forces were sent west to establish strongholds during the 1520’s and Colima was settled as a direct result of this (Ref 1: After a wander around the historic centre on Thursday morning, I took a classic heavy-duty Latin American bus out to the nearby town of Comala for an even closer view of the volcano across relatively lush agricultural fields and woodland. In the evening, I stocked up on some good veggie food on offer in the hotel bistro and prepared for an early start next morning.

My time on the ground in Mexico concluded with an early morning primera coach from Colima to Guadalajara airport within the inland state of Jalisco. Guadalajara, at 1500 m altitude on an arid plateau, surrounded by dusty mountains was an appropriate end-point for the journey. The landscape had a similar appearance to that of Mexico City and gave a somewhat satisfactory sensation of having come full circuit. Stepping off the coach outside the airport, the early morning mountain air even felt a little on the cool side!

6 plastic bottles, sitting on a table (with a fine view), awaiting their fate!

In the space of a little under a fortnight, Mexico had provided a unique and unforgettable travel experience. A taste of life in a global megacity, outstanding monuments to the pre-Aztec civilisation that have stood the test of time for nearly 2 millennia and the diverse wildlife of the tropical Pacific Coast. The bus system had introduced me to a very new transport experience. Who needs a timetable after all!? But for all these great experiences, one thing was clear; as much as anywhere, the impacts and pressures of modern human life are coming down hard on Mexico’s environment. Probably the most visible of a wide range of issues is modern consumption and the waste it generates. The widespread practice of bottled water being the source of reliable drinking water coupled with a fairly inconsistent approach to recycling and waste collection is creating a serious problem with plastic bottles littering river banks and beaches. As a rather emotive reaction to this problem, my hold bag for the flight over the Baja California contained no-fewer than 6 flat-packed plastic bottles, holding out hope for a recycled future via a U.S. recycling plant.


1.; Colima; accessed 12/01/2018 <>

Land of the Mojito and Metropolis; Part 1 – Mexico City & Around

Mexico’ is a fascinating geographical term. It is place name that can be applied at various scales and is most familiar as the country name for an incredibly dynamic piece of Earth’s continental crust. Mexico the country is the almost 2 million square kilometre tapering tract of the North American continent, feeding into the narrow land-bridge of Central America. At the next scale down the Estado de Mexico, or State of Mexico, is a horseshoe shaped-state surrounding the City of the same name. Much of this state (population approximately 16 million) is formed of contiguous urban sprawl spill-over from the capital and world megacity. Last but by no-means least, Mexico City itself or Ciudad de México (CDMX formerly the Distrito Federal) is the densely populated core and high-altitude heart of the Mexican nation, with 9 million inhabitants packed into an area of just 1500 square kilometres.

Mexico is a land of extreme geographical diversity. Geology, landscape, climate, people and wildlife are all on display at their most vibrant. It is the complex and sometimes highly chaotic ways in which all of these things coexist in Mexico that create its unique appeal.

Mexico City sprawling away into the distance as our aircraft from Atlanta descends into the City’s airport.

My Mexican journey commenced in Mexico City, being launched into this 2250 m megacity at it’s most common international gateway, the Aeropuerto Internacional Mexico City on Saturday 14th October. The flight across the Gulf of Mexico from Atlanta provided some fine views of cumulonimbus storm clouds, towering and vapour laden into the high atmosphere and a stark reminder of the hurricane season that had devastated many parts of the Caribbean and Gulf through the early-autumn (and of course the climate-forcing link with aircraft emissions). Our post-sunset descent into Mexico City was most dramatic. With flitting views through storm clouds of the sprawling city lights, air turbulence and lightening, it was an exciting welcome to Mexico City. We were soon on the tarmac and battling Mexico City’s infamous traffic as we made our way to the Alameda in the City Centre.

The Palicio de Bellas Artes, part of the hispanic centre of Mexico City around the Alameda Park.

The purpose of the visit was to accompany and assist with a field trip of Lancaster University Management School students led by Dr. Alison Stowell of the Department of Organisation Work and Technology. The students were guests, observers and volunteers at the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) annual council member meeting in the Hilton Reforma Mexico City. The conference ran from Monday to Wednesday with fascinating insights into world-leading and practical sustainable development projects that many of the WBCSD member-companies are delivering. Largely built around the UN Sustainable Development Goals, the conference provided an insight into the role of business, third sector and political collaboration in achieving progress in sustainability. WBCSD working groups collaborate on a wide-diversity of issues, from cities to packaging, logistics, transport and the circular economy. A stand out discussion for me was a session led by the WBCSD Climate and Energy group and The Nature Conservancy around Natural Climate Solutions. This featured a new report in PNAS demonstrating the extent, speed and low-cost relative to other (yet equally important) hard-engineering/energy solutions of implementing nature-preserving, enhancing or restoration based solutions in the mitigation of climate change. The report demonstrates that the conservation or restoration of forests, wetlands, grasslands and agricultural lands leading to increased carbon storage or avoided emissions from degradation can contribute up to one third of emissions reductions required to meet the Paris Climate Agreement (Ref 1: Griscom et al., 2017).

After three days at the conference centre, Thursday was the first of two one-day excursions and the first chance to get a glimpse of rural Mexico, right on the periphery of the city basin. Setting out early from central Mexico City, the group were privileged to be joined by Professor Gail Whitman and Dr Rodney Irwin from Lancaster University’s Pentland Centre for Sustainability in Business and the WBCSD respectively. The destination for the day was the Centro Educativo para el Desarrollo Rural (CEDER), an ecological lifestyles education centre located in Huixquilucan, west of Mexico City in the State of Mexico at an altitude of approximately 3000 m. We were given an in-depth tour of the various buildings, water harvesting, energy and food production techniques that are demonstrated at the centre, and learnt of their significance for building sustainable communities in rural Mexico, where water scarcity is often a significant problem. We were then set to work in small groups, assisting with some of the latest tasks; building a bio-dynamic bed or a rammed earth wall.

The Centro Educativo para el Desarrollo Rural (CEDER) sustainable development education and community centre.

For Friday’s excursion we headed approximately 40 km north of the City out into the State of Mexico once again to the UNESCO World Heritage site of Teotihuacán. This extensive archeological site pre-dates the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán (current Mexico City), with very little known about the civilisation that built the great pyramids and surrounding spiritual city over a period of just over a millennium from 600 BCE. Indeed, the city was even abandoned by the time the Aztecs arrived in the great lake-filled basin that is now Mexico City. Indeed it was the Aztecs who gave the ancient city it’s name of Teotihuacán, meaning ‘the place where men became gods’ (Ref 2: Baverstock et al., 2016). The twin masterpieces of the site are the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon which can be climbed to reveal the most incredible panoramas of the site and the sheer scale and extent of earth and stone movement required in the construction Teotihuacán. Our visit included a guided tour of the archaeological site followed by the full Mexican experience over lunch at a bistro on the periphery of site; tequila and sombrero’s were in no short supply. Thanks to our guides Sahara and Jorge from Tours Aeropuerto Mexico City for organising this memorable excursion and also for shuttling us from/to Mexico City airport.

Piramide de la lune, Teotihuacán

Saturday morning was departure day for Alison and the Lancaster team. We said our farewells at the Delta check-in desks at the airport, and with that marked the transition to the next phase of my Mexican journey. Before moving on from Mexico City, I had one more full day in the city as I was taking the overnight bus onwards and westwards that evening. For my last day in the city, I was very lucky to have a personal tour guide; Elena a family friend, seasoned Mexico City resident but also globally itinerant academic. Elena studied for a period at Cardiff University when I was at primary school. We had a fantastic run-around day exploring far and wide across the city. From the grand hill-top Chapultepec Castle set within the verdant Chapultepec Park to the top of the Torre Latinoamericana, Elena took me to some high vantage points where the extent of Mexico’s megacity could really be appreciated. So vast is Mexico’s urban basin that on a warm Saturday afternoon the often unbroken cityscape simply merged into a horizon of pollution haze with the mountainous rim beyond obscured from view. The unaware city dweller would be forgiven for forgetting about the presence, only 60 km away to the southeast, of two 5000 m stratovolcanoes, Popocatépetl and Ixtaccíhuatl. Elena really got me into the Mexican lifestyle and set the context for my week of travel ahead. We even rode a pesero (bus) and trolleybus to get that full-on Mexico City transport experience.

An unexpectedly green view across the Mexico Cityscape. Looking west towards the Lomas de Tecamachalco where a number of new skyscrapers were being built.

Mexico City displays human development at its most chaotic and illogical. A sprawling metropolis built on unconsolidated, former lake-bed sediments in a high-altitude, arid basin within one of the most seismically and volcanically active parts of the Pacific Ring of Fire. Indeed, Mexico had been rocked by two intense earthquakes during September, with the 19th September 7.1 moment magnitude Central Mexico Earthquake bringing significant consequences to the people and structures of Mexico City. It seems like the most unlikely location for one of the worlds largest settlements. And yet, here it is, continuing to grow at an exponential rate, largely through sprawling suburbs of self-built dwellings. Meanwhile the urban infrastructure, bursting at the seams, struggles to keep pace with the overture of honking horns. But despite all these challenges, the outlook of Mexico City is of an incredibly cheerful and resourceful city with a bold ‘getting on with the job’ mentality. The city, and country as a whole as I was to discover in part 2 of this journey is in every way enjoyable, fascinating and vibrant. And somehow ‘the system’, whether transport or accommodation, ‘just works’ in a very non-conventional (to the European traveller) manner. More in part 2.


1. Griscom, B.W, et al. (2017) Natural climate solutions, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS); 114 (44), pp. 11645-11650.

2.  Baverstock, A., Hull, S., Keeling, S. and Meghji, S. (2016). The Rough Guide to Mexico. 10th ed. London: Rough Guides Ltd, pp. 142-147.

Alpine Resilience in a Changing World

It is commonly assumed that an ‘Alp’ is a towering pinnacle of rock and ice, dominating the landscape of the mountain range that derives its name from the word. The reality however is far less dramatic, and paints a picture of a tamer landscape. An ‘Alp’, or ‘Alpe’ (in French) refers to the term Alpage, a high-altitude summer grazing pasture or meadow. These lush meadows form a key part of the long-standing seasonal and cyclical pattern of transhumance where cattle and sheep are moved by their shepherds from their overwinter home of the lowland valleys up into the mountains in spring and summer and back down again in autumn. The Alps are thus a mountain range fashioned by human activity as well as the forces of nature if not least in literary but also physical form. Indeed, this is the most populous and accessible mountain range on Earth.

The story of the Alps is told by ongoing human adaption to the background pulse of climatic change, whether between the seasons or over the years, decades and centuries. Agro-pastoralism and woodcraft form the basis of the age-old Alpine heritage, but a wide range of human activities have since been layered onto this. The Victorian era sparked the beginning of European tourism and the mountains of the Alps provided pioneering ground for new leisure time pursuits and the intrepid sports of mountaineering (Alpinism) and skiing. Whilst the mountains continue to prove their worth through the multi-billion Euro Alpine tourism industry, their value extends well beyond their geographical limits. The fertile arable plains of the Rhône valley from Lyon through to the Mediterranean as well as surrounding hillside vineyards depend ultimately on the continuous supply of water flowing from the high mountains. A network of pipes, canals and reservoirs, the product of intuitive human engineering of upland water basins has enabled the development of an alpine hydropower infrastructure with a combined output of 28 GW (Ref. 1: CIPRA).

Lac du Chambon, département d’Isère, France, July 2017 seen from the GR50. The surface of the reservoir is around 20 m lower than normal with a large exposure of gravel bank around the shore. Summer 2017 was preceded by a critically dry winter and spring – the hydrological ‘recharge period’ (Ref: 5 Meteo France).

Travelling by train along the Rhône valley either in the Swiss section before it enters Lake Geneva or racing down the French by TGV section further south, the scale of industry and development are immense. It’s easy to forget the critical role that these mountains play in Western Europe’s prosperity. But in the light of the current pace of climatic change in the Alps as discussed recently in The Changing Face of the Alpine Environment, how resilient are our human activities in the face of uncertain change?

The critical and most challenging factor is the level of uncertainty in climatic patterns that modern-day climate change has brought. The general warming of average annual temperature is punctuated with extreme weather events of varying duration; short, intensive rainfall or prolonged, extreme heat and drought being two of the most problematic. Arguably, mountain agriculture could benefit from the warming trend (Ref 2: Behringer et al, 2000). Earlier snowmelt and a longer growing season will certainly improve grazing conditions and crop yield in an environment where agriculture was traditionally seen as a harsh battle against the elements. During times of extreme heat, cooler and higher alpine valleys could even provide more favourable conditions for crops and animals than the parched plains below. Meanwhile, on the surrounding pistes de ski, the snow cannon has become a universal feature of the ski-infrastructure landscape in all but the highest ski areas. The post-war period brought about a boom in alpine winter tourism. Climatically, the surge in interest in winter sport was fuelled by a period of reliable and increasingly snowy winters in the Alpine region between the 1930’s and 1980’s. However, from the 1980’s through to the present day, alpine winter snowfall has become much more unpredictable in nature (Ref 3: Laternser and Schneebeli, 2003). The 2017 winter was no exception, many ski areas lay largely snow free for much of December and January, with February and March providing relief with snowfall events. The winter came and went rapidly, with a long, dry spring taking hold from early April onwards. As for lower-altitude ski fields; those in the pre-Alpine ranges such as the Jura; artificial snow production is somewhat impossible if winter temperatures struggle to reach 0ºC and with precipitation increasingly falling as rain, any ‘whitening’ progress is simply washed away by the next passing weather front. The viability of winter sports in these regions is balanced on thin-ice.

Ski field engineering. This small reservoir near the Col de l’Eychauda on the GR54 feeds a system of snow cannons for the Serre-Chevalier ski area. The landscape-scale impact of ski infrastructure clearly dominates the high-summer view here. Snow cannons are a response to unreliable winter snowfall and have become almost ubiquitous at European resorts. Water storage and distribution is a key challenge, as well as the ecological impacts of ‘artificial snow’.

The Alps are Central Europe’s reservoir, with millions of litres of freshwater locked up in snow and ice supplemented by the network of engineered structures and pipelines. As the glaciers shrink, the reliability of the reservoir is challenged. The impacts downstream are far-reaching and possibly present one of the largest challenges of climate unpredictability for the 21st century. The Rhône valley and Provence hillsides are one of Europe’s largest vineyards, and the fertile plains are heavily cultivated with fruit, vegetable and salad crops. Reductions in natural water availability will place further pressure on the engineered water resource for piped irrigation. This ultimately relies on water storage capacity in reservoirs that rely on being topped-up by spring snow-melt. Building more storage capacity might seem like a logical response but how many more alpine valleys are willing to succumb to submersion behind a wall of intrusive concrete?

La Guisane passing through Le Casset, Hautes-Alpes. Water everywhere? Gushing torrents loaded with glacial sediment are a classic feature of the Alpine landscape. However, extended dry spells and near-drought combined with increasing demands for freshwater are putting the natural hydological system under immense strain.

Adding to the reductions in snow-melt input to the hydrological system is the effect of prolonged drought. The complexity of variables contributing to future climate trends make it difficult to identify whether overall precipitation will decrease, and even then there will always be wide-ranging spatial and altitudinal variability. However, it is widely expected that under climate warming, the Alpine region will become more susceptible to drought (Ref 4: Gobiet et al., 2014). Precipitation patterns and extreme heat in the French Alps over recent summers have produced clearly visible evidence of change in the landscape. Glaciers stripped bare of any surface snow layer and Alpine lakes and reservoirs at low levels. July 2015 saw a period of daytime temperatures sustained in the mid-thirties creating significant rockfall hazard in the high-mountains as a result of permafrost melt. Once again in 2016, the heat returned and the Meteo France recorded a 25% rainfall deficit during the summer months. As for summer 2017, whilst the summer received around average rainfall, a significantly dry preceding autumn, winter and spring (the so-called re-charge period) has left Mediterranean soils in particular with drought-like conditions (Ref 5: Meteo France).

Whilst the exact trajectory of future climate is unclear, some things are certain. The Alps are going through immense change, to a warmer period of climate with greater extremes of wet and dry. This is changing the physical and human landscape and necessitating adaptation of land use and human activity. Our responsibility is to attempt to exist harmoniously in the landscape in the face of unpredictability. This presents an immense challenge for a world with increasing resource and mobility demands. The climate challenge of this century will arguably test our tradition of resilience more than our innovation, and the mountain environment is where resilience forms a critical part of survival.


1. International Commission for the Protection of the Alps (CIPRA); Energy in the Alps; accessed 12/09/2017; <>

2. Behringer, J. Buerki, R. and Fuhrer, J. (2000) Participatory integrated assessment of adaption to climate change in Alpine tourism and mountain agriculture, Integrated Assessment; 1, pp.331-338.

3. Laternser, M. and Schneebeli. M. (2003) Long Term Snow Climate Trends of the Swiss Alps (1931-99), International Journal of Climatology, 23, pp.733-750.

4. Gobiet, A. Kotlarski, S. Beniston, M. Heinrich, G. Rajczac, J. Stoffel, M. (2014) 21st century climate change in the European Alps – A review. Science of the Total Environment, 393, pp. 1138-1151.

5. Meteo France; Sécheresse : situation au 24 août 2017; accessed 20/09/2017; <>

Marvelling at Swiss Efficiency

A ticket from Zurich Burkliplatz (on the shore of Lake Zürich) to La Fouly (nestled high in the mountains of the Valais Canton) is exactly that. One ticket (not necessarily on paper these days) for a tram, four trains and one bus. With connections planned around a logical system timetable designed with the inter-modal passenger in mind the efficiency of the Swiss Travel System is supreme. When it comes to seamless public transport, the Swiss system remains exemplar. The contrast to the current situation in the U.K. could not be more acute.

Following my recent trip to the Swiss canton of the Valais, I couldn’t resist but to share a few snapshots of how just how seamless and wonderful Swiss transport really is. Pricy at times for the occasional user indeed. But anyone, Swiss resident or visitor is eligible to purchase a ‘Half Fare Card’ (CHF 185 for a year, reducing to CHF 165 in year 2) that cuts the cost of all travel, well, in half.

The key to success of the Swiss Travel System is integration; all modes seamlessly connected. A ‘Belle Epoque’ paddle steamer of the Compagnie Générale de Navigation sur le Lac Léman pulls away from berth at Jardin-Anglais in Central Geneva. 

The idea of being able to get on a bus near my house in Lancaster and ask for a ticket through to Pentyrch, my family home village in South Wales (via 3 trains and another bus), have the driver click a few buttons on a touch screen ticket machine and accept the payment (by debit or credit card) seems like some sort of idealistic miracle. Throw in the idea of taking a push bike all the way with you on a spur of the moment basis and the whole scenario just becomes like something out of cloud-cuckoo land. Even if the Stagecoach bus driver on the service 18 ‘East City Circular’ in Lancaster happened to let the bike on ‘unofficially’ as the bus was empty, you’d be met by the Virgin Trains platform staff at Lancaster with ‘have you got a bike reservation’ (for the tiny compartment at the end of the train that takes a maximum of four bikes). In Switzerland, all of the idealistic (and more) is just part of every day life. As if by some sort of miracle, the ticket machine on every Swiss PostBus (station booking office and those carried by train guards) even in a remote Alpine valley can bring up the fare to any designated public transport stop in the country, be it a rail station, tram or bus stop, the top of a mountain funicular or cable car, even a boat pier on one of the picturesque Alpine Lakes… And as for the bike, that’s no problem too; just hook it on one of six bike racks on the rear of the bus (or in busy cycling valleys load it onto the bike trailer that the bus is towing capable of carrying somewhere in the region of the same number of bikes as seats on the bus!). Once at the railway station, a 3-carriage regional train has no problem holding at least 10 bikes. As for the mainline, pretty much every carriage on a 10-carriage  InterRegio train along the Rhône valley line can take 6 bikes. It would take a mass gathering of cycling clubs to fill the one train alone with bikes.

Transport connectivity doesn’t get much better than this! At the small Alpine village of Orsières in the Valais, the bus for Champex-Lac waits patiently for connecting passengers from the train. Note the bike rack on the rear of the bus capable of holding up to 6 bikes!

The U.K. Department for Transport has been making lots of noise about ‘Smart Ticketing’ for what seems like over a decade now and still all we get is a handful of train and bus operators outside London offering some sort of smartcard or mobile ticketing that works for some fares, not others, rarely integrated across modes, overlain onto an archaic ticketing system that is so unbelievably complex that it’s no wonder that not even a computer model can decipher it. As for Anytime or Off-Peak Single fares only 10p or so less than a Return… on what planet has that ever been logical? It should have been abolished as soon as it came about (hopefully by mistake) but unfortunately it lingers on the 2017 U.K. railway.

Meanwhile in Switzerland, you fire up the SBB (Swiss Federal Railways) app, and within a matter of seconds of entering your start and end points for your journey and being shown the single fare (exactly half of the return fare of course), you can buy a single ticket for the whole journey via TouchID on your SmartPhone and have the ticket barcode happily sat in your ticket wallet app another few seconds later… in Switzerland the world literally is your Oyster.

What about traction? In absence of fancy names like ‘Azuma‘ being thrown in, Swiss rolling-stock generally has to settle for more functional nomenclature such as RABDe 500. However, one feature is ubiquitous; electric traction. Unlike in the UK, where mailine railway electrification remains a political football specifically in 2017, the Swiss set to work electrifying their railways from the early 1900’s. No diesel fumes wafting around stations, Swiss trains are emissions-free at the point of use with 99% of passenger trains being 100% electric. No faffing with bi-modes or waiting to see what opportunities hydrogen might provide in 20 years’ time. Even with it’s top-station at 3454 m, the Jungrfraubahn was built from the outset as a fully-electrified railway. What’s more, the coordinated national fleet strategy of the SBB has committed to a mass energy-efficiency drive with a committment to the fleet running on 100% renewable energy and avoiding nuclear. National and strategtic planning, a phrase that can rarely be used to describe transport infrastructure in the U.K.

The clean, green machines line up at Aigle station. Many of the major stations along the Lausanne-Brig (Rhône valley) line are an interchange to a myriad of standard and narrow-gauge branch lines reaching high into the surrounding mountains. It’s no wonder that Switzerland has one of the densest railway networks on the world and enjoys some of the highest rates of public transport journeys to work.

The most exciting bit is when the system timetable throws up a journey with 6 changes and several modes. Fear not… this is nothing like what we’re used to at home, where the Arriva Trains Wales Service from Warrington Bank Quay, usually timed with a 6 minute connection from the southbound Virgin West Coast service, pulls out On Time and ahead of the latter, even if a short delay on the Virgin Train would only result in a knock on delay of 2 minutes or so. Net result; any connecting passengers are stranded for an hour on the platform. Not ideal if you’re heading for a ferry at Holyhead! By contrast, a 1 minute connection as advertised in the Swiss system timetable is one of their proudest achievements. You step off one train, and waiting patiently on the adjacent platform is your connection. No dashing up and down steps and half way across the station, just a leisurely stroll of a few metres whilst the elegant red-second hand of the iconic SBB CFF FFS station clock glides towards the top of the hour. But even in the land of the Cuckoo Clock things sometimes don’t go to plan. On the return trip of our recent visit, we were held up for 15 minutes (!) on a Transports de Martigny et Region SA bus feeding into a SBB RegionAlps train connection at the village of Orsières. Several hundred drenched runners taking part in one of the Ultra Tour du Mont Blanc races had lead to standstill on the road just a kilometre short of the interchange. The station staff were informed of the two feeder buses (one from Champex-Lac, the other from Val Ferret) being held up and to our relief, the train connection was held for 4 minutes to ensure around 20 passengers were on their way to Martigny and beyond without having to wait another hour.

The Swiss transport system is everything transport should be; clean, organised, simple, integrated… and so brings us to the end of this little story from the tiny picture postcard nation at the heart of Europe.

The Changing Face of the Alpine Environment

The high-summer period has been all about the European Alps. In late July, into early August I had the excellent company of a client group on the GR54, Tour of the Oisans & Écrins. A wonderful ten days in the true Alpes-du-Soleil of the historical province of the Dauphiné. After a brief fortnight back in the cool blustery NW of England, it was southward bound again at the end of the month for an official holiday. This time a walking and mountaineering excursion based in the Swiss Val Ferret on the back end (and lesser frequented side) of the Mont Blanc range. Imogen and I joined a group of current and former Lancastrian friends for a communal camping trip, staying in the immaculate village of La Fouly. Two most excellent outings, and the waterproof trousers only went on once during the whole period! The nights are already drawing in considerably and we’re into climatological autumn. Time to pack up the summer gear and start planning for the cooler part of the year!

Perfect summer conditions on the GR54 Tour des Écrins near Col de la Muzelle, but barely a patch of snow in sight..!

Throughout these summer excursions, I’ve kept pondering on the realisation that we are living through a period of dramatic landscape change in the Alpine environment. I’ve been visiting the Alps regularly for just over 10 years now and even in such a short time, the evidence of change is stark.  My memories from first trips to the Bernese Oberland in 2002 and Valais in 2005 were of great white walls towering in the sky. The Jungfrau, as seen from Interlaken, an incredible hulk of a mountain, gripped by extensive glaciation. Over the last three summers, looking up to the towering heights of la Meije or the great glacier basins of Tour, Argentière or the Vallée Blanche of the Mont Blanc massif, it has been a case of out with the white and in with the grey. All three years have experienced a similar climatic trend; mild winters with lean snowfall followed by record summer warmth and spells of temperatures in the mid-to high thirties at 1000 m. The climatic pulse has shifted, and the landscape is responding accordingly.

Mapping glacial retreat of the Glacier du Dolent, Swiss Val Ferret. The Swiss topo map from 1995 marks the terminus approximately at the red-dashed line. The glacier surface area has reduced by around 50% in just 22 years!

The mountains, whilst youthful in geological terms, are experiencing perhaps one of the most rapid transitions in their appearance as their pristine white façades are stripped back, exposing fresh, unweathered bedrock slabs, vast swathes of pulverised rock flour and stacks of unstable boulders and scree. Recently active terminal and lateral moraines several hundred metres away from the present-day ice, identify the speed and extent of glacial retreat. Topographical maps printed in the early 2000’s are already well-behind the times in terms of displaying the 2017 summer-minimum of snow and ice cover. Landscape change on the scale of which is currently being observed in the Alps was always something that I considered to be outside the timeframe of a single human lifetime. All readily available in the textbook, but rarely observed in the field. Subtle change was always inevitable, but transformational change was the preserve of the geological time units of the epoch, period or even era. In the UK mountains, we’re surrounded by the products of former but long ceased geomorphological processes; end moraines, cirques, scree slopes, arêtes, lakes and drumlins. However the relative stability of rock deposits, lichen, moss and grass cover gives a sense of long-preserved relics of a former, more active landscape locked in time by present-day stability.

At the head of the Combe de l’A just below the Mont Ferret; a perennial snow patch once lay here, and before that, a small cirque glacier (the debris on the right of the image is a small end-moraine). All that remains in late-summer 2017 are two tiny snow patches just below the rock buttress of the Mont Ferret.

In the Alpine environment, deglaciation is happening within our lifetime. By 2050, it seems likely that the majority of terrain below 4000 m will be clear of snow and ice during the summer, and the idea of deep Alpine valleys loaded with winter snow will be something of a nostalgic memory. And what can be done to stop this? Probably very little; the background climatic forcing coupled with a reduction in surface snow & ice cover is a recipe for a positive feedback loop; snow and ice loss becomes more and more rapid until it dissapears altogether or there is a major shift back to a cooler climate. For the white stuff to return in abundance it will take, either in isolation or some complex combination, a return of Earth’s atmospheric CO2 to pre-industrial levels, a supervolcano such as Yellowstone or a meteorite strike throwing millions of tonnes of ash into the upper atmosphere reducing solar input or indeed a reduction in solar radiation either directly itself or as a result of the orbital cycles.

The Alps are dynamic, active Earth. Continually pushed skyward by the tectonic forces of the Mediterranean region but worn down by erosive forces at an equal rate. They’re certainly a living landscapes in all senses of the phrase. As the most populous mountain environment on Earth, they’re also a fascinating place from the perspective of human-landscape interactions. How will the people of the Alps adapt to the climatically-forced landscape changes? Over the next 25 years, we’re sure to find out.