Witten’s Christmas Letter for 2012

626 Tauwhare Road
RD7, Hamilton
New Zealand 3287
December 26, 2012

Dear friends,

Another year has flown by! Highlights for us were: Ian’s annual sailing adventure with brother Brian; visits to Anna and her young family in Brisbane; trip to the UK to see Ian’s Mum, Nikki, and other family members; epic adventure in China/Tibet for Ian and Nikki; a few other trips including Colombia; the usual round of orchestral concerts in and around Hamilton; and various celebrations with PhD students and assorted musicians at Woodside House on Waiheke Island. Ian has not only not retired but has been appointed Senior Scientific Adviser for an NZ hi-tech startup—and judging from the Christmas letters we’ve just received, he’s the only person of our generation still working. And the biggest news of all, one from each daughter: Anna and family are moving back to Auckland; and Nikki and John are engaged to be married in (probably) early 2014.

That’s the synopsis: now for the detail. But be warned: the next page is about sailing, and there are many more after that. Just before Christmas 2011, Ian and ex-student David began the mammoth task of stripping the varnish from Beulah’s cabin exterior and cockpit coaming, right back to the bare mahogany. Following a memorable New Year’s Eve celebration with friends in their miniscule bach at Piha, near Auckland, with fabulous views over this stunning west coast beach and points north, it was back to varnishing for Ian (Uroxsys aliphatic, for the discerning). A total of 8 coats, followed by a further 5 around the windows to remedy some masking-tape deficiencies. The result was excellent, but what a lot of work!

Brian arrived on 20 Jan for our annual sailing trip. We drove straight from the airport, via the supermarket to stock up on food and (especially) wine, to the marina, packed everything into Beulah, and off! We made our way steadily north, with early starts and often little wind, right past the Bay of Islands, past the Cavallis, to lovely Matauri Bay, where Pam and Ian camped in the summer of 2000 and Brian and Ian reached by sea in 2009. This year we went even further north, through a school of dolphins who played with us for a while and around the tip of Cape Karekare, from where we could see in the distance the very north of NZ. The next day discretion (and too light a breeze) got the better part of us and we refrained from a jaunt right up to North Cape and Cape Reinga, where M_ori spirits begin their final journey; we didn’t want to follow them.

Cape Karekare was our zenith: we turned around for the return journey, dropping in to Opua in the Bay of Islands to pick up an honoured guest: Pam, who had driven up from Hamilton. As you can imagine, dirty after more than a week’s sailing, we spent much time cleaning ourselves, and the boat, first. We spent a lovely 3 days with her, exploring the Bay of Islands at a more relaxed pace than our usual frenetic passages. Strawberry pancakes, morning coffee, lagoon swims, gourmet meals from Beulah’s galley. Brian drove Pam’s car round from Opua while Pam and Ian had an exhilarating sail to Omakiwi cove. There Pam disembarked for the drive back, while the sailors began the long sea voyage. Passing Elizabeth Reef evoked the traditional limerick composition: the ship’s log records this year’s as:

When I first met Elizabeth Reef
the encounter was exciting but brief.
We jumped into bed,
and all that she said, was
d’you prefer it on top or beneath?
Clearly time for home. The only disappointment of the trip was that all fish spurned our bait—as usual.

Brian’s wife Ros was supposed to come out from the UK to join him for two weeks after the sailing trip. But to our dismay we heard whilst at sea that she suffered a minor stroke at home in Sheffield and was unable to fly. Our cell-phone batteries were the focus of feverish, and ultimately fruitless, activity: we were both running out. Brian had brought a solar powered charger—needless to say, there was no chance to test it in the UK—which turned out not to work. Ian’s car charger also turned out not to work with the ship’s battery. Brian tried charging from Pam’s car while driving it round, but that didn’t work either. With sparse and frantic text messages between Michael, Ros and Brian’s son, who fortunately was traveling home from London when she suffered the stroke, we learned that the problem was not major, but obviously nonetheless very worrying. We had planned to visit Woodside House on Waiheke over a long weekend for Ros’s arrival. The three of us went there anyway while Brian rearranged his flight back and curtailed his trip. Ros, fortunately, made a complete and rapid recovery. But she and Brian missed their much-anticipated NZ holiday together.

Late in February was our orchestra’s annual spectacular outdoor concert, the Sunset Symphony, which rounds out a big summer festival in Hamilton Gardens. It featured a host of diverse, popular, light and classical music, with a huge choir, and an amazing solo electric violinist from Christchurch with enormous sex appeal (not to mention yours truly, both of us—mediocre second clarinet player and inspired percussionist respectively). We finished with the 1812 Overture with cannons and a big firework display, for by then night had fallen. The weather smiled that evening, and the audience of 6,000–10,000 sat around on the grass, picnicking and drinking wine. Who should turn up at the afternoon rehearsal but Peter and Shirley Noakes, old friends from Essex University, who were passing through Hamilton on a tour of NZ.

There were other concerts. Our June event, traditionally our most serious, opened with Tchaikovsky’s thrilling Capriccio Italien, in which Ian temporarily surrendered his second clarinet part and joined Pam on percussion, making his debut with a few huge crashes on the big cymbals, and ended with a fantastic (and challenging!) symphony, Borodin’s Second. Pam played in our Education Concert to 1000 school-children in August (Ian was overseas). In November our huge orchestra (70+ players) and choir (120 singers) staged an epic “Waikato Proms” concert, modelled after the BBC’s Last Night of the Proms but with a local twist, including NZ’s leading composer Douglas Lilburn’s wonderful Aotearoa overture plus a whole string of foot-tapping music—Rhapsody in Blue, Borodin’s Polovetsian Dances (beginning with the tune you might know as “Strangers in Paradise” alias “Strange little parasite”), orchestrated Māori songs with an excellent local girl soloist, several other choral numbers—ending up party-style, a la BBC Proms, with Fantasia on British Sea Songs and Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance. Another noteworthy event was the now-annual conductor’s workshop, where we spend a day playing (bits of) the same pieces under a bevy of budding maestros. It’s fascinating to experience different styles of conducting and ways of dealing with the players. Ian is Vice President of the orchestra this year, and has been heavily involved with organizing its activities.

As the applause died away after our June concert performance in Rotorua (every year we play one evening in Hamilton and the following afternoon in Rotorua), we stepped off the stage, drove straight to the little airport, and flew to Cardiff. (It was not a non-stop Rotorua–Cardiff flight, unfortunately.) We liked Cardiff, although—guess what!—it rained every day. Ian spent his days at the University as a Visiting Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering for two weeks, giving talks and meeting graduate students and staff. Meanwhile Pam thoroughly explored the castle and discovered the best walking tour ever: two hours around the historic town site, spellbound by fascinating and entertaining history. Great value for money (only ú5!); thoroughly recommended. One afternoon we did a train–hike–bus circuit to Castell Coch, a Victorian fantasy that was built as a holiday home for the Marquis of Bute, who owned Cardiff castle. Another time we rode the train to Cardiff Bay, formerly an insalubrious area but now full of up-market cafes and an excellent modern concert hall, where we saw, and loved, Bernstein’s 1950s Broadway show Wonderful Town. We ate in Jamie Oliver’s Italian restaurant and drank excellent beer with unpronounceable names. We traveled to Swansea to meet old NZ friends; Ian gave a seminar there. Other, even older, friends from Calgary days came to Cardiff to spend time with us. It was lovely to catch up with all these people, none of whom we’d seen for many years.

From Cardiff Ian spent an afternoon at Newcastle University, and on the way we had a weekend in Sheffield with Brian and Ros. Brian took Ian to sample his (B’s) recently-discovered joys of trout fishing, where he is already secretary of the local angling club and is widely tipped to be Fisherman of the Year: they caught the usual amount. Meanwhile Ros and Pam visited the museum, art gallery, local craft shops, and took in a community art festival where they watched multicultural dance groups ranging from Indian to hiphop. We rediscovered the joys of English country pubs, drank a lot of wine (making an insignificant dent in Brian’s extensive wine cellar), and admired his all-pervasive home stereo system.

From there we made our annual pilgrimage to N. Ireland, where we stayed with Ian’s sister Pippa in her fabulous seaside home and did all the usual things. But this time Nikki and John were there, adding a new and wonderful dimension. Nikki and Ian went for an extremely wet hike in the Mourne Mountains (the ones that sweep down to the sea), choosing for the trip our only really-bad-weather day. We took the ferry from Strangford to Portaferry and back. John treated us to a whisky-tasting evening. At Daft Eddie’s pub, a favourite local haunt, we met up with some NZ friends who have recently moved to Belfast—in fact, we had seen them just months earlier at Waiheke Island where they have a family bach. We went out for our wedding anniversary to Balloo House, another favourite local, with Pippa and Nikki. And, of course, we frequently visited with Ian’s Mum, who doesn’t venture out these days but spends all her time at home, fairly content (or at least, non-complaining) at 97. In a rather moving event late one evening, John nobbled us after Nikki had retired to ask us for her hand in marriage: we were deeply touched and appreciative. However, we had to keep the secret (for Pam it was keeping mum) for several months before she found out—the reason being, we discovered later, that she has been continually busy with work, hiking, and China (see below).

Nikki has had a frustrating time finding employment in Belfast. She managed to get an unpaid internship at a local charity that supports migrants, and then another with Oxfam to help organize the Irish version of their well-known Trailwalker marathon team endurance hike: 100 km through the Mourne Mountains. She greatly enjoyed her experience with Oxfam, and was overjoyed when, soon after, they offered her a paid, though temporary, position. Nikki is secretary of the N Ireland Young Walkers, and goes hiking with them almost every weekend and to their pub quiz during the week. She didn’t actually do Trailwalker, but she did another event, the “seven sevens challenge,” which involves climbing all seven peaks in the Mournes that rise 700m or more above sea level. The distance is 29 km, a total ascent of 2300m—and when you finally reach the finish line you have to surmount two further mountains, under 700m, to return to the car park. She went with two girl friends, starting at 7 AM and returning to the car, completely exhausted, 12 hours later. Of course, leading up to this she was training with her friends every spare moment, and practicing route-finding as well, for there is no marked trail through the Mournes. John was finally able to arrange a few days holiday for just the two of them in S. Ireland in early November, and proposed to her, in the traditional way, in a meadow at the foot of Blarney castle. We are overjoyed. John, a NZer, is a highly sought after software engineer who works on mobile apps and received his computer science degree from Waikato. We are looking forward to welcoming him into our family.

Ian has an adjunct appointment at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, so in April we visited Anna, Dan, Riley and Stella for a week in their home at Redcliffe, just north of Brisbane. Ian had to commute into the city a few days that week (he finds commuting rather gruesome, having become accustomed to a daily 25 minute cycle through Waikato farmland, with no traffic lights in sight from one week to the next). But we all got away to Noosa, a holiday town on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, for a lovely long weekend. As all you grandparents out there know, it’s such a joy to have young kids around! Anna and family are spending the Christmas season in Australia and return to NZ in early January, where Dan has landed a great job in Auckland. However, he’s having a couple of months holiday first, and they won’t be settled there until March. But that’s next year (2013)—we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Pam had a second week in Brisbane in September, when Ian was away in China. After a relentless training programme, flu forced Anna to abandon plans to run a half marathon in Brisbane, so she visited NZ in November to run the Kerikeri half marathon in Northland. Pam went up to cheer her on (Ian was playing in an orchestra concert), staying with her in-laws at Whangarei. Anna missed her goal of 2 hours by one minute. Then she came to Hamilton for a few delightful days before Ian took her on a tour of Auckland residential districts, elementary schools, and playschools on the way to the airport.

Chamber music continues for both of us. Pam’s recorders play every week, as do Ian’s clarinets, both with two to five players depending on who’s around. But not on the same nights! Clarinets meet at our house; recorders rotate around their different homes. Both groups visited Woodside House on Waiheke Island during the year for musical long weekends, again separately, enjoying the great acoustics there. And in both cases a player or two from Auckland came along, making it clarinet sextets and recorder quintets. Pam continues to put in many volunteer hours for the local Zonta group, and has just been elected Vice President for 2013.

During the year we hosted a couple of our traditional celebratory dinners for Ian’s graduating PhD students—it’s a joy to see them finish (in more ways than one). We organized a reunion at Woodside House for several former PhD students, re-enacting a weekend of some years ago. We threw a summer BBQ at our house for all the Department’s PhD students and their supervisors. Paty from San Salvador, who’s studying at Aizu University in Japan where Ian has academic links, visited Waikato for several months and we both took her sailing: she was rapt. Her entry in the logbook includes many photographs, menus for all meals, a map of where we went (Shark Bay, Ponui), and an account of her epic swim. Although a great swimmer—in pools—she’s unaccustomed to the sea, and like many people was leery of swimming in deep water, fearing what might lurk below. However, she plucked up courage, leapt off the boat, and swam a long way in the waves, accompanied by moral support in the dinghy.

We did less traveling this year (at least Pam did), so took the opportunity to make a few improvements around the place. A gate was installed at the end of our driveway, with a remote opener so that we don’t have to get out of our cars in the rain. New gates, and some new fencing, were put on the paddocks. A dilapidated ponga fence was removed and a hedge planted in its place. The greenhouse was refurbished and Ian resurrected the old automatic watering system. We realized last year that our swimming pool was cooler than expected because it had become perpetually shaded by two enormous 30m trees, so we had them taken down, which means that we can now see the sky from our bedroom. We don’t miss them a bit!

Some of our visitors are mentioned above: Ian’s brother Brian, Anna, Paty. Others include John and Molly, who we stayed with for 3 months in Christchurch on our first trip to NZ 36 years ago. We had an unprecedented visit from Australian relatives: Josephine and David, family from Australia, came for a night. It had been 26 years since we last saw them, and we spent hours catching up with events in Ian’s remotely connected family in Barraba, New South Wales. This year we spent Christmas at home, with Pam’s brother Graham, his partner Julie, and her Mum. Pam’s Mum Peggy chose to stay at her nursing home for Christmas. We missed her, but visited with turkey sandwiches on Boxing Day.

In April we attended the wedding of a fellow percussionist in the orchestra and daughter of one of the clarinet group. Pip is an actor and dancer and her new husband does theatre lighting: this was a spectacular theatrical event where we all ended up doing the elaborate Grand March from Verdi’s Aida, choreographed by the bride.

In November Pam visited the Aio Wira retreat, where she sometimes goes for weekend fasts, for a 3-day raw food event, where she ate nothing but—you guessed it—raw food. That means nothing that is cooked or ever has been: no soup, no tea, no hot drinks at all, in fact; no milk (because it’s pasteurized) or milk products; no bread, cake, meat, eggs, rice, pasta ... Not much at all, in fact. Sounds like a raw deal, but in fact she ate plenty—nuts and pulses, and of course veges and fruit in numerous combinations. The Saturday night dinner was lasagna, using finely sliced courgettes instead of pasta, with cheese made from macadamia nuts, wild weed and walnut pesto, tapenade, heaps of spinach and tomato sauce. The cook was a lovely young Māori lady and her family who took the group around the property and into the surrounding bush to forage for edible plants to use in salads and smoothies.

Ian had a disastrous 3-day trip to Kuala Lumpur; disastrous only because a bad cold began the night before he flew, incubated on the flight over, and continued throughout his time there and the flight back. He managed to pull himself together and give a respectable keynote talk, but otherwise spent most of the time in bed, only leaving the conference hotel once for a short walk. What with his fellow passengers and the conference attendees he figures he managed to infect over 1000 people. Have you seen Contagion?

Ian also spent some days in Cartagena, Colombia, followed by some more in San Luis Potosi, Mexico. Cartagena is a 16th century Spanish colonial port with an extensive city wall, reminiscent of Havana and, like Havana, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The conference was held in a classic old Spanish hotel, where he stayed, right on the beach. Unfortunately NZ spoils you for beaches. But not for history, and Cartagena’s is fascinating. It was the gateway for gold from the S. American interior for export to Europe, and naturally attracted pirates and brigands. One such was Francis Drake, who came with a large fleet, took the city, and negotiated a huge ransom. The Archbishop was rebellious, so Drake hauled a cannon up to the main door of the recently completed cathedral, demanded submission, and when it was unforthcoming fired a shot right up the nave, demolishing most of the building. A highlight for Ian was jamming with a guitar/soprano sax duo from Barcelona at the end of their open-air concert, held one balmy evening in a Spanish-style courtyard to a large and enthusiastic audience. We went on to an intimate bar/café for food, drink, and more music. By 2 AM Ian was fading and all set to return to the hotel, but the others were leaving “soon” and persuaded him to stay just a little longer. Goodbyes sure take a long time in Colombia! Having finally emerged from of the bar, the group decided to head up onto the city wall for a final beer while watching the moon set over the Caribbean ocean. Here a few local people were hanging out with the odd guitar: more music, more dancing. It was romantic but exhausting. Ian is clearly out of practice: it’s been a long time since he stayed up till 3:30 AM.

San Luis Potosi, a small town with an interesting historic centre, was marred by another episode of illness. Immediately after his conference presentation Ian began to lose his voice. Laryngitis: a first. The next day he couldn’t make the slightest sound with his voicebox—not a squeak nor even a croak. Unfortunately, he was about to begin the homeward journey, travelling through the US to return to NZ from LA. Imagine undergoing scary US immigration procedures, unable to use your voice at all. Or checking in, in a place where not only can’t you understand the language, but can’t speak at all. The threat of missed flights, having to find a hotel room, not being able to use the telephone ... it gives a new perspective on what it must mean to be dumb.

Ian’s travel highlight of the year was undoubtedly September’s adventure in China. His FLAX project on the use of digital library technology for language learning is part of the Chinese “three brothers” programme: a big brother, the established, renowned Fudan University in Shanghai; a little brother, up-and-coming Yunnan University in Kunming, western China; and an overseas brother, Waikato University. He flew to Kunming via Shanghai and a brief visit to Fudan, where he has been a couple of times before. He’s visited Kunming twice before as well, with epic adventures in the Three Rivers area near the Tibetan border, once in 2007 where he explored Tiger Leaping Gorge on the easternmost Jinsha Jiang, which we know as the Yangtze and reaches the East China Sea near Shanghai, and again in 2010 where he explored the westernmost river Nu Jiang (angry river), which we know as the Salween and empties into the Indian Ocean. This time it was a trip up the middle river of the three, the Lancang, which we know as the Mekong and empties into the South China Sea.

Nikki flew from Belfast to Kunming to meet him there, and, led by Shaoqun, a post-doctoral assistant at Waikato who led both previous expeditions, her brother, and a Waikato colleague’s son, we journeyed via Tiger Leaping Gorge to Shangri La. There are three places that claim to have inspired the fictional Shangri La—Ian visited two on previous trips—but this one actually changed its name (from Zhongdian). Google Maps calls it Deqen (which is incorrect), but at certain magnifications you can see the name Shangri La. From there we continued north through the real Deqen to spend 5 days at the tiny, remote village of Yubeng. (As Nikki’s John observed, if you go there with Google maps you have to click out a dozen times before reaching anything that remotely resembles civilization.) Yubeng sits in a valley surrounded by Tibet’s Meili Snow Mountain range, which contains many peaks exceeding 6000m. The highest is stunning Kawagarbo at 6740m, which has never been summitted—all 17 members of an ill-fated Japanese expedition in 1990–91 were wiped out in a nighttime avalanche, triggered, perhaps, by Buddha’s ire. We hiked into Yubeng, assisted by a donkey, and did day trips to the Tears of the Buddha sacred waterfall, the Holy Lake, and past the old Japanese base camp to the Ice Lake. This entire area on the border of Tibet is sacred to Buddhists: we saw pilgrims run round the base of the holy waterfall three times in the freezing cold, and many Buddhist trappings—water-driven prayer wheels, countless prayer flags, piles of abandoned offerings including coins, notes, prayer flags, and also an iPhone! Yubeng is over 3000m high, and the trips were strenuous: the Sacred Lake at 4400–4600m (figures vary) is for hardcore hikers only. Which included us. See Nikki’s blog for a hike-by-hike and meal-by-meal (including, for example, bee larvae and donkey steaks) account of this amazing trip.

We began writing this letter on Boxing Day and are finishing it today, January 3rd, 2013. In the interim we sailed Beulah to the Coromandel Peninsula for a week, weaving around its magnificent islands. We sheltered in the cabin from torrential rain for a day, reading, and another day strong winds and mountainous seas forced us to postpone our return voyage and hide behind an island instead. The other days were idyllic. We landed in Coromandel town for lunch among the tourists, and again on Waiheke Island for lunch and a gorgeous syrah at the Man o’ War Vineyard. Most of the time we were warding off the burning sun. It was a great way to end a great year.

May peace be with you, and best wishes for 2013.

Pam and Ian

By the way, we love the pretty Christmas cards that we receive from many of you (and sorry you’re not getting one from us!), but please be aware of our change in address. We haven’t moved: they changed the system a few years ago. We’re now RD7, not RD4 as before, and also have a postcode, 3287. We’re told that incorrectly addressed mail will not reach us from now on.