Saturday, December 31, 2011

Plus and minus

There will be a lot of people all around New Zealand and the world who couldn't be happier that 2011 is almost at an end. It's been rough, no doubt about that. Shocking natural disasters on an unprecedented scale, terrible things done to innocents by mad and/or bad people, environmental damage caused by stupidity or cupidity, financial suffering... We're all looking forward to putting it behind us (however illogical and arbitrary the idea of year divisions really is).

But it wasn't all bad. My skinny old cat made it through another year - in fact we all did, people, dog, cats, hens, fish and frog. I got to the Bay of Fires finally, after years of trying. The whole family went back to England for the first time ever. I saw Mt Taranaki clear and spectacular, swam with whale sharks and discovered river cruising. The house got a new coat of paint. I spoke French and German to strangers and was understood. NZ won the Rugby World Cup. Happy Feet the emperor penguin was repatriated from Kapiti to the Antarctic. I sold 64 stories, interviewed a Countess and survived two Canyon Swings and a Segway smash.

So, on balance, and from a purely selfish point of view, for me it was better than it was bad. I hope those of you who come here regularly (you know who you are and, thanks to Feedjit, I know where you live - but no more than that, don't be frightened away, come baaaaack!) reach the same conclusion. And if not, that next year's better for you. See you back here then.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Tick, tock, tut tut

Travel tip for the day: don't be like Kipling's cat. Walking by your wild lone is all very well, out in the wild woods (as long as there are no bears) but when it comes to cities, grand houses and museums, it's far better to join the group and trail round behind the guide. There's nothing that makes a series of exhibitions come to life better than a good guide, enthusiastic and knowledgeable, keen to share the behind-the-scenes stories that won't fit onto the labels.

Case in point, at Clapham's Clocks here in Whangarei, where I'd been before on my own, and enjoyed a pleasant 40 minutes or so looking at all the clocks in this well-presented little museum, I never noticed till I went again and tagged on to a tour, that the number 4 on Roman numeral faces is never IV, always IIII, as above. Had you? More aesthetically pleasing, apparently, and a conspiracy amongst all clock-makers. And unless I'd been told to, I wouldn't have looked closely enough at the clock with founder Archie Clapham's photograph on it to see that his eyes were creepily flicking from side to side, à la Monty Python. Or noticed the Maori girl's pois twirling in perpetual-motion as she turned 360 degrees each minute. Or understood what ormulu really is and how the mercury-based process must have led to Mad Clockmakers just the same as in millinery it produced Mad Hatters.

The guide was appropriately Swiss, or perhaps German - she was enthusiastic about the 'kukuk clocks' - and went into a lot of fascinating historical detail about the coming of the railways and the necessity for standard time; and the maths behind longitude and mapping the new world that I'm sorry to say went over the heads of the old ducks whose tour I'd gatecrashed - literally, since she was quite tall and they were to a man (or mostly woman) amazingly short. But noisy, though, chattering away about their own clock history and other related personal details in that rude way that old people seem to think they can get away with once they've hit 70, tch. But at least I was listening not just politely but with interest. Go me!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Smelling fishy instead

I know I'll get no sympathy for this very specific #firstworldproblem, but when you stay FOC in 5-star hotels all the time, it does lead to a lot of irritated tutting when you land up at a 3-star on a private trip. No gift on the bed! No Occitane toiletries in the bathroom! No fruit teas on the bar! NO AIR CON!!! Why, I might just as well be at home...

So here I am in Whangarei, oop north, where today the sky is unseasonably grey, the breeze a touch cool, but the people noticeably warmer than in the big city, the Town Basin is pretty even without sunshine and there are interesting yachts in the marina, like the Swiss one about to head off to Papua New Guinea, crewed by a lean brown couple who got their taste for the Deep Blue goodness knows how. Alongside are rusty fishing boats with a definite niff, their decks stacked with crates and floats, all very businesslike, but bearing names like Melodeon and L'Avenir in a pleasing touch of artistic whimsy.

So it's not hot and sunny, but the gulls are calling, the ropes are rapping on the masts, the pohutukawas are brilliantly red, and it's holiday time. I can manage without the Occitane, I guess.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Traditions old and new

Still with the Christmas stockings, the healthy breakfast spurned in favour of chocolate, deliberately unlabelled gifts under the tree that no-one could identify; plus someone who shall be nameless who turned out to be too fat for a Santa suit: no comment. Pine needles and scented lilies.

Then acrimonious squabbling over the Secret Santa rules, a long cheerful dinner at cobbled-together tables with ham and salmon and baby carrots but no gravy (forgotten) and no herbs in the stuffing balls (forgotten); and pavlova with raspberries and strawberries, and pudding with sauce but no brandy butter (forgotten). And feeble cracker jokes (a locomotive made of toffee? A chew-chew train) but no solemn toast to Absent Friends (shamefully forgotten this year). But new friends at the table, Rosa from Honduras (where there are 7 million people and only one McDonald's) and Andrea from Seattle (really? We went there last year!) and Skyping to a prettily frigid Winnipeg and phoning a damp and dismal Lancashire.

Then home with a share of the left-overs for a nap in the sun, the Queen's Message, toffee and chocolates, Tim Minchin, Graham Norton, the Royal Variety Performance with two Kiwis - Hayley Westenra and the Boy with Tape on his Face - and no ads. It'll do.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Sigh

The cake is made and decorated, the tree is up and there's a promising swag of pressies underneath it, the epic final assault on the supermarket has been made with success as regards the strawberries (TV news reporting a threatened shortage this year, sparking panic buying in this household at least), the pavlova-making is scheduled, the last-minute asap-deadline of 40 short Australian stories for a website has been met with the promise of a thrillingly generous reward, the weather's come right, delivering sunshine and heat - what could stop this Christmas from being another corker?

More earthquakes in Christchurch, that's what. Four yesterday between 5 and 6 points, shallow and sharp, more liquefaction throughout the eastern suburbs where I used to live, some building collapses, more damage to the already wrecked Cathedral, some minor injuries and, unsurprisingly, heart problems, closed airport, evacuated malls on one of the busiest shopping days of the year - and lots more people deciding that they've had it, they can't take any more. The timing is so cruel, after months of quietness, everyone beginning to hope that it was all over, putting it out of their minds, focusing on Christmas and summer holidays; and now all that's in ruins, shattered like the glass balls on the toppled Christmas trees in homes throughout the city.

It seems very unfair. Yes, other places round the world have suffered much, much worse this year in all sorts of ways, so 185 dead and a bunch of broken buildings is comparatively not much to complain about. But the way it's going in Christchurch is almost like torture: sudden pain, then it's over, but the possibility and fear of more remain, then more pain, then fear, then pain, then fear, then a long respite and the beginning of real hope, then pain again. It's ruinous to the spirit, and especially at a time of year when everyone looks forward to family and fun and being at ease mentally and physically. I do so feel for all those people outside - and inside - their houses right this minute, shovelling stinking silt yet again; and I understand if they feel they can't go on any more.

On the other hand, though, this isn't the Christchurch any more that was so shocked by the first quake in September last year: the city's got systems in place to sort power and water and roads without delay; pretty much everything that can fall down, has fallen down already; the people have water stores, gumboots ready, ornaments Blu-tacked in place. They'll come on through, and they will have a good Christmas. And, afterwards, only some of them will leave.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Ahhhh, pine!

The tree went up yesterday, possibly the latest ever in our personal history: delayed by the flit down south to walk the Hollyford. "It doesn't feel like Christmas," wailed the Baby when we got back, and then sat and Grinched while we decorated it, hanging up all the old friends that it's always a pleasure to unwrap from the tissue every year. The little red glass Austrian post-horn, the English red phone box, the heavy glass New York orb, the Australian kookaburra, the fat pig from Leavenworth, WA, the Mickey Mouse bell from Disneyland - all reminders of end-of-year trips, when everyone is building up to Christmas and wherever you go looks especially pretty.

I think it's a great time to travel, even if it means early winter in the northern hemisphere: no such thing as bad weather, remember, just the wrong clothes. There's a buzz in the air, the locals as pleased and eager as the tourists, a satisfying synchronicity that you don't get at non-festival times of the year; also, it's interesting to see, amongst so much that's the same, what is different about foreign Christmases. Like the candles lit on family graves in Salzburg, or the cute little huts set up along Nyhavn in Copenhagen where, had we been just a few days later, we could have bought mulled wine and cinnamon biscuits and lovely crafts and gifts. Or special (and especially fattening) flavoured coffees at Starbucks in Seattle, or the Rockefeller Centre ice rink in New York, or the sprigs of holly on the uniform overcoats worn by sweating cast members at Disneyland in sunny LA...

This year's new tree decoration is a Saint Nicholas from Copenhagen in fetching curly-toed boots, which makes a nice connection with the Arabian Nights slippers I saw in the souqs in Dubai, where I stopped off both going and returning from Denmark and where I would have found it rather harder, I'm guessing, to find much that was Christmassy at all.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Down to the sea in slips

That was the title of a rather dull booklet, full of black and white photos and close-typed text, that passed across my desk in sixth form geography: all about erosion in NZ (but far more effective in teaching the power of the pun). I thought of it when I was over east earlier this year, driving to Wairoa to eat a pie and noticing all the streaks of bare soil on the cleared hills; and again last month when I was down in Taranaki in the back country going to Caniwi Lodge (no prizes for guessing the nationalities of the owners, sorry). There the green hills were scarred with white slips, and I regretted that they'd been cleared of bush for grazing, as even my townie eyes could tell that the grass was thin and the land not very suitable for pastoral use.

I stayed on my last night in Taranaki at Oakura Beach Holiday Park, to the south of New Plymouth: a classic beach-side Kiwi campsite, brought into the 21st century by an internet cabin, but still pleasingly simple, running along the beach underneath a cliff. That's where my cabin was, the one with the poltergeist, where I slept peacefully with the sound of the sea in my ears. It was also the very cabin that last night was swept away by a landslide down the cliff, pushing three of them ahead of it and understandably startling the people who were asleep inside. I was startled myself to see it on the news - and to think I'd been alarmed when the bedside lightbulb popped out!

Down in Fiordland where I was last week, though Davey Gunn did his best 100 years ago chucking lighted matches and grass seed left and right as he herded his cattle along the Hollyford Valley, the bush still stands virgin and ancient and beautiful. Yay.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The right kind of jet set

Today in Auckland it's like Fiordland on a typical day, with grey skies, wind and torrential rain - what Mike our Hollyford Valley guide called 'inch-an-hour'. There's been a state of emergency declared in Tasman, at the top of the South Island, people flooded out, roads closed and two foolish tourists rescued from their precarious perch clinging to a poplar tree's spindly branches after getting too close to a raging river. Yet down in Fiordland where this sort of stuff is unremarkable (some parts like Milford Sound get up to 8m of rain a year) it was, and is, dry and calm, so that our jetboat driver, Rob, sat in amazement when we came off the river into the lake: "I've never seen Lake McKerrow look like this," he said as the ripples died away and the surface returned to mirror-smoothness.

The drought ("two weeks without a proper rain!" we kept hearing from the walk people, in tones of astonishment) meant that the river level was 2m lower than usual, so they'd had to cut a new path through the bush down to a deeper part of the channel than the one nearer the lodge where Rob normally moors the boat. Tucked under a tree fern, incidentally, were a couple of boxes labelled 'Fresh Free-Range Eggs' that he'd unloaded for the lodge. I had to commend them on their respect for animal rights in not using battery hen eggs to bait their stoat traps.

The trip along the river was consequently even more exciting than usual, as we skimmed over the shallows, sometimes less than a foot in depth, with rocks and logs to add to the challenge. Not normally a huge jet boat fan - and especially not of the Gold Coast incarnation, which does nothing but deliver nauseating 360 degree spins - I thoroughly approved of this trip, as it was exactly what the Hamilton jet was invented to do: navigate shallow braided rivers, enabling access to back-country, up-river areas that would otherwise require days of walking or riding to get to. Invented by a New Zealander, of course.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Flying like a fox

Another beautiful day on Lake Wakatipu, with people enjoying themselves on, over and even, astonishingly, in the water (where the temperature is a permanently bracing 10 degrees). The lovely thing about Queenstown is that it's such a relaxed place, full of laid-back holiday makers all out to have a good time - but also buzzing with energy from all the adventure stuff going on, the streets full of kayak trailers, vans taking people off to activities, bikes, lean types with backpacks...

We did a bit of both today, starting with a massage at the Hilton's eforea:spa to smooth out any remaining muscle knots from the walk. It was very pleasant, but when I would really have appreciated it was at the end of that long first day, when my shoulders were aching from carrying my pack - or even on the last day after straining my calves walking 7km along the beach in soft sand against a strong wind. But we drifted away afterwards smelling sweetly of various essential oils, all loose and slippery.

Then we were back up Bob's Peak to take one of the more exciting routes down, along nearly a kilometre of ziplines with Ziptrek Ecotours, the last one 300m on a 45 degree angle producing speeds up to 70kmh. It was fun and very safe - though the young daughters of a terrible set of Australian tiger parents didn't think so, especially the younger one who was literally shaking and crying and set off wailing each time. But we had fun, zooming down through the trees with great views of the lake and mountains, hanging upside down (or trying to - I ended up doing the fabled Flying Dying Tortoise instead) and falling backwards in the Leap of Faith.

Then we had some interesting beers at Dux de Lux, and pizza at The Cow, award-winning sorbets on the lake steps surrounded by mutely begging ducks, and took the water-taxi back to the Hilton. Another good day - and unfortunately the last, here. For now.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Hollyford Valley Walk

Hollyford Valley, done and dusted. Three days of walking, all different: 17km the first day, easy walking but SO MUCH OF IT along the valley bottom, following the beautifully clean, clear, turquoise Hollyford River with the snow bright on the peaks, finally getting to Pyke Lodge where we were met with drinks and nibbles and venison and pud. Then another day of walking through ancient forest and along the coast, 12km interpersed with jetboat rides past the hard and tedious Demon's Track to the end of the river and the rookery where we found not rooks but NZ fur seals, including cute fluffy babies; and another lodge with more drinks and nibbles and salmon and pud. And then today there were 7km along the Hollyford Bar, the long sandspit that back in 1860s claimed one ship in every three that tried to sail through the narrow gap (the Baby, who was with me, claimed Hollyford Bar should be a pub where you could buy, as well as drinks, tshirts reading 'I got wrecked on the Hollyford Bar').

In this rainforest area we struck a two-week drought, with the river dropped by 2m and the filmy ferns shrivelling up, but everything else green and lovely, and the track dry and easy. A wind got up on our last night and it rained, but it was gone by morning and we had a spectacular flight out in little planes that taxied over from the grass airstrip to pick us up right at the front door of the lodge. We flew along the rugged coast and took a sharp left at the entrance to Milford Sound, flying below the tops of those astonishingly high, bare peaks, streaked with waterfalls - though not as sharp a turn as the last one to line up on the strip at Milford, when we stood on one wing.

The star of the whole show was Mike, our young guide who was so knowledgeable and enthusiastic and thoughful and funny, and got us excited about a spindly moss - the world's first vascular plant! it's Jurassic! - and fascinated by early pioneer history - Big John Roberts lay face down on his living room floor for 10 days while his wife tried to organise the dressed wood for his coffin - and able to recognise rocks from the different ranges all around us. It was a brilliant three days, and the walk was a stunner.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Every which way but loose, fortunately

Well, I threw myself off a cliff this morning, twice, and now after looking certain death in the face, Lake Wakatipu, the Remarkables, Queenstown look fabulously beautiful and perfect. Oh wait, they do all the time anyway.

The Canyon Swing - 60 metres straight down from a 109m cliff, into a 200m swing - was much more fun than it sounds at first. A literal rush, in fact. I didn't mean to do two, but I'm too biddable for my own good, so whereas first time I tipped backwards in a chair, the second time I went head first from an upside-down dangle. Cool!

And now I'm off for a gentle Segway around the lake, easy as but a tough workout for the grin muscles. Tch, what a job I've got...

UPDATE: Well, that was tempting fate. I  fell, almost literally, at the last fence, a victim of over-confidence as I zoomed the last twenty metres back to the van, at 15kmh along an unsealed road, misjudging a rut - all my own fault. It's going to be a spectacular bruise, though.* And up till then we'd had a wonderful time, whining along the lakeside, through a building, along the lanes and pathways, up a hill and looping through the Gardens past beds of fragrant roses and cheerful groups of people playing frisbee golf in the sunshine, then back past the shingle beach and the ducks. Supercool fun.

Then we took the gondola up Bob's Peak for a couple of goes on the luge, a little gravity go-cart down a concrete track with corners and chicanes: simple but always a winner. And in between we watched the tandem paragliders running down the hill and launching themselves into the air with no drama at all, to spiral gently back down to the bottom - or, for the thrill-seekers, spin fast and sharply over the town.

And then it was time for our Hollyford briefing and then fish and chips on the beach with an eager audience of ducks and seagulls, not too fussy about whether it was a chip or a toe they were pecking at. Lots of people around, all having fun, some of them showing off (young man tight-rope walking across the water between jetties, I'm looking at you - which was exactly what you wanted, of course). Then back to the Hilton by water-taxi to nurse my grazes and pack for tomorrow's early departure into Fiordland. Busy day!

*UPDATE #2: Oh, yes!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Mountain high

Even in a crappy iPhone photo, even through Perspex, even with reflections, this poser of a mountain delivers the goods. Taranaki again, from the air as I flew south, fingers crossed that I'd chosen the right (which is to say, left) side of the plane to sit on.

Lots of mountains today: first Ruapehu, of spectacular eruption and lahar fame, into whose crater I'm nevertheless hoping to peer later this summer; then Taranaki; then the Kaikouras, which I last saw a couple of years ago over the rim of a glass while toasting my toes by the fire in my own luxury treehouse; then Mt Cook, tallest of all, lording it over the rest of the Southern Alps; and now the Remarkables, so well named, bare and rocky, with Walter Peak across the lake.

Lake Wakatipu, that is, clean and clear and blue and sparkling today, just below our balcony here at the Hilton, where we've been treated to such a splendid afternoon tea that dinner's sadly now out of the question, despite having walked far along the lakeside this afternoon in the sunshine, smelling the sweet broom and leaping nimbly out of the way of intent cyclists.

And despite tomorrow looming with the horrors of the dreaded Canyon Swing.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Bottom gear

Jeremy Clarkson has been in the news, running off at the mouth in his usual manner offending this time striking public sector workers in Britain, saying they should all be shot. He's made a career out of being provocative, like so many in the media all around the world including here, so why this particular remark should have incensed audiences more than usual I don't quite understand. Of course there have been rather too many mass shootings over the last year (even one is more than most of us would prefer) but it was, after all, a joke, albeit a clumsy one, made in his Grumpy Old Man persona. He's become such a star that he's very familiar to millions of viewers all around the world, not one of whom would have taken him seriously.

One of his Top Gear co-presenters, Richard Hammond, the short one who thankfully survived a horrendous crash a couple of years ago, is on the other hand seen as inoffensively cute and appealing - though there are a couple of drinkers in the Nag's Head at Longhope who say he's less nice than he appears: all very happy to sign autographs for pretty girls, but ignoring the adoring little boys who want the same thing, and not willing to participate in community events. Shame, that's the best thing about living in the countryside, especially in England, especially in Herefordshire, as I can say with authority having lived there, and not far from the Hamster's place either. That's it above, Bollitree Castle, between Bromsash and Weston-under-Penyard: an 18th century folly built to look like a much older castle. Behind the 'moat' and the wall is a rather nice country house with a big courtyard and gardens, the ideal place for a meet of hounds which is how, thanks to the Ross Harriers, I got to go there long ago, riding lovely black Reef (who was, strictly speaking, Wreath, as in funeral - stupid idea and even stupider name, as well as hard to say). Now I bet no-one gets to go there: it's all private and closed to view, and Richard apparently flits in and out by helicopter.

So he's missing all the fun of community events, like church fetes and open gardens and village barbecues. Silly man. If ever you're driving through the English countryside and happen across one of these events, stop at once and go in. They're great fun.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Fire and water

So there I was yesterday, puzzling over how to find a home for a winter story about Northland that was pushed from pillar to post until it was no longer seasonal; at the very same time that a huge bush fire was consuming the peninsula where I stayed up there. Arsonist, the sod, not the first time he's struck - and this time, tragically, he took out a rescue helicopter that crashed into the sea in the smoke, killing the two men on board. (It's not a good time for helicopters right now.)

The Karikari Peninsula is a bit out of the way, so it's quiet and unspoiled: lots of bush, some farmland, a vineyard, scattered baches (holiday homes) and a very little town. And oodles of beautiful beaches, natch. We stayed at Carrington Resort, in a villa overlooking the golf course which was occupied only by pukeko on the damp day we were there, but the sunny morning we left (sigh) there were heaps of people queuing up to use it, including lots of family parties - which was nice to see, even though it blew my mind (we have a long, LONG, family history of endless games of minigolf all around the country that ended, every single one, with the Baby hurling her club to the ground and storming off. Perfect example of hope over experience).

She broke her arm on Monday - a mere crack below the left elbow, nowhere near as incapacitating, I felt obliged to point out, as a properly broken right wrist - which she's hoping isn't going to cramp her style next week in Queenstown where we'll be luge-ing, Segwaying, ziplining and, augh, canyon swinging - as well as walking the Hollyford Valley track. My main concern is that the weather will be kinder than it was when I was last down there walking the Milford Track. Which reminds me: remember to pack quick-drying knickers...

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Emirates Business A380-800: review

An A380 Airbus is nothing like a bumblebee. I had thought it was: after all, 580 tonnes, 500 passengers, two levels, it sounds physically incapable of flight; but, just like the bumblebee, it defies common sense and does exactly that. The bumblebee makes it look hard work, though, dipping and blundering along while, I was told, I wouldn’t even notice the Emirates A380-800 taking off. Generally speaking, I find it reassuring to note the moment that an aeroplane becomes airborne — it’s so much more preferable to continuing to trundle along the tarmac until it runs out — so this wasn’t as comforting a comment as it was intended to be. But it was true: the plane lifts off with very little fuss, too heavy to rattle and vibrate like the small fry, and lands the same way, more gently and undramatically than most smaller planes I've flown on.

And what's it like on board? I can't *cough* speak for Economy as I was flying Business, upstairs (not that I actually noticed I was upstairs, the first time, thanks to entering over a different airbridge. I realise that sort of lack of observation immediately discredits this review but, nevertheless, I'll proceed). My first impression was that Emirates has nobly sacrificed passenger numbers for comfort and space, because the individual seating areas are staggered so that at the side, for example, there's only one seat for each row (and two across the middle). The downside of that is that only every odd seat is next to the window, while the evens are on the aisle with the odd seat's legroom between it and the window. Also, because you're so high up and on the upper level, the curve of the fuselage means you can't see down that well. These things are important to people like me who enjoy looking out of the window.
So I was on the aisle and felt a bit exposed - though at least I had my own space. The alternate centre seats are placed so they're right next to each other, for couples travelling together who might want to talk to each other (I KNOW! Who are these people?) I liked that there was lots of space to put my stuff and even a little minibar (of juice and cute little cans of soft drinks). My feet fitted into a cubby hole with a locker for my shoes, and the headphone socket was accessible so I could use my own earphones (though they did supply noise-cancelling ones). I could also have charged up my phone or plugged in my laptop, though why would I want to with 1200 channels of entertainment available?
I found the controller less easy to use than on other airlines (and in fact, despite much wrestling, never in a total of 28 hours discovered how to remove the little control screen from its stand. Yes, too much in touch with my masculine side to ask for assistance there) but there was an excellent range of very recent, even current, movies and TV programmes, and though the screen was smaller than on Cathay Pacific, it was conveniently positioned (I had a back-of-seat screen once that was too far away for me to read the subtitles - shocking!). The table didn't slide back far enough - must be because I'm so very slim (!) but they did their best to fix that with some great meals, starting with hot nuts including macadamias, which won me over instantly.
There weren't that many loos, considering, but since they were positioned right next to the bar, it wasn't a penance waiting for one. Hmm, the bar. (Officially, the 'lounge' - the UAE has an uneasy relationship with alcohol - though there's plenty of it on the aeroplanes). It's a bit of a novelty and not really that useful: looks great in the photos with elegant people decorating it, but these days no-one feels obliged to dress up for business class and so, with only rumpled, comfortably-dressed passengers standing there, it had none of that class. They had nice snacks available, and the barman was very chatty and obliging, but the seating was narrow and slippery and who wants to pay all that money for a fancy seat and then not sit in it?
Come bedtime, the seat didn't go completely flat, no matter what they claim, so it was less comfortable than, again, Cathay - but the pillow was lovely, and it was all good enough. The staff were pleasant and helpful without being obsequious, and they were the smart ones: the Emirates uniform is one of the best.
As for punctuality, Emirates takes that so seriously that they're positively hard-line about check-in times: I've just read that they're now going to shut the check-in desk an hour before take-off, so that's something to look out for - especially at their shiny, spacious new airport in Dubai, where you have to hike for miles to some gates. They don't tell you that the special Business and First Class check-in terminal necessitates a route march to the shops and the gates.

But I would happily fly Emirates again. The plane is comfortable and has lots of little touches to keep me happy; and my complaints above are just quibbles. They have an extensive network of routes and deserve their reputation as one of the best and most popular airlines to fly with. And I'm not just saying that because they were hosting me, by the way.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Back to front

This is Raj Ghat, the memorial to Mahatma Gandhi in New Delhi where an eternal flame burns above the simple black marble platform and an endless stream of school parties, pilgrims and tourists - as well as the odd world leader - come to pay homage, walk around the tomb three times, and visit the two nearby Gandhi museums. One of them is in the house where he was living when he was assassinated, and where his last footsteps have been replicated in concrete leading up some steps to the little gazebo where he was killed.

He is, of course, rightly and understandably venerated in India and all around the world, and his campaign of civil disobedience and passive resistance was one of the things for which he's remembered and seen as an inspiration. But he wasn't the first to think of this way of reacting to oppression by a stronger force. Fifty years earlier, at Parihaka in Taranaki two Maori chiefs, Te Whiti o Rongomai and Tohu Kakahi, led their people in exactly that when Government surveyors came onto their land: they politely removed the pegs and fences and ploughed up the settlers' crops planted in Parihaka soil.

It all came to a head on 5 November 1881 when 1500 armed troops rode into the village where children welcomed them with songs and dances and offered them freshly-baked loaves, while the adults sat silently on the ground. The chiefs and hundreds of their followers were arrested and imprisoned without trial, the village was pillaged, the women raped, the houses destroyed, and the land seized without compensation. Parihaka never recovered and the settlement dwindled to almost nothing, from a population of 2500 down to four.

Now it's being resurrected, and groups of tourists, like us last week, are being welcomed and fed just as the soldiers were (except with a very tasty 4-course meal), told the story and shown the grave of Te Whiti, which is almost as simple as Gandhi's. It's a good thing that Maata and her people are doing there, but shameful that it's the only way that New Zealanders can learn the detail of such an important event in our history and about two such influential men, who are commemorated nowhere else.

Gandhi has a statue in Wellington, though.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Cruising the Rhine: it's da bomb!

There's a paragraph in the paper today about a drought in Germany which has dropped the level of the Rhine so far that unexploded bombs from WWII are now a threat to shipping on the river. It says that bomb disposal experts have had to blow up an incendiary bomb near Cologne and are working out what to do with a bigger bomb lying in just 40cm of water near Koblenz. As well, a grenade was spotted earlier this week on the river bank near Bonn. All highly disruptive, no doubt, to river traffic which as well as a number of cruising companies includes thousands of busy barges 24/7.

This is all of great interest to me, having cruised along the Rhine earlier this year past, yes, Cologne, Koblenz and Bonn, and heard the captain tell us that because of low river levels, we might not be able to complete the journey all the way to Amsterdam. We were all pleased to hear, the next day, that there had been heavy overnight rain in Switzerland that was expected to raise the river in time for us to stick to Plan A. Hooray, we all thought, no buses for us! We would have been even more joyful had we realised that a bit of Swiss sogginess was all that stood between us and Kingdom Come, courtesy of Bomber Command.

This man busily poking his metal detector into the water from a previously-unexposed shingle bank should have thought twice too, about exactly what sort of treasure he might be unearthing.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Chicks and choppers

This morning, at the very moment that I was writing about the helicopter trip I took with Heliview in New Plymouth last week, another chopper being used to set up the seven-storey Christmas tree down at Viaduct Harbour in the city got tangled up with a pole and crashed in a muddle of metal. Fortunately the pilot wasn't seriously hurt - though as TV cameras were there filming the whole thing, his professional standing has taken a bodyblow and he's never going to live it down.

It was my fourth helicopter ride: the first was a mere hop across Lake Wakatipu after finishing the Greenstone Valley Trail, but the second was the real thing, swooping around in the Red Centre in Australia to get another perspective on Kings Canyon, which is spectacular enough seen from your own two feet, but even more amazing from the air. The third was great fun too, whale-spotting at Kaikoura one golden evening, hovering over a sperm whale as it came up to breathe and rest, and then buzzing back across the water to land on a bluff high over the bay. And then there was the Taranaki trip, when sadly we couldn't fly up to look into the crater of the mountain which was covered in cloud that day, though we did still get great views of that green-as countryside. I enjoyed all of the trips, thanks to expert and laid-back pilots who made it all seem super-safe. Ha!

And in other aerial news, I rescued a young thrush that I found this morning lying on its back on the road when I was out walking (after being hit by a car, I fancy, rather than just having chosen an inappropriate spot for a bit of a zizz). I brought it home and put it in the cat basket under a towel to see if a rest in the dark might do the trick - and happily it did. After an hour or so it was recovered enough to fly away as good as new. Yay, I thought, and wandered into the garden to pick flowers. Where I found the tiny corpses of two baby blackbirds lying on the grass, blown out of their nest perhaps or possibly preyed upon by other birds - magpies? - and dropped. Won one, lost two. Damn.
(Photo by Dean Mackenzie)

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Snap!

Look, I'm sorry to keep harping on about this mountain, but it's pretty spectacular - pretty and spectacular - you have to agree: certainly Ellen in St Louis does, envying our having to drive only 4 hours or so to get to it. She would have to drive for a day, she says, to reach a mountain, and even then it wouldn't be as pretty as Mt Taranaki.

But of course there are lots of stunning mountains in the US, although rather further away. I have to admit to a preference for the volcanoes: they're so much more satisfyingly shaped, there's something very aesthetically pleasing about that regular cone. I was thrilled to see Mt Barker so clearly when we were in Washington state last year, poking up unexpectedly on the horizon behind Seattle and becoming clearer and clearer as we drove north. And then when we came back across Puget Sound from the San Juan islands, there it was, looming up over the sea, white and sparkling and huge.

It's in the photo I chose for November when I was compiling my calendar for this year, so it's there on the kitchen wall right now, a white triangle peeping up behind a mass of brilliant orange pumpkins growing out at a pick-your-own farm where families were wheeling their toddlers round in barrows, scouting round for the best-looking ones for their Thanksgiving decorations. But it's the coastal one I'm going with today, because the shape shows up better. Remarkably similar to Taranaki, don't you think?

Monday, November 21, 2011

Poltergeists, poultry and a prediction

There's nothing like the roar of the surf just twenty metres or so away from your bed to ensure a good night's sleep, despite the actions of the petulant poltergeist that hurled a glass light fitting to the bathroom floor just before I entered my cosy cabin at Oakura Holiday Park, and later poked a halogen light bulb out of its fitting to bounce on the bedside table, making me jump as I sat there blearily catching up on the day's notes.

But the friendly bantam who popped by in the morning to check up on me more than made up for those goings-on. I'd also have welcomed, but didn't see, the duck with the gammy leg who's another regular according to Al, who runs the park with his wife Jan. They both came with us to the Butlers Reef pub last night where the food was great and the company jolly. I'd've had more to drink, though, if I'd known how bumpy the flight back to Auckland was going to be, in that little plane. It didn't help that I kept remembering the montage of newspaper front pages on the wall of the airport cafe in New Plymouth reporting the miraculous landing there of an aeroplane on only one wheel. What on earth was the designer thinking?

So, Taranaki done and dusted. Well, hardly - far too much to see and do there in a scant three days: more of a Taranaki dip and degustation. I'd like to go back for a proper look, at leisure. And why not? It's only a four and a half hour drive away, along a very pretty route; and that way there'd be no airborne lurching. Next time I'll listen to Chaddy: he warned us there would be a storm today. "Chaddy knows," the locals in the pub said. They were right - and so was he.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

A poser, puha and a pun

Honestly, this mountain is such a poser. Lurks behind cloud cover much of the time, tantalisingly giving glimpses through holes in the cloud or veils of mist and then, and only when it feels like it, ta-rah! It's a fabulous sight from any angle, but I must say the foreground of all the blooming rhododendrons at Hollard Gardens framed it beautifully. It's ages since I've been to a big garden, and this one is so lovely: heaps of rhodies and azaleas, but also great trees, long sweeps of fine lawn and masterfully natural plantings of annuals and other bright flowers in the borders. And it's free - of the people, for the people.

Our main focus today was Parihaka, a Maori settlement to the south of New Plymouth where passive resistance was born in 1881, at great cost to the local tribes but inspiring Ghandi, apparently. We had a really delicious lunch there served by Maata's children and were entertained by them too. Then we had a superficial look around the village, which is struggling to come back to life after being abandoned and burnt down in the 1960s. It's a complicated tale that we weren't able to investigate very deeply, unfortunately, as nothing is rushed on a marae and greetings and meals must take their time. But we felt welcomed and even a short visit was better than none.

We ran out of time at the end, so our cruise with Happy Chaddy was cut short - perhaps as well, since the wind was up and with it the sea - but it was fun to slide down the ramp in a real English-built lifeboat the same age as me, and bob out on a circuit round one of the nearer islands to see fur seals, sea birds, a historical location that linked with Nigel's museum, and 'NZ's last real moa'. Actually, it was a reel mower - and the fact that Chaddy went to all the trouble of rowing out to this precipitous, rocky island and dragging an old hand mower up the cliff to fix in place, all for the sake of a pun, tells you everything you need to know about the entertainment value of his cruise. I'm a fan.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Sometimes you get the breaks...

"Taranaki's so nice, it's as good as anywhere else. I don't know why people don't come here." So said Nigel Ogles, model-maker extraordinaire at Tawhiti Museum today.

He might be right about the people, but as for being as good enough - well, when the mountain comes out as it did this morning, could it get any better? It's a stunner, and we had a great couple of hours scrambling along its flanks with Dave, a local man and DOC manager, who knew everything about the history, vegetation and mythology of Taranaki. And he was enthusiastic and cheery and ready with a helping hand when the steps and rocks got a bit slippery.

And then we went to see the marvels that Nigel has been working on since throwing it in as an art teacher twenty-odd years ago. I love me a good diorama - and have the forehead bruises to prove it - but Nigel's work is up there with Weta Workshop. The great Richard Taylor himself has come and been staggered, and you can't say more than that. History with art, humour and passion: it's a winner.

Friday, November 18, 2011

High and low

I could get used to being taken places by chopper. Just climb aboard, clap on the headphones and away you go, no fuss, no time wasted, and the views are terrific. Richard was at the controls, a veteran of 6 years in the British army - which is slightly unnerving in a pilot, you hope there won't be any sudden moves, but all was well. We swooped over New Plymouth and the port, clattered down the coast past the long black beaches with their long white lines of surf, and then inland over what must surely be the neatest and greenest farmland on the planet.

The mountain was hidden in cloud today, alas, so we couldn't get eye-to-eye with the summit, but we snooped over the tucked-away farms and houses to the north before setting down in a distant valley where Bob and Karen took us up some precipitously steep tracks and along knife-edge ridges in the ute before we walked through the bush to see what they were doing there in the name of conservation and specifically kiwi preservation.

Inconveniently nocturnal, the kiwi were naturally a no-show, but we did get to hear the clicks on the radio transmitter that showed Maru was where he should be, down in his burrow conscientiously incubating the eggs while the female that laid them was out recovering from the effort. (Kiwi eggs are about one-third of the bird's body size. Eye-watering.) It was a good walk, and even better to meet people with such drive to improve the environment for everyone's benefit.

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