Sunday 31 January 2010

"Harold's Horror" - actually, mine

Today I'm doing something a bit different (I wish that word were spelled 'diggerent' - it would save me such a lot of backspacing) - proofreading the manuscript of a book for someone. He's a published New Age-y type writer, but in this book he's trying a diggerent approach, conveying his philosophy through a story.

Unfortunately - or actually, probably not - so far (Ch 6) he seems to have got so caught up in his Boy's Own Adventure set in the Amazonian jungle that the getting-in-touch-with-your-feelings aspect is scarcely mentioned. He's having much more fun with betrayal by the faithful Indian guide, having to kill an injured mule, a dramatic river crossing and the interpretation of the ancient treasure map. It's horrendous twaddle, and the only way I can get through it is to laugh at it and be really firm with myself about only fixing the spelling (Smith and Western revolver, due drops) and punctuation, and not to edit the writing ("You 'betcha'," Jonathan uttered) - he hired me as a proofreader only, after all.

At least I have some connection with the Amazon side of it, having spent three nights up the Tambopata in Peru. It was a bit unnerving, wildlife-wise, but felt wonderfully intrepid, even though it was well-trodden tourist territory. (The girls I met in a Lima cafe who'd just got back from three weeks with a shaman in the real jungle, taking a powerful hallucinogenic drug for spiritual enlightenment were the real adventurers, but that's another story - one that I wish I were proofreading instead of this bilge.) (The following is my bilge.)

>>> The business end of the snake was already inside a hole in the bank but enough of it was still sliding across the path, shiny black in the torchlight, to make me to wonder why I had thought a few days in Peruvian Amazonia would be a good idea. I hadn’t yet even reached the jungle lodge where, I had been told, my room had only three walls: the fourth left open to enable what the brochure enthusiastically termed ‘interaction’ between me and the environment. Two fat striped flying insects had started interacting with me within moments of my stepping onto the tarmac at Puerto Maldonado airport, something unseen had leapt out of the water and touched my hand as it rested on the gunwales of the longboat that had taken us three hours up the wide brown Tambopata River, I had just stepped over a tree root being used as an overpass by a stream of giant ants, and now there was a snake. “Welcome to Refugio Amazonas,” said Luis without irony...

[Pub. The Listener 11/6/11]

Saturday 30 January 2010

Unkindest cut (or bite) of all

My goodness, it's hot today: 33 degrees out in our shady, breezy porch, so no wonder I'm dripping after spending 10 minutes hanging out washing in the full blast of the sun. The cats are very crabby, but refusing to take off their fur coats. They could do with the pandas' water-cooled rocks to flop out on.

Wherever I've been in Australia, I've sweated (you're welcome!): in Melbourne's fan-oven blast, Adelaide's desiccating heat, Darwin's energy-sapping humidity... but worst of all was northern Queensland, on a 4wd minibus safari down from the tip of Cape York to Cairns, bumping along the Telegraph Track, going through tiny settlements where the houses were shuttered against the sun, and even tinier roadhouse hamlets surrounded by cathedral ant hills, orange and sculpted. Along the coast the beaches are golden and beautiful, lapped by brilliantly turquoise water that's almost too warm to be refreshing - apparently. I wouldn't know, because you're not allowed to swim. It's so cruel: so inviting, but so dangerous. Crocodiles, mainly, big hungry salties. And lethal jellyfish. Oh, and sharks too, but no-one bothers to mention them much because the salties are so much more of a danger. You're not even meant to clean fish on the beach in case one hurtles out of the water at you. It's astonishing how fast they can move, despite being around 5 metres long and weighing 1000kg.

Fortunately for our sanity, there are some places you can swim, inland. The young boy on our trip made up a rhyme: 'Where there's rocks, there's no crocs' - where there's flowing water and no suitable nesting sites, the crocodiles stay away. Which meant pure happiness for us at Fruitbat Falls.

Friday 29 January 2010

Better off red

I have to write an off-road Northern Territory story so I've been nosing through stuff from a trip I did through the Red Centre four years ago. That was fun, especially since NT Tourism was working with Lexus on this one, and we had six brand-new LX470s to drive - nine cup-holders each, need I say more?

It was tragic, actually: the guy who took these photos, Sam Tinson, was one of those eager snappers who wants to cover every angle, so he spent most of the time with his sunroof open, lying on the roof of his vehicle taking photos of the rest of the convoy as we bounced along in a cloud of fine dust. His car was full of the staining red stuff within the hour, while even ours, with the windows tight shut (air-con full on, naturally), were infiltrated - the leather upholstery and walnut veneers were never the same again.

We drove from Alice Springs along the Mereenie Loop past Palm Valley and Kings Canyon to Uluru (Ayers Rock for the unreconstructed), staying in fancy lodges or camping under the stars. Guess which I remember better?

>>> At night it’s a different story, however, and the prospect that a heat-seeking reptile might choose to share my swag as I slept under the stars had enlivened many moments of quiet reflection on the road to Palm Valley, in the West MacDonnell Ranges south-west of Alice Springs. This is the kind of thing that gives Kiwis both an added dimension of excitement when camping in Australia, and a reputation as complete wusses amongst the natives. Too polite to hoot scornfully at my fears, the camp director assured me that the low wooden platforms scattered around the site were not only multi-functional – bed, table, bench – but also carefully designed in height and overhang to be an insurmountable challenge to any snake. "Depends on the size of the snake," Matt from Melbourne chipped in helpfully. "Have you seen a really big snake rear up?" And he turned dismissively from the knee-high platform to consider the dimensions of the dining table, where the wine glasses at each setting on the linen cloth caught the flickering light from the campfire...


Wednesday 27 January 2010

Give that panda something to cuddle

How could you look at a face like this and not go "Awww"? (As well as, in my case, "Yay! Another cover shot!")

This is Wang Wang (yes, an unfortunate name, especially given the Aussies' fondness for the scatalogical, but it should be pronounced Wong Wong - it means Net Net, which tells us nothing, other than that the Oriental reputation for inscrutability, un-PC as it may be, is still valid in modern China). He's five, a year older than Funi, whose name means 'Lucky Girl', which makes more sense, even if it's not that accurate. They live in Adelaide Zoo.

I mean yes, she's come to the Lucky Country to be fussed over for 10 years, but expectations are high that she will have a cub, even though once she's reached sexual maturity in about 18 months, she'll be on heat for only four days in a year - and, listen to this guys, Wang Wang will only be interested in that sort of thing on two days a year. Which may well not coincide with Funi's.

And, this being Australia where they do like to win, the head keeper Steve isn't just looking forward to her having a cub, he's wanting twins. So. No pressure, Funi.

No wonder she likes to lurk at the back of her day room, sitting on her water fountain. If I were her, I'd want to soak more than just my feet.

Monday 25 January 2010

Victor Harbor rocks

An hour and a half from Adelaide is Victor Harbor, another classic SA seaside town with Norfolk pine-lined beach, little stone cottages and a pier - except on this case it's a bridge out to Granite Island with a double-decker tram pulled by Clydesdales clopping along, which is
lovely if not very quick. Out on the island there's a little penguin colony (they've stopped calling them fairy penguins here, it makes the Aussies feel uncomfortable) and lots of great rocks - huge round boulders shaded with orange lichen and many of them sculpted into
unusual shapes. Clear blue sea foaming white, bleached wiry grasses, backlit bunny tail grass, bright pink naked ladies (the flower) - all very photogenic. And so was the 5-hour Heysen Trail walk along the clifftops I did yesterday - not too strenuous, and the views? Speckie, as they say here.

Saturday 23 January 2010

Panda on my shoulder

Brilliant! Even if I was so busy with notes and photos that I missed out on my emu chipolatas and quandong pastries (at least I could look the emu in the face afterwards).

Morning is the time to come to see the pandas, pride of Adelaide Zoo - Wang Wang was on the move outside, climbing, bathing in his pond, chasing a magpie - and posing. He's a real show pony. Funi was shyer, but did a somersault playing with her oil-infused cardboard box. We had almost three hours with the pandas, and it flew by.

So much fun! Everyone was grinning non-stop. Again, brilliant!

Friday 22 January 2010

Stone cold

Sorry, no photo yet, too carried away by being nose to nose with two real-life pandas to remember to whip out the iPhone.

Funi and Wang Wang are just gorgeous: fluffy and amenable with sweet eyes and cute habits, like perching on top of their water butts (on their butts), and being so keen to be fed chunks of panda cake through their bars that they have absolutely no reaction to having their temperatures taken ditto, RECTALLY!

I was privileged to go behind the scenes to see all this in their fancy $8 million centre at the zoo, where their inside rooms are airconditioned to 22 degrees and out in their enclosures they have internally water-cooled rocks to lie on. No expense spared.

And tomorrow we all have breakfast together!


Very cute, yeah - but I'm on my way right now to see the REAL THING at Adelaide Zoo. Plus pandas! In 33 degree heat!

Wednesday 20 January 2010

RIP Hoochie Mamma*...

... Gone to that great henrun in the sky. Thank you to our sponsors Toyota and Fisher & Paykel.

The downside of having any sort of pet is that they live shorter lives than us, and inevitably one day you have to say goodbye. Toby's time is coming, I think, though he's happy and well enough at the moment. Our other pets are equally elderly, but healthier than him so far (although the Labrador has cataracts and may need a corneal replacement. That or a seeing-eye dog).

And chickens are done with this mortal coil in much shorter order than regular pets (apart from my Uncle Jim's hen, who must be about 10 years old by now and waits on the doorstep with the cat when he and my aunt go out), so over the years I've buried quite a few. The first one has a paving slab with her initial (E for Eggatha) on it in tile mosaic. The others from her batch are under plain concrete pavers. Those since have been put out with the rubbish. That's life. Or rather, death.

Eggatha was the first one who needed putting down, because of a prolapse. I swotted up the relevant diagrams and instructions from my copy of Keeping Chickens, braced myself, and went out to wring her neck. I remembered a friend of mine being told once by a farmer dispatching lambs (why? no idea now) by whacking their heads against the Landrover's wheels "You can't do it too hard!" So I positioned myself, held her head, and yanked. There was a horrible click, and squawks from both Eggatha and me. I dropped her and staggered backwards - and watched in horror as Eggatha stirred, stood up, shook her head and wandered off, probably thinking, "Mmm, that feels better."

So next I tried chopping her head off. We don't have an axe any more, here in the suburbs, and all I had was the big kitchen knife. I got a block of wood, lay her neck on it, thought briefly about Henry VIII, and whacked. Except my spirit was weak, and so was my arm, and the knife bounced harmlessly off her feathers and Eggatha wandered off again.

There comes a time when all you can do is throw money at a problem; so I paid $40 for the vet to give her the Black Needle, slightly bemused when he told me, "Now you won't be eating the meat, will you?"

But with Hoochie, who became paralysed and spaced out, and who I've been force-feeding three times a day for 10 days with no improvement, I thought I could ease her passing with poison (yes, the woman's method). Half a sleeping pill ground up and squirted in water down her throat would do the trick, I thought - it does with me. But here's the thing: chickens are a different species, and apparently that's important when it comes to chemical susceptibility. No effect whatsoever. Amazing.

So today it was The Box of Death: a carton with a hole, the Corolla with its engine running, and then the freezer, just in case. Poor old Hoochie. But she did have a nice life. (In the photo above, that's her sunbathing. They do that, you know.)

And today's travel connection? Oddly, very few of my trips have involved slaughtering animals. But on the other hand, there was this.

* To the bewildered searchers who came here with quite a different 'hoochie mamma' in mind, I must apologise - and explain that I did have two big black hens who were Tina and Turner, but Tina died, so then I had Turner and Hooch, her brown sidekick, who became Hoochie as I got more fond of her, and then Hoochie Mamma as a mark of respect for her seniority. So. I hope you have better luck elsewhere. (Turner has Tourette's, by the way, but that's another story.)

Tuesday 19 January 2010

Real invention with three wheels

Report on the news tonight about how we're lagging behind internationally these days on the patent application league table. Shocking! Resting on our laurels after coming up with the jet boat, disposable syringe, electric fence, bungy jump, split atom and so much else. Tch.

Though I was writing today about another Kiwi invention: Sealegs, amphibious craft like boats on wheels, that I first saw last year at the Onetangi Beach Races on Waiheke. It's a brilliant family day out, with pony races, tugs of war, sand sculpture competitions, decorated sunhats - and the world's first Sealegs race. Ten or so of them trundled along the beach in tortoise mode before heading into the waves, tucking their wheels away and roaring through the water in showers of spray. Very impressive - till they turned for land again and left their hare persona behind, labouring down to the finish line at a painful 10 km/h.

>>> Lining up at the western end of the beach, at the drop of the flag the horses hurtle along the wide stretch of hard sand left by the low tide between the spectators and the water. Crouched low over their horses’ necks, the riders urge them on, echoed by Waihekeans calling their names and visitors shouting their numbers. Sand flies up behind them, seagulls swoop overhead and beyond all this speed and frenzy the sea sparkles, moored boats bob on the blue and swimmers lift and fall on the lazy swells.

Lean, fit horses and their lean, fit riders are replaced by chubby ponies tittupping along the water’s edge pulling miniature sulkies, their drivers looking like giants crouched over the reins. Then blue and yellow striped barrels are rolled into place and the riders return, racing down the beach to spin around in a tight turn and a flurry of sand before powering back again, stirrup-leathers short and bottoms in the air.

Also leaning low to cut wind resistance are the tractor drivers, somewhat less dramatic as they putter along fiddling with their throttles to squeeze the last bit of oomph out of their engines. They look slightly embarrassed to be forcing these matronly machines into such unseemly haste — but there’s a $75 prize for the fastest on the beach, even though little of that would likely be left to make it home at the end of the night...

[Pub. Herald on Sunday 31/1/10]

Saturday 16 January 2010

Hooray for CaCO3

I'm not ignoring the disaster in Haiti, but there's nothing I can add to what's been said. I haven't been there or anywhere in the Caribbean, but I've seen poor people living in shanties in South America, India, South-East Asia, even Australia, and I can imagine only too well how it is for them, already amongst the world's unluckiest, to have such devastation visited on them. I've donated what I can, and I hope you have too.

Moving on.

Today's post celebrates the pleasure that calcium carbonate gave me last year: specifically in the form of limestone karst. This is because I'm writing a story about The Burren in western Ireland, where the hills look as though they've been spread with silver icing. It's actually a layer of limestone, combed through by deep parallel grooves, that has been exposed by glacial action. In European geological terms, it's young, but the human history there is ancient, with standing stones erected five thousand years ago - that's older than the Pyramids. In spring, the rock bursts with flowers, 650 species, but when I was there in autumn, it was bare, gleaming pewter against the rust of the heather.

It was lovely to see the limestone in its natural form, having already enjoyed it made into the drystone walls that edge the green-as fields; and processed into the building blocks of the many child's-book castles we traipsed over in Wales; gloriously carved on the soaring cathedrals of Gloucester and Lincoln: and, on a domestic scale, made into the beautiful honey-coloured cottages of the Cotswolds.

But it was most spectacular in Thailand, in Phang Nga Bay off Phuket, where the turquoise sea lapped an astonishing sight.

>>> ...Limestone always puts on a good show, but what Phang Nga Bay has over, say, Castle Hill in Canterbury, is the drama of 40-plus water-sculpted islands rising high and sheer out of an opal-coloured sea. Hung with trails of vegetation and undercut by wave action, these craggy karsts seem to teeter precariously; and when our boat moored close to one, we were shown that some are even less solid than they appear.

Transferring into inflatable dinghies, we were rowed beneath the overhang where we found hidden tunnels scoured through the stone by the waves. The tide was high, making the roof so low that we had to lie flat in the boat as it squeezed into the dark, where our torches picked out tiny bats dropping from the ceiling to fly ahead of us. It was like travelling through a funnel: as the roof came down, the sides pressed in so that we had to fit our fingers into the pock-marked rock to pull the dinghy along. The surface felt rough, and just as the thought was forming that sharp edges and inflatable boats are not a happy combination, we heard a sudden hiss. Alarmed shrieks were followed by loud sighs of relief as we realised the air-letting was deliberate so that, slightly slimmer, the boat could slip through the tunnel to the secret lagoon in the centre formed by the collapse of the cave roof.

Called ‘hongs’ or rooms, these doughnut holes are magical places: as we emerged from the dark, a snowy white egret lifted from the gnarled roots of a leggy mangrove growing in the middle and flew up into the circle of blue sky where a sea-eagle was already soaring high above us. Primitive-looking amphibians, mud-hoppers, crept out of the still, quiet water onto the tree roots and it felt like the beginning of the world...

[Pub. Press 13/7/09]

Thursday 14 January 2010

Here's a tip for you:

If you want to learn the true meaning of 'positive reinforcement', go and work in a primary school. The year I spent there in the office drooling over the stationery supplies was remarkable for all the appreciation that came my way every day from the teachers. They even gave me stickers!

Which makes me feel bad that, after our lunch together yesterday, I sort of hope those kind, cheerful ladies spent the night rolling round in bed clutching their stomachs and making multiple trips to the bathroom - because that's what I did, and if it wasn't the sushi at lunchtime, then I'm going to have to blame my own cooking in the evening.

Like Jerry in 'Seinfeld', I rarely vomit. It's such an event that I remember each time; and the last was in 2003 in Hobart, on my first night in Tasmania, after (but, in the mysterious ways of food poisoning, probably not because of) what had been a delicious salmon dinner at Mures down by the harbour. (Note: salmon doesn't taste so good in reverse.) Even worse, it blocked the toilet, and I felt so guilty about what the chambermaid would have to cope with that I left her a note of apology and a tip. Except, I don't do tips - New Zealanders don't know about such things - and now I look back at that miserly $5 and blush.

Being responsible for the tipping was a constant thorn in my side in India, where, apart from odd occasions like when we were given specific instructions before a rickshaw ride through the alleys of Old Delhi, there was no group guide or husband to allow me to shirk the responsibility, and every day I agonised over how much I should give, what was it worth in Indian terms, what was normal, what were those other tourists over there leaving, what percentage was that of what their meal cost, what did they eat again? It was exhausting. And so embarrassing - the smiling toilet lady who went stony-faced when I offered her the 40 rupees that my itinerary said was appropriate; the lovely gentleman guide in Jaipur who recoiled when I offered him money (too much? too little? an insult?); the relief of handing our helpful driver at the end of the tour a sealed envelope, followed by the sheer horror of being told he'd be back in the morning to take us to the airport...

Wednesday 13 January 2010

Avoiding the obvious

I was trying to get flights sorted today to Aitutaki next month, and persuade editors that they really needed another story about this very popular destination. "It won't be another ho-hum story about the fabulous lagoon, tropical sunsets and palm-fringed beaches,' I promised.

Yeah, right.

Monday 11 January 2010

Fur coat weather? Depends who's wearing it.

Ok, so now I'm feeling sorry about making fun of Britain flailing about in the snow, because this really is a snowstorm and a half they're suffering through. I have Linton on my iPhone weather, and it keeps showing the snow symbol, plus the temperature seems stuck close either side of zero, night and day. Except when it was -10, that is. Miserable, especially if, as is likely, they're without power too. Same for vast tracts of Europe, and North America, and China.

Tianjin was on the news tonight too - blizzard, harbour iced up, everything at a standstill. It was cold enough when we were there in March...

>>> Old things are still valued in Dalian, however, and on a hill above the city centre I follow a 2000 year-old tradition and fly a kite, helped out in a fickle breeze by passers-by who take this activity seriously. Gazing up at the kite briefly soaring above the giant red and white soccer ball in Labour Park, I don’t notice the snow-melt beneath my feet until my shoes stick fast in the mud, so I’m pleased to encounter the shoe-shine lady later on my way to the Russian Street. This is three pedestrian blocks of incongruous-looking Russian buildings complete with onion-shaped domes, peeling and crumbling in an authentic nineteenth-century manner although most of them are reproduction. Stalls of Babushka dolls and Russian hats are manned by Michelin girls in thick quilted jackets, faces hidden inside hoods, and I marvel that this is spring — how cold must winter be?

Docking at Tianjin, Beijing’s port, I get some idea when we’re warned not to go on deck because of the ice. There is an upside, however: not normally known for its clear air, on this freezing March morning China’s capital glows in bright sunshine. The intricate blue and green patterns of the Forbidden City dazzle against the red and gold of the pillars and massive doors; Mao looks benignly from his portrait at the end of Tiananmen Square over guards in green greatcoats, red banners flapping in the sun and crowds of respectful citizens. At the Temple of Heaven doting parents parade muffled-up toddlers with oddly bare bottoms, and old couples push unwieldy loads on trolleys along the crowded, narrow lanes of the hutongs. At the morning dirt market, stalls of Buddha hands, bizarre modern art and an army of porcelain Maos draw crowds of customers; at night, by the lake, couples dance to piped waltz music. I eat deftly-sliced Peking duck, drink tea in a tea house with my little finger crooked, and am intrigued by shiny red kebabs that I can’t identify and am too timid to try...


Meanwhile, I got my flight details today to go to Adelaide to see the pandas the weekend after next - furry pandas, from China, in Adelaide, where it was 41 degrees today. Absurd.

Friday 8 January 2010

Great, Brrritain!

Britain is in the grip of severe weather - so is most of northern Europe and North America too, of course, but it's always worse in Britain because it takes them so much by surprise. "What's this? Snow? In winter?" It always paralyses the country, gritting lorries snowed in in their garages, not enough salt laid in, that sort of thing, though there's always an excuse - famously, British Rail once claimed that the rail network was at a standstill because "It's the wrong sort of snow."

The best year for snow while I lived there was in 1982, not so much for depth as for drifting, which made it really spectacular and enormous fun. We battled along the A40 as far as we could in my little orange Mini before abandoning it by the road and walking the rest of the way to the White Hart for the sacrosanct Sunday lunchtime session, after which we played: riding bareback through the snow, sliding down the carpark driveway at the Penny Farthing on a bale bag stuffed with hay... Good times.

Though it snowed in Fiordland right after I did the Milford Track, I haven't seen much snow here - my last was in Tasmania. I'd spent 10 days in tropical northern Queensland, in the Outback and rainforest at 30+ temperatures, and then flew straight to Tasmania to drive up to Cradle Mountain where there'd been an unseasonal November snowfall. It was very pretty, but I didn't have the shoes for it, so my walk around Dove Lake was a precarious business:

>>> 11am: Cradle Mountain Lodge is tucked into the trees just outside the National Park. It’s long, low and shingled, dim and woody inside and the air is warm and scented by the logs burning in the stone fireplace. I’m delighted to find my cabin has a log-burner too, all set and ready to go, but the pyromaniac within me has to wait. I snaffle the home-made chocolate and macadamia biscuits from the jar and set off for Dove Lake, a short drive away through green-gold buttongrass plains and open woodland.

11.30am: I begin the circuit of the lake, thrilled to find ankle-deep snow on the ground. It makes for wonderful photos of a cloud-shrouded Cradle Mountain towering over the lake’s tannin-dark water – but my smooth-soled shoes are a liability as I slither on the wooden steps and boardwalks. I teeter to the top of Glacier Rock, a huge, ice-scarred boulder on the edge of the lake and join another walker hunching away from a sudden snow flurry. "I was in Cairns yesterday," I tell him, and he laughs heartlessly. I pick my way along the path, taking old-lady’s steps on the slippery bits, collar up against sudden dumps of thawing snow from the trees. It takes me an hour longer than estimated, but the sun is out, the cloud has gone, the mountain and the lake are beautiful, and on a little shingly beach I watch as a bold currawong, a big bird like a crow, snatches an entire sandwich out of a man’s hand. I mince away, pleased to see other people have their problems too.

2.30pm: Near my cabin I spot a wombat trundling along just metres from the boardwalk. I crouch and watch as he works his way right up to me, busily chewing the wiry grass. He is almost as big as my Labrador, but with much shorter legs, and a thick glossy coat which I can’t resist touching. He scuttles away into the bush and I continue down to the spa.

3pm: I’ve tried the steam room and the sauna and now I’m hanging over the edge of the 36° spa pool looking down at the snow-edged stream tumbling over a waterfall beneath the pencil pines. I'm waiting for my massage and wishing I was stressed enough to appreciate it...

[Pub. Sunday Star-Times Magazine 8/7/07]

Thursday 7 January 2010

Money, money, money

Serious hat on this morning at a sub-committee meeting about how Travcom might persuade its members not to get sucked in to giving their work away to publications. It's happening more and more, as newspapers and magazines have their budgets cut and are saying no to buying travel stories and images (not, it seems, news stories, features and columns from freelancers - just travel).

It's a hard one, especially for new writers eager to see their work in print, but not only does it devalue what they've spent time and effort producing, it's also dangerous in that how do they later persuade an editor to start paying for something they've let them have for free? Plus, those of us who are trying to make some sort of a living from travel writing (and believe me, that's the best we can hope for) are being undercut.

Those people who agree to no payment are selling themselves short and missing out - yes, it's a thrill to see your words/photos in print; but even better is to be paid for it, because money talks, and what it's saying is that you're a professional writer. And that's worth even more than the fee.

Which is why, and it has nothing to do with being anal, I have this photocopy of the first cheque I ever earned from writing.

For this:

>>> The fastest and best way to get your finger on the pulse of another country is to browse along the supermarket aisles. That's where you can get the real inside story on the natives, because here is what goes in their insides.

The yin and yang of life in the American interior are clearly represented by, on one hand, the carboys of luridly-coloured, premixed peanut butter and jelly, piled-high packets of sugar-encrusted cereals, buckets of popped corn and ready-assembled hamburgers requiring only a quick nuke to top up those flagging cholesterol and MSG levels; and, on the other, by shelf after shelf of haemorrhoid preparations.

...Only in France, of course, is the cheese department vast, central and easily located by even the visually-challenged. There, serious ladies wielding cleavers slice accurate wedges from huge rounds (though much fun is to be had in asking for 200g of Parmesan, which must be hacked from rock-hard lumps). The glass cases of jewel-like patisserie, frequently-replenished bins of baguettes and long shelves of no-nonsense bottles of wine could be found nowhere else.

....Anyone with the slightest acquaintance of the Kiwi lifestyle would recognise a New Zealand supermarket straight away, simply by spotting the joint presence of individual meat pies, packs of hogget chops, family-sized pump dispensers of sunblock, tubs of chlorine tablets and a sufficiently comprehensive arsenal of insecticides to create the uncomfortable impression that pestilence is not confined to the Bible...

[Pub. NZ Herald 30/6/99]

Wednesday 6 January 2010

Twelfth Night

It's Twelfth Night today and time to take down the Christmas decorations. It hardly seems five minutes since we were putting them up, but the crispness of the needles on the tree show that real time's telling a different story. So it's goodbye for another 11 months to my beautiful nativity set, that I've had for so long (and look on as a tradition, rather than a statement of belief). I bought it in pieces over the years, starting of course with Jesus, Mary and Joseph when I first saw them at the big annual craft exhibition in Birmingham - a wonderful day out, up on the train from Gloucester to browse along a huge number of stalls and hang over the fabulous things clever people made. Joan Kottler crafted these - and still does, just the same, and with both skill and love. One of the best Christmas presents I've had for ages was the amazing stable that my husband and older daughter ordered for me just a couple of years ago: extravagant, but an instant heirloom.

I'm a sucker for craft markets from way back, but when you're travelling, there's a big difference between the real thing and tourist tat - and tourist farming too. By that I mean when your city tour ends up - goodness me! - at a craft workshop of some kind where there's a brief and superficial demonstration of how the stuff is made, before the pressure's on to buy something; and it's not cheap, either. I'm thinking of silk rugs in Delhi for over $1000, for instance.

But in Ecuador, perhaps because tourism's less well-established there, perhaps because World Journeys is above such things, the workshops we went to seemed mostly genuine, and the goods both attractive and well-priced. There were Panama hats of course, intricately-woven belts, carvings and guitars with beautiful inlay work so detailed that it made my eyes cross just to look at them. The finished instruments were fabulous. It was odd, though, that not one of the people in the little workshop was actually able to play the guitar.

Not even the guy who thought he could.

Tuesday 5 January 2010

Blessed symmetry

So, before Christmas there was this. And now, two weeks after it, there's this. Obviously the chocolate eggs are still being unloaded out the back.

Never too late

This is Toby, who should be an inspiration to us all, especially at this time of year. He's an old man now, pushing 16 and thin and not so well any more, and he probably won't see another Christmas - but even so, he's decided it's not too late for a change of direction. After about 12 years of lurking in the bedrooms where the dog's not allowed, he's finally decided that enough is enough and he'd like some comfort and company too; so he's been venturing into the living room. At first he sneaked in slo-mo around the walls, walking like an Egyptian with a fat tail - but now he's bold enough to walk almost normally across the room even when the dog is lying in the middle. It's heart-warming to see and I'm so glad he's found the courage to change and is reaping the rewards.

He's a smoochy cat and crawls into bed with me in the morning, sleeping with his head on the pillow while I cuddle him like a teddy bear. It's what I dreamed of when I was a child, cold in bed in chilly Christchurch, wrapped for warmth around my toy possum-skin koala, wishing it was alive. And here's the corollary: sometimes, what you wish for really isn't what you want.

Because I've met koalas since, and they're actually not that nice. Oh sure, they have the fur - but also long sharp claws, dirty bottoms, a bad-tempered expression and a spaced-out attitude. Not that that keeps them from getting down to business:

>>> “Would you like to sit up front?” asks the driver. “You can watch all the wallabies bouncing off the bumper.” You never can tell with Australians so I decide I had better take him up on his offer. I already know that Kangaroo Island, half an hour by plane from Adelaide, is teeming with all sorts of wildlife, so it’s possible that we really will be arriving at my accommodation in a vehicle plastered with dead marsupials – although I hope not, and not just because we’re going to an eco-lodge.

In fact Peter takes enormous care not to squash any of the kangaroos and wallabies that bound through the headlights and even swerves to avoid possums, which seems to me to be taking things too far. “Better not hit him – a mate of mine got a puncture,” he says as we slow for a spiny echidna bumbling across the road. When we arrive at the Wilderness Retreat our tally is zero, which makes it all the more ironic that after walking across the dark garden with wallabies and possums scattering before me, my dinner is a delicious barbecued kangaroo fillet in a creamy pepper sauce.

In the next two days I see more than enough kangaroos to ease my conscience and plenty of other animals too, even the hard-to-spot koala. On KI, as the locals call it, there are actually so many of these that control is necessary, involving the labour-intensive process of climbing up to each koala, putting a hood over its head and guiding it down to the ground, where it is taken away to a vet for sterilisation. Expensive? Certainly, but when you’re dealing with a national icon, there’s no other acceptable option...

[Pub. New Idea 18/10/08]

Sunday 3 January 2010

100% happy

Hooray! My photo of Mackay Falls made the cover of the Herald on Sunday this morning - not that anyone will notice the credit inside, but it's a bit of glory for me (and possibly some extra dosh?)

I like taking photos, but it can become a burden: hauling the gear everywhere; being alert for good shots all the time, even when I should be listening to someone and/or taking notes; and as often as not missing them because I'm too slow, or too shy, or we can't stop, and then sitting cursing for the next 5 kilometres. Plus there's the frustration when the photo doesn't turn out as it should, because I got the settings wrong or even, duh, moved the camera. And then after all that effort, editors frequently choose not to use them - because, I tell myself, the ones they get from the tourism people are free. So when I score, I'm happy.

Mind you, with a subject like this, how can you miss?

>>> ... My companions are impressed too: not just with Sutherland Falls, but with the whole shebang. It’s particularly gratifying to hear the Aussies telling each other how fabulous the mountains are — “We don’t have mountains” — and how beautiful the rivers — “We haven’t got rivers like this”. An American exclaims, “This is the most beautiful country in the world!” and an Englishwoman says, “It’s just like the 100% Pure posters.” She’s right: on the last day we pass Mackay Falls, clear water foaming white over piled boulders between lush green tree ferns and beeches, as featured in the advertisements. And when, after 54 kilometres, we finally reach the end, and the boat takes us down the river into Milford Sound, and there’s Mitre Peak rising up so improbably high and sheer from the waters of the fiord, even Vegard the Norwegian admits that this is more dramatic than anything he’s seen at home. And it’s all ours.

[Pub. Herald on Sunday 3/01/10]

Friday 1 January 2010

Here comes the sun

The First-Born is home safe and sound from six days camping at Gisborne over on East Cape where the Rhythm 'n Vines Festival attracts thousands of young people to welcome in the New Year with loud music, much alcohol and nothing else I want to think about, thanks.

Gizzy was the first place in the world to welcome the sun at the start of the new millennium - can it possibly be 10 years ago? And down in Hawkes Bay Napier marked the event in a suitably Art Deco fashion with this arch by the pebbly beach with its impossibly turquoise water.

>>> ‘See, you miss all this, sealed inside a car,’ I say, letting go of the handlebars and waving expansively at the landscape. ‘Larks singing, the sea breeze, being able to smell the flowers…’ ‘And the dead things in the ditch,’ adds the teenager from behind with that effortless superiority that comes so naturally to the young when crushing parental enthusiasms.

I ignore her. Since the only whining I can hear is coming from the wheels, I know that really she is enjoying herself on this tandem ride around Napier: she is just too cool to admit it. And who wouldn’t have fun, gliding along the Marine Parade cycle path with the sun sparkling on the peacock blue sea on the left, the curve of Cape Kidnappers ahead and a line of cute colonial-style and Art Deco houses peeping through the avenue of tall Norfolk pines on the right?

Napier is on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island in Hawkes Bay, where the good things of life are abundant: sunshine and scenery, orchards and wineries, restaurants and appealing architecture. It wasn’t always so: seventy-five years ago on a hot, muggy February morning 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.

The death of old Napier was rapidly followed by the rebirth of the city in a new form: Art Deco. With its recurrent motifs of sunbursts, speed lines and leaping women, the style symbolised the new spirit of the 20th century, a bright new age of technology, independence and progress. In just two years, the city was transformed into a unique example of a planned and cohesive townscape, said to be the most complete and significant group of Art Deco buildings in the world...

[Pub. The Australian 4/3/06]


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