Wednesday, 12 August 2020


Here we go again. Normal TV programming was broken into last night by an emergency press briefing with the Prime Minister and Director-General of Health announcing the disappointing news that, after 102 days free of community transmission, New Zealand has now rejoined the rest of of the world. Four people in Auckland with no obvious connection to anyone with Covid-19 have tested positive, and so the entire super-city region of 1.4 million people is back to Level 3 lockdown, with the rest of the country on Level 2.

Almost straight away, there were stupid queues at the supermarkets as people panicked yet again about toilet paper and flour; while the rest of us sank quietly into the Slough of Despond. Just when we were getting hopeful about being able to share a bubble with the Cook Islands! Australia, of course, which had been considered for a trans-Tasman bubble, has been out of contention for weeks now since the resurgence of cases in Victoria.

We're going hard and strong again, in the hope that we can avoid following that path - but it's depressing and also worrying, given that the source of infection is so far a mystery. It's also a huge nuisance, because Parliament was meant to be dissolved today in the lead-up to next month's election, the timing of which is now in doubt. Personally, I wouldn't mind skipping it altogether, and just carrying on with the same leadership we have now, which has been doing a sterling job. All praise to the sainted Jacinda and Dr Ashley!

Monday, 3 August 2020

Gracias, Mauricio

Whanganui and Valparaiso get connected today, thanks to Mauricio. He's got a bit miffed about the Durie Hill Elevator's claim, faithfully repeated by me in a story written some time ago that's just been re-run, that it's unique in the southern hemisphere. As he rightly points out, with multiple links to online proof, it's actually not: there's another one, the Polanco Lift, in Valparaiso, with a 150m tunnel leading to a couple of lifts, which take people to the top of the hill, 60m above. Being Chilean, he's understandably offended - also though, being Chilean, perhaps he didn't quite appreciate in-joke of the 'World Famous in NZ' title of the feature, but that's ok. 
I did however think he was a bit over-sensitive in claiming that New Zealanders don't properly recognise that there are other countries south of the equator besides the English-speaking ones. As a nationality, I reckon we get around more than most others, and South America is certainly a popular destination for Kiwis. I've been there several times myself, including to Valparaiso.
That was way back in 2008, on my first big and very exciting trip to South America, when the main focus was on walking the Inca Trail. Before joining the (very small) tour group, I had a couple of nights in Santiago and was escorted to Valparaiso, which is about an hour's drive away through wine country and a range of hills you might call mountains if the actual Andes weren't in plain sight.
Valparaiso is old and very pretty, as well as modern and ugly, and classy and very down-at-heel - typical port city, then. The old part, which was far from being fully gentrified, was full of piled-up wooden Victorian villas painted fabulously bright colours, with towers and iron-lace verandas, set along steep cobbled streets intersected by plenty of narrow alleys where the "bad seňoritas" service the seamen. The sailors we saw were togged out in white dress uniforms with brass buttons and even white gloves, and clearly above such shenanigans...
There were stately buildings, tree-lined avenues, dinky fishing boats and stern grey naval ships, sea lions and pelicans on the rocks, and heaps of statues including one of the local horse that holds the world record for highest jump, 2.47m, set there in 1949 by 16 year-old ex-race-horse Huaso, who was then immediately retired. There were less athletic horses hitched to carriages for tourists, and, as ever in Chile, lots of stray dogs - most of them, I'm happy to say, apparently well fed and cared for by people who aren't allowed to keep them in their apartments. There was even an Easter Island moai, my first, which I was excited to see - not knowing then that I would be going there myself just four years later.

Sunday, 2 August 2020

Parakeets and a McCaw

I'm surprised and dismayed (because of its increasingly important function as my surrogate memory) to randomly discover so many gaps in this blog - places I've been, things I've done, that have gone unrecorded. Presumably that's because I was just too busy, flitting on to the next thing before I had a chance to write about the previous one. I certainly remember once flying home from Johannesburg to Auckland for one night in my own bed before taking off again next day for Rarotonga - where, and this is a downside of such things, I fell so soundly asleep on a lounger the following afternoon that I scored absolutely epic sunburn. Anyway, sigh, those days are now gone forever, probably.

Oh well. The blank I've just discovered is a trip down to Christchurch in June two years ago, which was followed so rapidly by a Silversea cruise along the Norwegian coast that it just never got written about. And there are many people in this country, some of them of my acquaintance, who would never be able to understand how I could possibly not skite about that visit - because it involved Richie McCaw. Regular 😀 readers may recall I have actually mentioned him before: with a Chicago connection and then, more understandably, at TRENZ in Dunedin that year.
He is a rugby hero, captain of the All Blacks when they won two World Cups, and forever after a national icon. More relevantly to a rugby-phobe like me, he's a very pleasant, quietly-spoken man who, amongst other things, is partner in a helicopter business based in Christchurch. That's how come I met him at TRENZ, which led to taking up his offer of a flit in his chopper a month or so later. 
So I flew down to ChCh, my home town but much of it looking very unfamiliar these days, post-earthquakes, and checked into the George, which is the hotel I'm currently writing a review of, and was hoping I'd have made a few useful comments about in here. Tch. So, anyway, it's a 5-star boutique hotel across the Avon from Hagley Park, too middle-aged to have much character, but very pleasant, art-filled and comfortable, if a little on the chilly side in winter for a now-soft-Aucklander like me. The staff hit the right note of unfussy solicitousness; though it was kind of chilling to learn from the PR lady that they are forbidden to engage in eye-contact with a guest without exchanging a greeting. Most people would surely do that, anyway - it just grates a bit to hear it prescribed like that. But my room was nice, with a restful view across into the park.
I had a lovely time, wandering around the city, re-connecting with important places from my past, noting the new constructions and regretting those ruins still untouched (Christ Church Cathedral, heart of the city, you look SO sad). Speaking of which, the Memorial Wall recording the 185 who died in the 2011 earthquakes has some heart-rending personal touches, like the note next to one name: "Aunty Mandy - Mum says you smelled of jasmine".

Next morning, two of the hotel staff and I went out to the airport and met up with Richie and his business partner Terry, and heard all about the helicopters - tourism, fire-fighting (the pilots' favourite activity) and their conservation work with the orange-fronted parakeet, regularly transporting young birds back into remote and predator-free environments.
Yes, yes, laudable of course - but what we were all itching to do was to get airborne. Which we did, so easily, lifting up with Richie at the controls, and then swinging out over the Waimakariri's convoluted braids, over the Plains, and up along the gorge into the Southern Alps. We flew over the TranzApline tracks beside the turquoise river, Richie marvelling at all the work behind the building of the track, bridges, viaducts and tunnels; and then, excitingly, we landed on a snowy peak. 
Chest Peak is over 6000 feet and the sky was clear, so we had brilliant views back over the Plains to the city, and along the Alps as far as Aoraki Mt Cook. It was glorious to be up there, just us, surrounded by so much raw (yet so easily-accessed) nature.
And then it got better - I scored the front seat for the flight back, and sat next to Richie with all that scenery unravelling beneath me as we flew back across the Canterbury Plains and river, and around and over the city, including the now-empty Red Zone, the CBD and finally back to the airport. Fabulous! I love sightseeing in helicopters, they really are the best. And having a world-famous person at the controls is also a bit of a buzz, to be honest. Even if it is just for being good at rugby.

Monday, 27 July 2020

Decomposition v preservation

We all understand about fillers in newspapers, that they're just odd snippets poked in when there's a space around the actual news. No-one expects them to be anything especially current, no matter how much they pretend to be announcing something. But this one, today, in the NZ Herald? Tch. This is something I wrote about here almost exactly three years ago when I came across it at Vermilionville in Lafayette - and it was hardly a new development even then. Surely the discovery had already got around, in the scientific/environmentalist community? More than a bit disappointing, if not. Stuff like this should be shared, immediately. Er, like vaccine recipes...?
There was another newspaper connection on Saturday, also in the Herald, but this time of genuine interest. Regular 😃 readers will recall - indeed, may still be traumatised by - my blog entry about my visit to Siriraj Hospital in Bangkok again almost exactly five years ago. Not, thankfully, for medical treatment, but to gawp, as respectfully as possible, at the exhibits in the Department of Anatomy's museum there. It was full of astonishing, horrifying and deeply interesting preserved bodies of people who had been born with, and died of, terrible deformities. 
Most of them, anyway, and many of those, sadly, babies. But there were a few exceptions, and I clearly remember standing in front of the telephone box-like glass case in the photo below, studying the mummified corpse of this murderer/cannibal. Except, now it seems maybe he wasn't - instead, it turns out he was yet another victim of what seems to be the world-wide phenomenon of, shall we say, over-enthusiastic police detective work. So today I officially transfer poor Si Ouey into the same category as the other sad exhibits at Siriraj.

Friday, 17 July 2020

Life's ruff

The cat has lost his ruff again. I'm beginning to lose count, but I reckon that was his sixth since I started making him wear them less than a year ago. I don't know how he does it - on purpose or accidentally, using a tool or his paw - but it's getting a bit wearisome. Now I'll have to go and sew him another one. I actually just bought another length of fabric a few days ago for precisely this eventuality. Did he know, and want a change from the frankly insulting bird pattern of the most recent one - or is it just sneaky coincidence in operation again?
The purpose of the ruff is to make him more noticeable to the birds that I'm ashamed and frustrated to know he still hunts, being ex-feral. I first came across cats wearing ruffs in Reykjavik, and was more amused than anything to see what I assumed was Icelanders' preference for decorated cats - kind of fitted in with all the brightly-coloured buildings in the city. Later, I learned the true reason, and was converted.

Regular 😀 readers will be well aware, since I keep harping on about it, that I should at this very moment be in fabulous Iceland again, about to sail away to new-to-me Greenland, courtesy of also new-to-me luxury small-ship cruise line Seabourn. But instead, here I am stuck at home, being nagged for food by incontinent sparrows and doves outside my window, with nothing to look forward to. 

I suppose I should be grateful to Barney for giving me something to do...

Tuesday, 7 July 2020

Waddling down memory lane

I accept that it's inconsistent to be snarking about it being so cold today at the same time as wishing I was back in Antarctica, but I answer to no-one here, it's my blog so suck it up. (Sorry, made crabby by internet dropping out, leaving me unable to snap back at some self-important PR man throwing doubt on my having been somewhere I'd just written about because of a minor error that wasn't actually my fault.) (Also, sad because today I should be in Reykjavik about to begin a cruise tomorrow with Seabourn.)
Let's start again. I've been writing today about a visit to Kelly Tarlton's Aquarium here in Auckland. It has been in existence since 1985 and of course I've been several times before, but it was my first experience there getting up close with penguins. Regular 😀 readers will know that I have actually been up close with many, many penguins: in South Georgia and Antarctica, back at Christmastime in 2017.
I had the huge pleasure then, thanks to Silversea, of getting remarkably close to about eleven different species of penguins, in colonies tens of thousands of pairs strong. And boy! The pong sure was strong. It was very noisy too - but I loved it, every moment, watching the birds going about their business, being curious and funny and cute and beautiful, and it was the highlight of a cruise that was already the highlight of all the trips I've done.
So it was just lovely to get a little taste of that again, thanks to Kelly Tarlton's. They have 78 penguins, currently, King and Gentoo, a few of them an amazing 32 years old, survivors from the first birds to arrive here, from San Diego and Edinburgh. Of course I was a bit worried about their mental health, being confined to a space indoors, underground (the aquarium is built inside former sewage tanks). My guides were predictably, but apparently genuinely, reassuring that the birds don't miss the challenges of hunting food, evading orcas and leopard seals, hunkering down through appalling weather, and covering long distances doing most of that. They reckoned that being sociable was much more their style, and they spend their days happily doing exactly that - plus preening, pooing and napping.
I got all togged up backstage in winter gear and gumboots, and went out into the penguin enclosure, which is kept at -2 degrees, with carefully controlled lighting to mimic Antarctic conditions, seasons and times of day. As soon as the door was opened, some curious Gentoo penguins pushed in to inspect me, and all the time (20 minutes) I was in there, there were penguins getting very personal, in my face and pecking at my clothes.
The same thing had happened in Antarctica - no-one told the penguins about the 5-metre rule, and the chicks especially were bored waiting for their parents to return with a feed, and happy to find a diversion - but at Kelly Tarlton's I got super-close to them and was able to inspect and admire the gloriously subtle shading of the King penguins' golden feathers. Ten thousand feathers, they each have, apparently - makes keeping the ice clean at moulting time a real challenge. And that's on top (literally) of the poo that gets hosed off every morning before fresh snow is sprayed in. We were there just an hour after the mucking out and already there were yellow stains everywhere.

Penguin keeper Kristen brought in a squashy ball for them to play with, and they did enjoy it - there was inter-species competition for it, to the fascination of the two downy King penguin chicks. Playing ball with penguins - definitely up there on the travel skite list.
Oh, and KT's also rehabilitates injured turtles, before returning them to the wild. Their latest patient is Taka, an East Pacific green turtle that turned up on Takapuna beach, cold and hungry, and way off course from the Galapagos where it would normally hang out. *cough* I've been there, of course, and seen turtles. Maybe even a relation?

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.


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