Hearing is Believing

I’ve been using Widex Inteo hearing aids for about six years now. One CIC (Completely In Canal) model, and one ITE (In The Ear) size. Prior to that, I had another set of earlier Widex digital hearing aids for around 7 years.

Hearing aids have an expected lifetime of somewhere around 5-7 years, perhaps a little shorter for models like mine that live inside the ear. I’m lucky that I don’t seem to get much wax in my ears, so I’ve been lucky that mine last reasonably well. I’ve still had to get them serviced periodically, and I did once have them fail in Turkey (but luckily I was able to get them repaired!).

Technology moves on, and hearing declines as we age. At a minimum, I need my current aids serviced, tested, and possibly reprogrammed for my changing hearing. But since my current aids are still working, I’m not in a hurry to get new ones. Instead, it’s a good chance to look at my options, including a changing to a different manufacturer.

To start off, I had a full hearing test conducted by Dilworth. This went beyond the usual “tell me when you hear the beeps” test, and included comprehension tests in noise, and electronic measurements. Apparently not only is my hearing worse in my left ear, but my eardrum responds differently. If only there was a simple operation that could fix hearing. Not likely in my lifetime though.

Once we had the results, the audiologist and I had a look at what my options are. I wanted to stay with CIC or ITE style aids, which is a bit tricky, since my left ear is marginal or outside the limits for most manufacturers, in that style. I like CIC because they are good with the wind, I can put headphones over them if I need to, and they’re reasonably discreet. I’m getting older now though, so I’m not quite so fussed on that last point.

Depending on development cycles, vendors jockey for position for “best” hearing aids. Even then, what’s best for one person will be terrible for someone else. This is in part due to different philosophies of different manufacturers, as to how best to help with hearing loss. If you haven’t dealt with this sort of thing, you may think that it’s simply a matter of raising the volume. Turns out that it’s far more complex than that.

Firstly, different people have different patterns to their loss. For me, my low range is poor, my mid frequency is worse, but going up it gets quite a bit better. This is quite different to typical age-related loss, where the high frequencies are affected. If you raise the volume across all frequencies, you will distort speech as that person perceives it. Apparently increasing levels in one frequency range can drown out perception in other ranges. This can lead to the situation where everything seems very loud, but you still can’t understand what people are saying. All you get is a headache. Not much fun.

Secondly, different environments require different sorts of help. In a quiet environment, you probably do want to hear the page turning. But if you’re in a noisy environment, you really want to be able to focus on the conversation going on right in front of you. The last thing you want is every conversation in the room coming through at full level. So manufacturers work hard to try and detect the environment they’re in, and adapt. Some aids have programs that the user can select, but many now are automatic. These will try and work out what’s going on, and how best to respond. One of the things they will do is to compress loud sounds, to ensure they don’t cause discomfort to the user.

Thirdly, some manufacturers have a philosophy of “speech comprehension is more important than anything else.” In some ways this is true, but this can make the adaptation phase harder for those using aids for the first time, or changing manufacturers. Others aim for more natural sound.

The other thing that plays into this is the user – you get used to a certain sort of “style” and changing can be very jarring. If you expect to hear a car door slamming sound like, well, a car door slamming, it’s very disconcerting when it sounds like a short clap. It’s also very odd to hear your voice changing. Takes a while to get used to.

Anyway, we decided that Phonak Virto aids would be the best for me to try. The specs said I could get two CIC aids, so we ordered those. Turned out the specs were a touch optimistic. Even with my good-sized ear canals, with the gain needed on the left ear, they just couldn’t make a shell that worked. In the end, we got a slightly larger aid than originally anticipated, but it wasn’t too bad. The initial moulding of the right ear was also a problem, with it being very long, and pushing on my ear drum. Very painful. Managed to get that one shortened though, and all was good.

The Phonak style is very different to the Widex style. Much more focused on speech, and to my ears at least, somewhat “tinny.” Huge amounts of echo too, until we got them programmed right. That’s the other thing with modern hearing aids – you hook them up to a computer, while they’re in your ears, and you have a million options you can change on them. You can also insert tiny tubes alongside the aids while they’re in your ear, then a machine plays a sentence to you, and shows what the aids are doing, along with recommendations on improving the settings. The only problem with having a million options is of course trying to work out which ones you actually need to change. Also tough when you’re doing it at the clinic, as there’s not that many different environments you can be exposed to.

The Phonak aids were strange to get used to, but I decided to only wear them for several weeks, and not fall back to my old aids. Turned out to be pretty tough going. I realised I was missing a lot of conversation, and my wife saw me missing more that I didn’t even notice. But it was in noisy environments that they were toughest. Shopping malls or parties were very tough, where they just gave me a wall of noise. In that situation, you tend to shut down, as it’s the only way to cope.

We tried making adjustments to them, but ultimately they just weren’t going to work for me. Maybe someone else, but they weren’t an improvement on what I had – they were worse – so there was no point paying the $7,100NZD. So back to the audiologist.

Now I’m trying some Oticon Acto aids. I had to go for an ITC Power style for my left ear, to get the gain I needed, but I’ve got CIC for the right ear. I’d rather have them the same, purely so they use the same battery, but hey, I’m used to this setup now. Initial fitting went well, and the tests on the machine show that we’re able to get these ones to pretty much exactly where the machine thinks they should be.

It’s hard to say what they’re going to be like – my brain is still adjusting to the changed sounds. They feel like they might be a little worse right now, but I need to give it a few more days before we’ll know. Hopefully these work out, otherwise I’m going to go back to my trusty Widex Inteo aids. They’re being serviced right now. Widex tells me that they’ve got new stuff coming out soon. So if I do go back to the Widex aids, then I’ll stick with them for a bit longer, and maybe in 12-24 months I’ll try again.

I’ll report back in a couple of weeks with progress.

Hunua Take Two

After the last debacle when we tried to go mountain biking at Hunua, I felt another attempt was in order. Summer has been fantastic here, with warm sunny days just rolling on. Perfect level of warm too, not like the “heat dome” or whatever they’re calling it that’s burning Australia to a cinder.

This time around I was sure to triple-check the footwear packed in the car. No mistakes this time. Just a nice ride through the bush, fields and streams of the mountain bike trails at Hunua.

Typical trail through regenerating native bush
Typical trail through regenerating native bush
Plenty of shallow stream crossings at Hunua
Plenty of shallow stream crossings at Hunua

In the past, the trails were a mix of single-track through the bush, and gravel roads. Turns out that there’s been a fair bit of work done to build up some new trails, so where in the past you would have gone onto the gravel road, now you stay in the bush much longer. This is all good, but it does mean a LOT more riding if you’re doing the standard loop. At one point Anna “hit the wall”, and my life was only saved by an emergency infusion of raspberry liquorice logs. Things would have been very, very grim if I wasn’t carrying the right supplies. Lucky.

Riding through paddocks Riding through paddocks

Very hot, and very tired by the time we made it back to the carpark. Perfect.

Waikato River Trails

For our second day out on Nga Haerenga, we took on a different part of the network – the Waikato River Trails. This is a recently completed 100km section of trails that follow the Waikato River between Atiamuri and Arapuni. Quite different to the Hauraki Trails, these tracks started out as dedicated walking tracks, rather than the typical railway conversion.

Looking out at the river near the start of the trails
Looking out at the river near the start of the trails

This shows up clearly in places, and I was glad we took the full suspension mountain bikes. Many parts of the trails were smooth and wide, but there was plenty of steep bumpy ground, including a few places where pushing the bike was the only option – both uphill and downhill.

Sometimes the trails are smooth and flat
Sometimes the trails are smooth and flat
...and sometimes all you can do is push
…and sometimes all you can do is push

It’s a bit more of a drive from Auckland to the start of these trails, around 20km past Cambridge. I would have liked to do some riding near the Atiamuri end, but it would mean a pretty long day. Will have to do it as part of a weekend trip. Instead we started at the Pokaiwhenua Bridge Carpark end, rode along the trails for a few hours, then looped back via Arapuni.

While the Hauraki Trails had many, many cars, bikes and walkers in site, these trails were much quieter, and when we started, we were the only car in the carpark. The first 4km or so were well away from the river, on a gravel path next to the road. Later that day we saw a large family group riding along this section – I would advise against this. You’re better off driving to Little Waipa Domain, parking there, and then starting on the trails at the point they get nice. From Little Waipa to Arapuni is quiet tracks beside the river, with a few short climbs, and a 500m boardwalk included. It’s generally flat, until you get close to Arapuni, at which point it climbs a long way, as the river level changes because of the hydro station.

At Arapuni, you can head out across the suspension bridge, built in 1925 for workmen crossing from Arapuni village to work on the new power station. There’s something quite disconcerting about a long high bridge that waves up and down as you cross it. Wouldn’t want to be up there in high winds.

Arapuni Suspension Bridge
Arapuni Suspension Bridge
Arapuni Power Station
Arapuni Power Station

From the Arapuni village and suspension bridge, it’s around 2km of nice trails to the Arapuni Dam itself. This was some of the best riding, through pine trees, with high cliffs nearby, falling away to the far below river. From the dam onwards, the signs advise the next section is “for experienced riders only.” Well, I think I’m experienced…how hard could it be? This section starts out fantastically, more like a tight single-track, than the usual DoC-approved 4WD track they make cyclists ride. A few steep climbs & sharp corners, but nothing too much. Nice views too:

Lookout over the river
Lookout over the river
Arapuni Lake
Arapuni Lake

And then…it got tough. Not just a bit tricky, but slogs of pushing the bike uphill, through tight switchbacks. More of the same coming down. Not in the least insurmountable, but it would be tough if you had the whole family here for a gentle day out. No big drama, but don’t bring the kids here. We got to the camp ground at Jones Landing, and decided that would be far enough today. We’d been going for 2-2.5 hours, so it was time to turn around, to make sure we didn’t over-extend ourselves. That’s the problem with “out and back” rides.

Rather than push our bikes back up over the steep sections, we took the alternative 8km road route back to Arapuni. I wasn’t looking forward to riding on NZ roads, but these were quiet, predominantly downhill, with a tailwind, and fields full of wild flowers. I guess I can cope with that.

Short diversion on quiet country roads
Short diversion on quiet country roads

We had a little look around Arapuni before heading home. Arapuni village was built for the hydro dam workers. It’s now a quiet, pretty little town. From what I could make out, the old shops, mechanics and petrol stations had all closed down in the past. But now there’s signs of revival, with the Rhubarb Cafe opening up. Unfortunately they were on holiday the day we passed through, or they would have had a couple more customers. This sort of business opening up is the sort of thing that the cycle trails are meant to encourage – I hope they get sufficient custom to stay in business. They were the only business we saw in our whole day out, so they should get a few people stopping in.

Instead of a cafe, our last stop for the day was picnic table by the river. Could be worse.

Break time near the end
Break time near the end

 

Nga Haerenga: The Journeys

In 2009, at a Jobs Summit, John Key, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, promoted the idea of creating a national cycle trail, going the length of New Zealand. The idea was to create jobs during the building of the trails, and then attract tourism and money to New Zealand, in particular to small towns. Cycle tourists spend less per day than regular tourists, but they stay longer, so spend more overall. Apart from being a bit smelly, they are considered a good class of tourist to attract to a country.

Once people started looking at the practicalities of implementation, the goals shifted a little. Rather than just aiming for a trail the length of the country, the plan now is to have a network of trails around the country, known as “Nga Haerenga (The Journeys)”. There will be showpiece “Great Rides” which are almost entirely off-road, and they will be linked up by sign-posted rides on quiet back roads. The “Great Rides” tend to take in old railway lines, or Department of Conservation land. This means that the location and direction of each of the Great Rides is all over the place, so it’s going to be tough to get them to link up in any meaningful fashion. We also have few roads in this country, so there may not be any quiet back roads available.

Still, it’s a good start. Work has been proceeding all around the country, with some trails now fully open, others partly open, and others at the planning stages. I’m on summer holidays right now, so it seemed a good chance to check out some of the trails. After spending time with family, I was hoping to spend a week travelling around, doing some multi-day rides. Unfortunately it didn’t quite work out that way, so instead we decided to do a few day trips from Auckland. Unfortunately most of the trails are some distance away, but we found a couple where we could plan it into a longish day’s trip, with a bit of driving.

The first trail we tried was the Hauraki Rail Trail. This follows old railway lines from Thames to Te Aroha via Paeroa. There is also a stub that runs from Paeroa to Waikino, via the Karangahake Gorge. Our plan was to drive to Paeroa, then ride from Paeroa to Waikino, back to Paeroa for lunch, then from Paeroa to Te Aroha and back, then return home the same day.

Paeroa is a small town, famous for the springs that produce the water that goes into “L&P”, a local soft drink. These days it’s a stopping point between Tauranga and Auckland, most famous for the number of antique shops. Apparently it was also the winner of the “2012 NZ Community of the Year.” I have no idea what that involves, but the town was buzzing when we went through. It’s about 120km from Auckland, so it was an easy 1.5 hour drive down.

We parked in the carpark near the rotunda and toilets, as you come in from the north on SH2. Tip here: Park near the trees, in a place where you will be shaded from the afternoon sun. Then the car is nice and cool when you come back all hot and sweaty.

After gearing up, we headed off through the town, and joined onto the trail to Waikino. This heads up through the Karangahake Gorge. The trail itself is generally a fairly wide gravel path, following the old railway line. After starting out across farmland, it then goes up through a fantastic winding gorge, past the old gold processing battery. Along the way, the trail passes through an 1100m tunnel. You can see the light at the far end, but it never seems to get any closer. About halfway through, I thought “Maybe I should make a joke about how dark it is in here with my sunglasses on?” I turned around to say something to Anna…only to realise she’d been wearing her sunglasses the whole way. We do wear photo-chromic sunglasses when on the bikes, but they don’t go all THAT clear. Good thing there were some lights through the tunnel.

This leg was very busy, with many walkers and cyclists out and about. Generally the trails are wide, so it’s no big deal, but you do need to watch where you’re going, and take care going around corners. We used our touring bikes, but a mountain bike would be fine too. You wouldn’t want to try it on very narrow tyres though. It’s 14km out to the Waikino railway station – good ice-creams and food here, I’m pleased to report. You can get the vintage train the next 7km to Waihi, if you want to push on to there. They are hoping to complete the bike trail through to Waihi – this would make for an interesting option for a two-day ride, going from Thames to Waihi, staying overnight, then riding Waihi -> Te Aroha.

The trail is pretty flat – it is an old railway line after all – but you do notice the slight downhill heading back to Paeroa. Heaps of traffic passing through town by this time. I was happy to be on the bike, and not stuck in a hot car.

I’ve never found any outstanding eating options in Paeroa, but the L&P Cafe wasn’t too bad. We stopped there for lunch, relaxing a bit, before heading out of town again, this time to Te Aroha. This section of trail follows an old railway line through farmland for 21km from Paeroa to Te Aroha. There were few riders on this section, and it’s understandable why, as it’s not as “exciting” scenery-wise, as the Waikino leg. The surface shows that it hasn’t had many riders, and in some places is a bit soft. But I’m pleased we did it.

It would have been nice to have had a little more time to explore Te Aroha, but we were a little pressed for time, so we just took a break from the hot sun, had a cold drink, and turned around to head back to Paeroa. Since it wasn’t so exciting, I took to counting the cattle grids we had to ride over – I counted 49 cattle grids. You get sick of bumping over those – would have been nicer to have had suspension then! We were pretty hot and tired by the time we got back to the car, for the drive home.

70km or so in the hot sun – a good day out. Here’s a few photos from the day

Bridge over river/road
Bridge over river/road
Karangahake Gorge
Karangahake Gorge
About to enter 1100m tunnel
About to enter 1100m tunnel
Victoria Battery Train
Victoria Battery Train
Waterfall just off the track
Waterfall just off the track
Te Aroha Train Station
Te Aroha Train Station

Two Left Feet

November was cold, but we had a fabulous spell of weather here in Auckland during the first few weeks of December. Several weeks of glorious sunshine, with almost no rain. This is distinctly abnormal for Auckland, so we decided to make the most of it, by going for a mountain bike ride in the Hunua Ranges, to the South-East of Auckland.

There’s a great set of trails that take in single track through bush, gravel roads, open fields, stream crossings, etc. It doesn’t have the enormous network of trails that Woodhill or Whakarewarewa has, so it’s not the sort of place you want to visit all the time, but it is well worth at least a couple of trips a year. Since it can get a bit slippery, it’s better to time a trip after an extended fine spell.

OK, so we’ve had a good spell of weather, and it’s been a while since we’ve been, so let’s go! Get up early on Saturday morning, walk the dog, load up the car with bikes and gear, on the road at a decent time, and at the trailhead by 9:00. Perfect. Sun shining, a few other tramping groups around, not many bikers though. Excellent, time to unload the bikes and get set up.

Pull down the bikes, grab the box of gear and start sorting out Camelbaks, etc. Today I’m riding in my SPD sandals, while Anna’s using her normal MTB shoes. Picking up one of the sandals, I immediately see something wrong – it’s only size 41-42. Anna has a pair of sandals identical to mine, except smaller. She’s not wearing hers today, but it looks like maybe I’ve chucked her pair in the car, instead of mine. Well, they’re just sandals, and they’re not that much smaller than mine, so maybe I can make do with those? Yeah, probably.

Except wait a minute, where’s the other sandal? Here it is, and this ones a 45-46. That’s more like it. Maybe I’ll just be able to make do with one that’s a bit tight? But you’ve guessed it, I had two left sandals. What to do? The only other footwear I had was a pair of jandals (thongs/flip-flops), which were just far too soft to wear with SPD pedals. Well, they’re sandals with lots of adjustment points, maybe I could wear the bigger one on the wrong foot?

Something's not right here
Something’s not right here

By now Anna is just about wetting herself, but she’s trying to hold it in, as I’m in a rather grumpy mood, since it doesn’t look like our ride is going to happen. I tried riding around the carpark, looking like a right fool, but it just wasn’t working, with the sandal hitting the crank, making for difficult riding. We’re too far away from any bike shops to make it worth going and buying new pedals or shoes, so we have to make a call – pack up the bikes, and head home, no ride :-(. It’s too far out here to justify driving all the way home, then back out again.

On the way home, someone sends a message inviting us to brunch. “Sorry, can’t make it, we’re taking the bikes out to Hunua.” Well, technically it was true…

Get home, unpack the gear, and just go for a road ride around town. Good ride it was too. Shame about Hunua.