Thursday, 2 July 2020

No go

In classic TravelSkite fashion, I have missed another milestone. This time it's the half-million views total, according to Blogger's counter (which I view with some scepticism, as well as with the sure and certain knowledge that a hefty chunk of those views are my own). 
I have no excuse. I've just been ticking along quietly here, not doing anything much, merely existing in New Zealand's weirdly almost-normal bubble with everything pretty much like the old days, apart from closed borders and no tourists. FYI we've currently got 18 active cases, all returnees from overseas, all in isolation, and no-one in hospital. Our death toll is, thankfully, still only 22, and Covid-19 reports of the hellish dramas happening overseas are relegated now to the second section of the evening news, after more important local (non-)events.
I should try harder to be actually thankful - but currently I'm just sad that I'm sitting here at home and not at this moment seated on a plane heading for Iceland. Next week I should have been setting off on a cruise with Seabourn (Silversea's great rival, and new to me) from Reykjavik via north Iceland to Greenland and then the Shetland Islands, Scotland and England, finishing in Southampton. It would have been so good. Small ship, high-end, with all the treats that that means; but mainly yay, Iceland again! And Greenland!
I watched The Story of Fire Saga the other night, which was predictably silly, but with some good music. It was mainly a quiet joy for me to recognise the Reykjavik locations, the classic woollen jerseys, the Einstök beer glasses, and see the new-to-me scenery around Hüsavik, which I would have visited on the cruise. I would have been so happy to be there again - it's such a special, interesting, spectacular and homely place to visit. I bet the locals are even actually keen to have some visitors now (instead of being overwhelmed by two million of them annually, to a country with a 300,000 population). Sigh.

Tuesday, 9 June 2020


Today New Zealand has entered Level 1 of our Covid-19 response. It's a triumph for our (cliché but cute) Team of Five Million led by sainted PM Jacinda Ardern with the trusty DG of Health, Ashley Bloomfield, at her side. Jacinda admitted to a brief dance in her living room when she heard that the last active case was recovered, and Ashley allowed himself "a broad smile". 
Here are the main figures: 102 days since the first case; 75 days since levels were imposed; 1504 cases overall; 22 deaths (sad, but all older people with 'underlying conditions'); 17 days now with no new cases; 0 active cases. We spent 33 days at Level 4 in total lockdown, before easing back through 3 and 2, and then, at midnight last night, to Level 1 - which is normal life again, with added hand-washing, and strictly-controlled borders still till who knows when. People can go in and out of the country, but there's a mandatory 14 days of quarantine on return, including two swab tests; so no-one's going to be rushing to do that if they don't have to.
The push to travel domestically - which is hardly a penance - is naturally stronger than ever, and people are out there already, booking up Queenstown and other tourist magnets; and the newspaper travel sections are starting to fatten up again with local stories. All good. What I'm going to do here though is to fill in a rather large gap. My first published travel story was back in 2003, but this blog didn't start till 2009 so, seeing as how I'm anal about such things, I'm going to write about all those trips that haven't featured here. So here goes:
My first-ever proper famil was an 8-day Outward Bound course in 2003, but I have actually written about that several times, like here, but not the next one, to Tasmania. It was such a thrill to write in hope to Tourism Tasmania, expressing my interest in having a look around, and score the offer of an expenses-paid 10-day self-drive tour around the island state - with my teenage daughter included. Amazing.
So we found ourselves in Hobart in December, staying in a hotel on a pier in that historic city's lively and absurdly pretty waterfront - colourful fishing boats, piles of cane lobster pots, floating food trucks - which is surrounded by substantial Georgian stone buildings. We grazed through the Salamanca Saturday Market, wandered the streets admiring the pretty old cottages hung with roses and hedged with lavender, drove up to the summit of towering 1300m Mt Wellington where we found Nepalese prayer flags and wonderful views. We went out to Bonarong Park to get up close with wombats, kangaroos, koalas, emus and Tasmanian devils; and to the museum to see the last ever Tasmanian tiger in a glass case.
Then we headed out of the city on our provided itinerary and discovered the first truth of the famil: that there is never enough time anywhere. Occasionally we literally had to run to keep up with the timetable. We did a towering tree-top walk, and zipped through lovely English-like villages with arched bridges and gorgeous gardens; we stayed in interesting old hotels and one very fancy new one at Freycinet; we climbed up a stony hill (no doubt swarming with snakes) for a classic view over the perfect curve of Wineglass Bay. We went kayaking; found a cute and softly furry little echidna plunging his delicate nose into rough gravel, looking for grubs; and marvelled at the richly varied roadkill we found - and, sadly, contributed to when I hit a wallaby while driving back at night after a ghost tour of Port Arthur.
That former prison was grim and chillingly educational, and also disconcertingly picturesque. Heading from there up the east coast we just marvelled at the scenery. Turquoise sea, white, white sand, red rocks, green blue gums - it was all beautiful. The fields of opium poppies were unexpected - they supply 40% of the world's morphine - but the warning signs on the fences weren't very scary. 
We met Craig of Pepperbush Adventures and bumped off-road into the bush, for a yummy barbecue of wallaby kebabs, as actual wallabies hopped within sight; and after dark and under the stars, he spotlit for us swarms of spotted quolls, more wallabies, plus possums, roos, devils and wombats, and told us stories about them all.
From Launceston we roamed around the countryside and on my daughter's favourite day sampled wonderful local cheeses and chocolate, slurped all sorts of intense raspberry dishes, and had a fabulous chef's tasting menu that night. 
We rode the cable car at Cataract Gorge, slept in a beautiful cottage hotel, and then drove back south down the centre of the island. There was more farmland, more poppies and fields of yellow canola, more dead wombats and wallabies, more little stone-built towns and villages with impressive bridges, all courtesy of convict labour, which we learned about at a stately home where they had done all the work.
And finally we arrived back in Hobart, utterly charmed by Tasmania's animals, people, food and scenery and, loaded with great story material, I was committed to pursuing more of such freebies, and wangling myself another one just as soon as I could...

Wednesday, 3 June 2020

"Don't leave town...

... before you've seen the country". That was the slogan for a NZ Tourism campaign that ran in the '80s - which passed me by, actually, because I had already breezed off out of town by then, and was living overseas throughout that decade, plus. I had, though, seen much of the country before I left, and popped back a few times over those years to see even more of it, including three months in a caravan touring from top to bottom, literally. So I felt pretty smug, although I was aware that there were still plenty of bits I hadn't visited.
Since I came back home to live, I've been working on that, but even now there are places left to see - Newzild only looks small, the country's actually the same size as the UK, and it's crammed full of almost every kind of desirable scenery you could name - and now that our borders are closed, it seems a pretty good time to fill in the gaps. The Tourist Board certainly thinks so, and is encouraging everyone to get out and support the businesses around the country that are desperately missing all the overseas tourists who normally swarm continuously over the country.
The domestic market has always been the mainstay, though, so what with that, and national pride, independence and mobility being right up there these days, I was surprised by what I heard, eavesdropping on three young women while I was out walking this morning. Well, striding, actually - they came up behind me and I was damned if I was going to be overtaken. Anyway, they were in their late 20s and chattering about places they'd never been to, like Gisborne and - this was pretty shattering - the South Island!
I thought it was an old cliché that Aucklanders were more likely to have been to Sydney than the South Island, and that in these enlightened times, with all the publicity about the scenery down there, the adventure, the food, the wine, there was no way Kiwis would allow themselves to miss out on all that. But apparently not, sigh.
As a Mainlander myself, I am naturally offended, and also minded to sneer at their stupid self-deprivation. Good grief, pre-Covid, you could get Air NZ special fares to Queenstown for absolute peanuts! And crossing the often challenging Cook Strait on the ferry is a rite of passage for any true-blue Kiwi. Granted, the North Island has some good bits - Rotorua, Maori culture, the Bay of Islands, assorted volcanoes - but for real gobsmacking scenery, the South Island knocks it into a cocked hat, I reckon. How crazy that it takes a global pandemic to get Aucklanders to go there.

Wednesday, 27 May 2020

A gain, and a loss

Well, it's been over a month now since my last post (about, er, hearing the Last Post) so I suppose it's time for another. Quite honestly, though, stories about travel feel both irrelevant and a bit sad during this time of Covid-19 lockdown. Despite having done pretty well here in New Zealand - no new cases today for the fifth day in a row, no-one in hospital, only 21 people currently infected, the same number as have died altogether - travel is still looking a long way off yet. Our borders are officially shut (though essential personnel like those involved in filming the Avatar and Lord of the Rings TV/movies have apparently been slipping through) and trips overseas won't be possible till there's a vaccine.

Domestic travel is now allowed, though, and a trans-Tasman bubble is a strong possibility for the nearish future, meaning we can go to Australia, and vice versa - though that hardly counts as overseas. But the industry is struggling, and freebie trips for people like me will be way down on the list of priorities, even if publications had enough advertising to pay us for the subsequent stories. So, instead, we return to the theme of this post (see upper right) about how travel stays with you forever after, just waiting for a cue to prompt a memory.

The thing is, that would be all very well, if your (my) memory worked as it should/used to. Sprawled on the sofa watching TV the other night, I got a glimpse of a street with umbrellas hanging above it, and thought, "I've seen somewhere like that! Now where was it...?" Drilling down through the brain cells to locate it took so long that, by the time I'd triumphantly identified it as a street in the San Telmo district of Buenos Aires (which those of us brought up with Sesame Street would expect to be spelled rather differently), I'd entirely forgotten where the original umbrella shot was.

Worse, while lying there, another connection to Argentina occurred to me - but I can't now remember what that one was, either. So that pretty much destroys the whole premise, right? Sorry about that. 
Oh well. I've enjoyed remembering about the Sunday market there, in Plaza Dorego, which was classically colourful, busy and varied, and included satisfyingly local offerings like a man in gaucho gear selling terrifying bits, plus bridles, cruppers, martingales, drop nosebands and fancy browbands (see, I can remember all those terms from my distant horsy past). I was amused to see a man dwarfed by the huge bundle of feather dusters he was selling. There was art and food and music, and - oh, yes! I've just remembered! Jewellery, including pendants made of cut-out coins, including one from neighbouring Uruguay featuring a capybara, which I bought because I like capybara and got very close to one called Roderigo, up the Amazon in Peru. And I was wearing it the night I saw the umbrellas on TV. So there you go: happy ending.
Except, looking at my photos, I've just been reminded of the shoes I saw on one stall and wanted to buy, but they didn't have my size. So now I'm sad again. Damned memories.

Saturday, 25 April 2020

Different, but the same

Well that was an unusual Anzac Day. I've marked it a number of different ways in the past: up at dawn to attend the big service at the War Memorial Museum in the Domain in Auckland - and, less atmospherically, at the 11am one (but with added flyover); with a distinctly nautical theme in Devonport, assisted by Young Mariner daughters amongst the marchers; at Hobsonville with an Air Force focus; here on Waiheke at the memorial near the supermarket, that I drive past without a thought all the rest of the year: laying distinctly Kiwi poppies next to the Aussie wreaths on the memorial at Longreach, in deepest Queensland; and, most gloriously, at Gallipoli for the centenary in 2015.

That was an event: to be one of 10,500 assorted Kiwis and Aussies sitting through the night above Anzac Cove, below the Sphinx, hearing nightingales singing in the dark and the waves lapping on the pebbled beach below us, and waiting for dawn out over the sea where warships glided past. It was super-special, and a privilege to be there then - though even in ordinary years there is always a substantial contingent from Downunder who make a pilgrimage to remember all those who died there, in the water, on the beach, in trenches and, hopelessly exposed, trying to climb those gullied cliffs in equally hopeless attempts to push the Turks (who lost even more men) backwards. It was a disaster - but it was also the making of our national identity, for both New Zealand and Australia, and we won't ever forget it.

There was no-one there this year, though: Turkey is locked down too, and at Gallipoli dawn broke quietly. No-one was at any of the usual locations here, either - just people standing in the dark outside their gates, social-distancing, listening to a much shorter than usual broadcast service on their phones. I stood on our balcony looking down the valley, with just a few lights showing in the houses tucked in the bush, listening to ruru (owls) and tui, and the waves lapping on the stones down on our beach, just as they do at Anzac Cove. And then someone down in the dark played the Last Post over a loudspeaker, and it echoed up and down the valley as the clouds blushed pink, and it was perfect.

At Mt Maunganui, though, they had their sunrise over the sea, and a piper. Gorgeous.

Tuesday, 21 April 2020

The horse survived, I hope

Happy sigh. I wasn't going mad after all - and here's the proof. This is a statue that's in the ocean at North Coogee, south of Fremantle, about 20 metres offshore. It's an unusual and striking sight, and the story that goes with it is even stranger.

Charles Yelverton O'Connor was an Irish-born engineer who was responsible for some of West Australia's most useful construction projects - road, rail, harbours - most notably Fremantle Harbour, and the Goldfields Water Supply Scheme that piped drinkable water huge distances from Perth out into the desert for the miners busily digging the dirt around Coolgardie and Kalgoorlie. It's the longest water main in the world, still in use today, and has earned its keep over and over since O'Connor was responsible for its design and construction - but there was criticism at the time about the expense, as well as unfounded personal slander. Feeling unappreciated, in 1902 O'Connor rode his horse into the waves, and shot himself.

Shocking, eh? And so sad, because the pipeline was completed the following year, and was, and remains, a resounding success. I was reminded of it when watching 'Great Australian Railway Journeys' last night, when the multi-coloured presenter (and failed politician) Michael Portillo took the Indian Pacific from Adelaide to Kalgoorlie. He mentioned O'Connor there, praising the pipeline, and rang a bell for me that wasn't easy to identify since I saw the statue in 2008, and this blog (rapidly becoming my substitute memory) began in 2009. 

I took the Indian Pacific myself, back in 1977, when it was a lot less luxurious than it appeared in Portillo's travelogue. That's a long time ago, and mostly what I remember now is deciding that the Nullabor Straight - 146 kilometres without a single deviation - has to be the world's most boring record; and that waking up in the dark at 7am just before arriving in Perth, and rushing to be first to the shower turns out, when dressed and finally strapping on my watch only to realise that it had been 1.30am when I'd woken, to be a mistake it's impossible to rectify.

Other connections? Turns out O'Connor first came to New Zealand, where as assistant engineer for Canterbury province (I'm a Cantabrian) he constructed the Otira Gorge section of the Arthur's Pass road - again, to service gold miners. That's a pretty challenging section of road through the mountains, with a long tunnel and, since 1999, an impressive viaduct. O'Connor would have loved it. 

Thursday, 16 April 2020

Laissez les bon temps rouler - encore une fois

Today New Zealand enters its fourth week of Level 4 lockdown, with 9 deaths recorded and a total of around 1400 Covid-19 cases, half of whom have recovered. Level 3 is looking likely - time to think about work again...
A couple of days ago, there was a first; and also quite likely to be a last - for some time, anyway. The Herald sent me a payment for a travel story I haven't even written yet. That's unheard of, in my experience, which previously has been: submit story/have it accepted/wait 𝓍 amount of time to see it published (record: three years)/submit invoice/wait another month for the pay round to process it/finally receive the money. Not exactly conducive to peace of mind/physical survival if I was relying on that as my sole income - especially considering the standard word rate has almost halved since I first started. As I always say, about travel writing: it is (or was) a great lifestyle, but no way to make a living. 
I don't entirely understand why this particular payment has happened. We all know, or should, that newspapers have always relied much more on advertising than selling copies to fund them (seen those early front pages entirely comprised of classified ads?) which is why they're on their last legs now. Facebook, Google* and Trade Me/Ebay etc have stolen all that income. And currently even the small businesses that today make up the majority of their advertising revenue have faded away during the lockdown, so hundreds of news media employees have lost their jobs, those that were spared are suffering pay cuts, and their overall future is very uncertain. All this, at a time when people want more real journalism than ever, and readership is soaring.
The travel section is heavily influenced each week by the ever-changing advertising content - the lead stories are selected to support full-page ads. The account manager is therefore presumably as important as the actual editor to the supplement's health. How it all works, I have no idea - but, presumably, this time the agency behind the planned Southern States issue was a lot more upfront with their funding than usual, and the Herald has kindly passed that on to those of us providing the bits that readers actually read, rather than turn the page on (I'm assuming that they're like me: literally blind to all advertising (ssshh, don't tell them)). Of course, all this was before the travel industry died, world-wide, and NZ locked its borders till who knows when.
So, what will my story, when the travel section revives, be about? Lafayette, Louisiana. I spent three days there en route to IPW in New Orleans in 2016 (this year's event has, of course, been cancelled) and have written about it only twice since. The first thing I remember about the stay is my overwhelming feeling of sheer relief at returning my hire car intact (both the car and me) after driving myself around on the wrong side of the road with no gps support (SO many u-turns!). Once I'm past that though, I remember lots of lovely things about the town. Pretty historic buildings, friendly people on the street, all sorts of new and delicious foods, such great dancing, a new appreciation for air conditioning (it was June), and far fewer alligators than expected.
I remember the olde-worlde charm of Coerte Voorhies with his waxed white moustache, and wonder now whether his son Kim is still happy with his choice of president ("He's crazy, but at least he's not a politician"). Is Terry still playing cheerful music with his Zydeco Bad Boys band at the Blue Moon Saloon, or is it locked down too? How about all those oldies I saw strutting their stuff so energetically at Randol's Restaurant and Dance Hall? Are they pining away in enforced isolation? Did the Old Tyme Grocery manage to sell their standard 2,000 grilled shrimp po'boys every Friday through Lent this year? Has Zachary the young fish-counter managed to hold out against all those fierce husband-hunting mothers with unmarried daughters? Only three days, but vivid. Thanks, Lafayette.
*UPDATE: And today Google announces its Journalism Emergency Relief Fund! Kind thought, somewhat undermined by their attitude to paying (ie not paying) their taxes anywhere.


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