Thursday 17 November 2016

Rumbling and rambling

The earthquake chaos continues in Kaikoura and Wellington: now upgraded to 7.8, and followed by more than 1500 aftershocks, it's caused massive damage to roads and buildings, the land and the coast, and it's all a bit exhausting to think about, with our long experience of Christchurch's travails still so fresh in our memories.

So here's a less weighty connection: tucked behind all the dramatic stuff in the paper today is a report about the auction of a notebook of sketches found in Arles that it's claimed belonged to Van Gogh. Now, I've been to Arles, and on my tour there visiting the sites of some of his most famous paintings - which still today look just as they do on the canvas - the guide mentioned that Gauguin, who stayed with Vincent for 9 weeks in the city, tried to help with Van Gogh's mental instability. Not a great success, if true - he ended up being threatened with the knife that Vincent famously used soon afterwards to cut off part of his ear (which he didn't actually give to a prostitute). 
Then, while in Tahiti recently I learned that, like so many (male) producers of the world's most valued pieces of art and literature, Gauguin was also not someone you'd want to share even a lift with. Nasty piece of work, actually, violent and - our circle-island tour guide of Tahiti Nui, Dave, was perfectly candid about this - a paedophile, who not only took advantage of young girls wherever he went, but generously shared his syphilis with them. Those paintings of tropical maidens that we're so familiar with look innocent enough, but the reality was far from that. There is a Gauguin Museum on the route, but it's undergoing renovations right now, so instead we spent time in the nearby Vaipahi Gardens. Much more soothing to the spirit.

Tuesday 15 November 2016

Black and silver

No news is good news. No, really: all news is bad news, isn't it? Especially this year. It's got so that opening the paper or sitting down to the evening TV bulletin is an exercise in self-punishment. Feeling cheerful? Here, look at this, and watch all the colour drain from your world. Which all makes the idea behind this blog (see upper right) something of a curse: when somewhere pops up for me to make a connection with, it seems it'll damn near always be because of a disaster of some sort. I could almost feel like a sort of Typhoid Mary, if it weren't for the fact that awful things also happen on a regular basis in places with which I haven't even the most tenuous connection.

So, anyway. The latest place to (reluctantly) feature in this increasingly intermittent blog is Kaikoura, currently all over the news here (and even overseas, briefly) because of the 7.5 earthquake that occurred near there just after midnight yesterday. It's a town on the east coast of the South Island, perched between the mountains and the sea, famous for whales and crayfish, and a reliably rewarding stop on the tourist trail. That's why I was there in February, escorting English visitors around the country, though of course I'd been there often before, most recently to do a Mazda 3 review for the company's Zoom-Zoom magazine (which I wrote with such convincing enthusiasm that I subsequently bought one of the cars myself).
On that trip the photographer (Dean MacKenzie - pic above) and I stayed at Hapuku Lodge, a high-end hotel which features five 'tree houses': lovely wood, glass and metal suites perched on 6m high stilts above a stand of manuka trees, with views of both sea and snow-capped mountains, and sumptuously cosy on a chilly spring night, each with a log-burner glowing by the window. Stilts, though? Not such a good partner for a 7.5 [later upgraded to 7.8] that lasted two minutes, I'm thinking. I wonder how that went?
Anyway, the February trip being self-funding, we stayed in a very ordinary motel just outside the town. That was where, being stuck with boring people who don't understand how things are meant to work, I ate my share of our obligatory freshly-cooked crayfish from Nin's Bin. What we should have done was to sit by that classic caravan (pre-dating the food truck phenomenon by many, many years) just metres from the sea, with gulls swooping overhead, the deep blue sea breaking white on the black rocks, and the air clean and clear all the way to Antarctica. That's how you eat crayfish in Kaikoura.

The tsunami threat didn't eventuate, thankfully, but Nin's Bin is probably now somewhat further from the sea than it was, since the sea-bed seems to have lifted up, to the inevitable doom of many fish caught caught by surprise and left flapping in the sunshine. They're not the only creatures to have been stranded: currently, I'm waiting to hear the end of the story of the three Hereford cattle left stuck on a tiny island of paddock high above what's left of the rest of their pasture, cracked and sunken metres below. [UPDATED pic below]
The most astonishing sights, though, are of the road and railway tracks, which squeeze along the edge of the coast, sometimes having to burrow through cliffs, both north and south of the town. Huge landslips have left tonnes of debris over this route - State Highway 1, people - that are going to take months to clear, if they can be cleared at all. They might have to look for an alternative route, though that won't be an easy job either. The Kaikouras are a proper mountain range. [RNZ pic]
Meantime, poor old Kaikoura, once its current bunch of tourists is removed, by helicopter or HMNZS Canterbury, will be left isolated with pretty much no income: the whale- and dolphin-watching businesses, the Segway tour, the restaurants, the souvenir shops, Hapuku Lodge and its inferiors, and all the people who work there, will have no money coming in. Dark days for the people. For the seals, whales and dolphins, though? Maybe the silver lining...

Sunday 6 November 2016

Au revoir à la Polynésie Française

It was our last day today, and our plan of taking a catamaran cruise to Marlon Brando’s atoll island of Tetiaroa was stymied by the boat's being full – so at least we had a lie-in and saved some money (because boy! that's expensive).
It’s a local thing to descend on the hotel for Sunday breakfast, so the terrace restaurant was busy with family groups and little kids feeding bread to the fat goldfish in the pond. A ukulele/guitar trio serenaded us from the landing as we ate our crèpes and croissants – very French Polynesia. Not to be picky, but you can, I find, have enough of the ukulele after a while. It’s not what you would call a subtle instrument.
At the shopping centre beside the hotel there was a small market in progress, car-boot style, where you could buy a parsley plant, a pearl bracelet or a puppy; and next to it the SuperU supermarket with tempting French goodies like Roquefort and pork rillettes, and also NZ Tip Top icecream in 4.5 litre buckets which we never see. Probably just as well.
We took a round-island VIP Tour with Dave in the afternoon, which filled five hours very nicely. Dave is Hawaiian, but has lived here for 27 years and is an excellent guide, very knowledgeable about history, geology and culture, and also pleasant company, happy to chat about anything. Following the narrow ring road around the coast, we passed black sand beaches, narrow valleys giving glimpses up into the mountainous interior, along cliffs and through farmland and plantations; and stopped at a number of points of interest, like the cool and dripping grotto where everyone, naturally, ignored the bossy sign.

The marae we visited first had some creepy stories about human sacrifice – not just the ritual eating of slaughtered enemies, but of members of the tribe too: like the man honoured with climbing into a hole to hold the foundation stone in place while the walls are built around it – and then buried alive in there. Though the gardens around are green and lush, the stones are black basalt, the stumpy statues have grim expressions and it’s not a place to linger.
The gardens further along are, though, full of bright, fragrant, exotic flowers and fruits, growing luxuriantly but neatly kept: gingers, heliconia, lotus flowers and many more. Besides the shady grotto we also visited a feathery waterfall, but the best watery performance was at the blow-holes, where a loud sudden roar accompanied each powerful spray of water from a tube beside the path: very startling, and good fun.
Finally, we stopped at a point beside a lighthouse built of milled coral blocks, and visited the memorials of Capt. Cook – who viewed the transit of Venus from here in 1769 - and the Bounty, which linked with our visits to Nantucket and Townsville, as well as my stopping, as a 3 year-old en route by ship to England, at Pitcairn Island. Connections, people!
The day ended with a delicious dinner at the rather sumptuous Intercontinental Hotel’s Lotus restaurant, built over the water where lights shone down on the hopeful fish continuously circling in vain as I polished off every morsel of my scallop risotto and chocolate dessert. It was a very fine way to finish our week in Tahiti: classic French Polynesia, showcasing the best of both elements. 

Saturday 5 November 2016

Tahiti doesn't have to be expensive

Transit day again – but first, after a glorious sunrise, there was a visit to the Turtle Sanctuary that Le Méridiento its credit, runs in the grounds. Today there were seven residents held in relatively small individual tubs, recovering from various indignities like a spear-fishing wound, loss of flipper, fishing hook injury, and plastic ingestion. Though some have parasites, most of the problems are caused by people. They’re all green turtles, juveniles, and are exercised every day in an offshoot of the lagoon where colourful reef fish seemed to be having a lot of fun in the stream of water coming out of the pump.
And then it was time to be hung with a shell necklace and swap places on the shuttle with the lucky guests who were just arriving, and buzz along the lagoon to the airport, to sit in the airy waiting room facing Otemanu and wait for the plane back to Tahiti, which seems now to be much less of a Pacific paradise.
We had seriously impressive views of Moorea as we approached Tahiti: the peaks are so steep and high, remnants of the volcanic crater, and lush with bush. And then we were back in Papeete’s busy, crowded, tarmacked mess where all the Pacific charms we’d first admired now seemed negligible. Even Le Méridien here, after the Bora Bora version, looked almost ordinary. Here, see for yourself:
However, lots of people in a place do have some advantages, and for dinner we went to the roulottes – food trucks – in the Place Vaiete, where tables were busy with families with little kids, teenagers, tourists and older people. You can eat everything from a suckling pig to a crèpe Suzette, by way of Chinese food, poisson cru, hamburgers or steak. It’s good. So was the bottle of cider, with its champagne cork, drunk out of traditional pottery cups.
Best of all tonight, though, was the dance event going on just beside where the roulottes were gathered. Masses of teenagers and young kids were eagerly participating in a series of hip hop/breakdance-type challenges, and they were really good: assured, skilful and confident. Some of their moves were just amazing – spinning, balancing, somersaulting, plus all the usual twitching and swaying. The group final was something you’d pay to see, the two crews so keen to out-do each other that their moves just got more and more outrageous and so – good-naturedly – in-your-face that it felt vaguely Montague-Capuletish, with the compère shouting “Ça suffit! Arrêtez-vous!”
Place Vaiete on a Saturday night: warm, dark, crowded but relaxed, colourful, fun, tasty and interesting. Recommended.

Friday 4 November 2016

Row, row, row your boat...

Ours was the party boat. Anchored in the shallow lagoon off Matira Beach, the speakers were lifted onto the roof and the music was shared – no need to turn up the volume, since it had been cranked up to the max from the very beginning of our cruise down the lagoon from Le Méridien to where the finish line was for today’s big boat race. 
Pirogues, or outrigger canoes – about 100 of them, including some international teams (Japan and China as well as more predictable places like Hawaii, and also with a New Zealand entrant) – were taking part in Hawaiki Nui Va'a 2016 and completing the third and final stage of a 129km race between islands that started in Huahine. Today's section was 58.2km long and the teams of 6 rowers took between 4¼ and 5½ hours to complete it, dipping and pulling, dipping and pulling in the hot sun. When they finished, some were too tired even to tip out into the lagoon to cool off.
It was a huge day, locally, an unofficial public holiday, and the lagoon was filled with boats of all sorts as well as – would you call them pedestrians? wandering around with their phones held above their heads, many of the women wearing flowery headdresses. Gendarmes brought in specially for the occasion cruised around on jetskis, officially curbing the off-boat drinking of alcohol but generally seeming to be having as good a time as everyone else.
Me? I would have had a better time had our DJ turned the volume down a bit – that cranked-up beat box music can get a bit overwhelming after 3 or 4 hours. But the people on the surrounding boats and in the water were all enjoying the show, and it was a colourful, crowded and cheerful affair, with so many boats in the water, the blue and the turquoise, the kite surfer catching air, the enviably cool-looking motorised surfboards skimming past, and above it all, Otemanu looming impressively.
Transferred by jetski to the beach, we joined a 4WD tour around the island, travelling every one of the single loop road’s 20 miles, some of them several times. We went up three hills on incredibly steep and crumbling concrete tracks, and the two Americans on the tour smugly sucked up all the GI gratitude liberally dished out by the guide, local man Frank. During the war, they built the runway, the wharf, the road, installed some cannons, one of which we visited, and left behind plenty of DNA – so their influence is still strong on Bora Bora.
There were lots of cannibal jokes (it was outlawed only in 1826), the obligatory craft workshop visit to observe pareu tie-dyeing, some eating of fruit, and a wealth of information about culture, history and beliefs, only some of which seemed reliable. The soursap fruit cures cancer, everybody! But it’s a local secret because the world’s governments have too much money invested in drug companies…
For the rest, the island was the usual Pacific mix of coconut and banana palms, mango and papaya trees, frangipani bushes, feathery casuarinas, some litter, many dogs, flimsy-looking turquoise-painted houses with louvre windows and gravestones in the front yard, fancy hotels, cheerful people sitting and walking and wallowing, workaday boats hauled out of the water on simple wind-up racks, Protestant churches, Gendarmerie, busy port.
Back at Le Méridien, we were greeted by name, fed well, and wandered along the pontoon back to our bungalow in the warm dark, bucking the apparent resort rule by not holding hands.

Thursday 3 November 2016

A wet day

After more rustling of thatch last night than lapping against piles (neither description figurative, I hasten to clarify) we woke to another brilliant morning. They do a very good breakfast buffet here at the Bora Bora Le Méridien, I must say; but we had to rush a bit to meet our guide for the day.
Mana was a very cheerful local man who arrived in a modern outrigger motorboat and afterwards dipped into several neighbouring resorts – all of them featuring over-water bungalows, with a couple of fancier versions on two levels with even their own raised pools, which seemed a bit superfluous given there is an expanse of warm, shallow turquoise water right there.
Anyway, once our complement of 12 guests was on board, we buzzed down to the south of the lagoon, Mana plinking away on a ukulele while steering with his feet, the views of Mt Otemanu changing constantly but always impressive. The colours of the sea were sensational: luminous turquoise in the shallows and brilliant blue in the deeps, right next to each other. Beautiful.
First stop was for a snorkel with stingrays and, speaking personally, a bit of an ethical dilemma à la Jean Lafitte SwampTours. Because these stingrays had no stings, the barbs having been removed from their tails – a twice-yearly exercise, apparently, since they grow back like fingernails. Mana said it wasn’t painful and, coward, I didn’t ask any more questions, but I did wonder about the rays that had no tails at all, or truncated ones.
Next came the coral gardens snorkel, where we were given bread to feed the fish: not a natural food, but they certainly seemed keen on it. There was a good variety of species, the water was very clear and warm, there was plenty of time to cruise over the reef playing with underwater cameras, and everyone enjoyed themselves.
Last snorkel of the day was with the sharks, and there was a lot more shrieking this time – quite unnecessarily, as no-one got ate or even nibbled, though the sharks did get remarkably close. They were black-tipped reef sharks, the biggest a bit over a metre, with some lemon sharks prowling down on the bottom, one of them a twelve-footer. Not scary at all, and fun to photograph although they glided through the water so fast that I ended up with more than the usual quota of photos with part of a tail fin disappearing out of the frame.
Lunch was on a tiny motu where another group was enjoying local entertainment: background music for our yummy buffet, eaten off plaited palm plates which, afterwards, Mana demonstrated how to make. Then, how to open a brown-husked coconut and make coconut milk from the grated flesh, and finally how to tie a pareu in a variety of ways. It was a professional and funny presentation, and on the way home he serenaded us even more musically. Excellent tour – although I’m still a bit dubious about those rays.
Having made a pathetic effort to do justice to the restaurant’s expansive buffet, we slunk back to the bungalow to luxuriate in the lapping water and tapping thatch, the peace and comfort – and the free wifi, natch. Then, the drums! The drums! Duly summoned back to the beach, we watched the dance performance – the usual swivel-hipped affair, done with grace and smiling enthusiasm, plus a bit of hesitant audience participation; before returning to the soft lap and rustle.

Wednesday 2 November 2016

Just one damn cliché after another...

Transit day: it was a 45 minute flight to Bora Bora. I haven’t been here before but have seen and heard lots about its spectacular scenery – even so, it was literally breath-taking when the island came into view and the low land at the southern end went suddenly vertical into some serious volcanic peaks, the highest Mt Otemanu at 727 metres. Very impressive. And, of course, the colours of the lagoon and surrounding deep sea, and the white ring of the reef, were as classically gorgeous as ever.
We landed on the out-of-scale long and wide runway built out from a reef motu by the Americans during the war. From there - best arrivals hall in the world! - everyone has to transfer to their hotels by boat since the main island is in the middle. Our hotel, though, Le Méridien Bora Bora, is on one of the reef motus – the first to be built here and with the most photogenic view of Otemanu.
It’s a lovely, lovely place: traditional but sophisticated, neat and well-maintained, and most of its guests are smugly housed in over-water bungalows – including me, I’m glad to say, for the first time ever. Ours is at the end of a pontoon, much more private than I expected, and has two big glass floor panels, the better to appreciate the sea-life in the lagoon below. We have our own spiral staircase down into the water, and an outside shower for afterwards, as well as all the usual amenities inside.

The sun set behind Otemanu, which became even more impressive as a silhouette, reflected in the eternity pool. I watched the staff put dining tables out on the beach with high-backed cane chairs and lit torches next to each one – very nice; though, when we went past them after dinner, they also each had their own musician perched on a stool nearby which would have been not only quite distracting for the presumably honeymoon couples, but also a bit rowdy since they were all so close together.

We ate in Le Tipanié restaurant, under a high thatched roof beside the water where little black and yellow-finned mullet swirled constantly and beside which the staff teetered unnervingly as they served us. Our sommelier/hostess was Vanessa, a young French woman with a slightly intimidatingly authoritarian air, but she certainly knew her stuff, and we were glad she overruled our first choices of wine. The food was good, too.

And after, walking back through the warm dark along the pontoon above lapping water to our cool and comfortable bungalow? Priceless.

Tuesday 1 November 2016

Back to work

Once was brilliant. But twice within a couple of months? Super-lucky, and I know it. Opening the shutters at the Oyster Box hotel in Durban to a blurry red sunrise behind a striped lighthouse and a blue sea edged by white breakers was, I said in September, a gift. But today it happened again: a late arrival at a hotel, morning, opening the curtains – and there it was again: another perfect view.

This time, at Le Meridien in Tahiti, it was over a third-floor ornamental pond full of purple waterlilies and orange fish, over another pond ditto down in the gardens, and a white-sand edged turquoise swimming pool surrounded by lawns and coconut palms, to the lagoon and the reef beyond, and Moorea’s always surprisingly steep peaks on the close horizon. And all of this under a clear blue sky. Magic.

You make allowances, in Pacific countries: it’s too hot for the locals to be anal about details. Things are always just a little ramshackle, even in a top hotel, timings are approximate, mistakes are made. So when it turned out that today is a public holiday – All Saints Day – in French Polynesia, I wasn’t surprised that the Tahiti Tourism people had forgotten to factor that into the itinerary (though I was sorry, at the end of the day, to learn there’d been big canoe races on that it would have been fun to watch). Instead, I spent the day pretending to be an ordinary tourist, and it was a pleasant novelty.

So, no haring about squeezing as many sights and experiences into the day as possible – instead, long hours with a book on a lounger by the pool under an umbrella, periodically taking a dip in the warm water, and then back to reading and snoozing. I didn’t even join Denis in the pool for his morning aquarobics session – “Allez, allez, allez! Un, deux, trois – stop! Voilà!” – but instead watched small children chattering cleverly away in French, confident old ladies disporting themselves in bikinis, couples playing boules under the palm trees, assorted other bodies similarly sprawling in the shade.

The day passed, shadows lengthened, there was food, and Tabu beer in frosted glasses, the pool and sea turned silver, the trees became silhouettes, the sun sank in a cliché blaze of red and orange and the garden turned black. We ate good food by the sea with the reef a line of white out in the darkness, a crescent moon dropped into the sea, lizards chirped, brown noddies grunted above in the coconut palms and the temperature became perfect. Finally, it was time for bed and a sleep not earned, but enjoyed anyway.


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