Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013: mega!

Last day of the year, and newspapers around the world are full of what I think should be called their Smiling Dead Spreads: a chequerboard of cheerful faces that would probably have been smiling somewhat less chirpily had the subjects foreseen the last use of that photo. Fortunately, I have no candidates for a similar spread of my own - even the old cat made it through another year - so, this New Year's Eve, I'm going for an overall theme.
Last year was crazy for travel: 2013 was much more restrained - but it was quality stuff, and there was a link between the overseas trips that is, in every sense, mega. The Silversea cruise along the Alaskan coast was superb and to be thoroughly recommended for its comfort and service; the scenery was magnificent, the weather fortunately brilliant and the towns we called at quirky and colourful. But it was the animals that stole the show: the bears, the whales, the sea-otters. We saw so many of them, but they were a thrill to encounter, each one. And the first two species are, literally, megafauna.
Africa, though, has megafauna er, for Africa. Having grown up in a land of birds learning my letters from an alphabet that, tantalisingly, began with A for ape and ended with Z for zebra, it was truly a glorious treat finally to be in the home of elephant, hippo, giraffe, lion, leopard, cheetah, buffalo and, of course, rhinoceros. To see all of those animals just wandering around, loose, as though they lived there, was immense; and to stand less than 30 metres away from a black rhino, as a species treading the earth for some 50 million years, was awesome in its truest sense. So though there were trips around New Zealand too, with wild kiwi, and dolphins and albatross; and tramping and horse-riding and cycling, it was Africa that stole the show this year, closely followed by Alaska. Because of the animals. More, please?

Sunday, December 15, 2013

China, again.

Bunnies. Soft, fluffy bunnies with floppy ears and big brown eyes. They're up there with pandas and kittens and polar bear cubs in the aww department. And yet, I learned today, angora rabbits - even softer and fluffier than your bog-standard bunny - are having their fur torn off every three months by workers in China to supply the demand by fashion houses in the UK and presumably elsewhere in the western world. Ripped out, by hand, while the rabbits scream, and are then shoved back, totally traumatised, into their little cages. According to SumOfUs, companies like H&M and Topshop have stopped stocking angora garments from this source, though Zara, to its shame, still sells them.

With China's long history of abuse of human rights, it maybe seems a bit trivial to bother about the rabbits. It's not as though there isn't plenty of horror in the clothing industry in many other countries as well; but I'm particularly attuned to Chinese abuse of animals, both direct and indirect. Of course there's the indisputable fact that China, closely followed by Vietnam, is the major market for rhino horn. It has been for a very long time, as a traditional medicine (odd, how the Chinese, so clever at so much, haven't sussed that keratin does nothing for fever or anything else. It's fingernail, for goodness sake!) - and now, with increased affluence, the demand is even greater. Having been to South Africa and been literally awed by seeing rhino in the wild - so immense, so ancient, so inoffensive - and meeting some of the people who risk their lives daily to protect them from the poachers, I'm thoroughly disgusted that in the 21st century this is still going on.

The rhino will all be gone in 10 years at this rate. And so, I read elsewhere yesterday, will the elephant, currently still in large numbers but being poached so much faster that they too are doomed. Again, so the Chinese demand for ivory can be sated. It's all about money, of course, all along the line from poacher to purchaser. But it's not just the greed that's so dismaying: it's the total disregard for animal rights that incenses me. When I was in China, I saw no wild birds, but plenty imprisoned in tiny, tiny cages - in Macau, I came across some left on the grass in a park, for the fresh air, I presumed, that I was really tempted to let fly free. But in Qingdao, even worse, I found a man selling baby goldfish sealed alive inside small water-filled plastic pouches attached to keyrings. As a symbol for Chinese (dis)regard for animals, I think that's an image even more powerful than a screaming rabbit.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Buen apetito!

Mmm, yes, I know what this reminds you of. Creepy, eh? But it's apparently a Mexican wrestling mask, and it was given to me at a special Roll Your Own Burrito session put on for some media people at Mad Mex, newly opened in Fort Street, in Auckland. Yes, there was tequila too - we started with a shot of the cheap stuff, 50% agave, plus salt and lime, and worked our way up through the mid-range liquor to the 100% agave which was much smoother and sippable. Though still throat-grabbingly strong, hack, hack.

But Mad Mex isn't about the drink (they're not licensed yet): it's the food that will be bringing people back and back again. Delicious! And really filling, once you've worked your way, Subway-style, through all the options of meat and salads and sauces. Regular punters don't get to roll their own, but we were given tuition (it's harder than it looks) in heating the tortilla "till it screams" and then adding the insides - for me, rice, pulled pork, black beans, sour cream, salsa, lettuce, guacamole, hot sauce. It makes a very substantial package once it's assembled. What's especially pleasing is that it's all healthy, fresh, authentic and ethically-produced food. But most people will just keep coming back because it tastes so good.

Things fell apart a bit (not our tightly-rolled burritos, though) after the tequila came out. Oddly - or perhaps not - the last time I was knocking back shots was in Vietnam last year, again with Kathy who organised yesterday's get-together. There, it's rice wine, pretty much tasteless fire-water that I wasn't so bothered about until I was introduced to the flavoured version - apricot is best - which led to a somewhat blurred experience but I believe the evening involved a thwarted art heist. It's probably just as well that I haven't been to Mexico. (But if you're offering, the answer's Yes!)

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Knowing me, knowing Norfolk

Today I went to see Alpha Papa with Steve Coogan. It's a lot of fun and I would have enjoyed it anyway, but it was an extra little treat that it was set in Norfolk, and I recognised the locations. That's something I've come to take for granted in so many American movies: New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston are all regularly on screen and going to those places for the first time was oddly disorientating (except not, the opposite, because they were so familiar). It applies too to London, of course. But with this movie it was the other way around, because I'd been there but never seen it on screen before.

Actually, who has? Norfolk, though it's an easy drive from London, is a rather neglected part of England, tourist-wise. Foreign tourist, that is - it's a popular enough seaside destination for the Brits. Why, even the Queen has a holiday home there, at Sandringham. But otherwise, it's really only known for Alan Partridge, who's fictional after all, and Stephen Fry who actually lives there. There are prettier bits of England - Norfolk is rather flat and marshy - but it has its own peculiar charms, and even though the weather was mostly dampish and the second half of my short stay there was rather blighted by having dislocated my shoulder, I liked it, and would have been pleased to have had more time there to poke around.

Norwich itself is an ancient city with a splendid cathedral, the market (above) is colourful and lively, it has quaint lanes and good restaurants, there's a very solid castle on a hill, and a river with swans. What more could you ask? It even has a dedicated teddy bear shop down a steep cobbled lane. And up on the coast there's Cromer, whose pier featured in the movie's climactic scene - a classic English seaside town with rows of colourful beach huts along its pebbly beach. I wouldn't be tempted to swim, though, even in the summer. That's the North Sea there. Never been called 'azure' in its life.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Nelson Mandela: black or white?

That's not such a stupid question. It's worth considering now that he is finally at rest, after such a long time with death hovering at his elbow (this photo of a life-size beaded statue of him was taken at Johannesburg airport way back in September, while he was at home elsewhere in the city after nearly dying in hospital). Not everybody in South Africa is a total fan, I was surprised to learn while I was there.

Although I wasn't living in New Zealand in 1981 when the Springbok rugby tour was on, it was well reported in England and I watched the news in astonishment, seeing my peaceful country torn in two with protests, riots and bloodshed. If I had been there, I would have been one of the protesters, marching against the Rugby Union's self-centred, tunnel-visioned, denialist and stubborn refusal to admit that inviting the Springboks to tour was to support apartheid. I would have been cheering when the Hamilton game was cancelled. And I would have been amongst those chanting "Mandela! Mandela!"

When he was released from prison after that incredible 27 years - twenty-seven years! - I was delighted, and in 1994 when he was elected I was thrilled. It was all black or white to me. But when I went to South Africa this year I met lovely, educated, enlightened, generous people who, while they acknowledged what Mandela had done for their country and his countrymen, have not forgotten that the ANC that he led was a terrorist organisation, responsible for the deaths of innocent people, and that he had co-operated with dictators. They regret that their current government is self-serving and corrupt, and that their children - white, expensively educated because public education standards are worse today for all children (as I saw for myself) than back in apartheid days - are now a near-unemployable underclass.

Mandela himself never claimed to be a saint. He did great things, and made a huge difference, and South Africa is the better for his actions - but he's neither black nor white, and the country still has a long way to go. If I hadn't travelled there, I wouldn't know that. Consider my mind broadened. Is yours?

Monday, December 2, 2013

The things you see when you haven't got your gun!

That was what my unreconstructed HOD back at Newent Community School said when he saw one of the ancillary staff heading off to the gym in her exercise gear, to a roar of laughter from the other men in the staffroom. Her name was Julie; I'm pleased to say it took me 3 days to remember his name was Bob. It was 1983 and male chauvinism was still rampant, especially amongst middle-aged, fat, bored English blokes like Bob: when you tut over how PC life has become, remember how uncomfortable it could be back then. But his comment came back to me the other day because I heard myself echo it with "The things you see when you haven't got your camera" - having just witnessed a duck flying right in front of me, quacking loudly, with another flapping behind it, the first bird's tail feathers clamped in its bill.

These days such sights are captured forever thanks to cell phone cameras, and if I had any pockets in my exercise clothes, I would have got that one too. Out walking is the only time I'm separated from my phone now: so different from my blasé attitude to my first little clockwork Nokia. Then, Nokia was #1 - now, it's stopped doing phones entirely. It was only when I met some Finns at Colleith Lodge in Tairua that I learned it was a Finnish company (that had previously made gumboots). That's the nice thing about staying in upper-end accommodation: you meet the other guests and often dine with them, which can be interesting and entertaining. That's what fabulous places like Treetops near Rotorua have in common with backpacker hostels, and it's a real plus.

Stay instead in a regular hotel, even top-range ones like the Fairmonts we recently enjoyed in Canada, or the Peninsula Hong Kong, or any other of the swanky places where I've been lucky to lay my head, and you never get to exchange a single word with the other guests. The Pen (as we old hands call it) makes a feature of it - we were checked in in our actual room, not even having to linger in public at the reception desk. And the really exclusive guests there helicopter onto the roof and go straight to their suite without having to slum it by walking through the lobby at all. Maybe that's important if you're a celebrity and tired of having the same conversation with everyone you meet: but for us ordinary people, whether travelling alone or as a couple, it's nice to have the chance to chat with different people from different places, to learn things, swap experiences, and hear new jokes.

You can also make observations, such as that Germans speaking English say 'actually' a lot as a kind of filler, giving them time to think of the word they want. Whereas English-speakers - speaking English of course: what else - say 'um'. And that's kind of satisfying, in terms of national stereotypes, don't you think?

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Nineteen: it's a dangerous age

This was the front-page story in the Herald yesterday, about a 19 year-old German tourist who climbed Mt Ruapehu on his own, in light clothing and street shoes, not having told anyone about his plans. You can see where this is going. He fell, broke a leg, and was lucky, having dragged himself a bit back down the mountain, that some other climbers heard his cries of "SOS" and called the helicopter to rescue him. [Digression: SOS? How bizarre. Who would think to shout that? What's wrong with 'Help'? Even 'Hilfe' would have done the trick. SOS - that's just so technical. How German!] Having climbed Ruapehu myself, though not to the summit, I know just how steep and treacherous it is, and how rapidly the weather can change up there. He's a lucky young man who I hope has learned a lesson, and isn't tempted to feel smug. Not like this idiot:
Here we have another 19 year-old tourist, this time a backpacker from Alaska who got left behind by the Ghan in Port Augusta, chased it along the tracks, caught it when it slowed, and perched in a stairwell outside a locked, empty carriage for over two hours as the train raced through the Outback on a chilly winter's night. He was heard, eventually, the train did an emergency stop (spilling my glass of Bailey's as I sprawled out in my Platinum class suite) and he was brought inside suffering from early hypothermia. He was lucky not to have lost his grip and fallen to who knows what fate - as it was, he got off at Alice Springs and a few days later was being feted in Darwin for his exploits. I bet his parents were proud. (But well done, Territorian, on that deathless headline!)

By the way, coincidentally, when I climbed Ruapehu there was a German up there too, also unsuitably dressed - a journeyman carpenter from Frankfurt. But not 19, and sensible.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

What does adventure mean to you?

Adventure isn’t an event: it’s a state of mind. Finding a dead mermaid under Brooklyn Bridge was startling; so was desperately flailing to get out of the way of a seven-metre whale shark. Riding an eager horse who wanted to be in front, please, on a week-long back-country trek was exhausting; and so was battling with thin air for four days following the Inca Trail. I’ve slept in a swag on the banks of a crocodile-infested river in the Outback, been mugged on the streets of Santiago, had an up-close encounter with an irritated rhino in South Africa: they’ve all been adventures, and all have given me great stories to tell back home.
But adventurous travel doesn’t have to mean physical challenge and danger: it’s more about openness and acceptance. It’s sharing food with a stranger on a train, walking out of your hotel in a new city without a map, connecting with someone whose language you don’t speak, but whose face you can read like a book. It’s about stepping outside self-imposed boundaries, feeling awkward, risking rejection and doing it anyway.
Sometimes the scariest and most inspiring travel experiences have nothing to do with launching yourself backwards into the void, or walking alone through woods where bears live: sometimes, just accepting an invitation to join in with a group of elderly Indian ladies dancing at a picnic, and trying to be as loose-hipped and easy as they are, will give you memories that stay sharper than any crocodile's teeth.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Stinging riposte? No, stinger post.

I'm writing about Townsville today, in what they're proud to call Tropical North Queensland. That means it's hot (up to 40 degrees in the town - hotter further north, obviously - and 18 is considered distinctly chilly), and full of frangipani, palms, mango trees and huge fig trees with sinister multiple trunks/roots. It also means that from November to May, you can't swim in the sea because of stingers - that is, stinging jellyfish. Or, you can, if you stay inside the nets on a couple of the beaches, or you trust your 1920s-style ankle-to-wrist stinger suit to protect you.

On nearby Magnetic Island ("Maggie" to the locals, naturally) I saw a lifeguard trawling across a really quite lovely bay between glorious weathered granite boulder headlands (Maggie Rocks I think I'll call that story. What?) and snooped in for a look. He does it several times a day in late October, sieving the water to see if he's catching any stingers, after which the notices will go up on the beach. They weren't while I was there, but I still managed to resist the temptation to wade in, invitingly warm and turquoise though it was. I'm used to it - on my previous trip to northern Queensland, from the very tip of Cape York back down to Cairns, our guide was distinctly anxious on the couple of occasions we were allowed on a beach. "Don't go near the water!" he kept repeating - the danger there being salt-water crocs that lunge out of the water and snatch hapless tourists off the sand.

"No-one's ever reported crocs on Maggie," the lifeguard told me when I asked. Which doesn't entirely put your mind at rest, does it? He argued that salties are correctly called estuarine crocodiles, which means they hang out in estuaries and up rivers. But they do go roaming, I know, and have been seen way out at sea on numerous occasions. The crocs and the stingers are the Number One concerns for swimmers up north - people hardly ever bother mentioning the sharks that are also there. Gives this picture a whole new layer of meaning, doesn't it?

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Earn yourself some feel-good points: right here!

In the little town of Beaune, in France to the north of Lyon, there's a splendid building with marvellous patterned, glazed tiles on a roof punctuated by pointy towers. It's a hospice built by Nicolas Rolin in 1443 as his Get into Heaven Free card, to earn points with St Peter after a lifetime of less than saintly behaviour. Today I offer you something similar: not an All Areas Pass to Paradise, sadly, but a more immediate feel-good opportunity for the here and now. If you're reading this before 6 December, all you need to do to perform an act of heart-warming kindness is to send an email to competition@puretravel.com with 'Missing a Broad in Norfolk' in the subject line.

That will hopefully help me into the top three of ten contenders for a travel-writing prize, then to be ranked by a real judge. If he likes my story best, I'll win some money, get published and earn some kudos - but even if he doesn't, you will still have earned yourself points for a Random Act of Kindness; plus my gratitude. So why wouldn't you? Look, here's the story:

Even disasters can have a silver lining. For my husband, whose life-long mission is never to let an old joke die, this one presented him with a gift opportunity to revive the gag about the man who unwittingly left his wife behind at the petrol station.
Neither of us was laughing when we first saw the cruiser reserved for us to pootle around in on the Norfolk Broads. Even viewed stern-first, it looked huge; and when we stepped aboard and saw how far away the bow was, we were awed. “Are you sure this is ours?” we asked. “There are only the two of us.” The boatman waved away our concerns and demonstrated how the roof slid back so that we could enjoy the damp glories of an English spring.
He skilfully eased the boat out of the yard and took us for a spin along the river, demonstrating the controls until we took over ourselves, even practising mooring alongside the riverbank where, by manically pumping the gear lever back and forth, we stopped with a bump that made us hardly stagger at all. For two non-boaties, it was a triumph, and we tossed the Skipper’s Manual aside as soon as our instructor disembarked, leaving us in sole charge. Perched behind the wheel, we glided off along the River Bure, ahead of us 200 kilometres of reed-fringed waterways winding through Norfolk’s flat expanse.
Even in spring, there were other cruisers out on the water, processing from mooring to mooring, vying to claim prime spots outside the prettiest riverside pubs. We were happy to be followers, spotting herons, ducks and geese, cooing over thatched cottages, inspecting the varied boats moored beside each house, delighted by a traditional windmill, its sails slowly turning.
Having left town behind, we passed Wroxham Broad, and hammered along at a heady 10kmh, ducks playing chicken under the bow, reeds swaying in the wash. Confident now, we passed the boats in front, negotiating a sharp corner at Hoveton where a swarm of little sailing dinghies scooted in all directions. The afternoon was wearing on and, warned that moorings could be hard to find in this busier part of the Broads, when we came to Horning we started looking for a gap.
The dog-eat-dog drama of supermarket parking was a doddle compared with spotting a suitable empty space, watching out for other boats, turning to face upstream and the forward-reverse-forward pumping of the gear lever on top of actually steering. It was a tense and sweaty business of throbbing temple veins and bitten lips, and it ended with yet another fender-threatening bump against the side. But we had done it! The relief was enormous, and we skipped off to the Ferry Inn for our reward.
This is what cruising the Broads is all about, we congratulated ourselves with the first pint of cider. Maybe tomorrow we’ll go under a bridge, we said with the second. If we had a whole week, how many pubs could we visit, we wondered with the third. Probably it’s time for bed, we decided before the fourth.
Perhaps it was the cider, perhaps nervous exhaustion, perhaps the gentle rocking of the boat: we slept well and woke full of enthusiasm next morning. Even the horror of discovering that other boats had sneaked in tight fore and aft didn’t daunt us. We fired up the engine, cast off and began the fraught jiggle to ease out into the river. It didn’t go well: from my place at the back I could see a looming collision with the yacht moored in front and, without actually formulating a plan, leaped off the stern, an action expressly forbidden in the spurned Skipper’s Manual. Because what happens then is that you lose your footing, topple like a felled log onto the towpath, and dislocate your shoulder.
As I writhed in agony on the gravel, our cruiser hit the yacht, which erupted with startled people, and shoved it far enough forward to scrape past and out into the river. My husband, smugly turning downstream, caught sight of the men waving and shouting at him from the bank and, puzzled, eventually manoeuvred back close enough to hear: “Your wife’s fallen and hurt herself. She’s in the café and we’ve called the ambulance.”
My husband’s face brightened as he recognised the familiar set-up. “Thank God for that!” he said. “I thought I’d gone deaf.”

Saturday, November 16, 2013

RIP E-410

I've bought a new camera, the latest Olympus, which I scarcely know how to turn on right now, but for which I have great hopes. Today though, I got around to downloading the photos from the Queensland trip taken on my old camera, and there are some I'm pretty pleased with. They're the last hurrah of the E-410, poor spurned thing. I do feel somewhat disloyal: it's served me well over the last seven years, when I returned to my Olympus roots after a short flirtation with Canon that ended with the EOS 20D's cliff-top suicide on the Isle of Skye.
The great joy of Olympus cameras for me is that they're so compact and light to carry; and though compact cameras as a breed have come on enormously in the last few years, I'm enough of a snob an aspirational photographer to want all the extra features and capabilities of a DSLR, even if they're a bit daunting to begin with. Being smaller, they're also less ostentatious in dodgier areas, and less inhibiting to shyer subjects. Not that the animals I came across in Queensland were at all bothered by having their photos taken. Especially these ones. All the bother was on my side.
I don't think I posted about these guys while I was away, thanks to internet problems, by which I mean no free wifi (Australia is as bad as NZ in this respect, though it is getting better). I went for a pleasant wander around Roma Street Parklands in Brisbane, which were just across the railway lines from our hotel, Traders (a fine hotel, apart from, ahem, the wifi issue), and thoroughly enjoyed the gardens of all different sorts. There were lots of birds, and lizards too - that goanna above was basking on a rock there till I disturbed him - but no other sorts of wildlife, since it is right in the middle of the city, after all. Until I wandered down another pathway, that is, and suddenly noticed this huge colony of ENORMOUS orb spiders (I think). Not poisonous, but so big, and so many of them, and their webs covering such a huge area strung between some trees and bushes and a lamp-post. I was horribly fascinated, and then went on my way shuddering. Out of kindness, I'll leave you with a more calming image. Unless you're an ornithophobe, that is.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Virgin Australia - review

"If you could just change your way of thinking, everything'd be different, you know?" Random comment from a fellow passenger seated behind me on my flight from Brisbane to Sydney this morning, standing out in its profundity from the rest of her chatter about the celebrities and boots in the inflight magazine. She and her girlfriend were anxious fliers, poor things, and both takeoff and landing were accompanied by a low chorus of profanities, perhaps encouraged by the Jim Beams they were necking in the departure lounge beforehand.

This trip has been my first experience of Virgin Australia, and it's been pleasant, though there were a couple of surprises: there's no plug-in entertainment at all, not even the dreaded Easy Listening. You can use your wifi-enabled devices to get music and movies, but only if you've previously installed the app, I discovered once we were in the air. And then there was the unexpected comment in the safety briefing about passengers possibly being asked to help with the life rafts.

Life RAFTS? Is this a new thing, or have I missed it entirely in all these years of flying over the world's oceans? Life jackets, sure, whistle, blow-up tube, inflate after exiting, yes. But actual rafts? Clearly desirable, especially in the vicinity of sharks - though I wouldn't be keen to be shoulder-tapped to help the flight crew heave the rafts out of the overhead lockers, drag them along the aisle and push them out of the emergency exits. Especially if there wasn't a flat calm out there, and broad daylight. Hmmm. There was no danger of their deployment today though, with our route 95% over land, much of it obscured by bushfire smoke. Perhaps asbestos suits might be generally more useful?

But otherwise, no complaints: cheerful crew, punctual, comfortable enough and efficient - with the added bonus of deep thoughts from the seat behind.
Yes, well spotted: that is an Air New Zealand winglet - the Virgin flights were domestic. When it comes to crossing the Tasman, I prefer our national airline. Er, the one without the life rafts...

Chartered decline

This is Geoff. He's a volunteer at the Zara Clark Museum in Charters Towers, which is a rather grand-sounding name for a little Outback town - but nowhere as pretentious as its original nickname: The World. That's still painted in the big water tank on the hill beside the town, but really it's a shadow now of its glorious gold rush self, when it was the second biggest city in Queensland. Back then, there were 92 pubs, and three calls a day at its very own Stock Exchange.

Now there are only 9 pubs, old men in hats with full beards busy themselves with tourism activities and one of the most splendid buildings (of many), an imposing brick edifice with lovely Art Deco leaded glass borders to the shop windows - Stan Pollard & Co, Drapers and Mercers - has had an abomination of a boxy painted wooden frontage attached to it by Target. Tch.

But down in the museum, the past is still treasured and the old Co-op is crammed with pianolas, saddles, a 1924 Chevvy (half wooden), a birthing table complete with stirrups, an SS uniform, a 'flying fox' change system from Pollards', school slates, fire engine, cloche hats and very much more. Including the toaster Geoff is demonstrating here, a nifty American invention that uses a spring and a swivel to prevent burnt fingers while turning the bread. He was still delighted by it - as were we, with the whole museum. Pretty well worth the 150km drive from Townsville.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Nature's bounty

It was a day of satisfying connections, although the first one was a failure: nobody was there to meet us at Mungalla Station, where we were to introduce an Aboriginal element to this trip. Shame. It was also a worry about the two small brown frogs in the loo there that I didn't see till I flushed it, when they suddenly leaped up from the whirling water, but were swept away.

Back in Townsville we had a good poke around the excellent museum, with its dinosaurs (very big here in Queensland, as we learnt last time) and display of the Pandora, sent to bring the Bounty mutineers home for punishment, and getting wrecked on the Reef nearby. (That's a moment of the drama in the photo: anatomically-correct mutineers escaping from their prison on deck.) We saw the Bounty's chronometer in Nantucket a while ago; and drank spruce beer recently in Alaska - there were spruce pots on display brought up from the wreck. Anti-scurvy. (There were other pots too, chamber pots, including one "for use during long dinners in the wardroom".)

Then we went to the ReefHQ next door and watched all sorts of strange creatures flitting about, some of them just cartoon-creepy glowing eyes in the dark. And we met a handful of turtles being rehabilitated after various misadventures including one poor old lady both sliced by a propellor and chomped on by a croc.

Finally we had a delicious dinner at C-Bar on the beach, waves breaking in the dark, lights winking, frogs and bats creaking and squeaking, and a warm breeze blowing. Lovely.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Sublime to...

Having complained earlier this trip that there was too much free time, now I'm back to whingeing about the more usual too little time. Our scant single night on Magnetic Island in our very flash apartment at Peppers left us wanting more, as did the drives to Horseshoe Bay in one direction and Picnic Bay in the other: brown sandy beaches of turquoise water in between sculptural headlands of granite boulders. Even the lifeguard doing his routine sweep for stingers didn't put is off.

But it was on, on, back to Townsville and away north through the cane fields, up to the little but self-important town of Ingham and the super-tall Wallerman Falls, a single drop of 268m down a granite cliff-face. It was a long drive, but worth it, and on the way back there were cute agile wallabies (that's their species, not a description - they weren't actually doing much at all, though the one hurtling across the road in front of the car was pretty nimble) and lots of these Droughtmaster cattle, which we'll learn more about tomorrow.

And tonight? In the Lee's Hotel, where it's more about character than comfort, proudly claiming to be the original Pub With No Beer in the Slim Dusty song; and also keen to show me "out the back - we've got an acre of bitumen car park. We've got semi trailers out there!"

There were fruit bats, too

It's been a military day today. We started off with Toby's Military Tour of Townsville, which is a very thorough 4-hour look at the town's Air Force and army history. Does that sound dull? It wasn't, even though my knowledge of things like the Kokoda Track and the Coral Sea battles was pretty sketchy.

There were code breakers, a Black Hawk crash, a couple of museums, some video and a whole heap of movie-worthy stories about individual airmen and soldiers. We saw relics of the Burmese railway, German machine guns that cut down enemy (our) soldiers by the thousand, medals, models, plans and photos. There was due weight given to the NZ in Anzac, and Toby's enthusiasm and opinions made him just the sort of guide I like to have. We also made a short visit to the Gardens, where a huge colony of flying foxes - fruitbats - were making a suprising amount of noise for nocturnal creatures.

Then we took the ferry to Maggie Island - Magnetic Is to us outsiders - where we drove a (manual!) toy car around the bays. We climbed up the ancient and artfully weathered boulders to the gun emplacements and lookout points at the top of the island, and we saw blue sea, green bush and orange rocks, but no koalas or rock wallabies, sadly. But the huge and lovely pool at Peppers Blue on Blue Resort cheered us up, and the really delicious dinner afterwards sent us to bed happy.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Hits and myth

This is as close as I care to come to a saltwater crocodile, as a general rule. It's not that I mind handling reptiles - on the contrary, I'm fascinated by their cool smooth slipperiness and their otherness from my overwhelmingly mammal experience. I was pleased to get my hands on an olive python too today at the Billabong Sanctuary just outside Townsville, here in Tropical North Queensland, even if it did at one point completely encircle my neck.

This was one of those classic smaller wildlife parks that I've been to so often all around Australia and enjoy every time. There are always wandering kangaroos, friendly and gentle, and loose rowdy birds (here, pretty plumed whistling ducks). In the enclosures there are the usual suspects: dingos, wombats, echidna, cassowaries and crocs.

And there's always a programme of encounters and photo ops, where a personable young bloke with a winning line of patter dishes out some education-lite about the various creatures and has some fun with misinformation. Today Jack was perpetuating the Drop Bear myth. It's completely real, you know. That it's a myth, that is. Get googling, why don't you?

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Sea sight

Sculpture by the Sea is not a Sydney exclusive - there's one every second year on Waiheke Island in Auckland that's (shhhh) better, I reckon - but this one's been running for years and certainly has a dramatic setting. It starts at the southern end of Bondi Beach and the artworks continue to Tamarama along the coastal walkway.

The cliffs themselves are sculpted by wind and water - some might say even more artfully - and there was plenty of the former in evidence today, whipping the turquoise sea into foaming breakers that rolled into the beaches, blowing the bushfire haze back into the interior and making the clifftop walk really quite exciting - so exciting, in fact, that the path was closed shortly afterwards to prevent people from being blown over the edge.

There was a wide selection of sculptures, most of them pretty ephemeral and clinging on quite impressively in the blustery wind, but the sphere above was my favourite ('Horizon' by Lucy Humphrey). I might have voted for the steps, if it weren't that I'd seen them before:

Left: Waiheke Island, Auckland, 2005                           Right: Sydney. 2013

Monday, October 28, 2013

Big birthday

It's a strange creature, the saw fish - very strange. Also quite hard to look at on its own terms and not see instead some sort of grotesque Halloween-type monster. Those are gills, not eyes. I think.

That's the trouble with the Sydney Aquarium: though it's extensive and on all the lists of Top 10 Things to Do here, it's not actually much good at informing you about what you're seeing. All substance and no style. So I didn't learn that much, though I did see some striking creatures. Could do better - and not cheap either, at $38 each for adults.

That's what we all are this time around, 10 years on from our last family trip here, for my previous Significant Birthday. If you're going to have one of them, it eases the pain to spend the day as we did, with its main focus a lunchtime cruise around the harbour on a lovely day, ignoring the commentary about all the points of interest, which were simply a backdrop for some family jollity.

Captain Cook Cruises, it was: nicely done and recommended.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Professional side effect or personal defect?

It feels very odd to be here in Sydney on an actual holiday with no itinerary and nothing particular to do other than enjoy time with my family. After so many years and so very many trips as a travel writer, this is taking some getting used to - that time spent just mooching isn't time wasted.

On assignment, I'm usually following a detailed, dovetailed itinerary that's generally as full (sometimes fuller) as possible, whisking from one thing to another with, my usual complaint, never enough leisure to enjoy the detail. But this time, with only one thing planned, it's hard to adjust, to listen to conversation instead the bus-tour commentary, to just drift.

This must be how it is for most people who go away on holiday to relax, rather than to travel and see the sights; those people I see everywhere as part of the scenery, sitting outside cafés and lying on beaches as I trot past. Honestly, I can't say I like it that much: even in a familiar city where we've done our tourist duty on previous trips, I'm uncomfortable not making notes. Tch.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Hard times. No, really.

This was a first (and probably a last, too): this week's NZ Herald Travel, me on pages 10 and 11, the Firstborn on page 18 - my story about a cruise up the Rhone, hers, bar-hopping in Samoa. Type-casting? Never...

Though this was my third Uniworld Rhone story to be published, I do actually have another hanging about, looking for a home. That's quite good going for one event, I think (they are different stories, though obviously with a similar core) - and it's the only way to make any sort of money out of travel writing. Even better would be to sell the same story twice or more times, and I have done that in the past; but it's become less and less possible now, with publications automatically slapping stories up on their websites for the whole world to see. That's good for your personal overall Google-rating, but back when a newspaper story was wrapping cod and chips the next day was much better for overall recyclability.

Fairfax has gone even further in consigning travel writers to garrets by making them sign a contract dictating that not only do they have exclusive use of the story for one year (after acceptance, not publication, as some doughty writers have battled long and hard to establish) but they may also retain it online for as long as they want - which of course means that it's never going to be attractive to a different publication. Unless you didn't tell them, but it would be the work of moments for them to check, and there goes your credibility. And all this to earn, in the Fairfax newspaper sector at least, a few pence from their "tiny budget" (editor's own description) or, more likely, nothing at all, if you're willing to sell out on principle.

Fairfax's opposition APN at least pays almost what has been the going rate for, I'm told, about the last 30 years (how fabulous 40c/word must have been back last century!), but even that is under threat from the big bosses. So thank goodness for the magazines that still pay a respectable rate per word and for photos (separately), even though they're monthly at best, and extraordinarily hard to get a foothold in. All of which is to say that I'm so pleased that I'll soon be seeing my second story this year in Mindfood magazine - especially since it's the one about rhino poaching, which will hopefully galvanise some reader reaction.

Now that really would be a great excuse for a drink.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Back to school

I've taught in a whole bunch of classrooms, both here and in England, but this rural school in South Africa was, no surprise, by far the barest. No ceiling, rafters showing, concrete floor, no lighting, blackboard with chalk writing on it (though no actual chalk to be seen, not left carelessly lying around the way whiteboard markers are here - clearly too precious). No shelves of books, no posters, no apparent resources other than the teacher. Which wouldn't be so terribly bad, if the teacher was a good one - but that's sadly in doubt.

This was the school with the horrible fat woman who whipped a dozen or so kids just for saying hello to us. They were the ones we'd met the day before at the bush camp, where ranger Zama was helping them identify spoor, teaching them about the wildlife that they rarely see. It's a great programme, introducing them to conservation and hopefully engendering an interest in and feeling for, amongst other creatures, the rhino. But the school teacher who was accompanying them was asleep in another room for most of the time we were there (in the middle of the day) and when he did emerge was of no use anyway. I thought he was a resentful parent rope-in; I was shocked to learn he was their teacher.

The children were all very neat and clean, though their uniforms had seen better days; as had many of the shoes lined up along the veranda outside, with their trodden-down backs and holes. They were shy of us, understandably, a dozen or so white people suddenly arriving from another world with books and balls and pens, and getting them to respond was hard. Of course it didn't help that their first language is Zulu and all I could say was Yebo, which means Hello, yes, ok, thanks... Versatile, like kia ora.

We wanted to encourage them to colour in their rhino pictures with imagination and flair, and to write heartfelt anti-poaching slogans. At least one of them got the idea.
These photos by Chloe Boshoff.

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