Monday, 25 October 2021

A to G here now

In an almost last-ditch attempt to save October, blog-wise, I am shamelessly going to copy the format of a story published recently written by a travel-mate. It's an A-Z of what Brett's currently missing, and I only read as far as C before I got both envious (he's gone to so many places I haven't) (though, also, a bit, vice versa) and inspired to do my own travel alphabet. I stopped reading then (I'll finish it later) to keep from being unduly influenced. Here's the first section:

A: I nearly went with Brett's choice, of airports. He contrasted big and small, and I could compare Dubai's vast distances with, say, dinky Atiu in the Cook Islands. But even more memorable are Airstrips like the one in Zambia, which we had to buzz before landing to scare away a bull elephant. That was exciting - and a very suitable introduction to Royal Zambezi Lodge, which we had to wait patiently to get to until a handful of eles chose to move on from the road they were blocking. I've bounced along quite a few grassy landing strips, and they've always led to fun, and often actual adventure.

B: Bircher muesli, which I first tasted in 1977 on the Indian Pacific train in Australia, at the start of my big OE. It's been a very minor, but personally satisfying thread that's run through all my travels since, turning up on breakfast buffets in hotels and lodges all over the place, a literal taste of familiarity. It's also a suitable symbol for my travel experiences generally because it's always different and, though it's very occasionally, to be brutally honest, not quite as good as I hoped it would have been, I never regret choosing it. 

C: Cameras have been an essential part of my travel equipment from the start. I've never been more than amateur, which has been very obvious on the trips I've shared with professionals but - economics being what they are - newspapers and magazines these days will not/cannot pay for their superior images, so we writers just have to do our best. That meant hauling around a cumbersome body and lenses, making sure batteries were charged each day and memory cards had room, and tedious downloading each night. It was certainly a thrill to get (more by luck than skill) a good shot, and to see it on a magazine cover - but I'm ok with swapping that for the sheer convenience of using my iPhone instead these days (and not having to helplessly watch my Olympus fly out of my bag as it tumbled downhill on Skye, to crash fatally onto some rocks). 

D: Diving - that's proper diving, not including snorkelling, during which some people are able to dive, but not me, purely because of my natural buoyancy (and not vast quantities of subcutaneous fat). No, I mean scuba, which I did on the Great Barrier Reef after a surface-skimming (ha) introduction on the boat trip out there from Cairns. We put on all the proper gear and were escorted down under, super-conscious the whole time of every single breath, but still enjoying the novelty of being so far below the water, watching fish swimming all around us. The other time I did something similar was in Moorea, Tahiti where, instead of strapping into tanks and a mouthpiece, we took turns at wearing an unwieldy-looking diving helmet that actually worked very well. I walked about in slo-mo on the bottom of the lagoon, able to wear my glasses and thus see perfectly all the fish - which included reef sharks and stingrays, plus prettier ones - flitting around me. It was fun.

E: Enthusiasts are standard for me, but never taken for granted. My work trips are always very organised and usually involve a host and guides. These people are invariably, and by definition, full of pride and praise for the places they are showing me, and it's usually so clearly genuine that it really is a joy. Positive people are always a delight, and to spend hours - days - in their company, learning about their bit of the country, being shown places and customs, and given often literal tastes of what their life is like there is hugely enjoyable and inspiring. I remember the best ones for years afterwards - especially you, Suri.

F: Flying which most people consider a necessary evil, and is especially unavoidable if you live way down the bottom of the planet (or nearly at the top - there's no actual rule that north has to be up, you know). But I do like the thrill of boarding a plane at the start of a trip, especially if I get to turn left or, even better, take a different airbridge to go upstairs. Even when crammed into economy, though, and even when heading back home, I still love getting into my zone, comfy noise-cancellers on, plugged into the entertainment, with nothing to do but watch TV, eat and sleep for hours and hours. (I have fortunately, it must be said, never had An Event happen during a flight.)

G: Has to be Galapagos, where I've been lucky enough to go twice. Of course it's the birds and animals draped, uncaring, everywhere that make the biggest impression - you literally have to step over iguanas and around seals - and it was a real thrill to see bait balls of fish swooping and dividing beneath me as I snorkelled (the nearest, so far, I've got to my dream of a murmuration of starlings). Sitting in a small boat looking down at the silvery belly of a huge humpback lolling beneath us was amazing, too - but actually my strongest memory of that first trip was of what came soon after that. Back on the ship, I was sharing the excitement of the whale-watch with Brett and a previous editor of the paper that ran Brett's A-Z story, who had been in the boat with me. I blurted out how, when the captain delivered the early morning message about the whale, and the chance to go see it, I leaped out of bed, flung on literally just a fleece and shorts, and headed straight to the Zodiac. The identical look on both their faces when I said that was as hilarious as it was unexpected. Still makes me smile.

Sunday, 24 October 2021

Noctober

This is usually a busy month for our family, with six birthdays, three of them in our little bundle alone. So there are, naturally, get-togethers, and it's all just lovely. But currently Auckland is on Day, um, 68? of lockdown (Level 3, which means takeaways but nothing else that's not essential - not that many would dispute the essentialness of takeaways). It's all got more than a bit boring, to be honest, despite - or perhaps because of - the improving weather. We're closing in fast on 90% double-vaccinated in the region, but will only get out of these restraints when the rest of the country catches up, so even Christmas is now looking threatened. Especially since Delta has just reached the South Island.

That's my excuse for this blog going silent for so long. What little inspiration I have is exhausted by scraping the barrel to find something local to write about that none of my travel writer colleagues haven't already mined. So it felt especially harsh to receive in the post Silversea's latest glossy publication, promoting its new ships, Silver Dawn and Silver Moon, along with my old friend Silver Spirit, and their upcoming routes cruising the Mediterranean. Deep sigh.

It would be so lovely to walk on board and be surrounded by all that friendly and familiar opulence, perhaps come across Moss again, and Miriam, and settle in to be effortlessly transported from one gorgeous old city to another. But it's not going to happen for a very long time and, quite possibly, actually not ever again. So on that last cruise, back over Christmas 2019, finishing in Sydney, when we woke up on 2 January to an end-of-days scenario of everything blotted out by bush fire smoke, it was probably a Sign. 


But still, I was so lucky to have had all those cruises, eh? And to be safe and well, as is everyone else in my family, and living in a responsibly-managed country, with summer coming. And at least it's not my job to try to sell cruises to the wary. Pollyanna lives!

Thursday, 30 September 2021

Glory box

Hmm, the connection fairies have been listening. Today, the courier driver having once again been frightened off by our long, steep drive and blatantly lying on his card about my having been "unavailable", I went to the depot to collect my mystery parcel. Which turned out to be a goodie box that is very much a step up from the goodie bags I wrote about last post.

It's a stylish big, black box with a magnetised lid, which contains all you see above, all of it high quality and summer-themed (visor, sunnies, sunscreen, fancy soft woven (Turkish-made) throw, Negroni and glass) plus a few extras. What a delight! Thank you very much, the new and soon-to-open Marriott Hotel Docklands, Melbourne. And thanks for conceding that we're not likely to meet up for quite a while - but it's a pleasing thought that one day I might, as you promise, "be reclining by the infinity-edge rooftop pool while enjoying an aperitif and revelling in the magical views of the city".

Melbourne has had a rough time of it, Covid-wise, and is still struggling - as, in fact, are we in Aotearoa after our gloriously long Level 1 almost-before-times holiday. The single Delta case we were mocked for going into Level 4 lockdown over ballooned to over 1200  (out of an overall Covid total of almost 4000)  and today, six weeks later, still has Auckland confined to quarters, with our hoped-for release next week rapidly retreating in the face of persistent new cases, despite vaccination numbers climbing encouragingly. 

There are, of course, worse places to be trapped than right here. Strolling the beach today I shared the sand with a scattering of families, couples, dogs, even several nude sunbathers and an actual swimmer which, given that we're only just into daylight saving, is a bold move on their part. In Level 3 now (and for the foreseeable...), there are takeaways, tradesmen working, and noticeably more people out and about (distanced, masked) but it's still a very small step towards normality. 

It's hard to imagine walking into the big marble foyer of the shiny and curvaceous Marriott Docklands hotel, being whisked up to a spacious fancy room, exploring the amenities and the bathroom, and then heading further up to the rooftop pool to wallow while looking out over that lovely city, with all its glass skyscrapers, heritage buildings, brilliant art gallery, and the river. Feels like ages since I was last there, fan-girling Matthew Flinders (though it was actually only on the last day of 2019). Feels like it'll still be ages before I'm there again.

Friday, 17 September 2021

When life gives you lemons...

...make Guinness. Or at least sea glass Guinness to display in yesterday's sadly dishwasher-cracked glass that I've been drinking from for years since I was given it at a Tourism Ireland event. 

Back when tourism was giving agriculture a proper run for its money as NZ's biggest industry, events like that were fairly frequent and sociable treats for us solitary WFH travel writers. We'd gather happily at whatever venue had been selected - pub, restaurant, fancy hotel - and chat with our hosts and each other, enjoying the drinks and the snacks. We'd listen to the presentation with often genuine interest, pretend not to be disappointed when we didn't score the giveaway prize, chat again afterwards and eat and drink some more, before eventually trailing away home again. Not before, though, we had claimed our goodie bag containing pamphlets and flash-drives, yes, but also a selection of pens, notebooks, caps, chocolates, toiletries, scented candles, and, in TI's case, the glass we'd drunk our welcome Guinness from.

Not that, to be blunt, Guinness is actually welcomed by me as a drink - I much prefer a lighter brew, ideally (as regular 😀 readers are by now all too well aware) Montana-made Blue Moon. I still mourn its disappearance from bottle stores here, remembering the joy that accompanied its discovery just round the block from home, after being introduced to it in the exotic setting of Popeye's restaurant in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. But Guinness? Not a fan, despite having toured through the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin, full of earnest and eager information, culminating on the top floor at the bar with the complimentary pint. I'm not alone, to judge by the sipped-and-discarded glasses left on tables by other visitors, which were then shamelessly claimed and emptied by proper enthusiasts.

No, what I enjoyed much more was the evening I spent in 2009 at Matt Molloy's pub in Westport (er, the Irish Westport) - not just because I was drinking cider, but because of the music and general vibe. Matt himself was there, but didn't sing, which would have been more disappointing if there hadn't been other people doing so well at generating such a mighty craic. There was an old man doing funny songs, a younger man full of enthusiasm on the eve of departing for New York to seek his fortune, a drunken Declan dancing, and in the main bar a casual gathering of session musicians: two fiddlers, a man on bodhrĂĄn (drum), someone on another sort of stringed instrument... they came and went, playing long medleys, everyone familiar with all the tunes. It was great.

Wednesday, 1 September 2021

Yes, I'm sorry about the Ida floods in Louisiana and New York, but this is LOCAL!

This photo in the NZ Herald this morning shows a different view of Te Henga/Bethells Beach from how I (eventually) saw it back in February. The big storm that swept through West Auckland, dropping 6 weeks' worth of rain in a single day, has caused a lot of misery for people already beleaguered by two weeks of Level 4 lockdown - with at least another fortnight of restrictions to come. I can only imagine how it is for them, poor things, trying to sort out and live in their flooded houses in the current chilly weather, under lockdown restrictions. No fun at all.
Back in February, though, it was lovely, and I could quite understand why people choose to live there, at the very end of a long and winding road. If it feels remote now, that's nothing to how it was way back in the day, and it still has a strong community vibe - especially, apparently, on Friday nights at the summertime café truck in the beach carpark, when people play games and music. Naturally, I was there on a Wednesday.
Still, it was lovely to be tucked up in my quirky little cottage up on the hill looking down over the long surf beach, the dunes and the headland. I had a teddy bear on the bed to keep me company, and lots of local history to read, supplied by the friendly 5th generation Bethell lady who owns the accommodation. I especially liked the toilet cistern, which is a sentence few people have written, I'm betting.

A section of the road got washed away by the torrents rushing down the Waitakere River to the sea, so the locals are stuck at home. Just like the rest of us in Auckland - but (the ones up on the high ground anyway) I bet they mind the least.

Monday, 30 August 2021

To be sure, to be sure?

I got a notification today from the Tourism Northern Ireland media library that authorisation to publish images they'd supplied had expired. Naturally, I had no recollection of having had an Irish story published, and it took a bit of ferreting to discover that it was this one, about visiting Londonderry during my Silversea loop cruise from London, in August 2019.

That feels like another world now, doesn't it? Wandering the busy and storied streets of London, Fowey in Cornwall, Cork, Bantry, Belfast, Dublin and Holyhead. Eating in the ship's restaurants, crowding round tables in the bar for Trivial Pursuit, standing elbow-to-elbow at the railings above the bow as we made that magnificent entry up the Thames and under through Tower Bridge. (Although, it was on this cruise that we were both struck down by an epic bout of flu that almost had one of us in hospital, and just might have been pre-Covid?)

The story was published finally on 10 February 2020, just days before everything changed, it feels, forever. After our long spell of almost-normal freedom here in NZ, we're back in Level 4 lockdown nationally, our original single Delta case - which the rest of the world mocked us for panicking at - now, less than two weeks later, up to 562. Here in Auckland, the main location for cases, we've got another fortnight of L4 ahead of us, possibly longer, while everyone sensible scurries to get vaccinated - though it won't help that someone has just died from a rare reaction to the Pfizer vaccine.

So it's maybe good to be reminded of Londonderry, where they've certainly had their share of troubles, capital T and lower-case both. They've come through it all and manage to be pretty cheerful these days, though the tough times will always be there in the background, literally and figuratively. 


(In deference to Tourism NI, this is my own photo of the Four o'clock Knock mural.)

Wednesday, 18 August 2021

Above it all


Gee, thanks, phone - nice lockdown timing. Today's photo memory is from six years ago, when I visited Machu Picchu and came across the Google maps man with his fancy camera. I'm not in the real view of the site that's online now, so maybe it's been updated - though that seems a bit unnecessary, for something built in the middle of the fifteenth century, and celebrated for its historic good looks.

I felt I'd cheated, getting there by bus from Aguas Calientes (though, my goodness, there are 14 very sharp zigzags on that road) and felt it necessary to share with everyone in my tour group that it was actually my second visit, the first being done properly in (pre-blog) 2008, via the Inca Trail. I did also properly cheat, by borrowing the US passport of a busty Hispanic woman (thank you, Colleen) in order to use her unwanted booking for climbing up next-door Huayna Picchu. That's it in the photo behind camera-man. Obviously, the men at the gate didn't check, so my passport fraud went unmarked - and unpunished.

The summit is only 290m above Machu Picchu, which doesn't sound that much - but boy! it was steep, with lots of steps and rocks to scramble over, a tunnel to crawl through, plus it was hot, and there was altitude (2,720m) to consider too. There was sweating, and fogging-up of glasses. I was proud to have done it, though, and the view of course was terrific, over Machu Picchu itself so far below, and the surrounding mountains.

I did the return trip - despite the after-effects of a bout of Montezuma's revenge - in two hours, which was a bit rushed really (three is the standard recommendation) but I didn't want to miss another chance to wander round Machu Picchu on my own, after our morning tour. It's so amazing. The rocks are so neatly fitted together (the ashlar technique) and, incredibly, were pushed up to the mountain top to build the temple, observatory, baths, houses etc. That would have involved proper sweating, for sure. I did get distracted by the animals, though - not just llamas grazing on the neat lawns, but fat chinchillas squatting on the walls watching us. Very cute.

So actually, thanks, phone. I did enjoy being reminded of all that. Even if it now seems like another world. 

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