This afternoon I saw my first Grey Warbler (Riroriro). There are quite a few around where we live, and I often hear them as I walk to work. They are not always easy to see, by all accounts, as they are quite small - even smaller than the Waxeye (Tauhou). Apparently they are the favourite host of the Shining Cuckoo - my friend Phil (who is much more of a bird expert than me) was asking me if I had heard many Grey Warblers or Cuckoos, as it seems their numbers are diminishing. The arrival of the cuckoos each year from the Pacific seems to be some sort of local signifier of spring - much as my father on his hill country farm in the south of the South Island looks for the arrival of a quite different species of bird… but that’s a story for another day here.

Today was a strange sort of a day - starting cool and grey, then rain poured in from the north for most of the late morning and early afternoon. After it stopped we went to the Supermarket for our usual Sunday afternoon shop. We were coming down our steps toward home, laden down with groceries (114 steps with a full tramping pack). The sun had finally come out while we were doing the shopping, and now it was bright yellow and intense, warm too in the way that the late afternoon in springtime can be. There was birdsong everywhere, the blackbirds in particular seeming to be pleased to see the rain off. In a tree ahead of us somewhere I could hear a Grey Warbler; the sun was shining through the leaves and I thought I might actually see it.

I did. Small, fast, grey… and fairly non-descript really. It stopped and sang a few notes, then flitted away into a tree above and behind me. I called out to R. and B₂, but they missed it.

I think I must be turning into a twitcher. Why else would I get so excited about seeing such a dully plumed little bird?


the view from our front window, last week It’s a nice time of year. Several days in the last week have had that sort of spring warmth that makes me feel optimistic again. Our cherry tree put on its usual fine display.

It’s past its best now (the picture is from last week) and at the moment the lawn is covered in a blizzard of downed petals - “rough winds doth shake the darling buds” of September and all that.


Walking to work this morning I was reminded of a morning nearly two years ago. It was a similar sort of day - an indeterminate mix of cloud and clear with the sun starting to make some real progress over the Hutt hills. (Perhaps that day also turned on some glorious winter sun, like today did.)

It was the month before B₂’s birth, and I was stuck in a state of joyous expectation tinged with (I admit it) fear. Between house and work walking then (as now) provided useful think time.

Passing the Rose Garden in the Botanic Gardens I rounded the end of the playing field. I looked to my left, and there, perched in a row on the goalposts above the goalie’s rutted puddle were three kōtare (NZ kingfishers). They were all looking over their shoulders in the same direction. There they sat for what seemed like ages, until finally one flew away and the spell was broken.

It was supremely weird moment, and seemed to be significant somehow. It felt like a good omen, and I carried on to work feeling much lighter.

In the next few days I thought about it a lot, maybe too much, and even thought seriously about Kōtare as a second name for the baby when it came. After a while though the impact of the moment wore off, and by the time B₂ finally arrived I had all but forgotten about it.

These days perhaps Piwakawaka would be more appropriate anyway… small, cheeky, cute, and hyperactive…


It’s just before 8am, and the sun is climbing over the hills of the Hutt Valley, as seen from my desk on the 8th floor overlooking the harbour.

I’ve just walked in to work. There’s something melancholy about walking to the work in the dark - 6.45am - put on a coat, the MP3 player… leave the circle of light, wife and daughter sleeping, walk up the steps with the Durutti Column’s minor chords ringing; along the side of the hill and it’s still dark (Radiohead, Stone Roses) and no cars yet; at the top of Orangi Kaupapa Road there’s a view of the harbour emerging in the gathering light; pick my way down the steps towards the Botanic Gardens where a Grey Warbler close by startles me out of Beth Orton and I stop for a few seconds in a fruitless attempt to find the secretive bird.

But back at my desk, just when the sun seems a certain thing it’s closed off by a passing shower. Another grey winter’s day has started.

weta pictures

The weta is baaaaack! Only now I’ve got a couple pictures for the benefit of any overseas readers I might have.

Picture of a weta with a ruler for scale

Imagine this down your gumboot… or in your bed… or on your head. And this isn’t as big as they get, either.

Female tree weta doing a runner up my hand

It may well be the same female I evicted from the bedroom a few weeks ago. I found her while tidying up at the back of the house this afternoon under a cardboard box. She wasn’t very happy with me and hissed fairly threateningly - which isn’t surprising given that wetas are nocturnal creatures and I’d just destroyed her nice cool dark and dry hiding place.

However, it seems that what I have heard about their temperament is true - they are pretty slow to actually bite. Which is just as well given the sort of jaws they have.

Attack of the Clones

Last night R. and I went to see the new Star Wars movie, Attack of the Clones. I was pleasantly surprised. It was much better than I had expected it to be. (The experience was assisted by nice surroundings - we went to the new Reading Cinema here in Wellington, clean, comfy seats, great sound and pictures. I’m hanging out to try the cinelounge…)

Sure, the so-called love scenes have all the romance and excitement of a mystery weekend in Timaru, and the story is full of holes and the odd nonsensical stuff (why do armies go head to head across flat ground firing all the way… it’s tactical suicide but of course looks spectacular).

But this is mostly compensated for with the sheer fun of all the other strands to the story. The Coruscant city scenes are gobsmacking; the asteroid field chase is a total rush, and Yoda really is pretty handy with a lightsabre. Even the matte backgrounds are more sophisticated now, with convincing perspective changes as the camera tracks the subjects of the shot.

Along with the spectacular there’s also a lot more of the mundane parts of the Star Wars universe to be seen: Padme filling a suitcase; Obi-wan visiting the equivalent of a greasy spoon; even some totally incomprehensible advertising. This adds a certain amount of much needed depth to the film.

It’s setting things up well for Episode III. In the meantime, there’s always Spider-man

emergent weta

Not much later last night R. found the weta. It was in the bedroom on top of her chest of drawers having a good old look about. A large female about five centimetres long (excluding antennae and ovipositor)… and I hadn’t even noticed it when I hopped into bed 15 minutes earlier.

It happily climbed up on to my arm… and kept climbing. I had to swap arms a couple times so it didn’t climb on to my head (not quite ready for that yet) before I got it safely back onto the rocky bank behind the house.

But I think there might be another one in the kitchen, judging by the rustling noises I’m hearing coming from under the fridge. Either that or a mouse…


We’ve got a weta in the house somewhere. R. saw it last night when she got up to comfort B₂… somehow I don’t blame her for not taking the opportunity to escort it off the premises. It seems to have been responsible for some of the strange noises we’ve been hearing in the night lately.

Although I do quite like wetas, they are not the world’s most homely ceatures and are not something that you would want to run into on a dark night. They don’t bite, unless you really piss them off. In which case they are very good at biting. Generally though you can pick them up and take them outside without too many problems. Here’s some better pictures.

Apparently they have a fondness for, errrm… crevices.

Dry Stone Walls

I think that dry stone walls are one of the most charming features of the British countryside. These are walls made completely without cement or mortar, just using the skill and eye of the waller in placing the rocks so that their own weight binds them together. R. and I were in the UK for a year or so a while back, and in our travels around Britain we would often stop to take photos and look at how they might have been constructed. Most of the ones you see in the North of England are up to 250 years old dating from the time of the enclosures (in the South people grew hedges instead). But there are other examples that are much much older still. It is a very old craft.

Building a wall

Dry Stone Wall in progress: 1

In fact, I liked walls so much I decided to go on a walling course not long before I left the UK in 1997. As it was near the end of the summer I had a few problems finding one that suited; but eventually one Friday night I ended up in Littleborough (near Manchester).

The next morning I found my way up onto the moor and the site of the course (using a trusty OS Map, of course). The tutor explained the basics. I found out the rather depressing news that the standard Pennine Wall, the kind we would be building over the next two days, uses approximately a tonne of rock per metre of length. As I had been doing a typical soft southerner’s office job in London, I knew at once that I was going to have an interesting time.

Above (Dry Stone Wall in progress: 1) you can see the base laid; note the two parallel lines of stone.The Pennine Wall is built double, with some ‘through-stones’ later on.

Dry Stone Wall in progress: 2

You can now (Dry Stone Wall in progress: 2) clearly see the through-stones at this stage. These help to bind both sides of the wall together.

Dry Stone Wall in progress: 3

And now (Dry Stone Wall in progress: 3) you can see we’ve started putting the cope-stones in on the wall end closest to us. These lock together to (hopefully) stop stock from knocking the wall over. Plus they look good too.

It was much harder work than I expected, but it was good to see the results. I learnt quite a lot… but one of the biggest lessons was that I’m simply not built for moving tons of rock about professionally. I’d like to have a go in the back garden one day though (although maybe Wellington is not the best place for this).

Some interesting examples

R. and I lived in the UK for 18 months or so in 1996 and 1997. That’s when I became interested in Dry Stone Walls… and I would often take pictures when I could. Here are a few of the more interesting ones.

Tintagel, Cornwall, England, Easter 1997.

Tintagel, Cornwall, England

This is a brilliant example of a peculiarly Cornish style of walls - in slate areas this method had to be used as the slate doesn’t bear weight very well at right angles to its grain. So instead the weight is transferred down more with the grain than against it. Looks very good as well.

Ungeshader, Isle of Lewis, Scotland, May 1997.

Ungeshader, Isle of Lewis, Scotland

This is a very good example of a skilled craftsperson’s work. Although the rock is of reasonably variable sizes and shapes (contrast this with the rock in the Littleborough pictures) whoever did this has managed to work with it to a beautiful result.

Doune Carloway, Isle of Lewis, Scotland, May 1997.

Doune Carloway, Isle of Lewis, Scotland

Now this really is a wonder; it’s the remains of an ancient fort. I later wrote up a diary of this particular trip, and this what I had to say about the broch:

“[It] is the best example surviving of many hundreds of such fortifications in Scotland’s north and west dating from around the first century AD and one theory suggests that the brochs were built to repel Roman slave raiders. It sits on a ridge overlooking the sea: it’s about 40 feet tall, and about 50 feet in diameter; the entrance is a very low doorway. It was extremely cunningly constructed: two tapered drystone walls, one inside the other, with flat supporting stones running through both walls arranged in a spiral pattern up the tower so that defenders could quickly climb to the top whilst inside the walls. It used to be about 40 feet tall right around, but now there’s only about half of it left, a large diagonal bite having been taken from it. The outer walls have a perfect and steep slope, with very few gaps for fingers. There’s a story about how the MacAuleys got revenge on a Morrison cattle-raiding party: a MacAuley climbed the outside of the broch using a pair of knives; in his teeth he held a burning torch. Once at the top he set fire to the thatched roof hiding the Morrison party and burnt them out.”

Loch Risay, Island of Great Bernera, Scotland, May 1997.

Loch Risay, Island of Great Bernera

Well, I really can’t say enough about this. Within line of sight of the Carloway Broch over the water, I actually think that this is worth at least one Cathedral. It is definitely one of the most amazing things I’ve seen on my travels. Here’s the story from my diary again:

“While in the [Great Bernera] museum I had read of an enterprising Bernera man in the 1860s who engineered a solution to another local problem. In high summer the lobsters [Bernera’s main industry] were at their most plentiful around Bernera; but because of the warmth and the distance to market it was not worth trying to export them. Before leaving for Australia to make some money, he marked out a site beside a narrow bay of Loch Risay. When he returned five years later, he used his money to build a dry stone wall right across the bay, cutting it off from the sea. The tide was able to run through the stone wall, aerating the water, but anything within could not escape. Now, he could store the lobsters caught during the good weather of summer and sell them later when the market had picked up in the autumn. He could even supply them out of season, during the winter.”

The archetype of Scots canniness, eh?! So I decided to go and have a look - it took a bit to find, and a long walk around a deeply indented bay of the sea, but I got there eventually:

“The wall must have been 20 feet at its deepest and was a good three feet wide all along the top. Large flat stones had been placed on top, so I walked across into the middle: I had read in the museum of people mooring their boats here and kids fishing from it, so I guessed it would be fairly safe. The incoming tide was about 2 feet higher on the outside and gushing through the many small gaps in the wall. It was, without a doubt, the coolest man-made thing I had seen in the islands: I sat on the edge with my feet over the water and spared a thought for the builder. People said he was mad, wasting his money, that it would never work. But he laughed all the way to the bank, and the loch continued to be used right up into the 1930s. Besides being a canny businessman, he was also a scientist on the side: his lobsters started breeding in the loch, and his observations of their life-cycle were the first ever made.”

Maybe you had to be there. But I’m glad I went off the beaten track to find it. I often wonder if the English wallers know of its existence.

Note: this page was originally created for a university assignment (“Create a home page!”) and has survived, in various incarnations, on my website ever since. The posting date is the date the assignment was due, back in 1998. Originally it was split over two smaller pages. This was all pre-digital, so at some point I need to find the original prints and re-scan them at a better resolution.


In 1989 I was in Japan for six weeks or so on an exchange trip. During that time I discovered NHK’s live coverage of a sumo tournament (or basho), and I was quickly transfixed.

Over the course of the basho I became more and more involved. There is something elemental about sumo - like the Pauli Exclusion principle (using my science background there!), no two sumo wrestlers (or rikishi) may occupy the same ring at the same time. It’s as simple as that.

oshiAnd yet it’s not. There is so much history, religious ritual and culture involved; it almost seems in some senses a microcosm of Japanese culture. There are also the people involved, the different styles of attack, sizes and strengths. When I first watched my favourite was Chiyonofuji, the best grand champion (yokozuna) of the last 20 years; his staredowns were legendary and allied with huge strength and technique. My other favourite was Konishiki, the largest rikishi ever, a Hawaiian directly challenging the Japanese in their semi-sacred national sport.

uwateBut the one I liked best, was Mainoumi. He was the smallest, and most tricksy of all the top rikishi. (As a comparison, Mainoumi is 173cm tall and when fighting weighed 98 kg, whereas the aforementioned Konishiki weighed in at 275kg and is 185cm tall!). He was famous for being able to beat even the biggest champion on the good day, by using the most outrageous moves. Because his size made him more manouverable, he could often quickly slip around the back of an opposing rikishi and let the lumbering behemoth’s own momentum complete the job.

watashiHis life story is also pretty interesting. Mainoumi (born Nagao Shuhei), while a good sumo wrestler at college level, never believed he would go further and become a professional. Masumi Abe, one of the “gurus” of the sumo mailing list, continues (my editorial insertions in square brackets):

”… Mainoumi (Nagao when he was in college) [was] determined to get into Ozumo. According to his story, while Nagao was in Nichidai [Nihon University in Tokyo], high school national champion Narita from the same town came to Nichidai. Nagao decided to help Narita becoming the best rikishi he can be and treated him just like his own brother. Nagao took care of Narita. Many expected Narita to be a national champion of the future, and makuuchi [high ranking] rikishi after his graduation. Then suddenly Narita died (I don’t remember what exactly happened to him). It was Nagao’s senior year. Nagao was disappointed and disgusted with his close friend’s death. He skipped sumo practice. After many days of thinking about his future, (he was to teach at a high school after graduation), he recognized how short his life could be. Nagao wanted to try what he really want to try, that was Ozumo. Mainoumi said if he did not have experienced Narita’s death, he would be just a teacher teaching social study at a high school near his home town in Aomori.”

Before and after shot of Mainoumi's silicone implant

Unfortunately, although he had the talent, Mainoumi lacked the physical size to join the ranks of the professionals - he was several centimeters below the minimum height required. In order for him to meet the requirement he had a silicon implant inserted in his scalp. Abe-san says:

“According to Mainoumi, his head was all bloody after the operation and after taking silicon out. He needed to play sumo with bloody head. In his case, a medical practitioner put a bag between the head skin and the skull. As soon as the operated opening of skin closed (more-or-less, because of lack of the time), the health practitioner put silicon small amount at a time, and gradually increase the amount. Since the silicon give pressure between the skull and the skin, it caused the further tension to pull the skin off the skull. Mainoumi said he constantly vomit because of the pain. His friends from college (Nichidai Sumo Team) helped during the difficult time, and keeping the wound clean with towels and the towels getting all bloody because of the unhealed wound on top of the head.
“It is sickening even in just listening to Mainoumi’s story.”

The Kyokai has since banned the use of such prosthetics.

hatakiThen, in July 1996 he suffered a terrible, almost farcical injury during a bout with the largest rikishi Konishiki. He had already managed to beat Konishiki, but as Konishiki fell he trapped and twisted Mainoumi’s leg, tearing a ligament. A rikishi injured must start in the lower ranks, and work up again. It took him until May 1997 to secure his place in the top rankings again. If you’ve ever seen pictures of Konishiki you would understand why the injury was so serious.

In late 1997 Mainoumi got married. One interesting news report of the time said that he had a good chance to marry the daughter of his stable boss (or oyakata). Instead, he married a nightclub manager, and thus (apparently) gave up his chances of becoming oyakata of his current stable (or heya). As his particular heya, the Dewanoumi heya, is one of the largest and most prestigious, traditionally the Dewanoumi oyakata becomes head of the Sumo Kyokai. Mainoumi gave up a lot for love, said the article, and it went on to praise this as a brave move. It’s hard to imagine this sort of bizarre thing in any other sport. In sumo, after a while, it seems to make sense.

So why was I so interested in Mainoumi in particular? If you had ever seen him fight you would know the answer. Perhaps also I saw him as being similar to me - at least in height and age, anyway. Little else was similar.

uttchariOh, and one last thing. “Gambatte!” means “Go!” or “Get up and Fight!”. I once had plans of getting to the stadium in Tokyo, and yelling “Gambatte Mainoumi!!”. Unfortunately, by the time I get there it will have been years since his retirement. (Life’s like that sometimes.)

Note: this page was originally created for a university assignment (“Create a home page!”) and has survived, in various incarnations, on my website ever since. The posting date is the date the assignment was due, back in 1998. Originally it was split over four smaller pages with a video… but as no-one can play RealPlayer anymore I’ve taken the video out.