Friday, December 31, 2010

2010 by numbers

There we go, another twelve months done and dusted. In the spirit of the media at this time of year, as this one winds to a warm and muggy close, I've been doing some totting up:
  • 8 working trips (when are they not, any more?)
  • 7 international (Australia 4 times, Cook Islands, Mauritius/Reunion, USA)
  • 1 domestic (West Coast)
  • 26 flights (plus 1 in a hot-air balloon)
  • 83700 kilometres flown
  • 22 airline meals eaten (best: Air Mauritius business class; worst: Air New Zealand economy - sorry, Air NZ, but that shepherd's pie? Disgusting)
  • 1 aeroplane walked on (747 at Longreach)
  • 6 train trips (TranzAlpine Christchurch-Greymouth, Spirit of the Outback Rockhampton-Longreach, Westlander Charleville-Brisbane, Amtrak Vancouver-Seattle)
  • 67 nights spent away from home
  • 52 different hotel beds slept in (most comfortable: Te Waonui Forest Retreat at Franz Josef - loved that goosedown mattress!)
  • 10 3B1 notebooks filled (1 mislaid, sob) (UPDATE: Found!)
  • 51 stories published in 13 publications with a further 14 sold
  • 6 exotic creatures cuddled (panda, koala, kangaroo, python, baby croc, lizard)
  • 1 horse ride (not enough!), 3 snorkelling sessions, 1 bike ride, 2 kayaks
  • 4 times underground in caves and mines, 3 towers climbed
  • 11 museums visited, 3 rum distilleries, 2 sugar refineries, 1 model ship workshop, 1 salt pan
  • 6408 photos taken
  • 1 time caught with a flat battery
  • 38 rages over exorbitant internet charges (best: Mauritius and USA; worst: Australia)
  • 213 times unzipped the wrong pocket in my backpack
  • and too many friendly and interesting people met to put a number to.
So, a good year for me and lots of reasons to look forward to the dawn of the next. Yay!

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Hairy!

There's a farmer in Auckland hospital tonight after a run-in with a Highland cow which took exception to being loaded onto a truck, and attempted to gore him. He only managed to avoid being stabbed by hanging on to her horns while she did her best to smear him into the grass, crushing his chest and leaving him with "considerable injuries".

If I'd known they could be so savage, I wouldn't have been quite so relaxed with the herd of 'hairy coos' we came across in Scotland. We'd been poking around the Trossachs and followed a winding lane to Balquhidder to find the grave of Rob Roy ('MacGregor despite them' on the stone) when we spotted a herd of these cattle in a paddock beside a loch.

We asked if we could go and photograph them and the man (who, I now realise, probably wasn't the farmer, just a workman busy repointing the barn - and not a stockman at all) said we could, so we blithely trotted off and spent about thirty minutes snapping away at these cows with their calves. It was probably a bit dumb, and we were lucky not to be trampled by several dozen over-protective mothers - but boy, those calves were cute!

Teddy bears - through and through. Who knew their mothers could be more like grizzly bears?

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Stop Press

Good grief, Boxing Day brought another earthquake in Christchurch - 4.9 this time, compared with 7.1 in September, but closer and shallower, so feeling more violent, and doing damage to buildings that had escaped unscathed, like the lovely old Press building in Cathedral Square, which was evacuated when cracks appeared in the frontage.

Meanwhile, there have been massive floods in Queensland in places like Rockhampton and Bundaberg where we visited earlier this year, and dramatic blizzards on the east coast of the US, with people stranded, freezing, in subway carriages as well as in cars and airports. Heavy snow continues to make life difficult in Britain, and Haitians still struggling with the aftermath of their earthquake have had to cope with hurricanes and cholera as well.

It's been a dreadful year for natural disasters: devastating floods in Pakistan and elsewhere, earthquakes all over the place, tornadoes and typhoons, the cyclone in the Cooks, killer heatwaves, the Icelandic eruption. Then there's the oil still killing the wildlife and making people miserable in the Gulf of Mexico, mining tragedies (and only one miracle), the dreadful toxic spill in Hungary... Too many to remember, though no doubt the year-in-review programmes about to clog up the TV schedules this weekend will do their best to remind us.

Everywhere I go, people say that the weather is different, less predictable, the patterns changed, the extremes more pronounced. Whether this is a permanent or temporary climate change I wouldn't dare to say, but it's clear that we need to take more care in how we treat this planet, just in case. It's the only one we've got, and it's a beauty.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Baubles

Though I can't help getting sucked in sometimes, I've never been one for buying souvenirs when I travel - not of the Greetings from Blackpool sort, anyway: that's just stuff, ie what we could all do with less of in our lives. But Christmas tree ornaments are quite another matter, especially as we seem to travel most frequently late in the year, when they're on display in the shops: it's lovely to choose something that's not just pretty but personally meaningful too. While all the usual Christmas Day dramas are played out beneath the tree (nit-picking refinements of Secret Santa rules, Jekyll/Hyde transformations from bright-eyed to glazed, gradual shifts of social power from one generation to the next), the decorations hang there, reminders of other places, other times.

The pretty pig above is from Kris Kringle, the Christmas shop in Leavenworth's Front Street, open every day but one in the year: two storeys of sparkle and glitter of every shape and type you could imagine, and staffed by relentlessly cheerful assistants who have a superhuman resistance to the year-round continuous musak of carols and bells. Tucked into Washington state's Cascade mountains, Leavenworth is a Bavarian town that's picturesque all year round - certainly in autumn, when we were there - but really comes into its own at Christmas when the lights shine brightly (but aren't allowed to twinkle) and the snow lies fluffy along the streets.
New York would be fabulous at Christmas too, with skating at the Rockefeller Centre, muffled-up carriage rides through Central Park, the lights on Fifth Avenue, snow maybe... I do love a cold Christmas, it's the best.
Probably not San Francisco, though, which I suspect would be chilly and damp and grey, and not that inspiring outside. Far better to look at this ornament and remember riding the cable car to Washington Square and Little Italy on a sunny October day, hanging on tight on the surprisingly steep ups and downs, catching glimpses of the harbour, the Bridge and the Transamerica Pyramid.

Not all our ornaments are American: there's a red glass post-horn from Austria, a kookaburra bauble from Australia, a country mailbox from Canada and lots from England where this year there Bing Crosby was probably banned from the airwaves: with the entire country, including the airports, frozen solid and immobile, there can have been very few people genuinely delighted about their white Christmas.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Sucking weather

Apologies to our old friends in England (Ross-on-Wye -2 C today) and our new friends in Washington state (Leavenworth 0 C and snowing), but I've already had enough of this summer weather. It's only around the mid-20s, but it doesn't cool much at night and, what makes it worse, the humidity has been up to 88%, thanks to a tropical airflow. Apparently, while we were feeling cooler than anticipated in Australia 10 days ago, the dew point in Auckland was as high as 21 degrees. Quite how that differs from the humidity percentage, I haven't had the energy to investigate, but La Nina can take her fungal conditions and bog off, as far as I'm concerned. I've sweated enough already.

There are places where you expect this sort of thing, of course. I well remember my father coming home from a trip to Singapore and telling me in astonishment "Even the backs of my fingers were sweating!" Since then, I've been to Singapore myself and many other tropical countries where that damp, limp feeling is the norm year-round; and, in contrast, to the Outback where the fiercely dry heat sucks every bit of moisture out of you. In each case, you end up bathed in sweat and so enervated that it takes all your effort just to raise your wrist in the cause of rehydration.

It's one of life's little ironies that, in places where you physically need cold water to wallow in, there isn't any: in the tropics the sea is bath-warm and not especially refreshing. What's worse, in Australia's Top End it's full of crocodiles anyway. Oh, and sharks and stingers too, in that typically Australian overkill sort of way (viz. the coastal taipan, a snake whose first bite is deadly, but just for good measure is a repeat striker delivering increasing amounts of venom with each subsequent bite).

So, it's hot, humid and appetite-sapping weather, and everyone's buzzing round the shops gathering the necessities for Christmas dinner, which for many traditionalists like us still comprises roast turkey, baked ham, roast vegetables and afterwards steamed pudding. It's a killer - but I wouldn't have it any other way. It's not Christmas if you're not felled to the sofa afterwards with palpitations. Those modern types with their crayfish salads are nothing but wusses. Hot fat and sugar: bring it on!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Great Day for Up!

Good old Dr Seuss: perfectly put. This is such an exciting time, full of promise and enthusiasm and possibilities; and the Firstborn's journey has already begun very well.

It's a horribly long time since I last posed in cap and gown, but my journey's been a good one too: more broad, sunlit uplands than Sloughs of Despond. It's taken me in some very unexpected directions, especially over the last few years, and I hope to have lots more exploration ahead of me yet. Watch this space!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

A farewell to Oz

Last day in Melbourne, and it's a beaut: clear sky, hot, sunny and the streets full of Christmas shoppers, talented buskers, wandering tourists and heads-down workers.

We went up the Eureka Tower, all 88 floors, to a splendid view from the SkyDeck over the city, harbour and complicated motorway system that had us amazed that we found our way here at all. There's a thing you can do, standing (or lying) in a glass cube that moves out over mid-air, at which point the opaque glass beneath your feet appears to shatter and leave you standing on nothing 300 metres above the ground. Fun, if not quite as thrilling as promised.

Then to the Australian Centre of the Moving Image, to be affronted that they're claiming The Piano as one of theirs, and both inspired with admiration, and exhausted, by the Disney exhibition. So much cleverness and effort, just to entertain! Like Disneyland itself: amazing and almost immoral. Excellent museum, though: eats time.

Spot of shopping, overwhelmed by so much choice, final theft of McDonald's wifi, and then the boring bit: taxi, bus, plane, car. But home at the end of it all.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Lesson learned

Free tram today, for a change - well-used by locals, which seems a bit of a cheat. Also a cheat is the very picturesque old stone cottage known as Captain Cook's Cottage, where he never actually lived, though his parents did. Brought out in bits from England and rebuilt, testament to Cook's kudos here.

Even greater celebrity was earned by Phar Lap, to be seen up at the impressively huge and modern museum, where his skeleton is on loan from Te Papa, accompanying the museum's masterfully mounted hide in celebration of 150 years of the Melbourne Cup. I've stood next to a few big horses in my time but he was awesome, truly: 17 hands 1 inch. A beautiful animal. (Though it must be said, he only won the Cup once, while Makybe Diva won it 3 times consecutively. And she was a mare.)

The accompanying notes gave proper credit to NZ for his breeding and birth, I'm happy to say. As is only proper.

In other news, we were barked at by the Watch House sergeant and locked up in the dark this afternoon, at the Gaol. That's the last time I handle stolen goods.

(The top photo is of a tapestry at the museum referencing Simpson, the Southern Cross flag of rebellion, 'Weary' Dunlop, who I just found out about yesterday, and Ned Kelly, who was hanged in the gaol. Excellent connections today.)

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Hopefully not my last post

Shamelessly squatting in Macca's, stealing their wifi and getting fat just on all the sweet smells in here. Back in Melbourne after a great night at Blood on the Southern Cross last night. Son et lumiere shows are such an odd concept - like radio with pictures, but no people - but done well, as last night's certainly was, they're well worth sitting in the cold, and trailing round from one set to the next.

Melbourne is big, busy and grand, and a free bus tour (I'm so cheap) showed it all off in perfect weather. I ended up at the Shrine of Remembrance, mainly because I spotted a statue version of that painting of Simpson with his donkey at Gallipoli, but was there just in time for the Last Post and the lowering of the flags. Always a melancholy moment. But it was a lovely afternoon otherwise - and tomorrow there's more sightseeing to be done, including a trip up the new Eureka Tower, named to commemorate the miners' uprising that last night's show was all about. How satisfying.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Midas would go green

All about gold today. Ballarat is where early prospectors found it just lying around for the picking up: huge nuggets scarcely buried. And they still are. We saw the actual Goldasaurus (better original name: Bob's Joy) which was found just 60cm deep with a metal detector in 2003 - all 4.4kg of it. Mind, that was nothing compared to Welcome Stranger, a massive knobbly rock that weighed around 70kg - again, pretty much tripped over back in 1858 at the Red Hill Mine.

There's replica of that mine too at Sovereign Hill, an excellent outdoor museum which reproduces a mining town of that period: shops, manufacturing, accommodation, mines and a foundry, all populated by very authentic-looking staff in period uniform busy doing things like firing a musket, singing, making lollies, tins, iron stuff and, most excitingly, a gold ingot. We watched it being poured into the mould and tipped out again remarkably quickly, a beautiful object, that some of the audience were allowed to hold. "Run, lady, run!" someone called out, when we were told that this one small brick was worth $140,000.

It's been a good day out, and it's not over yet: tonight we eat in a hotel at Sovereign Hill before watching a son et lumiere show about a miners' rebellion. I do hope it's going to be better than the last one I saw, a lame affair of coloured lights and overblown commentary at the Red Fort in Delhi: though my impression was probably jaundiced by having minutes previously fallen down a flight of stone steps and whacking my head. I've still got the lump.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Over Oprah

I would just like to register my deep disgust at the mouth-frothing over-excitement that has accompanied the visit here of Oprah Winfrey (surname redundant). I'm astonished by the heights/depths of welcomes that have been laid on in Melbourne and Sydney: we're talking upstaged Prime Minister, fireworks, big O on the bridge. Good grief. It's so, SO uncool.

And as a Kiwi, notorious as a nationality for humiliating fawning in the presence of overseas celebrities, I must say that to see the Aussies rolling on their backs in this unseemly manner is enormously, HUGELY satisfying.

PS: No surprise to see this pile of unsold XS t-shirts left after the event. The real surprise is that they bothered making any extra-small ones at all.

Cider inside her

Busy day with Katherine yesterday in Bendigo, which has the architecture of a much larger city. Quite which one, I wouldn't like to say: its main street is called Pall Mall, but at Charing Cross there's a mini-Cenotaph that's a scale model of the Whitehall original which gives a disconcerting Disneyland feel. Then our hotel, the PO building and the Law Courts reminded me of Edinburgh, itself a very European city, with their tiled mansard rooflines (especially invoking cliche Scottish parsimony, Shamrock Hotel, charging $20 for 12 hours of internet: BIG black mark!) And everywhere there are verandahs with iron lace that are quintessentially Australian. So never mind comparisons, it's Bendigo, and that's good enough.

I was back underground for part of the day at the Central Deborah Gold Mine, in most unsuitable shoes, getting a great tour from Darryl whose grandfather worked there before it closed. It was pretty chilling, and not just because it was cold and damp from all the rain they've had recently: mining is such a hard, hard job, so exhausting and damaging and dangerous and unnatural. And all to win a metal that's going to end up, most of it, underground again in some bank vault, all its gleaming glory gone to waste.

There was more wine at Balgownie Estate, just a few minutes from the town centre but feeling right in the country, where our tasting lunch, food and wine, ended at 3.30pm. Very civilised, I call that.

And today we've driven to Castlemaine, home of XXXX but made here no more - instead we went to Henry of Harcourt, a cidery where chooks with chicks were wandering about, and tried a range of ciders: so much more my sort of thing than all those wines. There was a lot of leisurely mooching today, around both Castlemaine and Maldon, which are pretty and unspoilt gold-mining towns with streets of heritage buildings taken over by bookshops, collectibles and antiques; plus some really individual enterprises, like the ones that make chocolate shoes, and antique button jewellery, and mint mice.

And tonight we're at the Empyre Boutique Hotel where the theme is French antiques, with lovely carved wooden furniture - and free internet. These people know how to treat their guests.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Shome mishtake, surely?

It appears that Tourism Victoria is under the impression that I'm a wine and food writer. Though I enjoy both, nothing could be further from the truth, so I was a bit surprised today to find three winery visits with tastings on the itinerary. It's rather difficult when faced with experts deconstructing the elements of viognier, trying to hold my own when I have in the past confused chardonnay with cabernet. I threw the towel in early, and am afraid that at best I disappointed the cellar manager when I passed up on the chance to try his shiraz, and at worst made an enemy of him for life.

The soil round here is 500 million year-old Cambrian dirt, which makes for wonderful red wines, apparently - but I was much more taken by the liberal scattering of massive granite boulders on the hills near Tooborac. Pretty spectacular, all the more so for being mysterious. To me, anyway. No doubt the geologists would chunter on knowledgeably about - well, I don't know about what, that's the point. Sometimes it's more fun not to know things. Who said that? Not me, I'm a teacher, that would be heretical.

Tonight we're staying at the Emeu Inn in Heathcote, which claims to have the longest main street in Victoria (or the world - depends who you're talking to) at 5 kilometres. The inn's curious name is evidently Portuguese for ostrich, which coincidentally is almost the same as the actual word for emu, which is what they were referring to. All a bit confusing, linguistically - but the inn is lovely: friendly and comfortable, old and interesting.

And the place swarms with roos. Well, we saw more than a dozen out grazing by the road at dusk: a virtual mob. That's the correct collective noun for kangaroos. If it had been any darker, I'd've needed a lighting boost. So then they would have been a flash mob. And speaking of which, Oprah was in Melbourne today, causing Beatlemania-type hysteria in Federation Square. Tch. How uncool.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Finally!

Tomorrow, for me, it's the end of term, and the end of this stint of day-after-day, week-after-sodding-week of school and getting up at the same time and doing the same chores - feed cats, feed chickens, feed fish, feed self, pack lunch, treat dog, leave house - every morning, and reading out tongue-twister rolls every lesson - Bo Ryehn, Lyra, Indiga, Charis, Jurie, Kimone, Flavia, Yabesira - where none of the names are pronounced the way you would expect, and trying to insert a little French into brains that are already full of pop song lyrics and celebrity gossip and Facebook know-how.

It's too much for my delicate sensibilities, accustomed as they are to variety and new diversions every day, and choosing whether to write about Washington or the West Coast or maybe Ireland or Jaipur. So thank goodness I'm off to Melbourne and surrounds on Friday for a week of vineyards and goldfield towns and fancy hotels and dinners not eaten in the kitchen or in front of the TV.

I tell people all the time that being a travel writer's not the cushy job it sounds, and that it's tiring and hard work and frustrating and occasionally even a little dull. But you know what? It beats being a full-time school teacher into a cocked hat, no argument.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Flown

There used to be two chicks in our nest too, but they're both gone now, the first last, this week. Twenty-one years: long and short, frustrating and fulfilling, wearing and inspiring, expensive and enriching. On to the next phase of life. I've been more excited.

Seeing one of these birds, white herons, or kotuku, is meant to bring favour, because in New Zealand they've always been rare; at Whataroa we saw more than a hundred. They're a good news story: in 1946 there were only four pairs in the country, but now there are 140 birds, breeding steadily, as we observed on a sunny West Coast afternoon.

Sustained by a hot whitebait sarnie, we set off in a minibus through lush green farmland down to the Waitangi Taona River. There we got into a jetboat and skimmed over the shallow water, fat dim paradise shelducks lumbering into the air ahead of us and flapping frantically along right in front for an absurd length of time until it occurred to them to peel off to the side.

Then we bumped along a track through the bush in a trailer to another boat, which puttered genteelly through a flooded kahikatea forest to a jetty from where we followed a boardwalk to the hide directly opposite the nesting site. It was quite an expedition, but very pleasant, and it was exciting to find ourselves close to so many of these beautiful birds. The kotuku were fully occupied preening their floating nuptial feathers, but there was plenty of action from their gawky spoonbill neighbours, who were blundering in and out the whole time, clumsy and unbalanced: born clowns.

Outside the nesting season, the kotuku disperse throughout the country; here, near the Okarito Lagoon, is the only place to see them en masse. Come February, the fledglings leave the nest to go off and fend for themselves. That's life.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

All quiet on the West Coast

And throughout New Zealand at 2pm with the two minutes' silence at the start of the memorial service at Greymouth for the miners lost at Pike River nearly a fortnight ago. The slideshow of the photos during the silence occupied the whole two minutes: 29 faces take that long to scroll past.

Since the first shocking explosion on 19 November, there have been three more, each one dashing further the country's hopes first of rescue and then of recovery; so today there were no coffins, just tables on the grass at the racecourse, each one with a helmet, photos and mementoes of the lost men: a rugby ball, coffee mug, can of beer, surfboard.

It was a good service. Despite the messages from world leaders, it was personal, simple, honest and typically West Coast. At the end, people laid ferns on the tables: they grow lush and green in the bush that cloaks the hills on the Coast, but also all over New Zealand, south to north. Black, silver or green - the fern is our symbol.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

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