Wednesday, December 17, 2014

One less reason to go to San Diego

It was too cold when I was in Chicago in October for the Lincoln Park Zoo rhinos to venture out. I went three times to see if they'd emerged, but though I could hear them thumping around inside their stable, they stayed tucked away in the warm. I sympathised - I was finding it pretty chilly myself - but it was disappointing, especially as they had a baby black rhino.

I have seen, and had my toes sucked by, babies before, in South Africa at an orphanage that takes in the survivors from poaching attacks. Sometimes they have to have wounds dressed from being slashed at with the poachers' machetes, to keep them away from the mother, while the horns are being hacked off her face to send to China and Vietnam for huge sums of money to make pretend medicine. The babies wail, and it's a heart-breaking sound.

It's a noise that's echoed through the African bush more often this year than ever before. In 2000, for comparison, just six rhino were killed by poachers in South Africa. That was the end of the good times for rhino. Last year the toll was 1004 - and this year, so far, it's reached 1116. That's a lot of wailing, and not just from orphaned babies. There are so many people working so hard in all the African countries that still have rhino populations, to protect and preserve them, and it's getting more and more difficult not to see it as a losing battle.
Don't be fooled by the apparently big numbers: 20,000 white rhino still alive in Africa, and 5,000 black rhino. The tipping point has now been reached, where reproduction rates can't cancel out the poaching losses. It's all downhill from here, unless something more is done. Just the other day, at San Diego Zoo, one of the last 6 northern white rhino, a sub-species, died of old age. Now there are only 5 left in the entire world, all of them in zoos, and all getting older and older.

There is a plan to take 100 rhino to Botswana - where they have a shoot-to-kill policy with poachers - to keep them as an insurance policy against their loss elsewhere. There's even a project, still in its early stages, to do the same thing in Australia. How strange it would be, to see rhino grazing in the Outback! These are immensely expensive undertakings, and it's heartening that people are prepared to take them on - but they're stop-gap measures. What's really needed is to halt the demand from the end markets, to make it harder, physically and socially, to be a poacher, and to strengthen the protection already being given to rhino in Africa (and Nepal, and Java, and Sumatra).

All those things are happening already, but it costs money. Can you send some to help? I have.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Nothing says 'Christmas' like a Tae Kwan Do panda in a Santa hat

Oh, the bliss of sleeping for 12 hours solid and waking up at a normal hour! Magic. Returning from Dubai was not as good as going there, simply because of the timing: day vs night. The lie-flat bed was as comfortable as ever, especially with the under-duvet-type mattress that Emirates supplies, and the food was as good and the drinks as free-flowing ("You can have anything you like!" I was assured, eagerly); but there's no getting around the fact that if it's bright daylight outside, your body won't be fooled. So thank goodness for an entire season of Breaking Bad to pass the time, that's all I can say. In regard to which, yay for television and its multi-episode series available on aircraft entertainment systems - so much more absorbing than a piffling 90-minute movie. And they say that our attention spans are diminishing! Pft.

I could have slept for longer, in fact, but it was the unusual sound of bagpipes that brought me around. That distinctive skirl is unavoidable on the streets of Edinburgh or Glasgow but it's not common in my leafy Auckland suburb. It means only one thing: the Christmas parade. So there were children and dogs and parents and old people, costumes and tinsel and Santa hats, leisure groups and school and kindergarten, Guides and Pippins and Sea Scouts and Pony Club. The latter was on foot, sadly, and presumably for some officious health-and-safety pseudo-reason; instead there were vintage cars. Again, pft.

While I was on the Uniworld Christmas Markets cruise, many of the Americans I spoke to marvelled at how odd it must be to have a warm Christmas, and while I in turn marvelled at the double-think of the Californians, I did have to admit that cold is better. After growing up with and enjoying 24 summer Christmases, it took only one cold Christmas to turn me. It is better in winter. All the customs and trimmings of the festival were developed for cold weather and that's when they work best, from the lights to the turkey. And the single-focus makes it more special too, undiluted by end-of-school-year functions and looming summer holidays.

Having said all which, though, there's no getting past that a cold Christmas is exactly that: cold. And maybe it's worth foregoing some of the distinctly chilly northern delights I was enjoying earlier this week, to be able instead to stand in the sun with bare arms and legs, and watch a cutter full of kids in Santa hats pulled by a vintage John Deere tractor pass by on its way to the park for a sausage sizzle.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Auf Wiedersehen

My last night on the ship was broken by a bump in the stilly watches: had to be a lock. And it was, right there outside the veranda window, so close I could touch the concrete, which I did. And then I went back to sleep again until my usual 4am, which has pretty much been the pattern for all of us on this trip. Still think being a travel writer is all fun and freebies? Jetlag is no respecter of Business class, you know.

Anyway, on the bright side, it was literally bright when I opened the curtains. Not actually, you know, sunny, but there was an area of cloud that was less grey than the rest, and it was possible to imagine that somewhere behind it there was the sun, shining. It was a novelty, and a popular topic of conversation at breakfast over the Bircher muesli and eggs Benedict. The other passengers were heading in the afternoon into the Wachau Valley, a section of the Danube with wooded hills, the odd castle, vineyards, and they were pleased to think they might be able to stand on the so far hypothetically-labelled sun deck to enjoy it. But not us: we would be in a minivan on our way back to Vienna’s murk.
In the meantime, though, there was a Benedictine monastery on the top of a nearby hill with a grand staircase, painted ceilings and a lovely Baroque church where an organ played for us. And a Christmas market - but you probably guessed that. This one included great wheels of cheese, adding a savoury element to the usual cinnamon and ginger smells.
Back in the little town of Krems there were more shiny things as well as an appealing pedestrian street, onion-domed churches and a remarkable variety of dogs on leashes.

And then we left the others to continue their cruise towards Passau while we started our long journey home. Thanks though to an eminently efficient and practical public transport system, we were able to pop from the airport into the city again for a final dose of culture: the National Library, a high, dim hall lined with leather-bound books and displayed copies of illuminated manuscripts dating back to 1430. Beautiful, and astonishingly detailed work - though it should be noted that cats all over the internet isn’t a new phenomenon:
Finally, we went to the Albertina art gallery to look at the ornately-decorated staterooms and an impressive collection from Monet to Miro. It also includes the actual, original, 1502 The Hare, by Albrecht Durer, which was a personal excitement to see, despite discovering that the image was prostituted in the gift shop as fridge magnet, pen, wine-glass lampshade, pack of tissues… Best souvenir prize though has to go to the yellow diamond road sign novelties stating ‘No Kangaroos in Austria’ - apparently, so many American tourists arrive here asking where the roos are, that it’s become a thing. What a hoot.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Wieder in Wien

On my third visit to Vienna, I'm still surprised by how grand it is, how neat, and how compact - everything I wanted was just around the corner, or next door. It wasn't actually raining, either, which helped, though the cobbles were still wet. That meant that the guard of honour we came across for some Japanese dignitary made a somewhat creepily evocative sound as their boots slapped down in unison as they marched away. Much nicer was the clatter of hooves, from the carriage horses all over the place and also some of the Spanish Riding School horses being taken across the road to their stables.
I wasn't able to go to their morning training session but the next best thing was to do a stable tour. It started off in that magnificent arena where the wood shavings had been neatly raked and the roof was an architectural marvel of its time. We heard all about the horses and their riders before going over to the stable yard complete with barrows of hay, a Christmas tree and a very friendly cat, where a few of the horses were looking out at us. Inside, the loose boxes were all deep golden straw, iron bars and wooden partitions, with ornamental horses' heads on the wall and each horse labelled with its lineage and name. They're stallions, of course, but are called by their dam's name, which seems a bit emasculating. Their feed schedules were written up, too: I liked that their grain mix is called muesli.
We weren't allowed to take photos in there, or to touch the horses, sadly, but I did shoot this one sneakily from the hip, which is why it's crooked. The horses were surprisingly regular-looking, only just over 15 hands, very round, with drooping Hapsburg lower lips, and not all of them were grey (white). Which is not to say that they weren't also beautiful creatures. And then there was the obligatory visit to Cafe Hawelka, all dim and old and cosy.
The day also included a visit to the Jewish museum behind the stark memorial to the 65,000 Viennese Holocaust victims, a sobering counterbalance to the frivolity of the many Christmas markets scented with cinnamon and ginger, and sparklingly pretty.
We finished with a classical concert for us alone, in a beautiful private music salon with a high, ornately carved wooden ceiling and perfect acoustics. The small orchestra of ten made a glorious sound, and almost as enjoyable as the Strauss and Mozart pops was the evident pleasure of the musicians at being able to play in such a perfect place. It was a brilliant way to end the day.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Nothing to see here. Just, you know, more of the usual.

Europe has so many small, charming towns. You know, river, hill, castle, winding cobbled streets, market square, cosy coffee shops, grand buildings, battered and busy trams, history, churches... Bratislava's just another. And that's exactly why it's worth visiting, of course. Such a delight! Even on a perishing cold day with rain that really feels as though it should be sleet.
The afternoon tour was for that reason a bit of an ordeal, as the day and I got colder and colder - but after a return to the ship for some more layers (six, on the top half, and two on the bottom) everything got better. It helped that the wind dropped, but also as it got darker the lights shone more brightly, and then the locals finished work and came out to play. Near the Opera House, they were ice-skating, and in the main square the tables in the centre filled up with people enjoying mulled wine and punch, standing laughing and chatting. Families wandered the stalls, the children as entranced as I was by the colourful displays of crafts, Christmas decorations, live sheep and goats in the nativity scene, and food.
As for that, well, it was all about potatoes, it seemed. First there was a big, deep fried hash brown, hot and crispy. Then one of those irresistible spiral-cut spuds on a stick that are essentially one long potato chip. Then, for pudding, a potato pancake rolled up with chocolate inside - hot and messy, but much more chocolate than potato. There were also baked potatoes, sautéed potatoes, potato crepes...
Our guide had told us all about the history, invasions, politics, literature, music of the city, but it was the recommended chocolate shop that stuck in my mind, so I escaped from the cold and dark into its warmth to have one. Once I'd sorted my fogged-up glasses and peeled off the layers, the hat, the gloves, and got comfortable, I must say I was a bit disconcerted. Hot chocolate here is nothing like at home. For a start, it's barely liquid. It does come in a cup, but it's really melted chocolate, as easy to drink as lava for temperature and viscosity. And so rich!

Really, the mulled wine afterwards was just practical, to unstick my tongue from my teeth.

The day finished with two local musicians in the ship lounge performing some remarkably athletic music on a variety of instruments that included a stick. Well, ok, a tube, but with no other holes - it was amazing how tuneful it was. Those Aboriginals need to up their game.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Goodbye to Budapest

The decorations on the Christmas tree were trembling. Otherwise, there was little to show for our being underway, once we'd cleared the city's floodlit bridges and buildings. The River Beatrice set off this evening at 6pm from Budapest, next stop tomorrow noon at Bratislava - where, according to the Captain, it will also be raining.

It was at least gentle, vertical rain - unlike Auckland's - so my umbrella did a decent job of keeping most of me dry. Gazing upwards like a tourist, though, did mean that I stepped several times into surprisingly deep puddles - but, dutiful as ever, I ploughed on.
In the morning I took the city tour with Barbara, a lovely local with an English accent and a sense of humour much drier than the weather. We did the usual circuit - Andrassy Avenue, House of Terror, Heroes Square (shining wet and empty), over the river to Matthias Church (warm and colourful) and then to our first Christmas market back in Pest. It was a good start: lovely, unique crafts and tempting food and mulled wine, chocolates and pastries. Pretty, colourful, smelt good - I liked it.
Up Andrassy Avenue I popped into the Book Cafe, where they sell both wine and books - what a civilised combination - and where upstairs there's a gorgeous Art Deco cafe where waiters with trays whisk between the tables, reflected in huge mirrors, and beneath an ornate ceiling. There are a lot of bookshops in Budapest, I noticed, always a good sign, and proper ones too, like libraries.

Things got more serious at the Grand Synagogue where I walked past a garden containing the remains of more than 2,000 unnamed Jews who died of cold or starvation in the last years of the war, "a memorial to an era when all human feeling was lost". Upstairs there's a small but intense Holocaust Museum with photos of the ghetto, the dispossessed, the victims. In the garden outside names are engraved on the lower leaves of a stainless steel sculpture of a weeping willow tree.
The rain continued to fall and the only way to keep warm - other than being sensible and civilised,
and going into one of the many inviting-looking cafes (but that would have taken money, and I had no forints) - was to keep walking briskly, so it didn't take that long to get to the lovely covered market, all coloured tiles outside and high ceiling inside. It's a proper market and full of local touches: plaits of chilli peppers on the vegetable stalls, lots of pork (including heads and trotters) at the butchers', paprika in every imaginable form.

And then I was back at the boat, and that was it for Budapest: colder, wetter and gloomier than I was hoping, but still with enough interest, pleasure and delight to please those who have never seen the city's summer face. And, after all, it is December now.

RIP Dr Ian Player - I hope

I've met two great men so far in my life. The first was Sir Edmund Hillary and the second was Dr Ian Player, who has just died.

When I met him in the South African bush in September, he was clearly very frail, and it was remarkable the care and respect with which he was treated by all the hard men who surrounded him. Despite having to be supported in a chair, he spoke with real passion to the 140 students of the World Youth Rhino Summit, and he was an inspiration.

In the 1960s he saved the white rhino from certain extinction, and it was so special to hear him talk about the cause in the same park, iMfelozi, where he did that. He spent his life doing practical work to save the rhino as well as travelling and talking and organising, to inspire others to do the same.

Passion, inspiration, respect, greatness: words that get cheapened with overuse these days - but every one of them is true and accurate in this case. It was a real privilege to meet Dr Player. He will only rest in peace if we carry on his cause.

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