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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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

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

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

SHrek

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.

A Kiwi Wedding

Last week I boarded a long metal tube, swapped my jacket for jandals, and headed for the land of the long white cloud. Back just in time for a family wedding, I touched down on NZ soil to the strains of the familiar nu zild twang, a cacophony of cicadas, and the muggy dregs of a marathon summertime. A Tui sang. Love was in the air.

Heading up north of Auckland for the ceremony, the roadside signs reminded me that I was well and truly home. Where else would you come across an advert for the sport of ‘axe throwing’, juxtaposed with faded adverts for tip top ice cream? The Hororata Highland Games may come close, but aside from the sword-dancing, blades are mercifully absent in the southern celebration. While it’s true that any knife-related mishap on either island would be covered by ACC, that’s likely to be small consolation to the freshly injured. Even though the weekend was all about celebrating the support of loved ones in sickness and in health, we decided it was best to err on the side of the latter, so we kept driving – for better or for worse. (Just for the record, we made it to the wedding, all limbs intact, and it was lovely).

I love this country because of all its surprises that lie just off the beaten track. I also love it because it’s home to my someone-to-share-those-surprises-with. In the three years we’ve been based down in the South Island we’ve discovered llama trekking, penny farthing racing, and little blue penguin watching, to name a few. (Actually, the so-called ‘penguin advocates’ who were stopping traffic and helping the birds to cross the road were more of an attraction than the wildlife itself!) Then there are the local gems – from the giant sculptures that mark out rural towns (the Salmon of Rakaia is an iconic local landmark), to the hidden waterfalls and breathtaking vistas just up in the hills and around the lakes (straight out of Lord of The Rings – clichéd, but true). Of course, the North Island’s not half bad either – think white sand beaches, Pohutukawa blossoms, and, well, side-of-the-road axe-throwing, should it take your fancy… Whichever island you’re in, there’s always something new to try out, and you always come out richer for the experience.

Do I appreciate what we have in the land of the long white cloud just that little bit more having been away from it all? I do.

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

Of Dogs and Men

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Last week something very special arrived for me in the post. It was a
grubby off-white colour, and somewhat resembled a poodle. Christened
‘fluffdog’, this crocheted bottle cover, courtesy of wastebusters, has
certainly had an interesting life thus far, coming around the world via
South Africa and Ireland. Having crossed the equator, it seemed that
Fluffdog’s next mission was to get closer to the poles. Being a dog makes
such a goal difficult.

While huskies once provided the main form of locomotion in both polar
regions, these days there are no dogs in Antarctica. They were phased out
in the early 1990s, when new rules about introducing non-native species
came into effect. Goldfish, pooches, and any other introduced animals
were shipped out – humans being the only exception. Unsure quite how to
break this news to the crocheted canine, I did the next best thing,
shutting the grubby character in the freezer overnight. This snap-freezing
served the dual purpose of ridding Fluffdog of any residual biohazardous
greeblies, and neutralising the surprisingly authentic doggy odour
emanating from the fibres.

Unpleasant as it may be, I have to admit I have missed the smell of wet dog
whilst I’ve been away down south. There’s something comforting about a damp
dog steaming by the fire as the rain drums poems on the roof. (Come to
think of it, rain is something else that has been absent all summer – and
not because of drought in my case. Antarctica is the driest continent of
all, and any precipitation falls as snow). Fluff dog was reminder of home,
where such scenes are possible, and where the dogs still come just about
everywhere with us. There’s even a hitching rail at the local pub for our
pooches, which is fair enough – when you think about the hard work that so
many dogs have put in to make NZ what it is today, they deserve a large
communal saucer of water to quench their thirst.

Now the work of one dog in particular has been immortalised in the very mid
Canterbury town where my dog currently lives. With the recent unveiling of
a the police dog Rajah, Methven has a dog sculpture to rival the best. It
puts the town in a class with Tirau, Hunterville, and Tekapo, and
offers the chance to open a conversation about the roles working dogs have
played in NZ over many years. It also offers an irresistible photo
opportunity – someday soon Fluff Dog will be back to have a portrait taken.

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

Happy Cold Year

In New Zealand the longest day of the year coincides with the lead up to Christmas, so the extra hours of daylight are often spent in a daze of end-of-year work dos, school prize-givings and last minute gift buying. The longest day in Antarctica is somewhat different. Although many stations have work parties and will gladly accept Visa for souvenir and gift purchases, south of the Polar Circle there is only one day and one night. Summer – or daytime – is science season, so teams are often out in the field, scrambling to collect data during the slim window of accessibility. That means Christmas, while still observed, is not such a big deal as it is back home. Instead, midwinter dinner is the big celebration, marking the midway point of the winter-over team’s time on The Ice.

The midwinter tradition has a long history: Captain Scott celebrated the holiday over 100 years ago. Fine food, speeches and elaborately painted menus all mean that the event is weeks in the planning. These days it is also a tradition to take a mid winter portrait of everyone on the station and share it via email with those at other Antarctic bases. Penguin breast is no longer served up as an appetiser, but the sentiment of celebration and the sense of belonging to a long line of hardy individuals who have experienced a southern polar night remain.

We recently had the opportunity to discuss such traditions with the Ukrainian team at Vernadsky station, on the Antarctic Peninsula. Prior to 1996, when it was sold for the handsome sum of one British pound, Vernadsky Station was a British base, known as Faraday. It was there that the Ozone hole was discovered, so it has a distinguished scientific history. These days the station is more famous for a different reason – it is home to the Faraday Bar, and the home-brew vodka on offer is widely held to be the smoothest in Antarctica. With a Christmas tree in one corner and a model palm tree in another, the bar has a homely living room feel. The artefacts on the walls tell stories of the yachts and cruise ships that have visited over the years, and the many rows of midwinter portraits that line the staircase put a human face to each year of the station’s life. The delight on the faces of the men when we arrived with several crates of fresh vegetables – their first since April – also made tangible the isolation that they had endured over the winter.

Back home the solstice dates often pass like any others, but just to our South things are done a little differently. Although it has a young human history, Antarctica has traditions that are just as important as those celebrated back home.

http://represantarctic.wordpress.com/2014/12/31/merry-solstice-a-very-cold-year/