The Longest Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anthology of Twentieth Century New Zealand Poetry

‘Happy Birthday Jenny’
and the anonymity of
penciled thoughts
in the margin

1970: ‘man was immortal’,

they say

71: ‘everything that takes place in time
also takes place in eternity’

Seventeen today
And you’re all grown up,

Baxter (James K) in the pocket
‘Elegy for an Unknown Soldier’ on your lips
As if that proves it

Another year older
(another year wiser?)

‘I too have destroyed a city’
you declare, defiantly
defacing the margins
in your practiced, penciled scrawl
so sure
so assured.

Later, flicking through Dallas, through Ireland, through Stead,
You wonder what it feels like to die

morbid?
inevitable? Perhaps,
But for now, forever seems a long way off.

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!

Banquets and Baked Beans

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

Piggyback Prowess

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When a Topp Twin offers you the chance to shoulder a 45kg boar around an obstacle course, there can only really be one answer. At last weekend’s Mid Canterbury hunting competition, that answer was yes. Off came the floral jumper, on came ‘Horace’ the pig, and we were off.

Wearing a boar as a backpack certainly gives new meaning to the term ‘piggy back’. It’s also a darn sight harder than it looks, as I found out at the first turn. I was all set to go around the corner. Horace, it seems, had other plans, and momentum was on his side. After going very wide we struggled up the hill and down the straight to the halfway mark and around the cone. So far, so good. Falling to my knees on the brow of the final hill, I momentarily disappeared inside of Horace, but a pat on the nose saw him get back into line and we crossed the finish in the second fastest time, complete with several more bruises than we’d started out with.

I was surprised to learn that this was not a one off event, but one that youngsters begin training for before they are even old enough to say ‘Captain Cooker’. The precursor to the ladies event had seen a host of small children running round a miniature obstacle course with a dead wallaby or hare slung over their shoulders. They get them started on pest control young down this way, that’s for sure.

It was also the first time that I had seen camouflage gear in action. Boys who wear a mottled print around town tend to stand out more than anything else, but at this hunting competition the number of people sporting khaki hunting and fishing clothing made it appear as if a forest had suddenly taken root in the hotel car park. If it wasn’t for the coffee cart line spoiling the forest ambience, the deer and tahr could’ve still been at home in the hills.

While they were not green, my gumboots and thermals were put to good use, helping me to blend in amongst the crowd. Then came prizegiving. The question ‘where are you from’ is usually quite benign, and when the reply is Hinds or Hakatere, people are not likely to bat an eyelid. My answer of Auckland, however, caused a collective intake of breath so sharp that I wouldn’t be surprised if it affected the air pressure enough to show up on the national weather radar. What was the world coming to when an Aucklander could out piggyback everyone but an Irish vet?

As shocked as my mother may be by my latest sporting prowess, at least I can confidently tell her that I can not only stand on my own two feet with a pig in tow, I can also bring home the bacon to boot.

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

If Only

If only, if only, the South wind moans
I could penetrate coats, get right into bones
I’d take over bodies from deep inside
As the glint of the chill crept into their eyes
I’d banish their warmth and then, in lieu,
I’d tinge their flesh with a blueish hue
Though they may shiver and protest
It’d be too late once I’d made my nest
Once I’d found a hold for my icy tooth
I’d still their hearts and preserve their youth,
If only….