Wednesday 30 January 2013

Overseas experience

And off went the Baby today, on her OE, all that excitement and challenge and novelty and discovery ahead of her. She's 21, a year younger than when I set off with my pack on my back and not enough money in my pocket - she's much better equipped, with a bike in a box, an inheritance in the bank and two friends to share the experience with, and she's only going to Melbourne to begin with, thank goodness. She's just an instant text, email or phone call away, unlike in 1977 when letters took about 3 weeks to send and get a reply to, phoning was prohibitively expensive, and no-one at home had much idea of where I was or what I was doing at any stage. Independent travel was, thrillingly and scarily, exactly that then, but as the one left behind this time I'm glad things have changed.

She's not going to be travelling as I did, first around Australia and then with a friend to Indonesia on the well-trodden overland trail through South-East Asia towards Europe (though for me on that first attempt the money ran out at Singapore and I flew straight to London, sending a telegram ahead of me); but she will have plenty of challenges nonetheless, grown-up ones of finding somewhere to live and a proper job. She's already lived in Germany, and been on family holidays to Sydney and the Gold Coast and California and England and Europe, she's resourceful and mostly sensible, and she'll do fine. She'll have a great time in Melbourne, which has quietly become a much cooler city than Sydney and has all sorts of fun and culture to enjoy. I'm missing her heaps already, but's going to be a wonderful new stage of her life.

I hope, and trust.

Monday 28 January 2013

Street artists

A long holiday weekend and fine, settled summer weather: how often does that happen? Well, actually, pretty often for Auckland's Anniversary Day, and today was another, with just enough wind to please the yachties at the Regatta on the harbour while not interfering with anyone else's enjoyment - though some of the performers at this year's Buskers Festival complained it made their tricks harder. But then, they would. (The common refrain this time was, Clap if I'm doing something you can't.)
It seemed to me there were fewer acts this year than usual - and since the World Buskers Festival in Christchurch wrapped up only yesterday, perhaps that's why - but we saw enough to keep us amused for an afternoon. There was Vincent from Quebec balancing on his impressive biceps, Matt from Seattle who juggled some mediaeval-looking instrument and kept up a stream of good jokes, and Murray from Dublin who climbed through a toilet seat (I could hardly bear to watch that second shoulder being forced through) and then swallowed a sword. It's an odd way to earn a living, and there was a bit of a theme in everyone's patter about parents with broken dreams; but on a warm sunny day in a city thronging with people at leisure, they brought a buzz that everyone enjoyed.
And, for a travel connection? I haven't been (yet) to Quebec, but the buskers I've seen in Seattle and Dublin were much less energetic, though far more musical.

Friday 25 January 2013

I may have just done a 'Jaws'...

In the summer of 1975, I went to Australia for the first time by myself to take up a holiday job, and escaped the up-country property where I was working with horses to do a bit of Christmas shopping in Adelaide, and to go to the movies. That's where I saw Jaws, and it scared me so rigid that afterwards, when I went to the beach at Glenelg, I was unable to get into the water above my knees, despite the sunshine and the invitingly warm water. It wasn't so very stupid: I learned much later, when I was in South Australia again as a travel writer, that they filmed a lot of the shark scenes for the movie off the coast there, since they have so many great whites knocking about in the Southern Ocean. (You can cage dive with them if you're so inclined - here's the cage. Note the dings in the metal floats attached to it...)
Tonight I've just been to see The Impossible, about the Boxing Day tsunami, which I thought was amazingly well done and shockingly convincing. Full credit to the production team, and to the actors and extras who were tossed about in that terrible water - actual water, not CGI. And then next week I'm going to Waiheke Island, to stay in an apartment across the road from long and open Onetangi Beach, and though I know how unlikely it is, the images of those huge waves sweeping in aren't going to be far from my mind as I stand on the balcony or lie on the sand.

The last time I went to Thailand, two years after the disaster, it was to Phuket, where the tsunami did awful damage and killed so many people. Here's the end of that story: ...We sat in Baan Rim Pa, a fine and famous Thai restaurant where we enjoyed a magnificent multi-course dinner at a table on the veranda, looking down on local families fishing from the rocks 20 metres below. Out in the bay, lights looped through the dark where the squid boats were working, and a warm breeze made our candles gutter in their holders. Where we sat savouring fresh seafood cooked to recipes once prepared for the royal family, where the polished teak glowed warmly in the lamplight and the brass fittings gleamed, a wall of water had swept through on that terrible morning. Now there was nothing to show for it. Glasses clinked, people chatted and laughed, there was live music from the bar, and the air was scented with jasmine and spices. In Phuket today, everything is civilised again...

Thursday 24 January 2013

Barrier burning

The fires in Australia are still burning, sadly - and now we have some of our own. They've flared up all over the country, particularly in Canterbury (the latest set off by the army blithely chucking grenades around in tinder-dry conditions: d'oh) and for the last three days there's been one burning on Great Barrier Island, which is a 4-hour ferry ride from Auckland central. They've got a lot of trees and bush on the Barrier - one of its first industries was forestry, kauri timber from there being used to rebuild San Francisco after its post-earthquake fire in 1906 - and it's horrible to see aerial footage of smoke and flames over its green hills.
In one shot, I'm sure I could see Steve Billingham's teepee - it's a pretty distinctive shape, and even in such an alternative place as the Barrier, how many of them could there be? It's the genuine article, apart from the upside-down umbrella hanging under the opening to catch the rain. Steve built it himself and frequently sleeps in it with his partner, relishing the back-to-basics feel of it (although the mattress in there looked pretty comfortable). He's quite a character, a lean, cheerful guy in shades and skinny black jeans who's lived there for years and has his fingers in lots of pies, like most of the Islanders. He drives the school bus, and also takes tourists like me for tours around the island, telling all the stories including the gossip, and indulging his inner Westie by giving people rides on his precious 3-wheeled motorbike.
The story I wrote about it ended like this:  I’m getting to recognise that the Barrier is all about personal passions, so when Steve takes us to his place I’m not surprised to discover that he has a full-sized teepee on his lawn and a totem pole by the path that leads down to where his kayaks wait beside the river. Maybe it’s his American Indian profile, maybe it’s just that the Wild West spirit fits so well on the island; but when he fires up his 1600cc shiny blue Crazyhorse Trike we’re fighting to settle in behind him for a gentle burn around the hills. My hair blows in the warm wind and I can hear the cicadas buzzing in the bush as we wind down to Okupu Bay, where we find a pod of twenty dolphins lazily breaking the surface of the glossy water. Later, I see them again from the plane as we fly out, still there, just hanging in the bay. Lucky.

Wednesday 23 January 2013

Barry even has a cat-skin cap...

The Pussy Riot continues, as expected, with both sides trotting out their predictable responses. Total cat-fan though I am, it was disappointing that the pro-cat lobby threw up its hands in horror at the very suggestion that well-fed domestic cats will kill wildlife - which is utter rubbish, as any bleary-eyed cat-owner has to admit as the latest bloody corpse is proudly deposited on the duvet in the middle of the night. Of course cats, regrettably, kill birds, unsportingly snatching them while they're roosting. I wish they didn't, but it's a fact, and the argument won't get anywhere until it's accepted.

I'd be happy to go along with de-sexing and micro-chipping, and with keeping cats indoors at night. On Kangaroo Island, off the coast of South Australia, they do all that and are pressing for the  complete containment of cats, as I was surprised to see when I arrived at the airport, where there's a 'Demonstration Cat Habitat' - in other words, a cage. They're anxious about the whole business because the place is swarming with wildlife, and they want to keep it that way. They've got a big problem with feral cats, 8,000 of them on the island, preying on the birds, reptiles and marsupials, and even spreading disease amongst the sheep population.

At Emu Ridge, where they distil eucalyptus oil into products that will do anything from clearing a stuffy nose to cleaning paint-brushes, I saw a heap of tanned cat-skins - $42 each - brought in by Barry the Cat Man, whose mission in life is to rid the island of its feral cats. It was a bit creepy, especially the empty heads, but I did sympathise with his mission - especially when, on a later trip to South Australia driving from Port Augusta to the Flinders Ranges, I saw a feral cat standing at the roadside. It was big, and bold, and looked totally at home in that environment, and clearly successful. If our feral cat population even approaches the levels they've got in Australia, our birds are doomed.

Tuesday 22 January 2013

Setting a cat amongst the pigeons

There's a man here who, because he's rich, thinks we should all listen to him, and the current bee in his bonnet is, to mix species, cats. In his latest bid for publicity, carefully timing his pronouncement for the return to work of all the current affairs people, he's declared that cats kill native birds for fun, basically - clearly those internet-savvy felines have been playing way too much Call of Duty - and should be contained 24/7 and not replaced after death. I predict that there will be a flurry of argument on both sides, much huffing and puffing, some witty cartoons in the papers and, finally, no change in the status quo. As usual.

It's not that I don't care about birds - why, this very morning I rescued a crippled baby sparrow from a ditch and took it to the sainted (if rather brusque and impatient) Bird Lady who popped it into a cage of other baby sparrows and showed me a skylark, several young kingfishers, a morepork, baby wood pigeon, regular pigeons, a gull chick, blackbirds, thrushes and mynahs, some waxeyes, several escaped minor parrots, a black-backed gull and a heron. I like all animals, and it would be strange to live in a city without cats, despite the inevitable bird-murders that result (also rat- and mouse-murders, to the birds' benefit, but they don't get the same coverage, of course).

The nearest I've come to that is Aitutaki, where there are no dogs. A chief's child was once mauled there, so he banned all dogs on the island from then on, and the rule still applies. It's especially noticeable because on Rarotonga there are plenty, wandering about uncollared, looking like strays but too well fed for that. They seem to have their daily routines of taking a morning stroll along the beaches, checking out the fish in the super-clear water, or staking out a shady spot in the little town of Avarua, lying there equably watching the world, and the chickens, go by, perfectly at peace. They're a part of the laid-back, Pacific feel of the place; Aitutaki, though otherwise perfect, feels odd without their presence.

Sunday 20 January 2013

I only ever found a bent penny...

So yesterday evening, as the sun began to sink here in Auckland, I watched it all red and hazy through the high smoke from the dreadful bush fires in Australia; and then on the news there was an item about a huge nugget that had been found near Ballarat by an amateur with a metal detector. 'Huge' is pretty accurate: 5.5kg, or 177oz, making it the biggest ever found in the area, well eclipsing the town's previous record-holder, the 4.4kg Goldasaurus. The value of the gold is even more than its weight, which would be around $350,000, because it's such an attractive and unusually shaped nugget. I'd have been happy to find it even if it had been really ugly.

It was only about 60cm deep, too: hardly any work to find at all. Imagine that! The guy who found it was expecting to uncover a car bonnet, the signal was so strong. At the Sovereign Hill gold museum just outside the town, they've got lots of nuggets on display that were literally just lying around on the ground, waiting to be picked up. Some are replicas, but many including Goldasaurus are real - though the biggest of all, found elsewhere in Victoria, is a plaster model. Hardly surprising, since the Welcome Stranger, found in 1869, weighed 62 kilograms and would be worth millions today.

Sovereign Hill is really worth visiting: it's an outdoor museum with streets and costumed staff, a coach and horses, an ingot-pouring display, lots of stuff going on all the time, and a stream running through that is seeded with gold flakes every day for people to pan for and keep if they find. It's fun, but no-one's going to get rich there - unlike the man who took his nugget into the Mining Exchange in Ballarat this week. No prizes for guessing how he's going to be spending all his time from now on.

Friday 18 January 2013

'The finest view in the world'

That's what we horsy people like to say about what you can see through the space between a horse's ears. Literally, of course, that's usually about nine square inches of ground - but you get the idea. Today the view was again of the Rail Trail; but better in every way. The morning was one out of the box: calm, sunny and warm, and the Central Otago scenery was absolutely at its best, the grass velvety on the hills, the rocks sharp and clear, with beyond the Hawkdun Range still dusted with snow on the tops. And, with respect to the nice people at Shebikeshebikes who set me up yesterday for my 18km on the bike, for me there was no better way to get out and enjoy it all than mounted on Shiloh, in the company of Kelly on Douggie, of Trail Treks. She can arrange anything from half a day, which I did, to the whole five-day expedition if you're a glutton for pleasure; and even if you're a non-rider. I'd be tempted: Chatto Creek to Omahau was just tantalising.

Away from the road, the Trail cutting through farmland, it was gloriously peaceful. The only sounds were the horses' hooves crunching on the gravel, skylarks singing, sheep baaing and - well, that was it, apart from our voices. Every so often a cyclist would come along, looking a bit flushed and sweaty, and, I fancied, envious of our comfort and superior view from so much higher up. I'm sure they felt self-righteous about their personal effort, but I was having such a lovely time that I was happy to let them console themselves like that. They had no idea, poor things, what they were missing.

It wasn't all selfish pleasures: I did spot a lamb with its head stuck through the wire fence, which Kelly freed, noting that it had obviously been there some time. So that gave us a warm glow. And Kelly was meticulous about clearing from the track the droppings not only of our horses, but of others whose riders were less considerate of the bikers and walkers. Mostly, though, we just rode along on our free-striding horses, nattering about all sorts of things and enjoying the beauty of the day. It was brilliant.

Thursday 17 January 2013

The road goes ever on...

The Otago Central Rail Trail follows the 150km path of the old Clyde-Middlemarch railway track and has become hugely popular since being opened to the public in 2000 - to the salvation of all the little towns along the route. I cycled just 18km of it today, from Auripo to Omakau along its most spectacular section, through two long and very dark tunnels and over a viaduct and several bridges. Everyone else seemed to be going the other way - apparently you takes your choice between downhill gradient or head wind - and I discovered after smugly avoiding a rain shower in the cosy Station Side café at Lauder that the wind can be so strong here that it cancels out a downhill gradient, so you still have to push those pedals.
However, having just met a family group that included two small boys, the youngest aged 6, who were doing the entire length in five days, camping, it felt feeble to complain. An Irish couple with impressive calves exclaimed over what a feature it was, an American couple lamented not having enough time to do it all, and other family groups skimmed past cheerfully waving, despite the less than ideal weather. There was fresh snow on the hilltops! In January! And the wind from the south was icy.
I was horrified to see two stoats cross the trail in front of me - with the ones we've seen on the road, that's four alive, alive-oh I've seen in just two days, so goodness knows how many there are. Horrible things: they eat geckos and birds' eggs and nestlings. They, and ferrets, were introduced with much effort long ago to control the rabbits that had previously been introduced, for sport and food, which had instantly got out of control. Apparently, nobody thought there was a lesson there to be learned. It also made me smile a bit grimly when we went into the fabulous old Gilchrist's Store in Oturehua, to see a big pack of gorse seeds in amongst the memorabilia there ('Easygrow', indeed). Oh, the painful pleasures of hindsight!

Wednesday 16 January 2013

Not going "mush!" in the Maniototo

You couldn't bear the cuteness, so I'm not posting a photo of the 10 week-old Alaskan Malamute pups at Real Dog Adventures just outside Ranfurly. Just think fat, fluffy bodies and big, floppy-tongue grins. Instead, here's the other end of the grown-ups, pulling me and Nigel in the bicycle-wheeled rig through Naseby Forest: it was a bumpy and hands-on ride, setting off fast and furious but soon settling to a more sedate trot. I was lucky they were pulling me at all, as the morning was unseasonally cool. Anything above 17 degrees and they stay in their kennels, panting inside their thick fluff (which can be spun and woven or knitted: it's beautifully soft). Nigel and Rose were full of enthusiasm and information about their dog-centred life, and it was really lovely to see their passion, and share it for a couple of hours. By the way, only amateurs say "Mush".
There was another sort of passion on display at Glenshee Park outside Naseby: off a dirt road, in an unassuming building are 220 evening gowns from the 1970s carefully hung in glass cases. It's the collection of Eden Hore, now deceased: an unusual hobby for a deer farmer, I ventured, as we stood in front of the photo of him in his leopard-print shirt, and his nephew's wife Margaret agreed; but the question hung between us unasked and unanswered. No business of mine, anyway. The frocks are both gorgeous and ghastly, but always fascinating, as was the Madonna costume with the Don't Touch notice - no prizes for guessing which bit most would be tempted to poke. And what else would you expect in the entrance but a display of stuffed animals off his farm, from a huge black Tibetan yak, down to a piglet in a Western saddle?
And then I went back into Naseby for a spot of curling, as you do. Maniototo Curling International has a very smart indoor rink there, and I watched a family having excellent fun scooting the stones along the ice from one end to the other. They're made of Scottish granite, you know, and weigh 22kg: I could scarcely lift one, so it was fortunate that indoors all you do is slide them - though when it's cold enough to play outside, you do have to swing them from waist height to give them enough oomph. It's a fun game, sort of a combination bowls and billiards, with a bit of snooker thrown in; and you can take part from age 8 to 80. I didn't play a proper game, but out of the 7 that I sent up, and then back down again, I did get one into the in-play area. So I counted that a triumph.

Tuesday 15 January 2013


Proudly proclaiming itself as the Capital of Brown Trout Fishing, Gore's well known for its fish statue at the entrance to the town, above a fountain. One thing I bet most visitors don't realise - including especially that coach-load of Japanese tourists I saw unload by it this morning who took a quick snap and then ran across the road to the clearly far more interesting secondhand goods Hospice Shop - is that the fibreglass and steel statue was modelled on an actual trout, caught by local man Bert Harvey, and frozen so artist Errol Allison could get busy with it.

I learned that at the museum, half of which is devoted to Hokonui Moonshine. That's the local whisky, distilled by the Scottish immigrants from whatever they could lay their hands on,  especially throughout the 52 year-long dry period in the Gore district. Things got even worse in 1917, when 6 o'clock closing was introduced; so in order to get to nearby Mandeville, which was wet, long rows of taxis sat waiting in the main street for the men to finish work at 5pm. They would pile into the cars and hurtle to the next town and jostle inside the pub trying to chuck as much beer down their necks as possible before last orders at six. Horrendous.

The Mandeville Railway Hotel is now The Moth, an elegant cafe and bar next to the airfield where I had my flight yesterday in the Tiger Moth. Lots of old buildings round here have been rescued and given a new purpose in life, and we ate well tonight in one at little Ophir in Central Otago: Pitches, converted to a restaurant from a garage and butchery. Surrounded by bare brown hills with their bones showing through, and softened by bright hollyhocks, it's a pretty place, though with temperatures ranging from -22 to +35, you'd need to be rugged to live there. And that's not all: when I peered through the window of the tiny post office, I was surprised to see on the wall a poster showing how to identify a parcel bomb. Dang terrorists, they get everywhere.

Monday 14 January 2013

Dry teeth

The thing about doing a loop-the-loop in a wee yellow bi-plane is that it gives you dry teeth. As the view up over the little windshield becomes nothing but blue sky and cloud and then, most startlingly, upside-down river and paddocks and roads, while the straps bite into your hips and shoulders and your stomach gives a bit of a lurch, you either gasp or, er, exclaim, or shriek or grin. Generally all of those, in that order, I would guess: that's how it was for me, anyway. And all that open-mouthed stuff plus the rush of the wind leaves you with dry teeth. And a great feeling of exhilaration.

We were at the Croydon Aircraft Company near Mandeville, where a small team of calm and multi-skilled workers in overalls painstakingly restore old wood-and-fabric aircraft for rich men. We saw all sorts of machines in various stages of repair, many of them just metal frameworks with a few panels of moulded plywood applied, awaiting their turn for attention or, quite often, the next injection of cash from their besotted owners. In a nearby hanger were the finished results, a selection of Moths (did you know that besides Tiger and Gypsy, there are Puss, Fox, Dragon and Leopard?) plus other types, all neat and tight and airworthy.

Then we went outside and Ryan strapped me into the front seat and we took off without ceremony, flying over the lush Waimea Plains with their slashes of windbreaks, and the braided river, before looping up and over and down and up again, and then doing a wing stall with a moment's disconcerting silence from the engine. It was so thrilling, I couldn't stop grinning. So that's how I got dry teeth today at 1000 feet above sea level. And made another connection with my father, who first learned to fly in a Tiger Moth not so very far north of here, the first step in a journey that ended for him in Poland at Stalag Luft III - where, last year, I also followed him.

Sunday 13 January 2013

Far from it

Despite its unfortunate international code Dunedin's airport, while cutely small and provincial in feel, is the gateway to a beautiful part of the country that, on a fine summer's afternoon as the sun makes its leisurely way down to the horizon, just glows. It was, I'm mildly astonished to report, my first time through the airport though I've been here many times, always by road; and the last time was 12 years ago, so I was seeing the countryside with pretty much fresh eyes. Open, rolling, full of fluffy sheep and neatly-trimmed windbreaks and little towns with rather grand Coronation Halls along the road from equally grand but undoubtedly better-patronised pubs, it was a pleasure to drive through and felt like home in a way that the North Island's lumpy, bushy, volcanic landscape never does, to me, Mainlander through and through.
Bowling along the wittily-named Presidential Highway (which, though a simple two-lane country road, links Clinton and Gore) the sun was low and the shadows long, and the sheep classically back-lit. When we arrived at Mainholm Lodge the scenery was luminous, the long view to the Blue Mountains (er, 'mountains') framed by cabbage trees and a monkey puzzle, and what better way to enjoy it than sitting on the porch with a glass of wine with a friendly tortoiseshell cat purring at my feet? As the dusk slowly crept in, we averted our eyes from the sheep in the paddock outside and ate lamb shanks and sticky date pudding in a cosy Victorian dining room, swapping travel notes with host Graham, from Wales via Perth. And now we're enjoying the novelty of watching a 1991movie, The Returning, filmed at the house, which promises to be a real clunker - but how often can you watch a drama filmed in the very room in which you're lying?

Friday 11 January 2013

From Wight wasps to Territory turtles

It's so hot! This time last year we were all whingeing about what a crap summer it was - not realising then that it was going to get even crapper - but this one is the business. Of course, now I'm complaining about the sofa being too warm to sit on, especially nursing a laptop radiating heat, and have been hunting through the wardrobe for cooler and cooler clothes to wear. Today I happened across a strappy sundress that was bought for me in Cheltenham about 30 years ago and which, oh yes, still fits just fine; and I was reminded that I wore it on a camping holiday on the Isle of Wight during which at a pub one night I found a wasp in my lasagne. Possibly cannelloni. Definitely wasp, though.

The last time I slept under canvas was in Australia, three years ago, when I experienced both ends of the scale: first, in the Gawler Wilderness in South Australia, where I had a four-poster bed on a wooden floor with an attached bathroom and an unexpected and very welcome hot-water bottle to snuggle up with in the chilly Outback night. That was after an evening spent sitting by the campfire with my own shovelful of embers underneath my chair to warm the (w)hole of my body as we chatted under a sky full of the brightest stars. Outside of our little circle, it was silent for a hundred kilometres in every direction - I do love that, about the Outback.
And then a few days later, I was up in the Northern Territory, campervanning around in a cheerful group, taking turns with the tent and the bunk in the campervan, with noisy frogs just the other side of the canvas and, on the last night, donkeys hee-hawing somewhere close. That was at an Aboriginal arts festival at Barunga where there'd been music and story-telling and dancing into the night, people coming from all over to watch and to take part. The moon was full, it was warm all night, there was a great vibe going and, best of all, we'd already tried the long-neck turtle baked in its shell a couple of days earlier at another festival at Merrepen, so we didn't have to eat it again. I tell you, I'd rather eat wasp any day.

Wednesday 9 January 2013

Pity the poor kangaroos

Crumbs, the news from Australia just gets worse and worse: so incredibly hot, so many fires over such a large area, so many homes lost - but no lives so far, thank goodness. Human lives, that is: I hate to think how many creatures have perished. Remember this heart-warming photo from a couple of years ago of a fireman giving water to a koala while soaking its burnt paw? The poor thing - Sam - still died, sadly, but lots of other rescued koalas survived. That time.

The super-heated air that's causing all the problems is flowing from the Outback, where temperatures are so high that the Bureau of Meteorology has had to introduce new colours on its heat maps. Roxby Downs and Oodnadatta reached 47 degrees yesterday - I haven't been there, but I've got close at William Creek, and can just imagine the shimmer of the heat over that parched red dirt. Coober Pedy, the opal-mining town, was just one degree cooler, but most of the townspeople will be taking it easy at a comfortable 25 degrees in their homes, no aircon required - because they live underground, in surprisingly spacious rooms dug into the rock. I had a tour of one, and though of course it's artificially lit, it was actually rather pleasant, if you could get past the aesthetic horror of the combed effect on the orange-brown rock making it look just like a 70s shag-pile carpet. I was quite diverted by the novelty of tooth-marks on the ceiling of my underground hotel room.
Down in Adelaide, they're busy making ice-blocks for the animals at the zoo. Most of them are used to the heat, but some will be struggling, particularly the pandas. I expect even their special hollow water-cooled lounging rocks won't be up to the job of making them comfortable, and if they're allowed to venture out of the air-conditioned luxury of their enclosures, Funi and Wang Wang will be spending most of their time in their garden ponds.
I got a backstage tour, you know, and saw how they've been trained to scooch up close to the bars so they can have injections and thermometers inserted without anyone going into the cage. Those are proper claws they've got. I wasn't supposed to touch, but I did: the fur is coarse but soft. And thick - just what they don't need right now.

Monday 7 January 2013

Ring of confidence

Today's initial inquiry into Saturday's incident up the Skytower has found that the Skywalk people were not at fault. An, as it turned out, mentally-disturbed man who was part of the group being escorted around the platform that rings the top managed to unhook his ropes and spent 5 hours wandering around it, dangling his legs over the void, threatening to jump and astonishing onlookers down on the closed-off streets who were probably secretly torn over what it was they wanted to see happen. They did all though have the good manners to applaud when the man was eventually persuaded by a priest to go back inside.

I was surprised that he'd managed to free himself of his safety lines, since one of them is attached behind your back, and you'd need to be a bit of a contortionist to detach that carabiner. The whole preparation phase was amazingly involved and pernickety - we weren't allowed to have anything in our pockets, not even a tissue, despite wearing those unflattering orange overalls on top of everything. We were trussed up snug as a bug, and thoroughly briefed about safety, which made it all the more bizarre when the guide then encouraged us all to lean out backwards over the 192 metre drop.

Of course it was safe. When I've written about doing this sort of thing before, I've put my lack of nervousness down to a total failure of imagination - but really, it's complete trust in the people in charge and systems that are in place. The guides for their part have probably had equally total trust in the self-preservation instinct of the punters. Time for them to think again, it would seem.

Sunday 6 January 2013

Sometimes an unlucky country

And while I was playing wildlife photographer on the back deck, thanking heavens for digital, across the Tasman poor old Tassie was burning up. I'm fond of Tasmania: it was my first assignment as a travel writer, and though I've been back twice since, it's still somewhere that most Kiwis haven't thought of going. (Not a great recommendation for my professional efficacy, come to think of it. Shhh, don't tell Tourism Tasmania.)

It's a lovely place, with a fascinating, if rather dark, history, striking and varied scenery, pretty little stone-built towns, wonderful wildlife and really quite amazingly good food and wine. The rest of Australia has traditionally curled its lip at Tassie as being a bit backward, red-neck and chilly, but in recent years they've been discovering what a huge mistake that's been - and certainly over the last few weeks 'chilly' is far from true. Hobart recorded its highest ever temperature on Friday, 41.8, which is hot by anyone's standards. Baked dry and crisp, it was inevitable that the state would burn and so it has, trapping people at the Port Arthur penitentiary, destroying homes, threatening towns...

That is the trouble with Australia: it has such an unforgivingly harsh climate, and bush fires are part of that. I was astonished on that first trip to drive through a forest where bright flames were leaping up under the trees and two firemen were just leaning on their truck watching. Then I learned about controlled burns - 'cool burns' - that are used throughout the country to keep the undergrowth in check so that when fires do occur, they don't turn into conflagrations. Well, that's the theory; it doesn't allow for extreme heat-waves, hot dry winds, tinder-dry vegetation and the evil of arsonists. They're very worried over there right now, in Tasmania and South Australia and Victoria. I'm worried too.

Saturday 5 January 2013

Wrong about Twelfth Night

So, traditional members of Western societies just to the left of the dateline, you're thinking of spending one last night looking at your Christmas trees and sparkly outside lights, before stripping the lot tomorrow on Twelfth Night? Wrong! But don't feel too bad about it: I've been wrong up till now, too, thinking that 6th January was the day Christmas ended. Surprisingly, given my innumeracy, it's not a maths thing, it's a clock thing.

Turns out, in olden times, the day was considered to end when the sun went down, not at some arbitrary time in the middle of the night, and the next day began when darkness fell. So, Christmas Eve on the 24th was actually the evening of Christmas Day and so the first day of Christmas, meaning that the twelfth day falls on January 5th.
Having sorted all that out, though, we still didn't get it quite right as, being in the southern hemisphere, it's not dark till nearly 9pm, which is rather late to be standing on ladders and wrestling with a desiccated pine tree and hoovering up needles, so we've done it in the daytime, in the heat but also the light. The sole remaining pet ignored the whole production, for the last time - sadly, she won't see another Christmas - and the daughters were out enjoying the day, so it fell to us two to pack it all away, aware that when the boxes are re-opened in about 11 months' time, it'll also be just us putting it all up again, since the offspring will have well and truly sprung by then.

Anyway, Christmas is over and now our focus is on summer. That's where we Downunders have the advantage over all those winter people, who now have the worst of their weather still to come, and no pretty lights to relieve the gloom. Shame.


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