Monday, May 27, 2013

States of flux

A week is a long time in politics, I believe, but it's no time at all on a blog, especially when there's a big trip looming and essential pre-travel tasks to be ticked off. Like throwing out a bunch of ancient lipsticks, tidying my shoes, knocking off a bit of pruning, that sort of thing. There have also been some industry events to attend: promoting the Southern Great Barrier Reef, tramping in Hawaii, the latest developments in New Caledonia. All possibilities, all promising, and all - this bit is important - offering drinks, canapes and the opportunity to do some schmoozing, gossiping and catching up with travel buddies. (I've also, I have to confess, been lured away from blogging by the siren call of Instagram, which also has the novelty factor at the moment.)
The States seem to be something of a trend with my colleagues at the moment - road trips particularly. RVing through Dakota and neighbouring states, for example; and a C&W/jazz tour from Nashville to New Orleans. I haven't been to any of those places but, having written all my various commissioned stories, I've been toying with some unused material from my tour of Washington state a couple of years ago. It's impossible, and undesirable, to cram everything on a trip into a single story; and given the smallish market for travel in NZ, it's inevitable that the suppliers of some of the elements of a busy famil will, after a while, write off that Kiwi free-loader as a bad job. And then, months - years - later, out of the blue they'll get a pdf or a link to a story that features their business and all will be well with the world again. That's how I like to look at it, anyway.
So, the lovely people at the Whale Museum on San Juan Island will finally get their due; and that very comfortable apartment in Friday Harbor with the great view over all the boats; and the boyishly enthusiastic directors of the quirky museums at Bellingham and Yakima Valley; and the nice man who attempted to teach me to fly-fish at the Canyon River Ranch on a sunny autumn afternoon... But not the people who took me on a walking ghost tour of Yakima, because that was just silly (though amazingly, it's still running) - ghosts, pft. You might just as well try to whip up interest in vampires or zombies. Oh, wait...

Monday, May 20, 2013

Diddly-dee, diddly-dum

As I write, there are a lot of disgruntled commuters in Wellington getting to work late after a derailment this morning - less dramatic than the recent one in Connecticut, but hugely disruptive nonetheless. Not a good day for KiwiRail; though the Firstborn returned yesterday after travelling back from the capital on their Northern Explorer on a perfect blue-sky day with fabulous views of the mountains, lucky thing, and was deeply impressed by the long-distance rail experience. I became a member of the Rail Fanclub even earlier than her - in 1975, when I travelled around half of Australia on an Austrail Pass (look at that groovy 70s font!) most notably on the old Ghan from Adelaide up to Alice Springs.
No-one could call that an efficient trip - I remember standing on the open-air platform at the end of a carriage watching ants stream along a parallel rail faster than we were moving; and in the relatively recent past the train had got stranded for so long that the guard shot a camel to feed the passengers - but it was full of character and polished-wood elegance. It was also the first time I ever ate Bircher muesli, and that was a life-changing revelation. The new Ghan is much smoother and more reliable, and in its Platinum incarnation much more luxurious, but it hasn't the personality of the old one (though it still has great stories: the idiot American backpacker who nearly froze in an outside stairwell on my actual trip just one of them). I also, in 1977, crossed the whole of Australia on the Indian Pacific, at the start of my epic 16-year OE.*
I love train travel - it's lovely to be able to move about, eat at your leisure, and watch the landscape pass by. It's wonderfully relaxing. Well, my latest train trips have been, moving effortlessly around Europe, taking the Northern Explorer myself recently - though I do remember a hot and crowded trip long ago from Jogjakarta down to the bottom of Java to catch the ferry to Bali that was all hard seats, blazing sun and packed people; and getting grit in my eyes on a steam train from Delhi to Agra. Those trips were memorable though more for the experience than the discomfort, and for the views and insight into how the locals live and get about. Vivid. At the other extreme, there was also the Maglev at Shanghai, slick, futuristic and amazingly fast - just the 434km/h.
Within the next month, there'll be four more: the Coastal Classic from  Anchorage to Seward, the Rocky Mountaineer from Vancouver to Banff, Via from Jasper to Vancouver, and the Sea to Sky from Vancouver to Whistler. They'll all be civilised and comfortable, but the spectacular scenery they travel through guarantees that they'll be memorable. Can't wait. Toot toot!
*OE = overseas experience

Friday, May 17, 2013

No prize, but a consolation

My certificate arrived this morning, posted because also-rans don't get any moments of glory at the presentation evening, which is a slick if rowdy affair during which 50+ gongs are handed over in double-quick time, to allow for plenty of drinking afterwards, presumably. Shame about the typo, eh? Kind of takes the shine off it; and as for the 'Power of Journalism' claim - somewhat enfeebled, I feel. (Bitter, me?)

The story was the one about my visit to the site of Stalag Luft III in Zagan, Poland, which you can read here, and was my second runner-up of the week, having had another three days earlier at the Cathay Pacific Travel Media Awards with this one about Parihaka. This is not meant as skiting, this time (nb blog title) because there's no unalloyed joy in coming second, no matter how many unrecognised entrants stand behind you. I don't want to sound churlish, but everybody knows winning is best.

However. The prize for the 2013 Cathay Pacific/Travcom awards is somewhat less generous than previously - when I won four (sigh) years ago, it was a trip for two to India, business class, with a five-day private tour of the Golden Triangle. This year it's four days of sightseeing for one person in Hong Kong, with a possible upgrade to business, and accommodation at the Peninsula. Well, it would all have been a bit deja-vu: though I only had [skite alert] two nights (pre-Silversea cruise, not as a prize) at that splendid hotel, it was in a 6-room suite with a telescope, we were met at the airbridge by the hotel person, were driven there in a Roll's Royce and had a degustation dinner in the three restaurants. What fun it all was! It would have been such a shame, to spoil that first fine careless rapture by a sordid repetition. Wouldn't it?

Monday, May 13, 2013

Up the creek with a paddle

Out on my constitutional today, I saw a couple unloading their kayak at an inner-harbour beach and thought, what a lovely way to spend a still, sunny morning. It seems ages since I've been kayaking. The last time was in Halong Bay in Vietnam, which was a bit of a bun-fight to be honest: the karst island scenery is magnificent but there are so many tourism operations going on there that it's hard to appreciate it properly, or feel laid-back about it, which is a shame. I liked the evening kayak I did to Browns Island in Auckland harbour, for dinner and drinks at sunset and a return trip shimmering with bio-luminescence, but that was years ago now.
So too was the morning paddle I did on the Gordon River in the wilderness of western Tasmania, but it was so lovely I remember it perfectly. It was a still morning like today, but silver rather than golden, and the water instead of being blue was black: deeply stained with tannin from the temperate rainforest that the river winds through. That made for mirror-like reflections, so that skimming silently along with the clouds both above and below me, I felt as though I was floating in the sky. We'd motored in our fancy catamaran way up the river, far from the civilisation that is the little town of Strahan, and spent the previous night on the water in total darkness.
We were out so early that I disturbed a platypus, and it swam away trailing a V through the water behind it. The whole experience was kind of surreal, because it was so still and so silent, the platypus the only sign of life. There weren't even any birds, because the forest is ancient, the trees having evolved pre-bird, so they don't have the flowers and seeds that would attract them. Almost creepy, so it was good to paddle back round the bend and smell bacon.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Lions and tigers and bears

I would love to be able to say that this was an image I captured in Sumatra, or India - but actually it was at Auckland Zoo this afternoon, where the grounds were awash with families on Mother's Day outings, the small fry perched along all the walls and railings, the most overheard question "Do you need the toilet?" Those days being, hooray, long behind me (my MD wishes arrived via email and text), I was able to give all my attention to the animals on a glorious sunny autumn day when they were looking their perfect best.

I do know someone who has seen tigers in the wild, in India, and also lions and elephants in Africa, the lucky thing. That would be so special, and well worth the long journey and potential discomfort. Another travel writing friend actually did a safari in Botswana by bicycle, which I do admire her for, but don't envy one bit. For me, safaris have to include a tent with billowing white curtains, though for subsequent bragging rights, I wouldn't mind the open-air loo yet another person told me about where an elephant's trunk flopped over the top and hung down the wall as she sat there.

It's a bit embarrassing to call myself a travel writer and not to have been to Africa. I keep saying "Maybe next year" but as it's not likely to happen by itself, I see I'm going to have to get pro-active, as they say. And, in the meantime, post another of my Instagram pictures (link on the right, if you're interested) that's actually of an African animal. The bears of the title, incidentally, will hopefully be present and correct in Alaska in just three weeks' time.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Ballet and burgers

Bit of culture tonight: the Moscow Ballet performing The Nutcracker, which was little odd to see in May since it's a Christmas story - but as it's autumn and I lived for a long time in the northern hemisphere, it was a reasonable fit as long as I didn't think about it too hard. Much more difficult was not mentally resurrecting all the advertisements that have used the music over the years; but the dancing was as diverting as it should have been, and the costumes were very pretty. Not the original Nutcracker's though, which was rather grotesque with its huge mouth and ranks of teeth - far more nightmare material than dream, I'd say.
It reminded me of Lyon, where on our route march down from the basilica on top of the hill through all the hidden alleyways and narrow lanes, we passed a restaurant with huge nutcrackers in the window. It was one of our stops on the Uniworld cruise up the Rhone - it was here that we took a left turn into the Saone - and the biggest city on the route. Our tour ended near Le Sud restaurant, one of Paul Bocuse's establishments, which balanced out the McBaguette ads we'd walked past, though I was still alarmed to see in Monoprix ready-assembled burgers requiring just a quick nuke to be ready to feast upon. Hummm, indeed.
Others spent the afternoon's free time in the restaurant and/or the shops, but since I was working, I tried out this museum of automatons, which turned out to be rather sweet, full of older ladies with grandchildren they were trying to keep focused on filling out a worksheet while the kids just rushed, enchanted, from one tableau to the next. I was quite taken with them all myself, despite their being rather primitive: charmingly so, really, and very French in their subjects. Quasimodo was there with Esmeralda, there were bucolic country scenes with peasants harvesting the grapes, the priest in a town square where old men gambled with cards behind his back, and a scene from Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, with a remarkably handsome Captain Nemo centre stage. As I said, very French...

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Pride and prejudice

A sea of young heads, capped and full of knowledge, ideas and enthusiasm: it's a hopeful and reassuring sight, even if some of the higher science degrees and diplomas awarded yesterday by Auckland University were for research that was either so esoteric that the description seemed in another language, or so down-to-earth it was hard to get excited. Apples seemed to feature rather a lot; though the woman who got hers in "wine science" caused a ripple of enthusiasm amongst some of the audience.
It was a shame that the drought had broken so dramatically that the traditional parade of graduands through the central city was cancelled for only the third time in 80 years: it's always a lovely sight, the students so pleased and proud and endearingly self-conscious in their robes and hoods, the procession accompanied by a fluttering of equally pleased and proud parents. All so different from the last time I saw students on the streets en masse: at the beginning of the academic year in Evora, Portugal.
The young people parading then weren't pleased or proud, though the older students lording it over them were very smug and self-satisfied, as well as rather sadistic. It's tradition, it seems, to humiliate the new entry, so the black-robed third-years were herding the newbies round in groups, having made them dress up in embarrassing outfits, and stopping them periodically to make them chant or sing or do silly things. I suppose having had it all happen to them made it easy for the seniors to inflict it on the next intake, but I did feel sorry for the unhappy-looking victims, many of whom wouldn't have known anyone else and perhaps were in a city for the first time. It felt unkind, even though it was probably meant, in its distant origins, to instil a sense of solidarity amongst the first-years. It seemed mean-spirited, and out of place in a lovely city with an especially beautiful university.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Broadly speaking, not a total success

Allowing for the time difference, it was a year ago today when I dislocated my shoulder on the Norfolk Broads, foolishly leaping off the boat as it was leaving the mooring, with a vague plan to prevent it from hitting the yacht next door. Quite how I was going to do that, nobody knows, especially me, because the next second I was writhing on the towpath, half of me hung precariously over the water, astonished at the pain. Seriously, dislocated shoulders hurt like nobody's business: don't do it.
And just like that our boating holiday was over: shame, I'd always fancied it. The single hour we'd
spent getting from Wroxham to Horning had been very promising, and once we were over the nervousness and novelty of being boaties, it looked like a lovely, relaxing way to get about. What's not to like? You pootle along at about 3mph in a comfortable modern boat (ideally, not just two of you in the 12m 8-man job we were generously, if misguidedly, assigned by Norfolk Broads Direct) along 125 miles of waterway past rows of pretty thatched houses each with its own watery driveway. There are trees, reeds, lots and lots of birds, wide expanses of pewter water, other boats, and pubs.
There's no beating an English pub, and this one was especially cosy and welcoming after a fraught first-time mooring on a cool grey day in late spring. There were other boaties relaxing in there as well, making it all very jolly, and it was very pleasant to spend the evening there and then just wander outside to climb aboard the River Countess and tuck up in the comfy bed to be gently rocked to sleep. And then to wake in the morning to the calls of birds already busy on the river, an early-morning stroll through the countryside to a pretty towered church, breakfast on the water and then another day quietly messing about in boats. Or, you know, not.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

It's all in the name

There's one word that will make anyone looking at this photo of some rather forbiddingly barren-looking islands instantly want to make the long journey there: Galapagos. David Attenborough's latest TV series, about the islands, has just started here and reminded me how lucky I was to go there two years ago with World Journeys. That's our yacht, La Pinta, our home for four days, moored beside Bartolome Island, the first one we visited after flying from Guayaquil in Ecuador to board the ship at Baltra. I was puzzled by the sterility of the place - I'd been expecting teeming wildlife, and it was disappointing to climb up this bare volcanic peak and hear there were only 10 species of any sort of life to be found on the entire island.
But that's why the islands are so interesting, and so vital to Darwin's studies. Not only are the various tortoises, finches and so on all differently adapted to their separate island environments, but the islands themselves are different ages, Bartolome one of the youngest, so the establishment of living things on them also makes for useful comparisons. We visited five, each with its own take on vegetation and wildlife, and finished up on Espanola, which is the cliche Galapagos island literally heaped with animals: well, the iguanas were heaped, on top of each other on rocks and on the path so we had to step over them, completely indifferent to our presence as they sunbathed and sneezed salt all over each other.
There were seals surfing up onto the beach to galumph over and sniff our boats and shoes, blue-footed boobies fixated on performing for and mating with each other as we stood right next to them, feeling somewhat embarrassed, fuzzy albatross babies stretching our their wings as they waited for their parents to come home with some food, the adults running down to the cliff edge to launch themselves off into the thermals, big-eyed nocturnal gulls preening each other... It was everything I'd hoped for, on top of a day of kayaking and swimming, with tropical penguins, bright red Sally Lightfoot crabs and playful seals, diving pelicans and balls of bait fish. And it had started with gentle Marimba chimes to wake us up with the announcement from the captain that there were whales off the stern of the boat. Fabulous place.

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