Thursday, 2 April 2020

Bauer does the opposite

In German, Bauer means builder, but this morning, with no notice, this international company demolished half of New Zealand's media in one fell stroke. Despite being offered wage subsidies by the Government, and being encouraged to keep going through the pandemic, they have used the Covid-19 crisis as the excuse to kill off a bundle of magazines that have been published here, some of them, for 80-90 years, and which are part of everyday life.

Some, like the NZ Woman's Weekly, deliver comfort and gossipy fun along with their recipes, royalty and showbiz tattling, and questionable fashion advice; but others, like the Listener and North & South, have been a valued source of stories about local people and investigations into issues that are important to us, if no-one else in the world. It's quality journalism, produced by small teams of extremely hard-working and talented people, dedicated to doing their bit towards meeting unforgiving publishing schedules, week after week, or month after month. And this morning, en masse via video link, they were told not, as they were expecting, that they would have to publish online only this week, but that they would not be publishing at all, ever again, from this minute.

It's not even as though these close-knit teams could extract a molecule of comfort from hearing this together, since they are all in lockdown and working from DIY workstations at home. So cruel.

The rest of us, the buyers and readers of their magazines, are in mourning too. These publications are just always there, on the newsstands in the supermarket, on the sofa, on waiting room tables, and always have been. And now? No more.

It was getting a story published in North & South that started me on my travel writing career back in 2003, and I would always have been grateful to the magazine for that, even if I hadn't later become friends with the women who produce it today. I know so many people who lost their jobs this morning, there and at the other magazines who have printed my stories: the Listener, NZWW, Next, Kia Ora, Simply You, Australian Women's Weekly.

And so, I guess, have I. I was already despondent about the travel sections of the newspapers that I write for shrinking away to virtually nothing, their advertising having dried up because of Covid-19 putting the kibosh on all travel, but was consoling myself with the thought that at least the magazines would be there. Wrong! 

So, in the wider context, now we've lost the travel industry, and most of our print media, with what remains also coughing up blood thanks to the internet's gradually poaching all the advertising that funds them. What's next?

Danke für nichts, Bauer.

Wednesday, 1 April 2020

Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle*

There's a house near Enclosure Bay, on one of my morning walk routes [which, by the way, I never pass without remembering the Orca Incident, that I didn't witness, dammit] that more often than not is playing music - not super-loud, but noticeable enough that I'm glad they're not my neighbours. The actual music varies, from indie rock to Enya, but today they were playing jazz. Regular 😀 readers will know how that instantly jangles every nerve in my body; but I was able to distract myself by taking myself back to the last walk I did where I had that sort of accompaniment. Which, of course, was New Orleans, because jazz is pervasive there.

I had actually been a bit apprehensive about that very thing before going there; but in the end it was ok simply because it's just part of the city - like the rowdy fat people drinking on Bourbon Street, like the pretty coloured houses in the French Quarter, like the drifts of icing sugar surrounding a pile of beignets, like the sparkly parade throws dangling from trees above cracked pavements in the Garden District. It was all just part of the atmosphere, and I loved it; and enjoyed being reminded of it as I walked along.

Even so, it was good to get out of earshot soon after, and hear just the birdsong again - tui, doves, kereru, blackbirds - and then, yay! a magpie. I love to hear a magpie calling. They're more rural than I am, so it doesn't happen that often, and is special when it does. There's something so lovely and melodious about that distinctive sound echoing along a valley - and, for me, evocative. 

Of Australia, because that's where I've spent more time in the country than I have here at home - and also where our magpies were originally introduced from. It was just one summer in the Clare Valley well north of Adelaide, back when I was 22, looking after a farmer's polo ponies, up early and out every day riding round the property mostly on my own but sometimes helping to move stock, cantering over sunburnt grassy paddocks, seeing kangaroos and a fox, and always hearing magpies calling. (Also seeing snakes and spiders, and ants in the sugar bowl on the kitchen table, but we'll move on from that). It was a long, hot summer, just like this one, and that magpie brought it all back.

* Thanks to Denis Glover and his poem 'The Magpies' for that wonderfully accurate bit of onomatapoeia.

Tuesday, 31 March 2020


Since all my outlets for travel stories have closed down for the foreseeable future, I have more time on my hands than can be sensibly filled by my trusty laptop and its small pal the iPhone. So, like many people, I've been looking to use some of this lockdown to catch up with a few of the jobs that have been sitting quietly in corners, waiting patiently. For years.

Accordingly, I have finally put up, under the letterbox at the gate (yes, foreigners, that's how we do mail here in Enzed - trusted to be safe, unsupervised and unlocked, out on the street) the decorative ceramic numbers I bought five years ago in Paris. Agreed, that is a long time to have them sitting on top of the bookshelf, being regularly dusted (not). Anyway, I found some wood to set them into, carved out the inset space, stained it, glued the pieces in (hours of happy fun subsequently, picking dried glue off my fingers), grouted, and then screwed it to the fence under the letterbox. Job done (but no photo because my workmanship bears less scrutiny these days).
And all the time, I was remembering that Saturday afternoon trip on the Metro to the architecturally extravagant BHV - Bazar de l'Hôtel de Ville - where I browsed happily round the basement DIY section, choosing the numbers. It's a department store, established in 1852, that I now wish I had explored more thoroughly but (all together now) I was short on time. So I just bought 89c with appropriate forget-me-not surrounds, and went upstairs again to emerge in the busy square in front of the Town Hall, in all its even more elaborate glory. I wandered past it to the banks of the Seine, and along to l'Île St Louis where people were picnicking on rugs by the river drinking champagne from glass flutes; and a dog was having a swim. At the tip of the island I got the classic view of Notre Dame on l'Île de la Cité - of course, now it looks sadly so different, after that terrible fire - and then crossed the Pont St-Louis to battle with the crowds thronging the square in front of the cathedral. That's where all French roads are measured from, did you know?
And then I took the Metro back to my hotel to meet up with the rest of my group - or tried to, anyway. I had to have several goes at finding it, and in the end was enormously grateful to Letitia who was in charge of us, who had very sensibly drawn our attention that morning to the features of the hotel's exterior. Truly, I would probably have wandered for hours if she hadn't. And then we all assembled in the foyer to be taken to our ship, Avalon's Tapestry II, for a glorious 8-day glide along the Seine to Normandy, and back. It was a lovely, lovely cruise, in every way - one of the best. Hopefully, I'll remember that, every time I see 89c.

Monday, 30 March 2020

Poor Tor

Oddly, I rarely feel sorry for billionaires. In fact, I don't think I ever have - but right now I'm hoping that Torstein Hagen isn't too down in the dumps. He's the appealingly cheerful, enthusiastic and approachable Norwegian who's founder and chairman of the 79-ship Viking cruise line. I saw him in January getting excited in LA about expanding his fleet from river and ocean cruisers into expedition vessels that will go to Antarctica and the Arctic, as well as the Great Lakes. It was, naturally, a very positive and energising event, and everyone came away from it full of both admiration for Tor, and eagerness to get hands-on with his new product. 
Roll on to March and how things have changed. The Viking ships are lined up empty at various ports, while others like Silver Muse are pootling over the world's oceans with only crew on board; and some liners have even become plague ships where unhappy people have been imprisoned for weeks, desperate for release and return home. It's a far cry from the image of self-indulgent luxury and non-stop good times that is sold to 28 million people annually worldwide, generating $200 billion in economic activity. Cruising has been for some years now the fastest-growing sector of the travel industry, and shipyards everywhere have been working as fast as they can to churn out even more liners.
It is a lovely way to relax. I wouldn't call it travelling, exactly, because cruise passengers are pretty much getting the travel writer experience: being looked after very well as they skim over the surface of the places they visit. Just dipping into a port for the day, going on an excursion, you're not properly travelling - you're just being the most superficial sort of tourist. Which is not to be disparaging, particularly. That kind of experience is perfectly all right by most cruising people; they reckon they can always come back another time for a proper look at the places that took their fancy. 
But - once international travel has opened up again, and who knows how far in the future that will be - how popular will cruising be, now that everyone has seen what perfect incubation chambers ships have been for Covid-19? Norovirus was bad enough, but at least it didn't kill you. Can't say my hand will be up, really, and I won't be the only one nervous. So what will that mean for Torstein, and all the other faceless CEOs - and their crews, and port service providers, and day-excursion companies, and shipyard workers, and so on and so forth? 

And that's not even starting to think about airlines and hotels and travel and activity companies, and restaurants and souvenir shops and taxis and buses and, and, and... Oh yes, and travel writers too. Grim, eh? Though I do take some comfort from Tor's optimism in just now announcing that his promise to conquer the Mississippi (the preserve of entirely US-owned operations) will be fulfilled in 2022.

Thursday, 26 March 2020

I covid this quarantine

Well, don't some people have all the luck? Er, maybe not all the luck - I'm talking here about 800 of the passengers on the cruise ship Vasco da Gama having to be sent into quarantine because of Covid-19 concerns - but certainly some. The ship is due to finish its cruise in Fremantle tomorrow, and the Australians on board are going to be evacuated to - get this - Rottnest Island!
The other 420 passengers, including over 100 Kiwis, will have to stay on board till Australia works out how to kick them out of the country repatriate them; but, meantime, the Aussies will be on Rottnest Island for two weeks' quarantine! Now, I've been to Rotto, a couple of times, and being stuck there will be, believe me, no penance at all. A half-hour ferry ride from Freo, it's a mostly flat island with lovely white sand beaches where the warm, clear blue Indian Ocean laps in. There's a pretty lighthouse, a little town of 300 residents with good places to eat, and no vehicles (apart from a few emergency ones) so the trail of roads linking the beaches and viewpoints are busy only with bicycles and walkers. There are tall, twiggy towers where ospreys nest, New Zealand fur seals frolicking around in the water, meadows of seagrass, dolphins and - it's Australia - sharks.
Also - again, it being Australia - the island has some dark history. It was a prison for thousands of Aboriginals for about 40 years, and lots of them died there, most of them, rather ironically now, from influenza; and five men were hanged there. Then it was a boys' reformatory, equally unhappy; and an internment camp during both wars for, first, local Germans and Austrians, and then Italians. Not many laughs in that lot.
Eventually, though, it became a nature reserve, home to many species of shorebird and a variety of animals, most notably - and this is why those quarantinees are so lucky - quokkas. These, against very stiff competition, have to be Oz's cutest marsupial. They are SO gorgeous! The island was named for them by some clearly very shortsighted Dutch explorers who thought it was a nest for giant rats. In fact, they are little sweeties, fat and furry, about 30cm high with a stumpy tail, round ears, bright shiny eyes and a permanent smile. 
Even better, they are bold/friendly and will come right up to you. Of course that's especially because naughty tourists have trained them by feeding them - but they would be like that anyway, that's just how they are. No-one can look at a quokka without both grinning back, and cooing. Cuteness personified. So, those Aussie passengers can consider themselves very lucky, having an enforced holiday on a lovely island with quokkas galore. Almost worth risking coronavirus, wouldn't you say?

Wednesday, 25 March 2020

Like Christmas, except worse (but also, better)

Here is Silversea's Silver Muse, loitering out in the Hauraki Gulf. She's been hanging around in Auckland for over a week - I was due to have lunch on board last Tuesday, though of course it was cancelled - but she finally mooched off last night, dawdling away towards Panama, where she's not due to arrive for another three and a half weeks. I nearly said there's no-one on board, but of course there is: no passengers guests, but the crew is still there, probably doing boring deep cleans and suchlike but hopefully also able to enjoy the ship's facilities for once, and keeping morale up.

I emailed our favourite wine waitress, Miriam, who's been on three of our Silversea cruises and who we last saw when we sailed on Muse over Christmas to Sydney. She told us then that she was looking forward to going home to Peru this month on leave, but now the country is in lockdown and she doesn't know when she can get back. She didn't even know in the email where they would be going in the meantime; but was immensely grateful to have wifi.

Imagine what it's like for all those cruise ship crews all over the world, trapped on board. So many of them! And most of them understandably worried about contracting Covid-19, as so many of their passengers have, especially on the Princess line ships. Hard to imagine people ever wanting to go aboard those again. I'm not even sure I fancy Silversea now - no matter how earnest, and genuine, the reassurances, having had so many examples of what perfect Petri dishes cruise ships are for stuff like this, it's impossible to ignore the possibilities.
Not that cruising, or travel of any sort, is on the cards for anybody for quite some time. New Zealand has had a state of emergency declared today and is heading tonight into a minimum of four weeks' lockdown, and after a flurry of dismayingly idiotic panic-buying at supermarkets and liquor stores, things have already gone pretty quiet out there on the streets. In town, that is - even just this morning, there was a noticeable uptick in the numbers of people out walking the tracks, roads and beaches.

We are all, like Miriam, hugely relieved to have the internet to sustain us while indoors; and those of us whose news addiction has become chronic are well served by both official news organisations, and social media. It's the intimate details supplied by last one that's made it seem a bit like Christmas - but better, because everyone is involved in preparing for, and surviving, the same event, not just Christian-derived cultures. It's amazing to think how, right around the world, everyone is simultaneously facing the same threats, challenges, irritations and boredom. As our politicians keep telling us, we're all in this together, and that's quite a comforting thought. For once, we're all on the same page, so watching the news and seeing how the pandemic is playing out in Indonesia, say, or Italy or India, it's so much easier to empathise.

In fact, it's pretty much the same feeling of connection that you get when you've actually been to those places - something I regularly harp on about here - so do a Pollyanna and fondle that thought. While you stay at home, with your fingers crossed.

Saturday, 14 March 2020


Well. The coronavirus/Covid-19 drama has, as predicted, stymied the travel industry, which is now actively promoting backyard destinations. Initially at least, that's hardly a penance, really - so many people never properly explore their own countries or even cities, despite seeing foreign tourists pouring in eager to do exactly that.

What's more dismaying from my point of view, as a travel writer/sponger/freebie-grabber, is the real possibility that newspaper travel magazines, which are my main market for stories, may shrivel up and die for lack of advertising. My inbox is full of cruise lines announcing they're shutting up shop till May at least, and hotels offering generous cancellation deals - with such huge cuts in their income, paying many thousands for ads that won't see a return for months and months makes no sense at all. And without advertising, the supplements simply can't exist.

Also, of course, I won't be travelling myself for who knows how long. Already I'm squeezing stories out of trips I did sometimes quite a while ago - hooray for my trusty 3B1 notebooks, photos and this blog - but that can't go on forever. Don't we all wish we knew how this is going to play out? Will it be over in a month or two? Or is this just the start of something that will change travel/life forever, like 9/11? It's a grim comparison, but I suppose it provides a glimmer of hope. All those restrictions and rules and inconveniences that 9/11 imposed on everyone around the world for, presumably, ever after sure are a pain - but they haven't stopped us travelling, have they? Those of us still here, that is...


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