Cartography of a Country

New Zealand is routinely cut off the right hand edge of maps of the world, cast adrift in the space outside the frame that is usually home to Antarctica, occasionally Tasmania, and not much else. Sure, it irks, but it’s not only illustrators in faraway countries that make such erasures. To see why, we need only look a little closer to home.

Ask the average New Zealander on the street how many islands New Zealand is made up of and they’re likely to say two – North and South. Press a little further, and Stewart Island might just nudge in as the third, depending on how much attention the person paid to school geography lessons, and whether or not they have ever actually travelled south of the Bombay hills. And yet, there is so much more to our shores than just the big three (or big two-and-a-half – sorry Rakiura).

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Take the Chatham Islands, for instance. Marooned 800km to the east of mainland New Zealand, they are mostly spared a thought only at the end of the national weather forecast (and, of course, the forecast is almost invariably for rain). They may be in their own timezone 45 minutes ahead of the rest of us, but they support the All Blacks just as fervently. Then there are the many sub-Antarctic islands to the south that are home to a host of Southern Ocean wildlife and not much else. Still, their frigid peaks and windswept shores belong on our maps, even if they do account for less than 1% of New Zealand’s total area and most commonly appear as obstacles on maritime charts.

Many mid Cantabrians are familiar with maps of another sort, namely the topographical variety that are routinely packed for hunting and hiking trips up into the hills. That’s another side of the country that is often overlooked – quite literally, in the case of international travellers flying out of Christchurch. The deep valleys and towering peaks, the glacier faces and steep slopes of scree all gather neatly to order beneath the orange lines and ordered type of a Mercator Projection rendering. How many other people will summit that mountain or camp out beneath that ridge? The further into the backcountry you get, the more select the numbers become. For those who make the effort, it’s something pretty special.

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

Human experiences, narratives and histories are what make a place, but our selective cropping also makes certain places invisible. Next time you’re considering an overseas holiday because you’ve “seen it all” back home, it might pay to think twice. That, and buy a more detailed map.

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Not From Round These Parts

How do you know when you really belong in a place? Perhaps when it stops feeling like you don’t belong. Small towns all over the world have locals and outsiders, and the chilliness towards the latter group varies greatly depending on location. Last weekend we had an ‘outsiders’ experience that made even the most glowering of looks from back home seem positively welcoming. The scene: a rural pub in a lonely coastal town. Thursday evening. The goal: have a quiet pint before dossing down for the night in our brand new tents, which were carefully erected just beneath the local satellite tower, in the only campsite in town. Course of action: head down the street to the local pub.

As we walked through the doors, all conversation ceased. Seven sets of eyes all swivelled round to appraise the foreigners who had dared to let in a draught. The woman perched at the bar eating her tea put down her fork with a ‘clank’ that resounded through the entire room. A fly buzzed against the inside of the window, desperate to escape. All that was missing was the banjo soundtrack.

To be fair, this particular town did not see many visitors. It probably didn’t help that one of our number was a six foot something Irishman who was sporting a drooping red moustache that reached almost to his shoulders, where it was carefully twizzled into two waxy points. Even in the most bustling metropolis, he would have elicited a double take.

We bid a good evening to all present, remarked upon the strength of the wind out, and took a seat at the bar. Bazza, Rozza, Timmo and Davo (names courtesy of the chalked scores next to the darts board) looked distrustfully on as we sipped at our pints. We spoke in hushed tones, so as not to disturb the living-room atmosphere. All ears were aprickle with interest – who were these strangers? Which team did they support? And were they going to talk through the best bits of their programme? Eventually all present turned back to watching the evening’s show, which consisted of a remake of classic tunes from ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show,’ featuring famous sports coaches in place of the original actors. On a scale of bizarre, you just couldn’t make the scene up. We only stayed for one, and made sure to thank the barman on the way out.

The next day was a scorcher. Come lunchtime, and post-hike, anything with ice in it seemed like a good idea, so we headed back for the local Hotel. What a difference! Instead of silence, we were greeted with nods, served our ‘usual’s, and granted leave to eat our fish and chips in the yard. ‘Timmo’ even joined us out there, imparting detailed advice about the local roads whilst finishing his cigarette.

The moral of the story? If at first you’re treated like an outcast, just try again the next day, when the AFL final is about to start, and the local team is about to win and make history. That subtle chin-raise greeting had never seemed more of statement, and cider had never tasted so good.

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

Danger Camping

New Zealand is such a safe place to camp. Aside from swollen rivers and regular hypothermia-inducing temperatures, nothing’s really trying to kill you. Head 2000km West, however, and every creature seems hell-bent on human destruction. That’s what Aussies would have any visiting kiwis believe, anyway. Although we took such advice with a grain of salt, after a week in the wilderness, we’re almost convinced that everything (bar the drop-bears) is true.

Our first encounter with Australian wildlife came in the form of a wombat. Or rather, an ex-wombat, recently transformed into roadkill. We backed up the hatchback to hop out and take a look lest we never see another, but that evening, once we had pitched out tents, we found ourselves in the midst of a swarm of wombats. Perhaps ‘flock’ is a better way to describe the bumbling marsupials, as they rather resembled oblivious nocturnal sheep. They were oblivious to the impediments our tents ought to have caused to their course, anyway.

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Meeting the wombats was a good warm-up for encountering other mammals, as they certainly posed the lowest bite risk. After dinner, the scrabbling black and white creature with the wide open jaws that appeared in search of food was another story. Tasmanian Devils are renowned for their biting prowess – in fact, it is via biting of each other that their deadly facial cancer is spread. Luckily for us, we got out of the way in time to avoid a souvenir scar in the buttocks. Ouch.

It seems that the bush animals are in cahoots with one another, however. As this episode was unfolding, one very cheeky possum was busy unzipping the top of our pack to take a nibble on the personal locator beacon. We caught the rascal red handed some 10m from the tent, thanks to some beady eyes noticing the flashing light sneaking off into the distance. That could have been one embarrassing situation to explain to search and rescue, particularly seeing as possums are held in high regard around these parts. Having survived the mammals of the area, and generally had a lovely time, we still had one last hurdle to leap on our way out again… Snakes.

What do you do when a tiger snake takes the liberty of sunning itself right in the middle of the only path out of the wilderness? Well, first you stop and eat some morning tea. Scroggin is good at any time of day, but has excellent inspirational properties when it comes to untangling oneself from a snakey situation. The recommended stomping action was having no effect on our slithery friend. Neither was our three day old sweat – the wind was blowing in the wrong direction. Then, whilst repacking, our Eureka moment came – in the form of a banana. Not wanting to hurt the snake – but not wanting to become a statistic, either – we decided to throw the ripened fruit into the vicinity of the reptile, in order to scare it away. Happily for us, it worked. Future Mario-Cart developers, take note: banana blocks snake. We were soon on our merry way.

So, what’s the verdict of these camping kiwis who took their chances for a week across the ditch? It’s not as scary as Australians make it out to be – only almost. And no matter what happens on our next camping trip, we’re bound to appreciate the safe peace and quiet far more for our overseas experience.

Originally published in The Ashburton Guardian

Dairy in the USA

Before heading to the to USA last month, my ideas about the place came almost exclusively from CSI, with a little Breaking Bad thrown in for good measure. Naturally I was expecting to come across multiple crime scenes, drug-dealing chemistry teachers, and Horatio Kane look-alikes peering over their sunglasses as they nutted out ways to snare the latest killer. Of course, that’s about as sensible as basing your views on Auckland solely on Highway re-runs (it’s not all like that in the big city, I promise!). Still, my 4 weeks in the dairy heartland of the USA were a real eye opener – and not only because murder mysteries were nowhere to be seen.

The first surprising thing was that there actually is a dairy capital of the USA – Wisconsin proudly announces this fact on every state numberplate. I have to admit that I never actually saw a real live cow during my stay in Milwaukee, but the abundance of ice cream and frozen custard, complemented by the display of full-size fibre-glass cows at the local dairy bar more than made up for that fact.

What else was surprising? Well, the number of large things, for a start. The USA does a reputation for excess, but I had hitherto been under the impression that things like giant gumboots and carrots were the domain of Kiwiana. In fact, the Rakaia salmon would’ve looked right at home in the local baseball stadium, amongst the giant mitt & racing sausages. That’s right, racing sausages. The 5 oversized bangers took off in a sprint around the stadium just after the 6th innings, attracting the loudest cheers of the entire game.

Going to a baseball game was quite a cultural experience in itself – the drumrolls and giant TV screens were great prompts for when to cheer, but it was the other spectators who put on the best show – cheese-shaped hats were the order of the day (dairy capital, remember). It was also at the baseball stadium that I came across a new definition of the word ‘tailgate.’ In Wisconsin, this refers to a BBQ party out the back of your pick up truck, not sitting for hours in Auckland traffic. As someone who abhors traffic jams, you can understand why I was initially hesitant about “going tailgating” – cheese curds and sausages put paid to any doubts.

All in all, I’ve learnt that the USA is a much tastier, less lethal place than I imagined, and that large things are a great talking point in many parts of the globe.

Originally published in The Ashburton Guardian

Famous Ex-Fence

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My ex-fence is famous. Wooden, 6 feet high, and covered in slightly peeling burgundy paint, at first glance it doesn’t look like much. Add a bag of old fabric, creative talent, and the challenge of producing a fantasy figure out of straw, however, and you’re looking at a different story. Resplendent in pink and green, Puff the Magic Dragon was voted number one in this year’s Methven Scarecrow competition, and with that accolade, the fence came into its own.

Erecting a scarecrow in NZ may seem rather redundant, as the large black birds have never graced our power lines. The nearest colony of crows resides ‘across the ditch,’ with magpies the closest we’ve ever come to encountering the jet-black silhouettes of Hitchcock fame. My first experience with an actual crow happened in Australia. While others were ogling the opossums and watching the wombats, I was intrigued by the croaky voices of the pitch-black pariahs. There was something about the sharp conical beaks, the beady eyes, and the sleek feathered pose that suggested the birds were ready to take flight and descend on an unsuspecting, scarecrow-less vegetable patch at any moment.

Of course, the lack of crows in New Zealand may not simply come down to our geographical isolation at the ends of the earth. We can’t rule out the possibility that the annual scarecrow competition in small-town mid Canterbury is doing such a good job that it is single-handedly keeping the non-native species at bay…

After all, the creativity displayed in some of the most recent scarecrow entries was formidable. No run of the mill rake-and-checked-shirt figures here – instead, the hay that stuffed the vast array of creatures had them fairly bursting into life. From the deliriously happy Spongebob replica, to the more sinister looking Gru of ‘Despicable Me’ fame, each creation was a real one off, and each carried a story. Those stories have ripples that travel far and wide – in past years, the scarecrow event has been enough of a drawcard to lure friends of ours down from Auckland to view the spectacle, so the fundraiser has influence, alright.

Coming back to the fence, the painted wood will never look quite the same again after its brush with the scarecrow paparazzi. Fairy wings, an old dog blanket, and some Hackney magic have assisted in a boundary-marker transformation. Briefly home to an award-winning scarecrow, the fence will live on in photographs, showcasing its background glory. And to think, I used to live behind that fence. It’s a tenuous association, but I’ll take it anyway.

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

Ode To Gumboots

It’s a sad day when your favourite gumboots finally give up the ghost. There’s something about a really excellent pair of gummies that transcends material and style – after enough wearing, they come to seem like old friends. I’ve got a pair that have adventured halfway across the world, keeping my toes cosy and heels snug. They’ve trudged through ice and mud, forded rivers, run along beaches, been slept on by the dog, and stepped in more types of animal excrement than I even care to count. Lately, though, they’ve started to bite. Small nips at first, but now the gnawing on the Achilles in incessant. It’s skin against rubber, and I know this can only end badly. Still, I’m not quite ready to let them go. Thick woollen socks deployed as a last defence, I’m planning for their last hurrah.

Before we reach their last, let’s go back their first adventures. Despite multiple scrubbings, both boots still retain traces of penguin poo odour, that constant reminder of their past life protecting the feet of Antarctic tour guides. They started their service life in the far south, before being eased back into a temperate climate via the ski carpark of Mt Hutt. Soon they were being worn everywhere, and even dabbled in the realm of fashion. Whether teamed with floral dresses for that arresting “farm chic” look at inner city farmers markets, or worn as protection against errant snakes at an Australian A&P show, they were in their element.

In fact, they were so in demand that at one point they were subject to an actual shoenapping. Two, actually, because they were stolen and stolen back again…  In a story reminiscent of the dognapping that used to happen between my mum and my grandmother’s houses and the timeshare dog, the boots have made their way to Auckland and back again, smuggled in checked luggage and worn as trophies at the other end.

They’ve visited pubs (both blue and brown), hiked up glaciers, landed in the Southern Alps, and trudged to and from Supervalue at all times of day. Although they’ve been relegated to washing line duty of late (warm, dry feet whilst hanging the laundry are totally underrated), there is still one more adventure in my valiant gummies yet .The bite of the boots had me briefly considering sending them for a surfing lesson in Shark Alley, but I value my own limbs too much for that proposition. Upon what new grounds will their treadless soles tread? That remains to be seen. This gumboottour operator is open to suggestions – and on the market for some heavy duty strapping tape to boot. No matter the final destination, these favourite gumboots are going out in style.

Originally published in The Ashburton Guardian

Antarctic Cows

The issue of non-native species in the Antarctic has been on the agenda at the Antarctic Treaty meeting in Sofia this past week. Usually the sorts of critters in the sights of the treaty parties are things like the king crab, rats, seeds and microbes. Occasionally larger mammals make an appearance – such as the reindeer in South Georgia. Cows, however, are rarely mentioned in the same sentence as “Antarctica.” I’m currently in Wisconsin, dairy capital of the USA, and I am aiming to change that, thanks to the help of the local archives, a well-known Antarctic hero from the USA, and this state’s enthusiasm for all things that go “moo”.

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Fresh milk is something that modern day expeditioners and Antarctic programme personnel can only dream of – it sits alongside oranges and bananas at the top of the wish list for those who overwinter. One of the long-standing jokes at the Trans-Antarctic Expedition Hut at New Zealand’s Scott Base is the 1950s style glass milk bottle that still sits in the letterbox, just like back home. Powdered milk was (and is) the order of the day – but for the USA’s Admiral Byrd, an ample supply of Horlick’s was simply not enough. Instead of the product, in 1928 he carried the source.

Any farmer round these parts will tell you that a cow is not just a cow. Byrd was discerning, and chose three award-winning Guernsey cows to take south because of the quality of their milk. A fourth, christened “Iceberg”, was born en route to Antarctica. As he was a bobby calf, Iceberg was not a useful addition to the expedition in terms of milk production. He was, however, very handy when it came to publicity. Cue the column inches back home, detailing the most southerly birth of a cattle beast, the cows’ first steps onto the icy continent, and the eating habits of the miniature dairy herd.

Not only were the adventures of the cows chronicled in the US press during the expedition, they were also hailed as heroes upon their return. Iceberg was invited to official luncheons, displayed at farm shows, and featured on pin badges. At the annual meeting of the American Guernsey Cattle Club, he was served “hay cocktails – heaps of hay with cracked ice” atop his very own table, laid with white linen. His female companions even featured in advertisements for surge milking apparatuses back home in the USA, where they were touted as having travelled the farthest distance since the famous cow jumped over the moon. There’s something to ponder next time you nip down to the shops for a tub of ice cream.

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

 

All Work No Play?

With snow on the mountains, what better toy to take out for a play than something ice-themed that doubles as a team-building exercise? I’m not talking about tobogganing or anything that could place limbs in any danger; At lunchtime last week my institute just got a whole lot cooler, thanks to a lego party in the lunchroom. That’s right, you read that correctly. My colleague’s lego icebreaker kit finally arrived in the post, so it was time to assemble the awesomeness of the ship, the dog sled team, the helicopter, the Arctic station, the polar bear, and the mass of satellite dishes and radio towers. Sure, my interest is in Antarctic studies, but we don’t discriminate against the other pole. Plus, if you look closely at the illustrations on the ‘Arctic’ logo, it looks suspiciously like the Antarctic Peninsula…

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This was actually my first time following instructions – when it comes to lego, anyway. Sure, we had the blocks as kids, but I was a free-range child, creating vet hospitals for the Sylvanian families or mixing it up with meccano cogs (which, you have to admit, are pretty neat). This time round there was to be no mixing, and no wanton improvisation – Arctic lego building is, as I was soon to discover, serious business. I do have to admit I was rather worried when, after carefully working through page by page, my helicopter still looked somehow wrong. It was quickly pointed out that there was actually one more page to go – the (moderately important) rotor blades were missing…
 
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What I lack in logical instruction-following skills I more than make up for in toy-screenplay-scenario-creation. Upon seeing a lego man on a skidoo with a blade in one hand and a camera in the other, I automatically thought of creating a miniature remake of ‘The Thing‘, complete with tomato sauce blood and gore. I mean, what else would you possibly do with such a combination of props and a maniacal lego-style grin on your face? (No? Like I said, free-range imagination…)
 
Anyway, we got there in the end, with sticker-masters expertly lining up the decals, advisory committees being formed to assemble the winches, and a handy gopro on hand to record the action for later use on social media (building science lego and posting it on the internet counts as science outreach, right?) Sure, the packet said ‘6-12′, but we know it wasn’t referring to an age range. 6-12 participants is obviously the optimum number of people to invite to a lunchtime Arctic lego building session! And now that the models are assembled, all that remains is to wait for the polar weather to set in proper so we can head outside for some icy action.

Tassie Sheep

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Tasmania is often the butt of jokes for those from the Australian ‘mainland’ – rumoured to be home of the hillbillies with two heads, it is in fact quite a civilised isle. Any city that boasts a weekly inner-city market with more than 2 stalls selling merino/ possum blend socks has got to be a winner in my books, and Hobart ticks that box. Even though it isa city, with 4-story buildings and a whole fleet of parking wardens, it is nevertheless remarkably similar to New Zealand. This was reinforced to me last week, thanks to, well, a sheep in general conversation.

A discussion on digital media suddenly took an interesting turn, when the question of what constitutes breaking news came up. The answer? 23kg of wild fleece, recently detached from a sheep that called the wilderness of Tasmania ‘home.’ ‘Shaun’ the sheep was headline news not only in the local Tassie paper, but all over Australia. I even heard about it in almost real time from my Australian colleagues whilst we were out in the middle of the ocean – the animal had global penetration. Of course, at just 23kg Shaun’s shavings didn’t have a patch on the fleece of our very own Shrek. And of course I couldn’t resist letting everyone know this fact. But it didn’t end there.

Arguments over the relative merits of youtube and twitter were soon left by the wayside, thanks to the use of the words ‘sheep’ and ‘iceberg’ in the same sentence. Hobart may be a ‘Gateway to Antarctica’, but it is not the sort of port where icebergs head for a sightseeing holiday. Dunedin, of course, is exactly the sort of port past which large chunks of ice from the far south periodically cruise.

‘It’s not just about the fleece,’ I told my colleagues, ‘that’s not where the story ends at all. It’s what the sheep does afterwards that is the really ground breaking stuff.’ This concept appeared to be ground breaking for all those around the table. Sheep, of course, are not only good for grazing our lawns and gracing our plates. They are also great models to star in wool commercials for the warmest textiles – and where better to stage such an advert than on an Antarctic iceberg? Crampons, clippers, and a chopper ride had NZ transfixed a decade ago, and Hobart transfixed last week.

Shaun and Shrek do have plenty in common, but for me, the iceberg-shearing incident seals the deal. Next time an overgrown ovine appears from the Hobart hinterlands though, we’d best keep an eye on our own headlines, as seeds of ideas have now been planted…A bit of trans-Tasman rivalry never did anyone any harm, but it is nice to be on the winning side, even if I am currently on the ‘wrong’ side of ‘the ditch.’

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

Bream Creek Show

pumpkinYesterday I broke out my gumboots and checked shirt, hired a car, and enjoyed the kind of agricultural experience I had hitherto associated only with rural NZ towns. The Bream Creek Show north of Hobart was evidence that we share more than a very similar flag with our cousins across the ditch.

I came across A&P Shows rather late in life. In fact, my very first encounter with such an agricultural extravaganza was the Methven Show of 2012. I came out of that experience with a much better appreciation of the various types of sheep, a candyfloss sugar high, and an insatiable desire to win a prize for produce. Third in the open tomato category the following year is the closest I ever got, but my appetite for shows remains. When I heard the radio announcement for the Bream Creek Show this weekend, of course I just had to go along. The fact that two of the entries in the giant pumpkin competition looked set to break the weight record for all of southern Australia just sealed the deal.

As we walked in the gate and surveyed the tents of food vendors, the produce hall, and the wood-shopping poles, I felt quite at home. Methven had primed me well to explain the intricacies of the axe-men’s events to my European friends. Next we toured “gourmet alley,” whereupon the smoke of an open range caught our attention. “Billy Tea and Dampers,” announced a hand-written sign, “Gold Coin.” At that point, overtaken both by imagined scenes from “Waltzing Matilda” and the scent of the golden syrup topping, I needed no further prompting. My friends were not so sure. I agreed to meet them at the next display after fortifying myself with morning tea. The brew was most relaxing.

So far, so familiar. The next display tent, however, changed everything. From a distance, the square enclosure of blue tarpaulin looked quite innocuous. It wasn’t until we got close enough to see the slim back form entwined in the display holder’s hands that the reality of the situation hit home: Australia has snakes. So too, it seems, do Australian A&P Shows. Tiger snakes, copperhead snakes, and even teeny tiny whip snakes, squiggling over the canvas floor and melting flat in the sun. Naturally, we lined up to pat the most venomous of the three varieties, before wandering over to the Lions stand for hot chips. It’s just what you do at that kind of an event.

As for the pumpkins, 422.5kg took the record, well and truly. In fact, it was so exciting to watch the weigh in that I had to go back for a second round of tea and damper just to recover. This time, the Europeans also partook, with the verdict being that the Aussie camping staples not half bad. To top is all off, not one person asked me to “fush and chups” all day. Finally, I think I might actually be winning at Australia.