Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Laced apart

Things have been a little quiet here, blog-wise, but only because there's some good stuff coming up pretty soon, so don't go away. It all take a bit of organising - especially when there are quite a lot of loose ends to tie up from other travels. So that's had me revisiting Scotland, Gettysburg, Washington DC, Canada, England and our very own Deep South (that's a clue, son). 
I have no complaints, tasting again in memory whisky-smoked lobster and rose lemonade, clopping along on docile Robbie past Gettysburg's zigzag split-rail fences and innumerable battlefield monuments and statues (actually, 1400, near enough), puzzling out the excitement caused by nothing happening when the Washington Nationals played the Miami Marlins... It's all good stuff, with the added, literally, interest of looking up the background stuff that I always mean to research beforehand, and never do. 
But, work aside, the idea behind this blog is that everywhere you've gone becomes a part of you, and you'll be reminded of it randomly forever after (see above, right). So the main reason for this post is that I was thinking - again, but coincidentally - about Ecuador. Because the weather's turned cold, finally, and I found myself for the first time for ages tying shoelaces.
The first time I went to Quito, in 2012, I was diverted by seeing, in the main square beside the San Francisco church and monastery, an old lady selling shoelaces, all tied onto a pole that she carried around with her. I'd got used to seeing vendors of all sorts of, to me, quaint things - cellphones to rent for a call, loaves of bread on a tray balanced on someone's head - but to make a living from selling shoelaces seemed to me the most precarious of all; even more than shining shoes.
And then, when I was back there again last year, blow me down, there she was still! Possibly not still, one old lady looks much like another when you're flooded with new impressions and not paying detailed attention - but, anyway, there was someone similar presumably earning money by selling something as cheap and inconsequential as shoelaces. Except - and here is exactly the sort of small thing that delights me about travelling and finding out about other places and people - when I mentioned this to my guide, he was as astonished as I was. But what amazed him was learning that in my culture, people don't change their shoelaces every couple of weeks. When I said that I stick to the same pair for the life of the shoes, he was silent in disbelief. So there you go. Of course, this would be the perfect place for a photo of the old lady with her colourful bundle - but I didn't get one, so you'll just have to make do with the man and his tray of bread.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Ecuador update

When I was in Ecuador towards the end of August last year, Cotopaxi looked as though it was gearing up to some serious action: there were huge clouds of steam and ash erupting, and the countryside downwind was white with ash. The National Park was closed and I saw people moving out of their homes, all their belongings on the back of a truck. Farmers were having to move stock because the grazing was inedible. It was a spectacular sight, and kept me glued to my hacienda window as I hoped that it wouldn't/would erupt properly.
I kept checking back after I got home, to see how it was going because my guide, David, who lives in Quito, was seriously worried about what a proper eruption, of rocks and magma, would do even there, miles and miles away. It's been rumbling on at about the same level ever since - 'de-gassing', the scientific report describes it, which reminds me of the young woman in my Inca Trail group in 2008, a chemist who cheerfully referred to incidents of personal 'off-gassing' as we walked. There's been nothing worse than a few tremors and some glowing at night, the steam and ash slowly diminishing, and I was wondering if the locals had returned to their homes and farms and livelihoods. Happy ending, I was thinking.
And then they had this earthquake. Not Cotopaxi-related, but huge, and shallow, and killing lots of people, many of them in Guayaquil. That's Ecuador's biggest city, of 3 million with, our candid guide Letitia told us, around 2000 homeless people. It's a port, which always means there's a dark side to a city, with lots of nationalities resident, and she told us sternly to take care there. "We have an aggressive programme of security," she said, without elaborating. It was certainly a bit unnerving - and puzzling - to see a car with a window sticker reading 'My best gun is God'.
There were some grand old buildings there, along the waterfront and around the fine colonial basilica, with lots of statues - Simon Bolivar featuring strongly - but a lot of it is fairly new, thanks to regular fires throughout the city's history. There were people everywhere, sitting, walking, selling stuff like single glasses of Coke, slices of sour mango with salt, shoe shines. Kids in neat uniforms did homework squatting behind their parents' stalls, others played in the fountains. What really took the eye though were the huge frilled iguanas high up in the mango trees in front of the basilica, as well as on the ground, taking very little notice of us.
Though Letitia made it feel a bit edgy, what we saw was a pleasant place full of relaxed people who seemed friendly and curious about us. They'll be edgy now, though.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Tour of Coromandel

It doesn't take long to walk around the town of Coromandel - cafes, souvenir shops, pub, bottle store, excellent general store, dairy... At one end there are some jetties sticking out through the mangrove swamps, on one side a hill that's pierced by a mysterious tunnel, unlabelled and open that goes much further in than I cared to. The opposite side of town has the school and sports ground, and then there's the northern end, leading to all the scenic glories that we just spent the last week lapping up on our Tour de Coromandel, all 110km of it.
But before you head up to the fabulous Pohutukawa Coast, it's worth branching off to Driving Creek, where the recently-late Barry Brickell established his pottery and narrow-gauge railway zig-zagging up the hill through the bush to his Eyefull Tower. The whole place is full of jokes and quirkiness, but it's the railway that everyone enjoys most, diving through tunnels and over viaducts, switchbacking up the hill past wine-bottle retaining walls, ferny lushness, waterwheels and BB's grave.
At the top is of course a wide view over the Hauraki Gulf, all sea and sky, clouds and islands, over bush where, at night, you can hear kiwi calling. It's all a pretty impressive gift to have left us.
It's a longish walk from town though, even when you stop at the cute and endearingly idiosyncratic Museum of Mining on the way, so what better reward than a local mussel pie in the sunshine, while you wait for the bus to the ferry back home?

Friday, March 18, 2016

Tour de Coromandel - home again, home again but no jiggety jig, hooray

There's nothing worse than packing up a wet tent [there are lots of things worse than packing up a wet tent] so in view of the predicted heavy rain overnight, the cannier amongst us took the chance to take ours down while they were dry yesterday evening, and spend the night in luxury in the woolshed. No exaggeration: a proper roof, room to move, a real mattress, even double beds if you wanted; plus pool and ping-pong tables, a big screen TV, kitchen and a shower - complete with a set of bathroom scales, even. Who knew shearers had body issues?
There was snoring, however - that's the downside of communal sleeping; and the early risers were hard to ignore. I was neither riding nor walking today, hanging out instead with the volunteers, so I could have had a lie-in, but since it would be under the basilisk stare of several wild boar heads opposite my bunk, I got up too. After all, the cook was up at 5.50am.
Off went the walkers, then the cyclists and runners, and finally the riders, all being checked out by the timer lady, who does nothing else - once the last person's away, she heads to the end point to count them all in again, with not much of a break in between. They were all on the road today, since the rain made the tracks too treacherous, so I was quite glad to be in various vehicles with the volunteers. 
First was Ken the toilet guy, who was also in charge of the fuel stop - coffee and snacks, that is. We had two goes at setting up since the first site, on the beach, was objected to by some locals - and since we were in the spot where there were three Armed Offenders Squad call-outs in the last three weeks, we thought we wouldn't argue. It's Coromandel, after all, at cannabis harvest time.
Back in town, on the back of Steve's quad bike ("That's illegal," said the medic, who's reassuringly particular about rules), we met the first riders home at the pub, where the obliging barmaid served them through the window ("This is actually illegal," she whispered). More and more horses clattered into town, the shovel man turned up, there were marshals in hi-viz vests, a few interested locals, and then, just like that, the Tour de Coromandel 2016 was over. 
That night there was a raffle, some sponsored beard and head-shaving (with a LadyShave! And horse clippers!), lots of thank yous, plans and enthusiasm for the next event, and music till the small hours. Steve had been disappointed that the numbers were smaller than he'd hoped - but the trekkers liked it better that way, and in the end it raised more money for multiple sclerosis research than bigger events. So everyone was happy. Especially Jay - but then, he always is.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Tour de Coromandel - R&R

Remember that beach from yesterday? This is how it looked today, our official rest day here at Waikawau. Well, we'd had such a wonderful run of perfect weather, and it is autumn after all - it had to end some time. And when better for it to rain, than on the one day when we have nothing to do but lie around, nap, and take it easy?
Some jobs always need to be done, of course, but once the horses were fed it was back to the tents and trucks (many of the horse people shuttled their vehicles along each day, and some of them were palaces. Well, compared with my little tent and old-fashioned stretcher, anyway).
The marquee was, as usual, the centre of social life, offering hot drinks and a bar (come 3pm), cards, chat and music, and a TV showing a slideshow of the photos that the marshals took of us every day, or a movie. What with all that, and some reading and snoozing tucked up in our sleeping bags, the day passed very pleasantly, and when dinner time rolled around, despite the lack of activity, no-one found their appetites diminished when Ivan brought out his piece de resistance for the week:
Afterwards, it was the grand charity raffle, when all sorts of goods donated by the trek participants were auctioned off by a proper auctioneer to raise even more money for the Tour de Coromandel's multiple sclerosis charity. There was everything from a week in Queenstown to a toy horse, by way of cowboy boots, bottles of booze, 4 hours with a handyman (waterblasting, pruning, cross-dressing, candlelit dinner just some of the services offered) and a t-shirt.
Not just any t-shirt - Steve's still-warm Hobbit movie animal team t-shirt (he was the animal wrangler on all those movies, plus lots of others), which aroused a lot of, er, competition. He was thrilled, having been a bit disappointed that the Tour had fewer participants than he'd originally envisaged, to find that in the end the overall total raised for the charity was $12,000 - not bad for around 100 people. No wonder the marquee was buzzing till late into the night.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Tour de Coromandel - two feet ok

When your horse casts a shoe on an event like this, it's no big deal - Charlie the farrier is on hand for precisely this reason. So this rider was ok for today's journey all the way back down the Pohutukawa Coast. 
When your horse develops, mysteriously, a sore back, however, it's not so easy to fix. In fact, it's not possible at all. So poor old Shine was on the end of a lead rope today, and I'm on just two feet for the rest of the trek. These things happen, with horses. And it was fun while it lasted.
The cyclists have no such problems, machines of metal and rubber being so much more straightforward than living things. Not that the cyclists are not living things themselves, of course: Colin here, who's 74, would probably admit to a few niggles here and there. And then he'd shrug them off and pedal away - his only concession to turning 80, he's decided, will be to buy himself an e-bike.
These guys are the runners. Notice anything? No water! They can't be bothered with clutter like bottles or bladders, and just have a slurp wherever they come across water, like at a farm or campsite. And if they don't? They just go thirsty. Doesn't seem to bother them, even though they've got 40km ahead of them today - that's near as dammit a marathon, you know.
And here go the two walkers, both somewhat stricken in years but impressively lean and fit. "Oh, but I only go fast uphill," protests Patricia, the older one. She sure does. I got left behind very quickly, waving them on when they stopped politely for me to catch up.
Since we're not horses, we were allowed to do the bit that DoC wouldn't let them across, so here is the start of the Coromandel Walkway, which I remember doing about five years ago, and which is full of lovely things. Views like this, for example:
What with visual distraction like this, and the pleasant company of a man from Minnesota who caught up with me (Fargo accents? They were all wildly exaggerated, I was disappointed to hear - though Karl did let slip a few yahs, and oh nows) Stony Bay came up faster than I expected. So did the pick-up, though, so I didn't have time to appreciate that beautiful, though typically plainly-named bay.
This one had to do instead: Waikawau Bay, where the sand was soft and typically empty, apart from one girl under an umbrella waiting vainly for some surf, and the sea was the perfect temperature. I wasn't the only one to enjoy a refreshing bathe - when the horses came in after their long trail back down the coast and over the hills, this one really luxuriated in his hose-down.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Tour de Coromandel - circling

Sleeping right by the beach, hearing the waves breaking on the sand, is such a pleasure that, after waking to a pink sky in the morning that promised nothing but lovely weather ahead, no participant in this Tour de Coromandel was minded to whinge even a bit about today's ride being just a circuit of the farm. That was because the Department of Conservation had thrown a late spanner in the works, and ruled against the horses crossing some of their (their? isn't that really our?) land, so the route was changed. But at least that meant we didn't have to pack up our tents!
So off we clattered, to the wide-eyed wonder of a big flock of sheep, along a creek and then up into the hills, the farmers amongst us looking critically, and approvingly, at the state of the land, fences and stock. The rest of us just enjoyed the rural loveliness, even the bikers, who had no choice but to get off, refusing all offers of a tow.
It was worth it. From the top we had huge views, all dominated by Great Barrier Island in the centre, looking close and at the same time remote. It was a blue and green day today, and everyone was grinning at their luck in being here, doing this, in such perfect weather. Farm ride? Magic!
It was as steep going down as it was going up, which added some excitement to the ride and ramped up the chatter at the lunch stop in Fletcher's Bay. It was only 11.30am, it turned out, though it felt as though we'd done a full morning's riding. That's what happens when you get up at dawn...
So we got back to camp in plenty of time for some larking about in the sea, to sort out the horses, have a drink, a natter, a nap - and that's despite volunteer Jay, who must be the world's most cheerful person, spending the afternoon practising his karaoke for the evening's entertainment.
I could even hear him, distantly, from the top of the bluff at the far end of that long, empty beach, where mine were the only footprints. I climbed up to the old pa site there and had a 360-degree view of sea, islands, bush, beach and farmland. Glorious!


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