Tuesday, April 10, 2018

A timely storm

How appropriate. There's a serious storm lashing the entire country today, with heavy rain, gales, tornados, and dazzling, house-shaking lightning - plus snow, further south. Fifty years ago on this date, there was an even bigger storm, when tropical cyclone Giselle collided with a cold southerly front. It was worst in Wellington but, even 300km further south in Christchurch, it was bad enough that, having battled with the wind and rain as I cycled to school, I was sent home again because the carpark was flooded and the teachers couldn't get in. Seems a bit feeble, in retrospect - they could have parked on the road, surely - but we pupils (as we were called then) weren't going to argue with an unexpected day off. I went home to warm up in a hot bath and that was it, for me.
Up in Wellington, though, there was drama happening. The interisland ferry, the Wahine - which in those days we blithely pronounced as WaHEEny instead of, correctly (as today, mostly), WAH-heenay - struggled against the waves and the wind to enter the harbour, running aground on a reef and ending up foundered by Steeple Rock. 
The passengers sat meekly in the increasingly lop-sided lounges, children hopelessly swamped in primitive, adult-sized lifejackets, for hours while the storm raged and the captain (who while attempting to manoeuvre had accidentally reversed onto the reef and knocked off a propeller) worked through various ineffective strategies. The weather was just too ferocious. Finally, when the ship slumped sideways, it was clear that it had to be abandoned, and the passengers were offloaded into the four available lifeboats (the others were now inaccessible because they were on the high side), and inflatables, and attempted to reach the shore. It was chaotic - one baby was thrown - and boats were capsized, people washed out - and sometimes, back in - by giant waves, and many were pushed by the waves across the harbour entrance onto the rocks at remote Eastbourne. Lots of people had to jump into the water. Imagine.
Fifty-one people drowned on the day, and two died later, one of them 22 years later, after being brain-damaged. It was a total disaster, partly due to misjudgements - although, to be fair, the rescue effort was severely hampered by the raging storm. Plus there was heroism.
Naturally, the stories are all over the media right now - but there's a really good permanent exhibition in the Wellington Museum on Jervois Quay. Worth seeing if you're in Welly - though maybe not if you're just about to catch the ferry to the South Island...

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Not picking up a penguin

This is something they don't warn you about, when you go to Antarctica: that you get so used to seeing seals lying around just about everywhere, that when you're back home going about your business and catch a glimpse through the doorway of the bag of mulch and pair of Crocs and gloves you yourself left on the deck outside, your first thought is "Oh! Elephant seal!"
Of course, it probably didn't help that I've just been writing about that fabulous Silversea cruise yet again, and poring over the photos. The focus this time is South Georgia, that previously-unknown (to me) island group that turned out to be in serious contention with the Antarctic Peninsula itself as star of the whole expedition. My angle is the Kiwi connection - of course, the awesome Frank Worsley, of Akaroa, captain of Shackleton's Endurance, who managed to aim that little lifeboat unerringly from Elephant Island 1300km towards South Georgia, despite getting a navigation sighting only four times in the 16 days it took, so horrendous were the conditions across Drake Passage. 
And he was one of the three who then lit out straight away across the mountains and glaciers to the nearest help at the Stromness whaling station on the other side of the island - 36 hours of continuous effort. And their equipment! No map, heavy wool and oilskin clothing, and screws fitted to the soles of their shoes for better grip on the ice (didn't work).
But there was another Kiwi element to my South Georgia visit, which has two current connections: terriers Wai, Will and Ahu (and their handlers Miriam and Jane), who were there when I was, on Christmas Day, carrying out the final phase of a seven-year pest eradication programme, the biggest ever in the world. They have been busily scouring the main island since late December, sniffing for rats and hopefully not finding any, allowing the South Georgia Heritage Trust to announce soon, this month, that the programme has been a success, and all the rats are gone.
That will be a huge boon to all those ground-nesting birds: lots of seabirds, of course, as well as Antarctica's only songbird, the pipit (which I heard chirping tunefully away) and the pintail duck, which I also saw. 
And, naturally, penguins: King, Gentoo, Macaroni and chinstrap, all of which I saw in their thousands (and heard, and smelt). Fabulous birds. The King is the second-biggest - and this afternoon I got hands-on with the smallest species, the little blue penguin, native here, and which has had a terrible time this summer. So many deaths! 
I've found three myself this year already, washed up on the beach: starved to death, mostly, because of too-warm sea conditions, water made murky by storms, and over-fishing. Very sad. So I went to see what the bird rescue lady does with the five she has currently in her care. In a nutshell, it's lavish oodles of time, care and a not inconsiderable amount of money on them. For no reward, monetary or, it has to be said, avian. Ungrateful lot. I tell you from personal experience, those penguins may indeed be little, but they will bite the hand that feeds them - hard!

Friday, March 23, 2018

P&O Pacific Jewel - a small(-ish) revelation

I don't know how it is that I've now got 17 cruises under my belt. I've never considered myself a cruiser and, though I wouldn't put myself into the same category as Geraldine who snorts with derision whenever she sees a cruise ship in the harbour and shrieks "That would be so GHASTLY!", a cruise would never be my first choice of holiday. Too tame and constrained, generally [Note: not a syllable of these or other derogatory comments apply to Silversea's Antarctica cruise, which will never be surpassed for sheer splendour.]
Of course I'm fortunate to have sailed 95% of the time with upper-end companies on smaller ships and have been supremely well looked after, with the result that I have inevitably become a snob about such things and do a muted Geraldine whenever one of the big ships comes to town. The thought of being imprisoned on a floating artificial city with 5,000-odd other bods is total anathema to me. Radiance of the Seas? Absolute hell. 
But. Being at a loose end, and naturally flattered anyway to be asked, on Wednesday I went aboard P&O's Pacific Jewel for a bit of a junket to promote their upcoming The Big Laugh cruise, which will feature 22 comedy shows over three nights. It was slightly odd to be sitting in a bar, offered canap├ęs and cocktails at midday, but we all did our best to cope, and enjoyed the sets professionally performed by three familiar comics.
Now, the Jewel is not one of the bigger ships - 1900 passengers - so I wasn't challenged on that score (though it's still more than four times bigger than my Silversea ships); but it is, shall we say, more affordable than most of the cruises I've been on (officially, that is, since for me all but one were free). (Sorry.) So although it was well presented (just out of a dry-dock refurbishment) it was more smart than elegant. It was quite disconcerting to see price lists displayed at the bars - just like, in fact, being in the real world, which is not how I've ever thought of cruises. To me they've always been a bit like palaces, where everything is done for you and supplied to you at your whim, and money is never mentioned.
However. People who don't drink (at all, or much) would appreciate not having that built into their fares, I'm sure. And here's the thing: it was all so friendly! The passengers wandering around exploring (this was the embarkation day for a 10 day cruise around NZ), all of the staff I encountered - everyone was cheerful and chatty and clearly pleased to be there. Silversea staff are nice too, but with an overlay of deference that means you're always aware they're at work. And some Silversea passengers can be a bit stand-offish. It was nice to see children on board too, being excited. Even the woman passenger lying in the salon having some unbelievable treatment with plaster-like stuff and wires all over her abdomen, purportedly losing inches just lying there, was relaxed and talkative with all of us wandering curiously past. 
And as for the route, well, the older lady I talked to in the theatre (two tiers of seating, that's something you don't see on the smaller ships) was very enthusiastic about advantages - we didn't mention the ports of call and the scenery, we took that for granted, this is New Zealand after all - in that she didn't have to bother with a passport or, more importantly, travel insurance. "When you get older, travel insurance is a KILLER!" she exclaimed (in a moderately unfortunate choice of phrase). "If I get sick on this cruise, I'll just go ashore." And she makes a good point that will be very relevant to a big proportion of cruise passengers.
So would I sail on Pacific Jewel? If I ever - horrors! - had to pay my own way, and there was no other more interesting holiday on offer, I actually think I might give it a whirl, and not just for the novelty. It's affordable, friendly, comfortable and smart enough to make you know you're somewhere a bit more special than home. Definitely worth considering - though since they reckon, over the six month season, that passengers will consume 9,000 litres of cream, 1,000 kilos of sliced cheese and 15,000 litres of Banana Smoky Caramel Hokey Pokey ice cream, you might want to get your name down for that waist-reducing treatment...

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...


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