Monday 31 December 2012

2012, wrapped up

The most remarkable thing about this year is that I didn't go to Australia. (I'm still feeling that I've used Oz up - although I'd be happy to be proved wrong. Anyone listening? Kimberley cruise, Kakadu, Maria Island, WA for the wildflower season...?) 

I did pass through, though, a number of times, on my way to more distant destinations; but my first travels this year were domestic, first to old favourite Waiheke Island, just across the harbour but in another zone entirely, ambience-wise. Beautiful, relaxing and laid-back, it never fails to please - even when the weather disappoints.

The weather gave us the runaround for the next trip, too: doing the Crater Lake walk on Ruapehu with the daughters - but after driving down there through thunder, lightning and torrential rain, the day of our ascent to and traverse along that precipitous crater rim was one of glorious sunshine that showed off the turquoise of the lake to great effect, while the cloud that came to swirl around beneath us made us feel like gods, on top of the world in both senses.

My Pavlovian addiction to checking my emails dozens of times a day was reinforced by an invitation popping up there in February to go on a LAN tour of South America. It was a wonderful circuit in a small but jolly group through Santiago to Buenos Aires, to the literally over-the-top spectacle of Iguassu Falls, to Lima where the food was a revelation, and then to Easter Island, which was very special and totally worth foregoing the Travcom/Cathay Pacific Media Awards (in which I was only Runner-Up, so, pft).

In April I began my longest trip yet, flying Etihad to Abu Dhabi, where the Grand Mosque was astonishing, though I could really have done without the sweaty nylon robe I had to wear. Next stop was France, for a glorious, fabulous cruise up the Rhone from Arles to Lyon and finishing at Chalon-sur-Saone. I do so love a river cruise, and Uniworld's River Royale was just perfect, with the best staff ever.

Then it was England for a wedding and old friends, and another cruise that didn't go so well, when I managed to dislocate my shoulder leaping off a boat in the Norfolk Broads. Ouch. But I soldiered on, fortunately joining an Insight coach tour of Eastern Europe for the next 3 weeks where I was very well looked after. It was all about history, war and architecture, subjects which would have bored me rigid in my youth, but which now I find deeply interesting. It helped too that on the way to starting the tour in Budapest, we'd called in at Zagan in Poland to visit the site of Stalag Luft III where my father had been a prisoner, which was a moving experience as well as being fascinating.

Home again after 5 weeks away, I was anchored to the sofa for the next three months, writing, writing, writing with a cat at each side and a dog at my feet. I popped down to Christchurch for a look at my sadly shaken hometown, and was both horrified and inspired by what I saw - the vast empty spaces, blowing with dust, and the cracks in everything; but also the optimistic spirit of the people I met, and their bright plans for the future.

September saw the start of another flurry of travel, beginning with flying with Emirates to Dubai again, where I went up to the 124th floor of the Burj Khalifa, and on to Portugal for a scant 5 days mostly in the province of Alentejo where I loved the fortified hilltop villages, the gnarled olive trees, the sheep with bells on and the friendly people; but hated the food-focused itinerary and unprofessional behaviour of one of the small party.

Back home for one night, I was away again next day for a week of glorious relaxation in the Cook Islands, purely a holiday of lying about, sleeping in the sun (not recommended: the sunburn was epic and I still bear the unsightly tan-marks) and doing very little of anything. Stand-out was the day spent cruising on and wallowing in the WMBL (world's most beautiful lagoon) at Aitutaki - just perfect, in every way.

Then, four days later, I was off to North Viet Nam in another group which was lots of fun. We had a brilliant guide, Duke, who took us from Hanoi up into Ha Giang province for a homestay, a day's trekking through the paddy fields and villages, and a long drive into the Dong Van Karst Geopark, which was just brilliant: spectacular peaks, cute kids, colourful villages and a mind-blowing road. The traffic throughout was fascinating - even in Ha Long Bay out on the water amongst those absurdly picturesque islands.

After a fun day out on the train down to Matamata for a look at the obsessive detail of Hobbiton, the year finished back on the sofa with, sadly, just the one cat now at my side. I've had 49 stories accepted for publication, about half of those in the NZ Herald, as well as writing around 30 blog entries for Air France and others for the Yahoo! website. I've been to lunches and dinners and a cooking class, learned how to take the top off a champagne bottle with a sabre, had massages, ridden a camel and a Segway, eaten insects as well as fabulous meals, and been given a huge and beautiful bouquet for my services to Australian tourism, having had over 100 stories published about that immense country. Ironic, or what?

It's been a good year and I've been to some amazing places, met lots of lovely people and written masses of stories (if you're interested in reading some of them, click on the links over there to the right). It's been busy, and tiring sometimes, but I've loved it and am looking forward to more of the, er, different: Alaska, maybe? Africa? Who knows - can't wait to find out. Watch this space!

Sunday 30 December 2012

My loss...

... the chickens' gain. Some of them anyway: what turned out to be disappointingly starchy and definitely not freshly-picked sweetcorn was a real treat for the old hens who ripped into it immediately, though the new ones had no idea what to do with it, regarding the cob suspiciously, as though it was an unexploded grenade (as if they'd know what that was, either). I look forward to the new corn, though it's a bit like the fallen mangoes that I scooped up with delight in Cooktown: they were just lying about on the road verges under the trees there and I couldn't resist making a pig of myself with them, fortunately in private. It's not actually the fuzzy teeth that's the main problem with sweetcorn, though that mustn't be discounted: it's the Mark of the Cob that I end up with on my upper lip, an odd red mark that lasts for days. Mystery.

And travel connection? Has to be Washington state, though in fact it could be anywhere in the States, in the rural areas: the corn maze is a fixture in the Fall there, and deservedly highly popular. Here's the start of a story about it that I must get around to finishing some day:

“We lost a teacher in there this morning,” said Farmer Pete with a cheerful smile. “The kids all came out ok, but I never saw the teacher again.” Standing there in his plaid shirt, braces and name tag, he seemed quite unconcerned that there might be a wild-eyed woman with a clipboard still flailing about in the maze behind him, vainly peering into the leafy green walls, hopelessly disorientated in the tangle of narrow lanes, hemmed in by densely-planted two-metre high sweetcorn canes.

Over in the corn pool, children were laughing as they waded and swam through a vat of dried corn kernels. Beyond, in the pumpkin patch, mothers with toddlers loaded into wheelbarrows wove through the plants, looking for the biggest, brightest, most shapely vegetable to take home for carving into a Halloween decoration. The sun shone warmly, over on the horizon Mt Baker made an unreal white triangle against the blue sky, and friendly cats purred around our ankles. It was a hard place to get stressed in. One teacher more or less scarcely seemed to matter.

There was a satisfying kind of irony anyway, in that this maze, one of many that grow up - literally - outside cities all across America in the autumn, had been sown in the shape of the state of Washington specifically for use as an educational tool. Almost five hectares in size, every major physical feature of this state in the Pacific Northwest, tucked up against the Canadian border, was faithfully recreated in maize for classes of ten year-old fourth-graders to find their way through, answering questions as they went about history and geography. They might have lost their teacher, but they would have found out all about explorers Lewis and Clark, as well as having a whole lot of fun along the way...

Friday 28 December 2012

There's even a credit for 'leather stitchers'

Seen The Hobbit yet? I have, as of this afternoon, and am taking it easy for the whole of the evening in order to recover from the exhaustion. So much work by so many people (hundreds of names in the credits)! So much to look at! So much energy! (Also, so much fighting and falling down cliffs, all with a curious lack of blood or serious injury.) It was all very impressive: both the original by Tolkien, and the super-faithful HFR 3D movie version by Peter Jackson et al, replicating every obsessive detail. It's years since I read the book, which I galloped through for the story, without properly registering the OCD-ness of Tolkien's creation. I mean, what was this man on? The languages, the peoples, the depth of the history of his imaginary civilisations...

In Oxford, our Alice in Wonderland tour guide couldn't help including other writers and works too, pointing it out, for example, when we were following the lane that Tolkien and CS Lewis took walking back home from the Eagle & Child pub where they'd been, no doubt, comparing magical kingdoms. Philip Pullman was an Oxford man too - another creator of an intricate fantasy world for children; ditto Alan Garner, Susan Cooper, Penelope Lively, Diana Wynn Jones. I really wonder what it is about the city that inspired them all in that particular direction. Maybe it's all those carved stone gateways with glimpses through to enclosed and exclusive communities, each with its own style, traditions and rules? It's certainly something all visitors to Oxford do, peer through the railings and wonder about what goes on beyond those immaculate lawns, inside those ancient buildings.

It was good to see Hobbiton looking so green and pretty, and pick out the path we followed through the village - though it was a scandalous waste of all that finicking work, building it in such elaborate detail when it was seen so fleetingly. Of course I was checking out the locations all the way through, noting the tui singing, the native bush, the mountains and grassy hills and river valleys of the South Island - was that the Hollyford at one point? - as well as watching the movie. I was envious of the actors and the crew, though, being helicoptered onto remote mountain ridges for wide shots of the dwarves and Bilbo trailing through some truly spectacular scenery. If I want to experience that sort of view, I'm going to have to hit up Ultimate Hikes again, for the Routeburn tramp this time...

Thursday 27 December 2012

...yielding place to new

So, Christmas over for another year, recipe exactly as before - with the difference that this was probably the last of the old order, which has lasted 23 years but now changeth, since next year will most likely not include either of the daughters, one of whom is heading to Melbourne to dip her toe into the OE (overseas experience) while the other will be working on a newspaper in Hong Kong and hoping to go on from there to London. So while Christmas morning was fun, it was a bit melancholy too.

Melbourne is at least within spitting distance, comparatively: it's not unusual for people (or, Aucklanders) to pop across the Ditch for a weekend's shopping and a show. It's become the place for young people to head off to, for its nightlife and general happening vibe in amongst its little lanes and old buildings; and its shops and culture too. They don't go for the weather, though: it ranges from snow to 40 degrees, and there's not always as much of a gap between those extremes as a person might reasonably expect. There's also a lively underworld of Mafia crime, which is a bit disturbing, with mobsters getting whacked periodically. But as long as your nickname's not Fingers or The Munster, it's a good place to spend time in, giving Sydney a run for its money these days as Oz's hippest destination. I think it's got more depth than Botany Bay, if you see what I mean.

Hong Kong is more foreign of course, and hence more exciting; though it's still China's most accessible face. I've passed through there several times but don't know it well. Staying in the Peninsula Hotel, met at the airbridge and escorted all the way to the 6-room suite, doesn't exactly get you upfront with the city; but even being less insulated on other visits, I haven't got under the skin of the place. It's so big, and busy, and despite its huge ex-pat population I can't imagine ever feeling at home there or having more than the slightest idea of all the things that are going on, seething under the surface. Despite its being called 'Asia for beginners', I doubt that even the International Herald Tribune knows it all.

Monday 24 December 2012

Lounging with a lizard

On balance, the macro lens was a bad idea, but once I was in position, spread-eagled on the deck eye to eye with this little gecko, there was no way I was springing to my feet to pop inside for the standard. (That's a little game you might like to try when you're gathered with your family/friends tomorrow, by the way. See who can rise to their feet from sitting on the floor, without using hands or kneeling. Apparently, those who can will live longer than those who can't. And before you protest, the study group was aged 50-80. You're welcome! Merry Christmas!)

I was going to write about the Turkish baths in Budapest that we didn't actually bathe in (no time - oh, did you guess? So you're getting to know the downsides of being a travel writer then. It's not all business class and five star hotels and gift bottles of red wine, is it? Though it is that too...) because it's so hot and damp and humid here that that's what it feels like. But the lizard on the deck was a sign, because I only this morning received a bunch of answers to questions I'd posed a MAF scientist about suitcase stowaways.

He's a herp man, so it's just frogs, toads and lizards that he deals with. Any horrifying stories about menacing foreign spiders easing their hairy way out of suitcases I'll have to search for separately - but that's ok, the herps are good enough. Most of the accidentally-imported creatures are like my Rarotongan hitchhiker, the house gecko, with frogs and toads next, well down the scale. The most commonly imported amphibian is the reviled cane toad, usually tucked inside a shoe that someone's left outside - something you might like to remember. Just a week before I was in the office of Ultimate Hikes in Queenstown in 2009, prior to walking the Milford Track with them, one had hopped out of the boot of an Australian tourist - and that was after she had presented it to the MAF guys at the airport for inspection, tch. Not something I think I'll mention to my friendly herp man.

Here's a photo of one of hundreds of tiny baby frogs that I carefully stepped over on a walk around Queensland's Lindeman Island, that I later learned were actually infant cane toads, which I should have been stomping into oblivion. Oops.

Sunday 23 December 2012


I sat in my car for almost 2 hours today, parked beside the Ferry Building on Quay Street as an impressively regular stream of Airport Express buses pulled in, not one of them containing the Baby. She was due back from a night in Wellington, but Cyclone Evan had breathed on the sea there and sent an afternoon fog to block out the bright sunshine, and her flight, though delayed, was the lucky last out of the city for the day - and possibly even tomorrow too. People milling around at the airport, all their travel plans in disarray, will be sick of the sight of the huge Gollum hanging above them, all the Hobbit visual jokes having worn rather thin, I'm guessing.

While I waited I watched everyone arriving and departing with backpacks and shopping bags, as many heading off on the ferry to Waiheke Island as to the airport. I would have envied them, except that we'll be going that way in a month or so, not this time to good old Palm Beach, scene of broken wrist and sea-snatched glasses, but to Onetangi, which is quite a different beach. It's long and open, and quite often there is surf, which sheltered Palm Beach rarely has, apart from the rogue wave that dumped me from behind and made off with my glasses.

I lost my glasses once at Onetangi, too, frolicking in the water with dear departed Fudge, our non-swimming Labrador, who was in a panic so I had to hang onto her with both arms to keep her safe when a wave broke over us, meanwhile losing my specs. I had no hope of ever (blurrily) seeing them again, but the honorary Third Daughter who was staying with us was admirably thorough in her search and, astonishingly, found them within half an hour, none the worse. Good for her. If she happens to come over this summer, I'll happily buy her lunch at lovely Casita Miro, just up the hill, in memory of a good turn done.

Saturday 22 December 2012

A glass act

Blistering day today, perfect weather for the 25th - but what remains of Cyclone Evan is limping its way towards us, just in time to put a dampener on plans for outdoor Christmas dinners and beach barbecues of the sort that we Kiwis do so love to astonish our northern hemisphere friends with stories of, but actually hardly ever get to experience, since it usually turns out to be a dampish, greyish sort of day. And will be again this year, we're promised. Never mind.

The usual unfathomable year-end urge to tidy and sort has been upon me today, and I've cleared the drifts of papers that have piled up on my desk - receipts, boarding cards, itineraries, press kits, business cards, plus little bottles of aeroplane moisturisers, CDs of images, gift calendars and fancy soaps (who uses bars of soap these days?) and a wee bag of forgotten Portuguese biscuits that were hackingly dry and horrible by now, and a bar of camel milk chocolate from Dubai that was surprisingly nice. It was a rather boring waste of glorious weather, but worthy; a newer and more enjoyable seasonal tradition, however, is to fill with scented Christmas lilies the Waterford vase that I won this year in the Cathay Pacific Travel Awards for a story about - how fitting - Waterford the city.

The original glass-blowing factory, established there in 1783, was closed in 2009, but they reopened a smaller one for tourists to visit after lots of protests. Of course, as usual, we didn't have time to do that tour - but we did have a peep into a different craft glass workshop where a blower was at work. It's a fascinating process, even making something much simpler than my lovely (and extraordinarily heavy: 2.5kg) vase - so it took all my attention and it's only looking at the photo now that I see perhaps I've inadvertently papped an unofficial visit by Prince Charles.

Friday 21 December 2012

Still here!

This is a service for my northern hemisphere readers, a post from the future for their reassurance: 21 December has already dawned here in New Zealand, warm and bright and calm and ordinary. On my constitutional this morning a pair of tui rustled over my head, a kingfisher squawked at me, a sheep baaed somewhere, a friendly cat ran out to greet me and then thought better of it, and a huge dog walked past focused totally on the grumblings in his stomach that even I could hear.

The pohutukawa's in full bloom, people's gardens (including mine) are neat and bright with colour, the sky, in between heat showers, is blue and honestly, everything's right with the world. It's the last day of work for most, everything feels relaxed and laid-back (I'm not speaking here of the malls) and ahead lie Christmas, holidays, summer, the beach and boats.

I bet they're feeling silly now, all those people sucked into believing that daft Mayan claptrap about today being the en

Tuesday 18 December 2012

A face only an orthopterist could love...

It's a bit startling to come into the living room and find something like this - or actually, exactly this - lying on the carpet struggling with the fluff. It's a weta, but not a giant fortunately. They can reach 10cm/4in in body length, plus spiky legs and antennae, and weigh more than a sparrow, the heaviest insect in the world. This one was a tree weta, half that size, and a bit woozy from the automatic flyspray, so it wasn't too scary to take it outside, though I did keep my fingers away from those fearsome mandibles. I'm guessing it decamped out of the Christmas tree, which is a very dense one this year. Of course now I wonder what else is lurking inside it, but I'm not going to look, just in case I find something.
Where to go with this, travel-wise? Insects I have met... there were cave wetas when I went to Waitomo and ziplined underground through the dark in an unfetching blue boilersuit and freezing works white gumboots. There was the vast net of spiderwebs connecting the tall thistles in a gully that I rode my horse through while wearing just a bikini in South Australia - obviously, I didn't see them till too late, and my skin is crawling still. There was also the tarantula there that the girl going into my room ahead of me spotted, and reduced to a big red and black smear on the bedspread before I had the chance to fix in my memory forever all its horrible hairy detail. Then there was the invisible swarm of whining mosquitoes in New Caledonia that emerged, voracious, from crevices in our long-unused room and spent the entire night feasting on our blood until, fatigued and frustrated, we were driven to sleep on the floor in someone else's kitchen before I went to work the next morning with 47 bites on my face alone. The man ahead of me on the 4-day Bay of Fires walk in Tasmania had a shiny black leech attach itself to his sock. But really, considering some of the places I've slept and walked through, my insect and spider encounters have been very few, thank goodness.

Rather than leave you with the nightmarish images above, I'll finish with the order that I've happily seen most of: butterflies. In an aviary in Kuala Lumpur, where I spent a happy but extremely sweaty hour chasing them from flower to flower. Up the Amazon in Peru, where I blithely blundered through the jungle surrounding the lodge peering through my viewfinder at the glorious iridescent colours and completely forgetting about my sandalled feet in grass that hid snakes. Much more tamely at Changi Airport in Singapore, where people, dislocated both mentally and physically, can reconnect with a bit of nature in the butterfly room. And with delight in Brazil at Iguassu Falls, where a yellow puddle edged with a flock of even yellower butterflies was in its small way as glorious a watery sight as the thundering falls themselves.

Sunday 16 December 2012

All together now: Blow, blow, blow the wind...

They're battening down the hatches in Fiji ready for Cyclone Evan, which is heading there now after wrecking Samoa. I haven't been there for ages - although I was recently asked if I'd be interested in a visit - and the last time was to go on my first ever cruise, with Captain Cook Cruises from Viti Levu up through the Yasawa Islands, which are currently in the path of the cyclone. It was a small ship, comfortable and friendly and though not super-luxurious in the way that my second cruise with Silversea was, it must have seemed so to the people we visited. The Reef Escape certainly looked exotic, moored in various bays off the beach, glistening white and seeming very big against the villages of plain thatched bures underneath the palm trees.

Visiting the villages was the nicest thing about this cruise: we went to church one golden evening and listened to the shrill harmonies while watching chickens roosting in the frangipani trees outside the open windows; and at another were shown with great pride around the school by the children. The classrooms were so bare and basic, but the writing on the blackboard was beautifully neat cursive and the exercise books were full of careful work all conscientiously marked. Some of our group had known to bring gifts, and presented the teacher with a pack of ballpoint pens. "Oh!" she gasped, clearly thrilled. "We never see pens!"

The children had all gathered outside the school to welcome us with a little concert, and loudly sang what must have seemed to them such foreign songs - 'Ride a Cock Horse to Banbury Cross' would have been sheer gibberish (as it is to me, and I've been to Banbury); and even 'The Wheels on the Bus' was totally out of their experience, as there were no vehicles at all on these small islands. I was escorted around by little Lusi, who was 5 and had only just started school, and she was so pleased to be a big girl at last. She'll be one of the seniors there now: I hope she and all the others will be safe.

I wish all little schoolchildren could be safe.

Saturday 15 December 2012

Fa la lala la, la la la la

The Christmas tree is now up, with the usual family bickering (so unlike the standard screen portrayal of this tradition) but without what's become the small annual ritual of hanging on it the latest addition to our motley collection of ornaments. I didn't buy one on my travels this year, since the nearest thing I came across were these slightly forbidding Santas in [cliche alert] an Aladdin's cave of a market in Dubai. They had everything in there, stacked up high on wooden shelves along narrow aisles in a hot, dusty, dim and airless warehouse, in no discernible order: for instance, an old brass ship telegraph next to a long-handled sheikh's dagger next to a half-scale painted wooden giraffe. There were life-sized carved wooden African women, framed scorpions and bats, plastic Burj Khalifas, a human skeleton, Nepalese pashminas made from the neck hair of goats, Indian hand-knotted silk carpets, giant clogs, all the perfumes of Araby - and Old Spice too.

I don't know where the ornaments in the photo were made, but I'm guessing they were local, simply because who other than a desert-dweller would think to paint a snowman red?

What I was tempted by, but resisted, were the lovely little glass lamps in a [c.a.] rainbow of colours hanging from the ceiling, some of them lit and glowing beautifully. That really is a local specialty, and we saw them all over the place, in the souks and in use. They had them strung along the balcony at the restaurant we ate at one night in Abu Dhabi, sitting above the water that was sparkling in the dark with reflections from the tall glass skyscrapers across the harbour. The air was warm, there was soft music, quiet chatter from the diners, the Thai food was fresh and tasty...

Yes, Thai food. Foreigners make up around 90% of the population of the United Arab Emirates, so  you could hardly get a more cosmopolitan society. At my Dubai hotel one night, I saw a TV interview with Agnes Obel, the questions in French, her answers in Danish, subtitled in French and translated into English by me. That was a typically multi-cultural UAE experience. (And yet another coincidence for me, as I hadn't realised she was Danish, and there I was, on my way to Copenhagen.)

Friday 14 December 2012


This isn't the photo I wanted to take: it was the tattoo on his buttock that would have made the really striking shot - but he expected payment for that and, well, I was in Scotland... I've been tidying up loose ends and this goes with a story that's been knocking about for ages that I've recently found a home for. It's a bit of an odd one, about stalking Bonnie Prince Charlie on our travels around Scotland a couple of years ago - quite inadvertently, but also inevitably, as it turned out. You can't go anywhere in Scotland without bumping into Mary and BPC, with people talking about them as though they've only just left the room.

It was complicated to write, because Charlie's Jacobite Rising followed a different route from ours; and choosing the accompanying photos was a little compromised because this was the trip when my Canon cartwheeled down a scree slope on the Isle of Skye just over halfway through, so I don't have photos for places like Culloden, Loch Ness and Glasgow. I've read some fairly impassioned arguments for not travelling with a camera at all, that you see more, connect better, have a more real experience of a place when you're not distracted by peering through the viewfinder looking for angles and subjects. I've certainly seen plenty of people who honestly couldn't have had much of an idea of where they've been until they get home and look at their images. Video-cameramen (and it's always men) are the worst for this. I really do wonder what they do with all those hours of video that they shoot.

But I couldn't imagine travelling without a camera, and not only because it's essential to my job, as editors expect the complete package these days, and simply supplying the words just won't work at all. I find that having to record wide shots and close-ups, of people, places, animals and food does make me look more closely at places, explore further, make contact with people, look up. And since I'm frequently having to take notes and publishable photos and conduct interviews all at the same time as absorbing a few personal impressions too, snapping quick shorthand shots is also useful for jogging my memory later. When I have time, though, it's very satisfying, as well as lots of fun, to concentrate on the camera and get something that I think is really worth having.

Wednesday 12 December 2012

Sun, sand and sabres

Thirteen months ago, my anal soul would have been happy with this:
But I wanted more, this time, so I tried harder. And failed:
Reactions not as good as they used to be, or seconds have got shorter - or my laptop slower. I'm going with that. Never mind, it was a busy day with plenty of other stuff going on, like a lovely lunch at the Sofitel hosted by Macau Tourism, with a neat link between the two. It was in Macau that I saw sabrage for the first time, when chef Antonio, who was a bit of a showman and made us crepes Suzette with great flourish, took a lot of pleasure in showing the youngest, blondest member of our group how to remove the top from a champagne bottle with a sabre. (It's a French custom, initiated, legend has it, by Napoleon, so why a Portuguese man was doing it was never explained. Apart from the showmanship thing.) Of course, I learned earlier this year that it's a piece of weasel, and whipped one off myself with no trouble whatsoever, which hasn't stopped me from boasting about it ever since. With good reason, it turns out, judging by Trish's (three) efforts when the ritual was performed today, which left her with an eyeful - fortunately of champagne rather than bottle-top:
And then, after a lot of airline and travel chat, it was time to head out of the city on a sunny afternoon for a friend's Big Birthday picnic at a little beach on a gorgeous bit of coast with turquoise sea and islands and inlets. There was shared food and many popped corks - no sabres on hand, unfortunately - plus a dog with a stick, children, pohutukawa in bloom, sand between the toes and that glorious feeling that summer is finally here with lots more sun and sea and sociable times on the way. Yay.

Friday 7 December 2012

Do you feel lucky, punk?

Here's the question: if two killer tornadoes strike within 18 months, one of them in the next suburb to the north and the other in the next suburb to the south, should you feel lucky? Or move?

In May last year everyone was very surprised, as well as shocked, when a classic tornado hit Albany, killing a worker on a roof. We hadn't thought we got tornadoes here - but it turned out we do, and yesterday we had another, that ripped through Hobsonville just 4 kilometres from where I sat unknowingly on the sofa, looking at the rain overflowing the guttering and thinking mildly, "No more painting for me just yet, then." While, this time, three men died at the site of a new school that's being built, when a concrete slab wall blew over and crushed their truck. Dreadful.
In this crappy iPhone 3 photo, you can just see the collapsed slabs shining in the sun; and perhaps some missing orange tiles on the houses beyond. Hundreds of homes lost their roofs and windows: trampolines flew through the air, a car was shunted across someone's garden, boats blew away, and there are snapped and uprooted trees everywhere, many of them huge old pines. Walking through there this morning, the air smelt good from all that broken pine, but it was all such a mess. There were reporters, police and military people everywhere (the Air Force base at Whenuapai was hit too) and many groups of men in hi-viz vests and helmets standing around pointing. I whisked past the ones putting up the Road Closed sign, businesslike, focused and not breaking stride, and they didn't say a word. It's a skill.

There was a small (though temporary) silver lining to it all: a bit of the nasty orange sound barrier along the motorway blew down and gave us back the harbour view. And today's vaguely travel-related connection? According to QI, the country with the highest annual tally of tornadoes is... no (klaxon), not the US, but Britain. There, that's news to you, isn't it?

Wednesday 5 December 2012

Visiting Hobbiton

Now here's irony for you. Or me, really. I was looking forward to today as a day both out and off - a holiday from shoulder-wrenching labour on our front fence, which I water-blasted with especial attention to removing the tenacious lichen that was growing on it. So what do I see when I get to Matamata after a lovely ride in a comfortable new train, and am taken out to Hobbiton, which is the actual set of the Shire scenes from The Hobbit (and The Lord of the Rings before it)? Lots and lots of little fences artistically encrusted with authentic-looking lichen which, I discover, has been artfully and artificially recreated, and painstakingly applied by the set-makers.
The whole village is a triumph of tiny detail, a cosy green place of grass and flowers and hedges, with ponds and real frogs, trees and chimneys, a water mill and a pub serving very acceptable cider. We were shown around and told lots of stories about the filming and actors and Peter Jackson's insistence on having everything just so even if vast amounts of time and work and money were spent on making something look right that appeared in the background of one scene for 11 seconds only. It was really interesting: the hobbit holes are several different sizes, for instance, to make it easier to get the scale right when dealing with short hobbits and tall elves (or people).
Most of them are just facades, only a couple of metres deep behind the round front door, but Bag End, where Bilbo lived, has proper rooms and is a comparative mansion, it has so many rooms - not that we were allowed inside. We could have done with the shelter: it was pouring with rain and we ended up so drenched that when we got to the Green Dragon for our lunch, some people took off their sodden shoes to toast their feet in front of the roaring fire. Or maybe they were just channelling their inner hobbits (minus the hairy toes).

Monday 3 December 2012

Brown Shavers are nowhere near as evocative...

Rained off Project T.Sawyer this morning, instead I took my usual airport route across the city and disconcertingly stopped short in a nearby suburb to get some more hens, since the incumbents are getting on a bit and a couple of times recently I've had to buy eggs. These are Light Sussex, one of the world's oldest breeds, in England since the Roman conquest in AD 43. So they should know a thing or two about laying eggs, I hope. Sussex is one of the two counties that featured in the books of my favourite children's book author, Monica Edwards, and her love of the countryside infected me so intensely that I was determined to go to England as soon as I could:

...Though I lived in suburban Christchurch, meadows, streams and woods were the landscape of my childhood. The kowhai and cabbage trees in my own garden were less substantial than the oaks and elms under which the characters in my favourite books played out their adventures. I yearned to see badgers and foxes as they did, to jump into the harbour from the deck of a fishing smack, to spend a summer in an old stone Martello Tower.
But I was stuck in New Zealand at the bottom of the world, where nothing interesting ever happened. I grew up thinking I was missing out and, as soon as I could, I left. I went to England, where I lived in the countryside and rode horses through the fields and along the narrow lanes between high hedgerows, listening to robins singing in the hawthorn bushes. Christmases were cold and sparkly, and at the cosy pub along the road nearly everyone knew my name. The year was divided up by seasons and festivals, and I was enchanted to be part of it all.
There was something, though, that was the opposite of missing. I didn’t realise it until I took my English husband to explore the country I had come from, and we arrived in Queenstown. Of course we were both dazzled by the glamour of the lake and mountains; but it wasn’t until we started walking the Greenstone Track and got hands-on with the bush that I understood the value of emptiness. In England, wherever I went there were people, busily making their mark on the landscape, as they have done since prehistoric times.
In the Fiordland bush there was no-one, and nothing to show of people at all apart from the path we were following. Everything else was pristine: the fresh green ferns, the black-trunked beech trees, the snow-capped peaks peeping through them. For three days we followed the trail, sleeping in huts that had been helicoptered in, little oases of civilised comfort surrounded by untouched wilderness. Each morning we shrugged on our packs and set out into a day that felt truly new, every brow crested bringing a view that was ours alone.
And even when, on the third day, we spotted horses being ridden across the river flats, catching up with us from behind, the spell wasn’t broken. They were stockmen on their way to the Glenorchy Races, making a week-long cross-country trek to an event they looked forward to all year. It seemed gloriously rugged to us, a direct link to the olden days, and we were captivated.
So beguiled, in fact, that we went to the Races too, steaming up to the top of the lake on the Earnslaw with a good chunk of the Queenstown population. It was down-home entertainment of the very best sort: grandstands set up on utes and flat-bed trucks with sofas and tarp sunshades, the PTA sizzling sausages, kids and dogs everywhere, and of course the horses, numbers spray-painted on their rumps running forwards, and backwards too, dumping their riders or racing and bending with fierce concentration. It was chaotic and casual, there was both fooling about and intense rivalry, and everyone there was having fun.
It was a wonderful day, and as we chugged back again afterwards it was like being part of a family. There was singing round the piano while the sky turned saffron behind the mountains, and as we neared Queenstown an old man stood at the bow and played the bagpipes. It was real, it was ours and I missed it.
So I came back home again...

Sunday 2 December 2012

A fence is very like a chair

The first sentence of what is, for very boring reasons, my most popular post, search-wise, reads: 'An A380 Airbus is nothing like a bumblebee'. This one should have begun with 'A fence is very like a chair' (so I'm making it the title). Have you ever painted a chair? I have, lots of times, and if you have too you'll know how large the titchiest kitchen chair is, area-wise. It's the small intestine of the furniture world. It has so many surfaces that when you're onto the second coat, it's almost impossible to keep track of which ones you've done, so that years later when upending a chair for a random bit of spring-cleaning, you'll find the bottom of a rung somewhere with the undercoat grinning through.

A fence, now, you tend to think of in just two dimensions, plus back and front. But there's so much more to it than that! And you never suspect it, until you're already embarked on what seemed at first the work of an afternoon, and then found yourself committed to a week's hard labour (which, for those of us who are differently-abled, counts double). It's also a sad fact of life that, having begun waterblasting the front fence and quite quickly tiring of it, despite the satisfaction quotient of returning black mouldy wood to freshly-sawn condition, you can't just stop and quietly drift away pretending nothing's happened. People will notice.

So, having been unwittingly sucked into what is now looming as a Major Fence-Painting Project, of course I was thinking about Tom Sawyer (whose name now irresistibly conjures up the image of Bart Simpson for me - anyone else?) and thence Mark Twain. And thence Angel's Camp in California, where we stopped en route to Lake Tahoe and had our car washed by some college students who were raising funds for new band uniforms. Twain spent a winter gold-mining nearby at Jackass Hill, and came across something in a saloon in Angel's Camp that did him much more good than finding yellow metal. He heard a yarn there that he developed into 'The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County', which became his first writing success, and we all know how that story ends.

In the town, they have an annual Jumping Frog Jubilee each May. "It's a serious business," one of the students' fathers told us as the kids cleaned our car. "The bullfrogs are bred and trained specially, and there's lots of rivalry. But anyone can enter: we have a Rent-a-Frog service," he added helpfully. Of course, we wouldn't need that.

Wednesday 28 November 2012

Moving pictures

If I were techier (as opposed to tetchier than usual, having tried it and failed) you would be able to click on the image above to view the video - but I'm not, so you'll have to follow this link instead. What you will then be treated to is the end result of a quite extraordinary amount of work on the part of two of the guys on the Viet Nam trip, who were up early most mornings out filming, thinking all the time about what would be good material and how they could link it all together, looking for angles and experiences, and hauling around with them an amazingly heavy collection of eye-poppingly expensive gear. So expensive and preciousss, in fact, that when Brendon's feet went out from under him as he negotiated the treacherous algae-slimed concrete path down a steep hillside that had us all slithering, he went down on his elbow to protect the camera he was carrying.

There was blood and dirt and a flap of skin, and afterwards pain and swelling and difficulty, but he kept filming and photographing, and Dean kept eating the insects and stupid fish and braving the torrents of traffic at the big intersection, and now we've got the result. It was an interesting glimpse into the enormous effort it takes to produce something so fleeting, so I'm all the more respectful of what's getting them all excited down in Wellington this afternoon.

It's the big premiere of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey after who knows (somebody will, given the rabidness of Tolkien fans) how much work by how many people over how much time. I read, for instance, that some of the dwarves had to carry 30kg of costume and prosthetics, and then act with/through all that, so perhaps Dean should stop his cheerful whingeing about hauling around Brendon's gear. They're all going to have fun down there today, celebrating the final result, and good for them. Most of the actors have flown here on Air NZ's specially-themed 777 and will be working their way right now along 600m of red carpet towards the Embassy Theatre past an estimated 100,000 fans to see the movie. Can hardly wait, myself.
PS: Like Peter Jackson in many of his movies (but not this one), I have a small cameo in the video, leaping in a sprightly manner off a bank in the background. Did you spot it?

Tuesday 27 November 2012

Geegaws and gimcracks

So the physiotherapist said today there's nothing he can do for me. Wait. He said there's nothing more he can do for me. That's better, right? That means that, after nearly 7 months since stupidly, and clumsily, leaping off the back of a moving boat onto the river bank thereby dislocating and fracturing my shoulder, followed by one distinctly non-urgent ambulance ride, half a tank of Entonox, three hours in the tender loving care of the NHS in Norfolk, one doctor's visit, several X-rays, a CT scan, an MRI, two consultations with an orthopaedic surgeon, 20 decreasingly painful sessions with John the physio, and the best part of $700, I'm on my own again. Which is not the same as being back to normal, because the arm is still weak, the range of motion is still restricted and the muscles still ache - but time and normal use should take care of all that. Says John.

As souvenirs go, I've had better. I long ago stopped buying the t-shirts with place-names on the front (is 2008 long ago? Maybe not. But nobody walks the Inca Trail without buying the t-shirt, surely? That's in a separate category entirely) or coffee mugs, stickers and embroidered badges. I don't often buy the other stuff either, apart from a little moonstone dodo from a lovely Mauritian stallholder who invited me and my friend home for dinner, and a patently machine-made and probably synthetic but still warm and cosy "handknitted llama wool cardigan" in Inca patterns from a rather tired-looking but friendly lady in the street on a chilly night in Puno next to Lake Titicaca. Having done so much travelling over the last 10 years (and yet having been to far fewer places than so many people who don't write about it for a living - what are they thinking?) I really couldn't buy souvenirs on each trip and still have room to move in my house.

People do though, all the time: I see them in markets and souvenir shops and at the airport, spending up big on local stuff for themselves and as gifts, and I wonder what will happen to most of it. Op shops, most likely, or the dump. And though it is a waste of resources and no good for the planet, it does of course serve an important purpose economically, and in tourist spots all over the world millions of people depend on the income from making (or importing from China) and selling it all. Aesthetically, though, it would be nice if tourists could be persuaded to buy beautiful, or at least pretty, things that they will actually put to some useful purpose, or genuinely take pleasure from every time they see them; instead of wasting their money on dust-collecting, jokey, junky plastic stuff that they wouldn't normally look at even once back at home. All of which reminds me, soon it will be time to put the tree up...


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