Saturday, April 29, 2017


What’s the secret to good comedy?


Timing is everything. Nicola’s sister, Sacha, and husband Paul, are touring New Zealand in a camper van in April. They’d planned to visit us in Wellington on the weekend of 22/23 April. Unfortunately, Saturday 22nd April is also the date of the New Zealand Sweet Adelines Convention, to be held this year in Dunedin, which Nicola is committed to attend.

Not wanting to miss out on seeing her sister, therefore, we decided to head down to Queenstown at Easter and see them on their tours there. Serendipitously, niece Ishbel was also planning to be in New Zealand visiting other niece Eli, who is here for a year on a working visa. Hope you’re following this? Good. They also planned to be in Queenstown for Easter, so we could all meet up for a couple of days and do whatever there is to do in Queenstown.

We flew down on Maundy Thursday and arranged to meet up. We’d arrived first, so we had a quick lunch at Pier 19 and awaited their arrival. Once they were all ensconced in their camper van site, we met up and had a wander around town. Whilst the weather wasn’t the finest, the rain appeared to be holding off so we went for a walk through the Queenstown Gardens park, then headed back into town. We went to the Pub On Wharf – a Mac’s pub, unsurprisingly located on the wharf – for a pre-dinner drink before going to Jervois Steak House (“JSH”) for dinner.

JSH is a Nourish Group restaurant, and therefore we expected a high standard. Whilst primarily a steak house, it catered for all tastes, and everyone got what they wanted from salads to fish to steak. The waitress had explained in detail what steaks were on offer, from the marbled wagyu to the locally-produced grass-fed wakanui. After hearing her sales pitch,  I went for the wakanui sirloin rather than my usual choice of fillet. And it was great, as was everyone else’s dinners. So thumbs up to JSH from us.

After dinner we headed back to our vans and hotels, as we were up early the next morning to go white water rafting on the Shotover river.

We met up at the Queenstown Rafting shop on Shotover street at 8:00am, and were then driven the short distance out of town to the lower end of the Shotover river, i.e. the point at which we would end up. We were then equipped with wetsuit, surf boots, jacket, waterproof, life jacket and helmets, and boarded our bus to take us to the top of the river. The bus goes along Skippers Road, an ancient and treacherous way up the gorge, unsealed and narrow. Whilst towing a trailer loaded with inflatable boats. Presumably they must have some system of regulating the traffic along the road, as there’s no way to pass if you meet something head-on – one of you is going to have to reverse several miles until you get to a wide space on the road.

This portion of the drive lasted around 45 minutes, and took us to our jumping-off point. We were given another safety briefing, what to do if we exited the boat at any point, and what to do if the boat turned over on us. This is the last point at which you can back out of the tour…once you’re on the water there’s no turning back or saying “I want to get off”.

We were allocated a guide – in our case, Chief, who we’d had the privilege of rowing with when we went down the Kawarau four years ago. He didn’t recognise us. Ishbel and Eli went up the front, Paul and I took the middle, and Nicola and Sacha had the rear of the boat.

Last time when we'd done the Kawarau, Chief had berated us for "not being real kiwis" for not doing the Shotover. The river does have a higher grade - some of the rapids are graded 4/5, and 5 is where you really want to be experienced in doing this kind of stuff. But the conditions were OK for us - in fact, there'd been so little rain recently that the water flow was getting to dangerously slow levels and if it hadn't started raining a couple of days beforehand, they were seriously thinking about cancelling trips. Fortunately, the flow was back up after the rains, but the water was turbid due to the rainfall, instead of its normal crystal clarity.

Chief was clear in his instructions, rehearsing us on commands whilst we were in the calmer areas, and then we were doing it for real. After a couple of hair-raising rapids, we came over one particular fall, and then were caught in an eddy and couldn't escape! Eventually, we managed to get enough horsepower to break free and carry on down.

At the end, we went through the Oxenbridge Tunnel (literally - a 170 metre tunnel through the rock) and then down the final fall, the biggest of them all. Chief had forewarned us, though, and when he shouted "Get down!" we got as down as we possibly could into the boat. The force of the drop is such that the entire boat gets pushed underwater, and you along with it! However, we surfaced quickly and the boat drains itself, and we finished up on the shore.

Going under water!
After helping stack the boats back on the trailer, we went through the dressing process in reverse, rinsing our gear and then heading for a hot shower and a hot drink. The bus ride back into town was only 10 minutes, and we then queued for an hour or so to get a Fergburger.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Cosmic Shambles

Cosmic Shambles is the name that Robin Ince gives to his show, currently touring Australia and New Zealand, in which he gathers together scientists, comedians, and musicians, both local and imported, and puts on a collection of stories and demonstrations. Each performer gets a slot of around 15 minutes, and other than that, it’s anything goes, really.

We met up in Courtenay Place at the Bangalore Polo Club for some dinner beforehand. The food was fairly standard pub grub, washed down with a beer or cocktail.

The show started at 7:00pm, as there’s quite a lot to get through. At the beginning there’s a short film starring the puppets of Brian Cox and Robin Ince discussing science things. Brian Cox is far too famous and busy doing television in the UK to come on tour, so this was a substitute for that. Brian and Robin go way back, though, having presented The Infinite Monkey Cage since 2009. The rest of the cast were:   

Robin Ince (puppet)
Brian Cox (puppet)
Robin Ince – comedian/mc
Josie Long – comedian
Helen Czerski – bubble scientist
Lucie Green – solar scientist 
Matt Parker – mathematician
Nation – music
Michelle Dickinson – nanotechnologist
Siouxsie Wiles – microbiologist
James Nokise – comedian
Shaun Hendy – physicist
Matt Stellingwerf – comedian
Jon Toogood – music

After an introduction from Robin, he introduced the first live guest, Josie Long, who undertook the first experiment of the night. This was based around “what do ghosts eat? Spook-etti”, a joke from a Christmas cracker. This involved opening two tins of spaghetti, leaving one for the ghost, and Robin Ince eating the other (cold, natch), whilst leaving the third unopened as a control. This proved absolutely nothing, but was much funnier than described here.

After that, each act came on individually, and did their bit. Matt Parker, a mad Australian mathematician, demonstrated how to calculate pi with pies in several different ways, and also explained how pi, and indeed pie, gets into everything. The main event was using a pi-endulum to calculate pi with a little help from an audience member.

Siouxsie Wiles gave a convincing, and quite frightening, demonstration of how we’re all going to die, as antibiotics fail to overcome bacteria. The end is nigh. You heard it here secondhand.

At the end of the first half, local band Nation gave us some tunes. They seemed to be channelling the Eighties in a Go West, Love And Money style…all they needed was a sax to complete the picture.

The second half included a very interesting discussion of bubbles from Helen Czerki, including how penguins use them to avoid leopard seals and get out of the water. Nanotechnologist Michelle Dickinson gave a live demonstration of the effect of cold on various materials, and how this led to the space shuttle Challenger exploding 73 seconds after launching, in 1986. Using liquid nitrogen to cool down metals, and showing scant regard for elf-and-safety along the way, she showed how the metal reacted at low temperatures.

The final musical interlude of the evening was Jon Toogood, singer from Shihad, (world famous in New Zealand since ages ago) who gave us an acoustic set to finish with. Robin Ince then wrapped up the show and we all staggered out into the night.