Saturday 27 November 2010

People power

My regular walking circuit includes, just before the dreaded 132 steps, a flat concrete bridge across a small creek that drains mainly stormwater from the hill behind. It's an uninspiring affair, usually clogged with pine needles and leaves and other vegetable detritus which is overlaid each high tide by junk from the inner harbour which includes a dispiriting amount of plastic. The creek opens onto our only beach, which scarcely deserves the word, since it's more mud than sand and is constantly being colonised by mangroves, which get hoiked out now and then by the Sea Scouts whose hut stands over the water.

There are, um, prettier parts to my neighbourhood. But that may change, because this morning there was, head down and hard at work, an Asian man dressed in spotless white shorts and tshirt, busily raking debris out of the bed of the creek. He'd already worked along the scant stretch of sand at the edge of the beach, and made small piles of leaves, pinecones and other untidy things. I was delighted to see such public-spiritedness, even though I imagine he's probably just moved in nearby and is wanting to improve his outlook. I told him what a good job he was doing and that myself, I probably wouldn't have worn white to do such mucky work. He smiled cheerfully but clearly didn't understand much of what I'd said, so I waved and went on my way.

Asian people and rakes: such a busy combination. And so effective! If you include brooms and besoms too, there's nothing they can't leave looking better than they found it.In China we saw them scratching away in parks, public monuments, streets and building sites where here we would break out something macho with a motor, or at the very least an electric plug. It's good to be reminded of what people can achieve with simple tools, if there are enough of them - or even one man, if he's persistent. I'll be trotting down that hill tomorrow, to see what he's accomplished.

(I must say though, I was astonished in Xiamen, a big modern port full of skyscrapers and fancy new cars, to see a trail of little old men with shoulder yokes carrying rubble out of a building that was being altered, and dumping it in a pile on the footpath. Would a chute from the window into a truck have been too high-tech? (And none of this is to mention India, where women roadworkers still carry tin bowls of gravel on their heads.))

Thursday 25 November 2010


No pumpkins around here, or chrysanthemums or Indian corn cobs hung decoratively by their crisp dry husks. No turkeys either, apart from those sitting in the supermarket freezers waiting for the Christmas rush. And no tradition, lovely though it is, of taking a day every year to count blessings and be thankful for them and the friends and family you're sharing them with.

But I bet there aren't many people in New Zealand today who haven't looked at the sun shining on fresh green leaves, bouncy lambs, sparkling water, bright flowers and the faces of those friends and family, and been thankful that they're here, alive and cheerful and with good things to look forward to. Most of them.

Wednesday 24 November 2010

Sorrow floats

So that's that, then. Another explosion this afternoon, even bigger than the first, which last night we learned had lasted 52 seconds and reached temperatures estimated to be around 1200 degrees. It's vindicated the decision of the po-faced police superintendant, who we were starting to dislike, who had stuck to his guns that no rescuers should be allowed down the tunnel while there was still the risk of another blast.

The chief of the mine, a former miner himself and a rumpled, open, straightforward bloke with bags under his eyes that have got bigger by the hour, is now anxious to recover the bodies but the possibility is that they may never be recovered: the mine may simply have to be sealed and abandoned as too dangerous to work.The levels of methane and carbon monoxide are still extremely high.

Seeing the parade of faces of the miners on television tonight was very sad: good guys, family men, cheerful in their photos, who'd signed on to do what they knew was a dangerous job, but never really thought they would die down there in the dark.

Who does? There's danger everywhere. Sometimes it's signposted, sometimes it's not. Mostly we get away with it. Sometimes we don't. Carpe diem.

Tuesday 23 November 2010

Slow burn

Unlike up here in Auckland, it's been a hot, sunny day down on the Coast today. A good day to get out in that beautiful green and blue scenery and enjoy nature at its best, chill out, get life back into perspective.

None of that's been happening, of course. It's Day 5 and a rescue seems as far away as ever. There's bubbling discontent with the role the police have chosen to play, with the apparent foolishness of sending an unprotected electronic robot into a damp mine, with the short-sightedness of drilling one hole at a time down to the tunnel, with the refusal to allow family members to go to the mine entrance. People are getting angry.

They've been patient up till now, but they're reaching their limit, imagining their sons, husbands, brothers, sitting in the dark, waiting and waiting and wondering why no-one's coming for them. And that's the good scenario.

The rest of us around the country are reaching our limit, too. It seems time for someone to step forward and take some decisive action.

Monday 22 November 2010

It's grim out west

Still no news - just heart-breaking details about the men trapped in the mine. Actually, one of them isn't: he's a boy, turned 17 the day before the explosion, and down the mine on his first day on Friday, too excited and eager to wait for his official start as a miner, which should have been today. What can you say?

The new bore hole isn't quite through yet. The gas situation is unknown, and potentially very dangerous for both miners and rescuers. Time is ticking away, and the visible effects of the blast that's damaged and blackened the opening of the mine is weighing on people's minds. There's a growing unease that this is going to end badly.

The West Coast has always been somewhat separate from the rest of New Zealand. It's historically remote, on the far side of the Southern Alps, wetter than most places and harder to earn a living in, whether mining for coal or gold, logging or farming on land that's really not designed for it. The Coasters take a more liberal view of some laws, have different priorities and standards; and they're tough. They'll shore each other up through this. There won't be much of that touchy-feely stuff that the media will be hanging out for. They're private. But it's going to be hard for them.

Sunday 21 November 2010

Still waiting

No news isn't always good news. It's been two days now with no contact with the trapped miners and, it seems, precious little progress towards their rescue. The problem is the gas hanging in the tunnel, that could easily be ignited by a random spark caused by the rescue party; so they're kicking their heels above ground waiting for the painfully slow process of flushing the methane out of the mine.

It must be agonising for the families of the men, waiting and waiting, with nothing so far to fix their hopes on, and trying not to notice that, more and more, the media are using the word 'recovery'.

It's not, by a long chalk, the Coast's first mining disaster: it comes with the territory. The last big one though was back in 1967, when 19 were killed in an explosion at the Strongman Mine. Of the others, the worst is the one in the mural above, on the wall of the Greymouth Star newspaper building. The Brunner Mine explosion in 1896 killed 65 miners - imagine that.

The cause was fire damp - methane - which hadn't been adequately cleared by the ventilation system. Already attention has focused on problems with the ventilation in the Pike River Mine - which is working the Brunner coal seam. Plus ça change, eh?

Saturday 20 November 2010

The 29

All eyes on the West Coast now, where 29 coal miners have been trapped over two kilometres inside a tunnel by an explosion at Pike River Mine north of Greymouth. Coming so soon after the Chilean rescue, it seems to be all too familiar a story: anxious family members at the mine entrance, officials making statements of no substance, reporters swarming to the Coast from all over the country, and everyone else with their fingers crossed, trying to imagine how it must be for the men trapped in the dark - which is the best scenario so far.

Without wishing to sound flippant, I have some idea, because last Friday I was deep inside a cave system at Charleston, also north of Greymouth, with Howie from Norwest Adventures. We spent several hours altogether getting to the cave entrance by minibus, minitrain and on foot, and then sweating through the dark togged up in thick neoprene and helmets before finally emerging along a river, floating on an inner tube and bumping over some rapids. Those inner tubes were a pain to carry as we scrambled through the tunnels, up and down steps, over boulders, squeezing through small gaps and narrow corridors, bent over when the roof lowered, and I had to remind myself frequently that I'd be glad of it in the end, and that at least I wasn't dragging a boat - completely in vain - for months through the Outback like Charles Sturt.

It was a good trip, though pretty physical, and the glow-worms at the end were spectacular, much better than at Waitomo - but the most memorable bit was when we stood in a huge open area, turned off our headlights and, at Howie's suggestion, imagined how we would cope if we'd been one of Los 33. Even knowing there were eight other people right beside me and we were doing this for fun, it was disturbing to lose sight and hearing so completely. Though in Chile they had light in their shelter, it was still a salutary experience of the isolation and vulnerability they must all have felt.

No-one at the moment has much of an idea what the conditions are for the trapped men at Pike River. All we know is that there was an explosion caused by methane gas and 29 are missing. Tense times.

Friday 19 November 2010

Shakes - er, Shades of Christchurch

As reported by our intrepid front-page First-Born journo, the Palace Hotel had to be demolished in a hurry last night after big cracks appeared in some of its walls. It was a shame: 124 years old and one of a dwindling number of heritage buildings in central Auckland, and in the process of being renovated, too (although for use as a house of ill repute).

We've lost some beauties to philistine developers over the years, and it's tempting to ask, of them, is there any other kind? But of course there are some shining lights, and when I've thought of an example or two, I'll come back and finish this post. Don't be holding your breath, now.

And in the meantime, consider how satisfying it is to have invested heavily in one's daughter's education and then see her paid to hang around half the night on a corner in the city right outside a brothel.

Wednesday 17 November 2010

Waity Katie no longer

Not that I really care, but Prince William finally announced his engagement to Kate today. Good luck to them: they'll need it, especially risking being jinxed by Diana's ring - but maybe since they won't be able to spend their honeymoon on board the royal yacht Britannia, they'll do better than the previous generation who did, and all ended up divorced.

Britannia was decommissioned in 1997 - one of the few times the Queen has ever been seen in public to shed a tear - and is open to the public at Leith, just outside Edinburgh. It's really interesting, in a nosy kind of way, to look over the ship and get a glimpse into the Royal Family's off-duty life. The Queen, rather endearingly, is a frugal type who recycled Victoria's monogrammed sheets on her hard-looking single bed. Apparently she likes a deep turn-down, which sounds treasonously personal, but only refers to the amount of sheet folded back over the blanket. The Duke, on the other hand, likes his bed much more Spartan and won't have anything to do with lace on his pillow-cases - and quite right too, navy type that he is.
There's a country-house type of drawing room with squashy sofas and floral wallpaper - the Queen wanted a proper fireplace, but had to make do with a fake gas one - with a baby grand whose ivories were once tinkled by Noel Coward.

The crew had to play statues whenever a Royal Personage hove into sight, standing silently until the Presence had passed - and they used hand signals amongst themselves to avoid being intrusive. They sometimes got through several uniforms a day, all laundered on board 24/7: the laundry washed a standard 600 shirts every day.

And the ship is the only one on the oceans not displaying a name or number on the hull: if you have to ask, you don't need to know, I suppose. 

Sunday 14 November 2010

Ooooh huhu

Fruitbat, guinea pig, crocodile, camel - and now, finally, huhu grub. Not unpleasant, pickled: kind of creamy with a distinct peanutty aftertaste. But crunching the head wasn't nice, and knowing it was a larva was even less so, and I won't be rushing back here for seconds.

Hokitika, that is: for the Wildfood Festival in March. Popular though it is, there are much better reasons to come to the "coolest little town on the Coast". Wild scenery, gold rush history, great walks, good real food (turbot! Only place in NZ to catch it!) and very nice people - one of those we met today actually from Hokitika.

So it was a good end to a day that began with disappointment when our helicopter ride up onto Franz Josef Glacier was cancelled due to rain. Instead, we walked up, kitted out with crampons and firmly instructed by Phil (from Taupo) to "trust your feet" as we teetered nervously at the top of long flights of uneven steps hacked out of the ice. He was right: the spikes saved us, and we filed safely up, down and over a bit of the glacier, blue and turquoise and impressively huge.

It was cool. Ha ha.

Saturday 13 November 2010

Wild West

Busy, busy, here on the West Coast of the South Island, where the tourism industry is run entirely by people "from away", most of whom it seems chanced through here, fell in love with the place and could never leave again.

So Jo from Wellington has told us all about the coal connoisseurs, anti-litter .303 persuasion and her husband winning the gold for her wedding ring at the Kumara Races in a gold-miner dress-up competition. Steve from the Solomons showed me how to carve my own greenstone pendant. Matt from Christchurch explained how he loves getting irritated at a 2-minute traffic delay on his way to work. Howie from Taranaki took us deep into caves, showed us an actual glow-worm and then paddled us backwards in inner tubes under a fluorescent galaxy of siren-lights before sending us shooting over foot-deep rapids that were quite as exciting as the real thing.

Today we've watched elegant snowy herons with their fluffy chicks, and comical spoonbills with spiky topknots nesting up a secret river, the only place in the country that the kotuku breed.

There have been trains and boats and planes, and tomorrow helicopters - but only if the weather continues as fine and sunny (mostly) as it's been so far. Trying hard not to tempt fate, here.

Thursday 11 November 2010

Cracks in Everything

Well, not in absolutely everything, but you don't have to look very hard to fnd them. If not cracks, then patches of plastic on roofs where the chimneys have gone. And then, in the city, there's the scaffolding, fencing, blocked-off footpaths, empty sections blowing with dust, and wounded buildings being so slowly put out of their misery, nibbled away at bit by bit, as the pile of rubble beside them grows.

But Christchurch is still lovely in most places: neat and pretty and relaxed, with lots to enjoy and admire. And there are still ducks on the grass by the Avon.
PS: The total of aftershocks since the big one on 4 September is now officially more than 2700; and over the weekend I was on the West Coast, they had another cluster of 4+ shakes, including one of 4.9 - and did I feel even one of them? No. Sigh.

Wednesday 10 November 2010

Startled barn... startled. (On the way back to Lake Chelan from the Grand Coulee Dam.)
I hope I'm not going to be too startled myself tomorrow, when I spend a night in Christchurch where they're now past 2,500 aftershocks since the big quake on 4 September - and counting. I'm expecting to see my hometown looking a little frazzled around the edges, but still elegant and calm and beautiful. Fingers crossed.

Then it's the great TranzAlpine train journey right across the island, over the Southern Alps, to the West Coast for a few days - where it will, unfortunately but fairly typically, be raining. Sigh.

Tuesday 9 November 2010

Gooseberry fool

There's panic in the Bay of Plenty today as a potentially virulent virus has been found there that can wipe out kiwifruit plantations. It's caused great problems overseas, and the rush is on to identify the strain found here, with many fingers crossed that it's not the nastiest one.

It's caused by a bacterium, and I don't know what the treatment would involve, but I remember all too well what happened when the Painted Apple Moth was discovered here: we were sprayed several times by crop-dusters roaring over our suburb, low, noisy and swamping us in an unpleasant mist that many people claimed gave them respiratory problems. It certainly did the trick: no more PAMs - and no more butterflies of any other sort either. We used to have so many monarch butterflies in the garden that I got bored with them, but not after the spraying. Even eight years later, they're still a rare sight here.

Tedious though the MAF checks at the airport are, when all you want after a long flight is to burst through the double doors and get home again, it's impossible to argue with their necessity. I do dispute the accuracy of the sniffer beagles however, cute though they are: one has picked on me entirely wrongly, convinced there was forbidden material in my backpack when there was nothing of the sort; and the luggage x-rays too missed the stowaway lizard from the Cook Islands that made it all the way back to my bedroom at home.

That was a bit of a drama, freezing it to death and then posting it to the MAF people in the dramatically OTT kit they couriered me, with disposable gloves, disinfectant-infused towelling and a big screw-top jar - all for a little gecko that could never have survived a winter here.

The 'kiwis' in this photo, by the way, are an entirely new (to me) cold-weather variety that was for sale in the market at Bellingham in Washington state. They look nothing like ours, but taste exactly the same. Perhaps I've found the solution...

Monday 8 November 2010

Keeping up... the Good Work

You know, we'd driven past this sign at least three times before I saw what it meant. I'd actually felt mildly shocked, in amongst the natural beauty of the valley outside Winthrop, to come across a billboard that, at first glance, I took to be advertising something almost entirely opposite to what was really intended.

Sunday 7 November 2010

The past is another country

Went to see the movie Made in Dagenham this afternoon, and greatly enjoyed it: about the 187 women machinists who went on strike at the Ford factory there in 1968 for a higher rate of pay and ended up setting in train the legislation that led to equal pay for all women, not just in the UK but as a consequence in other countries around the world. Inspiring stuff.

It was also fascinating to see how different England looked in those days. I went there nine years later and can remember some of the characteristics that look so dated and foreign now - the crabbed look of women in headscarves weighed down with vinyl shopping bags; hideous apartment blocks of cramped flats; men in flat caps with visible vests under their white shirts - but the general feel of impoverishedness was striking.

You don't miss what you've never had of course, and I imagine people then were as happy with their black and white TVs and hissy transistors as we are with our smart phones and laptops, not knowing what much better technology awaits us in the future. But it looked so uncomfortable, and unattractive. When did it get better? The seventies, with the big hair and men's short shorts? The eighties, with the greed and the conspicuous consumption? The nineties, with reality TV and crippling guilt about the environment? Now?

Today we also booked our tickets for the Great Family Trip to the UK next year to show the girls where they were born: their first return there since they left as little children. I wonder how they'll see it? The countryside will be as undeniably beautiful as ever - but will the people look cool or quaint?

Saturday 6 November 2010

Call of the Wild

Bruce is back! It's his third summer with us, a green and golden bell frog who appeared out of nowhere just before Christmas 2008 and took up residence in our pond. He was quiet and polite that first summer; last year though he spent a lot of time croaking at odd times during the day and night, quite astonishingly loudly - presumably advertising his presence to any amphibian ladies in the area. Sadly he remained single. He's already been puffing out his throat today, so I do hope he's more successful this year.

I realise that to get excited about a frog is perhaps a little sad in itself, but I like animals and find them interesting; and it's a great disappointment to me that we have so few here in New Zealand. This is a conversation I had a number of times while we were in Washington state recently: it's always surprising to people to learn that NZ has no native mammals (bats apart), and that even the introduced ones are rarely seen (rats apart - more than enough of them in my henhouse). Birds are fine, but to my mind animals are much more interesting, and it's always a thrill to see them in the wild.

So it was really pleasing to see so many that day on San Juan Island; and on other visits to the US to have seen bears, despite the fright factor. It's also why I love going to Australia, away from the cities: their animals are so unusual and unique and fascinating - and also frightening, of course. And one day, I just have to go to Africa: now theirs are what you call serious animals.

PS I do hope Bruce won't regret having come out of hibernation today. Yesterday was Guy Fawkes and tonight it's again like the Somme out there.

Friday 5 November 2010

Rub my nose in it, why don't you

Pft. I go all the way to Seattle, drive up to Anacortes, take the ferry across to Friday Harbor, stand on deck the entire time freezing my nose off, poking it around the edge so I can watch the sea, marching back and forth swapping from port to starboard; I stand for ages leaning on the wall at Lime Kiln Point blinding myself staring at the sparkles on the water; look out over the coast on all our drives around the island; and spend the whole return journey on deck again, trying to watch both sides simultaneously - and don't see so much as a flash of black and white.

Then I'm home again stuck in a classroom all morning with Meine Schwester ist fleißig and L’année dernière je suis allée à Paris, and all the time there's a pod of orcas flaunting themselves in the inner harbour right here in Auckland. Merde!

I'm getting a thing about orcas. Humpbacked whales, even sperm whales - yawn, them again? Dime a dozen. But orcas - never seen one, tch. Even though it was a bit late in the season, the resident pod was still hanging around the San Juan Islands, according to the friendly lady in the Whale Museum, so it was still possible to see them. I just wasn't in the right place at the right time - and if the mere fact that I didn't see them isn't enough proof, here are the numbers, as provided by the helpful people who run the whale-spotting operation at the cute little lighthouse.

Wednesday 3 November 2010

Super Value

Big week. Back from America, straight into a whirl of teaching, deadlines and celebrations, all adding up to a jumble of countries and memories.

The First-Born turned 21, and her slide show was a mix of photos from England, New Zealand, Australia and France: so many lovely moments, so long ago - apparently - but all still so familiar. School is French and German and Latin (Video, puellae, in me omnium vestrum ora atque oculos esse conversos... I knew that sentence would come in handy one day). And the deadlines were Queensland and Glasgow. Oh, and I had a birthday in there somewhere too.

What with all that, the late nights and the jet lag, it's a triumph that I still know which way is up.


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