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

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

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

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

It’s Showtime!

show tomsWhen I lived up in Auckland, the word ‘show’ carried connotations of a night out at the theatre, or a laser light projection on the downtown ferry building. Sparkles and spectacular were in; tractors, not so much. Since moving south, the word ‘show’ has variously been prefixed with ‘quilt’, ‘dog’, and of course ‘A&P’, widening both my horizons and knowledge of rural necessities.  This weekend the show is back, and this year, I finally know what to expect.

First, there will be a whole range of jumping-related events, featuring horses, dogs and highly coordinated kilted dancers. The intricacies of horses and highland dancing remain a mystery to me, but when it comes to the dogs, I’ve done my prep.  Volunteering at the Ashburton dog agility show opened my eyes to the range of dogs that compete, from ankle to hip height, and the many different leaping styles that exist, from the dainty hop to the mighty bound.

Next, there will be cakes on display. Fresh cakes. Despite the fact that entries must be received well prior to the event, the baked goods themselves arrive on the day. I learnt this from the Methven show, where the discrepancy between entry date and the show itself left me most concerned that my perfectly square, meticulously prepared scones would have gone mouldy come judging.

Then there are the tractors and seeds and machinery that really put the ‘A’ in ‘A&P’. Growing is an important business down this way, and there is a huge amount of science that goes into soil preparation and improving yields.  The show is, of course, a prime opportunity to put the technologies behind new agricultural advances on display. Cue GPS integrated systems, shiny new imports, and a yard full of lads looking as gleeful as kids in a lifesize lego playground. Throw in the odd hotdog stand and you’re sorted.

The closest that I ever got to an agricultural show up on Auckland was the time I stopped by the carnivorous plants expo one Sunday morning. I have a feeling we were the first visitors of the day, because the plant-rearers waived the entry fee and plied us with specimens of NZ native bug-eaters to take home to our flat and nurture up to competition size for the next year. Which of the dozen native insect-eating varieties they were I couldn’t say, but we didn’t have an ant problem that summer, that’s for sure.

Neither did we have the carnival atmosphere that comes with the annual A&P event. Rural shows may be less cabaret and more field day, but there’s more than enough entertainment behind those gates to keep even a thespian-loving lass from the city entertained for the day. What are you waiting for? It’s showtime!

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

Tourism Under The Radar

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What do a record-breaking fleece, up-cycled wardrobes and Paradise have in common? All featured on the off-the-beaten-track itinerary when my mother and I headed out on a South Island road trip last week to explore some little-known Otago gems. Domestic tourism is often underrated – when Hawaiian sunshine beckons, the rain of the west coast or the sandflies of the Routeburn track find it hard to compete. Persevere with New Zealand though, and it’s surprising what kinds of unique oddities are waiting just to make your day.

The highlight of our trip had to be Tarras, home of the most famous sheep in New Zealand. After being discovered encased in a recSHrekord-breaking 24kg fleece, Shrek was received by the Prime Minister, toured around A&P Shows, authored a book, and even visited Antarctica (sort of). Visit the ‘House of Shrek’ and you’ll find a giant display that pays homage to the sheep that was shorn on an iceberg. There are shots of the sheepy crampons, newspaper clippings about the berg itself, and even the fleece that was clipped on the icy hunk. Shrek passed away in 2011, and his taxidermied fleece is due to go on display in Wellington’s Te Papa at the end of this month. Still, the two picture books and full-length illustrated biography of the sheep that weighed down my luggage on the way home mean his story will stay alive in our household for years to come.

This was a road trip, so having scoped out Tarras we hit the tarmac and headed for Wanaka. No visit to the resort town would be complete without a stop at the inland cousin of our own local centre for pre-loved bric-a-brac: Wastebusters. While we had no pressing need for doors or a pre-loved exercycle, we did spend hours perusing the books, and came away with both strange looks and some real treasures.

When you go on tour with a librarian, books feature highly on the agenda. My excitement at the Shrek displays and ‘wasties’ was rivalled only by my mum’s delight at finding a collection of children’s books by boutique NZ publisher Gecko Press in Glenorchy, on the very border to Paradise. They even had a title about a sheep: the sale was inevitable, but also for a good cause. Mum’s running ‘sheep week’ at her Auckland library to bring a taste of Tarras to the townies.

New Zealand’s an exciting place to explore, but staying at a hostel we became attractions in our own right: in the sea of foreign voices it was a novelty to meet a real life kiwi. We had great fun plotting local out-of-the-way treasures onto torn out pages of tourist maps and sending the visitors off for a taste of real New Zealand, the way we’ve come to know it – Shrek and all. Next time your annual leave beckons, don’t forget there are always more obscure sheep museums and second-hand bookstores to discover in your own (national) back yard!

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

I Scream, You Scream

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One of the best things about living in Auckland was the dessert. In a bustling metropolis of over 1 million people, there is plenty of choice when it comes to soothing the 7pm sweet tooth – or the 11pm sweet tooth, for that matter. In a city that hardly ever sleeps, the ice cream parlours do a roaring trade both night and day – and at mealtimes. Heading down to the waterfront and enjoying a sundae before dinner marked the threshold into adulthood for many of us, because you definitely know you’re a grown up when you can eat your dessert before the main.

Once we moved south, getting used to earlier supermarket closings and the need to pre-empt evening sugar cravings before they happened took some time. These days keeping a stash of goodies in the freezer is second nature, so when an ice cream parlour opened in Methven recently, I had to do a double take. Like black and white photos of a 1950s milk bar, it flooded me with nostalgia and brought memories of the city rushing back: one bite and I could almost smell the Queen Street traffic fumes and hear the proclamations of the street corner preachers…

This part of New Zealand is known for a different type of ice entirely – or two, to be exact. First, there’s the skiing variety, of which little currently remains, save that which adorns the snaps on the local postcards. Not quite as delicious as its creamy cousin, the snow and ice of the frozen mountain slopes have nevertheless provided hours of entertainment over the past three winters as we have rather awkwardly learnt to wield ski poles and snowboard boots in a battle against gravity.

The second type of ice is the one with which I have become more and more obsessed since living these 7 degrees further south of my hometown: Antarctica. Our local ‘big smoke’ is a gateway to the southern continent and serves as a stopover for many contractors each year. It’s being celebrated up in Christchurch these school holidays at IceFest, with Antarctic displays, talks and activities abounding. Two years ago our North Island visitors checked it out and had a great time trying on jackets and mukluks; their only criticism was that there was no snow cone machine on site. That was a valid point, but this time we’ve got a local solution to follow up a hard day’s science in the city.

As the last of the snow melts off the mountains, I’m sure the queues for the sweetened, creamy variety will grow. Yes, two scoops in a cone will do me nicely.

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

Hand Ups

It could be said that NZ is made up of a collection of clubs and societies, all run by committee. It’s our default response to addressing any problem or project: need to fundraise for a new playground? Form a committee. Want to arrange a speaker series? Call on the committee. Can’t decide whether to bake cheese scones or banana muffins? In the case of the last example, your best bet is probably to consult the Edmond’s cookbook, but for all other decisions the power of teamwork is central to success.

It’s been AGM season for me this week, with several bouts of electing officers and discussing the chair’s report scheduled into my calendar. That may sound like a drag, but actually it has been a privilege to be involved in groups that are made up of so many passionate and generous individuals who all give up their time to try to make the world we live in a better place.

When I first arrived in Ashburton I headed to the information centre for, well, information. I was after tips on rental listings and job directories, but alongside answers to these run of the mill questions, I was also handed a book of local clubs and societies. This was no centre fold pamphlet, but a spiral bound beauty, full of contacts for an A to Z of interests, including boxing, dog training, writing, traveling, and even vintage machinery.

The list was impressive, but what was even more so was the thought of how many volunteers stood behind each of those brief black-and-white listings to actually keep each club or society ticking over. There are the hours spent poring over the nitty gritty of constitutions during the setting up phase, the evenings spent making cheese rolls to fundraise, and the community events and exhibitions that are so easy to enjoy, but take so long to pull together.

Mid Canterbury consists of a wonderful pool of generous people, many of whom work behind the scenes to make this area such a pleasant place to live. They are your neighbours, your coworkers, the person behind you in the supermarket checkout line with a trolley full of cupcake cases. And they are essentially what make a strong community. So, the next time a call goes out for help, or for nominations to the local branch of your interest group, put your hand up. AGMs only happen once a year, and a little input during the intervening 12 months can really go a long way.

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian