A Treehouse in Nelson

28 03 2010

After 6 months of travelling, nearly 4 of which have been in New Zealand, we were both looking forward to settling down in one place for a while. As much as we both love travelling, the frustrations of constant movement, not to mention living in a car, start to build up after a while and we found we were longing for a holiday from our holiday!

We’d begun looking at a few rental options in our city of choice, Nelson, but were not having much luck finding anything short-term. Unable to commit to a 6 or 12 month contract we were beginning to give up hope when we found a house share in the hills about 10 minutes walk from the town. The ‘treehouse’ was just what we were looking for – a self contained room above a car-port with bed, desk, and small kitchen. It may not sound glamorous but believe me, in comparison to living in a car it is 5 star luxury!

Our new home - the treehouse, Nelson, NZ

The promise of free eggs from the house chooks sealed the deal and we snapped it up within 2 minutes of seeing it. We’ve now been here 4 weeks and have been thoroughly enjoying access to a fridge (mmm, cheese) and a freezer (mmm, ice-cream). Of course we’ve also had to re-acquaint ourselves with a duster and vacuum cleaner but it’s a small price to pay!

Nelson is one of the sunniest places in New Zealand with around 2400 hours of sunshine annually. Compare this with the 1500 hours typical in the UK and you can see why both Kiwi’s and ex-pats gravitate here to live or holiday. Nearby are the Abel Tasman, Kahurangi and Nelson Lakes National parks, the vineyards of Blenheim and the Marlborough Sounds, plus with plenty going on in the city it seems like a great place to live.

Nelson view and tasman bay, NZ

We’ve still been pretty busy despite our new relaxed way of life. There’s something on nearly every day and night here in Nelson. There’s probably plenty of activities going on in most towns but while we were working at home we had neither the time nor energy to go and pursue any of them! Zoë has started helping out with the Sea Cadets which gives her access to a 50ft yacht that she joins for the weekly race meetings. So far they’ve placed first and second and had one collision! While waiting for the hockey season to start I’ve been to an introductory Wood-turning class – let me know if you need any baseball bats, chair legs or egg cups. We’ve both also been to our first Tango class! While we were assured we were doing very well for our first lesson I think it will take a very very long time to become competent!

Pomeroy's Coffee House, Nelson, NZ

Saturday mornings are usually spent at the farmers market stocking up on cheap veggies and pots of chutney, a $10 shiatsu massage, followed by coffee and cakes at one of the dozens of cafe’s while checking out the weekly property pages. Every weekend many of the properties on the market have Open homes, allowing you to turn up and snoop around mansions that are way out of your price range!

While the weather is still pretty nice here at the moment, the days are getting cooler and shorter pretty rapidly! Hopefully it doesn’t get too rough down here otherwise we may find ourselves flying North for the Winter!

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Big Ears, Tea-bagging and Flares

12 03 2010

After a very lazy recovery week back on dry land, Zoë was keen to get out on the water again and do her Day Skipper course before the summer season is over. With the memories of dizzy queasiness still fresh in my mind I gladly offered to stay ashore and look after the crisps and ice-cream while she was away.

This was also my opportunity to try my hand at Paragliding!

I’d always watched with envy the gliders traversing along the beach or soaring across the hills in various places around the world. One of the most appealing concepts for me though was the possibility of hiking up a hill and instead of the knee pounding hike back down again, unpacking your kit and flying off the top!

Nelson is a good place to learn the sport with it’s consistently fine weather and good training hills from which to launch. I followed a recommendation for Cumulus Paragliding because of their emphasis on safety, something I hoped would allay Zoë’s fears that I’d be dead or crippled by the end of the week. Having mentioned I was going to learn paragliding to a couple of people recently, their immediate reaction was to tell us how dangerous it was!

So, having dropped Zoë off at the harbour I went to meet my Instructors Tony and Deane. The first stage of my course would be one of the fundamentals of paragliding – Ground Handling.

This was all done in a playing field by the sea so no chance of falling to my death yet. The morning was spent learning how to run up the glider in a forward launch, something done in 0-5kmh of wind. Even in this barely detectable breeze, pulling this huge wing up over your head took considerable effort! Once up in the air the glider became much lighter and with a combination of sideways running and steering with the brakes I could soon stay centred underneath the wing. At the end of the field I’d then ‘teabag’ up the glider and carry it back over my shoulder for another go.

The more common method used, particularly in stronger winds, is the reverse launch and I attempted next to learn this. In theory this is simpler as you are now facing the wing and can therefore see what it’s doing and control it better. All of the other pilots I saw over the next few days would demonstrate just how easy this was. However, consistently spinning around to launch without getting in a tangle of lines is a skill I’m yet to master!

My first flight was early the next morning off the 600m high Barnicoat hill. Many schools will start students at much lower altitudes but this adds a time pressure due to the considerably shorter flight.

This is something that I found frustrating when learning to skydive. As a beginner, you want plenty of time to think about what you’re doing and perform the manoeuvres you’ve been taught. Starting off at lower altitudes only makes this harder as you have less time to perform your freshly learnt skills, increasing the risk of panic and cocking something up!

Tony did a good job of getting me set up and ready quickly so there was no time for nerves to set in! Thankfully I hadn’t forgotten how to launch overnight and was soon running down the hill and then floating out over the forest below! Once away from the hill I could settle back into my seat and enjoy the view while Tony and Deane talked me down to the landing paddock over the radio. There was no nervousness or fear once in the air. Because you don’t feel like you’re falling you can just sit back and relax as you slowly drift down over the landscape below. A few minutes later I’d landed at the bottom, albeit on my backside, and was soon packed up and taken back up ready for my second flight!

The thermals were picking up now so it was a bit of a rougher ride this time. Again, another safe backside landing and just enough time for flight #3 before the sea-breeze kicked in around midday.

For my 3rd flight I was to make my own landing, with Deane still watching from below just in case I got into difficulties. Eventually I got down towards the landing zone. I know most of the time paragliding is about staying up in the air but when you’re trying to get down, thermals repeatedly lifting you half way back up the hill you’ve just flown down can get a little annoying!

I think I made an old mountain-biking mistake when coming into land, that is focussing too much on the things you don’t want to hit! By telling myself repeatedly “don’t land in the gorse bushes, don’t land in the gorse bushes” I found myself gravitating very rapidly to those very gorse bushes! Thankfully for my bare legs I managed to just miss the bushes, and for the first time land on my feet too! Unfortunately just as I was wiping my brow, my glider then fell back and landed squarely on that huge patch of very spiky shrubbery. A fellow pilot kindly came to help me untangle about 40 lines from the dense patch of gorse, trying very carefully not to rip either the glider or our arms and legs to shreds in the process! From that point on I’d be coming into land on the opposite side of the paddock!

As the sea-breeze picks up during the day and messes around with all the thermals on the hill it wasn’t until later in the afternoon that we returned for my 4th and final flight of the day. This was a proper solo landing so the pressure was on. Luckily I’d learnt my lesson and came into the landing paddock on the non-prickly side and also performed my best landing of the day, a good flare and daintily landing on my feet. A long but productive day – 4 flights down, only 2 to go!

The weather towards the end of the week was getting a bit rough so I was keen to get the 5th and 6th flights required for my PG1 student rating done on Day 3. Another nice flight in the morning although it was still a little blowy for my liking and so I was introduced to Big Ears. This involves grabbing a couple of the lines above your head and pulling them down around your waist so the outside ends of the wing fold down at 90 degrees. This reduces the area of the wing providing lift allowing you to descend a bit more rapidly out of all the turbulence trying to shove you back up the hill.

Again, we had to wait until the evening for another gap in the wind. We were joined then by Andy who’s visiting from Switzerland – the chief photographer for Advance paragliders and contributor to all the top magazines. I had a good chat with him about all his photo gear that he mounts up in the wing, operated by remote control as he travels around the world photographing the worlds best pilots – a nice job!

The wind on top was still rather gusty and did a good job of dragging me backwards up the hill while I was trying to launch for my 6th flight! I definitely need to get back in the playing fields and master the reverse launch! Finally I was away and enjoyed a leisurely soar around the hills before coming down to the paddock.

With only a short test to complete I could now get my PG1 licence!

If you’ve ever fancied learning to fly, then I’d thoroughly recommend Paragliding as a way of getting airborne quickly and cheaply. Although I’ll pass on the warning I was given by my instructors – it can get very addictive!

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A Pair of Competent Crew

3 03 2010

On more than one occasion I’ve been known to state that ‘I hate boats and I hate the sea’. Not all my experiences have been bad however, the leisurely cruise around the Whitsunday Islands in Australia is one of the few that I can recall as pleasurable. This pleasant memory is often overshadowed though by those of rough water-taxi’s bouncing through the waves and the time I vomited a meat pie onto a Great White Shark in South Africa.

You might be surprised to hear then that I’d agreed (some might even say suggested), that we spend 5 days at sea getting our RYA Competent Crew certificate! The idea had popped up some time ago when I discovered that you could go on holiday to most of the remote, beautiful places in the world, such as the islands of the Mediterranean, Caribbean and South Pacific, for free or next to nothing if you volunteered to crew some rich chaps yacht! Yachties are often keen for extra crew to help with watches, cooking etc.. plus a bit of company at sea and websites like crewseekers.net usually have plenty of adverts for Help Wanted.

The city of Nelson seemed to be a good place to do the course with neighbouring Abel Tasman National Park and the Marlborough Sounds much more appealing than the cold waters off Southampton!

We met our Skipper Tom early on Saturday morning as well as our fellow crew, Marek from Poland and Ueli from Switzerland who had some experience already and was coming onboard to build up his miles for the rigorous Swiss yachting licence requirements!

After a couple of hours briefing and a tour of the yacht we motored out of the harbour and into the Tasman Bay ready to hoist the sails. Luckily most of our sailing would be around the coast and I felt fine as long as I kept sight of land. I couldn’t do this of course when below decks in the bathroom and instantly felt a little queasy as soon as I lost sight of solid ground. I’d be severely limiting my fluid intake from now on so as to reduce bathroom trips! Zoë of course is quite comfortable at sea and enjoyed a leisurely first day tacking up the coast to our first anchorage in Whakarae Bay in the Croisilles area, North East of Nelson. Thankfully my stomach was still intact to enjoy the excellent food Tom was preparing – pretty impressive Salmon and veggies etc.. in the small galley.

Tom assured me that if I wasn’t sick on Day 1, I’d be fine for the duration. I had a gut feeling that I’d prove him wrong though!

Day 2 – Man Overboard!

A prompt start was required on our second day as we were to negotiate one of the most dangerous passages in New Zealand – French pass – between the mainland and D’Urville Island. It was essential that we arrived with the tides in our favour otherwise we’d be hanging around for several hours waiting for a safe second attempt. The wind, in a way, was in our favour – it’s complete non-existence forced us to motor for most of the morning and so we arrived in good time. I’d discovered that steering eliminated most stomach-churning and so I spent most of the morning at the wheel before handing over to Zoë to negotiate the narrow fast-flowing channel between the islands. Comfortably through the other side we sailed on towards Port Ligar through a thick blanket of fog with nothing but the compass to direct us.

Before long the fog lifted and the wind picked up and we were able to practice some Man Overboard drills! When told of the upcoming drills at the start of the course we were fully expecting to get wet. We were quite relieved to find that ‘Fred’, the Man overboard buoy would be the only one in the water and it was our job to rescue him/it. This was much easier than a real person as Tom demonstrated later once anchored. Hauling a man into the boat in a calm anchorage was hard enough even for 4 of us, out at sea must be much more difficult. Although apparently most Man Overboard incidents are from men peeing over the side of the boat once anchored, so maybe our practice was realistic enough!

Day 3 – Fresh Fish and a Fresh Breeze

We’d spent the evening before learning the large array of light combinations used on boats at night, from regular yacht and motorcraft, through fishing boats and trawlers to large supertankers under tow with no-one at the helm! Although we’d managed to memorise most of them, the only one we all could consistently identify were the lights of a Minesweeper! This knowledge was all required as tonight we were crossing the Tasman Bay from East to West, around 45miles in the dark.

The day started well with easy sailing until after lunch. Later on however the wind picked up and it was finally time to prove Tom wrong, my delicious sandwiches going overboard. Tom tried to console me with the fact that Lord Nelson was sea-sick every day, so at least I was in good company! As we’d made such rapid progress through the day we diverted into Port Hardy for dinner and a spot of fishing before our night passage. Neither of us have ever caught a fish before. Seeing people sat by the canal all day drinking special brew and fishing for dead rats and trolleys from Sainsbury’s hadn’t really encouraged us to have a go!

Tom had taken us to a little bay that he guaranteed would be a success. Blue Cod was our target, one of the most expensive and tasty fish found on New Zealand menu’s. To say it was like shooting fish in a barrel would be an understatement. This was much, much easier! No fancy equipment required, just a length of fishing line, a hook and a lure and within about 10 seconds we had our first fish! Minutes later we’d got one each and they were despatched to the freezer for later consumption. On tonight’s menu were huge juicy steaks, although while everyone else tucked in I opted for lettuce and half a pack of Stugeron in anticipation of the crossing ahead!

Rumours of high winds and rough seas over the radio meant our crossing was still not definite but we got on our oilskins and life-jackets and left the safety of the harbour in fading light to take a look. Conditions were favourable and so we ventured out into the night, soon reaching maximum speed. My watches were officially 9-11pm and 3-5am with Zoë getting the subsequent 2 hour shifts. Thankfully though she’d stayed up for the first watch which came in useful as I very quickly became a complete waste of space! The relatively stationary constellations of Orion and the Southern Cross were no substitute for dry land when it came to fixing my gaze and so the evenings salad and sea-sickness pills were soon in the drink! While Zoë provided the substitute pair of eyes on the lookout for minesweepers, I buried my head in my jacket and counted the minutes until bedtime. Despite now running on empty, the motion of the ocean would overcome me like clockwork every 30 minutes and again force me over the side of the boat to retch into the black rolling waves below. After persisting with this sickly routine for nearly 3 hours I gave in and cautiously stumbled downstairs to attempt sleep below deck. I always like to know my limits and sailing at night in a force 5 ‘breeze’ is most certainly beyond mine! Very kindly my crewmates extended their hours and didn’t bother disturbing me for my 3am watch, knowing full well I’d still be completely useless! For once I was happier below decks as Zoë and the others sailed into Abel Tasman National Park a few hours later under a calm, glowing sunrise.

Day 4 – Land Ahoy!

Anchoring at the Tata Islands for a few hours gave us all a chance to catch up on some sleep before setting sail again early in the afternoon. I was feeling a little better now and cautiously attempted some lunch, knowing that most of my digestive juices were still floating around the sea somewhere. The sailing was comfortable enough though, downwind all the way and setting a new record of 9.4 knots as we surfed the waves down to Adele Island. Here I was particularly keen to take advantage of the nearby beach and paddled everyone in the dinghy over to the island where we spent an hour back on dry land soaking up the sun and swimming in the shallow bay. Now all fully recovered we enjoyed another slap-up dinner and a much more comfortable nights sleep!

Day 5 – The Home Strait

Another comfortable sail today for our last leg back to Port Nelson with 219 nautical miles complete. Once back in the harbour we practiced some buoy approaches and learnt how to park a yacht in the marina. The latter can be rather nerve-wracking as you pass uncomfortably close to huge yachts worth over a million dollars! Imagine parallel parking a car the first time you ever drove one between a row of ferrari’s! We all managed to do this successfully though and once securely moored sat down for a nice cup of tea and a short review of the week with Tom. My incapacitating sea-sickness would obviously be a problem if I wanted to do more advanced sailing although there are apparently very effective wristbands that could solve the problem. Zoë got full marks however and Tom is confident she could get through her Yachtmaster in a few weeks!

We’re now back on dry land and relaxing in Nelson for a while. Hopefully our brains will soon catch up to the fact that we’re now stationary and stop making everything spin!

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