Wednesday, 5 January 2022

Dunedin rocks. Sort of...

I know it's a privilege, but it also feels quite odd, to be writing a *cough* column about the Organ Pipes just outside Dunedin, which I haven't actually visited, and referencing in it Iceland's Reynisfjara and Northern Ireland's Giant's Causeway, both of which I have.

I could also add Bishop and Clerk on Maria Island, Tasmania, and the Gawler Ranges in South Australia. All of them are spectacular and fascinating: weathered hexagonal columns of rock (basalt or dolerite), either upright or horizontal or both, but always fitted together with marvellous precision. 

Though of course, they're not at all - fitted together, that is. They're actually formed by a mass of molten lava cooling at precisely the right speed and in the perfect conditions for the rock to crack into that particular pattern. It's still a marvel, though, that something as raw and violent and unpredictable as an eruption can result in something so satisfyingly neat and geometrical. 

I'm a sucker for them every time. They can be found all over the world, and I would love to see more of them, one day. Probably, though, I should start with Dunedin.

Credit DunedinNZ

Saturday, 1 January 2022

Hello, 2022

Happy New Year. We've all been saying since 2016 'Let's hope it's better than last year' and that hasn't worked at all, so let's just aim to get to December 31 and be able to say 'Well, that was better than we expected' - ok?

I will also aim to pop in here more regularly, despite not really being much of a travel writer any more, for obvious reasons. I faded out towards the end of last year, waiting for a blog overhaul, but that still hasn't happened, so on we soldier.

One of my Christmas presents was a subscription to Storyworth, which I'd already heard good things about, and my second question to answer (chosen by the Baby) is 'What was your first big trip?'. That's a fun, if frustrating, one to answer because it was a round-world cruise to England, via both Suez and Panama, taking about six months. Fabulous! Except, it was 1957 and I was only three, and remember very little about it - mainly, getting trapped in the outside toilet at my grandparents' house in Farnham.

But, doing a little research, I have found, naturally, connections. Our first leg was the very last voyage of the RMS Mataroa which, after delivering us to Southampton via the Panama Canal, was then sent to be scrapped at Faslane. She had been built in 1922 at the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast, across from where the Silver Wind was moored on our 2019 Silversea cruise, and which had just been closed down. The ship, originally called Diogenes, carried passengers/immigrants to NZ and Australia, was a troop ship during the war, and then returned to tourism afterwards - though in 1949 she carried a contingent of the nearly 600 'Lost Children' from UK orphanages and foster homes who were brought to NZ in one of those shockingly authoritarian decisions that are sadly so common all over the world. (Also sent to Australia and Canada, many of them were maltreated, and, much later, officially apologised to.)

I had thought that our return voyage, on the SS Orcades via the Suez - a trip so hot everyone apparently slept up on deck - returned us to Lyttelton; but it turns out, from a random photo that my father usefully labelled, that we actually got off in Sydney and flew home from there. So that was my first flight, and not the joyride I had on Air NZ's new plane when I was about 14. And the Orcades? Well, I discovered a big model of that bit of my personal history in the Maritime Museum at Darling Harbour, when I arrived there on the Azamara Journey in 2017...

Monday, 25 October 2021

A to G here now

In an almost last-ditch attempt to save October, blog-wise, I am shamelessly going to copy the format of a story published recently written by a travel-mate. It's an A-Z of what Brett's currently missing, and I only read as far as C before I got both envious (he's gone to so many places I haven't) (though, also, a bit, vice versa) and inspired to do my own travel alphabet. I stopped reading then (I'll finish it later) to keep from being unduly influenced. Here's the first section:

A: I nearly went with Brett's choice, of airports. He contrasted big and small, and I could compare Dubai's vast distances with, say, dinky Atiu in the Cook Islands. But even more memorable are Airstrips like the one in Zambia, which we had to buzz before landing to scare away a bull elephant. That was exciting - and a very suitable introduction to Royal Zambezi Lodge, which we had to wait patiently to get to until a handful of eles chose to move on from the road they were blocking. I've bounced along quite a few grassy landing strips, and they've always led to fun, and often actual adventure.

B: Bircher muesli, which I first tasted in 1977 on the Indian Pacific train in Australia, at the start of my big OE. It's been a very minor, but personally satisfying thread that's run through all my travels since, turning up on breakfast buffets in hotels and lodges all over the place, a literal taste of familiarity. It's also a suitable symbol for my travel experiences generally because it's always different and, though it's very occasionally, to be brutally honest, not quite as good as I hoped it would have been, I never regret choosing it. 

C: Cameras have been an essential part of my travel equipment from the start. I've never been more than amateur, which has been very obvious on the trips I've shared with professionals but - economics being what they are - newspapers and magazines these days will not/cannot pay for their superior images, so we writers just have to do our best. That meant hauling around a cumbersome body and lenses, making sure batteries were charged each day and memory cards had room, and tedious downloading each night. It was certainly a thrill to get (more by luck than skill) a good shot, and to see it on a magazine cover - but I'm ok with swapping that for the sheer convenience of using my iPhone instead these days (and not having to helplessly watch my Olympus fly out of my bag as it tumbled downhill on Skye, to crash fatally onto some rocks). 

D: Diving - that's proper diving, not including snorkelling, during which some people are able to dive, but not me, purely because of my natural buoyancy (and not vast quantities of subcutaneous fat). No, I mean scuba, which I did on the Great Barrier Reef after a surface-skimming (ha) introduction on the boat trip out there from Cairns. We put on all the proper gear and were escorted down under, super-conscious the whole time of every single breath, but still enjoying the novelty of being so far below the water, watching fish swimming all around us. The other time I did something similar was in Moorea, Tahiti where, instead of strapping into tanks and a mouthpiece, we took turns at wearing an unwieldy-looking diving helmet that actually worked very well. I walked about in slo-mo on the bottom of the lagoon, able to wear my glasses and thus see perfectly all the fish - which included reef sharks and stingrays, plus prettier ones - flitting around me. It was fun.

E: Enthusiasts are standard for me, but never taken for granted. My work trips are always very organised and usually involve a host and guides. These people are invariably, and by definition, full of pride and praise for the places they are showing me, and it's usually so clearly genuine that it really is a joy. Positive people are always a delight, and to spend hours - days - in their company, learning about their bit of the country, being shown places and customs, and given often literal tastes of what their life is like there is hugely enjoyable and inspiring. I remember the best ones for years afterwards - especially you, Suri.

F: Flying which most people consider a necessary evil, and is especially unavoidable if you live way down the bottom of the planet (or nearly at the top - there's no actual rule that north has to be up, you know). But I do like the thrill of boarding a plane at the start of a trip, especially if I get to turn left or, even better, take a different airbridge to go upstairs. Even when crammed into economy, though, and even when heading back home, I still love getting into my zone, comfy noise-cancellers on, plugged into the entertainment, with nothing to do but watch TV, eat and sleep for hours and hours. (I have fortunately, it must be said, never had An Event happen during a flight.)

G: Has to be Galapagos, where I've been lucky enough to go twice. Of course it's the birds and animals draped, uncaring, everywhere that make the biggest impression - you literally have to step over iguanas and around seals - and it was a real thrill to see bait balls of fish swooping and dividing beneath me as I snorkelled (the nearest, so far, I've got to my dream of a murmuration of starlings). Sitting in a small boat looking down at the silvery belly of a huge humpback lolling beneath us was amazing, too - but actually my strongest memory of that first trip was of what came soon after that. Back on the ship, I was sharing the excitement of the whale-watch with Brett and a previous editor of the paper that ran Brett's A-Z story, who had been in the boat with me. I blurted out how, when the captain delivered the early morning message about the whale, and the chance to go see it, I leaped out of bed, flung on literally just a fleece and shorts, and headed straight to the Zodiac. The identical look on both their faces when I said that was as hilarious as it was unexpected. Still makes me smile.

Sunday, 24 October 2021


This is usually a busy month for our family, with six birthdays, three of them in our little bundle alone. So there are, naturally, get-togethers, and it's all just lovely. But currently Auckland is on Day, um, 68? of lockdown (Level 3, which means takeaways but nothing else that's not essential - not that many would dispute the essentialness of takeaways). It's all got more than a bit boring, to be honest, despite - or perhaps because of - the improving weather. We're closing in fast on 90% double-vaccinated in the region, but will only get out of these restraints when the rest of the country catches up, so even Christmas is now looking threatened. Especially since Delta has just reached the South Island.

That's my excuse for this blog going silent for so long. What little inspiration I have is exhausted by scraping the barrel to find something local to write about that none of my travel writer colleagues haven't already mined. So it felt especially harsh to receive in the post Silversea's latest glossy publication, promoting its new ships, Silver Dawn and Silver Moon, along with my old friend Silver Spirit, and their upcoming routes cruising the Mediterranean. Deep sigh.

It would be so lovely to walk on board and be surrounded by all that friendly and familiar opulence, perhaps come across Moss again, and Miriam, and settle in to be effortlessly transported from one gorgeous old city to another. But it's not going to happen for a very long time and, quite possibly, actually not ever again. So on that last cruise, back over Christmas 2019, finishing in Sydney, when we woke up on 2 January to an end-of-days scenario of everything blotted out by bush fire smoke, it was probably a Sign. 

But still, I was so lucky to have had all those cruises, eh? And to be safe and well, as is everyone else in my family, and living in a responsibly-managed country, with summer coming. And at least it's not my job to try to sell cruises to the wary. Pollyanna lives!

Thursday, 30 September 2021

Glory box

Hmm, the connection fairies have been listening. Today, the courier driver having once again been frightened off by our long, steep drive and blatantly lying on his card about my having been "unavailable", I went to the depot to collect my mystery parcel. Which turned out to be a goodie box that is very much a step up from the goodie bags I wrote about last post.

It's a stylish big, black box with a magnetised lid, which contains all you see above, all of it high quality and summer-themed (visor, sunnies, sunscreen, fancy soft woven (Turkish-made) throw, Negroni and glass) plus a few extras. What a delight! Thank you very much, the new and soon-to-open Marriott Hotel Docklands, Melbourne. And thanks for conceding that we're not likely to meet up for quite a while - but it's a pleasing thought that one day I might, as you promise, "be reclining by the infinity-edge rooftop pool while enjoying an aperitif and revelling in the magical views of the city".

Melbourne has had a rough time of it, Covid-wise, and is still struggling - as, in fact, are we in Aotearoa after our gloriously long Level 1 almost-before-times holiday. The single Delta case we were mocked for going into Level 4 lockdown over ballooned to over 1200  (out of an overall Covid total of almost 4000)  and today, six weeks later, still has Auckland confined to quarters, with our hoped-for release next week rapidly retreating in the face of persistent new cases, despite vaccination numbers climbing encouragingly. 

There are, of course, worse places to be trapped than right here. Strolling the beach today I shared the sand with a scattering of families, couples, dogs, even several nude sunbathers and an actual swimmer which, given that we're only just into daylight saving, is a bold move on their part. In Level 3 now (and for the foreseeable...), there are takeaways, tradesmen working, and noticeably more people out and about (distanced, masked) but it's still a very small step towards normality. 

It's hard to imagine walking into the big marble foyer of the shiny and curvaceous Marriott Docklands hotel, being whisked up to a spacious fancy room, exploring the amenities and the bathroom, and then heading further up to the rooftop pool to wallow while looking out over that lovely city, with all its glass skyscrapers, heritage buildings, brilliant art gallery, and the river. Feels like ages since I was last there, fan-girling Matthew Flinders (though it was actually only on the last day of 2019). Feels like it'll still be ages before I'm there again.

Friday, 17 September 2021

When life gives you lemons...

...make Guinness. Or at least sea glass Guinness to display in yesterday's sadly dishwasher-cracked glass that I've been drinking from for years since I was given it at a Tourism Ireland event. 

Back when tourism was giving agriculture a proper run for its money as NZ's biggest industry, events like that were fairly frequent and sociable treats for us solitary WFH travel writers. We'd gather happily at whatever venue had been selected - pub, restaurant, fancy hotel - and chat with our hosts and each other, enjoying the drinks and the snacks. We'd listen to the presentation with often genuine interest, pretend not to be disappointed when we didn't score the giveaway prize, chat again afterwards and eat and drink some more, before eventually trailing away home again. Not before, though, we had claimed our goodie bag containing pamphlets and flash-drives, yes, but also a selection of pens, notebooks, caps, chocolates, toiletries, scented candles, and, in TI's case, the glass we'd drunk our welcome Guinness from.

Not that, to be blunt, Guinness is actually welcomed by me as a drink - I much prefer a lighter brew, ideally (as regular 😀 readers are by now all too well aware) Montana-made Blue Moon. I still mourn its disappearance from bottle stores here, remembering the joy that accompanied its discovery just round the block from home, after being introduced to it in the exotic setting of Popeye's restaurant in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. But Guinness? Not a fan, despite having toured through the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin, full of earnest and eager information, culminating on the top floor at the bar with the complimentary pint. I'm not alone, to judge by the sipped-and-discarded glasses left on tables by other visitors, which were then shamelessly claimed and emptied by proper enthusiasts.

No, what I enjoyed much more was the evening I spent in 2009 at Matt Molloy's pub in Westport (er, the Irish Westport) - not just because I was drinking cider, but because of the music and general vibe. Matt himself was there, but didn't sing, which would have been more disappointing if there hadn't been other people doing so well at generating such a mighty craic. There was an old man doing funny songs, a younger man full of enthusiasm on the eve of departing for New York to seek his fortune, a drunken Declan dancing, and in the main bar a casual gathering of session musicians: two fiddlers, a man on bodhrĂĄn (drum), someone on another sort of stringed instrument... they came and went, playing long medleys, everyone familiar with all the tunes. It was great.

Wednesday, 1 September 2021

Yes, I'm sorry about the Ida floods in Louisiana and New York, but this is LOCAL!

This photo in the NZ Herald this morning shows a different view of Te Henga/Bethells Beach from how I (eventually) saw it back in February. The big storm that swept through West Auckland, dropping 6 weeks' worth of rain in a single day, has caused a lot of misery for people already beleaguered by two weeks of Level 4 lockdown - with at least another fortnight of restrictions to come. I can only imagine how it is for them, poor things, trying to sort out and live in their flooded houses in the current chilly weather, under lockdown restrictions. No fun at all.
Back in February, though, it was lovely, and I could quite understand why people choose to live there, at the very end of a long and winding road. If it feels remote now, that's nothing to how it was way back in the day, and it still has a strong community vibe - especially, apparently, on Friday nights at the summertime café truck in the beach carpark, when people play games and music. Naturally, I was there on a Wednesday.
Still, it was lovely to be tucked up in my quirky little cottage up on the hill looking down over the long surf beach, the dunes and the headland. I had a teddy bear on the bed to keep me company, and lots of local history to read, supplied by the friendly 5th generation Bethell lady who owns the accommodation. I especially liked the toilet cistern, which is a sentence few people have written, I'm betting.

A section of the road got washed away by the torrents rushing down the Waitakere River to the sea, so the locals are stuck at home. Just like the rest of us in Auckland - but (the ones up on the high ground anyway) I bet they mind the least.


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