Wednesday, 18 May 2022

Reluctant record

There are some horribly big numbers out there right now: the US recently reached the chilling milestone of one million Covid deaths, and there've been over 6 million world-wide. Not long ago NZ scored a million cases since the start of the pandemic - one fifth of the population - and then today we finally, inevitably, not only reached but surpassed 1000 deaths from/with Covid - 90% of them people aged 60+. It's pretty scary how fast that last number shot up after Omicron arrived, because back in only February, we still had just 55 deaths overall since the start of this whole sorry business, and there were long periods with no deaths reported at all. Things have changed so quickly.

So, even though we’ve also scored another big number - 95% eligible population double-vaxxed, plus over half so far also boosted, it feels a bit dodgy that the border, already now open to lots of countries, will reopen to everyone from the end of July. Of course the tourism industry is desperate for that to happen, and my travel writer colleagues, sick and tired of dredging up old material, and competing with each other for local stories, are already heading off overseas, despite flight uncertainty and general infection risks.

It certainly is tempting, seeing their photos of overseas destinations looking so adorably and excitingly foreign. I’d love to go. Maybe, since the experts are gloomily predicting another five years of all this, we should just lump Covid in with all the other risks and uncertainties that give travel its addictive frisson? 

Monday, 9 May 2022

Who, where and what

While I was otherwise occupied, my brain drifted off this morning and dredged up Mnangagwa from ages ago. I'm guessing it was prompted by reading about Ncuti Gatwa being selected as the next Doctor Who, which is causing exactly the sort of kerfuffle you might expect. Mnangagwa, though definitely sounding familiar, I had to Google to identify - and, of course, it's Emmerson Mnangagwa, who is President of Zimbabwe.

Having read the name three times now, you too will have it filed away in your memory recesses ready for when that question pops up in your next game of Trivial Pursuit. Which is entirely why I learnt it in the first place, since over the last dozen years or so, the only time I've played TP has been on cruises, and more often than not it was on a Silversea cruise with Moss Hills as quizmaster. Moss, though looking and sounding proper Home Counties, was born and brought up in Zimbabwe, so it was a reasonable expectation that one of his questions might at some point be about the president. (Sadly, though, never.)

We came across Moss on three separate cruises with Silversea, and always enjoyed his work as Cruise Director, organising and presenting the entertainment programme, and being approachable and sociable around the ship. In all those interactions, though, he never mentioned this major life event which, for no obvious reason, has had him popping up recently in various media including a BBC podcast that I've been following for ages.

Turns out, in 1991, back when he was a long-haired guitarist on board the Greek liner Oceanos, he ended up supervising the evacuation of the ship when it was sinking off the coast of southern Africa in a big storm. It's a terrific story, and he comes out of it deservedly well, putting himself in real danger as, in the absence of the ship's officers who had commandeered the first lifeboat and blithely saved themselves, he and the other entertainers helped guests into the other lifeboats and lowered them into the sea. Then the ship listed too far for that so, after managing to contact help, Moss supervised loading passengers into rescue helicopters. He and his wife were the last to leave the ship, which then sank. No lives were lost, thanks to him, plus the other entertainers who included a magician. The ship's captain and senior officers were later found guilty of 'negligence'.

It doesn't take much effort to work out why Moss never mentioned this adventure while we were all sailing the high seas in a cruise ship. But since you're no doubt sitting safely at home, you can read all about it here and here.

Monday, 21 March 2022

Up right out back

 All hail the internet! It was way back in 2014 when I did this trip to Kakadu in the Northern Territory, but it was easy to check up on the facts before I submitted this story in response to a request for Australian material. It was a bit of a shame then that, having written and sent in six assorted stories, the bubble with our neighbour burst again, and they had to be filed away. But at least I was paid, in advance! Which is rare, very rare... Now though, finally, the borders are open again, and this story has finally seen the light of day.

So I look forward to seeing the others, about Ningaloo, and the Bibbulmun, and Rottnest, Broome and the Stuart Highway, in the coming weeks. I do enjoy remembering those colourful trips and, as ever, hope that the stories will prompt Kiwis to break away from their boring Melbourne-Sydney-Gold Coast mindset, and explore other bits of Australia, especially the amazing Outback.

It's kind of a shame that 'The Tourist' on HBO Max isn't as gripping as it should be, given its Outback setting, and its cast; because it might otherwise intrigue some viewers enough to make them want to get a taste of that location. Never mind, though: season 2 of Tim Minchin's 'Upright' is about to be filmed. Season 1 was about a journey across the Nullabor Plain heading to Perth, and it was glorious - not even just for the scenery, either. It's a funny, sad and original story and, of course, has excellent music, notably for me 'Carry You', sung over the final credits by Missy Higgins

The song starts with a mention of fish and chips on Perth's Cottesloe beach, where I went to do a story about their annual sculpture exhibition. I really enjoyed it, and not just because I got, for the first and only time ever, a per diem - what a thrill! But the exhibition was great too, and it was the perfect place to stage it, along that gorgeous beach.

Connections? Well, Cottesloe’s sculpture exhibition is on again right now; plus Sculpture on the Gulf is currently running here on Waiheke, which I've written about, of course. And I did go to see Tim Minchin last year, performing at the Civic, a theatre I've also written about, of course. Upright S2 is going to be filmed in Queensland, but I have faith that Tim will break away from the boring bits and take us viewers into less familiar, but far more spectacular, locations. Can't wait.

Thursday, 10 March 2022

Shackleton, yes - but also Worsley

It's lovely to be distracted from all the horrible world news by the discovery in Antarctica, 3000m underneath the increasingly solid surface of the Weddell Sea, of the amazingly well-preserved wreck of the Endurance. It sank in 1915, on an ill-judged voyage towards a crossing of the continent by Ernest Shackleton - he was strongly advised not to go, because winter had started early that year, but he was stubborn and went anyway, with his crew of 27 men, 69 dogs and one cat.

The discovery was announced on the 100th anniversary of Shackleton's funeral, in South Georgia, where he had gone again to attempt another Antarctic expedition, his fourth. He died in Grytviken of a second heart attack, the first having happened in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil en route to South Georgia - which he had brushed aside. Antarctica does that to you, you know - gets under your skin, draws you back, won't let go.

I'd go there again like a shot, offered the chance. It's unique, stunningly beautiful, and pitilessly inhospitable. On my Silversea cruise there, despite it being so expensive (*cough* to regular punters, not freebie-grabbing travel writers like me), several of the passengers guests had already been there at least once.

We visited Shackleton's grave there, and toasted 'The Boss' with a glass of champagne; and later visited dauntingly barren and rocky Elephant Island, where his crew had clung for four and a half unimaginably brutal months while awaiting rescue. That they were indeed all saved is due in huge part to the comparatively-unsung hero Frank Worsley - of Akaroa, NZ - who managed to navigate their little lifeboat in almost impossible conditions over 1300 stormy kilometres to South Georgia, to summon a ship for rescue. 

It's also thanks to Worsley's excellent mapping skills that the discoverers of the Endurance knew to look in pretty much the right place for the wreck. And, another Kiwi connection, one of the photography team who took these amazing images is James Blake, son of Sir Peter, famous sailor, who was killed by pirates while on an expedition up the Amazon. In Brazil.

PS While writing this entry, a Silversea email popped into my inbox about - you guessed it - expedition cruises to polar regions, focussing on a giant petrel feeding frenzy in South Georgia and Zodiac explorations in Antarctica. Connections, people.

Tuesday, 22 February 2022


So, today it’s eleven years since Christchurch entered its new normal. On that day I stood in my living room with the nice guy who was painting our house and we watched the shocking images on TV coming through from my hometown as people fought to escape the destruction, get home, check on their families, and begin the long, long process of adapting to this sudden and catastrophic change. 

Today, I’m in a different house, with a different but equally nice guy painting it, and blithely tweeted about hoping that was as far as the coincidence went. But actually, another new normal is upon us, with the whole country trying to adapt to living with Omicron, which has just in the last week suddenly inflated daily case numbers, tenfold: 2843 today. We have still had only 55 deaths overall, which is pretty incredible; but, just as everywhere else in the world, we’ve lost our old lives, and the future, which we’ve started on already, is going to be very different. We’ll manage, I suppose. We always do. 

Friday, 14 January 2022

Different sorts of gold

 With thanks to Tourism Central Otago for their help

More brilliant weather today, sunny but not too hot - just perfect for a walk up the Bannockburn Sluicings near Cromwell, which I'd never seen before. Local guide and enthusiast Terry escorted my cousin and me on this ramble through some very striking, hoodoo-like scenery. It was all man-made, though - back in the gold rush days, this bit of the country was heaving with people seeking their fortune, turning it upside down - pretty literally - in the process.

Now the rawness has been slightly muted by weather smoothing the edges, and plants like thyme, viper's bugloss and scratchy matagouri; but it's still impressive and slightly exhausting, to look upon it all and imagine the effort that was expended here. Honestly, huge gullies dug out mostly by hand, to get down to the gold-bearing schist that they would sluice - all the unwanted soil and gravel, plus mercury and cyanide used in extraction, being flushed straight into the river, killing the fish. Now, of course, and highly ironically, all this destruction is carefully preserved and protected.

It is really striking scenery, though. Surrounded by dry, brown, bare hills (not the miners' fault - the original forests were burnt by Maori 300 years earlier, to make it easier to hunt the moa [native giant flightless birds]) there are rocky cliffs burrowed into by long tunnels, piles of hand-washed rocks that must make today's builders drool, a network of water-races, some of them bringing that valuable tool from the mountains over 50km away, a huge shallow reservoir, cute remains of dwellings...

To do the loop takes about an hour and a half, minimum, but that is easily lengthened by detours, rests and unexpected treats like vintage but still productive apricot and pear trees. Well worth doing, and I'm glad I did.

Also, because it built up an honest appetite for lunch, which we had at Desert Heart, a nearby winery where we tackled a huge and delicious tasting platter, plus corn tacos, washed down by a first, a rosé slushy, which was fun, and just right for such a hot day. We sat outside again, under shade, and it was gorgeous.

Off-duty now, we drove to historic little Clyde, which I can't remember having visited before - main street of pretty stone cottages with porches, rambling roses and tall hollyhocks, a power station in the turquoise river, and the impressive single-lane metal truss bridge nearby. I wished we had more time there.

But then we had to go back and climb into a 1958 Thunderbird - a very grand way to get to dinner at the historic Bannockburn Hotel, now in its third iteration. Again, we sat outside, enjoying the view, and ate baked Camembert, lamb ribs, home-made Cumberland sausage with truffle and Parmesan fries. Delicious! 

Next we took take part in an unofficial classic car rally. Nobody could be bothered negotiating the Covid regulations that an official one would require, so everyone - and I was astonished how many cars there were - just assembled near a park, chatted for a bit, and then cruised through Cromwell several times, waved at by spectators seated along the road, clearly aware it was taking place. 

And then we rumbled quietly back home again, under an almost-full moon rising.

Thursday, 13 January 2022

Bikes, brrrrm and a barrel

With thanks to Tourism Central Otago for their help

Such a good day today, activities and locations blessed by absolutely glorious weather. The Queenstown famil done and dusted, we drove to Cromwell to visit my cousin and have a bit of a taster of this generally overlooked little town. What has, though, earned it some attention lately is a newish cycle trail along the edge of Lake Dunstan that has some properly spectacular sections suspended from the cliffs. Kitted up by Colin on an e-bike, and accompanied by Michael, we drove around to the other side of the lake to do one of its most famous sections.

At Cornish Point, we mounted up and set off along the remarkably busy track. It was a beautiful summer's day, and still holiday time, so there were lots of friendly people out enjoying it all. As did I - blue lake, golden hills, black rock, a good path that had some exciting drop-offs (not literally, fortunately), a few moderately puffy climbs with correspondingly steep downhill rewards, and three clip-on sections. These were very impressive engineering achievements, hugging the curves of the cliffs, and looking airy and non-invasive - if somewhat snug to cycle along.

We rode 5km to the coffee boat, an enterprising local's business that has done so well that there's now also a burger boat, both moored stern-in and welcoming a steady stream of customers keen for a break. The track continued past them along to the head of the lake and beyond, but we turned around here and cycled back to the car, from where Michael and I, both novices but keen, returned to Colin's by bike.

It was a lovely ride, just demanding enough (e-bikes for the win) and with lots to look at: rocky hills, boats on the lake, blue river, neat and very inviting vineyards, open grassland, wooded bits, and a fun bridge where the bike section was a clip-on. The track was mostly well away from the road, well maintained, and really enjoyable for both the physical (un)demands, and the views. The final section was riding past Cromwell's Heritage Precinct, which is full of lovely old buildings. There was some serious family discussion at the end about how far we'd ridden - 40km was reluctantly agreed on - but it really didn't matter, because it had been so pleasant.

The next thing was a visit to Highlands Motorsport Museum just outside town. This was yet another of the many car museums I've had to go to for work and, again, somewhere I've ended up having more fun than I expected. It's a really professional set-up, no expense spared: big modern museum filled with classic and rare cars worth millions, café overlooking a 4km+ racetrack with all the straights and bends, an exciting go-cart track and, most fun of all, Loos with a View. 

There are six of these, each jokily different, and they're such a feature that it's perfectly acceptable to go into the opposite sex's (empty, natch) ones. There are even squeezy bottles to fill with water in one of the men's toilets, to squirt into the urinals shaped like musical instruments, to make them play a tune together. Fun though that is, that particular loo is dominated by a separate urinal which, the label claims, is a caricature of a local. Really?

That night we went out to eat at the Stoaker Room in Cromwell, where they cook the meats in a combination smoker/steamer/bbq they've made out of a wine barrel. We sat on benches at a long table in a marquee, and had an equally long and chatty family dinner (pork belly ciabatta for me, very nice). Afterwards I got called back by the waitress for overpaying by 50c.


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