Thursday 30 July 2009

Augh! Foolish youth!

What I should be doing right this minute - and what will be the very next thing I do - is writing a story about travelling on the Ghan, the train that connects the top and bottom of Australia, running between Adelaide and Darwin. It's an epic trip: 3,200km, three days, two nights, two stops, two engines, 30-odd carriages, and 125 years in construction battling heat, flies, floods, termites and unreliable funding.

The Ghan and I have history - in 1975, on my first solo trip overseas, I travelled on the old one up to Alice Springs, which was the end of the line in those days. I went to see Uluru/Ayers Rock and have a general look around, then a couple of days later turned up at the station to take the train back down south so I could start my holiday job on a sheep and cattle station in the Clare Valley, working as a polo pony groom. Except the gate was locked, the station was empty and there was no Ghan.

Turned out the man in the ticket office in Sydney who'd booked it all for me hadn't allowed for the fact that there's no daylight saving in the Northern Territory, and so I'd got there an hour late. And it wasn't due back again for three days. And I was being met by my boss in Port Pirie. And I was out of money. And then, when I was climbing back over the gate with my backpack on, I lost my balance, fell and took the top off my big toe.

So a passing police car took me to the hospital where they fixed me up, I used the last of my cash to send a telegram and buy a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter, and some nice French Canadians at the Youth Hostel took me under their wing and let me trail round with them for the next few days. And it all ended happily ever after: they even gave me their tent that they didn't need any more, and I've still got it.

Then in 2007 I was back in SA riding along on the Great Australian Outback Cattle Drive for 5 days, having a wonderful time helping to move 500 head of cattle along the Oodnadatta Trail, which follows (or vice versa) the old Ghan narrow-gauge track before it was moved to a less flood-prone route in the '80s. I brought home a dog spike, eaten by rust but still strong.

And then there was this trip, when I was the most comfortable person on the train, travelling Platinum Class in a double cabin all to myself: best sleep ever, in a big bed with fine sheets and the rocking of the train. Except when it stopped, mysteriously, in the middle of nowhere, with a sudden jerk. Turns out an American backpacker had got back to the station in Port Augusta after stretching his legs just as the train was pulling out, ran desperately after it along the tracks, climbed into a stairwell and spent the next two and a half hours clinging there as the train thundered along at 110kmh through the dark - and cold - desert night, before he got someone to hear him. Idiot! They had to peel him off, suffering from hypothermia.

He vanished at Alice Springs, but a week later the peerless Sunday Territorian got the story and splashed it on their front page with a photo of the boy draped with smiling girls under the headline Ghan... but got forgotten.

Wednesday 29 July 2009

They're getting the hump over camels

So today I'm thinking about camels. There's an item in the paper this morning about the camel problem in Australia, how they've got a million of them trampling around in the Outback, eating vegetation that the native animals need, making a mess of the waterholes and even wrecking air-conditioning units to get at the water inside them.

I've just been reading about camels, as background to some South Australian stories I'm writing and, like most Australian history, it's really interesting. The camels were brought in from India, Afghanistan and Persia in the early nineteenth century for transport through the Outback when it was being opened up for grazing, the Overland Telegraph line and the railway from Adelaide to Darwin, and the cameleers, casually all called Afghans (hence Ghan, the name of the train) accompanied the explorers on their epic expeditions. Once they were no longer needed, the camels were just set free, and established themselves very successfully.

I saw wild ones once on a 4WD expedition (in brand new Lexus cars with leather upholstery, fridges and 9 cup-holders each - and at the end they were far from brand new any more. My father would have wept) through the Red Centre, but mostly the ones I've got up close to are in the tourist industry. I rose uncomfortably early at Uluru for a dawn ride out into the scrub to watch Ayers Rock blush pink in the rising sun; the OH and I rode one along fabulous Cable Beach near Broome to provide the classic postcard shot against a colourful sunset over the Indian Ocean for heaps of people waiting with cameras; and on the latest trip, it was just the camel guy and me lurching through the bush at Pichi Richi in SA. Graham is a cliche weather-beaten, long, lean, laconic Aussie, but I managed to discover that he's the youngest son of 12 kids, 4th generation cameleer, a champion bronc rider at rodeos round the world and has trained racing camels in the Middle East. He was a bit distracted because his wife was away down in Adelaide with complications in her pregnancy, soon to give birth to their 3rd son, River. Brother to Malachai.

Riding a camel is less uncomfortable than widely believed, though the up and down bit is fairly dramatic; it's quiet, especially if you're used to the clatter of horse's hooves; and it's a good way to get close to the wildlife. And they don't spit - they projectile vomit, it's yellow and sticky, and can stain your skin for days.

>>> I’m trailing, er, behind a movie star’s bottom at a distance of just one metre, but I’m not bothering to play paparazzo. For a start Ned, who is wearing a rather unflattering little pooper-catcher, is a camel; and besides, there are more photogenic sights to point my lens at. The sunset, for one, which in Western Australia can be so eye-poppingly colourful that it deserves a fanfare of trumpets, and here on Cable Beach near Broome is exotically foregrounded most evenings by a string of ships of the desert.

I feel a little like a movie star myself as I sway along the beach high up on Connor’s hump while people from the wobbly line of 4WDs parked along the sand crouch and zoom and click away in quest of the iconic silhouette shot. It’s almost enough to distract me from the blaze of red and gold over my right shoulder as the sun slips away after another busy day of boosting the temperature up to 41 degrees. October in the Top End has even the locals complaining and looking forward to the Wet; but all through the Kimberley this year they are fizzing with impatience for something else as well. On 26 November (not till Boxing Day here in NZ) Baz Luhrmann’s much-anticipated epic romance ‘Australia’ is released and although it doesn’t get star billing, the Kimberley’s stunning scenery plays as big a role in the movie as do Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman...

[Pub. NZ Herald 18/11/08]

Tuesday 28 July 2009

Aw, rats!

I have to do something about the rats. They've been a presence in the henrun ever since I got the hens, and that's only to be expected, but this long, cold winter has had them chewing so many holes in the henhouse that it's beginning to look more like a colander. Not small holes, either: a good 7cm in diameter which, considering how they can elongate themselves to squeeze through gaps, suggests I've been nourishing some mighty rodents there. The henhouse is an old Wendy house I got for free: a pretty little cedar hut with shutters on the windows and a crooked chimney, but the timber is thin and soft, and offers no resistance to sharp teeth. In the past I've painted hot chilli sauce on vulnerable areas (works better than you'd think and has the advantage of satisfying mental images), nailed flattened tin cans along chewed edges and poked screwed-up chicken wire into holes, but I'm beginning to think the whole building needs swathing in metal. I did once, since I have a long happy history of mouse ownership and am reluctant to kill the rats, buy a humane trap which did actually catch one, a biggie too. But then what? I took the mesh box up to the house while I thought about it, and when I put it down on the deck our dog came up for a sniff and the rat lunged FORWARD and HISSED and made us both jump. I put it in the car and took it a couple of blocks to a little service road that leads to a sewage treatment station by a creek, thinking that would be rat heaven, but I was hardly even out of my seat before a busy-body old woman who lives alongside came fussing out shouting, "You can't drive down here! It's not a public road!" I told her I'd only be a minute and she retreated, suspicious, and went back inside to twitch her net curtains at me. I was tempted to say, "Don't worry, I'm only here to drop off a rat," but decided that might possibly inflame the situation. The rat leaped off into the long grass when I opened the cage and I often think of him when the dog and I walk through that way. No doubt his progeny are thriving. Hopefully they'll be boring holes in the old witch's house too. And today's travel connection? Well, in 1980 the OH and I did the overland trail from NZ back to the UK and when we were in Burma (which should never be called Myanmar until democracy is restored there, and shame on NZ for kowtowing to the military dictatorship on that one) we took a ferry down the Irrawaddy River from Mandalay to Pagan, leaving very early one morning and arriving in the evening of the following day. It was colourful, fascinating, thoroughly entertaining at all the stops, extremely uncomfortable even in the cabin of privilege up in the bow, and highly educational as regards the capabilities of the human body in extremis. Because we went all that time without using the loo once. Because the cockroaches? They were as big as rats. >>> It's a feature curiously absent from the tourist literature, that a visit to Burma will leave you with a deep respect not only for the country and its culture, but also for the resilience of the human body. Don’t get me wrong: it's a beautiful country, the people are wonderfully friendly, there's much to see that is interesting, spectacular and unique, and Pagan has to be one of the seven wonders of Asia. Though it was years ago, I will remember my visit for ever – but, it has to be said, as much for what I discovered about myself as for what I learned about Burma. Of course, this is far from being a bad thing: travel has always been as much about psychology as scenery, which is why OE is considered by potential employers as significant a pair of initials as MA. Rather like an Outward Bound course (minus the possums and flapjacks) the trip to Burma pushed my boundaries and made me step way outside my comfort zone. How did Burma test me? Let me count the ways: 1) Courage: Normally a keen supporter of recycling, I'm strangely unenthusiastic about it in the context of air travel. Burma Air’s battered Fokker Friendships, crammed with rickety seats cannibalised from other aircraft – possibly also trains and buses – did not inspire confidence. Nor did the bald tyres and the cracked, bumpy runway. And somehow the steward, fag hanging from the corner of his mouth as he dished out the pallid chicken, cabbage and banana dinner, was not someone whom I felt, in an emergency, would know what to do. These things are important when you are about to fly over the Himalayas. 2) Patience: Burma has discovered the answer to unemployment. It is bureaucracy. Any process involving official forms is split into so many stages that you feel as though you are trapped in a hall of mirrors, with desks and queues wherever you look, and no sign of the exit. Hours can pass as you work through the system, relentlessly sweating and crawled over by the stickiest flies in the universe. 3) Restraint: After a week upcountry where the most memorable meal was in the appropriately-named Soe Soe Restaurant in Pagan where I was asked, ‘You want meat? We have chicken or frog’, we stormed the genteelly decayed (and, we later discovered, bed-bug infested) Strand Hotel in Rangoon, ravenous for recognisable food. We should have been alerted by the fact that each item on the excitingly ambitious (but in practice, almost entirely fictitious) menu was tagged not just with a price, but also with a time: soup 20 minutes, fish 35 minutes. The soup actually took 45 minutes to be brought to us luke-warm, and when we complained that people who arrived after us had been served first, we found ourselves in a Beckett play: ‘They were here first.’ ‘We were at the door when you opened.’ ‘They’re still waiting too.’ ‘We can see them eating.’ ‘They ordered at 6pm.’ ‘You didn’t open till 7pm.’ ‘But look, they’ve got their meal!’ 4) Lateral thinking: In Burma, an alarm clock is no longer just an early-waking device. It's currency, and can be bartered for lacquer-ware bowls, painted parasols or colourful woven silk cloth. A ballpoint pen will deflect knee-high naggers, cute but persistent. Duty-free gin is not for drinking, but for exchanging on the black market for large bundles of kyats. 5) Self-denial: Basic and, on the face of it, irresistible physical urges became optional the moment I stepped on to an Irrawaddy River steamer. The food-type substances that were concocted on a ramshackle barbecue on the deck were not worth the effort of picking my way through a re-creation of the crowd scene from Exodus. The bare boards of the bunks in the cabin, and the whine of mosquitoes, made sleep a fond memory. And rat-sized cockroaches, that gave every surface in the toilet a shifting coat of shiny brown, ensured that going to the loo became dispensable for the entire 36-hour trip from Mandalay to Pagan. [Unpub.]

Monday 27 July 2009

For the birds

I'm happy to report many enthusiastic customers at my new bird table, whipped up in half an hour yesterday morning. I love doing rough carpentry, scouting round the garage for bits of wood and stray screws from the stray screw container (in which, whatever you're looking for "there's always one more" my dear father told me, and he's right), and whacking in 6 inch nails. Then I made a porridge with oats and old sunflower seeds from the back of the pantry, an elderly Brie, some knobs of dripping dripping with free radicals, and a stale croissant - oh yes, I know how to treat my guests - and slopped it into the former seed tray I'd fixed on top.

Since they discovered it, it's been swarming with birds, mostly twittering little silvereyes, cute but rather drab, and a pair of pretty green and blue peach-faced lovebirds - African imports escaped from someone's aviary, and doing well to survive the winter.

Though I come from a long line of bird feeders and rescuers, I've never been a bird-watcher - but now I've been on so many trips with keen birders, I've become one by association, clocking up wedge-tailed eagles, rainbow bee-eaters and jabirus in Australia; condors, giant hummingbirds, turkey vultures and oropendulas in Peru; and I'm looking forward to the blue-footed boobies in the Galapagos Islands next month.

But the more I see of other countries' birds, the less satisfied I am with our own. For a country that, apart from a couple of species of bat, has no native mammals and virtually no other land creatures other than birds, ours are disappointingly dull - nearly all in shades of brown and khaki, self-effacing, and no great shakes in the song department either. You'd think they could have gone to town with their plumage and behaviour, having the place to themselves. Even the flightlessness is a lack of a feature rather than a feature - it's actually the essence of birdness, to be able to fly, and they don't have it. How odd, that NZ is such easy living, and has so little wildlife, and Australia is so harsh, and teems with interesting animals and birds.

This is not a popular opinion, however - the following column earned me years of internet opprobrium from the Forest and Bird people, who appear to be a humourless bunch.

>>> I’ve been catching a lot of dawn choruses lately, out walking the dog, and I have to say, they would be deeply disappointing affairs if it weren’t for the immigrants.

For all that New Zealand is a country rich in bird life, with umpteen native species, the standard of song here is abysmal. People admire the tui, and the liquid notes it drops into our gardens are certainly striking – but they never add up to anything satisfying. You could grow old and die waiting to hear something connected. It sounds as though the tui is permanently tuning up, waiting in vain for the conductor’s tap of the baton: listening to it is an unrewarding business...

No, for true heart-lifting, spirit-lightening glory, we have to turn to the English songbirds, introduced by homesick pioneers in the nineteenth century – people who have since been vilified for their insensitivity to biological purity.

Well, three cheers for them, I say. What sort of dawn – or dusk – would it be without the blackbird’s professional performance, delivered from the highest branch, or the thrush’s subtly varied triple phrases? These birds know what they’re doing, and they never disappoint. They stake out parks and gardens according to strict avian hierarchies, throw their little hearts into their singing, and fill the air with melody. They leave the silvereye and the fantail for dead...

When we cheerfully and freely pick and choose amongst the world’s best to enrich every other aspect of our lives, why should we stint ourselves with the birds? Racial purity is a thing of the past. Our society is now irreversibly mixed – stand at any intersection in Queen Street and you’ll see every possible nationality scurry past – and no-one would dare suggest that this is anything other than desirable. So why do we have to persist with this avian xenophobia?

[Pub. NZ Herald 31/12/03]

Sunday 26 July 2009

Spring sprung?

It's been a long, cold winter this year, and an eventful one for many people around the country, with floods, landslides, tornadoes and even an earthquake - but this morning it looks as though the end is finally in sight. I took my usual Sunday morning brisk walk (too brisk for the dog, alas - she has to stay behind, giving me The Look from her Mary Pickford eyes) to the dairy to buy the paper and it was just glorious. Blue sky, sunshine on the grass and the flowers that are starting to appear, the air crisp and clear, and everyone I met looking cheerful.

This is a walk I use for fitness, as it includes several hills and a flight of 132 steps up from the beach. I've pushed myself around this route with some specific goals in my sights, like Outward Bound, the Inca Trail, and now the Milford Track - but this morning it was just pure pleasure to be out in the sun, with legs and lungs working as they should, and time to look around and enjoy.

And to remember: this is the path I rode my RDA pony up where we got stuck under a fallen tree that wasn't as high as I'd thought; this is the hill my daughter went down on her scooter far faster than either of us planned; here is where the daffodil fields used to be; that's the hall where I spent so many hours watching tap and ballet lessons, school plays and end of year assemblies; this is the zebra crossing that it was my idea to ask for.

And time too to dream: this is the house I have watched being built, section by section, over the years so that where once a little wooden home stood there is now a unique and distinctive house that takes full advantage of its view north and west over the tree-fringed upper harbour, the island, and all the moored boats, including the yellow one that sets the picture off so beautifully. This is the house where I will go, when I win the lottery, and ask what they want for it. They won't want to sell, because they've built it with love, but I will have won so much money that I will be able to add zeroes until they agree. And then we will live there in that interesting house, with those views, in that quiet street, and every sunset will be an event.

Of course, I'll have to start buying Lotto tickets first.

>>> I’m standing on the deck of a boat tied up to the jetty in Picton, elbow to elbow with a bunch of strangers, changing into running gear in full view of the passengers on the Interislander. A slim blonde called Genevieve waves vaguely at a bay across the other side of the harbour, says “Let’s go!” and runs lightly off towards the town, as we trail breathlessly behind her past bemused tourists and locals. We fetch up in a panting mass on a distant beach where, pointing to a cutter moored out in the bay, Geraldine urges us into the water, still in our clothes. We flail out to where a bearded bloke hauls us aboard and sits us alongside the oars. Grinning cheerfully, he hauls up the anchor and starts calling the strokes as we catch crabs, clash oars and finally settle into something approximating rowing. “Welcome to Outward Bound!” says Bob.

It’s a rugged introduction, but perfect in its way, because the next eight days continue in the same vein. The first chance to catch our breath and say hello comes that night in a little bay in Queen Charlotte Sound where we sit around a crackling fire under a star-filled sky, slurping hot mussels cooked in sea-water. We’re a mixed bunch of townies, late 20s and older, our only thing in common a readiness to have a go — although when I’m woken in the middle of the night by a possum galloping across my stomach, I wish I knew exactly what I have signed up for...

We climb a 25-metre rain-slicked cliff and abseil back down, which Patera finds so easy that he’s made to do it blindfold. We carry heavy packs up Mt Cullen, 1100 metres, and sleep rough at the top, rising in the dark to watch the sunrise. For two nights we camp solo with minimal shelter and food: possums scuttle around in the dark and though I know the others are within earshot, I’m on my honour not to leave my site, and eye them from deep in my sleeping bag.

On the last day the groups come together for a run through the bush, and some people astonish themselves by completing a half-marathon; but not me. I stumble and break a bone in my foot. I hobble the last 10 kilometres, determined not to give up. Back home, my doctor phones the X-ray people: “No urgency. She’s tough - she’s just done Outward Bound,” and I swell with pride. Now I know I can do anything: another OB success story.

[Pub. Women's Health June 09]

Friday 24 July 2009

Chinese Whisper

This morning in the staff meeting, the teacher i/c international students announced a visitor next week from Qingdao. I quivered silently for a bit, but then I had to whisper to the woman next to me "I've been there!" She smiled, I have to say, thinly.

Well, what are the odds - it's a small (by Chinese standards) port in the Yellow Sea and I was only there in March. I scored a cruise with the OH and some Aussie journalists on the Silver Whisper, a Silversea small ship, from Hong Kong to Shanghai via several ports plus a night in Beijing. At the Peninsula Hotel there. Which would have been impressive, had we not by then already spent two nights at the original Pen in Hong Kong, where we had a 6-room suite in the tower. Six rooms. With a hallway. Ankle-deep oriental rugs, quantities of televisions (including over the bath) and a telescope. And our luggage in the dressing room, spirited there, we scarcely having seen it since checking in at Auckland. We were met off Cathay Pacific's Business class at the airbridge, people! Then we were wafted through all the tedious airport stuff and conveyed to the hotel in a Roller.

That was the plebian version of arrival, however: the real celebs helicopter onto the roof and disappear into the penthouse suite and it's as if they're not even there.

Different story on the Silver Whisper - everyone knew who we were and used our names from the get-go. Necessarily more compact there, but also very luxurious - bottomless champagne in the free minibar, imagine that - and a great contrast to much of what we saw, a lot of it involving wheelbarrows and bamboo besoms. Qingdao was our last port of call before sliding up the river into the heart of Shanghai on the last morning.

>>> ...A day’s sail south brings the temperature up again and when we dock at Qingdao I’m not shocked to see brides with bare shoulders posing for photos in front of St Michael’s Catholic Church, though when they gather up their skirts to leave, I’m equally unsurprised to see they’re sensibly wearing striped football socks underneath. Draped over a hill, this is a lovely town with a strong German influence, and when I wander through the lanes I could be in Bavaria — until, that is, I pass the hospital where brightly-coloured plastic bedpans are piled up next to buckets of flowers at a stall by the entrance. I visit a cavernous mansion and look at the Spartan bed where Mao slept, sniff the incense at a gaudy temple with fierce statues and a stuffed cat in a basket, duck under washing strung across the footpath and am thankful that it’s two o’clock and not noon when I discover that it’s a clock-tower I’ve just climbed at the Lutheran church.

The people are friendly here, and I receive many greetings, including “Hello, foreigner!” from a party of schoolchildren. They’re chattering excitedly over their day at the seaside: the beach is swarming with people sieving rock pools with tea-strainers, sunbathing on the yellow sand, collecting seaweed and shells. I walk along the pier that stretches out into the bay, past stalls, photographers and magicians, to the pavilion at the end. I can see a pagoda, a cathedral, a communications tower, some skyscrapers, and lots and lots of people. I can see China.


Tuesday 21 July 2009

It's llam-entable

I was wearing my other hat today, the relief teacher one, and one of the girls commented on something that I was literally wearing, namely, my llama-patterned cardigan. Yes, it sounds dweeby, but a teenage girl said, three times no less, and apparently without irony, that she liked it, so clearly it's actually a cool thing to wear. Or, given that it's made of alpaca wool, actually very warm. Tch, enough with the word-play.

She asked where I had bought it and I, in a manner that was totally superficially nonchalant, said, "Peru". She thought a bit and said, "Peru - that's in Australia, right?" And while I was still hyperventilating, corrected herself and continued, "Oh no, I'm thinking of Perth."

But she was unperturbed at her lack of geographical knowledge, even going on to say, "I only found out last month that Wellington's in the North Island." Well, she was 14, and I suppose that's excuse enough. I can't say the same for one of the other journalists on a recent famil in the Northern Territory: an Australian woman not in the first flush of youth, there to write a story for an airline magazine, she interrupted me at one point to ask where Auckland was. I don't think I'm being a needy Kiwi to find this shocking.

But then, I'm easily shocked, especially when I'm in school and coming across girls who are not only unbothered about not knowing very basic things, but are also entirely uninterested in finding out. I suppose it's always been the case that older people are shocked by the ignorance of the youth of the day, but lack of curiosity is a sad thing, I think. And it's so unempowering, not to know about the world, not to understand how things work, what's gone before and what's happening now.

I think they see current affairs, geography, history, politics - social studies, in other words - as a soap opera like Coronation Street, that's been going for so long that it seems impossible to catch up on the back-story, so they don't try. It's such a shame, because they'll always feel detached, and when they get long in the tooth like me they'll never experience the huge satisfaction of making connections between disparate facts and topics that they've known for years.

This would be the perfect place for an example, but it's late and I can't think of one, so I'll come back and add it when I do. But I'm glad I've been paying attention all these years.

>>> "How would you like to go see Macbeth?" I asked my stage-struck teenager a while ago. "Ah," she replied, "the Scottish play. Ok."

Although her thespian debut was in the title role of A Tadpole’s Tale (incorporating a tricky on-stage costume change as she triumphantly morphed from eponymous tadpole to full-blown frog, as much a challenge for the wardrobe mistress – me – as it was for the actor), she has done a lot of resting since those glory days; so I was pleasantly surprised to find that she was familiar with theatrical superstitions. "How did you…" I began. "It was in The Simpsons," she yawned.

It is also thanks to The Simpsons that my younger daughter knows about George Washington’s wooden false teeth. Friends taught them both who Joseph Stalin was, and Malcolm in the Middle explained the Doppler effect. Further, we owe it to Seinfeld that neither of them will ever become a social outcast by unhygienically double-dipping the guacamole.

I was reminded of these incidental educational benefits of television when teaching a class of bright fourteen year-olds about the causes of the Second World War. We had read and talked about Pearl Harbor and I had my whiteboard marker poised to dot the full-stop after the summary instruction ‘Briefly describe what happened at Pearl Harbor’ when something prompted me to add ‘in Hawaii’. I turned around to be met by half a classful of waving hands belonging to people who wanted to know what Hawaii had to do with Pearl Harbor. This led, in turn, to a discussion about the stars on the Stars and Stripes that would never have had to take place when I was fourteen: because I, of course, had had the benefit of watching Jack Lord in Hawaii Five-0.

...It should be obligatory for every light entertainment programme shown here to slip in at least six items of general knowledge: a worthy challenge for any writer, particularly those working in Hollywood, who should be contractually constrained from rewriting history to give it a more flattering spin.

Think how the national IQ would rise – and how smug we could feel when, unlike around ten percent of the British population, no-one here remains convinced that Robin Hood was real and Winston Churchill a fictional character, and we all know, at least to the nearest century, when the Great War took place.

[Pub. The Press 4/4/05]

Monday 20 July 2009

Moon Day

Forty years ago today I was crouched uncomfortably on the floor of Avonside Girls' High School hall, listening - yes, listening - to the crackly broadcast of the moon landing coming over the loudspeakers. It lacked a certain sense of occasion, to be honest, although having 1200 girls squashed into the hall was an event in itself. Even seeing the grainy b&w images on our tv that night, I didn't really feel connected to the accomplishment, though I did look up at the moon in the sky and try to whip up some sort of wonder that there were two men on its surface.

Watching the Apollo 13 movie the other night was much more helpful in realising how much raw courage was involved; and, looking at the basic equipment, how much luck.

I used to have a problem with the full moon: for a start, I could never see the Man in the Moon, only a rabbit, and it wasn't till I went into the northern hemisphere and saw it the 'right' way up - and realised that they meant just a face, not a whole body - that I understood the idea. And then, I always found moonlight spooky, not romantic - that whole white, colour-sapping effect, not nice.

But now it seems that whenever I travel, the moon is full - bit of a bugger when I'm in the Outback wanting to appreciate the stars, but still, it's beautiful in that vast and empty setting; or rising, huge and sepia-coloured, through the Dickension dust and squalor of Juliaca in Peru; or hanging above a glittering tropical lagoon in Tahiti; or competing with the lights of Manhattan; or glimmering, pale and insubstantial, in a daytime sky high above the phenomenal blue of Lake Tahoe. It's got now that I've come to expect it, to associate it with new places and adventure, to be glad to see it. The full moon is my friend.

>>> ... Although it was created for tourists, the two-yearly Great Australian Outback Cattle Drive is not a frivolous event: it's based on the practical experience of people like Darryl (60), Randall (49) and Whitey (77), who have spent more nights in swags under the stars than in beds. They are old hands at droving huge herds of cattle through the remote desert to the railhead at Marree, back in the hard days when even the cattle had to be shod to cross the stony plains: eight shoes per animal. Before motorbikes, helicopters and trucks, a ringer spent months at a time in the Outback relying on his horse and his mates to muster the cattle and move them south. "When you move at the pace of a beast,” said Darryl, “you have time to connect with the land. You learn respect.”

Whitey had no illusions. “She’s a hard country,” he told me, stroking the nose of his horse Blackie (a grey, naturally). “Droving’s finished now. The young men are all going to the mines. That’s where the money is.” But even today, money isn’t everything, and Nick (25), motorbike musterer turned builder, had jumped at the chance to experience the old ways: riding close to the cattle, cracking a stock-whip to move them on, able to hear them snatching at the saltbush above the shuffle of two thousand hooves through the sand; and knowing that all around, for hundreds of kilometres in every direction, there was space and silence.

It was exactly the same novelty that we city-slickers were enjoying, mounting up each morning on our docile horses to follow the herd over salt pans, round unexpected puddles, through sand and stones, past flat-topped hills and astonishing bubbling mound springs. We chatted companiably or sat in peace in the saddle enjoying the sunshine. On the day after the storm, we yawned.

When we returned at the end of that day having moved the cattle a further 14km down the Oodnadatta Track, the sandstorm had been wiped away. The tables, the toasters, the toilets, the tents: all were clean and shining again. There was a choice of three roasts for dinner, with pavlova after and happy hour before. Afterwards we sat late into the night around the campfire with wine and marshmallows, singing and laughing under a three-quarter moon that outshone all but the Southern Cross. Good times.

[Pub. Listener 29/12/07]

Sunday 19 July 2009

Me and Orlando Bloom

There's just two degrees of separation between me and Orlando Bloom. It's not that exciting, to be frank - now, Colin Firth, that would be a different story - but it was remarkable that I discovered this fact on a remote cattle station in the South Australian Outback, after a day spent largely off-track, chasing emus and rescuing one from certain death.

I was with Geoff Scholz and his wife Rene, having spent two nights in a fancy safari-style tent at his Kangaluna Camp just outside the Gawler Ranges National Park. He'd shown me all around, the stromatolite fossils, the ochre pits used by the local Aborigines, swarms of kangaroos, tumbles of ancient rhyolite rocks like discarded pencil stubs; we'd had picnics, campfires and I'd looked at Saturn's rings on his fancy remote-controlled telescope; and now we were headed to Port Augusta.

We stopped at Lake Gairdner on the way, a dazzling white salt lake ringed by purple hills with a huge blue sky above - and didn't have it to ourselves. There was some sort of filming going on, a fashion shoot for David Jones, the outfit's French chef (!) told us.

And then we got to this cattle station, Mt Ive, which was like a little settlement with camp ground and cabin accommodation adjoining the homestead, and Joy told us that the shoot people were staying there, including Miranda Kerr, the fashion model and Orlando's current squeeze. And that he, Olly, had got Joy out of bed that morning at 4.45am, phoning from London and wanting to speak to Miranda. He apologised for being dim about the time difference and then rang again twice later, each time not catching Miranda and finally asking Joy to tell her that he loved her.

I would leave all this sort of thing to the gossip mags, but it was just so bizarre, to be so far away from even the civilisation (ha!) of Port Augusta, and to be in almost-contact with the former Legolas.

Then again, a couple of days later I drove my hire-car through a scene of Road Train, a movie being filmed at Wilpena Pound, much to the distress of the crew. But that's another story...

And so is the emu rescue.

Saturday 18 July 2009

The Cook Islands national bird

A 44-gallon drum of nearly-liquid chicken manure takes some emptying, especially when the only available tools are a spade and a brittle bucket, and there's an algae-slick ramp to negotiate and a soggy lawn to cross, and trenches to dig in sticky soil in a raised vegetable bed next to the rotary clothes line with washing on it that is always in the way. But the job is done.

The hens took a deep interest in the whole process, especially the digging part, when I was unable to resist treating them to a few worms, even though I know the garden needs the worms. I spoil my hens. I feel I owe it to them, in a kind of spiritual compensation for all their poor, poor sisters imprisoned in the living hell that is a battery farm.

>>> ...While other farm animals are generally accorded some – if not yet enough – respect and consideration throughout their lives, the humble chicken has never been anything other than an egg-producing machine, condemned to live her short and miserable life in conditions that should make every one of us ashamed.

I discovered the reality when we decided to abandon the bottom of our garden to half a dozen chooks.

It was a pleasant drive out to the chicken farm. We pictured ourselves wandering through a meadow of contentedly scratching chickens, choosing the prettiest. We were disconcerted when we arrived and all we could see were long windowless buildings. We thought it was the wrong place, until we turned a corner and met a man wheeling a heaped barrow load of dead hens, their necks lolling over the side.

He agreed to sell us six chickens and disappeared into one of the sheds. He was gone for a long time, and eventually I followed him inside.

It was hell in there.

Through the half dark, I could just make out long rows of stacked-up cages, each crammed with four or more birds whose ugly red, naked necks were sticking out through the wire as they squawked at horrendous volume. The stink of ammonia from the excrement heaped below the cages was eye-watering, and I had to back out within minutes, but even that brief glance was enough to explain the chicken man’s long absence.

Amongst the thousands of birds in that shed, it took more than fifteen minutes for him to locate just six that had intact beaks and most of their feathers. He brought them out, their legs taped together in pairs, and they blinked in the sunshine which they had probably never seen before in their miserable lives.

They lay mutely in the back of the car on the way home, no doubt wondering what new cruelty was in store. We carried them to their airy shed, with its perch, nesting boxes stuffed with hay, the feed and water, and sawdust on the floor, and peeled off the tape. The moment they were on their feet, they began scratching and pecking at the floor. Within minutes, they were dust-bathing, followed by vigorous wing-flapping. Not one of these natural behaviours would have been possible in their cages; quite probably, they had never been possible for these birds ever – yet the urge, far from being stifled, had remained irresistible.

It was not the same for perching: for ten days or so, we had to lift them onto their perch at dusk. A couple of months later, however, in the heat of the summer, their muscles and instincts had become so well developed that they dispensed with the henhouse altogether and were roosting on the edge of the compost bin all night, ready for an early start in the morning on the puha, buttercups, dock and dandelions, which they soon beat into submission.

They are happy hens. They spend their days busily scratching and foraging for a wide variety of foods, preening their glossy feathers, flapping and dust-bathing and abruptly collapsing onto the grass for a spot of sunbathing. They each lay an egg nearly every day. They know their place in their pecking order, they know us and they know that every day is a gift to seize the moment their door is opened each morning.

But their sisters are still in Auschwitz.

[Pub. Waikato Times 6/04/07]

Friday 17 July 2009

Call that an earthquake?

It's all been rather a disappointment. A whopping 7.8 on the Richter scale and all the newshounds could find was a puddle of shampoo on a supermarket floor, a small crack in a brick wall and a fisherman with surprised eyebrows whose boat had bobbed up and down a bit. Instead they were reduced to describing all the death and destruction that there would have been, had the quake struck somewhere where people actually lived - they worked up a fair head of steam over the potential destruction of Wellington, though those of us living north of the Bombay Hills were left unmoved by that as well.

They also had to hark back to the 1931 quake in Napier: same size, but 258 people were killed, and the city reduced to rubble. They did things properly in the old days...

>>> ...Napier is on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island in Hawke’s Bay where the good things of life are abundant: sunshine and scenery, orchards and wineries, restaurants and appealing architecture. It wasn’t always so: on a hot, muggy February morning in 1931 the people of Napier and nearby Hastings thought the world had come to an end when a 7.8 earthquake struck and reduced their towns to rubble, instantly splitting local history into Before and After.

Two minutes and 49 seconds of violent shaking centred just 15km north of Napier felled every chimney in the area, destroyed all but a handful of the Victorian and mock-Gothic buildings crowding Napier’s narrow streets, lifted 3000 hectares of land out of the sea, and killed 258 people in Hawke’s Bay. Four minutes after the initial massive shock, overturned Bunsen burners in three chemists’ shops started fires that swept through the city’s wooden buildings, unchecked by the fire brigade because all the water pipes had been fractured. ‘It was the death of the city,’ said the daughter of Arthur Bendigo Hurst, a professional photographer who made the decision, which haunted him for the rest of his life, to record the devastation instead of pitching in to help dig out survivors.

His photographs are on display in Napier, in the Hawke’s Bay Museum’s excellent Earthquake section, along with a 35-minute video of interviews with survivors, voice recordings, newspaper facsimiles, geological information and vividly personal items rescued from the ashes, like a pocketful of old pennies fused together by the heat. Hanging in one case is the brass ship’s bell from HMS Veronica, a small British warship which was moored in the harbour and was temporarily grounded when the seabed rose up. Crew from the ship were ashore within ten minutes of the quake, beginning a huge rescue operation and earning the city’s gratitude. The bell was rung on the 50th anniversary of the earthquake and again during the 75th commemoration ceremonies in 2006.

The death of the old Napier was followed in remarkably short order by the rebirth of the city rising like a phoenix from the ashes, but in a new form: Art Deco. The philosophy behind this new style of architecture and decoration was perfect for the occasion. Its recurrent motifs of sunbursts, speed lines, lightning flashes and leaping women symbolised the new spirit of the 20th century, which looked forward to a bright new age of technology, independence and progress. Napier became a magnet for both newly-graduated students of architectural design and men so desperate for work in the Great Depression that at least one is known to have cycled there from the other side of the country. In just two years, the city was transformed into a place of wide streets, cantilevered verandahs (supporting posts had shown themselves to be hazardous), a spacious Marine Parade and a harmonious collection of mainly Art Deco buildings, interspersed with Spanish Mission, another style popular in the day. The city has been described by the Chairman of English Heritage as a unique example of a planned and cohesive townscape, ‘the most complete and significant group of Art Deco buildings in the world’.

[Pub. The Age/Sydney Morning Herald 22/06/08]

Thursday 16 July 2009

Shake, Rattle and Roll

There was an earthquake last night, down near the bottom of the South Island, a 7.8 - proudly described on the news as 'the world's biggest this year' - but we felt nothing up here in Auckland. Though these are sometimes called The Shaky Isles, the last/first earthquake I've felt was the 7.1 Inangahua one in 1968. I was in bed at home in Christchurch, woken early on a dark winter morning by my Venetian blinds swinging and banging against the window frame, and by all the neighbourhood dogs barking as my bed rolled and shook. It was quite a thrill.

We used to have earthquake drills at school, when the teacher would suddenly yell "Drop!" and we would all have to scramble under our desks. Once we had it in history, and the sight of short, squat, roly-poly Miss Oliver compressing herself under the teacher's table was much more memorable than any of the dates she tried to teach us that year.

After last night's quake, a tsunami alert went out in places like Tasmania and Sydney, but they didn't notice anything much - thank goodness. Even five years after the Boxing Day tsunami, the images are still vivid.

I was in Thailand earlier this year, and spent some days on Phuket. It was hard to connect what I saw with what I remembered from all those wobbly phone camera videos.

>>> After a lovely day out in Phang Nga Bay, on the way back home our boatie stopped at a deserted beach on another island and we floated in the bath-warm water, trying to imagine how it must have been in 2004 when the tsunami swept through this area. It was an impossible exercise, partly because there's no visible evidence, and partly because Phang Nga is so beautiful that death and destruction simply won’t fit into the picture.

It was the same back at Patong Beach, on Phuket itself. We sat in Baan Rim Pa, a fine and famous Thai restaurant where we enjoyed a magnificent multi-course dinner at a table on the veranda, looking down on local families fishing from the rocks below. Out in the bay, lights looped through the dark where the squid boats were working, and a warm breeze made our candles gutter in their holders.

Where we sat savouring fresh seafood cooked to recipes once prepared for the royal family in Bangkok’s Grand Palace, where the polished teak glowed warmly in the lamplight and the brass fittings gleamed, a wall of water had swept through on that terrible morning. There was nothing to show for it. Glasses clinked, people chatted and laughed, there was live music from the bar and the air was scented with jasmine and spices. In Phuket today everything is civilised again.

[Pub. The Press 13/07/09]

Wednesday 15 July 2009

Location, Location, Location

Gidday! And welcome to the first post in my new blog which, as the title indicates, is an excuse to revisit places I've been and enjoy them all over again. Yes, there will be boasting, but I'll try to keep it to a minimum - really I'm just wanting to share.

About six years ago I started pretending to be a travel writer, and now I really am one (with prizes, no less! See my website but here the plan is to write on-the-spot blogs while I'm travelling, and when I'm back home to pick random memories that are prompted by something happening that day. So here we go:

Today I went with my daughters to see the latest Harry Potter movie - The Half-Blood Prince. We're an HP family - in on the phenomenon almost from the start, when my girls were the same age as Harry, and every new book was a huge event for us. I read them all aloud, so we could enjoy them together, and no-one had to wait to find out what happened. It wasn't quite so cosy today, to be honest - as soon as it was over, they were rushing off to re-connect with their own lives, even forgetting to say Thanks for taking us. Teenagers. Sigh.

So I don't know what they thought, but I liked it, even though it, like the book, mainly has a filling-in-the-gaps function. There was a lot of good stuff in it, and I was drawn into the story, but the traveller in me was paying attention too: to the dizzying swoop in over London, the destruction of the Millennium Bridge (which I hope to walk over in a couple of months' time), the magnificently bleak Scottish Highlands, the scenes in the cloisters of Gloucester Cathedral, the great hall at Christ Church College, Oxford, the pewter gleam of Loch Shiel below Hogwarts... all places I've been, and some of which I know well.

Then I watched a TV documentary tonight about the year of JK Rowling's life when she was finishing HP7, which opened with Edinburgh's sooty skyline, a view I had from my corner room at the Scotsman, just across North Bridge from the Balmoral, where she wrote the ending. I wrote a story on that trip about HP locations: how I stood on a soggy hillside waiting for the Jacobite train, which doubles as the Hogwarts Express, to come over the Glenfinnan Viaduct; went out on the loch and tried to imagine Hogwarts CGI'd onto a hill; drank a coffee in the Elephant Cafe where JK did a lot of her writing in her impoverished days.

But I hadn't realised that I had also visited the location where HP1 was written: the little town of Leith. I went there to look over the Royal Yacht Britannia which is now permanently moored there; and I wandered around the gentrified canal area with its swivel bridge and barges; and took photos of the picturesque Newhaven Harbour where once you could walk from side to side on the fishing boats but where now there's only one lobster boat left amongst all the pleasure craft. JK lived here in a flat which she revisited for the documentary - much nicer than I expected, and tidier than she remembered; but there was a touching moment when she spotted the HP books lined up on a shelf in what had been her bedroom, and it came to her in a rush what a fairytale it all had been.

Indeed. You couldn't write about it. Or could you...

>>> Everyone now knows the story of how the impoverished author pushed her infant daughter round the streets of the city till she fell asleep, and then went to her favourite café to write uninterrupted in the warmth while her coffee went cold on the table. The café is there: it’s called The Elephant House. ‘The birthplace of Harry Potter’ is painted across the window, and you can buy tshirts and caps with that slogan, but inside the main decorative theme is, no surprise, elephants. The back room is large, light and comfortable, and while I was there at the next table a woman with a toddler in a pushchair beside her was busily scribbling in a notebook: maybe hoping for some of the success to rub off. You wouldn’t actually come here for the coffee, which was neither hot nor very good, but I didn’t say so to the barista, who was happy to answer the question she must have heard a hundred times. “There’s no one table that J.K.Rowling sat at: she came so often that she probably used them all.”

The view from the back room windows is across the narrow and quaintly-named Candlemaker Row into the Greyfriars kirkyard. The soot-streaked tombstones there may have given Rowling some ideas for the spookier parts of her books, but people come here because of another story, that of Greyfriars Bobby. It was here that for 14 years the little Skye terrier called Bobby kept a vigil over the grave of his master, John Gray, leaving the churchyard only for his daily meal when the one o’clock gun boomed from the castle. He died in 1872, having been given the freedom of the city, and was himself buried in the churchyard. There is now an appealing statue of the little dog just down the road from the Elephant House in the street called George IV Bridge.

It’s only about four blocks from here along cobbled streets and through tunnel-like alleyways between the tall narrow buildings to where the Balmoral Hotel stands in 5-star splendour under its iconic clock-tower on the corner of Princes Street. For Jo Rowling it must have been an unimaginable journey back in her Elephant House days, but it was here, in the opulence of suite 552 on January 11th 2007 that she wrote the last sentence of the last Harry Potter book.

She also, apparently, signed an ornamental bust to that effect, but the management is not interested in encouraging fans to troop inside to view it, and it is tucked discreetly away somewhere. There is nothing, though, to stop anyone from walking past the doorman in his kilt, pushing through the revolving doors and entering the elegant lobby with its chandeliers and thick carpet, to do some imagining of their own.

Both Jo Rowling and Harry himself rose from obscurity to enormous fame, and that may not be to everyone’s taste – but aiming to visit the beautiful, fascinating and richly varied country that is Scotland is a dream anyone would be happy to realise.

[Pub. New Idea 15/03/08]


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