Sunday, March 31, 2013

iPhone 5 camera - yay!

I'm very happy with the camera on my new iPhone 5, having put up with the blurry inadequacies of the 3GS for so long. It's sharp, the resolution's terrific, it copes well with low light and high contrast, and the panorama function is great fun. This particular effect needs a steady hand and I'm still working on that, but when it comes off, it's very satisfying, especially since my old faithful Olympus DSLR doesn't have a wide angle lens. It doesn't feel gimmicky at all. Of course, it's highly portable, and no problem for other people to use if I need a selfie: not the case with the big camera, which seems to scare them. I can see me using the phone photos for work, all 8MB of them.
There was a National Geographic photographer, Michael Melford, along on the Hump Ridge Track, putting together a photo essay for the magazine about Fiordland - 8000 pictures, he reckoned he would be taking over three weeks, of which the magazine would use perhaps 14 - and, outside his work, he loves taking photos with his iPhone 5, especially playing around with the Camera+ app afterwards. He reckons cameras like this are going to put snappers like him out of business before too long, they've got so good and are so easy to use.
He's a brilliant photographer - look at the wonderful images on his website - and you'll agree it'll be a great loss if, as much because of magazine budgets as digital developments, that happens. He's old-school, up in the dark to catch the stars and the dawn, late to dinner because he's busy in the Golden Hour, carting around a massive pack all day with his gear in it, including serious tripods (he didn't take a single photo without using a tripod - 10-second exposures require that, of course). Interestingly, he declares that the sun is not his friend: good to remember on a dull day when the obvious, cliche photos aren't possible, and you've left the camera at home. As long as you have your iPhone 5 with you, that is - which, duh.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Decelerated

It's not an excuse, it's a reason. Not that this actually happened, but if you were to be stopped by a traffic cop with a radar gun on SH1 near, say, Balclutha, all you'd have to say would be, "There must be some mistake, officer. I've just been in the Catlins for three days." And then he would say, "Sorry, ma'm, carry on," and send his machine away to be recalibrated.

That's the effect this region has on people: it's the ultimate chill-out destination, and not just because it's often cold and rainy. For my visit it's been warm, dry and sunny, but driving away this morning I was so relaxed that it was a genuine, and unwelcome, effort to crank the car up to 100kmh when I reached the highway.

Sure, there are lots of winding, unsealed roads - but the seals at the end of them (sorry), and the penguins and dolphins, the wind-bent trees framing long views of the tropical blue Southern Ocean, the people always ready for a chat... It's the kind of place for slowing down and taking notice, and breathing deep. Speaking of which, even here at Dunedin Airport, the air smells of sweet silage with a hint of cow pats. Lovely! (No, really.)

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Water

"What a waste of a nice beach," said the man next to me at the Florence Hill lookout over Tautuku Bay. "Not a single house! Not even a tent. Tch." I pointed out that some people might see that as an advantage, but he was unconvinced. I was on my way to Cathedral Caves, the start of a watery sort of day here in the Catlins - scenery, that is, not weather, which has been glorious. The Caves are big and splendid, but require some wading to enter, which puts off a lot of people, apparently. Tch to them, I say: their loss.
Then there were waterfalls, mossy and green and white, and coolly refreshing on this warm day. They were a stop on the way to meet up with Brian for a slightly too exciting surf-ride in a boat out of the rivermouth and into Porpoise Bay. I went there yesterday to spot Hector's dolphins and thought I had done well to see half a dozen or so from the beach - but today we had about 19 diving under the boat and riding on the bow-wave, looking up at us sideways and generally playing in the clear water. Just 1.5m long: so cute!
And finally, there was another beach and lots more sea lions at Cannibal Bay, where 20+ animals lay on the sand and dozed, or flicked sand over themselves, or idly scratched, while two bulls had a desultory sort of scrap as I watched from about 10 metres away, eyeing up escape routes meanwhile, just in case. It was a lovely day, and I've become rather fond of the Catlins, as much because it's so dozy here as in spite of it. Nice place. You should come here!

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Gold

That's gold as in nuggets - this is Nugget Point, and those rocks look like a miner's dream, apparently. Myself, I don't need to see them as anything else to appreciate their beauty, especially in the low light of a fine evening in the Catlins, after a day pootling around at half-speed, discovering the tucked-away treats here.

One of them is actually man-made, surprisingly: the Lost Gypsy Caravan where Blair Somerville spends his days tinkering with rejects and recyclables to make "gizmos and gadgets" for the endless simple amusement of passing travellers attracted by his startlingly realistic mannequin out on the road. With a cup of the best lemon/honey/ginger tea I've ever tasted in my hand, I poked through his old house truck full of jokey games and toys, and then followed his garden trail of hand-operated machines: a paua shell water-wheel that makes natural music, a corrugated iron whale that breeches and dives, an old-fashioned hairdresser's chair that, when you sit in it, plays kakapo noises through the dryer hood. Best of all was a wooden-keyed organ with each note played by a different machine - radio, gong, electric toothbrush - that combines Blair's favourite elements: art, science and fun.

There were waterfalls today, bush walks, museums, more yellow-eyed penguins rock-hopping over a beach and scrambling in an endearingly ungainly manner up into the bush to nest overnight, and this nearly 3 metre bull sea lion napping on the beach, so still I didn't notice him at first. I'm very glad I didn't think he was a log, and sit on him.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Rare

The last time I was in a restaurant next to a table of rowdy French diners (currently fussing about the temperature of their wine - what a cliché) was in, well, France. But here I am tucked away in the Catlins in south-eastern South Island and insofar as such a quiet place could be said to be swarming, it is, with French, Germans, Dutch, Japanese... And Kiwis too. Word's got around that this place is worth seeing.

I was at NZ's southernmost tip, the - of course - plainly named Slope Point, halfway between the equator and the South Pole, and happily more tropical in temperature than polar. The bathers at Curio Bay must have been glad of that, lured into the blue water by the pod of Hector's dolphins lazily cruising around the bay.

They're the world's smallest and rarest dolphin, with a cute Mickey Mouse ear fin. Then I went to see the world's rarest penguin, the yellow-eyed, hopping over a 160 million year-old fossilised forest. And while we're talking Jurassic, the day began with this tuatara - not a lizard! - that was around then. Not this guy, he's just 15. But that wrinkled hand he's sitting on could almost be dinosaur-age...

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Birds small and big. Maybe very big.

More birds today, finishing with a bold, rowdy kaka sitting on my arm like a falcon, greedy for peanuts. Don't tell Forest & Bird, DoC or any of the other conservation groups, but it's possible to get a tiny bit tired of these raucous parrots which seem to have so much spare time for hanging around talking, squabbling and screeching. Especially first thing in the morning, on the tin roof.

Much more welcome were the sternly frowning mollymawks (albatross to you and Monty Python) clustering round the boat this afternoon on the way to Ulva Island; and the yellow-eyed penguin ducking and diving around them to the astonishment of the crew. "So rare!" they gasped - but pft, that's the second rare avian visitor I've seen here in two days (yesterday it was a white heron that had two burly birders grabbing for their big lenses).

I'm astonished by how big the island is, and how untouched the vast majority of it is - so densely forested with virgin bush that no one can say for sure what's in there. Or what isn't. Nobody's actually claiming moa - but...

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Island zoo

Today was all about the creatures. I flew just 20 minutes from Invercargill to Stewart Island and thought, for a change, I'd go for a walk. To Horseshoe Bay, which on the postcards looked like it'd give Tasmania's Wineglass Bay a run for its money: white sand, perfect curve between bushy headlands, turquoise water. It's just 3-4 hours.

First there was a white heron feeding in the reeds, to the great excitement of a couple of birders with fat lenses. Then, after first lunch at the offputtingly-named Dead Man Beach (glorious little bay, utterly deserted and mine, all mine) there was a white-tailed deer grazing by the road.

Back at the motel, there was a flock of greedy kaka, native parrots, jostling on the verandah railing to take peanuts delicately from my fingers with their sharp and cruelly curved beaks. And finally, after a feed of big, fat Bluff oysters, there were three brown kiwi on the beach in the dark, probing their long beaks deep into the sand after sand-hoppers, quite undisturbed by our torchlight. My first wild kiwi! Brilliant.

Friday, March 22, 2013

The Hump Ridge Track

That's the Hump Ridge Track, then, all done and dusted. We had fabulous weather, which was really lucky, and a friendly, sociable group and brilliant guides too - but the true star was the track, all 46km of it.

Trees both towering and stumpy, ferns both tall and tiny, mosses soft and spiky. Every imaginable shade of green. Curious robins and fantails, squawking kaka, rustling wood pigeons, tuneful bellbirds, creaking tui. Alpine uplands, bare and weather-beaten, soft sheltered woodlands, architectural rocks, golden beach. Lung-bursting scrambling up the Grunt, knee-jarring descents down the steps, striding out along the tram track section and the beach. Views both long and wide, and hemmed in by trees and rocks.

So much good food, especially the hot manuka-smoked Stewart Island salmon at Port Craig lodge. Lots of jokes and laughter, some blisters, one crook knee and universal stiff muscles. Not one of us got to the end of the track without regret. And each of us was proud of a challenge met.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

On top of the world

Waking through the night, the sky through the uncurtained window was foggy every time. At about 3am, I finally realised it was condensation on the glass: when I rubbed it away, the stars were bright and clear. But not as bright and clear as the tors and tarns at the top of the hill in the morning. Beautiful!

Guide Liz told us as we stood at the lookout that it was a Tuatapere schoolteacher who wrote the words to the Carpenters' hit 'Top of the World', and Evan just happened to have the song on his iPad right there. So, cheesy as it may sound, we stood on that peak in the new day and listened to it as the colour flooded into the landscape that was clear and bright all the way around, and it was perfect.

The rest of the day was 20 km of boardwalk, steps, tree roots, birds, moss, ferns and a long long walk along a defunct logging tramline and over three wooden viaducts, one of them the longest in the world. The day was long too, and tiring, but lovely, and finished with fabulous hot-smoked salmon at Port Craig where hopefully tomorrow there'll be dolphins and penguins.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Knocked off!

Yes, 3G and phone at Okaka Lodge! AND, I got here! Second! Not that I was racing, or anything....

It wasn't a piece of weasel - not that I could claim that here anyway, mustelids being a dirty word in national parks - far from it. It was a scramble in places, with rocks, tree roots, flights of steps natural and man made. There was puffing, there were distraction techniques (foreign counting, forwards and backwards, recitation of bits of doggerel). There was measurement of distance to go using numbered stoat traps.

There were also scenic distractions: huge gnarled podocarps, ferns, mosses, lichens, glimpses through the trees back to the blue expanses of Te Waewae Bay, fantails and bush robins. And no people or planes or engines of any sort. Glorious.

But mist at the top, and no views, alas. Fingers will be crossed all night.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

In the farrrr south

So what else would you expect, when ordering the lamb's fry for dinner at the Last Light Lodge cafe in sleepy little Tuatapere, but the French girl at the bar asking, "You know zat ees liveer?" (Kind of ironic, since the first time I ever ordered it in a restaurant was in New Caledonia, when I didn't actually realise what 'foie de veau poelle Provencale' was. Where was the helpful French waiter then, eh? Just as well it turned out to be delicious.)

Here I am in the Deep South, then, fuelling up on the iron for tomorrow's 1000 metre climb on the first day of the Hump Ridge Track. Which, according to the track guy, who's laid-back and cheerful (as they always are) is "do-able". That's heaps better than "tough" which is the most common description I've come across so far.

The other 8 punters are probably pre-Baby Boomer, so of course that makes me the youngest - but that means nothing, I've been caught out by these wiry old birds before. Thankfully there's a National Geographic snapper along, from Boston, who'll be tooling along behind fussing with lenses and tripods, so I'm guaranteed not to be last. Not that you'll know either way, since I'm going to be Out Of Contact for the next three days. See ya!

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Tidy! (Also in the Gavin & Stacey sense)

 
Though I always say I'm not a proper journalist, having sneaked into travel writing through the back door, I am one in the sense that I really need a deadline in order to get work done. Or perhaps that's just my own personal procrastination in operation. Whichever, though I've filed all my commissioned stories now, there are others I could be writing on spec; but it's hard to sit down and get stuck in without a definite goal. As I'm nearing departure day for my next trip, 10 days in Southland including a 3-day hike, I've anyway moved into tidying-mode - getting my affairs in order and leaving the house clean and tidy for the burglars (even though I'm going on my own and the house will not be empty - just thought I'd mention that...).

The focus this time is the room I use as my office, which has been piling up with papers and sundry stuff for ages. It's been a bit of a mission: sorting through the bags and bags full of the press packs, brochures, CDs, memory sticks, maps and itineraries that I accumulate on each trip and never seem to have time to whittle down while I'm away, so dutifully bring back, all that glossy paper weighing heavy in my suitcase. Most of it is so beautifully produced, and clearly expensive, both in paper stock and in the time spent by the PR people justifying their existences, that it seems wasteful, not to mention rude, to bin it as soon as I'm given it.

However, binned it mostly has been now, and not only do I have the reward of clear decks, but also more tangible benefits: like finding the lens cap I thought I'd lost two years ago and have been missing ever since; and a bar of camel milk chocolate with dates in from Dubai; and a handbag I had completely forgotten buying that will make a fine replacement for my current tatty number. I also found my little Bose CD player. It now seems so antiquated that I doubt it'll get any takers if I try to sell it on TradeMe, but I remember being so delighted with it back in 2005 when I was driving in my rental car along the Stuart Highway from Darwin to Katherine, the music cranked up loud as I swooped along the long, long road that led straight to the horizon, blue sky above me and red dirt either side, donkeys and kangaroos, termite mounds and gum trees. And at the end of the day there was a boat to a barbecue with stars and a crocodile, and finally a bed in a rammed-earth homestead.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Not fair, Fairfax.

Twenty-three. That's how many stories I have lined up in the files of five publications, accepted and waiting to see the light of day. The good news is, well, 23! The bad news is, waiting. But that's how it goes in this job, and I'm used to that, even though there can be months - a year plus, even - passing by before I'm paid for my work. The very worst news is the number five. Four newspapers and one magazine, that is, the main takers of my stories. There are some other magazines that publish travel stories (though not many, and definitely fewer than there were) but for one reason or another I haven't done so well with them, so far anyway. That's why it's so dismaying that this week one of my core editors reluctantly announced that he's not able to accept any more - "for payment" - overseas destination stories from freelances for publication in the Press.

Fairfax has been trimming its sails for a couple of years now, getting rid of lots of journalists mainly in Australia but also here, consolidating its operations and cutting its budgets back further and further. It's all part of the changing face of the media, the incursions of the internet into the territory of the newspapers, falling sales and advertising revenue, the recession, money, money, money. No-one really knows how it's going to end, whether newspapers will survive in anything like their current form; but it's definite that everyone is now feeling the pinch, even me out here on the periphery.

It's hard for us freelances, to be losing now one of our main markets for overseas stories; but it's also bad for the paper. Sure the editor can pick and choose from huge files of syndicated stories by excellent writers who've been everywhere - but they're all foreigners, and what's missing will be the local connection, the specifically Kiwi slant on a place or an event that makes a story that much more interesting for readers here, more relevant, more intriguing. It's not being parochial, it's a short cut to being connected to a destination, and that's something I think is important (see above, right). It's not a big thing, granted, but it's just another dilution of the richness we have enjoyed. So that's mainly why I'm sad about the Fairfax decision: it's not just my loss, it's everybody's.

Monday, March 11, 2013

More, please.

"Another beautiful day in Paradise!" said the whistling builder unpacking his truck as I walked past this morning. And so it is: though there's an autumnal nip to the air at the start and end of the day now, the bit in between is still glorious summer, hot and dry and perfect. The farmers are gasping and the official drought area currently covers most of the North Island, but I'm selfishly hoping the weather continues for at least another couple of weeks.

Next Tuesday I'm heading off back down to Southland, for another fix of fabulous South Island scenery. Chris Hadfield has tweeted this morning, in answer to a question about his pick of the eight (eight??) wonders of the planet, that third in his list is "S NZ", up there with sunrise, the Outback, Sahara, Kamchatka, Grand Canyon, Great Lakes and "where the ocean touches the land". Impressive company, but the South Island fits in there perfectly.

I'm going to Stewart Island (hopefully to see kiwi in the wild) and to the Catlins, having been to neither before - and also to western Southland, passing through Riverton, scene of my first teaching practice *cough* years ago, to take on the prosaically-named Hump Ridge Track, a 3-day tramp the first day of which rather frighteningly goes from the beach up to almost 1000 metres. Even seasoned trampers, which I am very far from being, report that there are sections which are "tough". So - quite possibly pathetically inadequately - I've moved my morning walk up a notch, doing a double ascent of the 132 steps on the route. [The fat man who lives at the bottom, in a tatty bach on an enviable section, called out this morning as I set off (briskly) on the first climb, "You're meant to run up!" In a literal, if backwards, example of esprit d'escalier, it was only at the top that I thought of replying pointedly, "That's what you do, is it?"] I'm expecting too much sweat and not enough breath; but also hoping for my reward in views which track reviews unanimously describe as "absolutely stunning". So, please stick around, summer.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

"Human Catherine wheels!"

So my camera let me down (not, of course, the other way round) and my fireworks photos turned out, hmm, let's say more arty than conventional. Never mind: it was a brilliant evening, up on the hill in the Domain last night, watching the Auckland Festival display by French pyromaniacs (probably there's a more correct term) Groupe F. It was called 'The Breath of the Volcano' and was specially created, incorporating video and sound recordings the team had done around the city - sea, birds, scenery - which were projected onto the side of the Museum and choreographed with fireworks, fire and dancers covered in LED lights. It was all very spectacular and exciting, enhanced by the Firstborn's enthusiasm about the Catherine wheels operated by the dancers; and by the perfect warm clear evening with the Southern Cross right overhead.

The programme included what I suppose we now have to call a cheeky sequence where a rainbow was blown up by some cartoon frogs. Only my New Zealand readers will understand that reference, I presume: the sinking in 1985 of the Greenpeace ship the Rainbow Warrior by French government agents when it was moored at a wharf in Auckland harbour, the second explosion killing a Portuguese photographer on board. I wonder if even the French, as a people, remember that as well as we do? Our own little bit of international terrorism, initiated by a friendly trading partner.

They didn't like Greenpeace interfering with their nuclear testing at Mururoa; and the fact that New Zealand was - is - vehemently nuclear-free was probably an additional, though incidental, irritation. I do know that when we were sailing up the Rhone last year and we went past this cluster of sinister-looking cooling towers at a nuclear power station near Montelimar, one of them decorated with a cynically innocuous painting, we four Kiwis on board all narrowed our eyes a little.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Velbekomme!

And so the coincidences continue: first Bornholm popping up in the ISS Twitter feed and then my Ecco shoe catalogue; and today it's Noma's turn. A story in today's paper about insect protein is linked to the start of the 24th Wild Foods festival in Hokitika, and references Noma as attempting to make eating bugs more mainstream. Next month there's going to be a wittily-named Pestival in London, and the Noma people will be involved.

Apparently they've already served ants, on purpose: I did once almost eat a wasp in my restaurant lasagne, but that was accidental, and the Noma chef insists that anyone who's eaten mushrooms has also eaten more worms than they could imagine. He gets lyrical about a puree of fermented grasshoppers and moth larvae (tastes like fish sauce, evidently) and a sweet mayonnaise using bee larvae. It doesn't get my taste-buds agitating, but that's just privileged Western prejudice - plenty of peoples around the world have been eating insects for ever.

It wouldn't be the worst thing: I have bitten the bottoms off live green ants in Outback Australia ("six of these a day and you'll never get scurvy") which were tangy and lemony and really rather pleasant. The huhu grubs I ate in Hokitika certainly didn't look inviting, being big, fat, pale and unmistakeably larvae, but tasted of creamy peanut butter; and the deep fried crickets I was served in a Hanoi restaurant were a crunchy novelty that was quite tasty, if somewhat spoiled by the anxiety about getting legs stuck between my teeth. (Shocking photo - I blame the rice wine.)

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Skaal!

Are you following the tweets of Cmdr Chris Hadfield, on the International Space Station? You should - he's an excellent Twitterer, and his photos are brilliant. This is one he posted just an hour or so ago, of Bornholm Island in Denmark. It's in the middle of the Baltic Sea, midway between Sweden and Germany, and saw some lively action during the war when the Soviets bombed the occupying Germans with huge damage to its two towns; which Sweden later helped rebuild by kindly donating hundreds of wooden houses. The reason it caught my eye today, is that though I haven't been there, I've eaten its food: it's known as Denmark's sunshine island and is famous for its mulberries (though in winter it can get up to 3 metres of snow - clearly less right now).

When I was in Copenhagen, we went to a restaurant, Koeford, that specialises in ingredients and dishes from Bornholm, and it was a really lovely evening. Our waiter, Lars, was from there too, and looked after us well, bringing a series of dishes to the table that though they were basically traditional, were served with contemporary style (perhaps the presence of Noma, "the world's best restaurant" just across the harbour made them up their game). So we had things like our entree of herring and quail's egg served in a little preserving jar with elm smoke trapped in with it, that escaped when we opened the lids. Some dishes were served on small island-shaped slabs of Bornhom granite: rooster, forest pork, mushrooms, leeks, really nice bread with soft buttermilk butter, celery crisps... Courses between courses. Yum.

Even the water on the table came from the island; same with the beer and wine matched to the dishes, but best of all to my taste was the Bornholm cider (made, Lars informed us, by a co-operative of disabled people, which was nice but also rather ironic, given the effect that cider has) that was served with the dessert of calvados-flavoured rhubarb sorbet and tangy oxidised apple. Double yum. And then chocolate to finish, with a sticky wine. Glorious! And fortunately, the restaurant was within staggering distance of our hotel; on balance (actually, the lack of it), it was as well we hadn't gone to Noma, which we'd been sad about at first. We ate just as well, and there was no risk of falling overboard on the way back. Which is always a good thing.
UPDATE: And, in the grand tradition of TravelSkite coincidences, what should I get in the mail the morning after posting this, but the winter catalogue from Ecco shoes with this photo at the front, with a blurb that says, "...and our favourite place... is the cozy, charming island of Bornholm - a small, mountainous haven in the Baltic Sea..." Amazing.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Lolly largesse

My camera came back from the repairers today - again. I was careless with it last year, and it fell from my suitcase onto a hard floor, about half a metre, and ever since has had intermittent faults with exposure and focus. I hope it's properly fixed this time, because I hate to be without its familiar black presence. The floor it fell onto was the one I was writing about sleeping on today - at least, on top of a mattress on that floor in the homestay in northern Vietnam.

It was such a fun trip, that World Expeditions one, and of course a lot of that was down to the other people, who were a jolly bunch; but it was also great to be in a new country and surrounded by unfamiliar scenery and people and culture and food, all of which was just delightful. Particularly the food. And the apricot rice wine. There was a horrendous amount of driving in a van, much of it along awful roads full of bumps and potholes and traffic, as well as often quite frightening drop-offs; but it was worth it to get to the off-the-beaten-track area where we were the centre of attention and frequently the subject of the locals' photos. It's always a bit of a hoot when that happens, and perfectly fair pay-back.

When we were in the depths of the Dong Van Karst Geopark (how that name is rolling off my tongue now!) we stopped to interrupt a lesson in a tiny hill village school that had just six little students sitting at their desks looking very solemnly at the blackboard and obediently not at us. They were very neat and clean, and totally unlike the small band of grubby urchins that was roaming around outside, in ragged clothes and no shoes (or pants, in several cases) - I wonder if they swap over for a half-day of education each? These ones I'm sure would have thought they were the winners that day, as some of us had been foresighted enough to bring lollies and shiny stickers, and though they were shy they weren't backward at sticking out their hands. Good for them. I bet they don't get many treats.

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