Sunday, February 24

Surviving Marmageddon

For the last 15 months the news in New Zealand has been filled with talk about Marmageddon.  What’s that you ask?  Sanitarium Marmite, a pungent yeast spread, is a popular staple in New Zealand households. The bitter, salty, dark brown paste is the nation’s answer to Australia’s Vegemite and Promite, or the UK’s own version of Marmite.  Growing up in New Zealand, you always had Marmite spread liberally on your toast at breakfast, or hidden in your lunch box sandwiches.  

Since 1919, all of New Zealand’s Marmite has made in a single factory, located on the outskirts of Christchurch. It’s manufactured under license using a recipe adapted from that used for the UK’s Marmite spread.  Most notably, New Zealand’s version includes sugar and caramel which results in a slightly less tangy, smoother tasting product.  However, both versions use the yeast by-products of beer brewing as their core ingredient.  Much like Vegemite, you either love it, or you hate it.

I love it.  When Garry and I were living in the UK, I used to carry jars of Marmite home with me after every New Zealand visit.  My parents even bought me a large jar when they came to stay in 2007. Since returning to Australia I’ve been able to satisfy my cravings without resorting to imports as the local Supermarket sells small 250g jars of the stuff.   However, this availability proved short-lived.  Production of New Zealand Marmite was halted in November 2011 when the Christchurch factory closed for repairs.

The Christchurch factory had been damaged by the deadly February 22, 2011 earthquake and its aftershocks.  Its cooling tower had cracks and closer inspection revealed other structural issues. Sanitarium was forced to halt production.  It originally anticipated that repairs would take seven months to complete.  By March 2012, its stocks had run out, leaving consumers with the specter of bare shelves for at least three months.  The price of Marmite quickly went through the roof.  Large jars were offered online for as much as NZ$800, considerably more than the regular retail price of $4.25 for a 250g jar.

At the time I was oblivious to the shortage. I notice its disappearance from our Supermarket shelves but assumed that Coles had decided to stop stocking the product. Only weeks earlier I’d blithely and lavishly spread the last of my Marmite on toast.  I decided to resort to imports once again and my sister-in-law to bring Marmite when she came to visit.  It was then that I learnt of an emerging storage the media were dubbing "Marmageddon".

In June last year Sanitarium discovered more earthquake damage, pushing Marmite’s return to shelves out into 2013. Marmite has now been out of stock for a year.  However, the end of the drought is in sight.  This week, the company announced that Marmite would be back on shelves from March 20.  It claims to have already begun full production of 250g jars, its most popular size.  I’ll be interested to see if our local Coles will restock the product after a 12 month hiatus.  I fear they’ll decide people like me have moved on to other products.  We haven't.  I hate Vegemite and English Marmite is just awful stuff.

I’m reasonably optimistic marmite will return to local Supermarket shelves as our store recently introduced a classic New Zealand products section.  A few weeks ago we suddenly discovered a shelf groaning with L&P soft drink, cheese flavoured Rashuns and other popular New Zealand junk food.  If I’d not just returned from a month with family, drinking L&P almost daily I’m sure I’d have made an impulse purchase.  As was I relented just enough to buy a packet of coconut Krispie biscuits, a taste sensation I’ ve not had since childhood.

Sunday, February 3

There she glows

My last post about our trip to Siding Springs in 2005 brought back memories of a second expedition Garry and I made a month later to the summit of Mauna Kea on Hawaii’s Big Island.  Manua Kea is considered one of the world’s best sites for astronomical observation thanks to altitude, dry air and stable airflows.  It also enjoys an average of 325 clear nights per year.  As a result, since 1964, a total of thirteen telescopes have been erected on its summit, funded by at least separate 11 nations.

In April 2005, while visiting the Big Island, Garry and I booked a tour up to the summit, more 4,200 metres above the Pacific.  Like every other soaring mountain, Mauna Kea’s peak is a chilly, uncomfortable location. The tropical heat of Hawaii’s coastal regions never reaches such giddy heights.  In fact, it seems that only tourists are foolish enough to venture this high.  Even the astronomers avoid the place.  They sensibly operate their observatories remotely from warmer, more accommodating locations. 

Our tour was timed to coincide with sunset. This meant we were treated to spectacular skies, along with a chance to see the giant observing instruments quietly spring into life.  Perhaps one of the most astonishing sights is that of the mountain’s shadow just before sunset.  A soft grey triangle stretches out across the surrounding cloud tops creating the illusion of a twin peak rising in the distance.  If you time your arrival just so, you can stand on the shadow’s rim, wave your arms and witness your movements on the shadow’s edge.  Very cool!

We spent less than an hour at the summit.  Our guides were constantly on the watch for the symptoms of attitude sickness. The risk is real.  Years later in Peru Garry and I witness how debilitating this illness can be when members of our tour party suffered above 4,000 metres.  The tour operator tries to reduce this risk by making a compulsory stop halfway up the mountain at the Visitor’s Information Centre. 
 
This small building sits about 2,800 metres above sea level, just below the cloud base that regularly shrouds the peak. The smooth, paved highway also ends at this point.  From here, the road turns to gravel and winds its way precariously up the mountain’s desolate rusty volcanic rock flank.  Incredibly, Mauna Kea is only considered a dormant volcano.  It last erupted 4, 600 years ago. 

The Big Island does boast at least one active volcano, nearby Kilauea.  Garry and I trekked out to the site of this volcano’s active lava flow to witness its glowing, viscous lava slowly ooze towards the sea.  Reaching the lava flows involved a three kilometer trek across rough, uneven piles of old lava.  The rock is deadly to footwear. It’s sharp, glassy edges simple tear shoe leather to shreds.

We trekked out from the end of the road late afternoon. Dusk is considered the best time to view the lava as its ominous glow is far more spectacular in the fading light.  This certainly proved to be true.  As the sky darkened we soon realized there were giant streams of hot lava cascading down distant slopes we’d barely glanced at earlier in the day.
 
The lava is safe to view.  While it’s extraordinarily hot, it moves at a slow pace.  This meant we could move from location to location without fear of our route being blocked, or our observation point being suddenly engulfed.  However, as we retraced our steps, we discovered our route had taken us across active lava flowing several feet below our feet.  In our efforts to reach visible surface flows, we’d inadvertently cross a “bridge” of cooled lava. 

It was quite a shock to discover lava glowing deep down in the odd crack.  Earlier in the day, this faint glow had been completely invisible. It was timely reminder that nature remains the master of its own domain.  We meekly reassured ourselves that we were probably never in any real danger given how many other people had made the same trek through the day.  We decided the ever present National Park Rangers would have closed off the area had the risk had been significant.

Saturday, February 2

Siding Springs

How about a trip down memory lane?  Over the years I’ve published numerous posts about my growing list of space tourism excursions.  You’ll recall I’ve visited Star City near Moscow, watched a Space Shuttle launch and clambered through the bowels of a Titan Missile silo.  The vast majority of these adventures have taken place overseas. Australia isn’t exactly the centre of space and aeronautic technology.
 
The nation does have a small handful of world class locations including the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex in Tidbinbilla, the giant radio telescope at the CSIRO Parkes Observatory and the Australian Astronomical Observatory at Siding Springs.  All three sites are located within a few hours of Sydney so it’ll come as no surprise to learn that I’ve visited all three in the last 15 years.
 
I was reminded of one such visit recently after a devastating bush fire swept through the Siding Springs area on January 13.  The media published dramatic images of a wall of orange flames rising over the Anglo-Australian optical telescope’s dazzling white dome. You can see one such photo published by the Sydney Morning Herald above.

Many feared the worst.  Exactly ten years earlier bush fires completely destroyed the Mount Stromlo observatory on the outskirts of Canberra.  At the time similar images showed flames raging around the observatory’s distinctive dome.  However, this time the news was good.  The giant 4-metre optical telescope and the nearby 1.2-m UK Schmidt Telescope at Siding Springs escaped unharmed.
 
Garry and I visited Siding Springs over a long weekend in March 2005.  I’d timed our trip to coincide with a rare public open day at the observatory. We cashed in some frequent flyer points, flew to Dubbo on a Friday morning, hired a car and spent four days exploring the area.  We based ourselves in Dubbo for the first night.  While there we explored the expansive Western Springs Zoo, where a friendly giraffe gave me a terrifying tongue link.  I’d been invited to feed it carrots by the attending zoo keeper.
 
On Saturday we drove to Coonabarabran, a small town roughly 27kms away from Siding Springs.  We attended the Open Day tours on Sunday. Garry will reluctantly admit that the experience proved more interesting than expected.  Both of us were surprised to discover that Siding Springs is actually home to almost a dozen different telescopes, most of which were open to the public.  Resident astronomers spent the day taking small groups on tours through the facilities culminating in a visit to the impressive Anglo Australian telescope.
 
The giant telescope is housed in a 26 metre high dome that sits on a remote hill on the eastern edge of the Western Plains.  It was built to provide astronomers with optical observing capabilities previously limited to the Northern Hemisphere.  The telescope was commissioned in 1974, giving eager astronomers an unrivaled ability to study phenomenon only visible in the southern sky.  This includes the centre of our own Milky Way Galaxy and its nearest galactic neighbours, the Magellanic Clouds.
 
During our tour I vividly recall seeing the giant 4-metre telescope being gracefully pivoted on its equatorial mounting.  The ease with which the instrument moved was astonishing given that it weighs a staggered 260 tonnes. Our guide later explained that the telescope rarely moves in this manner.  She explained that it typically inches along, following the track of stars as they move across the night sky. It seems that the telescope’s chief engineer had decided to put on a bit of a show for the visitors. We were delighted!
 
Later that evening, Garry and I booked a night sky observation dinner in Coonabarabran. With Siding Springs nearby, many of the town’s residents are employed by the observatory.  As a result, Coonabarabran boosts a number of impressive amateur telescopes and knowledgeable astronomers.  We spent a fascinating evening at the local Warrumbungle Observatory viewing Jupiter, Saturn and the Moon’s cratered surface.

The final day of our vacation was spent back in Dubbo touring the city's infamous goal and the underworld delights of the Wellington Caves, located about 40 minutes south.  The caves proved particularly interesting.  We joined the Cathedral cave tour which takes visitors past a breath-taking 15-metre high 'Altar', a magnificent combination of boulders, flowstone and stalagmites covered in glittering crystal calcite.  However, for me, the real highlight was an opportunity to handle fossilised bones miners had extracted from neighbouring mine shafts.

Friday, February 1

We love ice cream

Perhaps one of the best things about smartphones is the ability to capture quality images of life's special moments.  This one of them. Five minutes walk from my Mum's house in New Zealand, there's a small corner store opposite the beach.  It sells the world's largest ice cream cones at the cheapest price you can image.  Here's my sister-in-law, Karin, and my niece, Nici, making the most of this Summer bargain.