Thursday, December 31, 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, December 30, 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, December 29, 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, December 25, 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, December 24, 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, December 21, 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, December 19, 2009

Interlopers

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, December 18, 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, December 14, 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, December 13, 2009

Jet-setting

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, December 12, 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, December 7, 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, December 6, 2009

Ahhhh...

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, December 4, 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, December 2, 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!

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