Monday 24 February 2014

Without a single mention of Julie Andrews. Oops!

Aww, so the last of the von Trapp children has died: Maria, aged 99. She looked like a real sweetie, and she certainly had an interesting life, starting in Austria and ending in Vermont. The movie that we all know so well (and which I remember people going to see literally scores of times when it was released in 1965 - how they would have rued spending all that money if they'd known about video recordings then!) was only loosely based on real life, but the basic facts seem true.

I was in Salzburg for Christmas once - happy to report that at our hotel, Christmas (Eve) dinner was Englisches Roastbeef and not the traditional carp we were fearing - and went on the obligatory Sound of Music coach tour, visiting various locations including the pretty church where Maria and the Captain were wed, and the rather grand manor used for the house the family lived in. Of course you can guess the soundtrack on the bus. It was all very clichéd but still enjoyable, and the scenery was just lovely, especially in the crisp cold of a sunny winter's day. Sometimes it's worth gritting your indie teeth and going along with convention when you're travelling: things are popular for a reason, after all. It's a lovely place to be at Christmas too, by the way - actually, Salzburg is lovely at any time, and not just for its musical connections (Disney balanced by Mozart).

At the other end of the real Maria's life is Vermont, another beautiful part of the world - and I speak with the authority of having spent one day surreptitiously driving around it while officially on a Massachusetts famil. Well, gorgeous as that state is, who could resist sneaking across the nearby boundary to see real covered bridges, white clapboard farmhouses surrounded by green hills and autumn-bright maple trees? And the chance to buy genuine maple syrup, too? The bit I saw was so pretty, I would love to have had a proper look around. Sigh...

Sunday 23 February 2014

There's no S in summer

Out on the constitutional this morning, I passed eight people and seven of them were fully focused on their phones, either selecting music or checking messages. Only one person had his head up and exchanged greetings with me. It's not that I'm socially needy, but it's always preferable, to me, to make a connection, however fleeting, with others also flogging up the hills or flapping down them. And on top of that, they're missing out on a whole bunch of sensations beyond what they can hear through their earphones, and how their legs are feeling.

I try to keep my head up and look around, and also to look in different directions. It's very easy to get into the habit of looking at the same things every time on a regular route. (That's one of the good things about going away, that when you come home your eyes are refreshed and you see familiar things like a visitor.) It's good too to feel the breeze, to look forward on a warm morning to the road down through the shady bush that's as refreshing as a dip in the sea; and I like to hear the birds, and that same breeze soughing through the casuarina trees.

Not so much birdsong right now, though: they're too busy with other stuff, and the hot dry weather we've been having for weeks is perfect for the cicadas, which are noisier and more numerous than I've ever noticed before. There are brown husks everywhere from their last skin-shed, on outdoor furniture, fences and tree trunks, and freshly-minted insects blundering about all over the place, clumsily hitching unauthorised rides on people's (my) shoulders and driving like drunks. And then there's the noise they make: clicking/buzzing/hissing incessantly all day so that the letter S disappears from any word spoken outside, and chirping all through the night.

Though they have a certain enamelled charm, they're not the prettiest of insects. Still, they have their fans: the cicada is the symbol of Provence, and they're used as decoration there all over the place, from pottery ornaments and plaques on walls to designs on bright printed table cloths. It's kind of sweet that they've been adopted like that. Maybe there's hope for the cockroach yet.

Saturday 22 February 2014

Three years on from 6.3

Wow, it's three years today since the earthquake that wrecked Christchurch, when Scott the house-painter put down his brush and came inside to watch the astonishing, incredible, horrifying news on TV with me on a hot, sunny afternoon. The quake killed 185 people, not just Kiwis but visitors and students from the Philippines, Japan, China, Taiwan, Korea, Malaysia, Thailand, Israel, Turkey, the USA, Canada and Ireland; the oldest was a woman of 88, the youngest babies of 5 weeks and 8 months. It also wrecked the lives of everyone who lived in the city, some temporarily, most long-term, others forever; and no-one in the country remains untouched. Either they know someone who died or, this being the land of 2 Degrees, someone who knows someone who died. Then there are those of us still mourning the loss of the city we knew and loved; and those whose sense of physical security in this faultline-riddled country is now as fractured as all those heritage buildings.

Canterbury's had more than 12,000 after-shocks, most of them piddling but enough magnitude 4+ to keep nerves frayed. The city is full of empty blocks blowing with dust, the roads are still lumpy and littered with orange cones, whole suburbs are vacant, too many people are still waiting for insurance claims to be settled, and the arguments continue over the fate of Christ Church Cathedral, and where to place the blame for the CTV building's collapse.

But life there continues too, and there is plenty of optimism and enthusiasm for the new Christchurch that is - so slowly - starting to take shape. It will be very different from what was there before, and it will be unashamedly new, but also greener, more spacious, more people-friendly. That's the plan, anyway. Right now it's neither one thing nor the other: impossible when you're there to picture it as it was, hard to imagine how it will be. The connections with the old Christchurch, my home town, are for me now mostly memories with little concrete left to anchor them to (actually, lots and lots of concrete, altogether too dominant). I do so wish the earthquake hadn't happened.

In a week's time, though, the news will be all about Japan and Fukushima, also marking their third anniversary of disaster, on so much greater a scale, and the focus will shift away. Meanwhile, in Christchurch, the weeds will keep growing through the cracked foundations of ordinary people's lives.

Monday 17 February 2014

Off on a tangent

Clichés of course become clichés because they are true: so 'Travel broadens the mind' while trite, is incontrovertible. More than that, though - if less snappily - it also deepens your understanding and adds to your general knowledge. That's one of the happiest side-effects of travel writing, that meeting enthusiasts (enthusiasm is a basic requirement for travel industry operators, I'm very glad to report) introduces you to topics you've missed, and inspires you with the desire to find out more about them.

Today, writing about meeting the lovely Nigel and Rose Voice of Real Dog whose passion is sledding with their Alaskan Malamute dogs (they spit upon your Siberian Huskies - "out of control all the time, aloof, disobedient - disgusting!") I've gone off onto a tangent finding out about Douglas Mawson. One of the dogs is named after him, and Nigel played him for the action scenes of a documentary. He had to wear a false beard: "How do people eat with those things?"

I got momentarily diverted by Mawson's mentor, Prof Edgeworth David, subjected by his parents to a lifetime of correcting his name; but Mawson is another of those Shuttleton-type Antarctic explorers who battled the elements and misfortunes in an epic adventure that involved crevasses, the loss of dogs and food, a long trek through snow and bizzards, his companion, Mertz, going mad and dying, and finally reaching his destination an hour after his rescue ship had departed. Now, apparently, there's a theory in a recently-published book that he starved Mertz and then ate him before returning to England for a fling with Scott's widow. You'd think there'd be a movie there; but there have been so many...

Born in England, Mawson went to Australia as a child and there's a bust to him on Adelaide's North Terrace, a stately avenue I've walked along a number of times, looking at the plaques and statues. I'm sorry to have missed Mawson. I'll have to look out for him next time.

Sunday 16 February 2014

Not just the languid air swooning today

The focus was on Queensland this week, with a tourism lunch and an event (the latter on the Floating Pavilion - such a mistake, bar-takings-wise, since it can't be just me who always thinks I must have had too much wine. Also, they had to dish out Sealegs tabs halfway through the day). Specifically, Outback Queensland, where I've already had a pretty good nose around, though there are still some corners I'd like to see. More precisely, the Corner Country, where Qld, SA and NSW meet up and remote towns like Birdsville and Innamincka sit and simmer in the heat.

There was some talk of a trip down from Cape York to Cairns and again, that's something I've done: more than a week in a bone-shaking 4WD truck ("If you've got a bad back, this'll sort you out," Ossie promised us, and he was absolutely right - haven't felt so limber for years as I was at the end of the the journey). It was full of lovely moments - and yes, that includes finding a green frog in the bog - but one of my favourites was our stop one sweltering afternoon at Red Lily Lake in Lakefield National Park, near Cooktown. (That's 'near' in Outback terms: 260km.)
We wandered out along a boardwalk to a little shelter near the middle of the lake, the water of which which was invisible beneath a solid cover of lotus plants, some with their bright pink, yellow-centred flowers still, others with arty-looking seed pods. The best bit about it was that it was so peaceful: so far from anywhere, the only sound was just the tapping of leaf on leaf as a breeze passed across the lake. I decided then and there that it would be my happy place, and I've revisited it often since (thanks to the boy next door with his drum kit). It makes me think of Tennyson's The Lotos Eaters and the "land in which it seemed always afternoon".

And then today, I was reminded of it again, when my water lily opened its first flower, in the newly-refurbished pond with its water so clear the fish must be squinting now. On a hot, hot day when the afternoon has seemed to go on forever.

Sunday 9 February 2014

Bad publicity

So, a surfer had an encounter with a shark in the Catlins yesterday, getting chewed on the leg and having to punch its nose to get free. He's ok, just a bit punctured and in need of a new wetsuit - and so is the shark, presumably, apart from the nose thing. It's rare that the Catlins get into the news, and even rarer that they have shark encounters there. In fact, it's a first, according to the locals. Typically, it was a low-profile shark, a seven-gilled - nothing as flashy as a great white.

When I was down in Southland a bit less than a year ago, my focus in Porpoise Bay was well, just that: Hector's dolphins in fact, the smallest and rarest in the world, they say. Three pods live there through the summer, about 50 individuals, hoovering up mullet and crabs. It's easy living, and they have plenty of spare time to just cruise, so there were almost 20 surfing on the wake of the boat I went out on, diving underneath it and perfectly visible in the clear water. The guy who took me out, Brian, was very fond of them: "Nosy buggers," he said. "I never get tired of seeing them." I wrote all about it in a story for the Herald, but it has yet to appear, sigh.
There were people swimming with them too, just hanging in the water clearly delighted to see the dolphins swooping around them. They were no doubt thinking that the worst thing about the whole experience was having to brave the 16 degree chill of the Southern Ocean. Little did they know!

I hope no-one's put off going to explore the Catlins. It's off the beaten track, but it really is worth a bit of effort to go there and explore. According to the ranger at Cathedral Cave, most of those who do are foreigners: not many Kiwis go there at all. That's a great shame and they're really missing out on a treasure. That's a point I made in the story, too. Sigh.

Friday 7 February 2014

Please, this has to stop

I've just read a report that two poachers were shot dead in a shoot-out last night at Phinda Private Game Reserve, in an incident involving Nyathi Security. It's very likely that I've met one of the men who were out in the bush in the dark, armed and up against desperate men also armed with a heavy calibre rifle fitted with a silencer, a knife and an axe. The axe was for hacking the horns off the rhino they meant to shoot; the knife possibly for beating off the baby it may have had at heel.

They needed the silencer because they knew there could be protection forces nearby: the poachers are of course fully aware that there is money available to locals for intelligence leading to the arrest (or deaths) of poachers (Peter Eastwood's charity here in NZ is one of the sources of that funding). They know too about the daily air patrols of the reserves, conducted at random times, to check for suspicious activity and to monitor the whereabouts of the rhino ( helps fund them, too). All this is absolutely necessary in the war with the poachers.

Unfortunately, it also means that the poachers have been forced to operate at night, making everything so much more dangerous and difficult for both sides. Rangers have been injured or killed by friendly fire in all the confusion. Some poaching parties have included an armed guard walking parallel to the poachers, his sole purpose to attack security parties. It's dark, dangerous, desperate work, and so very very urgent.

Last year more rhino were killed than ever before: 1004. Already, in January, 86 have been killed in South Africa. That's almost three a day. In KwaZulu Natal province alone, they've arrested eight poachers so far this year. But they've also lost eight rhino. It's entirely possible that some of them were rhino I was thrilled to see and photograph on game drives through the province last year. Look, perhaps this magnificent creature was one of them:
It's a black rhino. There are only 5,000 of them left in the world, you know. Won't you try to help them?

Wednesday 5 February 2014

Frog prince? If only...

I never thought that the location for my sitting and picking a quite extraordinary number of leeches off my skin would be my own deck. Watching Stand By Me, apart from scarring me forever, taught me that they lurk in wet, boggy, wild places, so I was alert to the possibility of a close encounter with something squelchy when I was walking through the Amazon jungle, for instance. As well as a charming capybara, there had already been a snake, a tarantula and a motorway of huge ants that apparently sting as well as bite ("24 hours of pain," the guide said) so leeches would have been stock characters, so to speak. But there were none; though there was a frog in my shower.

And I was quite unperturbed to see a big, fat, glistening leech while traversing a swampy bit on the Bay of Fires walk in north-east Tasmania - mainly because it was on the sock of the man in front of me, rather than my own skin. You expect these things in Australia. If an Aussie had seen the - thankfully - tiny things I was scraping off today, you know what he would have said. Altogether now: "Call that a leech?"

Even so, it was disturbing. Here, in the civilised suburbs? Unexpected. There's been a lot of pond business going on lately, some of it good (tadpoles! baby frog!) and some of it sad (the sudden deaths of 5 - five - big fish, more than 10 years old) so today there was teeth-gritting and money-spending, and a fancy new pump and filter installed. Which involved prolonged elbow-deep immersion in green water, fiddling with pipes and controls - and also, it turned out, being latched onto by a dozen or so of the presumably hundreds of leeches who are apparently now living in the weed I was holding to one side.

Possibly they arrived in the water with the mail-order tadpoles. Shocking survival statistics there, by the way: 10 tadpoles led to just one baby frog, and I haven't seen him for a few days. Perhaps the leeches got him. Or, even more tragically, her. The whole purpose of the project was to give Bruce a bit of female company, after years of fruitless croaking; but it looks as though he's going to remain a bachelor, poor old man.

Sunday 2 February 2014

Movie magic - not actually a cliché

It's 50 years since the movie Zulu was made, starring a youthful, and very blond, Michael Caine early in his career. Before we go any further, please don't think that I was old enough to remember this, let alone actually see the movie at the cinema. No, no, I'm much too young for that. My acquaintance with the film began much later, when I was living in England through the 80s. It was a Christmas tradition then for the BBC to show it in the afternoon, when everyone was almost comatose after their big dinners. So for me it's associated with feeling bloated and slightly the worse for wear, with the smell of Christmas trees and with too-warm living rooms whose windows framed uninviting grey skies and bare trees. Just seeing the opening credits now would bring all that flooding back.

It could hardly be more different from my actual experience of Zululand last year, or from my encounter with this very jolly man outside DumaZulu Village, where we went for lunchtime toasted sandwiches after our unexpectedly exciting cheetah encounter at nearby Emdoneni. We didn't see much of the village, our focus being on other things, but we met this guy at the gate, officially posing for photos for 10 rand each, but actually not so much bothered about collecting the money.

The village is near Hluhluwe, which is a name I'm proud to be able to pronounce correctly (kind of a double lishp at the start) although there was no way I could manage anything with a click in it. Shamefully (but mostly because I was travelling with English-speaking South Africans) I didn't learn any Zulu apart from the useful yebo (yes, hello, ok). I was impressed to learn though that the movie The Lion King has been fully translated into Zulu, songs and all (you thought Hakuna Matata etc was in Zulu already? Nup. Swahili). They use it to teach children the concept of ecology, the environment, conservation... well, actually, The Circle of Life puts it most neatly. It's an effective and entertaining way to get them to understand that interfering with the wildlife will have wide consequences, and to persuade them to value it for itself, and not as a resource to exploit - by informing poachers of the whereabouts of rhino, for instance. Movies, eh. So much more than just entertainment.


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