Sunday, April 28, 2013

Close call at Stewart Island

Thank goodness. A ship ran aground yesterday on rocks just off Paterson Inlet on Stewart Island and holed its fuel tank, but it was only diesel and apparently evaporated or dispersed in the rough conditions without causing any damage to the environment. It happened in a marine reserve, and right by Ulva Island, which is a pest-free haven for a teeming population of birds of all sorts, including kiwi and saddlebacks but also lots of seabirds. Visitors to Stewart Island can take the water-taxi there for an independent mosey around, or go on a tour, as I did. Our captain was thrilled to spot a yellow-eyed penguin on the way, which he'd thought at first was the more common little blue one. He backed up the boat for a second look, to the confusion of the gathering mollymawks, or albatrosses, that were already skidding down to the water for their accustomed feed of fish-frames.
Though I dutifully took photos of the penguin, it's not one of the cuter varieties, I have to say (the little blue would have been more photogenic: it's something about those yellow eyes). I was much more taken by the mollymawks, sternly frowning though they seemed to be. They're so architectural, their colouring so delineated; and of course, so big, such long-distance fliers, automatically commanding respect. Though the splashy free-for-all that resulted when the fish bits were flung overboard was somewhat undignified.
As it happens, having just walked the Hump Ridge Track which is also very birdy, I didn't see any species on Ulva Island that I hadn't already come across, so it was a bit less of a novelty for me. Even the white heron that was getting the locals so excited back near Oban was a bit ho-hum, having been to their main breeding ground at Okarito on the West Coast and seen dozens nesting there. But I really did enjoy the unexpected encounter I had with a young white-tailed deer when I was out on a walk - yes, introduced pest species, spit, destroying the environment. But so pretty!

Thursday, April 25, 2013

We will remember them

Perhaps the spit and polish isn't as good these days - certainly the standard of marching suggests rather less square-bashing than used to be standard - but full marks, as usual, to the Devonport Anzac Day service for sincerity, respect, organisation, inclusiveness and colour. This year one of the catafalque guards got a bit faint, poor young man, and had to be relieved; the Last Post bugler on the roof was a cornet player on the ground; there was no Lord's Prayer but we sang the Australian national anthem; and a choir boosted the sadly abysmal hymn-singing performance of the public (those of us who learned them all at school getting feebler in the volume department, and the youngsters not coming across them at all now).
It was a beautiful morning after heavy rain through the night, the flags were flapping in a warm breeze, seagulls called from the beach, sails billowed on the yachts on the harbour, and children perched in the crook of the big pohutukawa beside the war memorial. It was a large crowd, from little kids cross-legged on the ground to frail old veterans smart in their blazers, medals glinting, everyone wearing a poppy. It was solemn and proper, and there was no forgetting the loss and the sacrifice.
Afterwards we went to the Navy Museum along the front in Torpedo Bay, really well presented and interesting, even to someone with Air Force affiliations. It starts with Cook's Endeavour and finishes with Bosnia, with in between lots of models, memorabilia, weapons, photos, video and storyboards. Perhaps the most chilling thing I saw there today was this Japanese map of New Zealand - what with that, and the accounts of German activity off the North Island coast, it demonstrates the accuracy of the title World War.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Getting twitchy

While it's true (see below) that trains are looming large for me at the moment, so are birds. They were all over the Hump Ridge Track, even more so on Stewart Island where I saw wild kiwi as well as a stray white heron, more kaka than I could shake a stick at - not that they would have cared if I had, bold rowdy parrots that they are - and then there were the penguins in the Catlins.
Down in Wellington, we went to Zealandia, which is a wildlife sanctuary very close to the centre of the city, where all pests have been eliminated (apart from a few mice) inside its simple-but-effective top-hatted fence, with wonderful results. 'Wildlife' in the NZ context of course means birds, since we have nothing else native, except for some bats, and I was actually perversely depressed by how much birdsong there was. It was loud and varied and glorious: so much better than what had pleased me down in Fiordland along the track, and just shows the terrible effects of those blasted stoats, rats and possums, despite all the traps they maintain.
Amongst all the species at Zealandia are takahe, strange sturdy creatures like monster blue-green chickens, poking into the feeders and looking even odder because the two we saw both had transmitters sticking out of their feathers. They were thought extinct, but rediscovered down in the depths of Fiordland in 1948, and have been conserved since then with moderate success. There are some that have been reintroduced to the wild near Lake Te Anau that cost the taxpayer a phenomenal sum each (not that I'm complaining) but most of them are in managed reserves like this one. It's a worthwhile place to visit, you could easily spend half a day there, chasing the birds with your camera. Not that I had to do much chasing of this tui - I just hung out of our bathroom window here at home.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

What a difference one letter makes

What is there left to say about Boston? Boo, hiss to the internet for making it so easy for terrorists/madmen/disaffected youths to make such simple but deadly bombs. Yay to the internet for making it so easy to keep up with developments in real time and to allow the public to help the police. Shocking and tragic as it all was, and so appalling that the brothers would even think about targeting marathon runners and spectators, it was drearily familiar too in the reactions: the national solidarity, the media coverage, the scramble in our press to find local connections, the official pronouncements, the parade of smiling photos of victims, the makeshift memorials... Yes it was more random this time, and the method was novel, but it probably won't be long before there's another in the long, long line of mass shootings and we'll be back at the beginning again. When the Senate won't even tighten up background checks for gun purchasers, what hope is there?

Friday, April 19, 2013

KiwiRail's Northern Explorer

The whole purpose of going down to Wellington was to come back again, on the Northern Explorer. Trains have become a bit of a theme recently, with my having travelled across several European countries on the rails last year, and the Rocky Mountaineer and various other train trips coming up in June. This is one I hadn't done before: the 10-hour journey between Auckland and Wellington along the Main Trunk Line through and past some of the North Island's best scenery. "A front-row seat to the back country," the brochure described it - and so it was, passing through places not on view to road travellers, and giving a new perspective to familiar scenes.
Some were, even so, a bit too familiar, so I was glad that, by chance, we'd chosen to travel north rather than south, given that the time of year means that the last hour or so of the journey is in darkness. That meant that the last section, approaching Auckland, was no great loss, whereas I would have been sorry to miss seeing the Kapiti Coast at the other end. Luckily (and unexpectedly) the sun was shining, and the sea sparkled, Kapiti Island looked invitingly mysterious, and the Tararuas were doing their best to evoke a Grahame Sydney painting.
There were lots of autumn-bright trees, the sheep were back-lit, the little towns neat and sleepy, the farmland tidy. Then we got up onto the volcanic plateau with ravines, rivers, viaducts and tussock country, before winding around the Raurimu Spiral, where the line curls round on itself and at one point you can see it both below and above the train: pretty impressive engineering. Nature had already outplayed that though, with the mountains we'd just gone past. Ruapehu was sulking inside cloud, but Ngauruhoe and Tongariro were clear, if moodily dark and threatening, the former channelling its Mt Doom persona.
LOTR references were overtaken by Hobbit ones as we went through the neat hilly green farmland near Matamata, hearing lots of history on the headphone commentary (which you can't hear if you're outside on the observation car, tch) before getting into familiar country as the rain arrived and the sun pushed off for the day.
It was a lovely trip, scenic, relaxing, comfortable in the nice new carriages with their big windows, David the Train Manager was friendly and informative, and Simone behind the counter in the cafe was quite a character. The food, by the way, was delicious - supplied by Wishbone. Their chicken laksa soup was so good I bought some more to take home. Imagine! Railway food you can't get enough of!

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Busy bees

Just down the hill last night, as we lay on the hotel bed watching one politician being laid to rest, our lot was busy making a bit of history again. New Zealand is the 13th nation to put Marriage Equality into law - not as good as our effort for universal suffrage (*cough* first) but much better than most, and something to be proud of.

We wandered down there today, and took the free tour of Parliament Buildings, which was somewhat constrained by the Pacific Forum going on, with noisy groups of people everywhere and many of the usual sights off-limits. We did, at the end though, get to go into the Chamber and lean on the MPs' desks, to the disquiet of the guide, who's not used to having her party loose in there.

It was good to see Parliament so busy, and know that last night the pollies actually achieved something. Pleasing, too, that despite an x-ray and no cameras, we were able to move around relatively freely and literally rub shoulders with our elected representatives in the corridors. Exactly as it should be.

By the way, I do like how even the weather forecast in the Dominion Post is political:

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

There's splendid, and then there's SPLENDID

It always surprises me how small Wellington is, seeing as how it's the capital city. It's not the only one, of course - Canberra, Ottawa, Washington DC spring to mind, as well as most (all?) US state capitals; but still...

Small but lovely, even on a damp, monochrome day, with some splendid buildings - I especially like the Catholic cathedral and the Fire Station - and a much more attractive waterfront than Auckland's, with lots of public artworks. It's the kind of place where culture comes easily, and so it was that we spent hours nosing around Te Papa, the National Museum, entertainingly (if necessarily) more modern than ancient in its exhibits, before finishing the day at Downstage Theatre.

We saw 'Krishnan's Dairy' which was clever and funny and sweet, and also short, so that we were back in time for the live broadcast of Maggie's £10 million funeral. I lived in England for all of her, it's hard not to say reign, so I understand completely the fuss, on both sides. That aside, there's nothing like seeing St Paul's being put to proper use. Now that truly is a splendid building.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Spit!

Good grief! Adventure World - that's Adventure World - has just announced its new luxury Inca Trail package. If anything ought to be an oxymoron, it's 'luxury Inca Trail'. This package includes masseuses, sleeping stretchers and HOT SHOWERS. Imagine! Trails of porters in car tyre sandals flapping up and down all those irregular steps with strapped to their backs a massage table, fancy Portaloos, gourmet dinner ingredients, presumably linen table cloths, wine glasses... It's madness.

The Inca Trail is a unique and very special experience that's meant to leave you grateful for the opportunity to have walked it, and proud of having coped with the altitude, the exertion and the relatively primitive conditions. It's not right, turning it into some cushy outing with canapes and high thread-count pillowcases, for goodness sake. Wrong! Totally, totally wrong.

When I did it, with Explore, it was already a cut above the usual experience, simply because we started walking five hours or so behind the daily quota of trekkers (still just 500 a day, porters included). That meant that, far from walking in the company of so many people, and trying to sleep each night while some of them partied hard, we didn't see any other hikers till literally the very end of the track, and spent our nights in peace at what were for everyone else, lunch stops. It was a real privilege, having the track to ourselves, with all its birds and ruins and rivers.

But we still slept on the ground, on pads, washing twice a day in half a bowl of warm water brought to our tents by the porters, ate nourishing, if plain, rice-based food, and used a fairly insalubrious portable toilet (which was made worse by the sole American in our group, Chuck from Saint Louis, refusing to go along with the national custom of putting used loo paper in a bucket, rather than down the toilet). When we got to the end for that fabulous view of Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate, we truly felt we had earned it, and even owned it, a little. I really can't believe it could possibly be the same for well-rested, fluffed-up, gourmet-fed rich people.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Mists, mellow fruitfulness, Massachusetts and more...

Definitely autumn today, with drifts of leaves on the deck, a sudden downpour of real rain and blackbirds flailing about in an ungainly manner on a bush covered with bright red berries. The cat has moved into my bed at night now and, in the absence of sun through the window onto her favourite spot during the day, has relocated to sitting at the left thigh of me the mother, which has the added advantage of placing her ears in the warm blast of air from the laptop fan.
The photo was taken one October in the Berkshires, Massachusetts, where Vs of geese were winging south, their honking surprisingly musical. Most of my trips to the US have been taken at that time of year, when everything's looking mellow, there are pumpkins everywhere, and the trees are - in New England especially, of course - brilliantly coloured in the low sun. It's no penance that the temperatures are cooler and sometimes it's cloudy; it's not as though I'm an English office-worker escaping for my annual holidays to get a blast of sunshine on my pale skin and top up last year's melanomas. Coming from somewhere that has, usually (and spectacularly so this year) reliable summer weather, it's quite liberating not to be reliant on good weather when I travel.
But this year I'm heading back to the States and Canada in June, so - summer! Except that the state this time is Alaska, and it's a cruise beginning right up in Seward, and there'll be glaciers. And in Canada it'll be the Rockies, with more glaciers. Layers: that's what it's going to be all about. Anyone who's ever been on a Silversea cruise has had that drummed into them; and this is going to be another one with them, a glorious compensation for having to turn down the offer of a little flit on the Silver Whisper from Wellington to Auckland earlier this year, because I was going to Gore.
But going to Gore got me offered a second trip to Southland, and the Hump Ridge Track which I've written two stories about today; and other lovely places down there. And I'm going to Wellington on Wednesday anyway, to take the train back, an offer that came about on a trip to Hobbiton, and I've referenced hobbits today. It's so satisfying when everything links together like this!

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Creeper and a crawler

There are many things that are fun to experience when you're travelling - New York's continuous sirens and whistles, lizards on the ceiling in the Islands, insistent offers of "special price for you" throughout Asia - that would drive you crazy if they happened at home. Today I've decided to put ivy into that category, having spent several sweaty hours trying to make an impression on the long tangled ropes of noxious weed that have been spilling over the fence from our non-gardening neighbour's place, clearly intent on annexing the henrun.
In its Virginia creeper incarnation, though, it's a delight to see on weathered stone walls, setting off the masonry beautifully whether fresh spring green or autumn crimson, and I've enjoyed it in Oxford, Copenhagen, Boston... Here it's in Scotland, tastefully blending with the pink stone of Dalhousie Castle, a 13th century fortress belonging for centuries to the Ramsay family on the banks of the Esk, about 8 miles from central Edinbugh. I stayed here just one night, in a lovely little three-storeyed room in one of the towers, with a view out over striped lawn, huge ancient cedars and various hawks, buzzards, eagles and owls tethered to posts beneath them. It was a classic: we were piped into the lobby on arrival by a doorman in a kilt, there was a secret bar behind false shelves in the library, an actual dungeon, and the staircase was so creaky that stories of historical night-time shenanigans there were actually quite hard to believe.
Various royal personages have slept there, including Edward I the night before defeating William Wallace at Falkirk, where we went the following day to look at the amazing Falkirk Wheel; but more memorable was encountering John Herriot Ramsay, distantly related to the family, out on his motorised reclining bicycle with its trailer of batteries. He button-holed us and told us all about his genealogical connections at quite some length, and regretted that he wasn't wearing his kilt for our delectation. Looking down at him lying there, his knees higher than his waist, all we could think was how immensely grateful we were for his trouser-clips.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

People = pigs

Despite being much more plainly named, I reckon Daniel Reese and John Craig were, together, New Zealand's own Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Way down in Southland, tucked away on the coast are the remains of some very big thinking indeed from back early last century when these two men, in the timber business in Marlborough, decided that the Waitutu Forest was going to be the big new thing. Totally undaunted by logistics, they built (or, had Irish immigrant navvies build for them) over 23km of tramway through the bush which had to cross four rivers. Viaducts were the answer, so they built (er, had built) huge structures, the biggest at Percy Burn, 125m long and 36m above the river, strong enough to bear the weight of an 80 tonne log-hauler they imported from North America.
Impressive, considering they were so very far from established centres of commerce - so it was a shame that it all turned to custard, the usable timber less abundant than they'd thought and the demand also smaller: by 1930 it was all over. Now all that's left are the viaducts and the path of the tramway, marked only by the sleepers. At Port Craig, once a bustling little town, there's just a schoolhouse and a collection of rusting relics. That's where we stayed our second night on the Hump Ridge Track, back down at sea level after climbing up to 1000m the previous day, which was a pretty decent workout.
It was much easier, walking along the tramway, despite the treacherous dogspikes that were still embedded in the sleepers, all too easy to trip over - but, churlish to say, it was a bit boring as there was nothing much to look at. I missed the moment of excitement reported by the person walking up ahead, who said he'd surprised a wild pig rooting through the undergrowth and looking very irritable about the cloud of fantails that were twittering and peeping along behind him, scooping up the insects that he'd disturbed. But then, I didn't see a squashed stoat inside any of the scores of traps we walked past either, so that was a plus. There were just lots and lots of birds: tui, bellbirds, fantails, grey warblers, tomtits and robins, all excited to see us - but only because of the insects. How insulting, that despite all that Brunel stuff, to them we were just on a par with the pigs.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

In Sir David's footsteps

These photos were taken, and kindly sent to me this morning, by Hannah Adams, an English girl currently working in Canterbury and along on the same kiwi-spotting tour as me on Stewart Island a couple of weeks ago. I'm still kicking myself about not taking my camera - I KNOW!!! - on the walk, as it was raining a bit, I was doubtful of getting anything useful by torchlight, and nervous about the flash - strictly forbidden - going off by accident. So I left it on the boat, and spent the whole time while we watched the three kiwi we found, surrounded by people busy with their cameras and even their phones, seething with frustration and annoyance with myself. I tried to tag along again the next night, but the operator said no. Pft.

All that aside, it was well worth going on the tour, for the thrill of being so close to real wild kiwi behaving normally, in this case probing with their long beaks deep into the sand to catch the sand-hoppers that burrow down there under the rotting seaweed. I was amazed that they went in the full length of their beaks (the longest in the world, in relation to body size) and stupidly was thinking they were in danger of filling their nostrils with sand. But of course they were anyway, totally, because I'd forgotten that the kiwi's nostrils are at the tip of the beak, not the base (which actually makes their beak one of the shortest in the world, if you're pedantic about these things).

With the whoosh of the waves breaking behind us, and the constant clatter of shutters (each one a stab to my heart), I didn't actually notice a sound the kiwi were making that the sainted David Attenborough referred to last night in the first episode of his fascinating TV series 60 years in the Wild. Introducing a clip of himself lying on that very beach in the dark watching a kiwi doing exactly what I'd seen, he mimicked the sneezing that he'd observed as the bird snorted the sand out of its nostrils.

For somewhere that most of the population thinks is so far away (forgetting that the rest of the world thinks that our entire country is impossibly far away) Southland has hosted a steady stream of famous naturalists. My Venture Southland host, Hannah, told me she was lucky enough to have dinner quite recently with Mark Carwardine, whose first trip there a few years ago, with Stephen Fry, involved an encounter with Sirocco the kakapo that the whole world has enjoyed.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Next? Vancouver and Alaska

When people find out what I do, the first question they ask, once they've got the sudden flush of envy out of the way, is How do I arrange my trips? The answer's not straightforward, and their eyes are usually glazing over before I'm finished, so I really need to work on a snappier reply. I suppose it really just boils down to "I ask, or I'm offered".

The latter is the more exciting, just because it's usually unexpected - and that's why I'm addicted to checking my emails, trained like Pavlov's dog by every so often opening one that asks out of the blue if I'd like to go to Easter Island, or Portugal, or on a cruise.Who wouldn't find that thrilling? And well worth trawling through the oceans of spam. Mostly it's an invitation from a PR person or tourism rep to take part in a group famil - usually small, 2 to 6 others along on the trip - but sometimes it's just for me, which in its way is equally rewarding. While it's fun (usually) to be part of a group, it can be more productive sometimes to be on my own, because I interact more with the people I meet. The third variation is when I'm allowed to take a  companion, often when there's a self-drive element, or when it's the kind of experience (like a cruise) that sharing would enhance - not that I haven't rattled round alone in more than one honeymoon suite in my time.

The downside of that kind of trip is that there's little, if any, room to choose where or what - which makes the self-arranged junkets more personally satisfying. They are, though, a whole lot more work - and usually more expensive. Airlines aren't always accommodating, though hotels are, in both senses; and local tourism people are generally pretty helpful with suggestions, contacts and authorisation. It all takes a lot of research, though, emails back and forth, fitting things together, reading timetables, reviews, getting visas perhaps... So I'm very glad to have my own personal in-house travel agent, who likes nothing better than doing all that stuff, writing up the itinerary and building up a file of paperwork. Which leaves it to me - right now, as it happens - to tempt and nag and inveigle my editors to say they'll take the stories that are the basic currency of the whole set of transactions.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Go, Venture Southland!

Further to my whingeing about being weighed down with expensively-produced press packs made of heavy glossy paper presented to me by PR people every time I go away, now I find there's this. On my recent trip down to Southland, an area some dismiss as far away and out of touch, I was given one of these for the first time. The same size as a credit card, and about twice as thick, this is what it turns into when you bend and flick it just so:
It's a flash drive! How nifty is that? Two gigs of files and high-res images, in a slip of plastic I could carry in my wallet if I wanted! So much more preferable to a great wad of brochures and printed-out statistics that make my suitcase a literal burden and an embarrassment, clutter up my workspace at home and (often) never get looked at before eventually being turfed out in a desperate spring-clean, piled up in boxes at the kerb for the recycling truck. (Although that did lead to the novelty of picking a snail-nibbled bit of card out of the front border a couple of days ago and discovering it to be an entry ticket to the viewing deck of the Empire State.) Honestly, would you rather be given one of these clever little devices - or this?

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Too hard to choose, today

So, what link do I go with today? The flash floods in Port Louis, Mauritius, that were reported on the news tonight, with scenes of torrents of muddy water sweeping through an underpass, helpless people bobbing along on the surface? Cars piled up on top of each other, human chains across roads running waist-deep in churning water, shuttered shops with water halfway up the doors? Eleven dead, apparently - so far: it's a busy and crowded city, of narrow streets choked with stalls, elegant old buildings as well as flimsy ones, a fort on the hill above and fancy new shopping and eating precincts along the waterfront, where beautiful young people pose and preen.
Or maybe the Earthflight documentary about birds that I watched tonight? This episode was focused on South America, and featured Andean condors, which I saw spiralling up out of the Colca Canyon; and the vultures that sit hunched on rocks above the incredible roaring maelstrom of Iguassu Falls, apparently impervious to the violence and power of the water all around them; and scarlet macaws clustered on clay lick banks along the Amazon, nibbling the dirt for minerals and to offset the toxic effects of the unripe fruit they eat. When I stood in the jungle, watching them, they circled restlessly and perched in the trees, but didn't land on the clay - something was worrying them, and on the programme I learned it could have been an eagle. Or a jaguar.
Perhaps Cotopaxi, which was an answer on QI last night? In Ecuador they claim that it's the world's highest active volcano, and according to Stephen Fry it's higher than Everest - if you're measuring from the centre of the Earth, that is, because the planet is flattened at the poles and bulges at the equator. When I went up to the high paramo for lunch - and delicious canelazo, cinnamon-scented orange tea with rum - at a lodge within sight of the mountain, it was skulking inside cloud and I didn't see it, though the normally more elusive Chimborazo, above, was for once in the clear; but late that night after a long and musical dinner in an Inca-built dining room, on the way to a bath by the fire before bed, Cotopaxi was clear and bright and symmetrical in the moonlight.
Or, prompted by the cover picture on a library book brought into the house today, the Glenfinnan Viaduct? It's a graceful concrete curve of 21 arches in western Scotland, build by Robert McAlpine, 'Concrete Bob', in 1901 and still standing strong as the elegant Jacobite train crosses it taking tourists from Fort William to Mallaig - or, in the Harry Potter movies, young witches and wizards to a new term at Hogwarts. I stood knee-deep in wet heather waiting to take a photo of it as it puffed towards me, and regretted, in my cold and soaking jeans, laughing at the Hooray Henry types at breakfast in the hotel that morning in their silly - but actually very sensible - tweed plus-fours.
Or I could just stop skiting, and go to bed.

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