Being Blown Away

I thought I’d moved to Canterbury, not Kansas, but last Tuesday’s windstorm did its best to convince me otherwise. With winds gusting up to 250km/hr, I met the famous Nor’Wester, alright. In fact, it came barging thorough our front door without even knocking, contributing considerably to my Southern education in the process.

The first lesson was that down here it is necessary to take weather warnings much more seriously than I’m used to. The phrase ‘four seasons in one day’ is the standing forecast for Auckland, where on even the finest of blue sky days it pays to carry a raincoat ‘just in case.’ In such conditions, one just hangs out the washing once the load is done and crosses one’s fingers that the sun will come to the party. That’s what I did on Tuesday morning, which led to my sheets embarking on a very intimate relationship with the rosebush some hours later.

The second lesson was that a bicycle is not an appropriate mode of transport in 100km/hr wind gusts. As serene as Drew Barrymore looked as she sailed past the moon on her bike, the E.T. look is sure to end badly when practiced outside a Hollywood studio. Having cycled to my friend’s house shortly before the storm hit I found myself stranded there, helping to lash down outdoor furniture whilst battling constant Marilyn-Monroe moments with my skirt. The construction site fences cartwheeling down the street outside confirmed our suspicions that things were serious. The bike was stored in the shed and a car was dispatched to come to my rescue.

Later that evening, having prised apart pillowcase and plants, we were just contemplating what movie to watch – classic, action or perhaps The Wizard of Oz – when the wind joined in the debate, plunging us into darkness and forcing the romantic angle with a dinner by candlelight. It also forced us to turn back time by posing a most pressing question: how do you make microwave chocolate brownie in the absence of electricity? Use the fire, of course. Coals to the back, tray in the front, cake tin wrapped in foil on top and smoke detectors on full alert, we were ready. In fact, our makeshift oven was far less disastrous than it should have been, given that it was operated by a bunch of twenty-somethings who have always enjoyed the benefit of ‘fan bake’ and are accustomed to sourcing the majority of our recipes direct from the internet. (Lesson three for one member of our posse was that modems actually require power to work).

So, last week I learnt a thing or two about the power of the wind. Come Wednesday, twisted irrigators, upended truck and trailer units and shelterbelts lying like dominoes attested to its physical strength, but the storm also forced us to come up with the kinds of creative solutions that would make Spielberg proud.

 Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian 

The Longest Day

PetePics_1003As the morning light seeps through the blinds in downtown Ashburton and stains the fridge golden, it’s hard to believe this is the same sun that stood watch over my entire Antarctica trip. It’s a good place to start a narrative though because although most of the trip was like an action movie on fast-forward playing out in a giant freezer, the sun stayed lazy and took its time.

During the summer months it never gets dark in Antarctica so in some ways it is like walking right into a Dali painting, the kind where the sky hangs like treacle and melted clocks prevent the future from ever happening. For my 14 University of Canterbury classmates and I that didn’t matter, because we had made it to The Ice for our two week field trip and were in no hurry to return home.

Upon arrival the first thing that struck me was the noise. Antarctica is renowned for its great silence, but we were welcomed by the rumbling engine of our C17 and serenaded by The Beatles on our way over to Scott Base. Not exactly the coldest of tunes, but it set the scene for what would be an interesting few weeks.

After two days of field training at Scott Base we climbed into two Hägglunds and made our way out to the deserted ice shelf at Windless Bight. We were being treated to the ultimate polar experience, camping in the same sort of polar tents Scott and Amundsen used on their race to the pole. The weather must have been prewarned about our desire for authenticity because on day two the wind picked up, visibility dropped to 50m and the wind chill let us know what ‘cold’ really meant. Hunkering down and weathering the storm whilst reading the diaries of explorers who did the same was somewhat surreal.

Luckily the storm was short lived and we had brilliant blue skies under which to conduct our science over the next week. Measuring snow density, doing a seal census and doing a geological survey were all on the menu and designed to give us a taste of what field work in Antarctica is really like.

Spending a day out on the sea ice reading seals’ tags was a highlight of the trip and the closest we got to Antarctic wildlife, save the two very lost penguins who visited out camp at Christmas. Whales sing underwater symphonies, but Weddell seals out-zane Led Zeppelin. Their calls ricochet like electric guitars under ice in ways that the drab speckling of their blubber and rock-pool shine of their eyes would never have you believe. Rock-stars in disguise, they party to the underwater trace, enticing those more accustomed to the whales’ sigh to change the channel, dare to experiment, live a little.

We did a lot of experimenting over the course of the trip, mainly with layering and unlayering clothes. While the nights required down jackets and inevitably led to frozen boots, the reflected light created a far better sun bed than any white sand beach and some days the sun felt warmer than back home. That may have had something to do with our black thermals soaking it up and causing us to pose as if we were in an advert for Speights as ‘Southern Women’, but being hot was not something I expected to experience in the coldest place on earth, not even in summer.

Back home in NZ everyone knows that summer equals sunscreen, and it’s no different in Antarctica. No different except for the fact that there is no ‘no burn’ time and protection is essential even at 2am. It was a bizarre feeling to be reaching to the SPF100 well past midnight and even stranger having to remember to dab it up into your nostrils because of the strength of the reflected UV rays. It was equally bizarre to be digging a snow cave at 1am and still have our pit lit up like a stage. We figured the whole sleep thing could wait until morning and the hyperactive sun did nothing to dissuade us from that view.

Santa, however, did. The next morning was Christmas and we were woken by his cherry ‘ho ho ho’ booming through our snow palace. It was time to get up and about, dig a Christmas table to sit around, partake in Shackleton’s finest whiskey and warble tunelessly about the white Christmas we no longer had to dream about. The Whiskey was a replica of the bottles found in Shackleton’s hut and perfect for making toasts to explorers past and present, especially given that we were celebrating exactly 100 years after Amundsen and Scott’s race to the Pole.

History played an important role in the trip and our last stop was Scott’s hut at Cape Evans. It was from there that Scott and his men launched their fateful expedition in 1911, bound for the South Pole. Packed full of artefacts that had been painstakingly restored, the detail of the place was astounding and the hut was full of memories, concentrated within the white landscape in the one wooden structure. Standing inside, the term ‘frozen in time’ took on a new meaning, but it was also a reminder that our time was coming to a close.
I was struck by the amazing light, where the shafts of sun seemed to hypnotise the dust, trapping it in limbo. That light has stayed with me as an indelible memory of my time in Antarctica and my longest day, even as the sun slides off the edge of the fridge and is gone.

Hanne Nielsen was a student on the University of Canterbury’s Postgraduate Certificate in Antarctic Studies course over the 2011/2012 Summer, run by Gateway Antarctica. Article originally published in The Ashburton Guardian. Photo: Peter Wilson

The Warsaw Mermaid

When a land-locked city in central Poland proudly displays the image of a mermaid as its emblem, one cannot help but be intrigued. Up on a pedestal in the market square she holds her sword aloft, ready to defend Warsaw against any invaders. Unfortunately the mermaid is made of bronze so this threat never eventuated to much – just ask the Nazi invaders of WWII or the Soviet forces of the mid 20th century. Nevertheless, she stands for protection and as a symbol for the city is taken most seriously.

So, why a mermaid? There are several legends, all involving a Xena-style character playing the damsel in distress and an ironman swim down the Vistula river. One day a mermaid swam the 260km from the Baltic sea all the way to Warsaw. After taking a well-earned rest she decided to stay: the climate suited her. Unfortunately her presence didn’t suit the local fishermen who were less than impressed with the waves she caused and the fish she freed. They were, however, impressed with her voice. After a subsequent kidnapping by a local merchant one of the fishermen rescued the mermaid who, it turned out, was quite handy with a sword and shield. She revealed her skills, swore her allegiance to the fishermen and from that day forth has been the protector of the city.

Images of the mermaid abound in Warsaw, adorning everything from taxi doors to building company logos and the electrics panel on streetlamps. They all allude to her home, the Vistula river, which runs directly through the city and provides a clear geographical marker. Lone fishermen still litter the banks, casting their rods in all seasons, while the floating Aldona River Hostel allows visitors to fall asleep to her siren song. Swimming, however, is out. After several days of heavy rain rips are rife and every now and then the odd tree floats past. A gentle punting trip on a lake in the nearby Lazienki park is much more enticing for all but the hardiest endurance athletes. After our riverside stroll a leisurely trip around the lake was just what our legs desired. While we were not actually in the water, the edges of the boat were close enough to the waterline for it to qualify as a ‘near-mermaid experience’.

For those looking for more concrete examples of defenders that live up to the sword and shield emblem, the Warsaw Uprising Museum is the place to go. No mermaids in sights, but the displays tell the story of those involved in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, during which thousands of Polish resistance fighters lost their lives to German forces. Photographs and artifacts are used to narrate the history, with sections dedicated to German occupation and communist occupation and the personal stories of those who survived. These defenders of Warsaw are also immortalised in the large Warsaw Monument to Insurgents in the Old Town. Although the 1944 uprising was ultimately unsuccessful, The sentiment of those involved would have done the city mascot and her iron sword proud.

  • The Warsaw Uprising Museum is open Monday, Wednesday and Friday: 8.00-18.00,
Saturday and Sunday: 10.00-18.00,
Thursday: 8.00-20.00. Adults 10 zloty ($NZ4)
  • Punting trips take place daily during the summer in Lazienki Park. 7 zloty per person ($NZ3)
  • Aldona River hostel (The Vistula River, Poniatowskiego Bridge, Warsaw)offers basic accommodation in novel surroundings, floating on the Vistula river. One, two and three bed cabins available 75-130 zloty ($NZ30-50)

Pride of the South


If Aucklanders sip soy chai lattes in Ponsonby, the ultimate stereotype of the South has to be the Speights adverts with horses saddled up and riding off into the hills. The riverbed stretches wide in both directions while the snow capped mountains stand guard to either side, ensuring the viewer recognizes that the chill in the air makes this particular camp no boy scout jamboree. Last weekend some friends and I passed a rite of passage and became true southerners by virtue of a clydesdale horse trek that took us right into the heart of the mountains at the end of the road to a place where there was not a café in sight.

Having successfully forded three streams and arrived at Erewhon in one piece, the first challenge was climbing into the saddle. The Clydesdales looked very handsome when grazing in their paddock, but up close their overall form was eclipsed by sheer size. My head was near level with its shoulder, and even with the aid of a step stool I had to pull off some advanced yoga moves to get my leg over the steed. They never show this part in the adverts, but those Southern men must have a rigorous pilates regime before bed each night in order to cope come mustering time.

Other depictions of the terrain were true to form and we soon came across a herd of shrek-like sheep. Heavy with wool, they blended in with the sandy tussock and matagouri as they scattered out of our way. There was no handy iceberg to shear theses specimens on, but the glacier up the valley was a passable stand in and also doubles as a handy stock boundary between the station and the West coast.

I’ll admit that Mid Canterbury felt like a backwater when I first moved down from Auckland, but this took things to another level. No cell phone reception, no television, and not a chance of nipping into town for teabags after dinner should supplies run low. However, what it lacked in updates on international conflicts the station more than made up for with its rugged beauty and vast open spaces.

The river stretched wide in both directions, its lazily braided streams lulling the uninitiated into a sense of false security. This trickle is capable of swelling into a torrent in a very short space of time, and many a Sunday hunter has been caught out by an upstream downpour. Unless you’re wearing a cowboy hat and swanndri ensemble, ‘she’ll be right, mate’ is not always enough to ensure safe passage.

Luckily for us, our steeds were more than happy to go for a paddle and the trusty four-hoof drives carried us to the other side and up the ridge, where we hitched them to a fence post to have a breather. Then all that remained was to enjoy a cold one in the midst of the legendary landscape. There’s an awful lot to be proud of down South, alright.

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

Rainbow Panorama

They say there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but I got lost before I could find out if this was true. Wandering through a room of green and blue mist at the ARoS museum in Århus, I was more concerned with finding the exit than discovering a leprechaun’s secrets.

Olafur Eliasson’s rainbow’s exhibition is a whole body experience. Here the spectator takes centre stage, becoming a part of the work and engaging multiple senses. ‘Your Atmospheric Colour Atlas’ is a misty room, lit from above by red, green and blue lights. Upon entering the space one’s eyes are filled with the colour that permeates the mist and cease to be useful navigating tools. Totally immersed in colour, the concepts of ‘red’ and ‘blue’ take on a much more intense character than when viewed in everyday life and visitors must rely on sound and touch to orientate themselves in a world devoid of spatial cues.

Space is also important in ‘The Inverted Panorama House’, a circular screen with a dynamic combination of coloured lights, reflections and shadows projected onto the walls. The interior of the screen is like a kaleidoscope, with refractions and reflections spinning past each other. From the outside the silhouettes of those inside become past of the installation, with every nod of the head and wave of the hand projected as a diorama for the audience to scrutinise. This interaction between viewer and work is typical for the Icelandic artist, whose art is often fluid and focuses on perception. Here he explores J. W. von Goethe’s ideas about the phenomenological qualities of colour, with both the colour physically present and the after image this colour leaves on the eye being important parts of the artwork.

With the installation ‘Beauty’ Eliasson brings a natural phenomenon from the realm of science into the gallery yet retains many of the scientific concepts relating to refraction. Lamps illuminate a misty wall of rain in a darkened room, sending rainbows shimmering across the surface. They shift and disappear depending on the viewer’s vantage point, recreating the fleeting nature of a rainbow during a storm.

Less fleeting is ARoS’s famous Perspex rooftop installation, ‘Your Rainbow Panorama’. Visitors stroll through the circular structure, viewing the city through tinted panes and becoming part of the installation themselves as those below observe their silhouettes. Opened in May 2011, the rainbow structure is a striking addition to Århus’s skyline. It is also one of the few places in the world where one can orientate oneself according to colour. Instead of describing an apartment as lying in the west of the city, ‘the yellow direction’ also serves as a geographical descriptor.

I’m not sure about the gold, but they do say a picture is worth a thousand words. With five floors of galleries and an impressive collection of works by Danish and international artists, ARoS gallery is well worth a visit.

Entry to the gallery costs $NZ25 and, as I eventually discovered, the exit to ‘Your Atmospheric Colour Atlas’ is located in the red zone.