A rainy day at Arthur's Pass

Instead of writing early morning Tuesday, I was heading to Christchurch Station to board the TranzAlpine tourist train to Greymouth on the west coast. We have broken the journey for 24 hours at Arthur's Pass, a small alpine village close to the national park and the mountain pass that bears the same name.

It is one of the rainiest localities on the South Island, and it has rained continuously for all of the 20 hours we've been here. There are excellent walking tracks, but we are not equipped to go bushwalking in the rain, so our break in the train journey has turned out to be a break for rest.

Because the mountain pass was historically such a challenge, the train terminated here for many years until the 8.5 km Otira Tunnel was opened in 1923. A Cobb and Co coach had to ferry passengers over the pass to a connecting train at the other side.

Then until 1997, the steam and then diesel locomotive had to be replaced by an electric locomotive for the journey through the tunnel. Since then, a 'helper' diesel locomotive has done the job of getting the train through the still difficult tunnel, with its 1 in 33 gradient. In these more recent times, the issue has been diesel fumes. They necessitate special measures and precautions, including the closing of our train's open air observation cars.

The Arthur's Pass information centre doubles as a museum, and yesterday it was a congenial place to pass some time. That was where I saw the Cobb and Co coach and also learned about the second most deadly mountaineering incident in New Zealand history, which occurred in 1966, when an avalanche killed a rescuer from a party making a vain attempt to save four young bushwalkers.

A few months ago, the 50th anniversary commemorations included a religious service in the mountain chapel here at Arthur's Pass. The rescuer who lost his life had been married six years earlier in the chapel, which has a fascinating story of its own. Like the railway station, it is built as an A-frame (both pictured).

The chapel was unlocked when I was exploring the area yesterday and so I was able to wander in and read the history of its conception and construction in the 1950s, which was a labour of love for the committee and the architects and builders it engaged.

Last night we had a meal at the only cafe that was open. It doubles as a bar and is called The Wobbly Kea, after the endangered species of parrot that is found in this area. Perhaps their omnivorous diet includes alcohol. The locals are preoccupied with protecting tourists from the kea and the kea from tourists. It is known for its intelligence and curiosity, which means it will stop at nothing to use its large and sharp beak to aggressively scavenge for food from any source including tourists, who are implored not to feed them.

A visit to the Christchurch earthquake reconstruction zone

An earthquake registering 6.3 on the Richter scale devastated the centre of Christchurch at 12:51 pm on 22 February 2011. It was one of a series of earthquakes that struck the city within a twelve month period, with a death toll of 185.

Of those who fled the city seeking refuge elsewhere, some were too traumatised to return, and Christchurch lost its status as New Zealand's second most populous city to Wellington. Those who did come back were very much determined to reconstruct the city, and their efforts are only beginning to take shape.

Walking around the city centre on Sunday, I could see that much of the area was fenced off and yet to see significant reconstruction activity. I could sense the panic and suffering that took place in this area and was struck by the relative lifelessness there is today.

The 'green shoot' that was most evident to me was the Transitional Cathedral of the Anglican Diocese of Christchurch, better known as the Cardboard Cathedral.

The NZ$5m A-frame structure was designed by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban and opened in August 2013 on a site located a few blocks from the original cathedral that was destroyed by the quake.

My visit transformed what was for me quite a desolate experience of the city centre. I appreciated the beauty of the construction, the welcome of the volunteer guide, and the pervading hope that the whole city centre will one day come back to life. There was the very unusual and mesmerising architecture, and also simple touches such as the flowers in the garden beds in front of the main doors.

I can't recall ever visiting the scene of a natural disaster in the interim period between clean up and major progress in reconstruction, and I did feel quite paralysed by the experience. But it was a Sunday, and I imagine that it could be a much more optimistic feeling if I go back there today when where will be more activity.

It did make me think about the concept of disaster tourism, which is defined as the act of travelling to a disaster area as a matter or curiosity. This can include 'rubbernecking', or travel with the specific intention of paying respect, or something in between.

I remember being in New York in December 2001, a little more than three months after the 9-11 terror attacks. I had no thought of going to Ground Zero but I did talk to a local who said that residents were disturbed by tourists visiting the scene to take a look. In time Ground Zero has become a destination for those wishing to honour the victims of the disaster.

Travelling to extreme climates

It's a time of weather extremes, with heatwave conditions in Sydney and flash flooding from summer storms in Melbourne. However one of the readers of this Tiny Letter is experiencing quite a different extreme, near the Arctic Circle in Canada's far north.

Justin - a Jesuit studying in Ottawa - is filling in for the local priest in Déline (pronounced 'day-li-neh'), an autonomous Dene First Nations community in the Northwest Territory (pictured). Thursday's lunchtime temperature was minus 27 degrees Celsius.

I was interested to read the Wikipedia article on Déline, which included an account of an unfortunate mishap that occurred in March this year. A heating fuel tanker fell part way through the ice road just a few days after the government had increased the road's maximum weight limit. It occurred close to the communities' fresh water intake, in a major fishing area. Fortunately the fuel was able to be removed quickly.

I've noticed that particular accidents and tragedies often become a rallying point - and source of legend - for individual communities, especially those that are remote or living in adverse weather conditions, and thrive on telling stories. Four years ago I visited Winnipeg at this time of the year, inspired by the hauntingly poetic 2007 film 'My Winnipeg' that I'd seen at the Sydney Film Festival.

It was about the film maker Guy Maddin's love hate relationship with his home town, which is the world's coldest 'big city' (defined as 500,000+). I remember the film's account of a racetrack fire. I think it was 1927. As depicted in the still here, the horses panicked and ran into the Red River, which was beginning to freeze for the winter. They got stuck and the set of frozen horse heads remained all winter, becoming a gathering point for the community and, according to Maddin, the subject of ghostly reappearance every winter since.

When you visit a place that has come to your attention through its representation in art or literature, you don't go expecting to see exactly what you viewed or read. I didn't see the frozen horse ghosts, but I did get to see a city living day to day in what I regard as adverse weather conditions but are the norm for them. I went there to Winnipeg to experience the cold as a novelty, as travellers go to sample what is 'other'. I recall that the temperature ranged from about minus 12 to minus 20 (a few days earlier it had got down to something like minus 30).

I remember enjoying the company of a fellow traveller, Kathy from Toronto. I'd met her on the luxury train that I'd boarded in Toronto on the evening of Christmas Day. We trudged through the snow in the streets slightly away from the CBD, appreciating the street art and the fine old public buildings including a huge historic railway station repurposed as a First Nations cultural centre. I then recall being bound for Vancouver and seeing in the spectacular glass walled departure lounge of the airport a local dressed in shorts and tshirt obviously heading for a climate with weather closer to the norm for me in Australia.

Where Christmas is purely a religious celebration

Christmas is a celebration that I can take or leave, and it is one that I am free to take or leave. It is optional in that I have family available to me but no family obligations. I count that as my particular Christmas blessing.

Over the past 20 years, I've had some wonderful Christmas celebrations with parts of my family, and they've made it clear that I am welcome to join them any time but not expected. More often than not over the past decade, I've chosen to spend Christmas travelling, mainly because I was employed and required to take annual leave at the end of the year.

Nativity scene in Encarnacion Paraguay

I've spent Christmas Days in cities such as Hanoi, Toronto, Tainan (Taiwan), Dhaka (Bangladesh), Bandung (Indonesia), and Asunción (Paraguay). Sometimes with my travelling companion, sometimes alone.

My strangest experience of Christmas was in Latin America in 2009. Christmas there is understated because it is purely a religious celebration and not at all a commercial event. The absence of Christmas from public consciousness has nothing at all to do with the kind of political correctness in the US that Donald Trump is currently vowing to overturn.

In shopping malls, December is like any other month of the year. Decorations are only in churches and the homes of devout Christians. Paradoxically Christmas appears to be more prominent in some ostensibly atheist Communist countries such as China (though it is pointedly banned in North Korea).

While there were no signs of Christmas in the streets in Argentina and Uruguay, in Paraguay I saw nativity scenes (also called cribs or creches) in some public places. It's the particular tradition there, where the nativity scene is known as the pesebre. I took the photo above outside a bus station in the border city of Encarnación.

The nativity scenes there were obviously an indication of the exclusively religious nature of Christmas. But elsewhere it was different. I was in Montevideo a week before Christmas, and came across an early mardi gras procession. It had nothing to do with Christmas but was apparently quite normal in Uruguay.

December Mardi Gras in Montevideo Uruguay

In the public mind in these countries, Christmas is relative to other Catholic religious feasts. In Argentina, 25 December is a public holiday but so is 8 December, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Is the birth of Jesus that much more significant than his conception? Probably not.

On Christmas Eve in Asunción, the streets were deserted and restaurants were closed. Families were at home preparing for their own Christmas celebration and going to midnight mass. Eventually I found a hotel that was open and enjoyed a meal in the company other travellers from different countries.

It turned out to be somewhat anticlimactic in that we had a meal and a few drinks and then headed back to our various accommodation houses rather than looking for a church to take part in the celebration of midnight mass.

On Christmas morning, I recall lying in the swimming pool at the back of my guest house, somewhat more fittingly experiencing the solemnity of the day attuned to a stillness in the air that was breached only by the sweet sound of a choir singing Christmas carols somewhere in the distance.

Learning about public nudity from other cultures

Australia's major state art galleries have blockbuster exhibitions for the summer holiday season. In November I saw the David Hockney at the National Gallery of Victoria. Yesterday I went to 'Nude: Art from the Tate Collection' at the Art Gallery of NSW.

I'd found the Hockney quite mesmerising, as I did the Tatsuo Miyajima at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney last month. But there were no surprises at the 'Nude' exhibition. It was as if the Tate had tagged their nude paintings and sent them to Australia, and they were exhibited in chronological order.

Pierre Bonnards Nude in the Bath 1925 left and Barkley L Hendricks Family Jules NNN No Naked Niggahs 1974 right

Although it was predictable, I had quite an enjoyable afternoon. The two works I liked best were Pierre Bonnard's 'Nude in the Bath' 1925 (left), and Barkley L. Hendricks 'Family Jules: NNN (No Naked Niggahs)' 1974 (right). Unlike the exhibition as a whole, these works challenge our conventional attitudes to nudity - the Bonnard depicts a cropped woman who was not a beauty while the African American man in the Hendricks is.

I'd been intending to visit the exhibition since it opened six weeks ago and was reminded to do so when I read a news story in the Huffington Post on Saturday morning. It was about resisting the overturning of conventional attitudes towards nudity. It featured the comments of a Queensland father who was angered after spotting nudists having sex on a beach.

He could have been a One Nation voter who doesn't like foreign cultures influencing ours. He made the interesting point that nudity in Australia 'promotes promiscuity', while in Europe it is 'part of the culture'. I agree with his analysis but I disagree with his insistence that we should resist change.

In a conversation I had last week, I was recalling how I was very fearful of nudity as an eight year old, much more so that the other boys in my class at school. Before my class went swimming at the local pool, I remember asking my mother to write to the teacher to say I couldn't go swimming. I was afraid of being nude or semi-nude in front of my classmates in the change shed. Thankfully she said no.

Now I am thoroughly unselfconscious when it comes to nudity. When I go to Japan and Korea, I seek out the traditional community baths (sento and onsen in Japan and jjimjilbang in Korea), because they are very relaxing and an easy way to experience the cultures away from other tourists.

Please Enjoy Sento poster from Japanese sento

After attending 'Nude' yesterday, I was thinking that the very idea of gathering together the Tate's nude artworks for an exhibition reflects the old Australian and Anglo Saxon attitude of nudity as exotic and not part of normal everyday life such as it is with Japanese and Koreans routinely going to wash and relax in the local community bathhouse.

From my experience of normalised nudity in Japan and Korea, I would suggest to the Queensland father that it is the Australian attitude of nudity as exotic or 'other' that promotes promiscuity, and not nudity per se.

The gentle challenge of the Three Capes Track

I've just returned from the Three Capes Track in south east Tasmania. I was with a group of ten bush walkers that included adult and teenage family members and friends. We were part of a larger group of 48 bushwalkers completing the four day 46 kilometre experience.

It's an activity of Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service that is only a year old. It seemed that little expense was spared in the use of public funds to construct the upgraded track and state of the art huts for basic overnight accommodation. But since it opened on 23 December last year, they've taken more than 10,000 bookings, far exceeding the projected 3000. One member of my group was the 9000th walker.

Three Capes Track

It's no ordinary track through the bush, and it's regarded by some as elitist. That's easy to understand, with the $500 price tag and the easy walking nature of the path, much of which is constructed as a boardwalk. Less than 50 years ago, the pioneer bushwalkers could only get through with the aid of axes. Our experience began with a boat cruise from Port Arthur to the Denmans Cove commencement point, and included three overnight stays at the huts.

These beautifully built structures have a designer feel about them, but the reality is almost as rustic as the traditional bush hut. That is because you still need bring your food and sleeping bag and leave carrying out your rubbish. There is no staff to serve the 'guests', just a resident ranger to answer questions and do basic coordination and maintenance.

One of the boat crew members made a particular impression upon us. He'd grown up in a lighthouse keeper's family in isolation on nearby Tasman Island. It is likely that locals like him might have a few misgivings that their domain was being invaded by scores of well to do outsiders who did not have to contend with much of the adversity of the terrain that he'd had to.

But he was welcoming and generous in sharing his experiences and perspectives. Likewise there was nothing pretentious about the larger group of 48 walkers who appeared to be coming to the experience with an open mind and ready appreciation of the ecosystem they are getting close to.

It's arguable that there was some pretentiousness in the use of semi-poetic phrases such as 'Eye See Bright' and 'Converging on the Shelf' to name particular points or characteristics of the walk. But I would strongly dispute this and very much appreciated the artful way in which the walk was conceived and presented to us.

That applies to both the conceptual and physical aspects of the experience. The words and phrases were consistent with the artistic flourishes in the craftsmanship of the furniture at the resting points, which was developed in collaboration with University of Tasmania design students and the Arts Tasmania public art project.

For the most part, it was a gentle experience. There was nothing of the extreme sport. A friend who did it in October suggested as much but said she found it 'magnificent and occasionally challenging'. That is about right, although I was quite proud that it turned out to be a measure my current higher than ever before level of fitness, and I rarely felt stretched physically. I was the only adult in my group who did not feel some degree of soreness in their bones, though it was the kind of soreness that was more an aftertaste of a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

My photos are here.