Thursday, March 31, 2011

Swan city

Back in Perth for the night before heading south to Albany on the coast, a 5-hour drive away. It's no cooler here, still around 30 degrees and very dry - I could see from the plane the huge area of black hills from the fires a few months ago. Yet up around Exmouth it was positively lush and green - which I suppose it would be, after 7 cyclones.

After the last one, the pool at the Novotel filled up with burrowing frogs self-evacuated from the beach, clogging up the filters. The gardener nearly binned them, but the nice waitress saved them and dumped them all in the lily pond.

It was bliss in that pool yesterday, floating with my hands behind my head, just my face above water - I could have nodded off, easy as, it was so warm and peaceful.

And now I'm in the city with traffic and buses and business suits and workers. It's actually a lovely city, but I'm glad to be heading out again tomorrow.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Swimming with sharks!

What a perfect day! Up in time to watch the sun rise and see, for the first time, the dawn green flash (much better than the sunset one, as long as you’re patient: it’s less dazzling so you can see it better) and then out with Three Islands to swim with the whale sharks. The weather was beautifully clear, sunny and warm, and the sea was fabulously turquoise – and warm too: an incredible 30 degrees! In the water!!! Amazing.

Three Islands runs a slickly efficient, but friendly and welcoming, operation on the spacious, shady Draw Card; and the crew was young, enthusiastic and knowledgeable too. They need to be so well organised, because swimming with whale sharks isn’t as leisurely as it may sound: fish up to 16 metres long may look as though they’re just cruising along, but it’s all about scale. Really, they’re motoring. Not that our sharks were that big, but the 7m one (hardly a tiddler) we found was a real Speedy Gonzales. So how it works is the swimmers are lined up along the back of the boat, snorkelled up all ready; the skipper gets ahead of the shark and then it’s “Go, go, go!” into the water in a flurry, keeping close to Elise or Steph, heads under looking where they’re pointing to see the shark loom out of the blue, incredibly big, amazingly spotty (you see the spots first, like the Cheshire Cat’s grin, in reverse) and gliding towards you, past and then away into the blue again, tail sweeping slowly but so powerfully. It’s a fantastic experience!

We swam five times, with three sharks, the other two smaller (relatively speaking) at 4m; the last one was fun as he was intrigued by another boat and hanging round the water outlet sucking at the bubbles, and rubbing itself on the hull. It didn’t know about the 3m distance rule and came straight at me, so I was madly trying to photograph it as the same time as getting out of its way – not in case of danger, just because of keeping interaction to a minimum. I wasn’t frightened at all, even when it opened that wide-as mouth to gulp at the coral spawn in the water (not as revolting as it sounds). It was so exciting to see it so close – and all natural.

There were also turtles, dolphins and lots of reef snorkelling with a fantastic variety of colourful fish – but the stars were the whale sharks, absolutely. It was a glorious day.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Big

But before monster fish, first the giant prawn. Awake bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at 4am (that 5 hour time difference is a gift for smug early-rising) we flew 2 hours north to Exmouth. The lovely Avis lady (a ChCh girl who was in Sumner when the rocks went crashing down the hill on 22/2) sent us off to the Fish Co before we even got to our hotel, so we had our lunch at 9am on Pebble Beach looking over the turquoise gulf. DELICIOUS! Caught last night, fat and tasty, and SO fresh I doubt right now I'll ever enjoy a prawn again, elsewhere.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Whoa!

Now, that's what I call generous. Lots and lots of 10c coins, yes, but also WADS of notes, at least one of them $100. Very pleasing, given the cause. (In Air NZ's Koru Club, if you were wondering.)

On my way to Perth, Western Australia to head up north for the whale sharks at Ningaloo Reef. Biggest fish in the world! Swimming with!!!

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Excited mixer...

...is excited, looking forward to the fledglings coming home for brunch. Eggs, bacon, baked tomatoes and mushrooms, pastries, all sorts of fruit, juice and this time a lemon cake with marscapone frosting. Yum.

Lovely to see them both and catch up with their news, even if the reporting was all one way (we aged parents aren't expected to have news of our own). And brunch is the perfect, casual, free-wheeling kind of meal for this type of gathering. It's also the opposite of grazing: one good brunch will keep me going all day.

Oddly, the slightly scaled-down version that is a hotel breakfast never seems to last as well, even when I've managed to get outside an entire panful of super-hospitable Renee's sweet and more-ish appelskivers at Abendblume just outside Leavenworth, Washington; or prowled round and round the chefs' stands at Indigo Pearl in Phuket, dithering over freshly-cooked crepes or stir-fry or noodles or omelette or waffles, at the same time dazzled by the huge range of pastries, fruit and cereals. Or toyed with the idea of a Buck's Fizz at the Grand Hotel du Lagon in Reunion (first time I've seen an open bottle of champagne on the breakfast buffet).

But it's not all groaning tables, I'll have you know: in Peru, the standard breakfast was a saucer of (one) dry scrambled egg, two slices of tomato and a cup of coca tea. Yet, strangely, I didn't hanker for a larger helping...

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Just not cricket

It seems only fitting that now we're having a bit of a plague: after the earthquakes, all we need now for the full set would be an eruption, I think. Which is never out of the question, of course.

It's been such a long, hot, dry summer that the crickets have done especially well, to the extent that for once they've pretty much drowned out the normally more strident cicadas, and have been trilling 24 hours a day. It's disorientating, because I associate them with night-time, when the cicadas go quiet: to have them going full bore in the heat of the day messes with my head. The chickens, though, think it's a great boon, and have been stuffing themselves. Eating green grass makes their yolks go gold - I've still to establish what effect a diet high in black crickets might cause. It would help if I could find their eggs.

The crickets leap away from your feet when you walk on the grass, and when you mow it there's quite a spectacular bow-wave of shiny black insects in front of the mower. Well, maybe not spectacular, that's an exaggeration now that I remember central west Queensland last year, when the (huge - see above) locusts were so thick that our hire car had a plastic mesh tied over the radiator grille so they didn't clog it up and make the engine overheat; and where in Longreach all the palm trees looked like chimney brushes because they'd eaten all the green bits off the fronds. Trust the Australians to go OTT.

What a dull post. Sorry: it's because I've been filing all day. But that's a clue that there will be more interesting stuff coming up soon, not the least of which will be whale sharks!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

#blog4NZ - Milford Track

It serves me right. Years of boasting that the sun shone every time I went to Fiordland came back to bite me when I when I finally got hands-on with the Milford Track. ‘Feet on’, actually: four days walking the 54 kilometres from the tip of Lake Te Anau to the bottom of Milford Sound, along the Clinton and Arthur River valleys and over the 1154m Mackinnon Pass between them.

Why would anyone want to do such a thing? Well, it’s a world-famous walk (I was the only Kiwi in a group of 16 eager trampers); it was on the bucket list; and it’s the best way to enjoy that astonishing scenery, even if it involves getting intimate with some of the seven metres of rain that fall on the track every year. Choosing to go with Ultimate Hikes meant that at least I would be assured of a warm, dry and comfortable end to each day at their three lodges on the track, with hot showers, drying rooms, a three-course dinner, and a cosy bed. Our three guides were an equally valuable part of the package, encouraging and diverting us as we plodded along.

I marvelled at their enthusiasm as we set off into drenching rain on the second morning, after a short walk the previous afternoon from the lake jetty to the lodge: the river churned brown and violent, the mountain tops were rubbed out by low cloud, ribbons of waterfalls streaked the valley walls. But inside the bush it was sheltered and green, birds fluttered around our feet and the miles, marked by old-fashioned posts, slipped past. When the river trespassed onto the track and icy water swirled hip-high, it became more adventure than fun: but Fiordland weather is notoriously changeable, and after lunch the sun came out, the glaciers showed crisp and clear against the blue sky and Pompolona Lodge lay ahead with civilised comforts and a five-star view.

Excellent food, wine and company, and a good night’s sleep banished the discomforts of Day Two, and I was ready for the long zigzag climb up to the Pass next day. In bright sunshine, the snow-capped mountains, alpine flowers and clowning keas took centre stage, my tired legs easily ignored: and the view from the top was stunning. From the edge of the cliff called Twelve-Second Drop I could see Quinton Lodge tucked into the bush far below — but in the absence of a paraglider, sadly the only way down was to follow the steep, rough track along Roaring Burn, each mile seeming longer than the last.

Although it was a hard day, it was full of dramatic scenery, with even more rewards at the end. At the lodge, there were welcome creature comforts — but also Sutherland Falls, at 580m the highest in the country, leaping and raging after the rain, a spectacular sight well worth the extra walk to its base.

On the last day, each waterfall plunging down out of the bush seemed prettier than the last. Diverted by birdlife including a weka family with a fluffy brown chick, the end came suddenly: a hut, a red boat and beyond it Mitre Peak’s unmistakeable shape, everything blurred by a haze of sandflies. Just around the point was real civilisation, with mains electricity, baths and a pub, all of which we put to good use — but still I was sorry to have left behind the beauty and peace of the bush, and the simple pleasure of lying comfortably in bed after a day of honest exercise, listening to the cry of a kiwi echoing through the night.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

#blog4NZ - Queenstown

They built Matakauri Lodge in the wrong place: it ought to be in boring old Palmerston North. It certainly shouldn’t be tucked away on the edge of Lake Wakatipu just ten minutes out of Queenstown. It’s far too hard to tear yourself away from the smooth sheets in the soft bed, the comfortable chairs in front of the log fire, and the sumptuous bathroom – any further, that is, than the elegant dining room where wild mushroom consommé and manuka and Earl Grey smoked beef medallion might be on the menu. All that magnificent scenery out there, the adventure activities, the shops and vineyards, they’re all wasted. You might just as well be hunkered down in Palmy.

Except – and this is a master-stroke – our stone villa had only three walls, the fourth being floor to ceiling glass so that the lake and the mountains were right there, in all their spectacular glory. We looked straight across to Cecil Peak’s rocky slopes; to the left were the Remarkables, to the right Walter Peak where we could just see the jetty and homestead, the only signs of human habitation in the entire 180 degree view – if you don’t count the TSS Earnslaw fussing back and forth trailing its plume of smoke, or the brief busy roar of a jet boat heading to the top of the lake for a spin and a swirl of spray in unfeasably shallow water.

I’ve seen Ayers Rock go through its famous colour range as the sun set and been impressed, but Queenstown’s mountains, though less gaudy, are just as fascinating to watch as the light moves across them, constantly changing in mood and colour. It’s a sight I didn’t want to miss, so how satisfying to be able to lie back and enjoy it wherever I was in the villa: sprawled on the cushions on the window seat, tucked up in bed or even wallowing in a deep and fragrant bath, bubbles popping under my chin. If it had been summer, I could have slid the bathroom window wide open and really communed with nature; but autumn has its pleasures too, and the crackling logs of the living room fire were cosy and comforting.

It was hard, but I dragged myself out to Glenorchy at the head of the lake for a two-hour ride along the Dart, a braided stony river between flats of luminous golden grass where Oscar, a well-mannered bay, allowed me to indulge a Rider of Rohan fantasy. Many scenes from the Lord of the Rings were filmed here and Emily, our guide, was full of insider information. That last long canter was maybe a mistake, but back at the villa Anna was waiting with her massage table, oils and soothing music to put things right again.

On second thoughts, Palmy just wouldn’t be the same.

Monday, March 21, 2011

#blog4NZ - Kaikoura

The New Zealand Prime Minister also holds the portfolio for tourism: that's how important it is here; so all the death and disaster news that's hit the world's headlines about the Christchurch earthquake has serious implications for our economy. For three days, #blog4NZ is hoping to reverse that bad image by reminding everyone who's ever thought about coming here - and those who haven't - that NZ will deliver an unforgettable holiday, wherever you go. And that's not in the trapped-under-a-cafe-table-while-the-roof-falls-in sense of unforgettable, either.Try this:

I’m skimming north from Christchurch across the Canterbury Plains towards Kaikoura. The Southern Alps are dazzling against a clear blue sky; the Waimakariri runs deep and wide between its shingly banks; low sun caresses the green curves of hills neatly nibbled by fluffy white, back-lit sheep; vineyards make a geometric tracery of orange and brown. Ahead lie the snow-capped dog’s teeth of the Seaward Kaikouras. Spray-swept breakers roll onto black beaches and thick bush fringes massive headlands bored through by tunnels. It’s an exhilarating drive that ends at with a surprise at Hapuku Lodge, north of Kaikoura.

Perched above a stand of manuka trees, five tree houses command spectacular views. Stylishly simple boxes of wood, glass and copper, inside they’re furnished to a seductive level of luxury. Quantities of goose down and fine linen promise deep sleep; a roomy spa bath overlooks the ocean, the floor is toasty warm and, best of all, there’s a log-burner in the window by a leather armchair inviting long study of the mountains where the wind is blowing snow off the peaks.

Down in the main lodge are more fires and inviting chairs but further up the road there's a secret to discover. Passing hardy surfers encased in neoprene catching waves off the point, I follow a path through the bush to where a pretty waterfall plunges into a pool. Also plunging are dozens of fur seal pups, fat shiny babies with liquid brown eyes. Somehow, three years ago, one found his way up the creek, discovered the fun of diving under the falls, and word got around. Now up to 100 pups can be found there pretending to be dolphins, making the water boil with their playful energy.

There’s much less action at the seal colony around the bay, where their parents yawn and scratch on the rocks. People can ride here from town on Segways, and I take one for a spin. Self-balancing on two wheels, it’s an unlikely-looking vehicle, but turns out to be a Zen machine: just think of a direction, and away it hums.

From the air, the road is a black ribbon threading along the scalloped edge of the land, between long waves breaking on the rocks and mountains hustling down to the sea. Our helicopter swoops over the sea where a resident sperm whale rests on the surface, re-oxygenating for another 1000-metre dive. We watch as he stirs and then tips downwards, the wide flukes of his tail streaming with water as it lifts into the air. He’s hunting fish attracted by the nutrient-rich waters of the deep trench just off-shore…
[Photo Dean Mackenzie]

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Knut ist tot!

No, this isn't a new natural disaster: volcanic eruptions are the only thing it seems we haven't had for a while - apart from that one in Hawaii, but it's more of a tourist attraction than a danger. And so is this: a sub-sub-Disneyland pretend volcano at Sea World on the Gold Coast in Queensland, which I thought about today not because Prince William is in Qld on the second-to-last leg of his own disaster tour (Pike River, Christchurch, Queensland and Victoria - not very jolly for a man who's mere weeks away from his wedding), but because Knut has died.

Germany will be in mourning again - so soon after Paul the Octopus! It's a tough time for them. Knut of course is the polar bear cub that spawned a million soft toys and made a fortune for Berlin Zoo when he was little and cute. Then he got big and fierce and had to give up the rough and tumble with his keeper - and now, aged only 4, he's died: a very sad picture, floating lifeless in his pool.

Sea World on Queensland's Gold Coast has polar bears too. And though they have air conditioning and cooled water and ice cubes to play with and all, I think it's a scandal to have polar bears in a tropical setting. (It was bad enough in Lost.) And it's an even worse scandal to have polar bears in an enclosure at all, when they should be ranging freely across snowy wastes and chasing seals. And battling the loss of sea-ice... Well, that's a different sort of scandal.

But Sea World? Not recommended. They have a captive dugong; and a dolphin show too, where people ride them like living surf boards. And performing seals. It's just wrong - and so behind the times. It's pretty unsurprising, then, that their big show is a 1960s waterski effort with beehive hair-dos and gold cloaks. Tacky. Don't go.
Yeah, this photo again. This is how it should be: free bear scaring the heebie jeebies out of people squashed into a small container, totally out of their own habitat.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Kia kaha, Christchurch

Huge numbers gathered in Hagley Park in the sunshine this afternoon - 30,000 or 100,000, depending on whether it was sober radio or excitable TV you were tuned to - for the National Memorial Service. Prince William was there, quoting his grandmother quoting, after 9/11, Rabbi Earl Grollman, that grief is the price we pay for love ("Did the Queen say that?" someone asked breathlessly) but doing a good enough job. Shame no-one coached him on Kia kaha, though: putting the emphasis on the -ha made it sound more like an exclamation than an exhortation.

The speeches were ok, and remembered Japan too, which was good. There was a hiccup over the lighting of what it seemed they had decided to call a brazier, which felt slightly barbie-inappropriate. There was singing - Dave Dobbyn fitted in well, Dame Malvina was a bit over the top, our Hayley was perfect - and a whole lot of religion. Well, I suppose it was a service, after all, and they did at least let the Buddhists, Muslims, Jews and co have a say - but the Anglicans ran the show and though the archdeacon claimed her sermon wasn't 'an altar-call' (how significant that they have their own jargon for that), it sounded that way to me, as I played Sudoku in defiance and wished they'd also let the athiests in on the act.

It was moving, though: and the best bit for me by far was the montage at the end to the Crusaders' theme tune (Conquest of Paradise: Vangelis) of the collapsed buildings, USAR teams from all over the world, rescue dogs, diggers mechanical and human, portaloos, collection buckets and bravely raised thumbs. Poor Christchurch. As well as remembering the lost, the service was largely about standing strong and building better, but there's such a long way to go, to a city that will be very different from our old friend.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Green for go

And there you have it: Auckland's Sky Tower which apparently, surprisingly, was the first city landmark anywhere to be floodlit green on St Patrick's Day, three years ago. Can that be right? Seems amazing, considering that the river in Chicago is dyed green and all that sort of thing. [Update: It must have been the Guinness. Of course, they meant that it was the first thing to go green in the world that day. Time zones and all that. D'oh!]

Anyway, that's what we were told, and it would be churlish to doubt a generous host who supplied such a steady stream of delicious nibbles, and wine, and of course Guinness - which went down very smoothly, I must say.

I'm looking forward to getting back to Ireland in July. It's such an interesting, and pretty, and ancient place - and the locals do know how to have a good time, to be sure.

Sláinte!

St Patrick's Day today, and this evening I'll be at the Sky Tower to see it go green, the first landmark to be bathed in emerald light as the Green Beam goes around the world. Here, then the Sydney Opera House, London Eye, Empire State Building and Toronto Tower, plus Cape Town's Table Mountain - all a bit of fun, and sure now, couldn't we all be doing with some?

Other than seeing the colour change, I dare say there'll be drinking and jollity as Discover Ireland are the hosts, something they do very well. It'll be hard to say no to a drop of black velvet, though I hope I can avoid a pint glass this time: in the bar at the top of the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin, there was absolutely no choice, much to the delight of unfinicky aficionados, who did well out of the barely-sipped glasses abandoned by shrinking tourists.

The last time I was at the Sky Tower I was all togged up in an unflattering orange boiler suit and a most uncomfortable harness to do the SkyWalk around the ring at the top. It's a walkway about a metre wide with no guardrail - just safety lines attached to a rail overhead. The guides get their kicks by making everyone lean backwards over the void, sitting on thin air while way down below little cars and people go about their business.

It was fun - though more fun if I'd been with friends - and not that scary at all, really. I'm always more amazed by how height flattens the landscape than scared by the thought of falling. It's wonderful how convenient a lack of imagination can be. Though when we watched the bungy jumpers hurtle off the platform, I wasn't the least bit tempted.

Anyway, Sláinte!

Monday, March 14, 2011

Little furry balls of spikes

"I think I'm over earthquakes now," said the man down the road. I know how he feels. It's all right for you overseas people: I hope you noticed Christchurch, but let's be honest, it wasn't a biggie for you, was it? But we've been living with earthquake news almost daily since September 4, and constantly since February 22. So the Japanese one, though of course it's terrible and frightening and on a phenomenal scale, does feel a bit to me like an earthquake too far. Is that a bad thing to say? I'm still sending money and thoughts and hopes - but I'd like to take a break from disasters.

Today I've been writing again about Tasmania and the missing monotremes: on a wildlife-spotting day out with Craig, he was disconsolate about not being able to rustle me up an echidna or a platypus. The mystery monotremes! There are only two monotremes in the world, you know, and these are they. Monotreme? Egg-laying mammal. Echidnas look like shaggy hedgehogs, and if you don't know what a platypus looks like, shame on you! Go and Google it, because I haven't got a photo.

I did see echidnas elsewhere: in fact, the previous night I'd had to swerve around one on the road mainly, of course, because I didn't want to run it over; but also because I had a jokey driver on Kangaroo Island further north once who said "Never run one of those things over unless you want a puncture". Yeah, probably pulling my leg, you can never trust an Aussie guide - but on the other hand, ? And I saw another, a furry baby, I think, in a carpark of all places, at the edge of the tarmac pushing its nose (ouch!) through the loose gravel to find ants and such. Their hind feet are on backwards, you know. And they can drop their body temperature very quickly and stay in suspended animation for ages - NASA finds that very interesting, evidently.

And the platypus? Spotted that at Cradle Mountain Lodge near the centre of Tasmania just on dusk, lying on its back in the middle of the pond near the main building, having a leisurely scratch. Such very weird animals in Australia (says she, whose national bird has its nostrils on the tip of its beak and lays the biggest egg in the world in relation to body size) (oh, and can't fly). (And actually? Looks a little bit like a baby echidna.)

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Great shakes

Nothing but disaster in the papers today: flick, flick, pages 1-5 Japan, 6-8 Christchurch. We're sending a team of 48 USAR people, keeping back enough in case we need them here again. (There's an aircraft carrier from the US on its way to Japan too - what a difference 70 years makes, eh?) The scale of the Japanese quake is just phenomenal, the numbers huge, the destruction hard to believe - and on top of all that, there's a looming nuclear meltdown too. If it were a movie, you'd call it over the top; because it's real life, it's impossible to get your head around, despite being glued to all that horrifying video.

This earthquake, I read, is ranked 7th in the list of Great Quakes, and at the top is the 9.5 one in Chile in 1960 which generated a massive tsunami. I was too small then to remember it, but a few years ago I was in Maketu, a small Bay of Plenty town south of Tauranga, talking to a local historian, and he pointed out the garden where he was sleeping in a tent as a boy when the tsunami rolled in during the night. It could have been tragedy, but instead it was farce, because the water stopped just short of where he was sleeping soundly, and he woke in the morning astonished to find a huge pile of logs washed up against the fence.

Quaint little place - very good pie shop - and quintessentially sleepy and bare-footed, daily life revolving around the beach, river and estuary. "No-one could beat a Maketu kid at swimming," Niven claimed - because the school swimming pool was the river, and they were always having to fight the tide as they swam.

I wrote about it for the NZ Listener, and the editor queried the tsunami bit. I sent him proof, but he cut it anyway. Pft. What did he know - he rejected another story that subsequently won the Travel Writer of the Year award. (Ahem. Travelskite.)

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Ooh look! Something dreadful!

Geologists and seismologists probably can't believe their luck. There they were, tucked away in their laboratories with their rocks, fingering their core samples and quietly growing beards, and now all of a sudden reporters trailing cameramen are fighting each other to get them on national - international! - TV. Very exciting for them, and they probably don't mind that they're being asked the same basic questions over and over, that any twelve year-old could answer if they'd paid attention in geography.

I relieved in a geography lesson yesterday at school, and the absent teacher - clearly desperate - had just scribbled down 'Ask the HOD for an earthquake DVD' on the cover form. The first one he supplied about Kobe (ha! old news) wouldn't play properly, so instead we watched one about Haiti. "It's a bit gruesome," I warned the class of 16 year-olds. "There are lots of bodies, apparently." They weren't fazed: "Bring it on, Miss!" they said. But when it came to it, the shots of bodies falling from digger scoops into trucks, being shovelled into mass graves, of amputated limbs and bloody bandages, were shocking for all of us.

Even more shocking, in its way, was that the Haiti earthquake was over a year ago now. It was such huge news at the time, but faded away so quickly that when the anniversary came round the reaction was "Oh yeah, Haiti. How's it going there?" And of course the answer is, "Pretty much unchanged". But in the meantime our attention has flitted elsewhere, to the Chilean earthquake, to that volcano in Iceland that inconvenienced so many Westerners, to the fires in Russia, the floods in Pakistan, Pike River, the first Christchurch earthquake...

And now it's Christchurch's turn to be the curtain-raiser, forgotten as soon as the main act begins, eclipsed by something so much bigger and more dramatic. It's a valuable reminder, actually: that the suffering and struggling go on well after the world's grasshopper attention has flicked off somewhere else.

Not everybody's like that, of course: the Japanese USAR team (Urban Search and Rescue - the latest acronym we've become depressingly familiar with; less chilling even so than DVI, disaster victim identification) were preparing to leave last night after spending several weeks here searching for, amongst others, the remains of the Japanese students in the CTV building; and now are on their way back to Japan - not going home, but to their next mission. I hope they get to rescue some people alive this time.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Step away from the water

Well, here we are, all around the world at the same time watching the same pictures, listening to the same NHK man providing the commentary for the dreadful earthquake in Japan and that terrifying tsunami - which we've just heard may reach this far. Being parochial for a moment, I do hope it doesn't wash ashore at North Beach and New Brighton, Taylor's Mistake and Sumner: it would simply finish off those eastern suburbs of Christchurch.

It's kind of laughable, seeing the film of cars washing down a river, people running across fields as the wave approaches, the fallen buildings, the huge fire at the oil refinery, and hearing reports of three, five, eight people dead. It's going to be thousands, surely. Whether the size of the quake is 8.4 or 8.9 - they haven't settled on a figure yet, less than 2 hours afterwards - is immaterial. Given the way the Richter scale works, either way it's an immense earthquake: an incredible 8000 times bigger than the Christchurch one. And in such a populous area!

It's awesome too, how far the effects are spreading: all around the Pacific. China, California, Peru, Chile, here, Australia, Hawaii, Tahiti, Fiji, New Caledonia, the Cooks, Indonesia... even Russia. All places I've been, all people I've rubbed shoulders with, smiled at, eaten with. We're all in the same boat, watching and waiting.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Home's best

It was a bit confusing today: sorting out photographs (these ones didn't make the cut) to go with a Mauritius story, selling one about the Inca Trail, trying to sell another about Victoria, and getting on with writing about Tasmania, at the same time as thinking about a special blog event that's coming up to promote New Zealand to people who may be thinking that coming here could be an adventure too far.

Our neighbours had the moving van in - what a shame they're not called pantechnicons any more - to load up their stuff that's to be sent to Oz. Imagine: on the side of the truck, the slogan 'We move you to Australia'. It's a business, now, so many people are heading off across the Tasman for a better (read, generally, richer) life. Apparently lots of Christchurch residents have got Oz in their sights, their nerves shot, their houses in ruins, the future of the city - well, not in doubt, it does have one - just too hard to imagine at this stage. It's understandable. But... Australia?

It's a terrific place. I've had great times there, I love the Outback and all its furry wildlife (excluding the tarantulas), the history is exciting Boy's Own Adventure stuff, the food's delicious and the Aussies are thoroughly good sorts. But I wouldn't want to live there. The environment is too harsh, the insects are awful, there are snakes, the accent wears me down after a week and though the country is so rich and the infrastructure so good and the go-getter attitude so inspiring and effective, I like it much better here where everything is gentler. Even if sometimes it's bloody rough.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Premade? Still working on this version.

Well, fancy that. Thanks, Google Alert! It's kind of exciting, to know there's a Sim with my name - and what are the odds that she's a traveller? She's also described as tan (nup), thin (hah!), Pisces (Scorp), brown-haired (who knows?), single and normal - but her eyes are grey and she aspires to Knowledge, so that's near enough. As for living in a 'secret sub-neighbourhood called Exotic Destinations' - well, how about Bay of Fires, Tryphena, Ningaloo, Koblenz and Paris? And that's just the first half of this year. (Sorry: but this blog is called TravelSKITE.)

I'm not so sure about the 'visiting foreign hotels' bit though: that sounds suspiciously like what's depressingly titled 'site inspections' in the trade - something that travel agents get saddled with when they're whisked overseas for what other people assume is an exciting, exotic free holiday. While we travel writers see ourselves as in an entirely different category from agents, I've been caught up in some of these myself on group famils, and also heard true horror stories of having to be shown round 20 hotels in a single day. It's madness: you can't distinguish them from each other after about the first four, so it's a total waste of time. But mainly, how tedious and dispiriting, to be shown some fabulous hotel room all marble, 1000+ count linen, balcony overlooking turquoise bay dotted with islands, and dazzling bathroom, and have to focus on the fact that the bath-tub is too high for elderly clients to climb into.

What they should do is give the agents video memory sticks of what's available, and then let them just enjoy the hotel they're staying in, which they will then remember both vividly and - hopefully - fondly. Like Indigo Pearl on Phuket, with its classy industrial-chic theme; or the Hong Kong Peninsula's 6-room suite with TV over the bath; or the Raj Palace in Jaipur's croquet lawn and super-attentive staff; or the roses and hand-made chocolates in the Plaza Grande in Quito; or the intricate pattern of bougainvillea petals on the bed at Legends in Mauritius; or the fireplace in the bathroom and the Inca walls at Hacienda San Augustin de Callo at Cotopaxi in Ecuador; or the over-water villa at Lagoon Resort on Aitutaki; or the rustic four-poster in the tent at Kangaluna in South Australia; or the 16th century longhouse in Anglesey that smelled of lilies and hay. See? I remember them all perfectly - and I'd recommend any one of them, totally (almost).

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

My kingdom for a throne

Christchurch mayor, Bob Parker, had to give a - hmm, not demonstration... an explanation of how a chemical toilet operates at yesterday's earthquake briefing. Some people have been struggling to work out the mechanics of it. Others have found it more difficult to find somewhere to empty it afterwards, unfortunately - Civil Defence are still grappling with the logistics of that, with 100,000 people still lacking sewerage. More Portaloos and chemical toilets are on their way from the US, China and Australia, with the aim of achieving a ratio of 1:4 people.

Other ChCh residents have been more proactive, fashioning creative long-drops in their gardens using outdoor furniture, concrete blocks, bales of hay, tents and umbrellas to make somewhere not just suitable, but comfortable, wherein/on to commune with nature.

It's to be hoped the Australian imports don't come already fitted with the natural feature of this northern Queensland toilet, above. It's wonderful how something like that can make your body instantly rethink what was, moments earlier, apparently an undeniable urge. Something similar happened on the Irrawaddy River ferry in Burma, a two-day trip in the bare-board luxury of the bow cabin (shared with eight other people, including a monk) with an ensuite furnished with a shiny, shifting brown coating of shoulder-to-shoulder cockroaches. Nobody took more than a fleeting look inside there.

I have, on the other hand, been delighted with some back-country long-drops here in NZ, that have been a pleasure to use simply because of their fabulous views over mountains and valleys - a view unspoiled, in some cases, by a door (so even if the toilet already hums a bit, the user needs to as well - and loudly). Fortunately, the one at the top of Mackinnon Pass on the Milford Track has a door, as befits such a busy route: but it's also sort of a shame, because wouldn't you like to sit and contemplate a sight like this?

Monday, March 7, 2011

School by the River

Hmmm, Calamity Pam strikes again: I've found the list of Badly Damaged Schools in Christchurch, and it seems I have the full set. Banks Avenue Primary, Shirley Intermediate, and Avonside Girls' High - and this despite the removal of potentially dangerous decorative pediments at the latter when I was there in (augh) 1967-71; and further earthquake strengthening in the 1990s. Didn't I say it looked precarious, the bits they'd apparently replaced?

Shame, though: founded in 1928, and now most of the buildings are thought to be due for demolition, and the girls meanwhile are having to share at Burnside High, miles away. I liked the old brick building, with its thick walls and high ceilings and rather grand main staircase. It had substance. Now it has gaping cracks and liquefaction.

And another thing: the current Principal, I see, is Sue Hume, who was in my MA class at University. Talk about feeling old. But poor Sue - what a job, to have to sort out that gigantic muddle. And poor girls, too: the AGHS Year 13 Ball in a few weeks was to have been held at the Grand Chancellor Hotel, which is currently leaning precariously over its neighbours in the CBD and is due to be demolished, just as soon as they can work out how.

As are 10,000 houses, it seems, in some of the worst-affected suburbs, which will be left unoccupied - Shirley, Burwood, Avonside... My bit of the city, sigh.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Fruitful

The first feijoa has fallen. That means autumn is here - despite the hot sunny days, the warm sea, the still muggy afternoons and evenings. It's been an amazing summer, and seems to have gone on so long - but there's no denying a feijoa on the berm. Mine are still on the tree, but there's a hedge along my walk that's always earlier. Next to the school, its fruit are more often used as missiles than eaten, which would seem wasteful, except that they are so abundant.

Feijoas and (confusingly, in spring) loquats are the only scrumpable fruits to be found along my walk. I suppose they're excitingly exotic to some people - certainly, when I lived in England, they would have seemed that way compared with blackberries. Never try to pick blackberries while riding a horse along the hedgerow, by the way: no matter how large and juicy, how seemingly accessible, you'll only ever end up with prickles in your fingers, take it from me. Much better to stand your horse in a ditch and reach up for apples: but you must always share them if you want continued inter-species co-operation.

The best free fruit I've ever come across was in quaint little Cooktown, in northern Queensland, where there were juicy, ripe mangoes just lying around on the side of the road. Mangoes! For free! I had to gather an armful and carry them back to my hotel room - but from then on, it wasn't a pretty sight. They were SO ripe, and SO juicy - and so delicious, natch - that it was a sort of one-person orgy in there, hung over the bathroom basin, juice running down my chin and dripping off my elbows, sucking and slurping, and ending up with teeth like a baleen whale's.

And worse was to come. Take this from me too, friends: sad but true, it's possible to eat too many mangoes.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Faith 1, science 2

Excellent news today from Christchurch: they cleared all the rubble from the collapsed spire and discovered no bodies beneath it, despite having worried for days that 22 tourists had been inside it. So no-one died inside the cathedral at all. It's hard not to call that a miracle.

And far from anyone dying, there wasn't even a cracked pane in the remarkably vulnerable-looking Art Gallery.That is entirely down to science and technology.
And - breaking away from Christchurch for a moment - I'm presuming that the glass took the strain here, too. That's what you call Just As Bloody Well.
(Not my photo - don't know whose - but boy, that would be something, eh?)

Friday, March 4, 2011

Le Rouge et le Noir

When I was doing stage 2 French at Canterbury University, I'm afraid I managed to slip through without more than the most superficial acquaintance of this novel by Stendhal (ie, going to the lectures but not actually opening the book. Shhh.) I probably wouldn't have enjoyed it, if it was like the ones I did plough through, especially the modern ones later on: stiflingly intense and humourless. And so many words. Surprisingly, perhaps, I much preferred the German literature I studied, especially Wolfgang Borchert, especially Nachts schlafen die Ratten doch (I love that use of doch) - a wartime story about a little boy worried that rats would eat his brother's corpse under the rubble, if he didn't keep watch through the night; until an old man tells him "The rats sleep at night."

Yesterday they officially switched from rescue to recovery in Christchurch. It's been a week since anyone was rescued alive. Many bodies still lie under the broken buildings, and the work continues to find them, but it will be a long, slow business, despite heartening help from disaster teams here from Australia, the UK, US, Korea, Japan, China...

And today it was officially Red and Black Day: Canterbury colours worn around the country in support by everyone from schoolkids to the Prime Minister. A couple of streets away here on Auckland's North Shore, a Canterbury student is organising a grand garage sale to raise money for Christchurch. She looks so young, and eager, and has energy in spades (literally) like all the newly-formed and fabulous Student Volunteer Army. Good for them.
Photos show the old Townsite university, now the Arts Centre. That tower above was how it looked in 2009; the photo below was taken in November after the first earthquake. I wonder how it looks today?

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Signs

Considering Christchurch, and that Wellington had a 4.5 shake today as well as a capsizing ferry, I really shouldn't be finding it so infuriating that Vodafone has cocked up our broadband and consequently/additionally I can't get to my blog in the usual manner. But I am; and all around the country other people will have been starting to curse again at dozy drivers, misplaced apostrophes, Muammar Gaddafi and Charlie Sheen. Life looks to be going on. It's beginning to feel like time all those journalists came back to the studio; they've already moved on to the warm fuzzy stories introducing victims to their rescuers, talking to the SPCA, interviewing Jeremy, the hot young signer for the deaf who's been set up with a Facebook page by his admirers. Good grief, even Mayor Bob Parker's parka has its own Facebook page now.

Death toll now 160, expected to reach 240, a quarter of the CBD to be demolished, thousands of homes ditto, ChCh people scattered all over the country, hot dry nor'wester blowing choking liquefaction dust all over the city - and someone's put the huge boulder that crashed through their roof, coming to rest in their hallway, up for auction on TradeMe. It's a good sign.

Update: The boulder, Rocky, sold for $10,050 (all proceeds to the Earthquake Fund) as is, where is - really, a photo op plus a Norfolk Island holiday someone threw in. All good fun.

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