Monday 26 May 2014

Waste not, want not

And so, fortuitously, Tourism Australia steps up to the plate, requesting some stories and preventing my being reduced to cleaning out the garage. The last time they did this, I produced several dozen contributions to their advertising campaign, a few of which they didn't use, and which aren't suited to this one either. So here are three of them:
I have a new Happy Place: the boy next door with his drum kit wore out my old one. Now when I need a mental escape I picture myself back on the shaded bench at the end of a boardwalk that leads out into a lake. The water’s invisible beneath clustered lotus plants and when a warm breeze passes over, the stiff leaves rattle together and the perfect waxy flowers dip briefly before facing the sun again, their stamens bright yellow against the pink petals. I watch the breeze move away through the leaves to the far bank where the gum trees are white against the blue sky, and again there’s a perfect silence that I know stretches for a hundred empty kilometres in every direction. Under the little roof there’s just me and one green lizard. I don’t know about him, but I’m at peace with the world.
Dog’s balls are remarkably tasty. Small and wrinkly, I would have passed them right by if Tyrone hadn’t pointed out the twin berries almost hidden by leaves. That’s why it’s good to walk through the bush with an Aboriginal — also because innocuous-looking things can be deadly, or at least very inconvenient. “That’s bush chewing gum,” he said, pointing to oozing sap. “No matter how fast you run, you won’t make it in time,” he added meaningfully. Crushed green ant nests make a soothing tea for sore throats, billy goat plums are delicious, sandpaper leaves are good for preparing didgeridoos, not so suitable as toilet paper. By the time we got to the river, we weren’t touching anything, but we fell with real enjoyment on Tyrone’s plates of crocodile sausage with rosella flowers, and smoked kangaroo with quandongs, appetites sharp after swimming across the plunge pool to sit under a rainbow.
The clock over the bar in the Top Pub has no hands: that’s Thursday Island in a nutshell. The streets are empty, the ripe mangoes lie where they fall on the footpaths, fruitbats hang undisturbed in the trees. But things have been livelier here. In the cemetery are Japanese graves, pearl divers who went too deep, too often — a high price to pay for a mother-of-pearl button. In the quiet church a stained glass window records shipwrecks and rescues. Up on Green Hill a fort with big guns is testament to a fear of invasion that led to evacuation of the entire island in 1941. By the jetty is a large sign warning of saltwater crocodiles, a constant threat to islanders tormented by hot sun and warm turquoise seas. I sit safe on the beach and watch two burly workers take a cautious dip. Nothing happens. It’s Thursday Island.

Saturday 24 May 2014

Paradise lost

It was so sad to watch the TV news last night and see Paradise Lodge consumed by fire. It was hit by lightning yesterday morning and burned almost completely to the ground, despite the fire crews who came from nearby Glenorchy and from Queenstown (40 minutes away). All that's left of the main building are the chimney stacks and part of a wall. I stayed there just a few months ago.
It's such a shame, on many counts. It was built in 1883, which is pretty old for New Zealand. It had lots of local history. It had been rescued from neglect and sensitively renovated by a trust of local people, who poured much time, care and personal energy into it. It was full of period furniture and books and original paintings of the area done long ago by people visiting to study art (it was always a tourist operation). It was the high point of the Paradise Trail, cyclists spending two nights under its roof. And it was a beautiful building, cosy and welcoming, under its huge chestnut tree, with bantams and chicks scratching in its garden.
The initial reaction of the Paradise Trail people is that the Lodge will be rebuilt, as a replica, and things will continue as they did. I hope so. Apart from regretting that it was necessary, I wouldn't be that bothered about the building not being authentic, if it was well done, as it will be. There's plenty of precedent for that sort of thing: Europe is full of reconstructed medieval towns that were destroyed during the war. I'm thinking Frankfurt, Dresden, Warsaw, as examples. The people wanted their buildings back, so they replicated them and now it's hard to tell that they're not original. I don't see anything wrong or dishonest about that - it's a comfort, not a con. It's also become a huge economic boon: what tourists would come to see towns built in 1950s and 60s architecture?
There's no reason, given enough determination and, cough, insurance money, why Paradise Lodge can't one day be Paradise Regained. I hope so.

Friday 23 May 2014

The other sort of travel bug

It's a long-haul sort of year, this one. I have Chicago under my belt already; in less than two weeks I'll be on my way to Paris; and later in the year it will be Boston. All that means many hours inside aeroplanes, which is a very unnatural place to be. This photo shows especially well how contained and artificial that environment is, I think. Add to that 30,000-plus feet of altitude and 800+ km/hr, and the whole thing starts to seem nightmarishly unlikely and unfriendly.

And now we can add rampant germs to the equation. A US university study has discovered that bacteria can survive for up to a week on surfaces like tray tables, armrests, window shades and seat pockets - as well, of course, as on toilet flush buttons. The bugs they tested - putting them on the surfaces artificially - were staph aureus and E.coli, neither of which anyone would want to transfer unwittingly to their mouth. The surfaces weren't cleaned, they just wanted to find out how long they could live in that environment, but I think we can all guess how punctilious - or not - aircraft cleaning crews are, especially under pressure for a quick turn-around.

It's certainly going to make me think, next flight, about touching things and then eating or even rubbing my eye. I was already feeling a bit wary, since I'll be flying with Air Tahiti Nui again, and after my flight with them to LA in April, I was struck down with a pretty inconvenient stomach upset. I was blaming the food, but now it seems more likely to have been some E.coli bugs lurking around my seat. Note to self: take, and use, hand sanitiser, and be especially careful about cleanliness before eating. (But if I were flying on the plane in the middle, below, I might have other concerns on my mind...)

Thursday 22 May 2014

I should really have gone for the Spotted Cow...

It's very odd, to see sitting on my kitchen bench, a (now empty) beer bottle with a label I last saw, and photographed, in Popeye's restaurant in Lake Geneva in Wisconsin. I drank it there, served with an orange slice as recommended, thinking it was a local wheat beer. Turns out, it's made in Colorado. Oops. I enjoyed it, though, so it was great, if a bit mind-blowing, to see it in the cool room of the liquor shop round the corner here in my leafy Auckland suburb.
I should have expected it though, with my history of random connections, since I was writing just yesterday about my whistle-stop tour around the state after IPW. I was considering using this photo until I looked Blue Moon up and realised it wasn't a locally-brewed beer. The theme of the story is that nobody - here in New Zealand, anyway - knows where Wisconsin is, or why you would want to go there. I certainly didn't, beforehand. Once I was there though, I had a lovely time, despite everywhere still looking brown and beaten after an unusually extreme winter. It was bizarre to see a lifeguard tower on a sandy beach lapped by water tinkling with shards of ice, with a solid cover further out. I even saw a gull swoop down and pick a frozen fish out of the water - now, would you consider that fresh, or what?
There was plenty of good food, but really you needn't go past beer and cheese. Staples of life, those two, aren't they? Wisconsin produces over 600 cheeses, which is more than France - though from what I saw, 'produce' is the active verb, and the Frogs wouldn't be impressed. The cheese I tasted was all a bit synthetic. That's not always a bad thing though: the local speciality of cheese curds, which can be flavoured or natural, then breadcrumbed and deep fried, is pretty much irresistible. There are criteria to meet, you know. The curds should be super-fresh - an hour is ideal - so that they squeak when bitten into. As if alive! But nobody mentioned to us what I was fascinated - if somewhat repelled - to discover yesterday: that they use cheese brine, a waste-product, to spray on their icy roads in winter. No-one can accuse the Cheeseheads of being unecological, eh.

Monday 19 May 2014

I've never actually been to the Philippines, myself...

I was astonished to find myself watching the sports report on TV one night last week. Normally I get up and wander away at that point in the news bulletin, returning in time for the weather - but the mention of Soldier Field got my attention. Come November, the All Blacks will be playing the USA Eagles there - a total mismatch, according to the presenter with what seemed to me fate-tempting hubris.
I walked past Soldier Field on a sunny afternoon back in April, happy to be free of Chicago's huge convention centre at McCormick Place and able to breathe fresh air and get some exercise. It was quite a long walk to the Hancock Tower (the black skyscraper with the two aerials), beginning along the lake front, past men fishing for trout in the clear water, past parkland, trees and a police memorial. Soldier Field is a memorial too, to war dead, and the stadium lies behind a gateway of classical columns that looks rather out of place.
The stadium itself is very modern, and huge, seating over 61,000 spectators - good luck finding that many rugby fans in the entire US, I'm guessing - and apart from sport has been the venue for everybody from Martin Luther King to Taylor Swift. General MacArthur once spoke there too, which is today's little link, because I'm pleased to be able to say, of Chicago, that "I shall return."

Wednesday 14 May 2014

Swimming with sharks

See, you thought that was another punning title, didn't you? But no, I mean it literally - today I'm writing about going to Moorea and doing exactly that. It was the Lagoon Excursion tour with Albert Transport that I went on and the only disappointment was that the "tubas provided aboard the catamaran" promised on the webpage turned out to be a mistranslation for snorkels. They delivered on everything else, especially the rays and the sharks, as you see. I even had a couple of these black-tipped reef sharks ("They don't bite people" guide Siki assured us - but how far can you trust a dreadlocked dude in a wetsuit?) brush up against me as they swirled through the water, waiting for their feeding frenzy once we were all back on the boat.
I had been a bit dismayed that the boat was full and there were 50 punters in all - but once we got into the water, I decided that there was safety in numbers. There were plenty of huge sting rays too ("Don't touch their tails," Siki instructed us unnecessarily) and they were all over us, eager for titbits (that would be "tidbits" for you US readers). Once I got over the tail thing - who can see a sting ray now and not think of Steve Irwin? - it was kind of nice, how smooth, soft and rubbery they felt. And even when I got nipped when I tried feeding one, it was more about pressure than pointiness.
There was lots of excited shrieking, and everybody enjoyed themselves getting up close with the rays. It was a bit of a melee, with so many people and fish milling about in the water, so you wouldn't call it a meaningful communion with nature, but it was fun. It was all in a day's work for Siki, though, who took it all pretty much for granted. His high point came at lunchtime on a little motu, when he demonstrated how to make poisson cru, and was able to choose himself an assistant.

Tuesday 13 May 2014

Feeling robust?

Really? Strong enough to watch this video past the warnings of graphic content, past the 'not for sensitive viewers' label, past the first few seconds of aerial footage starting to zoom in on a bewildered, bleeding young female rhino left alive after her horns were chopped off with an axe by poachers? Then you're braver than me.

Look at the figures in this Save the Rhino graphic: although it's already out of date - the April figures have brought the total so far this year up to 294 - the estimated numbers are turning out to be depressingly accurate, which will mean that by year end, unless something drastic happens, the total will surpass last year's record 1004 deaths. That's more than a thousand inoffensive, innocent rhino, on the earth as a species for 50 million years, just browsing leaves or eating grass - gone. I know they're not as appealing as elephants and lions and tigers and so many other species that are also threatened, that they're the Ugly Duckling of the endangered list, but they still deserve their space on this earth. At this rate, they'll all be gone within ten years. Ten years.

The thought that they are being relentlessly exterminated so that heartless people can get rich by supplying the horn to stupid and/or ignorant people in China and Vietnam who think taking the powder will cure their illness or, even more outrageously, prevent their getting a hangover after a night on the tiles... it's hideous.

What's to be done? Tell people, and support organisations like Project Rhino KZN, Save the Rhino and, here in New Zealand, imakeadifference - there are many people out there working hard for the cause and some of them are risking their lives, literally, to prevent rhino poaching. Please help them.

Saturday 10 May 2014

Up and down

Yes, you can't enlarge a phone pic this much really without things getting noisy, but I wanted to make it easier to pick out the bungy jumper as well as the orange-suited SkyWalkers on the ring at the top of the SkyTower, all of them adding a bit of adrenalin to a warm, sunny autumn day in Auckland. The SkyJump isn't a bungy jump in the original, Shotover River sense: there's no freefall as such, there's a wheel whining away up at the top feeding out the cables, and then the brakes are gradually applied as the jumper nears the bottom so there's no jerk. They call it a base jump. There's still that moment of committing yourself to the plunge, though, so it still counts as an adventure. Not that I've done it.

I have, though, done the SkyWalk, wearing that fetching orange boiler suit. You can't really see, but some of the punters are leaning out over the edge, as demonstrated by the consciously chilled-out guide. They do it backwards because it's simpler and less scary that way I guess - but it would be fun to hang face-first over the void. Having, as I've mentioned before, no imagination, I'm pretty laid-back about doing these things, trusting implicitly that all the proper safety measures are in place. There was an incident last year, though, when one man somehow managed to unhook the two carabiners that fasten the cables to your harness behind your back, and wandered around loose while everyone quietly panicked and the road below was cleared. He didn't jump, in the end.

The brother to Auckland's SkyTower is in Macau, looking almost identical, and at the top there's an AJ Hackett bungy operation run by a Kiwi, which is all a bit disorientating. There, though, you can also climb up the mast: 100 metres up ladders to the highest point 338 metres above the ground. Now that would be scary - despite the assurances that they have "specially designed harnesses and fall arrest system". Something to skite about afterwards, though, for sure.

Wednesday 7 May 2014

Consider me spiced

There's certainly no shortage of variety in my life at the moment. Today I've been writing about machine guns, diggers and dancers in Las Vegas, as well as tweaking another story about a Hitler tour in Munich. I'm getting emails about walking through the Outback in South Australia (starting from the Dig Tree of Burke and Wills fame, which I just happen to be reading a book about). Someone else is wrapping up loose ends from my airline disaster in Tahiti, which is the destination I'm writing about next. Meanwhile I'm organising a house-sitter and liaising with the PR people from Visit England and Visit Scotland about my trip there next month; answering questions about Hobbiton from someone in Kuwait; and going green with envy at the countdown for my South Africa buddies to their epic car rally from Namibia to Zimbabwe. Oh, and getting stuff together for another stay on Waiheke Island at the weekend while messaging a daughter in Chile.
It's hard to imagine what it's like to be my dear old aunt, who has no desire to travel whatsoever and has rarely ventured beyond the county borders of Surrey. It's not that she's uninterested in what the rest of the world is like: she just doesn't want to go there herself. There are still people like that around, in every generation. I met a young man yesterday who's lived in Auckland for years and has never been to Waiheke; the car hire girl at Townsville airport has never made the 20-minute crossing to Magnetic Island, either. "I get sea-sick," she protested. Well, pft. Pathetic.
Not wanting to go places, being perfectly satisfied with just seeing them on TV or in magazines, is really missing out, I reckon. It's literally 2D, and nothing like being there, feeling the heat or cold or humidity on your skin, smelling the frangipani or curry or drains, hearing the wail of the muezzin, the racket of galahs at dawn or the roar of millions of litres of water pouring over Iguassu Falls. You don't get the buzz of being somewhere famous, or connecting with people who on the face of it are very different from you but turn out to be pretty much the same after all, or doing things that are a bit challenging and scary.
It's sometimes tempting, as you squeeze yourself into the middle seat in a crowded plane with every overhead bin crammed with outsize bags, to remember the glory days of the '70s, when fewer people were travelling and you could get whole rows to yourself, and to regret that everyone seems to be on the move these days. But actually, it's just great that all those minds are being broadened. Now, if only the bodies that go with them could be a little less so...

Friday 2 May 2014

Like a Venn diagram, but with no overlap

Here's a classic way to start a weekend: arrive by ferry at Matiatia on Waiheke Island, on a calm autumn evening with the sun setting over Motutapu, staining the flat sea orange. It's school holidays and there are kids everywhere, luxuriating in their freedom. There are boats everywhere too, their owners making the most of the still mild weather and warm days - Oneroa Bay is full of them. Not as chokka as in the height of summer, but still plenty came skimming in during the afternoon over the glossy water that's so still, you can see the trail they leave behind them for a long time after, the same as if someone had walked across dewy grass.

There's a bunch of US travel magazine editors in Auckland this week, along with a small phalanx of American freelance travel writers, come for a conference and being diverted with pre- and post-familiarisations ('fams' to them, 'famils' to us) which will include a farewell group lunch here on the island. Sound familiar? It's a similar set-up, scaled well down, to my recent trip to Chicago for IPW. I can imagine that they all leapt at the opportunity to travel somewhere far away and exotic, to be hosted in a luxury hotel (the Sofitel, scene of my splendidly successful sabrage), be fawned upon, treated with gifts and special dinners, and then to be whisked off to places like Rorotua, Napier, the Bay of Islands and Queenstown.

I hope they have fun, and that the weather co-operates, and they see their various bits of New Zealand at their best. There's no doubting that those going to Queenstown will be blown away by the scenery, how could they not? I'm still marvelling at how glorious it was, when I was there on my sixth or so visit, to cycle the Paradise Trail - but thinking of it now reminds me that I have a huge gap in my experience, that many people I mention it to can hardly believe. Queenstown is a bit like Whistler: most people here know it only as a winter, ski destination; while in fact there's a whole separate set of visitors like me who have only ever been there in the summer.

They have a Winter Festival there, you know. Maybe next year...

Thursday 1 May 2014


Discussing the Gallipoli 2015 expedition with a travel provider today, he commented that it had taken some time for all of my stories to be published from the last trip he'd facilitated for me - "But that's what happens, when you're working with freelances," he finished, with a refreshing understanding of the situation. The upside, to which he also referred, is that freelances produce far more stories from a famil than does a journalist tied to just one publication. Swings and roundabouts, in other words. It was such a relief to hear him say this, because one of the awkward things about being a freelance travel writer is the understandable eagerness of the PR person at the tourism operation who naturally wants to see a return on their generosity as soon as possible once a trip has been completed.
Sadly for them, and for the freelance caught in the middle, once the story has been filed, it's entirely up to the editor as to when it sees the light of day. It could be next week, or it could be next year, literally. It all depends on advertising, space, budget, themes and what other stories have recently run, and nagging the editor achieves very little other than building up a bad association with seeing your name in their inbox. (It's not just the tourism people who are disappointed: it's an inconvenient fact that writers are generally paid on publication, which means a long time between meals.)
So it was a pleasant surprise to hear from my #1 editor today that he's decided to concentrate on clearing out all the old stories that have been sitting in his files. I don't know about his other writers, but he's got a dozen or so stories of mine, the oldest of which date back to June and July 2012 - so long ago that I'd forgotten them entirely, and when I went back to re-read them it was almost as if someone else had written them. It'll be good to see them in print, hopefully within the next couple of months: the Gawler wilderness in South Australia and the Norfolk Broads, plus the Hump Ridge Track, Juneau, Alaska, South Africa, the Rockies, the Catlins, Queensland... The PR people will be happy at last.


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