The Longest Day

PetePics_1003As the morning light seeps through the blinds in downtown Ashburton and stains the fridge golden, it’s hard to believe this is the same sun that stood watch over my entire Antarctica trip. It’s a good place to start a narrative though because although most of the trip was like an action movie on fast-forward playing out in a giant freezer, the sun stayed lazy and took its time.

During the summer months it never gets dark in Antarctica so in some ways it is like walking right into a Dali painting, the kind where the sky hangs like treacle and melted clocks prevent the future from ever happening. For my 14 University of Canterbury classmates and I that didn’t matter, because we had made it to The Ice for our two week field trip and were in no hurry to return home.

Upon arrival the first thing that struck me was the noise. Antarctica is renowned for its great silence, but we were welcomed by the rumbling engine of our C17 and serenaded by The Beatles on our way over to Scott Base. Not exactly the coldest of tunes, but it set the scene for what would be an interesting few weeks.

After two days of field training at Scott Base we climbed into two Hägglunds and made our way out to the deserted ice shelf at Windless Bight. We were being treated to the ultimate polar experience, camping in the same sort of polar tents Scott and Amundsen used on their race to the pole. The weather must have been prewarned about our desire for authenticity because on day two the wind picked up, visibility dropped to 50m and the wind chill let us know what ‘cold’ really meant. Hunkering down and weathering the storm whilst reading the diaries of explorers who did the same was somewhat surreal.

Luckily the storm was short lived and we had brilliant blue skies under which to conduct our science over the next week. Measuring snow density, doing a seal census and doing a geological survey were all on the menu and designed to give us a taste of what field work in Antarctica is really like.

Spending a day out on the sea ice reading seals’ tags was a highlight of the trip and the closest we got to Antarctic wildlife, save the two very lost penguins who visited out camp at Christmas. Whales sing underwater symphonies, but Weddell seals out-zane Led Zeppelin. Their calls ricochet like electric guitars under ice in ways that the drab speckling of their blubber and rock-pool shine of their eyes would never have you believe. Rock-stars in disguise, they party to the underwater trace, enticing those more accustomed to the whales’ sigh to change the channel, dare to experiment, live a little.

We did a lot of experimenting over the course of the trip, mainly with layering and unlayering clothes. While the nights required down jackets and inevitably led to frozen boots, the reflected light created a far better sun bed than any white sand beach and some days the sun felt warmer than back home. That may have had something to do with our black thermals soaking it up and causing us to pose as if we were in an advert for Speights as ‘Southern Women’, but being hot was not something I expected to experience in the coldest place on earth, not even in summer.

Back home in NZ everyone knows that summer equals sunscreen, and it’s no different in Antarctica. No different except for the fact that there is no ‘no burn’ time and protection is essential even at 2am. It was a bizarre feeling to be reaching to the SPF100 well past midnight and even stranger having to remember to dab it up into your nostrils because of the strength of the reflected UV rays. It was equally bizarre to be digging a snow cave at 1am and still have our pit lit up like a stage. We figured the whole sleep thing could wait until morning and the hyperactive sun did nothing to dissuade us from that view.

Santa, however, did. The next morning was Christmas and we were woken by his cherry ‘ho ho ho’ booming through our snow palace. It was time to get up and about, dig a Christmas table to sit around, partake in Shackleton’s finest whiskey and warble tunelessly about the white Christmas we no longer had to dream about. The Whiskey was a replica of the bottles found in Shackleton’s hut and perfect for making toasts to explorers past and present, especially given that we were celebrating exactly 100 years after Amundsen and Scott’s race to the Pole.

History played an important role in the trip and our last stop was Scott’s hut at Cape Evans. It was from there that Scott and his men launched their fateful expedition in 1911, bound for the South Pole. Packed full of artefacts that had been painstakingly restored, the detail of the place was astounding and the hut was full of memories, concentrated within the white landscape in the one wooden structure. Standing inside, the term ‘frozen in time’ took on a new meaning, but it was also a reminder that our time was coming to a close.
I was struck by the amazing light, where the shafts of sun seemed to hypnotise the dust, trapping it in limbo. That light has stayed with me as an indelible memory of my time in Antarctica and my longest day, even as the sun slides off the edge of the fridge and is gone.

Hanne Nielsen was a student on the University of Canterbury’s Postgraduate Certificate in Antarctic Studies course over the 2011/2012 Summer, run by Gateway Antarctica. Article originally published in The Ashburton Guardian. Photo: Peter Wilson

Farmyard Philosophy

At what point does a chicken on your lawn become your chicken on the lawn? This is the question we’ve been faced with in recent weeks, as a rather handsome hen has taken up residence in our driveway and made itself quite at home. While it has been strutting about our front lawn for some time, it was only last weekend that we really became properly acquainted thanks to the intervention of Mya, our dog.

Mya’s brand of dog food proudly proclaims ‘our number one ingredient is chicken!’ but knowing where your food comes from can be a painful experience, and in an altercation between pup and the chook, the bird defintely came out better off. Heading outside to an awful racket that would have made Chicken Licken proud, we found Mya on the wrong side of the hedge and the chicken nowhere to be seen. No number of dog biscuits could coax our pup back through the fence, so having retrieved her the long way round and finally ascertained the location of her escape hatch, we set about sealing off the hedge with a roll of chicken wire. Then, as we were cable tying the last section to the stake, something caught my eye. It was black, feathery, and wedged right into the passage where our puppy had been practicing her Houdini skills. Could it be the chicken?

Not having had much experience in the art of handling hens, I was not entirely sure how to go about picking it up. Approaching it from what I assumed must be behind I attempted to grasp the chook like a rugby ball, but I clearly didn’t pay enough attention in high school PE class, because my grip didn’t last long. Then again, standard issue rugby balls don’t have beaks and claws that suddenly sprout from unexpected places, and the creature I encountered certainly did. It turned out this wasn’t a headless chicken at all, but a sleeping one, and one that was very vocal in its annoyance about having been woken up. Having experienced the wrath of this chicken first hand, I can now understand why Mya was most reluctant to return through the hole in the hedge and risk another run in with the feathered beast.

These days harmony has been restored, with the chicken staking out the front yard and Mya confined to the back. In fact, I would be quite happy to wake up to the farmyard warbling if it wasn’t the symptom of a larger trend. In the past few weeks we have had several lost dogs take refuge in our garden, and dinner table talk has been turning with alarming regularity to the possibility of adopting an alpaca. When I came home to find a trademe auction for kune kune pigs open on the desktop machine, I actually had to go and check that Old MacDonald hadn’t snuck in and taken up residence in our spare room. Four legs may be good, but in the context of our current place, two legs are definitely better. The chook can stay.

Originally published in The Ashburton Guardian

Riding the Mountain

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Living in Methven has meant that I’ve got up close and personal with an awful lot more pieces of large machinery than I ever did up in Auckland, from sitting in the cab of a rutbuster to parading behind a traction engine. Last weekend was no exception, although the machines were bigger than most and the event was celebrated with fireworks, just for effect. We were up Mt Hutt to celebrate the skifield turning the big four-oh, and while the skiing was good fun, the rides at the end of the day were the icing on the cake.

First up was the Hägglunds, a machine native to Sweden and commonly found in snowy habitats. ‘Hägglunds’ is also an antonym for comfort, and one loop around the carpark was quite enough contact with a hard board seat for one day. While the yellow beast was capable of conquering impressive gradients, it harboured no pretensions of ever being promoted to lazy-boy status. Nevertheless, waving at cars as they departed and eliciting smiles from weary skiers was a great prelude to the grins that followed.

The Husky dogs were a great hit, but we had our sights set on a more modern mode of Antarctic transport – the skidoos. Complete with working headlight and ample opportunities to toss one’s hair in the wind, these snowmobiles offered the ultimate opportunity to be at one with nature through by virtue of windchill and throttle. The transformation on my friends’ faces was remarkable, from downright terrified at the beginning to smiles so beaming you could be forgiven for thinking that that fireworks had already begun to illuminate the mountainside. Whether those smiles remained frozen in place because of delight or frostbite I’m not sure, because my attention had turned to the biggest machines of all – the groomers.

As soon as the red behemoths appeared, no one had eyes for anything else, and I was no exception. Gazing up at the towering ‘Pistonbully’ lettering on the side of the machine, I felt like a seven year old whose elaborate meccano creations have suddenly sprung to life. Mum’s Volvo may be built like a tank, but a quirk that makes the speedo needle have a fit and oscillate violently between zero and 120km/h upon starting the parked vehicle just doesn’t compare to a cab with a movie screen sized window and multiple moving parts manoeuvred by what resembles an xbox control stick. It was like climbing into a 3D version of the film ‘avatar’, only with fewer blue people and more snow. It was also the only machine I’ve been in that has its own inbuilt abseiling system. Power, style and a sense of adventure… if it were to place an advert in the lonely hearts column, that groomer would be snapped up in no time.

Post rides and light show came the obligatory chorus of ‘Happy Birthday’, and while I have to admit that it was the only time I’ve ever sung greetings to a geological feature, it was also the best birthday party for a mountain that I’ve ever been to. Bring on the next decade’s worth of skifield engineering!

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

A Dog’s Life

Lying in the sun, being served dinner in bed and mucking about with a posse of good friends… it sounds like a radio station’s tropical holiday prize package, but this is the life of our dog.

When we moved into our house, we could hear the pitter patter of puppy paws long before we were joined by a canine companion. It took some getting used to the idea that we did now have space for a pet, and the square of turf that passed for a lawn in Auckland paled in comparison to the quarter acre section now at our disposal. Suddenly we had room for a proper dog, not the handbag variety. Enter Mya.

With a pup in tow, a whole new world opened up. The anchor shaped structure protruding from the wall of the local supermarket identified itself as a hitching rail for four legged friends, and we became intimately acquainted with our local stretch of the RDR, which at times resembles a canine speed dating club. Then there was the social impact. In a place where just about everyone knows everyone else, they definitely know your dog. We thought we were being mistaken for Royals for a while because of the plethora of friendly waves whenever we went out for a walk. It turns out it wasn’t blue blood that attracted the attention, but brown and white fur.

Our first outing with pup was to the A&P Show. Most city dogs in Auckland do get to see the odd sheep or cow grazing on one of the many volcanoes, but the closest they get to them is when they chow down on a slice of dog roll. Having just been picked up from Christchurch, Mya got a crash course in the full range of prizewinning stock and a stern lesson on what not to chase. Stock proofing is one thing, but traffic training our pup has proved to be a bit of a challenge in Methven, largely because of the lack of cars. A visit to Auckland went some way towards rectifying this, although after waiting a good ten minutes to cross a four lane highway, we decided it was easier to go for a walk in the park instead.

On a recent trip to Europe I observed yet another different take on dogs, with the attitude being that it was fine to take them anywhere. Sure, there were disclaimers advising owners to lift them onto the escalator and carry them into the chemist, but whether you were heading to the local café or travelling interstate on the rail network, dogs were not far away. They were, however, on leads and lacking the free range element that makes Mya’s face light up every time we take her for a run. While living in Canterbury does mean that our pup is not likely to learn to operate an elevator anytime soon, in the bigger scheme of things I don’t think she’s missing out on much. Dogs around here have got it pretty sweet.

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

Banquets and Baked Beans

Many people from England, Ireland and Scotland seem to wash up around these parts, and come winter the collective longing for a celebration to break up the cold, dark months is satisfied by ‘Mid Winter Christmas’. While we tend to associate the festive season with barbecues and beaches, apparently our northern cousins seem to think chill blains are a necessary precursor to carols.

So it was that flights were arranged, rental cars booked and place settings prepared for a South Island solstice soiree. Then came the forecast, predicting the worst storm in two decades. It seemed that Antarctica was to be the unexpected guest of honour.

For someone who considers anything below double digit temperatures to be well and truly winter, the prospect of a snow storm was both exciting and slightly scary. I diligently listened to the news and the storm advice and after picking up a shovel and gumboots I headed on down to the store to stock up on essentials. Unfortunately, it seemed like everyone else in town had the same idea, and if Old Mother Hubbard had stumbled across the bakery section that afternoon she would’ve felt quite at home. I have never seen so many posters advertising the time of the next bread deliveries, but they were quite justified as the signs imploring customers to return later seemed to be all that was keeping anarchy at bay.

Everyone had rushed for the baked goods, so bread and butter pudding was off the menu, but luckily there were still plenty of chocolate biscuits and cream for our yuletide desserts. As a bonus, Plan B was totally snow proof as it required no electricity to create. With drifts getting steadily higher outside and storm suggestions getting ever more ominous, this seemed prudent.

As it was, any worries of a power outage were energy wasted. It snowed alright, but the end result was more of a snow globe dusting than the hunker down and resort to eating rats kind of a dumping. Our guests’ planes landed, Antarctica was toasted, and everyone had a double helping of Christmas cake.

The northern hemisphere contingent felt quite at home, while those of us who hail from down under had a cultural lesson in mulled wine, Yorkshire pudding, and a festive season where the snow was not limited to the Farmers window display. As a bonus, our stocks of emergency baked beans and cabin biscuits have remained intact for next time, and judging from the look of our fridge on Sunday morning, the leftover trifle and stuffing should see us through until the next snow falls.

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

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

A Cardigan Yarn

An Irishwoman, a Scotswoman and a Kiwi lass are sitting together in a bar… it sounds like the outline of a satirical cartoon, but this was the scene last weekend when my orange cardigan had a lesson in southern socialisation. It was a new cardigan, bought a few weeks earlier during an Auckland shopping spree. Nestled between my thermals and coat, it was a bright, snuggly winter garment with thermal properties to boot, and with not a soy chai latte in sight, it was breaking into new territory.

The first lesson occurred en route to my rendezvous, when the functionality of the garment was tested by a brisk sou’wester. Having existed in a city window display up until this moment, it took a few blocks for the loose knit cardie to come into its own and actually perform its inherent thermal duties. My brisk pace and the threat of swapping it for a swanndri may have helped, as it is now aware that any high street fashion credentials fail to hold water once the temperature tumbles towards zero.

Once inside the cardigan proved itself to be a magnet for conversation, especially once the visiting rugby side turned up. Kitted out in blazers and ties like overgrown school boys, they looked set to get in some practice for the upcoming rural bachelor of the year competition. Unfortunately, the pick up lines they trotted out matched their attire. While admirably direct, they are simply not fit for publication without an R18 label, and the more benign ‘nice cardigan, did your grandmother knit it?’ just doesn’t quite cut it when delivered amidst a sea of insinuations about what may or may not be underneath. They soon went to try their luck elsewhere.

Several games of pool and an argument about the definitions of ‘jersey,’ ‘pullover’ and ‘ganzie’ later, the cardigan came up in conversation again, this time because of its hue rather than its weave. By this point we’d been joined by several kiwi friends, and the national factions that my northern hemisphere friends were happy to overlook had come to the fore. Blue and orange may be opposite colours, but they lead people to draw the same conclusions, particularly when one is honest about one’s geographic heritage. Thus, I was subjected to the first ‘jafa’ remark I’ve heard all year and my cardigan learnt that a few degrees of latitude can make an innocent choice of dye into the catalyst for inter island hostilities.

Temperature, temperament and topography all made their mark, inducting my city garment into southern life. Next time we head to the local I think I’ll settle for donning red and black in the hope of keeping both the winter cold and confectionery themed comments at bay, but the hardy cardie will live to see another day yet.

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

The Facts of Life

Living in a rural community, it’s hard to avoid the facts of life. Lambing season comes and goes, calves are reared, the stock truck heads to the meatworks and the cycle comes full circle. Over the past few weeks I have observed the circle in action, where it has had less to do with the birds and the bees and more to do with a couple of mammals with impeccable timing.

The first life-or-death incident had us getting up close and personal with a sheep, and not in the ways that Australian jokes would have you believe. We were walking along the RDR, minding out own business, when we heard a ‘Splash’, closely followed by a ‘Maaaaaaa.’ Closer inspection revealed a bundle of bleat knee high in the mud and very stuck.

We were going to have to do something – but what? Our initial efforts made it clear that pulling alone simply wasn’t going to cut it. Sheep, it turns out, are quite heavy, and a wet sheep can rival the bench press selection at any flashy Auckland gym. We needed a new tactic. Cue kiwi ingenuity 101, aka two dog leads and some cleverly applied physics. One harness contraption and two very confused dogs later, the bedraggled sheep shambled off as far away from the water as possible to dry off. Judging by the number of sheep carcasses that showed up in the RDR as the water level dropped over the next week, our sheep was one woolly mammal with a cosmic wristwatch, alright.

The second mammal I encountered, although more commonly associated with watches, was not so lucky. Instead, the hare that crossed the path of my station wagon will now be eternally late. This proved to be a bonus for my friend and I, both in terms of kudos and cuisine. While the boys were at home trying on their new waterproof gear and studying a DVD about stalking deer, we were bringing home dinner. So far our accidental hunting has proved more fruitful than any of their rugged bush walks, which suggests that the preservation instinct of the deer still trumps the carefully edited cinematography of even the best ‘How To Hunt’ video guide.

In the end you win some and you lose some, but I’ve learnt to always make the most of the situation at hand. Rural life is one big Lion King chorus, and I’m slowly getting to know some of the words.

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian