Monday 30 April 2018

On a clear day...

No-one ever endeared themselves to anyone by finishing that sentence with "...the view is terrific". Especially when you've just climbed umpteen steps from sea level up to 232m to stand surrounded by mist gazing from the summit at absolutely nothing. And, to compound the dissatisfaction, to have spent the time in the company of someone talking at you mostly about stuff you already knew plus even more stuff you never wanted to know all about them and their personal history, culminating in "I've had such a rich and interesting life, I must write a book about it" - well, there's nothing guaranteed more certain to get the shutters slamming down than that, as far as I'm concerned. Old white man, do I need to say? Grrr.
I did learn a few things from Trevor, like how to tell manuka from kanuka (the spelling! Nah, he didn't do jokes. It's the seed pods). But when he told me that in the US, port and starboard colours are the other way around, he discredited everything else he'd said up to that point. For goodness sake... He did though finally redeem himself by showing me some excellent and unexpected murals that were hiding away in an industrial estate that I would never have discovered by myself.
Anyway. The day had started grey, with a heron on the railing, an excellent Bircher muesli here at the Trinity Wharf Hotel, and a really nice introduction to the Hot Pools in Mt Maunganui. They're smallish, but nicely done: salt water heated by transference from natural hot water, so no rotten egg smell, just nice 32 and 34 degree water in pools well patronised by friendly and sociable retirees and little kids. I joined in an aquarobics class that was participated in with great enthusiasm by many women, while their menfolk ploughed doggedly up and down the pool alongside, boringly walking. "Crank it up!" the ladies shouted when Abba was turned on by the instructor. We all enjoyed it when a limber Maori man shimmied past, the length of the pool, busting his moves to appreciative applause.
The pool is open and well used from 6am to 10pm every day, which is amazing. They do massages there too - pleasant, but maybe not quite worth spending the rest of the day with irretrievably messy hair - and altogether it's a lovely way to wind down after climbing the Mount. So it was a shame I did it beforehand - but at least that gave the grey morning time to brighten, though not quite enough to give me the 360 view experience (see above).
Never mind. It was good exercise after my thoroughly enjoyable Turkish eggs (with zucchini chips! yum) at The General - an excellent café/restaurant owned by nice, enthusiastic people, where they make all their own food, including cashew cheese, which sounded intriguing but went untasted by me. Next time. 
Later, after I finally shook Trevor off and ungritted my teeth, I drove myself back to the Mount to poke around and discover the street art there - but then I noticed the summit was clear of low cloud and so felt obliged to whip up there to do it properly. After all, I'd been told what a great view it was... So I climbed to the top again, in 30 minutes (official time, as per the signs: 1 hour) and thoroughly enjoyed the golden light, the remarkably clean and cuddly-looking sheep and, indeed, the long views from the top - even if White Island was still hidden in horizon cloud. The waves rolled in, the swallows swooped, the rock doves did an approximation of a murmuration, and the steady stream of foot traffic up and down was, to a person, friendly.
The street art remained, sadly, mostly undiscovered by me though in my quick whip around I must have passed most of the 65 eating establishments in the Mount CBD. I drove back to Tauranga, over its attractively curved bridge, for a much-needed shower and then a very tasty dinner with management in the hotel restaurant where much shop-talk took place but also wider travel stories which included both bewilderment at and total condemnation of the LAX experience. The US: so familiar, yet so inexplicable sometimes. But at least - the same as everywhere else - port is red and starboard green there, Trevor.

Sunday 29 April 2018

Worms and weather

I dunno, it feels kind of wasteful to take a flight that lasts only 25 minutes. Seems hardly worth all that effort and technology when surely I could have driven? As of course I could have done, Auckland to Tauranga, it's no great distance.Honestly, it took me three times as long simply to reach the airport from home. But anyway, here I am, in the Bay of Plenty.

Plenty of rain, as it happens. "The weather in Tauranga is rubbish," Captain Andrea announced after take-off, and she wasn't wrong. Heavy rain, the sky grey, the rivers orange with mud - right across the road, at one point, as we drove up to Waihi Beach. On a nicer day I could have admired the neat orchards of avocado and feijoa trees, and kiwifruit vines; the immensely tall windbreaks; the hills and beaches. But not today, alas, apart from showing some respect to the endless rows of waves pounding onto the beach just metres away from the deserted deck of the Flatwhite Café. Inside, under 16m beams of attractively distressed Oregon pine I ate Cajun fish and drank rosé while the conversation ranged over topics including Hobbiton, the America's Cup, the woefully low status of table-waiting as a profession, and the delights of Malta. I was generously given a chunky rhubarb and wild berry tart to take away with me, which I briefly considered taking back home to Auckland but later scoffed in its delicious entirety.
The rain, it rainethed, as we drove afterwards to Waimarino in order to set out on a kayak glow worm viewing expedition. The adventure park (which is kind of confusingly located in Taniwha Place, Bethlehem) is located on the river bank and looks fun, especially the long waterslide down into the Wairoa River - but not today. The river slid along, brown and sinisterly swirling, overflowing its banks, big logs twirling as they were swept downstream. To no-one's surprise, the kayaking was called off, leaving the operators busy preparing for being flooded when high tide hit in a few hours' time.

But all was not lost. Helpful Sean drove me up to Mclaren Falls, which were thundering and foaming most spectacularly, and then on to the lake where the expedition normally set off from, after nibbles and drinks (which today I had inside, and which happily included mulled wine - "People are always a lot more relaxed about kayaking after the mulled wine," Sean commented). Then we went for a walk through the bush, along a track where glow worms did constellation impressions under overhangs - swathes of bright, purplish lights. It's something I've often seen before, but it never disappoints.

And finally we drove back to Tauranga, talking about orcas and influencers, Abel Tasman and leopard seals, and I settled in for the night at the Trinity Wharf Hotel, where my room looks out across the lit-up bridge towards, invisible in the darkness, the famous Mt Maunganui - which, I hope, tomorrow I will wake to see bathed in sunshine.

Tuesday 10 April 2018

A timely storm

How appropriate. There's a serious storm lashing the entire country today, with heavy rain, gales, tornados, and dazzling, house-shaking lightning - plus snow, further south. Fifty years ago on this date, there was an even bigger storm, when tropical cyclone Giselle collided with a cold southerly front. It was worst in Wellington but, even 300km further south in Christchurch, it was bad enough that, having battled with the wind and rain as I cycled to school, I was sent home again because the carpark was flooded and the teachers couldn't get in. Seems a bit feeble, in retrospect - they could have parked on the road, surely - but we pupils (as we were called then) weren't going to argue with an unexpected day off. I went home to warm up in a hot bath and that was it, for me.
Up in Wellington, though, there was drama happening. The interisland ferry, the Wahine - which in those days we blithely pronounced as WaHEEny instead of, correctly (as today, mostly), WAH-heenay - struggled against the waves and the wind to enter the harbour, running aground on a reef and ending up foundered by Steeple Rock. 
The passengers sat meekly in the increasingly lop-sided lounges, children hopelessly swamped in primitive, adult-sized lifejackets, for hours while the storm raged and the captain (who while attempting to manoeuvre had accidentally reversed onto the reef and knocked off a propeller) worked through various ineffective strategies. The weather was just too ferocious. Finally, when the ship slumped sideways, it was clear that it had to be abandoned, and the passengers were offloaded into the four available lifeboats (the others were now inaccessible because they were on the high side), and inflatables, and attempted to reach the shore. It was chaotic - one baby was thrown - and boats were capsized, people washed out - and sometimes, back in - by giant waves, and many were pushed by the waves across the harbour entrance onto the rocks at remote Eastbourne. Lots of people had to jump into the water. Imagine.
Fifty-one people drowned on the day, and two died later, one of them 22 years later, after being brain-damaged. It was a total disaster, partly due to misjudgements - although, to be fair, the rescue effort was severely hampered by the raging storm. Plus there was heroism.
Naturally, the stories are all over the media right now - but there's a really good permanent exhibition in the Wellington Museum on Jervois Quay. Worth seeing if you're in Welly - though maybe not if you're just about to catch the ferry to the South Island...

Sunday 8 April 2018

Not picking up a penguin

This is something they don't warn you about, when you go to Antarctica: that you get so used to seeing seals lying around just about everywhere, that when you're back home going about your business and catch a glimpse through the doorway of the bag of mulch and pair of Crocs and gloves you yourself left on the deck outside, your first thought is "Oh! Elephant seal!"
Of course, it probably didn't help that I've just been writing about that fabulous Silversea cruise yet again, and poring over the photos. The focus this time is South Georgia, that previously-unknown (to me) island group that turned out to be in serious contention with the Antarctic Peninsula itself as star of the whole expedition. My angle is the Kiwi connection - of course, the awesome Frank Worsley, of Akaroa, captain of Shackleton's Endurance, who managed to aim that little lifeboat unerringly from Elephant Island 1300km towards South Georgia, despite getting a navigation sighting only four times in the 16 days it took, so horrendous were the conditions across Drake Passage. 
And he was one of the three who then lit out straight away across the mountains and glaciers to the nearest help at the Stromness whaling station on the other side of the island - 36 hours of continuous effort. And their equipment! No map, heavy wool and oilskin clothing, and screws fitted to the soles of their shoes for better grip on the ice (didn't work).
But there was another Kiwi element to my South Georgia visit, which has two current connections: terriers Wai, Will and Ahu (and their handlers Miriam and Jane), who were there when I was, on Christmas Day, carrying out the final phase of a seven-year pest eradication programme, the biggest ever in the world. They have been busily scouring the main island since late December, sniffing for rats and hopefully not finding any, allowing the South Georgia Heritage Trust to announce soon, this month, that the programme has been a success, and all the rats are gone.
That will be a huge boon to all those ground-nesting birds: lots of seabirds, of course, as well as Antarctica's only songbird, the pipit (which I heard chirping tunefully away) and the pintail duck, which I also saw. 
And, naturally, penguins: King, Gentoo, Macaroni and chinstrap, all of which I saw in their thousands (and heard, and smelt). Fabulous birds. The King is the second-biggest - and this afternoon I got hands-on with the smallest species, the little blue penguin, native here, and which has had a terrible time this summer. So many deaths! 
I've found three myself this year already, washed up on the beach: starved to death, mostly, because of too-warm sea conditions, water made murky by storms, and over-fishing. Very sad. So I went to see what the bird rescue lady does with the five she has currently in her care. In a nutshell, it's lavish oodles of time, care and a not inconsiderable amount of money on them. For no reward, monetary or, it has to be said, avian. Ungrateful lot. I tell you from personal experience, those penguins may indeed be little, but they will bite the hand that feeds them - hard!


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