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

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Of Dogs and Men

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

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

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

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

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

Happy Cold Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Skippers Canyon

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

History Thawing Quietly

Having been away in Auckland and Christchurch for back-to-back Antarctic conferences these past 2 weeks, you could say that I have ice on the brain. Sure, I’m back home now, but the thaw is slow. The quiet of Methven is helping, because now that I don’t have the roar of background traffic to contend with I can finally core down into the story gems I have collected – the odd local one included.

Christchurch is full of Antarctic paraphernalia and historic sites of ice, including Sir Edmund Hillary’s trusty tractor at the Canterbury museum, and the famous marble statue of Captain Scott, carved by his widow, which is currently undergoing repair work. Lady Scott spent time in the Garden City, as did Sir Douglas Mawson. That’s is not surprising; cities are places of bustle, full of ports and people, so they have more of a chance of attracting famous figures that will later stand out in history.

Ashburton can boast a slice of that history as well, thanks to a farmer named George Buckley and an explorer named Ernest Shackleton. George Buckley donated to Shackleton in the lead up to the explorer’s 1907 Nimrod expedition, the aim of which was to try to reach the geographic South Pole. When Buckley subsequently turned up on the docks to farewell the ship, his impromptu request to join the journey south was approved. The farmer travelled as far as the pack ice, taking charge of several ponies during the journey, before transferring across to the steamer the Koonya – which had towed the Nimrod south – and leaving Shackleton’s team to press on towards the continent alone. The Koonya headed back north, bound for cows and home, and laden with tales of excitement from the edge of the world. So it was that Buckley became one of, if not the, first Antarctic tourists. These days yearly visitor numbers may top 40,000, but the modern day tourists had to follow in the footsteps of someone.

Mid Canterbury may often be overlooked when it comes to the adventure stakes, but this tale from the days when the world was black and white shows that living on the plains is no barrier to developing an intrepid disposition.

Meanwhile, Buckley’s generosity in supporting the Antarctic expedition lives on, with ‘Buckley Island’ named by Shackleton in his honour. Antarctica has strong connections to places throughout Canterbury, and it is not just the big smoke that can narrate traces of our icy past.

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

Antarctica: More than just penguins

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Repres - Antarctic

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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