Wednesday 31 August 2016

Black and white

Nzima is a very emphatic sort of person. Not to say startlingly loud, when there were just the two of us in the minivan for our half-day Springbok Atlas tour of Joburg. But that was ok, there was no danger of jetlag making us dozy – not that anyone would be likely to nod off on a tour of Soweto, anyway.
Soweto = South West Township, about half an hour or so from our clubby hotel by the Stock Exchange, but in another country in practical terms. It was hard not to be thinking in Jewish terms today, specifically ghetto and Holocaust – the stories of segregation and apartheid, and the awful things that happened within living (ie my) memory. We were taken to see the long rows of basic miners’ accommodation, one shower/tap/toilet for 40 rooms. They were luxury compared with Kliptown, where rusty tin shacks, their roofs held on with stones, were huddled together, cut through by winding dirt paths leading to the tap. It’s a remnant now, most of these hovels having been replaced by 4-room houses, and occupied by people waiting for their own relocations. It’s a slow business.
There are some startling contrasts in Soweto. Some of the suburbs are neat and pleasant, a few even with gardens; but then, right across the road, more hovels surrounded by epic mounds of litter. There’s a golf club, and a huge hospital, and football stadiums. And then there are the Orlando Towers, colourfully painted now but once pumping out toxic pollution from the coal-fired power plant that supplied electricity to Joburg – but not to Soweto. Now, there’s a bungy jump operation strung between them.
And, people, everywhere! Walking, standing, squatting, selling stuff from stalls, fruit in neat pyramids, or services like head-shaving underneath a pergola; or carrying loads on their heads, or mending things, or just loitering – unemployment is 26% in South Africa, so there’s a lot of time-filling to be done.

We went to the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum. He was a 12 year-old boy shot by police in the 1976 protests against the forced teaching of Afrikaans that went wrong, a symbol of oppression and overreaction. Then we went, via Nelson Mandela's house, to the excellent Apartheid Museum and things got even more serious. It's an uncomfortable place to be white in, and full of ugly facts that gave a whole new meaning to the phrase 'museum guilt'. And, unexpectedly, some understanding of what it is to be German. 
With thanks to Adventure World for this tailor-made holiday.

Tuesday 30 August 2016

A necessary evil

With thanks to Adventure World for this tailor-made holiday.
Bed to bed, it was 27 hours today, most of them spent crammed into an economy seat aboard Qantas planes, Auckland to Sydney to Johannesburg. Probably the less said about that, the better. Arriving in this case was far better than the travelling, especially as the hopefully bit didn’t enter into it (not even the chance of an upgrade).

Views along the way included Rangitoto through a rain-spotted ferry window; Sydney’s uninspiring back door view instead of the cross-harbour collection of cliché icons; expanses of Antarctic ice, bergs included; and the unseasonably dry flat land around Joburg.

And then we crept along concrete motorways through thick traffic to, eventually, the Protea Balalaika Hotel with its clubby atmosphere and hooded armchairs, light-girded trees and, so welcome, its large and comfortable bed.

Tuesday 16 August 2016

Feeling responsible

Sometimes I wonder whether I've got this blog back to front. That it's not about going places and finding connections with it for ever after. That, actually, my going somewhere is the kiss of death for that place and it is automatically doomed to suffer some sort of disaster in fairly short order. Fires, floods, earthquakes, shootings, terrorist attacks - they've all happened in places I'd recently visited.

Louisiana's on my mind, of course: much of it under water right now, even more than normal for such a swampy place. Even though disastrous floods are pretty much a news staple these days, just the location changing, the footage of brown water right up to the eaves of houses makes pretty grim viewing. And by now everyone must have seen that amazing rescue from a sinking car of not only the woman driver, but her little dog as well. I see that Lafayette and New Iberia have been badly affected, the Vermilion River very far from living up to its name. I'm wondering about the beautiful plantation house I visited in New Iberia, Shadows-on-the-Teche, built right next to the bayou which even when I was there was running pretty high.

I've just been writing about Louisiana this week, about the loop I took through the state, by train from Houston down to Lafayette, and then on to New Orleans, and by bus up north through St Francisville and Alexandria and Shreveport back into Texas at Dallas. Water was a constant all the way: swamps, rivers, bayous, lakes. Recent rains meant I didn't see any alligators in the Atchafalaya Swamp because all their sunbathing banks were under water - I can only imagine now how high the water must be.
I read about a woman trapped in her house who battled for ages to break through the wall to escape, using just a screwdriver and a saw. Crumbs, having been to the Katrina exhibition at the Presbytere in New Orleans, even I know you need to keep an axe in the attic in Louisiana. If only to beat off the gators...

Wednesday 10 August 2016

Cheers to Oregon hospitality

Most of a travel writer's life - like any writer's, really - is solitary. The writing part is self-explanatory, but add to that the nuts and bolts of the travel bit: all the standing, sitting, walking and eating alone; plus holding your own in a guide-plus-just-you scenario, which can get wearing on a multi-day trip. But occasionally there are social episodes, like on a group famil (only if the group gels well, though, which doesn't always happen), and at events like yesterday's lunch in Ponsonby.
Travel Oregon were our hosts this time, and very welcoming they were too. The media gatherings that I get invited to (separate from the travel agent do's - they have different requirements and priorities) are usually held in a bar or restaurant, involve name badges, business card lucky dips, free-flowing drinks, plenty of food, not too much in the way of speechifying, and a bag of gifts.
Since it's Oregon, and there can't be anyone now who doesn't know about Portland's craft beer culture, there was plenty of beer and beer talk, and an associated rise in the amount and volume of non-beer talk. I enjoyed the beer, especially the Bridgeport Kingpin red ale, and even the stout - though the suggestion of taking it with a scoop of icecream in it was more alarming than enticing, for me. Wine is a thing there too now, but the focus was on the brown stuff for this event, so I only got a taste of the pinot noir and too fleeting a glimpse of the label to identify it - but it was very nice too.
Of course there were sliders - when are there not, these days (and that isn't a complaint) - and pulled pork and beef, plus Dungeness crab cakes and chicken in hot sauce, and salads and yummy super-crispy chips, and lots more good stuff like salmon chowder. It was a feast, the most food I've eaten in one go since Christmas, so well done Travel Oregon and Ponsonby Central.

I was lucky to win a prize, my third this year after the Keith Urban-signed guitar in New Orleans, and a trip to Indonesia at another event of this sort (which probably isn't going to happen because it's travel agent-focused, see above) - so I suppose that's it for the year. This time it was a really stylish pair of wooden-framed sunglasses, and a hoodie. Again, thank you, Travel Oregon.

I was invited because I've made it known that I would like to go there next year, so I hope it happens. Coast, mountains, forest, good food, wine and beer - yes, I know we've got all that here in NZ, just as accessibly; but it's bigger there, and the flavours are all different, and there's bound to be lots besides that's properly unique, so I hope it happens. Especially so I can get a chance to hoe into more of that delicious gourmet Moose Munch popcorn. Chocolate coated, y'all*!
*Yes, I know that's southern, but it's a hard habit to break.

Wednesday 3 August 2016

Whanganui: why not?

I dunno. When your mission is to give tourism publicity to a place that's generally considered to be a bit of a backwater, is it a good idea to meet your media guests at the airport with a row of vintage cars? It was certainly a novelty to be driven into town in a 1938 Dodge (I wasn't important enough for the 1975 gold Rolls Royce - the TV people got that one) though it made me very twitchy not to have a seat belt - just as well it's less than a 10-minute drive. Where it paid off, though, was in introducing me to Keith, the first of a dayful of super-enthusiastic locals who were hell-bent on selling the town to me.
Next was Mark, in his flash new Jag, who was to show me around. He's a born and bred local, and spent much of our drives tooting and waving at friends, and winding down the window to say hello. Clearly, Whanganui is a Waiheke sort of place. Much older, though - in fact, one of NZ's oldest towns - and with a real wealth of heritage buildings. How much wealth? Eleven percent, that's how much. I heard that figure more than once. Certainly, the town centre is full of pretty Victorian and Edwardian buildings in brick, stone and plaster: colourful, stately and ornate. A little too ornate, however - the locals have been cursing Christchurch roundly since 2011, when that city's quakes led to stringent - and expensive - earthquake strengthening regulations throughout the country.
The town centre wasn't on my itinerary, however, and nor were the Sarjeant Art Gallery, the Moutoa Gardens, the Opera House, museum, Observatory, or, to my real regret, any of the many and talented local glass artists. No, I went out to the Havoc Coffee Roastery to meet Sheryl, who cheerfully admits to her addiction and told me how the beans pop, like corn, as they roast. It certainly smelled good, but I didn't get a taste.
Next I met Rennie, at Bushy Park which is a lovely old 1906 homestead out in the country, in the middle of a predator-free wildlife sanctuary of native bush that was full of birds, including a noisy saddleback. On a winter's day the house looked lovely, all high ceilings, varnished wood, tall fireplaces and a gorgeous leaded light window in the entrance hall - but boy, it was chilly. George Moore designed it for efficient ventilation, to help his TB. It's a characterful homestay, but I recommend a summer visit.
Lunch at the Union Boatshed followed, the walls lined with ornamental oars and framed photos of men in caps. Whanganui's other name (apart from Wanganui, which is still the source of much grumpiness from old white males - can't imagine how they'd cope if they'd had a macron imposed on them too) is the River City, and it certainly features strongly in daily life - as the reason for the city's existence, for sport, for tourism, as a flooding threat. Industry too, as I discovered at Q-West boat builders, about which I posted yesterday.
Everyone knows about the Durie Hill elevator, which was built in 1919 and is still running, on request. Zena is in charge, and has been for 45 years, clanking up and down the 66 metre shaft for 12 days out of every 14 until recently sharing the job with her daughter. Kids take it up to school with their bikes, pedalling along the 213 metre tunnel - and then back again at the end of the day. The school forbids them from riding down the hill because it's so steep. It wasn't always so white: there was a painting by Rolf Harris at the entranceway until relatively recently, when it became an embarrassment. There's a couple of towers at the top.
We finished the day with Witerina Koopa, who welcomed us into the highly-decorated St Paul's Memorial Church at Putiki, as full of Maori carvings, tukutuku and kowhaiwhai panels as the one at Tikitiki on East Cape. Photos weren't allowed, but in compensation, Witerina's talk about the various features inside was interesting.

So that was Whanganui. There's also unemployment there, some crime, gangs and empty shops - but it's still worth a visit, I reckon. I'd be happy to spend a bit more time there.

Tuesday 2 August 2016

Lafayette link

I bet you never thought I'd be able to connect Waiheke, Whanganui and Lafayette, Louisiana. Nor did I, until a minute ago, when I was researching a boat-building company that I visited yesterday in Whanganui, a town of around 40,000 on the coast down the line. I went there on a junket to publicise the first flight from Auckland to WAG by Air Chathams, which has taken over a route abandoned by Air New Zealand because they're much too busy and important to bother with Whanganui any more.
Despite having to get up at 5am to catch the first Fullers ferry of the day into the city, and then the Skybus, and then the little Saab twin-prop that took us to Whanganui, 50 minutes south; and then reverse it all at the end of the day with the added excitement of missing my ferry by two whole minutes and having to wait an hour and a half for the next one, it was a good day. Whanganui is full of enthusiastic locals who are keen to spread the word that the town is worth a visit, and we were treated very well. They took us all in different directions, and one of my visits wasn't tourist-focused at all, but actually turned out to be pretty much the highlight.
Q-West is a boat-building company in a couple of big sheds down by the Whanganui River, and there I was introduced to the two new catamarans that will be Fullers' newest boats on the Waiheke service. They're being pieced together like some huge and immensely complicated puzzle from variously-shaped and -sized bits of aluminium, and while one doesn't look anything like a boat yet, the other that is meant to be finished for November is quite excitingly recognisable. We walked underneath and then up and through it, into the cabins, past the bar, out onto the bow, up to the bridge, and then even further up, onto the new roof level that the last new boat it's modelled on, Te Kotuku, doesn't have.
These new ones, with the extra space, can carry 401 passengers - that's 63 fewer people to be left stranded on the jetty in the height of the summer season, which has to be a good thing, eh Fullers? There were men welding and sanding, up ladders and lying on their stomachs, and it was remarkable to see what 44 people can achieve in a year, and interesting too, to look at the bare bones of a boat I'll be spending plenty of time sitting on in the future, standing at that bar, climbing those stairs, leaning on those rails.

Oh, and the Lafayette connection? The Australian company that designed the boats, Incat Crowther, has an office there, not far from the Kaliste Saloom/Pinhook intersection. I drove through there about 6 weeks ago.


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