Not From Round These Parts

How do you know when you really belong in a place? Perhaps when it stops feeling like you don’t belong. Small towns all over the world have locals and outsiders, and the chilliness towards the latter group varies greatly depending on location. Last weekend we had an ‘outsiders’ experience that made even the most glowering of looks from back home seem positively welcoming. The scene: a rural pub in a lonely coastal town. Thursday evening. The goal: have a quiet pint before dossing down for the night in our brand new tents, which were carefully erected just beneath the local satellite tower, in the only campsite in town. Course of action: head down the street to the local pub.

As we walked through the doors, all conversation ceased. Seven sets of eyes all swivelled round to appraise the foreigners who had dared to let in a draught. The woman perched at the bar eating her tea put down her fork with a ‘clank’ that resounded through the entire room. A fly buzzed against the inside of the window, desperate to escape. All that was missing was the banjo soundtrack.

To be fair, this particular town did not see many visitors. It probably didn’t help that one of our number was a six foot something Irishman who was sporting a drooping red moustache that reached almost to his shoulders, where it was carefully twizzled into two waxy points. Even in the most bustling metropolis, he would have elicited a double take.

We bid a good evening to all present, remarked upon the strength of the wind out, and took a seat at the bar. Bazza, Rozza, Timmo and Davo (names courtesy of the chalked scores next to the darts board) looked distrustfully on as we sipped at our pints. We spoke in hushed tones, so as not to disturb the living-room atmosphere. All ears were aprickle with interest – who were these strangers? Which team did they support? And were they going to talk through the best bits of their programme? Eventually all present turned back to watching the evening’s show, which consisted of a remake of classic tunes from ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show,’ featuring famous sports coaches in place of the original actors. On a scale of bizarre, you just couldn’t make the scene up. We only stayed for one, and made sure to thank the barman on the way out.

The next day was a scorcher. Come lunchtime, and post-hike, anything with ice in it seemed like a good idea, so we headed back for the local Hotel. What a difference! Instead of silence, we were greeted with nods, served our ‘usual’s, and granted leave to eat our fish and chips in the yard. ‘Timmo’ even joined us out there, imparting detailed advice about the local roads whilst finishing his cigarette.

The moral of the story? If at first you’re treated like an outcast, just try again the next day, when the AFL final is about to start, and the local team is about to win and make history. That subtle chin-raise greeting had never seemed more of statement, and cider had never tasted so good.

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

Famous Ex-Fence


My ex-fence is famous. Wooden, 6 feet high, and covered in slightly peeling burgundy paint, at first glance it doesn’t look like much. Add a bag of old fabric, creative talent, and the challenge of producing a fantasy figure out of straw, however, and you’re looking at a different story. Resplendent in pink and green, Puff the Magic Dragon was voted number one in this year’s Methven Scarecrow competition, and with that accolade, the fence came into its own.

Erecting a scarecrow in NZ may seem rather redundant, as the large black birds have never graced our power lines. The nearest colony of crows resides ‘across the ditch,’ with magpies the closest we’ve ever come to encountering the jet-black silhouettes of Hitchcock fame. My first experience with an actual crow happened in Australia. While others were ogling the opossums and watching the wombats, I was intrigued by the croaky voices of the pitch-black pariahs. There was something about the sharp conical beaks, the beady eyes, and the sleek feathered pose that suggested the birds were ready to take flight and descend on an unsuspecting, scarecrow-less vegetable patch at any moment.

Of course, the lack of crows in New Zealand may not simply come down to our geographical isolation at the ends of the earth. We can’t rule out the possibility that the annual scarecrow competition in small-town mid Canterbury is doing such a good job that it is single-handedly keeping the non-native species at bay…

After all, the creativity displayed in some of the most recent scarecrow entries was formidable. No run of the mill rake-and-checked-shirt figures here – instead, the hay that stuffed the vast array of creatures had them fairly bursting into life. From the deliriously happy Spongebob replica, to the more sinister looking Gru of ‘Despicable Me’ fame, each creation was a real one off, and each carried a story. Those stories have ripples that travel far and wide – in past years, the scarecrow event has been enough of a drawcard to lure friends of ours down from Auckland to view the spectacle, so the fundraiser has influence, alright.

Coming back to the fence, the painted wood will never look quite the same again after its brush with the scarecrow paparazzi. Fairy wings, an old dog blanket, and some Hackney magic have assisted in a boundary-marker transformation. Briefly home to an award-winning scarecrow, the fence will live on in photographs, showcasing its background glory. And to think, I used to live behind that fence. It’s a tenuous association, but I’ll take it anyway.

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

Antarctic Cows

The issue of non-native species in the Antarctic has been on the agenda at the Antarctic Treaty meeting in Sofia this past week. Usually the sorts of critters in the sights of the treaty parties are things like the king crab, rats, seeds and microbes. Occasionally larger mammals make an appearance – such as the reindeer in South Georgia. Cows, however, are rarely mentioned in the same sentence as “Antarctica.” I’m currently in Wisconsin, dairy capital of the USA, and I am aiming to change that, thanks to the help of the local archives, a well-known Antarctic hero from the USA, and this state’s enthusiasm for all things that go “moo”.

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Fresh milk is something that modern day expeditioners and Antarctic programme personnel can only dream of – it sits alongside oranges and bananas at the top of the wish list for those who overwinter. One of the long-standing jokes at the Trans-Antarctic Expedition Hut at New Zealand’s Scott Base is the 1950s style glass milk bottle that still sits in the letterbox, just like back home. Powdered milk was (and is) the order of the day – but for the USA’s Admiral Byrd, an ample supply of Horlick’s was simply not enough. Instead of the product, in 1928 he carried the source.

Any farmer round these parts will tell you that a cow is not just a cow. Byrd was discerning, and chose three award-winning Guernsey cows to take south because of the quality of their milk. A fourth, christened “Iceberg”, was born en route to Antarctica. As he was a bobby calf, Iceberg was not a useful addition to the expedition in terms of milk production. He was, however, very handy when it came to publicity. Cue the column inches back home, detailing the most southerly birth of a cattle beast, the cows’ first steps onto the icy continent, and the eating habits of the miniature dairy herd.

Not only were the adventures of the cows chronicled in the US press during the expedition, they were also hailed as heroes upon their return. Iceberg was invited to official luncheons, displayed at farm shows, and featured on pin badges. At the annual meeting of the American Guernsey Cattle Club, he was served “hay cocktails – heaps of hay with cracked ice” atop his very own table, laid with white linen. His female companions even featured in advertisements for surge milking apparatuses back home in the USA, where they were touted as having travelled the farthest distance since the famous cow jumped over the moon. There’s something to ponder next time you nip down to the shops for a tub of ice cream.

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian


Antarctica Day

December 1 is Antarctica Day, a day to celebrate the 55th anniversary of the signing of the Antarctic Treaty, eat ice cream, and generally turn our attention south. This year I am taking that sentiment further than most, heading back to the frozen continent on board a cruise ship to lecture on the very treaty that Antarctica Day marks. Being someone who can’t stand the cold, it seems unnatural that I would opt to spend my summer in a place famed for its chilly climate. Antarctica is worth making exceptions for.

Antarctica is the coldest, highest, driest, windiest, most penguin-friendly continent on earth. It is also particularly interesting from a political angle. The continent itself is governed by the Antarctic Treaty System, a complex maze of annexes and adopted conventions that govern everything from the catch limits for fish in the Southern Ocean through to the environmental monitoring that must be undertaken before establishing a research station. Meetings are held once a year, and all decisions are made by consensus. 12 nations – including New Zealand – were the original signatories back in 1959, but these days there are over 50 nations signed up to the Antarctic Treaty.  That treaty has many purposes, but most importantly, it designates Antarctica as a place for peace and science. Military activity is not allowed, and science is the focus on the continent.

What does all this mean for us in Canterbury? Well, the big grey C-17 plane that spends the summer commuting between the Ross Ice Shelf and Christchurch International Airport whilst full of scientists in orange and red parkas is one local link. Antarctica Day is also a good chance to take a moment to remember just where those bitterly cold southerly winds that can assail our shores have their origins.

Our ship visits the other side of Antarctica: the peninsula region is located directly south of the tip of South America. Still, the same weather rules apply: take Auckland’s five seasons in one day, push them into a giant freezer, and you’ll get the idea. It’s in the midst of that weather that I will be celebrating both Antarctica Day and Thanksgiving; with a number of US nationals on board, the American holiday can’t be missed. In the spirit of both, I’m thankful to be back showing visitors around this amazing frozen continent, and I’m doubly thankful to have such a supportive family back home who encourage me to go literally to the ends of the world and back.

 Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

Antarctica: More than just penguins

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The South Island may be know around these parts as ‘the mainland’, but the 1000 scientists descending on Auckland last week had their sights set on even higher latitudes: Antarctica. New Zealand hosted the biennial Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) conference from August 25-28, attracting glaciologists, biologists, geologists and astrophysicists from all around the globe. Their talks had titles that mentioned sub-glacial lakes, penguin guano, and ‘alien invasions’, but all had the frozen continent in common.

Often depicted as an icy wasteland, Antarctica is in fact a treasure trove of information about the past of our planet. Uncovering that knowledge via fossil records, ice cores and microbiology can help scientists to understand the world we live in, and to predict what will happen far into the future.

While Antarctica’s very low precipitation rate means it is technically a desert, the kilometres of ice that coat the continent hide a…

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A Taste of the South

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What does Antarctica taste like? Well, literally it is cold and icy, and tastes best in the midst of a good single malt. For those of us who spend our lives in lower latitudes, there is still a way to enjoy a taste of the South without investing in schemes to tow icebergs up into the Sydney Harbour first. Instead, we can turn to the rations boxes of early explorers and flick through their recipes from the comfort of our own homes. Penguin and seal may be off the menu these days, but it is still possible to give your tastebuds a southern sensation akin to that enjoyed by Scott and Shackleton some 100 years ago.

These days those who work at Antarctic research stations enjoy the same diet as those of us back home, bar the ‘freshies’ such as fruit and milk, which come in frozen or powdered forms…

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Home Away From Home

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This week I visited Wellington, seat of Parliament and home of winds that put even our gusty Nor’Westers to shame. Sometimes regional parts of NZ can feel like the bigwigs at the Beehive don’t even know they exist, but a visit to Te Papa proved that Mid Canterbury does have a place in our capital city. That place is halfway up the third panel of postcards on the wall outside the ‘Blood Earth Fire’ exhibition. In the midst of this collage of picturesque destinations, Ashburton’s clocktower stands tall and proud, nestled between Coromandel and Cambridge. Even the Canterbury plains get a look in, the aerial shot of their patchwork paddocks tucked away at knee height.

Around the corner is an insight into the rural life that takes place on said plains, presented to a soundtrack of the famous ‘Chesdale Cheese’ advert. Photos of wood chopping competitions and A&P Shows from the days when long socks and walk shorts were in fashion adorn the walls, while Fred Dagg has free range over the television screen. On a more serious note, time lapse maps show the extent of deforestation that led to creation of pasture in New Zealand over the last few centuries. The maps are accompanied by the sound of crackling flames – reminiscent of the burn offs of today – as a reminder of how much of the farmland was cleared to make way for livestock like sheep and cattle.

These days dairy is a big industry for Canterbury, with our milk products exported to many countries. The marketing methods have changed somewhat since the 1950s however, as evidenced by one of the displays that featured a stuffed jersey cow with a working udder. This bovine beauty with rubber plumbing and a refillable milk bladder (accessed via a zip in the cow’s neck) was used to promote NZ dairy products in the UK during the 1950s. Taxidermy is no longer the flavour of the day, but the campaign clearly did something right, as our udders and their owners are still in demand.

Te Papa boasts many more displays, but my personal favourite was the sheepcam. Have you ever wondered what the world looks like from the perspective of one of these woolly mammals? Well, wonder no more. This exhibit features footage taken from a camera mounted to a sheep’s head. The screen is interactive, with six choices of situation available to the viewer, including ‘Out to munch’ (sheep eating grass), ‘Bossy dog!’ (sheep being herded) and ‘Little lamb lost’ (a lamb that is, surprisingly enough, both little and lost). While a local version may have nicer views of mountains in the background, they would likely go unappreciated, as sheep seem to spend the bulk of their time concentrating on the pasture below.

Between the Sheep Cam, Fred Dagg, and a taxidermy cow, my trip to the big city revealed far more about small town life than expected. Wellington may be a bumpy plane ride away, but Mid Canterbury, you need not fear you’ve been forgotten.

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian