27 December 2011

Milford Track 2005

In November 2005 I joined three Australian friends to walk the famous Milford Track in Fiordland. It was a great experience, and I recently rediscovered this trip report that I wrote at the time and enjoyed reliving the adventure. So in the spirit of a 'summer repeats' show, I've reproduced it below, with photos added. Please do check for updated details if you're planning to go yourselves - this was six years ago, after all. 

Arthur River crossing

Four Go Over Mackinnon Pass


Walking the Milford Track

Ethan Tucker
27 November 2005 

14 November (Wellington – Te Anau)

After being advised to catch and eat keas on my Fiordland excursion by a chatty Maori shuttle driver[1], I flew down to Christchurch, then transferred to an ATR-72 for the next flight into Queenstown.  My pack was laden with snack bars and noodles for the walk, plus a coveted ingot of Cadbury’s Fruit & Nut to keep us going.  The journey into Queenstown takes passengers barrelling through the Kawarau Gorge, buzzing below the valley peaks and providing a great view of both the twisting river below and the Remarkables to the south. 

Taking care to avoid the family of ducks in the carpark, another shuttle whisked me into the bustling touristy overload of central Queenstown.  I didn’t have to stay long though, because a Tracknet van soon carried me on southwards towards Te Anau.  Onboard were a cheery young local driver chap, a quiet newcomer who turned out to be a new driver joining the company, and a middle-aged lady from Te Anau who was just returning from a month in the mountains of Nepal.  Passing the home of the Kingston Flyer, we paused to change drivers at Five Rivers, then turned westwards on Highway 94 to Te Anau via the sleepy hamlet of Mossburn, whose major source of revenue is its speed camera.

Tom met me at the drop-off point in the rented Daewoo, and we drove to meet Liz and fellow Queensland mate Alison at a nearby lakeview pub for a quick drink before a frankly enormous dinner at a local Italian restaurant, followed by an early night at the hostel.

15 November (Te Anau – Clinton Hut)

After a morning spent eating as much as possible and buying as much food as we could stuff into our packs, we adjourned to Bev’s to hire some gear for Liz and Alison.  While we were there, an American couple returned from their tramp, extolling the wonders of the Milford Track.  We exchanged a heavy pineapple that I had brought down from Wellington for a pack of nuts and raisins that they had taken along but not delved into.  Along with sturdy packs and stylish waterproofs, Bev decked the girls out with swish walking poles, which made them look far more puissant than stick-less Tom and me.  What with Liz and Alison’s red and yellow fleeces, and Tom and my blue coats, a passing child might have confused us with a waterproof version of The Wiggles

Another shuttle-bus collected us from the Te Anau DoC centre to deliver us 20km north along the lakeshore to the jetty at Te Anau Downs.  The quixotic driver was heard to mutter at one point ‘I need to get gas’, at which point he turned the bus around and drove it in a circuit through the outskirts of Te Anau, only to return to Highway 94 and continue on northwards.  This did not inspire confidence, but the bus made it without sputtering into inaction. 

The catamaran trip to the northernmost point of the lake took about an hour, and the grey-skied chill encouraged us to stay inside the cabin and size up our fellow walkers.  Half were independent trampers like us, who would be staying at the DoC huts and carrying all their own food on their backs.  The others were Milford Track Guided Walkers, who we quickly dubbed ‘the richies’.  Guided walkers pay about five times as much as independent trampers, which allows them to stay in a fair approximation of luxury.  As we set off from the start of the track, our packs heavy with supplies, we passed their first accommodation spot, Glade House.  As we strode by, pitchers of orange juice sat on bedside tables awaiting their pampered guests, and a guide explained to a well-groomed customer that each suite contained an ensuite bathroom.  Now that’s roughing it! 

Clinton Hut
Clinton Hut, our destination for the night, was only about 4km up the track.  It was a short stroll along the calm lower reaches of the Clinton River, over a gently swinging suspension bridge and through peaceful rainforest laden with ferns and moss.  Here and there a few trees sprouted strange protuberances – the remains of a decades-old telephone line that used to connect the huts before radio sets were installed.  The hut compound itself was smartly laid out, with a cookhouse and two bunkrooms set around a wooden boardwalk with covered walkways to provide shelter from the Fiordland rain.  Each bunkroom housed 10 bunk-beds (20 sleepers per room).  With no electricity in the DoC huts aside from a few solar-powered low-wattage lightbulbs in the common room, cooking is by gas, and there’s no hot water for washing.  Everyone ladles on insect-repellent, because the air is thick with persistent nagging sandflies that cannot be deterred by a mere wave of the hand.[2] 

After a pre-dinner wander along the stony banks of the Clinton River, we braved the flies to sit outside the huts, where we chatted to young Tara, the DoC ranger in sole charge of the 40-strong hut contingent.  Not long out of school, Tara spoke with the traditional Southland burr while waving a stuffed stoat that had foolishly wandered into a nearby trap and had been immortalised as a pest totem.  Up close, its bristly whiskers and curling lip revealing pointy incisors resembled a peevish and far less dapper Basil Brush.

Stumbling around by torchlight in pitch-dark bunkrooms, we retired for the night, eagerly awaiting our first full day of tramping on the following day.  For a while the only noise was a puzzling waspish drone in the distance.  It turns out to be the massed ranks of trampers’ battery-operated toothbrushes.  All the comforts of home, if only you can be bothered to carry them.  As the temperature dropped and the skies opened, the hut’s plastic roof drummed to the constant beat of pounding rain until early morning, drowning out the snores of our bunkmates and eventually lulling us to sleep.

16 November (Clinton Hut – Mintaro Hut)

We set out on the next leg of the track at 8.15am on a mild grey-sky morning.  Occasionally bright bursts of mountain sunshine would break through to illuminate the foliage and enliven the flowing river.  For the first two kilometres, the Clinton had turned from a glass-like clarity to a dirty brown overnight, probably because of a heavy landslide on the uninhabited North Branch of the river during the heavy rain. 

We passed the lofty Hirere Falls on our left, tumbling down from the valley heights over near-vertical moss-clad cliffs.  A tiny robin perched precariously on a vertical branch to examine us as we passed, completely unafraid.  As the valley opened out we paused for photographs and admired the grand vista, then took a side-trip to Hidden Lake to observe its alpine wetland environs from a vegetation-protecting boardwalk.  Around mid-morning we also happened upon a family of alpine ducks busily paddling around a sheltered lagoon.

Detouring to the valley walls, we enjoyed the crisp air around little Prairie Lake, with a high waterfall churning and replenishing its waters.  Shortly after returning to the track, we entered the avalanche-prone area of the valley, where DoC signs warned trampers not to dally in case of rockfalls.  Scattered moss-free boulders testified that avalanches were common.  Tom and I, leading the pack, were lucky enough to see two snow avalanches high above, the noise of which resounded across the valley, reminding us of the warning signs’ accuracy.

Around 1pm we stopped for lunch near Bus Stop Shelter, a doorless bare tin shack.  Its dank interior didn’t impress, so we adjourned to the stony riverbanks for our lunch.  We were soon joined by a persistent kea that makes the hut his home.  He eagerly hunted around the fringes of our peripheral vision, hoping for a discarded scrap of food, or a chance to make off with an unguarded bread roll.  Some keas have been known to hook their beaks through unattended backpack zippers to gain access to the morsels within, but this one kept a respectful distance from the girls’ hiking sticks, experience having afforded him rare avian wisdom. 

Four German trampers, a.k.a. Das Lads, strode past purposefully, hoping to reach the hut before everyone else.  They approached track attire somewhat differently to the rest of us, it must be said.  They showed they were really serious about burning through the kilometres by carrying two walking poles, one for each hand.  Presumably they each also carried a six-pack of beer (!), because they often relished a can in the huts at night.  At least 20 percent of their packs must have been occupied by hair products, as one lad regularly sported a Yahoo Serious-style quiff.  Another did the whole track wearing denim jeans.[3]

Setting off again, we tramped through profuse forests with branches drooping under the weight of bulky moss jackets.  Light smatterings of rain cooled the air as we crested a series of rises that led us to our second night’s stop, Mintaro Hut, a walk of some 16.5km from Clinton Hut.  Unlike Clinton, Mintaro Hut accommodates its trampers in a single building.  We found ourselves beds in the roomy attic bunk-space, then ambled downstairs to sit by the fire. 

Mintaro Hut

As the hut’s rainwater tank bubbled over, full to the brim, the perky ranger girl warned us not to leave our boots on the ground outside the hut: keas love nothing more than to sharpen their beaks on leather, and many a tramper has emerged to find a stylish pair of boots shredded in the morning.  Rows of boot-pegs high on the walls were fitted with metal over-screens to prevent keas landing on them and attacking the invaders’ footwear. 

To pass the time before dinner I strolled to visit little Lake Mintaro, its banks gently merging into the grass and its surface dappled with raindrops.  A black shag, interrupted in its task of hunting small fish, flapped away through the drizzle, flying towards the looming Mackinnon Pass that jutted high above the Hut just to the north.  As I walked back to the huts the rain set in for the night, turning to snow on the peaks in the small hours.

17 November (Mintaro Hut – Dumpling Hut)

The hardest day of the track, and not only because our repose was rent asunder by grievous common-room snoring bouts.  A steep 500m climb from the valley floor up over Mackinnon Pass was followed by a long drawn-out 900m descent over the other side down Roaring Burn and the Arthur River valley.  The ranger (who had illustrated the magnitude of the descent by repeating the word ‘down’ fifteen times in a row) warned all trampers to dress warmly for the Pass, where the alpine air is forced over flinty rocks and mountain tarns.  Fortuitously, the Pass was clear with only tiny scatterings of snow – frequently the crossing is overcast and view-less.  We headed out onto the track again and were soon picking our way up the steep switchback inclines.

Having eaten several meals from our supplies, the load we had to carry had lessened, but it was still hard work to trudge up the path’s heavy stones.  As we made progress the rainforest cover ebbed away, exposing us to the cutting breeze, but the exercise protected us from chill.  Pretty white mountain buttercups clung to the trackside, spreading slick round leaves to catch the drizzle.  I was surprised to find the climb easier than I had feared.  In the end, I put it down to the mystical life-giving powers of that traditional New Zealand tonic, Raro. 

Two hours after leaving the hut we arrived at the Pass, and savoured the glorious views down both the Clinton and the Arthur valleys.  A stone cairn with a cross, erected in 1912, provides a memorial for Quintin Mackinnon (1853-92), the Scottish explorer who was the first guide on the track.  A family of keas prowled the skies, hoping for an unattended packed lunch while trampers have their picture taken in front of the precipice known (for obvious reasons) as ‘12 Second Drop’.  Tom went patrolling for photos, but hurried back when one of the birds tried to sneak into his pack, despite Liz clapping her hands to shoo it.  Perhaps the persistent kea thought it was a round of applause for its impressive burglary attempt.  ‘Thank you, thank you – and now, for my encore…’

At 12-Second Drop

Keas on the Mackinnon Memorial

Breaking into the precious supply of chocolate to provide a burst of energy, we pressed on across the Pass, pausing for photos at the highest point (1164m).  Flecks of snow drifted through the air and settled in the tussock while the wan cloud-dodging sun shone down on us.  An annoyingly perky Guided Walk guide in a red fleece legged it past us, to make sure she got to the Pass Hut in time to clean its famous lavatory, lest the richies have to use a smelly longdrop (!).  The toilet in question is known (in a rather twee way) as ‘the loo with the view’, because its Perspex window commands a brilliant vista of the whole Clinton Valley. 

Edging left around Mt Balloon (1853m), I filled my bottle from an ice-cold waterfall that gushed down the stony side of the mountain and across the track to the valley below, and we eased down towards Roaring Burn.  Maori travellers called this choppy stream Te Horo-o-Nuku (Nuku’s Avalanche), and DoC signs warn of similar dangers today, with trampers urged not to stop on the track.  The Jervois Glacier on Mt Elliott above regularly disgorges rock and snow avalanches that litter the track with a jumble of boulders and scree. 

The avalanche zone safely negotiated, we set out upon what turned out to be the hardest portion of the track – the long series of declining switchbacks down the north side of Roaring Burn.  The track is well-maintained but the large rocks require careful concentration and real effort to successfully navigate, particularly given the light coating of rain that had slickened the surface.  As we descended, the path returned into bush cover and twisted past a series of grand waterfalls, pounding their way through the hardy stone valley. 

Emerging ahead of the girls at the Guided Walk ‘hut’[4], Tom and I chatted to a worried-looking middle-aged American chap, who was fretting over the loan of his expensive walking pole to one of a pair of English girls on the track (Nadine and Debs from Southampton).  One had broken her rented pole and was finding the Roaring Burn descent particularly challenging, so he kindly lent her one of his.  But he had forgotten to ask her name, and now his powers of description seemed to have deserted him.  It was hard to keep a straight face when the best adjective he could come up to describe her was ‘heavy-set’ (because she was in no way heavy-set at all; in fact, if anyone could have been described as heavy-set it would have been the aforementioned Generous Benefactor).

Liz and Alison emerged from the track, and as we all rested on the grass and ate some lunch (somewhat worse for wear) the sandflies swarmed and fought for stationary skin space.  Shedding our packs for an hour or so, Tom, Liz and I took a side-trail for an hour to see the grand spectacle of Sutherland Falls, which at 580m high are the highest in New Zealand and the 6th-highest in the world.  The weight of water smashing down its massive leaps left the air around its lake saturated with spray.

Sutherland Falls

Returning down to pick up our packs we came across a pale Debs, who had previously been determined to see the falls but was now swooning from a lack of blood sugar.  Extending a measure of guarded sympathy, we offered her some of our chocolate to perk her up, and told her the falls were only a short level stroll away.  Later we found she’d not even made it to the falls (which were really about 200m away), and had even required another cadged sugar dose to trudge back to the huts.  Poor lamb.  We pictured a DoC helicopter flying overhead, winching down a barley sugar to save Debs from death’s door.

Setting off down the trail once more, it was with a great sense of relief that we finally arrived at Dumpling Hut, our home for the night.  We had travelled 14km and taken a rather long time about it.  Once the packs were removed we found it hard to move fast enough to evade the sandfly packs, particularly as our aching calves imparted a geriatric gait. 

The hut’s ranger, Venerable Ross, was a beanpole fellow of about 60, who had been working the DoC huts for 12 years.  His elongated legs stretched forth from sturdy no-nonsense workshorts, and were punctuated by prominent mountaineers’ knees.  A sensible sort, he frowned mildly at the unknown galoot who had started a fire in the hut’s pot-belly stove despite the mild evening temperature, which quickly transformed the cookhouse into a Finnish-style sauna.  Almost as good as a hot shower, I suppose.  The cheery Germans in the corner enjoyed themselves by crushing beer-cans underfoot.  We gave some spare noodles to the English girls, so Tom had to go without seconds.  Such is the price of Christian generosity.

Before long we collapsed into our sleeping bags for the night.  So ended a day of hard work and splendid sights.

18 November (Dumpling Hut – Milford Sound)
The last day’s tramp was 18km downhill on mostly level track to Sandfly Point.  Wary of being left behind by the ferry, Liz & Alison got up at dawn’s light and set off at 7.15am to get a good head-start.  Tom and I breakfasted on cereal and powdered milk, and set off around 45 minutes later.  The day had turned out fine and still, with sunshine peeping through the bush canopy and illuminating the valley floor, and tendrils of mist caressing the mountain peaks.  We passed a massive landslip that had obliterated the track, in which the hillside had disgorged a slew of loose stones a hundred metres wide to sweep down to the Arthur River.  Apparently this section of the track has plenty of avalanche paths, with names like Coby and Bossy, after former track packhorses. 

We crossed the Arthur on a bouncing suspension bridge, and stopped to marvel at the glacial stillness of the water’s surface, its mirror-like surface perfectly reflecting the clouds and sky above.  Shortly afterwards we rested at the beautiful Mackay Falls, which tumbled over stones lush with dark moss, and squeezed into nearby Bell Rock – despite its narrow entrance, two people can stand up inside it (as long as you don’t imagine wetas are in there with you).  We ambled easily alongside the 900 year-old Lake Ada, which was formed when a large rockslide blocked off the river.  Later we joined up with Liz and Alison, and heard that they had offered more food to the English girls (bless ‘em).  Apparently on receiving a mandarin from Liz, Nadine had held it out to a passing German and exclaimed, ‘look, fresh foooood!’  Well, yes.

Soon enough we emerged from the track, footsore but elated to have finally reached the end of our journey, the aptly-named Sandfly Point.  A stone cairn marks the end of the track, 53.5km from Lake Te Anau, and some weary travellers have anointed it with the trophies of their success by tying their tramping boots to it.  We took a celebratory picture in front of it. As the ferry arrived to take us over the Sound to Milford and much-anticipated hot showers, we also took a commemorative picture of the well-travelled 750g pack of nuts and raisins, which had loitered in my pack but not been eaten.  It had now done the Milford Track twice as many times as we had.    

They Came To Sandfly Point

19 November (Milford Sound – Queenstown)
Hot showers!  Cooked food!  Extremely slow internet connections!  Ah, the glorious trappings of modern society.  Refreshed by a good night’s sleep in comfortable beds at the Milford Lodge, we walked 2km along the Milford Road to the dock, where we boarded the Milford Monarch[5] for a morning cruise on the Sound (which was included in our track package, along with the transfers to and from Te Anau).  Just to prove that life was perfect, the cruise included hot croissants, orange juice, fruit and cereal, which we feasted on as the catamaran cruised out.  The 9am cruise is obviously the one to go on, because there were only about half a dozen other people on the vessel. 

Enjoying the ice-scarred majesty of the gigantic fiord, which is big enough to accommodate the largest cruise ships when they pass by, we watched from the open top deck as the local inhabitants went about their business.  Penguins hunted fish near the surface, and gambolled at the sea-shore, sporting their striking yellow eyebrows to good effect, while in another spot nimble seals lolled on rocks or waited near the base of cascading waterfalls, hoping to spy a tasty fish or two.

Invigorated by the scenery, we bid farewell to Milford and boarded our coach back to Te Anau via the Homer Tunnel.  As we passed back into the real world, the springtime fields of Southland sported massed ranks of multicoloured lupins and gorse, dazzling the eye.   Collecting the rental car, we sped up to Queenstown for the night, arriving in time for a drink on the waterfront and a tasty meal in an Indian restaurant. 

20 November (Queenstown – Wellington)
There’s a first time for everything, and in Queenstown it was my first try of McDonalds’ pancakes for breakfast.  They turned out quite likeable; almost like real food in fact.  Seeking a good view, we took the town’s gondola up to the viewing platforms, and took in the vistas of the sprawling town and Lake Wakatipu.

As the others were travelling on to the West Coast, they kindly dropped me at Wanaka airfield for my flight back home.  We took the scenic route through the Cardrona Valley, driving past the famous bra fence en route.

Bidding my glacier-seeking Australian chums farewell, I took an extremely bumpy Beech 1900 flight back to Christchurch – the sort in which you try to brace your feet against the bulkhead or nearby passengers.  This was followed by a lurching 737 trip back into Wellington, accompanied only by a long-serving backpack full of dirty clothes and a keen sense of achievement and good fortune at having witnessed the manifold wonders of the beautiful Milford Track.

[1] A bit chewy, I would’ve thought.
[2] In fact, the sandflies seem to take a hand-wave as less of a signal to go away, and more of a signal that you’re presenting your hand to be bitten.
[3] At which provocation ‘serious trampers’ (i.e. not us) would probably mutter darkly under their breaths and plan their next walk in Antarctica, ‘to avoid the tourists’.
[4] Which resembled a posh 2-storeyed ski lodge in the middle of the wilderness.  With an airstrip.
[5] Yes, everything here has ‘Milford’ in the title.

20 December 2011

The provenance of cider

The other weekend I was walking down Tory Street heading towards Courtenay Place when I saw the following billboard advertisement for Bulmer's Original Cider:

In case you can't see the tag-line at the bottom right, it reads: 'Unashamedly English Cider'.

'Aha,' I thought. 'Here's my chance to be a smart-arse'.  Because in my hazy memory I was fairly sure that Bulmer's was an Irish company, and that the New Zealand advertising agency APN was engaging in a woeful act of misrepresentation from which I could possibly wangle a mention on The News Quiz or in the Guardian.

Unfortunately it isn't quite as simple as that, and ultimately it just goes to show that you should always check your facts. Rather than misrepresenting the provenance of Bulmer's, the hokey graphic is actually correct - the name is English rather than Irish. There is an Irish angle to the story though, and it relates to the well-known cider brand Magner's, the rather pricey Irish cider that's served over ice on hot summer days in Britain.

H.P. Bulmer was founded by Percy Bulmer in Hereford in 1887. The company was successful and grew, and by the early part of the 20th century it was attempting to broaden its market by targeting the more genteel drinker:

Bulmers attempted to secure a high class market for their products. 'Champagne is ruinous in price; Bulmer's cider is the solution', the firm announced and in 1911 received the Royal Warrant as Purveyors of Cider to George V.
- Walter Minchington, 'Competition and cooperation: The British Cider Industry since 1880', in Hans Pohl (ed.), Competition and cooperation of enterprises on national and international markets, 1997, p.128. 

Ireland joins the story in 1935, when Tipperary man William Magner bought an orchard and established the Magner's cider factory in Clonmel. The established Bulmer's firm bought half the factory in 1937 and enlarged the operation, and after the war in 1946 it purchased the remaining half of Magner's share in the company, and dropped the Magner's name in favour of its own. By this stage Bulmer's had become a well-known brand, and one which marketed its products aggressively:

From the late 1940s sales were maintained by a growth of press advertising and, once commercial television had begun, by advertising there too. The Beverley sisters singing 'Bring out the Bulmers cider' was a landmark in this campaign. This advertising aimed successfully to replace the stereotype of the bucolic peasant as the typical cider-drinker. While some beer advertising tended to advertise beer as a man's drink, most cider advertising suggested that cider could be drunk in mixed company and an element of sex (or unisex) was added to cider sales. As marketing developed, a macho element was added in 1960 with a Bulmers brand, for example, being marketed under the name Strongbow.
- Minchington, p.131

The success in these marketing campaigns, and later ones too, can be seen in the rise and rise of cider consumption in the UK, particularly in the past 50 years. For 95 years from 1870 to 1965 the UK consumed a fairly consistent figure of about 20 million gallons of cider per year. But then the market took off: in the five years to 1970 the market grew by half (to 31.4 million gallons); in the next 15 years to 1985 consumption more than doubled (64.3m), and by 2005 it had more than doubled again (136.4m). By 2010 the UK was consuming ten times as much cider as it was in 1965*. Cider is big business.

Source: Walter Minchington, 'Competition and cooperation: The British Cider Industry since 1880', in Hans Pohl (ed.), Competition and cooperation of enterprises on national and international markets, 1997; and Cider UK

In 2003 Bulmer's was sold to a brewing chain, and by 2008 the venture had been bought by mega-brewers Heineken. The Irish company that produces Magner's is owned by the Irish drinks company C&C Group; the Magner's cider brand was introduced in 1999 because C&C lacked the rights to the Bulmers cider name outside the Republic of Ireland. However, the two ciders are the same product. Confusing!

My introduction to cider drinking came when I first moved to London in 1997. Traditionally regarded as an unfashionable student drink, cider was perfect for me because I don't drink beer, but when others were drinking pints it was easier to be drinking something served at the same volume for 'pacing' purposes. And as an added plus, the red English ciders tend to look like beer in a dark pub interior. When I returned to New Zealand in 1999 cider had yet to take off, but in recent years the market has expanded and you can even obtain Bulmer's and Magner's here now.

I guess I'll just have to refrain from criticising the Bulmer's billboard in Tory Street for historical inaccuracy. Perhaps I'll just have to change tack and lambaste it for misleading cultural stereotypes - after all, the use of the word 'frightfully' suggests it's a drink for poshos, which is traditionally not the case at all - apart from George V, that is.

Hot summer's day in London + a Magner's by the Thames = nice

17 December 2011

Kaka acrobatics

On Tuesday last week, not long after I arrived home from work, I was distracted by the sound of squawking outside my window. This is not so unusual in my neighbourhood - I live up near the Wildlife Sanctuary so there are plenty of native birds flitting around. One particularly noisy set of local inhabitants are the kaka, who swoop around the valley, screeching as they flit from tree to tree, chasing each other and generally larking about. The noise was quite close by, and when I went out on the deck to see for myself I spotted one of the aforementioned native parrots was messing around on the telephone lines to the house next door, about 10 metres away.

I was initially worried, because at first it looked like the parrot had somehow gotten its claw stuck on the phone line. It was sliding up and down the line, leaning out and grabbing the adjacent phone line with its beak, and flipping under to hang downwards on one claw before fluttering back to a vertical position. After a while it became obvious that the kaka wasn't trapped - it was just messing about. It was playing circus high-wire, occasionally balancing with its claws on one wire and its beak on the other, doing loops whilst holding on with one claw, and dangling upside down and waving its tail-feathers around. It seemed to be having a grand old time.

See also:

Video: Bandits of the Beech Forest (Documentary, 1996)

16 December 2011

Misty morning at the Wind Turbine

From a walk this morning, around 9 o'clock. I wonder who forgot their crutches at the visitor centre? Perhaps the bracing hill-top elements cured their ills.

12 December 2011

9504 days

The last time New Zealand beat Australia in a test match on their home soil:

  • The date was Wednesday, 4 December 1985
  • Richard Hadlee took 11 wickets in a low-scoring match
  • It was 26 years and eight days ago
  • (Which is 9504 days in total)
  • The government of each country was led by Prime Ministers Bob Hawke and David Lange
  • The lunar phase was waning gibbous (apparently)
  • The no.1 song in the UK pop charts was Wham! with I'm Your Man
  • And five of today's victorious NZ team had yet to be born (Guptill, Williamson, Bracewell, Southee and Boult).

This 2nd test in Hobart has been a brilliant seesawing competition, with all the hallmarks of a great test match. Each team rallied from seemingly fatal blows and no-one ever seemed to dominate. It was also doubly exciting because the New Zealand team had suffered an abject loss in the first test in Brisbane, and had even lost its former captain Daniel Vettori to injury on the morning of the match. 

The New Zealand batting woes seemed to continue in the first innings - sent in to bat by the Australian captain Michael Clarke, they quickly succumbed to poor stroke-play and crafty bowling, slumping to 83/6 at lunch and then all out before tea for a miserable 150 in 45.5 overs. But then Australia experienced the same batting jitters, and the four-pronged New Zealand seam attack savoured a rare opportunity to put the usually dominant Australian attack to the sword. From 12/1 at the start of Day 2, Australia plummeted to an astonishing 81/7 at lunch, and were dismissed for a mere 136 in 51 overs, with bowler Peter Siddle's battling 36 preserving some remnants of the Baggy Greens' modesty and preventing a previously unthinkable sub-100 score against New Zealand. New Zealand ground out a painful 226 in their 2nd innnings, setting Australia a target of 241, and for a time they seemed to make it look simple - opening the 4th day with 169 to get, 10 wickets in hand and two days to get the required runs. Surely they would make easy work of it?

But, astonishingly, the New Zealand bowlers managed to knock the top off the Australian batting lineup in the first session. Martin and Boult accounted for a wicket apiece, but young Doug Bracewell was the main instigator, removing the hugely dangerous Ricky Ponting, Michael Clarke and Michael Hussey in the space of two overs, with Clarke and Hussey departing for ducks. The score as the players went for their meals was 173/5, but with David Warner established at the crease and the solid batting of wicket-keeper Brad Haddin to back him up, Australia still fancied themselves the favourites to win the two-match series 2-0. 

Yet following the lunch break New Zealand moved back into contention with a brutal spell of controlled bowling aggression. The 55th and 56th overs saw four Australian wickets fall, with Warner's batting partners operating on a conveyor belt to and from the batting crease. First Tim Southee had Haddin and Siddle caught, and then Doug Bracewell returned in the next over to dismiss Pattinson and Starc. Surely victory was just around the corner?

Australia certainly wouldn't give up without a fight, and the number 11 batsman, the spinner Nathan Lyon, provided a solid defence. The centurion opener Warner and Lyon put on a sterling last-wicket stand, scoring freely for eight overs, edging Australia closer and closer to a stunning victory in the face of adversity. New Zealand was thwarted by the review system, with two umpire decisions reversed and Australian batsmen preserved. It seemed as if it would take a miracle to dismiss the last pair. And yet, with a mere eight runs to get, Doug Bracewell slipped a wicked low delivery through Nathan Lyons' defences, leaving his stumps a shattered mess on the pitch. He had sealed a historic test match win in Australia. In a mere 82 balls following the lunch break, Australia was reduced from a position of dominance to defeat by some inspired and historic bowling. New Zealand had finally triumphed in a test match in Australia after 18 failed attempts and 26 years.  


Now let's pull back from wild euphoric abandon get all New Zealand-y. While this is a remarkable achievement, and the New Zealand team deserves to drink Hobart's bars dry tonight, we shouldn't pretend that this is a legendary Australian team, or that this victory erases the many weaknesses that plague the New Zealand test team. Brendon McCullum and Jesse Ryder still struggle to adapt to the long game and often throw away their wickets carelessly. Our bowlers regularly break down and there's no strong successor to Daniel Vettori in the spin department. And all too often our bowling attack struggles to dismiss quality opponents twice to win a match.

Remember, in the last five years New Zealand has played 36 matches but only won eight of them. And of those eight test victories, four have been against Bangladesh and one against Zimbabwe. So in the last five years New Zealand's only victories against quality test opponents have been against England in 2008, Pakistan in 2009 and this win against Australia. And it's worth noting that none of those three test victories resulted in a series win for New Zealand: England went on from its first test loss in Hamilton to beat New Zealand 2-1, Pakistan drew 1-all in a 3-match series after losing their first test in Dunedin, and Australia has just drawn 1-all in the two-test mini-series. While this victory is a bracing glimpse of what is possible if the national side becomes more consistent and competitive, New Zealand will have to drastically improve its game if the team is to be taken seriously by quality opponents.

And as for Australia, David Warner and Nathan Lyon should take heart. Neither should be ashamed of their last-wicket attempt, which came so close to victory. Lyon, in particular, should not be held responsible for failing to preserve his wicket. Rather, Australian fans should look to the top order, which (Warner aside) failed to adapt to the pitch and the swing it offered. One thing that is certain: while New Zealand test victories in Australia are rare and fleeting - this is only the third ever! - the one effect they have is concentrating the minds of the Australian cricket community and particularly its leaders. Because if Australia is losing to New Zealand at home, there's definitely major problems in the Australian side.

Now apart from sorting out its test team, Cricket Australia also needs to sort out the ridiculous situation of ceding the man of the match decision to an Australian viewers' poll, which saw Warner given the title despite Doug Bracewell's brilliant match figures of 60/9. No-one can deny that Warner carrying his bat and bringing his team to the brink of victory was an excellent innings, particularly in light of the doubts that some have expressed about his suitability for the test openers' slot. But to award the man of the match prize to a home player when a touring team has pulled off a remarkable victory just looks a little churlish. Hopefully something can be done in time for the next Australian home series against India, which is shaping up to be an exciting measure of how much pressure can be brought to bear on the once-great Australian side.    

See also:
Audio: Ian Chappell - A low point for Australia (6:16)
Video: Victory highlights (2:46)

04 December 2011

Pajama Club

Neil Finn / Photo by Catherine P.

San Francisco Bath House
Cuba St, Wellington 
3 December 2011

Neil and Sharon Finn's new home-studio project Pajama Club has taken on a life of its own, with live performances around the world and TV appearances to boost their profile. It's not like Neil Finn needs the exposure, of course - his rock pedigree and status as one of the elder statesmen of songwriting is long established. But the music world is often wary when veteran performers decide to get their spouses involved in the business - just mention the word Yoko and any band will instantly understand.  (Or, for that matter, Coco).

But it's fortunate that the familial jamming that over time has given birth to the musical career of Liam Finn and his younger brother Elroy has also now included their mother Sharon. While the injection of Sharon's bass playing and soothing vocals into the mix has added a new dynamic to Neil's music, it has also been accompanied by a strong performance in the song-writing department, with perhaps the best collection of Finn material since Neil's solo album Try Whistling This in 1998.

Touring the self-titled Pajama Club album, Neil and Sharon have been joined by multi-instrumentalist SJD (Sean James Donnelly, who wears a Badly Drawn Boy beanie and, it should probably be mentioned, is not the same person as the Sean James Donnelly who was convicted of manslaughter in March) and drummer Alana Skyring, formerly of Brisbane band The Grates, who bears a slight resemblance to Kristen Schaal and attacks her kit with a ladylike glee.  

I have to admit that I hadn't actually heard the Pajama Club album when I attended the gig last night with long-standing Finn devotee Catherine, although I bought the CD today now I've heard it performed live. The album's early-80s electric groove echoes both the strutting funk of Split Enz's Dirty Creature and the art-rock of Talking Heads, and while it still permits Neil to issue his fine vocals and seemingly effortless guitar outros, Pajama Club is a pleasing stylistic side-step for the Finn brand.

My favourite audio highlight of the gig was the booming chords of Suffer Never from the 1995 Finn album, in medley with the pulsing, droning crescendo of Gary Numan's Cars. Later, in an entertaining impromptu gesture a chap in the front row of the audience was invited to play keyboard effects - well, he was wearing a Kraftwerk t-shirt after all!  And the taut yelping chorus of These Are Conditions impressed too: it's a classy number both on the album and live.   

In case Finn fans were worried that Pajama Club might be too obtuse or experimental for their tastes, let me assure you that this was plain and simply just a quality rock performance. The experimental touches made for an interesting and appealing sound, but the core tunefulness and command of melodic hooks that the Finn clan are famous for are well to the fore. See them live if you can, and if you can play a bit of keyboard be sure to nab a spot in the front row!

Here's Pajama Club performing with Madeleine Sami and Ladyhawke on Later With Jools Holland, 27 September 2011:


Earlier, local support act The Dreamers provided a glimpse of their contemporary soul style, with some catchy songs. Opening a show is often a thankless task with few of the audience members paying attention, but the band showed real promise, particularly Conor McCabe's lead vocals. Aside from the generic band name, a stronger stage presence and a bit more effort in the wardrobe department might pay dividends - with their baggy t-shirts and lack of stage chemistry it did look like The Dreamers were playing in their garage rather than in front of 200 people. 

26 November 2011

Don't forget to vote

Photograph: William Hall Raine, via National Library NZ on The Commons

This oft-shared photo shows massed hat-wearing crowds watching the Evening Post's results board outside the newspaper's Willis Street offices in Wellington, during the general election held in December 1931. This was the first election held since the onset of the Depression in 1929, and was brought about by the breakdown of a United-Labour coalition over disagreements on how to deal with the massive economic crisis. Electors punished the United Party of Premier George William Forbes, returning only 19 of its candidates, down from 27 in 1928. Former Premier Gordon Coates' Reform Party, which had been in opposition, became the largest party with 28 seats in the 80-member House, gaining one on its 1928 total. This meant United and Reform were able to form a majority coalition to keep the growing Labour Party out of office, with Forbes remaining as Premier despite leading the smaller government party. Harry Holland's Labour Party boosted its caucus from 19 to 24 and became the official Opposition, securing an electoral beach-head that it would eventually turn to victory in 1935. This election was also the genesis of today's National Party, when the United-Reform coalition merged into a single conservative party to counteract the growth of Labour.

The 1931 election was a first for election broadcasting in New Zealand too. Archivist David Colquhoun discusses the story behind the photo:

In Wellington, for the first time, you could stay at home and listen [to the election] on the radio. The local 2ZW station set up in the Post's results room in what proved to be a successful experiment. The Dominion had 2YA on hand. But for the politically committed, staying at home seemed a dull option, compared with the old practice of showing your colours on the street. Besides, as the new radio coverage was also boomed out from loudspeakers, and you could see the candidates live as they gave their end-of-evening speeches from the Post balcony.
- David Colquhoun, Wellingtonians from the Turnbull Library Collections, 2011.   
See also another two angles by William Hall Raine of the Willis Street crowd scene: one from the north side and another from the Post's offices.

23 November 2011

Ten years after Tony

With Tony & Lynda, Tuscany, Easter 1999
A decade can flit past remarkably quickly when you're not paying attention. The recent release of Martin Scorsese's Living in the Material World doco has reminded us that it's nearly 10 years since George Harrison died (the anniversary is 29 November). But in more personal terms it's also been ten years today since the untimely death of my good friend Tony Gibson. Tony died in Auckland on this day ten years ago due to complications arising from his haemophilia and the bad blood scandal that infected him with hepatitis C. He was only 28.

I first met Tony in Form 1 in my class at what was then known as Manukau Intermediate (now Royal Oak Intermediate), where he would participate with vigour in our rolling, impromptu games of 'sogby' - football with a bit more added physical contact a la rugby - and the ever-popular matches of handball, with or without 'black magic'. Of course he probably shouldn't have been playing rowdy physical games, but Tony didn't let his condition stop him enjoying himself. Rather, he bore the inevitable bruises and bleeds and the ever-present hassles of constant medication with stoic fortitude.

It was clear that Tony was a gifted scholar too, with a quick wit and a talent for imaginative creative writing. He put these skills to good use at school, and I have fond memories of his panache for satire, such as his lyric 'Cruise Missiles Across the Persian Gulf' set to the tune of 'Star Trekkin'. But for us Tony was at his peak in the highly geeky and thoroughly enjoyable world of role-playing games. Tony was a great dungeon master, with a valuable knack for story-telling and the diplomatic skills necessary when hosting a disparate bunch of nerds, and we all enjoyed many quality RPG sessions with him over the years. I was delighted to hear one of Tony's friends speak at his funeral service, observing with real fondness that 'Tony killed my first character', a comment that probably generated a quiet wave of confusion amongst the 'grown-ups' present. Losing your first character is a true RPG rite of passage.

It was always a treat to visit the Gibsons' Hillsborough home and venture down the very 1970s stairs to the converted garage that was Tony's man-cave. Aside from the role-playing, there was also the fun of being exposed to Tony's precocious musical taste through his very grown-up hi-fi. I certainly have Tony to thank for being a huge influence on broadening my interest in music. Tony and his stereo opened my ears to the glories of David Bowie's back catalogue (1971's Hunky Dory is still one of my top-five albums to this day), the chaotic hodge-podge of the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour, and the effortless cool of soul legend Otis Redding. He didn't have quite as much luck with convincing me to like the Sex Pistols though!

In our later years at Onehunga High Tony spent much of his time with his partner and soulmate Lynda, and after leaving tertiary studies they moved together to a great little house in Avondale, which they filled with wine, comics and lovable greedy cats. Like many of us from the class of 1990, Tony had started a Politics degree at Auckland, but he decided to take another course: he ploughed his enthusiasm and know-how into a risky but ultimately triumphant project: he established Gotham Comics in a small shop at the bottom of Onehunga Mall. Now in larger premises further up the hill in the heart of Onehunga, and run by Tony's former acolyte Jeremy Bishop, Gotham is still selling comics to the fanboys and girls after more than a decade, which is more like a century in the cut-throat world of comic retail.

It's been ten years without Tony, and there's been so many events in the intervening years that we'd all have loved him to be around for. He would have loved the LOTR films, for one thing. He'd have come down to Wellington for the Bowie gig in 2004. And there's certainly been no shortage of comic-book movie conversions over the years, some good, some not so good - but we can all agree that Tony would've sized up the market and expertly assisted the new generation of enthusiasts to feed their emerging addictions for the source material... and maybe helped to direct them to other new and interesting works at the same time.

So, in memory of Tony, ten years absent today: there's still no danger that we'll forget you. Let's raise a glass to his memory!

Interview: Jeremy Bishop, Gotham Comics, 20 September 2011
HFNZ: Haemophilia Foundation of New Zealand

20 November 2011

Excuse me, I'm having my banana

Claude, 25 October 2011
A photograph to commemorate the occasion of my grandfather Oswald Claude Tucker's 95th birthday today. Born on 20 November 1916 and given the middle name that he would use in place of the unwieldy Oswald, Claude was named after his uncle who left to fight in the First World War five months before he was born, and who died at Passchendaele before Claude's first birthday.

Claude grew up in Ellerslie, and like many others at the time, the family had little in the way of money. He was lucky to secure an apprenticeship as a printer during the Depression due to his high marks. After the outbreak of war in 1939 Claude volunteered to serve in the Army overseas, joining the 5th Field Ambulance in 2NZEF. During the course of the war he was to visit the UK (including England during the Blitz when invasion fears saw New Zealand soldiers diverted to bolster the British defences) and the Middle East including Palestine and Syria (the latter of which I paid a return visit to in 2008, taking in the sights of Aleppo, where he was based for a time). But most of his time in the Army was spent in Egypt. He didn't talk about the business of being a field ambulance soldier and the brutal sights he must have seen as broken men were brought back from battle; instead, he preferred to hark back to the pet lion cub that he and his friends rustled up from somewhere, and the high adventure of the biplane joyride he took over the Suez Canal.

In 1943 he had another stroke of luck, as his was the first number drawn out of the hat for furlough - the chance for some long-serving soldiers to return to civilian life in New Zealand. This enabled him to resume his courtship of Gwen Phillips, my grandmother. They were married in the little stone St James' church in Mangere Bridge in September 1943, and after a few years living in a rented house in Waterview, they moved into their own home in Onehunga, where they've been ever since. They raised three children in that same ex-State house, and there they recently celebrated their 68th wedding anniversary.

While his career was in the printing industry, academic and intellectual pursuits have always been a keen interest for Claude.  This spurred him to find time in his retirement to secure himself a long-cherished university education, when he worked towards his Bachelor of Arts degree in Sociology at the University of Auckland, graduating in 1986. In more recent years Claude has been living in a rest home where his various infirmities can be managed, but this hasn't stopped him meeting the Prime Minister, when Mr Key stopped by for a visit.

Only five years short of a century and still ticking! I'm sure most of us would be grateful for that sort of staying power. Well done, that man.        

13 November 2011

Soderbergh's Contagion

Yesterday I caught up with Matthew to see Steven Soderbergh's film Contagion, a film that successfully mines modern jumpiness about global pandemics and the fragility of social order in testing circumstances. 

Now wash your hands

There's a global media cycle that throws up a epidemic panic meme about every three years, and Contagion milks that latent paranoia for all it's worth, in a slick, highly enjoyable package. Deftly shot in muted, pneumoniacal tones and packed with a top-notch cast, Soderbergh has presented a stylish update on the 1970s disaster flick, with its The Social Network-style electro soundtrack, a bevy of exotic locales (albeit full of people coughing) and a palpable sense of looming dread as the implacable virus spreads like wildfire across a helpless world and order is replaced by supermarket-smashing, vaccine-queue-jumping chaos.

Gwyneth Paltrow must have had fun in her role, as she spends nearly all her screen time looking diabolically fluey and one of her earliest scenes involves her character's cranial autopsy. The accomplished English actors Jennifer Ehle and Kate Winslet play largely identical characters, bureaucratic scientists both, and get to spout gobbledygook about viral vectors and transmission rates, and yet they manage to avoid slowing the film down. Jude Law's prosthetic overbite clearly mark him out in American eyes as a shyster of the worst order, and for good measures he essays a broad Assange-lite Australian accent (but for the record, it's 'maths', not 'math', writer Scott Burns). 

There are a few quibbles with the story, but nothing important. I can see why the writer personalised the initial infection vector, so we can dramatise the initial contacts in the Macao casino and identify with the victims, even if this is scientifically daft. While I enjoyed the hint of criticism of ludicrous homeopathy remedies, a few of the subplots are a little sketchy. It stretches belief to suggest that looters stage a home invasion and terrorise the wife of the disease control centre chief (Laurence Fishburne), but then simply let her go unharmed when they discover there's no vaccine in the house. If you've already armed yourself and broken into the house wearing masks, why not bloody kidnap her? Sheesh, you can't event get half-decent criminals these days. And while the sight of Law striding up San Francisco streets with his silly inflatable hazmat suit gaffer-taped to his cotton Dockers like some reject from Lost in Space was fairly amusing, I couldn't help but wonder why no-one knifed him to steal it.


Contagion is a highly successful piece of entertainment, and one that succeeds despite covering well-worn territory. But minded as I was of dramatisations of global pandemics, I couldn't help wondering what modern audiences would make of the grim fictional universe portrayed so successfully in Terry Nation's 1970s TV sci-fi drama Survivors, which, like Contagion, has as its genesis a super-virus originating in China that wreaks havoc throughout the world. The difference in Nation's imagined world is that rather than the millions who die in Contagion (and that's hardly a spoiler!), billions of people die in Survivors - nearly the entire human population of the world, in fact. The virus strikes so quickly that none of the characters has a clear idea of why the disease spread or where it originated. All that they know is that the cities are unsafe (which is handy, because the BBC budget didn't stretch to deserted city streets), that the only law is the law you make for yourself, and scavenging and looting is the only way to survive until society is rebuilt. I'll write more about the original Survivors soon, once I've had the chance to get my DVDs out of storage and re-watch them. (The BBC recently broadcast two series of a modern Survivors remake. I only saw the first series, and while it was reasonably good, it felt a bit too polished for my liking).


Watching Contagion also reminded me that while Steven Soderbergh is one of the directors who can be relied upon to make interesting and often highly successful films, I've actually seen very few of them. Certainly I need to remedy this, but at this stage I can honestly say that I've only seen Sex, Lies and Videotape, The Informant! and Contagion. After after his early success with SL&V a long spell of relative obscurity and little-seen films ensued in the 1990s. But his luck turned around in 2000 and for the past decade Soderbergh has earned the reputation of a highly bankable director, and one who can take a few commercial mis-steps with mid-level box-office failures and still afford to keep making small, bespoke films in between the blockbusters. Witness the amount of studio credit he must have built up after his string of successes with Erin Brockovich, the Oscar-winning Traffic and the Oceans films, and bear in mind that the earnings figures used to calculate the list below are only for US theatre takings - the global box-office figures, particularly for the highly successful Oceans films, is much higher. After all, Boxofficemojo has his current lifetime global box office takings at a whopping $873.4m:

  • Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989): $23.5m
  • Kafka (1991): -$9.9m
  • King of the Hill (1993): -$6.8m
  • Underneath (1995): -$6.0m
  • Gray's Anatomy (1996): -$0.3m
  • Schizopolis (1996): -$0.2m
  • Out of Sight (1998): -$10.4m
  • The Limey (1999): -$5.8m
  • Erin Brockovich (2000): $73.6m
  • Traffic (2000): $76.1m 
  • Ocean's Eleven (2001): $98.4m
  • Full Frontal (2002): $0.5m
  • Solaris (2002): -$32.0m
  • Ocean's Twelve (2004): $15.5m
  • Bubble (2005): -$1.5m
  • The Good German (2006): -$30.7m
  • Ocean's Thirteen (2007): $32.2m
  • Che: Part One (2008): -28.3m
  • Che: Part Two (2008): unknown
  • The Girlfriend Experience (2009): -$1.0m
  • The Informant! (2009): $12.3m
  • And Everything Is Going Fine (2010): unknown
  • Contagion (2011): $14.6m+, currently in cinemas

06 November 2011

The rockets' red glare

Photos from the annual Wellington city Guy Fawkes fireworks display, launched from three barges moored near Oriental Bay. The show reportedly cost $190,000 and used three tonnes of fireworks. My vantage point was on the northern, quieter end of Queens Wharf, where I used a Manfrotto 484 tripod to shoot exposures ranging from two to five seconds in length.  

05 November 2011

In fear of the Tsar's navy

Approach to Fort Ballance, Miramar
Fort Ballance sits atop Wellington's Miramar peninsula, and while it's currently shrouded by trees and little visited, in its heyday it served as the main naval defence for the harbour entrance. And it's older than you probably think too. Instead of being a part of the well-known World War 2 gun emplacements at Makara and Wright's Hill in Karori, or even of a World War 1 defensive network, it is actually Victorian in origin, having been built in the 1880s and come into service in 1885.

The enemy it was built to defend against was the Russian navy of Tsar Alexander III. The isolation felt by the New Zealand colonial authorities led to considerable nervousness about the ability of the stretched Royal Navy resources in the Pacific to counter any possible invaders. Russia was developing its Pacific fleet and constructing the Trans-Siberian Railroad to link its eastern territories to its heartland in eastern Europe.

There were also strained diplomatic relations and ongoing sabre-rattling with Britain over Central Asia and the approaches to the lush resources of imperial India. The Panjdeh Incident of March 1885, in which Russia seized territory in Afghanistan and killed about 600 Afghan troops, also tested the nerves of the isolated colony, because for a time it was feared the matter might lead to war. The Auckland Star of 23 March 1885 reported a telegram from London the day before, headlined 'The Threatened War: Russian Intrigue at Panjdeh', while the Otago Daily Times of 16 April 1885 contains reports from the Australian colonies, which were taking 'precautionary measures in view of a possible outbreak of war between England and Russia', including stronger controls on entries to Australian ports, the establishment of a permanent militia camp in Victoria, and a naval patrol service in the Gulf of St Vincent.

Russian naval forces never threatened New Zealand's ports, and the only naval incursions that actually reached our coastal sealanes were German raiders in both World Wars and Japanese submarines in World War 2.  But Fort Ballance remained a key part of Wellington's defences until it was superseded by the more modern Fort Dorset in 1911, and it continued to serve as an auxiliary facility, acting as the capital's main ammunition depot from 1924 until 1959. Fort Ballance also provided army accommodation from 1946 until as late as 1990, although it must have been a cold and windy place for a soldier's billet.

Now the fort is a Category I-registered historic place, and serves as a reminder of the impressive works Victorian engineers undertook in fear of the Tsar's navy. It's an isolated and almost forgotten spot that has attracted plenty of graffiti, but the structures seemingly remain sturdy and will hopefully be protected for many years to come as reminders of our military history. Indeed, some are keen to restore the fort, with local historian Allan Jenkins favouring the reinstatement of the 8-inch 'disappearing gun', which he believes was buried nearby in the 1970s:

Given that the mounts are still in the gun pit and the shields are buried nearby ... it's fair to say I'm fairly excited about the prospect of the gun making a very short trip back into its original home. It was a huge thing. It was the biggest and the best at the time. 
- 'Historian keen to see big gun restored', Dominion Post, 2 November 2011 

Images from Fort Ballance, 16 October 2011:


24 October 2011

Not the target market

Over the past week I've been participating in a Roy Morgan TV and radio poll, filling out a booklet filled with innumerable tick-boxes to illustrate my media habits. When the polling company asked if I wanted to participate I weighed up the faff of actually setting down my media consumption in a detailed fashion against the desire to boost the few decent programmes and channels there are in New Zealand, and came down in favour of the latter.

So since last Sunday I've been keeping a careful record of everything I've listened to or watched, in half-hour allotments. This actually proved far easier than expected, because despite temporarily having access to plenty of pay TV channels through the Telstra cable connection in my current flat, I actually watch very little TV, and the radio listening I do is fairly predictable: Morning Report, a bit of Nights with Brian Crump and Kim Hill on Saturday morning, all on Radio New Zealand.

In addition to signalling my devotion to the high standards of radio broadcasting on Radio New Zealand, I was also keen to highlight my fondness for programmes on the commercial-free public service channel TVNZ7, which is threatened with closure in 2012. However, the format of the survey made it difficult to do the latter. There are dozens of channels on pay TV, and many of them aren't assigned their own individual column of tick-boxes in Roy Morgan's poll - instead, they're all lumped together under the catch-all phrase, 'Other pay TV' - which is a misnomer in TVNZ7's case, because it's not pay TV, it's free-to-air. I was able to flag my approval of TVNZ7 elsewhere in response to a query asking what channels I regularly watched and liked, but I would have preferred to make this point directly.

I should acknowledge that my viewing preferences mark me out as someone who is not likely to be hunted down and actively courted by advertisers, which is the real purpose of the Roy Morgan poll. Sure, I spend money on books, music and DVDs, but I spend a large part of what little time I do devote to consuming TV and radio locked into channels with no advertising. In pollsters' terms, I am an un-person.

Still, filling out the media diary was a worthwhile exercise, if only because it confirmed my suspicions that New Zealand TV offers little of real merit these days, or at least it offers little that interests me. In one section of the media diary the pollsters listed TV programmes organised by their channels, and asked for audience attitudes to each programme. The only options provided were:
  • I especially choose to watch it
  • I watch it only because someone in the household wishes to
  • I watch it if there's nothing better
  • I really love this programme     
I'd make three observations about this particular exercise.

From the lists for TV1 and TV2 programmes I could find only a single show that I could actually bear the thought of watching - the BBC's sitcom Miranda. Aside from that it was wall-to-wall pointless tat, which illustrates how irrelevant TVNZ's two main channels are to me and presumably people like me. In fact, it's been so long since I've regularly watched programmes on TV1 or TV2 that my default assumption is that if a programme features on those channels, it must be dire. Perhaps I miss out on a few good choices that slip through the pack of stinkers that make up TVNZ's schedules, but given how bad much of TVNZ's material is, it's a risk I'm happy to run.

TV3 and Four seem to have collared the handful of American programmes that I actually enjoy: animated comedies like King of the Hill, The Simpsons and Futurama, and witty live comedies like 30 Rock and Parks & Recreation.  And there are a smattering of quality British programmes like the Graham Norton Show, QI and Top Gear on those channels and Prime. But the distinctive feature of the listings is the huge swathe of American programming that dominates all the free-to-air channels. Of the limited range of New Zealand-made programming, much of it is the ultra-low-budget reality schlock. Is it any wonder that young New Zealanders are growing up knowing less and less about their own country and their own stories?

Lastly, the list of four tick-boxes above contained no option for 'I'd never watch this rubbish and I would actively avoid the products and services of any advertiser associated with it'. This is so often a factor when watching commercial-laden TV in New Zealand, when even good programmes can be mangled beyond recognition by enormous quantities of braying adverts. Wouldn't you love to be able to tell TV programmers (and their associated ad company puppet-masters) when their offerings are lousy?

So clearly I'm not the ideal survey recipient, from Roy Morgan's perspective. But having completed their weekly survey, which includes a gigantic consumer poll covering a multitude of marketplaces such as travel, telecommunications, supermarket shopping, electricity, motoring and many others, I have to wonder if the consumer intelligence that Roy Morgan is selling is really worth what its customers pay for it. Because I've completed most of their rather thick booklets due to a sense of intellectual curiosity, but it was particularly time-consuming and I can't imagine most people offering up that much of their own time for no reward. (There's a prize draw for a small cash sum, but the chances of winning are low).

As an example, the most ridiculous exercise in the consumer poll booklet is a page devoted to attitudes towards supermarket chains, asking 'which, if any, of the following statements do you associate with each supermarket?'  For each of the ten supermarket chains listed there are *fifty-eight* tick-boxes, making a grand total of 580 tick-boxes on one page. Statements put to the reader include 'They have spacious aisles' and 'trolleys and baskets are always available'. Needless to say, I gave this page a miss. Who actually fills that sort of nonsense out, and who makes business decisions based on the information derived from it?