Saturday, December 31, 2011

Plus and minus

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

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

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

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Tick, tock, tut tut

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Smelling fishy instead

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

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

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

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Traditions old and new

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

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

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

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Sigh

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Ahhhh, pine!

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

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

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

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Down to the sea in slips

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

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

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

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The right kind of jet set

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Flying like a fox

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 12, 2011

Hollyford Valley Walk

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

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

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

Friday, December 9, 2011

Every which way but loose, fortunately

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

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

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

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

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

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

*UPDATE #2: Oh, yes!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Mountain high

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 5, 2011

Bottom gear

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

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

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

Friday, December 2, 2011

Fire and water

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

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

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

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