Monday 29 March 2010

Not just playing possum

The Norwegians have all been identified and vengeance will be ours! It's just a shame they didn't shoot possums instead: then, they'd have been heroes. Nasty things, eating eggs and baby birds, and killing the trees - the only good possum is a dead one, like this one run over on the bridge leading to Waitangi in the Bay of Islands.

Another animal in the news today: a dog discovered alive and well after 16 days adrift on a yacht, with no sign of the owner. There seems an obvious conclusion, but no-one's voicing it yet. The yacht was blown all the way to the Chatham Islands from near Tauranga, and was found with shredded sails but everything else intact.

The last time I went sailing was almost exactly two years ago at Easter in the Bay of Islands, when we took our German exchange student to see one of NZ's best bits. It was the R. Tucker Thompson, a schooner, and we had a lovely day under sail around the bay, stopping for a swim, when the wusses climbed down the ladder into a dinghy to go to the beach while we intrepid types swung out over the water on the end of a rope to have a moment's glorious soaring before the big splash. We were also allowed to climb right up the rigging to where it gets complicated and the ship looks very small down below. Less adventurous but still fun was perching out on the bowsprit where the crew brought us scones with jam and cream. Yum!

Saturday 27 March 2010

Norwegian Blue

Not a good time to be a Norwegian in New Zealand: a YouTube video's made the news, of five young men from there hunting here and not just shooting out-of-season birds and animals, but protected native species, like the woodpigeon, or kereru above. Bastards. They look so pleased with themselves on the video, dangling a wallaby by the tail, holding a dead tahr up by the head, taking aim at a sitting pigeon - as if anyone, anyone, couldn't shoot a woodpigeon on a branch, great fat things that they are. I once walked right up to one that had been feeding on berries on a bush: it was too full to fly away; and this one regularly hung about just above the deck of the bach we used to rent on Waiheke Island.

I hope they catch them and nail them; and the locals here, like the helicopter pilot, who helped them. The authorities in Norway are appalled and apologetic, too, and starting an investigation - unlike Germany when some of their ratbags tried smuggling geckos out of the country in their underwear and in their luggage to sell for around $10,000 each.

I liked Norway, when we went there years and years ago. It was in July, and I remember that it was light when we went to bed in our hotel in Oslo - and light again? or still? when we got up in the morning. The city's on a fjord (shallower than Milford) and we found it really expensive and, though pretty, not quite as appealing as Stockholm; but it had a fascinating Resistance Museum with a radio receiver made out of a set of false teeth; and another with a great collection of Viking ships - as you would expect. In fact, there was a whole cluster of well-presented museums and, as we wandered around the city, many clusters of other things as well: I've never seen so many full frontal bronze nudes in my life.

Friday 26 March 2010

Waste not, want not

Since it's now redundant for the Herald's story, here's the bit about the cyclone:

>>> Two weeks on from Cyclone Pat, John the waiter is still shell-shocked. “Man, I ran to my neighbour’s place and watched my house fall to bits. I saw my fridge blow away.” He gazes across the infinity pool that’s shimmering pink in the sunset, and shakes his head in disbelief.

In the gathering dusk, it is hard to believe that early on 10 February, 100-knot winds ripped through Aitutaki in the Cook Islands, best known for its glorious lagoon and palm-fringed pink sand motus. Here at Pacific Resort the beach is tidily raked, the coconut trees are spot-lit, and up in the open-sided restaurant with its view over the reef, other guests are happily dithering between the duck and the flying fish.

Those lights out beyond the reef, though, belong to a ship that’s been patiently circling for the last three days — the lagoon too shallow for it to enter, the sea outside too deep to anchor — while a barge putters back and forth ferrying containers of building materials to the wharf at Arutanga, the island’s biggest village. There, at SpiderCo, you can buy internet time, a plasma TV, clip-boards, peanut butter and rum but, although fat bags of nails sit in rows next to the loo paper, they’re all out of four by twos. From the look of things next morning, it’s no wonder.

The resorts, well-built and maintained, have come through the cyclone largely undamaged, apart from their battered gardens; but many of the locals’ houses have boarded-up windows. Bright blue tarpaulins flap on their roofs, the missing sheets of corrugated iron wrapped around nearby tree trunks. Some have fared even worse: on a walk into Arutanga, we pass a cottage made of cemented coral which has crumbled under the force of the winds, leaving stumps of walls surrounded by rubble; there’s no sign of its roof. Across the road, in the middle of a neat goat-trimmed lawn, a weatherboard house has collapsed, its front blown inwards, the roof flat on top of it all, squashing the contents which poke out the sides like a salad sandwich. It looks to us like a write-off, but the little old man beside it loading his wheelbarrow with broken louvres sees things differently. “It’s not so bad,” he says, grinning cheerfully. “I just need to stand the front up and lift the roof on again. I can use the crane.”

That would be the crane at the wharf, currently dangling containers over the clear, blue-tinted water of the harbour, where a shoal of small flying fish skitters over the surface. There’s a tangle of twisted roofing iron behind the nearby police station, and stray sheets still dangling from the rafters are squealing and groaning in the sea-breeze. It looks violent and dramatic, but behind it all colourful pareus flutter on a rack outside a souvenir shop, a hen with half a dozen peeping chicks scratches in the grass, and a tardy schoolgirl, neatly-uniformed, is hurrying up the street, back to lessons for the first time since the cyclone. A man buzzes past on his scooter with a large hammer and a determined expression: life is returning to normal on the island...


Wednesday 24 March 2010

Easy living

I'm having to re-jig my Aitutaki story to remove most of the cyclone references, since it's not going to be published for a while, by which time it will all be old news. That means there's now room for things like this fish-spotting dog at Muri Beach on Rarotonga.

There are lots of presumably stray dogs on Rarotonga (but no dogs at all on Aitutaki - some story about a chief's child being bitten, long ago) and they all seem quite healthy and well-fed - relaxed enough certainly to have the time and inclination to wander about in the shallows fish-watching. This one spent ages in the water, paddling from coral clump to coral clump apparently just looking at all the colourful fish flitting about - he didn't seem to be hunting. The last time I was there I saw another dog, a Rottweiler-cross, doing exactly the same thing.

People hunt, though. I watched a couple of young guys doing the world's easiest fishing - splashing about in warm, knee-deep water with a long net and scooping up bucketfuls of goat fish: small, pale and seasonal, with beards when fully grown (hence the name) but when juveniles with negligible bones, cleaned and then eaten whole and raw. So the cooks get to take things easy too. That's how they like to do (or not do) things in the islands.

Tuesday 23 March 2010

I'd have to thank my lawyer this time...

It's been a brilliant year, but it's the last day today: the 2010 Travcom Awards are being held tonight, and it'll be somebody else's turn (probably) to gibber at the dais, bask in the glory and garner the rewards - including offers of travel to all sorts of wonderful places, and a faster track to editorial attention for the stories afterwards.

I could win again, of course, but even just writing that has probably jinxed it - and no-one's ever won twice in a row. But Juanita and I are a pretty good team...

Update: No records broken tonight, alas. Juanita let me down - and though Miguel did his best for me, it was hardly glory: highly commended (newspaper section). It was pretty much a clean sweep by the professional journos tonight. But I take some comfort from my Athenian balance: I was also a runner-up with my sole entry (people category) in the photography awards. So there's that.

Thursday 18 March 2010

St Patrick + 1

So I missed the obligatory St Patrick's Day post because I was out revisiting Peru and Ecuador at a World Journeys evening. I did say to a teacher at school at morning tea, "And did you congratulate the girls for all remembering to wear green today?" but he just frowned and said, "Do you mean their uniforms?" so that was wasted effort.

When we went to the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin as part of a hop on, hop off bus tour, I laughed when the driver barked "Please stay seated!" as we drew up. Once inside, though, where throngs of young male pilgrims pretended to take an interest in the barley and the hops, the ostrich advertisement and display of bottles, all the time pushing forward eagerly to the last level where the bar awaited with splendid views of the city and river, but most of all their free pint of velvet, I understood. Apparently, if you're not too fussy, you can do well here, as many tourists don't care for the taste and push their glasses away after only a sip or two: so aficionados can down pint after pint - pulled with good humour and skill by the barladies, who swirl in a shamrock on top, two at a time.

I couldn't decide if it was the Guinness or simply being Irish that led one young woman to direct us thus: "You need to go up another couple of levels. This is the fifth, and you want the eighth."

Tuesday 16 March 2010

Doubtful about Tomas

More cyclones. This time Tomas is pummelling Fiji with even more force than Katrina in New Orleans: they were forecasting 250kmh winds. Having seen what around 180kmh gales did to Aitutaki, it's pretty chilling to think what could have happened to places like this village in the Yasawas, where the people live in simple huts right beside the beach.

We visited on a Captain Cook cruise, in a small ship that even so looked huge and other-worldly, gleaming white and modern in the bay, as out of place as the USS Enterprise. We were made very welcome everywhere we called in - Fijian people are so friendly - and a highlight of our week was, as elsewhere in the Pacific, going to a church service where the windows were open, the air was scented, chickens scratched around outside, and the unaccompanied singing was so loud and forceful that it sent shivers down your spine. We went to a school, too...

>>> ...Captivating though it was, the snorkelling was for me the supporting act of the cruise’s features: the best part was visiting the villages and seeing close-up how the Fijian people live. It's a laid-back life: temperatures of 30+ degrees don't encourage industriousness, and the main impression is one of languour. With a sea full of fish out the front, coconut palms fringing the beach and chickens scratching under the breadfruit trees in the village, it might seem that most needs are met without effort: but as our hospitality manager Trevor explained, a diet rich in starch and fat has serious health consequences that reduce the average life expectancy considerably. So it's a short life – but on the face of it a happy one, where the priority is on family and friends, and where it is not a twee homily that a stranger is a friend you haven’t met, but a fact. There can be few other places where visitors are made to feel so welcome.

This was most evident on our visit to the second village where the highlight was a concert put on by the children of the four-classroom school. A plain and unadorned building on the far side of a grassy playground where a single netball hoop stood in a circle of hard-packed dirt and a volleyball net drooped between its poles, the classrooms were straight out of the 1930s. Bare wooden walls were covered in scrawled pictures (this was a primary school – few children get the chance to take their education further) and battered desks with lift-up lids were stacked neatly to one side for the holidays. Piles of exercise books covered in brown paper awaited their owners and on the blackboard were education objectives in beautiful cursive writing. Although it was the holidays, a group of around twenty children from 5 to 12 years of age waited to entertain us with enthusiastic renditions of songs and nursery rhymes. It was odd to realise that ‘The Wheels on the Bus’ was as exotically unreal to these children as ‘Ride a Cock Horse to Banbury Cross’.

Afterwards, my hand was seized by 5 year-old Lusi in a pink frock, who hauled me away on a tour of her school, of which she was as proud as any new entrant anywhere. Several of the passengers had brought gifts of stationery, to the delight of the teacher: "We never see pens," she gasped...

[Pub. Press 19/12/05]

Monday 15 March 2010

O for awesome

Yesterday Shaun Quincey, 25, arrived back in NZ under his own steam, having rowed all the way from Australia - 54 days, almost 4000 kilometres, 17 kilograms lost (but plenty of muscle, by the look of him, gained) and a family record matched. His father was the first to row solo across the Tasman to Australia; Shaun's the first to row the other way. It's a feat that's hard to imagine - though the very readable Oarsome Adventures of a Fat Boy Rower by Kevin Biggar has given me some idea (though he wasn't rowing alone). I like that people are still doing such adventurous things.

For myself, however, I prefer my ocean rowing to be a much tamer affair, as it was when I went out one evening to kayak with Outdoor Discoveries over to Brown's Island in the harbour for a sunset picnic. It was a lovely thing to do, despite the wayward steering and unitasking co-paddler (and unscheduled landing on a nudist beach): calm seas, colourful spinnakers, cheese and wine and real coffee, sunset over the city, watching all the lights come on, and then, a first for me, phosphorescence in the water on the way back in the dark - or bioluminescence as it's called these days. Whichever, it's fascinating, spectacular and fun, all at once. Just thinking about it makes me want to do it again.

Friday 12 March 2010

Blue, blue, my love is light blue

It's been such a tedious week, at school every day, that I would almost have welcomed having the notorious Year 9s who ingeniously hid themselves in their classroom ceiling one day, climbing up through a loose section of tile via a chair on a desk - which was removed by the unsuspecting teacher who then wandered the school looking for her now-stranded class.

But at least there was the triumph on Tuesday of seeing my photo on the front of the NZ Herald travel section again, making three covers in the Heralds this year - so far. And it's only March!

I sold the story on the strength of the Alice connection, so I had to leave out some good stuff, like the taxi I saw painted with the Periodic Table of the Elements, and the wonderful story about how when Elizabeth I visited, Queen maybe, but a mere woman withal, she was grandly greeted in Latin - and replied in Greek.

Actually, though Oxford drips with history and it's rather thrilling to wander the cobbles where such great men (and women) have trodden over the centuries, I think Cambridge was prettier and more interesting. When it comes to the Boat Race in April, it'll be light blue for me.
UPDATE (4 April): Oh yes, my little beauty! Cambridge by a length.

Monday 8 March 2010

Morepork Through the Windscreen (nearly)

A long dull day at school in the company of dull Travel & Tourism girls who see no point in learning anything that won't earn them NCEA credits (Chile? Haiti? What have they got to do with me? Why should I know where Greece is?) and would prefer to just waste time rather than say, look into an atlas and discover something - very depressing. Lumpen Epsilons.

But then it got much better, with High Tea at the Langham in the city as a guest of VisitBritain, all of us wearing silly (or elegant) hats in honour of the Mad Hatter. Yummy coloured sandwiches, little fancies, scones and cream, with bubbles before and excellent tea with (albeit in bags - but then so they do at the Savoy, tch). It was a splendid way to get us sugared up for the hi-saturation 3D colour of 'Alice in Wonderland' at Imax, the Cheshire Cat hovering in our faces, the Bandersnatch looming with excessive numbers of teeth.

Good fun, if rather silly - so such a shame that the evening ended with probable tragedy on the high road, when on the way home an owl swooped across the road and whumped into the car - or vice versa. Poor little thing, it's a morepork, named for its call, small and brown with huge eyes, and very cute. It's tucked up in a shoe box full of holes, and if it's alive in the morning, I'll take it to the Bird Lady in Brown's Bay; and if it's not, I won't.

We saw a display of owls in Abergavenny, one of them very like the morepork, in the middle of a pedestrian shopping street: unexpected, but charming. It's being so serious that makes them so sweet.

UPDATED: This lovely bird too has joined the choir invisible, alas.

Friday 5 March 2010

Not the only way to go

Air travel in the news: child flight controllers at JFK, a recidivist drink-driver piloting Air NZ aeroplanes. The staff in New York suspended, the pilot here in Auckland staunchly defended by the airline - "He's a model for the programme!" they say. "He's done so well!" Yeah, right, that really fills me with confidence, a recovering alcoholic with a history of deceit in charge of hundreds of people 30,000 feet in the air. Cabin staff, by the way, are out of a job after one offence. Hmm, I wonder why there's a double standard?

I'm feeling a little jaundiced about Air NZ after my recent flight to the Cooks. I paid for that flight personally (well, with airpoints - but still, it was a working trip) and the cheapskates wouldn't bump me up to business, even though they had spare seats, even though I'm giving them publicity in the story factfile, even though it's only a 4-hour flight, even though they do have competition on that route.

Compare that with Cathay Pacific, who's welcomed me into their sybaritic business class on more than a handful of 12-hour flights, wafting me to my destination in super-comfortable seats, on lie-flat beds, with a big personal TV, excellent meals that just keep coming and attentive but not sycophantic service. Or Air Tahiti Nui's delightful business class - just saying the words, I can smell the tiare flowers now - a wonderful little airline, repeatedly voted the World's Best Small Airline, a fabulous way to fly straight to New York (to ahem, JFK) bypassing that whole prison-camp LAX unpleasantness. Or LAN, roomy and comfortable, gracious and efficient all the way across the Pacific to South America. Or Thai's royal welcome that makes you feel you're there already. All fabulous, all generous with their business class, all fondly remembered.

But Air NZ? Nah, go down the back and eat the nasty brown smear we call shepherd's pie, we can't afford to spring for real food for you, we've got boozy pilots to support.

UPDATED: Ok, feeling a little embarrassed now at having spat the dummy there. On the whole, I'm glad Air NZ is supporting its pilots now - so much healthier a way to run a corporation than falsely blaming dead employees when something goes wrong (cough *Erebus* cough). And when I've been away for a while, it's always like coming home to see the koru on the tail and get on board and be surrounded by that distinctive cheerful, open, practical and unfussy Kiwiness (which appeals to non-Kiwis too, judging by the repeated Best Airline awards). And the entertainment system is The Best: that four-hour flight to the Cooks? Not long enough to watch everything I wanted. And being able to watch from the moment I get on board? Priceless.

Tuesday 2 March 2010

Never trust a sailor

There was a beautiful sunrise this morning when I went out to get the paper (with my Wales story in the travel section - and in the post today a travel trade publication with my Northern Territory story - and on the newsstand at the supermarket this afternoon a magazine with my Quito story. Feast or famine, that's how this job goes) from which I learnt two things.

The first was that it is indeed autumn, because the sun is getting up later now; and the second is that the 'Red sky in the morning, sailor's warning' doggerel is as dodgy a weather forecast as the other half of it. It was a perfectly acceptable day today - bright, warm and dry, I wore summer clothes in complete comfort and the washing, had I got around to hanging it out on the line, would have been ready for folding and putting away when I got home from school.

'Red sky at night, sailor's delight'? Yeah, right: the photo above was taken on our first evening on Aitutaki last week. The next day it rained, showered, rained, showered; and the day after that the same. All right, so it was the rainy season, and the locals were keen to get some rain to fill their tanks and get the vegetation growing again; and it was still warm, and the snorkelling was unaffected, and the lagoon as glorious as ever - but even so, bummer.

And the same for going there two weeks after a category 3 cyclone. It's such a beautiful place, and at the moment it's such a mess. But the people are working hard, and have total faith that soon it will be back to normal, the brown gone and the green returned, and all the rubbish cleared up. Like this man, just him and his wheelbarrow to sort out the complete collapse of his house. He stood in front of this pile of rubble and insisted that all he had to do was to lift up the front and pop back the roof and it would be as good as new. It was quite touching really - and reminded me irresistibly of the Python Pet Shop sketch: "Legs off, fins on, pipe through the back of its neck so it can breathe, make good..."


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