Tuesday 28 February 2012

An innocent abroad

So the plan was to write a story about how easy it is to get around Europe by train. That was my pitch, and that's how I've finagled myself a Eurail pass for when I'm buzzing from one assignment to another in April and May: France, England, Germany, Hungary, Austria, Poland, Czech Republic...

Thing is, it doesn't seem to be like that at all, and I'm only up to the booking stage. The websites are confusing, they give conflicting information, on some it's not possible to book at all, on others there seem to be missing trains; so when I finally found at least two of my trips apparently bookable, I'd just about lost my nerve completely and felt very anxious about clicking on the final Confirm Payment box. It's all too easy to imagine some foreign railway station with single-minded people bustling all around, unintelligible PA announcements echoing overhead, display boards flashing, and me in the middle of it trying to figure out which is my platform, all sweaty about missing a connection.

I hadn't realised how dependent I've become on being presented with nicely laid-out itineraries, all the messy stuff taken care of, tickets in my inbox ready to print out, and someone in charge once I'm under way. There will be a bit of that this trip, but I have to join the dots myself, just like a real traveller. It's going to be an adventure! I do so hope I don't mess up...

Wednesday 22 February 2012


It's been a year. A whole year since I was standing in the middle of the living room, in the middle of the day, hands over my mouth, staring in horrified disbelief at the television. I don't remember how I heard the news - perhaps it was Scott, the house-painter who was listening to his radio as he worked, who told me. Perhaps it was a text or an email. It doesn't matter.

What does matter is that the whole country was doing the same thing as they heard, turning to the radio and television, anxious for every bit of news from Christchurch, painful as the words and images were: our second city, shaken to bits, buildings collapsed, people crushed inside, on a bus, on footpaths, 185 of them dead or dying, others trapped by arms and legs and fingers they were to lose. Everything, as those moments passed, changing forever.

And now it's been a year. The central city's still cordoned off, hundreds of buildings demolished, whole blocks bare and empty, swirling with dust. The eastern suburbs, where I grew up, are wastelands of ruptured streets and broken houses, once-neat gardens and grass verges tall with weeds and brown grass, silent and empty except for some determined souls hanging on grimly through 10,000 aftershocks.

Life is still going on in Canterbury: there's a wonderful spirit of never say die, of new opportunities, of lateral thinking, of community, of a resilience I'd like to think I would show too, but couldn't guarantee. I'm proud of Christchurch people, and today at 12.51pm I'll be standing with them again, remembering what we've all lost.

Sunday 19 February 2012


The Chateau Tongariro knows all about framing a view - of Ngauruhoe this morning, such a bright clear one that when I opened the curtains in the girls' bedroom, I said, "Oh look, it's even better than yesterday. Let's go again!" Surprising lack of enthusiasm, curiously. (There were 13 fat rabbits grazing on that lawn yesterday evening, by the way - and rabbit also on the menu in the dining room. Coincidence? I don't think so.)

Here are the facts of the Crater Lake Walk: two chairlifts up from 1600m to 2020m, then a 2-hour walk (so they call it) up Restful Ridge (ha!) to 2670m for a view of the crater lake and the actual summit of 2797m - and then back down the same way but with a bit of a detour to allow for sliding down a couple of long patches of snow - all done in about 5-6 hours. You really wouldn't want to do it without a guide, though lots of people do, just in case the weather closes in, as it can do with astonishing speed, because once off the ridge, there's no path at all and it would be very easy to end up stuck at the top of a cliff with no idea of where to go.
In this photo, the summit is on the far right, and on the other side of the dip to its left is the Dome, which is the furthest point of our walk, from where we could look down at the crater lake. Imagine the mountain covered in snow, with a huge billowing cloud of ash dwarfing it and the Chateau: the 1996 eruption was spectacular.

As was this icecream, at the dairy in Pokeno on the way home, which the girls talked about for miles and then were daunted by, in the end settling for scoops of just two of the 44 available flavours. Pikers!

Saturday 18 February 2012

There and back again

It was a great day today, on our guided walk up on the mountain. Not so good to be down on the ground, which was hidden from us by a carpet of cloud, the earthlings scuttling around down there in the gloom and chill, while we were up with the gods in the sun under a blue sky that still wasn't as gorgeously colourful as the crater lake, in all its turquoise, hot, PH 1 glory.

I especially appreciated its colour after toiling hard for about 2 hours from the top of the chairlift, over violently splintered rock and smooth glacier-striated boulders all the way to the crater rim - a bleak, barren, stark landscape that was Mordor through and through: black and brown and ochre, with drifting steam that stank of sulphur. We heard about some of the drama up here, soldiers frozen to death, a tramper losing a leg when the volcano erupted in the night and a boulder landed on him where he lay asleep in Dome Hut, climbers fleeing down the slope and disappearing inside an ash-cloud. It wasn't till we were on our way down that the guide told me about 'blue-sky eruptions', that occur with no warning whatsoever, making a bit of a mockery of the GPS sensor systems that have been set up.

What I didn't appreciate was the usual reaction at the start to Ryan's saying, "Now, it's not a race," which was followed by a surge of flying boots up the mountain, while I panted behind, further delayed by stopping for photos and information. It's always the same. And this time, when we got back down again, someone said, "Wow, 2.30! You made good time - some groups don't get back till 4 o'clock." Pisses me off, actually, me who goes tramping to enjoy the scenery, novel idea though that clearly is.
On another note entirely, I was diverted by the top hat, waistcoat and flares get-up of this chap, who turned out to be a German journeyman carpenter with a taste for the traditional, doing a world tour in his attention-getting uniform. And he's from Frankfurt!

Friday 17 February 2012

What will be our doom?

It was a long drive down from Auckland today to the mountains, leaving hot sunny weather that still managed to deliver a juddering crack of thunder just as the Baby and I stopped to pick up the Firstborn. As we got closer to the Central Plateau, the clouds darkened dramatically to the left, while it was still blue sky and fluffy white to the right. A shard of rainbow against the black hung above electric green paddocks and trees - all very theatrical, and most effective in heightening suspense over what kind of day this crazy summer will deliver tomorrow, when we hope to be climbing up to the crater rim of Ruapehu, to peer over the edge at the lake in the centre.

The hammering rainstorm stopped as we arrived at the Chateau Tongariro, named after the less impressive mountain to the left in the photo, and I was able to rush out with my camera to snap Ngauruhoe looking typically moody and dangerous - it was, after all, used as Mt Doom in the LOTR movies.

Ruapehu is actually the most dangerous of the three, having last erupted spectacularly in 2007, but it's currently quiet, so probably our greatest threat is lightning - which is the reason this photo of the Chateau is less well composed than I would have preferred. When forks of lightning are whumping down unnervingly near, you don't hang around in the open.

Wednesday 15 February 2012

Upside down

It's a dreary sight, watching your togs and sarong hanging from the washing line, dripping wet as the rain pours down. It's Nature saying, Your holiday is over, yah boo sucks to you.

It's also a little bizarre, to see steady drizzle, normally a rarity in Auckland which tends to favour more the short, sharp, bucketing-down variety, in usually sunny February - while I write about a drought in Fiordland, where they get around 8 metres of rain annually. Unlike my previous tramp down there, along the Milford Track, when Day 1 had us wading through waist-high icy water as waterfalls sprang off the bare rock of the cliffs and the river overflowed its banks, the Hollyford Valley treated us to clear blue skies and a river with wide stony banks for us to sprawl on at lunchtime, gazing up at the dazzling snow on the peaks.

All the guides and lodge staff were astonished by the weather, but we walkers took it in our, er, stride, instead marvelling at the literally over-the-top scenery and at the stories we were told of drama, duplicity and derring-do. The star of the walk is Davey Gunn, who won the Coronation Medal in 1936 for a magnificent Iron Man-type performance when he ran, rowed ("with uneven oars!" guide Mike squeaked incredulously every time he told the story), rode and ran again for 90km in just 20 hours through the night to the nearest telephone to get help for four men injured in a plane crash. It's a great story - though the one where he got snagged on a broken branch while chasing steers through the bush, ripping open his thigh and scrotum, rode back to the hut to stitch the wounds with a darning needle and fishing line, and then continued the muster, is pretty nearly as compelling.

With a commentary like that, you need something quite spectacular to compete for attention. Luckily the Hollyford Valley has that sort of thing in spades.

Sunday 12 February 2012

Back to the real world

This is not a monochrome photo - or at least, not deliberately, thanks to some app. There's actually a red buoy in there, if you look closely. But this is how the harbour looked today, on the way back to the city from Waiheke. As ends of holidays go, I suppose this at least makes it easier to head home, back to work and cooking meals and doing washing and having a doddery old cat walk across my pillow in the middle of the night, standing on my hair.

Tomorrow I'll be back on the sofa writing about Fiordland and Western Australia and the Titanic and Taranaki and Adelaide - and maybe even Waiheke. And today the third batch of Australian stories is out, with my Uluru camel paragraph the featured one this time. Onwards and upwards.

Saturday 11 February 2012

Sea bee

Another day of simple pleasures, the mixture as before: walk, swim, eat, nap, read, repeat. There were a few variations, like a marine rescue of this honey bee, which floated past me as I wallowed beyond the breakers. I gave him a finger to stand on and made my way back to the beach, middle finger rudely raised, to deposit him on a flower to dry out and rest before going on his way. This could have been a touching photo if the iPhone camera had been up to it. Thanks for nothing, Apple.
There was Ostend Market this morning, a Saturday regular of used books, food stalls, junk, jam and flowers. It's where Waiheke's arty, alternative side gets to express itself, with crystals, massages, iridology and incense; comfortably balanced by pony rides, hamburgers and cheap sunglasses. The crepe stall is authentically French, and the lemon curd filling is highly recommended.
There were weddings today: a party on Palm Beach, the bridesmaids in lemon yellow, their escorts busy with a frisbee on the sand while the bridal couple posed for photos at the nudist end of the beach - a curious choice, and I hope the photographer had the camera set on a shallow depth of field. And then as we ate Brazilian pizza again at Little Oneroa, another party came for photos, their chauffeur looking like a Blues Brother by the classic wedding car, as they posed against the boatshed and on the beach.

I do like beaches at the end of the day, when the shadows lengthen on the scuffed sand and the low sun shafts through the breakers, when the sea empties, people bring their dogs down and the sunbathers pull their towels over them as blankets, reluctant to bring to an end another perfect summer day at the beach.

Thursday 9 February 2012

The simple life

Today is simply summed up: a walk, a swim, lunch, a swim, an icecream and a sit. The lunch was at Casita Miro, happily situated on a hillside overlooking Onetangi, with a lawn and an olive grove above and the vineyard below. Some of us chose the healthy option for lunch:
and some of us plumped (verb carefully chosen) for the cardiologist's nightmare that is stuffed brie:
But we all of us enjoyed the timeless pleasure of sea and sand and sunshine:

Wednesday 8 February 2012

Eschewing speciesism*

It's been bugging me a little, on my morning walks, noting all the exotic plants that have invaded the bush here on Waiheke: escapees from gardens that, in the way of all introduced species in New Zealand, from possums to Pakeha, have proliferated like crazy. In amongst the natives are wild ginger, honeysuckle, agapanthus both white and blue, gorse, broom, jasmine, morning glory, wandering willie, inkweed, red-hot pokers, crocosmia, daisies, dandelions, buttercups, Scotch thistle and ragwort... the list goes on.

I tutted and frowned; until I decided today to look on Waiheke instead as an unweeded garden, not rank and gross as in Hamlet's use of the phrase, but as a place where the sombre greens and cream flowers of the native plants (except for kowhai gold and the crimson spectacle of the pohutukawa) have been brightened and lifted by the gaudy colours and tropical fragrances of the exotics. After all, I'm as happy to see blackbirds and thrushes as I am tui and wood pigeons. I'm not saying those dedicated souls who work so hard to slash and burn the invaders in order to preserve the endangered natives are misguided - just that here and now, on a holiday island, I'm going to let the campaign for biological purity lapse a bit.

Because there's no denying that a few colourful exotics sure do set off the locals beautifully.
*Bless you!

Tuesday 7 February 2012


Now this is what we've been waiting for: to wake on a bright morning to a clear sky and shining waves rolling on to the beach from a flat blue sea. It's harsh for the workers, back in their offices today after yesterday's grey holiday, but we did our best to appreciate it for them. I was up early enough for my walk/run to feel fresh and easy, despite the 21 zigzags on the track up through the pine trees; and the views from the top were glorious, out to Great Barrier Island where I went last year for the first time, and where many disaffected alternative types have moved from Waiheke since it's been gentrified.

The island was over-run with cruise ship passengers - three of them docked in Auckland today - and what a perfect day out for them it was, poking round Oneroa's little shops, doing the wineries tour, going to the beach. The Firstborn was over, bringing her bike to do a pedal tour, and we met her for lunch at Onetangi, where the beach is long and open and glorious, and where in a couple of weeks' time they'll be having the Beach Races again and the place will be buzzing with people there for the horse races along the water's edge, the ponies pulling sulkies, the Pony Club girls spinning round barrels in a shower of sand, the vintage tractors trundling along in slow-motion, the rich men's Sea-Legs amphibians showing off, the tugs of war, sandcastle competitions, the food and drink... it's a great day out.

And today, finally, I had my first swim of the summer, back at Palm Beach, jumping in the waves, floating in the warm water, and it was just perfect. As was dinner later at Cable Bay with a bottle of rose that matched the sunset over the city. Excellent day.

Monday 6 February 2012

Woe-tangi Day

Waitangi Day today, our day of national celebration, theoretically, of being glad that we live in New Zealand where it's peaceful, orderly, democratic and comfortable - except it never is. It's a day seized on by Maori activists to wave banners, shout a lot about the Treaty, shoot the flag, rough the Prime Minister up a bit or at least drown him out, and generally make the rest of us sigh and look the other way. At least normally we can go to the beach, relax in the sun, enjoy a day off, the last long weekend of the summer - except we couldn't do that either this year because despite a cruelly tantalising sunny start, grey cloud soon muscled in over the sky and the cool breeze blew, and only the very hardiest made it into the water.

We certainly didn't, although with our English visitors we drank a lot of tea and coffee and spoke at length about how very, very cold and snowy it is at home for them; compared with which, our 23 degrees seemed positively tropical. The plastic screens were down on the deck of Vino Vino, so our very nice lunch - scallops and creme brulee for me - went down in comfort as we gazed out over a bay that, on a good day, can look like Thailand but today was rather more like England in November. So afterwards it felt right to go to Blackpool, the Waiheke version, where the tide was, appropriately, out across the uninvitingly pebbly sand and we trailed onto the Piritahi Marae much too late for any of the ceremonies, even the most popular one which was the opening of the hangi: the earth pit filled with hot stones and wrapped meat and vegetables which in my experience at least is considerably less appetising even than that sounds. Pallid, greasy meat and steamed root vegetables are something you need to be desperately hungry to consume, let alone enjoy, I reckon.

So we moved onwards and upwards, literally and metaphorically, to Te Whau vineyard and restaurant, for something a bit more sophisticated (and edible) in the way of afternoon tea, and to look at the view which, on a normal summer's day could be [see above] but today was all in shades of grey. Sigh.

Sunday 5 February 2012

Why, why, Waiheke?

This crappy summer we've been having was all very well while it was everyone else on holiday (sorry) - but now that it's me, I'm taking it personally. Oh yes, bathe me in sunshine while I'm crawling backwards around the sweat-spotted deck (that would be my sweat), staining it board by sodding board - but now that I'm on Waiheke Island, scene of so many long hot sunny summer holidays, you're back to grey skies and cool winds and uninviting seas. Spit!

Still, the Dragonfired pizza was delicious, served by more of the beautiful Brazilians who seem to gravitate to the island, and it was nice to eat it on the beach, trying to feed the crusts to the seagull with the sore leg (there's always a seagull with one sore leg - sometimes just one leg, full stop) and watching the doughty old people swimming across the bay, full of purpose.

And now we're back at the bach, a different one this time at the other end of Palm Beach, up a steep path from a no-exit road, with only the sound of the waves, rustling wood pigeons in flight and quarrelsome tui to listen to.

Because the blasted TV doesn't work.

Saturday 4 February 2012

Silver Shadow

Yeah, well, sorry about that. I had fine intentions of taking a photo of my food today because I knew it would be beautifully presented, but lunchtime wine has frequently been my downfall and today was no exception. So you'll just have to imagine a creamy yellow pyramid of mango jelly in a pool of finely-cut salsa of mango, kiwifruit and strawberry, and a piped dollop of coconut cream on top with a, hmm, credit card of dark chocolate inserted into it. Look, there's still half the chocolate left - just build on that. Use your imagination, dammit. It followed deliciously intensely-flavoured chicken soup and super-tender beef with Yorkshire pud.

I was on board the Silversea ship Silver Shadow, sister to Silver Whisper on which I sailed a couple of years ago from Hong Kong to Shanghai. It's a small ship, just the 382 suites, and both classy and friendly, and we had a ball. I loved that everything was included, tips, drinks, excursions and all (not that, ahem, I was paying) and that the staff had learned our names within the first 24 hours, and used them. Super comfortable, elegant, and such fabulous food at the 6 or so restaurants that it was a mercy we were only on board for a week or so.

This one is in Auckland before heading south to Cook Strait and then across the Tasman - which takes an astonishing 3 days - to Sydney and then along the south coast to Melbourne, Adelaide, Port Lincoln, Albany and Fremantle (tick, tick, tick, tick, tick and tick). Then it's up through Indonesia and away to more exotic destinations. The six Silversea ships are constantly circling the world on the most mouth-watering itineraries, including, since they're conveniently small, the Inside Passage to Alaska, which I would dearly love to sail along one day to see the bears and the salmon and the glaciers. And to go there on a Silversea ship would be best of all.

Wednesday 1 February 2012


I was intrigued to discover that I'd had a little rush - une petite avalanche - of visitors from France overnight, all landing on my post about the Falkirk Wheel in Scotland, so I followed their links backwards to a French science and technology website and found myself looking at this mystery photograph - une photo mysterieuse - where the game was to identify the subject of my photo from that post, cropped to show just a section of the horse's neck and mane, and the tip of the Wheel. There were lots of guesses: a machine for destroying secret documents, a rotating wire brush, a young man's spiky hair and, my personal favourite, a rat's bottom, but amazingly someone was able to identify it.

I suppose the guy setting up the game, rather than randomly happening upon that post, thought of the Wheel first and just googled for a photo - but it's still amazing to me though that some French science nerd found his way to my blog. Even if he then pillaged it (only the winner had the courtesy to include the link to the post after, ahem, filching the entire photo to prove his claim).

It's an interesting, if dispiriting, exercise, to google myself or the opening words of a story, and see just how far my work has gone around the world - totally without my permission or of course any payment for its use. I've found my stuff on newspaper websites in India, South Africa, the UK, Singapore, Australia... So far it has at least always been under my name, small comfort that that is, so nobody else is stealing my stories and being paid for them. Still, it's kind of depressing to work hard on a story, wringing out the words sometimes, be paid if I'm lucky 40c a word (a rate that hasn't changed here for 30 years, I'm told - back then writers must actually have been able to make a living from their work) or more likely a package rate for words+images; and then see it popping up all over the place for free. It's becoming harder and harder to get a second sale out of a story, when it now doesn't just appear in a newspaper, say, and then disappears from the records, wrapped around the next day's fish 'n chips, but is also automatically uploaded to the paper's website to remain there forever after, for no extra payment. It all makes me look upon moon-faced Kim Dotcom with even less favour.

On the plus side, it's been fun to picture all those French techies trying to figure out the title of that post: they may be hot at identifying machines, but working out a lumbering English-Scottish pun? No chance!


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