Cartography of a Country

New Zealand is routinely cut off the right hand edge of maps of the world, cast adrift in the space outside the frame that is usually home to Antarctica, occasionally Tasmania, and not much else. Sure, it irks, but it’s not only illustrators in faraway countries that make such erasures. To see why, we need only look a little closer to home.

Ask the average New Zealander on the street how many islands New Zealand is made up of and they’re likely to say two – North and South. Press a little further, and Stewart Island might just nudge in as the third, depending on how much attention the person paid to school geography lessons, and whether or not they have ever actually travelled south of the Bombay hills. And yet, there is so much more to our shores than just the big three (or big two-and-a-half – sorry Rakiura).

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Take the Chatham Islands, for instance. Marooned 800km to the east of mainland New Zealand, they are mostly spared a thought only at the end of the national weather forecast (and, of course, the forecast is almost invariably for rain). They may be in their own timezone 45 minutes ahead of the rest of us, but they support the All Blacks just as fervently. Then there are the many sub-Antarctic islands to the south that are home to a host of Southern Ocean wildlife and not much else. Still, their frigid peaks and windswept shores belong on our maps, even if they do account for less than 1% of New Zealand’s total area and most commonly appear as obstacles on maritime charts.

Many mid Cantabrians are familiar with maps of another sort, namely the topographical variety that are routinely packed for hunting and hiking trips up into the hills. That’s another side of the country that is often overlooked – quite literally, in the case of international travellers flying out of Christchurch. The deep valleys and towering peaks, the glacier faces and steep slopes of scree all gather neatly to order beneath the orange lines and ordered type of a Mercator Projection rendering. How many other people will summit that mountain or camp out beneath that ridge? The further into the backcountry you get, the more select the numbers become. For those who make the effort, it’s something pretty special.

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

Human experiences, narratives and histories are what make a place, but our selective cropping also makes certain places invisible. Next time you’re considering an overseas holiday because you’ve “seen it all” back home, it might pay to think twice. That, and buy a more detailed map.

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Tourism Under The Radar

Skippers Canyon

What do a record-breaking fleece, up-cycled wardrobes and Paradise have in common? All featured on the off-the-beaten-track itinerary when my mother and I headed out on a South Island road trip last week to explore some little-known Otago gems. Domestic tourism is often underrated – when Hawaiian sunshine beckons, the rain of the west coast or the sandflies of the Routeburn track find it hard to compete. Persevere with New Zealand though, and it’s surprising what kinds of unique oddities are waiting just to make your day.

The highlight of our trip had to be Tarras, home of the most famous sheep in New Zealand. After being discovered encased in a recSHrekord-breaking 24kg fleece, Shrek was received by the Prime Minister, toured around A&P Shows, authored a book, and even visited Antarctica (sort of). Visit the ‘House of Shrek’ and you’ll find a giant display that pays homage to the sheep that was shorn on an iceberg. There are shots of the sheepy crampons, newspaper clippings about the berg itself, and even the fleece that was clipped on the icy hunk. Shrek passed away in 2011, and his taxidermied fleece is due to go on display in Wellington’s Te Papa at the end of this month. Still, the two picture books and full-length illustrated biography of the sheep that weighed down my luggage on the way home mean his story will stay alive in our household for years to come.

This was a road trip, so having scoped out Tarras we hit the tarmac and headed for Wanaka. No visit to the resort town would be complete without a stop at the inland cousin of our own local centre for pre-loved bric-a-brac: Wastebusters. While we had no pressing need for doors or a pre-loved exercycle, we did spend hours perusing the books, and came away with both strange looks and some real treasures.

When you go on tour with a librarian, books feature highly on the agenda. My excitement at the Shrek displays and ‘wasties’ was rivalled only by my mum’s delight at finding a collection of children’s books by boutique NZ publisher Gecko Press in Glenorchy, on the very border to Paradise. They even had a title about a sheep: the sale was inevitable, but also for a good cause. Mum’s running ‘sheep week’ at her Auckland library to bring a taste of Tarras to the townies.

New Zealand’s an exciting place to explore, but staying at a hostel we became attractions in our own right: in the sea of foreign voices it was a novelty to meet a real life kiwi. We had great fun plotting local out-of-the-way treasures onto torn out pages of tourist maps and sending the visitors off for a taste of real New Zealand, the way we’ve come to know it – Shrek and all. Next time your annual leave beckons, don’t forget there are always more obscure sheep museums and second-hand bookstores to discover in your own (national) back yard!

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

Aussie Aussie Aussie, Sheep Sheep Sheep

shrek

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

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

Defenders of the Urban Jungle

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One drizzly Thursday night we were at home, curled in front of the fire watching prime time TV, when I had an epiphany: not everything you see on TV is true. While this may seem obvious to the point of obsoleteness, seeing the way my home town is portrayed to the rest of the country really hammered the point home.

First up was Police 10-7, featuring the story of a man found wandering on the motorway with a road cone on his head for ‘safety’. It is important to note that this is not the usual behaviour of the Aucklanders in their native habitat, but one specific to a sub breed of city dwellers known as ‘Westies.’ A David Attenborough-style comment to this effect would have made this segment much more educationally accurate.

Next up was motorway patrol, 30 minutes of the most spectacular incidents involving flying cars, motorists giving false details and the epic saga of the dog on the motorway. In Methven a wandering dog is an everyday sight, but not so in Auckland. Motorways typically boast 3 lanes of traffic in both directions, and in comparison to Canterbury roads they are remarkable for their lack of wandering livestock. Hence an entire segment was devoted to the Houdini hound, with several squad cars dispatched to herd it to safety. Just to clarify, this is not normal practice. We do have dog control up north, and our boys in blue are usually preoccupied reminding the populous they should ‘always blow on the pie’ to tend to AWOL animals.

Just in case such light hearted stories were starting to give the wrong impression of Auckland as a relatively safe place where people are concerned with animal welfare and the safety of bogans, these humourous snippets were interspersed with images of hardened criminals on the loose. Assaults, murders and various other criminal acts were outlined to remind the viewer of the dangers of everyday life in the Big Smoke. (It’s not that bad, honest!) The end result of these shows was that gridlock has never appeared so riveting – I can assure you that the excitement factor quickly dwindles after waiting 45 minutes to reach your off ramp less than 2km up the road.

Just as native city dwellers think of the Southern Isles as a giant diary paddock spotted with the odd Hobbit set, this TV line up would have viewers believe that Auckland is a dangerous metropolis, bustling with speedsters and potential criminals just waiting for their 15 minutes of fame on Police 10-7. There is definitely more to Auckland than fodder for cop shows like motorway patrol, but sometimes it is good to be reminded that pies can be hot.

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

Boarding Call (2009)

My Wörterbuch, my kiwi flag,
Socks and sandals, just like Dad,
My summer dress, my lightweight cardi,
Photos from my leaving party,
Names and addresses of distant rellies,
Marmite to treat homesick bellies,
My bulging backpack, my hiking socks,
Pineapple lumps, combination locks,
Camera, notebook, sunscreen, togs,
Glenn Colquhoun’s book ‘Playing God’,
My tiki T-shirt, student ID,
Presents for all my friends-to-be,
Toothbrush, toothpaste, dental floss,
Metro Mag for all the goss,
My passport and my boarding passes,
My crayola felt tip washable markers,
St Christopher necklace from my mates,
Instructions to the boarding gates,
My optimism, my trepidation,
My welling pride in my home nation.

On Penguins and Polar Bears

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New Zealand, or ‘Godzone’, is often characterized by its plusses: rivers, forests, beaches and birdlife. It can also be defined by its lacks: no snakes, bears or hungry predators out to get you every time you head bush. There is no bush to speak of in Antarctica, but it shares some similar traits: provided you don’t freeze to death, fall down a crevasse, or get on the wrong side of a hungry leopard seal, it is fairly safe as well.

Penguins are the epitome of the benign wildlife of the south. Dressed like little waiters and sporting the IQ of your average chicken, they are synonymous with the South Pole and have been used to promote everything from open source software to salt and vinegar ships. We encountered several varieties on our trip, each with their own quirks and customs.

Adelies look like they have had five cups of coffee too many, constantly darting left and right with a slightly crazed look in their glassy eyes. These are the downtown commuters of the ice, making their way to the edge of the bergs in packs that resemble crowds on a railway platform, then spilling into ocean en mass, mirroring the five pm office exodus.

Gentoo penguins are somewhat larger, with white patches over their eyes that resemble chic noise-cancelling headphones. They could do with such accessories too, as their call has the timbre of braying donkeys. During the summer months much of the cacophony comes from the chicks, triangular fluffballs with bottomless stomachs that are constantly pestering their parents for a feed.

You can see the penguins, you can hear the penguins, but what the postcards and nature documentaries don’t tell you is that the birds could do with an industrial-scale drenching in coco chanel. In short, they stink. The guano combination of fish and krill that coats the rocks throughout the rookeries can be seen from afar and smelt from even further.

This aroma did not deter early scientists from getting up close and personal with the wee waddlers. The ‘Fit for a FID’ cookbook details researchers’ recipes from the 1950s, and has a whole section dedicated to penguins. The author prefaces the section with the admission that ‘when cooking penguin, I have an awful feeling inside of me that I am cooking little men who are just that little too curious and stupid.’ These days penguin is off the menu, and we photograph penguin nests instead of devouring penguin breasts. Nevertheless, some people come up with interesting new ways of communing with the colonies. Turning around to find two human-sized penguins posing with their Lilliputian relatives was a surprise, to say the least.

Antarctica is much more than penguins and photo opportunities, but no trip south would be complete without a mention of both. Sure, if you lie still photographing the penguins for long enough a southern giant petrel may decide you resemble a tasty snack, but at least there are no roaming polar bears to finish you off. In that respect, it’s just like home after all.

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