Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Off the hill days

You can't ski every day. Yeah, some people do, but they're usually only here for a short period and want to get as much time on the snow as possible. But when here for a while,  days off the mountain are necessary. Not only to sleep in, to rest and recover the legs, but to get in a bit of sightseeing and socialising, involving late nights and reckless imbibing.

Over the last 3 trips I've gone for walks around the lake and taken moody shots of the mountains, wildlife and rocks, so this year I thought I'd try for a point of difference. Yes there'll still be lots of lake and mountain shots, but I'm exploring a little further afield, and experimenting with some new lenses. In my half day in Perth enroute I swung by the Apple store and picked up a nifty little attachment for the iPhone called an Olloclip. It has 3 plastic lenses that allow you to take wide angle, fisheye and macro shots. We're not talking SLR fancy here, but alot of fun in a very small package.

My first little outing was to Mt Iron, a hill just behind town formed by glaciers 100,000 years ago, that affords great views down the Clutha Valley, over to Lake Hawea, and down the Lake to Treble Cone and Black Peak. The walk has a couple of steep sections, but is an easy climb for anyone with moderate fitness. In Wanaka, this means anyone under the age of 60 seems to run up and down it, whereas the septagenarians and older are excused from the jogging, and merely briskly walk their dogs up and down it. No couch potatoes in this neck of the woods!!

Being a tourist, I made it a leisurely stroll, all the more to be able to take photos of the view and play with the macro lens. Little patches of moss, shrivelled up berries, dried seedpods and even a yellow flower made it into my shots. Sure they aren't the best quality photos, but pretty good for a tiny iPhone sensor and a plastic lens.
Yesterday the weather closed in, and it snowed all day. In town it simply rained. Not a day for outdoorsy activities, so a crew of four of us from the hostel headed to Puzzling World, a bit of an institution here in Wanaka. It's probably a place you only go to once, but you definitely need to go with a group. It's all about puzzles and optical illusions, with rooms that distort perspective and planes of orientation, so you need mates along to take the photos. It's a hell of alot of fun, and then there's the maze. We split into 2 pairs to find our way first to the four different corners, and then to the exit. It isn't easy. Our pair managed without too much frustration using a mixture of logic and luck and only a few episodes of deja vu, but the other two got hopelessly lost, and after we'd waited 45min in the cafe, had a coffee, solved a few puzzles and noticed it was getting dark, we went and found them and directed them to an emergency exit. A few beers later and the trauma was all but forgotten. I promised I wouldn't mention names....

Today the clouds over the mountains will be lifting, but bitter experience has taught me to keep off the mountain during whiteouts. Even the seasickness tablets only have limited effectiveness. On Sunday I took the Go-Pro up and filmed in poor viz. Watching the footage on the computer even made me dizzy! But tomorrow the sun is meant to shine, so here's hoping.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Return of the ski goddess

The sheer joy of arriving in New Zealand on a one way ticket cannot be underestimated. Just knowing that I have total flexibility to stay as long as I like makes the whole trip so much more relaxing, and exciting. But there's a hitch.

The week before I arrived New Zealand experienced some heavy rain and warm weather, resulting in a lot of the cold white stuff I've come to ski disappearing from the slopes. What had started as a very promising season has deteriorated markedly, with very little coverage at most of the resorts, including those near Queeenstown. But I've been lucky, because the one resort which has managed to maintain a good cover is Treble Cone, so this ski goddess is sitting pretty. If not quite skiing pretty!!

I arrived just over a week ago and have had seven days skiing already. Cover in the Saddle is in fact better than last year, and snow quality is chalky rather than icy, due to calm conditions rather than the nasty winds of last season. Also, grooming has improved markedly this year, with really good overnight reconditioning of some pretty dodgy sections. Well done guys, a lot of us are appreciating the effort.
As per usual, I decided to get some lessons, and this week indulged in my second Sofaskicamp, a five day, five hours a day coaching program that saw me knock some nasty little habits in the bin and learn to angulate without dropping down into the bendy banana pose of last year. It also helps that I'm a lot less terrified of the steeps, and after a week of serious drilling by the earnest Guenther I am now able to ski down the bumps with control if not with any sense of style or panache. But on piste I'm looking pretty good if I say so myself!!

The highlight of the week was walking up to The Summit, which takes about 20min from the top of the  Saddle chairlift. From here you can see all the mountains stretching out, including Mt Aspiring, New Zealand's second highest mountain. The view down to the lake is pretty special too.

Back in Wanaka I've been indulging in a few local delicacies by visiting the weekly farmers markets, where I buy my free range eggs, organic veg, and locally made chocolate. I'm also going to start trying some of the Central Otago Pinot Noirs, so stay tuned for the upcoming virtual wine tour. I've a bit of serious drinking to do!!

A few of my friends from last year have returned to Wanaka again for the season, and I'm catching up with a few locals I know, as well as making new friends at the the hostel. Thursday night is crochet night, sounds pretty exciting doesn't it?

Tomorrow I give the legs a rest from heavy duty work on the mountain and have a lazy day in town. Then the ski goddess returns to the slopes! Might even break out the onesy next week!!

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

A story from Laos

The mist lingers as we motor slowly upstream. Barely three metres wide and in places so shallow we risk running aground, our boatman wades whilst we huddle in the bow. We slip gracefully between rows of vertical sticks, like centurions charged with slowing the river’s path. Dugout canoes, near relatives of our own floating chariot, loom suddenly into view, and as quickly vanish. The sun peers over the towering karst peaks as we glide towards our destination.

A deep blue pool greets us, then the river is devoured as it enters the underworld. A larger boat, guided by two men with feeble headlamps, navigates a passage through darkness. After half an hour and some scrambling over minor rapids we reach a gallery high above the waterline. Two days earlier a team of engineers completed installing the electricity and only now can the limestone formations be revealed in an astonishing kaleidoscope of light and shadows. Muted yellows and blues create a magical fairytale scene deep inside the heart of a Laos mountain.

In hushed awe I stumble back to the boat and continue my journey. A further three kilometres  and we enter daylight again, threading between tree roots into a jungle of lush vegetation. An anaemic sun shines down on a few friendly villagers eking a living selling snacks to a handful of tourists.

The trip back is in silence, broken only by the occasional need to abandon ship to allow the boat to fall unhindered over the rapids and ram itself up against the opposite wall. We pass other tourists in other boats, but mostly it is just dense blackness, the gentle lapping of the water against the side of the boat, the comforting hum of the motor, and an often hastily shouted command from the bow. I emerge into the harsh sunlight on the arm of one of my guides, and bid them adieu.

Konglor village is at the end of a valley, hemmed in by karst limestone cliffs that merge where the river enters the cave. My return up the valley is not by boat, but on foot. Mud walled, thatch roofed barns pepper the fallow ricefields, while on the other side of the newly constructed tourist road grows acres of blindingly green tobacco.

I leave the road, making my way through the dried out fields. The ground is parched, a shallow stubble preventing the cracked earth from blowing away. I reach a stand of trees, a sandy beach beside the river, and join a herd of cattle on a midday siesta watching the reflections. I enter a small village, a few poorly constructed stilt houses built back from the river’s flood plain. There are no signs of modernity in this village, no vehicles, no satellite dishes, no electricity. Two naked children continue to play as I pass by.

I push open the gates to a river resort. This resort is part of a chain of Eco resorts which stretch from Luang Prabang in the north to Don Khong Island in the very south of Laos. But today it is deserted, aside from a solitary man sitting on the step of a run down cabin.

The man calls out to me in English. After explaining that all the staff are on holidays, he offers to cook me an omelette. On the deck overlooking the river sipping a cold Beer Lao, this man tells me the story of his life. In 1979 Joi and his family fled civil war in Laos by swimming across the Mekong River to Thailand. Eventually they ended up in Australia, where Joi completed his education and began his working life. In the 1990s some of his older siblings began returning to Laos and setting up businesses. Joi returned to Laos much later, and has been managing this family owned resort for the last couple of years.

Joi had spent more of his life living in the West, yet here he was living in a rural backwater, without much more than basic amenities. I wondered that someone could give up the opportunities of a new life in a new country to return to such a simple life with so few creature comforts.

I thought of those people living their uncomplicated lives in the nearby village, who could have no concept of what Joi had given up to return to his country. I thought of the fairy cave inside the mountain and I understood that family, country, culture and belonging are tangible.  Joi knew where he belonged and he was happy to be home.

I finished my omelette, and as I picked my way through the fields back to my homestay, I hoped one day I too would be happy to be home.

Monday, July 9, 2012

KISS - Keep It Simple Stupid

This is a bit of a departure for me, as I love to carry a big camera, my tripod and a couple of lenses on most trips. For the last two years I've taken my dSLR with me to New Zealand and taken some nice shots, but if I'm to be totally truthful with myself, I could have got away without it. I mean, I'm staying in one place, going skiing most days, and there's only so many photos you can take of that lake right? And I never take the camera up onto the slopes with me, I'm too scared of falling and busting it.

So, this year I'm leaving it behind. Not that I won't be taking any pictures, they'll just be different. Because now that I've got an iPhone I'm trying something different. And enjoying the ride a lot.

Instagram is an iPhone app that seems to be extremely popular. It allows you to apply some digital changes to your photos without any pain at all in a digital darkroom. There's about 12 effects to choose from, then you upload it to the site. It couldn't be any easier to get all creative, and it sure is fun.

These are my footprints on the beach. I love how it brings out the contrast so it's almost 3D.

This is along Greenough River, on one of our walks. It's got that faded 70s polaroid look to it.

Another at Greenough River, just a stagnant waterhole at the end of the inlet but the high contrast makes it look a little better than that.

I really like this one. It's the three of us standing on a bridge. This is our reflections in the water, looks great in black and white.

                          Another black and white rendition of the dog in my life. Sweet as!

These are of the sand dunes south of Cervantes on the coast road to Perth. I scrolled through the effects till I got the one I wanted. I especially like the faux filmstrip border.
And finally, a grass tree against the blue sky, just north of Lancelin. I like the cloud treatment as well as the high contrast foreground. Would take me ages to get this effect in Lightroom.

So, armed with the Go-Pro for video (last year's footage wasn't worth airing) and my iPhone, expect to see something different from my next NZ trip. Not long now!