Witten’s Christmas Letter for 2015

626 Tauwhare Road
RD7, Hamilton
New Zealand 3287
+64 7 829-5887
December 29, 2015

Dear friends,

Hip hip hooray! 2015 was the year of the hip: two hips, actually, both for Pam—or robogran, as we call her now. Between operations we managed to squeeze in a varied and energetic 3-month holiday in the N Hemisphere, cruising in Alaska and visiting many friends; Pam’s Zonta club remodelled the Hamilton Police Station’s interview room; and Ian cycled from Vietnam to Cambodia. Other things happened too.

It’s a gorgeous sunny summer morning as we write, sitting outside by the pool after a relaxing couple of days on Beulah, thinking about the miserable floods in northern England and commiserating with those affected. This time last year we also spent some days afloat. To start this new year Ian took Anna, Dan, Riley and Stella for a day sail to Motuihe Island, where we swam ashore, picnicked on the beach, and collected countless valuable treasures. Then Ian sailed off by himself for a few days.

Soon our first visitors arrived, John and Trish from N. Ireland, partly for sailing and partly to sample the martinis. We went out for a day in a spanking breeze. “Pity about the tsunami wave,” Trish wrote in the logbook: it drenched her in the cockpit and swamped the dinghy, which broke loose, only to be recovered by the crew’s skilful teamwork. Fortunately, spending the afternoon soaked to the skin is more bearable in the NZ summer than in NI!

After some more days on Beulah with Pam, and a brief trip to the east coast for a presentation to the Coastal Economic Symposium at the Tauranga Yacht and Power Boat Club, brother Brian arrived later in January for the annual sailing adventure. We made record progress northwards and ventured as far as Cape Kerikeri, just down from North Cape, the very tip of NZ. We found some lovely new bays and encountered much marine life, including dolphin sightings almost every day. We hooked some large fish—but failed to land any due to line breakages. We’ll spare you the details. Highlights included anchoring in gorgeous Mimiwhangata Bay, which was completely deserted. Upon rowing ashore for a little walk we were met by a bevy of bikini-clad American girls coming over the brow of a hill (this really happened); they had just arrived in NZ. Another highlight, in a different bay, was drinks aboard a large catamaran anchored nearby. We rowed across in rising wind and waves and spent an hour or two with Rob and Rachel and their kids. Finally Brian said “we’d better be heading off: it’s a long row back” (about 200 metres). Only upon our return to Beulah did we learn that this was Rob Hamill, winner of the first transatlantic rowing race! (We highly recommend his book The naked rower.) The next day was too windy for either boat to depart—we took note of the fact that Rob used an outboard engine to get his family ashore, whereas we rowed—and we ate dinner with them that night, learning about their adventurous plans for sailing to Fiji.

The two mariners had only just returned when Ian’s sister Pippa and her friend Davey arrived. After a great week at home, with many laughs, the three visitors took off on a road trip to sample wine and (especially) golf courses. By the time they returned, Pam was in hospital with a new hip! A couple of weeks earlier an opening for an operation had arisen, and—given the pain that she was in—we jumped at the chance (actually, Pam did anything but jump). Brian visited her in hospital before catching his return flight, and she was home convalescing by the time Pippa and Davey departed.

The next six weeks were rather a quiet time for us.

We attended the funeral of Murray, a dear friend and Ian’s clarinet-playing mentor. Ian’s clarinet quartet played a classical and then a jazzy piece, for Murray loved both, and spoke in between. It’s always hard to switch between speaking and playing, and when you’re overcome by emotion the embouchure is the first thing to go.

There was much discussion about whether Pam, now crutching around, could accept an invitation from Auckland Coastguard for a tiki tour around Auckland harbour to watch the Volvo Pro Am racing from their new rescue boat. Two hefty Coastguard staff hoisted her up the companionway to the bridge and seated her in the captain’s chair, whereupon she was plied with wine and canapés. Even more interesting than the racing, which was pretty amazing, was learning about the life of Coastguard volunteers. Our host crew of four were a pretty tight bunch who spent every second weekend together on the boat and were up for call-outs in between. Incidents provide welcome diversion from just tooling around and they actually enjoy helping people, so one shouldn’t shrink from calling them out if necessary.

Finally, on Good Friday, Pam had recovered sufficiently to embark on Beulah. We spent just one night aboard. And then, back home, disaster struck. On Easter Sunday Ian was fixing up the barbecue—we have a traditional wood-fired bbq, not one of those new-fangled gas affairs—when he dropped a heavy cast-iron plate on his sandal-clad foot. Withdrawing it quickly, but not quite quickly enough, he managed to crush the bone in his big toe to smithereens and simultaneously expose the mess by peeling back the skin. “Ouch” (and things like that). Unable to staunch the flow of blood Pam made a 111 call: helpful nurses arrived and the ambulance whisked Ian to the hospital. Whereupon we waited. There is no good time to have an accident, and Easter is certainly no exception. Some careless motorcyclist was admitted after us and jumped the queue—turns out that nearly killing yourself takes precedence over a bust toe. Despite being starving (the bbq had been just warming up), Ian was forbidden to eat in case of a forthcoming operation. Finally, at midnight, a doctor cleaned the wound and announced that they would operate the following day. Two nights in hospital! Near starvation!! And no sailing for another two months!!!

Fortunately, music continued despite these medical misadventures. Before her operation, Pam hosted a recorder weekend for Auckland and Hamilton players while Ian and Brian were at sea. Toe notwithstanding, Ian joined Auckland clarinet-playing weekends in both April and June, while Pam played with her recorder group there.

And there were lovely family times. One afternoon we met up with Pippa’s son Peter and his family, now living near Sydney in Australia, who were visiting NZ friends. We met at Butterfly Creek near Auckland airport, and Anna brought her family along too. Stella and Madeleine got on famously and quickly became temporary besties.

Pam initiated a project with Zonta, a woman’s group, to refresh the room at Hamilton Police Station where victims of family violence are interviewed. She visited the room last year and was appalled at the drab, institutional, décor, totally unsuited to family visits. With the blessing of the Station’s family safety team the walls have been painted, artworks and soft furnishings installed, with beanbags, toys, books and videos to entertain the children. The project has been a year in planning and execution, and was opened in October. This is the most satisfying Zonta project she has participated in.

On 12 June we departed for California to stay with Nikki and John in their new home in Sunnyvale. They moved from Belfast the previous November, and are now nicely settled in to a small apartment with all mod cons. John is deliriously happy working for Apple, just down the road. After a multitude of job applications Nikki finally found success just before our arrival, starting work just after we left—ideal! It turns out that employment is hard to find in Silicon Valley if you’re not in the computer business. Nikki had 5 (five!) interviews with the people who hired her, including one that was an assigned piece of homework. She is one of a handful of paid employees in a small organization that brings volunteers into schools to talk about the local environment. She organizes volunteer parties, arranges a regular newsletter that occasionally includes poems written by her, and does some work besides. Imagine!—a professional poet in the family. It was lovely to sample some of Nikki and John’s life. We visited one of her (future) workplaces, and she arranged a barbecue banquet to meet some of their friends. While in California we had an unplanned and hastily organized brunch with New York friends, and then—led by John—shopped at the Apple Store in Mountain View. Pam is now the proud owner of the (then) very latest iPhone!

Nikki took us on a brief road trip to Lake Tahoe, which we circumnavigated over a few days. We stopped in Sacramento to see the State Legislature, and were surprised, after hearing all about drought in California, to see the fast-flowing Sacramento River full of water. On the way back we stopped for a delightful lunch with Peter and Margaret, friends from Essex days, with whom we had driven to Florence in 1975 and cavorted in Arlesford Creek in the 1976 heat wave. Remember youth?

We arrived in Petersburg, Alaska on mid-summer’s day in a tiny plane. (When we asked about seating the check-in clerk at SFO responded “I don’t know. I’ve never been to Petersburg. I’ve never even been to Alaska!”) Our B&B host could actually call down a bald-headed eagle for a bite of fish-head. Along with other guests we admired huge fresh salmon being cleaned by his son, and he donated one to us, which we barbecued: eating and chatting late into the evening. As we clambered out of the hot tub and gazed across the fjord to the mountains on the far side, it was still (just) light at 11 PM. A nice start to Alaska!

Two days later we boarded the Island Spirit. Our cruise was fantastic! Twenty-three super-friendly fellow travellers, a delightful young crew (extra brownie points for their martinis), and knowledgeable, entertaining, hands-on Captain Jeff, who was not above making coffee for his guests and pitching in with a dish-towel. There was no TV, no movies, no Internet, and (usually) no cell phone coverage. We came with long-standing Calgary friends Chris and Carl, but everyone mixed together at mealtimes so we got to know all the passengers. There were no locks on the cabin doors! Ours (with ensuite) was small, encouraging us to socialize in the comfortable main lounge or sit on one of the three decks and watch the world go by.

And what a world! We saw humpback whales spouting, diving and occasionally breaching. Porpoises, seals, sea otters, more bald eagles than you could count, brown Alaskan coastal bears (grizzlies) with new cubs. Our small ship was able to get up close to Dawes Glacier, which put on a marvellous show of calving and collapsing, sending up massive “shooters”—chunks that break off underwater and surge to the surface, causing large waves. Our martinis that night were shaken with glacier ice, and Pam won the competition to see how long it would take for the chunk we brought on board to melt. Ian kayaked round some of the fjords and bays, and we rode around in the RIB and went ashore for walks in the forest. All of this against a backdrop of magnificent snow-capped mountains, skirted by Pacific rainforest at the water’s edge.

The Island Spirit cruises in daylight and anchors in quiet bays for the night. Being a small ship we were undisturbed by monstrous cruise liners, which were too big for our anchorages. The engines and generators were turned off at night so it was absolutely silent. We were lulled to sleep by the gentle lapping of waves.

We called in at Juneau: the only US state capital with no road access. (There are just three ways in, we were told: boat, plane, and birth canal.) We took a brief look at the town, described by a local as a quaint little drinking town with a fishing problem, before taking a bus to the Mendenhall glacier. I’m afraid our Dawes experience had spoilt other glaciers for us, but Ian and Chris enjoyed a brisk walk in the forest, happily encountering a beaver, while Pam took in an excellent film about the area at the visitors’ centre. Back at the dock we stopped by Tracy’s Crab Shack, where between us we demolished a huge bucket of the sweetest, most succulent Alaska King Crab ever. Just the memory makes us drool!

Our next encounter with land was a brief visit to a native village before heading to Tenakee Springs, easily the most delightful village we ever have had the good fortune to visit. Population 98, living in mostly modern wooden houses perched on stilts high above the waterline at the edge of the shore, with wildflower gardens, strung out along a wide, unmade road lined with honeysuckle, wild roses, fireweed and ripening salmonberries. Quad bikes are the only vehicles, and boats are the principal form of transport. We strolled through the lush green forest and ate the world’s best cinnamon buns at the village’s only café/shop. The locals and their dogs were friendly.

Our last stop was Sitka, the former Russian capital of Alaska and still heavily Russian-influenced, with matryoshka dolls everywhere. After a day looking around we spent our last night on board and saying fond farewells to our captain, crew and newfound friends before finally disembarking.

We flew to Anchorage, rented a car, and headed straight for Denali—then Mt McKinley but officially renamed since by Obama, much to the delight of all Alaskans. It’s a different world up there. They talk, usually disparagingly, about the rest of the US as the “lower 48”. Americans come up and ask, “What currency do you use here?”—to which the best response is “Same as in Hawaii.” Really, Alaska feels far more like Canada than the US.

We celebrated July 4th in Talkeetna, an overgrown pioneer village from which climbers set out to scale Denali. The parade had about ten floats, including the fire brigade and ambulance! There were no fireworks due to a total fire ban, with around 300 wildfires in the State. Next day we set out for Fairbanks, 280 miles away. We took our time and broke the journey with a picnic lunch and a walk (long for Ian, short for Pam, as usual in this hippy year) in the National Park. We were rewarded with stunning views of Denali, which often hides its head in the clouds. Lucky us!

Fairbanks is fascinating. Not far from the Arctic circle, the sun set at 1:20 AM and rose about 3:00 AM—and it was light in between. We were prepared for cold, but not for heat—30C! It’s hard to sleep when it doesn’t get dark at all: hot, smoky (forest fires), restless nights. Fairbanks has interesting cultural sights, including a unique museum of mushing and sledging. We had a long conversation with the owner, a woman of 61 who began mushing 10 years ago, now owns 40 sled dogs, and trains them every day. She intends to enter the 2016 Iditarod, the toughest race on earth. We watched a movie about it and it looks ghastly—a gruelling test of endurance for drivers and dogs lasting 11–15 days of all-day winter darkness.

The next day we drove roughly along the Alaska pipeline route (no security here, by the way) to Old Copper Town, a historic collection of gold-rush era log cabins serving as a garage, a museum and a lodge/restaurant where we spent a couple of nights. From there we made a day trip to Valdez, site of two huge recent disasters: one natural (tsunami); the other man-made (Exxon Valdez oil spill). The wildlife seems to have recovered, with salmon, bears, eagles, and sea otters in evidence. It’s hard to imagine more stunning scenery: narrow valleys, steep and craggy mountains, high waterfalls and too many glaciers to count. Just like the ads for Alaska!

After a wonderful time in Alaska we flew to Calgary, where old friends settled us into the house next door (they use it as an office!), then out for a sushi dinner. We reacquainted ourselves with favourite parts of Calgary, Prince’s Island and downtown, before catching the bus to Lethbridge in southern Alberta.

Thanks for sharing your lives with us!
Sunnyvale Nikki and John
Calgary Danny and Katie
Lethbridge Joan and Wolf
Prince Albert Sue and Wayne
Saskatoon Carl and Gwen
Camrose Jim and Marie
Canmore Saul and Judy
Calgary Chris and Carl
Stratford David and Maxine
Ottawa Pippa, Tony, Joan
Oakville Liz and Jim
Richmond Penny and Gerry
Wivenhoe John and Sheila
York John and Wendy
Sheffield Brian and Ros
Clodagh Greg and Carol
Killinchy Pippa

Near Lethbridge we attended a celebration lunch at a ranch near Pincher Creek for a dear old friend. Over the years we have kept in touch with Marion, a secretary at the University of Calgary, and she invited us to her 90th birthday. She was surprised we came! We were honoured to be included, for everyone else was family or long-standing hiking/skiing friends; all rural Alberta country folk. Marion is unbelievably active—she skis regularly with her great-grandchildren—and has taught us about prairie traditions such as Depression-era pre-refrigeration “beef rings.” Her family’s gift was a mountain helicopter adventure ride, and she was over the moon! Sadly, we heard that she passed away in September.

As usual we had a lovely time in Lethbridge, including late-night musical soirées with harp, recorders, clarinet. We spent a day out on the prairie with a Blackfoot Indian, an eloquent and engaging speaker and teacher. He related entertaining legends such as the creation of the Pleiades constellation, and shared fascinating insights on calling buffalo and the Blackfoot way of life. Babies are given a “white” name at birth and receive their first Indian name at around two years (unless born sickly, in which case the Chief gives them a tribe name right away). Their Indian name is changed several times during their lifetime to reflect important, life changing or inspiring personal events.

We visited old haunts in S Alberta and Montana. Our hosts took us into the Porcupine Hills, where the temperature plummeted from 27C to 2C and from blue sky to frozen rain whiteout (called “grapple”). When it cleared, the nearby Livingstone mountain range had become luminous with snow; stunningly beautiful. Another day took us to the Going to the Sun road over Logan Pass in Montana: an awesome, steep, winding mountain road with vertiginous views. Pam managed a short walk up to the snow, surrounded by wild flowers; the rest of us went faster and further.

We were left to ourselves for a few days, house-and-cat sitting. We hopped across the US border at our favourite provincial park for a picnic, unofficially and without passports, and went to Red Rock Canyon and Cameron Lake in Waterton Park. We visited the birds of prey centre en route to the badlands at Brooks, and stopped off for coffee at Enchant, a no-horse, one-street, down-at-heel dump where the friendly café we remembered from the past has degenerated into a scruffy, unprepossessing Chinese restaurant. (We tipped our coffee into the gutter!) On our last evening we went beaver spotting at a pond on the outskirts of Lethbridge and saw three of them feeding.

We caught a bus to Calgary, rented a car, and drove northeast. Stopping for lunch in a small country town, we got talking to one of the local ladies. It turned out that she’s a storm-chaser(!) and was watching the building black clouds in the west with interest. Just as lunch was ready she rushed back to tell us that a severe thunderstorm and tornado were traveling towards us at 95 kph, so we had our lunch packed up and drove east at 100 kph, casting nervous glances through the rear-view mirror. We finally outran the storm just across the Alberta/Saskatchewan border. Phew!

We drove Saskatchewan’s arrow-straight highways and byways, through mile upon mile of beautiful bright yellow canola, occasionally interspersed with pale gold wheat or pale blue flax, en route to Great Grey Outfitters, a hunting lodge on the very edge of the boreal forest. Here we spent several days surrounded by forest, elk, and photos of dead bears, with a huge mound of “sheds” (shed antlers: you slip quickly into the vernacular) as the living-room centrepiece. We ate elk steaks, moose mince, lake trout. We learned about many things, including conservation and gun control, before moving on to a very different environment in Saskatoon, attractive City of Bridges, where we talked books and sipped wine for a couple of days before returning to Alberta.

First stop was Camrose, a small town near Edmonton. Alberta, formerly oil-rich, is suffering badly. Here and elsewhere we noticed an unprecedented number of empty shops and For Sale signs outside residential properties. We went with our friends to the Big Valley Jamboree, a three-day outdoor country music extravaganza attracting huge crowds. Cowboy hats were de rigeur, as were boots, buckles and denim—though some of the cowgirls’ denim shorts left little to the imagination. We saw slick, high-tech performances by Alberta legend Ian Tyson (still performing at 82) and American country singer Reba McEntire (60 going on 29).

We drove from Camrose along small roads through historic former trading post Rocky Mountain House to Canmore, where the Folk Festival was in full swing: lovely, relaxed, friendly atmosphere and an eclectic collection of excellent performers who held the audience in the palms of their hands. A group from Mongolia played “country and Eastern” on western and oriental instruments, enhanced by eerie traditional throat singing. The setting—ensconced within the Rocky Mountains—is incomparable.

Moving right along now … After a few days in Canmore and then in our old Calgary neighbourhood we flew to Toronto and drove to Stratford, where we saw the Taming of the Shrew at the Shakespeare Festival. We took the train to Ottawa, where we ate beaver tails and saw the history of Canada enacted as a son et lumiere projected on to the Parliament buildings; then Oakville where we drank beer by Lake Ontario in the setting sun. This completed our tour of Ian’s Canadian “second family”: Joan Sheen in Ottawa (where our Anna was born) and her daughters in Saskatchewan, Ottawa, and Oakville. We shared many laughs and many memories: how delightful.

Phew! Are you exhausted yet? We looked forward to some down time on the flight to London before immersing ourselves in history ... Richmond, Wivenhoe, York, Sheffield. We enjoyed a wet day in Ham House and a fine one watching cricket on Richmond Green. We swapped stories with old cronies in a favourite Wivenhoe pub. We had a delightful reunion near York with some of Pam’s college classmates. We spent a day in the pouring rain at the Hope agricultural show. (Announcement: “We are glad to report that for the second year in a row there have been no cases of sunstroke at the Hope Show.” From the crowd: “How about drownings?”)

And so to Ireland. We enjoyed a brief weekend cruise on Clodagh (the vessel that took us across to Scotland last year) from her mooring in Strangford Lough past the Mourne Mountains to Carlingford in Eire, a strikingly pretty little town, replete with history. The warm clothes and long underwear we had lugged around, having seen no use in baking Alaska, certainly came in handy sailing in Ireland! But the main event was a big family reunion to celebrate Ian’s mother’s 100th birthday. Anna flew across from NZ, Nikki from California, Brian and family from Sheffield (with cake!), and three of Pippa’s children were there with their families. We kept things fairly quiet at Mum’s place but had a riotous time elsewhere. And yes, she did get a card from the Queen.

We arrived back on 15 Sept. Almost immediately Ian returned to work and Pam began rehearsals for Orff’s Carmina Burana. It’s a percussion show-off piece, and she was thrilled to give the tamtam (gong) a few hefty whacks, with some more subtle nuances on seven other percussion instruments. At the same time, Ian began training for his next adventure, returning just in time for the concert, which was awesome.

In truth, cycling from Vietnam to Cambodia is no big deal. If you look on a map you’ll see that they’re adjacent, so the distance is about 100 metres. And we didn’t even cycle that: we left bikes in Vietnam, walked across, and picked up new ones in Cambodia. But we did start out in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and end in Siem Reap, where Angkor Wat is, which is a goodly distance, albeit flat—mostly around the Mekong delta. However, this was a supported bike tour, with a truck for the bikes and an air-conditioned coach for us 11 cyclists. Of course, we had many adventures: concerning death, crawling through a Viet Cong tunnel from the “American war”, specially enlarged for westerners, and a horrific glimpse of the Cambodian killing fields near Phnom Peng; concerning injury (two had to drop out of cycling, though they’re OK now); concerning cycling, through paddy fields, along quiet riverside paths, anything-but-quiet Asian towns and villages; and concerning gastronomy (universally gorgeous).

Right after her concert, Pam had her second—hopefully final!—hip replacement, followed by another quiet six weeks. But again we managed a few things. Ian went to Auckland to see Stella’s ballet performance. Some clarinet players came for a music weekend. Ian’s jazz quintet, The Martinis, which has been playing (and imbibing) at our house every couple of weeks, had a gig in a local club. Pam played Christmas carols with a recorder group at a local church. We hosted a small Summer Solstice jazz-and-cocktails poolside party—sounds nice, eh?

Anna and family visited us several times this year, often with gifts of venison or kai moana from one of Dan’s hunting/fishing trips. The local climbing wall is a big favourite with both kids. Ian and Riley went on a cycling adventure along the Waikato River, and Stella has learned to ride her bike without training wheels. We went to Auckland for her fifth birthday the weekend before Christmas, and for an early Christmas celebration with Anna and Dan. They’re moving to Whangarei early in the New Year, which takes them further from us but into a large house in a lovely rural setting. Unusually, we had a traditional Kiwi beachside Christmas day at Port Waikato with Pam’s brother Graham’s extended family. And to round off the year, the UK Open University asked Ian to accept an Honourary degree as Doctor of the University. Unfortunately he can’t make the degree ceremony next year, since our travel plans are already well advanced …

Meanwhile, may peace be with you in this restless and rather shocking world, and best wishes for 2015.

Pam and Ian