Wednesday 31 July 2013

Alarmed, but not excited

2,300 students plus 100 or so staff, 8 minutes 59 seconds: not bad, given the size of the school grounds. The Fire Department should be happy with today's drill stats. Timed for just before lunch, it was calculated to cause as little disruption to the day as possible - but that wasn't allowing for the effect of having the All Black training squad doing sprints out on the all-weather field during period 4. Apparently it's hard to concentrate on irregular French verbs when there's a wave of testosterone washing round your ankles, and a helicopter hovering overhead. I didn't bother getting close for a photo, they're only rugby players and apparently they weren't even the famous ones. "Bench-warmers," scoffed the Japanese teacher.
Instead I was remembering Canberra, which is the only place outside school where I've had to obey the summons of a fire alarm. It was in what felt like the middle of the night, when I was so deeply asleep that I spent the first few minutes bouncing on the hotel bed trying to turn off the smoke alarm, before I realised what was going on. Then I trooped off down the stairs with everyone else and sat for the best part of an hour on a kerb outside in my nightie, thankful it was a warm night, and wondering why I hadn't grabbed my passport, just in case.
It was a false alarm, and we were allowed back to bed. I came to suspect in the days that followed that that was probably about as exciting as Canberra nightlife gets - artificial city, national capital, and so on - though it's a pleasant, spacious, green sort of a place, and what it lacks in personality makes up for in convenience. No, that's not much of a recommendation, I agree. But you can have good times there - the War Memorial Museum is truly a star, and hot-air ballooning over Lake Burley Griffin and the striking Parliament House was certainly memorable. Best bit for me though was the zoo with its liger (lion x tiger) and its bears, one of which licked creamed corn off my palm. Much more thrilling than watching a bunch of sweaty rugby players running back and forth.

Tuesday 30 July 2013


No. No, I didn't. It would have been a rather pleasant end to a sunny day that began with two stories in the Herald and continued with a shortened day of French at school that included two free periods; but alas at the Accor hotels promotional event I wasn't one of the seven lucky souls whose business cards scored them a key in a lucky draw. They then had to try the keys in the door of this shiny red Peugeot Allure hatchback while everyone else watched jealously, and put on their best Oscar also-ran face when nothing happened. The fourth lady was the lucky one, the flashing lights on the car the signal for everyone else to head for the doors, full of free wine and tasty canapés but still dissatisfied. Was it too much to ask, having done French all day, for me to win a French car? Apparently so. Tch.

It was probably payback for advising the Year 9s to grunt and hack as they practised saying the numbers 1-10, and for mocking the convoluted system for 70-99, and for comparing nouns to little children, never allowed out on their own without an article holding their hands. Who knows if this stuff helps them remember? It amuses me, and passes the hour, and that's good enough. Numbers always trip you up when you're travelling, though, and doing your best to use another language. One to ten, or even 20 is all very well, but it's the big ones you really need, and when they're being gabbled at you as you stand in a queue with a press of people behind you, and you're trying to remember what the words mean, and relate that to the unfamiliar coins and notes in your pocket - well, it's a lot of stress to go through, for a slice of mille-feuilles and an Orangina.

And then, at the end of the evening, there was a spare half hour to wait, spent in the foyer of what was actually an Auckland casino but could have been in Hong Kong, judging by the clientele - more people playing with numbers and without a doubt having as much success as I did with the Peugeot. Although one person, at some point, had clearly lined all his up lucky.

Sunday 28 July 2013

Halong Bay cruise: review

Fastest raffle win ever, yesterday: tickets bought from cute little Sea Scouts outside dairy, walk home, phone rings, "You've won!" I don't want to seem churlish, so I'll say it's only slightly a shame that it was a fishing hamper, with two rods, backpack, tackle box filled with assorted hooks, weights and lures, and a hurricane lamp (at least that will be a useful addition to the disaster kit, for the next tornado/earthquake/eruption). Because, unfortunately, I don't fish.
I fished in my youth with moderate success, and have been on boats while others fished, also with moderate success, but it's not something I do any more. The last time I dropped bait into the water was in Vietnam with World Expeditions last year, in Halong Bay at night, off the back of the boat we were staying on. We were after squid, apparently. 'Apparently' because nobody caught anything or even saw movement in the circle of torchlight on the dark water - though there are worse things to do after a long and sociable dinner than sit in the warm night and dangle a line overboard.
The Halong Bay boat operation is a huge and pretty slick tourism phenomenon: a great fleet of vaguely junk-like big wooden boats all now roughly painted white in a token gesture towards cleaning the bay, disgorge and reload their passengers with military organisation. Our boat, the romantically-named Bhaya 3, was all dark varnish, airy spaces and billowing white curtains. I liked my room with its french doors, veranda and big bed, though it would have been cramped with two people and their suitcases.
The set-up is that you're loaded, the boats set en masse off into the islands which are dramatically scenic; there's a buffet lunch and a visit to a floating village where assorted schoolchildren sit in a tiny classroom reading aloud and studiously ignoring the succession of Westerners peering in and pointing cameras at them, and where workers poke pearl seeds into oysters. Back at the boat, the sensory treat of a massage on a private deck is rather compromised by diesel fumes rising from the engines below. Dinner, fishing, bed, and then in the morning, tai chi on the top deck (eager Westerners rising early for the authentic experience and then feeling silly when they find themselves copying the instructor as he adjusts his tunic buttons). A flit of the totally for-show sails, a visit to a cave with coloured lighting picking out the stalagmites, the phallus naturally a glowing orange, and then it's brunch as you head back to port so the ships can go through the process all over again.
It's a spectacular place to visit, and if you're short of time, this is the way to do it - but far better would be to take several days and go further into the islands. You might even catch an actual fish.

Thursday 25 July 2013

Bon appétit

There was a Taste of France evening at our local fancy supermarket tonight, and they did a pretty good job. Not only were there a surprising number of actual French people giving tastings of excellent cheeses, charcuterie, crèpes and flans, but the food itself was délicieux, especially the coquilles St Jacques and the duck confit that I had, and the tarte tatin afterwards. Lots of the food was imported from France, and I was especially pleased to see (and taste) Valrhona chocolate there.

On my cruise up the Rhone last April with Uniworld, we stopped at the twin towns of Tain-l'Hermitage and Tournon, facing each other across the river and joined by a rather lovely old wooden suspension bridge. Surrounded by vineyards, there was naturally a lot of wine talk, and many of the passengers went to a wine-tasting but I, not yet - tragically - having had my red wine epiphany, skipped that and made a beeline instead for the smallish showroom of the Valrhona chocolate factory. It's a kind of Willy Wonka-esque fantasy where the walls are lined with bars and bags of chocolate with edge-to-edge bins of free samples below them. It was fabulous, especially as I had, fortunately, already had the dark chocolate epiphany. 
After I'd grazed my way around the room and brightened up the grey afternoon, we were treated to a musical carillon in the church around the corner, lively tunes played on 8 ancient bells. The man who arranged the performance for us came to chat with our cruise director, Laurent, and together they made a pair of such cliché Frenchness that they surpassed even the striped jumpers and berets of the Farro staff tonight.

Tuesday 23 July 2013

Common or garden slasher

New royal baby - pft. Today's real big event was my being clawed by a tui - that's the thanks I get for going to all the trouble of buying a nectar feeder and keeping it supplied with sugar water. The tui flew into the living room window with a huge crash and when I went out I found it on the deck near a sparrow, which it must have been chasing away from its territory. When I picked up the tui, which was flapping about on the ground looking injured, it struggled and slashed at me with its claws which I learned the hard way are extremely - and, I would suggest, for a nectar feeder unnecessarily - sharp. I'm covered in scratches and holes. It was vicious. (Also scared, naturally.)

I'm glad to say that when I put it down on the grass, it flew away strongly, apparently recovered (as did the sparrow, after some time sitting dazed inside a shoebox). It was only then, of course, that I thought of taking a photo, so above is one I prepared earlier, possibly of the same tui, since they tend to hang around in the same area (territorial, see above).

Altogether, it was a traumatic encounter, on both sides, and I much preferred the civilised and gentle interaction I had with various puffins at the Alaska SeaLife Centre in Seward. You can pay for a behind-the-scenes tour which then takes you into the actual enclosure where all the seabirds live, a big deep tank with rocks and burrows around it and enough air space for gulls to fly. The puffins, dear little clowns that they are, were as cute as expected, and very polite about taking the bait fish and krill that I offered from my bucket. But the show was stolen by Clingy the rhinoceros auklet, who stuck close by our feet and spent quite a lot of time chewing on my shoelace. Very sweet and non-scarring as well - what more could you ask of a bird?

Monday 22 July 2013

Swarms at the Beehive

Ah, people died in China's earthquake today, but they didn't make the TV news: the swarm of quakes in Cook Strait that have rattled Wellington, especially the 6.5 last night, are not unnaturally bigger news here. If we could be sure that would be it, the capital could get on with picking itself up and everyone could just be thankful that no-one was hurt. But seismic activity, it's a mysterious beast, and who knows if there isn't a bigger one about to hit tomorrow, or tonight, or in five minutes' time? Not the seismologists, that's for sure. You do kind of wonder about their usefulness, media-wise.
Christchurch was a shock to everyone, especially the seismologists; but Wellington's like Los Angeles, and San Francisco, and Lisbon, and Santiago: sitting plumb square on a fault line, and it's not a matter of if, it's all about when. Even yesterday's shake, though not that close to the city, was enough to return a section of reclaimed land to the sea, crack buildings and break bits off them, and make roads split, sink and tilt. So everyone's horrified, as well as alarmed, and no-one's going to sleep well in the city tonight.
I was last there in April, just en route to catching the Northern Explorer train back to Auckland, but even that quick visit was fun and I would have liked more time there (and, yes, better weather). Though the last thing I am is political, I really liked the buzz that goes with being the capital, that permeates even the weather forecast in the newspaper. They have other things on their minds right now, though.

Friday 19 July 2013

A plus and two minuses

It's been quite a week for connections, most of them, alas, negative. For a start there was, sadly, nice young Cory Monteith dying at the Fairmont Pacific Rim, which has had its frontage splashed nightly across TV screens around the world. They've just this week opened their new Italian-themed cafe and wine bar, which is what I'm sure they would much rather be getting publicity for right now. It's been rated Vancouver's #1 hotel, and of the three Fairmonts we stayed at there, it was certainly the most impressive. And technological: the iPad in the room greets you and controls everything from the lighting and curtains to contacting the concierge. The bellhop wanted to show us how to "operate the room" but we didn't have time (travel writer's curse) so when it came to bedtime after a multi-course degustation dinner there at Oru with lots of Okanagan Valley wine including, bliss, my first ice wine, shutting everything down was almost a challenge too far. Most spectacular was the bathroom, all glass on the corner overlooking the harbour, cruise ships and the Convention Centre's 6-acre grassy roof. On the 12th floor, who cares that the glass is regular two-way?
Then there was the horrifying report of a teenage girl being bitten in half by a shark on Reunion Island, accompanied by a map because who would know where that is, unless you've been there? She was swimming in a known dangerous part of the beach at St Paul, which is where I went to a market beside the black sand beach with its cannon pointing out to sea. It was a colourful market - of course, aren't they all? - notable for its cute mini-pineapples, baskets of cheap vanilla pods and nutmegs, brown-skinned rag dolls, perfume still and dodos. Which were a bit of a cheat, since they were endemic on Mauritius, not Reunion.
And finally, and more cheerfully, the Minister of Conservation has turned down the proposal for a the Milford-Dart Tunnel, which would have dumped half a million tonnes of spoil in the beautiful Hollyford Valley, increased exponentially the traffic through contentedly sleepy Glenorchy and put lots of concrete and tarmac at the start of the Routeburn Track. All so impatient tourists can get to Milford Sound more quickly without having to "waste" a day on the return journey along fabulous Lake Wakatipu, through rolling farming country, along moody Lake Te Anau to the township and beyond along one of the best drives in the country. Pft. Milford is magnificent and a must-see, but having to earn it by travelling there along three sides of a square makes it that much more special. Like walking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu instead of taking the bus up from Aguas Calientes. Quick and easy isn't always better.

Sunday 14 July 2013

Vive not just la France

Bastille Day and I could have gone for something hackneyed like the Eiffel Tower or the Tricoleur, but I thought I'd choose this photo, which for me sums up the craziness of Paris. How this car managed to get flipped onto its side in an urban side street is still a mystery to me. It can't have involved speed. Did the driver somehow annoy a bunch of muscular young men? Is it a parking thing? How come it's so close to the other cars? It's yet another of those stories I'll never hear the end to. But it's got a red, white and blue thing going, so that'll do for today.

Travelling through France by river cruiser and then by train, as I did last year, I had plenty of leisure for watching scenery pass and regretting that there's so much of that lovely country that I'll never get to see. Sadly, that applies to not just France: the more I travel, the more I realise that I'm never going to see it all - all those people nodding at each other and saying "It's a small world" when they hear a story about some coincidence, are so, so wrong. It's a huge world, and it's full of the most remarkable, spectacular, fascinating places both natural and man-made, and no-one's got the slightest chance of seeing it all.

Alan Whicker got about a bit, David Attenborough's given it a good go, even Michael Palin has done some miles; and lots of my travel writer colleagues have been many more places than I have. Someone I was talking to about this the other day said she's reached the point of telling herself, "Well, that's one place I'm not going to get to." I think that's a bit defeatist, I'm not at that stage yet - but I am starting to think it's a waste, to return to places I've already visited, when I could be going somewhere new. Though there have to be some honourable exceptions to that rule which, though the first excitement of being there can't be recaptured, are still rewarding in all sorts of ways: London, Paris, New York, the Outback, Queenstown, Bay of Islands... What's on your list of must-go-agains?

Saturday 13 July 2013

OE. Up there with MA.

OE. It means 'overseas experience' and it's a rite of passage for young New Zealanders. The Baby is off on hers already, the Firstborn soon to head off too, leaving a good job fully understood by her boss, who knows how valuable it is for people born so far from the rest of the world, into a comparatively privileged society, to travel to other countries, work and meet people whose experience is entirely different. Certainly, the Year 12 students I had yesterday have had a comfortable and affluent life so far, sitting there in the classroom with their tablets and laptops and smartphones.

They were meant to be taking notes on the video we were watching, and most of them were - but prowling quietly around, I discovered a few on Facebook or emailing, and one even playing a game. I was shocked, truly: because do you know what they were being shown? A special feature on the Schindler's List DVD, in which surviving witnesses from his factory in Krakow spoke in vivid detail about their experiences there and at Auschwitz. Playing a game!

I gave them a good rarking, of course, and when in the second lesson (during which, to be fair, they all paid attention) we finished with 15 minutes to spare, I told them everything I'd seen when I went to the Schindler Factory Museum last year and then to Auschwitz. I described the great brown mound of hair that they'd just heard a lady describing being shaved off, and the enormous heap of shoes, all sizes, little children's to men's boots, and the tangled pile of wire glasses frames, and the leather suitcases, their owners' names stencilled on them, and the long corridor with a triple row of photographs each side of prisoners in striped clothing. I told them about the slanted post in the courtyard for hanging people from by their hands behind their backs, and the pock-marks in the concrete wall behind, where the firing squad operated, and the gallows. I gave them all the detail about the gas chamber and the Zyklon-B canisters and the ovens and the chimney; and right beside it the playground for the Camp Commandant's children. I told them about 'Arbeit Macht Frei' and the wooden barracks at nearby Birkenau, and they listened to it all with wide eyes, somehow having a real person talking in front of them carrying more weight than watching a film of actual witnesses.

OE. Invaluable.

Wednesday 10 July 2013

KO'd by a humpback

Did you hear about that Kiwi surfer who got flipped 3 metres into the air and knocked unconscious at Bondi by a whale's tail? Pretty amazing, huh, the whole thing; but I was most taken by how he said he saw the whale beneath him and talked to it like a dog. He had seen whales before, but even so - what, no trepidation at all?

I've been closer to a whale than felt safe: in the Galapagos islands, when I was woken by the captain's PA that there were whales off the stern of the boat. I was so excited that I hurtled out of bed, flung on shorts and a top (that's all, to the comically sudden silence of the men in the group I was talking to about it afterwards), grabbed my camera and ran to where the inflatable was ready to take us out onto the water. We got up really close to the whale and her calf, who were just cruising round the bay, apparently quite unconcerned by our presence, and I took the above photo with my standard lens - no need for the zoom.

The nature guide in the boat showed us how to look for the whale's "footprint" - a calm, slick area directly above where it's pumping its tail up and down. He took us straight over one, and the water was so still, and clear, that we could see right down to the whale's white belly as she swam on her side. Looked pretty close, to me; though that may be just because she was SO BIG. Either way, it wouldn't have taken much to flip our boat over - though, as it wasn't, I have to concede that the guide knew what he was doing. Just as well. I would have regretted that t-shirt thing, if nothing else.

Wednesday 3 July 2013

Hear no evil, see no evil...

...speak no evil! How anyone could do anything but coo and gibber over these whiskery charmers I have no idea, but the sad fact is that sea otters were once hunted hard in Alaskan waters, because of their fantastically thick fur. Alone amongst sea mammals (and far too many humans), they don't have any blubber, relying for warmth in the water on the denseness of their fur. That's also why when resting they float so appealingly on their backs, with their paws and tails held up out of the wet. Now they're protected and their numbers are well recovered: in fact, on this Wildlife Quest near Sitka, an optional excursion on our Silversea cruise, we saw far more than we could count, either rafted up in the kelp (mothers with babies on their chests - awwww) or singly in the open water.

I must say, having lived in England and despite having been a Master of Foxhounds' groom there, I was kind of shocked to see so many furs and pelts and mounted heads everywhere we went in Alaska and also in the Rockies in Canada. I couldn't help stroking and fondling them whenever I could, but even the seductive smooth softness of the furs didn't overcome my unease, and I really would have preferred the original owners to be still inside them. It was hard to imagine people wearing these coats and boots and hats as though it was just normal cold-weather gear and not some sort of anti-PETA statement.

But of course that's all it is, there. I overheard a woman in a fur shop in Ketchikan dithering over which beaver pelt to buy to make her next pair of moccasins; and in another one in Whistler (mink bag: just the $250) the assistant there, who was from Christchurch, politely said my attitude was "so 1970s" and that all their animals were humanely and sustainably trapped, or farmed, just like the lamb I ate.

Sheep don't live in cages, though...

Tuesday 2 July 2013

Respect to the Hotshots

What dreadful news about those courageous young firefighters in Arizona - it's just so awful. They were trying to do a job so few of us would even contemplate tackling, and it all went so wrong. Tragic. I hadn't heard of Hotshots before, but I did know about Smoke-Jumpers, who  if you can believe it  do a refinement of the Hotshots' job that sounds even more terrifying. Here's what I wrote about them for the NZ Herald:

If it weren’t so obvious that there’s not an ounce of fat on them, it would be tempting to call Washington state’s North Cascades Smoke-Jumpers well-rounded: how else to describe men who not only leap from small planes to parachute into dense forest wreathed in the smoke from a wildfire, but can also execute a nifty bit of top-stitching on the sewing machines back at base?

They have to make their own jumpsuits in this service because there are only 400 smoke-jumpers in the whole of the US, and there’s not much call, commercially, for yellow Kevlar boiler suits with capacious pockets, weighing over 80kg fully packed. Standard equipment includes a rope for rappelling down out of trees and a knife to slice through tangles, making simply sliding down a pole at the station and getting into a truck look like fire-fighting for wimps. Employed by the US Forest Service, these men – and women too – see themselves as the equivalent of the army’s Green Berets, an élite and highly-trained force who survive a brutally rigorous five-week boot camp to become tough and self-sufficient members of the team.

Jason is typical. Polite, modest, matter-of-fact, he shows us around the base at the airport outside Winthrop. A tin shed with two long parachute-packing tables, racks of jumpsuits hung ready to step into and a corner with computers and radios, it’s not fancy. Smoke-jumpers are all about getting the job done, not making an impression; and the hand tools they use to starve the fire of fuel – a rake, a shovel and a chainsaw – are equally practical. “We aim to stop the fires from getting on the TV news, ma’am,” Jason says simply.

An honours board hanging from the roof records the 800 jumps made by veteran Dale Longanecker, and the video we watch is exciting and awe-inspiring. It's all very macho. But upstairs are the sewing machines. These men are nothing if not versatile. Respect.

Monday 1 July 2013

Oh! Canada!

Happy birthday, Canada, and thanks for all the fun. For such a big country with so much to offer travellers, it surprises me that Canada has such a low profile compared with other, less obvious places, like Turkey and Vietnam. I'm guilty too of not really rating it myself as a must-go destination, despite having been there a time or two previous to this last visit - and, now I come to think of it, actually being half Canadian myself. I tend to forget about that.

But it's a brilliant place! So easy to get to from Auckland, they speak (and spell) proper English, the people are friendly and nice, it's clean and tidy, and safer than most countries (in Vancouver, when a gun goes off, that means it's 9pm); and the food is wonderful. I can't stop thinking about the perfect, soft/crispy, delicately flavoured honey-glazed doughnut I had at Deep Cove in Vancouver, and the maple-iced one that I didn't; and the incomparable colour, texture and flavour of wild-caught BC salmon vs the soft, pallid farmed version we have here; and that glorious, fabulous meal we had at araxi in Whistler; and the honey lager; and the ice wine.

And then, of course, there's the scenery. We have mountains too, and glaciers, and rock-flour tinted lakes, and waterfalls. But Canada's are so much bigger! And, when you're thinking about degrees of spectacularity, that matters. Then, too, there's the wildlife - you just can't beat a bear for putting a bit of fizz into your day.

So I reckon you should go there and see for yourself. And this is all from having sampled just BC and a bit of Alberta. Wait till next year, when I've been to Quebec and Nova Scotia!


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