Wednesday, January 29, 2014

From pond to Phinda

Phew! It's hot work, hanging motionless over the pond in the baking sun, waiting till my golden bell frog tadpoles are lulled into revealing themselves so I can see how many legs they've got now. Game spotting: that's my focus for the day, specifically writing about Phinda's Rock Lodge, where I stayed for just two nights during my trip to South Africa last September.

I didn't have much opportunity to blog about it at the time because it's full on while you're there: up at 5.30am for tea and rusks before the first game drive of the day, then back for a full breakfast three or four hours later. Then, before the afternoon drive and dinner, you could go and laze in your room and wallow in your private plunge pool, or use the provided 'gym in a bag' or the yoga mat - but that would be to miss the chance to do other animal-spotting activities elsewhere in the 23,000 hectare private reserve with its seven separate ecosystems.

We went to see cheetah being fed in a boma, or enclosure, where they were being kept before being relocated - Phinda has a great record for breeding cheetah. Of course it's in their interests to keep game numbers up, but these reserves have a genuine commitment to preserving species and increasing their numbers, and they really are doing a great job. If only it were just about ensuring that they have sufficient space to keep the gene pool stirred up - but sadly it's even more important to keep the poachers at bay, and though Phinda has a man keeping an eye on their rhino, as well as other systems of intel and protection, they recently lost two: a white rhino and, even worse, a black rhino cow which not only had a calf at foot, but was pregnant too.

I heard baby rhino orphans wailing when I went to the Centennial Centre at iMfolosi Reserve - they sounded like whales. It was heart-breaking. One of them had scars on his face from being beaten away with machetes from his mother while her horns were hacked off.

Being an animal in Africa is hard enough already - I saw that on the afternoon game drive when the gaunt mother of three gawky and useless cheetah cubs finally got the chance to run down a nyala for them all to eat, which they started on before it was even dead - without people making it worse purely for money. Bastards.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

International Holocaust Memorial Day

Correctly speaking, this is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, in Berlin, but everyone knows it as the Holocaust Memorial. It consists of 2711 concrete slabs of various heights, arranged in a grid pattern over an area of nearly five acres. It's an odd concept, not like any other sort of memorial I've visited, and some mindless ratbags even seemed to be playing hide and seek through it, but there's no doubting its serious intent. Huge and grey and sharp-edged and full of shadows - I think it works. Because, really, how else could you do it? The scale of the atrocity, and the horrific detail of it, are pretty much untranslatable into anything more graphic.

It's enough that Auschwitz, and the other death camps, are still there, open to everyone and un-whitewashed. Our Insight Vacations coach tour of Eastern Europe was WWII-centric and often very grim, but it was fascinating and educational and memorable, and I'm glad that I've done it. Especially Auschwitz: to walk through those buildings, lined with framed photos of prisoners, past the tangle of spectacles, the mounds of hair, the huge piles of shoes, all sizes, in the company of a guide whose grandfather survived Auschwitz, really focused the mind. The cells, firing range yard and gallows posts, the high electric fences, the extermination wing... and then the shower room, and the gas ovens with their clever mechanism for efficient transferral of corpse into flames: everyone should go there, and be reminded of what can happen.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Auckland celebrates

Today is Anniversary Day for Auckland, when we get to be on holiday again while the rest of the country is at work on a Monday. That would be good enough on its own, but on top of that it's been a beautiful day, and there was so much to do in the city that really everyone was spoiled for choice: Laneway festival for the indie crowd, regatta for the yachties, seafood festival for the foodies, dragon boating for the best-buns brigade, and, for me, the buskers festival. Well, they call it a festival, but it's a pale imitation of the real thing down in Christchurch, where it's truly the World Buskers Festival and people come from all over to take part. It's brilliant.

Auckland just gets a few people afterwards, and to be frank at first I was thinking that this year we'd got the dregs: guy from Venice Beach doing a poor moon walk in an MJ mask and a rather better robot dance, a couple of Italians juggling, a Mexican done up in cling film... all a bit ho-hum, I thought, and was easily distracted by the sight of the dear old Silver Whisper in port, so familiar yet hurtfully out of bounds now (once you've made your home on a Silversea ship, it's hard not to feel they'd welcome you back on board any time). Then there was the new sandy 'beach' set up in Viaduct Harbour with its sun umbrellas and loungers, the siren call of the cronut, and all those people to watch.

But I got sucked back to the buskers, and the last lot were much better: Scooby Circus who was a personable young man from Perth who mainly juggled but had good patter; then Diogo Alvares, a super-cool dude from Brazil who did brilliant magic with cards, rings and ping pong balls and finally pulled off a strait-jacket escape, writhing and wriggling while still managing to look cool, and last of all Funny Bones, a duo from Manchester/Tokyo who did slapstick, mime and juggling and were really funny and original, especially with their 5-metre high creepy kazoo-voiced puppets.

What was also pleasing was how much more in the groove the audience is now, compared with how inhibited they used to be when the festival first started years ago: they cheer and whoop and clap almost like Americans, and when roped in as volunteers are happy to make fools of themselves. I was proud.

Also, proud of local girl Lorde today, from Devonport just across the harbour, who won two Grammys. Excellent!

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Oh, America...

... what hoops you do make me jump through! In order to go to a three-day conference in Chicago - ironically all about encouraging people to visit the States - I have to have a fancy visa. Not the easy-as online ESTA, but a proper, stick-in paper job with photo and all. (Don't think, by the way, that I'm reconciled one little bit to having to have an ESTA simply to spend an hour or two in a transit lounge at LAX on the way to another country. Anal? Talk about it.) [Foreshadowing]

So quite apart from its costing $250 or so, it's taken ages to work through the Department of Homeland Security's application process with its pages of stern - though patently silly - questions: have I recruited child soldiers? coerced an organ transplant? am I a prostitute? or a terrorist? or a torturer? do I have gonorrhoea? have I assisted in genocide? Who would ever answer yes to any of these questions? It would be kind of sweet that they think that you might, if the overwhelming impression wasn't of such power and threat that I felt anxious and browbeaten even though totally innocuous and innocent, sitting on my own sofa in my own living room. In fact, I'm even nervous about writing this, in case I'm pulled aside at Immigration and taken into a side room to be interrogated, accused of using TravelSkite to incite insurgency.

It doesn't help that I had a Situation a few years ago in Vancouver, before boarding the train to Seattle, when my previous DS-160 visa, which was still current, was deemed by the uniformed officer with the gun on his hip not to be appropriate for that particular visit. With my whole 2-week itinerary hanging in the balance, he warned me, "Now, be very careful how you answer this next question..." My nerves were jangled for days afterwards. Still, in fact.

Having to beat my way through rush-hour traffic for my appointment at the Consulate in the city, to queue, have my phone switched off and my handbag x-rayed - and both then taken from me anyway - was all inconvenient and irritating enough, but on top of all that there was the galling memory of the last time I was there.

I'd arrived too early, so I went to the loo at the railway station, where I arranged a toilet paper barrier on the seat as I was *cough* going to be sitting there for a while. Afterwards, I still had some free time, so I wandered along Queen Street window-gazing before walking to Customs St and going up to the Consulate to queue etc as above. I'd been standing there for a while when a lovely Indian lady came up to me and whispered in my ear, "Excuse me, but you've got some toilet paper hanging out of the back of your trousers." As, indeed, I did have, hooked into my waistband, a veritable tail dangling down, waving in the breeze as I'd wandered along the city's busiest street at its busiest time of day.

When it comes to American visas, it's no wonder that I'm traumatised.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The reality of being a travel writer

I have a little story in today's Herald about doing a 4WD safari into Tahiti's interior. A propos of that, here are some facts of the travel writer's life for you, should you be thinking of joining our esteemed fellowship:
  • I went there in 2006, but had never been able to fit that particular excursion into any of the stories I wrote back then. My trusty 3B1 notebook, diligently filled each night with the day's details, and my photos, were enough to refresh my memory to write about it with sufficiently vivid detail 7 years later. (I did check, of course, that everything I described still applies today.)
  • The editor asked me if I could supply a short Tahiti story for him as he had a space coming up and needed it quickly. So I dropped everything, wrote it and sent it in straight away. That was in June 2013...
  • Even though the photos were taken on the first ever Canon Powershot, with the stunning (-ly low) resolution of 3.5 megapixels, they were still acceptable for the newspaper's use.
  • I wasn't paid for the story on submission (that's very rare) - I have had to wait for publication, and will receive the payment probably in a month's time, since the editor has to authorise it first and he's usually a bit tardy at that, which means I'll miss this month's pay round.
  • Hampered by a restrictive budget, he (apologetically) dictates that the total payment for a 600-word story including photos will be around NZ$250, maybe a bit more, probably a bit less, which after tax amounts to roughly $180. The days of 40c/word payments seem pretty much over.
Still interested in a career as a travel writer? Then note too that I'm still chasing up payment from last year from two overseas publications, with no sign yet of filthy lucre - one for a story of over 1000 newly-minted words for the measly sum of US$115 and the other a re-run for C$250, which is rather better, though they did syndicate it to four associated provincial papers for no extra cash.

You don't do this job for the comfortable living it affords you. You do it for the lifestyle. And, speaking of that, I'm coincidentally in the middle of arranging a new trip to Tahiti in April, the focus of which to publicise that it's more than the expensive flop-and-drop destination of popular perception. So instead of the luxury over-water, French cuisine, spa-type experience in Bora Bora that I rather fancied, I'm going to be crawling through lava tubes and staying in little pensions and buying my own food from caravans. I was also going to be throwing myself out of a plane for my first ever sky-diving experience, but that's been canned because the tourism people have decided it's "too risky" so instead I'll be walking on the sea-bed wearing a diving helmet and getting up close with sharks and manta rays. It's all excellent story material, and it will be fun, but I'll probably end up out-of-pocket for this trip too. Ho hum.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Maneless lions: no lie - er, lying

Well, who knew? There's such a thing as maneless lions, and they live in the Tsavo region of Kenya. Some real-life rogue man-eaters were featured in the 1996 movie The Ghost and the Darkness starring Michael Douglas - except that for aesthetic reasons (and, cough, safety) they used regular, and less aggressive, maned lions for the filming. These are two of the real man-eaters, now stuffed in both senses and on display at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, which I hope I will have the time to visit either in April when I'm there for a conference, or in October, when I'm passing through the city again.
Having learned about these fellows, I'm particularly glad that it was a pride of maned lions that I looked at from a distance of just five or so metres, as I stood in the back of a ute with a dead and very bloody impala at my feet. Even so, they were looking back at me with a very considering sort of gaze, and I put all my faith in the quick reactions of Kevin, the manager of &Beyond's Phinda Private Game Reserve where we were staying, and who was behind the wheel giving me a less conventional guest experience. Though even regular game drives there always begin with the ranger saying, "I'll just get my rifle, and then we can go."
The most beautiful big cat we saw was a lone male with an immaculate mane, who just lay and posed, which really is preferable, when you're up very close, to any sort of action - but though that was special, the most exciting bit of my too-short stay at Phinda was chasing a family of cheetah as they ran down a nyala. Even our ranger guide was whooping with excitement as we bounced along off-track in the Landrover. It was impossible in those conditions to get a clear photo, with my camera and especially with my (lack of) expertise, but I'm still pretty pleased with the shot I got. I'm thinking arty - how about you?

Monday, January 13, 2014

At the other extreme...

Meanwhile, to balance the polar freeze in North America, Australia is sweating under record highs during a severe drought. It's so hot - 44 in Perth this weekend, up to 50 degrees further north - that bats are dropping from the trees by the thousand across the country, and even kangaroos are swooning in the heat. I can just imagine the shimmer in the Outback, the red dirt bone dry under a merciless sun blazing from a cobalt sky. Beautiful, but deadly.
One report I read mentioned that Winton in North Queensland is famous for being one of the hottest places in the state. When I was there in 2010 they'd just had drenching rains after eight years of drought and the place was lush with tall grass, the trees green and fresh (apart from the palms, which looked like chimney brushes, thanks to the plague of hungry locusts that followed the rain - Nature will always get you, one way or the other, in Australia). The farmers we stayed with viewed it all with a philosophical wryness, having sold most of their cattle when their grass withered up and after the rains unable to buy in more with the prices risen, or to rent out their grazing with everyone in the same position.
Then, of course, in 2011 Cyclone Yasi, category 5, whipped through a bit further south, wrecking Townsville's seafront - now, as we saw in November, fully restored and improved, and a real asset to the town (stingers allowing, see above re Nature) - and causing huge damage to places like Tully and Innisfail. I remember seeing footage of the floods on the news that included an aerial shot of a car being swept down an overflowing river, and it was close-up enough to see the person in the passenger seat, who looked up at the helicopter and then, in an unforgettable gesture of despair, laid their head down on their arms on the dashboard. I still wonder sometimes how that story ended.
But such scenes must be hard to remember now for people sweltering in the heat wave and worrying about the bushfires. For sure, there's not going to be much action visible in Coober Pedy, in South Australia, currently hitting 43 degrees: they'll all be tucked away in their underground houses, burrowed into the rock where it's always a comfortable 23 degrees. They have teeth-marks on their ceilings there, you know.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Meanwhile, here at home it's high summer...

The Firstborn, when a reporter, was always a little bored by having to do weather stories - but, by crikey, they can make for some astonishing copy, and the current Polar Vortex bringing sub-zero temperatures to every single state of the US - even Florida! even Hawaii! - is deserving of its world-wide coverage. (I can't help but notice though that there's very little noise coming out of Canada, despite its being even further north, and colder. Presumably, being more used to snow and such, they're - politely - rolling their eyes at all the fuss below the border and are just stoically getting on with life.)
As some of the cities featured in the news are places I'll be visiting later this year, I've been paying particular attention, and wondering whether Chicago in April will be anything close to spring-like by then. Probably I'll pack the merinos just in case: when it's too cold for even their zoo's polar bear to venture outside, it's hard to imagine the city ever getting warm again. The photos of the frozen shores of Lake Michigan are genuinely awesome, though, and beautiful, too. When I'm standing in Millennium Park taking my obligatory photo of the Cloud Gate sculpture, I hope I'll have to work to remember it capped with snow and reflecting an empty, icy expanse.
It seems no time at all since we were in Alaska swanning about on our Silversea cruise back in June, when the skies were blue and the days warm and sunny - but still there was plenty of snow on the tops, the glaciers looked robust and there were lots of icebergs bobbing about. Now it must be a white, white world, sea and land and sky all merged: good reason for the bright colours of the houses in towns like Ketchikan and Juneau; and for all those slightly shocking shops filled with furry pelts, coats, boots and hats. If I lived there, even I might be forced to look beyond my merino thermals.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Where never is heard, an encouraging word...

I'm blaming (once again) the lack of free wifi in Australia for a gap in this blog, which has left me without a resource for a story I need to write. Maintaining TravelSkite is an unrewarding occupation: financially, of course - the thought that I could actually earn money from it is laughable - but, more meaningfully, in terms of feedback from the people who read it. I know I have some regular readers, but you swoop in and out from your various exotic locations without ever leaving a comment, sniff, and I never know if I've amused, interested, informed or bored you.

So the main purpose of the blog is simply to record events and personal impressions, and to act as a memory-jog when I'm back home writing up the stories. And not having free wifi hampers that process, with the specific result today that apart from my trusty 3B1 notebook and photos, I'm scraping for inspiration about the trip I took in November from Brisbane to Townsville on the newly reincarnated Spirit of Queensland train.
It runs all the way to Cairns, which at speeds of up to 160kmh takes 25 hours, but the bit I did took from 3.45pm till 9.45am. I travelled in the RailBed class, and recommend it as a very comfortable way to get through the night. Not as comfortable, it must be said, as Platinum Class on the Ghan, which gives you a private cabin with an ensuite and a cushy double bed that folds down - RailBed is less First Class, more Business Class, in aeroplane terms. The seats are pretty much what you'd find when you turn left on any airline these days: pods with lots of legroom, a big screen on the seatback in front, a firm but adequate fold-down bed with good quality bedding, and most of the service pluses you'd get at 30,000 feet. Minus the liberal hand with the wine, but plus big windows and scenery, and a huge public bathroom with a shower. Pleasant meals on a tray at your seat, safety announcement just like on a plane, amenities pack, leather and woodgrain... all very nice.
Except that in the morning, when I left my bed to go and shower, when I returned it had been folded back away again, all very efficiently - apart from the fact that the attendant presumably hadn't noticed my Bose earphones hooked over the armrest, and they'd got caught in the mechanism, and broken. No explanation, no apology, no acknowledgement at all that the carelessness was going to cost me more than I'll earn from the story. Shall I put that in the review? (Rhetorical question, see above.)

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Blessed are they who receive - and also those who request

So here we are, on the cusp of another new year, full of who knows what? Good things, we all hope. If the media are to be our guide, the source of many of those good things is in our own hands. Thinner, fitter, healthier, nicer... yeah (yawn), all that - but more interesting things can also come about with a bit of personal effort. This can actually be as simple as overcoming diffidence and making a request. As my father used to say, "Those who don't ask, don't get". (Actually, what both parents really said, now I come to think of it, was the much less inspiring "Those who ask, don't get. Those who don't ask, don't want." I was a child of frugal Depression era parents. It takes some shaking off.)
Asking for stuff last year led me to doing a barrel roll in a Tiger Moth, a 3-day tramp in Fiordland, seeing wild kiwi on a beach in the dark, surfing the waves in a boat surrounded by a pod of the world's rarest dolphins, trundling on a train past volcanoes and over soaring viaducts. And all that was without even leaving the country. Adding in more ambitious brazenness brought me a fabulous Alaskan cruise, stays in a half-dozen fancy Fairmont hotels in Canada, a lovely walk with Lois through the woods in Vancouver, more trains through the Rockies, and encounters with elk. Dialling it back a bit still got me to Australia for another luxury train experience and another fancy resort.
Arranging things like that is satisfying - but even better is the wonderful surprise that occasionally lands in my inbox out of nowhere. Last year that was South Africa: 10 days of lovely people, beautiful scenery, fun and of course amazing animals, all linked together by an inspiring determination to save rhino from the poachers who will wipe them out if nothing is done. It was a vivid and unforgettable experience, with up-close encounters with lion, cheetah, leopard and rhino, a long helicopter ride and camping in the bush... It was glorious.
So the obsessive-compulsive email-checking behaviour will continue this year, just in case another invitation to somewhere fabulous drops unexpectedly into the inbox. And in the meantime, other trips have been made to happen: to Tahiti, Chicago and Las Vegas, to Paris, England and Scotland, and from Boston to Montreal with Silversea again. Watch this space.

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