Tuesday, February 21, 2017

USA lite

Another photo (sadly not mine - uplifted from @allapetropavlovska on Instagram - go and see her others, they're amazing too) to add to the file headed 'How does Lava Ocean Tours get away with this stuff?' It's making me think that what I considered an exciting boat ride back in December was so, so tame compared with what's happening now on Hawaii's Big Island. Remember, folks, the Kilauea Volcano has been in continuous eruption since 1983, and still it's not empty! Captain Shane must be loving it, and is clearly still pushing the boundaries to give his customers the cruise of their lives. I hope he continues to flirt unscathed with the danger...

Hawaii is a pretty hot destination right now, from this end at least, with temptingly low airfares thanks to Hawaiian Airlines' new service out of Auckland, and the appeal of getting a taste of the States without having to venture into Trump territory (Hawaii is a blue state). All the negative news from the Lower 48 must be making life a bit difficult for the Brand USA people who have been so busy here over the last few years. Anti-immigration doesn't sit well with tourism, on top of all the upset and aggro that's going on, making the States feel like a slightly dodgy destination these days.

Mind you, I think it's always had a bit of an edge. They may speak English (...) there, and lots of the cities, the countryside too, and many of its ways of life are already familiar from TV and movies, but it's still a foreign country that despite the general friendliness of its natives can make visitors feel a little anxious in ways that, say, France or Hong Kong or even India don't. For me it comes down to the authoritarianism of uniformed people, starting of course with airport customs and security, and the guns everywhere. Even the signs are so bossy! Telling you what to do and, more sternly, what not to do, wherever you go - with no concession to common sense or even basic self-preservation instincts. They seem to assume that everyone is either irremediably thick, or ill-intentioned. Neither is reassuring.

Captain Shane seemed to be just like that, in his introduction, which verged on abrasive - but then he went on to break goodness knows how many rules on his cruise, to give us all the best possible thrill for our money. Or maybe that's just how he gets his kicks, and we customers are the means of enabling that... Anyway, good luck to him. Lava Ocean Tours, people.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Not Wanaka, but Wisconsin

I could be writing about Wanaka today, spurred by the wedding there today of Richie McCaw - but for that to happen, of course, it would have to be in another life, or if I were another person entirely (seeing as how, non-Kiwis, he is a rugby star and that is a book that will forever remain shut to me). Bit of a shame, since it's almost a year since I was there and delighting again in its sheer beauty - and the Instagram fame of one lone willow tree that had the life of a fence-post imposed on it and, inspiringly, rose above it.
No, today's trigger is my reading Neil Gaiman's American Gods and coming across a scene that he set at the House on the Rock. Since I am literally the only person reading this blog who will remember, let me elaborate on that: in 2014 I went to the IPW conference in Chicago (a city which also features in the book, but no big deal there) and afterwards spent a few days with other attendees on a famil that took us to Wisconsin, where we visited said House, near Spring Green. I remember it so well, and not just because of Gaiman's description. 
It's an extraordinary, Tardis-like place that just goes on and on, getting more and more bizarre, room after crooked, mind-bending room filled with crazy collections of things: dolls, instruments, armour, teacups, clockwork figures, Tiffany lamps, guns, Fabergé eggs, stuffed animals, traction engines... It went on and on, getting more and more incredible, like Disneyland on acid, until the final room that we visited (the whole place would take 3-4 hours to do thoroughly and we, of course, were skimming) in which was the world's biggest indoor carousel, the Gladiator. It spun and played jangling music, 20,000 lamps lighting up the 269 animals, real and fantastic (but not one horse), and I felt like a kid again, totally overwhelmed by this huge, colourful, noisy, marvellous contraption - that no-one was allowed to ride on.
Except, in the book, they do...

Friday, January 13, 2017

Thumbs up


I've picked what I reckon will be the last bits of hard skin off the insides of my thumbs today. Yes, I thought you'd be glad to hear that. So that is the last physical connection to December's Hawaiian UnCruise now gone - unless you count all those photos, and the trusty notebook, and the blog entries, of course.

I always get - not exactly blisters, but mild trauma to my thumbs and forefingers after kayaking. I don't do it enough, and I probably don't do it properly, but it's no big deal, doesn't hurt much, and is certainly worth it to be able to get out and skim along on water so blue and so clear as it was there. Though, actually, it was less skimming on that first Maui kayak, more heaving, thanks (no thanks) to Tom, who I'm certain didn't do his share of the paddling. I couldn't see, since he was behind me, but I reckon this photo is the proof.
It was a lot more fun when I did it at the Big Island with Dave, who (possibly with a touch of benevolent sexism) did the lion's share when I went out with him a day or two later. And it was a lot less fun, though retrospectively much more satisfying, when I did it almost exactly a year ago today with the Baby, here on Waiheke, on a day pretty much like this one with the sun shining and the wind just a little too brisk.
It was hard work and a bit alarming, with the possibility of capsize never far from my mind, and we were a lot of the time some distance out from shore - much further than I could swim (which is not saying much, I admit). It took ages to get from Onetangi around Thompson's Point and along to the blessed safety of Palm Beach - and then equally as long to return since, defying all logic, there was a head wind both ways. It was gruelling, to be honest. But, of all the kayaking I've done, and despite the pretty fish we saw in Hawaii, it was the outing I remember most vividly, and am proudest of.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Lucky to be here (Updated)

I'm writing about Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii today, specifically the Lava Ocean Tour we took in a catamaran to see the lava entering the sea. As usual, I did no research beforehand, having just the vaguest idea of what it comprised - but now that I've done the background reading, I'm more than faintly horrified at how dangerous it had the potential to be.

Of course, since it was the US, there was a closely-typed waiver to sign, but (only now) reading it, it was all about tripping over things on the boat. At our briefing beforehand, Captain Shane was more threatening than welcoming - though, as I recall, he focused much more on our personal frailties (bad backs, pregnancy, injuries, nausea) with respect to the roughness of the sea than on anything else. I don't remember him saying, for instance, that we could die.

But, it seems that was entirely possible. In the most spectacular way, actually - we did the tour on December 19 and, according to the Hawaii Volcano Observatory website, on the 31st most of the section of the lava delta that we visited collapsed into the sea. I say "visited" - in fact, for half an hour we were bobbing on the sea, surrounded in steam, at times literally no more than 3 metres from where the lava was flowing and spitting (but, luckily I now realise, not generating much in the way of the "flying debris" that the website warns of). And that steam? A cocktail of seawater, hydrochloric acid and fine volcanic particles, apparently.

"If the coastguard asks, tell him half a mile," the guide said. Oh, how we laughed! 
UPDATE: And here in the local paper (and on the TV news, and on Twitter) is what Kilauea is up to right now - super dramatic. It's a 'firehose' of lava shooting out of a lava tube exposed when the section of the lava field that we saw two weeks before, broke off and dropped into the sea. Apparently it was a whole 26 acres of delta that disappeared! Amazing. And now there's this steady, uninterrupted flow of lava shooting out of the tube, looking distinctly unreal. And the footage that's being shown was taken by Shane, the captain of the boat that took us on our Ocean Lava Tour, and he's quoted in the story. Connections, people!

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Art and geography quiz

Quick: Chicago, DC, Queenstown and Hawaii - what's the connection? Clue: it's arty. And it's unfair to expect you to understand the Hawaii link. No? Gothic? Yeah, some of you are getting there, aren't you? Someone saying Grant Wood? Well done! Of course, being able to see the photos below may have been just a bit of a giveaway.

The famous 1930 American Gothic painting by Wood hangs, like Nighthawks, above, in the Art Institute of Chicago, which is where I saw it first, and where (so far as I'm aware) it has always hung. So, when I was watching a while ago a rerun of Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian with Ben Stiller (purely because I'd been to the museum recently) and spotted the painting in the background of one shot, I knew that it was an error.

Then, when I was in Queenstown last February, on the wall up at the Skyline on top of Bob's Peak, I came across the painting again. Not the original, natch - this one was composed of 20,000 gourmet jelly beans in 32 colours. Apparently it took 130 hours to compose. I wonder how that compares with the original? And how many beans were eaten during the process? (And whether the artist has been able to touch one again since...)

Finally, on my recent UnCruise through four Hawaiian islands, there was a very pleasant couple on board who (minus the shades and the shaka salute) straight away put me in mind of the painting again. I didn't mention it, though. Should I have?


Friday, January 6, 2017

Waiheke whining

Seven! Even I'm impressed. Seven times on a Segway, now - in Sausalito, DC, Durban, Perth, Queenstown, Kaikoura and today Waiheke, with the cleverly-named SegWai. Andrew's been in operation here for two years, but I only noticed him last month, parked with his punters at the gelato stand in Oneroa. So this morning I tagged along, joining two others (who, by what is by now for me a ho-hum sort of coincidence, have also done the DC thing) on a 2-hour, 20km ride around the western tip of Waiheke.

Since we were all veterans, after signing the single-sentence waiver (two PAGES in the US, plus a video) and helmeting up, Andrew checked that we were able to handle the machines, and we set off - off-road. I'd already noted the knobbly tyres, fitted because we would spend over half the time on tracks and the beach. The first bit was up through the bush and along the edge of some of Cable Bay's vineyards, to stop outside their restaurant with its views over the water to the city; and then we popped along to Mudbrick.

It was a bit unnerving, to be bumping along past hazards like potholes and logs, around trees and signs; but it was fun too, much better than gliding meekly along the road. Where it got really good, though, was after Andrew released our inner tortoises by disabling the speed limiter (not everyone gets this: but we weren't beginners, remember) which allowed us to reach the heady speed of 20 km/h. That was pretty exciting, when we were trundling along a stony beach and over rocks, as far as we could go.
It was a bit testing, ducking down to fit underneath a leaning pohutukawa tree, but we all managed it, and even got confident enough afterwards to go no-handed - not just along smooth road, but even over a speed bump. That deserved a reward, so we popped up into the town for a treat from Island Gelato, no doubt (I'm sure!) arousing envy in the breasts of all the boring pedestrians who saw us arrive and then leave again, whining away in single file down the road to return back through the bush to our start at the beach. Good fun!
PS: Just thought I'd mention - these photos, those horizons? No straightening necessary, despite being taken with one hand while in motion on an electronically balanced machine fitted with 5 gyroscopes. On uneven ground. At 20km/h.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Rubbing it in

Further to the last post, which mentioned orcas as one of my 2017 bucket-list wants, today brings this report in the local paper - about J2, leader of one of the three small pods that live in Puget Sound and are tracked by the Centre for Whale Research on San Juan Island  - at Friday Harbor, where I spent a few nights in 2010. It was when I was poking around the Whale Museum there that an announcement was made that orcas had been spotted on the other side of the island (possibly the incredibly ancient Granny and her family). So off we dashed to the prime viewing spot to stand, hopefully but sadly in vain, gazing out over the glittering waves looking for that unmistakeable fin.

It was to be a pattern. So many places I've been, where orcas hang out, including here in Auckland Harbour, and how many have I seen? Zilch. Or, almost zilch. I'd just got settled on the ferry to the city last month when the captain announced, offhandedly, "Oh, by the way, those orcas are still over there, on the left."


Of course I dashed out on deck, to see, way over near the rocks, three big fins just discernible against the white of their splashes. All I had was my phone, so the photo is crap. I'm not that bothered, though, since I reckon the sighting was so distant, and brief, that it doesn't count. It just rubs it in that fate is conspiring against my getting a proper viewing. I mean, people have told me about orcas hunting stingrays right beside the wharf at Matiatia, tossing them up out of the water - even, once, coming right to the beach to retrieve a ray that had been thrown too far. And these three, you know, had been circling the bay, swimming right past the wharf, while I was sitting inside, reading the local rag, totally unaware. Bummer.

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