Wednesday, 18 September 2019

RIP iPod

It can be hard work, being positive, don't you think? Even on my morning walk, as I follow the track through the trees down to our little beach, while I'm appreciating the natural beauty and peace and solitude, I'm also wondering what I'm going to find washed up on the pebbles. That's experience, that is: usually it's a variety of plastic, but occasionally it's also dead birds. There was the shag with the fish hook in its wing, there was the little blue penguin, once there was the awful morning when there were two little blue penguins swilling about in the water - and, today, it was iPod.
iPod is - was - a red-billed gull, a threatened species here despite their numbers seeming healthy only because they're so good at being ubiquitous - or, rather, appearing wherever there's food, or the chance of it. Sit down anywhere along a beach and there'll be a gull checking you out within minutes. But their breeding colonies have declined markedly over the last few years, thanks (no thanks) to predators, and they need help.
So when iPod turned up, on spec, on the deck railing one day two years ago, I was happy to dish him - or her, it's impossible to tell - out some cat food. I gave him that name because, poor thing, he was missing not just one, but both feet, and tottered along on his stumps. As he did, they made a distinctive tap-tap sound - which, of course you'll know, is Morse code for the letter i. And pod, meaning legs, went with it beautifully.
So iPod learned I was a soft touch and, in the chick-feeding season, would turn up several times a day - up to six or seven, at the season's height - to nag me, and gulp down a quite extraordinary quantity of jellimeat. Other gulls noticed, even a giant black-backed gull, and they were occasionally a nuisance, making it a challenge to feed just iPod, but he persisted, and so did I. The second season, he was accompanied by a hanger-on with a high voice, who I reckon was offspring, especially when iPod got distracted one day and fed him automatically. But he only ever got the left-overs.
Anyway, I last fed iPod two days ago, and was wondering about his absence at this busy time of year - and then, there he was this morning, dead, on the beach, where I'd never seen him before. Normally, after feeding, he would fly straight off across the big bay, disappearing into the distance. He'd been attacked, by a dog I'd guess, from the puncture wounds on his body. Possibly he'd been on the ground and, handicapped by his stumps, hadn't been able to run along fast enough before take-off to escape the dog (which should have been on a leash).
I gave him a respectful burial. He deserved respect, overcoming such a handicap - imagine, struggling to balance every second of the day, having to fight against every little breeze, not being able to swim, or scratch. But he stayed positive, and kept going. Brave bird. I'll miss him.

Sunday, 15 September 2019

Pestival 2019

I had to tell him Well done! but my heart wasn't in it: the cuteness factor is too high, despite what I know are the grim facts. Rabbits, in just the short time I've been living full-time on Waiheke, have become noticeably high-profile even in just our little valley. On my morning walk I normally see at least four or five - the record so far is eight - pretty evenly divided between standard grey, like this poor dead baby; and pure black, and white with spots and even one with a black stripe down his back: presumably escaped/released pets, or their descendants, tch. 
I've seen them browsing in our garden (fortunately still not much of an actual garden), eating fallen seed I put out for the birds and even sitting on our concrete drive. Though it's possible, the odds are not good that it's the same rabbit.
We don't do land mammals in New Zealand. Well, not indigenously, apart from two species of bat - all the others have been introduced. That includes ourselves, of course, and the dogs, cats, sheep, cows, horses, pigs and so on that are necessary to our lifestyle; plus the rats and mice that hitchhiked in; and the possums and wallabies introduced from Australia for the fur trade; and deer and goats for hunting; and rabbits for early-settler food; and then the ferrets, stoats and weasels brought in to control them which, understandably, found the native ground-nesting and flightless birds far more to their taste... It's a story you will find, with variants, all around the world - there can hardly be a single country that's not regretting the introduction of multiple species of animal, bird or plant that some bright spark once thought was a great idea, but which has since turned out to be an environmental disaster. 
So yesterday I went to Pestival, where I briefly sat next to Auckland's eager-to-be-re-elected mayor (the last mayor I shook hands with was *cough* Rahm Emanuel in Chicago), chatted with a TV/radio/print personality about his badly broken fingers (unfortunate collision of cycling with recycling [bin]), took advantage of generous quantities of free food and listened to a succession of earnest people fully focused on environmental purity.
Most of the stalls were weaponised: proudly showing off their specific poisons and ingenious traps, and they were getting a lot of interest. The anti-1080 lady had perhaps misjudged her market, not gathering much of a crowd; and she got shut down pretty fast when she argued with one of the experts in the Q&A session. "We've dealt with this issue previously. Next question...?" said Jesse firmly. It is an issue, but most people agree it's our best weapon, currently. Against this furry, fully-teethed monstrosity:
And these:
Nasssty mustelids. They make that poor little rabbit baby look even more pathetically innocent, despite its destructive diet...

Monday, 9 September 2019

A decade of gloating

I missed an anniversary not long ago: 15 July 2009 was the first-ever post in this blog. Even though it's such a low-profile site with, as far as I know, just the one regular 😃 reader (thank you for your loyalty, Queen) and, in ten whole years, according to Blogger, a relatively scant 452,000 page views (most of them probably mine), it's still a bit of a milestone.

I started it as the result of attending a travel writing course where we were encouraged to establish a social media presence. Its value in establishing my credibility as a serious and professional writer is dubious; certainly unprovable. Consequently, as it can sometimes be a bit of a chore, I've occasionally neglected it for weeks at a time - but I always get sucked back, mainly because I've already invested so much time and effort into it, it feels wrong to abandon it completely. That's a common human response to this kind of situation: there must be a label for it in psychology.

Anyway, I'd already been writing travel stories for a while - 2000 was my first, a random one-off about that Royal Garden Party I referenced again just a few posts ago - but it took a while to realise I could work that up into a thing. Meantime, I did a lot of book reviews, opinion pieces on everything from head lice to apostrophe abuse; and then one day in 2003, having had a rough morning as a relief/substitute teacher wrangling reluctant, not to say stroppy, Year 10/fourth form/15 year-old girls for the first two periods, instead of reporting to the Deans to file detention forms, I sneaked in my free period before lunch into the library for some respite. There I read a copy of North & South magazine, right to the back page where they had a feature called 'Places in the Heart' where readers wrote about bits of New Zealand that were special to them.

"I could do that!" I thought; so I did, about a high-country horse trek I went on when I was around 12. And the magazine published it, it was a thrill, and that was it, I thought.

Then I got a big envelope in the post from Outward Bound, with a brochure about their courses that I glanced at, thinking that would be fun but too expensive, and put aside. Several days later I picked it up again and this time read the letter accompanying it, in which the writer said she had seen my North & South story, thought (rightly) that I sounded the sort of person to appreciate what they did, and would I like to take part, gratis, in a special 8-day course they were running for media people, to advertise their upcoming 40th birthday?

So, suddenly, I was a media person. I did the course with a bunch of TV, radio and print journalists (one of whom got scared off on the third day when shown the high ropes course we would do that night, and ran away home to Nelson) (he was a bloke, by the way) and afterwards I sold the story to the Sunday Star-Times.


Then, having taken on board the Outward Bound philosophy that you can do anything, you just have to believe in yourself and get on with it, I decided I would be a travel writer. Where would I like to go first? No-one I knew had ever been to Tasmania, despite its being so close, so I wrote to the Tasmanian tourism people, said I was a travel writer interested in getting some experiences to write about, and showed them a copy of what I told them was my latest story - true, but I didn't elaborate that it was my only travel story.

They were persuaded, and sent me (and the Firstborn) on a 10-day self-drive around the island, all expenses paid. It was a revelation. And that was the beginning of a career that's taken me - after a slow beginning that involved many rejections and much patience and persistence on my part - to all seven continents, Antarctica to the Arctic, Machu Picchu (twice) to Rwanda, from a swag on the bank of a crocodile-infested river to a 6-room suite in the Peninsula in Hong Kong with a TV over the bath and a telescope in the living room. It's been a blast, and writing about it here has been a rewarding way to record it all, for my own enjoyment, if no-one else's. 

So I'll carry on, even if the future looks to hold less travel than I would prefer. There's always the other function of this blog [see above, right]: to use everyday events to connect with memories of places that are now far away, but also forever a part of me. Ten more years? We'll see. 

Wednesday, 28 August 2019

Goodbye and hello again

Look, I tried, honestly. It was a hot night giving way to a grey, muggy morning, and there was a beach right there, just two short blocks away. So I went down again, hoping for more success than last time, and the tide was indeed up to half, and the sea when I paddled was invitingly warm - but the weed! Green, slimy, and unavoidable. I came out with it draped around my ankles and gave up entirely on any idea of swimming at an English beach. So inferior. Even the inevitable OWM busily metal-detecting in the pebbles after the busy weekend wasn't having any luck - "A couple of coins and a bunch of bottle-tops". His best-ever find was a well-preserved Roman coin, that turned out to be fake.
We packed up and headed off to a lavender farm, which I'm always a sucker for but which was really hard to find, even - or especially - with GPS. When we finally tracked it down, it turned out that the lavender harvest was over two weeks ago and they were all busy with much less appealingly-scented hops. But, this being England, it was no distance to a lovely alternative - the village of Eynsford, which we'd just gone through en route.
The main street was lined with pretty houses and inviting pubs hung with flowers, there were the ruins of a Norman castle in a green field and, down a side street, the ford of the name. It was busy with kids paddling with shrimp nets, swimming and playing in the water, and families along the bank making the most of the last week of the school holidays. There were some encouragingly busy tea rooms, but we ate indoors at the Plough pub - the tempura mushrooms were delicious, and the OH's rhubarb and apple crumble and custard, served in little metal pans, was a triumph.
And then it was all pretty much over, just tedious travel through thick traffic to Wimbledon for some sorry goodbyes, and then to Heathrow, via a long, long jam in Chiswick. There was all the usual boring airport stuff, then six hours to Dubai with at least a spare seat next to me, a short stop-over and then 15+ hours to Auckland with the sheer and unexpected delight of a whole row to myself. Then came a taxi to the ferry, the ferry to Waiheke and the final taxi home, to a disgruntled cat and the joy of my own bed, at last.
Getting sick was the pits, and really took the shine off the cruise; but then things (and I) got better, London was wonderful, Kent was a delight, and catching up with the Firstborn and partner was really lovely. I'm glad I went - but I'm so, so glad to be home again.

Tuesday, 27 August 2019

Bit of a bird theme today

Following its world-wide cynical norm, on the day that most people went back to work after the holiday weekend, the weather peaked today: a sweltering 35 degrees, clear and sunny. But it suited us, you'll be glad to hear, regular 😃 reader. After a lovely breakfast at the Windy Café up the road - where they are assertive about their making a fine flat white, and aren't wrong - we headed off to Leeds Castle which is, confusingly, nowhere near Leeds but is across the Downs near Maidstone.
It was chosen as a suitably do-able castle, which it is, though we were glad to have the mobility scooter as there's quite a long, but lovely, walk through the grounds to the buildings. There are lawns and trees and flowers, swans and ducks and a lake, and then the castle and keep in their moat, elegant and stately. It's also well set-up for disabled people so nothing stopped us from enjoying our stroll through the rooms, that had been extensively re-designed in the 1920s by its lady owner, and had fine furniture, fashionably karate-chopped cushions, and ornamental birds everywhere.
It also had, during its 900 years, plenty of history: Henry VIII lived here with Catherine of Aragon, burnt airmen recuperated during WW2, and both Camp David preparatory talks, and Northern Ireland peace talks with Tony Blair, took place here. There are novelties like carved beams, double-dovetail joints in the floorboards and an ebony floor which momentarily shocked me, getting confused with ivory (thanks for that, Paul McCartney).
We ate our packed lunch by the moat, bullied by gulls and ravens/jackdaws/crows (never got them straight, in all the years I lived in England) and then set off for the falconry demonstration. Except, a) the mobility scooter suddenly lost most of its power, and just chugged along; and b) when we got there the master falconer announced that it was too hot to fly the birds so we could have a meet and greet with them instead, under the trees.
That was actually better, seeing them close up, all sorts from a dinky kestrel to a massive Russian eagle. My favourites, though, as ever, were the owls, which are always so solemn and serious-looking, with boo'iful plumage - even though Twitter's latest discovery, that their legs are inordinately long, did somewhat interfere with my appreciation of their dignity. Stella was especially impressive.
We thought we'd need help getting the scooter back to the carpark then, and easily found help from the obliging staff, but then it suddenly rebooted itself and we managed fine. And that was it for the day, really. We returned the scooter to Canterbury, giving up on the idea of exploring that city, and retired to the Airbnb at Whitstable for a rest. This travelling lark, it really can take it out of you, especially when you're still in recovery from the flu - all that walking and talking and paying attention, it's tiring.
The restaurateurs in Whitstable were tired, too, after their long weekend, and not much interested in another tableful of diners after 7.30pm, so we ended up with cheese and wine back at the Airbnb and a pleasantly quiet wind-down after a busy few days.

Monday, 26 August 2019

Phew-what-a-scorcher: the new normal...

It was August Bank Holiday Monday today, and it was a proper scorcher - a record, in fact, the hottest ever at 33.3 degrees. And it certainly felt it. I was very grateful not to be in London today, where it would have been unbearable.
This morning we left the Haywain, to spend the next two nights at Whitstable right on the coast - another new place for me. First, though, we stopped off in Canterbury (so hard for me, from Christchurch in the province of Canterbury, NZ, to think of that as a city) to hire a mobility scooter for the OH, who since the flu has become even frailer than previously. The Firstborn did all the research and it was all remarkably easy - very impressively so, in fact. There's an organisation called Shopmobility that hires out, for a pretty reasonable fee, your choice from a wide range of regular wheelchairs, electric chairs and mobility scooters. It cost £7 a day for a simple electric scooter (they did have fancier ones). The process was quick and straightforward, and in no time at all I was buzzing along, manoeuvring in and out of a lift, and around the streets back to the car where the OH was waiting.
It was an education, truly. I was instantly conscious of accessibility issues, and grateful for automatic doors, pavement ramps, pedestrian courtesy. It was also pretty good fun! Back at the car, though, the plan to look around the city changed and we were to head straight for Whitstable. Instant problem: how to get the scooter, with its heavy battery, into the car? We couldn't lift it for the life of us. Solution? Ask a passing big man - who happily obliged, heaving it into the back of the (fortunately bigger than requested) Jaguar.
I must say, here, kudos to the Brits. It hasn't always been my experience, but on this trip every single person I have had contact with, all of them random strangers, was friendly, obliging, helpful and cheerful. Maybe it was the holiday, maybe the lovely weather - maybe even it was a perverse reaction to the looming disaster of Brexit - but they were, without exception, a real pleasure to encounter, and they should all be proud of themselves.
So we headed away to meet up with the Firstborn and partner in Whitstable, where the OH very quickly got the hang of the scooter, and we had the novelty of being left behind as he zipped away ahead. It's such a pretty place, a classic seaside town, and was humming today with a little market, art shops, cafés, old pubs festooned with colourful hanging baskets, stately buildings, churches and a theatre. We moseyed on down to the harbour, which was if anything even busier, with cute little fishing boats reflected in the water, and quaint rows of tall, narrow huts converted into art and craft shops, and restaurants. Mussels are a big thing here, and oysters and lobsters, and there were stalls busily serving them.
We ate at one of the open-air restaurants - crab rolls, very nice, with cider - and it was all relaxed and lovely. Perfect, in fact. Then we ambled back up into town, along the seaside, enjoying the varied architecture and the ambiance, and fetched up finally at our Airbnb for the next two nights. It was one of the odder ones: almost Mary Celeste-ish in that there was personal stuff of all sorts lying around everywhere, as though the owners had only just popped out - which maybe they actually had. It was a bit disconcerting, but perfectly clean, so I wasn't bothered, although the Firstborn was more critical.
It was immensely hot, so I put on my togs and went to the beach just a couple of blocks away for a swim. Big mistake! The tide was out and, whereas in NZ that would mean just walking a bit further to the water, here it was a disaster. Honestly, I tried. I walked down the pebbles between the breakwaters against which people were clustered in the partial shade, and started to walk across the wet sand to the water - but it was so muddy and squelchy that I soon learned to step on the multiple patches of green weed draped over the surface, which gave a bit of traction. I picked my way out, and out, encouraged by seeing people in the water in the distance - but I never got deeper than just over my ankles before I gave it up as a bad job. Honestly, English beaches! We do them so much better in New Zealand... 
It was kind of cute, though, so after a shower back at the house, I returned to observe the natives at play. There they were, sitting in folding chairs or on towels under umbrellas between the ranks of breakwaters; or noisily drinking outside the Old Neptune pub; or wandering along the path with their dogs; or sprawled on the edge of the harbour wall, some of them hopefully fishing. There was a picturesque boat stranded in the shallows with people paddling around it and, beyond it, water deep enough for some of them to be actually swimming. It was all very colourful and typically English-seaside, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Back at the house, there was champagne we had snuck away from the suite fridge on Silver Wind - thanks, Silversea - then a gorgeous (and widely appreciated) sunset, and then just crisps and beer for dinner in the quaint old Royal Naval Reserve pub in the main street, that's been making its customers welcome and comfortable since 1760.

Sunday, 25 August 2019

So, so English

It's August Bank Holiday weekend, and the weather is amazingly hot and summery, so today everyone and his/her dog was out and about. I mean that about the dogs - honestly, you wouldn't believe how many dogs there are here. Everybody has one! Or several. On leads, well-behaved, well-fed, shiny and bright-eyed. It's lovely to see, if a little overwhelming.
The dogs were fine - it was the cars that got to us today. So much traffic! Not just on the big roads, but on the winding, narrow little lanes as well, crawling along, squeezing past each other, showing admirable patience and understanding. We were really glad we'd set out early on our big effort for the day, which was to walk along the top of the White Cliffs of Dover. We passed by the low but massive bulk of Dover Castle and left the car in the free! car park just above the cliffs. I'd never been here before, so it was great to see a new bit of England. The walk took almost an hour along to South Foreland Lighthouse, where we turned and came back. 
It was great. The cliffs are so high, so dazzlingly white, and the sea today was clear and blue like the Mediterranean. The ferry port was moderately busy, hemmed in by its harbour wall and totally focussed on processing car traffic. Up on the top, there were no fences or barriers, no warning signs - how refreshing, to be treated like a sensible adult! - just grass and brambles full of fat juicy blackberries, and wind-bent trees and shrubs. There were also Exmoor ponies, which was unexpected, though they were fat and crabby.
At the lighthouse, we were too early for the tea rooms, though they were getting ready and solved for us the mystery of the odd lumpy brown fabric bags hanging outside the open windows - false wasp nests, to dissuade the nasty stingers from making a nuisance of themselves. It was a new thing, so they couldn't report on their effectiveness (no pic, sorry).
Back at the National Trust visitor centre, we were also intrigued to find a freezer full of dog ice cream - pottles of almost regular vanilla ice cream with dog vitamins added. Good grief. Those Poms and their dogs, eh? 
We were almost at the end of our walk, just standing above the cliffs admiring the amazing scenery when we heard the most unexpected, yet appropriate, and instantly recognisable sound: a Spitfire! Of course we'd seen the gun emplacements that are still along the cliffs from war time, so we were already halfway in the zone, but it felt like a gift to see it buzzing overhead, and then back again, followed later by a couple of biplanes. Bank Holiday event, no doubt - but perfect timing, and so evocative.
We had also timed it well for the heat, which had really ramped up, and the crowds - not helped by a jousting event at the castle. There was no avoiding them though, and there were throngs of people everywhere we went that afternoon - to Deal's long pebble beach, and through impossible-to-park Sandwich to Ramsgate with its harbour full of boats including the sturdy Sundowner, which was one of the Dunkirk rescue vessels (and also, in a not-coincidence, once owned by the second officer on the Titanic)
The sandy beach there was heaving, typically English and so foreign to Kiwi eyes - impossible to see the crowds, the umbrellas, the wind-breaks, and not scoff at how inferior a beach experience it was. The ample expanses of skin weren't appealing, either - dazzling white, glaring red, or covered in tattoos.
We headed back inland then, to Fordwich, for no better reason than that it's the smallest town in Britain. People were playing in the river, in amongst all the weed (cue more Kiwi lip-curling) - but they were having fun, swimming, boating and kayaking. Our goal here was to have dinner at the George & Dragon pub, which was a great choice, although we can't recommend the rhubarb cider - too much like cordial. The food, however, was excellent, and the Yorkshire pudding that came with the roast beef was magnificent. I rather regretted my baked Camembert when I saw it.
We cruised back to Bramling in golden evening light, the countryside so pretty, the oast houses quaint, the cottages cute, and went to bed satisfied with our busy, outdoorsy, picturesque and very English day.

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