Wednesday 29 August 2012

From both sides now

Six ear-pops and 124 floors up from the ground, this is part of the view from the world's tallest building (currently - Saudi Arabia is closing in on that claim). The fountain pond is virtually the only splash (ha ha) of colour in the whole scene, everything else being concrete or sand. Well, there is a surprising amount of green too, especially since it's all planted and artificially irrigated - but mainly it's the expanses of empty sand, both within the city and all around it, that dominates the view. It's a pretty stunning demonstration of how busy they've been here making something out of nothing.

The whole place is artificial, and despite the miles of manicured gardens, trimmed hedges and avenues of date palms, life here takes place indoors for the most part - well, with summer temperatures of 50 degrees, how else would you live? The Emirates man we dined with tonight talked about the summer the way we do winter: "It seemed such a long summer this year, with the kids cooped up inside the house." He took us back to the Dubai Mall to eat at a restaurant nearby, in the block connected by the bridge in the photo to the mall on the left. It was all very pretty, floodlit and with fairy lights twined all around the palm trunks, reflecting in the ponds - and throughout the evening, at half-hour intervals, the fountains perform to music, swirling and shooting up high in a very entertaining manner. And of course, it was very, very warm, even in the dark.

Today we did shopping: or rather, saw what shopping could be done here, which is a major industry. There was a cliche Aladdin's Cave of a warehouse market with dimly-lit narrow aisles crammed with handicrafts not just from here but from 27 countries - life-sized wooden camels, pretty glass lanterns, Santa Claus carvings, jewellery boxes, pashminas, carpets and framed scorpions and bats. Oh, and a diver's helmet and a pair of giant wooden clogs. Bizarre. And at the other end of the scale, fabulously expensive and occasionally fabulous-looking embroidered wall-hangings with gold, silver and jewels, silk carpets, huge copper tea pots, inlaid marble table tops, furniture made from camel bone... Kind of interesting, but easy to resist, though apparently most people drool over the variety and the prices. Meh. I'd rather have spent the morning in the desert being shown how to fly a falcon. Yes, the actual bird. Next time?

185 cheers

One day, when Christchurch is rebuilt, there will be a proper memorial for the 185 people who died on 22 February - but in the meantime, there's this. On an empty corner section owned by the Oxford Terrace Baptist Church, artist Pete Majendie has created an installation of 185 white-painted chairs, all different, on an 185 square metre expanse of fine new grass surrounded by scabby patches of liquefaction.

It's not a new idea, to use chairs to commemorate the dead - in Krakow earlier this year I saw another chair memorial in the Jewish Quarter - but it's very effective symbolism and hard to look at without a rush of emotion. Pete was there when I was visiting, and told me that the chairs were freely given by all sorts of people and businesses, and that each one was painted, twice, by hand - "It didn't seem right, to spray them. Hand-painting allowed more time to think."

It was only meant to be there for 2 weeks, but that was 6 months ago, and visitors have filled 7 notebooks with comments in that time, so it's clearly serving a need. One woman, Pete said, spent ages walking around the chairs. I had thought that mourners would find one chair to symbolise the person they lost, but this lady, whose son died, found a whole series, from a baby basket, to a high chair, to a little primary school one, all the way up to an office chair and an armchair like the one he'd sit in at night - his whole life, told in chairs. Sad.

Monday 27 August 2012

Great step

Arriving back at Auckland Airport yesterday, as we taxied off the runway I saw that the huge flag beyond the buildings was at half-mast, and assumed it was because Neil Armstrong has died. It certainly should be. What an achievement that was - not just Armstrong's of course, but of a huge team of people working with what now seem ludicrously low-tech tools. To have landed a man on the moon - and, I think, even more importantly, to have got him home again afterwards - is the most amazing, incredible and inspiring achievement. And then to have done it again and again, and developed the Shuttle, and gone on to put a golf cart on Mars recently - well done, NASA, really.

I liked that Armstrong was so modest. If he'd been self-aggrandising, it would have taken a bit of the shine off the achievement - though really, if anyone should be allowed to puff themselves up, it's the first man on the moon. I remember when it happened: it was during the school day and the entire school population, 1100 girls plus staff, was crammed into the Hall, below, us sitting on the floor because there was no room for the benches. Were we watching it on TV, you ask? Ha! No way, no how, not in 1969. No, what we were actually doing was listening to it ON THE RADIO.

To be brutally honest, it was a long session, and uncomfortable on the hard floor, and the sound, even for those lucky to be near the speakers, was fuzzy and unclear, so despite ringing calls from the stage to urge us to remember this historic moment, there was rather more fidgeting and talking than there should have been and, quite frankly, relief when we were released again afterwards. But honour to the achievement, and to Neil Armstrong. Great stuff.

Saturday 25 August 2012

Red and bleak

On Tuesday, 22 February, 2011, the Jubilee Clock stopped at 12.51, the moment when Christchurch history split in two. They'd recently restored the clock and tower, erected for Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897, and the gold is still shiny and the stained glass is pretty with the sun shining through it. It was designed by Benjamin Mountfort, who was behind most of the city's best-loved Gothic Revival buildings, including the Museum, what's now the Arts Centre, and of course the Cathedral. The Museum was earthquake-strengthened a while back and came through the shakes pretty well, but most of his other work now looks very sad.

I did three tours today: the first, on an agreeably comfortable bicycle, was through Hagley Park to Dean's Bush and Mona Vale - such a cushy ride, I'd forgotten how easy it is to cycle around a completely flat city, which is also now so bike-friendly. The Saturday market outside the closed Deans homestead is really good, and more popular with the locals than it's ever been because, I was told, "it's outside". On a lovely sunny morning, it was a perfect re-introduction to the city's loveliest features, which are still there and still beautiful.

Then, on the new Red Bus Red Zone tour, the mood was completely changed by the safety warnings at the start ("You might not survive") and the close-up looks at the shattered centre, after passing through checkpoints manned by soldiers. The CBD is probably less dramatic than in the early days when the streets were still lined with rubble, but even now when most of that's been cleared, it's shocking to see the empty spaces. There are facades propped up with shipping containers with nothing behind, cleared spaces swirling with dust, abandoned buildings with USAR codes spray-painted on the doors reporting when they'd been searched for survivors, and lots of piles of shattered brick and concrete where diggers are busy with scoops.

We weren't able to get out of the bus, but when I came back on my very enjoyable Segway tour, though we couldn't get into the Red Zone, we could go right along the fences outside it and get close to the Cathedral. The tower is nearly all gone now, just a stump left - the cross from the top of the spire is in the Museum, where you can actually touch it, which is kind of odd - and the rose window has disappeared, battered into smithereens in the June 13 quake by the metal supports put there to protect it after February. The Cathedral's future is still in doubt, because the (Canadian) bishop thinks it's too expensive to save and has instead committed $4 million to a temporary cardboard substitute; but there's a strong movement pressing for its restoration. I hope they succeed. It was so sad to see it like this:
instead of like this:

Friday 24 August 2012


Five years I spent in this building, being educated, interested, bored, amused, stimulated and stultified, learning so much stuff I still use and possibly even more that I don't (pretty much the whole of maths, PE and art), having fun, passing notes, eating my sandwiches, writing lines, having chalk thrown at me, being told once that I was good at whatever I chose to do (thanks, Miss Cree, and sorry about that dig about maths) and also by my School Cert English teacher that, despite my getting 95% in the national exams, she hoped I didn't think I was some sort of genius (yeah, and thanks for that, Mrs Hardy). Five years in that solid building with the grand staircase and high windows and funny-shaped corner rooms where the wings branched off, allowing Miss Oliver once to fill each of the five corners with a miscreant. And now there's nothing there. Nothing! Just a view across neatly-trimmed grass to the Hall, which you could never have seen from this point while I was at Avonside Girls' High.
I'm back in Christchurch for the weekend, my first visit since the February 22 earthquake last year, and the others that followed it. The last time I was here was a couple of months after the September one in 2010, when everyone thought that they'd dodged a bullet, and the city was shaken and a bit cracked but generally ok. Nobody died. Who knew the big one was still to come?

The city's full of empty spaces that have similar meaning for other people - buildings that were part of their lives and which now are gone, nothing remaining. Tomorrow I'm doing a set of tours for a story, inside the Red Zone that's still fenced off, and around the confusing jumble of closed roads hemmed in with cyclone fencing and orange cones, past stacks of shipping containers holding up tottering walls, piles of rubble with diggers on top, huge cranes swivelling around, some constructing but most of them still demolishing, bit by bit, the personal histories of so many Christchurch people.

Investigative journalist required

The plot thickens. When I did some sums, gasped, and emailed Chris in Belgium that the buyer who beat him to the photo had within an hour spent 1776 euros in all on photos from this vendor, he emailed back saying, "If it was Sudek13, then you've no chance."

Sudek13, it's easy to find by googling, is an immensely rich Canadian with a team who trawl eBay for militaria, artworks, models and who knows what else, always using a sniper to swoop in at the last second to nab the item. Nothing wrong with sniping, of course, I've done it myself - what's got them all chattering out there though is that he has so much money to throw at the bids that no-one else has a chance - and then, having bought the goods, they disappear.

Chris, after some auction battles with Sudek13, had a man show up at his door with pocketfuls of cash offering to buy his entire collection. This same minion, he told me, when Chris came across him later, had deserted Sudek13, having discovered that he is buying up all this stuff in some sort of tax-avoidance deal with the Canadian government, which is storing all these items - of great public interest, obviously - away in some facility where no-one has access to them.

It's all very interesting, curious and a bit sinister, and my having got to this point feels like the opening scenes of a Matt Damon thriller - or at least a long piece in the Washington Post. Where are Woodward and Bernstein when you need them?

(But at least Chris has located another photo of the plane, bought by someone else who may be less reclusive. So the story continues...)

Thursday 23 August 2012

eBay goom

At the risk of overdoing the subject of my father's wartime exploits, here is another photo of his ditched plane, clearly showing the MK-U call sign - obviously taken before the others, before the Germans towed it out of the water. It's become a bit of a quest, not to say obsession, to track down that other photo to see if I can get permission to publish it in North & South. Who liked my story so much, by the way, that they asked if I could make it a bit longer. How often does that happen?

I do so love that this project has tuned into something so international. This latest photo has been sent to me from Daniel in France, who's compiling the ABSA website to record all that he can about every WW2 plane crash in Brittany during the war - aircraft details, crew, their personal details, information from people on the ground, photos... It's rather a heart-warming thing that he's doing, preserving the stories so that they're not lost, and nor are the memories of the people involved. Then there's Jonathan in England, who's helping him locate the descendants of some of the crews, and who is fortunately much cleverer on the internet than I am.

On my own, blundering around eBay, I located Christiaan in Belgium who had tried to buy the photos, but was outbid in the closing seconds by another person whose details he not unnaturally couldn't remember. I settled in to plough even further through the German vendor's old listings, looking for a description that sounded right in amongst all the photos, medals, helmets and other military miscellany that had been bought by people leaving feedback in German, French, Spanish, English and goodness knows what other languages. Meantime, Jonathan located the item number on a forum - and how brilliant was that - which allowed me to go almost straight to the buyer. Who's in Canada. Only where Dad was born, and where he had a layover en route to Europe in 1941, in Nova Scotia - which is somewhere I've been hankering to go for a while now, mainly because I don't know (or thought I didn't till I got into researching Dad's story) anyone who's been there. Sigh. Again with the coincidences. Fingers crossed now that he gets in touch.

Sunday 19 August 2012

The Big Kiwifruit

Having decided that with our slow-roasted pork belly tonight, we would have roast beetroot and parsnip puree, I sat down to write an East Cape story. In preparation, I read through my notebook from our trip to Gisborne almost exactly a year ago and discovered that on the first night there we went to USSCo for dinner, where I had slow-roasted pork belly, roast beetroot and parsnip puree. This sort of thing is happening so often now that I don't know why I'm bothering to mention it any more.

I have been toying with the idea of writing about how much like New York Gisborne is. No, really  - well, in an offensive, big-city mocking kind of way, but sandwiched between a pseudo-genuine overlay of sincerity and an actually honest underlay of real admiration for what a liveable little city it truly is. For a start, you can eat so well: USSCo is really good, and so is/are the Fettuccine Brothers, and the pizzas at Winston's Bar at the Poverty Bay Club are absolutely the best - and there are plenty of others we didn't get to. We stayed in an apartment - very NY - and walked everywhere at night. NY's safe to walk around at night because of all the people and police on the streets, and Gisborne's safe too because, er, there are no other people on the street after dark.

There are two cinemas - maybe not quite Broadway, but the Dome especially is wonderful, with three Tiffany stained glass domes on the ceiling, and you sit on beanbags, everyone gets to vote beforehand on whether they want an interval, and if it's chilly you're given a rug ("Would you like a blanky?"). And there's bar service - and the movies are art-house. Of course it helped that what we saw there was Bill Cunningham. And where NY has the Empire State, Gisborne has its art deco Town Clock; for Central Park there's Kaiti Hill; it also has rivers around it, and a busy port. Instead of Brooklyn Bridge, there's the Waimata River rail bridge that you can walk over - that's a thrill. For Chinatown and Little Italy there are the Kwangchow Chinese Takeaway and Fettuccine Bros, for Fifth Avenue there's Gladstone Road... No Starbucks, though - there is a shop called Perfect Roast, but it sells, um, roasts. Which reminds me, must go and check on my crackling.

UPDATE: Seeing as this morning there's a report in the paper about how the good citizens of Gisborne are up in arms about the growing tendency of some people there to go to the supermarket, to the ATM and to buy takeaways in their pjs, in the middle of the day, I'm feeling maybe this is a story I'm not going to be writing after all.

Saturday 18 August 2012

A short lesson on semantics

And, once again, Bruce is back. This time it's his fifth summer with us in our pond, and every spring I'm more delighted to see him again - and not just because it means winter's over at last. Each time I wonder where he's been hibernating - under the soil or the water, in the middle of some plant, or even some distance away - and how old he is and how much longer we're likely to enjoy seeing him sunning himself on the edge of the pond, throat throbbing, and hearing him croak away at all hours of the day and night. It's sad to think all that calling will be in vain again as, after 5 years, if there were any other frogs in the vicinity they would surely have found their way to Bruce.

It's Bruce, of course, because he's an Aussie, a green and golden bell frog, one of the many unofficial imports we have here, like spur-winged plovers, rosella parrots and white-tailed spiders - some more welcome than others. Let's not even mention possums (and they were deliberately introduced). Many of them came under their own steam, which is impressive, and others were helped by people no doubt dissatisfied with the unassumingly muted colours and unremarkable song of the natives compared with the rowdy and gaudy Aussies (I'm making no sneaky national generalisations here - if you want to, I couldn't possibly comment).

There are fewer than I used to think, before I learned the difference between native and endemic - having always heard the silvereye, for example, called a native, I was confused to see it in Australia, and wondered in which country it was introduced. Neither, it turns out: it's native to both countries, but endemic in neither. The kiwi, though, is endemic here - as well as a native, of course. Glad to have cleared that up for you. Now I must go and replace that apple.

Friday 17 August 2012

Please don't say cheese, Graham

This man rarely smiles - and he should keep it that way. This is just scary. I wouldn't buy his book and risk getting a grimace like that stuck in my brain every time I picked it up. Not that I would - buy it, that is. Couldn't imagine anything worse than ploughing through a book about rugby. Augh! I'd rather poke toothpicks into my tearducts.

He's the retired coach of the All Blacks, and I bumped into him once: he was leaving the lighthouse at Cape Naturaliste in Western Australia just as I was arriving. It was a beautiful day, the sea was sparkling, there were kangaroos in the scrub around the pretty white lighthouse - and yet he was scowling, as usual. Perhaps he was fed up because he hadn't seen a whale from the top. We did, shiny black humpbacks in the waves. There was a woman in our group who had never seen a whale and thought their existence was some sort of conspiracy - so when she finally laid eyes on some, we were expecting a blip of joy, at least. Not a bit of it: "Is that all?" she said. "No lifting their tails up?" I reckon she was a Henry too, at heart.

But I do have the All Blacks to thank for selling a story today, about Buenos Aires, where I had noted, purely mercenarily, they are playing later next month - so that's a good hook to hang a story from. It's actually hard to imagine (though how would I know) much fuss being made in that city about rugby - football is the passion there, and everyone rabidly supports either Boca Juniors or River Plate. Even Coca Cola has had to bow down before their intense rivalry: their ads on the hoardings around the Boca Juniors stadium are black and white, because red and white are the River Plate colours. The stadium is in La Boca, the dodgy but colourful area where the tango is meant to have started, so few tourists can get away without being nabbed by posers for photos. This is Peter, who was on the trip with me, having some fun (and Allen took the photo).

Tuesday 14 August 2012


Tongariro hasn't spat the dummy again - yet; but White Island has been having hissy fits for months, and is particularly unwelcoming at the moment, with ash now featuring in the constant billowing clouds of sulphurous steam. Also, there are rafts of pumice stones floating downstream of the Kermadecs, so they've stirred into underwater activity too. These volcanoes are all on a line, along the edge of the same plate that our Volcanic Plateau sits on. Nothing to worry about, say the scientists airily.

You can go out to White Island - it takes about an hour and a half by launch from Whakatane - and do a tour, kitted up with hard hat and, yes, gas mask. They're even running the tours right now: "It's a great time to see White Island at a higher level of activity," the website claims cheerfully, but I don't know that I'd be keen. That place has killed people before now (not tourists - so far) and evidently you're told not to walk too close to the person in front, presumably so you don't break through the crust. I've been to Rotorua enough times to be aware of how thin the layer can be between us and the boiling water or mud - but to risk dropping into a volcano? Not so appealing, really.

When I was on Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean, our guide took us to the site of a lava flow from 2007: a kilometre-wide swathe of black basalt cutting dramatically through the jungle, all the way from the volcano right down to the sea, where it was apparently pretty spectacular when the lava hit the water. Philippe took us up onto the lava-flow and even through my shoes I could feel the warmth, which was unnerving enough. Then he poked some dry sticks he'd brought into a hole and within a minute they'd caught fire - that was more than four years after the eruption. Liz and I skedaddled out of there pretty fast then, despite the Gallic mockery.

In the nearby village there was a very striking sight: a church on the edge of the lava flow. It had come to the back of the building, but then stopped, cupped right around the church but without doing any worse damage than blackening the window sills. Notre Dame des Laves, it's called now - also, a miracle. Almost enough to make you believe in God.

Monday 13 August 2012

Referencing Rudyard*

That's it, then. The Stalag Luft 3 story's written and sent, and it's on to the next thing now. I had thought that 3000 words was going to be luxuriously expansive, but in the end I had to leave out so much: the horrible fates of the Resistance fighters, the cruel Long March before liberation, the desperately sad epilogue concerning Dad's youngest brother Mike (and if you're interested in hearing that story, *O Best Beloved, you'll have to ask for it in the comments). Probably though, there's only so much tragedy a reader can be expected to take in with their cup of coffee.

Just before I leave the subject - the helpful man who located those amazing photos of the plane for me also sent some papers that we didn't have, one of them a photocopy of a Top Secret document, which was rather exciting. It was the 'General Questionnaire for British/American Ex-Prisoners of War' and one of the sections Dad had to fill in was 'Did you suffer from any serious illnesses while a P/W?'

His answer included: 'Suffered colds due to defective nose. Nose hit badly in football at Sagan in 1942.' He did have a largish schnoz, and it's not surprising that it got in the way of a football - but I do think it's quite funny that I travelled to Stalag Luft 3 using business class aeroplanes, luxury river boats and first class trains, but walked around the compound with my arm in a sling, still in considerable pain from my dislocated shoulder. Meanwhile, Dad crash-landed in the sea, was on the run for 6 weeks, a guest of the Gestapo for 3 months and a prisoner of war for over three years, and all he got was some sniffles and a bruised nose. (Not that I'm complaining, of course.)

By the way, that form also has a section headed 'ESCAPES attempted: Did you make any attempted or partly successful escapes? (Give details of each attempt separately, stating where, when, method employed, names of your companions, where and when recaptured and by whom. Were you physically fit? What happened to your companions?)' And after all that, a four-line space.

Thursday 9 August 2012

All hail to Google!

This is thrilling, honestly. A little idle, displacement-activity googling, and what do I find? Actual photos of my father's actual aeroplane - Blenheim IV Z6163 MK-U - sitting on the sand at Saint-Efflam on 29 September 1941. With accompanying Germans gazing about wondering what has become of the crew of three - Dad, his Canadian navigator and Irish gunner. Who are possibly right at that moment hiding in the attic of a hut in the woods nearby, eating hard-boiled eggs and drinking tea with brandy in it, brought by the wonderful Mme Leduc and her daughters.

They were just the first of a whole community of French people who helped Dad and the others to escape. Most of the people they had contact with were women, but there were men behind the scenes. They fed them, moved them between all sorts of hiding places, from a cave to a chateau, arranged false papers and passports, gave them clothes, and got them to Rennes and to Nantes. Dad said they seemed to enjoy the danger; but they paid for it. Most of them were caught later, the women sent to concentration camps where they died, no doubt horribly. Georges le Bonniec, leader of the escape network who escorted them all the way on the journey to Nantes, was executed in Cologne, where the Germans cut his head off with an axe. Dad was hugely grateful to them all. So am I.

The photos are classic. Look at those bent propellers, all the splashed-up sand, those ridiculous jodhpurs on the stout German, and his nasty high-peaked cap: it's the stuff of scores of war movies - except it's real, and it was my father's life, not some story.

Wednesday 8 August 2012

Lucky numbers

Though it's still cold and rainy, I noticed this morning that there's a light yellow rim around all the puddles - pine pollen, so spring can't be too far away. Still fully focused on Stalag Luft III, which was built in the middle of a coniferous forest, it made me wonder if Dad was glad to see the pollen too, knowing the hard winter must be coming to an end - or maybe he thought, "Another spring, and I'm still here." Probably both, but being the pragmatic sort, it would have been the end of winter that mattered more: Marek told us it gets down to around -15 to -20 in Zagan.

It was already pretty cold when Dad was captured in Nantes in November 1941. When the Germans burst into the flat where he and his sergeants were being hidden, he shot upstairs and laid low all day, creeping out at night when the coast seemed clear. He could have sneaked away but, lightly dressed, all he could think about was retrieving his greatcoat. It was comic-story stuff: he shinned up a drainpipe and in through a window to his room, where in the dark he trod on a Bakelite cup which woke the German soldier asleep in his bed. That winter, when he said, "I shivered for three solid months" (it was the coldest of the War), I bet he thought of that greatcoat often, shut in his solitary cell at Fresnes prison near Versailles, with ice on the walls and only a bowl of cabbage soup and a square of bread to eat once a day. Being a guest of the Gestapo really sucked.

The Luftwaffe were much better hosts - not that any of the airmen were tempted to stay, constantly trying to escape even as they were herded into the camp (like cats). I keep learning more stuff about the Great Escape: while we were celebrating her share of a Lotto First Division win last week, my sister said that Dad had told her once that his number, 129, wasn't the one he originally drew. He was afraid that, being tall and broad-shouldered, he might have trouble squeezing through the tunnel and cause a cave-in (two did happen that night) and hold up the whole operation, so he swapped his low number for a higher one. A book I've been reading, The Longest Tunnel by Alan Burgess, said that the compass-makers were amongst those in the draw for places 50 to 70 - so his original number could have made him one of the 76 who escaped. And, consequently, one of the 50 of those who were shot.

Tuesday 7 August 2012


I'm looking forward to the evening's TV news, to see the footage of Tongariro's eruption late last night, the mountain suddenly springing back to life after a 110-year doze. It was completely unexpected, so there would have been no media on the spot - but these days there's always someone with a camera whenever something happens, so there are bound to be pictures* of what a witness described on the radio as a "fist-shaped plume of cloud lit by fireworks as red-hot rocks were shot out, and by lightning". Spectacular. And so unexpected: Ruapehu, sure, it's always blowing its top. Or even Ngauruhoe, that classically-shaped volcano in the photo above, Mt Doom's stand-in in LOTR. But Tongariro? It's the least impressive of the three, by far, a low-level shapeless jumble. That's it on the far left.

I took the photo in February when the girls and I were in the National Park to climb to Ruapehu's rim, on a day of low swirling cloud that we emerged from to a clear blue sky, sparkling snow patches and a stunningly turquoise (and stinky) steaming lake in the crater. It was a much better day than the one several years earlier when the Firstborn and I did the Tongariro Crossing - now with Alpine added to its title in the hope of impressing on walkers the necessity of coming prepared. Properly taught, and obedient as ever, we did, with hats and gloves and longjohns and thermals in our packs, which we gladly put on when we left the sun down below and climbed up into the clouds. Plenty of people didn't, though - some idiots were doing the walk in street shoes with their lunches in plastic carrier bags. One woman slipped, broke her collarbone and had to be choppered off. It's a one-day walk, and very popular, but really shouldn't be underestimated.

The track passes between Tongariro and Ngauruhoe, crossing a couple of flat craters. Even without clear views - on a good day, we could have seen Mt Taranaki one way, the sea to the other - the scenery was dramatic: red and black and orange, bleak and barren, inhospitable and threatening. There was a strong, cold wind, making the climb around the precipitous edge of the top crater more exciting than I would have preferred, and wispy mist coming and going. There was nothing pretty, it was all raw and harsh and strong; but it was totally impressive, and in its way the weather was ideally suited to the volcanic setting. It'll be interesting to see how the mountain has changed after this eruption - which was accompanied by an hour-long point 2-3 earthquake, by the way. I do hope it hasn't stirred up any of Auckland's 49 volcanoes. That could be inconvenient...

*None! Astonishing. Dozy rural types down there, blundering out of bed and not grabbing their phones automatically. Wouldn't happen in the city.

Monday 6 August 2012

Merde, alors

How lucky is this? You've just lost your port engine to flak as you're on your way home from dropping four 250lb bombs on the U-boat pens at St Nazaire, you're losing height and there's no chance of making it back across the Channel. You don't want to risk a sea landing, because you know how risky they are, and you've yet to hear of anyone successfully getting the dinghy out of a Blenheim bomber. So you circle round, trying to distinguish land from sea on this pitch-dark moonless September night in 1941, and end up bringing the plane down in the bay of St Efflam in Brittany.

Look at this photo: it could be Weston-super-Mare, the sea is so shallow and goes out so far at low tide. Dad couldn't have planned it better. Or done a better job of landing, with no injuries to himself or his crew of two. "We got away with it," he told my nephew 50 years later, with typical understatement. The plane skimmed along the water, possibly on the bottom, and stopped without drama or damage in just a metre of water. They took the time to rip up all their maps and smash the instruments, and then waded ashore to hide in the woods, where in the morning they got help from a young girl walking her dog, and then a whole series of courageous women and members of the Resistance, some of whom later lost their lives because of it.

In 1991, I visited this bay with Dad, but it was a wasted opportunity: a crazy, spur-of-the-moment dash across northern France from Normandy where we were holidaying. It was a very long day of driving there and back again with a leaky baby on my lap and a twitchy toddler strapped in beside me. All we had time for was a look at the beach and a flit through the town before we had to leave again. Madness. We should have planned it, stayed there, met some of the people, done it properly; and I should have taken notes, so that now I could remember what Dad said about it all. Damn.

Sunday 5 August 2012


Hooray! After years of my stuff wrapping fish and chips the next day, I've got between hard covers. Well, soft - it's a paperback, to be launched on Wednesday - but it's a proper book, and I'm in it. Twice, in fact, although it's not immediately apparent. This is a selection of winning writing from the first 20 years of the Travcom Awards, all good stuff, and two of my stories were chosen although, as they're both about Scotland, they've been lumped together with a row of Scotch thistles in between the first, about Edinburgh, and the second, about Glasgow.

The title has unfortunate echoes of a turgid Australian soap opera, but it fits the contents perfectly, as there are stories about New Zealand as well as the rest of the world; and the cover image is a nod to how Kiwis go everywhere. It also reminds me of a photo I took on my exciting first trip to New York:
The Glasgow story in here is the one that won me Travel Writer of the Year in 2009; in a pleasing synchronicity, the only other time I've appeared in an anthology Crest to Crest - several years ago, was with my first proper travel story which appeared in North & South magazine and launched me on my current career - which I insist is now a proper job despite the fact that most of the time I do it sitting on the sofa book-ended by cats. That story was about horse-trekking in the Canterbury high country when I was a kid. Canterbury, Glasgow - home, and away. Neat, huh?

Saturday 4 August 2012

Sic transit gaudium mundi

I was looking for something else today, to go with a post about the Olympics. Sport is, of course, not my thing, but I couldn't resist the chance to skite about our golden hour last night, when New Zealand won two gold medals in the rowing, to go with the previous day's one (which, ahem, puts NZ at the TOP of the league table for medals per head of population - with the US and China at the bottom). Anyway, I came across this photo from 1983.

Apart from being a bit smug that I wore that Puffa jacket the other day (ok, so it's a smidge too snug around the hips when zipped, but still) I'm mainly astonished to remember that back then we were allowed to walk along the top of the Pont du Gard like this. Totally unsecured - I think we had to climb a ladder out of the water channel that runs along the top - and totally without waivers or disclaimers of any sort. To be honest, I was a bit astonished then, too. They stopped people doing it in 1995, I learned when I was back there in April; so I'm glad I got to do it. OSH and its various international permutations have a lot to answer for, in sucking the excitement out of life. It certainly was a thrill back then, which it wasn't when I revisited and had to peer through a wire barrier at the water conduit.

It's still impressive, though: built 2000 years ago to carry water 50kms to Nimes - they did think big, those Romans. It took only 15 years to build the whole aqueduct through the hills from the spring, of which a mere 5 years were spent building the Pont du Gard over the Gardon River. It's 48m high and 274m long, and it was mostly done without mortar, the stones cut and fitted together with almost Inca-like precision. It's a marvel. Go and see it if you get the chance. You won't be sorry - even if you can't walk along the top of it any more.


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