Tuesday, March 20, 2018

BM = Bitter Memory

I was writing about the Ghan the other day for a travel company's blog - incidentally, SO much better paid than writing for the newspapers these days, which is kind of a sadly vicious circle - and though it didn't get into the story, Bircher muesli was at the forefront of my mind.
The Ghan is the train that runs between Adelaide and Darwin, 2979km from one side of Australia to the other. When I first rode it back in 1975, it was still using the original route following the Overhead Telegraph line, on narrow-gauge tracks. Wash-outs were common and the train often had to crawl along the dodgy track so slowly that, standing outside at the back of a carriage, I once saw a trail of ants on a parallel rail moving more quickly - literally. Travelling with an Austrail pass, I had a room to myself which was fairly snug - the fold-up basin was a novelty - but it was luxury compared with the people in the seated carriages down the back. I remember being busy with my needle, taking IN the waistband of a pair of denim shorts (1975, remember) when the carriage attendant popped in to offer me a cup of tea, saw what I was doing, and asked if I would sew a button back on his jacket. Which I did, feeling only slightly used (he was an older guy).
Mainly, though, apart from initiating a life-long addiction to train journeys, that trip was notable for introducing me to Bircher muesli, which I'd never encountered before. It was a revelation, and ever since I've eaten it wherever it's been offered on the breakfast menu, all around the world, in hotels and restaurants and on cruise ships. I soon learned that it is a mutable beast, different in its every incarnation - drier, wetter, with fresh fruit or not, sweeter or not, nuts or not - so it's become a theme, an enjoyable private thread of experimentation running throughout my travels, and always recorded in my notebook, from BM - yuk! to BEST EVER BM! (On which topic, I'm deeply disappointed to report that the Bircher muesli on Silversea's Silver Explorer on my recent Antarctica cruise was at the Yuk! end of the scale: hopelessly too wet and flavourless.)
That was nothing though compared with the ghastly discovery, when I rode the Ghan again in 2009, that there was NO BIRCHER MUESLI on the menu any longer! Honestly, despite my travelling Platinum class, with a big double suite all to myself and lots of fancy extras, I was so let down. It was going to be a satisfying come-full-circle kind of thing, and it just didn't happen. I still feel thwarted. 
The other thing that journey was notable for was the crazy adventure of an Alaskan backpacker who just missed rejoining the train at Port Augusta, ran after it along the tracks, and climbed into a stairwell where he clung on for over 2 hours till he was discovered, hypothermic and perilously close to dropping off to his undoubted death in the dark, chilly and remote Outback. I'm guessing he didn't even notice the Bircher muesli scandal.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Pining for the fiords (well, glaciers)

Yes, agreed, this is a First World Problem, no argument. It's a privilege to even think about describing it, I realise that. OK?

So. On my recent Silversea cruise to the Antarctic (cue a volley of clicks on the x above) the term 'bucket list' was bandied around a lot. A lot. So many people I spoke to on board were gleefully anticipating ticking Antarctica off, having dreamed for ages of going there some day. And that is perfectly understandable and acceptable: it's a spectacular, beautiful, unique place, far away and hard to get to. It takes a lot of money and effort to go there - but quite apart from the delight of being there, and the memories (and thousands of photos) you carry away, there's the enjoyment of being able to bore people about your trip for the rest of your life. All worth a one-off major splurge, right? Absolutely.
Except, and here's the thing, there was a surprising number of people on board who had actually already been there. I truly was surprised. I'd thought Antarctica was the epitome of a been-there, done-that destination, for the reasons above. But, apparently, not. How rich would you have to be, I wondered, and/or how exhaustingly well-travelled, to be going somewhere like Antarctica for the second time?

[Side note: Silversea is a top-of-the-line cruise company, ie not cheap - this 18-day cruise started at NZ$30,000, with many unavoidable add-ons - but such is the ambience on board that you really wouldn't be able to pick the insanely rich from those who had saved up for years to buy their ticket. Or, indeed (so I hoped, anyway) those who had swanned there on a freebie.]
This, though, was all before we got very far into the cruise. Once we'd hit (metaphorically) South Georgia, and definitely once we got to the Antarctic Peninsula, it all became clear. This place is absolutely, honestly and truly, so thoroughly spectacular, beautiful, unique and SPECIAL that I understood why people went to all that expense and trouble to come back again. More than understood: agreed with them. Now I want to return to Antarctica too. I want to see again those icebergs, watch, hear and even smell all those adorable penguins, hear the clink and fizz of ice in the water on a rocky beach, and know that I am once again on the coldest, driest, highest and most stunning continent on the planet.

You listening, Silversea? (Or anyone else, come to that.)

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Channelling Otto and Lady Bracknell

That's Otto as in Kevin Kline's character in A Fish Called Wanda, and specifically this scene:
"Disappointed!" is what I frequently feel should be carved on my gravestone, were I to have one instead of requesting that my ashes be dispersed to the elements some breezy day hopefully a year or several yet in the future. And I would have it read out in exactly Otto's tones of anger and disbelief. I'll spare you a description of all the other regularly-occurring situations in which this is my reaction, and restrict myself to this morning's.

It's Tuesday, which means Travel in the NZ Herald, and a day on which I awake in the hope of seeing in print at least one of the currently 10 stories of mine that are in the paper's files. Unlike other publications, which keep writers (me) in the loop, the Herald blithely accepts stories and then consigns them to some distant electronic attic, there to moulder and lose relevance until one day - quite possibly one year (three years+ is the record so far) later - on some unpredictable whim of the editor, it eventually appears in print, to my surprise. And satisfaction, since then I can send in my invoice and get paid. 

Though there are still some hallowed publications that pay on acceptance, the Herald's financial tardiness would still be tolerable, if the payment were reasonable - but, having been writing for the Herald for well over a dozen years now, I've watched the pay rate drop and drop. A 1000-word story would once have earned me a heady $500. Now it's a scant "hundy" as the editor cheerfully terms it.

Blame the internet, of course. That's caused dropping newspaper circulation and smaller budgets, and also fewer staff, which leads me to today's disappointment. For, I promise you, the second time in five months, the satisfaction of seeing a story of mine finally in print has been shattered by its being cut off mid-sentence, the final paragraph missing. "Production error. Entirely my fault," says the editor. "Sorry."

Understood. Too much to do, too few people to do it. But... twice? Which brings me to Lady Bracknell:

 ‘To lose one parent, Mr Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.’

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Shackleton, Scott, shrapnel and Sholes*

Skipping over for the moment the slight awkwardness of finding myself having to write advertorial for the Azamara cruise line straight after having sailed with Silversea - it's not ideal, people, the only comparison possible is not flattering to Azamara, however "luxurious" they claim to be - I was diverted to discover, nevertheless, some connections. The Silversea cruise to Antarctica, as regular readers (gidday, Queen!) will remember, was heavy on Shackleton, what with visiting his grave at Grytviken on South Georgia, and then snooping around Elephant Island and all.
Well, it turns out - and hooray for this blog, which is now indispensable as my defacto memory - that my Azamara cruise almost a year ago had its own Shackleton links too. In Akaroa, strolling back to the waterfront after my visit to the delightfully idiosyncratic - and also lovely to look at - Giant's House, I stopped to take a photo of one of that little town's characteristic pretty wooden villas. It was only then that I saw the plaque by the gate and read that it was the birthplace of Frank Wolsey, the magnificently skilled captain of the Endurance on Shackleton's doomed 1914-16 exploration. It was down to him that, when six of them left the rest of the ship's crew on Elephant Island and made their run for rescue in the hastily-adapted lifeboat James Caird, he steered them, despite rough weather and almost continuous cloud cover, straight to South Georgia. Impressive. If he'd missed by even a smidgen, the boat would have headed into the South Atlantic and the whole lot of them would have died.
And then, strolling again back towards the Journey at our next stop, Dunedin, I went into the Maritime Museum in Port Chalmers and found, amongst other miscellaneous items (including a bit of shrapnel from the Japanese attack on Darwin - that's how miscellaneous) a standard issue Overseas Expeditionary Service typewriter, claimed to have been used by not only Shackleton, but also by the fated Scott. A bit more primitive than the Imperial I learned to type on, but clearly a relation.
Well, at least now, having been reminded about other kinds of cruise maritime journey, I can type on, and be a bit more complimentary about Azamara. Thank you once again, random connections.**

* Real name, as you see in the photo - so no, I didn't omit the ellipsis. Probably a good thing they went out of business before these sweary times, eh?

**Which can also be more than a bit creepy. Only this morning, reading about Chicago's blizzard and mayor Rahm Emanuel's reassurance that the city can handle it, I was remembering having shaken his hand at IPW in 2014. And when I publish today's post, what does Blogger throw up at the bottom of it as a suggestion to read? Sinister...

Monday, January 22, 2018

Loose in Nelson

Don't ask me how it happened, but I'm blaming booking my domestic flights for this trip while somewhere en route to Antarctica and hence on the other side of the International Date Line. The upshot is, I've got an extra night here in Nelson, while the Baby, more efficiently, is scooting off home at lunchtime. She turned her nose up at the DIY waffles at the Prince Albert breakfast buffet, but I thought it was an unexpected treat for a backpackers, to have a couple of waffle irons on the bar plus batter measured out ready into glasses.
Then we wandered off into town, which is small, cute and accessible and well supplied with coffee bars, so we sat in the sun in Trafalgar Street with our flat whites while a little Asian lady swept busily all around us. After attending to a couple of errands - which included buying a pair of jandals for me as my feet were complaining about yet another day in trainers - we set off vaguely towards the Suter Art Gallery. 
We got distracted, though, by a Kite Festival on in the park on the waterfront, so we trailed over there and lay on the grass looking up at what seemed mainly fish-themed colourful kites of all sizes (though there was a horse vainly trying to get airborne, plus a pig, and a spaceman). All the kite fliers were, naturally, older white men.
The River Kitchen was ideal for an early lunch, beside the Maitai River - the best chips, plus I can recommend the portobello mushroom and halloumi burger, and Rochdale's ginger/lime cider. Having had a bit of a wander around the shops, we then (it is Sunday, after all) finished up at the back-street Craft Beer Depot, where we were the only customers. We sprawled on the sofa with a Braeburn apple hopped cider (hopped cider!) to toast the Baby's excellent idea in arranging this little expedition, and then said goodbye as she got onto her bike and pedalled off to the airport.
At an unaccustomed loose end - normally, when I'm travelling, there is precious little free time, let alone an entire half day of it - I sucked up a bit of Trafalgar St vibe, went up to Christ Church Cathedral which is Nelson's only justification to call itself a city, was a bit disconcerted to find a display of decorated Christmas trees inside, and then, in true homeless style, fell asleep on a bench in the garden alongside.
Next I went to see a movie - I've struggled to remember which one, it was so forgettable (The Commuter) - and finally moseyed back through the warm evening to the Prince Albert where, after the luxury of having a room to myself last night, I was doing it proper backpacker style in a mixed dormitory.  Not that it mattered: I was in my upper bunk with the curtains drawn before the others came to bed, and was up and away well before them next morning, so I never actually saw any of them (though I did hear snoring, and farting).

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Abel Tasman Kayaks - Day 3: Not having our kayak or eating either

Grass is softer than sand, was today's first lesson - which makes sense, of course, since sand is rock. Granite, specifically, here. Also, if you sleep scrunched up it spreads the load from your hips. And it helps to be physically tired. All of which is to report that I slept much better last night, thanks for asking, which was just as well since today was to be the most physically demanding of the trip.
I've done some tramping in my time. Greenstone Valley, Milford, Hollyford and Hump Ridge Tracks, the Tongariro Crossing - plus *cough* the Inca Trail - as well as shorter tasters in all sorts of places (some of them with added bears) - so I know I can do reasonable distance and heights. What was new about today though was carrying all my own gear.  I KNOW! Gasp and all that. All those multi-day hikes I've done were supported, by which I mean that I only carried a day pack, all the rest of my stuff being carted to the next night's accommodation by either helicopter or porter. Go on, sneer if you like - but I still walked all the steps; and was arguably in a better state to enjoy my surroundings than those people bent over under their huge backpacks. Humph.
Anyway, today I was one of those people. Our gear has been stuffed into the kayak holds up till today, but Abel Tasman Kayaks spirited our boat away yesterday because the tour we opted for means that today we walk back to our pick-up point at Anchorage, so we are the transport from here on in. The main problem for me was my tent which, since I rarely use one (and have never needed to carry it, see above) is old-fashioned and heavy - the complete opposite of the space-age set-up the Baby has, which both weighs and folds down to nothing. Me, I'm stuck in the past where heavy nylon and metal poles rule. So even putting my pack on this morning was a struggle (upper-body strength never having been my, er, strong point).
Never mind. We set off on yet another gorgeous sunny morning, the sea turquoise blue and, now that the rough weather has been over for a couple of days, beginning to clear nicely to the transparency that all the Abel Tasman tourism literature makes such a feature of, as in this stolen pic:
So, the tramp? I'll spare you the detail. It was hot and sunny, cool and shady, up and along and down, repeat. There were many photo stops, it being super-photogenic New Zealand and all; there were rest stops, it being me and all; there was talking and panting, quite a lot of sweating, ferns and fern shadows, bush, streams, bridges (including one swing bridge), streams, waterfalls, mossy rocks, bellbirds, quails, beaches, bush, views long and short.
And people. Lots and lots of people, which surprised, pleased and dismayed me in pretty much equal measure. I mean, great that there were so many people out there getting exercise and enjoyment from the scenery; but amazing and a bit disappointing that so many of them were foreigners - I mean, why aren't Kiwis doing this more? - and finally, where were the peace and solitude you (I) expect in the bush? No wonder the track was so well maintained, with all this traffic.
There were long-distance trampers with huge packs and some of them carrying gas stoves in their hands like briefcases, day-walkers like us, and even people straying away from the nearest beach in bikinis and jandals. Some played music, many were nattering loudly (so I knew they were German - so many Germans! it was like a walk in the Black Forest - and Brits, Americans, Spanish, Chinese), and there was a traffic jam of selfie-takers at the suspension bridge. I was pleased to see so many solo girls, though.
We paused at Bark Bay again, where I was so glad not to be going in the opposite direction because it was a LONG steep climb that way, and where we waded through the lagoon, disturbing the oystercatchers and learning from the cheerful DOC guy cleaning the toilets that 29 degrees was predicted for today. (The DOC campsites we used and passed through, by the way, were the basic ones with nothing more in the way of facilities than a tap and a toilet. No showers, people! That's what the sea and the rivers are for...) We pressed on, past the lovely Sandfly Bay lagoon, and stopped above Torrents Bay to marvel at this little settlement of baches with no road access, tucked behind a finger of dazzling golden sand, alongside a tidal lagoon. Lovely.
Except, when we got down there, first of all we discovered that our planned lunch of pizza snacks was nowhere to be found, the Baby "100% convinced" that it had been stolen in the night from the tent fly by a greedy weka - yet another of our flightless birds, and much less shy than the kiwi. So we nibbled some kind of chocolate truffle things, washed down with filtered water. And then, instead of being able to cross the lagoon on the low tide track, we had to trail around its far reaches, adding an extra hour to our hike (the Baby did test the depth: they were right).
It was pretty, though, and it did mean that the Baby got a second chance at Cleopatra's Pool when we went past the turn-off, and ticked off her rock-slide while I sat feebly on the main track, eavesdropping on the passers-by and thoroughly enjoying not having my pack on my shoulders. 
And then we got back to Anchorage, to sit on the beach marvelling at the water taxis loading up more and more kayaks - 19 was the record - before it was our turn to climb aboard and whizz back to Marahau.
Abel Tasman Kayaks were so impressively efficient at this end, too: as our water taxi approached the beach, a team of tractors headed into the water towing trailers that the taxis drove straight up onto, so that the tractor could then trundle with us up out of the water onto the carpark. There the guys unloaded the kayaks super-fast, and we then stayed in the boat as the tractor towed it back to the kayak depot down the road. Brilliant. And then, after a bit of a R&R, the shuttle came to collect us and distribute us back to our various accommodations in Nelson - the Prince Albert again for us. Such a good service (plus, they support pest eradication in the park).
And that was it, our kayak/tramping adventure all over. I'm so glad the Baby thought of arranging it for us. It's something I've wanted to do for ages, but I would probably never have got around to it on my own. It was extra special too, having the time with her, and doing it together. Best Christmas present ever!

Friday, January 19, 2018

Abel Tasman Kayaks - Day 2: Saturated. In both senses

You know how people rave about falling asleep to the soothing lap of waves on a beach? And there are even apps supplying that sound to insomniacs? Well, t'ain't so. Not in real life, not when you're lying a couple of metres from endlessly busy waves, it isn't. Slap, crash, slap, crash, all sodding night long. Plus there were snorers in some of the tents who were physically so close to me, that they might have been sharing my bed. Except there was no bed, just a ridiculous yoga mat that was nowhere near thick enough to enable more than a half-hour's sleep at a stretch, before the hips started complaining. Also, it got colder than anticipated. And don't get me started on those bloody night birds, squawking away with no consideration whatsoever for us diurnal types.
So, after a night like that, it speaks volumes for the beauty of Abel Tasman National Park that as soon as I emerged, bent and creaky, from my tent, the first person in our little bay to see the golden early morning light over the painted beach, the (finally) calm glossy sea, the green bush and islands and the sculpted rocks, it all immediately calmed my soul and put me into a good mood for the day's adventure. The Baby's excellent muesli and coffee on the beach set me up well for our assault on the Mad Mile - a couple of kilometres around a headland, exposed to the full force of the wind.
Except, there was no wind. Later, there would be, but up so early we were able to skim around the headland on water almost lake-like, with the leisure to observe the shags and gulls, appreciate the beauty of the bush and rocks and hidden little bays. It was gorgeous. We swept past Anchorage where we'd walked to yesterday, detoured around Pinnacle Island to look at fur seals on the rocks, couldn't go into the Sandfly Bay lagoon because the tide was wrong, and pulled in at Bark Bay which should have been our first overnight if the wind hadn't been so strong yesterday and the sea too rough.
It was a lot bigger than Watering Cove, so there was room for everyone to have their own space, plus it had a beautiful lagoon. Still quite early, the colours were saturated: green water, gold sand, blue sky, black rocks. It was gorgeous - but then, if we hadn't stopped at the Cove, we wouldn't have seen the elephant. Also, it was much busier at Bark Bay: already water taxis were buzzing in and out, delivering people and kayaks, impressively efficient in their arrival and departure off the beach. They would approach the shore, turn around, drop the anchor just so, back in to the beach and, when the anchor chain was at full stretch, the boat stopped in exactly the right spot to drop the ramp for the passengers to step ashore - and then, departing, the same in reverse. Very professional.
We set off again - also, if I say it myself, practised and efficient ourselves - out across the bay to tackle Foul Point with confidence. And rightly so: in today's calm conditions it was a piece of weasel. We could see the North Island quite close, there were more rocks and shags and bush to enjoy, and the picturesque Tonga Arches - and then, suddenly, we were at Onetahuti Beach, our final stop - and it wasn't even lunchtime!
This was the end of the kayaking section of our trip, and we glided into the beach a bit sorry, a bit glad (sore bum from the hard seat). And then, in the last seconds, it all fell to pieces: I got half out, a wave pushed the kayak, it knocked me over backwards with one leg still caught inside, and I disappeared under the water until I was able to kick my leg free and stand up. Typical - and funny.
Here I set my tent up on the grass, hopeful for a softer sleep than on last night's hard-packed sand, and after lunch and a nap Abel Tasman Kayaks very efficiently turned up to reclaim their kayak; and the Baby and I set off for a walk to Awaroa. We strolled along the gloriously golden beach, took a curving boardwalk through a wetland and across an artistic bridge over a clear and tannin-stained creek, and climbed over the next bluff and down to Awaroa. Where, dear reader, we found a pizzeria/cafe/bar set under the trees with bean bags and WiFi! After almost two whole days in the wilderness, deprived of social media, what a treat that was. It wasn't even that busy there, considering how many people we'd seen in kayaks, on the beaches and in the campgrounds, and along the track. Mostly Germans, it seemed - certainly the people on the bean bags next to us were German. "Ich bin Spiderman!" their little boy was shouting at his sister as they played.
It was all so relaxing that we didn't much mind when we learned we'd missed the water taxi back to Onetahuti by five minutes, and had to walk back again instead. The sun was lower, the colours richer, and it was just gorgeous. We even rescued some starfish that had inexplicably got marooned on the sand, a long trail of them. We had b-in-b butter chicken for dinner, sitting on the beach, I had a swim in the warm, shallow water, there were gannets and gulls, crickets and cicadas, dotterels, quails and pukeko, well-behaved waves lapping on the sand and, after everyone else in camp had organised their dinners and retired early for the night, it was quiet. Fabulous. A 10/10 day.


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