Saturday, July 31, 2010

Boo hoo

The sun's going down on another busy day here on Mauritius. It's our last night at this lovely resort, and I've yet to dip more than a toe into the gorgeous pools that I've taken so many photos of. The fish in the lagoon remain unspotted by me and I haven't even stretched out on one of the sunloungers that are freely scattered about the grounds, every one of them German-free.

As for strolling along the soft, capuccino-coloured sand like this couple, well, pft.

Today we've been on the go from 9am till almost 5pm with Jean from Mauritius Tourism. We've had a small adventure at a big waterfall, teetering across the top of it, knee deep in the water while clinging onto a cable to keep from being swept over the rocks. We've visited a Tamil temple and smelled the incense as we wandered around the shrines. We visited a gracious old tea plantation house built on slave labour; and saw vicious ankle shackles in a museum. There was also a sadly small glass case with a scattering of dodo bones - all that's left of the thousands and thousands that were here when the Dutch arrived.

We've chanced eating dhal puri and chanapory from a street vendor at the market, and less riskily eaten manioc biscuits made by ladies in frilled mobcaps bent over a long concrete oven: a human production line. We've tracked down a little house on an island to photograph, and struggled with both the lighting and the inconvenient presence in the shot of a floating flour sack probably containing a bloated dismembered body (not: this is a very orderly place). And we didn't see the mongoose that ran across the road.

All day we've met friendly, obliging people, some of them stunningly attractive.

And now it's dark and we're tired. It's been a lovely day - but no holiday.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Quelle belle journee!

The sun is shining, the scattered clouds are high, there were banana fritters on the breakfast buffet here at Tamassa, and I'm looking forward to another day of exploring this south-east corner of Mauritius and meeting more lovely people today.

I might even get into the water.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Hard life

Of course, we had to get the massage done first: a slender wee thing kneading my too, too solid flesh, and doing a good job too on the stiff shoulders. Then green tea on a sunlounger after by the infinity pool with hibiscus flowers on bowls and zen-raked sand under the foxtail palms. Sigh.

Then a quick tour of the property (Tamassa: lovely place, hard to distinguish the standard rooms from the deluxe) and off to lunch at the beach bar, Playa, where the Executive Chef himself was waiting for us with a table specially set up with beautifully presented little dishes of Mauritian tapas: octopus, palm hearts, lightly smoked marlin, prawns, curried fish and other delights. He sat and chatted with us about his wide travels in the kitchens of the world as we scoffed his lovely food and got an understanding of the local version of fusion food. It's all delicately done: the Indian food is clearly versions of curry, but not the sort to make the sweat spring out on your brow (though it's not all like that: the tomato chutney left me grabbing for a swig of the local Phoenix beer).

We met such a lot of friendly people today, on our taxi tour of the local sights: the over-60 group of Indian ladies genteelly dancing under the casuarinas at one beach to simple music made by a drum, tambourine, bell and wooden clappers, who got us to join in. Then there was the lovely man and his very lovely nephew selling carved stone dodos up at a lookout, who invited us home to share his cauliflower, chicken and carrot dinner with cucumber salad; and the man at the Grande Bassin Indian temple near a huge benevolent statue of Shiva, who bound Liz's knee with a red scarf when she tripped on a step and grazed it. The sugar cane juice seller was cheerful and chatty too; and the UAE couple at the deeply disappointing Coloured Earth place (not a patch on Rotorua) were funny and interesting.

It rained, and the sun shone, and then it rained and shone, rained and shone - it was just like being in Auckland. With better food and prettier people. Sorry.

Bienvenu a l'Ile Maurice

Figure this

Here are some numbers for you: Melbourne 3.5 hours from Auckland, 2 hours behind. Mauritius 11.5 hours from Melbourne, 6 hours behind. Mauritius thus over half a day away in actual flight time, and 8 hours behind NZ time. If you're confused, think how my body feels.

But that long flight was immeasurably eased by Air Mauritius business class, with nifty and comfortable side-by-side pods in an attractive orange and cream colour scheme, the attendants attentive and cheerful, and nattily turned out in figure-hugging uniforms with a jaunty little hat, and the food really great: colourful, locally-themed and very tasty. Salmon with mango and chilli salsa, yum! The time just, er, flew by. No wonder they won a big award recently. Now, of course, the entire trip is going to be blighted by the fear that we'll be relegated to cattle class on the way home.

It was dark when we got here, so no real impressions yet, other than surprise to be driven on the left - the island was French, then British, so I should have realised, but it's disconcerting when everyone is speaking French. English is meant to be the, or one of the, official languages here, but French is the langue de choix.

The resort looks lovely: villas along a white-sand beach with the reef close, lots of palms and neat gardens, big infinity swimming pools, air of relaxation. Not that we'll be getting much of that: once we've got the obligatory meetings with sponsors out of the way, we'll be zipping away to see as much as we can.

Ooh goody, the sun's come out! It's a bit damp here, and not quite as warm as I'd expected (winter, after all), but after all, it's early yet. Oh, so early...

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Foggy thinking

Here's a new thing for me: fogged in at the airport, plane unable to take off from Sydney for Melbourne because there's no guarantee it can land. What joy to have been given an upgrade to Business (bravo Steven and Gerard at Air Mauritius!) and a pass to the Air NZ lounge here with Bircher muesli, the NZ Woman's Weekly with my Milford Track story in it, and computers. Bliss, really, apart from the delay.

I feel a bit sorry for all the people we initially queued up with at the economy counter, who'll now be milling around in this rather unexciting airport (upgrade in progress) trying to fill in the time and easing from one flat buttock to the other on the nominally-padded chairs. They gave us a taste of what we'll see when we arrive: interesting and attractive ethnic mixes, the African and the Indian, with a French flavour. They looked nice, and the ones we spoke to were nice. (As most people are, of course.)

You remember that Blue Mink song back in the seventies, about the melting pot and the coffee-coloured people? At the time, I was sucked into thinking What a good idea, get rid of racism that way. Then when it was briefly revived in the eighties, I thought Nah! How boring for everyone to be the same, what we need is diversity, we just need to grow up and get a handle on it. And now I'm back to thinking, in my shallow way, Yeah! Because it seems to me that the world's most attractive people are of mixed race. (As an example of the downside of being a purebred, here I would if I could post a photo of Gail Platt from Coronation Street.) I know that historically and worldwide, creole people have had one of the roughest of deals, but now we're in a superficial age when appearance is paramount, maybe their time has come. Anyway, in Mauritius and Reunion Island I'm expecting to get as much aesthetic pleasure from the people as from the landscape.

I don't know how I'm going to go with posts while I'm in Mauritius because the iPhone has been playing me up and, apart from driving me crazy with its capricious ways, may not be very usable over there because I believe wifi isn't going to be widely available. So I'm probably going to have to slot in the photos afterwards.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Arty

No photos allowed inside the exhibition, so here's one of the outside of the gallery, complete with reclining figure (or whacked woman, if you prefer a reference to Melbourne's less arty, more Mob, side).

It was good - lots of variety in artist, subject, style; a handful of famous pieces by household names; and plenty of new stuff for the uneducated like me (who had to give up art after the fourth form in order to do physics and Latin). I especially liked, given my time of life, the one by an artist whose name I hope will come to me eventually, of the portly old widower with wife's portrait in one hand and crumpled hanky in the other, wistfully looking at two pretty young things walking past his garden bench and taking no notice of him whatsoever. And the enviably pearly complexions of the girls in Renoir's paintings.

I confess, there was as much entertainment from the other punters as the paintings themselves: mainly the parties of little kids giggling at the nudes, their teachers manfully trying to keep them focused on technique. "Look at this one! Where's the light coming from?" "From that lightbulb up there, Miss."

Plus there was a pirate with hat, bandanna, bare chest and waxed moustaches taking a deep interest in the works. And lots of arty-type women in scarves, hats, long coats and boots who could have just stepped right out of one of the larger canvases.

And outside, buskers, joggers, suits and schoolkids; trams and a horse-drawn carriage; river with boats and fancy bridges; lots of buildings, new and old, designed to impress; and sunshine and crisp air. Nice. All within easy walking distance, too, from our classy little boutique hotel, Causeway 353, right in the centre of the city. Perfect.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Dame Edna's town

Tomorrow the Baby and I get up at ungodly o'clock again so she can drive me to the airport for the red-eye to Melbourne. The flight to Mauritius leaves early the following morning, so that's why the day in Oz. The cheapest flightst are the earliest ones; but it does mean I can have a day mooching around Melbourne, where I haven't stayed a night since 1980, although I have passed through several times since.
The first time was in 2003, when the First-Born and I were en route back home from Tasmania, my first working trip: it was brilliant, even if at times we were literally running to keep up with the itinerary. Best bits? So many: the fabulous white silica beaches on the east coast; all the animals on Craig's Pepper Bush Adventures safari; the old towns and bridges; the raspberries; the cute boutique hotel in Hobart; finding huge fields of opium poppies (Tassy supplies most of the world's morphine). We had a great time.
It was cool, though, even in December - but our day in Melbourne was at the other end of the scale, SO hot, the breeze like the blast from a fan-assisted oven. We watched a man making lettered rock, rolling out the candy on a heated bench, sweat (yuk) dripping freely. At 6pm it was still 30 degrees.
And then the next time was three years later, in November, en route from tropical north Queensland back to Tasmania again, and there was snow on the ground. Luckily I didn't get out of the plane that time, but the snow caught up with me at Cradle Mountain.
That's typical of Melbourne, though: very extreme in its weather. But also great for shopping and food and culture - tomorrow I'll go and get some of the latter at the National Gallery of Victoria, where they've got a special exhibition of European Masters. I know people who are going from here just to see it. I might even learn a bit more than just what I like.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

A little of what you fancy

A friend sent me to this YouTube link which I can't imagine anyone not enjoying, so go there for some fun.
I was in Wales last year and didn't - strangely - go to Newport. Well, not that one, anyway - we did pass through a smaller one, north of Fishguard on the west coast. There are some lovely towns along that road, starting right down on the corner with St David's, which is the smallest city in Britain: the population is only 2000, but it has a cathedral, and that's the main qualification. The four Good Food Guide entries are just, er, icing on the cake; in fact, it has more eateries per head of population than anywhere else in Britain. Perversely, we ate nothing there, but we did visit the cathedral and the Bishop's Palace, the latter picturesquely ruined and set about with ravens and pigeons. They're both hidden in a valley so they weren't visible to raiders sailing past.
Where we did eat was at our hotel Llys Meddyg, which was one of a series called 'Restaurants with Rooms': what an excellent idea. We had pork belly with salty caramel onions and crackling, with a glass or two of organic cider, and afterwards lemon posset with berries. Yum! It was so good (the chef has worked with Peter Gordon - ooh, famous father of fusion food, where's he from again? Oh yes, New Zealand).
Because that trip was partly a private holiday, we didn't overdo the dinners: I hate to complain (and I know there'll be no sympathy forthcoming) but when you're doing an official famil, there's so much good eating provided that it all becomes a bit much. It's such a shame not to be able to do it all justice. Next week's trip to Mauritius was going to involve lunches as well as dinners until we excused ourselves politely. All that French cuisine plus local seafood and fusion with Indian, Chinese and Creole is going to be fantastic - but less is more, I'm afraid.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Unnatural selection

I see there's another proposal being made to reintroduce thousands of wolves to places like New England, California, the Great Plains and the desert West. Having walked through the woods in the first two places, it was enough for me to cope with the possibility of bears, without having to listen out for a pack of wolves creeping up on me. Biologists, though, march to the beat of a different drum - and you mess with them at your peril:

UNNATURAL SELECTION

Have you heard Darwin’s joke about evolution? No, me neither. Outside the border of a Gary Larson cartoon, scientists are not much associated with humour, which is why my name has become a dirty word among conservationists.

It’s rather surprising, that I, who keep chickens and a worm farm and whose compost heap is a miracle of organic recycling should find myself pilloried by such an august institution as the NZ National Parks and Conservation Foundation; and all because I once frivolously suggested that as our native birds are as a rule both tone-deaf and drab, it would make the dawn chorus a much jollier affair if we allowed English robins to join in. Hooray for the tuneful songs of the blackbirds and thrushes, I cheered, and boo to the boring tui and grey warbler. Let’s have gaudy flights of multi-coloured budgies, I fantasised, and jewelled hummingbirds hovering in the kowhai.
Unfortunately for me, there was a brace of humourless British biological scientists visiting at the time, who took great exception to my admiration for blackbirds and other jack-booting exotics, and denounced as silly and irresponsible my proposal for free entry to New Zealand for all colourful birds who can hold a tune. Their intelligent, informed and, ultimately, dull and predictable argument with what was simply a flight of fancy is just what you would expect from such earnest, blinkered types. In their ideal world, there would be no give-and-take between countries of either flora or fauna, and each would remain biologically pure, distinct and unique.

This is dangerous ground, I think, trodden most notoriously by Adolf Hitler – and the fact that my computer’s spell-check has just refused to recognise his first name is a fair indication of the regard in which he is held these days. Because if immigration and miscegenation in the plant and animal worlds are rigorously banned, wouldn’t that encourage the view that human populations should be equally pure?
It’s a matter of where you draw the line – and, equally importantly, when. The scientists trotted out the argument that tourists come here to enjoy New Zealand’s beautiful and uncontaminated environment. Tourists come also, however, to experience and appreciate the Maori culture. Maori got here about 850 years before the blackbird: so, if you’ll pardon the pun, is it simply a race, to qualify as a native? Or do the scientists think New Zealand would be richer, if the people had stayed away and left the moa, huia and other now-extinct species to thrive unmolested?

And what if they allowed people to come in, but not sheep and cattle, which are responsible for the loss of vast tracts of native habitat: where would our economy be then? Or are farm animals okay, but not the cats and dogs which enhance and aid the lives of their owners? There are certainly some hard-line biologists who raise their heads above the parapet with that argument from time to time, but the fact that they have got no further shows how out-of-touch they are with the real world.

We all know about scientists and their jars of formaldehyde and trays of pinioned insects: but you can’t enclose an entire country in a glass case. Change will occur, both naturally and through outside agents, some of it good and some of it regrettable. That’s life, by definition. There are good reasons for arguing that trying to preserve creatures like the kakapo, whose finickingly fussy way of life seems designed to bring about its own extinction, is flying in the face of nature. Some of these animals – and no-one is sorrier about this than I am – are just born losers. Natural selection is, after all, a continuing process.
Unnatural selection, on the other hand, is apparently all right if it is scientists, rather than mere columnists, doing the selecting. Americans, as we know, think big; and a report in the latest issue of the scientific journal Nature dwarfs my modest robin joke. Some biologists from Cornell University are seriously proposing the introduction of elephants and lions into the Great Plains of the United States in an attempt both to give these animals a better shot at survival than they currently have in their native African habitats, and to restore to America modern descendants of animals that were wiped out there more than 10,000 years ago. Someone in Britain is also lobbying to reintroduce bears and wolves into the Scottish Highlands.

Well, pardon me for not grasping the big picture here, but if I were a cattle rancher in Montana, or a Scottish crofter with a valued flock of sheep, I don’t think I would welcome a whole new level of predators in my environment. And I would worry that there could be a trend developing. What’s next: Jurassic Park?

[Pub. Waikato Times 27/8/05]
Not the face of a hard-hearted survival-of-the-fittest zealot, honest - no-one would be happier than me to get to Mauritius next week and find the place still swarming with dim-but-friendly dodos.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Coco loco

I can see the signs as well as anybody: two coconut references in the last post, and then I just read a warning about coconuts in my Mauritius guidebook. So coconuts it is today, then.
The warning was not to lie underneath one. Well, duh! I've been cautious about falling coconuts ever since I saw one in Tahiti drop out of a tree into a shallow pond at the base with the most spectacular splash. It was like a scene from The Dambusters. Noise, white water, small tsunami: the thought of my delicate noggin being underneath something like that has left me terminally cautious about the potential irony of the Tree of Life actually being an Instrument of Death.
That's what they call it all through the tropic zones, you know, because they use every bit of it. I have, myself, sat on a coconut palm stump on Atiu in the Cook Islands, drinking from a small polished coconut shell cup bush beer brewed from fermented orange juice and hops - a tradition since the early missionaries took a dim view of the original tipple of choice, kava. (Bush beer is so much nicer than that muddy, mouth-numbing disgusting drink anyway.) Custom is, to have it with a coconut milk chaser.
I've also drunk fizzy fresh green coconut milk there ("Tastes just like Sprite!" said Birdman George, who shinned up the tree to pick one for me - and so it was, sort of). The he cut a spoon from the outside with one slash of his machete and I used it to scoop out the soft, delicately-flavoured meat from inside ("Baby food," said George). Then he cut some fronds and plaited them into plates to serve our fruity lunch on at the beach, where freshly-grated coconut and a squeeze of lime juice made pawpaw and starfruit into something memorable.
I've been given a polished bit of shell with holes in it to keep my sarong secure, and a woven-frond hat to keep the sun off. I've eaten fish cooked in coconut milk in the Loyalty Islands near New Caledonia; as well as coconut crab which looked hideous, but tasted divine, thanks to its exclusively coconut diet.
I've sheltered in Thailand under a cococut palm leaf-roofed hut, on a coconut palm leaf mat and watched a trained monkey romp up a coconut palm tree to twist a nut free, and seen the meat boiled up in a vast wok to extract the oil - and then tasted the glorious caramel-y residue that's left afterwards. I've made a pig of myself on Aitutaki with rukau - tender green taro shoots baked in coconut cream. In fact, I've eaten a whole swag of foods cooked in or with coconut, and loved them all, ruinous though they are to the waistline.
And none of this is to mention how coconut trees are used in building, for roofing, for drums, for clothing (including the infamous coconut shell bra, all sizes) ... It's a marvellous plant. Just don't sit underneath one.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Nuts to that

Drat. I read yesterday that while it's a good thing for New Zealanders to eat Brazil nuts regularly, as an excellent source of selenium which is naturally scarce here, there is such a thing as selenium poisoning, and the limit should be one nut a day. One nut! I thought I was being exceptionally restrained just having three - it is a nut, after all, and who ever could eat just one nut and then stop? (Except for a coconut, of course.)

Brazil nuts don't just grow in Brazil - the trees are all through Amazonia, which means also Ecuador, Peru, Colombia, the Guianas and Venezuela. The reason why they're so expensive is that the trees are huge, really high, slow-growing, and don't fruit till they're mature, so there's no such thing as a Brazil nut tree plantation - no-one's ever been foresighted and selfless enough to plant one.
So the only way to gather the nuts is to trek through the jungle at the right time of year and pick them up when they've fallen - taking great care not to be underneath when they fall, because they weigh several kilos and could split your skull, easy as. Because that's the other thing, the nuts we get crabby trying to crack at Christmas, straining our wrists to break those hard shells (inevitably breaking the nut itself, which sticks to the bits of shell so tenaciously that you end up gnawing the meat off) - that segment shape is exactly that. They grow like oranges, fitted together inside a hard outer shell a bit like a coconut - which is just as hard to get into.

You kind of wonder why it's all so difficult - except I suppose the aim isn't for the nut to be eaten, but dispersed to grow elsewhere; in its slow-motion way in no particular hurry for the shells to break down so the seed can germinate. Nature makes me tired sometimes, just thinking about stuff like this.
But oh! The joy and delight of eating a fresh Brazil nut, that hasn't gone through that whole prolonged business of collection, processing and distribution, getting harder and staler at every stage. When I stayed at Refugio Amazonas in Peru, about three hours by motorboat up the Tambopata River from Puerto Maldonado, they had a little machine for cracking the nuts, and the taste was a revelation: creamy, moist, soft, delicate... so delicious there was no way I could stop at just one. So now there's another mystery: how do Amazonian Indians not succumb to selenium poisoning?

(One of the symptoms is hair loss. Clearly Roderigo the Capybara here hasn't succumbed.)

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Mixing it up

It looks as though the culture in Mauritius is going to be really interesting and colourful (thanks, Lonely Planet). Turquoise sea and jungly volcanic peaks I've seen before often enough, but the mixture of Indian, Chinese, French and Creole is unusual and promising. I'm expecting bright colours, lively music, zingy food.

The only time I've come across Creole culture before was in Peru, with people of Spanish descent (in Mauritius they're African) in Nazca, where we'd gone to see the amazing lines in the desert.
It was a long day that began with an early start in a big jetboat out to the Ballestas Islands where they used to collect the metres-thick guano from the millions of birds that nest there. Pre-artificial fertiliser, this stuff was like gold dust, and ships taking it to Europe were often attacked by pirates. In those days they would have had less delicate noses than we do now - because boy! that sure is a powerful stink.
Great bird life, though - pelicans, boobies, penguins - plus sealions, and dolphins cruising round the brightly-painted fishing boats when they were swilling out their holding tanks. And the islands were pretty spectacular too: great arches and cliffs of black and orange rock streaked with white, and deep blue ocean surging into the pebbly beaches.
Then we headed south along the Pan-American Highway and Peru's arid zone (the brown bit, as opposed to the blue strip down the middle - the Andes - and the green on the other side - the Amazon). We stopped at a classic, literal oasis in amongst the sand dunes where a pretty little town, Huacachina, was built around a palm-fringed lake.
We got into a sand-dune buggy with wide tyres and roll-bars, and hooned up onto the dunes for some silly fun, roller-coastering around and stopping to do a bit of sand-boarding. That was simple, childlike fun going down, but it was heavy, grown-up work toiling back up to the top.
And then we drove to Nazca, where the sky was constantly busy with little planes flightseeing over the mysterious lines in the desert. We took our turn and were amazed despite the horrendous airsickness caused by all the aerobatics involved in making sure everyone had a good look.
Finally we had dinner out at a touristy restaurant with a huge cactus growing in the middle of the dining room under an open roof with the Southern Cross showing. After the obligatory El Condor Pasa and Guantanamera (no trip to Peru is possible without hearing both these tunes at least once a day) some Creole people treated us to their music and dance: lots of hips and arms, swirling skirts, energy and sensuality, and lively music involving box drums and a donkey jaw with rattly teeth. It was great.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Enough, already

Look, I'm sorry to keep banging on about this, but it's been bloody cold here. Frosts, people! In Auckland! It's not what I signed up for, frankly. 'Winterless north' is what I heard.
Cold and me go way back. I grew up in Christchurch, where we know a thing or two about chilly mornings. And raw afternoons. And frozen nights. Then I lived in England - yes, there was central heating, but I spent a lot of time outdoors; and one winter it got down to -15 C. And I've slept in a tent at over 3000 metres in the Andes; and in a swag in the Outback in winter 600km from the sea.
I've been so comfortable with the cold that on fabulous hoar-frosty days in England I've wandered around outside photographing the sparkling rime-coat that made even cow parsley beautiful, until my toes went solid.
(Sepia effect courtesy of nasty, valley-bottom mist, by the way.)

But now that I live in a wooden house with token insulation in the roof, none in the walls and nothing but wind whistling under the floorboards, I've had it with cold. My Aitutaki story came out this week, and it was so long ago that I was there, I read it as though it was someone else's, and could only think "How I'd love some of that hot sun and warm sea right now."
So what a good thing that two weeks today I'll be in Mauritius.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Vive la France!

Bastille Day today. We could have been French, you know, if they'd been a bit quicker off the mark - or, at least the South Island ('Mainland' to those of us in the know, ie born there) could have been. The Brits were well ensconced in the North, but hadn't much bothered with the South, which was well-frequented by French whalers in the early 1800s: New Zealand whale oil lit the streets of Paris, woo hoo! But by the time the Frogs had decided to make their move, they'd been pipped by the British who organised the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 and got South Island tribes to sign it in May - and Capt Lavaud arrived in August.

So near to Roquefort and mille feuilles, and yet so far! But all was not totally lost: the French settlers who came on Lavaud's ship stayed anyway, at Akaroa, over the hill from what's now Christchurch, and even now the town has a strong French flavour: rue this and that, a French Fest, sweet little cottages that have a different feel to those elsewhere.

Dave Armstrong wrote a play about how it would have been if the North Island had been British and the South, French: Le Sud. It's a farce, funny and topical, and I thoroughly enjoyed it when I saw it at the Maidment. Even the North Islanders liked it.

Anyway, Akaroa's well worth the winding drive over Banks Peninsula:

Saturday

9am On a crisp, bright morning, we head out of Christchurch for the 85km journey to Akaroa. It's tempting to stop at the Little River café for a coffee and a browse through the art and crafts displayed there, but there are more crafts to come - and there is no better view than from the Hilltop Tavern. Perched 425m above sea level, there are sparkling views behind over Lyttelton Harbour and in front towards Akaroa - 'long harbour', the land around it wrinkled into countless steep valleys.

10am We wind down to Duvauchelle, the first indication that this is a part of New Zealand like no other: one clue is the name, the other the French flag flying over the little hotel. Back in 1838, Captain Jean Langlois bought a title deed which he took back to France- but by the time the ship carrying 63 settlers arrived in the Bay of Islands in 1840, the Treaty of Waitangi had been signed and the British were rushing off to plant their flag on Banks Peninsula, which they did just five days before the French got there. France gave up its claims some years later, but by then the settlers had made themselves at home, and their descendants, with names like Le Lièvre, Fleuret and Eteveneaux are still in the area. We were to find many more French influences in Akaroa - but we had already been past the cheese factory at Barry's Bay, where cheeses have been made since 1893, and where you can watch the process as well as buy the product.

10.30am We arrive in Akaroa and cruise up the main street, Rue Lavaud, which is lined with gingerbread wooden cottages tucked into pretty gardens. Many of these offer charming B&B accommodation, but we are staying at a friend's bach, and twist up the hill to find that the house has a magnificent view over the town and its two piers jutting out into the harbour. We walk back down into the little town, around rues Jolie and Balguerie, where there are many little gift shops, cafes and galleries. The French theme is perhaps a little overdone at Café Eiffel, which has a two-metre model of the tower on the footpath outside, but the coffee is good.

12 noon From the main pier, we take a two-hour wildlife cruise on a catamaran. As we head out on the harbour, we are glad of our fleeces, but the sun is bright and we are thrilled to catch a glimpse of a Hector's dolphin. The smallest and rarest dolphin in the world, it has a cute Mickey Mouse ear-shaped dorsal fin; sometimes a pod will put on a show, but not today. Instead, we see blue penguins, fur seals and salmon leaping in their cages as we go past the fish farms. The volcanic rock cliffs soar above us, sculpted by the sea, and Cathedral Cave is impressive. All around, the hills are tinged gold in the low sunshine and the sea is sparkling.

2.30 We browse through the blue-painted shop of Akaroa Blue Pearls out on the jetty, and see how flat-backed pearls are grown on paua shells and mounted on gold and silver to make beautiful jewellery. Then back into the town for a self-guided wander around the colonial houses and churches, fetching up at the picturesque light-house, just on the edge of town. It's the best way to get the feel of the place: just mooching around, enjoying the old buildings, the little shops, the sandy beach fringed with Norfolk pines, and the wonderful views across the harbour; and whenever you need a rest, there is a café nearby with tea and cake.

6pm We watch the sun set behind the far side of the old volcanic crater: the sea is like beaten bronze under a golden sky that intensifies to deepest red, silhouetting the little pointed shelter at the end of the jetty until everything fades to black. We follow the colonial-style street lamps and, though we could indulge in some authentic French cuisine at one of the fancy restaurants, go instead for the best fish and chips in the South Island, poking a hole in the paper to scoff chips on the way home, and finish it all off with a bottle of wine in front of the fire at the bach.

Sunday

9.30am Eggs Benedict with coffee and the papers in front of the fire at Le Jardin is a great way to start a winter Sunday. If we had the energy we could go horse-riding, walking or 4WDing; in summer we could visit gardens or kayak - but the vote goes to gentle blobbing out before a slow trip home, detouring to the French Farm Winery for lunch by another fire. On the other side of the hills, we wake ourselves up with a brisk fossick along the steeply-shelving beach at Birdlings Flat, where pebbles of agate, quartz and jasper have already been polished by the sea. Then the weekend's over: c'était magnifique.
[Pub. Sunday Star-Times 14/8/05]

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Flagging it

In a report about the final of the World Cup (and I can hardly believe I'm making my second sports-related post in two days) the comment was made that "Few countries in Europe, except Germany, have such an instinctive mistrust of patriotism". It's a reference to Spain being a 'nation of nations', with Catalonia and the Basque region eager for independence; right now everyone is united in support of La Roja, but the Spanish flag is usually more of a red rag to many of its official citizens.

It reminded me of my last night in Alice Springs recently, which we spent at the locally famous Overlanders Steakhouse, a friendly and jolly place with a huge range of different steaks including, of course, kangaroo, camel, crocodile and emu, but also, for the more than usually peckish, The Ringer's Reward: a 2kg rump steak. The menu is a work in progress - we ate with Krafty, the owner, who was immediately interested when I showed him a photo I'd taken earlier of a butcher's display of Vegemite and cheese sausages. Since a highlight of each evening is the mass singing of 'Waltzing Matilda' and 'Click Go the Shears' (choruses printed on the back of the menu) complete with wobble boards, Krafty is clearly keen to inject as much local culture as possible into his dining experience.
Anyway, one of the things they do there is when diners are welcomed in, is to ask where they come from - and then their national flag is popped on their table. It's a little bit of fun, and also gives Krafty, at a glance, an accurate measure of his restaurant's demographic.

But it was interesting, and a little sad, to hear him say that there are only two nationalities who frequently prefer not to have their country of origin made public: Germany, and the USA. For much the same reason, I would guess.

Not that that was a consideration bothering the party of Kontiki youngsters, mostly American, who whooped it up during the Overlander's other regular event: the branding, with a white-hot iron, of the restaurant's logo on the back pockets of their jeans.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Eight legs good

So Paul the Octopus did it! Eight out of eight correct predictions: amazing (it must also be said that equally amazing is the fact that our All Whites - despite the unfortunate name given the location of the competition - remain the only unbeaten team in the entire World Cup football tournament. Despite never actually winning a game).

I can cope with the maths as far as each prediction of the winning team being just 50:50 odds - when we move into the mysterious realms of probability for eight out of eight, however, my innumeracy rises up and defeats me. I know the coin-toss thing is primary school level, but there you go, yet another of life's inscrutables.

I do understand that it's all about chance, of course, that intelligence doesn't come into it - although octopi (I'm much better at Latin than sums) are certainly bright. Possibly even numerate. There's one living in a tank at Kelly Tarlton's here in the city that, until he was rumbled, used to make nocturnal visits across the floor to the big open rock pool where the crayfish were, and help himself to a seafood supper. He was eventually thwarted by a large weight on the glass cover of his tank: shame, really, to smother such initiative.

Not being much of a water-baby, the nearest I've got to an octopus is a plate of calamari - but I did once see a cuttle-fish in the Marine Centre on Kangaroo Island, off the coast of South Australia. It was astonishing. One minute a brown lump on the stones, the next, literally, a pulsating red creature posing and flaunting itself up by the glass - and all it took was a mirror, so it thought it had company.

It would really be something to go to Whyalla, in the Spencer Gulf, when thousands of Giant (60cm) Cuttlefish migrate there to spawn from May to August. Apparently the sea is full of them, the males putting on a fabulous show of constantly-changing patterns and colours. Divers see it all best, but evidently snorkellers can see pretty well too.

The water would be cold this time of year, though, brrr. I may go to my grave with my closest cuttlefish encounter being seeing their backbones washed up on a beach with interesting rocks that's part of the Heysen Trail at the southern end. I met a lady there, collecting them for her two budgies, which ate a couple every week. Interesting choice of snack for an inland bird, eh?

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Parky

Cold, cold, cold last night: frost front and back this morning, ice on the hens' water and the trees full of hungry birds. Nothing, of course, compared to the winter they had in the northern hemisphere this year, or even the snows down south, but for us thin-blooded Auckland types, it's pretty brisk. Emphasis on the pretty: clear, crisp, sunny, sharp edges to the trees and their shadows, blue sky and saturated colours. Lovely.
But not much fun for the birds, who fell on my beak-gluing mix of oats, dripping and fruit juice even though it was still steaming: silver-eyes in first, then sparrows, blackbirds, starlings, mynahs and doves.
The silver-eyes are so bold (or hungry) that they flock down before I've even got back through the gate, twittering and squabbling as they feed: it's so pleasing to see them flying free, after finding their poor relations trapped in tiny cages in Hong Kong.
It's really no different from budgerigars: we're so used to seeing them in cages, but in Australia, if you're lucky, you can see them flying in great flocks of flashing bright green through the orange, olive and blue of the Outback. I did once, years ago, from the old Ghan, when it was stuttering its way along one of the many dodgy sections of the track in those days: it was a revelation, to suddenly realise that the ordinary old budgie is originally, and still, as wild and free as a lark.

Though they're rarely tuneful, Australia's birds are certainly colourful, and I was delighted at the Alice Springs Desert Park to see so many of them going about their business right outside the aviaries where I'd just walked through and learned about them.
Grass parrots. Such an imaginative name, don't you think?

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