Hi Ho, Methven!

Up until last weekend I always assumed that cowboys were confined to the US Wild West and hadn’t made it past the days of black and white TV. A visit to the Methven Rodeo soon proved me wrong, and the lasso action of a plethora of men in sparkly tasselled pants meant it was an experience I won’t be forgetting in a hurry.

We entered the Rodeo to the announcer likening the bronco riding to ‘trying to sit on top of a washing machine while it’s on full load’, but the white ware similes soon gave way to more immediate concerns. As one young man scaled the interior arena fence, charging bull hot on his heels, the announcer made the astute observation that the bull’s horns were fatter than the fleeing man’s legs. As it turned out, the fence scaler was a clown, an integral part of the rodeo team. I had always associated clowns with children’s birthday parties, but the rodeo version of a man who encourages a bull to chase him was somewhat removed from the red nosed, frizzy haired childhood stalwart. As cowboy protectors and decoys for the bulls following the rider’s dismount, their job is no laughing matter.

I was also struck by how young many of the cowboys and cowgirls actually were. Open sheep riding aside, the number of teenagers who could wield a rope whilst galloping at speed was impressive. Perhaps when you have been immersed in rodeo since you were a youn ‘un (or even conceived in a horse float, as the announcer helpfully introduced one young lass) it seems like second nature, but in central Auckland piano lessons and jazz dancing are more likely to be on a child’s weekly agenda than learning techniques for dealing with errant stock, so it was certainly an eye opener.

Our eyes were kept busy in other ways too, particularly when it came to taking the range of checked shirts available in the fashion department. Big checks, little checks, checks with rhinestones, checks to match the horse’s colouring and even one brave man who sported a checked shirt without any checks at all, his bold block colour choice standing out against the dust of the arena. My thin cotton effort with roll-up sleeves was well and truly put to shame.

It may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but the Rodeo provided an excuse to pull out that cowboy hat that has been collecting dust ever since it was purchased on a whim at the $2 shop some years back. The barrel racing and bucking broncos were perfectly suited to the Mumford and Sons soundtrack, and all the proceeds go to local causes. Sure, it’s a far cry from the corner appeals on Queen Street, but the tassled outfits and muscled steeds beat the gimmicky dress-up fundraisers on the streets of Auckland any day. Hi Ho, Methven!

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

 

All Out White Out

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The annual Peak to Pub race at Mt Hutt combines all of Methven’s best known attractions: Skiing, mountain biking, the Methven Walkway, an up close and personal encounter with the RDR and of course the famous Blue pub as the finish line. Throw in a bit of pain for good measure and you’ve got the recipe for an adventure race that is sure to provide a unique perspective on the area, complete with rolling vista all the way out the sea. This year’s event provided a perspective even more unique than most: come Sunday, white out conditions meant everything outside a 5m radius had been completely erased.

This was something new for me. While I am familiar with sea fog, multisport in Auckland does not include a snow leg, ever. The dizzyingly white ski section with gravity as the only compass gave me a real appreciation for the contrast we often take for granted and gave my body a schooling in the intimate contours of Mt Hutt’s ski face.

Cue the biking leg, where the white fog rendered white knuckles invisible. There was no time to feel fear at the impressive drops to either side of the road, as staying on track with where the road was heading was quite enough. The lack of peripheral vision did have the effect of focussing one’s attention in on the little details, such as the taste of the mud, or the average size of the gravel chunks thrown up by the front wheel. Having communed with the clay and emerged in one piece, it was time to make a run for it. Battling the remnants of the last storm, we clambered over logs and sloshed our way through the stream that marked the course until we met the RDR. RDR mud with more than a hint of cattle excrement was the dogs’ favourite perfume for a good few weeks when the canals were being drained, and I tried not to think about the olfactory implications as I dived into the water.

Rural living provided some interesting moments in the lead up to the event, when a training run along this very route took me into a paddock of mama sheep and their lambs. These woolly mothers did not appreciate my presence and quickly made their distaste apparent. They may be seen most regularly on the dinner plate, dressed in mint sauce, but having seen the zombie film ‘Black Sheep’, I had no desire to find out what would happen if the tables were turned. I made a hasty retreat and ran the long way round, turning my morning jog into a full on 16km run. Who would’ve thought that livestock could replace personal trainers and provide superior motivation mid workout?

The sight of the Blue Pub and the finishing line provided plenty of motivation to summon up the last few gasps that got me over the line. Colder, wetter, whiter and at a higher latitude than any multi-race I’d done before, Peak to Pub showed me a new side to Canterbury’s alpine moods alright.

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

Grass is Always Greener

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Local body elections are underway, and a visit to Auckland revealed that in the big smoke the top agenda issues are just as contentious as any new Ashburton build. Auckland has enough bridges and tunnels to mean that any NIMBY calls drown each other out and leave another issue to take the limelight. I touched down to the fiercest grassroots dispute the city has seen in decades: The Battle of the Berms.

The council recently stopped mowing the grassy fringes in the inner city, and the change is not going down well. It’s something I hadn’t really thought that much about before seeing the headlines on every corner of Queen Street. Forget roading, the RMA and international politics, these days the grass is all everyone is talking about.

A quick stroll through any suburban neighbourhood in my home town reveals that the division lines have been drawn: half a grass verge clipped down to a number two, the other half left to toss its pollen to the wind, an instant badge of the time to house proud ratio of any given residence.

This gives me new appreciation for both the care taken in Mid Canterbury and the average size of the yards in both north and south. Down south the dream of the quarter acre section has not disappeared and a mower, rake and spade remain essential implements for any household. The number of retired farm machines with ride on capabilities, such as the machine that lives next door to us, means that communal grass is buzz cut with military precision, no civic intervention required.

The prevalence of ride on mowers is not so high in the big smoke, particularly in suburbs with high-density housing where no one has any grass to mow. Those who do have a yard often face the logistical issues of living down a shared driveway. Our old flatmates have a flymo for their modest square of foliage, but lack the abundance of extension cords required to reach past the four other houses and out to the side of the road. Their berm currently remains wild and free, much to the chagrin of certain council candidates.

As Aucklanders have just found out, now’s the time to ask the difficult questions of those standing for election. Prospective councillors’ positions on infrastructure, amenities, consents and recommended height of grass verges all come into play.

As for me, I’ll come back down South with both a new appreciation for the work of our neighours’ regular ride on mower and a renewed interest in the issues facing my current electorate. The grass is always greener in retrospect, so I will make sure to read my own local voting papers very carefully.

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

Being Blown Away

I thought I’d moved to Canterbury, not Kansas, but last Tuesday’s windstorm did its best to convince me otherwise. With winds gusting up to 250km/hr, I met the famous Nor’Wester, alright. In fact, it came barging thorough our front door without even knocking, contributing considerably to my Southern education in the process.

The first lesson was that down here it is necessary to take weather warnings much more seriously than I’m used to. The phrase ‘four seasons in one day’ is the standing forecast for Auckland, where on even the finest of blue sky days it pays to carry a raincoat ‘just in case.’ In such conditions, one just hangs out the washing once the load is done and crosses one’s fingers that the sun will come to the party. That’s what I did on Tuesday morning, which led to my sheets embarking on a very intimate relationship with the rosebush some hours later.

The second lesson was that a bicycle is not an appropriate mode of transport in 100km/hr wind gusts. As serene as Drew Barrymore looked as she sailed past the moon on her bike, the E.T. look is sure to end badly when practiced outside a Hollywood studio. Having cycled to my friend’s house shortly before the storm hit I found myself stranded there, helping to lash down outdoor furniture whilst battling constant Marilyn-Monroe moments with my skirt. The construction site fences cartwheeling down the street outside confirmed our suspicions that things were serious. The bike was stored in the shed and a car was dispatched to come to my rescue.

Later that evening, having prised apart pillowcase and plants, we were just contemplating what movie to watch – classic, action or perhaps The Wizard of Oz – when the wind joined in the debate, plunging us into darkness and forcing the romantic angle with a dinner by candlelight. It also forced us to turn back time by posing a most pressing question: how do you make microwave chocolate brownie in the absence of electricity? Use the fire, of course. Coals to the back, tray in the front, cake tin wrapped in foil on top and smoke detectors on full alert, we were ready. In fact, our makeshift oven was far less disastrous than it should have been, given that it was operated by a bunch of twenty-somethings who have always enjoyed the benefit of ‘fan bake’ and are accustomed to sourcing the majority of our recipes direct from the internet. (Lesson three for one member of our posse was that modems actually require power to work).

So, last week I learnt a thing or two about the power of the wind. Come Wednesday, twisted irrigators, upended truck and trailer units and shelterbelts lying like dominoes attested to its physical strength, but the storm also forced us to come up with the kinds of creative solutions that would make Spielberg proud.

 Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian 

Pride of the South

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If Aucklanders sip soy chai lattes in Ponsonby, the ultimate stereotype of the South has to be the Speights adverts with horses saddled up and riding off into the hills. The riverbed stretches wide in both directions while the snow capped mountains stand guard to either side, ensuring the viewer recognizes that the chill in the air makes this particular camp no boy scout jamboree. Last weekend some friends and I passed a rite of passage and became true southerners by virtue of a clydesdale horse trek that took us right into the heart of the mountains at the end of the road to a place where there was not a café in sight.

Having successfully forded three streams and arrived at Erewhon in one piece, the first challenge was climbing into the saddle. The Clydesdales looked very handsome when grazing in their paddock, but up close their overall form was eclipsed by sheer size. My head was near level with its shoulder, and even with the aid of a step stool I had to pull off some advanced yoga moves to get my leg over the steed. They never show this part in the adverts, but those Southern men must have a rigorous pilates regime before bed each night in order to cope come mustering time.

Other depictions of the terrain were true to form and we soon came across a herd of shrek-like sheep. Heavy with wool, they blended in with the sandy tussock and matagouri as they scattered out of our way. There was no handy iceberg to shear theses specimens on, but the glacier up the valley was a passable stand in and also doubles as a handy stock boundary between the station and the West coast.

I’ll admit that Mid Canterbury felt like a backwater when I first moved down from Auckland, but this took things to another level. No cell phone reception, no television, and not a chance of nipping into town for teabags after dinner should supplies run low. However, what it lacked in updates on international conflicts the station more than made up for with its rugged beauty and vast open spaces.

The river stretched wide in both directions, its lazily braided streams lulling the uninitiated into a sense of false security. This trickle is capable of swelling into a torrent in a very short space of time, and many a Sunday hunter has been caught out by an upstream downpour. Unless you’re wearing a cowboy hat and swanndri ensemble, ‘she’ll be right, mate’ is not always enough to ensure safe passage.

Luckily for us, our steeds were more than happy to go for a paddle and the trusty four-hoof drives carried us to the other side and up the ridge, where we hitched them to a fence post to have a breather. Then all that remained was to enjoy a cold one in the midst of the legendary landscape. There’s an awful lot to be proud of down South, alright.

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

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

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!

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