Archive for the 'skiing' Category

One more drifter in the snow

Almost home. Not quite but almost. Just enough time to fit another wee trip. This time – skiing. To summarize a blog I’ll never write. Skiing is an indulgent middle class past time, that requires so much money, energy and destruction to the environment that it is unlikely ever to be justified on an ecological, social or monetary basis. It is, however, simply wonderful. Very few things I do live up to the above justifications. Deal with it. Or at least struggle. I do.

Nee how

Ruapehu is a large volcano in the middle of the north island. So big in fact that lake Taupo (imagine lough Neagh) is the crater of the same system. Ruapehu is the mountain at the south end of the lake, most recently active about 10 years ago when it blew. Forbes (one my consultants) has an amazing photo about 6km from the crater in a ski hut. The crater lake burst its banks about 6 months ago causing a lahar that closed roads and swept out to sea.

So of course, one of the southern hemisphere’s largest ski resorts is based there.

I left Napier on Friday, drove the good old Napier to Taupo road (which provides the tastiest, and most violent of our trauma in Hawke’s bay) for two hours and walked about Taupo in the rain waiting for the cinema to open.

I watched ‘bridge to Terabithia’ with a bunch of 7 year olds. I expected Narnia. I was disappointed. So disappointed that I didn’t wait the extra half hour and watch transformers instead.

I was staying with Forbes and his wife’s cousin and family. They just hadn’t turned up yet, hence the cinema. They have a bach (a beach house, all kiwis have one. You do know this is the best country in the world don’t you?)

I was greeted with pizza and hospitality that I have been flooded with throughout my time in NZ. Well the hospitality, if not the pizza. I slept on their sofa bed and filled with porridge and fried eggs in the morning.

Taupo is about an hour and a half from the mountain. The far side of the lake. Which makes for a lovely drive from one end to the other, with the gleaming snow fields in view. I’m torn between stopping to take quality photos and getting to the ski field early.

Forbes is the person to go skiing with. He did ski patrol (as the medic) for years, he knows the area inside out. He knows all the huts and a lot of the people. I have a tour guides talk on the origin of the names (from Maori legend) and the geology of the area and which roofs of which huts he’s skied off.

It’s a Saturday, it’s the best day of the early season. It’s packed. Flippin people. Flippin people, flippin snow boarding (I was skiing not boarding today).

It takes us 45 mins to get to the top of the mountain on the lifts. We meet, very randomly, but most fortuitously, JT (another doc from the hospital) on the first lift and he joins us for the day.

The mountain is stunning. Nothing like skiing in Europe with its carefully pisted slopes and well marked runs. This is chaos. Bluffs and cliffs at every turn, rocks sticking up everywhere. It’s fantastic.

I end the day sharing a t-bar with a pretty kiwi girl who has at least spent time in Scandinavia (and got a funny accent out of it) and therefore fulfills my ‘pretty Scandinavian’ rule. We have a good chat but the t-bar runs out too quickly before she gets to find out I’m a doctor (which I can’t tell her, she has to ask, there are lots of rules remember), which, in my scale of talking to young pretty women who once visited Scandinavia, is perhaps my top trumph.

If the former paragraph makes no sense, don’t worry…

To end the day the lot of us (me, Forbes, his wife’s cousin, his wife’s cousin’s wife, his wife’s cousin’s 17 year old, and his wife’s cousins 17 year old’s mate – sorry for the horrible use of apostrophes) go to the local hot springs. They are kind enough to provide me with togs I forgot to bring. These turn out to be speedos so pornographic that I wear my boxers over the top. Good times.

Me, Forbes and Spence (Forbe’s wife’s cousin), talk late into the night, covering religion, ethics and why vinyl still beats digital. I’m treated to Spence’s collection of 45s (not 33s) including early Elvis and some dodgy Elton John. I play finger-picked detuned versions of Iain Archer and Pedro songs in the corner. Spence’s wife eventually tells us to shut up. Good times indeed.

Immigrant song

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I remember last night, just after the Elvis, that there was a plan to get up at 6.30 and get to the mountain for when the lifts open (at 8.00). I vaguely remember it at 6.30 when I wake first. I remember it at 7.00 when the first hints of brightness are making their way through the curtains. I remember slightly more clearly at 7.30 when I hear the first chopper of the day taking its load of tourists on a flight over the lake. It hits me at 8.00, when my stomach starts to growl with hunger, that perhaps we missed the boat.

The mountain is crisp and white and blue screened by the sky when we get there at 11.30. It takes a good photo.

As we approach the road up the mountain, a flickering LCD sign tells us ‘Bruce road closed, ski area full’. In 30 years of skiing at Ruapehu, Forbes has never seen this. The car parks at the top end are full. Full, it seems of Philippino and Japanese tourists who have no intention of skiing, just going up and down the lifts and laughing as their kids make snow angels and stick snow down their siblings backs.

We wait 45 mins to get a coach to the field. One is not amused. Just bitter and remorseful, that sleeping bags are far too hard to get out of at 6.30.

We get three hours quality skiing. Well Forbes gets 3 hours quality skiing, I get three hours of uncontrolled, gravity driven descent. Snow is soft enough I discover.

We say our goodbyes at the end of the day. Yes I will see them again in 2 months, which isn’t a long time but still awkward. Forbes departs to buy vegetables (one of the ski villages is, bizarrely the NZ capital of carrot growing. Indeed it has a 20 foot high fibre glass carrot at its entrance. Like the giant trout, or the giant kiwi fruit, or the giant wellie boot, that grace other NZ towns. No accounting for taste) and eave for Ohakune – a village at the south end of the mountain.

Now to explain why I’m in Ohakune instead of Napier. Some of you may find it beneficial to google for a map of NZ to have along the side of the blog.

Let me begin. I have a ‘working holiday’ visa. A visa which I got over the net in 2 days without having to prove I even had a passport. This visa is designed for people to come to NZ to pick fruit and work in cafes and of course not stay in the job for longer than three months at a time. I’ve been in mine about 10 months now. I pay tax. Maybe that’s why they don’t mind. My ‘working (your whole life’s a) holiday’ visa runs out 4 days after I come back to NZ.

I imagine this won’t look good to immigration on the way in. It will look worse for reasons outlined below.

The UK medical work force is upward of 30% (NZ is 41% I read in the paper) foreign trained. In other words we need to look overseas to fill the jobs. These jobs are most often filled by excellent doctors who’ve trained in far flung corners of the planet. The UK in general and the NHS in particular is greatly enriched and indeed indebted to their contribution.

There are however a few, how shall I put it – useless idiots – imported. Just as we seem to train some useless idiots ourselves. When I worked in Craigavon there was briefly a group of 4 (out of several hundred docs) who became know as the horsemen. As in the 4 horseman of the apocalypse. In my absence I’m told the term has evolved into dee-effs. Or dangerous foreigners. This is of course hugely racist and neglects many important issues. It is also really quite humorous.

I told Forbes this. In light of recent critical terror threat levels, and multiple high profile arrests, Forbes has renamed them ee-effs. Or exploding foreigners. This is also hugely racist and discriminatory. But also quite funny.

In the ICU here we have two non-white doctors. One a third generation English guy (indeed more English than most people I’ve met – and I mean that, surprisingly in nothing but a positive way) with Indian ancestors and a Hindu background. The other is an immensely gracious and gently mannered Malaysian, also with Hindu, Indian background. Both will be picked out at the airport as potential threats, just cause they’re not white.

In the same way, my mate, Mohsin, who I used to work with in A&E, will be pulled up and searched at every point. As a leader in both bleary and Lisburn rd mosque, perhaps he is a more suitable candidate to stop and search. Though he’s also gutted and appalled at what is done in the name of Islam (as I am about what is done in the name of Christianity) by a mixture of psychopaths and bitter, angry men. Indeed he is more receptive about religion and the gospel than most ‘Christians’, even if he has that rather annoying trait of saying we’re all on a bus going the same direction (I paraphrase). When a man says I am the way the truth and the life he means it I think.

Goodness. That was a tangent.

I’m in Ohakune. Why am I in Ohakune again? Oh yes, cause it’s nearly half way between Taupo and Palmerston north.

Another tangent. Palmerston north has the unfortunate title of suicide capital of NZ. John Cleese, for whatever reason, latched onto this and launched a diatribe of abuse against the place as the worst place in NZ (which in truth it probably is). He citizens of Palmerston North retaliated and renamed their rubbish dump ‘Mt Cleese’. I love kiwis.

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I need to got to Palmerston North cause that’s where, in their wisdom, they’ve put the immigration office. So tomorrow morning I’ll dander into the office and smile politely and graciously and ask them if they’ll grant me a visa to do the job I’ve already been doing for 10 months and a visa to stay legally instead of illegally in their country. This within a week of five doctors being arrested in the gold coast in Australia, prompting a review of all registration and immigration procedures for doctors. And me being from a country, famous perhaps for its long history of violence and terrorism.

Wish me well.

A whiter shade of pale

On day 3 me and Phil abandon the Skiing, thinking that now, with only two main runs open, is the best time to try to learn to snow board.

Kiwi’s are big into boarding. At least 50-50 if not more will board. I’ve always admired them. Mostly cause it looks cool, but it also looks like a lot of fun.

Me and Phil spend 30 mins before our lesson on the nursery slope, simply falling over, standing up and then falling over again. We laugh at ourselves. The kids laugh at us. My two feet are strapped to a solid plank that I appear to have no control over. I’m not even sure what the theory behind it is.

Two hours later, we’re confidently (well more confidently than before) making our way down the nursery slope at speeds in excess of 3 mph. Thanks to pretty much private lesson by our instructor (who gets to spend six months in NZ and six months in Colorado USA – way cool).

We spend the afternoon braving the proper slopes and realise quickly that gradient is an important variable in snow boarding and that maybe we’re not quite ready to embrace it yet. Nothing broken, we retire for the day.

Next day we head straight for the slopes, and Phil survives a brush with death by falling off the chair lift just as we leave, and just avoids getting whacked on the head by the lift. In true form he takes a poor, non-English speaking foreigner down with him.

By this stage it started to snow. Bringing new meaning to the words white-out. Sunglasses help, if only cause darkening what you can’t see makes it slightly less intimidating. A blindfold may have been more effective.

So to summarise, we are now at the top of a mountain, effectively wearing a blindfold, with our two legs trapped to what can only be described as a well polished, slightly elongated tea tray.

Gravity sees us right. She has a tendency to do that…

With skiing done we vacate Methven to the north, back to Hanmer Springs. Mostly cause my car is there, hopefully repaired, but also cause the Springs of Hanmer Springs are pretty sweet and it’s nice to sit in an outside hot tub in the snow. Not a pretty Scandinavian girl in sight but lots of friendly Kiwis so well compensated.

We only leave when we realise they’re actually draining the hot tubs for the night.

We eat in a tacky (but quite tasty) Chinese restaurant that appears to serve everything except what we wish to order. The evening finishes with a brief walk along the main strip of Hanmer to realise that there was probably more nightlife in Methven.

Road to joy

I suppose I meant to do a daily blog, for the time the guys were here. Like the ‘big trip’ but with more snow. But it never really happened. I could blame tiredness, I could blame long conversations till 3 am, in a different age I probably could have even blamed Drumcree but to be honest I just got a bit lazy.

So anyway. We drove from Hanmer Springs to Methven (at the base of Mt Hutt) in a morning and kept wondering when the snow was gonna start. For those who have skied in Europe then you’re well drilled, with the flight, the bus trip to the chalet, the sudden realisation that you are in fact sleeping in a lavatory in the local service station and not the log chalet you saw in the brochure. But ultimately you end up staying in the snow.

Methven, the local alpine resort, was in the middle of the Canterbury Planes (imagine what they look like), and full of sheep and cows. There were mountains in sight, but they looked like a really angry version of the Mournes and not something you’d want to carve parallels down.

By this stage it was lunch time and we wanted to at least get a brief ski in so we braved the mountain road to the field. Another brief point to folk who have skied in Europe. The road to the resort may well be windy and your bus will be piloted (the correct term as he thinks he’s flying a jet fighter) by a grumpy Frenchman with a moustache. But the road will at least be tarmacced and have those wonderful crash barrier things at the edge.

The road to Mt Hutt is gravel. Well there’s gravel underneath. There’s mostly snow and ice on top. About half way up we have to stop to fit ‘chains’. Initially I am dubious, but when I see what lies before us I think maybe I need ‘spikes’ not just chains. Phil does us proud, and gets us safely to the top.

On the way down we see a car with both front wheels over the edge of the cliff. A stanchion from a flimsy fence being the only thing to stop it going over. The driver looks as white as… well…snow.

It is the first day of the season and alas only two of the big runs are open. But they’re good runs and we’re keen. We run bets (we seem to run bets on everything, from when the car will break down next or what time Spud will need to pee again) on who will fall over first. Phil wins with a spectacular 3.5 secs and falls over almost as soon as he clears the chair lift. Me and Spud breathe a sigh of relief that it wasn’t us.

So good to be back skiing. A wonderful, completely bizarre sport, that requires such a stunning amount of effort to actually exist that you wonder how you can ever justify it. A bit like a girlfriend or the human race. But it’s simply wonderful, to be gliding over smooth, pisted slopes in the sun, staring down at the Canterbury Plains to the ocean. One of the few countries you could be surfing and skiing in the same day.

The other joy of skiing in NZ is that (almost, apart from the Irish apparently) everyone speaks English as a first language. So you get into all kinds of chats with folk on the chair lifts. The three of us end up on a lift with a Kiwi in a ‘Mt Hutt’ jacket who chats to us about where we’re from and what we’re doing here. I end up with an all expenses paid job offer to be a ski patrol doctor for a couple of months. This would fulfil one of my two great medical career paths – the other being a cruise ship doctor, with hat and uniform and the whole nine yards.

Phil tells him he’ll be back in 5 years. I tell him I’m going back to Ireland for the ski season (as in the duration of the ski season, not the Irish ski season). He asks why on earth I would want to do that, and I wonder why…


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