Monday 30 January 2012


Auckland Anniversary Day today and the harbour was full of 10,000 yachts in and watching the Regatta, while the waterfront was full of people - at the funfair, the seafood festival, the Laneway indie music festival, and the Buskers' Festival, not to mention all the bars and cafes. We were there for the buskers, an annual treat when some of them come up north after attending the World Buskers Festival in Christchurch. It's the 19th year there - 10 days, 55 artists from all over the world - and this year not of course in the usual sites of Cathedral Square, the Arts Centre and various city streets, since they're all in the Red Zone still and fenced off, but in Hagley Park, where it evidently all went well and delivered some much-needed summer cheer to the city.

We were in ChCh for the festival once and it was a blast, especially the part where I ended up on the shoulders of a guy on a unicycle - but it's pretty good here in Auckland too, over the long weekend. Today we saw just three acts. The first was Wally, a non-stop joker (literally) of a tall Australian whose finale is balancing on top of a ladder, after two audience members let go of it. One of them was Max who, deliberately or not - who knows? - had dressed in an eye-catching ensemble of red Cleveland basketball (?) singlet, rather skimpy blue shorts and highly distinctive lime-green shoes. There was no way the performers were going to overlook him, and when we moved on to the next one, another Aussie called Mickey J who danced and mimed much more entertainingly than you might expect from that description (and got a lot of mileage out of Michael J), Max was again selected from the audience for some participation.
He was there in the crowd at our last performance too, but this time - I hope his feelings weren't hurt - he was passed over. The artist was Victor Rubilar, an Argentinian football juggler and holder of not one but four Guinness world records, of which perhaps the most impressive is "the longest distance travelled while balancing a football on the forehead" (278m) - though "the most rolls of a football from temple to temple" (67) for me came a close second in esoteric skills. He was far too Latino to be much bothered with the men in the audience - but, give him his due, he spends hours sunbathing in a bikini top at the beach all for the sake of a 10-second visual joke. Now there's a man dedicated to his craft.

Sunday 29 January 2012


In another new thing for me, I'm featuring in a series of advertisements for Australia - or at least my words are. The urgent but nice little earner that kept me anchored to the sofa for two whole days right before Christmas, writing 150-word blurbs for various Aussie experiences, has gone live on Stuff, and of the 20-odd paragraphs in the first batch (of which 13 are mine) they've chosen my Freycinet one to feature in full-page ads in Fairfax papers. So there I was, not just quoted, but referred to, not once but in three different sections of the Sunday Star-Times. What glory!

Except that of course it's not really the words that swung the decision, but the image they could run with them - and there's no beating that view of Wineglass Bay from the top of the rocks. It's a stunner. I was there in 2003 with the Firstborn, on my first proper travel assignment, set up by Tourism Tasmania after an experiment in chutzpah by me that worked like a dream ("I'm a travel writer. Here's a copy of my latest published story" - true, but also, at the time, actually my only published travel story).

They sent us to Hobart and thence on a 10-day self-drive circuit via Port Arthur and Freycinet, up the east coast and over to Launceston, and then back down the middle. There was much good eating (the FB still speaks wistfully of the day that included a chocolate factory, cheesemaker's and raspberry farm), lots of exotic animals, not all of them flat on the road (though one poor wallaby that was, was down to me alas), terrific rocks, burn-offs, convicts, pretty stone bridges and mills, tall trees, a chairlift across a wide gorge, prayer flags on a mountain top, crafts and opium (poppies, that is: Tasmania supplies 40% of the world's morphine). It was a fabulous trip and we had a great time, so waxing enthusiastic for the ads was a doddle.

This first batch is the Coastal theme: still to come are Journeys, Nature, Festivals and Food & Drink. Watch, as they say, this space...

Wednesday 25 January 2012

Little and Large

In a new move for me, I've written a guest post on another blog: Blogger At Large, which is a proper travel blog full of information and latest news, as well as being very chirpy and enthusiastic. It is, as they used to say in the 60s, a now and happening sort of place, unlike the more leisurely and reflective blog that this one is. The post is about Highclere Castle - yet again. I may be laid-back here, but even I can't ignore the opportunity to jump on such a big bandwagon as the Downton Abbey phenomenon. Why not pop over and read it, and have a look around there while you're at it?

I've done a couple of trips with Megan, who writes Blogger At Large, both at her very kind invitation and both brilliantly good fun. The first was via Tahiti to New York, my first trip to that exciting city, and the second to Disneyland for a mind-blowingly extravagant famil to mark the opening of what was then the new Finding Nemo ride in the old submarine pond.

I'd been to Tahiti years before, but on this trip we went to Fakarava - always fun to say - in the Tuamoto Islands. It's a huge coral atoll, the rectangular lagoon about 65km long, the land surrounding it so narrow that you can see from side to side. On one sparkling day we went on a boat like a flying fish to the far end of the lagoon, skimming along the turquoise water for an hour or so until we fetched up at a tiny motu, or island, with nothing on it bar a handful of palm trees, a bush or two, and tiny white shells scattered over the pink sand. The water was warm and clear, and we had a swim while Coco our guide laid out our picnic on a white cloth and made a fire from palm fronds to barbecue our steak. It was a feast, and the setting was idyllic: just us, the seabirds, the lapping of the waves on the sand, and nothing/nobody else for miles and miles and miles. The world has never felt bigger, and my place in it never smaller.

Thursday 19 January 2012

Costa packet, probably

My goodness, that scurrilous Schettino, captain of the liner Costa Concordia, is such a cliché Italian coward that he's single-handedly revived all those old wartime jokes like the Italian flag being a white cross on a white background, and Italian tanks having four reverse gears and one forward in case of attack from behind. So thank goodness for the doughty coastguard captain Gregorio De Falco, ripping into him in such a robust fashion: the man's a hero, and more than cancels Schettino out.

From the details that are emerging of the organisation of the ship, and even its design, Italian cruisers are going to struggle to recover from such bad publicity - but the one I've travelled on, the Silversea ship Silver Whisper, was excellent. Small but perfectly-formed, it carried only 382 passengers, so it was nothing like the vast white bricks - like the Concordia and worse - that seem to be the trend these days, where you could spend a week without sighting the sea. We got on in Hong Kong, a splendid port to sail from, and were cosseted and pampered for the following week until we left the ship, reluctantly, in Shanghai - also an impressive port to sail into, which we could, being so svelte, right into the centre past all those extraordinary buildings.

The captain was Italian, not that we saw much of him, but the cruise director, whom we did, was too, and had such a comically thick accent that the Trivial Pursuit afternoons were especially challenging as we struggled not just to think of the answers, but to decipher the questions in the first place.To hear him mangle Don Quixote into 'donkey shoty' was to be totally flummoxed. But it was all good fun, and the ship was so friendly and luxurious, and the food so good, and the complimentary wine bottomless, and the bed so superbly comfortable, I would happily cruise nel modo italiano again - as long as it was with Silversea. So how pleasing that in a couple of weeks I'll be having lunch on board a sister ship, Silver Shadow, when it visits Auckland. And what a bummer, that directly afterwards I'll have to disembark again.

Monday 16 January 2012

Catching up

I've been MIA all week because of a new laptop and the unconscionable effort it's taken to get it set up and transfer all my files. Worst of all was migrating my old emails which took an entire weekend of Googling and wrestling with nerd-speak, getting familiar with esoteric things like .dbx files and trying over and over and over to shift files from Outlook Express via Windows Live to Outlook (for which I'm going to have to pay actual money to use). Thanks a lot, Microsoft. But it's done. Yay.

So what has passed me by in the meantime? Australian soldiers on leave getting drunk in the Middle East - sign of the times that that was a news story, but they were in Dubai, where the official relationship with alcohol is uneasy and it's a behind-closed-doors, consenting-adults sort of activity. Westerners who live there - and there are very many - have to get a licence to buy wine from a few special shops and then have to transport it straight home. You can only drink in hotel restaurants, and even then you're meant to behave yourself. (They frown on PDAs too, public displays of affection between the sexes, though it's all on for women and men to hold hands with their same-sex friends: it's rather sweet to see a couple of swarthy young Arab men in robes striding along with their pinkies linked.)

A dinner-table conversation about an upcoming fancy-schmancy family wedding at Hampton Court House (presumably near the actual HC) led to a mention of Blenheim Palace, which was followed, according to the law of coincidence, by a TV documentary that night about that amazing place, with some fantastic photography. It's a private home, always has been, but it's truly called a palace, and it's awesomely beautiful. And then there are the Churchill stars: handsome John, the first Duke of Marlborough, and Winston of course. Unmissable.

And yesterday a cruise liner inexplicably did a Titanic off the coast of Italy, with shameful losses of life. I wonder if it will give pause to those people who have booked for that trip in April to follow the course of the actual Titanic? The last place their ship will call at before crossing the Atlantic is Cobh, in southern Ireland, where we went last year and were happily absorbed by the excellent exhibition in the old railway station there. They've got a lot of artefacts (though not as many as in the travelling exhibition I saw in Copenhagen, which will be back in Barcelona by now) including a letter in a bottle that was thrown overboard as the Titanic sailed and was delivered to the writer's mother after his death in the sinking. And then I imagine the tourists will call in at Halifax, Nova Scotia, where many of the recovered bodies were taken and buried. I'd like to go there one day. I wonder if I will?

Tuesday 10 January 2012

'Moby Dick' is, of course, catchier

So the back half of the Rena finally slipped beneath the waves today, three months after it ran aground on a reef off Tauranga, spilling more cargo and oil into the Bay of Plenty; and in one of those coincidences that the TV newsreaders like so much because it means they don't have to strain over their segues, a ship in port at Christmas Island was damaged in a storm and is now releasing its phosphates cargo and oil into the Indian Ocean. The particular problem with this one is that the pollution it's causing is likely to endanger the whale sharks that will be arriving there soon to feed on crab spawn.

And that's awful, because whale sharks are such splendid creatures - beautiful, impressive, immense, mysterious, harmless - and it's a miserable thought that their numbers may be reduced through more human incompetence and carelessness. Swimming with them at Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia was far more exciting than the silly buzz of being tipped backwards off a platform into a 60 metre free-fall: seeing something that huge, that lives in another world entirely, glide into mine for even just a few minutes, was a total thrill and completely unforgettable, and as I said in the story I wrote about it, it left me feeling fiercely protective of whale sharks. Especially my one, A-708, which I registered afterwards with the Ecocean Whale Shark Photo ID Library, and check up on periodically, to see if anyone else has spotted it around the world.

That's one of the best things about travel: when you've been somewhere, seen something, done something, afterwards you always have an interest, a connection, that makes watching the news or reading the paper or just eavesdropping on conversations so much more real. It's a bit like leaving school and finally - eventually - putting to practical use some of the stuff you learned there. But so much more fun!

Saturday 7 January 2012

Number one

Oh dear, shocking news today: the first disaster of the new year, only one week in. In the Wairarapa, a hot-air balloon hit power lines, caught fire and crashed, killing the pilot and the five couples who were his passengers. Apparently two of them leapt from the burning basket 100m up in the air - a hideous reminder of 9/11. It's our worst air accident since Erebus in 1979.

Having flown in a balloon three times now, in England and Australia, I can imagine only too well how it went: the nervous anticipation of the passengers getting up before dawn, driving out to the launch spot with the trailer behind the van, the pilot making jokes as he got the balloon unpacked, laid out on the ground and held open by helpers. Then he starts the fan to fill the balloon and open it up, and afterwards the burners roar away to heat the air so that the balloon slowly stands.

It's an exciting moment, clambering into the wicker basket (always wicker, for lightness and strength) and holding tight, looking up at the orange glow from the burners brightening the colours of the nylon, feeling the heat - but always an anticlimax when the helpers let go of the ropes, because the balloon rises so smoothly and swiftly, there's no drama at all. It's a bit like that camera trick, where the background retreats behind the subject: the ground seems to pull away, rather than vice versa. And then, you realise you're way up in the air, and it's marvellous. It's cold, because it's still early, the sun's just risen while you were busy watching the balloon got ready, but there's warmth from the burners above; and when they're not being used, it's so beautifully quiet you can hear the dogs barking below on the ground; and there's no wind, because you're moving with it. And the views are fantastic.

The flights always seem to end too soon, within an hour, and then the pilot's busy using the burners to go up and letting air out to decrease altitude, concentrating on using the different air currents at different levels to go in the best direction for landing, watching out for hazards like power lines and trees, roads and rivers, fences and buildings. That's the most dangerous time, and that's when the balloon this morning got into trouble: instead of gently settling back on the earth, it hit power lines that set fire to the basket, burning through the ropes so that the balloon was released and the basket fell to the ground. It must have been horrific. I'm so sorry for those poor people, and their families. (The two who jumped had been given the flight voucher for Christmas by their children, who were on the ground watching; and the pilot's wedding invitations were posted yesterday. So sad.)

Sunday 1 January 2012

Cruising into 2012

What better way to spend the first (uncharacteristically damp, grey and humid) day of the New Year than by indulging in some movie nonsense on the pretext of revisiting locations from the old one? Thus it was that I spent more than two hours twitching and wriggling nervously in my seat as I watched Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol work through its ridiculous story, told with every tool of movie trickery in the box. Steve Jobs (RIP) would have been thrilled to see the casual and ubiquitous use of iPads and iPhones to track and identify villains as well as a host of other useful spy-themed apps. The most thrilling part though appealed to a much more basic and age-old human instinct: fear of heights.

Which of course took Tom to Dubai, home of the world's tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, at 828m and 160 storeys, to do a Spidey up the outside with a dodgy gripper glove and then a Canyon Swing back down again and in through the window. As you do. The views down that extraordinary shiny silver building were dizzyingly spectacular, the surrounding buildings, the vast fountain complex and the ground itself so incredibly far away. I wish I had had the time to go up to the Observation Deck, but you have to book or pay some huge sum, and I was, as usual, on a tight schedule; but I did get to see it from the bottom, which was amazing enough - although very hard to fit into a viewfinder.

The movie started in Budapest, which I was interested to see as I'll be going there in May; then from Dubai went to Mumbai - where I haven't been, does Delhi count? - and finished up in Seattle, on the waterfront where we had a nose around, were most impressed by the Aquarium, and took a ferry from across to Bainbridge Island, which looked lovely but again we had no time to look around (aren't you glad you're not a travel writer, hogtied by the tyranny of the itinerary?). There was even a glimpse of San Francisco, where a chunk got taken off the top of the Transamerica Pyramid by an at-the-last-second aborted nuclear missile. So, pretty much been there - but done all that? Thankfully, not.


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