We did our yearly trip up to the Central Districts Field Days in Feilding on March 8th.

As often happens on that trip, we ended up picking up a hitch-hiker near Foxton. We was an interesting looking fellow, with his little pack, beard, and clothing that at-a-glance reminded me of the Amish.

One of the first things he said to us, in a thick accent, was “there are lots of police about because there was just an escape from the local prison. Always a great start to a ride.

Actually, he was a fascinating young man. He was from near Cologne, on a 3-year journey. He was a traditional craftsman, a joiner, who as part of the traditions of his trade had to spend 3 years travelling and working after completing his apprenticeship before he was allowed to return home. And those travels were to be done wearing the traditional garb of his trade (19th century-style, in his case).

He’d just finished 3 months in NZ travelling and working, and was hitching his way north towards Auckland to fly back to Europe and complete the last few months of his travels. A nice guy, but we could only get him about 30 km further forth before our paths diverged.

And that’s why I never went to training again…

It was a fun-filled week for emergency response training.

Last Monday (our usual night) it was raining, so we decided to run a radio and maps exercise. Two people per car (5 cars total) each with a radio and a map. We would send them coordinates, which they would have to find and get to using the map. Once there, they would radio back their location (street corner) and we would send the next coordinates.

As we went along, the rain intensity started to increase. Then a bit more. Then it was hosing down. Some of the teams out in their cars started reported roads blocked due to flooding, or having to stop and assist other people.

So we turned the evening into a real-life recon. We re-tasked the teams to check stream levels, bridge clearances, and flooding in different parts of the city. Back and base we were recording this all on a map, and forwarding the relevant info on to the fire service. We were also prepping to head out with pumps if required.

Then the rain started to slow, and the flooding abated, and it became clear that the fire service could handle the remaining issues.

Wednesday was Waitangi day. It was time for us to work in the “public education” arena. We set up in Te Raupuraha park where they were holding the “festival of the elements” and work on educating the public about what they need to do in terms of their household preparedness. That and let them know about the team and what we do.

Then shortly about 2:30 PM team member cell phones started to go off- there had just been a shallow magnitude 8 quake east of the Solomon Islands. The sort of quake that can generate a serious tsunami. For an hour we waited to hear if a Tsunami risk had been declared. When the alert came through, it was time to pack up *fast* and get back to base. The Coast Guard, who had the display next to ours, were similarly speedy in their pack-up. (The public seemed blissfully unaware of our hastened departure, and of the conversations as we packed along the lines of ‘get that boat out to sea’ and ‘we have to move this equipment to high ground.’)

We were in the process of fitting the Tsunami alert/evacuation sirens to the tops of my ute so I could start driving around the beachfront communities when the alert was called off.

So, if good things come in threes, What’s going to happen at training tonight? We went from local flooding to Tsunami thus far. Is step three going to be an asteroid impact or something? I guess we’ll find out in twelve hours or so.

Animal Interactions

So, as you well know, we do stuff with our llamas and alpacas. Beach walks. Christmas Parades. Stuff like that. Back in November I had Hob (llama) and Durendal (alpaca) up at the PakNSave Porirua for the SPCA street appeal. Camelid work well for money-raising, as people come up and pet them, then look guilty and put money in the bucket.

The SPCA folks, seeing how well camelids did with the public, asked if I could bring them along to a more challenging and potentially more rewarding environment- a visit to a secure Child Youth and Family facility for highly troubled teens.

This is way more than a foster home, it is in-effect a low-security prison for kids who are starting to go really off the rails. A psychiatrist-friend was not very optimistic of my chances of having much of an effect on the kids, who in her experience were early-stage psychopaths most of whom would spend the rest of their lives in and out of the Justice system.

The problem many of these kids have is that they cannot connect, cannot trust people, due to a long history of abuse and other serious issues. The SPCA works with CYF to bring in animals to try and get positive reactions from the kids. They assured me that there would be plenty of staff on hand, and that the kids are “generally on their best behaviour.”

And it went really, really well.

Hob is the largest and thus most intimidating, but he is also amazingly calm and groovy. The alpacas were a bit less forgiving, and that was what made it really work. I gave the kids a talk about how if they moved or acted like predators (loud, fast, sudden) then the animals would be afraid of them. They needed to be calm, controlled and gentle- and they needed that to be in their body language.

And it worked.

The kids really, REALLY wanted to interact with the animals. Lead them around. Pet them. And they discovered the more they controlled and calmed themselves, the more they could do with the alpacas. It was a situation where the kids got to see immediate positive feedback if they controlled themselves. Sure, the CYFs counsellors can tell them that self-control is important, but when a formerly-dubious alpaca lets you quietly pet his neck, then it makes the value of self-control real.

I expect we’ll be going back. Over time I can try and vary what I tell the kids before we start, and what mix of animals I bring, to try and maximize the value of the experience.

Singapore Zoo

Right. We went to Singapore last year. On the way to India and Nepal. Prepare for a series of photo updates, preparatory to this year’s epic Mongolia trip.

Singapore Air has this special where if you stay over for a night on your way to wherever it is you’re actually going, they give you discount accommodation and vouchers to get into all this cool stuff. One of the places we went was the Singapore Zoo.

The white tigers were so very pretty.

There was an Elephant Show. One of the demonstrations in the show, along with the usual pulling logs, etc., was walking along a log, and then turning around 180 degrees on it. If you look at the bones in their feet, elephants are walking on their tippy-toes, and they’re surprisingly nimble.

The elephants are clever.

D’awww! This photo included prmarily for Beth:

Snoozing ocelot.

You could get surprisingly close to the animals, even the ones that weren’t in the big walk-in enclosures.


The lemurs, for example, were so close and unconcerned that I suspect you could actually pat them if you moved quick enough — I didn’t see anyone try, but I did kind of worry about dumb obnoxious tourists harrassing the critters. Not that these lemurs would have likely noticed, given that they were more or less entirely focussed on their lemur hormones. We were amused by a young mother explaining to her curious toddler just what they were up to.

Lemurs.  They're cuddling.

The feeding stations for the fruit bats were just off the railings of one of the elevated walkways. Seriously, I’m barely using the zoom for some of these pics.

Bats like fruit.  Also, corncobs.

This fella is soooo bored.

Bored lemur is bored.

These tapirs were in a more traditional enclosure (i.e., on the other side of a wall). I found them to be unexpectedly adorable.

Tapirs: suprisingly cute.

Most of the animals had feeding times that you could time your zoo exploration to intersect with. Not visible in this photo is the moat below, where many of the tigers hung out swimming around waiting for the hunks of chicken to be tossed to them. Like stripey white sharks, they were, circling in hungry anticipation. Apparently, if it rains too much, they have to cancel the tiger feeding because the moat gets too high.

Tiger anticipating nom.

Advanced Technology

Our phone died yesterday. When the tech came out to repair the fault (which was in a cable about 0.75 km north of our house) I had a nice chat with him.

He was from the Philipines, where he had also worked as a telecoms tech. When he got to NZ he needed a bunch of extra training because the equipment we use here is so old he’d never actually worked with it before.

He was also horrified at the parlous state of high speed internet here in NZ, copmpared to the Philipines.

Thanks, Telecom, your excellent monopoly has served the country well.

Georgia Trip, part… uh, where were we ?

Oh right, I think I had just gotten us out of Mestia. Or wait, no I hadn’t. When it finally came time for us to leave, we got a ride back to Zugdidi (take a moment and say that out loud: “Zugdidi”) with Jia, who charged us only around $5 more than he was charging the relatives he was also taking into town — and he asked Renata somewhat uncertainly if she thought that was fair. So sweet !

Different parts of the country naturally will have different styles of houses, and I was starting to get an eye for them. On the way to Zugdidi, the style seemed to require enormous, elaborate external staircases and wide verandahs. Similar to the place we’d stayed in Kutaisi, the main part of the house was on the upper floor, and the lower floor served as a granny flat for relatives, or renters.

More striking, though was the graveyards. If you’ve been following along, you may recall the little roadside shrines built by the relatives of whoever had died on that stretch of road. We passed a cemetary where, I swear, entire rooms had been built on the gravesite — three sided, complete with floors and furniture and fancy wrought-iron decorations on the roofs — each one different from the others, each one more elaborate than the next. As with the roadside picnic areas, they seemed to be for family outings to the grave, as well as of course displays of wealth and filial piety.

We still had a few days to kill before our flight out, so we decided that we’d take a detour to Vani. This involved another bit of marshrutka surfing, aided this time by Jia handing us off to the next driver and letting him know where we were going. The final leg to the museum in Vani required a cab, and we were relieved to be able to dump our packs in the blessedly air conditioned lobby.

Why Vani ? Vani was, as near as they can tell, the capital of ancient Colchis. As in the Argonauts and the Golden Fleece and Medea. They’ve found job lots of amazing stuff there, from Hellenistic styled statuary and pottery, to gold filigree and granular work like no where else. Things that I’d only ever seen photos of were right there in the glass cases, being stared at by bored school kids.

It wasn’t a very big museum, so we ambled down the hill into the little town square to wait for the next marshrutka heading towards Batumi. Stopping into a shop to buy snacks for a late lunch, the proprietress and the local constable were pleased as punch to give us directions and instructions in gestures and smiles. We ate lunch in the little park (protected from the roving cattle by a low wall and turnstiles) and amused the locals with our extremely limited Georgian (I had worked out how to say “I am from New Zealand”, to their utter delight).

And finally, back to Batumi, so very different both from Tbilisi and from the little villages we’d been traveling through. Back at the beginning, I had been somewhat put off by the seemingly haphazard construction and just the general shock of suddenly being on our own and somewhat lost. Now, the place was familiar, and the outrageous architecture and exuberant rebuilding was actually kind of charming. The fact that it was drizzly and COOL undoubtedly helped.

waterfront promenade, Batumi seriously OTT shop interior the building of architectural horrors new streets, double quick one of the many random decorative elements

With a couple of spare days to kill, we hit all of the local museums. If you happen to know the proper name for this sword, I’d love to know. It seems to be primarily an Adjaran thing (Adjara, or Adchara being the region).

not a kindjal

We also took a day trip to Gonio, just to the south, near the Turkish border. Gonio happens to have one of the best preserved roman forts anywhere. At one point, the interior was used as a garden, and we were deeply amused to find New Zealand cabbage trees and fejoas inside. We ran into some young American Peace Corps volunteers who’d come out from Armenia to spend time on the beach, and get some food that wasn’t potatos. We also picked up a small pack of schoolboys, practicing their English on us and vying to impress each other.

inside Gonio fort amazing how lush the surroundings were Hee.

Afterwards, we had an amazing lunch at a little cafe that apparently catered to the local truck drivers making the run to and from Turkey. As had become our modus operandi, we wandered in, looked hungry and confused, and got fed. Basically, the cook showed us what he had in the pots & raised his eyebrows & we nodded happily. It was some kind of soup, a meat and veg stew, and rice. They also gave us salad, bread & watermelon & it was all absolutely gorgeous.

Then flag down the next marshrutka back to Batumi.

our hotel, the one we switched to where we got our breakfasts Georgians, getting it done

Aaaaand, that’s basicly that. Going through the journal, there’s heaps I didn’t write about, and a billion more photos, but OMG, I’ve got the India/Nepal trip still to write up !


I think that’s the best term for how I’m feeling right now.

This weekend I discovered a teesie-weensie problem in version 1.4 of my book. Or more accurately, Stefano pointed the problem out to me.

It’s missing an entire chapter.

Somehow Ch 14 got dropped during the formatting, I don’t know how.

Version 1.4 is the version that I’ve sent to the most people, including the professional author in the US who read and commented on the book. At least a dozen people have read v1.4.

And nobody noticed an entire missing chapter. A chapter that sets up the final action of the book. A chapter that is one of my favourites.

What does people not noticing the absence mean? Is my book so riddled with unexplained discontinuities that skipping an entire chapter is no better or worse than the rest of the prose? Or perhaps is speaks more generally ill of the SF genre, and what is considered an “allowed” level of continuity error?

In any case, it has done my head in rather severely.

If anyone out there would like the corrected, v 1.5 of the book (now with Chapter 14! Woo!), please drop me an email.

Plasma, but not the hot bright kind

More the warm a squishy kinda, actually.

Yesterday I had my first plasma donation. The blood service is always on the look out for plasma donors, “liquid gold” they call it for all its medical uses. (I also wonder if it is “liquid gold” for the blood service, in that they make very good money selling it to hospitals.)

In whole blood donation it takes 5-10 minutes to suck the 450 ml of blood out, plasma extraction is a longer and more complicated process, and the amount of plasma they take depends on the size of the client. Same size needle goes in the arm as with a normal blood donation, but the tube is then hooked into a machine. This takes you blood and puts it into a centrifuge. The plasma layer is spun off and extracted into a bag, then your red blood cells (with a bit of anti-coagulant) are injected back into your arm. It took 4 cycles and 40 minutes to get my allocated plasma donation out.

The extraction machine is angled so you can see it, and follow the progress. You can also see your flow rate, and pump your fist as necessary to keep the blood flowing at optimal levels.

They also bring you drinks and snacks while you donate! I think they also have free wifi, if you wanted to surf the web while donating.

They were quite excited to have me as a donor. I’m large enough that they can take the maximum volume of plasma in one go (800ml), and as an extra bonus I’ve been vaccinated against all sorts of things recently (due to overseas trips to somewhat “exciting” places). As plasma is often given to immune-compromised people, having a good mix of antibodies in my plasma makes it extra useful.

Where you can only donate whole blood quarterly in NZ, you can donate plasma up to every 2 weeks (it replenishes in 24-48 hours). I have to decide how often I want to donate, apparently monthly is standard practice.


The week before Christmas is always hectic. Ten days before Christmas Nelson, a small sunny city on the northern tip of the South Island, got *hammered* by rain over a 48 hours period. Slips and flooding in the region caused extensive damage, and a civil defence emergency was declared.

I’m now a member of a Red Cross Emergency Response Team, and we were activated and sent down to help. (There was a period of yo-yoing and we got a series of conflicting go/no-go instructions, as Red Cross tried to figure out if teams were being sent, and if so, which teams, and when.)

Our Porirua-based team ended up being down there Wednesday and Thursday last week. I was assigned to a team doing phase two house inspections. This team had a civil engineer, a geologist, and a NCC building inspector. Plus me, the Red Cross rep. It was my job to be Welfare support- to talk to the homeowner, determine if they needed help, and get them registered with the Red Cross, and give them info (phone numbers) on who they could call for assistance and information.

But our team ended up going out mostly to do re-inspections on red-stickered houses. Red sticker means evacuate now, so there were very few homeowners for me to interact with. So I spent my time working with the experts trying to assess the ongoing risk to damaged or threatened houses- could we go from red sticker to a conditional yellow, or even a green, and let people back into their house before Christmas?

And this is where I discovered that spending time with Zane induces an area of effect knowledge of geology, especially landslips. Probably due to his habit of coming back from his work-related geotech studies and giving us fun little slideshows of the landslides he’d been studying. What this means is that I ended up as a participant, not just an observer, as we explored the land damage and assessed risks.

Scarps and Tension Cracks and Unstable Surfaces- Oh My!

I saw plenty of million+ dollar houses, with fantastic views, which were doomed. Building on the edge of a steep hillside for the (admittedly fantastic) view is fine, until the hill falls away dooming your house, and threatening the houses beneath. We did at one point follow a bunch of ground damage downhill and found a house that had been missed in the initial survey which had a huge unstable soil mass hanging right above the main bedrooms at the back of the house. The homeowners probably weren’t happy to find the new yellow sticker on their front door when they got home- no sleeping in the house until the land was fixed.

It was satisfying to help people out. The homeowners we did meet were all so grateful to see us arrive- they just wanted help and some knowledge about their house and its fate. I discovered that Red Cross has very good brand awareness (no real surprise there). I was interested to note how when people discovered I was a volunteer, out on the street 3 days before Christmas, they were extra appreciative people were giving their time for them. It made them feel good and valued, and that is why we were there. The threat of losing your home is tough on people, doubly so before a holiday. The Welfare aspect is not why I joined the RC team- we’re trained in all sorts of Search and Rescue, Triage, and First Aid stuff- but at the end of the day we’re there to help, and if that means just being a sympathetic person to talk to, then it’s time well spent.

Georgia Trip 12

Back in Mestia…

After the trail ride (see previous post), and a bit of recovery time, we hooked up with Renata for some more ambling around town. There are a couple of mineral water springs in town, and we followed some locals who were going to collect water. One of the springs came up actually in the river bed, so at some point when the flow was low, a wall had been built so that the spring would be accessible all year. It was startlingly COLD down there in the bottom of the gorge, next tot he rushing river.

I think I mentioned before how the rivers in the mountains are like tigers – they will eat you if you aren’t careful, and they roar. The three of us spent a while coming up with schemes for opening a adventure tourism scheme that would send you down the river in a Zorb, including plans for getting you out (or not) when you got stuck in one of the many steep narrow gorges.

the river will eat you

Here are the awesome Renata, our host Laura (also awesome), and me, on the front porch of Laura’s house. In addition to running the guest house, Laura is an anaesthesiologist, sold the tickets for the marshrutka (the local minibus), and was also organizing meals and lodging for the guys in her husband’s work crew, who were putting in a new water main while we were there.

here we are

This is the view from their front porch looking out toward town. The house you can see on the other side of the front garden is where the cow that produced our breakfast yogurt lived. In the courtyard, I mean. We saw Laura helping the old lady milk it one evening. Renata related an interesting conversation with one of the builders. She had remarked on how beautiful the view was & one of the men replied that it was, but that it made them sad, because Russia owned those mountains now.

the front yard

The next day, we toured Mestia some more.

schoolkids one of the towers

You’ll recall that the livestock is freerange…

Piggies !

Except this bullock team, taking a break from whatever it was they were doing — probably hauling firewood.


One of the houses, including its tower, is open as a sort of family museum. Basically, this is the family’s old house, more or less unchanged since the 14th century. The woman whose family owns the house pointed out the parts that had been updated — the ironwork around the hearth, for instance, was relatively new. It was really cool — the little corridor of pens along one wall were for the sheep and goats, with a little arch for each one to stick its head through to get fodder. The bigger arches were for the cattle. Though the animals were all pastured outside during the summer, in the winter, they lived in the big common room with rest of the family, where everyone could benefit from each other’s heat.

I got the impression that it was mostly used for family gatherings now, and of course showing off to tourists. The view from the tower was pretty cool, too.

inside looking out one end of town

Our Russian was not great, and Laura & Jia’s English was not great, but we did our best, and overall it was a really terrific experience. One evening we all piled into the minivan we’d taken to Ushguli, and we drove up to one of the ski lifts at the valley rim. From there we could see the lights of the valley spread out below us, each of the medieval towers lit up by its own soft yellow light. Really beautiful. THey told us how someone had put up some money to have an international specialist come in and design new lighting for them, and we joked about getting them done up like the Tbilisi TV tower (which has a crazy light show which I think we described earlier). We compared the Caucasus and Ushba — the valley’s sort of sentinel mountain — to the Southern Alps and Aoraki/Mt Cook. The whole stay with them was really just lovely.