Tuesday 31 July 2012

POWs, penguins and P/Os

Again with the coincidences. Here I am, boring restaurant story done and dusted, busily researching the next one about Stalag Luft III, when what do I see in today's paper but a report about the discovery in Fremantle, WA (where I've been) of the grave of one of the Great Escapers, S/L Leonard Trent, VC. [That's Squadron Leader, to you civvies - I'm down with all these abbreviations now: G/C, F/L, S/L... and P/O like my father - Pilot Officer.] I've just been reading about how Trent had got out of the tunnel and crawled through the snow into the trees (a triangulation error meant the tunnel surfaced 10m short of the treeline) when the guard discovered the tunnel and the game was up. He surrendered straight away, wise man.

One of those who got away was another New Zealander, Johnny Pohe, a Maori, who was in the same room as Dad. He was caught a few days later. Just 22 years old, he was murdered by the Gestapo on Hitler's orders, one of the 50 who were made an example of, in contravention of the Geneva Convention. Though only 3 made it safely home, the escape succeeded in its prime objective which was to disrupt the war effort - and infuriated Hitler, who wanted all 76 escapers shot. Surprisingly, it was Goering who persuaded him to moderate that; our guide at the SL3 museum in Zagan told us that actually he got Hitler to agree to 50% of the escapers shot, but somewhere along the line the % got lost - and so an extra 12 men died.

I also learned yesterday, poking through my father's stuff and listening to a recorded interview with my nephew Scott, that Dad not only worked on magnetising razor blades for compass needles, but also did his bit as a Duty Pilot look-out and as a penguin scattering sand from bags down his trousers, as well as taking stints pumping air through the klim-tin pipe in the tunnel - very hard work, that was. And as well as all that activity in the North Compound, when he was in the East Compound earlier, being big and strong, he was one of the men who carried out the vaulting horse that concealed a tunnel being dug there in plain view of the guards: the famous Wooden Horse. It was quite an achievement, to carry it as though it was light, when it was concealing one, sometimes two men, plus all the sand they'd excavated.

I do so wish Dad were still alive, so I could talk to him about all this. Or even, just talk to him.

Sunday 22 July 2012


I'm doing something a bit different today: still writing (and not tempted to be doing anything else, on this wet, cold and windy day) but this time for a glossy magazine about restaurants in Queenstown, most of which I haven't been to. When I go to Queenstown, it's to be outside doing stuff, like tramping or, last time, ziplining, luge-ing, Segwaying and throwing myself off a cliff - which, fortunately since my visit, you can now do by sitting on a slide and shooting off the platform so you hurtle into empty space that much faster. What I don't do is swan about from cafe to bar to restaurant, eating duck and venison and oysters and lamb.

More fool me. Though I'm not much enjoying the process of researching these places and writing them up - what I normally do is write about personal experiences - it's become, despite my early resistance, kind of fascinating in the most masochistic way to delve deep into the menus of these restaurants, invariably headed by chefs full of enthusiasm for fresh local ingredients, decide what I would choose if I were actually seated at a table there, and then source mouth-watering photos of those dishes.

I have eaten at a couple of these places - Eichardt's, the Hilton, the Cow - and enjoyed myself there; but I've missed out on so much else. Damn! Next time, maybe. I wonder if I could wangle freebies retrospectively?

Saturday 21 July 2012

Slash, and burn

I was just doing some coarse gardening, hacking down giant canna lilies with a machete (using my right arm! Still can't salute Hitler, but it's much improved nonetheless, thanks to John at Pure Physio cheerfully hurting me for half an hour on Tuesdays. Thanks for asking, by the way). It wasn't a major project, but I've been doing so much sitting on the sofa for the last six weeks, writing stories, that it was a bit of a shock to the system and I was sort of regretting having started when I remembered Mauritius.

Being driven around that interesting and lovely island, we spent much of the time hemmed in by sugar-cane plantations, the canes up to 5 metres high. It seems to be a year-round crop, so it was at all stages of growth, including being topped by fluffy white flowers, as well as being harvested. By hand. By women. With machetes. What a hard job! In that humid heat, dressed modestly - and practically, against the sun and insects (but fortunately not snakes) - in hats, long sleeves and skirts, with thick rubber gloves. They must have been so hot, hacking away at those tough canes, much harder than the soft stalks I was slicing off.

And then I remembered the other women we saw, at the salt works, dressed in sacking capes with two 20 kilogram baskets of salt on their heads, filing along the narrow paths between the evaporation ponds. Horrible job - it made the ladies we saw thigh-deep in a river doing their laundry look to be having fun, in comparison. And how about the woman I saw in India, shaping fresh cow-manure patties with her bare hands to dry in the sun for fuel? That's a smell she could never wash off, I bet. And the stocky old lady herding alpacas in the dry and empty hinterland of Peru, all alone, all day, mechanically spinning as she followed them; and the young women crouched behind stalls in dimly-lit market places in Cusco, trying to sell exactly the same goods as everyone else...

I don't want to make them into some trite object lesson - they're earning honest livings, after all - but it is too easy to forget how cushy my life is; so I was pleased today to remember those women, and respect them.

Friday 13 July 2012


My new passport arrived today, so my old faithful has now ceased to be, after 10 years and goodness knows how many air-miles and some sea- and rail-miles too. I was once anal enough to work out the distance covered in flights for one year, but ten is too much even for me. I'm not beyond counting up journeys, though, and here's the tally: New Caledonia, Fiji, Malaysia, Thailand, Brazil, Argentina, Mauritius, Reunion Island, India, Macau, China, Canada, Denmark and the Netherlands once each; Peru, Chile, Tahiti, France, United Arab Emirates, Hong Kong and the Cook Islands twice each; England three times; the US five times; and Australia just the 23 visits. I have friends who would scoff at such a pathetic total, but I'm pretty satisfied, on the whole; though it is disappointing to have nine whole pages totally unstamped.

That's more than 100 flights overall: plus a lot of standing in airport queues wishing I'd invented those retractable barriers, waiting at luggage carousels wondering which bit of my suitcase has broken off this time; watching airplane safety videos showing me how to fasten a seatbelt (Air NZ is far and away the most entertaining, even if sometimes toe-curling); and having the sniffer poked inside my hand-luggage - I almost never set off the metal detector, but I'm always getting picked for the explosives test. I wonder how many bottles of Lancome's Miracle I've accounted for, with a couple of squirts at every Duty Free? How many airplane meals eaten? How many actually enjoyed? How many movies watched?

But of course the passport's not just to do with the getting there and back again: it's really all about the bits in between - and what brilliant places they have been. Mostly. I wouldn't go back to Macau, or rush to re-visit Hong Kong or China; New Caledonia isn't calling to me either, and nor are Fiji or Tahiti. I don't think I need to go back to Mauritius or Reunion, lovely though they are. But everywhere else, I'd happily go again - England is a given, of course, and the US: and Australia is such a constant that it doesn't really enter the discussion. But those South American countries still have so much to explore; and Asia is so varied and colourful; and Europe? Well, of course..

I'm going to the Cooks again later this year: they'll do for Pacific Islands, for me. They'll be the first stamp in the new passport - I wonder what others there will be? I know, sniff, that I'm not going to get as many stamps from now on - I saw that already, travelling disconcertingly freely through the EU last month - because apart from anything else I'll be using the Smart Gate here and in Oz; but I do hope I get some African ones this time.

Sunday 8 July 2012

Bridging moan

Although Auckland has never been half-hearted when it comes to rain, the city outdid itself a couple of days ago, when we had a downpour that was both startlingly torrential and unusually lengthy. There were flash floods all over the place, and here all the guttering on the house overflowed, naturally; but the real drama was happening in the back garden, where an open storm-water drain runs through the hen-run. Where our privileged neighbour's underground pipe debouches into our garden, it was spectacular: torrents of water raging out, scouring the stream-bed even deeper and picking up so much debris that when it hit the wire mesh fence at the bottom corner, it pushed a big hole underneath. 

I haven't seen that much water since I was at, cough, Iguassu Falls a few months ago. Yes, slightly tenuous connection, but it's just a matter of scale. Anyway, Iguassu is totally over the top, spectacle-wise: even standing there looking at it, it's hard to get your head around that much water, 1.5 million litres per second thundering over the 2.7 kilometre length of the Falls. Even more astonishing, in a way, were the hundreds of tourists like me who were standing, quite at our ease, on walkways built literally on the very edge of the falls, right above the 60-80 metre drop to the churning foam below. Especially since, on our way to this point on the Argentinian side, we'd passed the foundation stones of a previous walkway that had been swept away in a flood. Never underestimate the peace of mind afforded by a lack of imagination.

Cave Creek did pass through my mind, though: a terrible event on the West Coast in 1995 when 14 young people died when a viewing platform over a chasm collapsed and fell 30 metres to the bottom. The enquiry found that the platform hadn't been properly secured, there was a huge scandal, and ever since then every Dept of Conservation structure has been inspected and plastered with warning signs - inevitably, over-correcting. So now, all the bridges in the bush are allowed to have only restricted numbers on them at any one time, no matter how strongly they've been built. It's silly, but I saw it on the Hollyford Track, on all the sturdy wire swing bridges we had to queue to cross; and I've seen it in the Waioeka Gorge between Gisborne and Opotiki, where there's an old wooden bridge that's immense, built of thick timber and strung with huge cables, with a bossy yellow sign on it saying that no more than 10 people should be on it at any one time. Pft.


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