Sunday, 5 January 2020


I've been back from Australia for two days, but there's no escaping the fires there. Oz is a three-hour, two thousand kilometre flight away, but Auckland right now is bathed in an eerie orange light, the clouds stained yellow, the sea a weird brown colour, and automatic streetlights were coming on mid-afternoon on a summer's day. The smoke, which I can smell, has blown across the Tasman and everyone is looking at the sky with dismay, and deep sympathy for our neighbours. 
All the news from Australia is shocking, the numbers mind-blowing (the burnt-out areas equal the area of Belgium - or did, because that's old and outdated news now), the images horrific, the stories heart-breaking. For me, today's most dreadful reports - so far - are from Kangaroo Island, off the south coast of South Australia, where more than a third of the entire island has been burnt. I was there in 2008, and had a lovely time, enjoying the unique and teeming wildlife, the spectacular rocks, lovely beaches, special honey, and proud residents. 
I was especially envious of those who, unlike me, were able to stay at the then brand-new Southern Ocean Lodge, tucked low on the skyline above the sea, full of big windows and luxurious accommodation. I hoped that one day, I might get back there to experience it. Not now.

Thursday, 2 January 2020

Silver Muse cruise, Day Ten - End of days? End of cruise, anyway

With thanks to Silversea for this cruise
Yesterday was a glorious clear, sunny, blue-sky day, a perfect start to the new year/decade. Today? Apocalyptic. I opened the curtains to thick yellow smoke outside that quickly got even thicker, almost blotting out the already dim and orange sun. It, and its smell, soon infiltrated the ship, making the Arts Café look like a coffee bar back in the smoky seventies, the corridor outside full of haze. The captain had to make a special announcement that it was all from outside, there was nothing to be done, and nothing to be concerned about engine-wise. Certainly, there was no avoiding it, inside or out.
We are glad we decided not to hang around in Sydney when we arrive there tomorrow morning, and have arranged to fly straight home. The locals have had occasional breaks from these conditions, thanks to varying winds, but they've been living with this bush fire smoke for several months now. Even returning to New Zealand will not be the escape we'd like, though: the wind has carried the smoke across the Tasman to cover the whole of the South Island, and even up in Auckland people are able to look at the blood-red sun directly, and outdoor security lights are turning themselves on.
The pool deck was closed for most of the day, and back in the cabin suite our suitcases had, in a too-obvious hint, been put onto stands, so we wandered off to have a last buffet lunch at La Terrazza. Then we attended an interesting lecture (not by the boring Major-General OWM) about women convicts in Tasmania - none of them transported for being prostitutes, by the way, but many driven to it on the transport ships, and in Van Diemen's Land, for an income; and consequently blamed, by men, for the depravity, of men, that their presence caused. But at least one of them did so well that her face is on Australia's $20 note. Wonder how well the others might have done, given half a chance?
Our quiet afternoon was interrupted by the captain announcing that the change of course we might have noticed (er, no) had been caused by an emergency services request to go to the aid of those people on the beach in East Gippsland, at Mallacoota, and help with the evacuation; but then we were stood down because they weren't ready for us. Bit of a shame, really - that would have been interesting, and it would have been good to have helped. I (and everyone else on board) had already received an emergency text about information meetings in Mallacoota. Poor things - my eyes have been stinging a bit even out here at sea. Must be horrendous, right amongst it all.
After hours of being in a sort of vacuum, with nothing to see outside, not even the sea - it was as though the world had been erased - the smoke began to clear later in the afternoon, as we headed to the Dolce Vita lounge for our final Team Trivia game. There was a jolly atmosphere, lots of joking and friendliness, but not a lot of actual success as our team scored only 16/20 and the winners had a clean sweep. Questions included the capital of Armenia; where is the Sandy Desert; what is hypnophobia; what's the diameter, in inches, of a basketball hoop; what is Cd on the periodic table; and what body part was Alfred Hitchcock missing?

We cashed in our precious prize points - the most expensive item, for 160 points, was a Silversea umbrella, the least, at 10, a pen; I claimed a (second) fridge memo holder for our hard-won 30 - and finally gave in to the necessity of packing. Which at least took a lot less time than it had back home.
Dinner was back in Atlantide - meltingly tender filet mignon again, which I wasn't able to finish, and will remember with sadness and regret for some time to come - and the table was shared with a UK/Oz/NZ trio, with whom we had a lively conversation that included jury service, rain in England v the Waikato, Team Trivia cheating, returning home to doing our own chores, and polo. One of them had ash stains on his shirt, which were clearly going to be a souvenir.
And that was that, for the last day. Labelled suitcases outside the door at bedtime, the cabin suite looking impersonal again, and tomorrow just the tedium of travel to look forward to with an eventual arrival home at probably 9pm. It's been fun, weather and bush fires notwithstanding. Thanks, Silversea.

Wednesday, 1 January 2020

Silver Muse cruise, Day Nine - New year beginning, cruise ending

With thanks to Silversea for this cruise
We set off at a leisurely pace this morning, everything considerately later than usual, for those who were up late last night (not us, obviously). It took ages to cross Melbourne's vast harbour to the heads that protect it, where we were escorted by the pilot boat through the 2km-wide, churned up gap with a lighthouse and spectators on one side. Then we were back in Bass Strait, heading for the Tasman again to sail, eventually, northwards to Sydney. For quite a distance, we had coastline to watch, which was a novelty.
Everyone was very chilled-out - if you can call people that who are basking in hot sunshine - and the pool deck was the most crowded bit of the ship, although there were always spare loungers and chairs for latecomers (despite a German family I've been observing doing the cliché German thing of using their towels to claim loungers for the entire day, including in their absences).

I was pleased to hear that the big net of balloons that hung over one end of the pool deck, that was still in place when we went to bed after midnight last night, was not opened to let them disperse into the air and sea, and no doubt kill many sea creatures. "The fun police," someone harrumphed, but I was pleased, and just surprised that in these environmentally enlightened (some irony there) times, anyone had ever thought that was a good idea at all. [Side note: I read today that it's estimated that half a billion animals have died in Australia's bush fires so far. Heartbreaking.] [Update: Apparently there was never any intention to release the balloons: the net was just how they were displayed.]
There was lunch, there was downtime, there was sitting on the veranda in the sunshine with the sea sloshing peacefully below, and then there was Trivial Pursuit. Reader, we came first! With 19.5/20! Questions included: what is As on the periodic table; who played Galadriel in LOTR; what country does Denmark border; what port sees the most cruise passengers; what's the longest running show in the West End; and how many millimetres are there in a kilometre?
Although there is still all of tomorrow left on the cruise, the relentless winding-up has begun: the comments form delivered, the disembarkation instructions, luggage labels. As always, it feels too soon. The most emphatic part of this process was the ceremonial crew parade of 400 staff over the stage for the farewell tonight, with standing ovations and cheering. (It followed the Voices of Silversea doing Queen hits, which left me full of genuine admiration for Rami Malek. Say no more.)
We ate this evening at Spaccanapoli, which is a pizzeria overlooking the pool deck, with a perfect view of the lowering sun tonight heading for a smoke-tinged sepia sunset. It was really warm up there - bare legs and arms temperature. And the pizza was good too.

At the Arts Café we had coffee on the rear deck as the sun finally slid into the sea, and we rounded the Wilson Promontory to turn northwards. It was a quiet evening as I prowled around the ship afterwards: not many people in the public areas at all. Probably bracing themselves in their cabins suites for the last day of the cruise tomorrow. And meanwhile, the staff were taking down the Christmas decorations. Holidays over, no question.

Tuesday, 31 December 2019

Silver Muse cruise, Day Eight - Goodbye 2019

With thanks to Silversea for this cruise
There are thousands of people not so far from where I am who have been driven down to the beach by the horrific bush fires in East Gippsland, and are stranded there right now in hellish conditions, the sky deep red, the sun blotted out, the air thick with smoke. It's terrible.
So it seems very trivial to complain about being lost in Melbourne this afternoon - but I will. That's 'lost' in the transitive verb sense, you see. I didn't lose myself, my so-called guide lost me. And, worse, didn't find me again.
We arrived early in the city which, in typical Melbourne fashion, had temperatures of 40+ yesterday but this morning was barely scraping 17. So I scuttled off to the National Gallery of Victoria to get some indoor culture. It's a really well done museum - big, modern, airy, arty design - and has some great works in its collections. Naturally I walked past the Colin McCahon gallery without a sideways glance, and concentrated on the traditional masters - Turner, Manet, Constable, Picasso - which were beautifully displayed. I really liked one room where there were dozens crammed in together without labels, making the whole thing an artwork in itself. Though this painting, titled 'Anguish' was tough to see.
They had a gorgeous collection of Venetian glass, too, quite exquisitely delicate and detailed, and full of beautiful pieces. My favourite though was this modern work by Richard Marquis, pleasingly titled 'Non-functional teapot'. 
I was delighted to see women's fashion included too - extraordinary clothes designed by Rei Kawakubo that could have come straight out of a WOW show but apparently were part of actual fashion parades.
"Goodbye - we hope you found something to love" said the sign by the exit, and I certainly did. Well done, NGV.
When I came back outside, the sun was shining, it was hot, there were people in holiday mode everywhere, in cafés, along the Yarra River, walking, sitting and all enjoying themselves against the background of impressive skyscrapers.
It was the enclosed, rather than the exposed, that the afternoon concentrated on, though: an Arcades and Alleyways tour arranged through Silversea. There were only seven of us in our group and our guide, from Chicago long ago, took us first onto one of the city's efficient network of modern trams into the heart of the CBD. She led us through a series of wonderfully ornate Victorian (in both senses) arcades, and along grungier laneways full of street art and eateries. 
We heard history, got some architecture info, had public artworks pointed out, passed by the statue of my hero Matthew Flinders, and were generally getting on pretty well.
And then, dear reader, Joy said "Have a look at the Christmas display in Myers as we go past, before we go into another alleyway to our coffee stop." Look, I've re-enacted it since - I looked away from her umbrella for no more than TEN SECONDS at the slightly creepy display of a koala dressed as Santa, and then when I turned back, it was gone, she was gone, the others were all gone. Gone!

So, not being able to identify the alleyway, I stood in the middle of that pedestrian street, in the sun, in the open, waiting for her to come looking for me, as she had for another group member who'd strayed earlier. And waited, and waited, for a quarter of an hour, and she never came. So - fortunately knowing what to do and where to go from this morning's gallery visit - I lit out for the shuttle bus back to the ship, which was due to sail in not much more than an hour. Black mark for Joy, I reckon (and a grey one for myself, of course.)
We joined another Team Trivia group this afternoon since our own had dwindled, presumably through lack of success, to just the two of us - and did much better: 16/20 and came third. Rather easier questions today included: what does eg stand for; which pop icon died in August 1977; what two letters of the alphabet both mean 1000; which English queen had 17 children; and what's the capital of Libya?
The Christmas decorations had been modified with black, white and silver balloons for New Year's Eve, and we duly all dressed up ourselves (as much as I ever do - but there were plenty of sequins on display). Dinner was with a big media group and conversation included Jacinda Ardern, evaluating the payback from advertising, keeping anonymous on famils, and women changing names, or not, after marriage.
The Châteaubriand was exquisite; and afterwards for those who had room there was a huge range of chocolate desserts on the pool deck, a dj, prize giveaways, and dancing - all of which we, of course, observed from a distance. 
Pleasingly, though we had left our mooring, the captain anchored Silver Muse out in the harbour so we could watch the midnight fireworks display over the city in comfort - and it was good, if a little distant. Many of the fireworks were red, though, which was an uncomfortable reminder of what those poor East Gippsland folk were seeing, hunched on their beach, no doubt hoping for better in 2020.

Monday, 30 December 2019

Silver Muse cruise, Day Seven - Bores and beads

With thanks to Silversea for this cruise
I suppose going, unexpectedly, to Turkey twice in 2015 still holds the record - but visiting Tasmania twice in the space of a few weeks is also pretty extraordinary, I reckon. Back in November, I was doing the Maria Island Walk, fretting over a delayed suitcase, and sleeping in a tent. This time I'm popping ashore from a 5-star cruise liner to be wafted along to the last bit of the state I haven't visited yet.
Well, maybe not wafted. It was a bus tour, and though driver Ray was good, guide Ron was yet another *sigh* OWM bore. His specialty was identifying for us, as we drove along, things like a café ("It's been open 5 months now!"), a petrol station, cattle and sheep. Never mind. Tasmania was its usual pretty, bucolic self today. We bypassed Burnie ("Fifth-largest port in Australia!") and drove along the coast, past long sandy beaches and rocky little coves, and through rich farmland towards Stanley and The Nut, which is a 160m high plateau sticking out into the sea, a volcanic remnant of some sort. 
Before we got to Stanley, we called in at their historic house, Highfield, which is getting on for 200 years old and has been lovingly restored from being lived in, at one point, by sheep. They've done an especially good job with the storyboards, though they were a bit too artistic for me to read easily; and I was struck, when entering the main bedroom, to hear an invisible woman sobbing - intro to a sad story about a little girl who lived here being killed (by a runaway dog cart). Well done.
Then we went on to Stanley, a little town of 200 souls, full of pretty wooden villas with metal lace around their verandas, colourfully painted, and with neat gardens. Here we took the gondola up to the top of The Nut, and I marched around the circuit on top, enjoying the fresh air, hearing the birds, and looking at long and lovely views enhanced by the gorgeous blue sea. I even spotted a pademelon.
When I got back to the gondola station, though, it was to find that there had been a power cut and everyone was having to walk down the very steep concrete zigzag path - and some doughty souls were walking up it too, in even more unsuitable shoes than I was wearing. (Apparently, they used a generator to get the people off the gondola who were stranded on it - since you ask. Well, I did, anyway.)
We drove back towards Burnie, occasionally learning interesting things (still growing opium poppies for the US market, but at a reduced rate and now experimenting with medicinal cannabis instead) but mostly just having obvious things labelled for us. Thanks, Ron.
Back on board, we glided smoothly away from the pier, and the huge mountain of wood chips there (for Japanese particle board) and then headed down to Trivial Pursuit. There were only three of us today, but we managed our best score yet, 15/20 (would have been 17 if we'd allowed two of Jeff's answers, ulp). Questions included: happy birthday in Spanish; how many pairs of ribs do we have; how much lemonade in a shandy; first transplanted organ; which South American country encompasses both the equator and Tropic of Capricorn?
Dinner was at La Terazza, where the antepasto were so generous that all I had was the duck papardelle - very nice. On Silversea, when you arrive at a restaurant you can request a shared table, which is a gamble that often pays off (but didn't last night), or a private table. Tonight we were advised that it would work better to sit alongside, rather than with, others who might not turn up. We did in fact have a good conversation with our neighbours, about: the Sydney fires, using Qantas airpoints, Herefordshire, fireworks, the "filthy rich" passengers on board, and driving a Fiat 500 on Italian motorways. It all went swimmingly, until they [Australian, Christian, have not left the ship since boarding] referred to Oscar Wilde as a "homo". Good grief!

But the evening was salvaged when we wandered by the boutiques, which are filled with the most dispensable of goods - stupid watches, fancy jewellery, clothes, perfume, Fabergé eggs - and chatted to gorgeous Daniel about the handbags on display. It was the third time I'd been drawn to look at these extraordinary items: artworks, really, each different, shaped and beaded in extravagant designs like cruise liners, a skull, a violin, a champagne bucket. We had a satisfying conversation about the designer, the Indian women who made them, the fun element that made their impracticality irrelevant - and learned that people had been buying them, bigly. 

Sunday, 29 December 2019

Silver Muse cruise, Day Six - Just, er, cruising

With thanks to Silversea for this cruise
And the laid-back vibe continues, today with added sunshine and heat as we head towards baking Australia. So there's very little to report: people scattered all over the ship, lying about reading or squinting at screens in the bright light on the various outside decks, or more comfortably in the lounges. Presumably there was action in the gym and the spa but they were, as ever, closed books to me.

I can attest that the pool was busy, all the loungers a-sprawl with people, and some even in the water braving the impressive tsunami that was continuously sweeping from side to side and end to end. In the Panorama Lounge, heads were down and the atmosphere silent and concentrated for Bingo - unlike the rowdy bunch a bit later in Dolce Vita for Team Trivia, which continues as undisciplined as ever, with blatant cheating and helping, and even some calling out. I've given up on trying to stick to the rules and have joined the herd.

We were a team of seven today, and scored 13/20, unplaced despite the cheating. Questions included South America's highest mountain; capital of Mongolia; the name of the fourth musketeer; which sport begins by throwing salt; and what does the mathematical symbol II mean? The answer to that last one is not eleven, by the way - though it was such a good joke, it was allowed.
Dinner, at Atlantide again, was a dull affair, though the food was excellent (prawns and filet mignon) and it was pleasing to be offered wine from a vineyard with which we will soon have a tenuous family connection. The others at our shared table were a well-travelled (superfluous adjective - everyone on board is) Australian couple and a Brit-turned-Tassie who was sulking, not unreasonably, because he lives near tomorrow's port of Burnie, but isn't allowed to disembark there and instead has to continue to Melbourne and then fly home. He annoyed me because, despite boasting of 280-odd nights with Silversea, he insisted on mis-naming the line Silverseas. I'm petty like that. The conversation was dominated by the two OWMs and, though I made a few attempts to break the deadlock, I soon lost heart. The topics (in between long silences) included: the current NZ-Oz cricket scandal (yawn); silly season stories in the press; Raffles hotel; showering on board the Emirates A380, first class; and distinguishing brands of flour.

The show tonight was Broadway hits, but only one of the six singers has a really good voice, the others seeming to strain just a little for the high notes - though full marks for effort. I seem to be getting very picky. Time to go ashore, I think.

Saturday, 28 December 2019

Silver Muse cruise, Day Five - Tasman Sea sloth

With thanks to Silversea for this cruise
Days at sea are like a holiday, on a cruise. No excursions to busy yourself with, no - well, no excursions is pretty much it. But once you slip into cruise mode, with everything done for you, all desires met, not even having to think about paying for whatever takes your fancy, the discipline of an excursion looms large. So having, right now, two consecutive at-sea days as we cross the Tasman, the danger is that we won't be able to stir from our lethargy at all when we get to Burnie, Tasmania, on whatever day it is (at-sea vagueness about such things as dates not helped at all by the usual Christmas-New Year limbo).

That's not to say, of course, that there aren't things going on, on board. Meals, naturally - breakfast notable to me for the animated conversation witnessed between married couples, which really doesn't seem like normal behaviour. And today there were also a couple of lectures: the first an American woman talking about the Aboriginal people, which is a dicey topic to discuss, especially with Australians in the audience, but she managed well, I thought; though she did let slip the phrase "victims of an incomplete genocide" which rather gave the game away. Most of it I was familiar with - but I had no idea about the huge animals that used to live in Australia when the Aboriginal people first got there, maybe 70,000 years ago. Wombats eight times the size of today's - imagine! Bit of a shame she used the name Ayer's Rock though, and not Uluru.

The sea was mercifully calm today - and remarkably so too, for the notorious Tasman - but the waves in the swimming pool were dramatic as we lunched alongside it, wrapped up against the wind. There was napping - including, I'm ashamed to say, during the rather dull afternoon lecture by a Major-General OWM about convicts in Tasmania, which ought to have been a lot more riveting - and then we roused ourselves for Team Trivia, which was very popular today. We had six in our team but still managed only 14/20 again - though for once that was good enough to earn third place points. Not that we deserved them: the blatant cheating continues, with the quizmaster and waiters quietly supplying answers as they wander around, and a loose attitude to the final marking. Not right at all. Questions this time included: Sherlock Holmes's address; where did canasta originate; who voiced Porky Pig; who wrote Rigoletto?

There was a classical piano concert before dinner which I had hoped to enjoy but although it featured mainly Chopin, it was pieces that mostly allowed the pianist to show off, rather than deliver an actual tune, so my low-brow musical appreciation faculties went unsatisfied.

At dinner in Atlantide (Chilean sea bass - very nice) we shared a table with a Singaporean couple - he had a big hand in sleep apnoea research - and some Aussies from Melbourne. Conversation topics included: 60 laps of the pool deck takes the Aussies 90 minutes, spurred on by step-counting sibling rivalry via Apple watches; growing olives; spurning a Green Card in favour of moving to Australia (no regerts); Christmas decorations in Reykjavik; and (shhh) the superiority over Silversea of Crystal cruises - entertainment-wise, at least.

The proof of that was in the concert that finished the evening: 60s pop songs sung enthusiastically but not 100% well by one of the six cast members on board. The audience was on her side though, until she made the alienating statement: "That was a big hit for Dusty Springfield in 1967 - which was the year my mother was born." Cue sudden chill.


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