Kudos to Queenstown

Normally when I travel, I like to listen to my iPod and make new associations between places and songs. And I have done a fair amount of that on this trip – more on that later.

But the iPod wasn’t really necessary while in Queenstown. Great music seems to emanate from every store front, car window and pub.

I popped into a shop on Camp Street on Saturday morning and rented a Specialized downhill bike for some near-death experiences riding at the gondola. When I stepped into the shop, the stereo was pumping out “Transcendental Youth” by the Mountain Goats. As I rode out with my hired bike and body armour, I was serenaded by the strains of “Mistaken for Strangers” by The National. American indie rock in New Zealand – who knew?

Later that day, as we loitered downtown eating our Fergburgers, we rocked out to “Supermassive Black Hole” by Muse. The fun continued in the evening when I heard a particularly hip club cranking up LCD Soundsystem’s “Sound of Silver”. That would NEVER happen back home in a million years.

This morning, as we checked out of our hotel, the hotel bar was quietly intoning “Blue Ridge Mountains” by Fleet Foxes. Then at breakfast, I heard “Your Love” by The Outfield at the cafe, which took me back to the summer I spent camping with friends between high school and university.

I think I love this town.

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Aoraki

Yesterday was mainly a travel day across the beltline of Aotearoa. We boarded our trusty minibus ‘Frank’ at Christchurch, and set off to the west across the fertile Cantabrian plains.

Everyone associates New Zealand with sheep country, and the reputation is well deserved. There are something like ten sheep for every human in this nation of over four million people. What you might not know is that there are also at least three head of cattle for every Kiwi. They are predominantly dairy cattle (Holsteins and Jerseys), but with a healthy population of beef animals (mainly Black Angus and Herefords). The cattle roam the same sorts of plots as the sheep, and they seem quite content to climb some serious grades in search of greener pastures. Next time you buy powdered milk or beef jerky, chances are it might be a Kiwi product.

While seated on the bus, watching farm after farm pass by my window, I played my Hoser Rock playlist. Songs like “The Bleeding Heart Show” by the New Pornographers, “Heading for Nowhere” by Jets Overhead, “This Wreck of a Life” by Sam Roberts, “Trust Yourself” by Blue Rodeo, and the inescapable “Safety Dance” by Men Without Hats provided the playlist. Old musical friends of mine were given a brand new visual context.

It’s a long way from Christchurch to Braemar Station, but the journey is worth every revolution of the tires. Fate, and the late afternoon sun, shone brightly on us as we rolled into the shearer’s quarters at this remote 40,000 acre sheep and cattle ranch. Behind Lake Pukaki lay the uninterrupted majesty of the snow-capped Southern Alps. This photograph doesn’t fully do justice to the jaw-dropping vista, but have a gander anyway.

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Today, we zipped around the shore of the lake to go on a hike at the feet of New Zealand’s highest peaks. In the alpine wonderland where the legendary Sir Edmund Hillary cut his teeth, part of our group hiked up to the Sealy Tarns. Beyond the tarns, we could not make it all the way up to the Mueller alpine hut because of deep snow. But the views from about 1100 vertical metres above our trailhead were still sublime.

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At left, with the snow-covered face, is Mount Sefton. The cloud-piercing summit to the left-of-centre is Mount Cook, more correctly known by its Maori name – Aoraki.

Views like this make every step of the hike (and every tedious hour on various planes, trains and automobiles) completely worthwhile.

Four Seasons In One Day

The Kiwis have a saying: expect four seasons in one day. Neil Finn of Crowded House once wrote a song about it – ostensibly set in Melbourne, Australia but the sentiment is easily translated across the Tasman Sea to this noble chain of verdant isles.

Your intrepid reporter has recently lived those words vicariously on your behalf.

Tongariro Alpine Crossing

Tongariro Alpine Crossing

Orokawa Beach - Pacific Ocean

Orokawa Beach – Pacific Ocean

Lake Okataina Hike

Lake Okataina Hike

Silver Fern

Silver Fern, with the Craven Hermit

The Kauri tour has been a wonderful way of celebrating four decades of stumbling through the darkness from one disaster to another on this lonely orb we call home.

Half-Time

The half-time show at the Super Bowl has become a spectacle that often outshines the actual football game. We have grown accustomed to watching an A-list musical act give a slickly produced, twelve-minute performance midway through the NFL championship game. It provides a pop culture counterpoint to the big game and all the million-dollar advertisements.

Michael Jackson kicked off the modern-era of pop superstars at Superbowl XXVII at the Rose Bowl in 1993, and the NFL has rarely messed with the formula since then. This year’s half-time extravaganza on February 3rd will feature the bootylicious tandem of Beyoncé and Jay-Z on stage at the Louisiana Superdome. America’s first couple of popular music seem destined to deliver a high-energy mix of live vocals and choreographed dance moves set to pre-recorded, synthetic R&B and urban beats.

But it wasn’t always this way.

For the first twenty-five Super Bowls, the half-time shows consisted largely of that staple of college football – marching bands. The theme of the performances would vary from year to year, depending on the venue. Themes included big band music or Mardi Gras for games in New Orleans, something vaguely Latino for games held in south Florida, and Disney dioramas in southern California. There were also far, FAR too many appearances by the wretched Up With People dancers that are best left consigned to the dustbin of history.

Since Jacko’s creepily spectacular appearance in 1993, a variety of acts have represented the shifting flavours of American popular music. Brief dalliances with new-country and soul eventually ceded the stage to modern R&B. The first decade of the twenty-first century begat a trend towards ‘classic rock’ acts like The Who, Bruce Springsteen & the E-Street Band, Paul McCartney, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, and the Rolling Stones. Most of these bands used their Super Bowl appearance as a launch point for a world tour.

Sequestered in a curlicued waiting room somewhere between classic rock and R&B was the jaw-dropping performance by Prince at Super Bowl XLI in Miami. Urban music fans and meat & potatoes rockers alike were left in awe of the Purple One’s raw musicality.

More recently, the irrepressible Black Eyed Peas got the big gig (apparently they weren’t scheduled to play a bar mitzvah or the grand opening of a new Costco that weekend). Last year, the human-shaped tube of cartilage and rib bones known as Madonna delivered a set that under-delivered on shock value but earned good ratings. The tag team of Beyoncé and Jay-Z will likely prove to be ratings gold in February, providing that Foxxy Cleopatra’s nipples don’t make an ‘accidental’ appearance on worldwide television.

On second thought – a wardrobe malfunction might be EXACTLY what some fraction of the viewing audience is quietly praying for this year.

While entertainment and spectacle is surely a big part of the Super Bowl’s allure, the championship game itself will always matter to the players, coaches, and football fanatics. Half-time is an important ritual in professional football. It gives the players a brief chance to get out of the spotlight, collect their thoughts, talk to their coaches, and make adjustments to whichever tactics don’t seem to be working. Teams will often come out of the tunnel to start the second half with a new game plan, which sometimes leads to snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.

In the Craven Hermit’s insular world, it’s half-time and the score feels like 28-11 for the other guys. Despite a decent game plan, the first two quarters did not go particularly well. I’m proud of my education and my relationships with my closest friends, and until very recently my career was on track. The most pressing problem is away from work, where the ‘offence’ is making virtually nothing happen. The first half was a litany of receivers dropping passes and running backs charging headlong into brick walls. So much potential, with so little to show for it. While the game is not over yet, some adjustments are needed before things really get out of hand.

In short, it’s time for an extended break to reflect and reconsider.

By the time this post hits the web, I’ll be on a jumbo jet somewhere over the Pacific Ocean. I finally pulled the trigger on my dream vacation – a month of hiking and biking and other outdoor pursuits on a rugged island paradise. I’m normally a creature of habit, one that takes a perverse pleasure in the ritual of waking up in the same bed every day, going to work by the same route, attending the same meetings, and partaking in the same after-work activities. But all this order and structure means that every day is guaranteed to be an unfulfilling cavalcade of diminishing career ambitions and hopelessly asymmetric relationships. I simply can’t continue to come home to an empty house when there’s so much opportunity and potential in this world. One more day of the Tyranny of the Mundane and, just like the Ramones, I’ll be begging for sedation.

For the next month, I’m throwing Order out the window and embracing that fickle mistress known as Chaos. The hope is that a physically challenging adventure in a far-off land with total strangers will shock me out of my rut. With any luck, jumping head first into an alien world will grant me a fresh perspective on life and how to live it. At the very least, I will have some new tales to tell.

Life is kicking the Hermit’s ass, and the second half is coming up quickly. It’s time to formulate a bold new plan to get back in the game.

Countdown

Twenty–twenty–twenty-four hours to go
I wanna be sedated
Nothing to do, nowhere to go-oh
I wanna be sedated

Just get me to the airport, put me on a plane
Hurry hurry hurry, before I go insane
I can’t control my fingers, I can’t control my brain
Oh no, oh oh, oh oh

– “I Wanna Be Sedated” by The Ramones, from the 1978 album Road To Ruin.