Friday, September 12, 2014

In a bit of a whirl, here...

It's a confusing time right now. I'm reviewing Thailand and Kakadu to decide whether I've written enough stories about them, so that I can go back to June and catch up on some UK material - the Forest of Bowland, for example, or maybe Lindisfarne. Meanwhile, another bit of my brain is thinking about what I need to pack for South Africa next week, and how I can avoid overlapping with stuff I need to take to the US on the day after I return from Johannesburg, because I don't want to be lying awake for those precious few hours in my own bed listening to the washing machine whirring away. It's all a bit much, especially on top of also trying to organise tradesmen - and the Council - to sort things in the house and garden so that we can sell it as soon as we get home. Too much mental activity altogether. It would be a relief to go outside and just dig clay for a few hours (don't ask). Except that now it's raining.
Occasional messages are arriving from the Firstborn, currently cruising in the Galapagos Islands, consistently raving; "Holy moley! This place is AMAAAAZING!!!" along with pics of iguanas and tortoises. Of course she's having a wonderful time. It is an amazing place, and she's got the luxury of 10 days there to explore it all, twice as long as I had, sigh. The Baby, meanwhile, is disporting herself (well, actually, working) on a billionaire's yacht in Italy, where I've hardly been at all, though I've been trying to get back there. It's very frustrating, having got an actual commission for a story, and not to be able to persuade an airline to take me there. What's that? Buy a ticket, you say? Have you NO understanding of how this travel writing thing works?! There has to be some compensation for being paid peanuts.
And finally there's Scotland in the news, about to decide whether to vote Aye or Nay, so I'm remembering being there in June (getting sunburnt!) and seeing the posters and the badges everywhere. Meantime the All Blacks are being talked about because they're playing South Africa here tomorrow and, though I'm so not a follower of them, I've been preceding them a bit this year, to Newcastle's stadium where they're playing in the RWC next year, and to Chicago where they've got a game at Wrigley Field against the US in November. Somebody in Chicago actually offered yesterday to set me up with an AB interview. Puh-leese! (But I'm not above using them to try to sell a story...)

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Somewhat different from hedgehogs and possums...

So that's all right then. The elephants will be "deterred". No reference to the "lion, buffalo, black and white rhino, cheetah and leopard" that were proudly listed a couple of paragraphs above this, or the fact that the big cats are still small enough to slip underneath a 2m-high wire.

And you know what? It really is all right. This is what going on safari should be like: lying in your tent at night listening to the rustles outside and wondering whether that's the wind doing it, or a stealthy paw. It'll be exciting, and so what if it's not restful? I can sleep soundly at home.
Bayete camp is part of Phinda Private Game Reserve, but it's not one of the fancy, upmarket lodges like Rock Lodge where I stayed last time, with a sherry decanter on the coffee table, a yoga kit in a bag and a private plunge pool out on the deck. This tented camp is for staff and private guests, and I'll be staying there with the three students from NZ who I'll be chaperoning at the first World Youth Rhino Summit in South Africa next week, after the conference has finished.

The summit is going to be intense and interesting and inspiring, and I'm really looking forward to it. Young people from all around the world will be there to discuss the threat to rhino survival, and come up with ideas to save them. We'll be meeting some of the people on the front line of this war, and going out to see the objects of all this effort, peacefully grazing on the veldt as they have for 50 million years. If we're the last generation to see that sight, well, 'shame' is too trivial a word.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

With gratitude to the French

It's Father's Day today, and by chance this week there's been a little flurry of emails about Dad's ditching of his Blenheim bomber in the bay of St-Efflam in northern France in September 1941 - almost exactly 73 years ago.

Thanks to the glories of Google, two model enthusiasts in Brittany have found me and told me about the diorama that one of them is making of the scene of the plane sitting in the shallow waters of the bay, with the three crew making good their escape. The modeller had had another project in mind until his friend told him about this event, which he knew about in full detail, because his grandmother was one of the primary helpers in hiding, moving and looking after the men. I knew her name too, because in the report Dad wrote as soon as he was liberated and returned to England in 1945, he names her, and clearly admires the spirit and bravery shown by all the women who helped them.

When the Germans caught the three airmen six weeks later in Nantes, where the Resistance had moved them, intending to get them to Spain and thence to England, the women were arrested too. They were taken to Ravensbruck concentration camp in northern Germany, which was unusual in being for women and children only. Over 130,000 people were sent there during the war, and only 15,000 to 32,000 survived. There were medical experiments, exterminations, starvation and disease - towards the end, 80 died every day. Knowing that, it's especially hard to read Dad's description of them when by chance he saw them in Angers as he was being loaded into a bus to be taken to Fresnes prison in Versailles and then, eventually, to Stalag Luft III:

Mme de St Laurent's grandson sent me a clipping from the local paper last year, reporting that a plaque was to be erected in the alleyway in St-Efflam that leads to the beach where Dad and his crew waded ashore to hide, initially, in the roof of a hut. And this week I received a photo taken recently of the plaque by a visiting Kiwi who knew the story, and came prepared with an Anzac poppy. It feels so right to see it, and to know that those courageous women have been remembered and honoured for their sacrifice. If it weren't for them, I wouldn't have a father. In fact, I wouldn't be here at all.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Remembering them

Re: St Michel en Grève , 28 septembre 1941
Message  cuttysark25 Aujourd'hui à 0:45
En cherchant des photos du Blenheim , je suis tombé sur le blog de Paméla Wade qui se trouve être la fille de Francis Reece, pilote

Je vous joint le lien de l'article concernant le sujet de notre dio ainsi qu'une traduction à peu près correcte:

"Ceci est palpitant, honnêtement. Un peu inoccupée et surfant pour m'occuper  et que trouvais-je ? Les photos réelles de l'avion de mon père - Blenheim IV Z6163 MK-U - sur le sable à Saint-Efflam le 29 septembre 1941. Avec la présence d'allemands recherchant ce qui est arrivé à l'équipage des trois hommes , Papa, son navigateur canadien et l'artilleur irlandais. Ils ont eu bien raison à ce moment en se cachant dans le grenier d'une hutte dans les bois tout près de là,se nourrissant des œufs durs et buvant du thé avec du cognac, amenés par la merveilleuse Mme Leduc et ses filles.

Elles étaient juste les premières d'une communauté entière de Français qui ont aidé Papa et les autres à s'échapper. La plupart de gens avec qui ils avaient  contact étaient des femmes, mais  les hommes étaient là dans les coulisses. Ils les ont alimentés, les ont déplacés dans toutes sortes de cachettes, d'une caverne à un château, ont arrangé des faux papiers et des passeports, leur ont donné les vêtements et les ont dirigés vers Rennes et  Nantes. Papa a dit qu'ils ont semblé aimer le danger; mais ils ont payé pour cela. La plupart d'entre eux ont été attrapés plus tard, les femmes ont été envoyées en camps de concentration où elles sont mortes, sans doute terriblement. Georges Bonniec, le leader du réseau d'évasion qui les a escorté tout au long du chemin au cours du voyage vers Nantes, a été exécuté à Cologne, où les allemands lui ont coupé la tête avec une hache.Papa leur était énormément reconnaissant à tous ...

Les photos sont classiques. Regardez ces hélices pliées, tout le sable en haut éclaboussé, ce Jodhpur (culottes de cheval) ridicules sur l'allemand vaillant et sa casquette à visière haute  : c'est le truc de beaucoup de films de guerre - sauf que cela est réel et c'était la vie de mon père, pas une certaine histoire."

There has been a sudden little flurry of interest in Dad's dramatic finish to his war, almost exactly 73 years ago - a cousin in England visiting St Efflam, where the plane crash-landed; an author here in NZ wanting to fill in some gaps in stories he wasn't able to include in his last book; and today a model builder in Brittany blogging (above) about finding one of my blog posts referencing a story he'd already decided to turn into a 3D diorama. It's so great that people are still so interested - I've already been in touch with various sorts of enthusiasts throughout Europe, and here's another. Good for him.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Two days to go...

On a dreary, cold, grey, wet Saturday afternoon when spring seems very much further away than just two days on the calendar, and when really the only sensible place to be would be tucked up in a cinema somewhere, it's masochistically pleasurable to remember how it was in the Northern Territory just three weeks ago. And still is, of course...

Warm, humid, colourful - exactly what Auckland isn't, today - the Territory is also full of birds and animals which for me anyway makes it even more appealing on top of its striking scenery, ripping-yarn history and glorious open skies. From that point of view, the evening cruise that we took on Yellow Water Billabong was the real highlight of our World Expeditions Kakadu Adventure. Dan took us to the jetty where we joined a sunset cruise for a couple of hours along the winding course of the South Alligator River. We sat in a tin catamaran and tootled along with Adam in the back spotting birds and crocs for us, and happily manoeuvring the boat back and forth so we all got a good look.
We saw so many birds! From the huge - a sea-eagle swooping on a fish right in front of us, and a stately jabiru (all jabirus are 'stately', it's a rule) stalking in slow motion through the shallows, to the tiny - bright red and blue kingfishers. The lotuses were pink and white, there was smoke from a burn off going sepia on the horizon, the pandanus and paperbark trees turned into black silhouettes, and then just as the sun was slipping below the horizon a great flock of, er, birds flew past, perfectly timed (by Adam, or so he claimed). Fabulous, dramatic and highly recommended.

Also, all over, sigh. Now it's just ring-necked doves nagging (gently) on the roof, sparrows on the seed feeder, silvereyes on the fat, and chickens in the garden. Oh, and Harley in the bathroom, rescued weak and wobbling 6 weeks ago, all mangey and maggotty, and now twice the weight on a steady diet of Fancy Feast, and raring to go back to the wild. Come on, spring.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

There's reasonable, and then there's not.

So far this week (and it's only Wednesday!) I've written and sold stories about Kakadu, Queensland, Thailand and pets on planes. As always, writing the stories is the easy part - what takes the time is sorting and editing the photos. Usually that's just because of dithering between similar shots, straightening the horizon (sigh), cropping, and fiddling with the exposure. Then they have to be filed, with captions, and a contact sheet made. All a bit tiresome, especially since I know that, more often than not, none of them will be chosen by the editor, entirely for reasons of cost, with a disappointing loss of relevance and impact on the final layout.

With both the Kakadu and Thailand stories, though, there's been an extra and time-consuming step: getting approval. Bangkok hospital's Medical Museum is anxious about respect and human rights, since its exhibits are dead people, there for teaching purposes rather than to be gawped at by curious tourists, some of whom are no doubt freak-show fans who don't give a moment's consideration to the losses behind the exhibits. Although Google is full of images from the various divisions of the museum (and I've added to it myself in this blog), for publication it has to be done properly, which takes time of course. But since I had a story published just a week ago that's been on the paper's files since April last year, maybe that's not important...

With Kakadu, as for any story about places in Australia with traditional owners, there's a quite remarkable amount of paperwork to be dealt with by media before being allowed in with our cameras and notebooks. In order to encourage the general public to come and enjoy them, and support the local businesses, you understand. Ahem. But that's ok, you don't have to spend much time in the Outback to know that there's an awful lot of making up to be done by the Government to the Aboriginal people. And, to be fair, there are a lot of sacred places that even ordinary tourists are discouraged from going to, and photographing - climbing Uluru is a case in point - so having to submit all your photos for approval is no more than an inconvenience, really.

But not showing images of people swimming in Outback waterholes? Now that's just silly - the official line is that it can never be guaranteed that there isn't a crocodile in there somewhere; and also that jumping into pools is dangerous because of rocks. Well, as our guide Dan said, "Jumping into waterholes is a human right." You can't walk through that desiccated landscape and come across a deep, green, perfect-temperature pool of water and not be expected to jump into it. Come on, already!

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Possibly the best photo ever taken at Gunlom Falls...

Pardon me for boasting, but I really like this photo (despite the sky being a bit burnt-out). I took it about 10 days ago at Gunlom in Kakadu, where I went with World Expeditions: there's a pretty magnificent waterfall from some stepped plunge pools at the top of the cliff, down 70 metres into the final one at the bottom. The rock is super-smooth, as you would be if you'd had 3 billion years of water flowing over you - polished, even, as you see.

I toiled up the rocky path from the camp site below intending to have a swim while I waited for the sunset, and by the time I'd picked my way up there, following the rough track and the orange triangle markers, I certainly needed a dip - hot and humid, don't you know. But, alas, despite the climb, there were lots of people disporting themselves in the inviting pool at the top and nowhere that I could, with propriety, change into my togs. Yes, of course I should have done it before I left my tent, I know that too. Say something helpful, why don't you.

So instead I sat near the edge of the falls and waited for the sunset, which was rather inconveniently just around the corner of the bluff, to lengthen the shadows and suffuse the gum trees below with orange, and to make the opposite cliff blush warmly. While I was there I sneaked this photo of the surfer dude lying completely at his ease right on the edge of the cliff, comfortably fitted into a couple of smooth dips in the rock. I countered his relaxation with extreme anxiety on his behalf that he would stretch, roll over, and disappear into the void.

And then, uncomfortably aware of how tricky the descent would be in the dusk, I teetered and tottered all the way back down again, still missing the path on the way and taking a precipitous short-cut; but was rewarded afterwards with a fabulous dinner of Scotch fillet, braised asparagus and broccolini, glorious cheesy scalloped potatoes - all cooked on the open fire - and then chocolate ripple pudding with whipped cream. Amazing!


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