Bream Creek Show

pumpkinYesterday I broke out my gumboots and checked shirt, hired a car, and enjoyed the kind of agricultural experience I had hitherto associated only with rural NZ towns. The Bream Creek Show north of Hobart was evidence that we share more than a very similar flag with our cousins across the ditch.

I came across A&P Shows rather late in life. In fact, my very first encounter with such an agricultural extravaganza was the Methven Show of 2012. I came out of that experience with a much better appreciation of the various types of sheep, a candyfloss sugar high, and an insatiable desire to win a prize for produce. Third in the open tomato category the following year is the closest I ever got, but my appetite for shows remains. When I heard the radio announcement for the Bream Creek Show this weekend, of course I just had to go along. The fact that two of the entries in the giant pumpkin competition looked set to break the weight record for all of southern Australia just sealed the deal.

As we walked in the gate and surveyed the tents of food vendors, the produce hall, and the wood-shopping poles, I felt quite at home. Methven had primed me well to explain the intricacies of the axe-men’s events to my European friends. Next we toured “gourmet alley,” whereupon the smoke of an open range caught our attention. “Billy Tea and Dampers,” announced a hand-written sign, “Gold Coin.” At that point, overtaken both by imagined scenes from “Waltzing Matilda” and the scent of the golden syrup topping, I needed no further prompting. My friends were not so sure. I agreed to meet them at the next display after fortifying myself with morning tea. The brew was most relaxing.

So far, so familiar. The next display tent, however, changed everything. From a distance, the square enclosure of blue tarpaulin looked quite innocuous. It wasn’t until we got close enough to see the slim back form entwined in the display holder’s hands that the reality of the situation hit home: Australia has snakes. So too, it seems, do Australian A&P Shows. Tiger snakes, copperhead snakes, and even teeny tiny whip snakes, squiggling over the canvas floor and melting flat in the sun. Naturally, we lined up to pat the most venomous of the three varieties, before wandering over to the Lions stand for hot chips. It’s just what you do at that kind of an event.

As for the pumpkins, 422.5kg took the record, well and truly. In fact, it was so exciting to watch the weigh in that I had to go back for a second round of tea and damper just to recover. This time, the Europeans also partook, with the verdict being that the Aussie camping staples not half bad. To top is all off, not one person asked me to “fush and chups” all day. Finally, I think I might actually be winning at Australia.

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It’s Showtime!

show tomsWhen I lived up in Auckland, the word ‘show’ carried connotations of a night out at the theatre, or a laser light projection on the downtown ferry building. Sparkles and spectacular were in; tractors, not so much. Since moving south, the word ‘show’ has variously been prefixed with ‘quilt’, ‘dog’, and of course ‘A&P’, widening both my horizons and knowledge of rural necessities.  This weekend the show is back, and this year, I finally know what to expect.

First, there will be a whole range of jumping-related events, featuring horses, dogs and highly coordinated kilted dancers. The intricacies of horses and highland dancing remain a mystery to me, but when it comes to the dogs, I’ve done my prep.  Volunteering at the Ashburton dog agility show opened my eyes to the range of dogs that compete, from ankle to hip height, and the many different leaping styles that exist, from the dainty hop to the mighty bound.

Next, there will be cakes on display. Fresh cakes. Despite the fact that entries must be received well prior to the event, the baked goods themselves arrive on the day. I learnt this from the Methven show, where the discrepancy between entry date and the show itself left me most concerned that my perfectly square, meticulously prepared scones would have gone mouldy come judging.

Then there are the tractors and seeds and machinery that really put the ‘A’ in ‘A&P’. Growing is an important business down this way, and there is a huge amount of science that goes into soil preparation and improving yields.  The show is, of course, a prime opportunity to put the technologies behind new agricultural advances on display. Cue GPS integrated systems, shiny new imports, and a yard full of lads looking as gleeful as kids in a lifesize lego playground. Throw in the odd hotdog stand and you’re sorted.

The closest that I ever got to an agricultural show up on Auckland was the time I stopped by the carnivorous plants expo one Sunday morning. I have a feeling we were the first visitors of the day, because the plant-rearers waived the entry fee and plied us with specimens of NZ native bug-eaters to take home to our flat and nurture up to competition size for the next year. Which of the dozen native insect-eating varieties they were I couldn’t say, but we didn’t have an ant problem that summer, that’s for sure.

Neither did we have the carnival atmosphere that comes with the annual A&P event. Rural shows may be less cabaret and more field day, but there’s more than enough entertainment behind those gates to keep even a thespian-loving lass from the city entertained for the day. What are you waiting for? It’s showtime!

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

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

The Facts of Life

Living in a rural community, it’s hard to avoid the facts of life. Lambing season comes and goes, calves are reared, the stock truck heads to the meatworks and the cycle comes full circle. Over the past few weeks I have observed the circle in action, where it has had less to do with the birds and the bees and more to do with a couple of mammals with impeccable timing.

The first life-or-death incident had us getting up close and personal with a sheep, and not in the ways that Australian jokes would have you believe. We were walking along the RDR, minding out own business, when we heard a ‘Splash’, closely followed by a ‘Maaaaaaa.’ Closer inspection revealed a bundle of bleat knee high in the mud and very stuck.

We were going to have to do something – but what? Our initial efforts made it clear that pulling alone simply wasn’t going to cut it. Sheep, it turns out, are quite heavy, and a wet sheep can rival the bench press selection at any flashy Auckland gym. We needed a new tactic. Cue kiwi ingenuity 101, aka two dog leads and some cleverly applied physics. One harness contraption and two very confused dogs later, the bedraggled sheep shambled off as far away from the water as possible to dry off. Judging by the number of sheep carcasses that showed up in the RDR as the water level dropped over the next week, our sheep was one woolly mammal with a cosmic wristwatch, alright.

The second mammal I encountered, although more commonly associated with watches, was not so lucky. Instead, the hare that crossed the path of my station wagon will now be eternally late. This proved to be a bonus for my friend and I, both in terms of kudos and cuisine. While the boys were at home trying on their new waterproof gear and studying a DVD about stalking deer, we were bringing home dinner. So far our accidental hunting has proved more fruitful than any of their rugged bush walks, which suggests that the preservation instinct of the deer still trumps the carefully edited cinematography of even the best ‘How To Hunt’ video guide.

In the end you win some and you lose some, but I’ve learnt to always make the most of the situation at hand. Rural life is one big Lion King chorus, and I’m slowly getting to know some of the words.

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian