Thursday, 13 May 2021

Goghing... gone

Naturally, going to the Van Gogh Live show that came to Auckland recently was always going to remind me of Arles. The show is a multi-screen projection of a good selection of his paintings, from early to last, with a bit of modest animation in some of them. The screens are all around the arena, at different angles and heights, and there are several paintings projected at once, so you have to keep looking around - including on the floor (though clearly not everyone felt that responsibility).

Each set has an accompanying quote from his letters or diary, in a handwriting font that takes a bit of effort to read, and the pace is brisk enough that it's far from a relaxing experience. It's good, though, and his paintings, especially the starry night ones, really benefit from the large-scale, super-bright treatment. It's fairly short, so I watched it twice. Overall, though, the story is sad. Poor man. He sold only one painting in his (self-shortened) lifetime. 

Regular 😀 readers will recall that I went to Arles back in - sigh - 2012, beginning a river cruise there with Uniworld along the Rhone, which finished in Lyon. Arles is where Van Gogh spent his most productive, if dramatic, years, and on a tour around that lovely, and appealingly lived-in, town, we visited a number of the scenes that he painted, most memorably the yellow Café la Nuit. 

Incidentally, the self-portrait with the bandaged ear confuses a lot of people: it was the left ear that he sliced at (possibly off) with the knife, but the picture shows his right ear bandaged, because he was painting his actual mirror image. 

Anyway, it was several days later, when fishing the next clean coffee mug out of the drawer, that I saw it was decorated with one of his swirly cypress paintings. I'd forgotten all about it - and also, where I'd bought it. So that occupied me on and off for a few more days, until the mug reappeared in the morning coffee cycle. I suddenly remembered then that I'd bought it at the National Portrait Gallery in London, where I'd gone on a Silversea cruise in - sigh - 2019. 

Shamefully, despite having lived in England for years and going to London many times, it was my first visit to the gallery - it was always one of those 'next time' things. If nothing else, recent events should have taught us not to put stuff off, don't you think? Just made that one in time.

That was a chastening lesson, but I was still quietly triumphant about having remembered where I'd bought the mug. Turns out, though, that all I had to do was turn it over.

Wednesday, 7 April 2021

Trans-Tasman bubble, yay!

Well, thanks for including Tassie, Scott - but, the Apple Isle aside, you’ve left out some of the best bits. Victoria, yeah - but what about South Australia, and the Northern Territory? I’ve had some of my best Aussie fun in those states. 

Both my home town, Christchurch, and sister city Adelaide owe some of their history to the same dubious character, Edward Gibbon Wakefield (his page on begins with the throwaway sentence: Wakefield developed his theories of colonisation while serving a term at Newgate Prison for abducting and marrying a teenage heiress. They don't talk about that in SA when they're telling you, as they always do, that they're not convict-settled.) 

So I felt comfortable there, with the grid road system, heritage buildings, central square, all that - but it's outside the city that I've had the best times. Riding a camel, herding cattle on horseback, glamping, hiking through the Flinders Ranges, sighting an enormous feral cat, swimming with tuna and sealions, spotting koalas and being wowed by cuttlefish on Kangaroo Island, sleeping underground in Coober Pedy, surviving a dust storm, eating sheep's milk haloumi, cuddling a roo joey, being awed by amazing ancient rocks, lying on my back in the grass waggling my legs in the air to - successfully - attract an emu. And people think SA is just about the wine!

And then there's the Territory. Where to start? With Darwin, the frontier town? Japanese bombing, Cyclone Tracy, a-dingo-ate-my-baby court case, NT News headlines, rough and ready citizens. Really, though, it's all about the Outback - gloriously empty mile after mile of red soil and blue sky, and a flicker along the edges where the colours meet. Uluru, Kata Tjuta, Kings Canyon. Aboriginal culture, ancient and modern art, music and stories. 

Even rougher and readier Alice Springs, where the annual Henley-on-Todd regatta involves people holding boats around their waists as they run along the dry riverbed. Opals. Road trains. School of the Air and the Flying Doctor. Stone curlews screaming like murder victims in the night, dingoes howling, bats ticking past like clockwork toys. More water than you'd expect - lakes like mirrors, waterfalls, rivers below towering canyon walls, or between sandy banks draped with untrustworthily sleeping crocs. Barramundi on every menu. 

I could go on, and on, and on. I've had so, SO much fun in the Territory and South Australia. Terrific places to visit, and guaranteed to deliver great stories. Go there! You can, Kiwis, now...

Monday, 5 April 2021

To be not disappointed

 Although I had two pages in the Sunday Star-Times travel section all to myself yesterday, the triumph was somewhat mitigated by the cover story being about the Southern Lights flight. This is a special organised by Viva Expeditions with Air NZ, to fly from (and back to) Christchurch in a Dreamliner on a 10-hour search for the aurora australis. The plane flies in the dramatically-named stealth mode, all external lights off, internal too, so everyone's eyes can adjust and fully appreciate the aurora.

They found the lights quite quickly, and they were pretty spectacular, according to the photos and video. But - and this is a HUGE but - not according to most passengers' actual eyes. The trouble is, our eyes, and especially older eyes, aren't very good at picking up the colours, so what almost everyone saw were swirls of white - the green and pink only showed up via cameras.

Now I would have found that deeply disappointing, to put it mildly. Seeing the aurora is one of my top wants, but to pay all that money, fly all that way and only see white? Nah, Instagram has spoiled me for that. I want proper colour, end of. And if I have to go to Finland, or Norway, or Alaska for my chance to see it, well, that's just icing on the cake. Or actual ice. Whatever. Even if it turns out my eyes can't do the business, at least I've been somewhere interesting and not just been squashed into a plane for ten hours, flying from A to A.

Travel should not be about disappointment, especially when it involves world-famous spectacles or landmarks. I'm happy to report that right up there with cast-iron guarantees of satisfaction (for the locations, tourist throngs notwithstanding) are the Taj Mahal, Machu Picchu, the Galapagos Islands, Easter Island's moai, the Eiffel Tower and Tower Bridge. There are lots of others. As further proof, most of those listed I've been to more than once, and been 98% thrilled to see them again. And, for today's connection, two of those - Machu Picchu and Galapagos - I visited the second time courtesy of Viva Expeditions. Thanks, Rachel.

Sunday, 4 April 2021

Another first for New Zealand

I remember when Daylight Saving was first (spoiler alert: or so I thought) introduced in New Zealand. That was back in 1974, to help with the energy crisis of the time by reducing the demand for lighting and heating. It has been periodically lengthened since then, after surveys indicated the public wanted more of it - or maybe they were just keen to postpone the depressing transition back to standard time in autumn, which happened early this morning, and tonight will inflict darkness upon us at what will feel like an ungodly early hour.

But it turns out, not only has NZ played with DST previous to that, but, the whole concept was invented by a New Zealander! Of course I knew we were first with the jetboat, plastic syringes (sorry, environment), electric fences, powered flight (sorry, Wright Bros), bungy jumping, Zorbs, jogging (thanks for the guilt, Arthur Lydiard), the jetpack, the egg beater, the referee's whistle, Sealegs amphibious boats... the list goes on, honestly. But I didn't know about Daylight Saving.

Back in 1895, Post Office clerk George Vernon Hudson presented a paper to the Wellington Philosophical Society, suggesting changing the clock by two hours in order to give people more free time in summer to pursue outside interests - for him, collecting insects. His enthusiasm wasn't catching, however, and the idea was ignored until 1927, when it was suddenly recognised as an excellent plan, and introduced.

In 1941, because of the war, it was extended to last the whole year, and in 1946 became NZ Standard Time. Eventually, the idea of summer time was revived again and it restarted in 1974 and has continued ever since, with modifications. Meantime, the idea had been suggested in 1907 in Britain, liked by Winston Churchill but rejected by those in power, and finally adopted, following Germany, during WWI. It was actually a little town in Canada that officially started it first, in 1908.

Today some countries do, some don't. And within countries - well, I haven't googled that far but I can confidently report that, in Australia, the Northern Territory is the only state not to change its clocks. How do I know? Because my 1975 epic rail trip itinerary that I booked in Sydney had me turning up at the station in Alice Springs to catch the train down to Adelaide, to find the gate locked, the tracks empty, and the train already departed. Idiot clerk. I was almost out of money and had to live on peanut butter sandwiches for three days until the next train.

Wednesday, 31 March 2021

Furneaux x deux

Hmm, that was shamefully slow of me, to make this connection. I'm writing (again) about the Bay of Fires Walk in Tasmania which I did in 2011 - and yes! There's beginning to be editorial interest once more in foreign stories! (After all this time, Australia genuinely counts as foreign rather than just the cuzzies across the ditch, no question.)

Anyway, I was just explaining that this section of Tassie's north-eastern coast was given its name by Tobias Furneaux, who captained the boyishly-named HMS Adventure, accompanying Cook on his second voyage round this bit of the Pacific in 1773. He saw lines of fires along the beaches, which were the campfires of the Aboriginal people who lived there, and who had been living there for 40,000 years - not that Cook had recognised that in 1770, mind, declaring Australia 'Terra Nullius', or nobody's land, and promptly claiming it for Britain.

It was only when I was checking something about Tobias and Google suggested 'Furneaux Lodge' that I realised I'd been there too - it's a very comfortable hotel on the Queen Charlotte Track, in the Marlborough Sounds, not accessible by road. I'd started walking that day 17km away at Ship Cove, a favourite location for Cook, who hung out there several times, doing repairs and having a bit of R&R with his crew. I wasn't surprised: it's all beautiful around there, with turquoise blue sounds, green bushy hills, sheltered little bays, lots of birds and even - very unexpected, on both sides - two deer on the track.

I had a lovely day, wandering along, but was still pleased to get to Furneaux Lodge in Endeavour Inlet for some well-earned comfort. Which it delivered, in spades - modern little motel unit in the garden, pretty heritage main building built in 1904 (by another seaman), welcoming, excellent food (still mourning that sticky date pudding I didn't have room for) and beautiful setting.

It's a shame, then, that it's indelibly connected in the national consciousness with the mysterious disappearance from there and presumed murders of Ben Smart and Olivia Hope on New Year's Eve in 1998. Scott Watson was found guilty but is still denying it. He was in the news again just a week ago when a key witness in the case, the last to see the victims alive, and who disputed the Crown's identification of the boat he'd left them at, committed suicide. The mystery continues...

Friday, 26 March 2021

Godwits, God wot

Godwits are amazing birds. Our bar-tailed godwits are the largest of the species, but they're still only about 40cm head to tail (and a fair-sized section of that is beak) - pretty flimsy for a creature that flies, non-stop, up to 12,000 km, twice a year, every year. What's more, they can do the journey between Alaska, where they breed, and here in just 8-9 days, averaging 56km/h. Talk about exhausting - and also, really, godwits? Do you have to? Couldn't you find more convenient breeding and feeding sites? 

Leaving aside my incomprehension about why so many species of birds make their lives so difficult for themselves, insisting on flying across the Sahara, or over the Himalayas, or, in the case of the incompletely-named Arctic tern, doing a 90,000km round trip every year from one pole to the other - which equates, over a lifetime, to going to the moon and back three times. Leaving that, as I say, aside - the arrival of the godwits at their feeding sites here is a celebrated event, and not just by binoculared birders. 

When they turn up at Miranda, on the Firth of Thames just south of Auckland, all sorts of people go out to see them, and be heartened. That happens around September, and they spend the summer here assiduously feeding on the mudflats before, about now, heading away again. Some of them have satellite transmitters fitted (it's always a slight niggle, how much harder that might make the journey for them, though they seem to manage ok). Individuals are known by their number, like this season's record-breaker 4BBRW who, thanks to some inconvenient winds, flew the longest-ever recorded non-stop flight of about 12,000km and got here in 11 days. (His name seems a bit clinical but just refers to the leg band colours - blue, blue, red, white.)

The Miranda Trust does all the tracking and communicates the data, and is now following them as they head north again. Maybe because it's uphill (actually, probably head winds), they do stop on the return journey, in Asia (not without problems, sigh, because of loss of habitat in some places there) and it's been announced that some of them are already in South Korea.

South Korea! I went there once, back in the golden days... I only went because I'd been invited, to help publicise a new Air NZ route, never having seriously considered it as a destination before. Big mistake. It's a really great place to visit - nice people, excellent architecture, colourful culture, vivid history, natch - and the food! Just SO good. I was really pleased to have gone there, and would happily go again.

Thursday, 25 March 2021

I can’t remember my passport number any more

Wow. One whole year since we all got this alert, NZ went into Level 4 lockdown and everything changed for what still feels like forever. My diary for 2020 is mostly completely blank, apart from a few crabbily crossed-out booked events, which include a still-mourned Seabourn cruise to Greenland, and a Viking one around Japan.

I wonder if I'll ever get to those places now? The news about international travel is so glum - not just the ongoing drama of Covid-19, though of course that's massive, but also the low rumble of sustainability/climate change/environmental degradation affecting airlines, cruise ships, hotels, tourism operators, all that. It almost feels as though we're going back to the fifties, when only the rich could travel overseas and the rest of us had to keep it domestic.

It's important to protect the planet as much as we can, and stop messing it up thoughtlessly and stupidly, no argument. It doesn't actually belong to us humans alone, and we've been very selfish for a long time now. That has to stop. But it's really hard to adapt to not having the right to travel as we please any more - and also, so tough for all the towns, businesses and employees who depend on tourism for their livelihoods. In the face of which genuine hardship, I hesitate even to mention the deep disappointment of us travel writers...


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