Saturday, February 28, 2009

Walking To Lose Weight - A Tale Of Two Bodies

They had a fat man on the TV here the other day. The item was trailed as “Walking the nation to lose weight”. What has happened to our language? I thought it was going to be about encouraging people to walk. A nation is comprised of people, a country is made up of land, and a state is a political entity. Anyway, this man, who had started off at 130 kgs, was walking the length of the country as part of his campaign to lose 50 kgs – he had already lost some of his body before he started the walk.

When breakfast TV caught him, he had walked from Auckland to Wellington. Despite all we hear of the wonderful research that backs up television interviewers, they were unable to tell us how much weight he had lost, because they did not have an adequate set of scales in the studio.
So we were left none the wiser, and neither was he, I suspect. But I have some bad news for him.

Just before Christmas, I was asked, by a friend, how much weight I was losing with all the walking I have been doing. He was taken aback when I said I had lost not an ounce. The distance the fat man had walked, from Auckland to Wellington, is 658 kms, which is coincidentally almost exactly how far I have walked since arriving in New Zealand 5 weeks ago (not bad considering the hiatus with a chest infection). During that same time, I have lost 1 kilogram, which is about what I had put on during the previous two weeks of travelling and little exercise – the usual redundancy principle of last in, first out.

So, one kilo lost in over 650 kms. The fat man has 915 kms of walking left to do, from Picton to Invercargill in South Island. This means he has done two fifths of his distance. If he loses weight at the same rate as me, he will lose a total of 2.5 kgs in his total walk, which is probably rather less than he is hoping for.

Of course I hope he will lose considerably more, and he probably will, but I can not understand what my own body is up to. Losing weight is not my objective, but one would expect it as a by-product when covering this sort of distance. I am honestly not eating any more than I would without the walking. Today, so far, my pedometer tells me I have walked 32,650 steps, a distance of 26.75 kms, and I have used 1677 calories. It seems to me that my output is exceeding input, or is at least giving it a run for its money. And I normally do lose a few kilos while charging around New Zealand like this. Answers on a postcard, please.

I am happy to report not only that I have walked more than 180 kms this week, which is what I shall have to sustain for 10 weeks during VBW, but that Gay is back in action. Sensibly, she has not leapt straight into that sort of distance, but for the last few mornings she has walked for 90 minutes without mishap

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Measuring Up

Back to walking 30 kms a day, after a couple of interruptions at the weekend. The torrential rains we had then were from the same weather system which caused such huge flooding a couple of days before in Queensland and New South Wales, Australia.

Not surprising, you might say, if you are one of the many who think that New Zealand consists of a couple of islands just off the coast of Australia. That's what it looks like on the map, doesn't it? And that's what most of us in the northern hemisphere think. But it is true only if you also accept that Great Britain is a couple of islands just off the coast of North Africa, because the distances are the same. It is 3 hours flying time from New Zealand to the nearest point of Australia.

Maps can be deceptive. Like measuring instruments, apparently. I have mentioned before that my morning walk here in Alexandra includes the riverside walk, alongside the mighty Clutha river, from the bridge at Alexandra to the bridge at Clyde, in alternate directions each morning. The distance of that walk seems to be officially changing from day to day.

For years it has been signposted as 12.8 kms. Just over a week ago, men were at work installing numbered posts at each kilometre along the walk. They were somewhat erratically spaced. A couple of days later, the same men were digging the posts out again. One of them (the men, not the posts) told me that they had always been told that the distance was 12.8 kms, so they had prepared posts numbered 1-13 (!!). While planting the posts, they had realised they were going to have too many, so they had measured the path, twice, with a wheel. Now they knew the path is only 11.2 kms long, so they were having new post, numbered 1-11 (!!) made. This seemed incorrect to me, because I walk at a very steady 10 mins per kilometre and it takes me two hours to walk the river bank, which seems to indicate 12 kms.

The new posts are now planted. I have timed myself between the posts each day, with a stopwatch, as well as with my pedometer. Starting from the Alexandra bridge over the Clutha, the times for the first 3 “kilometres” are: 7 mins 50 seconds, 9 mins 40 seconds, 19 mins 30 seconds. The other kilometres are fairly accurate at just under 10 minutes, but this is the result of measuring with a wheel? Back to the drawing board, lads!

The path is quite well used by cyclists and walkers, many of these keeping track of their times and distances. I have seen a few baffled faces in the past few days. Especially the jogger I met yesterday, who thought he was doing a 6 kms run out to the 3 kms post and back. He was very relieved when I told him he was actually doing almost 8 kms- he had thought he was going to sleep in mid-run.

Sunday, February 22, 2009


The forecast for Friday was for rain. Lots of rain, with severe weather and flood warnings for much of the country. I walked anyway, 30 kms in the rain. The same forecast gave rain for ensuing days. Saturday morning, I awoke to the sound of rain battering on the roof. This reminded me that I had not had a rest day for some weeks. In fact I have walked about 500 kms since the last pause. I was obviously in need of a day off, so no kilometres that day.

I used the day to catch up on my reading. The book I am part way through at the moment is “Monday's Warriors” by Maurice Shadbolt. I'll be back to that in a minute but first I will mention that I recently read “Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee”, a book which encapsulates some of the shocking history of the United States towards their native population. In a nutshell, government policy and professional soldiers were used to displace and virtually wipe out the vast majority of the Native Americans. Time and again, treaties which the Indians had only recently signed, at the behest of the government, were abrogated, frequently by the means of the army riding into the centre of townships, and proceeding to massacre the people, kill all the animals, and dismantle and torch the dwellings, all in the interests of the inexorable westward advance of the European settlers, and “manifest destiny”.

It is a disgraceful story of which all Americans should be ashamed. Some are. A tale of ethnic cleansing before the term came into use, and a blueprint for others to use from then on. It couldn't happen here – or could it?

Back to my current reading. “Monday's Warriors” is a novel, but the author makes it quite clear that the events portrayed actually took place. I grew up and attended school while the British Empire was still in existence. In our history lessons, where they concerned New Zealand, we learned of the proud Maori people, with their romantic bearing and warrior past. How they integrated themselves willingly and, apart from a few skirmishes, peacefully, into “The Empire On Which The Sun Never Sets”.

I have since discovered that this is not quite true and that the few skirmishes were much more than that. They were wars between an implacable, righteous, colonising army and a fierce and brutal foe. They were nasty. Last year I read another book by Maurice Shadbolt, “The Season Of The Jew”. Also a fictionalised account of real events, this tells the story of Te Kooti, a Maori leader who convinced himself that the Maori were reliving the story of the persecuted Old Testament Hebrews, and proceeded to smite accordingly. An excellent book.

In “Monday's Warriors” I find that, like the United States cavalry, the British Army in New Zealand were given to the same procedure of charging into peaceful settlements, maiming and killing, burning and destroying.

The events of which I am reading took place in the 1860s and 1870s, long years after the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi (between Maori chiefs and representatives of Her Britannic Majesty, but guess who wrote it!). The Treaty is still, to this day, a hot political issue in New Zealand
One such sacking of a village and slaughter of its inhabitants in this Paradise took place only 75 years before I was born.

Can anybody tell me, what does civilisation mean, and when will we achieve it?

Friday, February 20, 2009

What's Up, Doc?

I have spent each of the last 4 mornings charging round the river walk/rail trail circuit I mentioned a couple of weeks ago. The first morning I was accompanied by Gay. We thought her chest infection had cleared up, as mine has. A week ago in the Catlins, she managed the 20 kms Kaka Point to Nugget Point and return trip several days on the trot. Last week we did the shorter Skyline Walk at Oamaru together each morning. But it became clear on Tuesday morning that she has had a relapse, clearly struggling to get round the 25 kms circuit she was having for breakfast last year. Back home the almost whooping-cough returned, and the heavy limbs and fluey feeling.

So it was back to the doctor on Wednesday – her third trip to the doctor in a month. Normally, apart from the annual check-up, she barely knows the way to a doctor's surgery. This was of course yet another doctor in yet another town, Alexandra this time.

The bad news was a pulse of 93 (her beat is normally below 60), slightly high temperature and a bit of noise from the lungs. The good news was that it should clear up with lots of rest, beaucoup de liquides, no more antibiotics, in fact no medication except some paracetamol to ease the aches and pains. The pulse is already down to mid-60s, the paracetamol had a very quick effect on the aches, and I am left to walk on my own.

There was an interesting connection with our home area. Dr Williamson's son is, or has been, a member of the New Zealand cycling team. The team is based in Limoux, which is 30 kms from Puivert – I walked between the two several times last year. The good doctor has even been to Limoux to visit his son so probably had a good opportunity to compare the produce of the two wine-producing areas.

I have already mentioned that I make a point of foregoing breakfast so that I can indulge in a magnificent date scone at the Post Office cafe and restaurant in Clyde in mid-walk. Last year we kept bumping into a man who goes to the same establishment each morning with the same objective. He is Owen Healey, who lives nearby but normally goes for a pre-scone bike ride – in fact we frequently see him on the river track before we get to Clyde. Last year we became friendly and this year we have made a point of meeting him at the cafe. In her current state of health Gay has been driving there so that we could all have a bit of a chin-wag before retuning to business, which in my case means doing the rest of the walk. Owen tells us that the whole Williamson family are cycling nuts and that the young, Limoux-based, one of the species (sorry, can't remember his name at the moment) is an up-coming star, and one to watch. Remember, you read it here first.

My objective in our two weeks at Alexandra is to walk 30 kms every day, weather permitting. I should thus be able to simulate 2 weeks of the 10-week VBW, as a check on my preparedness. In fact, it was while Gay and I were doing the same thing last year, plus many other long walks in other parts of New Zealand, that I began to formulate the idea of doing an ultra-distance walk.

Sunday, February 15, 2009


We leave Oamaru tomorrow, for two weeks in Alexandra, a town which shares a name with my wife (Gay Alexandra), my granddaughter (Alexandra, born the day I met Gay Alexandra, 25 years ago), and my youngest grandson (Alessandro, aged four and a half, with his name nearer to the Greek original and one of the most skilful and motivational military leaders in world history, Alexandros - Alexander the Great). I also have a great-nephew called Alexander - maybe all this is just another way of Alexander conquering the world.

We have walked almost 100 kms during our week here and have learned more about the town, which was once the same size as Los Angeles (as it was at the same time), and the history of its wonderful buildings.

Time for a couple of corrections. I mentioned recently that viruses are becoming resistant to antibiotics and that they are mutating away from the ability of the antibiotics to deal with them. My statement was of course nonsense. My very good friend Margaret Gregson in Alberta has gently pointed this out to me. As she says:

“I have always been told that antibiotics fight bacteria but there is nothing you can do to fight viruses except give vaccinations before you catch them to make you produce antibodies in your own immune system. Then the over prescribing of antibiotics for mild bacterial infections is what is making the clever little bacteria mutate and become immune and also the practice of adding antibiotics to animal feed to make sure they stay healthy and get fat.(another point in favour of vegetarianism!). If they worked on you then you must have had a bacterial lung infection I would think.”

I admit that I do not know a virus from a bacterium or a spot from a pimple. Thanks to Margaret, I am now better informed. By the way, Margaret is not a vegetarian.

Another mistake I made was when I said how splendid is Cardno’s Accommodation in the Catlins, and how wonderful the hosts, Lyn and Selwyn Cardno. None of that was incorrect, but I omitted to mention the other member of their team - Otto. Otto is schnauzer dog and nobody who stays with Lyn and Selwyn can fail to notice him. He is a very well-behaved dog, except when Selwyn is trying to command him. The visitor’s book is replete with references to him. Sorry, Otto, we think you are great

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A Gentle Man

We left the Catlins on Monday morning, having walked, in my case, over 130 kms during our week there. Our normal pattern is to get the walk in early, straight after breakfast, which means we start at about 7.30. We made a special point of walking early on Sunday, because the weather people had been forecasting an exceptionally hot day, probably breaking all temperature records for New Zealand. There was no evidence of this during our three and a half hour walk, in fact it was rather cool. But around lunchtime the weather became very strange. It was exceptionally hot, but we could not see the sun. There was a strong wind, but with a warming rather than a cooling effect. Something like standing in front of a gigantic hair-dryer. The heat had arrived, as predicted, from Australia, but so had ash from the dreadful fires there, which have claimed so many lives. It was the ash which was blocking out the sun and also saving us from those final few degrees which would have provided new records.

Having said goodbye to our most excellent hosts, we drove 200 kms to the north, through Dunedin, to Oamaru, one of our favourite places in New Zealand. We are staying in a self-contained chalet on the Top 10 campsite there, run by the very friendly Tracy and Shane. It is very noticeable on this campsite that almost all the campervans disappear in the morning, leaving the place empty, and that the place fills up again during the afternoon with a new population of vans. This confirms the complaint in the local paper this very week, that Oamaru is regarded by most people as a “tea and pee” stop, many travellers just stopping for a short break on their way from north to south or vice versa, with some stopping overnight to see the famous penguins. Barely time to notice the many superb stone buildings here, made of the local white stone, or the renovated harbour area, also with various historic buildings, many pressed back into service in the tourist trade.

Our regular walk here is shorter than last week’s, and much shorter than next week’s in Alexandra. But it is quite strenuous, and we find that, with other bits and pieces during the day, we are clocking up daily kilometres in the mid-teens. Quite adequate between a week of 20 kms days and two weeks of 25 or more kms days to come.

Every couple of years, Oamaru hosts a stone carving “Symposium”. This is actually a sculpture competition which takes place in the local park which we walk through several times a day, between the campsite and the town centre. Each competitor is given a block of the local stone, which can be sawed or carved, like Portland stone, and proceeds, during the next three weeks, to make of it what he or she will. Some of the results are superb. The sculptors come from all over New Zealand and some from abroad, including Italy and Great Britain. The results are auctioned off and there are also prizes.

It was at one of these symposia, that we met Malcolm Murduck. Malcolm was an architect from Kent, who had taken to sculpture fairly late in life. He had been sculptor in residence at Leeds Castle. Our friendship was instantaneous - we were soon on visiting terms with Malcolm and his wife Jenny. It is a great sadness that our friendship was also brief because Malcolm collapsed and died an unexplained death at the age of 57 in the garden of his Herne Bay home before he could bring Jenny to show her the New Zealand with which he had so quickly fallen in love. Jenny and her two daughters, Sam and Lauren, have since made the pilgrimage here, been welcomed by the symposium organisers and many others, including the people who bought the sculpture Malcolm made while in Oamaru. We did not know him long but the time we had with him was a great privilege for us.

Such a genuine, gentle man. And he obviously made a great impression here, because there is now a Malcolm Murduck prize at each symposium.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Little And Large

We don’t often see these across our path while walking near Puivert. The picture does not give a good impression of the size of this sea lion. This beast is a bull and probably four or five times the size of the sea lions you see in a circus clapping and oinking for the punters. I estimate it weighs at least 200 kgs, possibly 300.

We are spending a week in the Catlins, which is the area of New Zealand bottom right, as you look at a map or a globe. A very quiet area, not a city in sight, the nearest being Dunedin, 100 kms north, or Invercargill, 100 kms to the west. Invercargill hosts the southernmost Starbucks in the world.

We are staying at Kaka point, at Cardno’s accommodation. Lyn and Selwyn Cardno have two motel units attached to their home. We have been here twice before and highly recommend it to anyone wanting to stay in the area. The accommodation is excellent and the Cardnos are most friendly and welcoming. They have become good friends.

More details of Cardno’s accommodation can be found at their website:

If you travel south from here you will need a boat with a reinforced bottom and some clothing with built-in heating, because you will end up in Antarctica. If you head east you may nudge the tip of South America before you arrive back in New Zealand, but nothing else will impede your progress. If you walk west along the beach, you will have to dodge a few seals and sea lions and also hop onto the road a couple of times to avoid rocky areas before you arrive at Nugget Point lighthouse. Selwyn’s great-grandfather used to be in charge of that, but it is all automatic these days.

The walk to the lighthouse and back is 20 kms and I have done that every morning straight after breakfast. Gay has set out with me every day and has ventured further each time, before turning back for “home“. Yesterday and this morning she did the whole walk with me without any ill effects, so presumably her full recovery has coincided with the end of the course of antibiotics, which seem to have done the trick in getting rid of the cough and debilitation.

This is a great area for watching seals and sea lions, numerous types of seabirds and penguins. It is also superb for getting in a lot of exercise with minimum interference from traffic.

Another thing we have seen on the beach for the first time is krill. These are tiny creatures, like shrimp but much smaller. We see them scattered along the high water mark and marvel that these are the main food of the giant whales. A blue whale, which weighs about 100 tons, has to eat huge quantities of these per day. I can’t remember the figure, but it is probably over a ton per day of krill, which must be untold numbers of the creatures. Surely it would make more sense for the whales to eat a couple of sea lions per day?

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Scone Palace

It was a long drive from Akaroa to Alexandra on Saturday - marginally under 500 kms. When we arrived I went for a walk to bring the days total to 10 kms. I have a new policy of walking at least 10 kms, even on the days when travel or weather has prevented me from setting out for a normal training walk. The new policy came about after I realised that because of one thing or another I have lost almost a month recently. It is not obsessive kilometre counting, just that it feels so hard to plunge back into 20 or 30 kilometre days after doing nothing, even for a few days, never mind 4 weeks. So the 10 kms a day policy is just to maintain smoothness and a tickover.

Sunday morning I walked from Alexandra to Clyde along the river route. As with so many places in New Zealand, there is much evidence of gold extraction. NZ really did seem to be paved with gold in those days. I set off without breakfast because at the Post Office (now a café and restaurant) in Clyde they have some wonderful world-class date scones. I had one of those and a coffee for my breakfast. I was ready for it, after walking 15 kms on an empty stomach. Normally Gay would have been walking with me (although she would have been full of porridge or cereal) but because she has not yet recovered from the chest infection, she drove out to Clyde to meet me. We had my breakfast, her tea, and a look at the papers together, before I set off for the return trip, this time 10 kms via the first section of the Central Otago Rail Trail. Gay drove back.

There was a very strong wind, which shifted me sideways a couple of times. Nothing like the colossal storm which has caused so much damage in the Pyrenees areas of both Spain and France recently. When we first heard of this we wondered whether our home village of Puivert had escaped. Then I read Randy’s Possumworld blog and she was talking about the damage and power outages in Chalabre, which is only 8 kms from Puivert. Fortunately, we managed to contact our neighbours and discovered that, although there had been roofs torn off and the like, our house seems to be OK.

Our stay in Alexandra was short, and was designed so that we could attend, on Sunday afternoon, the Cromwell Country Music Club, which meets on the first Sunday of every month. There is a resident band and a constant stream of people arriving with guitars, putting their names on a blackboard, then when their turn comes, getting up to sing a couple of songs. Some are better than others, of course, but we find it admirable that so many people will get up and have a go.

We shall be back in Alexandra for the second half of the month, as we find it a most excellent place to exercise, but on Monday we drove a couple of hundred kms to the Catlins. More about that later.