An Antarctic Address Book

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The Southern continent has been making its mark on New Zealand of
late, with snow falling low into the Canterbury foothills on the end
of an Antarctic breeze.

In the past few weeks I have had a taste of what it is like to live
even further south, thanks to our guided tours of several Antarctic
research stations: China’s year round Great Wall Station, Argentina’s
Almirante Brown summer base, and the British museum of Port Lockroy.
Despite the geographical distance, there are more similarities between
such stations and my house in Methven than you might think.

Otherwise known as ‘The Penguin Post Office’, Port Lockroy is one of
the most known tourist sites on the Antarctic Peninsula. Built in 1944
as part of a secret wartime military operation, it was then used by
British scientists up until the 1960s.

These days it acts as a museum, illustrating what life was like in
Antarctica half a century ago. On my first visit I was surprised to
see that the Esse coal stove in the kitchen was identical to the one
in our kitchen at home. While everyone else was oohing and aahhing
over the antique appliance and muttering about the chilly draft, I was
quietly impressed by the place. Compared to a weatherboard house from
1925, the hut was rather cosy.

Great Wall Station was much better insulated, with buildings built on
stilts to resist the buildup of winter ice. The large blue building in
the middle of the complex was reminiscent of the Blue Pub, although
the station’s population would not have filled our local bar. The
summer maximum of 40 inhabitants suddenly made all the rural
settlements in our area seem like bustling metropolises.

There are now over 60 research bases in Antarctica, with the peninsula
being the most populated area. It takes a special kind of person to
spend a whole year in Antarctica, let alone two or more. At our visit
to Brown Station we saw evidence of what happens when you put the
wrong sort of person in such an environment: the charred remains of
the original 1984 base are courtesy of the station doctor. When told
he would be required for a second winter season, he promptly burnt the
place down to ensure a ride out of there. Luckily we have State
Highway One heading through Ashburton, so if the going gets really
tough, there is always the option of taking an excursion to the Big
Smoke.

Down here in Antarctica we’ve enjoyed tea with the Chinese, strong
black coffee with the Argentinians, and admired the English Esse, but
I really am looking forward to a steaming mug of milo on my return.
There are many different places to visit, but there really is no place
like home.

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

A Frosty Reception

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So far I’ve enjoyed the South Island so much that I’ve decided to take things to a new level. I’m heading as far South as possible, to a place that makes Invercargill look positively tropical: Antarctica is in my sights.

When my partner first suggested I return to the frozen continent, my first response was ‘am I really that terrible to live with?’ As it turns out, I had been bringing it up rather often in conversation, so he thought it must be time for a fix in order to allow other topics to penetrate the sphere of scintillating dinner time talk every now and then.

It wasn’t always this way. A few years ago, my contact with Antarctica consisted of little more than wrestling with the part of the blow up globe where you put the bung in. Since moving to the South Island that has changed. On my first flight from Auckland to Christchurch I found myself sitting next to an Alaskan cook who was en route to McMurdo Station to work for the summer, and he was just the first of many people I’ve come across who have an Antarctic connection. There’s the husky dog driver whose father used to be a dog handler at Scott Base, the anesthetist who also does summer jaunts South as a doctor on tourist vessels from Bluff, and the engineering student who spent a summer restoring Scott’s hut at Cape Evans (As it turns out, he was also neighbours with my partner’s Godmother in Timaru – but that’s New Zealand for you). Having spent a summer studying the continent at Canterbury University, I was well and truly hooked.

Canterbury has strong Antarctic ties, with the United States Antarctic Programme (USAP) basing its South Pole logistics out of the city, and their off casts often found in surplus stores. My man’s distinctive red USAP jacket is not the only one in town, as we found out last June when we ran into his doppelganger on the main street of Methven. Perhaps they should have headed through the snow-clogged streets for a beverage together at the aptly named ‘Shackleton’s Bar and Grill’?

Right now it’s the wrong time of year for snow and ice: All the window dressers have scrubbed of the fake snowflakes to make room for the cheeping birds that symbolize Easter and Spring, bang on the dot of Autumn. Still, last year’s ski season has reawakened a hunger for the cold that not even a raft of unseasonal southerlies can sate. (Said southerlies have meant that my ‘Antarctic’ tomato plant, which is suited to colder weather, has done very well over Christmas…)

So, as I write this I find myself Southward bound – again – but the latest experience has taught me that there’s nothing to shy away from, only millions of moments (and perhaps an old neighbour alongside the odd penguin) gathering at ever-higher altitudes and waiting to be discovered.

Originally published in The Ashburton Guardian

A Merry Mainland Christmas

‘Tis the season to be jolly, bake Christmas cookies and prepare for an influx of visitors from the North Island. This year my parents and sisters are all coming down to Canterbury for Christmas, so as well as having to leave a reminder note for Santa in our letterbox, I’ll have a chance to show my family around this part of the country. Putting together the itinerary for our first southern family Christmas, I realised how many amazing places I’ve visited over the course of the past year: Hills, rivers, ski runs, and all manner of shows. Ten days suddenly seemed short in the face of all the activity possibilities.

While my nearest and dearest will miss the annual A&P festivities, my certificate for third place tomatoes in the Methven Show still has pride of place in the middle of the fridge some 9 months later.  Complemented with a good helping of salad greens from my garden, that should reinforce to them the agricultural nature of my new abode. If not, there’s always the agricultural centre in Methven, and plenty of machinery out in the paddocks so my visitors can practice their newfound ability to distinguish a spreader from a windrower.

Once outside, it makes sense to head for the hills. Given that one of my sisters has only ever been to Ashburton and Invercargill, a little high country hiking couldn’t hurt her perceptions of all the delights the Mainland entails. Then there’s always a visit to Erewhon, home of work horses and southern-man vistas. The last time the streets of Auckland saw horse drawn carriages was back in the days when the world was black and white, so heading up in the hills for a wagon ride, free from the scourge of honking horns and endless traffic lights, is sure to be something new.

Then there’s Mt Hutt, where many a weekend was spent this winter, learning to defy gravity and remain upright on the slopes of snow. Thanks to the hemisphere and the season, skiing is not an option right now, but mountain biking could provide a similar summer thrill if my family are daring enough. Alternatively, there are the rivers to explore. We dared to take a ride up the gorge in the Rakaia jet gorge earlier in the year, and the sights it yielded were the stuff of geologists’ dreams, rich with sediment layers and glacial moraine. They also convinced me for the first time that the postcards at the local Four Square are not photoshopped after all, despite the luminous turquoise of the water.

This part of New Zealand has expanded my vocabulary of blues significantly, thanks both to the natural environment, and to the range of exhibitions at the Ashburton Art Gallery that have captured that environment from so many different perspectives. My mother is a children’s librarian, so a visit to the gallery’s David Elliot exhibition, complete with all the original illustrations from the picture book ‘Henry’s Map,’ is sure to make her day.

There will be no beaches and no malls with crowds to throng through come yuletide eve, but I have a feeling this southern Christmas will really be one for my whole family to remember. Season’s Greetings, everyone!

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

Quardle oodle ardle wardle DUCK

Allenton residents are familiar with the problem, which has now been impacting upon their letterboxes as well: the magpies that have been attacking the local posties pose yet another threat to our endangered postal system. Unfortunately for our trusty team in red, magpies have very good memories and they attack the same people again and again. If you get on the wrong side of one of those flying missiles, you’d better have eyes on the back of your head.

Last week I had first hand experience of the problem whilst out for a jog. Apparently the birds don’t differentiate between those wearing red and those wearing pink, because from the moment I turned the corner they had me firmly in their sights. Next came the ominous ‘whoosh’ of a kamikaze magpie under the influence of gravity, followed by a flash of claw. That was enough to convince my tired legs that actually they belonged to Usain Bolt and were taking part in a very important race. As a result of this impressive burst of athletic prowess, I can confirm that magpies are much better motivators than any iPod track or personal trainer. In fact, based on the results of my one off and highly scientific study, magpie escape training could well form the basis of the next exercise fad, leaving zumba and cross training in its wake.

You do, however, need to ensure you have a good technique before taking part in this adrenaline fuelled cardio programme. Like any sport, this takes practice. Running down the street waving hands in the air may not look particularly becoming, but it is a natural response to try to keep beaks and talons away from cheeks and ears. A little googling reveals this is also the worst possible response. Instead, it is necessary to remain calm, don your ice cream container helmet as protective headgear, and vacate the vicinity of the fluffy foe.

Sports related injuries may make up the bulk of recreational claims, but according to an ACC spokeswoman, there have been 15 magpie-related injuries lodged with ACC in the last 2 years. Thanks to a serendipitous attack, we now have the opportunity to combine the two. With a little practice, we might even be able to take on an aussie team as well as the aussie bird.

As we know, there is no black and white solution to the magpie issue. Eradicate them? Avoid them? Use them as a sporting supplement to enhance future performance? This is no 80 minute on-pitch battle, but an ongoing exercise at surviving the siege. Don your trainers and watch your back, because as Glover’s poem suggests, the magpies are here to stay.

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

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

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 

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!

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