Monday, May 11, 2009

Farm Life

While in Fiji we were chatting with a fellow traveler who happened to be a semi famous Australian soccer player married to an Aussie actress. We told him about our departure from Manhattan and our plan to work on a Sheep and Cattle farm, and, being a media savvy bloke, he immediately saw the potential for a reality TV show. Flattered I began to imagine what a great reality TV character I would make... then I realized that this reality show had already been made, and that it starred Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie. Feeling unoriginal, I booked a pedicure for myself and my annoyingly small dog and called it a day.

(***Quick Picture Note - We were having technical difficulties getting our latest pics into this blog post, but there is a link at the bottom of the post that will allow you to see them. Please follow & enjoy!)

In truth, after a couple of months of travelling, Alle and I were ready to settle down and do some honest work. (I'm going to print this statement and put it over my desk when I finally come home and go back to work full time. My future self is going to think my past self was an incredible moron.) With that in mind we headed north to the Armidale area where Charlie Coventry (Alle's brother-in-law) and his family have three farming properties: Bailey Park, Achill, & Long Point. Alle and I would like to give a hearty thanks to the entire Coventry (and Dight) family for hosting us these past weeks. They have been beyond generous with their time and knowledge and have made our farm experience everything we had hoped for.

Bailey Park is the farm where Charlie grew up, and is where his father & brother still live today. It is in a somewhat mountainous region about 600 miles NW of Sydney called the New England Table Lands, which are reminicent of the Wyoming foothills - only without the Rockies on the other side. This area gets plenty of rain and is mostly without predators, so its excellent country for raising sheep and cattle, and is the only one of the three Coventry Armidale properties where a market crop (lettuce) is raised. Our two main acitivies here have been mustering sheep on motorbike and lettuce picking. Lettuce picking involves bending over at the waist for about 6 hours a day so that your hamstrings feel like they're on fire and you never want to look at a salad again. It also involves meeting lots of graduate students looking to get outside and make a few dollars. Next time you order a Big Mac at a New South Wales McDonald's, please don't throw away that lovely piece of lettuce. Mustering sheep is done either to move sheep from paddock to paddock to get them new feed and keep them from getting worms, or to move them into shed's for shearing. In addition to motorbikes, we also use dogs, mainly border collies and kelpies, to direct the sheep. A good border collie responds to one whistle to go left, another to go right, and a different call to push a mob of sheep forward or turn them around - pretty impressive animals. The kelpies are incredibly fast dare devils and have no fear of cows.

The second farm, Achill, is similar in character and location to Bailey Park, though slightly wilder - more trees, creeks, mountains, ponds, fewer paddocks dedicated to growing feed crops (ie. grass for cattle). Its also a newer farm, so paddocks are still being cleared or thined or sewn with feed grass for the first time. Here we did some exploratory surveying - following Charlie on a motorbike while he looked at the land - some sheep shearing - catching sheep, giving them buzz cuts, sweeping and sorting their wool - and some rock picking - picking up rocks.

Next, there is Long Point, the most recently purchased property & also the wildest and most scenic. Long Point is over an hour's drive outside of the town of Armidale, borders a national park & a 3,000+ ft. gorge, and, because its on the 'wrong side of the dingo fence,' is purely dedicated to cattle (dingos would eat the sheep). Here we mustered cattle on horseback and then drafted them in the yards. Because the terrain is so mountainous & scruffy (lots of trees, underbrush, creeks, etc.) bikes are difficult to use and horses are preferred. They say you have to fall off of a horse somewhere between five and nine times to really consider yourself a stockman. Well I've got three under my belt while Alle, with equal time in the saddle, has zero. I keep telling her that means I'm more experienced, but somehow she doesn't see it that way. Drafting is the process of sorting the cattle and involves running the around in small areas of the yards and occassionally jumping in front of one and chasing it into a different area. As you're doing this they crap on eachother and moo alot.

Now, you may be thinking to yourself that none of this reminds you very much of the Outback. Good thought, all this Armidale farming is happening quite a bit east of the outback. However we also spent time on a fourth farm called Yetman Station in Yetman. This is also not the outback, but its closer, and it is home to Charlie's sister and brother-in-law, Kate and Colin Dight and their three children. Yetman is West of the Great Dividing Range in the plains just east of the Outback and is truly a small rural town. Whereas Armidale has a population of 19,500 and is home to the University of New England, Yetman has a population of about 100 and is home to the Codfish Hotel and Pub. Alle and I have enjoyed this taste of small town life and our opportunity to raise the population by 2%, albeit briefly.

As a plains town, Yetman is well positioned for medium to large scale cash cropping - cotton, corn & wheat - especially near the McIntyre river, which is just a few hundred yards behind me as I type. As such I've been tagging along with Colin, working on tractors, large mobile sprinkler systems, and other farm machinery. There also quite a few cattle & we have continued to do cattle work, most interestingly, ahem, preg testing. The only way to be sure whether a cow is in calf is to put on a glove the size of your arm, cover it in industrial strength lube, and, well, feel around. And when I say that we have preg tested cattle, I mean that Alle preg tested cattle while I took pictures and laughed. A special thanks to Colin for arranging the preg testing schedule so that we could participate. We can now check this off our list of life's "to do's".

So that's a quick view of life on the farm. There is actually much more to it than that, and if you want to hear about it, question my cowboy prowess, or discuss the best way to put nitrogen back into soil, all you have to do is shout me a beer when I come back and you'll get more than an earful. If you want to check out some pics of what I've described above, please go to: Enoy!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

New Zealand Rocks!!!

If there is one thing at which New Zealand excels - and, in fact there is not just one but many things - it is naming mountains and mountain ranges. A couple of my favorite examples include a range called The Remarkables (which they pronounce Remahkables) and peak called Mount Aspiring. There is something inherently satisfying about waking up in the morning and saying to yourself, I'm going to climb Mount Aspiring today. The fact that the mountain namers had the fortitude not to change the name to Mount Inspiring, as I'm sure they were pressured to do by various self centered interest groups, is inspirational in itself.

But I guess I owe you some chronology before we go too far off on this or any other tangent. We left Tahoe at the start of March, spent a couple of days taking care of wedding plans and other arrangements at Alle's parents place in Marin, and then flew to Sydney to meet Alle's sister Dorianne and her family - husband, Charlie Coventry, and baby daughter, Alexandra. We spent the day in Sydney and Balmain, which is the close-in 'suburb' where the Coventrys live... think Hoboken or Sausalito or Manayunk or Cambridge only even easier access to the city. We also attended a 70's themed surprise birthday party for one of Charlie's 'best mates' thrown at the ultimate Balmain Bachelor Pad belonging to the birthday boy's brother. The place had an incredible roof deck with lots of flowing water and a five star view of the Sydney skyline, as well as a great glass living room. The next morning the five of us left for New Zealand. where the Coventrys spent a long weekend while Alle and I spent a full week, and from there traveled to Fiji.

After a false start (the first plane we took got 2.5 hours into the 4 hour trip to NZ before turning around and going back to Sydney to fix a crack in the windshield... apparently flying 18 wheelers can spew stones at your vehicle even at 35,000 feet) we landed just before dusk in Queenstown, an adventure travel mecca on New Zealand's South Island. This part of New Zealand is so uniquely beautiful that simply looking around while deplaning and walking down the runway is enough to take your breath away.

We spent our week in New Zealand in Queenstown and Wanaka (rhymes with Hanukkah). Some highlights of our time there were:

- The Rob Roy Glacier Hike - A 4 hour trek that started with fording more than a few creeks in our rental car to get to the trailhead. On the hike we passed through meadowlands, rain forrest, raging rivers (via suspension bridge), and waterfalls, ultimately ending up at base of the glacier itself. This was a hike that our very nice, very friendly, somewhat sissy Bed & Breakfast proprietor told us we were crazy to do given the 'cold' weather... as it turned out we were hot in jeans and t-shirts, and we no longer took his advice on activities. This trip was representative of many of the hikes we did, but we won't spend time on the gory details of each one - suffice it to say they were all dramatic and beautiful.

- Luge Carts - Basically adult tricycles that you can race down a paved mountain course. Never underestimate the power of a silly helmet and a little bit of speed to put a smile on your face.

- Pizza at The Cow - A veteran of NZ skiing, Charlie's favorite apres restaurant is a pizza joint called The Cow. As we were there in late summer/early fall, there was no skiing, but the place was still hopping. It looked like a little tavern out of the Lord of the Rings* movies, and it served some of the best pizza I've ever had.

* I mentioned in the previous post that I now believe Peter Jackson's real stroke of genius was simply shooting the LOTR movies in New Zealand. After all, the plot of the second movie was "There's going to be a battle, now there is a battle, now the movie is over." And yet it was a mega-hit, mostly because it looked really cool. Well, EVERYTHING in New Zealand looks really cool! Alle and I were taking pictures and saying things to eachother like, "You know, I really think you have an incredible eye for photography... these are top .1% pictures we're taking here... I don't know why more people can't take breathtaking pictures like we can... We are really talented!" Turns out New Zealand is so picturesque that if you have good light and an index finger you're going to take phenomenal pictures.

- Meat Pies - Did you know that the national food of New Zealand is essentially a hot pocket? Me neither. If I had, I'd have gone there sooner.

The unquestioned lowlight was:

- Losing our camera - One evening toward the end of our stay in Queenstown we went sailing on an America's Cup style sailboat. On the boat was a crew of 4 people and about 20 tourists, most of them late middle aged American couples. Long story short, one of the couples on the trip asked us to take their picture, and then returned the favor by dropping our three week old camera containing a couple hundred unsaved pictures into the lake. In the grand scheme of things, this is clearly small potatoes. That said we both felt like we'd been punched in the gut when we saw our camera hit the water. While drowning our sorrows in creative cocktails, we realized that the worst part of losing all of those pictures was not being able to share our experience the way we want to with all of you. While we are loving this time, we also really miss being with everyone back home, having lost the ability to show you the Rob Roy hike or the view from the B&B is certainly a bummer. Fear not, we bought a brand new camera the next day and we were able to take some great shots. Unfortunately and somewhat ironically, Alle accidentally erased all these photos while playing with the new camera one day before we left. In the end, we realized that these camera mishaps may be your good fortune as we had taken more photos than we imagine you would want to see - apparently some of you have jobs.

A few of the things we found ourselves talking about were:

- If you were tasked with starting a colony on another planet (maybe one that looks a lot like New Zealand?), and you could set 4 parameters before the mission leaves, what would they be?

- Was Slum Dog Millionaire (which we saw while in Queenstown) depressing or uplifting?

- Do public service announcements and ads (of which New Zealand has a ton) actually provide a public service?

- Is a Cheeseburger still a Cheeseburger if its more like a steak and covered in disgusting relish (as they are in New Zealand)?

Despite being afflicted with two of the ten plagues preceding the Exodus,* and serving sub-par food, Fiji is a beautiful place. We arrived and spent one night in the second largest city, Nadi (pronounced Nandy) and then took a ferry to Plantation Island Resort where we spent 5 restful days. The Plantation Resort is located on Malolo Island and has been around since Alle's parents were first married 30+ years ago. It turns out that Alle has already been to Plantation, but she was so young that she can't remember her famous attempt to escape from her parents by running away down the beach.

* frogs and locusts**
** locusts were actually mosquitos and sandflies. I basically used Alle as bug repellant; she had 46 bites on one leg at one time while I slept peacefully, maxing out at 2 bites on my elbow and 2 on my ankle after a particularly bad night.

Highlights from this portion of the trip were:

- My first scuba diving experience. The variety of fish and sea life in Fiji is spectacular. We saw rays, gigantic lobster-type creatures hiding in caves, and all kinds of colorful tropical fish. The water is clear and warm and even Alle was happy to stay in it for hours, despite the constant threat of man-eating sharks lurking in every cave - or so she believed. Fiji is also a great place to get scuba certified - it takes about 25 minutes.

- A hotel sponsored hermit crab race where I got the best odds I've ever gotten in anything, but still lost.

- Good runs & good books - 'Killing Yourself to Live' by Chuck Klosterman, 'Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency' by Douglas Adams, 'High Fidelity' by Nick Hornsby, 'Empire' by Niall Ferguson, and 'The New Jewish Wedding' - the last one is a serious page turner.

- Playing touch rugby with the locals and having a very loose grasp of the rules and an even looser grasp of the strategy. You wouldn't really call it 'playing rugby' - 'running around like a jackass' would be more accurate.

- Stepping on an ants nest and getting bitten by the ants crawling into my sock, while Alle explained to me that she 'didn't like the tone' I was taking with her at the time.

- Sweating constantly. (That one was all me, Alle looked lovely as always.)

Thats all for now. As the Fijians say, 'Bula!'

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Americans in America

When shooting a movie in New Zealand, you might as well use a monkey as your cinematographer.  But that's the middle of our story, let us begin at the beginning, or at least somewhere close to it.

(Quick aside.  The beginning of this post is text heavy and picture light.  This is a result of a camera mishap that I'll get into on our next posting.  A specific apology goes out to Michael Daley - hate to make you read this much, more purty pictures next time.)

As many of you know, Alle and I are in a period of transition professionally, geographically, marital sta
tusly, and generally.  We've decided to use this transition time to do some unique things: ski/snowboard every day for a period of months, travel in the Southern Hemisphere using Sydney as a home base, spend time with the Australian wing of the Sharlip family, and work on a sheep and cattle farm in Armidale, about 300 miles NW of Sydney.

We began this adventure by doing something decidedly novel for twenty something Manhattanites - we bought a car! Thanks go out to the Melnick family for taking great care of her for the first few years of her life.  We left New York City in the middle of a snow storm and headed west to spend January and February in Lake Tahoe, CA.  On the way we made a quick stop in Philly paying visits my parents - littering their house and shed with our furniture in the process (sorry Dad!) - and grandparents, and then drove for a couple of days until we hit Utah Ski Country.

Utah proved to be a great beginning to our ski winter.  We stayed with the Snow family, Bob, Dave & Julian, who not only put us up but gave Alle some great ski lessons.  The eldest and wisest Snow, Julian, immediately recognized Alle's untapped olympic downhill potential - I think it was when she fell head over ass, lost both ski's and laughed throughout the process. With Julian's coaching and Bob's leading us out of bounds, our ski winter was off to a great start.

As with any great road trip, this one was all about the music!  We were listening to lots of Rilo Kiley, My Morning Jacket, Billy Joel, Django Reinhardt, Flight of the Conchords, Santogold, Felix da Housecat and the non music of NPR and The Fountainhead book on tape.  (We've decided that 'objectivism' is mostly dumb.)

After a quick stop in Marin County, CA to visit with the Sharlips, we headed to Tahoe City where we shared a fantastic condo with a great crew of east coaster's living in San Francisco + real Californian, Shannon Walsh.  Alle and I both got season passes to Squaw Valley and tried with varying degrees of success to act like locals.  At one point I picked up a group of hitchhikers who informed me that you have to live in Tahoe for 5 years to really call yourself a local, and I think they're on to something - it would take that long just to acquire enough hard core ski gear and the right descriptive vocabulary (for instance, were the conditions today blower? dust on crust? windpack? gnar gnar? heady? low tide? chocolate chipped? flat light? did you make love to the mountain today, or did you merely shred hard? subtle but crucial differences).  While we might not have become full blown Squaw Rats, we did improve our skiing - with Alle even dropping some 10 footers! - and riding and had a fantastic time.

We were also lucky enough to have lots of great visitors.  Pavla Langer came in true snow bunny style, electing not to ski but to wear extremely fetching outfits and add spice to the local party scene. Kirk Lutwyler came in on a speeding Bullet and showed off his card playing skills at the local pub, The Bridgetender.  Mo Twine, Mike Prindiville, Alex Berg, and Jesse Dinner killed it on the slopes and at the Casinos.  Prindiville featured a return to fine skiing form after finally turning the tide in a three year battle with his ski boots, as well as an extra smooth fall off of the Siberia chairlift.  Dinner had a productive visit to the second hand ski store, although only for retro ski clothes - the ski that he snapped in half on Granite Chief remains unreplaced.  Mo generally looked on in amusement while trying to uncramp his feet.  Our favorite quote from that week comes courtesy of Berg: "Prindi, just tell me your version of the story and I'll distort it how I want."   A few weeks later, James Moisey and Amy O'Brien came with a full cooler of food, taught us how to make our own pasta, and joined us in watching some pretty awful movies - we recommend avoiding Towelhead and Rocket Science.  Finally, Luke Powell came all the way from Louisiana and brought the extreme weather (5 feet of snow!) associated with that state.  He and I also began work on 'Spaceballs the Musical', featuring the soon to be classic "I Hate it When My Schwartz Gets Twisted" - so look for that on Broadway in a few years. 

OK - We've taken up too much of your time, and we're not even out of the States - we'll get there with a post later in the week.

p.s. - Most posts, including this one, are from both of us, but this blog is meant to be conversational in style, and, since we are not professional athletes or 16th century monarchs, we tend to speak in the first person.  This post is written in 'Dan's voice,' the next will likely be written in Alle's and so on.  Scroll down to see some preview pics of New Zealand and Fiji!