Sunday, February 28, 2010

Aún más peligroso

Crumbs, more disaster in South America: a massive 8.8 earthquake in Chile this time, south of Santiago. At least in Chile they're used to earthquakes, their buildings are designed to cope with them and they have systems in place to deal with the aftermath, unlike Haiti in all respects. Still, 8.8 - that's the real thing: I wouldn't have liked to be in one of the many apartment blocks I saw in Santiago, or these in Valparaiso. It's Santiago's port, a couple of hours' drive away over the hills (and through a 3km tunnel - somewhere else not to be caught in an earthquake) and past the wine country.

It's a funny place - both extremes visible in this photo, the brightly-coloured little painted piled-up boxes of houses, and the super-flash holiday apartments, all stacked on top of each other on the 45 steep hills surrounding the harbour. There are cable cars to the highest houses, lovely Victorian painted ladies with views over the Pacific and across to Mt Aconcagua, the highest peak in the Andes.

Many inhabitants have their minds on lower things, though: it's crawling with sailors in dress whites looking for a little entertainment with the "bad senoritas" down the alleyways. Definitely a party town.

And there's a connection with Aitutaki: outside a small museum there's a moai, a head from Easter Island, aka Rapanui which the guide on our island tour mentioned as having been settled by the same people as the Cooks. Big ocean, small world.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Muy peligroso

I just heard on the news that a seven-seater plane has crashed in the desert at Nazca, with no survivors - how awful. The announcer went on to say, a little too quickly it seemed to me, that there had been no damage to the spider, the geograph nearest the crash.

It's easy to imagine how it happened: there are so many sight-seeing planes taking off and landing there all day long, flitting up for a half-hour or so to see eight or ten of these amazing and mysterious shapes in the desert. The pilots are doing alternating wing-stands all the way, so that people on both sides of the plane can get a good view of the ground - either too much enthusiasm or nonchalance could have been the cause; or possibly weather. Flying over desert between the Andes and the ocean, I expect conditions can be tricky and changeable.

As it happens, when I did the flight, crashing was the last thing I was worried about...

>>> My chin is hooked on the window sill and I’m staring up at the daytime moon just off the tip of the wing. Then everything lurches, especially my stomach, and now I’m looking at shapes etched into the brown plain beneath us. There’s just time to snap a photo before, augh, here we go again and I’m gazing back up at the moon, my forehead pressed against the cool glass and all my concentration focused on not losing my lunch. In the next seat Chuck, beads of sweat trickling down his face, is doing his best not to live up to his name.

We’ve come a long way to see the Nazca Lines having heard all about these mysterious drawings in the Peruvian desert, but somehow we missed the bit about the air-sickness pills. This is a shame, because our cheerful pilot Raul is determined that we will all have good views and spends the half-hour banking, circling and standing the plane on alternate wing-tips as we fly over the huge shapes below. It says a lot for the Lines that, even pallid and bilious, we are still astounded by what we see. Stretching across 500 sq km of red-brown plain is a complex network of dead-straight lines, triangles and rectangles that are each several kilometres long. More fantastic, though, are the pictures: we see a monkey with a spiralled tail, a hummingbird, a flamingo with a zigzag neck, a whale, frog and condor, a fat spider and a giant figure waving from a hillside. That they are all instantly recognisable is the most amazing thing of all because they are drawn on such a large scale, each one up to 180m long, that they are impossible to make out at ground level, where the edging lines of rocks went unnoticed for centuries.

Discovered by chance in 1939 by a scientist flying across the desert, the Nazca Lines have intrigued people ever since, prompting far more questions than have ever been answered. No-one knows who made them, or how, or why, or even when, although they are generally agreed to be ancient. Theories abound: they are irrigation channels, an astronomical calendar, religious icons, pathways, landing strips for hot-air balloons – even, in a nod to the waving figure who has a big round head and is nick-named the Astronaut, doodles left by aliens. All that is certain is that this World Heritage Site is a marvel and irresistible to tourists, generating a flight-seeing industry that keeps the skies busy above the small dusty town of Nazca and has scores of stomachs protesting every day...

[Pub. Press 17/11/08]

Paradise being regained

And we were - made very welcome, by everyone we came across, even though they had so much else on their minds. Poor battered island: coconut palms leaning and lop-sided, huge mahogany and mango trees on their sides, bright yellow and red grasses uniformly brown, flame trees stripped of not only their bright orange flowers but also their leaves. And debris everywhere: roofing iron wrapped around trees, broken glass and nails, houses without roofs, with windows boarded up, with collapsed walls; and overlaying the lot, palm fronds, leaves, twigs and branches. Boy is it a mess. Just the thought of all the work that has to be done made me feel exhausted: six hours of cyclone has made months of toil for the Aitutakeans.

But they've made a start: the roads are clear, there are sawn tree-trunks piled up neatly, mangled shrubs have been pruned, and people are wearing their rakes to stubs as they gather up all the windblown rubbish to compost or burn. At Pacific Resort, a team of cheerful men was working along the beach scraping up all the leaves and broken coral on the sand and leaving it tidy and inviting, while others crawled over the gardens and still more sawed and hammered on the roofs of a couple of the more exposed beachfront villas. I couldn't decide if I felt better or worse about having nothing to do but hang over the edge of the infinity pool watching them. I did pick up a couple of bits of rubbish from the bottom of the lagoon when I went snorkelling, so go me.

And the lagoon, the jewel in Aitutaki's crown, is as beautiful as ever.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Try-athlon

Brilliant summer's day today, really hot and sunny (despite the apparent greyness in the photo) and the Baby did the 3:9:3 triathlon at Takapuna this morning, despite having interrupted her training with 10 days in the fleshpots of Brisbane. That's a 300 metre swim, pictured (yes, those are the last competitors out of the water - we are not a swimming family) then 9 km around central Taka on the bike, and 3 km running, ditto. Pretty reasonable ask, and she did well - as did some most unsuited body types, so good for them too.

Takapuna was buzzing this morning, with the big Sunday market in full swing in the carpark, the cafes open and doing good business, and lots going on down on the beach: the long, broad curve of biscuit-brown sand where Charles Kingsford-Smith landed his plane the Southern Cross, where the sea laps in calm and warm, and Rangitoto dominates the skyline.

And tomorrow I go to the Cook Islands, to Aitutaki, where I will finally take a dip in the ocean - having had all this on my doorstep for months. I'm ashamed of myself.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Serendipity City

At a Travcom meeting last night, someone caused a bit of a stir by mentioning that I had once found a corpse under Brooklyn Bridge. It's true - and there was shooting, too. Here's the story:

>>> 'Probably not many people stand under Brooklyn Bridge gazing across the East River at that most famous of skylines and are put in mind of the Taj Mahal, but that’s how it worked for me. So often famous places you eventually get to visit turn out to be a disappointment: smaller than you expected, or dirtier – but not the Taj, which was glorious, and now not New York either.' Always a hopeful traveller, that was how, weeks before leaving home, I imagined I might be able to start this story; but when I got to the jetty below the bridge where I intended to make my judgement, I found it coned off and crowded with police, cameras and a body sprawled on the boards. In New York there’s a delightful surprise around every corner.

Delightful, of course, because this was not a real body: this was a bit-part actress making an Emmy-worthy effort to play dead dressed in nothing but a strapless sequinned mermaid gown, draped in seaweed and between takes enthusiastically sprayed with water (this in early spring with the temperature hovering around 11 degrees) while Gary Sinise and the rest of the CSI-NY team studied her dispassionately. It was only a 90-second scene, but they did it over and over, and eventually I had to leave them to it without having had a chance to get near Gary (though I did briefly perch on his chair) or to have a proper look at the view – but my mind was made up anyway. I would stick with the opening.

New York is Serendipity City: you may not fetch up rubbing elbows with TV stars, but wherever you go you will come across something unexpected, fascinating and entertaining. I was amazed and stimulated: just standing in Times Square I could have filled a memory card without moving from the spot, and I thought, there is nothing more exciting than this.

It was my first trip to New York, I was on my own and, to be honest, I was a bit nervous. A bit? I had actually considered wearing my second-best watch and spent wakeful small hours wondering how I could conceal my camera. I fully expected to be mugged. So no-one was more surprised than me to find myself wandering around Grand Central Terminal’s splendid interior at nearly midnight on a Saturday perfectly at my ease before walking back along the dark streets to my hotel. I had got off to a good start the previous night, venturing into Times Square, once a haven for underworld crims, and finding it filled with other tourists waving cameras, helpful security guards scattered about and even a mounted cop with a gun in battered leather holster writing his notes while his horse stood quite unmoved by the tooting yellow taxis skimming past. Even better, turning my back on the neon and digital dazzle, I came across the theatre where the Monty Python musical ‘Spamalot’ was running, starring David Hyde Pierce from ‘Frasier’. It was particularly satisfying to apply knowledge I had acquired from watching that show to look for the cancellations queue, stand in line and, a mere 15 minutes later, find myself in possession of a centre front circle seat for a sell-out Broadway spectacular that still has me laughing. See what I mean? Serendipity.

Also preparation. But the great thing about New York is that the research is painless, because you have been doing it all your life without even realising: at night in front of the box or the big screen, you have been swotting it up. You know the names already, you’ve seen the pictures, so when you finally get there, it’s just a matter of fitting it all together. And that’s easy too, because of the numbered grid system of the streets, the simplicity of the subway system and, above all, because of the supreme friendliness and helpfulness of the natives. Stand on a corner and unfold a map and they come running. "I never get asked for help," one fellow beamed happily at me on the subway when I needed confirmation. "I want you to enjoy my city," said Justin, taking me four blocks out of his way to show me where to go. "Have fun," said the old man in the hat by the Flatiron Building.

And I did have fun. Expected fun, like marvelling at the 40 kilometre view from the top of the Empire State Building, now again New York’s highest; or negotiating the hanging dragons and lanterns outside the shops in Chinatown; or standing dwarfed under the 220 million year-old dinosaur skeletons in the Natural History Museum. But also unexpected fun: eating a hot dog in Central Park while a beanied guy did Tai Chi under the trees and squirrels scampered past; emerging from the subway into a snow shower that rubbed out the tops of the skyscrapers; and shrugging into a FDNY jacket and helmet for a photo with the bored crew of Engine 14.

[Pub. Press 22/5/06]

Monday, February 15, 2010

Good news...

I'm very happy to report a reconciliation between the love-birds: a coincidence, that yesterday was Valentines Day? I think not.

In worse news, however, category 3 Cyclone Pat has swept across Aitutaki, where we're going next week, causing damage to 70-90% of the houses on the island, bringing down trees and breaking someone's leg. Fortunately the resorts, she said selfishly, are apparently ok, having been more sturdily built than people's houses; and we'll still be going. At least the risk of having a coconut fall on my head must now be much reduced.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Frightening the punters

I'm writing a story about Oxford now, linking it with the new Tim Burton 'Alice in Wonderland' movie starring Johnny Depp (looking confusingly like a psychedelic Frodo) as the Mad Hatter, and the endearingly game Helena Bonham Carter, with her head swollen to three times its normal size, as the Red Queen. Lewis Carroll was of course Charles Dodgson, a mathematics don at Christ Church College, where I went last year thinking more about Harry Potter than Alice. (The dining hall above stood in for Hogwarts.)

Dodgson told the story to Alice and her sisters on a long row along the Thames to a picnic. Alice was nothing like the blonde cutie in Tenniel's illustrations and every cartoon/movie since, including the new one. She had short, dark hair and looked rather bossy, so the story was no doubt a self-preservation strategy for Dodgson. They were in a row-boat, but punting is equally popular in Oxford.

So it is also in Cambridge, where we had a pleasant outing along the Cam in a punt propelled by someone else (much the best way to do things: it can be a very wetting activity for those who don't know what they're doing). I was interested to read recently that in the summer just gone, the river became so congested that at times there was punt rage.

The report said that insults had been hurled, also mugs of tea (how English!) and there had been sabotage under cover of dark, with punts set adrift and even cut in half. Consequently, next year fewer will be allowed to register for business, and some visitors may have to miss out.

In other words, planning on having a punt could actually be a bit of a gamble.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Pathe-tic News

Brangelina may be claiming a united front, but sadly our free-range lovebirds seem no longer to be an item. We’ve only seen a single bird lately, so the inevitable conclusion has to be that the other has met an untimely end. I watched the survivor sitting on a branch today for more than 10 minutes, calling and calling and getting no answer, poor thing. Anthropomorphic it may be, but he seemed lonely.

Better news is that the bird table, in its summer incarnation of bird bath, is a popular innovation: so far anyway only with the sparrows and doves, but that’s ok. It’s nice to see them drinking deeply before plunging in for a quick splash and a flutter.

Worse news is that the tomatoes are full on at the moment and very popular with the birds, especially one busy but rather dim thrush, who repeatedly picks a cherry tomato off the vine and flies with it into the hen run to eat, whereupon he’s mugged by one of the hens, who instantly gobbles it down – so the thrush flies off to repeat the process, and then so does the hen.

The Baby reports from Brisbane that a cormorant sat on her back and kicked her in the face - a friendly cormorant, she insists. It hardly seems like cormorant behaviour, but better one of them than a pelican, which are also very common in Queensland, lumbering around like Catalinas (reference here to the Solent flying boat we went to see at MOTAT last weekend, the last one to fly the Coral Route through Aitutaki, where we're going next week).

And a report in the paper about moas and cassowaries, which are not apparently related, although I wouldn't want to meet either: not much chance of that with the moa, all eaten by the Maoris; but cassowaries aren't uncommon, frightening people who have heard how they can disembowel a kangaroo (or person) with one slash of their powerful claws. There was one at Adelaide Zoo - she had big eyes and pretty eyelashes, but also cankles.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Up, up and away

Toadstools on the path down to the henrun this morning, and acorns scattered over the pavement on my walk: though the days are still swelteringly hot, autumn is on its way.

There was a hot-air balloon over the upper harbour this morning, too. I haven't seen one for ages: they're not hugely unusual here, but nowhere near as common as they were where we lived in England. We'd often wake to see three or four drifting over Penyard Hill, alerted by the barking dogs or the sound of the gas jets as they fired up. Once I was towelling off in the bathroom and looked up to see one through the skylight, directly overhead.

Ross-on-Wye is a centre for ballooning, mainly because of Ian Ashpole, an enthusiast who was known for his stunts: we lay on our lawn once and watched him bungy-jump from a balloon; another time he walked a tight-rope between two baskets.

I went up in a balloon from Ross late one summer, on a golden evening. It was brilliant, and not scary at all: it went up as fast and as smoothly as a lift, and then we just drifted over the low-lit countryside, looking down at the villages, the ploughing and sowing patterns in the fields, dipping low over the Wye, then high as high, and again low enough to pick leaves from the top of an oak tree. We frightened some sheep and they ran away into the next field, pouring through the gateway like sand in an egg-timer.

What made it even better was that the wind took us near Linton and I was able to see our house and all my familiar surroundings from an unfamiliar angle. Then we floated away towards Hereford, slow and silent apart from when the burners were on, with no sensation of wind because we were moving with it. When we came down, it was so gently that I scarcely needed to bend my knees as we bumped: it was all very civilised.

Much less civilised was my other balloon flight, in Canberra, because of the timing: early morning, so it was a brutal awakening, but worth it of course once we were up and drifting over Lake Burley Griffin with the dawn mist lifting and stained pink and gold in the sunrise. We landed next door to the Mint, where the pilot told us a worker had stolen some extraordinary sum by simply filling his lunchbox with coins, day after day. Good to see persistence rewarded.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Burn-offs? A load of bull, apparently

It's hard to believe, but it's a whole year since the dreadful fires in Victoria, and the papers are full of stories by the survivors, describing what is almost indescribable. The image that's stuck with me is fire pouring across the ground like a liquid. It's hard to make any comment that doesn't sound trite, about something so elementally terrifying.

Fire is of course an intrinsic part of the Australian environment, to the point where a number of plant species rely on it for reproduction - but it's still alarming for a first-timer to come across burn-offs crackling away untended for miles along the road, as I did on my '05 trip to the Northern Territory. It seemed to clash with the signs about preventing fires - "We like our lizards frilled, not grilled" - but the idea behind cool burns is to keep the undergrowth down, so it doesn't fuel the hot burns that will kill all the vegetation, trees included. It was certainly impressive to see how soon the cycads put out feathery green leaves, and gum trees started sprouting from the bases again.

Not everyone, though, thinks that something the Aboriginals have done for thousands of years is such a good idea: there wasn't even agreement amongst park rangers on my most recent trip to the Territory. And at Coodardie Station, they don't do it at all, arguing that their cattle trample the grass into a mulch that's less flammable and also protects the soil moisture from evaporation. It's worked for them for 45 years - and for the ground-nesting creatures that flourish there.

Salt of the earth people, these holistic pastoralists: we had a lovely home-cooked lunch on their wide, shady veranda before standing in the back of the ute for a bouncy tour of the property, and an introduction to their prize-winning Brahman cattle. There was a docile bull snoozing on their lawn as we ate, and Clair told us how an 8 foot* python grabbed her Jack Russell one night, and when she pulled him out of the snake's mouth, it came after him again. Nice.

* Although it's form for the Aussies to appear laid-back about stuff that shocks tourists - snake or crocodile length, flood depth, etc - I note that despite having been metric for years, in these cases they always use imperial measurements. Bigger numbers, see.

Friday, February 5, 2010

In a state in the Banana State

I'm just back from the airport, having delivered the Baby there for her first solo foray overseas: to Brisbane for 10 days to use up some expiring airpoints. It's a bit of a turn-around, me turning around and coming back home again, and her being the one to fly off somewhere fun. Though I did bump into Martin there.

I hope it's fun for her, and she learns things and makes some good memories and maybe even some friends, and gets a taste for seeing other sides of life. But Brisbane? I struggle a little with Brizzy.

My first time there, a bit older than the Baby, I had just arrived and was standing on the street on a Sunday evening, waiting for a bus to get to the Youth Hostel on the edge of of town. I wasn't sure it would actually be coming, it being Sunday evening and all, and then a young guy in a car pulled up to the kerb and asked for directions to Queen Street. I made some joke about Queen St in Auckland, tried to remember where it was in Brisbane, and was just getting to the end of my stuttering directions when I looked at him properly and realised that he was exposing himself - at the precise instant that he presumably lost his nerve, and took off with a screech of tyres. No points for my powers of observation - nor for the size of, er, him either. But it made me lose my nerve too, and I scuttled round the corner to tuck myself away in the People's Palace in a room like a toothpaste tube box, tall and small but at least lockable.

Second time, I thought I was just passing through, but after queuing for half an hour at the Qantas desk for a QF flight onward to the Whitsunday Islands, the clerk told me, "That's a Jetstar flight, you should be at the other terminal, it's three kilometres away, you'll have to take a bus. Next!" So I took a taxi and arrived ten minutes too late to check in, even though the plane was still there right outside the window. Missed flight: what a horrible feeling that is. I didn't much enjoy my unscheduled night in the city before flying out next morning.

Third time was last year, after a Gold Coast assignment, when I had to explain to the woman at the Avis counter that I was returning a replacement hire car because the original one was still in a parking building back at GC. I'd had to abandon it after dinner in a fancy restaurant, having knocked the keys into the loo as it was flushing, and seeing them swept away in a nano-second. If ever I've wanted to turn back time, that was it - especially when I was rolling up my sleeve to reach (in vain) around the U-bend. I'll draw a veil over the "how do I get back to my hotel with no money and into my room with no key?' scenario, and the humiliation of having to tell all sorts of official people. But at least the Avis lady thought it was funny.

So, Brisbane? Not one of my favourite places in Australia. I hope the Baby has a better time.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Angelina Jolie: SA poster girl

So I'm writing a piece about the Heysen Trail in South Australia that runs for 1200 km between the Fleurieu Peninsula and the Flinders Ranges, having walked a tiny section of it near Victor Harbor recently, and I'm wanting to compare it with Angelina Jolie because although it's beautiful, it's also a bit scary. I'm thinking of her drinking blood, slashing pillows with knives, the tattoos, that sort of thing; not really the baby collection or stealing Brad from poor Jen-who's-so-nice-and-Friendly.

But maybe it's being unfair to the scenery, which is impressively large-scale and varied, with amazing rocks painted with lichens, towering cliffs, sandy beaches, thickly bushed or wide-open spaces, burnt gold or sage green or deep red or misty purple - and that's just the little bit that I saw on my five-hour stroll. Further north there's wine country, farmland, forest, gorges, townships and the ancient, astonishing rock formations of Wilpena Pound. Pretty spectacular - or, pretty and spectacular.

But also slightly alarming: precipitous drops to rocks far below where the sea foams in; not just one or two, but six different seriously spiky plants along the part I walked alone; and the constant danger that if you're sucked into stopping to admire the view, which you will be, you're entirely likely to find, suddenly, that your lower legs are swarming with unnecessarily big ants, that are biting. And that's not to mention the possibility of snakes.

The guys soaring over our heads in their paragliders were above all these pedestrian worries (though they could have had that extra one, about doing an Icarus). It must have been glorious up there.

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