Christmas on the Otago Rail Trail

“We are now on Christmas Vacation!  That means fun times, laughs, and treats,” Jeremiah declared.  He believes in optimism.  The car clock read 9:52 a.m.

The morning had been hectic with last minute packing and cleaning.  The kids had been “helpful” in the typical way 5 and 7 year old siblings can be: Harass–Squawk–Sent away to room–Emerge to tease again.  I emptied the trash, wiped counters, sent Milo over to the neighbor’s with surplus plums, and squeezed Naomi’s hair into a pony tail.  Jeremiah packed the roof rack, strapped on the bikes, and ate the last waffle before starting the dish washer.  Doors locked.  Garage closed.  “Hold tight, garden,” I said to the unmown lawn ringed with cheerfully untidy flowers.

30 minutes later we were zooming down Route 1 when Naomi quavered “Maaahm, I’m going to throw up!”  I scrabbled frantically for the barf bucket, shoving it under her chin half a second too late, and felt the pink liquid cascade down my wrist and shower the car seat.  She must have had berries on her waffle.

We stopped at Rakaia and stripped down Naomi and the car seat, using the RV wash station to hose out the car seat.  The kids played on the playground.  Soggy car seat lined with plastic bags, we buckled up again.  “I’m hungry!” Naomi declared.

The kids slept through Geraldine so we set our sites for lunch at Tekapo, where a new playground was recently installed at the lakefront.

Milo rejected the pb+j that we’d packed, and opted to spend his own money on bacon and egg pie at the cafe.  “This is The BEST bacon egg pie I’ve ever had!” he declared.  Autonomy from parental food choices tastes fantastic.

We drove through Twizel through heavy thundershowers.  I checked the forecast nervously; just scattered showers clearing predicted for tomorrow, our first biking day.  We could handle that.

The track started at Clyde Railway Station, appropriately enough for a Rail Trail, and it was dead flat.

The Rail Trail has boxes at all the former stations where you can stamp your Otago Railtrail Passport. Most of the time there wasn’t much left to see at the site of the former rail stations, but there are little red shelters with historical info inside. We stopped at all of them.

Naomi petered along for a kilometer or two, stopping to adjust her backpack, take off her jersey, take off her gloves, look at the flowers, adjust her helmet…  I acquiesced, a model of maternal patience.  Glancing at my watch, then at the ominous white haze I could see on the distant hills, I decided it was time for rapid movement.  “Come on Naomi!”  Not a budge.  I couldn’t see Jeremiah and Milo ahead anymore.  “Do you want a tow?” I offered.  Nod.  The pattern was set for the trip; towing over tantrumming.  Pretty good deal, we decided.

Here’s one of the former train stations. We have our coats on, which means we just made it through a shower.

Our first day was the only one where we saw rain, thankfully. Clear spells and rain showers, which became increasingly rainy toward evening. The last leg towards Omakau was the only time we towed Milo on the whole trip. The kids were troopers, keeping up a brave face despite cold hands. Maybe the fists full of gummy bears helped.

Next morning dawned bright and crisp, and we cracked on.  Here was voiced the most memorable complaint of the whole journey, when I asked Milo to brush his hair:  “Ug! When am I going to lose my hair?!”  Now, that’s a pessimistic way of expressing the optimistic side of an aging process about which most men feel negatively!

It was a quick downhill ride to the first treat stop, a nice little cafe at the Lauder cross roads.  I don’t think we’ve ever patronized cafes quite as frequently as we did on this trip.  

Tricycle riding looked like more fun to Naomi than bicycle riding.

With hand rails added and some extra boards chucked into the deck between the train sleepers, the old bridges are still being used for the cycleway.

There are two long (~200 meter) tunnels on the second day of riding. It took a crew of something like 40 men two years with wheel barrows and picks to carve out this tunnel. Old photographs from the later 1800s showed a crew of bearded men staring morosely into the camera, leaning on their shovels.  Just imagine the drudgery of their lives.

Here are the remnants of one of the tunneler’s huts.  The huts were roofed in canvas. Otago is the coldest part of NZ in the winter, with regular frosty nights.  While cheerful on a summer sunny afternoon, in winter it would be abysmal.  We read a newspaper clipping from the times with two politicians complaining against each other’s management of the rail project.  “The work is proceeding heroically with men working tirelessly to open the pass, the government should support it with more money” versus “The work is proceeding over-budget and over-schedule; they should use horses and drays instead of hand labor to rectify this wasteful situation.”  Half truths and one-sided stories aimed at damaging the other’s reputation.  Nothing has changed in 125 years.  

Oturehau is the hamlet where we stayed that second night, and it boasts the oldest general store still operational in NZ. The friendly proprietress/historian served us ice creams, despite being technically closed for the day.

We had been encouraged to book accommodation well ahead because the Christmas season is busy, but the days preceding the holiday were actually very quiet. We were the sole occupants of this humble hostel.

On the road again…..to the tune of Dr. Seuss’s ABC’s and what felt like dozens of renditions of The Three Billy Goats Gruff. A mild hill, then it was mostly down or flat for the next couple days.

The rail trail doubles as a scale model of the solar system. One step equals 75,000 km. As we got closer to Ranfurly (where the sun was housed) we passed planets with more frequency.

Somewhere near the trail high point was a sign for 45 degrees South latitude. It was light until after 10:00 p.m.

We got ice creams and stocked up on groceries at Ranfurly, for the next couple days food was self-catered. Just outside Ranfurly was this hillbilly’s idea of comical fence decor–dozens of pig skins (and heads) left to dry over barbed wire in the sun.

We stayed Christmas Eve and Christmas Day at Peter’s Farm in Waipiata.  One brother runs the sheep and cattle farm, while the other runs the guest lodgings in the historic mud brick farm house. The sister returned with her family for Christmas, and the grandparents, retired and in their 90s, came up for the day. It could have been quite awkward, as we were the only non-family staying there, but it was actually lovely. It was like borrowing an extended family for the holiday, and we enjoyed laughs over their white elephant gift exchange as if it was our own.

We stayed at the sleep out next to the old farm house, kids and parents in separate huts. Luxury.

Merry Christmas! We haven’t preserved many Christmas traditions, but stockings is one of them. We had a box with a few treats sent to the farm.

Sand banks are hours of fun.

Boxing Day we resumed our ride.

Leaving the farm, Milo got to “heard” sheep along the driveway. I thought this might be the most memorable part of the trip to him–the power of one small human to move hundreds of sheep is amazing–but the next day the rabbit chase was even better. You’d think a rabbit being approached by a bike would duck into the nearby grasses, right? This silly individual scampered straight ahead on the road for well over a kilometer, until Milo, on his bike actually gave up chasing it.

Yum, cool-aid tongue in the shade for lunch.

Train cars….an excuse to stop for a diversion.

Milo had a little bike computer that told him the distance we’d traveled and the time it took. “22 kilometers and 1 hour 52 minutes biking,” he’d announce, impressively. I’d glance at my watch; 2:00 p.m. We’d departed at 9:30. Ah, MOVING time. We made a lot of stops. And the kids did great, really they did. It was just the last day or so when patience was wearing thin, on all sides.

Oddly, if one kid was throwing a wobbly, the other seemed to behave like a saint. Naomi had increasingly frequent stuck spells where she didn’t want to get on the bike or get towed, and Milo was usually the one to coax her forward again. Here she is, in full pout, hackles up, with Milo ready to go in for the rescue.

We spent five days biking, in total, and one rest day at Christmas, and covered about 150 kilometers. 158 if you count the jaunt up to Peter’s Farm, Milo reminds me. Mission accomplished.

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Garden nostalgia

At the end of May we moved house.  It was just a move around the block, essentially, but now we own the house instead of rent.  Ok, technically the BANK owns most of the house….but we can install lights and closet shelving, even move around walls if we wanted to (not that we’re in that phase of life at the moment).

We had been house hunting for about two years.  It’s a discouraging process, full of lousy expensive houses, failed attempts at purchases, and compromises that we didn’t want to make.  In the end we have a smaller yard than we ever thought we’d cope with, but it’s chocker with garden and well screened from neighbors by plants.  The windows face the sun (a significant source of heat in a NZ winter), and it’s walkable to school.  Oh, and we can afford it.

Jeremiah wanted more land.  Milo wanted to be closer to school.  Naomi is generally happy, and so am I.

We moved at the perfect time, just before three weeks of cold grey wet weather, the type of winter weather where I used to test to see if my breath was visible indoors at the other house. 

Rather than introduce you to the house itself, which is a rather unexciting modern three bedroom (though very functional and practical), let me showcase the garden.  We moved in the dead of winter, so the garden was mostly dormant or heading that way.  Spring has turned it into a botanical treasure hunt.

Forgive me if a wax a bit poetic.

There are old friends—the bare bushy branches have leafed out into a lilac and a dogwood, transporting me back to New York springs of my youth. The rhododendrons ae starting to open their flowers now, and I remember my grandparents’ massive bushes they could see from their kitchen window, with the myrtle underneath.

Every bare patch of soil has been colonized by forget-me-nots, which remind me of how my mom used to shake the drying seed pods over her own garden to inoculate it for the spring to come.  Then there’s a lemon tree, just to remind me that I’m NOT in NY.

And freesias of various colors, which seem very exotic.

There are frumpy finnicky plants that probably won’t stand my laissez faire style of gardening. To heck with those standard roses with their mean thorns and healthy aphid colonies. Of course they haven’t bloomed yet, I do reserve the right to adjust my attitude in future.

There’s a magnolia, like on the cover of my university biology book. It came out white, to my disappointment—who would plant white when they could have pink?

And there are various other plants that I don’t know. These fantastic sprigs of red berries make a tapestry window behind our bed, and seem to last all year.

These lipstick pink sprigs are sure to be Naomi’s favorites.

There’s a generous (for Christchurch standards) raised garden for vegetables, and I’m impressed with the quality of the soil. In back there’s even a bed of asparagus and rhubarb, with grapes along the fence.

Irises of varying types have come up in random patches. My neighbor has a color I don’t have, so I plan to do a swap. When I first worked for the veggie guys one summer in the Capital district I had big dreams of being an extension agent, driving all over the state, and collecting irises while I was about. That dream never materialized, but I can start a mini collection now.

Wisteria seems like such an elegantly fancy plant. They weren’t hardy in most of NY so we never had them growing up, but I remember an English gentleman in Owego carefully cultivating one around his front porch. Now I have one of my own, and it came out in fancy purple frilly flowers. It’ll be the summer shade for the patio, dropping its leaves and letting the sun in again for winter.

Oh, I must spare a paragraph for the kitchen. One of my non-negotiable points for house hunting was that the kitchen had to have good windows, and be near the living space. The last place had good cabinets and cook top, but it was internal. It was dim even on the sunniest summer day. I wanted light and windows, a nice view from the kitchen where I spend so many hours of my life. And this new house has this! A big window over a counter looks out to the veggie garden, and the rest of the counters look out over the dining area to the beautiful green of the rest of the garden. The cabinet fit-out isn’t fancy, but I still feel I’ve moved from the galley to the captains quarters.

The big windows in the house face northwest, which means in the winter, when the sun is low, it comes in and makes warm patches where we sit and play games (when there’s any time to sit).  As the season has turned, the sun is higher and it doesn’t shine into the windows as much, instead traveling up and over the roof.  I’m impressed with whoever designed that beautiful feature.

The garden was originally laid out with lots of love and care, but over the years there are plants that have been swallowed up in the shade, and others that have spread in haphazard profusion among the weeds.  That’s ok.  That means there’s scope to move stuff around.  I’m reminded of my Aunt Cheryl who moves plants every year like they’re furniture.

Because we live in summer-dry Christchurch, the first step has been to get the irrigation back up and running.  Over the years it’s been cut in dozens of places, or squeezed closed by plant roots, but that’s all redeemable.  Maybe I feel a bit like my father, who doesn’t love a house until he’s worked on it.  The garden work this summer will be my way to love this home.

Woman-of-Leisure Day

Naomi started school this week.  She loves her teacher (pictured), and she’s rocking the big girl style.

Her starting school also means that, for the first time, I experienced what it was like to drop off  two kids to school and have a free day (or free five hours at least). And I was resolved to not do any –no vaccuuming cobwebs, no grocery shopping; No Household Jobs.  It was amazing. The weather cooperated beautifully with the momentous occasion, so I went biking. 

Part way along the bike ride I stopped for a cafe brunch (“I’ll have the LARGE coffee, please”) at the Sign of the Kiwi.

I sat in the sun in front of the renovated cafe (finally open again after earthquake repairs) and watched the other people who didn’t have kids or work on a Tuesday morning come and go. Then I jumped on the bike again and sailed down through the weekday-quiet trails in the Adventure Park, and on towards home.  Even the quiet shower in the normal bathroom (that needs cleaning) seemed luxurious.  

I imagine if every Tuesday was like this I’d get used to it and start to take it for granted….a tragedy of under-appreciation.

That won’t happen though, since in two weeks I’ll start working more days, trying out the five day work week until Christmas.

I’m excited about that too.

The End of an Era….and beginning of the next

Naomi turns 5 in a matter of weeks, and the Kiwis have this charming tradition of sending kids off to start school right on their 5th birthday.  There are school visits once a week for three Tuesdays before The Birthday.  Then they dress up in the school uniform and start regular attendance on their birthday, or there abouts.

Naomi is very proud of her uniform, and was excited to wear it to Playcentre to show it off.

Tuesdays are our normal Playcentre days, another charming Kiwi tradition in which we’ve partaken since Milo was a baby.  Playcentre is a parent-run preschool with a philosophy that parents are the kids’ best teachers, and kids learn best by self-directed play.  A little like Montessori with a messier twist.

I’m not much for pageantry or ritual, but I was quite impressed with how special the send-off was at playcentre. Steph, the coordinator who has been there since Naomi was a new born, gave her a thorough “feel like a big kid” send off. She got to wear the special Maori feather cloak (symbolism a bit lost on me, but special nonetheless), and show everyone through her learning story journal. We all sang happy birthday in English and Maori, and she chose five “fairy claps” from the group.  She was presented with a certificate and a Playcentre cup before the admiring eyes of her peers.

A couple of the kids made her playdough cakes with candles. She moved her photo from the “waka” (big Maori canoe) to the school poster. And in the end she exited the building under a tunnel of hands to the tune of a special song.  She ate up all the attention, and then didn’t look back.  My kids aren’t nostalgic, that’s for sure; they seem to only look forward, towards the future, not behind.

There will be a leaving ceremony at her other preschool as well, the Montessori school where she attends while I work.  That one won’t involve a feather cloak, but she’ll still find it memorable.

Naomi’s birthday is during the end-of-term school holidays, so her school visits started three weeks before the end of term.  A school visit is 10-12, so we bring Milo at 8:30, then go home for a few minutes, then back to school.

The first school visit morning I wasn’t sure it was actually going to happen.  She had started out wonderfully excited to don the new uniform, but I had scolded her for driving her bike too close to a parked car and scraping it with her handle, and when we got home she was cross and uncooperative.  I offered to have her help me bake muffins.  “I don’t like muffins!”  Then would she like to grate carrots? “I don’t like carrots!”  We can put one of the muffins in your school lunch.  “I’m not going to school!”  Ok, I said, feigning indifference, while wondering if I was really willing to let her skip out.  Would you like to lick the batter?  A nod.  Then her sun came back out, all was well, and we traipsed back to school.

Here is the New Entrant classroom at Halswell school. Tuesdays are new kid visit days, so the parents of all the soon-to-be-starting kids are present as well.

Parents hang around for an hour of the visit, “settling in” their children….or, in my case, with a child who is confident and happy to be launched, just staring at the sea of red and wondering which one is mine.

New kids are paired with a buddy in the class room to show them the ropes (and the toilets, more literally). Her buddy is also shares her name, a fact which they both seemed to enjoy.

She’s starting with 12 other new kids, a huge intake for one week.  The teachers’ ability to learn faces and names is absolutely incredible.  Her teacher is starting back at school the same week she is, having been a New Entrant teacher at Halswell some years ago, then taken a break to be a librarian and a professional actress at the local theatre.  She was wearing a pink polka dot dress with a teal ruffle, pink bobble bead earrings, and red lipstick.  Her bubbly actress persona is infectious.  She’s any little girl’s dream teacher.  Heck, I want to go back to kindergarten!

While the kids are adjusting to the classroom, the parents are taken away to the staff room for tea and a talk.  The first week the talk had something to do with the reporting system, stuff I should have known having had Milo in the school for years now, but which I only vaguely recalled.  Another parent asked me about the weekly sausage sizzle, but I was clueless since we have never purchased it for Milo.  I felt more competent during the second week talk, revolving around feeding your kid for school–fruit break, morning tea, and lunch.  Apparently little misunderstandings like eating your sandwich for morning tea can be enough to derail some littlies.  Oh, and make sure they wear shoes they can do up themselves, and that they can get their own clothes down to toilet themselves.  I spent the hour being thankful that my kids are pretty rugged when it comes to transitions.  No credit to me, it’s just their confident personalities.

I’ve been trying to plan some fun stuff with Naomi on Thursdays before she starts her 8:30-3:00 school drill. Last week we went to Hagley park with friends; here we are being silly.

Every spring we ride or walk down Harper Ave in Hagley park, under the frilly cherry blossoms.   There was the spring when I just had Milo in the jogging stroller, then the next one where I was pregnant with Naomi.  Then I pushed a stroller and Milo rode his balance bike, then his pedal bike.  Now Naomi’s zooming along on her pedal bike while Milo’s at school.  Other years I’ve been desperate for the spring to come, but this spring has been so busy that I almost forgot to make the annual pilgrimage.

Cheeky cheerful Naomi.  Tomorrow is her third and final school visit, then the school holidays happen, then–hey presto–she’s a school girl.  Two kids at school.

Get Used to Disappointment

I’m not an optimist.

Truly.  I am not.

But occasionally I catch myself thinking like one….

Like when I balance the hummus on top of three leftover containers as I’m fridge foraging and expect to catch it in mid air if it falls….  I end up spooning hummus off the floor.

Or like when I decide at 8:24 that I can fit a week’s grocery shop in before the store closes, only to realize upon arrival that 9:30 is 30 minutes AFTER closing.  I sprint through the aisles, making it to the register in time, but have to return the next day for the forgotten parmesan.

Or when I thought my parents might move to NZ.

Optimistically, it IS possible.  I currently have the only grandkids on offer (the lure).  There is one work visa that isn’t age capped at 55 (the legal option).  My parents have been known to make big moves to be close to family before (the motivation).  And them coming here would solve so many problems, not leastwise my guilty conscience ones.  Then the kids wouldn’t be lacking grandparents because of my decision to leave America.  I wouldn’t have to re-invent the wheel when it comes to parenting strong-willed children.  And when my parents get old I can mow their lawn for them.

Their most recent visit was in July, the dead of NZ winter, to investigate the worse part of the year in anticipation of relocating here for a stint.  We used their visit as a deadline to buy a house, knowing that winter in the old place would not be a good marketing strategy, and we bought a lovely little place within walking distance of the school, with big windows facing the sun; insulated, with double glazed windows and two heat pumps.  June weather was rainy and uninspiring, but July really played ball, with quite civilized sun and glorious winter days.  But for various reasons, some Visa related and some not, it was not to be.  Omi and Abi aren’t shopping for a place to live around the corner from us.

Considering that I’m a pessimist primarily to avoid disappointment in life, I was surprised at the depth of the let-down.  It was a long shot to begin with; rationally, I KNEW that.

Inigo, Get Used to Disappointment.

So I finally need to post some pictures from their visit, to celebrate the time that they DID have here.

My most enduring memory of their three weeks here was how much time they spent playing with and reading to the kids. “Want to play Uno?” Yes! “Let’s read a book.” Ok! Grandparents have lot of love to go around. That, and they’re fantastic at helping with the dishes.

It was end of school term while they were here. They went to a show-off-to-parents day at Milo’s school and attended Naomi’s first ballet recital.

They went to playgrounds….

And to the Gondola, (with our friend Summer)

And to more playgrounds!

We took them to a Crusaders rugby game, only to have their hosts fall fast asleep on their laps! We had parked blocks and blocks away, and as the crowd tromped down the bleachers and my too-big-to-carry children snored away on their grand’s laps, my Dad looked up at me. “I don’t know what we’re going to do,” he stated, in some consternation, as I wondered if Uber drivers would pick up cargo from the stands. In the end Milo woke up enough to walk, and by the time we reached the car even Naomi was chirping away on my back completely capable of moving her own legs ( though opting not to do so).

Even Jenny cat basked in the unusually high level of affection.

During the second week of school holiday we drove up to the Marlborough Sounds via Kaikoura.

Milo was miserable during this Kaikoura walk–you can see it in his “I won’t cooperate with you even for a photo” expression. Not that there was anything physically wrong with him, but lousy attitude is enough to ruin a walk. “Milo is getting away with utter disrespect. He’s acting like he’s a little prince, and it’s working for him.” My dad, with the benefit of a fresh viewpoint, sees the situation and calls me out on it. We spent that walk strategizing how to turn a corner with Milo. I sometimes feel as if I’m parenting a uniquely difficult child, but of course there is nothing new under the sun, as those with the benefit of distance and experience can attest.

Weather was superb in the sounds; look at that glassy water! Remember, July is mid winter in NZ, and this is the ocean of the “Roaring 40s”.

Laura and her two kids, Audrey and Noah, joined us for a few days of our Marlborough holiday. Here we are tramping a portion of the Queen Charlotte track.

And we are particularly excited about the gummies at the end of the walk!

As tantalizing as the idea is, Grandparents are not going to be living around the corner. I have mourned, and now I must move on.

We love you, Omi and Abi!

 

Flotsam and Jetsam

Debris.

Detritus.

Flotsam and jetsam.

I think “flotsam and jetsam” describes it best.

Can you guess where this odd assortment was found?

Yep.  Behind the couch.

I imagine every family accumulates a similar collection (except ours is singularly lacking in currency):

A suckerfish from the Go Fish deck
The Ubiquitous Marble
Ammunition originating from two different types of weapons–nerf guns and a sling shot
Arielle’s plastic purple skirt
Wrapper from a mini Toblerone–probably consumed clandestinely
Assorted lego
Home-dried raisins, in a container (the good thing is that the environment of the house is dry enough to dehydrate fruit–they would have molded in the last place)
Pink and purple paper house
Two halves of the same acorn
A headless beetle….

And there’s only one reason to delve that deep into the underworld–we are moving again.  This time into a house we have purchased.

 

 

Golden weather

Autumn in Canterbury can be savory.  Golden days where the mean burn of the sun is gone and the heat is welcome.  Calm winds; blue skies.  Grass has turned green again.

This afternoon we went back over to the school grounds, kicked a soccer ball, and hung out.

Last Sunday I drove up to Castle hill and biked the mountain bike trails. A golden, peaceful day.

Last weekend was also the Chinese lantern festival in Christchurch. The Avon river was swarming with dragons, gaudy floating lilies, and people slurping asian food from cardboard take-away containers.

One afternoon I dragged the kids up to the summit rd overlooking Lyttleton harbor for a picnic lunch. “Don’t take this settled weather for granted,” I tried to tell them. “Winter will come and the wind will be cold.” They don’t look past the moment and anticipate the chilly winter coming. Maybe that’s a good thing.