Monday 25 June 2012

Adios, el Solitario Jorge

Poor old Lonesome George has died: a heart attack, the report says. More like a broken heart - being 100 years old and the last of your species will do that to a tortoise. Or anyone, really. He certainly looked depressed when I saw him nearly three years ago, in his enclosure on Santa Cruz, Galapagos. Even though tortoise body language is a closed book to me, it seemed clear enough that he didn't have much to look forward to, on any given day.

He wasn't actually alone: there were a couple of nubile teenage girls (in tortoise terms) in there with him who, while they weren't exactly the same as him, the last tortoise from Pinta Island, were similar enough for the keepers at the sanctuary to hope that he might be tempted to indulge in a bit of extinction-preventing how's-your-father. But no dice - and, more importantly, no eggs.

As well as being sad, it's kind of ironic, because it was when he visited Galapagos in 1835 that Darwin accumulated the data that led to his formulating his theory of evolution - because of the differences between similar species, notably finches, on the different islands. The tortoises were all different too, which became George's problem after all his fellow Pinta Island torts were either eaten by sailors (including Darwin himself!) who had a thing for slow-moving fast food, or died because the goats they introduced destroyed the ecosystem. It's an old, old story, and it's not the last time we'll hear it told. But it is the last of George. Shame.

Friday 22 June 2012

Sabrage a la Sofitel, Auckland

Sabrage: who knew there was a word for it? It's the act of removing the top (not just the cork) of a champagne bottle with a sabre, and the story goes that it was Napoleon (of course) who initiated the custom in the battlefield, saying that after a victory, you deserve champagne, and after a defeat, you need it. I saw it done last year in Macau with lots of smoke and mirrors - well, palaver, anyway - but today I discovered that it's actually very simple.

Gerard showed me, with no fuss, how to reposition the wire around the cork, rotate the bottle so a seam is upwards, and then just slide the back of the blade up to hit the neck. I have a broken shoulder, remember (still sore, about to get the decision on surgery, thanks for asking) and therefore no strength, but it didn't need any. Just consummate skill, which you can see from the photo I had every confidence that I possessed.

The top shears off cleanly, no slivers of glass anywhere, there's a brief fountain of foam, and then everyone gets stuck in drinking - nice dry Perrier-Jouet at the very classy Sofitel at the Viaduct in Auckland, just re-opened after a previous existence as a (spit) Westin. The lunch was delightful, light, fresh and tasty, and beautifully presented by the young chef Scott, recently poached (what else would you do with a chef?) from Huka Lodge. The sun was shining on the harbour and all the fancy boats moored just outside the restaurant, the company was good, and I'd just swiped the top off a champagne bottle with a sword. What more could you ask?
UPDATE: Your orthopaedic surgeon to say no operation required, that's what. Great day!

Monday 18 June 2012

Another First World problem

Indulging on a chilly winter's day in a Sunday afternoon movie on TV (The Adjustment Bureau: started intriguingly, got silly), I came across a bit of a disadvantage to travel. "That's the Rockefeller Centre," I couldn't help saying as we watched. "Look, that's the observation deck, there's Central Park, the Empire State, the Chrysler building." Etc, etc.

If you've been to the location of a movie or TV series, it's hard to suspend 100% of your disbelief any more. Even when you have the self-control not to irritate your companions with that tedious "Been there!" skiting, you can't help but note it to yourself, and remember what it was like to be there, what you did and saw, and so on. It's very distracting. How can you get fully caught up in the terror of the swirling Dementors in Harry Potter, say, when you're simultaneously thinking, "That's the Millennium Bridge! Walked over that"?
I wonder if directors think about that, when they're selecting locations? They clearly spend, or have their people spend, so much time and effort tracking down the perfect setting for the various scenes of the movie, like the South Island's scenic splendour for Lord of the Rings, for example - do they ever think about all the people in the audience nudging each other and whispering, "Glenorchy!" or "Kawarau River!" while a vital bit of action that took days to film flits by virtually unnoticed, story-wise? And what about all the others thinking, "Wow! Fabulous mountain/beach/lake, I'd love to go there"? NZ gives tax advantages to film-makers because the exposure is so valuable touristically - but isn't there a downside, artistically?

On the other hand, I do watch some movies just because of the locations: the latest Mission Impossible for instance, and the dreadful Stardust, so there's that. But generally, though having got about a bit makes me pay somewhat more attention and even empathise more with the local people, it's frequently the wrong kind of attention: all the detail about the recent Euros football fan riots in Warsaw, for instance, passed me by completely, distracted as I was by spotting the plastic palmtree and General de Gaulle's striding feet. It's a heavy burden.

Friday 15 June 2012

Two stolen children

So they decided that the dingo did it, after all. Just the 32 years to realise that it's perfectly possible for a hungry wild dog to help itself to an unattended baby. Tch. One of the more extraordinary things about the crazily protracted Azaria Chamberlain case is that until now there's been no official way for a coroner to record a death caused by an animal. In Australia! Where every year people are eaten by sharks and crocodiles, die in agony after being stung by box jellyfish and are bitten by any one of a good handful of highly venomous snake species. And that's not to mention the people who probably succumb to spiders and scorpions. Madness! Also denial, apparently.

I've actually seen only one wild dingo (Diddy Boy, above, was very far from that) - it was lurking at a distance in the middle of the day as we enjoyed a barbecue in the Red Centre. Poor thing, it was very thin and no doubt driven to distraction by the smell of grilled lamb, salmon and kangaroo. We'd just been to see Ellery Creek Big Hole (they're such a poetic people, the Aussies), a waterhole with the usual high red rocks, tumbling waterfall, trees - always so unexpected, in the Outback, and so welcome. It was the first time I'd met Rob Taylor, an Aboriginal chef (one of the Stolen Generation), and I was astonished to be served cauliflower and parmesan soup, a gourmet barbecue, and squidgy chocolate cake, in the middle of nowhere. A couple of years later, he cooked for me again, in the desert near Alice Springs, and the food was even better.

But back to the dingoes: they were once considered such a problem that in the 1880s state governments went to the very great trouble of erecting the Dog Fence, a wire netting barrier that stretches 5,600 kilometres from the Queensland coast almost all the way to the boundary of Western Australia, to keep dingoes in the north-west and away from the sheep to the south-east. How odd, to put so much effort into protecting sheep from a perceived risk and not to recognise, a hundred years later, that the same risk applied to something so much smaller and more vulnerable than a feisty Merino.

Friday 8 June 2012

Australia: tick?

Yesterday I went to a vineyard not so far from home for a function to launch a TV travel series about Australia presented by Judy Bailey, aka 'Mother of the nation'. She's a long-time newsreader shamefully discarded by TV1 when they thought her time had got a bit too long (no such qualms about her male co-reader, natch) who is hoping to have found a new niche on the box. She's too nice for me to carp about how celebrity-travellers like her are taking over magazine travel pages leaving nonentity freelancers like me scrabbling to find takers for our stories (oh, sorry, that was indeed a carp) - and from the edited-highlights video we were shown, she's a natural for the job.

As I watched, though, happily working my way through the tasting plates of crocodile kebabs, kangaroo carpaccio, stinging nettle cheese, tuna and macadamia, tiger prawns, oyster shots in myrtle tea, bush tomato lamingtons and other tasty exotica, I couldn't help but notice that I've, er, been there, done that, met him, kayaked down that river, stood on that peak, swum with those sealions. Judy, like so many Kiwis, had until now just done the usual Melbourne/Sydney/Gold Coast crescent, so she was blown away by the colours and ancient rocks and open spaces and turquoise sea and fabulous food of the rest of the country/continent, and her enthusiasm is exactly what Tourism Australia was wanting, and what they hope will inspire a rush of tourists across the Ditch.

But I've been doing exactly that for the last nine years, and in my dozen or so trips to Australia during that time, I reckon I've pretty much knocked the bastard off. Damn! I've sure had plenty of fun there, and been astonished and awed and amused, and done some amazing things. I'd really hate to think I've done it all.

Monday 4 June 2012

Diamond Lil

What more appropriate way to begin the Queen's Birthday holiday than by watching the coverage of the Royal Pageant on the Thames to commemorate her Diamond Jubilee? Except that the BBC's commentary was so obsequious, and the weather didn't co-operate - but 1000 assorted boats, five miles, four knots, swan-uppers, watermen, a floating belfry, a million-plus spectators, goodness knows how many Union flags and miles of bunting... it was an unmissable spectacle. (Let's gloss over the fact that I could easily have been there, just popping back over the Channel last week instead of flying home from Munich. I'm perverse like that: I got to England in 1977 a scant fortnight after the Silver Jubilee.)

It was good to see the waka making fine progress along the river with all the other rowed boats, though I felt for the bros with their bare chests; and I looked away when the leisure cruisers went past. The Queen seemed delighted to board the Britannia launch again to get out to the royal barge - it's normally kept now at Leith with the Britannia since its decommission. That was the first of today's connections: Her Maj and I go right back, you know. I've been growled at by her bodyguard at Badminton, drunk her tea at Buckingham Palace, trailed around Holyrood, got the goss on the royal parsimony at Sandringham (no silver sixpence in the staff Christmas pud!) - not to mention being born the year she was crowned, so she's been a fixture all my life. In the job 60 years, still going strong at 86 (she didn't sit down once today!) - impressive, and well worth celebrating with such a huge spectacle.

It was fun to see Joey from War Horse prancing on top of the National Theatre - I went to see the play last month and it was brilliant (it's now on also on Broadway). I was interested too to see Tower Bridge with its bascules (bascules!) raised right to the top as her barge approached at the end. I went under it myself just last month, on a ferry along the Thames, gawping at all the sights old and new - like The Shard, almost complete (and already explored by an urban fox right up to the 72nd floor). It's a must-do, such a good way to view that great city, and  the river is always busy - though never as chokka, and as colourful despite the dreary weather, as it was during the pageant today.


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