Monday, December 3, 2018

I bless the dogs down in Africa

I've just been watching the latest - and I mean the latest: it's only just been shown in the UK - episode of the sainted David Attenborough's new series, Dynasties. This one was about two packs of African Wild Dogs, or painted wolves as he called them, whose territories are in Mana Pools in Zimbabwe.
Regular readers 😃 will remember that a couple of years ago I spent a few days just across the Zambezi River from Mana Pools, at Royal Zambezi Lodge in Zambia. One of the highlights (and there were SO MANY!) was on safari one day our coming across a small pack of these dogs in the national park alongside the lodge's grounds, and watching them devour the impala one of them had killed. Seeing these cute dogs on the screen, with their big round ears and mottled shaggy coats brought it all back - as did hearing the collared doves warbling in the background, and the distinctive squeaks of the dogs. We were so lucky to see the dogs - there are fewer than 7,000 left in the world, sadly. Usual reasons, sigh.

Naturally, the photography in the series is brilliantly done, and it looked just gorgeous, the colours so rich and the sun so golden and mellow in the hazy sky. I was thinking only yesterday about my African trips and what an edgy place Africa is, and how going there is simultaneously exciting and frightening. I was inclining towards thinking - such a wuss - that I was kind of relieved not to be contemplating another trip there in the foreseeable; but now I'm keen to go again. It certainly is a harsh and dangerous place - ask the wildlife, as well as the people - but it's truly a magical, super-special destination, and I'd go again tomorrow if I could.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Cheating on Silversea with Seven Seas Mariner

I read somewhere that comparing Seven Seas Regent with Silversea is like comparing lobster with filet mignon, so it was appropriate that my meal today on board Seven Seas Mariner included both dishes - well, a lobster starter and an Angus beef steak, which is pretty good going for a Friday lunch, I reckon. Regular readers 😃 will remember that I have done a number of Silversea cruises (SIX! I've done SIX!), the most recent a few months ago in Norway, and the most memorable last Christmas in Antarctica - so I was very interested to see how one of Regent's upper-end ships compared.
It helped that the Mariner was moored near the obscenely long and high Golden Princess, so from the start it looked appealingly intimate and Silversea-like, despite catering for 700 passengers (compared with Silver Spirit's 540, for example). It's recently been refurbished and is impressively elegant inside, with quantities of shiny marble, sparkly chandeliers, soft chairs, modern abstract artworks, pleasingly curvaceous staircases and a classy muted colour scheme. We, a contingent of travel agents and a trio of media people, spent an hour and a half trailing over the ship, visiting one of every type of suite (it's an all-suite ship though, like Silversea, its 'veranda suite' is really just one room, with a curtain to divide the bed from the sitting area). 
My general impression is that it's just like Silversea, except roomier, especially the upper-end suites, which are remarkably spacious, some of them even with private conservatory-style deck areas. The furnishings were all 6-star, the bathrooms supplied with l'Occitane toiletries and the walk-in wardrobes with a challenging number of clothes hangers (formal nights, incidentally, are much less formal than Silversea's). The staff were prepping the suites for a new complement of passengers, and the ice buckets were already out with the welcome bottle of champagne in them. 
There were rows of loungers beside the pool, each with a rolled-up towel on it - Eddie, the Cruise Director, was at pains to point out how preferable that is to the free-for-all that takes place on the bigger ships. Even on the sunniest days, there's always room, he said. We saw the gym and the spa (yawn, x2) and all of the restaurants and snack bars, some of them a bit boudoir-like for my tastes, but others ruinously (to the waist line) inviting. The theatre is big and has a cast of twelve - there's plenty of music and dancing around the ship in the various bars and lounges. I especially liked the library, even if its quietly crackling video fireplace was slightly hokey.
As far as pricing goes, Regent is more expensive (gasp! I suppose) than Silversea, but that does include more stuff, like all restaurants, shore excursions, wifi, airfares, transfers and pre-cruise hotels. Not all of that applies to all passengers, though; plus, you only get a butler in the more expensive suites, and if you're in a veranda suite you're only supplied (proper gasp!) beer in your minibar. Nevertheless, Eddie was quite emphatic about the joy of being able to have a properly indulgent 90-day cruise and at the end of it have a bill of zero dollars - *cough* on top of your original fare, that is.
Then we went to the Compass Rose restaurant for our reward, a lunch of the afore-mentioned lobster, then really nice soup, super-tender if perhaps slightly under-flavoured beef with a yummy mushroom vol au vent, followed by an intensely-chocolatey mousse thing and yummy little petits fours. As well as excellent wine, natch. It was all eminently acceptable. Thank you, Regent. I'd come back again, any time. Er, sorry, Silversea.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Waiheke Walking Festival - Owhanake Headland Sculpture Walk

You know how much more accurate weather forecasts are these days than back when we (I) were young and they were pretty much just hopeful guesses? Well not today. We were meant to have a fine morning and then rain and hail from early afternoon; but in fact it's been the opposite, except (thankfully) for 'rain and hail' read 'showers'. But we still had a very enjoyable walk.
We gathered in the ferry terminal at Matiatia for our friendly welcome and ritual shoe scrub and spray, and set off straight through the bush, up the hill beside the road. We emerged at Delamore Drive, which is one of the fancier roads on the island - where 'fancier' means discreetly linking multi-million dollar properties tucked below the skyline and at the end of long driveways behind electric gates. We followed the road for a while before rejoining the track that led down lots of steps to some splendid views of Owhanake Bay - even today, under a grey sky, looking improbably blue. 
We trailed around the edge of the bay, stopping to view our first sculpture, a piece made of railway ties and rusted metal, in the shape of a dog and with, according to guide Sue who had done the homework, many cultural references that included Maori, Cook, species extinction and other arty stuff, none of which I could see myself. Nor could many others, I suspect - especially the woman who thought it was a horse (and was dogged (ha!) in her interpretation, even when I pointed out the droopy ears: "My friend's horse has ears just like that!" she insisted, unconvincingly). 
But better was to come, at the top of the headland where we were allowed onto the property of a generous rich person to view the sculptures there. My goodness, it was a magnificent house. Big, low, modern, lots of glass to make the most of the wonderful views in all directions, a lovely and super-neat garden heavy on the topiary, swimming pool, the lot. Plus of course some beautiful sculptures, the best of which was a gorgeous fat bronze kereru, second place going to some moulded glass fish. 
We were even allowed into the courtyard (on condition that no-one left nose-prints on the windows - though there was plenty of sideways staring nonetheless into the interior which included, I saw, a dining table with seating for twelve. It's another world). Even on a dull day, it was spectacular.
Then we continued around the headland, past other enviable houses, along cliffs overlooking little beaches and past magnificent pohutukawa trees that in a few weeks' time will be in full bright red flower, framing blue sea and green islands - I must go back for that. Oystercatchers peeped, skylarks trilled, grey warblers er, warbled, and tuis flew past with a whoosh! Finally, as the weather turned brighter and brighter, we ended up back at Matiatia, another walk ticked off - and, in my case anyway, very conscious of the fact that the doughty souls starting the circumnavigation today were only halfway through their first section of the 100km circuit they're doing of the island. Maybe next year?

Monday, November 19, 2018

Waiheke Walking Festival - Onetangi Sports Park and Surrounds

That's not, to be frank, the most inspiring of walk titles, especially when its sub-heading is 'An exploration in conservation with Treescape' - but I thought I'd give it a whirl as much as anything because, being the resolute anti-sport type that I am, I'd never actually set foot in the sports park before. I did once go to its gateway, but that was entirely to investigate the colony of roosters that lives there. Spurned for not being female, poor things (although that's kind of a satisfying novelty to come across), mean people dump them there to fend for themselves, and other, much kinder, people feed them and look out for them.
Anyway, after being scrubbed and sprayed again (that kauri die-back disease has so much to answer for), we set off with our first guide, who may (or may not) have been Michael. We left the carpark where a film crew was set up - the general opinion was that a new police recruitment ad was being made "Because they said they'd increase the numbers of police!" sneered a cynical OWM who clearly didn't vote Labour and still isn't over the election result - and a couple of determined recyclers were getting stuck into the pile of rolled-up old tennis court artificial grass that was being replaced (I did try, but couldn't think of a single use I could put it to myself). He took us down to the wetlands they've been rescuing from gorse, kikuyu grass, tobacco plant and other weeds, and was full of enthusiasm, pride and information about what they've been doing there - inspiring to see, even if it made me tired just to think about all the work they've done.
Then we went with - possibly? - Paul to climb up Rangihoua, which is a high hill once used as a pa site by local Maori, with the defence rings still kind of visible. Here it was even more remarkable, seeing the work that's been, and being, done by a small but apparently indefatigable team of workers, spraying and hacking away at the tenacious weeds that grow all over the site. We went right to the top, and the views were terrific in all directions - I've never been so high on Waiheke before. (Unlike others - oh, I can't be bothered. Finish that joke yourself.)

Then we dropped back down again and entered what Paul (?) called, with heavy irony, the Fairy Forest - where the pernicious creeping asparagus made a dense carpet under, and for several metres up the trunks of, a big stand of manuka. It was certainly green and lush and feathery, and had the American woman behind me gasping in admiration as it was spotlit by the late afternoon sun - but it's a choking, dominating weed that would totally take over, given half a chance. It started out here about 20 years ago as a garden plant introduced from South America, and has ramped away ever since.
So today's walk was enjoyable for the excellent views from the top of Rangihoua, and for witnessing the determination of the exceptionally hard-working Treescape team, who really have to be congratulated for their refusal to let the weeds win. Good for them! 

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Waiheke Walking Festival - Forest Bathing in McKenzie Reserve

No nudity involved! That's the first thing to establish. It's based on the Japanese concept of Shinrin-yoku, which means letting the trees sooth all your frantic worries and preoccupations, and being (altogether now) in the moment. Yes, of course you're right, that's not my thing at all - but it is for lots of people and, since I'm working at this festival instead of being a free-will participant, I thought I should try a bit of the oo-woo stuff that's an important part of the programme.

It was initially a bit disconcerting then to meet our guide Richard, who's British, an Old Etonian and a former officer in the Coldstream Guards, who had us, as one of our first tasks, actually marching in formation to the entrance to the Reserve. But it all became clear, and entirely understandable, that it was his military experience that left him needing this sort of soul-soothing. He was perfectly open and candid about this, and full of enthusiasm for the processes he introduced us to, so I don't want to sound churlish.

My entrenched cynicism has always prevented me from ever, it seems (and I have tried quite a lot of this stuff, through work) opening up and accepting what is always promised to be physical relaxation and mental calmness. "Serenity now!" à la Seinfeld would be more my approach. But even allowing for that, I did feel that Richard, in his keenness to instruct the many visitors to Waiheke (and NZ) in the group about the state of things here, did strike a pretty gloomy note. His talk featured invasive weeds, extinctions, kauri dieback, climate change, the national suicide rate... he even mentioned Hitler at one point. And he also, in talking to the many tourists in the group, criticised some aspects of Kiwi life and attitudes that made me bristle a bit, him also being an incomer and all. So even if I had been open to absorbing the soothing chemicals given off by stroked kanuka, he would have undone that by many of the ideas he discussed.

Overall, it wasn't a great success for me - though, to be fair, many of the others were quite vocal and enthusiastic about their enjoyment of the session. Probably not co-members of the curmudgeon club, then.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Waiheke Walking Festival - Onetangi to Man O' War Private Land Stunner Walk

Today is the start of the 2018 Waiheke Walking Festival, its ninth year of operation and evidently going from strength to strength. This year there are almost 60 different walks on offer, all over the island, with varying themes, levels of strenuousness, and locations, so that there really should be something for everybody. It's the first time I've been able to take part, and I'm doing it for work, having chosen a selection of walks to try to get a feel for the whole festival.
The first one started this morning on the beach at Onetangi, a two-kilometre stretch of sand between bush-clad headlands, and this morning it looked splendid as we gathered near a yoga session to be checked in, and have our shoes scrubbed and sprayed to prevent the spread of kauri die-back disease (not yet on the island, and let's hope it stays that way). The sun was shining, the sea was blue and everyone was eager to get cracking. It was a big group (I was #100) so it took a while, but finally we were all headed up the road and into the bush.
The great appeal of this walk is that its two halves cross land normally closed to the public. The first section began above gorgeous Piemelon Bay and took us through Rorohara, which is private farmland. It belongs to Bruce Plested, very unassuming in his shorts and old shirt, who has been assiduously planting natives for years, thousands of them from flax to totara. He was candid about the mistakes he had made, and it was interesting to see the different rates of growth according to how close the trees were planted, and the aspect. Mainly, though, it was just so lovely to walk through so much green lushness, especially a beautiful nikau grove with the sunlight slanting through. It was a sheer delight.
We passed through to the road on the other side and walked along to Waiheke Station belonging to the Ngati Paoa iwi, where Morehu Wilson talked about the history of the land from the Maori perspective. To be brutally frank, though the information was interesting, his delivery was a bit dull - but the walk was lovely. We passed Tequila the goat, followed the farm track under the gaze of a herd of Herefords temporarily yarded while we went by, and then climbed up and up and up to a fabulous lookout over the sea to the Coromandel, Little Barrier and Great Barrier Islands, and the other islands further north. 
Then, to everyone's relief, we went down and down and down again and fetched up finally at Man O' War vineyard where we thankfully sat down at tables with our complimentary glass of very nice rosé, and, eventually, got to eat our delicious pulled pork rolls. Which we really felt we had earned, after walking more than ten kilometres, from one side of the island to the other. Excellent day.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Stuff Readers Rail Tour - IMHO


Today I parted company from the Stuff Readers' Rail Tour, which still has five days to run. It's nothing personal: the route from here visits places most of which I've been to fairly recently, and the six days I've been with it have given me enough experience to be able to write my story about it. It was all arranged beforehand.

Am I a fan of the tour? Well, yes, I can definitely see the appeal for people, especially if they haven't been to the places on the route for a while - or even at all. There were some who were in Dunedin for their first time ever! Considering the group was pretty much all Kiwi Baby Boomers and above, I think that was a bit shameful. And others, who had already been, still enjoyed seeing them again - and not having to do the driving themselves this time.

Dale and Philip, plus the hostess (who changed halfway through) all did their best to make sure everyone had a good time. The guys were an especially good double act, friends since school and very laid-back and practical, as well as enthusiastic about the route they had chosen for us.

The hotels were all (apart from Greymouth) high quality, and the food, though buffets can get a bit samey, was ruinously good. The arrangements were seamless, the coaches comfortable, the drivers (especially Steve) excellent, and the trains were fun.

In Dunedin, after I left, some people chose to ride the Taieri Gorge Railway, then the coaches headed off to Te Anau, stopping in Mandeville to visit the air museum there (but sadly the weather would be too windy for anyone to do the biplane flight). The next day, from Te Anau they did a trip to Lake Manapouri, crossing on a boat to take another coach to Doubtful Sound for a cruise. Then it was off to Queenstown, for lunch at the Skyline, then via Arrowtown to overnight at Wanaka. Next day, they drove to Omarama to visit a salmon farm and then on to Mt Cook to stay at the Hermitage (where, I hope, the Greymouth dipper-outerers got the best rooms). There was a day of varied activities, like helicopter and ski plane adventures, hiking and so on, and then the next and final day there was a long drive via Tekapo and the Church of the Good Shepherd back through Geraldine to Christchurch.

My only reservation about the tour was the number of OWMs on board, and that's really a personal prejudice (born of oh! so many grim encounters) - and of course, that is a variable element. But on this particular tour there were a lot of very boring old men who droned on and on, and talked over everyone else (ie the women) and were just so insufferably self-important that the only answer, bar leaping off the train, was earplugs and Bohemian Rhapsody at high volume. Think I'm being super-sensitive? Then here's your proof:
Of course, if you're an OWM yourself, you'll be in your element!

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Stuff Readers Rail Tour, Day 6 - Stone and silver

With thanks to Stuff Readers Rail Tour
It is a bit of a challenge, organising a rail tour in a country that has so few scheduled passenger trains, so today they laid on a special option: a chartered trip in the Silver Fern railcar from Christchurch down to Dunedin. It used to be a regular service, and maybe it will be again some day, but today we had the two carriages all to ourselves, as the train slid out of Addington station and headed south on a dullish, dampish morning.
We trundled further south, holding our breaths as we crossed the long Rakaia River bridge, and being served morning tea from a trolley by cheerful Cathy - "Which way do you prefer your tea stirred?" Honking enthusiastically at the slightest excuse, the driver took us down through farming country, past Timaru-by-the-sea to our first stop in Oamaru. I hadn't been here for ages, and was very taken with its famous local white stone heritage buildings, all very stately and with interesting occupants these days. There are cafés, restaurants, art galleries and craft and junk shops of course, but the star is Steampunk HQ.
The souped-up steam engine outside was a big Instagram focus for the many tourists, but inside it was cold, dark and spotlit, full of weird contraptions heavy on the rusted metal. To be honest, it was a bit strange and creepy, and what I liked best was the mirror room with coloured lights changing to the music. It's an odd idea, but Oamaru does very well out of it, especially at its Steampunk Festival in June when practically everyone dresses up in modified Victoriana.
From here we were taken by coach to Moeraki, to see the famous boulders on the beach. They are pretty amazing, so round, so old (120,000 years!) and so many of them, some still emerging from the cliff to fall onto the beach. Of course they are Instagram gold too, and there was a lot of posing going on. 
Up beside the café there was a remarkably relaxed deer in a paddock, perfectly happy to be stroked - my second cervine encounter of the trip. They took us then by coach to Palmerston to re-board the railcar for a trip along the coast past beaches, horses, cows, sheep, ducks and swans. We cruised around a headland, through four tunnels, past Port Chalmers and finally reached the Dunedin Railway Station.
The coaches took us to our hotel - the Scenic Southern, my second time there this year, yawn - where a piper in full kit was busy welcoming another group, so we eavesdropped on that (can you eavesdrop on bagpipes?) before heading to our rooms to gird our loins for yet another hard-to-resist buffet dinner - which tonight climaxed in blackcurrant cobbler with custard.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Stuff Readers Rail Tour, Day 5 - Air and water

With thanks to Stuff Readers Rail Tour
Naturally, having been to the real thing, the activity offer this morning of the Antarctic Centre held no appeal, so instead I went to do something I'd never done before, despite growing up in Christchurch - kayaking along the Avon River. I went to Hagley Park to meet KT, who set up and runs ChCh Sea Kayaking. She's a real character, and the 3.5 hours I spent with her doing The Big Three tour were great fun. I should say Te Toru Nui, because she is proud of her Maori heritage and there was a Maori element running throughout, beginning with a karakia as we glided along the edge of the Botanic Gardens.
We'd clambered into the double kayak from a step she'd built herself opposite Christ's College, and which she protected from goose poo - "goose bombs" are a hazard on this activity. She'd done the safety briefing (try-hard Air NZ could learn a thing or two from her laid-back humour) and the guys in the other kayak and I felt perfectly at ease. It helps, of course, that the Avon is such a doddle, and we were going downstream on an outgoing tide - but there were distractions.
There were all the neat flowers, shrubs and trees of the Gardens, a bit of a hive of activity at the Boatshed, the tiny thrill of an even tinier set of rapids where the weir used to be, and then the sobering moment we drew alongside the Earthquake Memorial Wall. This marked our entry into the second sector of the Big Three - the city, and new territory for me since I had been punted through the Gardens before. It was really interesting to get a new angle on the city, to slide under the bridges (KT was big on testing echoes with loud cooees), look at the new and the old, the reconstructed and the still propped up, and to discover that there are eels right in the city centre.
We passed a Kate Shepherd memorial I'd never seen before ("That'll teach you guys to go to war and let us learn we can do stuff ourselves") and watched ducks with ducklings scooting across in front of us. We stopped when we got to the Margaret Mahy Playground, and got ourselves a good cup of coffee from the van there before heading off towards the third sector: the Red Zone. Here it got quieter, away from the traffic, and greener, as we passed through the suburbs that were so badly damaged in the earthquakes that the area has been completely cleared and won't be built on again. The gardens remain, though, so there are still trees and flowers, and bee hives, and walking/cycling tracks, and there are heartening plans for a recreational future.
It all looks so different that we passed the site of my school without my even noticing and before long at all were approaching the end of the tour at Kerr's Reach. There had been ducks, geese, swans, shags, eels, whitebaiters and whitebait; history, politics and opinion; some really great stories, and a lot of laughs. I thoroughly recommend a kayak with KT.
Returned by car to Hagley Park, I Ubered then out to the excellent Air Force Museum at Wigram, which was the official tour afternoon activity, and whisked around the professional displays inside the hangars. I especially enjoyed the Captured! section, which recreates the experience of a POW and includes lots of references to Stalag Luft III, with which regular readers 😀 will know I have a personal connection. And then that was it for today - good day. Thanks, Christchurch.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Stuff Readers Rail Tour, Day 4 - Green and silver, blue and gold

With thanks to Stuff Readers Rail Tour

There was some barely-concealed envy this morning, when those of us who had been consigned to what was clearly, to us, the inferior hotel, came to breakfast with the others. They thought they too had been somewhat hard done by - but there was no comparison. Not that our hotel was bad, just very ordinary, cramped and basic (that's Greymouth for you) - but we were already used to finer things. Spoiler alert: there would be compensation once the tour reached Mt Cook.
Back on the bus, we headed south, across the new bridge that replaces the country's last road and rail bridge (which must have astonished and horrified foreign tourists over the years) and came to Hokitika. We cruised through the town, past the driftwood name-sculpture on the beach, the clocktower roundabout, all the paua and greenstone shops, and along the river which was busy with dedicated whitebaiters.
Our destination was the Mahinapua Treetop Walk, a relatively new operation that is pretty flash. It's the usual elevated walkway, but it's 450m long with a 40m high (or 116 step) tower giving views from the mountains to the sea, and over Lake Mahinapua. It's well done and, from the lack of vibrations, well-built too - though I was glad they provided one cantilevered section for people who like a bit of movement (me) to feel a small thrill. There was lots of birdlife and song, some very tall rimu trees and, back at the cafê, good coffee.
Then we drove back to Greymouth to fill in some time before our next train trip. I have to say, it's a depressing place, tatty and unkempt, with its loveliest things the art and souvenirs inside the shops and galleries. The Grey River would be an asset, if it weren't necessary to hide it behind a high stop-bank. I walked along the top, spotting yet more hopeful whitebaiters, and was quite moved by the excellent memorial to mining deaths, more than a century of them, covered in names from the various disasters, and ending (I hope) with Pike River.
And then it was time to board the TranzAlpine train for our ride across the narrowest bit of the Mainland, through the Southern Alps to Christchurch. It was my second time aboard, the first a few years ago in summer, and I was hoping that this time there might be snow to enjoy - but not really, as it turned out. No matter: it's always a spectacular trip. First of all there's the subdued green and silver of the Coast, with misty Lake Brunner, and an area of untouched virgin bush that's so high and dense that calling it 'bush' is a real insult. The commentary is interesting - in 1908 the Blackball miners went on strike for a half-hour lunch break, an improvement on the fifteen minutes they'd been allowed in their ten-hour day
Then came the Otira tunnel, where a row of peeling houses looked dreary enough without our being told that in winter they get only two hours of sunshine a day - and 5m of rain a year. For the next 15 minutes we sat in the dark as we went through the 8.5km tunnel - 15 years to build, on a 1:33 incline - to emerge into glorious sunshine. 
We stopped briefly at Arthur's Pass, where this time there was no kea perching on the sign, and then continued through the golden tussock country to the dramatic Waimakariri Gorge, the blue of the river far below as we crossed a series of bridges and viaducts. 
The contrast with the other side of the Alps was stunning, and we chugged smugly across the farmland of the Canterbury Plains into Christchurch, my home town, where we were to spend two nights at the Commodore Hotel.

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