Ice Songs

“O penguin, have you ever heard the bagpipes play? Have you ever watched knees freeze beneath a kilt of Scottish pride? Have you ever been tethered and sung for your freedom and inspired headlines far across the globe? Go. Collect your stones. Remain ignorant of the nuances of tonal music. Raise your beak in salutation so the photographer can pretend that he, too was really, truly THERE.”
While this sort of behaviour may not be condoned in Antarctica anymore, music is still very important down on the continent. From homegrown band nights to trippy wildlife soundtracks, there is far more for the ears to discover than the famed Antarctic silence.
Before leaving Christchurch I asked my musical friends to recommend music that would enhance the Antarctic experience. One thing I’d noticed was that all of the films of the continent were accompanied by sweeping orchestral tracks, designed to tap into one’s emotions and make one really feel in awe of the sights. In light of this, I decided I needed a soundtrack of my own in order to maximize the experience. Pieces suggested included Sibelius, Nielsen, John Cage’s string quartet, Ralph Vaughn Williams’ Sinfonia Antarctica’, and, more bizarrely, ‘Antarctica’ by the Weepies.
Despite having lofty aural aspirations before taking off, Bryan Crump’s suggestion of an “Anti ice atmospheric track” featuring Abba, A-Ha, Aqua, or JPSE turned out to be closer to the mark. Upon landing on the ice and boarding Ivan the Terrabus to be ferried over to Scott Base we were serenaded by the Beatles’ good old Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band. Not exactly the coldest of tunes, but it set the scene for what would be an aurally interesting few weeks.
In our group we were lucky enough to have Sue Ferrar, who is not only the granddaughter of the geologist from Scott’s Discovery expedition, but also an accomplished musician. Her desire to travel to Antarctica was motivated by her family connection and she wanted to play her violin in the Discovery hut as a tribute to her grandfather. Listening to the violin articulate her version of the setting as the strains wafted over the hessian curtains at Hut Point was spellbinding. An improv musician, she let the violin tell the story she could see, and while she did so, people hardly dared to breathe.
The rest of our cohort were not so musically talented. The lad in charge of Christmas carols was not accustomed to celebrating Christmas on the summer side of the globe either, so while he was belting out the words to ‘Winter Wonderland’ we were all scratching out heads and thinking of the Beaurepaires ad. Sure, ‘Christmas on the Beach’ would have seemed a bit out of place on the Ross Ice Shelf, but the majority of us had had no experience whatsoever of ‘roasting chestnuts on an open fire’.
The local wildlife put our own caroling ambitions to shame, with the song of the Weddell seal trumping even the best of our Chrsitmas choristers. Whales sing underwater symphonies, but Weddell seals out-zane Led Zeppelin. Shooting stars ricochet under ice, strobing and zigzagging and bouncing off your eardrums inside of your brain 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. Next time we’re playing a party game and I have to choose an animal that knows how to party, lemurs are out and Weddells are in, baby.
All in all, Antarctica offers a very interesting soundscape and one quite far removed from the one I imagined before going down there. While it’s not really the done thing to force penguins to listen to our musical preferences these days, I will be tuning in to see what else comes out of the ice in years to come.

All Out White Out


The annual Peak to Pub race at Mt Hutt combines all of Methven’s best known attractions: Skiing, mountain biking, the Methven Walkway, an up close and personal encounter with the RDR and of course the famous Blue pub as the finish line. Throw in a bit of pain for good measure and you’ve got the recipe for an adventure race that is sure to provide a unique perspective on the area, complete with rolling vista all the way out the sea. This year’s event provided a perspective even more unique than most: come Sunday, white out conditions meant everything outside a 5m radius had been completely erased.

This was something new for me. While I am familiar with sea fog, multisport in Auckland does not include a snow leg, ever. The dizzyingly white ski section with gravity as the only compass gave me a real appreciation for the contrast we often take for granted and gave my body a schooling in the intimate contours of Mt Hutt’s ski face.

Cue the biking leg, where the white fog rendered white knuckles invisible. There was no time to feel fear at the impressive drops to either side of the road, as staying on track with where the road was heading was quite enough. The lack of peripheral vision did have the effect of focussing one’s attention in on the little details, such as the taste of the mud, or the average size of the gravel chunks thrown up by the front wheel. Having communed with the clay and emerged in one piece, it was time to make a run for it. Battling the remnants of the last storm, we clambered over logs and sloshed our way through the stream that marked the course until we met the RDR. RDR mud with more than a hint of cattle excrement was the dogs’ favourite perfume for a good few weeks when the canals were being drained, and I tried not to think about the olfactory implications as I dived into the water.

Rural living provided some interesting moments in the lead up to the event, when a training run along this very route took me into a paddock of mama sheep and their lambs. These woolly mothers did not appreciate my presence and quickly made their distaste apparent. They may be seen most regularly on the dinner plate, dressed in mint sauce, but having seen the zombie film ‘Black Sheep’, I had no desire to find out what would happen if the tables were turned. I made a hasty retreat and ran the long way round, turning my morning jog into a full on 16km run. Who would’ve thought that livestock could replace personal trainers and provide superior motivation mid workout?

The sight of the Blue Pub and the finishing line provided plenty of motivation to summon up the last few gasps that got me over the line. Colder, wetter, whiter and at a higher latitude than any multi-race I’d done before, Peak to Pub showed me a new side to Canterbury’s alpine moods alright.

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

Grass is Always Greener


Local body elections are underway, and a visit to Auckland revealed that in the big smoke the top agenda issues are just as contentious as any new Ashburton build. Auckland has enough bridges and tunnels to mean that any NIMBY calls drown each other out and leave another issue to take the limelight. I touched down to the fiercest grassroots dispute the city has seen in decades: The Battle of the Berms.

The council recently stopped mowing the grassy fringes in the inner city, and the change is not going down well. It’s something I hadn’t really thought that much about before seeing the headlines on every corner of Queen Street. Forget roading, the RMA and international politics, these days the grass is all everyone is talking about.

A quick stroll through any suburban neighbourhood in my home town reveals that the division lines have been drawn: half a grass verge clipped down to a number two, the other half left to toss its pollen to the wind, an instant badge of the time to house proud ratio of any given residence.

This gives me new appreciation for both the care taken in Mid Canterbury and the average size of the yards in both north and south. Down south the dream of the quarter acre section has not disappeared and a mower, rake and spade remain essential implements for any household. The number of retired farm machines with ride on capabilities, such as the machine that lives next door to us, means that communal grass is buzz cut with military precision, no civic intervention required.

The prevalence of ride on mowers is not so high in the big smoke, particularly in suburbs with high-density housing where no one has any grass to mow. Those who do have a yard often face the logistical issues of living down a shared driveway. Our old flatmates have a flymo for their modest square of foliage, but lack the abundance of extension cords required to reach past the four other houses and out to the side of the road. Their berm currently remains wild and free, much to the chagrin of certain council candidates.

As Aucklanders have just found out, now’s the time to ask the difficult questions of those standing for election. Prospective councillors’ positions on infrastructure, amenities, consents and recommended height of grass verges all come into play.

As for me, I’ll come back down South with both a new appreciation for the work of our neighours’ regular ride on mower and a renewed interest in the issues facing my current electorate. The grass is always greener in retrospect, so I will make sure to read my own local voting papers very carefully.

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian