Friday, September 29, 2017

Volcanoes, dead bodies and a dug-out canoe

If there's anyone out there, besides me, who has read more than a post or two of this blog, they will know that one of the many things I've come to disbelieve as the years pass by is the concept of coincidence. That is, as something amazing and rare and to be accompanied always by multiple exclamation marks. Because it's really pretty much a daily event, if you're paying attention - in my world, anyway.

Of course it helps to have a world with wide boundaries, which mine is thanks to the travel writing thing (despite its currently apparently grinding to a stuttering halt). All of which is by way of introduction to volcanoes, which are in the news at the moment as the Pacific's dramatically-named Ring of Fire is sparking in multiple countries. A couple of them look likely to eclipse the theatrical overtures of Cotopaxi in Ecuador (top) when I was there in 2015 and possibly even Kilauea from last year.
Vanuatu's Manaro, on the island of Ambae which is being evacuated Dunkirk-style as I write, is not a volcano I've been to; nor Popocatepetl in Mexico (though I have been able to spell that name since I was about 12); but Mt Agung I have. Or thought I had, back in 1977 when I was on my Great OE - but it turns out I just got near it, and went up to the crater lake in neighbouring Mt Batur instead. That I remember not so much for the dramatic scenery, as for the chastening experience of bartering hard for a boat trip across the lake to the village of Trunyan. Uniquely in Bali it's the custom there to leave dead bodies out in the open to decay, just protected by a cloth and a bamboo cage to keep opportunistic birds/animals away. As tourist attractions go, it's clearly at the more macabre end, and also these days a pretty un-PC thing to go and gawp at - but, hey, 1977.
So, having been in Indonesia for a week or so by then, we were getting pretty confident with the bartering thing - overconfident, it turned out. Because having beaten the poor guy down to a third of what he'd originally asked for, he got his own back by taking us not to the boat we were expecting, but a literal dug-out canoe - which, moreover, we were expected to take part in paddling. Yes, served us right. We got halfway across the lake before it became far too much effort in that heat, over that distance, and we admitted defeat and turned back to shore. At least we got our own back, and didn't give the canoe guy the tip he asked for. 
(I did, though, get my dead-body tourist exploitation three years later, when I returned to Bali and saw a funeral procession in Belayu, and followed it right through to the cremation. Just, you know, so you don't worry about my missing out.)
And if that's not enough volcano connections for you to consider worthy of even being, let alone disproving, coincidence - well, how about the fact that it's only two weeks since I was standing in the crater of a steaming, roaring, active marine volcano?

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

It's not called Windy Wellington for nothing...

The only good thing about seeing this news on my phone was that by the time I read it I had managed to escape Wellington and was in an Auckland taxi heading home from the airport. Clearly, our plane was one of the lucky ones able to nip up in between gusts before Air NZ decided to can the whole operation, same as they did yesterday afternoon just as I got to the departure gate. Today's wasn't even that bumpy a flight - I've had many worse.

What I haven't had though, until yesterday, was an actual cancelled flight, which is pretty amazing really, considering the number I've taken. Delays, yes, but not one actually cancelled. Fortunately for me, it was mainly just a novelty, as well as a minor inconvenience and a moderately irritating extra expense. I wouldn't have liked to be the other people in the HUGE queue I found myself in subsequently, many of whom were going to miss international connections and were already going slightly fuzzy at the edges as they waited.
The thing to do, I discovered, was to ring reservations rather than wait to get up to the inevitably by-then frazzled desk clerk - the number came up in the Flight Cancelled message I received through my Air NZ app (technology, eh? So good when it works) - so I was able to choose my replacement flight and then duck out of the queue to head back into the city for a bonus night. Not bonus as in free, unfortunately - weather-related cancellations don't warrant accommodation vouchers - but there are worse places than Wellington to have to hang around unexpectedly. 

While it's a very undistinguished hotel - it doesn't even supply a pen, or moisturiser (I KNOW!) - the Ibis in Featherstone Street is in an excellent position. The waterfront is just a block away, with all its cultural and edible attractions, and so is Lambton Quay if shopping is, unlike mine, your thing. Just round the corner there's a very good little Breton café (called, wait for it, the Café Breton), with an authentically French waitress - I recommend the galette végétarienne, and wish I'd had room for the mille feuille afterwards - which is ideal for breakfast/lunch; and, for dinner, I enjoyed Dockside where the staff were genuinely friendly, the décor appealingly historic, the food excellent, and our inauthentically German waitress both enthusiastic and attentive. So, altogether, very far from a disaster.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Prepare to be WOWed, truly.

I'm still enough of a child of my Depression era/WW2 parents to consider taking a plane down to Wellington to go to a show the height of extravagance: not at all "our sort of thing" - and also, these days, uncomfortably unenvironmental. But I did it anyway, flitting along the coast of the aptly-named Aotearoa ("Land of the Long White Cloud" for you foreigners) to the capital, to enjoy its ill-gotten gains. By which I mean WOW - the internationally-famous World of WearableArt Awards, stolen by Wellington from its Nelson creators in 2005 and since then going from strength to strength.

I have been to the WOW museum in Nelson (cunningly combined with a classic car collection, for wider appeal) and been amazed by the creativity, ingenuity and sheer hard work that goes into creating these literally fantastic costumes. To be able to get up close and study how they were put together, and out of precisely what materials, is fascinating, and I do recommend going there. But to see the show is something else entirely: a brilliant, spectacular, colourful, entertaining extravaganza that reminded me of Cirque du Soleil even before I discovered that they donate the supreme award. 
Because, this is a competition with $165,000 in prize money and it's hard-fought by international designers as well as locals: from the UK, US, Switzerland, Hong Kong, Thailand, Australia and the Netherlands amongst others, creating the 104 finalist designs that feature in the show. This year the winner was Indonesian, the Runner-Up from the US - but to appear at all in the show is a huge achievement. And it is a show: lights, music, dancing, singing, sets, ropes, smoke, mirrors (well, glitter) and clever stage-work including the transformation of a dull dress into a sparkling red number as if by magic, that still has me foxed. It's like CdS in the way that there's a sort of story weaving through it, though fairly peripherally, the main focus here being the modelled designs rather than showy circus gymnastics.

Even though there's no chance of close study like there is at the museum, it's still worth sitting as close as you can afford, so you can appreciate some of the detail, at least. The choreography seemed free-form but was actually carefully methodical, so that almost every model did several spins and poses at each of the five display points around the runway-type stage, giving us time to appreciate the finer points of each costume. Before the show, I heard criticism that it would only last an hour and 45 minutes - but it was so dazzling and concentrated that any longer would have been overwhelming.

I would love to include photos, but none were allowed during the performance, and there's so much stern warning on the website about copyright that I daren't pinch any from there. You'll just have to go to the next show instead (it'll be the 30th, so no doubt even more stops will be extracted). In the meantime, here's a picture of some street decoration I passed on the way back to the hotel, which kind of fits the feel:

Thursday, September 14, 2017

White Island with Frontier Helicopters

Since it appears (said she, bitterly) that 2017 is the year of staying at home - honestly, there's NOTHING happening, travel-wise, for me this year, and I've no idea why - then it seems time to catch up on some of the stuff that the overseas tourists have so far beaten me to. Today it was White Island - New Zealand's most active marine volcano. Currently the most active volcano, full stop, actually (for which, due thanks). It's been rumbling and steaming away since before there were people to marvel at it, and though the intensity varies, it's always had a trail of cloud streaming away downwind, which is the source of its name, thanks to Captain Cook back in 1769. Of course, the Maori had already noticed it before then: they called it Whakaari.
You can get there by boat, but I fancied the chopper option, and persuaded Frontier Helicopters to take me. It's expensive if you're paying - almost $700 per person - but then, helicopter rides are always pricey, and it really is a good trip. We did the usual Kiwi waiver-lite thing, pilot Luke Lamont checked the GeoNet reading on his app, and then we strapped in and took off for the 20 minute flight out to the island.

Tip: if you're sitting up front and poking your camera lens out of the little window hatch, do take the precaution of removing your lens cap and its elastic keeper and putting them in your pocket. Because what happens if you don't, is that it gets instantly sucked right off, never to be seen again as it slowly degrades in the ocean. If it's not eaten first by some doomed sea creature.
Anyway. We landed and then Luke took us for a circuit, explaining the geology, telling us the history, and demonstrating the acidity of the environment. We'd already been coughing and snatching at our gas masks when a particularly thick cloud of sulphur steam enveloped us, but he got us dipping our fingers in the warm streams bubbling out of the ground. "It tastes like blood!" he encouraged us.
We were there for an hour, trailing around, stopping to gawp at the fumeroles everywhere, the ones beyond the sulky turquoise and super-acid crater lake as big as factory chimneys, roaring away just like a jet taking off. The reddish crater walls were full of cracks, there were big areas of literally acid-yellow deposits around the sulphur chimneys that were souring the air, and all around us were heaps of rocks deposited by the lahar that broke the crater wall one night in 1914 and swept away the sulphur factory buildings there and all the eleven men asleep inside them (not Peter the cat, though, who was out prowling and was rescued later).
They built another, later, but it didn't do well and now all that's left are some very photogenic rusted ruins. Wood gets preserved, though - it looks as bright and shiny as the day it was milled. In Oregon! (Talk about coals to Newcastle - I wonder if they used the same ship that carried NZ kauri to re-build San Francisco?)
And then we flew back again, to cute and dinky Whakatane with its cute and dinky airport, and then got back on Air Chathams' claustrophobic little plane to return to Auckland. Tick.

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