Friday, January 23, 2015

Risking 'Je suis Cheng'

I see that Queenstown, in amongst a number of other well-deserved awards, has just been voted the second most popular long-haul destination by CTRIP.com, China's largest online travel agency. I'm not sure that this is such a good thing.

It feels like a risky, non-PC and narrow-minded thing to say but, to be brutally honest, the Chinese are not my favourite tourists. Quite simply, they don't know how to behave. They're loud, pushy, ill-disciplined, have some very unfortunate personal habits, go around in large groups, and often seem to be taking small interest in the places that they're spoiling for everyone else. They remind me a bit of how the Japanese used to be when they first started travelling back in the '70s: in groups, pouring off buses to take photos of each other in front of various sights, climbing back on board again, and falling straight asleep. I still remember vividly being sent staggering off that flagstone in the middle of St Peter's Square in Vatican City from where all the columns around the outside line up. That group of excitably chattering Japanese tourists never even noticed that I was there first.

But since then they have become much more sophisticated, braver, more independent and perfectly considerate tourists. They have learned. Will the Chinese do the same? Perhaps, eventually - but there are so many more of them, newly affluent, to be making their first thrilling forays overseas that it will take a very long time for the message to spread about personal space, personal hygiene, queuing and so on. In the meantime, we'll have to put up with being crowded out and shouted down, and will have to watch where we put our feet. Such a shame, when you're in a place like Queenstown, which is all about gazing awestruck around you.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Zipitty doo dah - or not

I don't know. There's this former quarry, usual thing, almost enclosed, high cliffs, where they've built an estate of pretty expensive houses. Who can afford them? Older people, mostly. And what do the developers then do, as a parting gesture? Build a playground with a really good flying fox (= zipline, American readers). So people bring their kids there to enjoy it, shrieks of delight echo round the walls of the quarry, the residents complain about the racket, and the council closes the flying fox. Sigh.

I love ziplines. What's not to enjoy? You whizz through the air, high above the tree tops, usually with a pretty spectacular view if you ever were undistracted enough to appreciate it, and finish with an exciting swing - and it's all as safe as houses. If the crabby homeowners in the quarry ever got over themselves enough to have a go, they would understand the delight; but, sadly, that's not going to happen.

The first non-playground one I ever did was at the end of the high ropes experience at Outward Bound, which our group did at night for extra thrills. (That was an excitement too far for one member of our watch who, having been shown the rope course earlier that afternoon, decided discretion was the better part of valour, and quietly opted out of the entire OB experience, hitch-hiking from Anakiwa back to Nelson. He was a reporter there to write a story about it for the Nelson Mail - I've wondered ever since what he told his editor.) High ropes are all about teetering and inching, so when we got to the end of that sweaty business and were able to sit on the T-bar and zoom through the darkness between the trees, it was a glorious release.

Then there was the one in Queenstown, which is the fastest way back to town from the top of Bob's Peak. The company running it has an eco-conscience, and while moving between the six different ziplines the punters are told about environmental concerns and introduced to the  idea of Kiva loans to small businesses in third-world countries, so yay for them. But honestly, you're there for the thrills, and Ziptrek doesn't disappoint. The views over Lake Wakatipu are fabulous but entirely wasted because it's just so much fun to hear that whine from the runners as you skim down the slope to the next platform. There's just nothing like that moment when you launch yourself into nothingness.

They have another operation on Waiheke Island, too, which has fewer lines but one of them is really steep and long, and gives you a great rush, literally. Afterwards there's a gentle and pretty climb back up through the bush, so nobody at the top waiting to go is put off by any wild-eyed gibbering from previous punters.

Waitomo is where everybody goes to sit in a boat and be rowed through the caves to look at the glow-worms, which is has been appealing to tourists for over 100 years now, but it's very sedate. Much more brag-worthy is to abseil 35 metres down into Ruakuri Cave there, walk through absolute pitch darkness with a headlight illuminating the 'tites and 'mites, and then zipline through them with your light out for what feels like five minutes (but isn't). Very cool! And there are giant cave wetas to follow, too.
The only overseas operation I've done - so far - is at Ketchikan in Alaska, where the point of difference (apart from eagles circling not very far overhead, and the chance of spotting bears way down below at the bottom of the trees) was that the platforms between the eight lines had no railings. It was all perfectly safe, we were harnessed up and attached at all times, but it did add to the buzz, being able to peer straight over the side from near the top of tall spruce and hemlock trees. There were three swing bridges to sway over too, between platforms. Good fun!

Not that those kids in the quarry playground will ever get a taste for it. Shame.

Friday, January 16, 2015

They did it!

Amazing. Astonishing. Phenomenal. Those guys have made it to the top of El Capitan, the smooth, sheer rockface that no-one - no-one - goes to Yosemite without taking a photo of. And they were using nothing but fingers and toes! One of them with only nine fingers! That's 19 days spent hanging from ropes, inching (if you'll pardon the mixed measurements) 914 metres up a part of the cliff that to all of us normal people appears to have only hairline cracks. And getting bigger all the time was that dizzying sheer drop right down to the bottom where people have been stopping on the road and standing in the grassy meadow there, peering up at them and, sooner or later, walking away rubbing their necks having found it just too tiring and uncomfortable looking up that high.
It's the only complaint they could make, comfort-wise. Yosemite is a very user-friendly national park: all of its best-known features are easily accessible from roads, with its little town, very close to El Capitan, well-supplied with coffee, doughnuts, souvenirs, art galleries, hotels and bars and all the other tourist necessities. Which is not to say that it's a blot. It's a pretty place, and though it's busy, being such a well-known destination, it's not spoiled. When I was there, there were bears within view of the town - distant, admittedly, and not close enough for me to count as a sighting, but still clearly a mother and cub. I went looking for something more definite, and had a quietly exciting encounter in the woods with one very hairy and rather wild-eyed bear which appeared on the path behind me while I was concentrating on another one a few metres away fully focused on hoovering up acorns to get fat for winter. Don't worry - look, I'm still here!
The other well-known feature of Yosemite is the Half Dome, another bare granite feature which is exactly that - a round-topped mountain that's only half there. It's pretty impressive - and pretty, too, especially when the rock is given a rosy tint by the sunlight filtering through forest fire haze in the air. I especially liked how gnarled the Jeffrey pines are, fighting for survival on the bare surface, exposed to the worst that both winter and summer can throw at them, roots clinging valiantly to the rock. Much as Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson did, on their epic climb. Well done, them.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Qui suis-je?

Had I been in Paris yesterday, I would have marched. More accurately, I would have made a stand: literally, since with so many people crammed into the Place de la Republique there wasn't much marching possible; and figuratively - though against quite what is not so clear. Obviously I deplore the violence, the brutality, the sheer unfairness of bursting in upon unarmed people going about their business, and shooting them with machine guns. The men with the guns were thugs, idiots with one half-formed idea in their thick heads, and we're well rid of them. I'm just sorry it's not possible for them, dead, to realise how wrong they were about the rewards of martyrdom and that all they earned was decay and oblivion.

But the whole free speech thing is not so black and white. Should everyone be free to say whatever they like? There are limits everywhere to what's acceptable. Last year in the UK, the US, Australia, here and no doubt many other countries, high profile people who offended various members of society by speaking their minds found themselves having to make public apologies and even resigning. The hip hop group Odd Future wasn't allowed into NZ because some of their lyrics were considered incitements to rape and violence. Personally, I'm happy that they were kept out - but how does that fit with free speech and artistic licence? It simply doesn't exist in the pure form that everybody, even the sainted George Clooney, has been claiming as an inviolable right.

If I had been in Paris, I would have carried a 'Je suis Charlie' poster, but not because I endorse the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, which from what I've seen are pretty crude, unfunny and deliberately provocative; or The Interview, which looks like a double-B and would never have got studio backing if it had been about a Western leader being assassinated. For me the poster would have been shorthand for something much more complicated and fuzzy and even contradictory, about free speech and prudence, about tolerance of beliefs and the stupidity of religion, about understanding and despising radicalisation, about condemning both hypocritical provocation and its violent reaction. Maybe my poster should have read 'Oui. Mais...'

Monday, January 5, 2015

Twelfth Night - or is it?

My memory is clearly not what it could be, but at least I'm consistent, as my Google history shows. I've always thought Twelfth Night was the 6th of January, but there's a good case to be made for the 5th and since Christmas seems so very last year already, I'm happy to be taking the decorations down today.

Since I always seem to be travelling in October when the run-up begins, I often buy tree decorations instead of more regular souvenirs. That means that every December I get to remember all the places I've been not just this year but previously too, and it's fun to see both the similarities and the differences in the style and design. I've blogged about that before though, so this time I'm coming at it from the opposite angle: will I be going there this year?
I'd like to think that I'd get back to Africa again, though it's pretty unlikely. I'm still deeply involved with the rhino poaching issue (1188 killed this year - more than ever before. It's a disaster) and knowing as much as I now do about it, the one wry feature of my trips is that I've seen, by far, more rhinos than elephants, despite their being much rarer. Elephants have been so (cough) big in our house for over 20 years, it's pretty ironic that I've not yet seen more than three together. I want to see a herd!
Despite the last trip of 2014, to Hungary and Austria in December, giving me a shocking reminder of what it's like to feel really cold, I'm still quite hankering after seeing more chilly places - Iceland is really appealing to me, but I'd settle for Alaska or Canada to see the northern lights and polar bears, and lots of snow. And thanks to the experience of that Danube cruise, I would know how to pack for temperatures that my imagination alone couldn't quite envisage last year.
Will I get to the Lower 48 again this year? I'd happily go somewhere new: Utah looks very dramatic and is an Instagram staple. I'd love to have a chance to get snapping there myself. The southern states are somewhere I've never been, either, and would be another quite different face of America.
Australia is pretty much a given (although I did miss out entirely in 2013, I went there four times the previous year) and although it's suffering badly from bushfires right now, I'd like to go to South Australia again and try out their new shark-diving operation (very safe and no actual diving). WA is somewhere I'd like to explore a bit more too: specifically the Kimberleys.
It looks likely that the UK will be on the itinerary again this year, my second home and always a pleasure to visit, especially if I can get back to Herefordshire. There's always a lot happening in England, and this year has some significant anniversaries lining up.

But, so far, Turkey is the only certain destination in 2015, for the Gallipoli centenary, the main event in a two-week tour of the country. Even if there won't be any Christmas decorations for sale there in April, there's no danger that this time next year I'll need a memory-jogger for that trip. It's going to be epic.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Beginning with an ending

Bit of a shame, really, how the new year begins with the end of the holidays. For many people, that is, though not for all of course and certainly not for me in the eyes of some (still stinging, my work trips being described as "foreign holidays"). Definitely for the yachties on these boats, however, and all the others not visible in the photo - 78, I counted the other day, moored or passing through Oneroa Bay on Waiheke Island. Nautical caravans, they are, their occupants pottering around the Gulf, stopping where they fancy and poking about, having a swim on a new beach every day - in water that's now almost too warm, I have to say for the benefit of Northern Hemisphere readers (you're welcome!) Nice.

But the holidays are over now and all last night's boats are gone, the bay left empty so there were just us residents and bach-dwellers left to enjoy the sunset. Except of course that they'll be back at the weekend, and some people don't go back to work quite yet, and the school holidays still have nearly three weeks to run, and then there's Anniversary Day, and Waitangi Day...
And in fact I will be back at work tomorrow too, though not, happily, in an office in the city - I have stories to write about cruising the Danube and exploring Lincoln Park and doing a gourmet tour of East Fife and staying on Lindisfarne and walking through Kakadu - and, and, and. So much material still to use from all last year's 'holidays', and homes to find for the stories, and providers to follow up with. But at least I'll be able to book-end the day with swims in that too-warm water and, when I stop work for some chores and pop to the supermarket, this will be the view on the way back:

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

People and places. But mainly people.

So, here we are on the last day of the year - again! - and it's time, apparently, to review 2014. As I write, bodies are being retrieved from the sea after the Air Asia crash, so it's tempting to conclude that it hasn't been a great year for air travel, what with Malaysia Airline's two ill-fated jets plus a scattering of small-plane crashes over the last week. Of course, horrific as all those are, you're still safer in a plane than driving to the airport.

Certainly, in all the long-haul flights I did this year, there wasn't a moment of disquiet, not one. But I'm not going to list them all, or count the different airlines, or countries, or modes of transport (helicopters! horse!) or hotels I stayed in, or thousands of photos taken, or even the number of trips I went on (or, "holidays" unquote, tch). Not tonight, anyway. Instead I'm going to remember some of the people I met, all different nationalities and ages but who all had - have - in common a wonderful enthusiasm and positiveness, and an eagerness to share.

There was Suree, best guide ever, in Thailand - funny, patient, interesting, interested, knowledgeable, professional and honest. She was the very best bit about my famil to Bangkok and points north, and I especially admired her passion for her country and her eagerness that we should understand that Thailand is safe, and welcoming, and beautiful and fascinating. She was in tears at the end, as she said goodbye to us, urging us to pass on the message that Thailand is open and waiting for visitors.



I really liked Tehei too, at Taoahere Beach House on Moorea in Thailand, who was so motherly and hospitable, and took pity on me up in the honeymoon villa all on my own, and brought me meals and flowers and baskets of bread, and invited me for a family dinner with her children to eat poisson cru she'd prepared herself, which we ate alongside the lagoon, with fish jumping in the dark.

Then there was Dan, our guide in northern Australia, who looked like your typical Territorian: khaki shorts, stout boots, hat, tanned, a bit rough round the edges maybe - but he was lyrical about Kakadu, and so respectful of Aboriginal culture, and clearly in love with the land. Also, he had a most unexpected imagination, that kept him amused on long drives when all his passengers had fallen asleep, and in his head wrote screenplays for movies which he was keen to share in generous detail. I honestly hope Drop Bear: the Movie gets made - sounds like a classic.

There's no way I could ever forget Sean, at the Lindisfarne Hotel on that island, who thought he was so funny, which made him funny, but not how he intended, not that he'll ever know. He had a routine, you see, a set piece full of jokes that he trotted out as each roomful of guests turned up for breakfast, without ever being hampered by the fact that the previous audience was still sitting there, listening to it again. And again. But he threw himself into it so enthusiastically that it felt mean, to criticise.

On my first trip to the US this year, I met Rahm Emanuel, the mayor of Chicago. Well, I shook his hand at a tourism do that was all about schmoozing as he worked the room full of travel writers and tourism promoters. He was keen, I'll give him that. We were up on the Observatory of the Hancock Tower, with fabulous views on a sunny day out over the lake and city, and down to the welcome sand sculpture on the beach 94 storeys below.

The second time I went to the States, it was Jerry from Georgia, elderly and bald as a coot but full of life, who made the strongest impression. He was another passenger on the Silver Whisper cruise from Boston to Montreal, and a stalwart of our Trivial Pursuit team. At the end of each day's competition, he gave me his share of the place-getter's tokens, and he was olde-worldly flattering and complimentary, which was sweet. Excellent lesson in not writing off old people as just, well, old. So much more than that!

Down in Queenstown - or Glenorchy, more accurately - it was Kate and Matt, and his father Laurence who charmed me with their friendly enthusiasm and eagerness to share this particularly beautiful bit of New Zealand with the people on their bike tour. Even I, who hadn't been on a bike for years, felt inspired and capable, and with their encouragement not only kept pedalling along the far shore of Lake Wakatipu, but actually enjoyed it. And Laurence's dinner at the (sadly now burnt down) Paradise Lodge was genuinely 5-star.

In Scotland it was two people: John and Paul, who run 94DR which is a classy and comfortable B&B in Edinburgh. They were indefatigably cheerful and enthusiastic, full of suggestions for how to spend our time in the city, and effortlessly welcoming. Breakfast there was as much of a show as at Lindisfarne, but genuinely fun and really delicious: raspberry and rhubarb compote, homemade granola, porridge made (of course) the proper way with salt in it, avocado and bacon bagel... Yum. And Molly the dog was friendly too.

At the World Youth Rhino Conference at iMfolosi in KZN in South Africa, there were lots of inspiring people, most notably Dr Ian Player, then very frail and alas now no longer with us, a giant in conservation and a figure accorded the greatest respect by everyone there. But I'd like to pick Trang Nguyen, a young Vietnamese woman who got caught up almost by chance in conservation, bore the burden nobly of representing one of the two nations behind most poaching, and has achieved tremendous things back home in educating the public and spreading the word. She is a marvel.

So many other countries, so many other people - it was a very busy year - but I want to finish with a guy I never even spoke to. Just some random dude relaxing above a waterfall at Gunlom in Kakadu, he provided the perfect focal point for my favourite photo of all of the thousands I took in 2014. Thanks for coming along for the ride. See you next year?

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