Aunty Rata Interview with Katja Riedel

Katja kayaking from Nansen Island to Orne Bay, Antarctic Peninsula
Katja kayaking from Nansen Island to Orne Bay, Antarctic Peninsula

When Aunty Rata first came along to the Club she was put at ease by a friendly woman with a big smile and a German accent. Katja was Club Promotions Officer at the time and I soon learnt that she also helped out with the Snowcraft and Bushcraft courses. These days she is more likely to be pushing her boundaries by creating customised wilderness adventures or expanding her skill base by attending a new course.

Imagination, curiosity and a methodical approach are the hallmarks of all good scientists and these qualities also come in handy if you feel the magnetic pull of the outdoors. Katja Riedel is a tropospheric chemist by training, undertaking research and teaching focusing on the lower part of the atmosphere, I’m guessing climate change and ozone depletion are in the mix. Through work and play Katja has accumulated a formidable array of outdoor skills and experience across a wide range of activities which means that time and resources permitting, she can design an adventure to just about anywhere involving just about any activity. So what is the poster girl for versatility and exploration up to these days? I decided to ask her.

How did you get interested in outdoor activities?

When I was a kid we lived close to the forest and I was always outdoors, climbing trees, building tree houses, kayaking, camping and sledging in winter. After I finished school I ventured further away to Norway, Scotland and Iceland. It got more serious when I overwintered in Antarctica and since I am living in New Zealand I am really bitten by the adventure bug.

You’ve been associated with WTMC for a few years now, what do you like best about the Club?

I joined the Club 3 weeks after I arrived in New Zealand. In the beginning it was a great way to meet people, do tramps that are not in the guide book and get to places without owning a car. At some stage I was on the Committee of the Club, now I am a bit slack and do only a few trips with the Club each year. The good thing is that whenever I come back to the club I find interesting and keen people to connect with. I also like the different activities we offer as a Club, kayaking, tramping, skiing and if there is anybody prepared to lead caving, horse riding or extreme ironing trips we should encourage them.

You are proficient in lots of outdoor activities (kayaking, skiing, tramping, cycling, outdoor photography), do you have a favourite?

I really like the variety, but if I had to choose it would probably be kayaking: remote beaches, swims, wine at sunset and mussels for starters….. And the photography goes with all other activities; I always have a camera with me.

With your qualifications and experience you could live and work anywhere in the world, what drew you to New Zealand and what keeps you here?

What drew me here? The outdoor possibilities, the wild places and only a few people I have to share them with. What keeps me here? Every good summer day in Wellington, when I am thinking what an awesome place to live! Hmm, vice versa, I sometimes wonder when the Southerly chills me to the bone and blows me off my bike.

You have been on expeditions to some really beautiful and remote spots beyond NZ including cycling, horse riding and tramping in Kyrgyzstan, kayaking the Patagonian Fiords, pack hauling in Antarctica, ski touring in Scandinavia. I’m guessing all these trips were special but is there one that stands out from the others and if so why?

From all those trips Kyrgyzstan is probably my favourite. Stuart and I were there for 7 weeks and we had so many different amazing experiences. The organisation was sometimes a nightmare, especially when we had to extend our visas, but we organised everything ourselves and that was very rewarding. I even learned some Russian before went there.

If you had to pick your top three NZ trips which would they be and why?

Lake Angelus in winter, I’ve just been there again for ski touring and I love the location of the hut, the frozen lake and all the snowy mountains. Pouakai Circuit at Taranaki, seeing the early morning sun on the snow covered mountain is spectacular. Kayaking Able Tasman in July or August with all the crowds gone and baby seals to watch.

Trips to remote places take lots of planning, how do you go about getting ready for a big trip?
I normally hear or read about a destination and that sparks it off. For the planning I get the Lonely Planet out of the library, spent vast amounts of time searching on the internet and talk with people who have been there. The next step is the most difficult one: make a plan, then change that plan a thousand times, panic because it is getting closer to departure date, then finally go and change the plan as you go.

What do you look for in team mates?

Wow, team mates, sounds really serious. 😉 I think the most important thing is to be honest and clear about what you want and what you don’t want. If you have too different interests or ideas it won’t work.

On expeditions you can prepare very thoroughly but still encounter the unexpected, otherwise it wouldn’t be an adventure. What approach do you take when things don’t go according to plan?

Panic and cry? To be honest I am not very good at handling the unexpected. I certainly go through a panic or anger stage when thing s don’t go according to plan, sometimes it helps me to take a step back and ask myself “does it really matter?” and then some Zen like calm comes over me – I wish.

How do you keep yourself going when conditions are tough? Do you draw on your companions or your own resources or a combination?

I certainly draw on my companion, ask Stuart. He had to talk me through some situations where I plainly refused to go any further. One example was when we were tramping in the Northern Alps in Japan. We had no ice axe or crampons, I had soft trekking boots and the snow was icy and hard in the morning. I thought we were silly to be there, without the right gear, but he convinced me to go on, it was a bit borderline, but we got to a hot pool in a stunning mountain setting as a reward.

Are you planning your next adventure? Where to this time?

I am always planning, but this time it is big! I will take a whole year off next year to travel. I know it sounds like a cliché, but I really would like to see the Arctic before it changes drastically (because of climate change). Svalbard and Greenland have been on my list for a Iong time. I am hoping to go ski touring or kayaking there and I am still looking for travel companions. I also have lined up some field work in Greenland, measuring CO2 emissions from soil in Thule or Kangerlussuaq. There will be more cross country skiing in Sweden and Norway, cycle touring in Europe, tramping in Tibet or Northern India and lecturing on a cruise ship going to the Antarctic Peninsula.

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