Witten's Christmas Letter for 2003-2004


Tauwhare Road
RD4
Hamilton
New Zealand
December 29, 2004
 Audio version audio icon

Dear

So many complaints! We've had complaints from apparently ardent fans about the missing Christmas letter last year. Are we divorced? Departed for another planet?? Dead??? No! Dead lazy, maybe. Last December Nikki had been keen on an ocean-kayaking trip with Ian for a few days, and just after Christmas Day was the only feasible time. Pam and Ian's traditional New Year cruise followed straight afterwards. And once that was over, the year was well under way and we just didn't get round to it. We also felt that with the kids grown up our life may have become too stereotyped for an interesting letter that is not just a travelogue. But here we are again, sitting at the keyboard while our bodies gradually recover their normal chemical equilibrium after the excesses of Christmas.

And the weather, by the way, is awful. The horrendous tsunami did not affect New Zealand directly, but other strange things have been happening. Today, mid-summer, 30 cm of rain has been forecast for the central South Island! Where we are it is stormy, a little rainy, and dull. The weather has been abysmal for pretty well the whole month of December: far colder than usual, with little sign of summer. Poor visitors -- and there have been many -- coming all this way from Europe and N. America to find our summer nearly as bad as the winter they thought they were escaping. So today there is no excuse. We cannot get out of embarking on the dreaded Christmas letter.

Ocean kayaking at the end of 2003 was a fabulous experience. We hadn't kayaked much on lakes or rivers, and never on the sea. Seemingly out of the blue, Nikki suggested an adventurous multi-day trip with Ian, a father/daughter thing. Maybe she chose kayaking because she knows how much he loves the sea, and she gets seasick on Beulah. Anyway, you can't turn down a request for adventure from your adult daughter! We settled on the Bay of Islands, and planned to paddle for several hours out to sea to a campsite on an island called Urupukapuka. Nikki phoned the kayak hire company, made the booking. Ian, becoming nervous -- is this sensible, we have no experience, the sea can kill -- wimped out and called them independently for reassurance. Yes, he said, we can swim, I know how to use flares, I even know where the island is and have anchored my yacht there. But we have no kayaking experience whatsoever. Not to worry, this kayak is worth a lot, they replied, we wouldn't let you take it out if we didn't think you'd be capable of bringing it back. Nice to see they've got their priorities sorted out ...

We drove up on Boxing Day, stopped by the hire company at Paihia for a quick lesson and 15 minutes paddling experience, and spent the first night in a campsite a few kilometers upriver on a promontory with a magnificent view of a waterfall (Haruru Falls near Waitangi). The hire people brought our vessel up that evening by truck, a large, heavy, and mercifully stable double kayak, big enough to hold the kitchen sink, they said. At first light (well, second light maybe) we breakfasted, broke camp, tried to squash everything in, no way, thinned out our gear to something less than the bare essentials, repacked, and ... we're off! The river is smooth and easy, but as we enter the sea the going becomes more challenging. After hours and hours we stop for a rest on a desert island on the way, then finally reach our destination, exhausted but elated. A great campsite, with brand new self-composting toilets -- what more could a person want? It was a strange feeling to arrive with arms completely worn out and legs feeling fit as a fiddle. Let's go for a walk, get a stretch, the legs suggested. No way, I'm completely exhausted, the body complained. But we walked.

Urupukapuka is a fascinating place. It was an ancient Maori centre. As we circumnavigated the island on foot, we visited dozens of pa sites (forts) and old kumara (sweet potato) storage pits. Beaches galore, including Paradise Bay that Ian had visited nearly a year before (see below). Zane Grey, the famous American author and sportsman, kept a fishing camp on the island in the 1920s and 1930s from which he established big game fishing in New Zealand. Today Urupukapuka is a central attraction in the Bay of Islands, destination of thousands of yachties (and a few very brave canoeists).

After a couple of nights camping it was time to go back. The wind and sea were with us on the way out, and we hoped for a change -- in vain. Every morning the waves built up from a flat calm at dawn to a strength and height that by midday would seriously impede our return journey. We really did rise at dawn, helped by a rainy night that thoroughly tested our ancient backpacking tent and found it sadly lacking. We packed up the soaked tent and damp sleeping bags, and set off. It was glassy smooth at first, but the weather duly rose against us and we were fairly exhausted by the time we reached Russell, just across the channel from the kayak's home at Paihia. We stopped there for a walk, and a taste of civilization, before setting off on the final leg. As we paddled away from the shore Paihia ominously disappeared. Pretty soon we were in the middle of a torrential downpour, with zero visibility, feeling naked and vulnerable in the middle of a busy shipping lane. Singing at the tops of our voices we paddled on, almost in a circle as it turned out when the cloud cleared. Eventually we arrived at the kayak's home base, looking like drowned rats, and hit the rode for home, spirits high with the satisfaction of having survived our most excellent adventure.

A day or two later Pam and Ian took Beulah out. We have our own traditional "New Year's Bay" called Opopoto, a little inlet at the side of Onetangi Bay on the north shore of Waiheke Island. Today, 31 Dec 2003, we reach it in record-breaking time thanks to a brisk 15-20 knot SW wind. We anchor, relax, sunbath, read, cook, eat, and wait for midnight. Fireworks break out in Onetangi at 9 PM. At 11:30 PM we finally give up the struggle to stay awake, succumbing to sun and sea air -- and, no doubt, old age. The weather was gorgeous for days. We spent another night at Opopoto after a very relaxing day, punctuated by a row ashore in the gently breaking surf for an ice cream. (Divorce had almost ensued a couple of years previously when our dinghy overturned in the surf there; this time we were more circumspect.) Beulah's "bimini" (sunshade over the cabin and cockpit) was essential to keep us from crisping up, sun-fried in beer batter. Eventually we set off in a light air under bimini and foresail, and finally made it to Happy Jack's Island, a diminutive islet near the Coromandel Peninsula that encloses a beautiful little horseshoe-shaped anchorage. High, bush-clad cliffs, deep turquoise water, tuneful birdsong. Ian's evening clarinet concert was much appreciated by the eight yachts anchored there, with rounds of applause and shouts of "don't stop now, we've even turned the radio off!" The next day our lazy breakfast was followed by another clarinet recital, the music echoing off the cliffs and round the tiny bay. One crew to another, departing, "Are you leaving the auditorium already?" We spent a couple more nights in another beautiful bay off Waiheke, swimming and hiking on the island, before returning back to base. This is the way to start the New Year!

Our New Year's outing a year earlier had been foiled by a recalcitrant engine (to which you owe our Christmas letter two years ago, and, as it happens, this one too). Pam and Ian had an epic land-based adventure on New Year's Day. We climbed Karioi, an ancient and mystical mountain near Raglan on the west coast. This is a strenuous but very scenic walk, and we enjoyed warm sunshine under a cloudless sky. To the west we looked far out to sea; we could see Taranaki way to the south, Ngauruhoe (Mt Doom) and Ruapehu far to the southwest, and almost to Auckland in the north. The trouble with New Zealand ex-volcanoes like this one is that having completed most of the climbing and reached a reasonable height (which took us less than 2 hours) the summit is still far away along a winding volcanic ridge through thick bush, up and down astonishingly steep little hummocks -- so steep that some have fixed chains to help you up. That part took almost another couple of hours; Pam was so exhausted she longed to call a helicopter from the emergency helipad at the very top. And the return journey is just as strenuous until you finally reach the downhill part. The hike was well over 7 hours there and back, quite a major effort.

In January 2003 we made good on our promise of a Wedding Present Cruise for our friends Sarah and Alex, whose log entry records an entree of fresh cold oysters served with gin and tonics, followed by the legendary Thai chicken curry, and a postprandial apricot-coloured full moon, serenaded by clarinet to bring a golden path of moonbeams rippling straight to Beulah's transom. Another memorable trip, though only a day trip this time, was with Greg, our best man from all those years ago, and his wife Carol. Greg is an inveterate sailor who shared many adventures with Ian in the old days, and although he owns a boat that he races in N. Ireland every week he has never been able to persuade Carol to sail -- not once. Our challenge was to get her out on the water. Ian promised a good time, and delivered in spades. It was a lovely warm sunny day, with a very light air. Ian's sister Pippa and husband John were with us, and we had an unforgettably nice day -- which quite converted Carol to the maritime life. Whether she will gladly suffer the chillier Irish conditions remains to be seen.

Early in February Ian set sail on a longer cruise with brother Brian from England, heading vaguely towards the Bay of Islands. Brian, delegated to procure diesel fuel at the marina, was nonplussed by the office girl's query as to whether he wanted the diesel GT or on shore -- he mumbled some response but only later realized that she was referring to the diesel jetty. (Which reminds me: having arrived at the airport to catch a plane in New Zealand you first proceed to the chicken disk.) We set off well and covered good ground the first day, only to be becalmed for days thereafter. Beset by light and fickle winds, we finally make it into the Bay of Islands well behind schedule and dropped anchor in the above-mentioned Paradise Bay on Urupukapuka Island. It is truly lovely, and -- incredibly -- we had the bay to ourselves.

But time pressed and we weighed anchor at dawn. This is not so easy as it sounds, particularly as Beulah's new cocktail shaker had been getting a good workout on the trip. Our plan to make a record day's run in a nice fresh breeze was foiled by the starboard shroud (wire rope that holds up the mast) breaking without warning in a little gust. This was potentially disastrous! Fortunately Beulah has three shrouds on each side, but if the sails were left up the remaining two would be extra stressed. Dismasting is a nasty and dangerous (not to mention expensive) affair. We were scared to sail, and didn't have enough diesel to get back under engine. After much ado we managed to get ashore and walk miles to the nearest village. We asked someone where the store and learned "Oh, the village voted to close the store a couple of years back"! To cut a long story short, we did sail, and our considerable trepidation gradually reduced as time went on and we regained confidence in the remaining two shrouds. On the return voyage we anchored overnight at one of the islands in the remote Hen and Chickens group. These are wildlife sanctuaries and landing is prohibited, but according to our sailing guide they are worth stopping at for the birds alone. And so it turned out. There was no sign of any other humanity, and in our secluded little bay it felt as though we were anchored off a wild, unexplored South Sea Island. The birdsong was absolutely magical.

Tired of sailing? Surely not! We weren't. Next year Brian came over again and we set out in the other direction, round the tip of the Coromandel Peninsula and then south. This involves leaving the shelter of the Hauraki Gulf for more exposed waters on the east side of New Zealand. Almost every day we saw dolphins; sometimes they swam under the boat and breached alongside, which is very dramatic. Once we sighted a whale with an estimated length of 20-30 feet, and another time we had a brief glimpse of two more, one of which surfaced momentarily right beside Beulah! We explored the Mercury Islands for a couple of days. There are some beautiful anchorages with bleached white sand, one with a lovely waterfall just a short stroll through the bush. Then we continued south past Cathedral Cove and Hot Water Beach. The highlight of this trip was sailing around the Alderman Islands, a group of incredibly jagged, dramatic, and inhospitable rocks flung far out into the sea off the New Zealand coast. There are hundreds of awe-inspiring giant pinnacles and towering islets, all jumbled up -- like an island scrapyard. On the return trip we encountered some peculiar weather, ranging rapidly from very strong winds to a very flat calm, and from light drizzle to torrential rain. We anchored one night at Great Barrier Island, but instead of exploring its coastline as we had intended a foul weather forecast had us turning tail immediately, back towards the mainland, encountering strong winds and huge seas. Then, snugly anchored in a bay, we sat out the storm. By this time food was getting short, and we were relieved to catch some fish. More disturbingly, we were down to our last bottle of wine.

OK, landlubbers, we hear your cry: enough, enough! Both years, while Brian and Ian sailed into the far blue yonder on their nautical epics, Pam was showing Rosaleen (Brian's wife), Pippa and John around the country -- by land. When Pippa and John had visited New Zealand the previous year (2002, in summer -- that is, February) we managed to persuade them, contrary to their well-travelled friends' well-meaning advice, to stay in the North Island and not attempt the standard whole-country-in-a-month whirlwind tour. They liked it so much that the next year (February 2003) they just wanted to see more of the same thing. And this time Rosaleen joined them (Brian had come alone the previous year). So Pam organized a trip around the south part of the North Island, volunteering herself as tour guide. They first visited Napier, an east coast centre that in 1931 was destroyed in a disastrous earthquake (Richter 7.9, nothing like the recent cataclysmic one) and has been completely rebuilt to produce (according to the guidebook) one of the world's best examples of an art deco city. Rosaleen in particular, an art deco aficionado, reveled in it. Then it was off to Martinborough, a small sleepy country town that woke up one day to find itself in the centre of one of the country's premier wine-growing areas. Throwing off gumboots in favour of glass slippers -- or Gucci -- it became a popular and trendy little place. Our party sampled many wineries: they all reveled in that. During these trips the two family groups communicated by txt messaging, and an envious entry by Brian in Beulah's log reads, "Today the other group said they visited six wineries. Six!" Then (after sobering up) it was off to Wellington for culture, art, museums, before returning home. When we met up we relived each others' adventures over all the wine that had been procured. It was a noisy affair.

The following year while Brian and Ian dallied on the high seas Pam organized another trip for the same group, this time to the South Island. They flew to Wellington, crossed by ferry, and picked up a rental car in Pickton. Lo and behold, their route took them right through another premier wine-growing area (Marlborough), which once again was duly appreciated. They motored down to Christchurch and visited Akaroa, a lovely little village nearby. Before the country became firmly British the French had a toehold in New Zealand and could easily have ended up settling the South Island. The only remnant is Akaroa, which for tourism's sake trades on its ooh-la-la image, even calling its streets "rues." It may sound faux but the result is quite charmant. Then across Arthur's Pass to Greymouth, south through the tiny village of Hokitika, the country's greenstone capital, and down to Franz Joseph for Pippa, John and Rosaleen's first first-hand glacier experience. Then it was back up through -- would you believe it? -- another wine-growing area, Nelson. Here they encountered Ian's cousins Rod and Lorraine from up north, who were touring the country in their fully furnished pantechnicon (parked in our very own back garden a month later on Rod and Lorraine's return from their extended holiday). They met in a cafe on a very wet day for morning coffee and muffins, which developed into an extended lunch as the craik continued and the monsoon hosed down. The trip ended on a gastronomic high with a memorable dinner at the Boatshed in Nelson, perched on stilts over the ocean, watching the sun sizzle into the sea. Finally they caught the ferry back to Wellington and drove home. This whole South Island adventure was marred by terrible, unseasonable weather: rain, rain, and more rain. But our party staunchly made the most of it, and again returned with plenty of stories -- and plenty of liquid lubrication -- for our joint post-trip debriefing.

Enough of these parochial adventures: it's time to go international. First in 2003 and again in 2004 Pam and Ian spent an entire four months, July through October, in Canada. (As you will see, we should really say based in Canada.) Our love affair with the Wild West did not diminish when we moved to New Zealand, and over the past years we had kept the flame alive with two six-month periods back in Calgary. Alberta continues to woo back its native sons in the area of high technology, and though Ian is not native (nor, thankfully, "high") he apparently counts as such. There have been various idle discussions of returning (idle), returning part-time (somewhat idle), returning for visits (not so idle). Finally we got it together, and Ian applied for, and received, a grant from an Alberta agency to fund a Canadian arm of his New Zealand Digital Library project (including his salary) for four months each year, for two years.

But not in Calgary: in Lethbridge, a much more modest town not far from the US border, two or three hours drive south of Calgary, with a small, low profile, but quite respectable university. Ian took unpaid leave of absence from Waikato, and off we went. Work was a little frustrating. Ian found it harder than expected to establish a presence in Lethbridge, and sometimes felt rather sidelined. But, hey, what do you expect? -- we were swallows, there only for the summer, but trying to pose as indigenous natives. And Ian wasn't doing any teaching, for the July-October period encompasses the summer holidays and overlaps awkwardly with the next semester. The first year he expended a great deal of energy in setting up an active arm of his New Zealand Digital Library project, that would hopefully continue developing throughout the next eight months until he got back. But it didn't really survive his absence, perhaps because a promised member of staff, who was supposed to be connected with the project, didn't materialize (and still hasn't). The second year he took a somewhat more detached stance by concentrating on writing the second edition of his book Data mining, but in fact did manage to establish something that may be ongoing at Lethbridge. We'll see.

Outside work we had a great time. Lethbridge is about the same distance from the mountains as Calgary, which we know so well -- living there for 11 years we are familiar with almost all the day hikes, the lakes, the views. But Lethbridge is unexplored territory: the mountains here are different. It's close by the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, where we spent many weekends. For the first time ever we hiked with passports, walking for several hours through grizzly bear country along the banks of Waterton Lake to the other end, where we reported to the ranger station and officially entered the US before taking the ferry back across the lake. Other hikes led up to little mountain tarns backed by impenetrable headwalls, and walking around them you spent part of the time (illegally?) in the US.

On our first weekend drive from Lethbridge to Waterton we happened, quite by accident, on an obscure little campsite that became a favourite haunt. Driving out on Friday evening, wondering where we would sleep, we noticed a dead-end gravel road leading to a campsite 20 km distant. Police Outpost Provincial Park was a gem, with a lovely little lake, a few languidly floating fishermen, and loons. That evening we skinny-dipped (imagine! at our age!!) and lay entranced outside our tent while the heavens put on a magnificent show of the Aurora Borealis. We had no idea they could be seen so far south, and later learned it was not unheard of, but quite unusual -- particularly such a vivid display. We felt very special, having a production just for us on our first night's camping. The Northern Lights are different every time, in this case taking the form of vast rippling, shimmering curtains that occupy half the night sky. This far south the display was in black and white rather than the emerald blues and greens we have seen further north. Another interesting feature of Police Outpost is the fact that you can walk to the US border, just a km or so distant. Later that year and the next we took several visitors there. There's just a barbed wire fence with a rustic stile, and an obelisk where you can stand with one foot in the US and the other in Canada. The sign on the fence entering the US from the Canadian side warns you in stark black and white that you are an alien about to illegally enter foreign territory, an act punishable by war or indefinite internment at Guantanamo Bay (more of Cuba later). We exaggerate of course, but only a tad. The sign from the US side, in friendly brown on yellow, simply says "Alberta Provincial Park."

Living close to the border brings home how ludicrous it was for man to impose her arbitrary political will upon nature by dividing along the 49th parallel instead of using more sensible geographic boundaries. The tiny hamlet of Milk River in southern Alberta was part of the Louisiana Purchase, in which the US bought from France the entire drainage basin of the Mississippi-Missouri river system. Prior to then it flip-flopped several times between France and Spain. In fact, as part of this drainage basin it has theoretically been under the jurisdiction of six flags: Mexico, Spain, France, England, US, and now Canada. Seven, counting the Blackfoot Indians -- but they (very sensibly) had no concept of land ownership and didn't use flags. Of course there was no flagpole: there was no settlement until the west was opened up in the second half of the 19th Century. Two rivers come side by side into Canada from the Rocky Mountain foothills in the US: the St Mary's River on the west, which heads north and eventually joins a drainage system that empties into Hudson's Bay, and the Milk River not far to the east, which meanders through southern Alberta and returns south, crossing back into the US in eastern Montana and flowing into the Missouri, thence down the Mississippi down to New Orleans. Since eastern Montana is dry, and the Milk River is small, some American genius decided in the early 1900s to increase the flow by pumping it up from the St Mary's before they both entered Canada, to increase the potential for irrigation on its return to the US. Hearing of the plan, a Canadian genius retaliated by digging a canal -- the so-called "spite ditch" -- to transfer water back from the Milk to the St Mary's on the Canadian side. Faced with a credible threat to empty the Milk River into Canada, the Americans withdrew their plan and the two countries signed a treaty to share the disputed water equally. And that was 100 years ago. (Today the US wants to renegotiate the treaty on the basis that an equal division is not fair.)

We had some memorable trips down south. Once we went with another family in separate cars to climb the Sweetgrass Hills in northern Montana. After a detailed interrogation at the US border about what was on the menu for our picnic lunch, we found ourselves inside the immigration building eating the cold roast beef out of our sandwiches, closely observed by hostile uniformed officials. And there was the other family, our diminutive li'l-old-lady friend Joan arguing over the customs bench with a formidable testosterone-filled gun-totin' border guard, between them her opened-up sandwiches, in a ferocious row about whether the meat there was turkey salami (as Joan claimed) or beef salami (as he claimed). In the end, Joan won! And you just clean up those crumbs, he ordered sharply when she was finally allowed to repack her lunch. The issue was BSE: we were symbolic pawns in a Montana-Alberta trade war involving unsubstantiated US claims of tainted beef exports which brought southern Alberta's farming economy to its knees. Another unpleasant US incident had a Park Warden warn Ian that it was OK to play his clarinet only if he could guarantee that the sound did not escape from our little campsite, the first-ever complaint in a lifetime of playing music at campsites and anchorages. Then we watched the same warden confiscate coolers from campsite picnic tables by campers who had transgressed the rule about leaving food unattended (in case it encourages bears), lock up said coolers, and sell them back to their owners in return for a fine. We love America, and have some good American friends, but we do wish they could persuade more of their compatriots to vote for the other side. And we'd like these petty officials to loosen up a little, find some human warmth, and take themselves a little less seriously.

Anyway, the Sweetgrass Hills are mystical and magical. There are three, and they rise over 3,000 vertical feet straight off the bald prairie. After a strenuous climb up a path made from slate-like rocks that clank and tinkle harshly as they knock together under your feet, you gain the summit to find a stupendous view across the prairie in all directions, from the Rockies many miles to the west seemingly to the Great Lakes. In the old days these hills sometimes resembled islands surrounded by gigantic herds of buffalo that stretched on all sides as far as the eye could see. The hills are sacred to the American Indians, and on the very top are some dreambeds. Low walls have been built up around bed-sized depressions where native Indians traditionally lie for days, observed only by the relentless sun's scorching rays, naked, without food or water, until they receive enlightening hallucinations and are led half-dead down the mountainside to recover. We stayed overnight in the one-horse town of Shelby, Montana, whose one and only claim to fame is the world heavyweight title held here in 1924 when Jack Dempsey triumphed once again. The railway was built to carry boxers and their entourages, reporters, and dignitaries, all the way out from New York, and a special stadium was erected. They're still talking about it: nothing has happened there since. The next day we climbed another of the Sweetgrass Hills, after an unpleasant encounter with camouflaged, paint-daubed, gun-totin' hunters who spoke as though they owned the country and warned us not to share it in case of "accidents." Perhaps foolishly, we ignored them, and survived to write this letter.

We rediscovered the world's most scenic drive, the Going to the Sun Road through the Logan pass in Glacier National Park, Montana. We had driven it many years before on holiday from Calgary, and our memories are indifferent or worse. Then our poor old car toiled and boiled up the pass, and we had to stop many times on the narrow road to blow off steam, holding up irate traffic. Ian recalls fractious kids in the back, fractious wife in the front. "How can you do this. With young children. Totally irresponsible. Why can't we have a proper car like other families. Etc etc." Well, let me tell you, the Logan Pass -- or at least the Logan Pass experience -- has improved immensely in the last 20 years. It's an absolutely fabulous place. This time we did a stunning skyline hike at the top, Pam heart in mouth along a narrow ledge a mere three metres (according to Ian) or 30 cm (according to her) wide. Pippa and John came to stay in Lethbridge in August 2004, having failed to do so the eleven years we lived in Calgary and berating us for leaving so soon, and we took them up there the next weekend. We hiked in the other direction from the top of the pass, and showed them mountain lakes! Mountain goats!! Glaciers!!! (a lifetime second for them, the first having been New Zealand's Franz Josef glacier earlier this year, as recounted above).

We could regale you with wildlife stories from Lethbridge. The town is bisected by a wide river valley, the Oldman River (just keeps rolling along), which cuts deep into the surrounding high prairie. Around the campus you frequently see deer, and even stumble into them at night. On our regular evening walks along the coulees we often watched families of beavers playing in the river. In summer pelicans gather round the weir. And we encountered huge porcupines, countless gophers and chipmunks. This is rattlesnake country, and we were lucky enough to see one, which warned us away eponymously in the time-honoured manner. Overhead are hawks, bald eagles, golden eagles, the occasional great horned owl. Cacti of various varieties flourish all over the prairies, with lovely flowers in early summer. Driving around we caught glimpses of antelope and coyote, saw herds of (farmed) bison. In the mountains we encountered moose and bears, both black and grizzly (fortunately mostly from the car). As well as rare sightings of mountain goats we met the quite different Rocky Mountain bighorned sheep. Elk, white-tailed deer, mule deer and ... oh dear, some of these we ate in gourmet restaurants -- bison, elk cutlets, venison, yummy.

Two mornings a week Pam volunteered for work at the Birds of Prey Centre in a small town outside Lethbridge, which rehabilitates injured birds and runs a successful breading and release program for the endangered burrowing owl. There they have various eagles including Sarah, a magnificent golden eagle; all sorts of owls including the cute little ground-nesting burrowing owl (did you know that a 70 cm tall great horned owl weighs only half a kg or so, and its neck, which looks enormous, is only one cm thick inside all those feathers); Snoopy the celebrity vulture (remember the movie Shanghai Noon, where Jackie Chan is buried up to his neck in the sand and a vulture pecks his head? -- that's Snoopy!); kestrels, hawks, falcons. Pam cleaned their cages, fed and watered them, even flew them for the tourists and lured them back with a piece of dead duck. It's a rare privilege to get "up close and personal" with these magnificent birds.

Nikki visited us in August 2004 at the same time as John and Pippa. With Ian she did the world-famous Crypt Lake hike, which starts with a refreshing boat trip across the windswept waters of Waterton Lake to land on the other side, climbs steeply past Hell Roaring Falls, carries on for miles and miles up a glaciated side valley, switchbacks interminably and very steeply up to a 20 metre tunnel in the rock through which you have to crawl (leave your claustrophobia behind on this trip!), emerges onto a vertiginous ledge and continues along a narrow path etched into the cliff face, climbs over a lip of rock with a breathtaking view from the top of a most spectacular waterfall that tumbles thousands of feet below, and continues into another world, a rock-enclosed cirque with a gorgeous little Alpine lake flanked by occasional snowslides that even calve icebergs. Lunch, stroll round the lake (the far side is in the US), and hurry down in time to catch the boat back -- woe betide you if you miss it: you're in for a night in the woods with the grizzlies. Speaking of grizzlies, on another occasion Pam and Ian decided to bushwhack around a delightful little lake in which they'd watched a baby moose, and back there in the almost impenetrable forest they saw grizzly spoor (turds, not to put too fine a point on it) and FELT the bear watching them. Fighting back panic they fought forward through the dense undergrowth, and ... emerged completely unharmed, though both shaken and stirred. Phew! But another day they were observing another moose browsing in the same little lake and spotted a huge grizzly on the far bank, just hanging around, willing them -- daring them -- to come round again for lunch.

So many stories. And so many still untold (this is a two-year letter, remember). But we'll have to economize, cut, abbreviate, precis. Here are some salient images. Indian Days -- an Indian rodeo, on the nearby reservation. Are ours the only European faces? -- almost. Great fun, with traditional Indian dancing, including the kids' "chicken dance," fabulous costumes, drumming, and all the excitement of the rodeo -- broncs and stuff. The next year we attended the rodeo at Whoop-up Days, Lethbridge's answer (but not a very good one) to the world-famous Calgary Stampede. The highlight here was the bull riding: never have we seen so many mean-tempered bulls. They jump and corkscrew viciously. You have to stay on for 8 seconds, but virtually everyone hit dirt painfully after that first volcanic buck (0.5 seconds). Lethbridge used to be called Fort Whoop-up, by the way, after an early whisky trading post -- and we could tell you some stories about whisky trading and the deliberate rape of the native way of life by us Europeans, nothing to be proud of. Here's a final image: a traditional cowboy breakfast with two visitors, one from Berlin and the other from New Zealand, Ian cooking pancakes bacon and coffee on a blazing campfire, watching the sun low over a prairie lake near Lethbridge -- wait for it -- setting, a gorgeous and unforgettable breakfast sunset. Yes.

One day we visited a Hutterite colony, a religious commune of Germanic origin. You see Hutterites selling vegetables in Lethbridge's Saturday market, the males wearing open-necked white shirts and black trousers with braces (suspenders to North Americans), the females wearing long flower-patterned dresses in dark colours with polka-dot headscarves and staunchly sensible black or brown shoes. Most of the females in the market were young girls, lifeless faces staring blankly out from their vegetable stalls, taking everything in but never smiling or talking to each other. We didn't like it. But the colony we visited was different: its members seemed to have a life, though not a very private one. The community kitchen was spotless -- everywhere is completely devoid of decoration -- and equipped with the most modern stainless steel catering appliances. The dining room was furnished only with bare trestle tables and benches, men on one side and women on the other, each group in order of seniority. The kids serve, and eat last. The pre-school "play" room was bare, containing one shelf with a few measly toys. The other schoolroom was decorated with biblical quotes and examples of calligraphy, many in an embellished old-German script that we couldn't read. Hutterites talk to each other, and to God, in a classical form of German, though they can all speak heavily-accented English. We could read and understand the German, but not the more ornate scripts. We examined the extensive vegetable gardens which the women and children start weeding at dawn, and inspected the enormous, well-equipped workshop, in which a mechanical chicken-plucker (or was it a chicken-plucker's son? Ha!) was being serviced. Our host and hostess, very personable people, invited us into their house for a wee dram of strong home-made "wine," either white (gooseberry liqueur) or red (rhubarb liqueur). Of course we were served men first, oldest first, which put Ian in a great position. We learned that communities grow to 130 "souls" before they split; the entire group builds a second commune before it decides who will move and who will stay. We learned that a man's profession depends solely on what skills the community needs at that time, without regard for aptitude: it is assumed that anyone can learn to do anything. The men vote on your job. Religious leaders (each colony has three) are the overall community bosses, and are appointed in much the same way (though in this case other communities' religious leaders are consulted too). We were impressed by everyone's self-sufficiency and evident knowledge of all matters practical, particularly farming and farming equipment. These are the people to bet on when civilization breaks down and we all have to fall back on our individual survival skills.

It was great to be back in Alberta, and to renew old friendships. From Lethbridge we traveled to Banff, Canmore, Calgary, Camrose, Edmonton, to catch up with friends (and in some cases for conferences). We visited Vancouver together, Ian for a workshop and "distinguished" lecture (how nice to be distinguished); Pam for sightseeing. We took the ferry across to nearby Bowen Island to visit Shelagh and David, Ian's M.Sc. supervisor, now retired but more active than ever. One long weekend we drove with our very old friends Marie and Jim to stay with some friends of theirs in BC. We must tell you this, because it transpires that Marie and Jim have longed year after year -- apparently in vain -- to get a mention in our Christmas letter. This is hard to believe, because we have shared so many memorable adventures with them at their Camrose smallholding, from duck-sexing to honey-wagon driving (don't know what a honey wagon is? -- never mind, think cesspools), and the only possible reason can be that our encounters are somehow always clouded in a dense alcoholic haze (typically the John Jameson's variety). This year, near Keslo BC, we fulfilled our long-standing ambition to see a salmon run. Those National Geographic articles tell you about the river running red with fish, thick enough to walk across, jostling each other upstream, jumping weirs, struggling up ladders. Well, that's exactly what we saw. Plus large bearish paw-prints on the riverbank, and eagles wheeling hungrily overhead. Another life experience was a ride in a combine harvester with Marie's brother, with whom, at a tender and impressionable age, we had castrated cows and collected the prairie oysters in a rusty tin can way back in 1969. This was one of those huge harvesters, with an air-conditioned cab seemingly as high as the cockpit of a jumbo jet -- and not much less complicated.

And in both years we took advantage of being close to the centre of things in the N. Hemisphere (it's all relative, right?) by taking international trips: in 2003 to Paris, Trondheim, Norway, N. Ireland; in 2004 to London, Bath, Paris, N. Ireland. And Havana.

We both enjoyed visiting Ian's expanding family in N. Ireland, and managed to take in a big family wedding, with brisk, incessant, Irish craik (and a fair amount of alcohol besides). Ian sailed, raced. We hiked in the Mourne Mountains, the ones that sweep down to the sea, and climbed Slieve Bearnagh. But the most excellent little trip was when we took Ian's mum (blind, lame, ancient, fragile) to tiny Rathlin Island off Ireland's north coast. (It lies between Ireland and Scotland, and in historic times they applied an acid test to see which side it belonged to -- they set free a couple of snakes. If they flourished, it was Scottish; if not, it had to be Irish, because St Patrick had long ago banished all snakes from our shores. They died.) The weather had been abysmal, all the earlier ferries having been cancelled, but there was only this one window of opportunity. When we arrived at the ticket office the man asked, "Are you going across today? You're mad!" When we boarded the ferry the captain declared, "Are you crossing today? You're mad!" We herded Mum into the cabin to sit down for the 45 minute crossing. Pam was outside preparing to feed the fishes with second-hand breakfast. Ian was running between the two. Are you all right, Pam? Must just go check Mum. Mum, you want to stand up and look out? -- You're crazy! -- Look, I'll try to hold you. -- No, you can't go outside on your zimmer frame, you'd never make it to the other side of the cabin. Hold on while I go check Pam. Outside, hanging on to the rail, waves break over us. Back inside ... for God's sake sit down. You can run a long way in 45 minutes. Anyway, we arrived safe and sound and, since there are no taxis or public transport, and few roads, walked to the National Trust guesthouse where we were staying.

Rathlin is fascinating, with a very ancient history. In 2000 BC they had a thriving export industry of stone axe blades. There are few trees, so the hafts had to come from elsewhere. In the very early 1300s Robert the Bruce had his famous spider-watching epiphany (never heard of it? -- never mind) in a sea-cave on the north side of the island. In the mid-nineteenth Century, when the potato famine struck, half the population emigrated. Now it's down from a peak of 1000 to about 100. And the tiny one-room primary school has just three pupils, one of whom is about to graduate. With Mum we walked and walked until her SUV-style zimmer frame needed an oil change. Up hills, pushing, and down precipitous slopes, Ian standing in front braced against the zimmer frame, trying to stop it from charging off down the hill. In the pub we drank Guinness (aaaah -- excellent!) and bought bottles of wine for our boarding-house meals (the meals were the only disappointment, expensive and indifferently cooked). Pam and Ian walked miles and miles, pretty well from one end of the island to the other. After two days we had to return home. Mum wasn't going to get stuck inside on the ferry this time, oh no. She stayed outside, hanging on to the rail, and so, therefore, did we. We left the harbour, the seas getting up. The boat pitched and rolled, her zimmer frame playing havoc sliding around the small car deck. Waves crashed over our heads. Water sloshed round our feet. The crew tried to persuade us inside, but Mum wasn't having any of it. Anyway, we couldn't possibly have moved her: we were stuck. She gazed out with a huge ear-to-ear grin, failing eyes shining behind thick lenses. That was absolutely fantastic, she declared breathlessly when we reached calmer waters and our safety finally seemed assured.

Trondheim was lovely. Ian was working at a conference, of course, but Pam found it a hospitable place with colourful old wooden buildings that opened directly on to narrow cobbled streets just wide enough for a bicycle, with a gutter down the middle to channel away rain and melted snow. Bath was lovely. Ian was working at a conference, of course, but Pam loved the Georgian architecture, the warm colour of the stone, the stone angels climbing up outside the cathedral, and The (famous) Crescent, with a house that had been faithfully recreated in Georgian style. She also enjoyed the costume museum, which was showing costumes of film and television productions of Jane Austin's books with an accompanying audio-guide that recounted the scandals and gossip behind the scenes. Paris was lovely. Ian had to work a bit, of course, but on one off day, following the advice of some Calgary friends, we caught a train to a small country town, bought a picnic lunch in the marketplace, rented broken-down old bicycles and pedaled off to Giverny, Monet's village with its famous garden and water lily pond. Cycling through the French countryside was great, and Monet's garden is stupendous.

And Havana was amazing. Absolutely amazing. This, our most recent trip, was the travel highlight of the period. What an eye-opener! Forget all that propaganda about a dirty, destitute country on the verge of bankruptcy, a communist snake pit of vice and restrictive government control. Think instead of a universal education system, and a universal healthcare system. Think of a complete absence of any form of advertising -- what heady relief that brings to the eyes, particularly after living in N. America, always surrounded by jarring visual shrieks: buy Buy BUY. Think of music, much music, varied music, only to realize on the plane back that the piped muzak is the first recorded sound to hit your eardrums since you disembarked that same plane five glorious days before. Think clean, upbeat, positive, people, who are certainly very poor and don't wear new clothes or tailored suits, but are clean and smart under the circumstances. You know how in any big city you pass down-and-outs on the street who look destitute and smell stinky? Not in Havana (and yes, we did walk through poor districts). Think lively sexiness, but not commercial sex. Think fabulous 17th Century Spanish city architecture, Spanish forts, cannon and cannonballs used imaginatively in the city to enforce no-traffic areas -- cemented into the concrete, not aimed to fire! Think columns: Havana is the city of columns. Everywhere, including all the suburbs, boasts grand buildings, beautifully and individually designed, classical architecture. Yes, it's poor; very poor. Many buildings are falling down and badly in need of attention. But fortunately old Havana has recently been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site: restoration is in progress in the old downtown area, and it's being very well done.

Part of the reason we loved it was that we were staying in the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, a national monument that dates from 1930. Ian was giving a course on his Greenstone digital library software, and they made all the arrangements. This hotel's guests include Winston Churchill, Frank Sinatra, JFK, and now the Wittens! Remember that old movie called the Godfather? It's about a meeting that took place in this hotel. Remember the Cuban missile crisis? There were no warheads -- they were being shipped from the USSR, and fortunately Kennedy persuaded Khrushchev to turn them back -- but there were Russian missiles on Cuban soil, and two of them stood on the grounds of this seaside hotel, aimed at the US. They're gone now, but we inspected the concrete launch pads and the network of underground tunnels through which they were serviced. Have you seen the recent movie about the Buenavista Social Club? We visited the club in Havana, though during the day and there was no music. And we heard the band at a concert in our hotel (the lineup included double bass, guitars, much miscellaneous percussion -- and two clarinets!). Much of the time we spent by the pool, or lounging in huge wicker armchairs in the shade outside the hotel, drinking mojitas (rum, lemon, mint leaves, sugar, water). It was truly a magic time. Ian's course went very well, too. The only real problem is having to smoke all those excellent cigars that we felt compelled to bring back with us, having watched them being rolled in the traditional way on the inside thighs of young virgins.

We're running out of steam -- bet you are too! -- but there's much still to say. What about the family? Two years ago Nikki had just come back from Vancouver, and planned to return soon. Well, until she moved out to housesit for a friend a few weeks ago she's been staying in our home ever since -- including looking after it while we've been away. She started a legal executive course part-time, and eventually landed a dream part-time job with a small family law firm that specializes in house sales and purchases. Now, two years later, we've just heard that she passed her final exams and is finally a qualified legal executive. She still works with the same firm and has lots of experience under her belt. She's hoping the job will now turn full-time, and is also considering flexing her wings and moving on. Eventually she plans either to return to Vancouver for a bit, or go to Edinburgh (don't really know why Edinburgh). She has a steady boyfriend who is finishing his computer science degree at Waikato and works part-time for a small firm that does digital library consulting work centred around the Greenstone software that Ian's group has developed (though Ian has little to do with the firm, and nothing to do with John's job). We think they're planning on traveling off together, through we're not sure. It has been great having Nikki living (mostly) at home; she's excellent company. But now it's time for her to get her own flat, sharing with some other professional girls; she's moving in on 1 Jan 2005. Her friend Christine from Vancouver visited us for a month in 2003, and Nikki took her on a trip round the lower North Island like the one Pam arranged for Ian's relatives. Nikki visited Canada in August 2004 for three weeks, dividing her time between friends in BC and her parents in Lethbridge.

Anna is still living near Sydney, Australia. In our letter two years ago we mentioned her Kiwi boyfriend Dan. Well, they're still together. She brought him home to meet us around Easter 2003, and again this Christmas, and we both like him very much. He's an avid skateboarder and scuba diver, and now Anna does some skateboarding too and is a qualified diver. Sometimes they rise at 6 AM to skate before work, when the skate ramp is empty -- that certainly doesn't sound like our daughter! Anna has been working for Just Jeans (or is it JJs? -- can't remember, the two firms are quite similar and closely connected), including a spell managing a store, very successfully by all accounts. This was a store in a poor area of Sydney, with endemic shoplifting -- once, before she took over, two guys came in and blatantly walked out with a whole rack of clothes, including the rack! We were a little worried about how she -- or anyone -- would cope with such trauma, but it sounds like she turned the store around. However, she didn't enjoy it, and opted this year to do a one-year course in "visual merchandising," which involved some design, marketing, artistic projects, and computer art (e.g. PhotoShop). Visual merchandising is more than window-dressing, it's about shop layout too, and now that she has completed her course she hopes to get a position with Just Jeans/JJs as one of their traveling VMers. Dan is a chemical engineer who works in toxic waste, arranging disposal and enforcing regulations -- sounds like he'll always be in demand. They currently plan to spend a year or two more in Australia and perhaps travel the world together before returning to settle in New Zealand. We'll see.

When we wrote two years ago, Pam had just retired. Well, it didn't last long. She was invited back to the school to teach music one day a week. Going abroad for four months each year made regular work rather difficult, but each year she has taught up until late June, and ended by organizing a concert where her recorder and percussion students showed off their new-found skills. The biggest hits were combined recorder/marimba items and musical stories with sound effects provided by unorthodox recorder techniques. This year parents had to decide whether to send their child to her music lessons, and if so pay an extra fee. The response was very positive, and she has been asked to do the same thing again next year -- there is already a waiting list of enthusiastic potential students. On the other hand her absences haven't worked out so well with her Saturday morning music school position, which she loved (though Ian didn't, because she left for work at the crack of dawn every Saturday), They had trouble recruiting a suitable replacement mid-year (despite her discussing the situation with them before she committed to the position at the beginning of last year) and won't be able to continue the arrangement this year, because we're planning to be away again for a few months (though not to Lethbridge). Sad but inevitable. She was asked to give a 1-week marimba course to 13-15 year olds in a high school in a poor socio-economic area of Hamilton. She agreed with some trepidation, not being used to this age group, However, the kids were amazingly responsive and a good time was had by all. She has also been volunteering at a local primary school, helping children with reading difficulties. And delivering meals on wheels for the local YWCA. She has been far too busy to make much progress on the long list of activities she intended to undertake during her so-called "retirement." She still plays recorder weekly with a local group, monthly with the local recorder society, and occasionally travels to Auckland to join an excellent quartet there. In Lethbridge she met Joan, a harp- and recorder-playing soulmate, a very good musician, and had some -- but not enough! -- sessions there with a small group of good players. Strangely enough, Joan and family spent last night with us here in Hamilton, to get relief from the rain as they camp their way around New Zealand.

Pam's mum Peggy, who visited New Zealand at Christmas two years ago, decided to stay and lives in a retirement village in Auckland, not far from Pam's brother Graham. She really likes it. England has no similar facilities -- nor are any of her children there. Pam's other brother Steven came out from his home near Toulouse in France on a big world tour with a large entourage of wives, children and stepchildren, and their girlfriends. With Peggy, Graham and his daughter and girlfriend, and Anna and Nikki with their respective boyfriends, we had 17 people here for about five days over Christmas. They weren't all actually staying in our home -- we borrowed a couple of spare houses -- but they were eating, drinking, and carousing here. In other family news, we managed to get to Toronto for a day on the way to Havana, and spent Canadian Thanksgiving in a glorious reunion with our very long-term friends Joan and much of her family. Joan and her now-departed husband Jack, Ian's godfather, are responsible for our relationship with Canada; and it was in their house that Anna spent her first month on earth. Finally, we have a new young cat, Ari, who Nikki adopted on our behalf (and while we were away) following our beloved (male) Cleopatra's demise just after Anna's visit last Easter.

Ian's digital library project has been getting favourable international attention. He received the 2004 IFIP Namur Award, a biennial honor accorded for outstanding contribution with international impact to the awareness of social implications of information and communication technology, and made a brief visit to Namur in Belgium at the beginning of this year for the award ceremony. He is pleased with his contribution to humanitarian applications of computing and proud of this recognition. The Greenstone software produced by his project is used for many collections of humanitarian information, and is seen by UNESCO as contributing to sustainable development in information technology. It's widely used internationally. For example, the interface has been translated into 35 languages: Arabic, Armenian, Bosnian, Croatian, Czech, Chinese (simplified), Chinese (traditional), Dutch, Farsi, Finnish, French, Galician, Georgian, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Kannada, Kazakh, Maori, Portuguese (Brazilian and European versions), Russian, Serbian, Spanish, Thai, Turkish, Ukrainian, Vietnamese, and English -- plus a some others. You can learn more about Greenstone by googling digital library software, or simply greenstone.

Ian has also done much traveling that we haven't been able to document above. Fancy writing a Christmas letter that's so full of news that your first visit to the Taj Mahal scarcely gets a mention! Contrary to his expectations, since you hear so much hype about the Taj Mahal, the building is absolutely awe-inspiring. He's not normally moved by buildings -- people, events, yes -- nevertheless it was hard to gaze at it without a tear. Despite all the crowds, the heat, it really is moving and tells an emotional and poignant story. However, his computer ate up hundreds of digital photos, every one, so that's that. The Taj Mahal is close to New Delhi, where he was giving an invited talk at a large international digital library conference at which the President of India himself gave the opening address. With a billion people to look after he found time to address us, and made excellent and sensible remarks. We were enormously impressed: digital libraries are taken very seriously in India (as they should be). On various other trips not mentioned above he also gave talks, mostly invited ones, in Ankara Turkey, Baltimore Maryland (twice), Chicago Illinois, Colima near the west coast of Mexico (what a nice place!), Houston Texas, Nagoya Japan, Springfield and St Louis Missouri (on separate trips), Tokyo Japan, and Tucson Arizona.

Ian also continues some musical activities, though seriously curtailed by all this traveling. He played first clarinet in the Waikato Symphony Orchestra concert in May 2004, with a prominent, exposed, and consequently nerve-wracking part. Shortly before that our good friend and virtuoso jazz guitarist Gary, in self-exile to Glasgow, returned for a joyous couple of weeks and we organized a reunion of the old trio at a jazz cafe evening in our house, which was greatly enjoyed by all -- particularly the musicians! Ian is becoming known for occasional impromptu recitals at international conferences, solo or with local musicians. The conference organizers in Tucson Arizona even hired a professional jazz group to accompany him. It's so nice to play with sympathetic professionals who skillfully cover up your mistakes!

On Christmas Day three years ago we walked on a beach south of Chennai (Madras), India. As we wrote in our Christmas letter at the time: "Chennai has excellent beaches, surprisingly clean. Sari-clad Indian maidens stood squealing and giggling in the sea, getting knocked about by the waves; families lounged around; hawkers wheeled their barrows; the odd cow strolled idly by. We examined the fishing boats dragged up on the beach, each comprising eight or ten crudely-hewn lengths of wood tied together with string, with a wood-stone-and-string anchor." As we write this we have just learned the tragic horror of the tsunami. Three years and a day after our visit, children were happily playing cricket on that very same beach. Then the water came. Fishermen told how they had been swept away but were able to swim back. The children could not. Nor could they run fast enough to escape.

Perhaps some good may come out of this terrible calamity, without malice or malevolence but orders of magnitude worse in human terms than the World Trade Center attack in 2001 that so desperately changed our world. Every year we end this letter with a prayer for peace that grows more fervent with each passing year. We are lucky to be tucked away in a remote corner of this alarming world, far from the centre of things. Perhaps this international catastrophe will help remind all of us that in our uncertain world humanity cannot afford to fight but needs to work together in mutual support and solace.

May peace be with you!

Pam and Ian, plus Anna and Nikki in absentia