Sunday, 31 October 2010

Braae and Birds

Last Monday was Labour Day here, our first public holiday since the Queen's birthday in June, and a much needed break from the daily grind.

We began the weekend in fine style, with our monthly Phoenix board gaming session. We took along Alhambra, one of the two games which we gave each other for our wedding anniversary, and which looks like it is becoming a favourite, at least amongst the members of the group who have played it. We also played a game which is new to me, and which I didn't do very well at, but in itself is great fun, called Dominion. It's a card based game, where the rules are easy enough that you can understand what you are doing within a round or two, but there are so many different tactics that it will take a few games before I'll really get going! I'm looking forward to next month already!

Sunday, we had planned to spend very quietly, after a reasonably early start Skyping the folks back in the UK. However, as I went out to hang out the washing, our South African next-door neighbours came out and said that they were having a braae (pronounced "bri" in the evening, and did we want to come? They have been talking about holding a get together since we moved in, so of course we said 'yes'. A braae is very much like a British BBQ - cooking over hot coals / wood. But very different from the NZ BBQ, as BBQs here are mainly cooking over gas - to the extent that our neighbours have to call round some of the other folks in the street to let them know that they are holding a braae and not to call the fire brigade! Everyone was bringing something, and we were promised some traditional South African food. The evening started early - we went over at about 5:00, just as Gary was lighting the fire, and we sat outside and enjoyed the sunshine with a glass of wine with them and their other friends and neighbours, both South African and Kiwi. It was a very jolly evening, with plenty of wine being drunk, a great deal of laughter, and a lot of food being eaten - I particularly enjoyed the South African sausage, which one of the other South Africans gets his butcher to make up from a specific recipe, and the Pap, a porridge-like food eaten with a tomato based sauce. We didn't end up leaving too late (about 10.00), but as the party had started at 5, it felt a lot later than it was!

The Monday dawned a typical public/bank holiday gloomy - however, it wasn't actually raining. The sun did make a few attempts to break through the cloud, so we decided to head out to Matiu-Somes Island (it has a dual Maori-Western name), a nature reserve in the middle of Wellington harbour. We had to get a catamaran ferry over from Petone

The island isn't very big

with a small wharf for the boats to moor against:

Small as it is, there is an even smaller one just off the edge. The Maori name for it is Mokopuna Island, which is far nicer than the Western one - Leper Island, due to the exiling (and death) of a Chinese worker there after he was diagnosed as a leper (though that is now believed to have been a misdiagnosis).

Because Matiu-Somes is a nature reserve, we had to go through the same bag checks that we did at Zealandia, making sure that no mice had got into our picnic bag. Then, after a short wildlife lecture with photographs by one of the Department of Conservation workers (most of which seemed to consist of him telling us what we weren't likely to see; "This is a tuatara, but it will be too cold for him to be out," "this is a skink, but it is too windy for it," "this is a North Island Robin - we introduced 35 of these to the island, but unfortunately, due to a lack of insects for them to eat, we only have 7 left..."), we were allowed out to wander round. There was a stern injunction not to miss the direct ferry back, otherwise we'd be charged $80 for the regular ferry to divert to pick us up!

The island was full of bird song, amazingly loud and clear. So many of the birds had absolutely no fear of people at all. This blackbird fledgling was very happy for me to take a picture of it, after it had eaten.

This bird let us get within a foot or so of it before it got up and wandered off. It is also the first bird that I have ever heard sneeze!

The Kakariki were everywhere, and far more interested in food than they were in us.

As a number of the paths were grass based, there were a number of sheep kept on the island as lawnmowers.

The views from the edge of the island were gorgeous - Te Papa o Tara (or, more prosaically, Shag Rock) was covered in seabirds - mostly seagulls, rather than terns or shags.

There were a number of boats out enjoying the day.

Matiu-Somes has a very interesting past; it was used as a quarantine station, both for people and for animals, and was also active during both world wars, both as an internment camp for 'enemy aliens', and also as a degaussing station (the entrance to Wellington harbour was mined during WW2, and not all of the mines have been found!), and an anti-aircraft gun placement:

The island also has an important lighthouse on it - it is ideally placed to guide ships in to the harbour, with a three coloured beam - white if the ship is coming in at the right angle, but set so that there is also a red and green light if the ship is veering off course (to the port and starboard respectively). The lighthouse is no longer manned, apart from by the seagulls, but the tramway which took supplies up to it through the bush is still visible (in the third picture).

The island is also home to a huge number of sea and water birds, most of whom seemed happy to pose for photographs:

But, on our way back down to the ferry, we took a short cut down a track where the DoC had been doing some logging and clearing out of the underbrush. There was a very happy blackbird picking over the turned up soil, who followed us down, presumably to make sure that we weren't going to steal any of his worms. Then, as we got to a bend in the track, this bird appeared in front of us:

I was absolutely delighted to be able to recognise it from the lecture we had had earlier as one of the 7 remaining North Island robins on the Island. It was very friendly (even if it didn't want to sit still long enough to be able to be photographed - that was the best picture we got of it!), and came up incredibly close to see what we were up to. We were able to watch it for about 5 minutes before it got bored and flew away.

We then headed back down to the wharf to wait for the ferry and to sit in the sunshine:

It was a fantastic way of spending a public holiday; incredibly relaxing, and so wonderful to be able to see more of New Zealand's native life.

The rest of the week has been as busy as always; I once more had something on every evening from Monday through to Thursday. This included catching up with an ex-colleague after work on Tuesday, and having a work Halloween event on Thursday evening (it didn't finish too late, and was really nice to be able to catch up with colleagues who I don't normally get to see), as well as the usual orchestra and TKD.

Yesterday we had our Phoenix monthly PIG social, this time with a Halloween flavour - I attempted to make these. The taste was good (as long as you like sweet things!), but I don't think I'm ever going to make icing cakes a career - I've been finding bits of blue food colouring all over the kitchen today! As I also made my coconut and cherry cookies, and some salmon and cream cheese dip (probably one of the easiest 'posh' recipes I have *ever* made!), I have spent most of today washing up - I managed to dirty pretty much every utensil, plate, pot and pan that we own!

And in three hours, it will be November - where on earth has the year gone?

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Why so busy?

I reflected today that tonight (Thursday) is the first night which I don't have anything 'booked' since last Friday evening. I should be feeling more exhausted than I am, but I find that doing so much actually keeps me energised. I've found that being active after work helps me to unwind so much more than just sitting at home - the act of concentrating on something else, rather than letting my brain stew over the events of the day, helps it completely forget. Whilst I should be able to leave work at the door of the office, sadly, that gets harder and harder as things get busier.

So, going to orchestra and playing the Sailors' Hornpipe (it's very fiddly by the time the oboe joins in, because the nice slow interplay between the violin and flute at the start has disappeared when the clarinet begins and speeds things up!), or going to TKD and focusing on getting a flying turning kick right (I can do it when kicking with my left leg, but not at all with my right - the complete opposite of all of my other kicks, where the left is distinctly feebler than the right), or even going out to a sci-fi film evening with friends and watching a silly children's movie (this time it was "Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief", actually a really good fun film - plenty of funny moments, with some great cameo acting, and didn't really feel like it was made for kids at all), really helps to turn off the day in the office and give me something else to think about. And that was all just this week!

We also managed to get out to Zealandia on Sunday. This is a fantastic wildlife reserve, created with the long term view in mind, and with the aim of restoring just a little bit of New Zealand to the way it was before man started destroying things. They may not be able to bring back the extinct species, but they are really doing their bit to keep ones on the endangered list alive. The whole area has been encircled with a predator proof fence, specifically designed to keep out introduced mammals. The plant life is closely monitored for noxious (introduced) weeds, things like brambles, gorse and budlea, which are not native to NZ, and which very quickly spread and took over from the plants already here. It turned 15 this year, and the people who have set it up and who work and volunteer there now know that they are not going to get to see the park in its intended glory. Nor will their children, but maybe their grandchildren will start to experience it as it should have been. That's not to say that they aren't already having successes - the Kaka (parrot) population of the park has grown from 17 to over 100, and they have been reported as far away as New Plymouth. The sharp rise in the number of Tui in the Wellington area has also been credited to the park.

They were holding a free open weekend for all 'locals' (i.e. people living, or saying they were living, in the Greater Wellington region); unfortunately, we weren't able to make the Saturday, as we had shopping to do, and then had friends over for food and board gaming (a great evening had, much wine drunk!). When we woke up on Sunday morning, the weather looked grey and manky, but not being ones to let a little bit of rain spoil our plans, we still headed out on a train and bus trip across Wellington. As we got closer and closer into town, the rain and the wind picked up - definitely not the nicest of weather to be exploring 30km of walking track...

By the time we actually got to Karori, it was lashing it down, and we were very glad that Zealandia has an indoor exhibition as well as the outside tracks. The exhibition itself was very interesting - they could have arranged the speakers for the various video displays more effectively, but overall it was good fun, and highly informative. Then we ventured out into the wet to see what we could see, and whether there were any birds who would be as foolish as the humans in walking around in the driving rain. The answer was a pretty resounding "No" - aside from a few Tui and a number of ducks, we did get to see a Bellbird feeding (the first time I've seen one, though I've heard a few before), and we ended up at the Kaka feeding posts just in time for their lunch. Though, we did very nearly miss them, as there were two sets of feeding posts, and they decided to dine at the other one, whilst we stood in the rain hopefully gazing at empty bird tables! Fortunately, we gave up just in time, and started heading back to the main centre, and caught the last couple eating.

The food is kept underneath a metal lid, and the birds have to stand on a "trigger" shelf in order to get the lid to open - the trigger is weighted for the Kaka, and is far enough away from the food that the smaller birds can't stand on the trigger and reach the food at the same time. This is to ensure that the Kaka get the majority of the food which is intended for them (particularly important at the moment as it is the breeding season). You can see the Kaka on the left in the second photo opening the lid. However, some of the more intelligent blackbirds have learnt that if they work together, they can eat - one stands on the trigger, and is just about heavy enough to open the lid, and the other nips in and gets the treats!

I also got to see a Tuatara, or rather, its tail. It was sheltering under the trees, and the volunteers were pointing it out for visitors - the spiny tail looked very much like a branch, and I'm pleased to have been able to pick it out. Next time I hope to see the whole reptile!

By this point, we were both pretty much soaked through, and so we headed back to the centre for coffee, cake, and a sit in front of the heaters before we ventured back out on the journey home.

Whilst it wasn't the nicest of days to visit, and we couldn't get up and see the weta cave - an old gold mine which apparently has plenty of these creepy crawlies for us to look at - it was an enjoyable experience (well, I enjoyed it - I think John didn't like getting wet as much as I did!), and we definitely want to go back when the weather is a bit warmer and sunnier.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Just a short one this week...

We have a house inspection tomorrow (our fourth "six monthly" inspection in a year...), so we have spent a good chunk of this evening cleaning - the oven now gleams (mostly), the windowsills are free of mildew (it's very tough to see how bad they are getting when they are covered with a net curtain all the time), the carpets are vacuumed (though with the brown on brown swirly pattern, it's very difficult to see when they are dirty), and the bathroom is as clean as it is going to get. I wonder what will be picked up as being wrong this time!

We had a great weekend this weekend - we were borrowing a car, so were able to do a massive shop on Saturday, not only at the supermarket, but also going down the road to Petone and buying bulk loads of rice and oil. The rice was great fun - not only did it come in a cloth bag (with a removable plastic inner), which meant that we can reuse it, but it also came with a free spoon. Not, as I had assumed, a scooper or a plastic thing, but a metal dessert spoon (good job we bought two bags - we'll get one each!). It reminded us of the "Shades of Grey" universe created by Jasper Fforde, where everyone has their own spoon that travels with them wherever they go...

On Sunday, the weather wasn't as good as we had hoped, but we still took the car out for a bit of a spin, heading up the coast to Paraparamu, along windy coastal roads, with sharp drops down to the grey and stormy sea below (at some points the waves only just not breaking onto the road itself), stopping off at a chocolate factory (which wasn't as exciting as it looked from the road - the factory part wasn't open, so we could only look through the windows at the silent machinery and purchase from the gift shop (though the manuka honey filled chocolates are delicious)), and then heading back home across country. Along a road which, on the map, looked like it was a reasonable short cut back into the top of Upper Hutt, along the Akatarawa Valley. What the map failed to show was that this was not a particularly wide road (just over a car's width of tarmac, with a slight buffer of gravel on either side). It was also really quite a windy road, with some amazing hair pin bends, and there were enough trees right up against the edge of the road that it was difficult to see if anyone was coming in the other direction (which, due to the aforementioned lack of width to the road, could have made things interesting). Oh, and on one side, there was a very rocky cliff going up, and on the other side, a very deep drop into the valley below... I think that John's knuckles didn't stop being white the whole time! It was particularly nerve-wracking given that we were only borrowing the car, and didn't want to end up with it in an accident, in the middle of nowhere!

We did, however, get to stop half way along at a place called Staglands, which is a nature reserve. They had a cafe which you could get to without having to pay the entry fee (given that the weather wasn't that brilliant, we thought it best to leave exploration of the wildlife park for another day). We had a very nice "Hummingbird" cake, which was a mixture of banana and carrot, with a lovely seeded icing on the top, and my hot chocolate was lovely and rich. The balcony for the cafe backed out onto the reserve, so we were able to look out at the various birds who were feeding from a sugar water mix.

Silvereyes, Blackbirds and Tui were all sharing the food:

There was also a family of peacocks

and this family of ground birds by the car park (I don't know what they are - I will look them up later if I have time)

It was a lovely stop off point, and it was also nice to find that, once we were back on the road, there were only a few more twists and turns before we got back to a road with a white line down the middle and we were out at the top end of Upper Hutt.

Still, the journey, whilst a bit scary at times, has really whetted my appetite for exploring, and I am looking forward to us getting a car of our own so that we can take more trips out and start seeing more of what this country has to offer.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

October already!

Wow - I am having trouble accepting that it is October already. Two and a half weeks until Labour Day (hooray - public holiday!), and then the very slippery slope to Christmas.

I had a great time at orchestra on Monday - still playing first oboe until the real first gets back from holiday next week. Our next concert is going to be a Last Night of the Proms one, and we ran through the Sea Shanties this week. Including the "Home Sweet Home" oboe solo, which is one that I absolutely adore from the LNotP. And I got to play it - I was over the moon! I've enjoyed playing the first oboe solos for the last few weeks - I might have to see if the real first oboe wants to share in the next concert...

The weather has picked up fantastically now - we've had a few days of glorious sunshine, including the weekend, so I took the opportunity to go out for my first real run since we arrived. In fact, my first real run in over a year - the lead up to moving meant that the running really slacked off. I didn't quite manage to make 5K, (running - overall, I covered just over 7, but that included the walk back home) and I was definitely slower than I had been (I managed 33 minutes before my legs overruled my brain and slowed to a walk), but it was really invigorating, and I'm very much looking forward to the next time I can get out. I am going to have to look at getting some new insoles, though - I have a lot of blisters! My legs are also only just starting to forgive me... Part of my run took me back along the Hutt River, and I managed to see two kingfishers as well as an inquisitive silvereye once I'd started walking. It really is a lovely area to run in - either completely flat or gently undulating, and beautiful scenery to run past.

We may get a chance to explore further afield this coming weekend - we are car-sitting for a friend who is holidaying in Oz - it is going to be lovely to get the chance to have wheels underneath us (particularly for the weekly shop - I am really going to be stocking up on the heavy items!)

I'm also very excited - Richard O'Brien is going to be the narrator for the next NZ tour of Rocky Horror, and we've got ourselves tickets for the Friday night. It's going to make it a really fun few weeks - we start with the orchestra concert, then the following weekend we are seeing the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, and then the weekend after that is Rocky. Yays!