Sunday, June 27, 2010

Lacking spirit

Traditionally, the Australian spirit is that 'Jack's as good as his master' so Qantas has it right: on the national airline, service is a dirty word - you want a packet of peanuts? Catch! - and whatever your gripe - airport PA system continuously screeching? delayed departure? no explanation? no apology? warm wine? luggage on the next flight? - the attitude is she'll be right mate, what's your problem?

The battle of the arm-rest was lost before I even sat down in my aisle seat (so cruel! Called up to the departure gate desk, excitedly thinking "Upgrade!" only to have my requested window seat boarding card torn up in front of my eyes and be relegated to an aisle seat at the back near the toilets) with two big men in the other seats. No seat-back TVs, I'd seen the movie anyway, and Mr Bean? Sigh. Have you no shame, Rowan?

At least the journey was uneventful - everything you could ask of a flight - and I arrived safe and sound, if 2 hours late. Fysh and McGinnis would be shaking their heads at my feeble whining, remembering how they flew across untracked Outback by the seat of their pants, fuel low, hoping to find suitable landing sites, with sick people open to the blast of the slipstream.

But Air New Zealand? All is forgiven.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Sunset, sunrise

I seem to have been keeping a close check on the sun's movements lately, there at the coming up and the going down most days. Last night we were out at Simpsons Gap - more ancient orange rock, 800 million years old this time - for a campfire dinner cooked by Bob Taylor, who's related to Craig.

No fire-singed roo tail this time though: bush dukkah, garlic damper with homemade soup, bite-sized morsels of succulent roo fillet, hotpot stew, yummy sweet potato fritters - and then steamed puds, made from scratch (actually chocolate, macadamia, apricot and wattle seed). All very yum, eaten by the campfire with an almost full moon overhead.
Bob's one of the Stolen Generation, though he doesn't like that term, removed from his family at 8 and sent to Adelaide till he was 17. He had a struggle with it, but has come through to be a successful tour operator, well-travelled, non-resentful and very interesting and entertaining to talk to.
This morning we were in Kim's hands, floating over scrub and spinifex as the sun rose and brightened the colours on our hot-air balloon. It was a close-run thing whether we got up, and a bit exciting coming back down to earth, which was with more than a couple of violent bumps, but it was a great way to start the day. And the champers after helped things along too.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Crispy as a goat

Back in Alice Springs now after a couple of nights in the bush, one in a very comfortable tented cabin complete with heat pump (these desert nights are damned chilly, you know) and last night in a swag under the stars, only just warm enough with three layers plus duvet plus thick canvas plus blanket over my head. But brilliant stars, especially once the moon had set, so hooray for the snorer who woke me up so I saw them.

We had a night and a morning with Craig le Rossignol, who's even more of a mixture than his name suggests, as he's mostly Aboriginal. He was excellent value: could talk the hind leg off a dingo, intelligent, articulate, thoughtful and happy to answer any questions we had about his culture - if only we could squeeze them in.

He showed us all sorts of stuff, but maybe the most bizarre was the kangaroo tail he threw into the campfire. His sons were in charge of singeing off the hair - before going back to their PSPs.

We ate the tail for smoko today: like lamb, very tender and good, though I was glad to get to a shower today to scrub the smell out from under my nails.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Rocking!

Up at ungodly o'clock for the red-eye to Sydney (glorious from the air - blue harbour, white city, really like actual - literary - Oz, except not green) and on to Uluru. Thanks, Qantas, for the life-jacket drill, so useful when flying over trackless waste - except when, bizarrely, suddenly there is a track, straight as a ruled line for miles and miles, linking nothing and nothing. But, to be fair, Lake Eyre is full, for once, milky white and vast, gleaming with the water that fell months ago in Queensland and startled the townspeople of Charleville, rushing in from behind and catching them unawares.

The best bit of flying in? Ayers Rock (properly called Uluru these days) from the air - just amazing, Nature's Taj Mahal. Miles and miles of dead flat desert, and then suddenly this stonking great monolith just sitting there, red and smooth and mysterious. While my camera sat in the overhead locker.

People are heading off to the sunset viewing now, to see it redden in the dying light - I'm going to watch it from my balcony. Tomorrow we'll do it properly, with the wine and nibbles and the compulsive clicking of the shutter, trying to emulate the fabulous photos displayed in the gallery here at the resort.

This afternoon I was poked and kneaded by Julienne, a proper masseur, who did me good rather than giving me a good time - just the job for bruised muscles - and filled me in on the parade of plagues they have here: ants then moths then beetles then grasshoppers then centipedes... always a new insect to look forward to.

In the excellent Visitor's Centre, I saw some of these regular visitors, plus stars like the barking spider, a mini-tarantula in looks; thorny devils, who drink through their feet; trilling frogs who wait underground for years until the rains come; wrestling goannas; and Willy Wagtail, a perky black and white bird that the label told me "typifies the Australian character: confident, jaunty, noisy, likes to pose a bit and active night and day". Hard to argue with that.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Tch

Report in the paper this morning about a plague of locusts about to strike NSW, Victoria and South Australia, after the rains they've had. Queensland has already had its turn (though that won't be the end of it) after long, soaking rains left the Outback green and lush.
When we went to Longreach, the palms planted around town and in people's gardens looked like chimney brushes, with just the stalks left of the fronds, all the green eaten away. Our hire car had plastic mesh fixed over the radiator grille to prevent a build-up of smashed insects leading to over-heating - and though the locusts had mostly moved on, there were still quite a few around, as well as clouds of butterflies and dragonflies everywhere we went.
Australia's climate and environment are really not for softies: just when the 8-year drought breaks and you think good times might lie ahead for a change, it slaps you in the face with something like a locust plague, that will strip a field of every scrap of greenery within hours. And that's aside from economic quandaries like the one faced by the people on Carisbrooke Station, who had to sell nearly all their cattle because they had no feed, and now have an abundance of grazing that they can't even rent out because everybody's in the same boat - and stock is now selling at premium prices. You'd think it would be heart-breaking, but I suppose you don't go into farming unless you can take the rough with the smooth, and the two Charlies, old and young, were both pretty philosophical.

I'm heading off back into the Outback, Northern Territory version, on Saturday for another dose of low horizons, huge skies and everlasting stars. It's going to be very cold at night, but the days should be lovely, with tramping, camping and, fingers crossed, a hot air balloon. Looking forward to it. Wifi will not be readily available, however.
UPDATE: It was the Box of Death for poor little Titch this morning, for whom 10 days of medication weren't able to defeat the nasty growth in her throat that was impeding both her breathing and eating. She was a feisty wee thing, and I was very fond of her, and so sorry to have to bring her life to an end.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Fish and feathers

Every morning, the same: feed cats, feed goldfish, fill wild bird feeder, feed hens - except now not just chucking the chooks some wheat and mash, but dosing each one with a ground-up antibiotic tablet dissolved in Powerade for the canker that so far only one has got. That meant weighing each one to determine the dose (lidded bucket plus suitcase scales) and now grabbing them one by one twice a day for a week to squirt it down their throats. Good fun.

The hen with canker is Titch, the oldest: a bantam who came strolling down the road one day about 6 years ago and was never claimed. Like all bantams, she has attitude, but she's cute and very chatty - or was, till this nasty growth attacked her throat. Now she's settled in the house, in the cat basket with a fresh tin of Fancy Feast every day and looks pretty comfortable, though it's too soon to say if she's getting better.

All this nursing fills in the time while the breakfast porridge is cooling for the doves, silvereyes, mynahs, starlings, sparrows and the once more lone love-bird sitting in all the surrounding trees like a scene from Hitchcock's The Birds. Before I understood the difference between native and endemic, I thought silvereyes (or waxeyes) were only found in New Zealand, but they're also native to Australia and some Pacific islands - not China though, so it was a surprise to see so many of them in cages at the Bird Market in Hong Kong.
From what I could see, the Chinese are very fond of caged birds - the market is big, colourful, and clearly a lot of the birds and fancy cages are pretty expensive. There were crowds of men taking a deep interest in everything on display.

I'm not keen on caged birds but, after 10 days of ships and cities, when I was walking through the suburbs of Qingdao, which were pretty and of obvious German heritage, but not big on gardens, it was lovely to hear one singing in its cage hung outside in the sun (even though it was probably saying "Get me out of here!")

It was impossible though to make any allowance at all for the hideous cruelty of sealing live baby goldfish inside the plastic globes of novelty key-rings being sold down on the pier.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Och aye the new

Heaven forfend that I should get sucked into the offensive laziness that is national stereotypes - but it does seem appropriate that I've just managed to squeeze another story out of my trip to Scotland three years ago. Nothing wrong with a bit of frugality, it's how I was brought up, and there isn't any Scottish heritage in my ancestry - that I'm aware of, though they did scatter far and wide, thanks to the auld enemy south of the border, in its upper-class landowner incarnation.

Anyway, one of the things in the story was the Falkirk Wheel, which I visited on the recommendation of a Burke-sympathiser in the Surgeon's Museum in Edinburgh (he thought grave-robber/murderer Burke had suffered from bad press). "It's the 8th Wonder of the World!" he claimed, so off I duly trotted, getting snarled up in a horrendous town by-pass system that had more roundabouts than you could shake a stick at. I swear I went at least seven sides of an octagon to get there.

But it was worth it: an astonishing piece of modern engineering built to rescue an old one. The Union Canal, finished in 1822, was designed to follow one contour all the way from Edinburgh to Falkirk, using aqueducts and tunnels to keep level so that no time-consuming locks would be necessary. But then the railways took over and the canal system languished for a hundred years till recreational boaties came along.

The Wheel is designed to lift a boat and the water it's floating on up 35 metres to where the Forth and Clyde canal stops in mid-air, where with some whirring and clanking it's able to transfer, while another boat on the other side does the opposite. It's crazy, ingenious and impressive - and also surprisingly economical (if you discount the £17.5 million it cost to build). In what always seems to me a sweet and typically British shorthand, each rotation of the wheel uses only the power that it would take to boil 8 tea-kettles.

And besides the engineering marvel, there are also a couple of fabulous artworks of Kelpies - mythical water-horses - that one day, Lotto funds willing, will be incorporated on a much larger scale (30 metres high) into the Wheel itself.

Worth seeing: go there. Falkirk is halfway between Edinburgh and Glasgow. 

Thursday, June 10, 2010

A wrong Charlie

Amazing news about the fox in London that entered a house, went upstairs and jumped into a cot to chew on nine month-old twins. Horrific, of course, but also just astonishing that it would be so bold. Urban foxes have been around for a long time, but clearly their behaviour is evolving as they learn to co-exist with - and live off - humans.

Probably the anti-hunting fuss of a few years ago worked in their favour, as city-dwellers noticed them more and probably made a point of attracting them into their gardens. It's understandable: they're beautiful animals. Even the most avid fox-hunter will happily agree that there's a lot to admire - that fabulous shape and colour, their grace and speed, their cleverness. It's always a thrill to see one flitting across the road or through a wood, and hearing that wild and eerie scream at night is spine-tingling. They have no natural predator in England though, and they've always needed to be controlled in the country, and perhaps now in the cities too.

I once chased a fox that came into our paddock and seized one of my hens in the middle of a summer afternoon. I was in shorts, barefoot, but I hurtled after that blasted animal, over a barbed wire fence and through waist-high nettles (and if you've never felt the sting of an English nettle, you've never known pain), furious that it had my chicken clamped in its jaws. I got the hen back, found dumped in the bed of the stream, but it was dead by then. At least I did the fox out of its dinner.

Fortunately the pioneers here in NZ stopped short of introducing foxes, which really would have been the end of our flightless birds; but they did in Australia, and are still battling to control them: they and the feral cats there are making huge inroads on the native species. For a long time, Tasmania was fox-free, but a few years ago there was state panic when a dead female was found on a road in the north; since when they've resigned themselves to losing a good number of their unique and pretty little furry marsupials, like quolls, bilbies and bettongs. They still don't know how the fox got across Bass Strait - it's hard to imagine anyone being so stupid as to bring it in on purpose, but how else?

Dead possum in the gutter at the bottom of our road this morning, I'm happy to report. And the fox in the photo is Britt, taken in by the lovely people at Cooberrie in Queensland.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Sailing

Unlike what seems these days to be the rest of the population of the western world, I've only been on two cruises - oh, hang on, three: I was forgetting the fancy catamaran up the Gordon River in Tasmania for a couple of nights. But that's in another class entirely from what most people think of as a cruise these days - and so was my first time really, on a small ship through a few of the Fiji Islands, which was pleasant and comfortable, but, you know, small.

Cruise ships are getting bigger and bigger: 'floating cities' may be a cliche of ad-speak, but it's also totally accurate. And they're already past the point where the destinations are the main focus - really, they could just be moored in some immense swimming pool and most of the passengers would be so caught up in the eating and shopping and entertainment on board that they wouldn't even notice. The latest Disney cruise ship has virtual portholes in the inner suites that are more in demand than those with real views over the real sea, because these ones come with interactive Nemos.

I'm thinking about cruising because my sister's just returned from 10 days in the Pacific with P&O, with what I think are horror stories: a punch-up in the guest laundry over a dryer, with one woman laid out cold; someone stealing an evening gown, wearing it, and challenging the gobsmacked rightful owner to prove it was hers; a family off-loaded in Port Vila after a noisy domestic; teenage lads ditto after tomfoolery in the life-boats and giving the captain an earful. Plus obese passengers super-loading plates at the buffet; and having to miss a port because the swell was a bit too big to risk these top-heavy passengers transferring into the launches. Sounds like hell to me. (And P&O is still struggling to shake off that murder on board a few years ago.)
I've been on board the Cunard liners - not, alas for a cruise, but for a tour and a fancy lunch, and they are very classy, if slightly absurd (waiters with white gloves - how impractical!) Even the new ones, like the Queen Mary, are designed to have an aura of mid-20th century elegance and exclusivity that hopefully discourages inelegant behaviour amongst the guests. (Probably most of them are too old to do more than clash Zimmer frames anyway.) The ships are certainly beautiful to look at, inside and especially out, with those classically raked bows - nothing like the glaring white bricks of the modern jobs.
The only proper cruise I've been on was on Silversea's Silver Whisper, a small ship (maximum 380 passengers, and it was only 2/3 full) and even though I'm still not a convert to cruising per se (too much about the journey, not enough destination, so not very productive for stories - also, very fattening), this was a great experience. Again, there were absurdities - ranks of waiters hovering to seize our filled plates from us at the breakfast buffet to carry for us to our tables, the whole dining room seething with these mini-parades - but besides being very luxurious, it was friendly too. And the bed! Twelve centimetres of pillow-top plus gentle rocking from the ship = best sleeps ever.
Perhaps though what made it seem so very welcoming and comfortable was that the cruise was along the coast of China, and the ports we called at delivered such an overwhelming dose of foreignness that it was a huge relief to return each time to familiar surroundings and cheerful staff who knew our names.

UPDATE: At the risk of discrediting this whole post, I've just remembered the fabulous cruise I went on through the Galapagos Islands - but again, it was a small ship, and it was all about the destination, rather than the on-board facilities (which were great).

Sunday, June 6, 2010

On the dark side

The First-Born's second day of work experience at the Herald on Sunday was less dramatic than the first a fortnight ago, when she was sent to interview witnesses to an armed robbery. "There weren't even any decent accidents, Mum," she complained. "This time last year the holiday weekend road toll was five!" So soon, to have gone over to the dark side. (At least she got to do a phone interview with Richard O'Brien of Rocky Horror fame, who turns out not to be a Kiwi after all, though he would like to be.)

Good news is no news, of course - so it's just as well there was the Killer Cabbie (thank you, Daily Mail) to fill the space with. His rampage through the lovely Lake District was shocking, but sadly less so than when Michael Ryan went berserk on a summer afternoon in Hungerford back in 1987: the first event of this sort in England. I was building a wall in our garden at the time, listening in mounting disbelief to the reports on the radio as I worked with pink Herefordshire stone under the willow tree, with wide green views towards Wales beyond the sheep in the field next door. It was truly shocking, a kind of loss of innocence, that something so violent could happen so randomly.

But since then of course, it's happened again and again, all around the world - even here - and each time, the language acquires a sad new bit of shorthand: Hungerford, Aramoana, Dunblane, Columbine, Port Arthur.

Port Arthur, in Tasmania, was never a cheerful place to visit: the grim penal colony where convicts deported from England were imprisoned if they persisted in their criminal ways. Now it can look very pleasant, the stone of the penitentiary mellowed with age, the trees big and shady, the lawns wide and open running down to the sea - but from 1833 onwards it was a hellhole. Men - and boys - were subjected to harsh physical punishment as well as a new idea, psychological torture, where they were put into solitary confinement and kept in total silence. Even when they attended church, they had to stand in separate compartments, with hoods on their heads so they couldn't catch a glimpse of another person. It's an inspired bit of penal theory that they tried out in Lincoln for a while.


[Over in the west, up the Gordon River, things were even worse:
...The moody, misty atmosphere is well suited to the area’s best-known contribution to Tasmania’s history: the notorious penal colony on Sarah Island, which pre-dates the Port Arthur penitentiary near Hobart. "Australia’s Guantanamo Bay," claimed Richard Davey, actor, writer and our guide on an eerie evening tour. The first commandant there was instructed by Governor Arthur that "the constant, active, unremitting employment in very hard labour is the grand and main design of your settlement. They must dread the very idea of being sent there." How ironic that tourists now pay money to come and be shown the coffin-sized solitary confinement cells and hear how the loss of a tool could mean a flogging with the extra-harsh ‘Macquarie cat’ until the prisoner’s back looked like liver – and was then drenched with salt water. Although many chose the so-called 'Hobart holiday' of a trial and execution for the murder of another inmate, others risked escape into the unexplored wilderness with such desperate companions that more than one ended up eaten... [Pub. Coastlines Feb 08]

Port Arthur is a fascinating place to visit, of course, and there were plenty of tourists exploring the site in 1996 when a madman with a gun killed 35 people. It was horrifying. When I went there seven years later, the Broad Arrow Cafe where a number of the deaths occurred - and which still has bullet holes in the walls - had been converted into a place of remembrance, and in the still pool outside, there was a bronze oak leaf floating for each of the victims. And the name of the gunman? Nowhere.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Happy Birthday, Lillibet

It's Queen's Birthday weekend, to celebrate her official birthday, and the last holiday before real winter sets in (as far as it ever does up here, anyway) - and, unlike Waitangi Day and Anzac Day, it isn't a date but a day, so we don't ever lose it over a weekend (still bitter about that - goodness knows how people with proper jobs must feel.)

Her Majesty and I have crossed paths several times: there was the time at the Badminton Horse Trials at (doh) Badminton in Gloucestershire, where we used to go every year on cross-country day to marvel at the astonishing obstacles the horses flew over. I still remember standing next to the Whitbread dray, a high, wide wooden trailer that I fully expected to see the horses jump on to and off again, like an Irish bank - and being totally stunned to see them clear it in one leap. They jumped into and straight back out of a narrow lane, over walls with precititous drops on the far side, into and out of a lake... it was so dramatic, and thrilling to be able to stand so close to the action, just a rope between us and the course.

Sometimes, at the more spectacular jumps, it took a while to work to the front, and I was surprised once, as I was worming my way along the side of a Range Rover, to see the Queen Mother through the glass. Her daughter, though, I saw standing on a wagon with the Dukes of Beaufort and Edinburgh, and scriggled closer to take a photo before being challenged by one of her body-guards. "Not so close, sonny," he growled, and I scuttled away puzzled that vision tests were clearly not a requirement for royal guards. Mind you, I almost walked right past Prince Charles, too focused on the horse to notice who was in the saddle.

The three-day event circuit, by the way, makes for an excellent day out: you don't have to be a horse fan to appreciate their amazing power, courage and skill over these huge jumps; they take place at beautiful and ancient stately country houses where you can wander freely around the grounds; and the stalls are legend: everything from hot pork rolls and cider to green Wellington boots, art and tat. Brilliant. We once went to the one at Gatcombe Park, Princess Anne's place, where we spotted her and the kids bustling about wearing T-shirts labelled 'Menial Tasks Division'. And last year when we went to Blenheim Palace, they were just setting up for one, which would have been terrific to stay for.

And then there was the Royal Garden Party at Buckingham Palace, which I would like to say we were personally invited to - but the truth is that NZ House, along with all the other embassies in London, is sent a quota of tickets each year for the half-dozen parties, and we won our invitation in the very democratic lucky draw that they run for the spares. It arrived, with no stamp, handwritten on thick card.
It was all rather a thrill: being beckoned out of the traffic by a policeman who saw our special windscreen sticker, walking across the Palace forecourt gravel inside the railings lined by rumpled tourists poking their cameras at us, passing by the guardsmen in their boxes and going through into the huge inner courtyard, where we queued at the entrance to have our names checked on the list (only 1982 - yet no X-ray machine, no body search, no explosives sniffers, not even a request to open my handbag. Amazing) and then going through the Palace - glimpses of red carpet, towering portraits and flower arrangements, lots of gold and marble, footmen in uniform - and then out on to the terrace and down the steps into the gardens.

Nowadays you can do tours of the Palace and see much more than we did - but back then this was the only way for members of the public to see inside, and it was a real privilege. We wandered the lawns, spotting piles of corgi poo by the herbaceous border, listened to the bands, looked for famous people amongst the great (not us), the good (not us)and the just plain lucky (over here!) - but everybody had scrubbed up so well that there was no-one who didn't look distinguished.

Lucky again, we were at the front of what turned out to be the Queen's route to her cup of tea, but then we dipped out, auditioned briefly by a Gentleman Usher who decided we didn't cut the mustard as sufficiently interesting, and so weren't invited to stand out in the open to have a brief chat with the Queen as she strolled past, and tell her how far we'd come.

Never mind, we gawped freely (we were on our honour not to bring cameras) until she'd passed by in her shimmering blue silk number, and then we stampeded to the striped marquees for a cup of Fortnum's special blend tea and a slice of fruitcake. At 6pm they played her song and she left her VIP enclosure to disappear again into the Palace, and we drifted away, watching the Changing of the Guard from a couple of metres' distance before passing through the gates and becoming plebs again, and going home to scoff pizza in our trackies in front of the TV. No doubt Her Majesty did likewise.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Croeso y Cymru, boyo

Much happier today, after going to the doctor and getting the good drugs, yeah!

Now that I'm able to concentrate, I'm writing a story about northern Wales, specifically Harlech Castle and Portmeirion - architectural opposites within sight of each other in Cardigan Bay (which only sounds like a nerdy name to those who don't remember the excitement of watching the famous 1960s NZ race-horse who was so successful and adored that he appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show).

The castle, despite the whiny complaints of an anoraked Brummie ("I'm disappointed, Wilma, I thought it was going to be a real castle, and instead it's a ruin"), is a classic: growing out of a cliff, serious grey stone with turrets and crenellations, an imposing gatehouse with murder holes and arrow loops, walls within walls, ranks of mournfully cawing crows along the battlements, and wide views over Snowdonia. Its very lively 700-year long history includes record-breaking seiges, the dashing Owain Glyndwr, a secret staircase and a link to the stirring song Men of Harlech which no-one who lived in England through the seventies can fail to hear without thinking of Christmas Day and Michael Caine, thanks to the ritual annual screening of Zulu*. Even though we trailed over, under and through more castles in Wales than you could shake a stick at, I remember Harlech clearly as one of the best. Well worth a visit.

And along the coast a bit, across the estuary, is Portmeirion, again with TV connections, this time The Prisoner, a mysterious series filmed there in 1967 starring Patrick McGoohan that not only beat Lost to that whole 'keep the viewers guessing' thing, but also made men's polo necks sexy.

The whole place is a folly of the highest order, a faux-Italian village cobbled together out of rescued buildings, and bits of buildings, from all over the place by Clough Williams-Ellis, pre- and post-WW2. What else could you expect from an eccentric toff who favoured tweed plus-fours and yellow socks, than a pastel-painted hotch-potch of arches, colonnades, towers and domes in a manicured garden of palms, pools and topiary? And yet, twee though it sounds, it's lovely - very pretty, quaint and appealing: a little treasure tucked unexpectedly into a hidden valley on the edge of Snowdonia's vast and glowering landscape.
* Inspiring James's deathless joke: "For fk's sake, Ivor, sing them something they like."

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