Saturday 30 April 2011

Araf* boyo

Well, it's all over, even the shouting, and it went beautifully, hooray. Elegant dress, smart uniform (though Harry's was showier), lots of splendidly silly hats, no hiccups over names, cute choirboys, and the trees in the Abbey grew on me. Bit too much religion for my taste, but there you go, hard to avoid in the circs, I suppose.

The Brits give good pageantry, it must be said: most impressive maybe, apart from the precision timing throughout the entire day, was the crowd control in the Mall afterwards - though, of course, the crowd was mainly Brits too, so the police were on a winner from the start.

Soon they'll be off on their honeymoon - and after that it will be back to earth with a bump after all the hoop-la: a cottage near Valley in Anglesey. Now, the royal idea of a cottage probably stretches the term as understood by the rest of us, but even so, it's still in Anglesey. Which is a lovely place - but it's very quiet and rural and there's not much going on there outside the pub. They've had a lot of shipwrecks over the years, so that will keep William busy with his Search and Rescue role (though - shhh - the real heroes are the Lifeboat crews). But what on earth is Kate going to do with her time? Maybe she could learn how to roll this local placename off her tongue:
(I love how they've gone to the trouble of breaking the name into bits to make it easier to pronounce. Gee, thanks, guys.)
*Araf? Go here.

Friday 29 April 2011

Tying the Windsor knot

Westminster Bridge will be a touch more crowded today, I think. Wills and Kate's big day, and London is chokka with staunch royalists, gawping tourists, frowning security people and more different sorts of uniform than you can shake a stick at - and everybody a bit frazzled and hoping that the day will go well and that the worst that might happen will be a downpour during the parade afterwards.

We'll be watching from home, as we did for the last big Royal Wedding - though only just. In London the day before for a garden party at the Inner Temple, we went afterwards to Hyde Park for the fireworks display, which was fabulously spectacular. Or I suppose it was: the memory of the display was almost immediately superceded by the experience of being one of a massive crowd of over half a million, in the dark, in a vast park full of trees. We were swept along willy-nilly, feet almost off the ground, with no control over direction, and fetched up eventually against a high metal fence that some people climbed over, spikes notwithstanding. We edged along till we got to a gate, and then made our way to Paddington station to catch the train home to Gloucester.

When the platform number clicked up on the display board, there was another great stampede, which puzzled us as we followed along in a more leisurely fashion - to discover that the running mob knew better, and had already filled all the carriages to the gunnels. We weren't allowed on board and had to wait hours for the next train, which turned out to be the milk train, stopping at every station along the route, and taking more than twice as long as the usual service. Oh, that was a tiring trip for us country mice, after an early start and all day in a super-crowded, hyped-up London!

We got home in the early dawn with just enough time to drive home, have a much-needed bath and a cruelly brief nap before the Charles and Di show began. The timing for this wedding suits us much better, watching live from New Zealand this time: a full evening's viewing and to bed soon after midnight. Looking forward to it - fingers crossed for a perfect day for everyone concerned.

Monday 25 April 2011

We will remember them

Difficult day for Downunder Christians: celebrate that Jesus is risen? Or sombrely reflect on the Glorious Dead? Evidently the last time that Anzac Day fell at Easter was in 1859, which in effect means never, since Anzac Day was only created in 1916, ie the first anniversary of the Gallipoli landings. (The next time is 2038, however, thanks to the mysteries of this moveable feast. Family story (true): Why does Easter move around so much? It's connected with the phases of the moon. Really? I thought it was to do with the Church.)

In Bendigo, they had their Easter Festival a day early, on Sunday, in order to leave Anzac Day free of frivolity. They will have pulled out the latest substitute for Loong, their Chinese Imperial Dragon (oldest in the world!) for the annual parade through the town - quite probably the route led past their mini-Cenotaph at Pall Mall. The original one in London is on the Royal Wedding route; but we have one here too, at the War Memorial Museum in the Domain in Auckland, which is where we were today, trying out the 11am ceremony.

It was ok, but had nowhere near as much atmosphere as at the dawn service, when it's cold and dark, and in the big crowd it's hard to see, but in the silence you can hear the tramp of the old soldiers' feet starting it off. There are little kids on their fathers' shoulders, wondering why on earth they've been dragged out of bed in the middle of the night; there are gaggles of pierced teenagers with poppies pinned to their hopelessly impractical clothing; there are Baby Boomers choking up, proudly wearing their parents' medals; there are all sorts of organisations in uniforms with wreaths and banners; and there are the piper and the bugler fizzing with excitement on their instruments' one day of glory. Hymns, prayers, anthems (cheery Australian and dirge-like NZ), the Ode, wreaths, flags lowered and raised; and real solemnity in the crowd. It's a great occasion.

At Albany, WA, we visited the memorial on top of Mt Clarence where the first ever Dawn Service was held, in 1918, looking out over the bay where the convoy assembled in November 1914 that took the first contingents of Australian and NZ soldiers to Egypt and all the horrors of war. Per head of population, NZ lost more men even than the UK, so for very many of them it was their last view of Downunder. I'm glad it was a lovely one.

Saturday 23 April 2011

Good Saturday

Easter is summer's last hurrah: the final chance to get away to the beach or bach for some sun and sea before winter sets in; and though we were promised rain this weekend, it didn't happen today, hooray. So we broke free of suburbia and headed not very far north for lunch with friends at Mahurangi where, disgracefully, we'd never been before.

It's the usual story, of not bothering with what's in your own backyard, being seduced by exotic locations further afield - but New Zealand's neat green landscapes are exotic enough for millions of tourists to come here every year from all over the world. Note to self: Get out more.

It's always lovely to get into the country; and though our friends were a little sad that they hadn't been able to afford a section with a sea view, their ridge-top position looks out over bush and farmland and a lake and even two alpacas, and I'd be happy with that. It's what we used to have in England - that is, when the view, and even the light, weren't totally blocked by cattle and sheep looming at the window staring in at what was probably like a sort of television to them. Poor things: the kitchen window must have given them less cooking show, more horror movie, when steak or lamb chops were on the menu.

Thursday 21 April 2011


The Pied Pilferer was at it again last night. He'd popped in for a snack during the afternoon, but I disturbed him (and him, me) though I wasn't fast enough to trap him. I heard the catflap door go again at about 2.30am and, having set it to In Only, leaped out of bed, disturbing skinny old Toby, who was snoring peacefully next to me, under the covers, head on the pillow.

The PP is no fool, however: the bang was his insouciant exit, having sneaked in quietly, had his fill of expensive biscuit and, no doubt sneeringly, deftly hooked open the flap with his claws to make good his escape. And this time, to add insult to injury, he sprayed before he left, so that I returned, thwarted, to bed to lie awake for hours a) plotting his downfall and b) choking on the powerful pong of cat-pee.

It's looking like a win for the feline at this stage. My only chance is, having moved our cats' food to the other end of the house, if he finds his way to it, I'm more likely to be able to get between him and the exit - if so, it's going to be a spectacular stand-off, and I wouldn't put any money on the outcome. (Note to self: Buy more Bandaids.)

Cat pee. I once went to a lion park up north that wasn't officially open to the public yet because the animals weren't in their proper enclosures, and were still in smaller pens with only one layer of netting between us and them. I did resist the temptation to poke my finger through the wire, but managed to come off worse anyway when the very stately lion - on which Aslan in The Lion, the Witch etc movie was modelled - looked at me disdainfully, turned around, lifted his tail, and let fly.

"Oooh! Buy a lottery ticket: that's very good luck!" said the Lion Man (who, incidentally, had refused an interview, saying he wasn't interested in media coverage - and about a year later had his own TV series). Yeah, right. The cats and the dog weren't very impressed when I got home, that's for sure.

This tiger cub at a zoo in Kuala Lumpur was much friendlier - or would have been, I'm sure, if he'd been awake. I hope he wasn't drugged...

Tuesday 19 April 2011

R&R from R&R*

There was a big aftershock in Christchurch on Saturday, a sharp, vicious 5.3, the biggest since 22 February. It cut the power, broke water mains and brought about the rapid demolition of another city building, but the main effect was on the nerves and resilience of the poor ChCh people, who have been hanging on for so long now in horrible conditions, with no end in sight.

Of course, Japan has had it much, much worse, but this isn't a competition, and now that the cold weather's moving in, things are going to be so grim in Christchurch for people living in cracked and draughty houses that aren't watertight, with no chimneys, with portaloos outside still for many, and surrounded by a lumpy, grey quagmire where once there were neat gardens. Winters in ChCh aren't much fun: it does get so cold, a raw, grey, bone-chilling cold; the wind is either a chilly easterly or an even chillier southerly; sometimes it snows; and they get cracking frosts - which, although they guarantee a clear sunny day afterwards, make for literally freezing nights.

Things seem to be moving slowly. The first temporary houses still aren't quite ready; home-owners don't know what's going to happen with their properties or suburbs; business people are frustrated by not being allowed enough time back into the CBD to retrieve items from their premises that they need. But it's heart-warming how people all over the rest of the country haven't forgotten: they're still raising money and offering holiday breaks to ChCh people. The latest was a big group invited to have a respite on Waiheke, and happily Auckland laid on one of its perfect days for their ferry trip across to that lovely place where they will be able to relax and sleep and stretch and breathe deeply with no grey in sight, just blue and green and gold.

Next month Genesis Energy is flying plane-loads of people from various centres to ChCh for the day to roll up their sleeves and pitch in with whatever needs doing. I would love to go and help, but I'll be in Germany. Drat.
*Rest and Recreation from Rocking and Rolling

Monday 18 April 2011

Travelling with Pollyanna

I've been reading a pile of submissions to a travel writing competition that I'm judging for a writers' group and, as an English teacher trained in the mid-'70s, I have to say that all those "Of course, they didn't teach grammar in those days" comments we've been getting ever since were misdirected. Most of these hopefuls are ladies in their 60s and 70s, at school when the syllabus was much more prescriptive and yet - the dangling participles! The missing main verbs! Mixed tenses! Random Capital Letters! Swarms, of commas, and exclamation marks!!!

It's great that they're trying, I know, and all of them have something to say that's worth reading, but it's a hard row for my inner pedant to hoe, and I now have great sympathy for the travel editor of the NZ Herald, who says he gets 300 unsolicited submissions a week. Most of them would be like these ones, I'm guessing: either What I Did on My Holidays or Listen to this Funny/Scary/Horrifying Anecdote from my trip twenty years ago. Diverting enough, but not really travel stories.

And so many of them have wasted material: an attempted mugging on the Trans-Siberian dismissed in a couple of sentences, while there are paragraphs about tinned fish and hard-boiled eggs; getting trapped in a gondola on Mt Etna in a high wind ditto, with all the attention given to finding their hotel. What were they thinking?

It seems obvious to me that to draw and keep the reader's attention, you choose the most exciting/funny/scary moment of a trip and build the story around that. From a travel writing perspective, the more a trip goes wrong, absolutely the better (as long as you actually survive to tell the tale). So getting lost in Lima, dropping my camera down a scree slope on Skye, having jewellery snatched in Santiago? All gifts.

Friday 15 April 2011

Spot the difference

This is the logo of the state tourism authority, which they've been using for a while now.
This was the view from the airport departure lounge in 2009.
And this was the view a week ago.

It's a long way from Manhattan - in both senses, haha. (It's a hell of a long way from anywhere, in fact - 2000km by air from Adelaide, closer to Jakarta than Sydney.) But Perth is growing, as the skyline shows, and as we saw from all the other development going on there, the architectural flight of fancy that's their new stadium not the least of it.

Although the east coast scoffs at Perth for being so far away and hence, obviously, backward and unsophisticated, I know at least three young people who have recently headed off from here to work there, which just goes to show that Kiwis know better than Sydneysiders and banana-benders. It's actually a lovely city, just the right size, with a lively centre where the pavements are full in the evenings of workers stopping off for a civilised drink before going home. It's on the edge of a wide curve of the Swan River where black swans swim, Kings Park is big and green and close by, there are ferries and a free bus circuit and electric trains to the suburbs.

The sunshine is reliable, there are vineyards absolutely everywhere, and excellent beaches (which do have plenty sharks swimming alongside them, though that doesn't seem to put anyone off). From a tourist's perspective, it's a great place to visit, and I've enjoyed my three trips there; and after the '09 one, which involved so much eating of so much good food, it was kind of comforting to get on the scales at the Mint and see my undoubtedly increased weight in not kilograms, but dollars: in gold, I was worth $2,275,896. Even more now, of course. (Because of the rise in the price of gold, naturally. What were you thinking?)

Wednesday 13 April 2011

It's a jungle out there

This may look like suburbia, but nature's red in tooth and claw out there in the back garden. Keeping an ear out anyway for the so-far-still-dry black and white biscuit-thief, I was alerted by Bossy squawking out in the henrun. Hens have a language, you know: loud, big-headed "I've laid an EGG, everybody!"; low-pitched throaty rattle for "Hawk overhead" (never confused with a seagull); impatient cackling for "It's MORNING and we want to GET OUT and have our BREAKFAST!"; excited gurgle "Ooo, ooo, tasty titbit!" and urgent, commanding "Danger, Will Robinson! Danger!" In the happy absence here in New Zealand of snakes, cougars and crocodiles, that means cats, and when I dashed out at Bossy's warning, so it was: the very pied pilferer I've been trying to catch.

He was instantly off through the bushes, of course, but the hens didn't settle, and when I ventured into the run in my bare feet it was to find yet another strange cat, a very forward young black one who came up to complain vociferously about the other. I like black cats, but I didn't want to encourage him, and since Alice was up on the deck observing the commotion from a safe distance, I fetched her so she could establish her territorial rights. Unfortunately this process involved her climbing up my chest by hooking all her claws into my tshirt, to hiss and growl from my shoulder.

The newcomer got the message though, and slunk away, hopefully not to return (though I may well find at a later date that I'm feeding him too). The ring-necked dove still digesting its morning feed of hens' wheat in the manuka tree above went back to sleep, the tui that had come to see what was going on swooped and dipped away, and I've come back inside with mud between my toes to try and regather my thoughts for a Great Barrier Island story about, fancy that, nature: specifically the Glenfern Sanctuary where a 2km pest-proof fence has been built across a small peninsula to protect the birds from, amongst other predators, cats.

And since I've posted enough pictures of my chickens which are eminently practical but not especially attractive Brown Shavers, here are the delightfully punk guinea fowl from Stonebarn, WA and some unexpectedly exotic chickens spotted outside a very humble cottage (not to say shack) along the Inca Trail in Peru.

Monday 11 April 2011

Cat burglar

Drama in the night. It seemed sensible to use disturbed sleep patterns to solve the problem of the feline intruder, who's been coming in through the flap to eat the food that's always there for my two old skinny cats. I set the flap for in only and waited. When I heard it rattle sometime in the stilly watches, I leapt out of bed and into the laundry, flicking on the light and shocking the young, fit cat who'd popped in for a snack of expensive, nourishing, old-cat biscuits.

There was a bit of a battle that involved fear on his part and rather a lot of blood and some pain on mine, but I got him bundled into the wire cat basket and took him out into the dark where I got huge satisfaction from turning the hose on him until he was completely drenched and had stopped fighting it, slumped dejectedly on the floor. Then I let him out and he was off like a shot, hopefully home to dive straight into his owner's bed. It's certain that he won't be coming round here again, next time he's feeling peckish.

So, all sorted now? Alas, no. This cat was grey, while the one I saw sneaking out of the catflap the other day was black and white...
Normally, I'm kind to animals, and it's hard when I travel to keep my distance from those I see. Like the cat peacefully basking in the last rays of the sun at the Grand Bassin temple to Shiva in Mauritius, or this dog watching life go by from a doorstep up the hill in Cusco. They look appealing and I'd like to be friendly to them, but have to remember about rabies. Not that the citizens of Santiago in Chile seem bothered by that danger: there are dogs everywhere in that city, and apparently people have their favourite strays, which they feed and pet in the parks and squares. Certainly (and happily), I never saw one as skinny as the cat on the sofa beside me right now.

Friday 8 April 2011

Preferable to 'iron in HIS soul'

Back home after a cruelly short night to sunrise on a crisper but still lovely day here in Auckland, and the pleasure of seeing another of my photos on the cover of the Herald on Sunday, and a story inside about a mere five of Scotland's engineering marvels.

The photo is of the Glenfinnan Viaduct over in the west near Loch Shiel: it's a remarkable curved span of 21 arches, the first ever construction of its type in concrete. To get the photo, my friend and I had to wade through wet thigh-deep heather up a hillside, and then wait for half an hour to hear the distant chuff-chuff of the train approaching. Earlier we had scoffed at some upper-class twits who turned up to breakfast in our lovely old hotel in their tweed plus-fours - but they would have had the last laugh (a Public School nasal bray) if they'd seen us return with our shoes sodden and muddy, and our jeans soaked through.

There was another lesson in not judging by appearances in the foyer, where a quartet of elderly people were having afternoon tea by the fire - "Och, I'll take a wee spot of milk in my tea" - and I was thinking they looked just like characters straight out of Dr Finlay's Casebook, when their conversation moved on to the Rod Stewart concert they'd recently attended.

My story's appearance was well-timed, because today I went to a Tea Royale at the Langham in honour of the visiting VisitBritain CEO, and as a nod to the upcoming nuptials of Wills and Kate (when he travelled to NZ recently on Cathay Pacific, it was under the name of Mr Dove) and the Queen's Diamond Jubilee next year. Never were fancies so fancy!

Thursday 7 April 2011

The bells!

Our last day in Perth and it started with a ringing in the ears: at the Bell Tower, down on the waterfront, there are 16 bells, twelve of them from St Martin's in the Fields in London, which are not only regularly rung by a company of enthusiastic ringers, but also by much less accomplished tourists under the stern (not to say bossy) instruction of Laura. She's an older English lady of the type who brooks no nonsense: when this Brazilian woman said that actually, she spoke Portuguese, not Spanish, it was clear Laura thought she was being wilfully perverse.

She was rather scathing too about our efforts as we found that it's much harder than you would think: who knew that you could pull on the rope and make the bell swing round, yet not make a sound? It's all in the check, we discovered, when we got on to the 370kg one. That's when you let the rope with its fuzzy striped handle (the 'sally' - but I got no points for knowing that already) go almost all the way up, and then hold tight. It's awfully good for the stomach muscles: Laura was a slight little thing, probably from bossing the biggest bell, the 1480kg tenor.

Then we drove to the airport via a circuit around the Swan Valley, stopping off at the Margaret River Chocolate Company to undo whatever good work we may have done on the ropes with a chocolate macadamia nut cluster.

Wednesday 6 April 2011

A shower but no rain

The shower head in tonight's hotel was set far too high. I wondered if it was John Cleese who used it last. Possibly Michael Parkinson - not Sting, not Cliff Richard, not Bob Dylan, definitely not little Beyonce or Dawn French. In the lounge here at The Richardson, there's a gallery of photos of the manager with, if not a galaxy, then possibly one of the smaller constellations of stars. More than the Pleiades, fewer than Scorpio. Maybe the Plough? Anyway, lots of famous people have stayed here, in Perth, near Kings Park (the Aussies don't do apostrophes for place names, by the way, just in case you were thinking I'd abandoned my life's mission to wipe out apostrophe abuse wherever I see it. When something as big as Ayers Rock has foregone its punctuation, the cause is lost.)

It's a lovely hotel, and we're in a suite serendipidously called Sandalwood (we're experts on sandalwood now, thanks to Mt Romance, which has scented my suitcase with their gifts. Experts on sandalwood and the woylies that go with it - yet another addition to the great Aussie inventory of small and quaintly-named marsupials: bettong, bilby, quoll, numbat, dunnart, tammar, bandicoot... every time I come, I discover a new one.) It's all very tasteful, and they have Bulgari in the bathroom and free internet in the office.

We ate at Opus, the fancy restaurant downstairs, and it was a fabulous meal, beautifully served. I've noticed that Australians do find it difficult to get the attitude right when serving (the Qantas steward who threw a packet of peanuts at me was the bottom of the scale) and Renata tonight was perhaps a smidge on the obsequious side: "Thank you very much, madame" each time she took my plate away. But she was excellent at her job, with recommendations ("Just a little extra indulgence?") and exactly the right amount of friendliness; and (though the bubbly young waitress was fun) I enjoyed being served by a mature person. Very European. 

You can tell from all the parentheses that it's been a quiet day: we've driven 300-odd kms back up to Perth from Stonebarn near Pemberton, and there wasn't much to see apart from some sweet little towns of the sort that feel the need to set up, for example, a small army of scattered scarecrows in order to persuade people to stop; and lots of trees, and a handful of emus. It was hot and sunny again, which means 100% sunshine on this trip - great for us, but the locals are hanging out for rain. Pft! Wait till we've gone: there's only tomorrow left.

Ugly is only skin deep*

Who knew? WA has perfect conditions for growing truffles, and both here at Stonebarn and at the Wine & Truffle Co near Manjimup they're enjoying early success in growing these odd, mysterious lumps on the roots of oak and hazelnut trees. The whole business is very secretive, but Megan scrabbled around in the dirt to show us the fungus forming just under the surface of the soil. Immature yet, but when they're ready, Sunny the Super-Sniffer will put her paw on the spot and the harvesters following behind her on their knees will ease them out of the soil to be sent all over the world. (They use dogs here to sniff them out, having noticed that the pig-handlers in France were usually missing several fingers from wrestling the truffles away from the eager porkers. Fair enough.)

We ate a selection of yummy truffle-scented goodies and then drove to Pemberton where Wendy took us on a discovery tour through the woods to look at towering karri trees and then to see a surprising system of sand dunes in the bush, moving inland in slow-motion. It was Lawrence of Arabia country up there, especially in more 30-degree heat, so it was pleasant to get down onto the beach where the Southern Ocean was roaring in onto the sand, un-civilised by the prissy Leeuwin Current that warms the sea elsewhere along the coast. It misses this bit, so if you were foolish enough to step into this roiling water, you'd know straight away that it was all that separated you from Antarctica. (Also, there are sharks.)

It was exciting coming back, as Wendy thrashed the trusty Landcruiser through the soft sand, lurching dramatically as we squeezed through a narrow pass at the top of a dune. Some city boys ahead of us weren't so expert, and got stuck. They were willing to accept advice, though, and once they had let some air out of their tyres under Wendy's supervision, managed to grind up the slope and away. It gave us something to talk about over our bbq dinner in the woods as the light faded. Driving in Australia: it's a challenge, whether it's traversing the endless Nullarbor as the other guests just had, or simply turning a corner on the driveway to the lodge, and finding a couple of roos sitting there looking aggrieved.

*T-shirt slogan in the Wine & Truffle Co shop.

Tuesday 5 April 2011

"Little Walpole!"

What a hoot: kookaburras laughing away in the gum trees on the hills all around the fancy but comfortable stone barn where we're staying tonight - impossible not to laugh along with that absurd sound, especially after a couple of glasses of Stonebarn bubbles. "Like monkeys in the forest," says Katrin from Estonia (not, as it happens, a nation known for its jungles) as she lays the table for our dinner on the terrace overlooking the dam with the fading afterglow of the sunset beyond.

This morning we went out with Gary Muir on a wilderness cruise that would have been a bit meh if it hadn't been for Gazza himself, who put on an extraordinary performance that mixed science, history, botany and literature with drama and stand-up comedy. It was a tour-de-force, totally entertaining as we cruised across the inlet to a jetty where we walked over the hill to a pristine beach, getting excited en route by tiny indentations in the sand that may have been made by a thought-extinct hopping mouse. Not exciting to you? Only because you weren't there - shame! It was a fabulous morning out, and Gazza managed to link Walpole (pop. 512) with Tolstoy, Kipling, GB Shaw, the Dreyfuss Affair, Gallipoli, the sinking of the Mandalay and what felt like most of Australian history along with some of NZ's, each time finishing up with an incredulous "Little Walpole!" Totally recommended.

Then we rejigged our itinerary so that we could fit in some ambience-time today, and drove back along the South-Western Highway to Peaceful Bay which was, guess? Totally peaceful as well as pristine, unspoiled and private. Sea temperature 24 degrees, clear as, calm and perfect, basically. All that plus Smiths original thinly cut crisps and a (totally biodegradable) pouch of Bannister Downs mango smoothie for our lunch. What more could you want? More time to enjoy it all, probably.

Next stop was Pemberton to visit the Gloucester Tree: a 70m karri tree (gum tree) formerly used as a forest fire spotting station. How um, refreshing, these days to find a tree where you can climb up 58m on iron pegs rammed into the trunk with a token mesh on the outside, the only warning on the sign at the bottom: 'Slippery when wet!' To be boringly honest, I didn't make it to the top - only about 1/3 of the way up. There wasn't enough time - really, I wanted to do it, but we had to get on, to Stonebarn.

It was a shame - but then again, we've had a lovely evening on the terrace looking over the dam to the sunset, eating a delicious meal and talking about tourism and technology with Walter and Dion. And now I'm going to go out into the pitch dark to look at the Milky Way before bed - and not soon enough, if you only knew how much back-spacing this post has required. I'm blaming Stonebarn's own sparkling wine, and sauvignon blanc, and shiraz.

Sunday 3 April 2011

A natural high

Hooray, a more leisurely day today! Though not that leisurely – lots of walking and climbing. We met David of Out of Sight Tours, who showed us some of the gems along the coast near Denmark. Of course it helped that it was another perfect WA day today, which made the blues of the sea that much more breath-taking, but “it’s always worth the view,” said David. Even he was impressed by the colours today though, and whipped out his camera several times. He was very knowledgeable about botany, geology, history and all the other –oys, as you would expect from a former university lecturer.

We did a bit of the Bibbulmun Track, which runs almost 1000kms between Albany and Perth, and peeped into some more fabulous little bays where the waves were rolling in to foam white on the sand, having come all the way from Antarctica. There were kangaroos and wild flowers (even in autumn – though spring is the time to come for the real spectacle).

Then we drove on to Walpole where we teetered along 40m off the ground on a walkway through the tops of the red tingle trees that grow only in this particular part of WA – they’re also peculiar in that they hollow out at the base but still keep growing. And now we’re at the Walpole Wilderness Resort, gearing up for Rhonda’s fabulous feast of home-made goodies, with fresh marron and steak and gorgeous individual pavlovas. “I used to cook for shearers,” she said. I can believe it.

Saturday 2 April 2011

Life and death

Anyone who thinks travel writers are on permanent holiday should have come along today. We had breakfast at 7.30am (yet another happy variation on the Bircher muesli theme) and then it was away from the vice-regal splendour of The Rocks to the busy Farmers’ Market down the road, where serious shoppers with baskets and carrier bags (green, naturally – no plastic dares show its face here) were checking their lists and loading up with heirloom tomatoes, artesan bread, free-range chicken, organic this and gluten-free that.

Next we went out to the airport for a scenic flight in a helicopter that turned out to be a little Cessna in which we zipped up and around, over brilliant blue sea, white surf, green hills and smooth granite headlands – and eavesdropped on an air-sea search and rescue for someone swept into the water by a rogue wave. I hope he was found.*

Then we went up to The Forts for a bit of ANZAC history: the Expeditionary Force set off from Albany harbour in November 1914 for Egypt – 20,000 Australians and 10,000 Kiwis, all excited and fearful, looking back at the beautiful harbour which was their last view of Downunder on a bright sunny morning much like today’s. Only about one in ten returned: many of them fell of course at Gallipoli just five months later. The museum was very good, and the memorial on top of the hill has a fabulous view.

Next we drove around Frenchman’s Bay to Whale World: the last whaling station in the southern hemisphere, that closed in 1978 having killed and butchered 15,000 sperm and hump-backed whales. It’s very clean and tidy today, but must have looked (and smelled) like hell back then: the little bay next to it, a lovely curve of creamy sand edged by granite boulders, the sea clear and blue, is called Misery Bay because it was permanently red with blood and guts and the bodies of shot marauding white pointer sharks.

Not finished yet, we headed off for Denmark, two hours late by now and lunchless, for a quick look round (not that you’d need a long one) before finally seeking out Karma Chalets where Beverley welcomed us and was full of suggested improvements to our itinerary for tomorrow. It was a relief to relax finally in our cosy little pole house and enjoy the view to the sea, over woods and farmland where roos were grazing. Busy day.

*Sadly, not.

All sorts of old

It was a long drive today along the Albany Highway through country so dry we even saw a camel. We stopped at Mt Barker (yet another laughable stump) for far more lunch than we intended at the Windrush vineyard - it was just too tempting to refuse, especially the puddings, and it was so peaceful sitting on the veranda looking over the flowers to the vines and hills beyond, with half a dozen guinea fowl busy in the grass.

We had too little time to explore the Porongorups, the world's oldest mountain range (apparently - certainly very weathered and worn) where bald granite domes rose out of the trees, and we didn't get to see the balancing rock or do any of the walking that's so popular there. We had to press on to a meeting at Mt Romance where we were shown over a sandalwood processing factory and showroom. It was really interesting - and smelt lovely, natch - and we learned all about how sandalwood grows and is made into oil that's the base for so many famous perfumes. I'm getting pretty knowledgeable about distilleries now - lavender in Tasmania, rum in Queensland and on Mauritius, ylang ylang on Reunion... all I need is a bit of bent piping, a drum and a fire. Piece of weasel.

There was an aromatherapy-plus room there where you lie on the ground for an HOUR under a huge cone, breathing deeply of sandalwood while someone gently taps huge gongs that reverberate musically and send vibrations through you, till you stagger out at the end totally zoned out. Cruelly, we had a couple of minutes' demonstration: I could have stayed there for the duration.

And tonight we're at a beautiful old stone colonial house in Albany, The Rocks, that was once the Governor's summer residence, and a girls' boarding school, and the Mayor's house and more: high ceilings, creaky floors, four-posters, baths with feet and loos with chains, stained glass and chandeliers, baby grand and full-sized billiards table... not just heaps of history and character, but friendly and welcoming too. Such a shame we have to dash off in the morning.


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