Aussie Aussie Aussie, Sheep Sheep Sheep

shrek

We recently had an Australian couch surfer come to stay on our lounge suite. He came for the snow and a small taste of the rural, but in light of the gale force winds he was starved of the former and gorged at a buffet of small town NZ until he was full to bursting.

First up, we took him for a pint at The Blue. On a Wednesday night, the pub was not its usual bustling self, but we assured our guest that on special occasions, like the speed shearing competition, both our local landmarks pack out. The mention of sheep shearing was innocent enough, but apparently the trend has yet to hit the hip new nightclubs of Brisbane. Eyebrows were raised.

The next day I sent him off for a wander through the town, marking such highlights as ‘The Garden of Harmony’ and the ploughing sculpture on a map. They were nice enough, but it was the sheep in our neighbour’s garden that had him raving. ‘It’s a pet,’ I explained, ‘until it becomes dinner.’ Living in an apartment 12 stories up, a hamster was the best our visitor could manage back home, and his hamster was definitely not named ‘snack’.

Next it was time to get outdoors for a stretch and some scenery with a gradient. On our hike up Awa Awa Rata our Aussie was initially cautious as I strode ahead. ‘Back home you’d definitely be on the look out for snakes in this terrain’ he told me. Not here, though. The wasps of summer were nowhere to be seen, and the dearth of venomous creepy crawlies made all manner of cross-country manoeuvres possible. He started to relax. ‘I could get used to this’ he told me as we descended towards the car park. Then, as we drove past paddocks of livestock and over the RDR, he snapped a few photos and offered to make dinner. 

Post meal, when I asked our Aussie about his impressions of Mid Canterbury he went quiet for a moment before offering his response: ‘I never thought that all the sheep clichés were true before I came here.’ In light of his reply, I’m not quite sure what to make of the fact that he cooked us a lamb curry for dinner that evening…

The next day our guest departed Methven, bound for Queenstown, culture, and the slopes of the south. Or so he thought. What he’ll make of the Shrek museum in Tarras is anyone’s guess…

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

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Sheep of the Globe

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I never thought I would find myself face to face with a sheep in the centre of a barn, taking notes on a shearing demonstration. Then I visited Patagonia, and everything changed. On an outing to a local farm, or ‘Estancia’, we were treated to a rural experience, Chilean style. If you discount the wild llama we passed during the bus ride out there, suddenly home didn’t seem so far away at all.

First up we were treated to a sheep dog demonstration. The huaso, or cowboy, sat perched atop his dappled steed while his shaggy canine companion tore about the paddock, herding his flock.  While it was not a patch on the International Sheep Dog Trials at last year’s Ashburton A&P Show, it was an admirable effort nonetheless, made all the more interesting by the appearance of a wild fox in the middle of the course halfway through the demonstration. It looked remarkably similar to a tall cat, and the dog treated it as such, hounding it out of the arena before the sheep could even bleat. The A&P judges may not have been too impressed with such behaviour, but hound and herder got full marks for entertainment.

Next up was the shearing demonstration. This was no Friday night entertainment in the local pub, but a serious educational experience, complemented by tiered seating and a running commentary from our local guide. While the majority of our contingent was intrigued by the equation ‘sheep plus shears equals fleece’, for me it was an eye opener that so many people were unaware of where wool actually comes from, despite their own knitted base layer clothing.

There have been ample opportunities to talk about sheep during my Antarctic trip as well, with tabular icebergs providing the perfect entry into a conversation about Shrek the sheep. As we cruised around the towering walls of ice, discussing the colouring and texture, I told my captive audience that back where I come from we use these kinds of bergs as shearing platforms. When a particularly large chunk drifted our way in 2006, we flew Shrek out there for a haircut. Many a discussion was subsequently held on the merits of merino wool and how to manufacture crampons to keep iceberg-faring sheep from going for a skate. While the practical applications of such an invention may be rather limited, my spiel appeared to spark renewed interest in the animal crampon industry, providing an opening for any budding entrepreneurs back home who are looking for an exportable niche…

Back on the Estancia, the sheep remained on solid ground and eventually on a solid roasting rack. A Chilean rodeo demonstration topped off the rural show before a meal of lamb on a spit was devoured. For a stepping-stone between the ice of the south and a Methven autumn, this Chilean farm was just the trick. What with sheep, farm dogs, and barbecue, it was just like being back home – the odd wild (and unshorn) llama aside.

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

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

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

The Big Four-Oh

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It’s not all that often that you get the chance to sing Happy Birthday to a geological feature and not get sideways looks and have people give you a wide berth. This weekend Mt Hutt Skifield celebrated 40 years in business, and the spectacle of a balcony of people addressing a mountain in harmony paled in comparison to some of the more bizarre rituals that took place for our collective entertainment.

First up, but last show of the night, were the fireworks. In most other places it would be deemed somewhat unwise to set off powerful explosive charges halfway up a mountain that is covered in snow, solely for the amusement of those in the saddle and thus right in the path of any potential avalanches triggered by the sparkling booms. A few mulled wines later, it seemed like a perfectly sensible thing to be doing, and the danger factor associated with doing a backwards flip on skis through a burning hoop of fire put everything in perspective.

The fireworks did provide a new perspective on the mountain, with the greens and pinks lighting up the whole ski area like an 80s disco party. Many of the outfits matched, with the weekend’s ‘retro’ theme luring a whole range of lurid one piece ski suits in neon pinks and greens out from the depths of the wardrobe. Whether or not they should have just stayed put is debatable, but the emergence of so many fluorescent throwbacks made my own highlighter salmon suit with inbuilt pockets for ‘lip balm’ and ‘credit cards’ feel quite at home.

Skiing down from the top of Mt Hutt for the first time gave me a different perspective on the town I now call ‘home’.  Gazing out to the East, Methven was a cluster of embroidered abodes set within a quilt of paddocks that stretched, as the cliché goes, ‘from the mountains to the sea’. Seeing the town from aloft was impressive, but it was the view across to the West that really took my breath away. Mountains, folded tight against each other like well worn smile lines round a grandmother’s eyes, and all white on white on white. To think I live so close to such breath taking scenery was a realization that made me giddier than any lack of oxygen.

Lack is a word that was absent from this weekend, which has been full instead of firsts. First ride in a snow groomer, first run down an entire mountain, first time I found myself sliding headfirst and upsidedown down a mountainside. It’s also the first time I’ve been to a mountain’s birthday party, but if this one is anything to go by, they sure do know how to put on a knees up. Happy Birthday Mt Hutt – If life begins at forty, as they say, then I can’t wait to see what you’ve got in store for us over the coming weeks!

Piggyback Prowess

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When a Topp Twin offers you the chance to shoulder a 45kg boar around an obstacle course, there can only really be one answer. At last weekend’s Mid Canterbury hunting competition, that answer was yes. Off came the floral jumper, on came ‘Horace’ the pig, and we were off.

Wearing a boar as a backpack certainly gives new meaning to the term ‘piggy back’. It’s also a darn sight harder than it looks, as I found out at the first turn. I was all set to go around the corner. Horace, it seems, had other plans, and momentum was on his side. After going very wide we struggled up the hill and down the straight to the halfway mark and around the cone. So far, so good. Falling to my knees on the brow of the final hill, I momentarily disappeared inside of Horace, but a pat on the nose saw him get back into line and we crossed the finish in the second fastest time, complete with several more bruises than we’d started out with.

I was surprised to learn that this was not a one off event, but one that youngsters begin training for before they are even old enough to say ‘Captain Cooker’. The precursor to the ladies event had seen a host of small children running round a miniature obstacle course with a dead wallaby or hare slung over their shoulders. They get them started on pest control young down this way, that’s for sure.

It was also the first time that I had seen camouflage gear in action. Boys who wear a mottled print around town tend to stand out more than anything else, but at this hunting competition the number of people sporting khaki hunting and fishing clothing made it appear as if a forest had suddenly taken root in the hotel car park. If it wasn’t for the coffee cart line spoiling the forest ambience, the deer and tahr could’ve still been at home in the hills.

While they were not green, my gumboots and thermals were put to good use, helping me to blend in amongst the crowd. Then came prizegiving. The question ‘where are you from’ is usually quite benign, and when the reply is Hinds or Hakatere, people are not likely to bat an eyelid. My answer of Auckland, however, caused a collective intake of breath so sharp that I wouldn’t be surprised if it affected the air pressure enough to show up on the national weather radar. What was the world coming to when an Aucklander could out piggyback everyone but an Irish vet?

As shocked as my mother may be by my latest sporting prowess, at least I can confidently tell her that I can not only stand on my own two feet with a pig in tow, I can also bring home the bacon to boot.

Grey Power

Here in Ashburton the 20-29 year old is a rare breed, making up less than 10% of the total population. Many young people leave the Ashburton area after school to take up study opportunities or to travel, and fewer move in to fill the gaps. We’re hard to pin down – no longer requiring parents’ notes to participate in contact sports, but not yet old enough to have passed the halfway mark towards Greypower membership.

It’s been a new experience for me, having grown up in a city where over a quarter of central city residents are in their twenties. Auckland’s several universities and multitude of entry level positions for graduates from around the country attract youth, and it wasn’t until I moved South that I started to really think about the make up of New Zealand as a whole.

Perhaps the queues of mobility scooters lining the hall of the MSA should have been a clue that I was entering an area with a slightly different demographic, but it was a visit to the cinema that first got me thinking. I lined up, purchased my ticket and enjoyed the film. So far so good. It was only when I went to dispose of my ticket that I took notice of what was written on it – I had been sold a pensioner ticket.

Now I know that some of my friends are worried about the odd premature grey hair, but I have generally been the one to be mistaken for a student when giving talks in High Schools, singled out by bouncers for looking underage, and asked by sports coaches ‘do your parents know you’re here?’ Needless to say, discovering that I had been sold a pensioner ticket came a shock. My KiwiSaver account was nowhere near ready for this eventuality.

Following hot on the heels of a hip operation for a condition initially deemed to be ‘age-related degeneration’, I had to wonder: was everyone else seeing something I wasn’t? A trip to the supermarket later that week did nothing to put my mind at ease. In New Zealand it is common practice to ask for ID if a customer looks under 25, but as I approached the counter with my probiotic yoghurt, English Breakfast Tea and a bottle of Sav, it seemed that I didn’t. I sighed. I paid. I collected my bags.

It was only on the way out that I was stopped and belatedly asked, because, as the supervisor explained, I was ‘looking younger by the minute’. At last, a return to the age bracket I had, up until the movie ticket incident, most identified with! This was the sort of transformation featured in daytime infomercials, the sort of result promised by countless potions stocked by the very supermarket in question. Perhaps I should apply to be the new face of L’Oreal?

As it turned out, the pensioner movie ticket was actually just the discount price, as I found out the next time I went the cinema. I had not developed decades long amnesia, but rather experienced first hand the truth of the old adage ‘youth is wasted on the young’. I can now take my time to grow old gracefully, and I will never be offended to be asked for ID again!

Conversation on Tap

On a recent visit to Auckland, the conversation turned to where I was living now. When my reply of ‘Methven’ was met with blank stares, I decided to have a bit of fun, and with my serious face pasted firmly in place I told them yes, it’s a South Island town and everyone who lives there works in a tap factory. While this was met with some looks of scepticism, a visit to the bathroom added weight to my story. ‘What did the tap say?’ I asked ‘Methven…’ ‘Well, there you go then!’ Following the lead of Paeroa’s L&P bottle and Rakaia’s salmon, it makes sense that even New Zealand’s smallest towns must be famous for something. If Springfield can boast a Simpsons-style donut, then my claim to the tap was certainly not out of the question.

As it is, there are more ski instructors than plumbers living in this town at the moment. Things are starting to get busy thanks to the snow, but the place still retains a small town feel where most people know most other people and those other people definitely know where you live. At first glance, this may appear to be a very different environment to the one I grew up in, but it turns out it’s not so alien after all.

While Auckland is big by New Zealand standards, it hardly compares to places overseas. It’s more like a collection of small villages jammed tightly against each other than one homogenous splodge on the map. Imagine if Canterbury was picked up by the corners and all the wee towns tumbled together to rest side by side, Rolleston against Rakaia and Ashburton against Amberly. That’s sort of how Auckland works, and even though a Pak ‘n’ Save is well within driving distance no matter where you live, everyone still has their favourite Four Square.

That’s certainly how it feels when I go back to visit, as a visit to any of the cafes in Mt Eden means I’m just about guaranteed to run into one of my friends’ parents or my sister’s primary school teacher from ten years ago. Each area has a community as distinct as those in Canterbury’s different towns and when you’re on home turf everyone knows your parents. That’s really what going home is all about, because as the saying goes, it’s who you know, not what you know. (Although in some cases a little research on New Zealand’s plumbing production wouldn’t go amiss).

Originally published in The Ashburton Guardian