Thursday, December 14, 2017

Discovering my city with Aucky Walky - review

Sigh. More than once in this blog, and elsewhere, I've commented in a recognisably superior manner about how Americans will frequently, guilelessly and with open delight and no embarrassment whatsoever, exclaim, "I did not know that!" on learning some interesting titbit ("tidbit"). Usually, it's something you (I) think they should already know (most recent example: the woman heading off to Mauritius who had never heard of the dodo) - but even if it's relatively arcane information, the correct (English) reaction is not to show surprise. After all, as you're hearing it, you know it, don't you? 

But today I spent a couple of hours with Liz of Aucky Walky doing exactly that: repeatedly making, in pleased tones, comments along the lines of "Really? How interesting! Fancy that! I didn't know that!" - as well as, to my certain shame, "Oh! I've never been along this arcade/into this park/ past this building before". That is, of course, the point of city walks, and it would be a poor guide (so, not Liz then) who didn't try to reveal new/old things to residents as well as visitors. 

So, things I discovered about Auckland today: a dessert restaurant serving dishes that look like (incr)edible works of art; why one of the lightwells over Britomart is different from the others; that the city's former cliffs are now underfoot as reclaimed land; that Maori brought rats to New Zealand deliberately, in the "starter kits" packed into their waka; that it was their women who were best at navigation through the vast Pacific Ocean; Marbeck's Records in Queen's Arcade has been there since 1929; Imperial Lane runs through the site of Auckland's first cinema; the city had its own Great Fire in 1858; that Vulcan Lane once glowed in the firelight of blacksmiths' forges; that the Metropolis apartment building used to be the High Court.
I saw a brilliant private art work that I want to go and see again (and attempt to sneakily photograph); walked through a lovely green park in a valley just metres from Queen Street where I'd never set foot before; had street art and buildings pointed out to me that I'd never noticed; heard the reasons for why things are as they are; and began to accept that, actually, Auckland has much more to offer visitors (and residents) than just a pretty face on a sunny day.

There were history and geology, culture and nature, restaurants and shopping, gossip and opinion, all well-researched and interesting, and delivered with enthusiasm. We walked along city streets and through parks and arcades, stopped frequently, had a bus ride, and finished up at Aotea Square less than a kilometre from our starting point at the bottom of Queen Street. It was excellent. And, if you're thinking, "Well, I could do the same for nothing with Free Walking Tours" - just consider that Liz takes a maximum of 10 people, so we were able for example to sneak into the Vero Building to see the art wall, while she quietly talked about it. Free Walks groups are so big that the poor guide has to shout, and there's no way the guard would let them into Vero. And since they're upfront about expecting a tip, it's actually not free at all. So do yourself a favour, and go with Liz. She has chocolate!

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Er, wow.

Well, there you go. Connections. Popping up everywhere, but sometimes in disguise. To be honest, it can be confusing - like today. I was dutifully doing a piece for a Sunday paper's series ("World Famous in New Zealand" - it's a thing here, an in-joke but at the same time just a little bit serious) about the World of WearableArts Museum in Nelson, where I visited nearly two years ago now. It's commonly known as WOW and regular readers (that's just you, Queen) will remember that earlier this year I went down to Wellington for the annual WOW Awards Show.
Anyway, WOW the museum is in Nelson, combined with a classic car museum (seen my share of those this year, too) and it's pretty good. Though the show is dazzling, it's interesting to get up close to the costumes to see how they're made and to appreciate the finicking detail. So I went to visit their website to check something, and up pops WOW! Children's Museum in Lafayette. Wow! I naturally thought, how about that? I wonder if it's the same museum I went to on my last afternoon in that town as I wandered along Jefferson Blvd, mostly to cool off in the aircon because June in Louisiana is pretty oppressive (that's condensation on the outside of my hotel window, below). It was called the Discovery Science museum then, and was notable for its fossils and space exploration exhibition but mainly, as far as I was concerned, for its Golden Knee Spider, which had just moulted.
So I clicked on it, and turns out it's not Lafayette LA at all, but Lafayette CO, which I didn't know existed, but which is still a connection because only this afternoon I've been looking at Things to Do in Denver. I'm going there in May, you see, my third visit to the gigantic IPW tourism convention which I was in Lafayette LA en route to, for my second time, when it was held in New Orleans two years ago. So that's not quite a circle - more of a squiggle - but I still reckon the ends join up kind of satisfactorily.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Hot v cold

This excellent photo by @stevefrancees on my Instagram feed is exactly the reason why I'm done with hot places. I mean, look at it: it could be anywhere! My first thought was Tahiti, specifically the Manava Suites resort I stayed at way back in 2007 - or, possibly New Caledonia. Or Fiji, or Aitutaki in the Cooks - or, honestly and truly, pretty much anywhere around the world between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn: turquoise sea, coconut palms, thatched sun shelters, pool... It's actually Aruba, which I've had to Google (yes! I know! shocking admission for a so-called travel writer but the Caribbean is untrodden territory for me). (Apart from having sailed through there when I was three, that is.)
Anyway, the point is that, admittedly gorgeous as it is, you have to admit, it's all a bit samey, innit? And also, there's not much to do, other than lie in the sun trying to avoid getting burnt, or snorkelling, or maybe going for a kayak (or sailing in a dinghy helplessly towards the horizon and having to be ignominiously rescued by a bored resort worker - but that's another story). Relaxing, I suppose, but that's not what I need in a holiday. My everyday life is pretty relaxing. (Sorry.) And if I want turquoise sea, all I have to do is look up from this computer and out of the window. (Again, sorry.)
No, what really appeals to me these days is cold places. All you need is the right clothes, and then you can really get stuck into the dramatically different scenery, and wildlife, and culture and history. I did try to get to Iceland this year, but it didn't happen because I've lagged behind the trends, and everyone's going there, two million tourists a year, and the 300,000 residents have had enough. So they're not looking for any extra publicity, dammit (though that has at least relieved me of the difficulty of choosing between summer trekking on an Icelandic pony, or winter viewing of the Northern Lights). I wouldn't mind popping up to Churchill to see the polar bears, either, while they're still there, poor things. 

But neither of those things has been a possibility for me this year (let's not lose hope - it could still happen). What I have managed to set up though, after about three years of hints and nudges, and more direct requests this year, and lots of patience and quite a bit of luck, is a cruise to - tarah! - Antarctica. (Though the house-sitter is surprisingly unenvious. I dunno, something about Waiheke in summer.)

It's a cruise with (regular readers - ha! - will not be surprised to learn) my old mate Silversea. Not, fortunately as it turns out, Silver Cloud, which was strengthened this year and refitted for sailing through icy waters but, *cough* recently had to turn back from its maiden Antarctic voyage because of engine problems, but instead Silver Explorer, which is less fancy but more workmanlike. It still has butlers and such, of course - this is Silversea, what are you thinking? - and all the usual trimmings, so we'll hardly be slumming it, I know you'll be reassured to hear.
It's an 18-day cruise, from Ushaia, southernmost city in South America, to the Falklands/Malvinas, South Georgia (for Christmas), Elephant Island and the Antarctic Peninsula, finishing with what I'm hoping will be an uneventful crossing over Drake Passage, one of the roughest stretches of water on the planet, back to Ushaia and thence Buenos Aires.

So, I've written up Africa, I'm tidying away some NZ pieces, the weather here has recently and dramatically switched over into summer and I'm - honestly - on the verge of having my first swim in the sea; and I'm also thinking about layers and merino, and gloves and scarves. And penguins, lots of penguins. And, who knows, perhaps even, finally, endlich, an orca or two. Fingers crossed. Or, you know, watch this space.
(This is Mauritius, which came to mind because the sole American in our Africa tour group was heading there next - and HAD NEVER HEARD OF THE DODO!!! Can you believe that?)

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Disgusting Trump and his abominable sons

This is what happens when you hand your iPhone over to your Gracepatt Ecotours guide to do some yousies at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Nairobi. Stephen was so delighted with the quality of the photographs that he couldn't help himself - honestly, this is just a fraction of what he took. I don't blame him at all, despite all the deleting it's led to, because his own phone was pretty basic, as were most of the non-tourist ones I saw being used during my Intrepid Game Parks & Gorillas tour through Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda earlier this month.

They are, though, an absolute boon to poor people in Africa: with my wealth of through-the-window experience of street life in, now, five countries in that continent (that's roughly one eleventh), I can boldly generalise to say that cellphones are ubiquitous and understandably so, when even electric lighting in homes can be a luxury, and landlines non-existent. It must have been such a glorious improvement to their standard of living to be able to communicate with others so easily. Yay for technology. But nothing of the sort for the unspeakable Trump.

After last night's horrifying news about the US re-opening the import of hunting trophies - coincidentally (not) to the benefit of the Orange One's disgusting sons - I was heartened this morning to scroll down on my own phone to read this tweet from Ellen Degeneres:
I'm sure many - hopefully most - Americans are equally dismayed by the Abomination's latest abomination. Certainly that unspeakable dentist who murdered Cecil the lion last year got a lot of local protest that I hope (but doubt) made him regret what he'd done. And honestly, where is the skill in shooting these magnificent animals? There is none. These pathetic self-styled 'hunters' don't actually hunt their targets, they're just taken to where they are - in fenced reserves - and then shoot them. That's not hard either - they're big animals, difficult to miss. Truly, I could have shot the Big Five myself, twice over, easily. There's no kudos to be earned - as if there ever could be anyway.
There was a nice American couple at the David Sheldrick elephant orphanage who were buying four fosterships to give as Christmas presents. Good for them. In the sure and certain knowledge that neither of my offspring will read this, I can say that I bought one too, as a present for the younger one, an elephant fan from way back. I chose Enkesha, a little girl of 18 months who was rescued in the Masai Mara where she was found with a wire snare (meant for antelope, for bushmeat) around her trunk, almost severing it (you can see the wound, in the photo above). Sadly, to save her life, she had to be removed from the care of her mother and her herd.
The Trust stitched the wound up twice, and though each time she promptly rubbed all the stitches out, it's still healing quite nicely. I'm not sure if that's the reason why she was drinking water directly, with her mouth in the trough, rather than the normal method of sucking it up her trunk and then squirting it into her mouth, but hopefully she'll get that sorted out. She came right up close to my bit of rope, and I was able to pat her. She'll be at the Trust until she's three, and then she'll be taken to a reintegration unit to be looked after until she feels able to live wild in a herd. Keepers will watch over her until she's accepted, which could take up to ten years. Isn't it heartening to know there are people being so kind to animals? Don't you wish certain other people were more like them?

UPDATE: After a world-wide reaction of shock and horror, there has been the suggestion of a retraction on the part of His Orangeness. Good. Be nice if he were as open to reviewing his other disastrous pronouncements.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

You're the Business, Emirates

When you've spent 16 days bumping and lurching along 3,467km of roads through Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda, in an un-air-conditioned truck with rattly windows, loose screws and meanly padded seats, oh! what a treat it is to return to the comforts of the 21st century. Especially when those comforts are supplied by experts in the field: ie, Emirates' Business Class.

I arrived with heaps of time to spare at Nairobi's Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, because, I admit it, I was, feebly, Africa'd out by then. I was keen to get cracking on the journey home, but it looked as though I would have to spend a couple of hours on a bench near the check-in desks because it was too early to send my bag through. Then, though, the lovely Emirates lady took pity on me, promised to keep the bag safe behind the desk till it was time to put it on the conveyor belt, and sent me through to the lounge, airside.

The airport is a bit then-and-now, after a fire in 2013, but the lounge is in the new bit and, shared with Turkish Airlines, comfortable and well-supplied with the necessities and more. I kept myself perfectly happy and busy there for hours until my flight was called. EK722 uses a Boeing 777 in several permutations - this was the 300 with three classes - but it's being phased out in favour of the ER version. I wouldn't have liked to be in the middle section of three seats, but my window one was nicely private despite my having a neighbour. It would have been nice if the seat had reclined totally flat for this overnight flight to Dubai, but since I've also spent the last 16 days mostly sleeping in a tent, I wasn't inclined to be picky - and anyway, after eating dinner at midnight (after, etc, of same-same stews and vegetables, I wasn't going to turn down proper food on a china plate however unsociable the hour) there wasn't much sleep time left of the five-hour flight.

Arriving at Dubai, I made up for the 16 etc of solid sitting by taking the long, long hike from my C gate to the central B section of that enormous airport building, diverted by all the glitz on offer. Then I rode the train to the A section where the Business Class lounge is simply massive. It has two fine dining restaurants, does that sum it up? I took another shower, and had some breakfast (disappointed, to be honest, not to find the excellent Bircher muesli I'd had on the journey out - which I would have savoured even more had I known about the 16 days of crumbly bread and banana sandwich-based breakfasts to come).
Then came the moment I'd been looking forward to for such a long time: stepping (the first passenger off the airbridge, I was that keen) onto the A380 for the 15 hour journey back home to Auckland on EK448. Private pod, shiny walnut veneer everywhere, lockers to keep all my stuff stowed handy, a big TV, 2,500 channels to scroll through on the tablet controller (including the box set of the last season of 'Episodes', yay), a seat that reclined completely flat, a bar at the back of this upstairs cabin... Wonderful stuff.

And, finally, after sleep, entertainment, a dinner of tender meat (those 16 same-same stews were invariably on the chewy side) and flapjacks for breakfast, we touched down in Auckland. I hit the ground not exactly running, but striding briskly as usual, and not only got to the luggage carousel second, but waited only a couple of minutes before my bag appeared. I was first through customs and, final Emirates Business Class joy and glory, there was the Corporate Cabs man waiting to take me home. Touchdown to taxi in 28 minutes - that has to be a record. Further, thanks to the new Waterview tunnel, the trip into the city took only half an hour, I just scraped onto the ferry one hour after I landed, and 40 minutes after that, I was home. Class act, Emirates: you're the Business!

Monday, November 13, 2017

Giraffes do it with tongue

Well, how else should you spend your last hours in Africa, but kissing a giraffe and patting baby orphan elephants? So I went with Gracepatt Ecotours out, first of all, to the Giraffe Centre on the outskirts of Nairobi. Here they breed Rothschild giraffes and release them to national parks. There are 3 sub-species of giraffe in Kenya, and this one, found only in this country, was nearing extinction, down to 130 individuals because of habitat loss. Then Jock and Betty Lesley-Melville stepped in and began their rescue in 1979 - it's not over yet, there are still only 300 of them, but the future's looking pretty good. If you're wondering, you can pick them by their white stockings.
Equally important, as ever, is education, especially of young people: about the environment, wildlife, and its importance to Kenya - as well as its right to live here. So there are well-informed guides at the centre handing out molasses-cereal pellets to hand- (or mouth-) feed the giraffes, and telling everybody all about them and what extraordinary creatures they are. Necks the same length as their legs, did you know? Same number of neck vertebrae as we have. Tongues 46cm long - and blue. The thing to do here is to hold a pellet in your lips and wait for the giraffe to take it. There are whiskers and a bit of spit, but it's a gentle process. Step back fast once the food is gone, though, or you'll get head-butted.
Next we went to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust to get up close with orphaned baby elephants - so, naturally, cuteness overload. For an hour a day, you can go in and watch while 32 eles are brought up close and each fed big bottles of lactose-free baby formula. 
We stood behind a flimsy rope and watched them trotting eagerly out of the trees, in two groups, rushing up to the keepers to get their feed (every three hours, 24 litres each in total) and not always happy once the bottles were empty - there was a bit of irritated trumpeting going on. Then they wandered around, playing with each other, picking at leaves, messing with the water in a trough, and frequently close enough to the rope for us all to give as many pats as we wanted. There was a bit of inter-elephant pushing and shoving, and we sometimes had to leap backwards not to get trodden on, but it was a lovely experience.
The head keeper gave a detailed history of each of the orphans - name, age, how it ended up here (some mothers poached or dead of drought, a surprising number rescued from wells, a bit of human interference) and lots of other information, as well as an impassioned plea to avoid buying anything that could encourage more poaching. The babies are all re-introduced to wild living once they're old enough, but it can take five years to establish them with a new herd.
Though it was sad why they were here, it was really lovely to see them, especially up so close, to touch them and look into their eyes, and recognise what unique and special animals they are.
It was also pretty unique to run into the New Zealand Scrabble Team there, in Nairobi for the biennial international championships.  A Kiwi has, uniquely, won it three times in the past, know that? But this year's winner of the $20,000 prize was from Bahrain. The competition games are always one-on-one, by the way. Far too hard, with more players, to remember what tiles are still to be played.
Then Stephen, my chatty driver, took me back to the hotel - city street vendors wandering along the stationary lanes of traffic offering drinks, snacks and bananas, but also ties, tea towels, chef's hats, inner tubes and framed paintings - to have a final Tusker beer with the last of my Kenya shillings before heading out to the airport for tonight's long journey home. On the way there, stuck in some of Nairobi's dreadful traffic on a dual carriageway with four lanes nose-to-tail on both sides, was Africa's last surprise: a herd of cattle calmly grazing on the central reservation.

Intrepid Travel Gorillas & Game Parks - review and advice

Keep in mind that the Intrepid Game Parks and Gorillas tour I did in November 2017 is unlikely to be offered in the same format in future since Rwanda, having already doubled the price of a gorilla permit this year, is rumoured to be planning further increases. They know there’s a demand, and they’re going for the upper end of the market (they already have a permanently-full lodge there that costs USD3,000 per night – a staggering sum by African standards).

But I can give you an idea of what it’ll probably be like to do the new-version Intrepid tour to view the gorillas from the Ugandan side. So will the website’s Trip Notes, which pull no punches and warn about long days on bad roads in an un-airconditioned truck, variable toilet/shower facilities, putting up your own tent, and chipping in with the chores.

In reality, it’s even more rugged than that. The truck – which, to the credit of its carer – didn’t break down or even get a flat tyre, is rough, battered and pretty irritating in a number of ways. Even simply the steps into it: all different heights, just made to catch you out. Despite the big sign about fastening seatbelts, they’re all dodgy: either too loose or too tight, the buckles sometimes too stiff to use, at least one clip missing. The seats are padded, but not adequately for African bumps, so it’s a good idea to sit on a rolled-up mattress. That’s also helpful to lift shorter folk like me high enough up to see over the intensely annoying window-pane edging and reinforcing bar which are exactly at eye level. Further, the window glass is old and dirty, covered in tiny grains of whatever that make it impossible to wash them clean (I tried). When the prime reason for your being here is to see the country, I reckon that’s unforgivable. So a lot of time, the windows were down (they’re arranged horizontally) – but only if your neighbours behind are ok with the draught. It’s really frustrating for photographers. Having said all that, other companies use the same trucks, so it’s not purely an Intrepid feature. The main necessity is for the vehicle to be able to cope with the challenging roads, which ours did – it’s hard to imagine a fancier bus making it unscathed along this route.

The tents are sturdy, straightforward to erect and offer good protection from rain (as long as you remember to zip up your windows, sigh) – but they are heavy to haul around, and the clips that hold them to the metal frame can be really stiff and hard to operate. Some are better than others. Inside, it’s a snug fit if you’re sharing, and you won’t be able to store much gear in there – safer to use the truck’s lockers, anyway. On this tour, the maximum number is 16 (gorilla visiting parties are limited to 8) so, since the truck seats 22, there are surplus mattresses in the locker – thus it’s possible, by stealth or negotiation, to use two, which is much more comfortable.

The campsites varied a lot, but the common feature for most was disappointing facilities: we had, variously, no water, cold water, muddy water and, now and then, lots of nice hot water. Take wet wipes. There was, on the other hand, free wifi more often than not, although usually pretty slow of course. There were often upgrades available, into dormitories or rooms, and the prices were usually pretty reasonable though it does add up. That doesn’t, by the way, guarantee you good facilities – some of them had no bathrooms, and others were just as challenging, light- and water-wise, as for the campers. One, though, was enviably luxurious.

The food was substantial and healthy although fairly monotonous: lots of salads and vegetables, stews of various sorts, and fruit for dessert. It did, though, get pretty boring by the end, and though the veges were tasty, the stews were invariably on the tough side. To our cook’s credit though – and due in large part to his authoritarian manner re hygiene, no-one developed anything inconvenient over the entire 16 days. We all took our turns, according to the rota, at preparing the vegetables, and washing up dishes and pots (also, sweeping/mopping out the truck daily). The system was good, and efficient, and flapping (the dishes dry) soon became second nature.

As far as equipment is concerned, don’t stint on your sleeping bag, because it does get cold at night in some places along the route. Some people even brought proper pillows, which were comfy both at night and in the truck. Be prepared for your body, clothes and shoes to get dirty and stained orange with Africa's dust/mud. Leave the good stuff at home, and your standards. Wear things multiple times, don’t worry about clashing patterns, or buying up Kathmandu. Just have something beige/green for the gorilla day. Game drives don’t matter because you’re tucked inside the truck. A head torch is essential. For the gorilla trek, boots are a bit over the top – most people managed fine with trainers, and some appreciated gaiters because those big stinging nettles they have there in the jungle are truly vicious and can bite through fabric. If I ever did it again, though, I would wear gumboots/Wellingtons like the guides do – as long as they have soles with good grip, you’ll be fine, and they’re so much easier to wash the mud off after. I really wished I’d brought my Hunters.

The optional activities added some variety to the trip. The chimpanzees were a universal disappointment: because of cool weather they stayed way up in the tree tops, so that was $70 pretty much wasted. The boat cruise in QE National Park was really good, with lots of hippos and birds. I recommend the horse ride at Jinja – lovely horses and a good guide, and you needn't be experienced. Other people enjoyed the white-water rafting and quad-biking there, though some of them were relieved when it was over.

More than anything else, though – and this here is a counsel of perfection that, personally, I fell short of - you need to make sure you bring along quantities of patience and tolerance, and a sense of humour. Travelling in a biggish group of strangers, you’ll be tested in many ways. Try to stay positive and concentrate on the good bits, and rise above the irritations. The gorillas will be worth it, I promise.

Final verdict: I’m glad I went, though there were a couple of serious disappointments. Our guide Edwin was useless and didn’t tell us any more than he needed to and sometimes not even that, sitting silently down the back of the truck day after day. Someone more forthcoming would have enriched the experience immeasurably. But the other guys, Ben the driver and OT the cook, were excellent and professional and did a great job. Retracing so much of the route after the gorillas seemed kind of a waste but I don’t know if it’s possible, road-condition-wise, to do a circle route. I was prepared for it to be rugged, and was resigned to a monotonous menu, so that didn’t matter. The gorillas were exactly as promised, super-special and worth the money and effort. The cavalcade of African life past the windows every day meant even those long, long days on the road were fascinating and never boring. I never felt unsafe and, Edwin apart, everything else was professionally organised and reliable. I think you should do it. Even the rough stuff will give you great stories to tell back home.

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