Wednesday 28 August 2013

This envy, which is mine*

Isn't this a fabulous photo? It's an elk, swimming across Lake Beauvert at Jasper Park Lodge, yet another of the lovely Fairmont hotels we stayed at in Canada. Sadly, it's not my photo - I would love to have seen this, and would be immensely proud of the picture as well - and I can't even give a credit as it's out of the anonymous media image library that I've been ploughing through today looking at worthy but much less striking pictures of beds and bathrooms and bars.

How magical to see such a sight, on a clear moonlit night with the water silvery and no doubt Mt Edith Cavell across the lake silhouetted sharp and clear! We did see elk, but they were rather boringly just grazing around the grounds or lying down dozing (fortunately the one we encountered out on our bike ride was just as boring, despite the warning signs around, though we prudently made a wide detour just in case). We heard some people talking about having seen one in the water when they were out canoeing, which must have been a thrill - well, it would have been for me, anyway. Having peripatetic elk doesn't fit well with flower gardens, by the way, which means that most of the lodge's colour is restricted to high hanging baskets, all 750 of them; apart from snapdragons, that is. Elk turn up their noses at snapdragons. Perhaps its a species thing.

The concierge told us as he was driving us to the railway station that he'd been charged four times by elk and twice by bears while out mountain-biking, and always carries an aerosol of mace. The problem is that, like bears, they get habituated to people and don't always keep their distance any more, and so both cause trouble and make it for themselves. In fact, the females use people, by deliberately choosing to give birth to their calves - 'lay' them, as the term seems to be - close to houses because the babies are safer there from predators. I love all this stuff, it adds an extra layer of interest to life when these things can happen. How dull, that the only thing that'll give you a buzz around here is seeing two tuis on the nectar feeder at the same time. Yawn.
*Anyone get the tenuous reference?

Monday 26 August 2013

Dream job's dream destination

There are dream jobs, and dream jobs. Quite honestly, when I was Stationery Queen at the primary school across the road, paid to pore over catalogues of shiny pens and staplers, ordering card and paper, whiteboard markers and dusters, and gleefully unpacking the delivered boxes, I really thought I'd found my metier. And when the time-and-motion people brought in by the Board of Trustees decided my job should be expanded to include resources and the library, well! I was stoked. Until the BOT immediately decided, on reflection, to dispense with my services altogether, informing me of my redundancy just hours before the combined staff-board Christmas do. Bitter, me?

But then I blundered my way into the sort of occupation that is envied by more than just other stationery fetishists: travel writer. Flying, often business class, to overseas destinations, to stay in fancy hotels, be taken out to dinner, shown around and looked after; or, equally desirable, going on adventures, like walking the Inca Trail or kayaking along a croc-infested river - all for free? And then to be paid (a pittance, admittedly) to write about it afterwards for newspapers and glossy magazines? Now that's what you call a Dream Job. The fact that, as I keep whining, it's not actually a holiday, can be exhausting and frustrating, and has very little freedom, is really neither here nor there. Who wouldn't rather do this than make laminated passive-aggressive notices to stick on the staff fridge and microwave?

Even though I sometimes get a bit blase about it, possibly slightly jaded from time to time, I love doing my job. I've been places, done things, met people I would never have dreamed of and certainly could never have afforded myself. But the more I do, the more I realise just how huge our world is and how impossible it is to see everything, or even a fraction of its best bits. And one of the better bits, for someone like me who loves to see wildlife, is Africa. I've never been! I keep saying, "perhaps this will be the year I get to Africa" but, not yet having been particularly proactive about it, that year hasn't yet arrived. So how exciting was it to open a random email last week which asked, "Would you be interested in an all expenses paid trip to South Africa next month?"

Pretty damned exciting. Especially since it's to go on safari to follow a campaign to prevent rhino poaching (elephant poaching would have been a bit closer to my heart, but I have nothing against rhinos, and any animal's extinction is a heinous sin). Proper bush camping with hyaenas scavenging around the fire in the night, walking through the bush, and heaven knows what kind of toilet arrangements... glorious! And it's just this minute been confirmed. I'M GOING TO AFRICA!!!

Monday 19 August 2013

Zero to eight

There's an Australian trip coming up soonish and I was thinking about the various multi-legged encounters I've had there, over the years. As you do. It was while I was walking, and of course all I saw here were two-legged creatures, human and avian - but in Oz you get the full range from zero to eight. Or more, if you count things like centipedes, but that's just silly, what are you thinking?
So zero of course means snakes, and I've seen a few, most memorably a brown snake lying across the path down to the stables on my first morning working as a groom in South Australia, and another one slithering under the haystack where I had to go twice a day. I actually threw a rock at the first one, not knowing that it was as likely to attack as to retreat. Then for two, I could count the low-life who exposed himself to me at night in Brisbane as I waited for a bus; or the kites that tried to mug me as I tried to eat my lunchtime muffin on the grass in Litchfield National Park in the Northern Territory; or the kookaburras that laughed when I fell out of my pushchair at Taronga Zoo in Sydney when I was 3. But instead I'll stay positive and nominate the emu I attracted at Wilpena Pound by lying on my back and waggling my legs in the air. Worked a treat!
Up to four, and of course there's heaps of choice here. The wombat at Cradle Mountain in Tasmania, that I managed to touch, to his alarm (sorry) because he was so short-sighted? Diddy Boy the dingo I butted noses with in tropical Queensland? All those fearsome crocodiles in the Territory? The camels I rode at Uluru and on Cable Beach in Broome, and in South Australia? The koala I cuddled, somewhat nervously (they have sharp claws, and can poo on you)? Hard to choose, but I think I have to go for cute little Steve, the baby grey kangaroo on the Eyre Peninsula, who just wanted to climb inside my jacket for a cuddle.
That's the end of the positive encounters now, because six means insects: the sticky, sticky flies that walk all over your face in the Outback that will not be brushed off; and the voracious mozzies in Queensland that bit me so viciously that my ankles swelled up and I couldn't sleep, and I had to take actual antihistamine tablets to fix the itching. And eight of course has to be spiders, and whether that's the ones that spun the webs I rode through wearing just a bikini in South Australia, or the tarantula on my bed at the farm, there's no way in the world that I can think about them without shuddering. On second thoughts, two legs good...
(This is Matt Preston, by the way, in his pre-Australian Masterchef days. Not a cravat in sight!)

Saturday 17 August 2013

Raspberry sandwich

I've never been much of a beer drinker, but thanks to the Baby's tutelage I've been taking an interest in boutique breweries and have discovered that I really like fruit-flavoured wheat beers. And since raspberries are my favourite soft fruit - I spit (not literally) upon your boring strawberries - there was no doubt I was going to enjoy this one. It did help that I drank it sitting outside in the sun on the veranda of our suite on board the Silver Shadow moored at Juneau, watching the little float planes fuss in and out like the taxis they probably were. But it would have been a pleasure to drink even without all that, and I'm just sorry I can't pop back for another.
I'd already tried, in little Skagway, the spruce-tip beer that was brewed by the gold miners to keep scurvy at bay, and liked it, though not as much as the raspberry one. (It was Captain Cook who most notably did the spruce beer thing, by the way, to keep his men healthy. I can't imagine that they would have objected very strongly to their daily medicine, however dubious they might have been about its intended benefits.) The miners could have got their Vitamin C just by eating the actual soft needles off the tree, as I did in Vancouver while out with Lois on my Tours by Locals - but that wouldn't have been half so much fun, of course.
The drink that really made an impression on me though was the Okanagan Valley icewine we tried first at Oru, the fancy restaurant in Vancouver's Fairmont Pacific Rim, and then again at Araxi in Whistler. I've had plenty of dessert wines before - stickies - but never any made by the finger-threatening method of picking frozen grapes at night. They invented the method in Germany, but now Canada makes more than anywhere else because their winters are more reliably freezing. It's served very cold, which tempers the sweetness, and it's a lovely way to end a meal - especially one as memorably delicious and beautiful to look at as our chef's choice at Araxi. Mmmm, Albacore tuna with popping ponzu pearls, crusty seared wild BC salmon, rabbit wrapped in pork cheek and prosciutto, tender rare lamb chop with rosemary confit, and then creme anglaise with gold leaf and lemon tart with raspberries. Glorious!

Monday 12 August 2013

Star trails

What the story was behind this little scenario I have no idea - certainly the real Beyoncé was hardly likely to be turning up at the domestic terminal looking out for her pre-booked Auckland Co-op Taxi. It's been a minor disappointment to me in my higher-end travels that not only have I not rubbed elbows with any celebrities, but neither have I even got any goss about them from their previous stays.

That's the trouble with these fancy resorts: they're so damned discreet. All they'll admit to is having "various royalty of different nationalities, politicians, some people from show business" and that's it. Highly unsatisfying for those of us looking for a spicy bit of tittle-tattle to enliven a story, or even the certain knowledge that some Oscar-winner slept in my bed (though, on reflection, that could be a bit creepy - depending, of course, on which Oscar-winner it might have been. Colin Firth, yes; Jack Nicholson, no.)

Lots of these people come to New Zealand, for its scenery of course, and activities, and wine and food, but also because they don't get hassled here even when they're out and about; and especially when they're tucked away at places like Blanket Bay and Treetops. I've stayed at both those places, sadly not at the same time as anyone noticeably notable, and they're models of understatement. It's kind of funny that movie stars will come all this way to be treated as though they're ordinary people, but evidently they do - although of course any whim will be pandered to. Of the two, Blanket Bay would probably have the edge, simply because of its fabulous setting beside Lake Wakatipu; though Treetops is tucked away into its own private valley with bush, river and waterfall, and exotic places like Rotorua and White Island are just a helicopter hop away.

If you were offered either, don't demur. I won't, if Huka Lodge or Wharekauhau come calling.

Friday 9 August 2013

Wellington walk

If I didn't know better, I'd suspect that the All Blacks were stalking me: training at school in Auckland last week and today staying in the same hotel here in Wellington, trooping about being unnecessarily large. So in accidental retaliation I helped myself to the berry compote and smoothie that were mysteriously not on the main buffet at breakfast, but on a separate long table - which turned out to be theirs. I'm sure they didn't miss them.

The photo is nicely linked: the statue made by Weta Workshop, where I visited yesterday, created for the Rugby World Cup and erected in a park by the Civic Centre. There, under Neil Dawson's lovely fern sculpture, was the meeting place for today's 2-hour walking tour of the city. It was a good choice - Judith gave us all the background bumf on stuff I'd walked past unknowing, local gossip, news of a 4-point-something earthquake at 5am (which I slept through), and entry into some pretty special places. One of them was the new Supreme Court, built at huge expense as a yah-boo-sucks gesture towards Britain and rarely used, but beautiful inside, like a kauri nut, all warm blonde wood and totally insulated from the noise of the city right outside. There was the actual Treaty of Waitangi in the National Archives, all nine copies of it in a very dim room. Government House, now the Law School, has a beautiful and unusually-shaped staircase, and some fresh cracks in the plaster walls after last month's 6.5. There was an animated clock in the Old Bank Arcade that many locals know nothing about, a mechanical rat and cat in the Museum of City and Sea, and a secret panel inside the glorious wooden interior of Old St Paul's.

And then I went up the hill to Thorndon to visit the birthplace of Katherine Mansfield, peerless writer, in a sweet little Victorian house full of memorabilia which included a reconstruction of the doll's house, in which I seen the little lamp. It's a quite ordinary house for someone so alternative to have sprung from, but she lived there only till she was five. Her last house, before she went to Europe, was not far away, but it isn't there any more - it was razed so that the grim and ugly concrete and iron-barred US Embassy could be built on the site. Tch.

Thursday 8 August 2013

Weta Workshop: giving Disney's imagineers a run for their money

These are actual hobbit feet, perfect in every tiny detail right down to the filthy toenails. They were Bilbo's, since you ask, and they're on show at the Weta Cave here in Wellington along with many other wonders of obsessive minutiae.

Actually, some of the minutiae is extremely large, as you'd expect in a place where they've coined the word 'bigature' for outsized models - of castles, mountain villages, whatever else might be needed for some fleeting scene in a movie. No matter what it is or how brief its appearance onscreen, in a workshop on a block in suburban Miramar, just down the road from the Darlington Superette, fantastically talented, hardworking and slightly eccentric artists will create it, 100% perfect.

There's a tour around one workshop, containing more weapons, suits of armour, nightmarish creatures and just a few cute furry animals than you could shake a (rubber) sword at. Then a shop selling collectibles including The One Ring for a mere $4875 (uninscribed!) and a video of the short but busy history of Weta. It's well worth the bus-ride to get there - even people who've never heard of Halo will be fascinated. Guaranteed.

Wednesday 7 August 2013

Cool little capital

It's a good thing when you have to shut one eye to type on the phone, right? Sign of a good evening? Whichever, it has to be an improvement on a day that began in the dentist's chair, having a filling replaced (boy, that was one expensive toffee). The chair of a dentist who, I have to report, apologised for leaving me to quietly drown in my own saliva by saying "I was so fixated on the tooth, I forgot all about you.")

So here I am in Wellington, "coolest little capital in the world" (self-styled: did I need to say that?) Perhaps it's the relief of having survived another landing at its notoriously wind-buffeted airport, but I do always feel pleased to be here, to see the trolley buses and tunnel and thronging locals on the streets on a Wednesday night. And the noisy, flashing police escort for the PNG PM is a salutary reminder that this is indeed the capital, and deserves respect.

But that's been swamped tonight by revisiting the very popular, noisy and excellent Ortega Fish Shack, where mulled wine in a teacup with added brandy started an evening of tender pork belly, prawn tails in a yummy sauce, gruyere soufflé with Roquefort cream, and a warm coconut finger with passion fruit yoghurt and apricot sorbet. All so good that I almost forgot to watch the hanging net-float lights for tell-tale movement signalling earthquake activity in a building labelled 'earthquake prone'. That's a less fun way to end up under the table.

Tomorrow there will be Weta Workshops, Monet, Warhol and hopefully Wishbone chicken laksa if I can walk off tonight's indulgence before lunchtime. Watch this space!

Saturday 3 August 2013

Rue Britannia

See, this is why, when I travel, I take copious notes in my little red 3B1 notebooks and snap away with my camera even when it's clear that the photos are going to be no good for publication: it's so that, even five years later, I can put together a story like this one about touring over Britannia with enough detail and personal comment for it to feel fresh. (And how appropriate, that this particular eking out of my resources was for a story set in Scotland.)

Within a day of its appearing online, I received an email from a man whose great-uncle was a Lt Cmdr on the royal yacht from the date she was commissioned, telling me about going aboard himself while she was still in service, and how much he regretted the socialist scourge that led to her eventual decommission in 1997. Given his family connection, that's to be expected - but even I am sorry that Britannia is now dispiritingly moored permanently to the wharf at Leith, used for corporate dinners and swarmed over by hordes of nosy tourists (like me). It's an undignified end for a grand old lady, after 40 years touring the globe, totting up enough miles to have gone to the moon and back, twice.

The photo in the museum alongside of the Queen, Duke and Prince Charles on the day of her decommission truly is a picture of sadness: they all look thoroughly miserable. Once I'd gone aboard and had a proper snoop around, from the engine room, all shiny brass and copper, right up to the bridge, including the bedrooms, cosy lounge (with fireplace, at the Queen's request, although because of naval regulations she had to make do with electric instead of the real thing) and crew's quarters, I could understand. Though there is grandness, as in the dining room which can seat 56 for a formal dinner, there's also plenty of scope for off-duty relaxing, and personal touches, and it really was true that this was the one place where they could be themselves. I haven't been to Balmoral, but if it's anything like Sandringham, Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle, there's not much scope amongst all those echoing rooms hung with grim-looking portraits and furnished with antiques for kicking off your shoes and having a snooze.

Thursday 1 August 2013

Naming arts

Reading the roll at school these days is something of a challenge. We are now so much more multi-cultural than back in my day that there are students with all sorts of foreign names - Anasetisio, Simranjeet, Echezona, Alysza, Viphawan, Ljubica, Mridhula - which make for interesting mouthfuls. That's fair enough, but there are also increasing numbers with names bestowed by imaginative parents, which take an alternative approach to spelling and are, frankly, often an abomination. Phelisia is my latest unfavourite in a list that includes Bayleigh, Giorgia, Giulia, Mikayla and Jayme. Deliberate misspelling is one thing; accidental is another - poor Antionette and Realene, saddled with having to uncorrect people all their lives.

Of the foreign names, the Chinese ones are often impenetrable - Xin-Yi, Xiu Chu, Zhi Rou, Qing Xuan, Eunseo, Yi Ziao - but at least their owners are usually too meek to make a fuss when the pronunciation is mangled by the teacher. Those with Irish names, though, are generally game for a protest, so Siobhan, Sian and Aisling always ring alarm bells when you're working down the list, and it's quietly satisfying to see the owner deflate when you get it right. But today I couldn't win - calling out "Ashleen" I was haughtily corrected: "It's Aisling [sic], Miss!" Sigh. I hope she goes to Ireland one day, and they get her back for her parents' ignorance.

She should go to Ireland anyway, of course. So should everyone, not just those who claim Irish blood every March 17th. People who like history, comedy, scenery, beer, horses, islands, geology, cities, villages, music... It's all there, all accessible, all gladly shared by friendly people with the most appealing accents in the world. And I do mean accents: just like England, you go a few miles and the accent is distinctly different. Watch out if you go to Killarney, though. We made a bit of a detour from our circuit of the excessively picturesque Ring of Kerry, and spent about an hour with this sweet old man, who took us in his boat along Upper Lake and back again, past fishermen and sheep and ancient rocks, chatting all the way about himself and the scenery - and I didn't understand a word he was saying. Except for his name. Michael!


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