Sunday, May 30, 2010

Mounted is the best kind of fun

The last time I had such a very sore bottom was when I was 13 and had been bucked off my pony at riding school: I ended up (sorry) having to have physio to the area in question administered by a handsome young masseur, and the whole experience was hideously embarrassing. If I have to have a re-run of that treatment, this time it will be - hmm, just as embarrassing, actually. I think the window of opportunity when I could have bared my bot with impunity, possibly even pride, was more of a port-hole, really.

Most of my recent injuries have been down to clumsiness and/or stupidity, but for a large part of my life they've been equine-induced. It comes with the territory when you spend a lot of time with a large animal with a small brain and a super-sensitive flight instinct. I've been stamped on and trampled, bitten and kicked, bolted with and bucked off - but not, thankfully, rolled on, because that's when things can get very nasty. I bear no grudges, that's just horses for you, and they've given me far more pleasure than pain.

I've done my time trailing round in circles at riding schools; been on a glorious high-country trek in North Canterbury as a teenager that eventually led to my starting this travel-writing lark; worked as a groom in South Australia exercising flighty polo ponies and fighting off giant spiders; and then again in England looking after a handful of hunters and spending every day riding around the most beautiful countryside, part of a community that still welcomes me.
I went on a brilliant cattle drive back in South Australia, where we spent five days clopping peacefully through the Outback enjoying the detail of that colour-saturated scenery, which even at a walking pace changed continuously. Here in New Zealand I battled for a whole week with an eager thoroughbred who wanted to be at the front, please of a back-country trek with 80 other riders as well as walkers and mountain-bikers, an annual charity event that gave us access to private land and looked after us brilliantly in the evenings with entertainment, excellent food, hot showers and massages. I've cantered along the beach in the Bay of Plenty and galloped through Lord of the Rings country, indulging in a private Rider of Rohan fantasy down near Queenstown.
And in Ireland last year I went for a ride with Attila the Hun-garian and a couple of other aficionados along the beach near Westport. We splashed through the shallows along the Atlantic coast on a brisk afternoon, the sun shining on us while cloud swirled around nearby Creagh Patrick, a 770m hill surmounted by a tiny stone church that thousands of bare-footed pilgrims climb to on Reek Sunday, the last Sunday in July. Out in the bay were 300 islands, one owned by John Lennon ('s estate), where the treacherous current made picturesque lighthouses a necessity, and white boats sparkled against a background of dark grey cloud. It was wonderful to get out in the fresh air and do something active; and when we stopped off at the pub on the way back, and Lesley suggested a glass of hot port - because every pub in Ireland apparently has a kettle behind the bar - well, that was the icing on the cake.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Bear hunt

Bears are the crocodiles of North America. I mean, they're the major frightener in nature, same as crocs in Australia (I know they have alligators there too, but bears are more wide-spread, and anyway I haven't been to the southern states). Go anywhere in the Top Half of Aussie and you'll see the signs, from the laughable 'Do not interfere with the crocodiles' in freshie country, to the more chilling gape-mouthed 'Crocodile Warning' that not only indicates there could be a saltie anywhere, any time, but is also posted next to every body of water you might be tempted to refresh yourself in.In California, we were made bear-aware as soon as we entered the national parks - by law, it seemed. There was a lecture at the lodge at Sequoia before we were even able to pick up our room keys, there were signs everywhere, all the litter bins were bear-proof, and at the Ranger Centre there was a loop video showing a bear approaching a locked car and standing up to put its paws against the driver's window. The glass seemed to disappear, the bear dived in and clawed its way through the seating into the boot, where it found the chilly-bin of food that it could smell - and also expected to find. It was an impressive performance, I must say.
But the lack of imagination that has eased my way through so many possibly dangerous situations meant that I still wanted to see one, and get a decent photo. Sequoia was lovely, with lots of wildlife and spectacular views, plus seriously big and beautiful trees, but it was only when we got to Yosemite that a sighting seemed possible.
Yosemite Valley's an odd place: it's raw nature on the grandest of scales, but also so user-friendly and populous. All the postcard views are within strolling-distance of coffee shops and car parks, and the roads are humming with vehicles. It really doesn't feel like the sort of place to find a bear - but on a guided walk, we saw one. Actually, two, a mother and cub, but some distance away, fossicking along the river bank - too far for a photo. But that wouldn't do:
>>> ... It was our last day in Yosemite. We had driven around the valley, looked up at and down from the immense and awe-inspiring cliffs, seen them reflected in still pools fringed with golden grass, noticed how the haze from the burn-offs tinted the granite pink and lilac, gazed over range after zigzagged range of wooded hills layered in every shade of blue and purple towards the horizon, seen deer, squirrels, chipmunks and woodpeckers – but we hadn’t got a photo of a bear.

“Let’s just stroll around the top of the valley,” I suggested to my husband, a reluctant walker. “It’s not far, look,” and I showed him the map with my thumb over the small print that read ‘Not to scale’. It was a hunch. It was also a very pretty walk along the stony river, through the trees dripping with gold and red autumn leaves, around huge boulders dropped by glaciers millennia ago, and the squirrels and deer almost made RW forget a) the distance and b) that we were actually looking for bears. Almost. “I don’t think I should be carrying these muffins,” he said, holding up the carrier bag with the muffin bottoms in it that I hadn’t let him throw away in case we got hungry. “You know what they keep saying about bears and food. It’s asking for trouble.”

We couldn’t just dump them, I pointed out, because that was against the law, so we still had them with us when we got to Mirror Lake. Except there was no lake: the dry summer had strangled the river that fed it and left a meadow of grass and sand, with a massive boulder in the middle on which children were climbing. I spoke to their mother who was watching them: “Not much of a reflection, is there?”

“No,” she said, “it’s disappointing after walking all this way.” And then she dropped the bombshell. “Oh, we did see a bear though. Just down the trail. It’s probably still there…”

I was off, RW dawdling behind with the muffin bottoms. “Just leave them beside the path,” I said, “we’ll pick them up later. Come on!” I hurried along, excited, remembering the Michael Rosen story I had read so often to our daughters: ‘We’re going on a bear hunt, we’re going to catch a big one, we’re not scared!’ Although, as I went swishy swashy through the long grass, maybe I was, just a little.

When I caught sight of the bear just 15 metres away nosing through the fallen leaves for acorns and it lifted its head and I saw its two big furry ears, I wasn’t scared any more but thrilled, and eager to get a photo. Then RW, who had been hanging back fretting about still carrying the taint of muffin, hissed “Behind you!” and I looked away from the viewfinder. I realised that besides the patter of falling acorns and the snuffling of the bear, I had been hearing something else, and turned to see another bear, even bigger and shaggier, and much less focused on acorns, standing on the path looking at me. Now I was remembering the bear attack advice we had read: ‘Don’t run, don’t climb. Look big and fight back!’

It’s hard to look big when you’re suddenly feeling quite small, so it was lucky that just then some hikers came along the trail behind the bear, sending it bouncing off into the trees. It felt like time to go. There was this bag of muffin bottoms we needed to retrieve…
[Pub. Next April 2008]

Friday, May 28, 2010

Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!

When I broke my wrist four years ago, I was just about to go to Australia to drive from Sydney to Canberra. As I thought the hire car company would take a dim view of my driving in a cast, I took along with me the sister who'd given me first aid when I fell off the stairs, to be chauffeur. It was fun, even though we had to share a double bed a couple of times - that was a trip back in time, for sure - and once we'd sorted out the bossy-older-sister thing that had her telling me, "That's interesting, write that down!"
The highlight of the visit was going to the Australian War Memorial, which is a fabulous museum-cum-memorial with a huge range of really well displayed exhibits, and dioramas to die for (I'm a sucker from way back for a good diorama, and have the series of forehead bruises to prove it). It's fascinating, and solemn, and moving, and must be wither-wringing on Anzac Day.
But it was also pretty special to take the behind-the-scenes tour at the zoo, where we were delighted to find ourselves feeding (with comfortingly long-handled tongs) lions, tigers, cougars, and bears. I'd never got this close to a bear before and it was a thrill to have one standing up licking creamed corn off my hand, its alarmingly long claws poking through the wire.
They also had a liger - a cross between a lion and tiger, which was a beautiful animal, in a bizarre and disturbing way.
I'm not entirely a fan of zoos, and can remember all too well the horrific bare concrete enclosures that used to be the norm. But I do love to see the animals, and when they're living in the sort of natural, stimulating environment that enlightened zoos aspire to these days, I can allow myself - temporarily, anyway - to be won over by the consciousness-raising and preservation arguments. Not for the big, far-roaming animals, though, especially in climates that are patently unsuitable. They have polar bears at Sea World on the Gold Coast, you know. That's just wrong.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

These short flights are seriously over-rated

I hit the deck today - literally. The torrential rain that the whole country's been having (turning to snow now down south) has, disturbingly, been running down the side of our house under the eaves, and last night extinguished the outside light by filling the globe shade with water. House maintenance is not our strong suit here at #7, but even we realised that somebody should do something. And, as always, given RW's ham-fistedness and my own frugality, that person is usually me.

So there I was on the roof, nodding sagely at the 2cm-wide break right across a tile, thinking "That's probably the culprit right there". Then I stepped back onto the ladder and whoops! It slid away across the smooth, wet boards of the deck and I took the short way down, with just enough time to think, "Here I go again."

Practice makes perfect, though, so this time I took the main impact on my best-padded area, with only secondary damage to other bits, including two neat bite-marks on my lip, and none at all to my head. Also, the Baby was there to help out, having only days ago completed a First Aid course. So, Win!

The Baby was also on the scene at a previous moment of drama a few years ago, when I fell backwards off a staircase onto concrete and both knocked myself out and broke my wrist (mind, my sister who's a nurse was also there, so that too was pretty good management, I reckon). This was on Waiheke Island, in Auckland's Hauraki Gulf, and our favourite holiday place.
Only a 35-minute ferry-ride away, it feels like another world there: warmer, quieter, friendlier, super-relaxed; and with white yachts bobbing on water so turquoise edged by sandy beaches so bright, it really can look like Thailand. There's history at one end, with WW2 gun emplacements and rocks shot out of ancient volcanoes, acres of excellent vineyards, some brilliant restaurants in stunning locations, lots of art and craft, as well as a two-yearly sculpture exhibition scattered along a coastal path with fabulous views, lots of walks, a kayaking option...
We've holidayed there for years, and it has a special meaning and lots of happy memories for us all. Except maybe not the time I had to go back to the city on the police launch Deodar, a cardboard kidney dish tucked under my chin, to meet the waiting ambulance...
>>> When you arrive on Waiheke Island at Kennedy Point on the car ferry from Half-Moon Bay, the first thing you see is a sign reading ‘You’re here now. Slow Down’. It’s more than just a road safety instruction: it’s an invitation to slip into the island lifestyle where there is time enough for everything, and especially for doing not very much at all. On our annual summer holiday we wind down before we even arrive at our rented Palm Beach bach, but this time we have just one weekend to give our German visitor a taste of Kiwi beach life, and there is so much to show her that we need to stay in city mode.

Not that it feels like that, as we queue on the footpath for our paper parcel of snapper and spuds from OFC, the best fish and chip shop on the island. We carry the hot bundle down the hill to the beach and sit on the sand licking salty fingers as we watch the sun retreat from the bay and the yachts become black shapes bobbing on the silver water. Back at Palm Beach, the novelty of having the sea so close draws Julia, from Bavaria, down to the shore again and we walk along the wet sand in the dark. The foam at the edge of each wave is luminous, forming a scalloped pattern along the beach; there is a halo of sea haze around the orange street lights behind us, and out beyond the bay a red light is blinking. The water is still warm and Julia is captivated: it is a far cry from her holidays in the Baltic Sea.

In the morning we make our Saturday pilgrimage to Nourish, a café at Ostend, where the service is fast, the coffee excellent and the breakfasts even better. It’s tempting to linger over the eggs Benedict, but just along the road is the weekly market, and there are bargains to be had. In the RSA hall and outside on the grass are stalls selling art, crafts, books, junk and food: crusty breads, lacy-edged crêpes, flavoured oils and home-made fudge. It’s colourful and busy with visitors browsing and locals catching up on the week’s gossip. On the corner stand two little girls singing in wobbly voices, with a flower in a pot and a dish for money at their feet. Kind passers-by have dropped a few coins into it, but no-one is staying to listen...

[Pub. Press 9/9/08]

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

One in 20 million

Some wag on TV referred to the World Expo in Shanghai and how the visitor numbers were turning out to be less than expected: "Only a million through the gates, tch!" Although the actual figure is a bit over 200,000 per day, the sentiment stands - this is one huge city, the 10th biggest in the world, and that's a lot of people. They're hoping for 70 million visitors over the 6 months that it's open (to beat the 65 million record set back in 1970 in Osaka, where they also know a thing or two about crowds) - and even if most of those are Shanghai residents, on top of a population of almost 20 million, that's still a lot of bodies in the streets.

We were there briefly last year, when the city was in a frenzy getting ready for the Expo, building the exhibition halls on both sides of the river, knocking down old districts to build new hotels and roads, upgrading other areas, digging up the streets and generally tarting the place up. We were told that China uses half of the world's production of concrete, and Shanghai must have accounted for a fair chunk of that - there was certainly a strong smell of wet cement in the air. Plus dust, the hammering of pneumatic drills, roaring trucks and diggers; and visual pollution too with scaffolding, cones and barriers - yet still, with all the large-scale machinery in operation, swarms of men with wheelbarrows and bamboo-leaf besoms.

And of course, people everywhere - as in all the other parts of China that we visited (our Silversea cruise took us only to cities - if we'd got into the country, we would have come away with quite a different impression, I'm sure). It was pretty exhausting, and though it was always interesting, and I'm glad to have been there, I wouldn't rush back again.

India was horrendously crowded too, of course, but it seemed less foreign there: in China I really felt like an alien, even - or especially - when I found myself in a familiar setting, like on the beach. This is China:
This is New Zealand:
No contest.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Blind faith

I've just read a news report about the fifth salt-water crocodile this year having been caught in the Katherine River, 30kms from the town: all of 3.1metres, a very decent size of saltie. (Like this one, on the Daly River, where we went fishing.)

On our kayak trip down the Katherine River last year, we naturally asked about crocs, and were assured that the habitat wasn't suitable for salties to nest in, so there would be no females and hence no big males. "You mean there might still be smaller ones though?" we persisted. "Pft! Teenagers!" was the reply, so scathingly uttered that we felt only true wusses would pursue the matter further. "Um, just don't swim in the deep water, though," Mick added, kind of grudgingly.
He was so at home on the river, and in such control of the whole expedition, that we believed him totally, and I forgot all about crocs as we drifted down the river, feet and hands dangling in the water to enjoy the coolness; and that night laid our swags out on the sandy river bank.

Lying there in the night, with the stars bright overhead, I did give a passing thought to cold yellow eyes watching from the dark, and dismissed it as foolishness. "Mick said" was all the reassurance I needed.

And besides, I'd put James between me and the water.
(By the way, look at the flood debris lodged in that tree: amazing, eh?)

Monday, May 24, 2010

O a wondrous bird is the pelican...

The news from the Gulf of Mexico just gets worse and worse. It’s hideous, heart-breaking, depressing and disgusting. I would happily see BP broken and bankrupt after this – but only once they’ve used every cent they have to clean up the mess their greed and carelessness have caused. Not that all the money and hard work in the world could make it as if the disaster never happened – just look at how much oil still lurks under rocks and in the ecosystem of Prince William Sound, after 21 years.

For me it’s the pelicans that sum up the tragedy: their white feathers uniformly brown and tacky with oil, their wings glued to their bodies. A TV report at the weekend showed one being painstakingly cleaned while the voice-over stated, “so far four pelicans have been rescued” which would be laughable if it weren’t so sad. Just think how many birds are out there in the ocean, mired and struggling in the slick or floating lifeless underneath it; and dolphins, manatees, whales, fish… Not just coated in oil but full of it too, in their eyes, throats, noses, ears, stomachs.
I’m particularly fond of pelicans. We don’t have them here in NZ, but they’re found on every continent and I’ve seen them in Australia, the Galapagos Islands, in Peru, in California. They’re appealingly absurd-looking, like the bumble bees of the bird world: flight seems so unlikely for such ungainly birds, and they do look like lumbering Catalinas when they’re in the air, but it works for them - they’ve been around for 40 million years, apparently, which is success by anybody’s standards.
It’s true that “his bill can hold more than his belly can” as the rhyme has it: I saw one in the Ballestas Islands off the coast of Peru that briefly had both a fish and a smaller seabird in it. Not that the pelican was eating the other bird, it was just a case of avian mugging, and the aggrieved rightful owner emerged from the pouch minus the fish it had caught. It was a bit of an event, to judge by our guide’s excitement, and almost took my mind off the incredible stench from the metres-thick guano so generously supplied by the thousands of birds and sea-lions that make their home there, and have done for centuries. (The guano was so valuable in pre-artificial fertiliser days that pirates would raid the ships that came to collect it from the men who lived there for months every year to scrape it up - now there's a job not to have.)

Though it smells revolting, at least it's natural.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Tuppence a day? I should be so lucky.

We got what we'd been asking for yesterday - hours and hours of good, soaking rain, so the garden's not thirsty any more and all our doors open and shut like anything. But of course it was cold, too, so we moaned; and then this morning, though it was sparkling and sunny, it was still cold, and there were more than a dozen doves waiting in the trees, feathers fluffed up, for me to come and feed the hens and chuck some wheat their way. The frog's long gone, wherever it is he goes, the blackbirds are stripping the red berries off the cotoneaster, and it's time to reinstate the bird table and cook up my fatty, oaty breakfast special to glue all those little beaks together.

I come from a long line of bird-feeders, and have fed many different species, mostly deliberately (I'm excepting the eclectus parrot that did its best to sever my finger recently)...
(RW's photo, not mine: it was my shutter-button finger that had been seized) ... and mostly without regret (emu with great stabbing beak hammering at my packet of crisps as I shrank away in alarm, I'm thinking of you).
I feel proud, on the other hand, that as a lone Kiwi I was able to beat off a flock of swooping kites in the Northern Territory that were hell-bent on relieving me of my lunchtime blueberry muffin. I had thought that the Litchfield National Park crocodiles were the main danger, not a bunch of feathered muggers with vicious beaks and talons.
(This is a wedge-tailed eagle, actually - but you get the idea.)

But the most satisfaction I've ever had from bird-feeding was at the daily session at Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary on Australia's Gold Coast - and it wasn't even me doing the feeding this time:

>>> His name was Cody, but it should have been Oliver — Twist, that is. He was standing by the fence, a small boy in a skateboard T-shirt and a cap that was just a bit too big, and he was holding his dish up high with both hands. All around the enclosure, people were ducking and laughing as wild rainbow lorikeets flew down out of the trees to perch on their heads and shoulders, scrabbling for foot-holds around the rims of the metal dishes that everyone held out. The staff at the sanctuary had poured a cupful of their secret-recipe nectar into each bowl and the birds were going mad for it — except down at Cody’s end. His dish had been one of the last to be filled, and the greedy lorikeets were still busy with those served first.

I watched as he stood there, gradually drooping with fatigue and disappointment as the minutes passed and no birds came near, but still doggedly holding his dish high, as instructed. My heart sank as the lorikeets suddenly took off in a blaze of brilliant green, blue and red back into the trees, and Cody’s shoulders sagged; then, one by one, they came back down and he stood up straight and hopeful. I couldn’t bear it when they all flew away yet again, but patient Cody kept the faith and finally, thankfully, a couple of gaudily-coloured birds landed on the edge of his plate, dipping their beaks into the nectar as he watched them with solemn delight. I felt like cheering...
[Unpub.]

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Out of character

Bad news from Thailand, and such a shame to see pictures of violence in a country that is really so friendly - and where so many of its people are so dependent on tourism. While I wouldn't fancy going there myself right now, I'd be happy to visit as soon as the riots are over, as they will be. Even big, noisy, dirty Bangkok has plenty of beauty and peaceful places to enjoy. It's a bit of a cliche, but only because it's so enjoyable, to go for a tour in a long-tail boat through the khlongs, or canals, and putter past everyday life going on there as it has for ages: children in crisp smart school uniforms trotting home, mothers with toddlers watching us watching them, dogs relaxing, men fishing right from their verandas, big houses with floating gardens, rickety stilt shacks with satellite dishes...
And outside the city, the people are even friendlier and more cheerful, and never seem too busy to stop for a chat beside the road or at the stall selling fragrant flower garlands or brightly-coloured rice or short, fat bananas. I do hope they can go back soon to their peaceful, contented lives in their beautiful country.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Before and after - and here, not away

I read once in a chicken care book written by some unreconstructed male that hens, like all the ladies, make a point of getting a new coat for the winter - and that's certainly what my six have been doing over the last month or more. The two old girls got theirs sorted early on, but the teenagers have left it to the last minute, and must be finding the nights pretty nippy with all that bare skin. On the other hand, at least they shouldn't be bothered by the mozzies now.

I don't think I've ever had hens that have done the job so thoroughly as these ones - they look oven-ready, they've lost so many feathers, and the new ones are poking through in a very uncomfortable-looking manner. They're rather bothered by the loss of their flight feathers, too, and swear like troopers when they find they have to run the long way around when I appear at the top gate, instead of flapping up the short-cut over the compost bin.

One of them, the cool, organised one, has got her new outfit finished already, and looks absolutely splendid when the low sun catches her feathers and brings out the beautiful coloration. The Barnevelders may not match up to the Brown Shavers when it comes to egg production, but for looks they knock them into a cocked hat.

Mind you, when they're moulting, none of them lay any eggs at all, so I had to buy some the other day at the supermarket. I should have waited to get them at Matakana, where I'm sure 'free range' means exactly that - not like the huge flocks of birds I saw from the train in Cambridgeshire which were, granted, ranging freely, but in big barren fields with not a skerrick of green to be seen, poor things. There's nothing a chicken likes better than a variety of fresh greenery to peck at - except for meat, in which case it's velociraptors all over again.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Oh, boy

Up to Matakana yesterday, an hour's drive through green and orange countryside on a blue-sky day (apart from the sudden squall around lunchtime that dragged the temperature right down - but at least we were spared the nearby mini-tornado).

The Saturday market there is a real institution: slow food from local producers at fair prices. We went to have our knives sharpened by the ex-pat Irishman who prides himself on a precision job: three separate grades of sandpaper, two different stones and four grinders, at the end of which he tests the blade by shaving the hairs on his forearm, which is presumably as smooth as a baby's bottom. It's a long process, made longer by his clearly having kissed the Blarney Stone back home, and an apparent inability to multi-task, so that the job comes to multiple halts as he chats about politics, life, and local gossip (the whitebait fritter lady was once exposed as using Chinese whitebait, shock, horror!) Still, it means he fits in well with the slow food philosophy, and he certainly gets the knives lethally sharp. "Keep some Bandaids handy in the kitchen," he warns every time.

We weren't in any hurry anyway, as we were going to the movies. Matakana's cinemas are a joy both to behold and to sit in - but the greater joy this time was watching Taika Waititi's Boy which was wonderful: funny and sad, deep and powerful, but with a light touch. Beautifully done - I fully expect to be seeing this movie in random bits for years to come in media studies classes at school. And I'll count myself lucky.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

At night the wondrous glory...

I've just been persuaded to go to Australia again, next month. To the bit I think I really like best: the Red Centre, where the Outback truly is red, the sky is cobalt blue, and there's a shimmer along the edges where the two meet. It's harsh and dangerous and beautiful, and nothing like the wussy, grassy, soft post-rainfall Outback I saw in Queensland a couple of weeks ago.

There will be camping, as there was last time I was there, and hopefully in a proper swag again under the stars. Well, I say proper swag: it's a pretty cushy modern equivalent, with an actual mattress inside the canvas, and sheets, and a duvet and a pillow - so it's very comfortable, but I wouldn't like to have to carry it on my back as the old swaggies did.

We went to the Waltzing Matilda Centre in Winton while we were in Queensland: it's a simple song, just the eight little verses, with lots of repetition, yet the centre is really extensive, and you could easily spend a couple of hours there. First there's the ghostly swagman in the billabong, giving the background and telling the story, explaining - quite movingly - the song's place in popular culture; then there's a gallery of personal stories of hard Outback life and the origins of the song (there's a whiff of scandal about how Banjo Patterson came across the tune), a nifty hologram show, a theatre with video of academic interpretations, a gallery of original Outback art, an excellent museum, a shop and, of course, the Coolibah Cafe. And how many times did I hear the song as I wandered through? Goodness knows - but no-one could hear John Williamson's 1999 rendition at the Rugby World Cup in Stadium Australia with 107,000 backing vocalists and not feel a tingle.

I saw him last year, you know, at Wilpena Pound. He sang in the dining room at the resort, and forgot some of the words - but not to Waltzing Matilda.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Rain, rain

At last it's raining. It's been dry for so long that there are cracks in the lawn and even the weeds have stopped growing. But now it's raining, and I have hope that earth will fluff up around the piles that the house sits on and hold them tight and straight again, so that the cracks in the ceiling will close up and our doorways will revert to right-angles and the doors will open and shut as doors are meant to, ie without a muscle-wrenching wrestling and struggling and a sudden frightening shudder that surely one day will make all the glass shatter.

From 1895 to 1902 Australia suffered from a ruinously severe drought across much of the country. The people were so desperate that in Queensland they listened seriously to Clement Wragge, who had made a name for himself as a meteorologist. He reckoned that Albert Stiger's Vortex cannons, invented in Austria to disperse - successfully - hail clouds that threatened orchards and vineyards, would work as well when fired into the atmosphere to make clouds drop their moisture as rain onto the parched earth.

In September 1902 the Charleville Municipal Council funded the purchase of 13 four-metre high cannons which were deployed around the area with a spectacular lack of success, some of them actually disintegrating when fired but fortunately injuring no-one. It wasn't Wragge's finest hour, and despite having earned some kudos for establishing weather stations across Australia, making the first long-range weather forecasts, and inventing the naming of cyclones (after politicians, on the grounds that they were also natural disasters), he's mostly remembered as a larrikin.

Which isn't to say he's been dishonoured: the Aussies have a soft spot for larrikins - people who defy convention and authority, take risks, push boundaries. How else do you explain the Ned Kelly phenomenon?

The drought, by the way, broke all by itself a couple of months later.

Monday, May 10, 2010

A nod to nature

Out on my walk this morning, I saw a big old macrocarpa (Monterey cypress) being cut down. They grow like weeds here and are very common, but still, it was a huge tree and old, and apart from blocking the light of the house tucked behind it, harmless. Unlike the carnivorous pisonia trees on Lady Elliot Island.

These have bird-attracting fruits that are so sticky that the birds get caught on the tree, flail about getting stuck even more, fall to the ground, die, rot and dissolve into the soil, thus feeding the tree. Presumably the original adaptation was simply for the seeds to stick to the birds' feathers for dispersal - but hey, this works too.

The main species it catches are white-capped noddies, which when we were there in April numbered about 30,000 - impressive, except that at the height of the breeding season, there are ten times that number on the island. Hard to imagine where they'd all roost - as it was, I frequently felt as though I was walking through a scene from Hitchcock's 'The Birds'.

And the name? Like all seabirds, they drink seawater, and to rid their bodies of the salt, they continually nod their heads so it runs out of their nostrils. In-body desalination plant: clever. Carnivorous tree: slightly scary. Nature is a constant marvel, eh.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Go fish

So, underwater cameras. A brilliant idea, in theory - although unnervingly unnatural in execution, taking what looks exactly like a regular camera and dunking it in sea-water. The advertising shows happy people in the water taking sparklingly clear shots of brightly-coloured fish flitting past fluorescent corals. Real life - and I apologise if this disillusions you - is somewhat less successful in my experience, hingeing as it does on two inadequacies, one mine and the other the camera's.

Mine first: poor eyesight caused by an unusual combination of inherited astigmatism and myopia ("Goodness! What an ill-matched pair!" my first optician said in astonishment) exacerbated by age-related visual deterioration. I did my best, getting fitted for disposable contact lenses that I could wear with a mask, and plumped for distance vision so that I could spot the fish in the first place, trusting to the camera to sort out the focus for me.

But I reckoned without the camera's own inadequacy: digital delay, so that the time lost in conveying the image to the screen and then, after clicking the shutter, to the memory card, is hopelessly out of sync with the speed of fish zipping through the water. (There was also the small matter that my long-distance eyes couldn't see clearly if I'd aimed the camera at the fish in the first place.)

So this is what happened when I met a pretty little wrasse in the lagoon at Lady Elliot Island:

Oops!

Oh dear...

Ummm...

Ooo!

Nearly....

Gotcha! Ah, actually, no... Spit.

But it was lots of fun trying, the time just flew by, and I was - reluctantly - last out of the water.

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