Sunday 30 October 2011

Starting well

This is the new Emirates business lounge at Auckland airport: very big and spacious, just like the A380 we'll be getting on board shortly. "So big you can't feel it take off," I was just told. Don't know if that's what I want to hear, it being such an unfeasably large aircraft that getting off the ground seems problematic anyway.
But the lounge is the nicest one here, smelling of leather from the cream armchairs, except down here by the food which is so delicious it's only the knowledge that I'm going to be offered still more once on the way that's stopping me from making a real pig of myself (the only pig in the whole restaurant, that would be, of course).
We have a ninety-minute stopover in Sydney that I wasn't expecting - bit of a shame on top of what I'm told is a 22-hour flight to Dubai. Just as well there's 2,000 hours of viewing in the entertainment system...

Friday 28 October 2011

Happy birthday to me

And what better way to spend it than poking a cannula into my skinny old cat and pouring electrolytes into him? "Oh dear, I think he's only got one more visit here in him," said the vet yesterday, showing me how to put the needle into a flap of some of the loose skin he now has so much of. Yet he's still cheerful enough, if tired, and though he doesn't do much more than lick at his food, he enjoys a wander round the garden and a roll on the path in the sun, and always seeks me out to lie against me at least, if his auld enemy the laptop has stolen yet again the prime position.

So it's a bit of a worry that I'm going away on Sunday for a week. That's a long time for him, especially now, and I'll be anxious that he won't be here when I come home. I'm doing another crazy flit up to the northern hemisphere, via a day in Dubai each way, for just three nights in Copenhagen. I was last there in 1980, so I'll see some changes - and also lots of things the same, since the city has such a lot of historic buildings. I do remember that my overwhelming impression last time was that I'd never before seen so many beautiful things I couldn't afford (same for Stockholm and Oslo - they know a few things about style, do those Scandinavians).

It's autumn there of course, and about 9 degrees, which considering it's 20 here and 33 in Dubai, is going to be something of a shock to the system, especially considering the fierce air-conditioning I'm going to encounter. Although not on the desert sunset safari - that'll be the one with the camels...

Tuesday 25 October 2011

Under the volcano

Another amazing coincidence! And a mystery...

Beleaguered Boeing is finally bringing their troublesome Dreamliner to New Zealand next month, Air New Zealand having ordered several and having had to be very patient as deliveries are currently 3 years behind schedule. Clearly, then, it's the ideal time to write up our visit last year to their assembly plant at Everton not far from Seattle (my Seattle story was published in the Herald on Sunday just a couple of days ago, but that's a piffling coincidence, I'm picky now). They told us on the tour there over that astonishingly huge building ("big enough to enclose the whole of Disneyland - and the carpark!" they boasted) that William Boeing's first two planes, built in 1916 by the man himself and his partner Conrad Westervelt, little biplanes with floats, were sold a couple of years later to New Zealand, which was mildly exciting to us at the time.

Doing a bit more research today, though, I've discovered that they were used by a flying school here in Auckland to train pilots, and on inaugural air mail deliveries within NZ. When the flying school closed down in 1924 the planes were put into storage - inside a tunnel in North Head, where I went last Friday to watch a yacht race. And there, apparently, they remain to this day, despite a number of attempts to locate them by both private people and Motat, the technology museum where the Baby works part-time, and where their new aviation hangar has just been opened, which the OH visited on Sunday, and where the planes would no doubt be displayed if they had been found.

As it is, however, their exact whereabouts are unknown, walled-up and concreted into an unidentifiable disused tunnel under this extinct volcano-turned-fort, the men who did the work having pretty much passed on by now, and the authorities being curiously unhelpful to those trying to solve the mystery. What a ripping yarn!

Sunday 23 October 2011


Oooh, see how the gold is gleaming on this triumphal statue by the Alexandre III bridge over the Seine in Paris. How beautiful it is! But really, you know, tonight it should be silver. Hahahahahahahahahahahahahaha!

Saturday 22 October 2011

Fish and Chopin

Met up with an old friend today and a new one: a fellow Inca Trail climber from three years ago (the one who channelled his inner mountain goat and stayed in front all the way, despite being rather more stricken in years than all of the rest of us) and his wife here from England for the rugby. So what do you do on a free day in Auckland?

You go to Waiheke, of course - even if the weather wasn't the golden day we were promised, it was still worth taking the ferry over, mooching around Oneroa, eating lunch on a deck looking over the bay, polishing off a bottle of Kennedy Point, and then popping up the hill for what was, cheerfully, our third helping of an island institution. Lloyd and Joan Whittaker have been putting on their ninety-minute show for I don't know how long, introducing and demonstrating their wonderful collection of musical instruments from a dulcimer to Paderewski's concert grand, with in between harmonicas, accordians, pianolas, glockenspiels, organs and more. They play everything from Old Macdonald to Chopin, by way of Lloyd Webber, and at the end the audience is welcome to have a go. It was a great success with our visitors, and entirely a delight, even third time around.

Back in the city, it must have been about our fifth or sixth time to Kelly Tarlton's underwater world and Antarctic experience, with two sorts of penguins happily sitting on eggs in their snowy underground enclosure, and more varieties of sharks gliding over our heads than we could shake a stick at. There's always something new to enjoy, and lots of old stuff to enjoy again, and more things to learn. Did you know an adult octopus can squeeze through a hole the size of an old English penny?

Friday 21 October 2011

Ahoy and other nautica

This morning a couple of hundred yachts left Auckland in perfect conditions on the Coastal Classic race to Russell in the Bay of Islands, and I - and a hillful of people - watched them go from North Head. They were a grand sight on the sparkling water with the wind filling their spinnakers (possibly gennakers - I'm no mariner) as they jostled for position rounding the point and skimmed past Rangitoto heading north. I was thinking they would be arriving tomorrow, and some of the smaller ones may, but astonishingly the race was over for the front-runners in less than six hours: pretty good for 119 nautical miles.

Auckland is known as the City of Sails, and a harbour full of yachts is a fairly regular sight, but it was a particularly lovely one today after a week of rain, especially with a holiday weekend ahead. Before I lived here, the only time I saw a yacht race was years ago from the Isle of Wight, when the Whitbread Round the World boats set off along the Solent. They were big, big yachts, and what astonished me was how the water, which had been relatively calm, was churned up like a washing machine by their wake as they swept past - and that there were spectators out there amongst it in spindly little kayaks and even someone on a windsurfer.

Speaking of which, I had a go on one of those in Fiji and had lots of fun right up until the point that I had to be rescued by the resort staff when I couldn't work out how to sail back up the lagoon against the wind. As I said, not a mariner.

Thursday 20 October 2011

Taste of, ah, Tasmania, actually

Last night I was at the opening of the Taste of New Zealand expo in Victoria Park, where a bunch of restaurants are serving up taster menus, chefs like Rick Stein and Annabel Langbein are doing demos and there are lots of foodie stalls. Discover Tasmania invited me, having cleverly snuck in somehow to promote their wines, beer and - who knew? - whisky.

The weather was appalling yesterday, absolutely torrential cold showers with in between cruelly warm and sunny spells that continuously fooled everyone into thinking that all would now be well - not the best conditions for wandering around a grassy arena in heeled boots, with fat raindrops falling off awnings and diluting my wine. But it was pleasant nonetheless, and a great way to showcase over the next few days the excellent food that's available here.

Having said which, by another of those coincidences that I love so much, the tent where we ended up eating was District Dining, a restaurant newly opened in Auckland by someone from Launceston, at whose restaurant, the Black Cow Bistro, I ate in February with the Tourism Tasmania man who had just poured the wine I was drinking - neither of them knowing the other was there. The wine was so good that I can't now remember whether the lamb I ate was roasted for 6 or 12 hours - it was some immensely long time, anyway, which made it superbly tender and succulent, and the cauliflower puree was perfectly matched.

Launceston is a very fattening place: it's in the Tamar Valley in the north of Tasmania, where there are excellent vineyards (Ninth Island a favourite) and lots of specific and enthusiastic producers like the raspberry farm, the cheese factory (wasabi cheddar, anyone?), and the chocolate factory that together made such a wonderful day out that my daughter still drools about it five years later.

Last time I was there I tragically had to forgo the tasting menu at Josef Chromy because I had a long drive ahead of me, but the lunch I did have was just lovely, fresh and tasty, and I really enjoyed sitting outside with a view over the lake and vineyards beyond, with several merry hen-parties going on in the garden below me. If wine and food is your thing (and actually, even if it isn't, particularly) then go and explore the Tamar Valley: you'll be glad you did. Until you stand on the bathroom scales back home, that is.

Monday 17 October 2011

Eureka, and other water

Now that the All Blacks have trounced the Wallabies, who've succumbed to the Eden Park hoo-doo once again - the choke's on them! - the focus has turned back to real news and proper English words.

Progress has been made on the Rena, with salvors (another new word we've been introduced to) on board the nerve-wrackingly, and noisily, shuddering wreck, and the fuel oil is being removed using an Archimedes screw - because it's of the consistency of Marmite, and can't be pumped without being heated, which is impossible in these circumstances. It's a long, slow process and there's more weather on the way to interrupt it, and we've been told there will still be a spill when the ship, as it must, works free of the reef.

Hard work by many hands has cleared some of the sandy beaches, but there's still a lot of oil amongst the rocks, and fears of what will happen to the wetlands have led to a pre-emptive strike, trying to capture as many dear little NZ dotterels as possible. There are only 1700 of them in the world. That means abandoning their eggs, and having to wrestle with the new problem of looking after them till it's safe to return them to their territory - whenever that might be. And soon the godwits, and the lower-profile but equally doughty red knots, will be arriving from the Yukon and other incredibly distant places. Sigh.

Meantime, Thailand is disappearing under flood water making its way downstream to Bangkok, lying either side of the Chao Phraya River, which is both immensely wide and amazingly busy with boats and ferries constantly buzzing along it. One thing all tourists do when they visit is to take a long-tailed boat cruise through the khlongs, or canals, that wind like back streets through areas where people live in often fairly rickety wooden houses on stilts. They wash, fish and get about, in the water: it's part of daily life there, but they're very vulnerable to it, and any rise in height or increase in the current is going to make things extremely difficult, as well as threatening many fabulous and ancient temples. Tch, haven't we already had enough floods this year?

Sunday 16 October 2011

Nasty, brutish and long

Eighty minutes watching rugby is too big an ask for me - even ten is a trial. So I certainly won't be glued to a screen tonight at any point of the game; though I will be keen to find out the final score. NZ v Australia: it's going to be a needle match, the biggest one of the whole tournament, quite possibly even more keenly followed than the actual final. (Either us or them against France, alas: shame the Welsh got knocked out last night.)

We have this thing about the Aussies and, to a lesser extent, them about us. They're loud, cocky, brash and, what's worse, have good reason to be confident: they do tend to succeed. We always feel smaller, on the hind foot, having to try harder, and get touchy about being teased. I don't think I've ever been on a mixed-nationality group tour where the Kiwis haven't been singled out for some special put-downs. For some reason, the jokes are mainly to do with unsavoury relationships with sheep - as if the Aussies don't have a bigger flock than we do. A former Prime Minister, Rob Muldoon, once said that the stream of New Zealanders emigrating across the Tasman raised the average national IQ of both countries, which was the only positive thing I remember him for.

And I really like Australia, as a destination: it has fabulous scenery quite unlike anything we have, the distances are mind-blowing, the wildlife is endlessly bizarre and appealing, the crocs and sharks and jellyfish and snakes and spiders definitely add some excitement to being outdoors, there's great food and wine and history, the shopping, even for a -phobe like me, is enticing, there's all sorts of fun to be had there, and the people are, jibes apart, friendly and welcoming. I really can't take too much of the accent, though - after about a week of it, my ears get tired. And they make fun of our accent! "Fush and chups" they reckon - they, who say "feesh and cheeps".

I read about some graffiti near Sydney airport written by a disgruntled Aussie: 'New Zealand sucks'. Shortly afterwards, an inspired Kiwi added: 'Australia nil'. That will do nicely, tonight.

Friday 14 October 2011

Virus v cancer

Niven Rae is a local historian and long-time resident of Maketu, who told me about sleeping in a tent in the garden as a boy and waking to find a great dam of logs built up against the fence, deposited by a tsunami after the 1960 earthquake in Chile, that travelled all the way across the Pacific only to stop just metres from where he lay asleep.

He's been on the TV news not only describing what it's like to see his home environment wrecked by what the sea is washing up now, the filthy, stinking black heavy fuel oil escaping from the Rena, but also shouting and swearing at local officials who have been trying to stop the people of the Bay from getting stuck into cleaning up the sand. In the mural behind him you can see the monument marking where the canoe Te Arawa, one of the seven waka of the 1340 Great Migration came ashore, at the start of the swirl of sandy beach; and the island, currently a spit, that protects the estuary; and a diver in the water enjoying the marine environment; and the Bay continuing all the way around to Mt Maunganui and beyond. And all of this is now coated in sticky black, every single wave bringing more ashore, the blue sea brown and murky, hundreds of shorebirds mired and dead, unrecognisable.

Containers are now falling off the ship, which has cracked all the way through and is only just hanging together; 80-odd of them so far floating in the sea and being washed ashore all over the place, battered and broken, their contents spilling out and adding to the mess: a bizarre mixture of timber, milk powder, frozen beefburgers and animal hides. The authorities have been huffing and puffing about how they couldn't have started the clean-up any earlier, and how only trained people should be scraping the sand, and that everything possible is being done by experts - but no-one's convinced. Meantime the Greek company that chartered the Rena is passing the buck to the Swiss-based company that owns the ship, registered in Liberia, and they're no doubt going to blame the Filipino crew. And all the while, down here in New Zealand's now ironically named Bay of Plenty, our ecology and our environment are in ruins.

Back in '06 I stood with Niven on a hilltop pa site looking down on the village, the river and the beach towards the creeping holiday-home sprawl of Papamoa beyond. "It's a virus," he said. He's got something far worse to worry about now, poor man.

Tuesday 11 October 2011

Godwit-damn it

This is the estuary at Maketu, at the southern end of the Bay of Plenty, where the Kaituna River dawdles through the Ongatoru estuary inside the long sandspit and provides the perfect sanctuary for birds in the wetlands. (Except, I have to say, in the duck shooting season when, the landlady of the Blue Tides B&B where I took this photo from said, "It's like the Somme out there".) But mostly the sanctuary is exactly that, and in the spring thousands of godwits arrive, having flown all the way from Alaska.

This year, though, they may wish they'd stayed up north, winter notwithstanding, because this estuary is under threat from fuel oil escaping from the container ship MV Rena, still jammed tight on a reef near Tauranga. It's shaping up to be a full-blown environmental disaster, with huge black, sticky gobs of oil already washing up on the long, lovely and well-used sandy coastline of this huge bay. There's a boom in place across the estuary at Maketu to protect the wetlands, but no-one is holding out much hope of its beating the tidal current, especially with the storm currently passing over whipping up a 3-metre swell.

We're all thoroughly disgusted and appalled at the initial lack of action and the apparent failure of any contingency plan for this sort of event. It's a disgraceful cock-up, and the environment, and the people and birds and sea-creatures living in it, are going to suffer for it. I'm angry.

Monday 10 October 2011

Spreading the joy

As I waited, yet again, for my old dog to catch me up on our walk back from the dairy, I stood and watched a couple of council workers in hi-vis vests trimming the grass verge along the footpath past the park, one of them buzzing along the edge with a weedeater while the other used a long-handled gripper to pick up bits of rubbish out of the gutter. What a dispiriting job, I thought, cleaning up cigarette butts and other unpleasantness thrown down by ratbags. The wind was blowing the grass clippings about, the sky was grey and it was cool enough for me to have put on a jacket; so when the dog finally dawdled up to me and we wandered past the men, I was surprised when the rubbish-picker turned to me with a broad grin and said, "What a great day!"

And then he continued, "Go the All Blacks!" and turned back to his work, clearly light of heart and convinced that all was right with the world, leaving me to walk home with a smile on my face. I'd already heard the men building a new deck next door having a long and detailed discussion about last night's game against Argentina as they hammered and sawed, thoroughly enjoying their serious analysis. So that's why I've decided to come off the fence and say that I want the All Blacks to win the Rugby World Cup: personally, I don't give a fig, but if it means so much to other people, and makes them so cheerful that it improves my daily life, then I'm prepared to put up with the inevitable after-party rabbiting on in the media. That's going to happen anyway: better it's positive than the negative wrist-slitting mourning and recrimination that would occupy exactly the same number of column-inches.

So, France: I love your little villages, your boules players, the pavement tables, your grand buildings, the narrow tree-lined roads, your hyper-markets, your stylishly squiggly Metro signs, crazy traffic, silly little cars, fondness for mongrels, shocking handwriting and hopeless attempts to cram too many words into your song lyrics;

Wales: you have so many great castles, beetling bare rocky hills with ancient history, ridiculously long and unpronounceable place-names, leeks and daffodils, such a lovely accent, stern stone no-nonsense towns, beautiful hills and woods and moors, and your choirs are second to none;

Australia: I've had so much fun every time I've come, you have fabulous native wildlife and pandas too, the Outback is truly glorious and one of my favourite places on the planet, the Reef is amazing, there's so much dramatic history to learn about, the little stone towns are so pretty, I'm very fond of your gum trees, the Opera House is a wonderful sight and Uluru is mind-blowing:

but I'm sorry, I want you all to lose.

Thursday 6 October 2011


Almost a week ago, I was flying back from Gisborne to Auckland on a sunny afternoon, gazing out of the window down at the astonishingly long cloud of steam from White Island's volcano, which was trailing all the way northwards towards Coromandel. There was a nice little island down there, off the coast from Tauranga, and I looked at the scattering of houses on it and wondered what its name was.

Now I know. It's Motiti Island, and it's in the path of a much more sinister trail, of oil from a container ship aground on Astrolabe Reef. The MV Rena has been sitting there, listing ten degrees, for three days now, a 47,000-tonne ship with 1700 tonnes of fuel on board. It's a powder keg that's started smoking: some birds have been killed by the oil slick already. An old Maori man whose family has lived on the island for generations is wanting to see some action - and so am I. Nothing much seems to have happened so far except for some babble and hand-flapping. The weather's perfect for operations at the moment: I want to see them out there, pumping out the fuel, shifting the containers, dragging the ship off the reef.

The sea and the coast are so beautiful there, and so unspoiled: we really don't want another Gulf of Mexico disaster in our backyard.

Tuesday 4 October 2011

Accidental protein

I discovered today that there's a straight line from rats in the roof to maggot pupae under the bed, but that's as far as I'm going with that particular story, other than hoping that the line bypassed my wide and snoring mouth. Although really, there's no logic to that, seeing as how I've cheerfully bitten an ant's bum and chowed down, a little less cheerfully, on a huhu grub, which is a maggot on steroids. Seriously, it's a Michelin-Man maggot.

It wasn't nice at all, and I won't be having another, thank you; but the ant was very refreshing. It was a green ant, and I was encouraged to try it on an Aboriginal bush-tucker walk in the Tiwi Islands, just off the northern coast near Darwin. It was a tiny shot of citrus, full of vitamin C, and an invaluable part of a healthy diet for the Aboriginals. (I also tried dog's balls another time in the Territory, but you'll be relieved to hear they were twin berries rather than the real thing - very authentic-looking, though.)

I marvel at the things the Aborigines ate out in the bush - not so much at the insects and such because needs must etc, but because so many of those foods are extremely toxic in their original form and require, some of them, immensely complicated processing to make them safe to eat. You have to wonder how many people died discovering the recipes. And it's a pretty serious thought too that even when someone died a no doubt horrible, writhing death after eating a particular plant, they persisted with trying different methods of making it safe, because they had to, because there was precious little else to eat.

I was researching a South Australia story yesterday and read about Burke and Wills (not to be confused with Burke and Hare, who are entirely different). They were spectacularly unsuccessful explorers in Australia in the 1850s who eventually died in the Outback of beriberi, because they hadn't paid proper attention when the Aboriginals showed them how to prepare nardoo seeds: they collected, ground up and ate them without first roasting the seeds, which was the crucial step to remove a chemical that destroys vitamin B. So though they had full stomachs and weren't hungry, they had no energy and just faded away.

And so, that heart-breaking scene I saw in a painting in Castlemaine, Victoria, last year showing the last moments on earth of poor old Billy, Burke's horse, which Wills shot for them to eat, need never have happened.

Saturday 1 October 2011

Learning from history

The wrangling over the future of Christchurch continues, with still no clear idea of how to proceed, plus further complications caused by the real possibility that there will be no insurance available for new buildings - bit of a set-back for putative developers, natch. There hasn't been a decent shake there for a few days, but no-one's jumping to any conclusions: everyone's learnt the hard way that the next earthquake is usually not far away.

After the February quake that wrecked the city, there was some talk about Napier, which was flattened in 1931 yet rebuilt, Art Deco style, just two years later. Nobody mentioned aftershocks there, and I assumed they were 'lucky' to have just the one cataclysm, after which they could set about putting things right again. At the Wairoa Museum though (the town is 100km from Napier) in a display of the local paper's front pages, there was one from September 1932, reporting a quake that was more intense there (and in Gisborne), and more destructive, than the February '31 one (kind of a coincidence, that the shakes were in September and February, same as in ChCh). So rebuilding was more an act of faith than I was thinking.

I was rather taken with the report about the first quake, which said that people found the immediate aftershocks frightening: "...everyone being in a terrible state of nervousness but bearing up wonderfully well. In fact, everyone showed the spirit of true Britishers." So that was all right, then.


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