On Penguins and Polar Bears

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New Zealand, or ‘Godzone’, is often characterized by its plusses: rivers, forests, beaches and birdlife. It can also be defined by its lacks: no snakes, bears or hungry predators out to get you every time you head bush. There is no bush to speak of in Antarctica, but it shares some similar traits: provided you don’t freeze to death, fall down a crevasse, or get on the wrong side of a hungry leopard seal, it is fairly safe as well.

Penguins are the epitome of the benign wildlife of the south. Dressed like little waiters and sporting the IQ of your average chicken, they are synonymous with the South Pole and have been used to promote everything from open source software to salt and vinegar ships. We encountered several varieties on our trip, each with their own quirks and customs.

Adelies look like they have had five cups of coffee too many, constantly darting left and right with a slightly crazed look in their glassy eyes. These are the downtown commuters of the ice, making their way to the edge of the bergs in packs that resemble crowds on a railway platform, then spilling into ocean en mass, mirroring the five pm office exodus.

Gentoo penguins are somewhat larger, with white patches over their eyes that resemble chic noise-cancelling headphones. They could do with such accessories too, as their call has the timbre of braying donkeys. During the summer months much of the cacophony comes from the chicks, triangular fluffballs with bottomless stomachs that are constantly pestering their parents for a feed.

You can see the penguins, you can hear the penguins, but what the postcards and nature documentaries don’t tell you is that the birds could do with an industrial-scale drenching in coco chanel. In short, they stink. The guano combination of fish and krill that coats the rocks throughout the rookeries can be seen from afar and smelt from even further.

This aroma did not deter early scientists from getting up close and personal with the wee waddlers. The ‘Fit for a FID’ cookbook details researchers’ recipes from the 1950s, and has a whole section dedicated to penguins. The author prefaces the section with the admission that ‘when cooking penguin, I have an awful feeling inside of me that I am cooking little men who are just that little too curious and stupid.’ These days penguin is off the menu, and we photograph penguin nests instead of devouring penguin breasts. Nevertheless, some people come up with interesting new ways of communing with the colonies. Turning around to find two human-sized penguins posing with their Lilliputian relatives was a surprise, to say the least.

Antarctica is much more than penguins and photo opportunities, but no trip south would be complete without a mention of both. Sure, if you lie still photographing the penguins for long enough a southern giant petrel may decide you resemble a tasty snack, but at least there are no roaming polar bears to finish you off. In that respect, it’s just like home after all.

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

La Chascona: A poet’s eyes

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Ok, it’s now official: I am a literary groupie. Visiting Berlin to take in the sights from Theodor Fontane’s novels, I felt my heart speed up at the sight of the Liebesinsel and the (obscured) Grunewaldsee. That was just the beginning, inspiring a week-long Günter Grass Poland trip to take in the alleyways and history of Gdansk. It should not come as any surprise then that, finding myself on an overnight stopover in the capital of Chile, I am at it again. Today I made the trip through the bustling streets of Santiago to a small oasis perched on the side of a leafy hill, to explore the inner sanctum of Pablo Neruda’s ‘La Chascona’ abode.

Born Neftali Ricardo Reyes Basoalto, Pablo Neruda is Chile’s most celebrated poet. Renowned for his sensuous poems, he also led a sensuous life: ‘La Chascona’ is named for his mistress – and later wife – Mathilde Urrutia, and was built as a sanctuary for her to live in and him to escape to. It is appropriate then that when it came to his house he chose to focus on the intimate interior rather than a showy façade. The white walls betray none of the inside details: courtyards overlook each other like Juliet balconies sheltered by grape vines, while twisting staircases inhabit secret passageways.

The artworks tell the story of a man who loved the ocean, with the walls adorned with galleons tossed upon wild seas. This love is evident from the first room, known as ‘The Captain’s Bar.’ The poet had a close affinity with the Ocean, calling himself a ‘Land Captain’ and filling his homes with maritime paraphernalia such as a theodolite and nautical charts. This collection also tells a personal story, and Diego Riviera’s portrait of Mathilde with two heads is fitting. The two faces hint at Neruda and Mathilde’s affair and later marriage, depicting what is seen and what is not. Those who look closely will also find Neruda’s profile painted in the waves of Mathilde’s hair.

La Chascona demonstrates the two sides of Neruda as well, with the rooms revealing insights into both the poet and the politician. While it is well known that he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1971, the importance of Neruda’s Marxist motivation is often overlooked. The numerous civic awards on display in the library serve as reminders of his successful diplomatic career. Neruda’s political interests remained strong right up until his death in 1973, which was attributed partly to stress over Salvador Allende’s loss of power following Pinochet’s military coup.

The lounge where Neruda’s wake was held is now open for visitors. The mountainous vista and eclectic collection of artworks, furniture and polished stones are welcoming, but their appearance masks a turbulent past. This is the same room in which Mathilde simultaneously mourned her husband and made a political stand, surrounded by friends and diplomats who had all picked their way across wooden beams to cross the flooded courtyard. The flooding was the result of vandalism, carried out by Neruda’s political opponents following General Augusto Pinochet’s takeover. When the people of Chile took to the streets to mourn him, they did so against direct orders, and knowing they were being watched by the brutal Pinochet regime.

Eyes still watch over the courtyard, but these days they are black and white drawings that hang from a branch and toss gently in the wind, winking over the landscape from many different angles. Having just come from Antarctica, my eyes are tuned in to relics of the Southern continent. Upstairs in the ‘French Room,’ an early map of Antarctica and a painting of a French Antarctic Expedition adorn the walls. The room is so called because it housed Neruda’s extensive collection of French poetry and literary works. It is also an insight into the poet’s unique attitude towards architecture: the room was built specifically to house Neruda’s favourite chair next to a well placed window and a picture he liked. Rather than starting with a space and filling it with details, he instead started with the details and built to accommodate them.

The result is a tangling maze of architectural moments, each its own work and, like a poem, suited to its own specific occasion. From the summer bar with its Single Malt Whisky sign, Fornasetti stools and giant pair of shoes through to the secret passageway between the dining room and Mathilde’s rooms upstairs, the house has many moods. It also inspires many moods in the visitors who come to explore, including curiosity and contemplation. I’ve come away from this excursion with a book of love poems, a better understanding of Chilean history and a definite track record for stalking literary greats.

South and South-er

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This week I find myself writing from a location that is far further south than I ever bargained for when I moved to the Mainland. Forget Canterbury’s balmy 43 degree latitude:  these days I have become intimately acquainted with the Antarctic Circle, thanks to a summer stint lecturing on a cruise ship that is South Pole bound.

Now, I’m no stranger to sea air. Auckland is the city of sails, with harbours and islands galore, and the one thing I have missed most whilst living in Methven is the ocean. Getting on board a ship that spends four out of ten days out of sight of any land appears to be the perfect antidote to any salty cravings I may have experienced whilst living in the mountains.

Nevertheless, living in a ski resort town has primed me well for Antarctica in several regards. First, the snow. Winters in Methven have toughened me up enough to be able to face icebergs with pluck and only one pair of gloves, purchased from Four Square at the end of the ski season. It’s been great to get up and personal with the kind of tabular icebergs on which our local ovine hero Shrek was shorn some years back. Not even sub zero temperatures can detract from the delight I gain from seeing guests’ faces when I tell them this anecdote from my homeland.

Secondly, wide open spaces. Both Antarctica and the South Island are renowned for their photogenic nature and their wide uninhabited expanses. Down here there is a distinct lack of sheep, famous or not, but the glacial valleys are reminiscent of an icier version of the Milford Sounds. The seals that lounge around their fringes more than make up for any woolly deficit: with several million such seals to a human population that numbers in the thousands, they far outdo the efforts of their four legged friends in the mammal to man ratio.

Thirdly, living in a small community. When I first moved down from Auckland I could not have imagined living in a town of 1000 people. Working on board a ship with just over 100 staff, a four digit population count starts to sound like the busiest of bustling metropolises. Having visited several Antarctic Bases where the tour of duty exceeds two years and the population count barely makes double figures, I have come to appreciate the new blood that floods into our area with each new ski season. Our small town will never seem small in quite the same way again.

I’ve swapped sheep for shags and pigs for penguins as I get up close and personal with the source of our biting southerly winds, but I would not swap this experience for the world. There are so many new sights and sounds to experience every day, from breaching humpback whales to the unmistakably fishy smell of penguin guano. Heading south off the map to a place where the sea and the mountains come together under snow has put life back home in perspective and made me appreciate both latitudes all the more.

Originally published in The Ashburton Guardian

An Antarctic Address Book

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The Southern continent has been making its mark on New Zealand of
late, with snow falling low into the Canterbury foothills on the end
of an Antarctic breeze.

In the past few weeks I have had a taste of what it is like to live
even further south, thanks to our guided tours of several Antarctic
research stations: China’s year round Great Wall Station, Argentina’s
Almirante Brown summer base, and the British museum of Port Lockroy.
Despite the geographical distance, there are more similarities between
such stations and my house in Methven than you might think.

Otherwise known as ‘The Penguin Post Office’, Port Lockroy is one of
the most known tourist sites on the Antarctic Peninsula. Built in 1944
as part of a secret wartime military operation, it was then used by
British scientists up until the 1960s.

These days it acts as a museum, illustrating what life was like in
Antarctica half a century ago. On my first visit I was surprised to
see that the Esse coal stove in the kitchen was identical to the one
in our kitchen at home. While everyone else was oohing and aahhing
over the antique appliance and muttering about the chilly draft, I was
quietly impressed by the place. Compared to a weatherboard house from
1925, the hut was rather cosy.

Great Wall Station was much better insulated, with buildings built on
stilts to resist the buildup of winter ice. The large blue building in
the middle of the complex was reminiscent of the Blue Pub, although
the station’s population would not have filled our local bar. The
summer maximum of 40 inhabitants suddenly made all the rural
settlements in our area seem like bustling metropolises.

There are now over 60 research bases in Antarctica, with the peninsula
being the most populated area. It takes a special kind of person to
spend a whole year in Antarctica, let alone two or more. At our visit
to Brown Station we saw evidence of what happens when you put the
wrong sort of person in such an environment: the charred remains of
the original 1984 base are courtesy of the station doctor. When told
he would be required for a second winter season, he promptly burnt the
place down to ensure a ride out of there. Luckily we have State
Highway One heading through Ashburton, so if the going gets really
tough, there is always the option of taking an excursion to the Big
Smoke.

Down here in Antarctica we’ve enjoyed tea with the Chinese, strong
black coffee with the Argentinians, and admired the English Esse, but
I really am looking forward to a steaming mug of milo on my return.
There are many different places to visit, but there really is no place
like home.

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

A Frosty Reception

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So far I’ve enjoyed the South Island so much that I’ve decided to take things to a new level. I’m heading as far South as possible, to a place that makes Invercargill look positively tropical: Antarctica is in my sights.

When my partner first suggested I return to the frozen continent, my first response was ‘am I really that terrible to live with?’ As it turns out, I had been bringing it up rather often in conversation, so he thought it must be time for a fix in order to allow other topics to penetrate the sphere of scintillating dinner time talk every now and then.

It wasn’t always this way. A few years ago, my contact with Antarctica consisted of little more than wrestling with the part of the blow up globe where you put the bung in. Since moving to the South Island that has changed. On my first flight from Auckland to Christchurch I found myself sitting next to an Alaskan cook who was en route to McMurdo Station to work for the summer, and he was just the first of many people I’ve come across who have an Antarctic connection. There’s the husky dog driver whose father used to be a dog handler at Scott Base, the anesthetist who also does summer jaunts South as a doctor on tourist vessels from Bluff, and the engineering student who spent a summer restoring Scott’s hut at Cape Evans (As it turns out, he was also neighbours with my partner’s Godmother in Timaru – but that’s New Zealand for you). Having spent a summer studying the continent at Canterbury University, I was well and truly hooked.

Canterbury has strong Antarctic ties, with the United States Antarctic Programme (USAP) basing its South Pole logistics out of the city, and their off casts often found in surplus stores. My man’s distinctive red USAP jacket is not the only one in town, as we found out last June when we ran into his doppelganger on the main street of Methven. Perhaps they should have headed through the snow-clogged streets for a beverage together at the aptly named ‘Shackleton’s Bar and Grill’?

Right now it’s the wrong time of year for snow and ice: All the window dressers have scrubbed of the fake snowflakes to make room for the cheeping birds that symbolize Easter and Spring, bang on the dot of Autumn. Still, last year’s ski season has reawakened a hunger for the cold that not even a raft of unseasonal southerlies can sate. (Said southerlies have meant that my ‘Antarctic’ tomato plant, which is suited to colder weather, has done very well over Christmas…)

So, as I write this I find myself Southward bound – again – but the latest experience has taught me that there’s nothing to shy away from, only millions of moments (and perhaps an old neighbour alongside the odd penguin) gathering at ever-higher altitudes and waiting to be discovered.

Originally published in The Ashburton Guardian

Wallpaper music of the Great Outdoors

There are some things in life that slip by unnoticed for years until they are explicitly pointed out, at which point they glare you in the face at every turn. Background music in the supermarket is a prime example, but it is not alone in being chronically overlooked. Between hosting travellers down here and visiting rellies in Auckland I discovered that I had been missing more than the soundtrack to the freezer aisle.

Living in the city or in the country you become attuned to certain things and learn to block out others. Last year we took a hitch-hiker over to Tekapo, and he was so stunned by the mountains he had to stop talking in order to take in the view. ‘Is this normal for you?’ he asked. Initially it wasn’t, but there are only so many time you can pull over on the Ashburton to Methven route to admire the snowy ridges before you realise that they look the same as they did yesterday, and will probably still be there tomorrow. This is still a beautiful place to live, but if the breath taking nature didn’t become somewhat normalised then we would all have succumbed to asphyxiation long ago.

Returning to Auckland, I realised I had been doing exactly the same thing up there. Traffic noise, vibrant signage and throngs of people had all faded out to become the invisible background to everyday life. Heading back up, it was these things that jumped out. Suddenly the four lanes of traffic, road cones, motorway exits and right turning arrows were all jostling for my senses’ attention: It was only after becoming accustomed to their absence that I really noticed them for the first time. Such realisations are all well and good if you are a passenger in a car that is crawling through rush hour traffic, but pulling over on the side of the motorway in order to read the fine print of the billboards is not really the done thing…

Neither, apparently, is obeying the speed limit. Down this way a judiciously placed temporary 30 sign is a good indication that loose gravel, a slip, or a herd of stock are around the corner. In Auckland, it is just a suggestion. Perhaps there is a different conversion system up there that I have missed in my time in the South, because 30 seemed to mean 60 and 80 seemed to mean 100, if the volley of beeps from behind was anything to go by. Having become accustomed to narrow country roads with not a car in sight, I found the aural assault to be most pronounced and began to long for the low of a cow to break up the commuting chaos.

These past weeks have shown me that paying attention to the background sights and sounds that we take for granted can provide a totally new perspective on a place, and there are always new things to be discovered. Coming home again I made sure to give the mountains a second glance. As for the motorway billboards up North, the conditions of the sushi deal will just have to wait…

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

A Family Portrait

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There is nothing like a family gathering to remind you of who you are and where you come from. If Christmas dinner with the second cousins didn’t do the trick this year, there is always an interactive portraiture exhibition at the Ashburton Art Gallery that can help you to see yourself in a new light. Classic portraits by Rita Angus and Frances Hodgkins sit alongside photographs of All Black’s Supporters, while easels around the gallery encourage visitors to try their own hand at the artform. I took my visiting family to check it out, and while drawing your nearest and dearest may not be the best course of action if you are aiming to preserve civil relationships, we gave it a go and ended up seeing a new side of each other.

Mum’s favourite artwork was a sculpture of a man and his dog. This may or may not have been a symptom of canine withdrawal, as she left her own pup in Auckland this Christmas and has had to do make do with skype calls home rather than having a dog on the end of her bed.

Dad preferred Nigel Brown’s lemon tree, while the rest of my cohort made a beeline for the easels. The exhibition offered my man a moment away from the in-laws to try his hand at self-portraiture. Having not sketched since third form art class, the results were impressive. He was not quite game enough to try sketching me or mum however, and decided it was safest to try the light box for drawing silhouettes. Sister two’s hat looked very stylish in profile, and there was less chance of offending her by drawing a wonky nose or forgetting to add eyebrows. (Dad’s abstract version of mum did not go down so well, largely as a result of this omission).

The artworks on display would not look out of place in a city gallery, but the best thing about the exhibition was the range of questions that accompanied the portraits, encouraging the audience to think about what their own version might look like. I never thought I would be answering questions such as ‘What am I wearing’ with ‘gumboots,’ so living in Mid Canterbury has definitely changed the version of me that would be seen in a portrait.

These days I would be with my dog, in my library, with the mountains visible in the background through the window, and there would be a bunch of home grown flowers on the side table, just for good measure. In Auckland I would have chosen a beach setting, with my family in the painting. Gumboots would definitely have been out, and the only thing in a vase would have been a sprig of the impossibly hardy rosemary from under the front steps. Moving south means I have swapped beaches for a beetroot patch and mum and dad for a mutt, but I am proud to show my family this new South Island version of their daughter, in full portrait.

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

A Merry Mainland Christmas

‘Tis the season to be jolly, bake Christmas cookies and prepare for an influx of visitors from the North Island. This year my parents and sisters are all coming down to Canterbury for Christmas, so as well as having to leave a reminder note for Santa in our letterbox, I’ll have a chance to show my family around this part of the country. Putting together the itinerary for our first southern family Christmas, I realised how many amazing places I’ve visited over the course of the past year: Hills, rivers, ski runs, and all manner of shows. Ten days suddenly seemed short in the face of all the activity possibilities.

While my nearest and dearest will miss the annual A&P festivities, my certificate for third place tomatoes in the Methven Show still has pride of place in the middle of the fridge some 9 months later.  Complemented with a good helping of salad greens from my garden, that should reinforce to them the agricultural nature of my new abode. If not, there’s always the agricultural centre in Methven, and plenty of machinery out in the paddocks so my visitors can practice their newfound ability to distinguish a spreader from a windrower.

Once outside, it makes sense to head for the hills. Given that one of my sisters has only ever been to Ashburton and Invercargill, a little high country hiking couldn’t hurt her perceptions of all the delights the Mainland entails. Then there’s always a visit to Erewhon, home of work horses and southern-man vistas. The last time the streets of Auckland saw horse drawn carriages was back in the days when the world was black and white, so heading up in the hills for a wagon ride, free from the scourge of honking horns and endless traffic lights, is sure to be something new.

Then there’s Mt Hutt, where many a weekend was spent this winter, learning to defy gravity and remain upright on the slopes of snow. Thanks to the hemisphere and the season, skiing is not an option right now, but mountain biking could provide a similar summer thrill if my family are daring enough. Alternatively, there are the rivers to explore. We dared to take a ride up the gorge in the Rakaia jet gorge earlier in the year, and the sights it yielded were the stuff of geologists’ dreams, rich with sediment layers and glacial moraine. They also convinced me for the first time that the postcards at the local Four Square are not photoshopped after all, despite the luminous turquoise of the water.

This part of New Zealand has expanded my vocabulary of blues significantly, thanks both to the natural environment, and to the range of exhibitions at the Ashburton Art Gallery that have captured that environment from so many different perspectives. My mother is a children’s librarian, so a visit to the gallery’s David Elliot exhibition, complete with all the original illustrations from the picture book ‘Henry’s Map,’ is sure to make her day.

There will be no beaches and no malls with crowds to throng through come yuletide eve, but I have a feeling this southern Christmas will really be one for my whole family to remember. Season’s Greetings, everyone!

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

Quardle oodle ardle wardle DUCK

Allenton residents are familiar with the problem, which has now been impacting upon their letterboxes as well: the magpies that have been attacking the local posties pose yet another threat to our endangered postal system. Unfortunately for our trusty team in red, magpies have very good memories and they attack the same people again and again. If you get on the wrong side of one of those flying missiles, you’d better have eyes on the back of your head.

Last week I had first hand experience of the problem whilst out for a jog. Apparently the birds don’t differentiate between those wearing red and those wearing pink, because from the moment I turned the corner they had me firmly in their sights. Next came the ominous ‘whoosh’ of a kamikaze magpie under the influence of gravity, followed by a flash of claw. That was enough to convince my tired legs that actually they belonged to Usain Bolt and were taking part in a very important race. As a result of this impressive burst of athletic prowess, I can confirm that magpies are much better motivators than any iPod track or personal trainer. In fact, based on the results of my one off and highly scientific study, magpie escape training could well form the basis of the next exercise fad, leaving zumba and cross training in its wake.

You do, however, need to ensure you have a good technique before taking part in this adrenaline fuelled cardio programme. Like any sport, this takes practice. Running down the street waving hands in the air may not look particularly becoming, but it is a natural response to try to keep beaks and talons away from cheeks and ears. A little googling reveals this is also the worst possible response. Instead, it is necessary to remain calm, don your ice cream container helmet as protective headgear, and vacate the vicinity of the fluffy foe.

Sports related injuries may make up the bulk of recreational claims, but according to an ACC spokeswoman, there have been 15 magpie-related injuries lodged with ACC in the last 2 years. Thanks to a serendipitous attack, we now have the opportunity to combine the two. With a little practice, we might even be able to take on an aussie team as well as the aussie bird.

As we know, there is no black and white solution to the magpie issue. Eradicate them? Avoid them? Use them as a sporting supplement to enhance future performance? This is no 80 minute on-pitch battle, but an ongoing exercise at surviving the siege. Don your trainers and watch your back, because as Glover’s poem suggests, the magpies are here to stay.

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

Central Parking

The domain may be a ‘jewel in Ashurton’s crown’, but recently it’s been another kind of ‘park’ that’s been making headlines. Curbside credit is changing for good, with the iconic coin meters being replaced by newfangled pay and display machines that would look at home on any Auckland side street. Not only is Ashburton moving into the future, but this technological leap was broadcast into living rooms all over the country. Immediately following the TV segment I was fielding calls and texts from family and friends in the big smoke, all wanting to know more about how we park our vehicles in this neck of the woods.

My initial response was ‘without breaking the budget.’ When we first arrived in town we thought that the advertised rate of 60c an hour must have been a typo. Up in Auckland 60c might buy you 5 minutes if you are lucky, so surely there was a digit and a decimal point missing? $7.60 would have seemed like a bargain, so we fed the meter up with gold coins, just in case.  As it turned out, our trepidation was unfounded and resulted in a happy surprise for the rest of the cars that pulled into the park that day.

The introduction of solar powered, ticket printing machines spells the end of random acts of kindness like this, as there is no way to top up someone’s time allowance without breaking into their car to replace their receipt. Somehow that doesn’t seem quite as neighbourly as nonchalantly depositing spare shrapnel in the meter, and it also sounds like a lot more work.

It also sounds like a lot more work to get to a machine, with the one to one park to meter ratio now a thing of the past, but most will be placated by assurances that motorists will not have to walk any more than three parks away to get a ticket. Three parks seems to be the maximum distance away from one’s destination that the majority of Ashburtonians are willing to park anyway, as traffic volumes still allow convenience to reign supreme.  At any rate, there will be none of this business of trudging to the far corner of a parking building, only to lose your bearings and spend the next half hour looking for your vehicle, by which time the ticket has almost expired.

For those who prefer to stick to the old methods or are averse to the 40c price increase – and don’t mind walking – there is always the option of using the remaining quinquagenarian machines in the town’s side streets. With the old machines going towards bolstering the local supply of spare parts, they should keep going strong for a wee while yet. Who knows, the remaining antique machines could become quite an attraction – the only other place I’ve seen them is in the museum, next to a sign that reminisced about the ‘lovely Rita meter maids’ of days gone by.

The technological infrastructure may be changing, but Ashburton can still boast plenty of central parking – now with more options than ever before.

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian