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Sunday, July 20, 2008

One Walk To Rule Them All

Today I am blogging to you while standing up. This isn't because I'm trying to set some obscure new Guinness World Record or anything (although, now that I mention it, perhaps I should look into it ...). No, it's out of necessity. I've got a bad lower back, thanks mainly due to my being blithely unaware that my back was not indestructible when I was younger.

Things aren't all that bad. I'm only able to stand or lie down right now, as sitting down causes the muscles to spasm further, but in spite of this bad back I've done fairly well. I can still move around, which is good and means I don't have to call out of work any more since that bad first day. I can rehab it with stretching exercises once I'm a bit better, so that maybe this doesn't ever happen again. I even managed to climb Ngauruhoe last year, albeit with much mental coaching and a hell of a lot of patience on the parts of Iain and Simon, not to mention the rest of the group!

Standing while writing is also appropriate to this particular entry, as I came across an article in yesterday's Dominion Post regarding something cool about which I had forgotten. It is the Te Araroa (meaning 'The Long Pathway' in te reo Maori) project, which aims to finish the gigantic walkway that would link the very tip of New Zealand's north island at Cape Reinga with Bluff near the very bottom of the south island. Slope Point is technically the southerly-most point of the south island but it's not by much and it's a fair bit east of Bluff, which is a much more logical destination for this pathway as it's just south of Invercargill and the convergence of two major roads through the bottom of the south island.

Cape Reinga is a destination that's high on my list of places to go while living here in New Zealand. Apart from the fact that it would satisfy that curious traveler's notion to stand at the extremes when visiting various locations (The northernmost part of the country! The exact centre of the country! The very intersection of FOUR whole states! The highest point in all the world! You get the idea ...), Cape Reinga also has much spiritual value to the Maori. Reinga means 'Underworld' in te reo and it is from here that they believed the spirits of the dead departed for the underworld. If you follow the link above you can glimpse some of the beauty of this part of New Zealand.

Bluff, up until very recently, was home to among other things the famous paua shell house. I know after my mum's visit here she'd have loved to see something like this, given her instant fascination with the pretty, iridescent shells. Sadly it was removed last year from Bluff, but its legacy lives on in the Canterbury Museum in Christchurch.

To have these two extremes of New Zealand connected by a walkway (which doesn't cross Cook Strait, obviously, although I guess a real purist would swim the Strait between legs of the pathway!) would be an awesome opportunity for tourists, tramping enthusiasts and native New Zealanders alike. It is very nearly done, too, with a goal of December 2010 as a completion date. Apparently the trail is about 94% complete, as constituted, but it's the other 6% that is proving to be the most difficult. These scattered stretches of desired potential walkway belong to private landowners, from whom permission must currently be granted to cross their land at all let alone to have a permanent and public walkway created through it.

While many of the landowners' concerns are real, from worries about their livestock being distressed or abused, to intrusions on personal privacy and even fears of vandalism and theft, the people behind the construction of Te Araroa are trying to assuage all of these doubts. They say, quite rightly, that most hoons (thugs) couldn't be arsed to hike even a few hundred metres just to commit a bit of petty crime, beautiful and alluring though the track may be. Also pains will be taken to ensure that these trails are not blazed right in the owners' backyards in full view of the bedroom and bathroom windows.

The lovely Shania Twain herself owns a bit of land on the south island and she not only agreed to let a significant portion of Te Araroa - including two huts - be built on her property, she also paid out a significant sum of her own money to help in its development. Hopefully all other landowners involved in Te Araroa's planned route will follow Ms. Twain's gracious example, if not financially then at least in spirit.

I've been on a fair number of trails so far in New Zealand and many of them at some point cut through some benevolent landowner's property and I'm immensely grateful for it. So I hope that Te Araroa is able to be completed, and I think that it will be but there are concerns that December 2010 may not be doable. Even so, it is possible to tramp a great majority of this glorious walkway already as about two-thirds of it is considered 'good walking track' and the other legal 24-odd percent is a mixture of roads and unblazed trail.

I have yet to pore over the specific portions of Te Araroa outside our immediate region, but if what they have planned for the route between Wellington and Porirua is any indication of the tramp's eventual beauty, it is going to be quite alluring indeed. Part of this route includes the Karehana Scenic Bay Reserve, which is billed as 'tiny' and 'gorgeous'. It sits on the west side of the lower north island and apparently there are lots of tui birds that nest there in the kohekohe trees.

So I know that Te Araroa is going to be an exciting and exemplary way to not only show off much of New Zealand's inner beauty, but also a way to be physically out among it all and enjoy it to the fullest. I'm so glad this is a walkway and not a parkway. I certainly have plans to hike portions of it, if not all of it - but not all at once of course. It puts me in mind of America's own Appalachian Trail, given its breadth and grandeur. I know the length of Te Araroa will certainly rival that of the AT, and I'm just now noticing the odd symmetry there: we being the opposite hemisphere our version of the AT is, naturally, the TA.

Perhaps Bill Bryson himself might even venture here to walk it one day and write yet another excellent book about his travels, as he did regarding the Appalachian Trail in A Walk In The Woods. Or perhaps I can attempt to be an antipodean Bryson and hit the trail myself and pen my own version, but I think I'll leave that sort of thing to the pros.

Also, New Zealand already has its nine Great Walks but once Te Araroa is completed, what shall it be referred to as? THE Great Walk? The Granddaddy of the Great Walks? Or shall it be known as the only Great Walk and the others shall become known as The Decent Walks?

No, that wouldn't do, as I've done one of them already (the Tongariro Crossing) and it's far beyond just 'decent'. I'll offer up my own suggestion while resisting the urge to note the obvious one that leapt off the page at me as I read about Te Araroa: Nine Great Walks and One Walk To Rule Them All.

I shouldn't have to give that one any context! OK so there were more than just nine Rings of Power in Tolkien's Middle Earth, but since nine of them went to 'Mortal Men' (we humans), my analogy still stands.

How about... New Zealand's Nine Great Walks and One Really Kick-ass Walk?

Yeah, I agree. I think 'Te Araroa' is just fine.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

A little comedy, a little W.I.T., and a lot of fun

I was walking up Cuba Street one night last week, on my way to see a friend from my Improvisation class take her first stab at stand-up comedy. The cool night air made for a pleasant walk up Cuba, a part of town that seems to never be lacking in people or great places to eat or get a cup of coffee.

As I traversed this largely pedestrian-only street, I passed by many people enjoying their pints of beer or glasses of wine out on the sidewalk seats in front of the various restaurants and bistros. The night was just cool enough for me to enjoy the warmth emanating from the propane-powered heaters as I walked amongst the outdoor drinkers. The thought of a glass of beer, consumed slowly while basking in the welcoming heat, was almost enough to make me stop and join the crowd.

But I didn't stop, for I did not want to be late for Danni's act. As I continued my stroll up Cuba, I saw something written on the sidewalk with chalk in various colours. It mentioned the "Rookie Comedy Night", complete with an orange arrow pointing inside an open doorway. This was the San Francisco Bathhouse and it would be my first time going to this particular place. It reminded me a lot of the Mighty Mighty, further down Cuba, as it too was on the second floor and was deceptively small from the outside but once inside I could see how long and far back the club went. An outdoor patio at the front was a smoker's haven, not to mention a great spot to people watch as folks went up and down Cuba Street. A long bar was up against the far wall, and the back half of the room was dominated by a large stage.

There were a couple of rows of leather sofas at the very foot of the stage, followed by small round tables lit romantically with little white floating candles. Behind these tables were some larger ones, and then a back row of barstools completed the main seating area for the stage. Opposite the bar itself in the front half of the room were many more tables and chairs, and I could easily see how the entire room if cleared out would be a great dance hall or a venue for a rock concert.

As I purchased my ticket and ponied up to the bar, I listened to the one-man acoustic band on stage. He wasn't bad, but he wasn't the reason I was there. While waiting for my pint of Mac's Gold, I spied Danni sitting with her boyfriend at a table across from the bar. I went over and said hello, wishing her luck (which, in the performance business, you do by saying "Break a leg!" and never "Good luck!"). She was quite nervous, and I felt a mix of emotions for her. I knew from class how funny she was and how versatile she was with improvisation.

But stand-up comedy has got to be one of the toughest and most terrifying things you can attempt and on top of that this was her very first time. Still, it was billed as an amateur night, so the expectations couldn't be too high for these brave souls who dared to take the stage to try and make us all laugh.

I've heard other comics talk about how difficult it is to craft a solid 45-minute act, saying it takes hours and hours of performing, re-writing and honing just to get it right. And then you still have to deal with hecklers sometimes, something which would almost certainly unnerve me no matter how well my jokes were going over with the crowd.

I felt a little nervous for Danni because as the hosts busily prepared the stage I could not tell if there were any other comics in the joint except for her! She seemed to be the only one the hosts were interacting with, so I knew if she was truly going it alone up there that would only make her more nervous.

Well, it turns out there were at least ten different acts that night, and Danni was the first of them all. The female comic who was emceeing that night did a great job of warming up the crowd, and I thought it particularly ironic that the very first person in the crowd she chose to pick on was none other than Danni's boyfriend! He handled it very well and I took this as a good sign for Danni, figuring that the Comedy Gods were on her side that night.

They sure were, because I thought her act was great. You could tell she was nervous on stage but it was never close to hindering her performance. In fact I thought she mastered her emotions very well, as right off the bat she had to deal with a difficult microphone stand and she managed to improvise and make a couple of funny remarks as she fiddled with it in vain.

Turns out Danni is from the UK and much of her humour is in the 'observational' style. Being an immigrant myself, I could appreciate the context of everything she said, and the crowd - which was not a full house but pretty close - bought into her style of comedy too.

She did great and the only hitch was that she forgot completely what her last bit was about as she got lost in the transition. Luckily her boyfriend provided her with a prompt and Danni finished on a good note.

She says she'll do stand-up again and already has more material for her next show, so I think it's great that she was able to break through like she did on the first try.

As for our Improv class, well it finished up this past weekend and it was bittersweet. Sweet because the entire day and mainly the show itself went really well for all of us. It's like after eight weeks of struggling with energy levels, spontaneity and confidence we managed to sort most of it out as we trained during the day. So the performance was a lot of fun for all of us and it is probably the quickest 90 minutes of my life. I couldn't believe it was all over so fast!

The bitter part is that, even though I am now qualified to join W.I.T. (Wellington Improvisation Troupe), I cannot do so for some time. They train on the one night a week where I work late and I am too far away to make it on time for anything. But most of the folks in our class have already gone to the first W.I.T. training session and I think several of them will stick with it. A couple are moving away from New Zealand later in the year, and one or two others may decide they've had all the improv they can handle for now and just move on.

As for me, I've already discussed changing my schedule with my boss, because this is the most fun I've had doing something outside of work since I graduated from vet school. That's eleven years of pining for something 'extra-curricular' and fun to do in my free time since my school days, so I aim to keep this opportunity to continue to perform improv firmly in my sights.

W.I.T. will be around for a while to be sure, and my instructor Simon knows of my current predicament and he assures me the door will still be open for me to join once I am able to free up my schedule.

So until then and until my first performance with W.I.T. out in public, I'll leave you with that and a few pictures of our training the day of our show. Be sure to read the descriptions to understand just what the hell it is you are looking at! Most of it is probably 'you had to be there' kind of material, but we had a blast and I was very glad to have my friend Holly show up to see us perform. She brought along her 'posse' so it was nice to have some friends in the crowd as well as in the show.

My only regret? That Clyde and I didn't get to perform our "Bird's Eye View" job interview scene for the show, only in practice!