Monday, December 3, 2018

I bless the dogs down in Africa

I've just been watching the latest - and I mean the latest: it's only just been shown in the UK - episode of the sainted David Attenborough's new series, Dynasties. This one was about two packs of African Wild Dogs, or painted wolves as he called them, whose territories are in Mana Pools in Zimbabwe.
Regular readers 😃 will remember that a couple of years ago I spent a few days just across the Zambezi River from Mana Pools, at Royal Zambezi Lodge in Zambia. One of the highlights (and there were SO MANY!) was on safari one day our coming across a small pack of these dogs in the national park alongside the lodge's grounds, and watching them devour the impala one of them had killed. Seeing these cute dogs on the screen, with their big round ears and mottled shaggy coats brought it all back - as did hearing the collared doves warbling in the background, and the distinctive squeaks of the dogs. We were so lucky to see the dogs - there are fewer than 7,000 left in the world, sadly. Usual reasons, sigh.

Naturally, the photography in the series is brilliantly done, and it looked just gorgeous, the colours so rich and the sun so golden and mellow in the hazy sky. I was thinking only yesterday about my African trips and what an edgy place Africa is, and how going there is simultaneously exciting and frightening. I was inclining towards thinking - such a wuss - that I was kind of relieved not to be contemplating another trip there in the foreseeable; but now I'm keen to go again. It certainly is a harsh and dangerous place - ask the wildlife, as well as the people - but it's truly a magical, super-special destination, and I'd go again tomorrow if I could.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Cheating on Silversea with Seven Seas Mariner

I read somewhere that comparing Seven Seas Regent with Silversea is like comparing lobster with filet mignon, so it was appropriate that my meal today on board Seven Seas Mariner included both dishes - well, a lobster starter and an Angus beef steak, which is pretty good going for a Friday lunch, I reckon. Regular readers 😃 will remember that I have done a number of Silversea cruises (SIX! I've done SIX!), the most recent a few months ago in Norway, and the most memorable last Christmas in Antarctica - so I was very interested to see how one of Regent's upper-end ships compared.
It helped that the Mariner was moored near the obscenely long and high Golden Princess, so from the start it looked appealingly intimate and Silversea-like, despite catering for 700 passengers (compared with Silver Spirit's 540, for example). It's recently been refurbished and is impressively elegant inside, with quantities of shiny marble, sparkly chandeliers, soft chairs, modern abstract artworks, pleasingly curvaceous staircases and a classy muted colour scheme. We, a contingent of travel agents and a trio of media people, spent an hour and a half trailing over the ship, visiting one of every type of suite (it's an all-suite ship though, like Silversea, its 'veranda suite' is really just one room, with a curtain to divide the bed from the sitting area). 
My general impression is that it's just like Silversea, except roomier, especially the upper-end suites, which are remarkably spacious, some of them even with private conservatory-style deck areas. The furnishings were all 6-star, the bathrooms supplied with l'Occitane toiletries and the walk-in wardrobes with a challenging number of clothes hangers (formal nights, incidentally, are much less formal than Silversea's). The staff were prepping the suites for a new complement of passengers, and the ice buckets were already out with the welcome bottle of champagne in them. 
There were rows of loungers beside the pool, each with a rolled-up towel on it - Eddie, the Cruise Director, was at pains to point out how preferable that is to the free-for-all that takes place on the bigger ships. Even on the sunniest days, there's always room, he said. We saw the gym and the spa (yawn, x2) and all of the restaurants and snack bars, some of them a bit boudoir-like for my tastes, but others ruinously (to the waist line) inviting. The theatre is big and has a cast of twelve - there's plenty of music and dancing around the ship in the various bars and lounges. I especially liked the library, even if its quietly crackling video fireplace was slightly hokey.
As far as pricing goes, Regent is more expensive (gasp! I suppose) than Silversea, but that does include more stuff, like all restaurants, shore excursions, wifi, airfares, transfers and pre-cruise hotels. Not all of that applies to all passengers, though; plus, you only get a butler in the more expensive suites, and if you're in a veranda suite you're only supplied (proper gasp!) beer in your minibar. Nevertheless, Eddie was quite emphatic about the joy of being able to have a properly indulgent 90-day cruise and at the end of it have a bill of zero dollars - *cough* on top of your original fare, that is.
Then we went to the Compass Rose restaurant for our reward, a lunch of the afore-mentioned lobster, then really nice soup, super-tender if perhaps slightly under-flavoured beef with a yummy mushroom vol au vent, followed by an intensely-chocolatey mousse thing and yummy little petits fours. As well as excellent wine, natch. It was all eminently acceptable. Thank you, Regent. I'd come back again, any time. Er, sorry, Silversea.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Waiheke Walking Festival - Owhanake Headland Sculpture Walk

You know how much more accurate weather forecasts are these days than back when we (I) were young and they were pretty much just hopeful guesses? Well not today. We were meant to have a fine morning and then rain and hail from early afternoon; but in fact it's been the opposite, except (thankfully) for 'rain and hail' read 'showers'. But we still had a very enjoyable walk.
We gathered in the ferry terminal at Matiatia for our friendly welcome and ritual shoe scrub and spray, and set off straight through the bush, up the hill beside the road. We emerged at Delamore Drive, which is one of the fancier roads on the island - where 'fancier' means discreetly linking multi-million dollar properties tucked below the skyline and at the end of long driveways behind electric gates. We followed the road for a while before rejoining the track that led down lots of steps to some splendid views of Owhanake Bay - even today, under a grey sky, looking improbably blue. 
We trailed around the edge of the bay, stopping to view our first sculpture, a piece made of railway ties and rusted metal, in the shape of a dog and with, according to guide Sue who had done the homework, many cultural references that included Maori, Cook, species extinction and other arty stuff, none of which I could see myself. Nor could many others, I suspect - especially the woman who thought it was a horse (and was dogged (ha!) in her interpretation, even when I pointed out the droopy ears: "My friend's horse has ears just like that!" she insisted, unconvincingly). 
But better was to come, at the top of the headland where we were allowed onto the property of a generous rich person to view the sculptures there. My goodness, it was a magnificent house. Big, low, modern, lots of glass to make the most of the wonderful views in all directions, a lovely and super-neat garden heavy on the topiary, swimming pool, the lot. Plus of course some beautiful sculptures, the best of which was a gorgeous fat bronze kereru, second place going to some moulded glass fish. 
We were even allowed into the courtyard (on condition that no-one left nose-prints on the windows - though there was plenty of sideways staring nonetheless into the interior which included, I saw, a dining table with seating for twelve. It's another world). Even on a dull day, it was spectacular.
Then we continued around the headland, past other enviable houses, along cliffs overlooking little beaches and past magnificent pohutukawa trees that in a few weeks' time will be in full bright red flower, framing blue sea and green islands - I must go back for that. Oystercatchers peeped, skylarks trilled, grey warblers er, warbled, and tuis flew past with a whoosh! Finally, as the weather turned brighter and brighter, we ended up back at Matiatia, another walk ticked off - and, in my case anyway, very conscious of the fact that the doughty souls starting the circumnavigation today were only halfway through their first section of the 100km circuit they're doing of the island. Maybe next year?

Monday, November 19, 2018

Waiheke Walking Festival - Onetangi Sports Park and Surrounds

That's not, to be frank, the most inspiring of walk titles, especially when its sub-heading is 'An exploration in conservation with Treescape' - but I thought I'd give it a whirl as much as anything because, being the resolute anti-sport type that I am, I'd never actually set foot in the sports park before. I did once go to its gateway, but that was entirely to investigate the colony of roosters that lives there. Spurned for not being female, poor things (although that's kind of a satisfying novelty to come across), mean people dump them there to fend for themselves, and other, much kinder, people feed them and look out for them.
Anyway, after being scrubbed and sprayed again (that kauri die-back disease has so much to answer for), we set off with our first guide, who may (or may not) have been Michael. We left the carpark where a film crew was set up - the general opinion was that a new police recruitment ad was being made "Because they said they'd increase the numbers of police!" sneered a cynical OWM who clearly didn't vote Labour and still isn't over the election result - and a couple of determined recyclers were getting stuck into the pile of rolled-up old tennis court artificial grass that was being replaced (I did try, but couldn't think of a single use I could put it to myself). He took us down to the wetlands they've been rescuing from gorse, kikuyu grass, tobacco plant and other weeds, and was full of enthusiasm, pride and information about what they've been doing there - inspiring to see, even if it made me tired just to think about all the work they've done.
Then we went with - possibly? - Paul to climb up Rangihoua, which is a high hill once used as a pa site by local Maori, with the defence rings still kind of visible. Here it was even more remarkable, seeing the work that's been, and being, done by a small but apparently indefatigable team of workers, spraying and hacking away at the tenacious weeds that grow all over the site. We went right to the top, and the views were terrific in all directions - I've never been so high on Waiheke before. (Unlike others - oh, I can't be bothered. Finish that joke yourself.)

Then we dropped back down again and entered what Paul (?) called, with heavy irony, the Fairy Forest - where the pernicious creeping asparagus made a dense carpet under, and for several metres up the trunks of, a big stand of manuka. It was certainly green and lush and feathery, and had the American woman behind me gasping in admiration as it was spotlit by the late afternoon sun - but it's a choking, dominating weed that would totally take over, given half a chance. It started out here about 20 years ago as a garden plant introduced from South America, and has ramped away ever since.
So today's walk was enjoyable for the excellent views from the top of Rangihoua, and for witnessing the determination of the exceptionally hard-working Treescape team, who really have to be congratulated for their refusal to let the weeds win. Good for them! 

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Waiheke Walking Festival - Forest Bathing in McKenzie Reserve

No nudity involved! That's the first thing to establish. It's based on the Japanese concept of Shinrin-yoku, which means letting the trees sooth all your frantic worries and preoccupations, and being (altogether now) in the moment. Yes, of course you're right, that's not my thing at all - but it is for lots of people and, since I'm working at this festival instead of being a free-will participant, I thought I should try a bit of the oo-woo stuff that's an important part of the programme.

It was initially a bit disconcerting then to meet our guide Richard, who's British, an Old Etonian and a former officer in the Coldstream Guards, who had us, as one of our first tasks, actually marching in formation to the entrance to the Reserve. But it all became clear, and entirely understandable, that it was his military experience that left him needing this sort of soul-soothing. He was perfectly open and candid about this, and full of enthusiasm for the processes he introduced us to, so I don't want to sound churlish.

My entrenched cynicism has always prevented me from ever, it seems (and I have tried quite a lot of this stuff, through work) opening up and accepting what is always promised to be physical relaxation and mental calmness. "Serenity now!" à la Seinfeld would be more my approach. But even allowing for that, I did feel that Richard, in his keenness to instruct the many visitors to Waiheke (and NZ) in the group about the state of things here, did strike a pretty gloomy note. His talk featured invasive weeds, extinctions, kauri dieback, climate change, the national suicide rate... he even mentioned Hitler at one point. And he also, in talking to the many tourists in the group, criticised some aspects of Kiwi life and attitudes that made me bristle a bit, him also being an incomer and all. So even if I had been open to absorbing the soothing chemicals given off by stroked kanuka, he would have undone that by many of the ideas he discussed.

Overall, it wasn't a great success for me - though, to be fair, many of the others were quite vocal and enthusiastic about their enjoyment of the session. Probably not co-members of the curmudgeon club, then.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Waiheke Walking Festival - Onetangi to Man O' War Private Land Stunner Walk

Today is the start of the 2018 Waiheke Walking Festival, its ninth year of operation and evidently going from strength to strength. This year there are almost 60 different walks on offer, all over the island, with varying themes, levels of strenuousness, and locations, so that there really should be something for everybody. It's the first time I've been able to take part, and I'm doing it for work, having chosen a selection of walks to try to get a feel for the whole festival.
The first one started this morning on the beach at Onetangi, a two-kilometre stretch of sand between bush-clad headlands, and this morning it looked splendid as we gathered near a yoga session to be checked in, and have our shoes scrubbed and sprayed to prevent the spread of kauri die-back disease (not yet on the island, and let's hope it stays that way). The sun was shining, the sea was blue and everyone was eager to get cracking. It was a big group (I was #100) so it took a while, but finally we were all headed up the road and into the bush.
The great appeal of this walk is that its two halves cross land normally closed to the public. The first section began above gorgeous Piemelon Bay and took us through Rorohara, which is private farmland. It belongs to Bruce Plested, very unassuming in his shorts and old shirt, who has been assiduously planting natives for years, thousands of them from flax to totara. He was candid about the mistakes he had made, and it was interesting to see the different rates of growth according to how close the trees were planted, and the aspect. Mainly, though, it was just so lovely to walk through so much green lushness, especially a beautiful nikau grove with the sunlight slanting through. It was a sheer delight.
We passed through to the road on the other side and walked along to Waiheke Station belonging to the Ngati Paoa iwi, where Morehu Wilson talked about the history of the land from the Maori perspective. To be brutally frank, though the information was interesting, his delivery was a bit dull - but the walk was lovely. We passed Tequila the goat, followed the farm track under the gaze of a herd of Herefords temporarily yarded while we went by, and then climbed up and up and up to a fabulous lookout over the sea to the Coromandel, Little Barrier and Great Barrier Islands, and the other islands further north. 
Then, to everyone's relief, we went down and down and down again and fetched up finally at Man O' War vineyard where we thankfully sat down at tables with our complimentary glass of very nice rosé, and, eventually, got to eat our delicious pulled pork rolls. Which we really felt we had earned, after walking more than ten kilometres, from one side of the island to the other. Excellent day.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Jiggety jig, and all that

While it's certainly very pleasant to luxuriate in the business class lounge while waiting to depart on a flight to the other side of the planet - and especially when you can gloat over not having to do it in the tender care of the EasyJet plane you can see from the window - it's disappointing then to have to go down the back of the plane because you haven't been upgraded. Yeah, yeah, first world and all that. But it's true.


The Heathrow one was perfectly fine, but as business class lounges go, it's hard to beat the Emirates one in Dubai, crowded and busy though it always is. It's just so modern and efficient and full of whatever you need or fancy. The airport always gives me a bit of a buzz - helped by it being such a huge hub that as you walk to your gate you go past others labelled with destination names from all over the world.
It was a good trip. Copenhagen was a delight, and the Norway cruise was pretty special, despite the loss of three ports to bad weather - it's always good to settle into Silversea again. Getting to Iceland was a triumph both of ambition fulfilled, and practical booking skills (we'll overlook that accidental business class leg - that will remain forever a mystery). England was full of famously impressive sights and places, and family, and familiarity, and it was lovely to be there again.
But it's so good to get home! To beauty, comfort, and a welcoming cat... there's nothing better. Well, maybe this time it just got an edge thanks to that precious bottle of Einstök White Ale I found by chance in Clitheroe. And that, regular readers 😊 will be relieved to learn, is the last time I'll be referencing (or tasting) that beer.


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