On Socks and Togs

Mum recently came down from Auckland for a winter holiday, suitcase of thermals in tow. Following her frigid experience over Christmas, and having equated pictures of the ski field with out back yard, she was prepared for a real polar blast.  There were skivvies and long johns galore, gloves, slippers and a possum hat – and one pair of socks.

Small and unassuming, those monogamous stalwarts of the wardrobe are often overlooked. Not to worry, a visit to the store soon turned up a pair of magnificently fluffy socks, ‘complete with a tog rating of 2.5’. A tog rating? Yes, tog – the garish label was most insistent. Despite our initial incredulity about this supposed SI unit, we were sold on entertainment value alone.

As for the validity of the claim, our Scottish friend was quick to put us right: tog is a measure of thermal insulation, often used to indicate how well a duvet retains the warmth. In Scotland, where insulation is not a foreign concept, people pay attention to such details.  (They also double glaze their windows and shy away from building single ply weatherboard houses, but that’s another story…) This new definition of ‘tog’ was duly filed away for future trivia nights.

We had a different take on the ‘tog’: up in the North Island, where even July is balmy, togs are for swimming. We did stop off at the hot pools to give our swimsuits their moment in the limelight, but it was the newly discovered type of tog that had us in its grip. There was only one thing for it – we had to pay a visit to the sock factory in Ashburton to find out more. To get any closer to the source of the knitted footwear that graces stores throughout New Zealand, you’d have to head out into the paddock and tackle a sheep.

The local sock factory is something special. Socks of all colours and styles abound, from brightly coloured technical ski socks through to premium dress socks that would look at home on the red carpet of a world premiere – and they were all toasty warm. Mum’s frosty feet had never had so much choice. Neither had Santa Claus – my sisters don’t know it yet, but St Nick is now well stocked up, and their stockings are likely to be filled with stockings for years to come. As for us, we all headed out to the Sunday night quiz togged up in our glad rags and sporting brand new snuggly socks.

For socks that have walked right the way across Spain and carried Ironman racers over the finish line, the trip back to Auckland safely stowed away in the hand luggage compartment must have seemed quite tame. Still, mum’s new socks can bask in the knowledge that not only are they providing a valuable heat retaining service for the extremities, but the story that led to their purchase might one day mean the difference between 3rd and 4th place in a local pub quiz. That’s some power, alright.

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

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A Winter’s Tale

Winter but where is the snow

The weather forecast may not have received the memo, but according to the calendar, winter is now upon us. Usually such a season would be heralded by bone chilling temperatures and soul warming Mid Winter dinners to celebrate the solstice. In Methven there is another way to tell the season, without resorting to a thermometer or the date. The amount of gaudy Gore-Tex on display is a prime indicator of the highly scientific ‘ski index’ – the more saturated the town is in Burton snow clothing, the surer you can be that it must be winter.

Methven is a seasonal town, and that’s one of the things that makes it stand out for me as something different. Auckland is a clock city, where the days tick by and collect into months and years without any major milestones to mark the seasons. Sure, it rains more in winter, but as for snow… well, the one occasion when a flurry of flakes almost landed on the CBD is now related in the hushed tones of myth.

Here, snow is the lifeblood. When people talk about ‘the mountain’ no one needs to clarify which peak is in question. The first time we visited Methven, we arrived in the midst of the winter bustle. There were people on the streets, the takeaway joints were open until 8:30 at night, and the locals were grumpy. They had to queue for their groceries and were not guaranteed a park right outside the shop. Coming from Auckland, we didn’t know what the fuss was about. Having to wait behind 2 people at Supervalue was nothing compared to rush hour at any inner city supermarket.

This year, I think I finally understand. Having over-summered in Methven, I am more attuned to the seasonal changes in the town. As the days grow shorter, the queues do grow longer, and the cosmopolitan mix of the region becomes more audible. Visitors bring their skis and enthusiasm, but also their own cultural expectations, and it can take a while to adjust. For the first time I was alert to the moment when dress codes shift, and wearing gumboots to the pub (even if they are fancy, styled, neoprene gumboots) puts you in the minority. People in fluffy huts and ski jackets start trickling in one by one, until one Thursday the balance is tipped in favour of neon parkas. From there, if you’ll forgive the pun, things just snowball.

Don’t get me wrong, as soon as those Antarctic blasts start playing ball and deliver some fresh powder to the hills I’ll be up there with the best of the beanie wearers. Still, it’s been interesting to watch a seasonal town wake up as it ramps up towards the snow. Now all we need is for the white stuff to take heed of the ‘ski index’, and then there will be no question that winter is indeed upon us, once and for all.

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

DIY Lumberjacks

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I recently arrived back in Methven to crisp autumn days, chilly nights and the first roaring hearth of the season. With kindling stocks running low, I was also just in time for the annual wood chopping chore. Usually that means getting outside with the axe and settling in for the long haul, devoting many hours to the solitary company of the rhythmic swing. Not this year, though: Inspired by the lumberjack events at the A&P show we decided to make an event of straightening out our own pile. Up went the marquee, in came the log splitter, on went the checked shirts and gumboots and we were ready to rumble.

First up was the safety demonstration. Lesson number one: Under no circumstances is it a good idea to reach under the blade of the log splitter to turn the machine on or off. Lesson number two: As long as you keep lesson number one in mind, you should be sweet as.

From there on in, we were like a team of worker bees: lifting, cutting, stacking, and repeat. The wheelbarrow was a welcome addition to our arsenal of arm power, but only short lived: once a certain member of our party realised how comfortable it was to sit in, it was repurposed into an artistic piece of garden furniture, right beside the brazier. The brazier was, of course, kept burning the entire day, with the logs that were prematurely sacrificed acting as the equivalent of the batter that doesn’t quite make it into the cake tin.

Of course, traditional kiwi snacks were a must – cue the green onion flavour chips and Louise Cake. Buttered scones were an oversight, but the spirit of Monty Python was kept alive by playing the lumber jack song at full volume whilst replenishing our strength.

The wood got cut alright, but the events of the day have made an impression that is sure to last longer than our neatly stacked rows of pine: it made me really appreciate the friendships we have formed since living in Mid Canterbury. Their generous help meant the task was done in a fraction of the time we expected, and the banter throughout made for an event that rivalled any A&P exhibit in the fun stakes. While our Auckland mates might laugh at the idea of a wood chopping party with a gumboots dress code, it’s an experience I wouldn’t swap for a dozen inner city heat pumps.

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!

South Wind I (Autumn)

The wind grows fat, fed by the polar ice
Forecasters predict a cold snap as she flexes her muscles
Prompting ripples that collect into swells
And parade their taughtness against the cliffs of the west
Boy, can she pull a punch!

She twists her lithe body through treetops and powerlines
Doing pull ups and resistance training
Until the branches and wires can resist her grasp no more

She tries out her lungs, howling like a newborn
Screaming like a teenager
Sighing like a mother with furrowed brow
Grumbling, groaning, whining, puffing,
growing

Until she is ready to step into the ring
Rattling the windows
In search of a worthy opponent:
Wake up!

Her hibernation is over.
As summer slinks out the back door
She comes in the front
With a BANG!

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

A Cardigan Yarn

An Irishwoman, a Scotswoman and a Kiwi lass are sitting together in a bar… it sounds like the outline of a satirical cartoon, but this was the scene last weekend when my orange cardigan had a lesson in southern socialisation. It was a new cardigan, bought a few weeks earlier during an Auckland shopping spree. Nestled between my thermals and coat, it was a bright, snuggly winter garment with thermal properties to boot, and with not a soy chai latte in sight, it was breaking into new territory.

The first lesson occurred en route to my rendezvous, when the functionality of the garment was tested by a brisk sou’wester. Having existed in a city window display up until this moment, it took a few blocks for the loose knit cardie to come into its own and actually perform its inherent thermal duties. My brisk pace and the threat of swapping it for a swanndri may have helped, as it is now aware that any high street fashion credentials fail to hold water once the temperature tumbles towards zero.

Once inside the cardigan proved itself to be a magnet for conversation, especially once the visiting rugby side turned up. Kitted out in blazers and ties like overgrown school boys, they looked set to get in some practice for the upcoming rural bachelor of the year competition. Unfortunately, the pick up lines they trotted out matched their attire. While admirably direct, they are simply not fit for publication without an R18 label, and the more benign ‘nice cardigan, did your grandmother knit it?’ just doesn’t quite cut it when delivered amidst a sea of insinuations about what may or may not be underneath. They soon went to try their luck elsewhere.

Several games of pool and an argument about the definitions of ‘jersey,’ ‘pullover’ and ‘ganzie’ later, the cardigan came up in conversation again, this time because of its hue rather than its weave. By this point we’d been joined by several kiwi friends, and the national factions that my northern hemisphere friends were happy to overlook had come to the fore. Blue and orange may be opposite colours, but they lead people to draw the same conclusions, particularly when one is honest about one’s geographic heritage. Thus, I was subjected to the first ‘jafa’ remark I’ve heard all year and my cardigan learnt that a few degrees of latitude can make an innocent choice of dye into the catalyst for inter island hostilities.

Temperature, temperament and topography all made their mark, inducting my city garment into southern life. Next time we head to the local I think I’ll settle for donning red and black in the hope of keeping both the winter cold and confectionery themed comments at bay, but the hardy cardie will live to see another day yet.

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