Thursday 31 December 2009

It was a good one (for me)

Not much left of 2009, and yes, here I am at home blogging, and not out getting the worse for wear, struggling to hear what people are saying against the racket and wishing I could sit down. Dull? Maybe, but I don't care: I've had a brilliant year and that's good enough for me.

I won an award, I've been sent to some amazing places that would have cost me a Lotto first division if I'd had to pay for it all myself, I've seen Lonesome George, I've walked the Milford Track, I've emu-whispered, I've been back to Linton. And that's not even half of it.

There's no reason to think that next year won't be just as good, if not better: it's beginning by going to see pandas in Adelaide, so how bad can that be?

So long as there are new places to see and old ones to revisit, and some birds and animals (like the Milford kea above), that'll do me. I hope it's good for you too.

(Who knows, by this time next year, maybe there'll be twice as many of you! And the year after that, perhaps even double figures!!!)

Wednesday 30 December 2009

Hurr, hurr, hurr, hurrrrr*

So last night, when I gave the cats their supper, there was this on the back door mat - glistening, slimy and fully seven centimetres long. I regularly scoop drowned slugs like this out of the pond, but finding one in the house is rather rarer, thank goodness.

And it made me think about creepy crawlies I've come across in my travels, and realise that I've been uncommonly blessed because, despite both venturing up the Amazon and spending a lot of time in that Harrods of deadly insects, Australia, I've had very few incidents of the multi- (or in this case, no- ) legged kind.

Apart from the horrendous night in New Caledonia after which I wearily greeted the dawn with 47 mosquito bites on my face alone, there's been pretty much nothing to report. From my travels.

Now, when I spent a summer living in Australia, that was different. I'll pass over the brown snake living under the haystack where it was my job to go twice a day to get feed for the horses, because today's focus is invertebrates. Specifically, spiders.

In the living room of the homestead, hooked onto the curtain was the shed skin of a tarantula, kept as a kind of souvenir, like the polo trophies on the mantlepiece. This was disturbing to me, because my room was built on to the house as an afterthought, and each morning when I pushed open the screen door to go outside and into the main building, it broke a web that had been spun across my doorway by what I can only describe as a particularly ambitious spider. I never - thank goodness - laid eyes on this nocturnal beast, but it tells you all you need to know about the scale of the thing that as the strands reached breaking point, I could hear them snap.

Then there was the day that a visitor who briefly shared my room entered it ahead of me, shrieked "Tarantula!" and lunged at her bed with her booted feet. By the time I got inside, there was only a brown smear on the bedspread to show for the encounter - but my imagination filled the gap, and I didn't have a solid night's sleep for the rest of the summer.

And finally, there was the gully. Towards the end of my stay, I realised that spending every day in jeans as I exercised the horses, I was going to get home dazzlingly white. So I started wearing shorts when I rode (yes, the stirrup leathers can give your calves a nasty pinch, but you learn how to avoid that) - but still, there would be tan lines when I went to the beach back home. So then I rode in a bikini, which was rather pleasant as long as I kept moving faster than the flies.

One day I took a different route and found a gully between me and the way back to the stables. Tall, dead thistles were scattered along the bottom, but otherwise it seemed hazard-free, so I set off down the bank. It was only when we were halfway down and the horse had a fair amount of momentum going that I suddenly saw that between the 2-metre high thistles were swathes of spider webs like nets. It was too late to stop or turn, and all I could do was shut my eyes and shriek as Gidgeon took me down and through the thistles, the webs wrapping themselves around me on my bare skin almost from head to toe.

It was a nightmare. I'm shuddering now. I didn't see a spider that time either, but I didn't need to. It's the single most vivid image I've retained from the whole 10 weeks I stayed at Narrioota - and, remember, there were snakes.

So this slug is nothing. Except... it's too fat to have squeezed under the door, and I can only assume it muscled its way in through the cat-flap. It's a superslug.

* This is how a slug (possibly snail) sounds when it laughs, according to the story on the Junior Request Session on the radio on Sunday mornings in my youth. I have no idea what happened in the story, all I remember is the sound effect. I'm blaming the Red Fort.

Tuesday 29 December 2009

Grasshopper turned Ant

So I've had all the fun - in the last 6 months I've been to Australia, Thailand, China, Ecuador, the UK and Ireland, India and some of the nicer bits of New Zealand - and now that it's summer and everyone else is at the beach, it's time for me to do the work and plough through all my notebooks of densely-written abbreviations that at the time I was convinced were so obvious, and which are now so impossibly obscure, and trawl through hundreds of photos, and churn out a mass of 1000-word stories some of which are already spoken for but most of which will be poor orphaned mites to be sent out into the harsh world to make their own living.

The current story is about the Hillary Trail, a newly-linked series of tracks through the Waitakere Ranges, where I went last week to speak to one of the Park Rangers - an outing which itself linked several of my own recent experiences.

The view above is a disappointingly poor photo of Whatipu Beach, from a track I last walked years ago with WOPs, the women's outdoor pursuits group I was a member of that taught me many useful things about the bush, most memorably never to trust the weather and always to be prepared for cold and rain. So when, shortly after this photo was taken, it started to rain huge, fat, soaking drops and the ranger got wet, I was able to put on my coat and keep dry.

Also, the next beach along from this one is Karekare - moody, black sand, isolated - where The Piano was filmed, which helped pass some of the time on the Milford Track when the Australians and I vainly racked our brains to remember the name of the actor playing the woman [sorry, Holly Hunter]. Not that the scenery down there wasn't magnificent, but it did go on a bit, and it was helpful to distract ourselves from the toil of one foot after the other for hours and hours by some mental activity, like converting miles to kilometres and trying to work out speeds and ETAs. It was to my great advantage in this to be so hampered by the innumeracy that scraped me 61% in School Certificate maths, since when it's gone downhill.

My memory and computation skills also suffered something of a set-back when I fell down a flight of 8 stone steps at the Red Fort in New Delhi and whacked my head at the bottom. It was dark, we were running late because of the horrendous traffic, the lighting was inadequate and the top step was, inconceivably, raised above the level of the path. So I plunged down the steps, scoring huge bruises on my elbow and hip on the way to hitting my head, which I knew was going to happen as I fell, and which hurt when it did. And all to buy tickets for a stupid Son et Lumiere show that was hopelessly low-tech and dull: don't ever waste your time on it next time you're in Delhi.

Since when there's been dizziness, headaches, nausea and impaired metal acuity - but at least I can blame it on India, and not age.

Friday 25 December 2009

Dah dah dah, dah dah dah-dah-dah-dah...

And it's been a beautiful, beautiful day: calm, cloudless, hot; excellent food, good company, successful presents; nothing worse on the news than a cardinal's broken leg, no advertisements on TV and no need to wish I had eaten or drunk less.

The only small black cloud has been the discovery that the boy next door was given an electric guitar for Christmas, so it was the opening bars of 'Smoke on the Water' over and over again even before breakfast. But let me not be glum on this lovely day: at least he won't be able to play it at the same time as his drums.

I've had Christmas in New Caledonia, where I sat on a beach and shared with fellow-student friends a deli-roast chicken with wine and a baguette; I've had one on a cattle station in South Australia where we dressed formally and then played parlour games; in Salzburg we ate Englischer Rostbif late on Christmas Eve after standing in the dark in a graveyard where people lit candles on the tombstones and a trumpet played 'Silent Night'; and I've had lots of Christmases in England, not one of them white, but all of them jolly because there was always a pub session before lunch.

The whole festival is without doubt made for cold weather, and is more special in England because it's undiluted by summer holidays; and this year in Herefordshire we would have got our white Christmas. But still, there's a lot to be said for being able to walk the dog after dinner through the Pony Club where the grass is full of clover, buttercups and vetch, down to the park where families are playing indulgent games of cricket with the small fry, through the playground where little girls are shrieking under the fountain, to the creek where Fudge can have a swim before panting back home to collapse in the shade.

Where I can listen again to dah dah dah, dah dah dah-dah-dah-dah...

Thursday 24 December 2009

One sleep to go

This is what Christmas Eve morning is looking like here in Auckland: warm sunshine, flowers, lazy cat hogging the best chair.

What's missing from this picture is the sound of lawnmowers, our frog croaking, baby birds setting up a hungry chorus in the tree by the pond, and the hollow clatter of skateboards in the carpark of the school opposite as kids try to fill this very long day.

We've been promised a beautiful day for tomorrow, up and down the country: actually, rather a rarity for Christmas Day, as the best weather doesn't usually start till New Year's Day, which is always a cracker.

That suits us very well, as the twelve of us at my sister's small house will be able to spill out into her garden without any sort of hardship. There may even be a walk on Takapuna Beach at some point, where without doubt there will be people swimming.

But you know what? I'm feeling really envious of all those people getting a white Christmas this year.

Monday 21 December 2009

The movie's real stars

Last night I squandered a couple of hours of my life that I'll never get back watching the movie 'Stardust', a silly although honestly-intentioned fairy story about witches and princes, simply because I wanted to spot the locations it was filmed at. It did look pretty spectacular - or, pretty and spectacular - as scenery in England, Wales and Scotland panned past behind the actors.

My greatest triumph was spotting the Quiraing, on the Isle of Skye, above, where Michelle Pfeiffer as a wrinked crone frowned into the distance. Skye isn't a huge place, but it has some deeply impressive moors and mountains, down the side of one of which I watched my Canon DSLR cartwheel in slow-motion after someone sneakily dialled up the gravity and my bag suddenly slid away from where it had been lying for 10 minutes at my feet. It was only when it reached the scree slope that the camera flew out of the open top, sigh.

So this was one of the last photos I took with it: it was a sorry sight when we scrambled down the slope to retrieve it.

Another location was Pen y Fan, a steep, bare peak of over 800 metres in the Brecon Beacons, the highest in South Wales and the big expedition on the annual camp for third-years at Newent Community School where I taught for a while. I was astonished at how some of these country girls collapsed by the path in the early stages, crying and frightened by how their legs were hurting - apparently, they'd never tackled anything more challenging than a flight of stairs, and had never felt the burn before - and this back when Jane Fonda was aerobics queen! (But my scorn came back to bite me on the descent, when I copped wind-blown grit under both contact lenses and ended up frozen to the spot, both eyes clamped shut.)

And then there was this place, Arlington Row in Bibury, in the Cotswolds, where I last went just a few months ago: perfectly pretty and, so the sign claims, England's most-photographed view. No surprises there.

Saturday 19 December 2009


The lupins are in flower down south, sheets of them growing pink, blue and purple over the river flats and around the lake; and yellow up on the hills, primrose against the rich gold of the broom. The dogroses are out too, the foxgloves and the elder blossom. Weeds, all of them, the lupins particularly reviled because they change the environment on the stony banks of the rivers, and give cover for predators to creep up on the birds that nest there.

Stoats are the worst, and all along the Milford Track we saw wooden traps with a small hole in the wire mesh at one end and sometimes an egg stuck on a spike inside. It's a long, long war that will never end, the best that DoC can hope for being control.

It tells you all you need to know about New Zealand's environmental history that stoats, weasels and ferrets were introduced, with enormous effort, in the 1880s to try to control the exploding rabbit population after they had been introduced even earlier to provide sport and food for the settlers.

It's an extraordinary story that includes possums, goats and deer, all brought to this mammal-free land by well-intentioned Acclimatisation Societies who then watched with dismay as native and endemic species of flightless birds gradually disappeared. It would be hard to believe, if it weren't still going on elsewhere - cane toads in Australia being a relatively recent example.

And also very pertinent: at a pre-Track briefing at Ultimate Hikes just a week or so before I did the walk, an Australian guest was rather surprised when a cane toad hopped out of her bag right there in the shop.

Having once inadvertently imported a Cook Islands lizard in my suitcase, I can imagine her horror - but it doesn't say much for the Queenstown airport MAF inspectors' powers of observation, especially since they'd actually handled and disinfected the boots where it must have been hiding. Seems they never thought to peep inside, sigh.

Anyway, lupins - noxious, agreed. But aren't they pretty?

Friday 18 December 2009

Something really worth skiting about

Just in case there's been any lingering doubt over my "hip-deep in icy water" description of the first day of the Milford Track, here is photographic proof thanks to Dan, our Ultimate Hikes head guide.

Yes, I know, you'll just have to take it on trust that the temperature was icy - but believe me, if George Costanza had been there, there would have been definite shrinkage.

We were just lucky, I suppose, that we missed the snow that came in a few days later when I was tucked up with my goose-down and big fire at Blanket Bay - word had it that there was helicoptering involved.

But on the other hand, I've just been reading about Malcolm Law, a crazy 49 year-old Kiwi who in the week before I toiled for four days to complete the 53.5km of the Milford Track, skipped along the entire thing in just under 10 hours. And that's not all, as they say: that was Day 6 of his 7 in 7 Challenge, in which he RAN seven of NZ's Great Walks in seven days, 360km altogether in a total of 66 hours. He was raising money for a leukemia charity, so I have to say good for him - but he does rather show the rest of us up.

At least he had the grace to report that "the descent [from Mackinnon Pass] was much harder on knees and ankles than anticipated".

Monday 14 December 2009

How not to get up

I've just taken this photo from where I'm sitting in bed, propped up on goose-down pillows. The big picture window to my right is framing sharp-edged mountains dusted with snow, trees, golden tussock and a neat lawn where a small top-knotted bird (a partridge?) is fussing amusingly back and forth. And oh look! The sun's just come out and turned up the colours.

If I lean forward a little, I can see the turquoise lake, the green hump of Pigeon Island and misty blue mountains beyond.

It's my last morning here at Blanket Bay and though it will be good to get home again it's only the prospect of coffee and French toast that's going to get me out of this super-comfortable bed.

This really is a very lovely place to stay.

Sunday 13 December 2009


Dion (who, if he ever gets tired of jet-boating, could have a decent career as a Jack Black impersonator) was contemptuous when I told him how the Gold Coast jetboat people had made me feel sick by doing a dozen 360s up and down their sheltered inlet. "Pah! That's all they've got," he scoffed. "Same as the Excitor up in the Bay [of Islands]." Apparently, the Dart River Safari jetboats not infrequently go aground, a prospect which provided a frisson of excitement on a trip up past Mt Alfred deep into Middle Earth scenery.

As it happened, it didn't today, fortunately. We began with a personal pick-up from the Blanket Bay jetty (only pipped by once having been picked up from a hotel jetty BY A FLOAT PLANE) and a buzz to the top of Lake Wakatipu where first I regretted not having brought my sunglasses, moving swiftly on to regretting that I forgot to bring my raincoat. That's Fiordland weather for you.

Roar, swirl, bump - over waves (did you know the height of a wave is seven times the depth of water beneath it? Handy information when you're in a jetboat [INVENTED IN NZ] that has a draught of about four inches), past logs, along beaches and up into inlets where mice swimming across the stream to get at the beech mast are eaten by huge trout in the river. (Dion's rubber rat bristling with hooks on the end of a rope would probably not make it into the Flyfisher's Bible, effective though he says it was.)

Then it rained and we turned for home, and as predicted at the bridge the cloud stopped and the sun came out so when I got back to Blanket Bay cold and damp, I pushed open the french doors in the jacuzzi room and sat in 39-degree water gazing across the lake at the snow-dusted mountains and ate a whole tin of cocktail nuts all by myself, effectively ruining my appetite for dinner.

Good thing I'm greedy: five courses, tick tick tick tick tick.

Saturday 12 December 2009

Walking the Milford Track

So the Milford Track is all done and dusted. There was rain, lots of it, filling the river so that even the guide stood and watched its churning waters in astonishment. It overflowed its banks and flooded the track so that the Ultimate Hikes head guide Dan, who's 6ft2in, said "It's borderline." I pointed out that, at 5ft4in, my borderline was a lot lower than his, but we ended up wading through it anyway, hip-deep (for me) in icy water. It was an adventure that I was hoping would end with an emergency helicopter ride on to the next lodge, but as we had lunch in a damp, chilly shelter, the water dropped enough for us to soldier on - so we did walk every step of the 33 miles/55km.

The day of the pass was brilliantly clear and we had amazing views that almost compensated for the pain of the long, steep descent over boulders and rough steps, that went on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on...

But the lodge at the end was warm and dry and comfortable and comforting and we relished our hot showers and power-drying rooms and soft beds and spared little thought for the independent walkers who covered the same ground carrying all their equipment and food, and who had no showers, and slept in communal bunkrooms. Cheapskates.

The last day was long, long, long, but the scenery was fabulous, the birdlife diverting and the sandflies surprisingly less bitey than expected.

And tonight all the others are at the pub in Queenstown and I'm here at fancy Blanket Bay at the north end of the lake, where all sorts of Hollywood stars and other rich people have stayed, and I have a stone chalet overlooking the lake and mountains where I plan to lie quietly and digest the five-course dinner I've just eaten which involved oysters, venison, elderflower sorbet and much other excellent nosh.

Monday 7 December 2009

I will be fleece of foot

None of my activities worked out today, not the canyon swing, not the ziptrek, not the Segways - but that's all right, they'll wait; and in the meantime I've thoroughly enjoyed Eichardt's squashy sofas, the glorious views, the Earnslaw fussing back and forth across the lake, and the perfect, pristine, classy neatness of Queenstown, where even the fish and chip stand on the corner offers a choice of lemon pepper or chicken salt.

And tomorrow it's off into the wilderness, 55km of walking over four days, climbing up to over 1100m at Mackinnon Pass, from Lake Te Anau to Milford Sound. I'm going with Ultimate Hikes, so there will be lodges, hot showers, wine and a private room - but also many many steps in between, heavy rain and strong winds.

But no blisters, I'm promised, if I pack my socks with Foot Fleece: soft virgin wool that will cosset my toes and heels every step of the way. Watch this space - but don't rush back, as cellphone reception stops at Te Anau.

Sunday 6 December 2009


So I'm in my little conservatory in one of the Eichardt's Hotel cottages, sitting on the cane sofa with the squashy cushions, feet up with the Sunday paper, a G&T and some - frankly - inferior crisps (bought from the liquor store, before I discovered the English Lolly Shop round the corner, which sells WALKERS) with the sliding doors open onto my terrace, the narrow road beyond, then the lawn by the War Memorial Gate, then the pebbly beach and the lake with little waves breaking - maybe 30 metres from where I'm sprawled. There are people walking past from time to time, but that's ok because if they look my way, it's with envy.

And now the dear old TSS Earnslaw has just returned from its trip to Walter Peak Station across the lake to collect its sunset cruise passengers. All's well with the world.

Mmm, fresh and clean!

Down in Queenstown now, the tourist capital of NZ, to walk the world- famous-in-the-world Milford Track next week.

It must be something to do with having been in India so recently, but boy! This place is clean! And neat and tidy and relaxing, though busy with multi-national visitors. I'm sitting on the lakefront where the water is SO CLEAR I could read the labels on the beer bottles on the bottom - if there were any, which there aren't. Even the seagulls and ducks look new-minted.

The Remarkables are sharp and edgy, but the town is all about comfort and pleasure, and there's plenty of that waiting for me in my luxurious lake-front cottage at Eichardt's, another SLH hotel like the Raj Palace.

I'm getting a taste for their properties. No good can come of this.

Friday 4 December 2009

Carrier pigeons

The dozen or more spotted doves that descend from the trees where they wait every morning to land in a literal heap on the bird table in the hen run where I leave them some wheat are apparently bringing me more than just pleasure.

In Delhi and Jaipur we saw entire traffic islands dedicated to pigeons - your common-or-garden, reviled pigeon that is discouraged so strenuously in other parts of the world. In the UK, the public buildings bristle with inhospitable-looking spikes on every ledge and alcove, and swathes of netting cover arches, blurring the view of the statues within them.

But in India? Where life is hand-to-mouth for so many people, where resources are limited, where selfishness would be entirely practical? In India, pigeons are generously fed and supplied with bowls of fresh water - it's good karma, to look after other creatures. The Jains take it to the outer limit, wearing masks so they don't accidentally swallow a fly, taking care not to step on insects - but more mainstream people like to do their bit, too, and stall-holders sell them grain for the birds, and pellets for the cows that wander the streets, serene and confident, seen by some as living speed bumps because they slow the traffic.

So those fat spotted doves down the bottom of my garden have been bringing me good fortune, all unbeknownst. And the photo? Amber Fort, Jaipur, with elephants for the sharp-eyed.

Wednesday 2 December 2009

Happiness is warm nuts

Here we are at Auckland airport, home again, home again, jiggety jig, waiting - and waiting - for the First-Born to pick us up. Not that I'm ungrateful, but after the smooth efficiency of Cathay Pacific's service all the way from Delhi via Bangkok (unexpectedly) and Hong Kong, it is a bit of a let-down. Or maybe just real life again.
Cathay did us proud, with upgrades to their fabulous business class on every sector, and on the two long ones we had the wonderful cosy pods with lie-flat beds, feather pillows and duvets, fold-out big TVs and great food served by charming and attentive staff.
From the warm cashew nuts before dinner, through the lady who ushered us more than a kilometre through Hong Kong airport, through security, on several levels, in lifts, on travelators and even a train from arrival gate to departure in just 20 minutes, to the speedy arrival on the carousel of our priority luggage, it's been a breeze and a pleasure.
Ups to Cathay!

Monday 30 November 2009

Mind the gap

Such bravery today! Walking the streets by ourselves! Taking the Metro! Travelling by tuk tuk round the city!

And yet not so intrepid really, thanks to the kindness of randomly-met Indians from the schoolboy shyly pointing us to the right platform to the business man in his immaculate suit recommending shops and settling on a fare with our tuk tuk driver to the young man in a t-shirt so earnestly and intensely insisting that all he wanted was to save us from being hassled by strangers. Close talkers one and all - but not so close as the other passengers on the new Metro system. Sardines aren't in it.

Buying a few trinkets cost us little money but vast amounts of time and effort, mostly convincing the driver that no, we didn't want to go to another State Emporium, we wanted a market - and then being delivered to guess where? All part of the Indian retail experience, I know.

Everyone asks where we're from as an opener, but it turns out "New Zealand" is the kiss of death to any conversation. "Australia" works better, we find, though it's galling to have to agree that yes, Australia is bound to do well at the Commonwealth Games here next year. But at least we get our own back when we recoil from their offerings as too expensive and leave shops empty-handed while they tut behind our backs at the cheapness of Australians.

Respect. Please!

Back in Delhi at the Bajaj Homestay, this time in the penthouse room on the roof by the terrace, which is less posh than it sounds, but more comfortable than our previous room which had no window but did have a pigeon living in the ventilation opening which was rather nice.

It's been an exhausting few days and I have to say that the forts and palaces have rather merged for the moment, though I know I'll sort them out once I get home and coordinate my notes and photos. Lots of cows, camels and elephants, and this morning bits of goats by the road when we ventured out of the manicured perfection of the Raj Palace into Jaipur's busy streets.

I wasn't able to write about the Taj as I had no internet, but it was a little sad. The building is still gorgeous, untouchably perfect, gloriously serene and symmetrical - the trouble is the 40,000 tourists who visit every day. They have no manners and no respect, and are encouraged by the professional photographers to treat the poor Taj like a prop for a series of cheap and gimmicky photos - pretending to hold the top of the dome, for instance and for goodness sake. The so-called Diana bench? A scrum, nothing less. And inside, good grief, whistles blown by guards and guides, and people shouting for the echo. It was like a sports hall - but it's a mausoleum!

We were unfortunate to arrive mid-afternoon on a Thursday - it's closed on Fridays - so the crowds were at their worst. Far better to have got there at 6am, if the programme had allowed. But it was still worth visiting and I would still recommend it to anyone, with those provisos.

A whole day to fill in Delhi tomorrow, by ourselves. Some shopping seems called for.

Saturday 28 November 2009

Butting out

Our elephant was a bit of a speed merchant this morning, overtaking the others on the way up to the Amber Fort. That's not the sort of traffic jam you'd want to get caught in on foot.

Today we've seen palaces, harems, mausoleums and an extraordinary observatory; as well as the usual melée of people, vehicles and animals in the streets. Not so many goats today though - it's not a good day for goats. Bakr-Eid is a Muslim festival when goats are slaughtered and eaten, and for days we've been passing temporary markets of hundreds of goats, painted, dyed, decorated with tinsel, all being dickered over and for none of whom it was going to end well.

Back here at the Raj Palace, it's all soothing piped music, fountains and super-attentive staff (I'm sure that's the norm anyway, but we're also almost the only guests at the moment). The maitre d' walks backwards most of the time, bowing, and was stern about my lunch. "Please don't compromise, if it's not to your taste I'll remove it and make you another."

Sheesh, it was only a tuna sandwich. Good thing my knife wasn't dirty.

Living like a king - or maharajah

In Jaipur after a day on roads shared with camel carts, painted elephants, buses with people on top, wandering cows, herded sheep and goats - and also a corpse on a bier. Fascinating but exhausting to be watching like a tennis match that lasts 6 hours, so this hotel is a haven.

The Raj Palace is truly an actual maharajah's palace still owned by royalty, with doormen in curly slippers with moustaches to match, marble everywhere, fountains, a velvety croquet lawn and a palmist on the staff. And swan taps in the bathroom and a TV over the bath.

Right now the fountain is tinkling in the coutyard outside, pigeons are cooing and the muezzin is calling.

So foreign but so fabulous.

Thursday 26 November 2009


Temples today - the fabulous Lotus Temple that looks related to Sydney's Opera House and which was perfectly reflected in turquoise pools; and the astonishing Swaminarayan Akshardham, a vast red sandstone complex with an enchanting frieze of 148 stone elephants around the base of the main building - and where we were brave with food and it paid off (or so far...)

We know what celebrities feel like now. Young men especially eye us up (yes, me too!) in traffic jams and whenever we're walking; and we had to pose with some for photos before they ran off chortling excitedly. It's been a diversion, but the last stop today put it all in perspective.

The Gandi Museum is such a heart-felt place. It's in the house where he lived, next to the garden where he was assassinated, and it was very well-used. Heaps of information, his hard low bed, statues, cute dioramas and an unexpectedly affecting animation. Plus terracotta footprints tracing the last steps of his enormously long journey.

Well worth a visit, even at the end of a tiring day - which isn't over yet: light show at the Red Fort tonight.

Wednesday 25 November 2009

Traffic? What traffic?

Today has been goats, monuments, mosques, silk rugs, parrots, chipmunks, outbreaks of order in amongst dust and rubble, and cute children in neat school uniform everywhere - but mainly traffic. Horrendous, astonishing, mind-blowing traffic, made of cars, brightly-painted trucks, tuk tuks, rickshaws, horses, bikes and motorbikes woven through by insoucient pedestrians, dogs, and even a cow.

Though the noise is miles worse than a Manhattan jam - the horn is as vital as the brakes here - the patience is extraordinary, and a lesson to all tetchy Kiwi drivers.

Busy day, lots to see, not much to eat, not too hot - went well. More of the same tomorrow (hopefully more sleep too).

Monday 23 November 2009

Oh yes!

Cathay Pacific, you little beauty! Pods for both of us! And my unexcitable daughter? THRILLED.

Also, ruined for any future economy flight.

Ah, here come the hot towels, sigh. And the champers...

Sunday 22 November 2009

Here I go again

It really is a wonderful thing to be a travel writer, and I do love it - being sent FOR FREE to amazing places to do fun and interesting things and then to turn it all into stories which I then get the glory of seeing in print. And then I get paid for them! (Even if not that much.) It's surely only a matter of time before I'm found out.

But I do hate the packing. It's so hard to imagine hot when I'm cold, and vice versa; and to choose travelling clothes that are smart enough for a business upgrade (please, please!) and yet still comfortable for sleeping in and that won't show the inevitable food spills.

You'd think I'd have it all sorted by now, you really would - but no. Every time, a voyage of discovery before I've even left the house.

Saturday 21 November 2009

They're growing our cabbage trees over there

My vegetable garden is looking so ordered. The beans are just reaching for their poles, the tomatoes are forming their first flowers, the broccoli and cauli leaves are fresh and perfect, and there aren't any weeds. Yet. When I come home after 9 days away, it's going to be a jungle with everything gone sideways, kinked and feral. That's what gardening is, in Auckland: it's all about control, hacking back and disposing of the bodies.

Not like England, where gardeners nurture and cosset, primp and titivate - and like as not have everything they've worked for get blown to shreds or turn grey and slimy under leaden skies. But when the weather's kind, there's nowhere more lovesome than an English garden, God wot, and the Cotswolds is prime gardening country. Honey stone cottages and walls, mellow old brick and tiles, all set off by perfect flowers in neat gardens with manicured lawns and hedges, and hung with baskets and edged with pots, all brimming with colour and the result of loving care and months of planning. It's beautiful.

Friday 20 November 2009

Sky high

Coffee today with Martin, who's retired at the great age of 42 from press photography and who came along on the trip earlier this year to Thailand - and whose grab shot of this amazing bar in Bangkok was SO much better than mine.

It didn't help me to concentrate on getting my settings right that there was a man in a suit calling "No photo! No photo!" from the bottom of the steps. The official reason was that people had tripped and fallen while doing what I had, but what do you think - minutes later, camera safely tucked away, we were drinking cocktails and hanging over that simple glass balustrade with the street 64 storeys below and nothing in the way of a safety net other than a bit of wood and chicken wire.

But it was certainly spectacular, watching the sun set over that huge city, the wide brown river cutting a swathe through the temples and skyscrapers, and all the lights coming on. Plus there was a delicious dinner, live music from a dramatic dame up even higher, her gown trailing behind her in the breeze, and good company. Well worth a few baht (or more) - Sky Bar, Sirocco, State Tower.

Thursday 19 November 2009

In her father's footsteps

This time next week the Baby and I will be in Agra where the highlight of the visit - and quite probably of the whole 8 days we're in India - will be going to see the Taj Mahal.

It's nearly 30 years since I was there, and yet I remember it perfectly (don't ask what I had for tea the day before yesterday. Or even yesterday) because it's one of those places which is so perfect, and so beautiful, and that lives so triumphantly up to every expectation, that it's totally unforgettable.

Most famous places you've heard all about, when you get there they're smaller, or dirtier, or smellier than you were expecting - but the Taj is every bit as fabulous as you've been led to believe. There are very few other places in this exclusive club: Machu Picchu, Ayers Rock, the Grand Canyon - that's about it, in my experience so far.

I do expect that it will be more crowded than in my photo here; and instead of the slim young man in his surprisingly short shorts, I'll be photographing his slim young daughter who was many years from even being thought of when this one was taken. I'll probably include her feet this time.

And I'm equally confident that I'll be coming home with more than just six photos of this astonishingly beautiful building. Hooray for digital!

Wednesday 18 November 2009

Swings and roundabouts

They're promising us some hot weather soon. That'll be nice - it's about time. It's a present from Oz, some of the sweltering temperatures they've been suffering with over the last few weeks. Southern Australia has been having a one-in-100-years heat wave - for the third time this year, up in the high 30s for day after day after day, and night time too, which is almost worse.

The Lucky Country is also a very harsh place, and even in the cities life can get uncomfortable, with heat, dust storms and the smoke from bush fires that occasionally get worryingly close. And the people who live out in the bush really have it hard - the Victoria fires this year just the latest horrific example.

When I went out for a Wilderness Wander from Port Lincoln with Phil and Amanda, they let me cuddle Steve, above, a 7-month grey kangaroo orphaned joey, the sixth they've raised, mostly as a result of car accidents with the mothers. I keep writing about Steve because he was so wonderfully cute, and it was such a novelty to be nuzzled by a baby roo - but today's link is that Amanda told me that in the '05 fires in the Eyre Peninsula, they got caught by a sudden leap-frog of the flames from miles away, and found themselves having to grab their children, who were wearing only their swimmers, and running for their lives. There was no time to snatch up anything else, so they lost absolutely everything - including the kangaroo that they had raised, like Steve, from a tiny baby.

They were so sad about it, but they weren't able to mention it to anybody and grieve properly. Because in their small community the fires also killed nine people.

Tuesday 17 November 2009

Woo hoo

Yesterday in a lucky draw at a fancy luncheon (bit of tautology there - when is a luncheon not fancy?) I won three nights at Pacific Resort on Aitutaki in the Cook Islands. To them that have, shall be given, eh? Because I went to Aitutaki last year - but it was kind of cruel, because I only had one night there. But a kind cruelty, because that night was spent in an over-water thatched villa at Lagoon Resort. Although only after having been to the Pacific Resort for a sundown cocktail and nothing else. Which was cruel, because it looked kind of fabulous. Anyway, now I get to see for real.

The photo was taken over the pilot's shoulder on an Air Raro flight to Aitutaki from Atiu - I'd been alarmed earlier in the flight when there was a sudden rush of air through the cabin, but it was only the co-pilot opening his little sliding window to take a photo of another little island we were passing over. Aitutaki Lagoon is really that colour, so is the sea - it's a spectacular first sight, and when you see it you just know that you're going to have a classically glorious South Pacific experience. And you're right.

Monday 16 November 2009

To the rescue

There's a blackbird nest in one of our trees and this morning both parents were agitated, making that extremely effective irritating alarm call of theirs: cat, obviously. And there he was, Won Ton next door, sitting in the landing window just a couple of metres from the nest, chittering away and clearly there for the duration. What to do? His people were out, I couldn't throw anything at the window... but yes, I could! I grabbed the hose, turned the head to the jet stream setting, and let fly with a stream of water. Result!

The other bird rescue I was involved in this year was in South Australia, on a safari in the Gawler Ranges with Geoff and his wife Rene. We'd stopped for coffee on our 4WD drive through the bush and Geoff cocked his head, saying, "That's an emu." I could just hear something, more vibration than noise, but there was nothing to be seen - till, a couple of minutes along the track, Geoff slammed on the brakes and leaped down the bank to where he'd spotted a big emu upside down, its leg caught in a wire fence it had tried to jump. The emu grunted, Geoff grunted as he strained to pull the wires apart, the emu's other leg flailed about with its solid claws, and then it was free, running off with a bit of a limp. We did feel good.

Then we came across some more, and Geoff demonstrated how to get them up close for a photo: you make a fool of yourself to pique their curiosity. Who'd have thought it?

Sunday 15 November 2009

This non-sporting life

So, last night the NZ soccer team, the All Whites, qualified for the World Cup finals in South Africa next year, and "a jubilant nation erupted". Apparently.

We're not a sporting household. I didn't grow up in one and nor are my children. People say, "How about the big game, then?" and, never mind the teams, I won't even know what sport they've been playing.

It's hard for some people to understand not being the least bit interested in sport; and the kindest of them are sorry that I'm missing out on the thrills and camaraderie - but as far as I can see, if you're a Kiwi, there's not a lot in the way of thrills. More like a ton of misery. Even the All Blacks, I understand, can't be relied on to deliver in crucial games. No, I'm perfectly content for my ups and downs to be controlled by sunshine and rain, and leave rabbles of unpredictable, badly-behaved and overpaid young men well out of my life.

Having said which, I did enjoy the gaelic football All-Ireland final at Croke Park in Dublin a couple of months ago. True, I felt a bit of an imposter amongst 82,000+ rabid fans all painted and dressed in their colours; and because of my red jacket, chose to support Cork, who lost, so that was disappointing. But it was a grand spectacle, and highly entertaining being such a fast and clearly skilful game, and for me was absolutely a novelty - so it was a well-spent afternoon that I don't regret. But it was part of my tourist experience: I couldn't keep it up back home.

Saturday 14 November 2009

I'm meant to be writing about the other sort...

Whales have been big in the news this week (ha ha).

There's a story in today's paper about the resident population of Bryde's whales right here in Auckland's Hauraki Gulf. While they're not endangered globally, it's rare for them to live so close to a big city, so that's special - but it's also a problem because they keep getting whacked by ships buzzing in and out of the harbour. The marine biologists want to research their movements and habits to try to come up with a strategy.

It'd be really cool to see them - so far I haven't even seen the orca that visit here frequently; though a big pod of dolphins cruising right past Devonport wharf was a brilliant gift one bright morning.

The other news was that Whale Watch Kaikoura has just won the Supreme Award in the Responsible Tourism Awards in London, ahead of 5000 entries from around the world. Good for them: they've been working hard for years building up the business, while the town has been feeding off the visitors they've generated, and they put on a great trip.

We went out with them some years ago, and it was a smooth operation, with comfortable seats, sonograph, big screen TV showing the movements of the whales, and plenty of action. Not that much of it came from the whales, it must be said - we would rush to where a whale had been seen rising, look at a black hump in the water for 10 minutes while it rested on the surface and re-oxygenated, and then there would be a rush of excitement and shutter-clicking as it gathered itself to dive again and the tail came clear of the water, and that would be it for 40 minutes till it came up again.

We did manage to see five that afternoon, and it was impressive and all, but the most entertainment came from a huge pod of dolphins that were putting on an incredible SeaWorld display - leaping, crossing over, falling backwards, and all apparently just for the fun of it.

Kaikoura's whales, a resident population of sperm whales, plus other species that pass through attracted by the deep trench just offshore, its cold waters full of fish, can also be viewed from the air - when I went up with Kaikoura Helicopters earlier this year, I could see their size and shape perfectly, and it was really impressive. Also, huge fun! Whichever way you do it, though, you get practically instant whales - gotta be better than steaming along for hours just on the off-chance (Boston Whale Watch, I'm looking at you!)

The photo is a cheat: it's one of the humpbacks I saw in Galapagos. But you'd never have known, if I hadn't said, would you? Now, back to writing my story about Mt Snowdon. In Wales.

Friday 13 November 2009

Never too late to remember

Yes, it's two days since Remembrance Day, so the link is even more strained than usual, but we can overlook that.

It's interesting that not only has Anzac Day got bigger and bigger over the last 10 years or so, but now Remembrance Day is also an annual feature in the news here.

Visiting Gallipoli has become so mainstream that a new road put in to deal with the visitors destroyed part of what they go to see; but overall it's a heartening phenomenon and good to see.

I've visited a number of war cemeteries, the most impressive because of their size the ones in Normandy, like the American one above, on the cliff above Omaha Beach; and the less austere British one at Bayeux where there are roses by the crosses; and the understated German one outside the town behind a high hedge where low black crosses are grouped on the grass surrounding a huge mound. Then there's the one at Oxford, where my uncle is buried, killed on a training flight when his wings iced up - it was a long way to come from Dunedin to die in England's friendly fields. The youngest son, it was a terrible blow for the family; his medal and the letter from the king were framed and hung over my grandmother's bed.

And then there's the lovely peaceful one in near Tiendanite in New Caledonia - a NZ one, this, with the plaques set into the grass in a long curve leading to the memorial against a backdrop of the wild mountains.

In Australia the one at Adelaide River is unique in my experience for having personal messages included on the brass plaques - "He was my all. Mother" - which makes them even more moving; and in the National War Memorial at Canberra the long, long wall of names has poppies stuck under the edges where people have come on a pilgrimage.

What they all have in common is that they are lovingly cared-for: neat, clean, pretty and peaceful. They are places of respect, honour and remembrance, and always worth visiting.

Thursday 12 November 2009

Breakfasting like royalty - sometimes

There was no milk for breakfast this morning. I'm happy to say that this doesn't often happen in our house - but that does then mean that it's even more ruinous to the morning routine. The First-Born kindly went to the dairy when it opened and brought some back, but by then the pattern was shattered and the day already dislocated.

Breakfast to me is tea and cereal, currently porridge, both with lots of milk. To do without it was to re-live some of the worst breakfasts I've eaten, most notably in Peru.

In our three-star experience there, breakfast was invariable: a saucer with one dry-scrambled egg on it, some slices of tomato, a sliver or two of avocado if we were lucky, and a stale bread roll with jam washed down with a cup of coca tea (or feeble coffee). Every morning, the same. It's just as well the country itself is so colourful and fascinating, because those breakfasts were nothing to get out of bed for.

Joana, our local guide, was inured to it, but Chuck from St Louis found it a tough row to hoe. I think his experience with saucers was previously non-existent, particularly when used as a main course plate. It was a (heartlessly) comical sight to see his disappointment at this restaurant where we had brunch after an early start, when he ordered eggs and bacon and got the usual saucer of hackingly dry scramble with some diced ham sprinkled sparingly over the top. It drove him to drink, hence his frothy pisco sour at 11 o'clock in the morning. He didn't like that either. Bless him, he tried to stay cheerful, but he went home half the man he was when he arrived. (He did look the better for it though.)

I've had other horrible breakfasts - the hard-boiled eggs and Fanta in a Moscow hotel are still memorable after 30 years - but there have been excellent ones too, even just this year. Duck hash at Hapuku Lodge in Kaikoura was inspired and delicious; and having the waiter on the Silverseas ship Silver Whisper trail behind me back to the table carrying my choice from the buffet was a novelty - but best of all was at Indigo Pearl Resort on Phuket, Thailand.

The resort's decor is industrial chic - iron, concrete and bolts combined with super-fine sheets, silk throws and richly polished wood - which was a nice change from the usual bamboo. The restaurant kept the theme going with cutlery like spanners and so on, but it was the food that blew us away, especially the breakfast buffet. Every sort of tropical fruit, juice, cereal, pastry and bread, a toaster (yay!) and friendly staff standing behind little stalls just waiting to whip up our choice of eggs, or waffles, or crepes, or noodles, fried rice or congee... And tables outside under palm trees with manicured gardens full of bright waxy scented flowers, peaceful fountains and immaculate lawns. Now that's the way to start a day.


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