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

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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

Aussie Aussie Aussie, Sheep Sheep Sheep

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

On Socks and Togs

Mum recently came down from Auckland for a winter holiday, suitcase of thermals in tow. Following her frigid experience over Christmas, and having equated pictures of the ski field with out back yard, she was prepared for a real polar blast.  There were skivvies and long johns galore, gloves, slippers and a possum hat – and one pair of socks.

Small and unassuming, those monogamous stalwarts of the wardrobe are often overlooked. Not to worry, a visit to the store soon turned up a pair of magnificently fluffy socks, ‘complete with a tog rating of 2.5’. A tog rating? Yes, tog – the garish label was most insistent. Despite our initial incredulity about this supposed SI unit, we were sold on entertainment value alone.

As for the validity of the claim, our Scottish friend was quick to put us right: tog is a measure of thermal insulation, often used to indicate how well a duvet retains the warmth. In Scotland, where insulation is not a foreign concept, people pay attention to such details.  (They also double glaze their windows and shy away from building single ply weatherboard houses, but that’s another story…) This new definition of ‘tog’ was duly filed away for future trivia nights.

We had a different take on the ‘tog’: up in the North Island, where even July is balmy, togs are for swimming. We did stop off at the hot pools to give our swimsuits their moment in the limelight, but it was the newly discovered type of tog that had us in its grip. There was only one thing for it – we had to pay a visit to the sock factory in Ashburton to find out more. To get any closer to the source of the knitted footwear that graces stores throughout New Zealand, you’d have to head out into the paddock and tackle a sheep.

The local sock factory is something special. Socks of all colours and styles abound, from brightly coloured technical ski socks through to premium dress socks that would look at home on the red carpet of a world premiere – and they were all toasty warm. Mum’s frosty feet had never had so much choice. Neither had Santa Claus – my sisters don’t know it yet, but St Nick is now well stocked up, and their stockings are likely to be filled with stockings for years to come. As for us, we all headed out to the Sunday night quiz togged up in our glad rags and sporting brand new snuggly socks.

For socks that have walked right the way across Spain and carried Ironman racers over the finish line, the trip back to Auckland safely stowed away in the hand luggage compartment must have seemed quite tame. Still, mum’s new socks can bask in the knowledge that not only are they providing a valuable heat retaining service for the extremities, but the story that led to their purchase might one day mean the difference between 3rd and 4th place in a local pub quiz. That’s some power, alright.

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

Big Things a Small Town Thing

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Let’s face it – anyone who claims ‘size doesn’t matter’ has never been on a tour of New Zealand’s small towns or taken the time to appreciate the presence that a 10m high fish can bestow on the gateway to a district. NZ has a penchant for oversize sculptures; there is even a Wikipedia page dedicated ever so eloquently to ‘New Zealand’s Big Things.’ This week’s unveiling of the new NZ Post stamp collection confirms this obsession, with said sculptures taking pride of place in the ‘Legendary Landmarks’ collection. Mid Canterbury has not been forgotten, as the Rakaia Salmon enjoys pride of place on an 80c stamp.

The salmon is indeed a well-known symbol of Rakaia – perhaps the most well known, even. Forget any other logistical claims to fame (longest bridge, anyone?) – the fish is photogenic, and in an age governed by the law of ‘pics or it didn’t happen,’ posing is paramount. As far as giant sculptures go, a jumping salmon is actually a pretty good choice of subject; it’s difficult to imbue a statue of a carrot or a gumboot with dynamic energy. A fish in motion, however, makes for hilarious holiday snapshots as everyone piles out of the car and tries to emulate the aquatic leap.

As well as advertising the local specialty or claim to fame, these sculptures announce that we are, without a doubt, in New Zealand. In fact, large sculptures in small towns are so ubiquitous here that I can actually trace my heritage by them: Mum and Dad met in the vicinity of the L&P bottle in Paeroa, and Grandad’s clan are from the vicinity of the Cromwell peach. They permeate the geography of my childhood too; there is Tirau, where the giant sheep and sheep dog combination (aka the information centre) was a favourite stop, while my sisters and I used to talk about the time we went to the town with the big kumara (more commonly referred to as Dargaville). Since moving down South, the trend has continued. Road trips have been punctuated with stops to admire giant horses, donuts, and of course the nemesis of the Rakaia Salmon, the Trout of Gore.

Salmon trumped trout this time around in the ‘iconic’ stakes, and NZ Post’s ‘Legendary Landmarks’ collection will see the symbol of Rakaia posted all over the globe. The stamps will act as “little postcards”, taking a big part of a small town out into the world at large – Auckland included. Sure, my hometown has tall towers and a sprawling scale, but when it comes to super-sized sculptures the city is sorely lacking. It seems that ‘big things’ are a small town thing, after all.

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

A Winter’s Tale

Winter but where is the snow

The weather forecast may not have received the memo, but according to the calendar, winter is now upon us. Usually such a season would be heralded by bone chilling temperatures and soul warming Mid Winter dinners to celebrate the solstice. In Methven there is another way to tell the season, without resorting to a thermometer or the date. The amount of gaudy Gore-Tex on display is a prime indicator of the highly scientific ‘ski index’ – the more saturated the town is in Burton snow clothing, the surer you can be that it must be winter.

Methven is a seasonal town, and that’s one of the things that makes it stand out for me as something different. Auckland is a clock city, where the days tick by and collect into months and years without any major milestones to mark the seasons. Sure, it rains more in winter, but as for snow… well, the one occasion when a flurry of flakes almost landed on the CBD is now related in the hushed tones of myth.

Here, snow is the lifeblood. When people talk about ‘the mountain’ no one needs to clarify which peak is in question. The first time we visited Methven, we arrived in the midst of the winter bustle. There were people on the streets, the takeaway joints were open until 8:30 at night, and the locals were grumpy. They had to queue for their groceries and were not guaranteed a park right outside the shop. Coming from Auckland, we didn’t know what the fuss was about. Having to wait behind 2 people at Supervalue was nothing compared to rush hour at any inner city supermarket.

This year, I think I finally understand. Having over-summered in Methven, I am more attuned to the seasonal changes in the town. As the days grow shorter, the queues do grow longer, and the cosmopolitan mix of the region becomes more audible. Visitors bring their skis and enthusiasm, but also their own cultural expectations, and it can take a while to adjust. For the first time I was alert to the moment when dress codes shift, and wearing gumboots to the pub (even if they are fancy, styled, neoprene gumboots) puts you in the minority. People in fluffy huts and ski jackets start trickling in one by one, until one Thursday the balance is tipped in favour of neon parkas. From there, if you’ll forgive the pun, things just snowball.

Don’t get me wrong, as soon as those Antarctic blasts start playing ball and deliver some fresh powder to the hills I’ll be up there with the best of the beanie wearers. Still, it’s been interesting to watch a seasonal town wake up as it ramps up towards the snow. Now all we need is for the white stuff to take heed of the ‘ski index’, and then there will be no question that winter is indeed upon us, once and for all.

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

Give a Dog A Bone

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The other day a friend mentioned that he had a bone for our dog. Like most pooches, our pup enjoys a good chew on cartilage and canon bones every now and then. Last time we were up in Auckland we stopped by the butcher to grab a few off-cuts, and the fist-sized chunks kept pup busy all holiday. We smiled, said thank you for the offer, and were on our merry way.

By the time we arrived home, our friend was nowhere to be seen, but he’d left a calling card that was hard to miss: one dead cow in the middle of the lawn. The carcass was midway between the dog run and the washing line, positioned like a garden sculpture, which, had it actually been more avant garde, would no doubt have been entitled ‘Lady Gaga’s Coat Hanger.’

If Carrie Bradshaw wannabes in the big smoke are said to desire a walk in wardrobe in which to store their hundreds of pairs of business stilettos, this was the canine equivalent. The cavernous ribs dwarfed the dog for whom it was intended, and she could walk in alright. In fact, once she’d done so we didn’t see her for another three days. This was actually the closest she’d ever come to anything that moos – usually she’s off in the other direction at the slightest whiff of a cowpat – but she more than made up for lost time.

The arrival of the cow also turned out to be a great lesson in anatomy for pup, but not in the scholarly vein. Instead, she slowly learnt that her eyes are bigger than her stomach – slow being the operative word. In the end we had to relegate the cow to inside the dog run and the dog to outside, in the interests of stopping our pet’s tum from ballooning out any further. One bite more and we would’ve been in real danger of losing her as she drifted up into the wide blue of a Canterbury sky.

Coming from the city, Methven remains the only place I know where a friend dropping off a ‘dog treat’ means you come home to find a dead cow in the garden. It is also one of the few places where such behaviour is considered socially acceptable. Up in Auckland, carcasses stay firmly out of sight. Dog treats come from New World and are no longer associated with the original animal, nor with the cuts of meat the beast provided for human consumers. Down here things are much more open, for better or for worse. One may question whether all this talk of death might be a bit much for a vegetarian ex-Aucklander to stomach, but I’m still leaning towards the former. The cow was definitely fresh, and we’ll not be needing any more dog bones for a good while yet.

Originally published in The Ashburton Guardian

A Taste to Call Your Home

In recent weeks there has been much discussion about what Mid Canterbury is like for newcomers. Auckland is no Asia or Africa, but the being new part is something that resonates, wherever you have moved from. It can be hard to start a life in a new location, as distance sees differences in attitudes, habits and cultures loom out of proportion. From shopping hours to the foods available in said shops, there is much to adjust to.

Sometimes you have to go far away from the familiar in order to be able to see of what those adjustments might consist. I first found out what it is like to be different when visiting family in Denmark. My (then) blonde hair and blue eyes went down well, right up until I opened my mouth. It’s often said that when people speak Danish it sounds like they have a hot potato in their mouth, but apparently my potato was a Dargaville kumara because all I got back were puzzled brows and the polite suggestion that perhaps I should try again, in English. Soon after that it became apparent that I had a real taste for Marmite, and my citizenship was revoked with immediate effect. (The spread is not approved for human consumption under local laws, while the immigration minister at the time pointed to any weakness for the salty black stuff as proof of questionable national allegiance: no Dane could ever stand the stuff).

Getting fired from Denmark was hard, as a tangible link to my heritage was amputated with a single official letter. It took away a sense of belonging, but at the same time it made me take note of the many small and forgotten ways I belong to New Zealand. There’s the taste for yeast spreads, the pride in prize-winning A&P show produce, and the unmistakable ‘Nuzild’ twang. And yet, down here I still don’t qualify as a local.

When I arrived in Ashburton I was told very matter of factly that people either stayed for 3 years or more than 30. While this statistic is unlikely to have passed through a rigorous peer reviewed process, it’s an interesting anecdote about how long it can take to find your place as get to know the one you’re living in. Three years may not sound like much, but it’s the same amount of time many devote to studying at universities up and down the country. After 3 years, surely newcomers deserve a certificate too: Degree in Midcantabrian Studies, signed by two locals who have roads named after their families or recognize Hakatere as their tūrangawaewae.

That graduation could also be a way to facilitate conversation between new and old. It is often easier to meet foreigners or people who are new to a place than those who have been in the area for many years and live deep in the maze of their day to day lives and habits. Being new to a place has many advantages, as outsiders’ eyes often see everyday things from a new perspective. Certificates or not, a little openness, a friendly smile and a thin spread of Marmite can go a long way towards carving a place called home in the midst of a landscape of firsts, that’s for sure.

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

DIY Lumberjacks

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I recently arrived back in Methven to crisp autumn days, chilly nights and the first roaring hearth of the season. With kindling stocks running low, I was also just in time for the annual wood chopping chore. Usually that means getting outside with the axe and settling in for the long haul, devoting many hours to the solitary company of the rhythmic swing. Not this year, though: Inspired by the lumberjack events at the A&P show we decided to make an event of straightening out our own pile. Up went the marquee, in came the log splitter, on went the checked shirts and gumboots and we were ready to rumble.

First up was the safety demonstration. Lesson number one: Under no circumstances is it a good idea to reach under the blade of the log splitter to turn the machine on or off. Lesson number two: As long as you keep lesson number one in mind, you should be sweet as.

From there on in, we were like a team of worker bees: lifting, cutting, stacking, and repeat. The wheelbarrow was a welcome addition to our arsenal of arm power, but only short lived: once a certain member of our party realised how comfortable it was to sit in, it was repurposed into an artistic piece of garden furniture, right beside the brazier. The brazier was, of course, kept burning the entire day, with the logs that were prematurely sacrificed acting as the equivalent of the batter that doesn’t quite make it into the cake tin.

Of course, traditional kiwi snacks were a must – cue the green onion flavour chips and Louise Cake. Buttered scones were an oversight, but the spirit of Monty Python was kept alive by playing the lumber jack song at full volume whilst replenishing our strength.

The wood got cut alright, but the events of the day have made an impression that is sure to last longer than our neatly stacked rows of pine: it made me really appreciate the friendships we have formed since living in Mid Canterbury. Their generous help meant the task was done in a fraction of the time we expected, and the banter throughout made for an event that rivalled any A&P exhibit in the fun stakes. While our Auckland mates might laugh at the idea of a wood chopping party with a gumboots dress code, it’s an experience I wouldn’t swap for a dozen inner city heat pumps.

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

South and South-er

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This week I find myself writing from a location that is far further south than I ever bargained for when I moved to the Mainland. Forget Canterbury’s balmy 43 degree latitude:  these days I have become intimately acquainted with the Antarctic Circle, thanks to a summer stint lecturing on a cruise ship that is South Pole bound.

Now, I’m no stranger to sea air. Auckland is the city of sails, with harbours and islands galore, and the one thing I have missed most whilst living in Methven is the ocean. Getting on board a ship that spends four out of ten days out of sight of any land appears to be the perfect antidote to any salty cravings I may have experienced whilst living in the mountains.

Nevertheless, living in a ski resort town has primed me well for Antarctica in several regards. First, the snow. Winters in Methven have toughened me up enough to be able to face icebergs with pluck and only one pair of gloves, purchased from Four Square at the end of the ski season. It’s been great to get up and personal with the kind of tabular icebergs on which our local ovine hero Shrek was shorn some years back. Not even sub zero temperatures can detract from the delight I gain from seeing guests’ faces when I tell them this anecdote from my homeland.

Secondly, wide open spaces. Both Antarctica and the South Island are renowned for their photogenic nature and their wide uninhabited expanses. Down here there is a distinct lack of sheep, famous or not, but the glacial valleys are reminiscent of an icier version of the Milford Sounds. The seals that lounge around their fringes more than make up for any woolly deficit: with several million such seals to a human population that numbers in the thousands, they far outdo the efforts of their four legged friends in the mammal to man ratio.

Thirdly, living in a small community. When I first moved down from Auckland I could not have imagined living in a town of 1000 people. Working on board a ship with just over 100 staff, a four digit population count starts to sound like the busiest of bustling metropolises. Having visited several Antarctic Bases where the tour of duty exceeds two years and the population count barely makes double figures, I have come to appreciate the new blood that floods into our area with each new ski season. Our small town will never seem small in quite the same way again.

I’ve swapped sheep for shags and pigs for penguins as I get up close and personal with the source of our biting southerly winds, but I would not swap this experience for the world. There are so many new sights and sounds to experience every day, from breaching humpback whales to the unmistakably fishy smell of penguin guano. Heading south off the map to a place where the sea and the mountains come together under snow has put life back home in perspective and made me appreciate both latitudes all the more.

Originally published in The Ashburton Guardian