Monday, 11 November 2019

Hi ho hoiho!

Never mind the nasty murder trials currently being conducted at each end of the country, or the lurid sunsets in the South Island caused by the smoke from the terrifying NSW fires, or even the ever deeper depths to which overseas politics is sinking - the big news this week is that the hoiho has been voted Bird of the Year!
BOTY has become a big event in the NZ news cycle since it was first begun 14 years ago. There have been scams and scandals, memes and hacks, poster campaigns and celebrity endorsements (Stephen Fry, Bill Bailey), plus a lot of fun; and each year it has become bigger and bigger, so that this year there were 43,460 votes. There is some suspicion about the 300+ votes received from Russia, with dark mutterings that perhaps they were trying to swing the vote towards the bar-tailed godwit, which migrates between here and there. Australia (684), the UK (682) and the US (563) were even more prolific voters, but no-one is accusing them - yet - of an attempted hack.
The hoiho, or yellow-eyed penguin, by just pipping the kakapo, has broken the run of k-birds (kokako, kea, kereru) which I had rather hoped myself to continue by voting for the kaka, since one of the flock that lives in our valley has become a regular visitor to our deck, muscling in on the nectar feeder I keep topped up for the tui.
Sadly the votes for the hoiho hugely outnumber the total population of the bird itself which, at 225 pairs, is in serious trouble - usual story, warming oceans, commercial fishing, human disturbance. So it was no wonder that the pilot of the boat that was taking me from Oban to the Ulva Island bird sanctuary was astonished and delighted to spot one swimming nearby, and circled back for a closer look. I saw some others on that Southland trip too, at Curio Bay in the Catlins, coming ashore to hop along over a fossilised forest back to their nests.
It's always cute and special to see a penguin, even when you've been to Antarctica and seen 15 different species in colonies pushing 100,000 (that's a lot of noise and smell). I hope the hoiho manages to cling on. It would be so sad if, in the end, the only place to see it was on our $5 note.

Saturday, 9 November 2019

Crypto coincidence

Have you heard of OneCoin? It's an online currency like Bitcoin except (except?) that it's a scam - possibly the biggest cryptocurrency fraud in the world so far. Launched in 2014 and still up and running, it has attracted hopeful investors from all around the world who are, to put it mildly, dismayed to be just learning now that their hard-earned money has disappeared into the ether.
Well, not disappeared - it's actually been banked (presumably, and ironically, in a conventional off-shore account) by the scheme's founder: glamorous, red-lipsticked, Bavarian-born intellectual Dr Ruja Ignatova. Dr Ruja is the one who's disappeared and, as I've been squatting on a steep bank in my garden here on Waiheke, cutting steps out of the clay and sweating profusely in the spring sunshine, I've been listening to a gripping 8-episode podcast all about it: The Missing Cryptoqueen by technology journalist Jamie Bartlett and his BBC producer Georgia Catt. 
The last episode has just been uploaded - being real life, there's no neat tying-up of the loose ends, or even a well-deserved comeuppance for Dr Ruja. Instead, there are more false trails and heart-breaking interviews with people who thought their financial problems were all over, sucked into the hype of getting in on the ground floor with this new money-making scheme. Jamie talked to people who had persuaded their family members to invest huge sums of money - tens of thousands of pounds - and who now were faced with having to tell them that their life savings were gone. Or not tell them - one sad young man simply couldn't bring himself to confess to his mother that he had lost her money, and was desperately stringing her along in the hope that - somehow - the worst might not actually have happened.
And it was at this stage that this blog post's hook revealed itself: Jamie and Georgia had followed the trail of investors to Uganda, and had gone to a small town there to speak to this young man in front of his mother who, fortunately for her peace of mind, didn't understand English and had no idea that her life's savings were lost. And this random town, in the middle of Africa, where this particular victim, out of 50,000 investors in the country, was chosen by chance by Jamie and Georgia? Mbarara, which I passed through twice on my Intrepid Basix journey to visit Rwanda's mountain gorillas in 2017 - just about the time that Dr Ruja dropped out of sight.
I remembered the newspapers stapled shut on the newsstand in the shop where we bought drinks, the motorbike traffic with its sunshades and huge loads of goods and/or people (up to 4 men), a teeming market; and, on our return journey, camping in the bird-busy grounds of what by then seemed to us a fancy hotel, where I drank Nile beer in the garden bar and was quietly thrilled to hear Toto's 'Africa' being played. That was Day 12 of our dawn-to-dusk camping tour in a rattly bus with inadequate upholstery, passing through a never-ending roadside parade of lives lived on the margins. We were all looking forward to getting to journey's end in the sophistication of Nairobi and the subsequent return to our soft and comfortable lives. It had been an education, to see how hard these people's lives were - and, now, it's an outrage and a tragedy to know how much harder it is for some of them, all thanks to a clever woman with no conscience.

Friday, 1 November 2019

Fuller(s) excitement

I don't know. I've been all over the place, going up in hot air balloons and small planes, riding horses, swimming with whale sharks, getting close to bears and rhino and lions, climbing peaks and going down into caves, scuba diving and kayaking, and the most proper drama I've witnessed was heading across to lunch in the city today on the Waiheke ferry.

Well, actually, there was that time I was mugged in Santiago - oh, and dislocated my shoulder in Norfolk, and, um, got tipped out of a white-water raft near Taupo, and, that's right, ran aground in a ship off Stewart Island... but I'm sticking to my premise, that this afternoon it could have got really nasty on board Fullers' Quick Cat. 

Not that it did, of course, I'm here typing this and besides, this is New Zealand, even a fire on board a ferry is a laid-back experience. Because that's what happened: I was sitting reading the local rag in the main cabin when there was a flurry behind me and a serious-looking life-jacket-clad staff member was opening a hatch I'd always wondered about below the window, and dragged a fire hose out of it, and across to the door. An announcement told us that there was a problem with one of the engines and we might like to go outside to avoid any fumes. Not many did.

Then we were told that, actually, we all had to go up to the top deck because the starboard engine had caught fire and we needed to be in the open. So we trooped up there, a bit bemused, no-one particularly worried, tourists laughing, and got whipped about by the chilly wind for a while until we were allowed down into the upper cabin. "The fire is contained," we kept being told and, apart from a faint smell, that seemed to be it. 

Except that obviously the engine was out of commission, so we had to limp across the harbour on one engine at just 8 knots, so our journey ended up being about three times longer than usual. Never mind, we had entertainment: the Coastguard gave us an escort, and the police launch Deodar III came alongside so three firemen in all their clobber could leap on board.
Eventually we chugged up to the pier where, kudos to the skipper, we eased into the mooring with no hiccups. There was a fire engine waiting by the Ferry Building, and more firemen on the pier, a couple pushing a stretcher for a crew member who, we learned on the TV news that night, had been overcome by fumes. And that was it. Apologies from the skipper, and thanks for our understanding, and everyone trooped ashore as usual, faintly relieved at not having had to get wet.
All in all, it was a lot more traumatic way back in 2006 when I fell off the side of a staircase in a holiday house we were renting on Waiheke, knocking myself out on the washing machine below, and breaking my wrist. The local ambulance people took me to the jetty - somehow, can't remember - and I rode in the original Deodar across the harbour to a waiting ambulance that took me to hospital. I missed out on being delivered there from Waiheke by the Eagle helicopter because it was attending a big crash up north, which also meant that I was left waiting for hours on a stretcher under a bright light while the casualties from that accident were seen to. Not that I'm bitter, at all... Oh, and they sent me home next day in a taxi, bare-footed and wearing somebody else's ghastly too-big top because they'd cut mine off. Tch.

Wednesday, 30 October 2019

Murders, movies, meatballs and media

Depressed and cynical and jaded as we all are these days, with 2016 having been such an awful year in so many ways that we couldn't wait to get to 2017, which turned out to be worse, ditto 2018, ditto 2019 and so, presumably, on... Progressively, dramatically dreadful as these years have been, there were - surprise! - others further back that were pretty eventful too. I was reminded of that today, over a long, sociable, delicious and sunny lunch at Baduzzi (venison meatballs!), hosted by Silversea. It was their annual catch-up with media here, most of them editors, plus me, to tell us about their new ships and new destinations and new themes.

The MD began by reminding us that it is Silversea's 25th anniversary this year, and asked us what we remembered of 1994. Well, personally, it was my first year back in NZ with my English-born family, but beyond that, I was stuck. Turns out quite a lot of big things happened, from the Rwanda genocide to the beginnings of 'Friends' and 'ER'. OJ Simpson did his slo-mo car chase, Kurt Cobain committed suicide, there was warfare in Sarajevo, Chechnya and the Persian Gulf, Fred and Rosemary West were charged with 12 murders at Gloucester's House of Horrors (including that of their poor daughter Heather, who I'd taught at Hucclecote School a few years previously, along with her siblings Mae and Stephen). 

Better things happened too. I really should have remembered, having so recently been there, about the ceasefire in Northern Ireland. Mandela was elected president of South Africa, the Channel Tunnel opened and Eurostar started up, Amazon was launched. We lost John Candy and Fanny Craddock, but gained Justin Bieber (maybe not really a gain). It was a big year for movies: Shawshank Redemption, Forrest Gump, Pulp Fiction, Lion King, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Once Were Warriors, Speed. Playstation arrived.

And here in Auckland, we had a water shortage and I stopped, forever after, leaving the tap running while I brushed my teeth. (Plus, less positively, I will never forget 'If it's yellow, let it mellow - if it's brown, flush it down'.)


Meanwhile, back in Italy, Antonio Lefebre d'Ovidio founded Silversea, aiming to set a new standard in luxury small-ship cruising with two purpose-built ships, Silver Cloud and Silver Wind. The latter took me around Ireland and through Tower Bridge a couple of months ago, and is about to be converted to another exploration ship for them, since that's a field that's seeing a lot of growth lately (Antarctica, the Arctic, and Galapagos). Silversea will soon have a total of eleven ships in operation, thanks to the boost the company got from what it likes to call its 2018 'partnership' with Royal Caribbean - though the rest of us are more likely to term it a takeover, since RC now owns 2/3 of the company.

They boast about visiting 900 ports, more than any other cruise line, and on top of their excellent facilities, food and service, that keeps people loyal. Their regular guests sign up and pay in full as soon as new cruises are announced - unfortunately, since I have my eye on their new Northeast and Northwest Passage routes, between Norway and Nome, Alaska via Greenland, which I would love to do if ever (clearly unlikely) a suite was left empty.
My association with Silversea goes back 10 years, to my first cruise - to China! - in 2009. Since then, I've done six more, and despite the occasional disloyal curiosity about their main rival, Seabourn, would be perfectly happy, delighted in fact, to set sail with them again in order to reach my own personal 25 goal - of Silversea stories published, that is (I'm up to 24...)

Sunday, 27 October 2019

Journalistic integrity v famil-iarity

Selective memory. It's a phrase that's usually said with a bit of a sneer, isn't it? Raised eyebrow perhaps, a sense of 'pft'. Certainly, it casts suspicion over what's been described by - always - some other person. Which makes it all the more odd, that people bother to read the travel sections of newspapers and magazines, because without exception (and I speak with authority here) the experiences described in those stories are never truly factual.

The weather, the food, the locals, the scenery, the architecture: to read these stories, you would think that the writers are celebrating some Disneyesque Technicolor marvel where everything went smoothly and it was all unalloyed enjoyment from triumphant breakfast Bircher muesli to sinking into a silk-covered, lavender-scented goose down pillow at the end of a day filled with delight. Well, pft.
Case in point: my story in today's paper about the Silversea Aegean cruise I went on a few years ago. Everything in it is correct; but there's an awful lot missed out, or glossed over. Mostly it's tedious group-travel stuff, like queues and waiting and irritating fellow passengers; some of it is personal - bad mood, crabby partner, headaches, sore feet and not enough sleep. The weather was initially disappointing, there were ugly ports, litter and graffiti, crowds, beggars and smells. And, though this would only apply to travel writers, there's the lack of novelty, the here-we-go-again thing, jaded and jaundiced and totally missing what used to be the thrill of getting all this stuff for free.

Some of those criticisms are in my blog here; all of them are in my notebook. But very few of my disappointments got into the story, so at this point you would be justified in feeling cynical and accusing me of deliberately selective memory, as above, my journalistic objectivity having been bought off by the provider of the famil. 
The thing is, though, what I've done in this story is what everybody does, after a holiday. Nothing ever goes totally smoothly, there are always bad days, bad moods, bad weather; but once we're home, unless something went dramatically wrong (like dislocating a shoulder, for example...) we only focus on the good bits. And those are the ones we tell people about, and, in the end, are all that we genuinely remember ourselves.

Selective memory is a good thing, actually, in a much more general sense. The human race would have gone extinct without it; because what woman, with an undimmed memory, would ever submit a second time to giving birth?

Wednesday, 23 October 2019

No go Orego(n)

Arriving, as ever, too early for my event in the city yesterday, I did at least have a novelty way of filling in my time: gawping at a huge fire. It seems a - presumably careless - workman with a blowtorch set alight the bitumen and straw roof insulation of the $700 million SkyCity Convention Centre that's been being built for ages now, and was meant to be the venue for, amongst other things, the APEC summit in 2021. That now seems unlikely since the blaze has currently been raging unchecked for 24 hours despite the best efforts of the fire service, who still haven't been able get it under control. Bit of a Towering Inferno scenario, it seems, not helped by winds gusting up to 50km/h, though there are 100 firefighters doing their best.

I couldn't get very close, of course, especially since, with unprecedented common sense, I stayed carefully upwind of the smoke (turns out it's pretty nasty), but could still see clouds of it billowing up into the sky, and gushing waterfalls from the roof of the building next door. It must have been deeply frustrating for TVNZ, who have had to evacuate their nearby building; and for all those drivers trying to get home in the evening rush hour.

And then I went off to my event, remembering the only other major conflagration I've seen, which happened on my first night in Copenhagen back in 1980. Going to bed pleased with having seen a Great Dane in the street (on this same trip I'd not been able to tick off a Siamese cat in Thailand, nor a Burmese in Burma), I was woken in the night by an enormous explosion. Rushing to the window, which fortunately faced in the right direction, I saw bright orange flames leaping up into the air from a building not far away across the city, and heard the sirens from engines converging on the fire. Even minutes later, debris was still dropping from the sky.

At breakfast next morning, we found that the ground-floor windows of the hotel, and surrounding buildings, had been blown in - and that the explosion had happened at a soya bean processing factory. Dramatic stuff. It also made me come to terms with post-bean consumption farting, subsequently.


The event was a Travel Oregon promotion, theme 'Oregon Slightly Exaggerated' with an early Halloween overlay (no, of course I didn't dress up (few did) - though as a token effort I wore an orange cardigan with my black trousers). I haven't been to Oregon, but would like to go. Its quirky image. especially for Portland, has been strongly promoted here and has certainly seen results, with a big surge in visits from this part of the world. But I didn't win a free trip in the business card lucky draw, so don't hold your breath.

Wednesday, 2 October 2019

Pollyanna lives

One of the - no, actually, the only advantage of having my travel restricted this year is that, being forced to root through old material to produce new stories, I've revisited, mentally at least, some gorgeous places. And really, I've been very very lucky to have been able to go to so many, and I should be grateful and stop hankering after auroras and suchlike (but I won't).
The most recent effort was about the Bay of Fires in Tasmania - it's billed as a four-day walk, but really it's barely two, and it's along a beach so it's eminently do-able. But what a beach! Well, beaches: a series of brilliant white silica sand empty beaches, bookended by heaps of rounded granite boulders dusted with a bright orange lichen that only grows in the purest air (and Tasmania has the purest in the world, they reckon - hard to disagree, even as a Kiwi).
It's all very sustainable - accommodation in floored tents and a substantial lodge, all of them dropped in by air, off-grid, solar-powered, with composting toilets etc. But there's no roughing it: Matt, one of the guides, humped in salmon to barbecue for our first dinner, and even an ice-bucket to chill our wine. That first night was a bit more basic, with no showers (hot water supplied for washing) but the next two, at the lodge, were really comfortable, and the food was brilliant, from the rhubarb and cinnamon cake for afternoon tea when we arrived, to the spinach eggs en cocotte for the final breakfast.
There was no foot massage then, though, which lying Matt encouraged us with the prospect of when we were fading a bit towards the end of the 14 kilometres of the second day (Kate got us out of bed the next morning by shouting "Dolphins!" which was another bare-faced lie. Aussies!) - but there is now. Eight years after I was there, they now have a proper spa which I would certainly have visited for the pepper berry pedi-mask and massage.
The only real disappointment was that there were so few guests - just the four of us, two Poms and an Aussie girl, so the company was a bit dull. Also, the Brits were somewhat scathing about how unstrenuous the walk was, which was pretty stupid of them, since it was clearly described as a beach walk. Really, they just wanted us to think of them as proper hikers. Me, I was perfectly happy to stroll along a flat surface, clamber over rocks periodically, wade through a stream and do a bit of bush walking (with added tiger leeches! Well, one, anyway, on someone's sock. Not really a Stand By Me scenario). As a bonus random connection though, the Poms, who live in England, had a friend who lived round the corner from me in NZ - a piano teacher whose house I walked past most mornings.

The scenery made up for the company though, in spades. Not just the beaches and rocks, but also the sea - the Tasman, same one that pounds in, grey and fierce, on West Coast beaches here, but over there it was clear and turquoise and totally gorgeous. Revelation.

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