Thursday, April 16, 2015

Good, better, best

In last night's Cathay Pacific/Travcom Travel Media Awards, I did a bit better than an also-ran, but not quite well enough to be fielding lots of congratulatory emails today. When I won the Travel Writer of the Year award six *sigh* years ago, it was truly delightful to be reaping all those congratulations, and then, a bit later, to receive a series of travel propositions. It was better than Christmas.

But being Runner-Up really doesn't count for much. Associate runner-up this time, in fact. I've been here before, and it's absolutely true that nobody remembers who came second. The silence is quite deafening, when you've experienced the clamour of winning. But that's life, I suppose. Plenty of people went along with hope in their hearts last night and returned home with nothing but disappointment: at least I took away four certificates, three of them runner-ups but one for winning a category. And even though I won't be going business class on Cathay Pacific to Zurich ('die schönste Stadt der Welt' according to the hand-made poster a student friend of mine pinned up in his flat long ago, after doing part of his degree there - hand lettered! Imagine that today), I do get a hefty discount on a holiday with one of a range of travel providers as my prize. I don't want to sound churlish.

And anyway, tomorrow I go to Turkey, to meet up with the Firstborn who's been away travelling herself for the last 18 months. We'll take a 12-day Insight Vacations coach tour around the country which will deliver us to the right place at the right time for the centenary commemorations of the Gallipoli landings, which is going to be very special. Rain or shine, we're going to be sitting on that hillside as dawn breaks, and the service begins, and the Last Post will be played on a battered old bugle with a war history of its own. Zurich! Pft.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Leaves here (and there)

I wonder how many individual leaves there are on our robinia frisia? Is this what a million looks like? It feels like a million, every autumn, as I pick them up off the carpet where I've walked them indoors, sweep them off the deck, furgle them out between the boards of the outside table, try to poke them out of the gaps in the decking timber. And that's not to mention the soggy masses lurking in the guttering, waiting to cause overflows when it rains. All this from just one tree!
So I feel for the residents of Chicago and, particularly, the people in charge of keeping the city tidy, because their streets are lined with them. Right through the CBD and into the suburbs, there are robinias - not frisia, but pseudoacacia, known locally as black locust - that lay down, come fall, carpets of orange leaves along the footpaths and roads, and in the corners of flights of steps. Since clearing them up wasn't my concern, I was delighted to see the broad sweeps of colour brightening the suburban streets of Old Town and Lincoln Park. I spent an afternoon there just wandering, trusting to serendipity which has always served me well, and discovered pretty three-storey houses, welcoming bars, a barber offering a 50% special during the Bears game, and unusual shops, one of which sells chocolate guns - even less use than a chocolate teaspoon but at least you have a choice of pistol or Colt 45.
There was also quite a lot of Lincoln. Well, it was Lincoln Park after all, so you'd expect a large statue of the man, but his deathbed was in the nearby museum as well as his death mask and other personal items. He gets everywhere, that man. When I was looking up the tree I started this post with, amongst all the other information I learned that the young Abe spent a lot of time splitting rails and fence posts from black locust logs. I wouldn't be surprised to hear that back home he had to sweep up the leaves too.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Words v pictures

In the beginning was the word? Nah, wrong. In the beginning there was the image, and that's how it's stayed, despite what we writers would like to believe. And actually, not only are images more important now than ever before, don't hold your breath for things to change, because plenty of people whose job is to have their finger on the pulse of social media are betting on the opposite. (Good thing too, you may be thinking, having thrashed your way through all those mixed metaphors.)

My recent media trip to the Kimberley in north-western Australia has provided me with the evidence for these assertions. First, image before words? I give you Aboriginal rock art, 40,000 years old. Case closed.
And the rest? Well, two of the group members, Lauren Bath and Garry Norris, were people who make their living from posting photos on Instagram as well as a couple of other online sites. Yes, that's right: self-made early adopters, they now make money from Instagram - or, rather, are contracted by organisations like Tourism WA to go on a famil, take hundreds of photos and post a specified number of them, duly hash-tagged and linked, on their Instagram feeds for their thousands and thousands (nearly half a million, in one case) of followers to see, respond to, and re-post. And these 'influencers' (it's a real job description) are sent all over the place: Iceland, Canada, Finland, New Zealand...

Don't be misled by any perceived notion of triviality: being a professional Instagrammer is at least as time-consuming, if not more so, than making observations, talking to people, taking notes and afterwards writing up a story. These people, both excellent photographers with all the heavy and expensive equipment that any pro snapper would be expected to have, were totally focused on planning, spotting and taking their images whenever opportunity offered, from dawn to midnight. Then, in what for the rest of us was more or less downtime, they were choosing, editing, labelling, captioning and posting their photos to Instagram, Google+, Steller and Trover. And then they were not only responding to the usually inane comments that their followers left, but also looking at, 'liking', and commenting on those followers' feeds, to keep them engaged. The two of them spent long hours bathed in the glow of their iPhone 6-pluses, doing their jobs. It was exhausting just to watch them.

It was fascinating, but at the same time slightly worrying and shocking to think that tourism organisations are now spreading their limited funding to include a whole new species of travel communicator. The RTOs are a bit anxious about it too, having no idea whether it's really cost-effective, if spraying the pictures over the interwebs will really translate into more visits and thus more tourist dollars into the region's economy. It's an obvious argument, though, that the same applies to travel stories. Yes, funding a writer on a famil with the result of a page or two of words (and pictures) in a newspaper or magazine is far cheaper than buying advertising there that may not even be noticed (I myself am totally blind to advertisements, just do not even register that they're there). But there's no guarantee that the story will be noticed either, or read beyond the first paragraph if that, let alone inspire someone to book a trip the next day - or, more probably, the following year. It's an act of faith.

Photographers will say that the emergence of influencers is just pay-back for their having been pushed aside for years now by writers using ever more clever digital cameras to present cash-strapped editors with acceptable word/image packages, and they certainly have a point. But, in small consolation, let me say that the lightning picture, above, was taken by Jarrad Seng, a professional photographer brought along on the famil by Tourism WA to provide them, and us, with striking images to use. And striking this one certainly is (though, fortunately, not literally for writer Max who features in it) - so striking that I knew to refer to it in my opening paragraph and, cunningly, included a thumbnail version in the story document.

Rightly so: the editor responded instantly requesting the hi-res version, it was the only photo he wanted for the (one-page) story, and I am confident that it will be published soon, while my other stories in his files, a couple of them dating back to 2012, will just have to continue to wait their turn. "Cracking shot," he wrote enthusiastically, ignoring my words completely.

But I have also received my own small consolation: today, one of my own favourite photos was finally published, accompanying a freshly-written story. It's only taken five years...

Friday, April 3, 2015

Hungary for salted caramel icecream?

Good Friday, sunshine, people on the beach and in the water making the most of the last of summer before the clocks go back tomorrow, gulls squabbling over the stinky fish frame on the sand nearby, and I'm eating an icecream bar and thinking about Budapest at Christmas. Magnums are made in Hungary, it turns out. Who knew? Seems like a coals-to-Newcastle scenario, but that's what the packaging says.

And of course I was in Budapest shortly before last Christmas - not that long ago, to judge by the 'Season's Greetings' sign on the window of the local dairy here, above a candle picture still bright and unsmudged (well, after all, I guess Easter is a season too). To be honest, it was pretty dismal when we arrived - it didn't help that we'd had a stop-off in Dubai where it was 30 degrees - and stepping out of the airport was like entering a fridge. Except colder, at one degree, and wetter, and greyer. There were few people on the streets, everything looked dull, and there was no colour anywhere. Even the famous Christmas markets, the whole purpose of our visit, were unattractive.
I really felt for the stall-holders, having to sit crouched in their little huts all day, muffled up in gloves and beanies as stragglers shuffled by, hands in pockets, mostly looking and not buying. Then I went back to the boat, Uniworld's River Beatrice, that I'd be cruising the Danube in for the next five days, and my room was like an icebox, the heater pumping out cold air. It was hard to get enthusiastic.

But then the maintenance guy fixed the heater and I thawed out, it got dark, I put on some extra layers and went out again, and it was all different. The wet cobbles reflected the lights of the decorations on the stalls, on the big Christmas tree in the square and over the boarded-up fountain, the stalls were pumping out delicious smells of fried food and mulled wine and cider, the high tables in the middle were buzzing with local office workers celebrating the end of their working day with a sociable drink and a snack, families with little kids were hanging over the wooden fence of the life-sized nativity scene, oohing over the real sheep and goat. The buildings were floodlit, the market atmosphere was welcoming, it was bright and colourful under a black sky, the goods and crafts on the stalls looked so attractive, and I was really glad to be there in winter, when it felt so special.
(As for that salted caramel flavour - well, it was nothing like they do in New England. But that's another connection entirely...)

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Blue and red. plus lots more red and orange, gold, pink...

I was doing the ironing today, so of course I was thinking about camels. Specifically, my last camel outing, which - what? Of course there's a connection between ironing and camels! Keep up! Oh, all right then, if you must: our steam iron is a high-tech job that has a separate tank for the water, which comes through a pipe. And it gurgles, a low-pitched noise that is exactly like the standard complaint a camel makes when it knows work is in the offing. Ok now? Can I proceed?

So, regular readers (*brief silence*) will know that I was riding a camel the week before last, when I returned to Broome after my Kimberley cruise. It's the standard thing to do, and a couple of companies run treks, the red and the blue. I was actually a bit surprised to learn that they do two or three treks (well, 4km rides along Cable Beach) a day, every day except Christmas - because the classic outing is the sunset ride which begins at 5pm and finishes back at the starting point exactly as the sun sets, at 6pm. Pretty impressive timing, I thought.
It's a slick operation, everyone is briefed and mounted efficiently, there are jokes, there are photos taken, and then you set off, lolloping slowly along, two to a camel (heavier person behind) with a couple of young men walking alongside and the one who lost the toss following behind picking up the poo that escapes the nappy each camel wears.

The guy with us was a chatty sort, clearly had his spiel sorted (what two other animals also walk with the legs on each side going together?) and babbled away, fortunately concentrating on some other riders further up the line so that we could appreciate the gaudy beauty of the sunset. It never gets old. I've done Cable Beach before, and I've done Uluru at sunrise - equally spectacular - as well as daytime rides in South Australia and in Dubai (probably there also on Australian camels - they export them, you know, for racing, anyway. With mechanical jockeys!) And the sunrise/sunset rides have always been the best, for sheer Technicolor over-the-topness. So make sure that's what you do.
(No? Giraffe and cat.)

Monday, March 30, 2015

Cool dude on a hot day

Wil Thomas is one cool dude. You'd expect that, anyway, from that missing L - but he is, really. Not perhaps literally, though. The temperature was 38 degrees the morning I met him under a boab tree on Broome's Town Beach, and whereas I was in sandals, 3/4 pants and a light top, he was dressed in boots, black jeans, a long-sleeved shirt and a hat. He was sweating, by half time, I noticed - but then, so was I, and I'd spent most of the tour carefully edging into whatever shade was available (I'd have sat down too, if it wasn't for the blasted ants).

Anyway, Broome Historical Walking Tours. It's just Wil, and a booklet of reproduced black and white photos, and a walk around the locations in the pics. Plus talking, of course. That's the best part - Wil tells a mean story, and Broome gives him plenty of great material. He concentrates on the two things the town is best-known for: WW2 and pearling. In fact the air raids on Broome, like Darwin, were kept quiet by the government as far as the general populace was concerned during the war and for a long time afterwards its dramatic history remained widely unknown. It was all about morale: the Japanese almost obliterated the town in 1942 on a bombing raid that turned out to be unexpectedly profitable for them, and started a fire that pretty much finished the job for them.
There were 17 Catalinas moored in Roebuck Bay almost exactly 73 years before my tour with Wil, carrying Dutch refugees from Java on their way to Perth. Nine Zeroes swept in looking for military targets and were, presumably, delighted to find not only eight Air Force planes on the ground, but the Catalinas too, and no defensive fire. About 100 people died, most of them women and children refugees. Wil honoured Gus Winkle, who was horrifically heroic, as we stood by his grave. There was also a great story about a package of diamonds that got caught up in the melée - a classic Aussie yarn.

And then, as we walked along the seafront, poking at the damp sand with our toes to winkle out artefacts from those days, Wil told us about the Master Pearlers, the uses of mother-of-pearl shell, why the bends is called that, why the Japanese divers thought they would make their fortunes in Broome, about the appalling treatment of young, pregnant women, about Blackbirding, and sending the laundry to Singapore. Fascinating stuff. We ended up at the Broome Historical Museum (which prompts the question: what other sort is there?) which has plenty of interest of its own, presented in that slightly ramshackle way that I really enjoy in a small museum.

Altogether? An excellent way to spend $35 and an hour and a half. Recommended.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Waiheke Horse Tours: do it!

Today I sat where Tom Cruise has sat, wearing Orlando Bloom's boots. Me with the boots, that is, not Tom - not that he would have made a fuss about wearing them if he'd had to, he's a pretty amenable chap by all accounts. He's got only one pace, though, I was told: fast. Fortunately, Felix is more adaptable (though he did begin by collapsing onto the ground when Steve was riding him during the initial briefing - it's his party trick).
Ok, so I went out today with Steve Old on one of his Waiheke Horse Tours, along with a couple of Swedish girls, and we had lunch at Poderi Crisci, which is an Italian vineyard on the island that has the rare distinction these days of using corks in its bottles (because they export to Italy where they're old school). I knew Steve already, from his Great New Zealand Trek days, and I'd met Felix then too, though I didn't get to ride him on the trek. Instead Steve arranged an eager grey thoroughbred called Banjo for me, who spent the whole 200km straining to be in front, please.

Felix was much better behaved, with none of the diva behaviour you might expect of a veteran of The Last Samurai, The Hobbit and several other big movies (amongst lots of other interesting stuff, Steve has been animal wrangler on many movies here and overseas, mainly horses but also pigs, geese, goats, rats - you name it.) Instead Felix walked out nicely along private roads, tracks through the bush, and across paddocks. It was lovely, and there was plenty of opportunity then, and over lunch, to encourage Steve to gossip about the movies and the actors (Orlando thought he could do anything, and then ended up screaming like a girl. And Ian McEwan had to be taught how to ride a pig. And the ponies that the little people had to ride in The Hobbit didn't look pony-ish enough for Peter Jackson, and had to wear padded shaggy onesies that were so hot they had to train fans on them.)
Steve himself was riding a stallion, impressive enough in itself, but Trappeur is a grey Percheron with a shaggy mane and tail and terrific bearing, and also starred in The Hobbit as Bard's mount, and he was quite something to behold. So I didn't really pay that much attention to the scenery - but the Swedes were impressed; and thanks to Antonio we did all enjoy our lunches of lamb and then chocolate fondant, with a glass of crisp rosé.
It was a lovely thing to do, and I recommend it, even if you're not a rider (one of the others wasn't) - Steve and Felix will look after you, and Antonio will reward you for your bravery.


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