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

Advertisements

South and South-er

Screen shot 2014-03-06 at 4.20.50 PM

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

A Frosty Reception

Screen shot 2014-02-02 at 1.15.54 PM

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

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 

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

speights-camping-ad

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

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….

South Wind Doth Blow

Little Miss Muffet and Incy Wincy Spider may appear to be uneasy bedfellows, but in Methven a closer look will reveal they’re both made of the same stuffing. A nursery rhyme convention has taken over the town in recent weeks, and any birds that were considering nesting in the region will now have reconsidered, thanks to the 33 themed scarecrows that have popped up as part of the school holiday trail.

We joined in by doing the trail, but we could easily have joined the party with a themed yard ourselves. All we needed was a mulberry bush, and the cold and frosty morning would have taken care of itself, transforming our yard into a scene straight out of a playground chant.

It happens every year – first the frost, then the snow, augmented by a southerly wind and an ever declining ration of sunlight. Commonly known as winter, this state seems to take people by surprise every time, with the long summer months inducing mercury amnesia. Then suddenly you can see your breath, and the weatherboard house with single glass windows and cotton curtains starts to resemble the chiller section at the supermarket, minus the frozen peas. Add in a couple of extra jumpers, house slippers and a hot water bottle clutched to your abdomen and you’re on your way to having the quintessential New Zealand experience, complete with chillblains and the odd dose of bronchitis.

Despite the fact that winter is a fairly regular occurrence, many of our houses have failed to adapt to the fact. Insulation is optional and double glass and underfloor heating are virtually unheard of. It’s a case of man vs nature, and judging from the layer of ice on the inside of our windows the other morning, I’d say that nature is used to delivering a knockout blow pretty early on.

I know people who’ve come to New Zealand from northern Europe, where winter means no sunlight at all and a permanent cover of snow. When looking at the forecast charts they scoffed at our furrowed brows, oblivious to the fact that the predicted temperature was not for their borough but for their bedroom. They later resorted to pitching a tent on the living room floor to try to conserve heat.

While many ceilings such as theirs remain woefully bare of any insulation, in the absence of any batts the personified thatching material around town is starting to look like an attractive option… The South Wind Doth Blow, alright, and the Methven scarecrows had better watch their stuffing!

Originally published in The Ashburton Guardian