Thursday 29 September 2011

"Always blow on the pie."*

98 kilometres is a long way to drive for a pie, but Osler's Bakery in Wairoa is famously good. I hovered in front of the warmer, dithering over the lamb and mint, pepper steak and kumara, chilli beef 'n bean, wondering if I was brave enough to risk the 'boil up', but finally plumped for the classic steak and cheese. And it was good: light pastry, tender meat, real cheddar and great flavour. Excellent eating, especially in the sun on the riverbank, even if the seagulls were noisily disgusted that there was nothing left for them. Tragically - but probably just as well - I was too late for the award-winning port, plum and apple pie that I might have had for pudding: all sold out.

Wairoa isn't the prettiest town in the country, surrounded by green hills poxy with erosion, but the little museum showed real pride in their most famous son, George Nepia, member of The Invincibles, the All Blacks team of 1924-5 that won every one of their games on overseas tour. I was more taken by the story of Scottish settler Neil Walker, who sent his brother to fetch back to the farm the lady he arranged to come out from home to be his wife - but Peter was the one who married Miss Frew. And then they both died young and Neil brought up their children. Awww.

The best bit of Wairoa is the Bar, down at the river mouth where the turquoise sea breaks over the shingle bank and the black sand is littered with silver driftwood. There was a skylark singing, the sun was warm and it was almost as beautiful as the Mahia Peninsula, which has all that plus white cliffs and enough remoteness to make it feel like an achievement to have got there.
*Link here.

Wednesday 28 September 2011

Go East

Here's another of Prof Catton's coincidences*: the DomPost is running my East Cape story on the very day that I return to Gisborne. Because I can't keep away? No, pleasant place though it is, it's more about (shhh) earning airpoints to enable another upgrade on a proper trip sometime in the future.

The editor didn't choose my favourite picture, above, of ghostly winter-white um, poplars I think, in the low sun shafting across the hills as the snow-clouds swept up from the south. Nor did he choose the interior of the amazing St Mary's church at Tikitiki, where everything was carved inside. I mean, everything: pew ends, rafters, candlesticks, font, pulpit... if ever the vicar delivered a wooden sermon, that would end up carved too, I reckon. And the walls and ceilings were decorated too, with woven tukutuku, giving the place not only a very Maori feel, but making it cosier and more lived-in.

In the little wooden church at Te Aroroa, where the road forks off to the actual Cape, there were guitars lying about in front of the altar, gas heaters, even rugs - it was as though the congregation had just popped out for a moment. Untidy but well-used and clearly part of local life. Nice.

But I think I've done the Cape, for the moment: tomorrow I'll try heading south. There will be pie.
*And here's another: the post linked to there is about Seattle, which I was writing about just yesterday.

Sunday 25 September 2011

Clock, toe, balloon

The start of daylight saving always makes me think of Alice Springs: it was because way back in 1973 a dozy railway booking clerk in Sydney didn't allow for the fact that there is no daylight saving in the Northern Territory that I turned up in Alice to catch the Ghan back to Adelaide only to find that it had been gone for an hour. And the next one wasn't for another three days. I found that out by climbing over the padlocked station gate to check the timetable - and it was when I was climbing back out again that I tripped and fell, gouging a chunk out of my big toe so bloodily that a passing police car took me to the hospital for a dressing.

The second time I was in Alice I scraped a hotel door over my toes and had to swathe them in plasters too - but last time I escaped all injury, which was particularly fortunate, considering a hot-air balloon ride was on the itinerary. The worst thing about balloon rides in Australia is having to get up so early: pre-dawn, for some aeronautical reason. The one time I went up in England it was in the evening and very civilised, and the standard glass of champagne afterwards went down very well - at about 8 o'clock in the morning, it's not normally so welcome, unfortunately.

On the other hand, seeing the sun rise as you float along is pretty magical, and seeing the colour flood into the landscape is just lovely. That last trip was the most exciting, though, and not in an entirely good way, as we missed our first choice of landing spot, came a little too close to a power line for my personal peace of mind, and then had to hang on to the basket as we were dragged along sideways before stopping. The champagne was more medicinal that day.

Saturday 24 September 2011

Les Bleus et les Noirs

Even I am aware that it's a Big Game tonight, between NZ and France. I don't follow this stuff at all, but I know that the French knocked the Kiwis out of the RWC in 1999 and again in 2007, that we've (we've! how sucked in am I?) beaten them since in France, and they've beaten, er, us here since then. I'm sure there's much more to it than that, but this week's scandal has been that they've picked a B team to face the All Blacks because a loss would put them into a better draw for round 2. How dare they think strategically! "The filthy French," is what we're thinking.

Or people who care, at least. I'm happy just to be reminded of a couple of summer days in Paris earlier this year, of sitting upstairs in an open-top bus cruising round the city looking at all the glorious buildings, the gold on the statues gleaming in the sunshine, people strolling beside the Seine and smooching on the riverside benches, the grass so green and the hedges so neat. And the soldiers with guns, and the horrendous snarl of traffic, and the ubiquitous piles of dog poo as traps for unwary rubber-neckers, and the tacky souvenir-sellers and bracelet-plaiters, and over-it artists in Montmartre - no, really, it's all Paris, and it was all great.

Except, unexpectedly, for the food, which was disappointingly ordinary, even when we tried to get away from the main tourist drags: I hope the French players and supporters find the opposite here.
UPDATE: Both Sunday papers went for the same headline - 'French Toast' - so instead I'll plump for 'Pas de Problème'.

Monday 19 September 2011

Giant inflated - head?

When I say that my head's all over the place, I mean that literally (almost). Busily catching up with writing after - what? eight trips away so far this year? - I've been working on stories about England, Ireland, Macau, Australia, New Zealand, Germany and Mauritius, and lining up Seattle and more Australian stories to do next. The NZ stories were Waiheke Island and Lake Wakatipu, which is rather perverse of me since most of the action at the moment is right here in Auckland.

That blimp-like affair is the inflatable rugby ball containing a full-on Tourism NZ blitz to convince potential tourists to get themselves out here: it's usually positioned somewhere significant overseas. Right now it's on Queen's Wharf on the waterfront ('Party Central' they insist on calling it) and I had a look at it the other day, though even soon after it opened on a Friday lunchtime the queue was too long for me to bother with. Another day - there are enough of them still. Weeks to go yet till it's all over. Sigh.

I did go in The Cloud (aka The Slug) though, which was much nicer than it had promised to be when first proposed, and had a couple of huge screens showing an imaginative presentation of uniquely Kiwi features, from Weta Workshop to computerised cow eartags, all mixed in with Scenery, that made me a little pink with pride - even though the actual displays were somewhat mystifying. It probably was clever, inventing a way of making plastic chain mail with no joins - but what is it for? There was a lot of interest in the jetpack, but it looked a cumbersome beast and nothing like in the comics. The wood-veneer Vespa was, er, novel.

Most diverting, though not Kiwi at all of course, were the Segways being used outside by staff pretending to be serious, swooping up and down the wharf transporting sections of temporary fencing. Ubercool, as ever.

Sunday 11 September 2011


For us New Zealanders, that's when 9/11 occurred: we're 16 hours ahead of New York, and it was September 12th when we woke, an astonishing 10 years ago tomorrow, to the news of what had happened soon after midnight our time. Or not, in my case - busy with getting children off to school, and myself to my undemanding little job in the office at the younger one's school across the road, it wasn't till I got to my desk that I realised something was up, and a wide-eyed teacher there told me the incredible story. I rushed to the assembly room where the television was on, showing over and over those images for which the word 'shocking' just doesn't measure up, and listened to the stunned commentary from presenters and journalists who were having equal difficulty in believing what they were describing.

I've never known that feeling before: I've heard unexpected, terrible news before, but the scale of the attacks, the recognition of the coldly inspired leap of imagination that led to them, and the irrevocable loss of innocence that they brought about, plus the simultaneous annihilation of thousands of ordinary peoples' lives, was unique. It's no exaggeration to say that we all, all around the world, took a step together when we heard the news, into a future that was instantly very much less safe. It's affecting us still, in so many ways, and there's no going back.

One thing that I hadn't expected, on our family trip to England and France in July, was how astonished the girls would be to experience the level of security that's standard there: the bag checks, the x-ray machines, the CCTVs everywhere - just to go up the Eiffel Tower, or into the Tower of London. Shuffle, queue, wait... so tedious, in probability so unnecessary, yet absolutely inescapable.

Though not here, which is why the girls hadn't expected it. In most people's daily life here, apart from at the airport, there are no obvious security checks, no searches, no constraints on our freedom. It's something we take for granted most of the time - but it's good to be reminded of how lucky we are in New Zealand. There are advantages in being so far below the rest of the world's radar.

Friday 9 September 2011

So it begins...

The Rugby World Cup 2011. For six years now, this event has been looming ever bigger over the country, a slow and steady build not just in the media, which will seize on anything to fill column inches, but also amongst most Kiwis, even those of us who can't stand rugby at any price.

Having been brought up in a non-sporting household, and raised my children ditto, I've been conscious all my life of not quite fitting in, of not being an absolutely true-blue (or black) Kiwi - but, ironically, it's this imminent seven-week total immersion in the game that's shown me that in fact I'm far from being alone, most of the people I've spoken to saying, "I"m not actually a rugby fan..."

It's enormously heartening, I must say, after years of feeling like an outsider with a guilty secret. But their next word is just that: "but" - "but I'm looking forward to the fireworks/party/buzz..." And so am I. Especially here in Auckland, where we've been putting up for months and months with tiresome roadworks and construction as the place has been readied - and that after years of even more tedious argument about how things should be done. Now, though, it's payback time, and right this minute it's started brilliantly, on a fabulous clear sunny day with thousands and thousands of people, locals and visitors, crowding the waterfront, 600 Maori rowing 23 waka into Viaduct Harbour, bands playing, a flash-mob haka in Queen Street - and later tonight the biggest firework display ever held in the country. Can't wait.

Wednesday 7 September 2011

Sit. Vac. - Rattenfänger

It's very hard to concentrate on writing about having coffee with a countess in an English stately home upstairs from a library of 6000 leather-bound books, Napoleon's desk and chair from St Helena and an array of framed family photos on the grand piano that include the Queen and Diana - very hard, I say, to concentrate on all that while there are rats rampaging around in the ceiling insulation above my head.

Although, given that Highclere Castle was neglected for years so that the upper storey of 50 bedrooms is pretty much uninhabitable because of the leaky roof, I'm sure rats are not unknown to Lord and Lady Carnarvon. Perhaps we could have bonded over that. Too late now.

Here I am, back home half a world away, with rats in my roof - probably the very ones I've been inadvertently feeding down in my sieve of a henhouse. This very cold winter they must have moved from their damp tunnels in the dirt up into our roof to snuggle cosily under the pink fibreglass duvet there. The Man has been through with his nasty baits, and in a week or so all should be quiet - although that won't describe my state of mind, envisaging decaying corpses scattered all over the ceiling. Poisoned rats don't go outside to die, apparently - and unfortunately. Urban legend.

I have no photos of the rats in my roof, but it's only a short leap from them to bats in the belfry, and thence to the wonderful sight of vast clouds of fruitbats flying out over the northern Queensland town of Cairns to feast on mangoes: their nightly outing from where they roost in trees on the other side. It was a staggering sight, but I haven't got any photos of them either; though there is this one of the stainless steel fish in the swimming pool on the Esplanade where I was sitting when I saw them. It's where everyone swims because there are crocodiles and stinging jellyfish in the sea. Oh and sharks - nobody mentions them because they're pussycats compared to the danger presented by the others. Rats, bats, crocs, stingers and sharks: is that enough animals for you today?

Sunday 4 September 2011

Daaa, da da, da-da dah...

Wow. One whole year since the first Canterbury earthquake and the end of normal life for everybody living there. Though it was a shock (sorry) at the time, to discover that there were fault lines where no-one had ever suspected them before, what's been more dismaying for all of us since last September 4th is to find that a big earthquake like that 7.1 isn't always a one-off spectacular - it can also be the pilot of a series. A long, long series that, fingers crossed, won't end up taking on the longevity of something like Coronation Street.

A new video of the Christchurch Red Zone shows a city that's almost unrecognisable: full of empty spaces, fenced-off pavements in front of crumbling terraces full of cracks and holes, rough unsealed roads, crooked buildings, heart-breakingly familiar Christchurch icons like the Cathedral all in pieces, surrounded by piles of rubble and propped up with girders - and every so often something apparently completely unscathed, like the tall glass BNZ building, or the Millennium Chalice that looks so delicate. And not one person anywhere.

The only good news from that first quake was that no-one died. I've read that hundreds of times - but in fact someone did that day, of a heart attack undoubtedly caused by the stress. Now that the aftershock count - including the biggies on 22 February and 13 June - is up to 8529, including a 5.1 on Friday and a 3.3 today, it wouldn't be in the least surprising to learn that Christchurch's collective heart is failing. But it's not, it can't, and it won't. Kia kaha, Christchurch.

Thursday 1 September 2011

Hip, hip hooray...

Spring starts today, so Sod's Law means a cold snap this weekend and more snow down south. We also have drifts of leaves everywhere - very confusing, but it's because the evergreens, which most of the native trees are, are dropping the old ones as the new ones push through. Even though I grew up here, I lived in England long enough to find it highly disorientating to be sweeping leaves in spring.

But Bruce is back! It will be his fourth summer in our pond and it's wonderful to see him again, reappeared from wherever it is he goes when the weather cools. He's like the cuckoo for us. He's called Bruce because he's an Australian green and golden bell frog. They've somehow got a toe-hold in this part of the country but are officially not welcome, so when I made enquiries about finding him a wife last year I was sternly told that if I were to enable breeding (I'm a frog pimp!) the frogs would have to be contained. (It's all academic anyway, as the goldfish would eat the eggs before they got anywhere near the tadpole stage, but it will be sad to hear him calling again - night and day - and never seeing another green face.)

In southern Western Australia last year, we spent a pleasant day with Dr Dave of Out of Sight Tours. He's a naturalist who drives people out for walks along the coast, which is pretty spectacular with cliffs and surf and excellent rocks. He has a related frog on his blogpage, which he says sounds like a motorbike when it calls, so we're lucky that ours just goes "crrrr-ack". Dave was full of interest - in both senses. He told us lots of fascinating stuff, but he was also enjoying himself being out and about in one of his favourite bits of Australia, and though he must have seen thousands, was as delighted as me to see kangaroos in the scrub and was snapping away at them as eagerly as I was. Enthusiastic people: they're my very favourite sort.


Well here's something interesting, for a couple of reasons: a first-person account from a reader in Vermont of the floods there, with personal drama and a heartfelt plea that I'm happy to pass on -

<< What a coincidence! I am a reader of yours FROM Vermont! Yes, it is devastating and sad here. There were at least 3 of the 7 historical covered bridges torn down - monuments to Vermont's history and pride. It is so sad to see them go. I hope they will be re-built. I spent the entire day Sunday fending off a brook that turned into a raging river from my parents' home in Wells, VT. The brook, which is normally about 6 feet wide and knee high ended up being about 75 feet across, and 9ft deep. The water was so powerful, it moved a 3ton boulder 10ft downriver. That could have been our home. Luckily, due to the quick actions of helpful townspeople, we were able to save the house, with only several inches of water in the basement. We did lose our entire yard and our water well, but the house is still intact. We were one of the isolated towns for two days. We were able to leave and return to our home in Burlington, VT late Tuesday night. That was my experience, and we were SO lucky. There are still many people without electricity, shelter, and food is dwindling in the isolated towns, with no ETA on supplies. Check out the Vermont Red Cross site and donate if you are able: >>

I do hope life becomes much easier very soon for everyone in Vermont. Thank you for getting in touch.

And the other interesting thing about this comment is that it shows there are actually people reading this blog who aren't my husband or random Googlers who've landed on the site when looking for 'French flag' or 'medieval serving wenches' or, most mysteriously, 'surf board hair loss'. It's very heartening.


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