Monday, 11 November 2019

Hi ho hoiho!

Never mind the nasty murder trials currently being conducted at each end of the country, or the lurid sunsets in the South Island caused by the smoke from the terrifying NSW fires, or even the ever deeper depths to which overseas politics is sinking - the big news this week is that the hoiho has been voted Bird of the Year!
BOTY has become a big event in the NZ news cycle since it was first begun 14 years ago. There have been scams and scandals, memes and hacks, poster campaigns and celebrity endorsements (Stephen Fry, Bill Bailey), plus a lot of fun; and each year it has become bigger and bigger, so that this year there were 43,460 votes. There is some suspicion about the 300+ votes received from Russia, with dark mutterings that perhaps they were trying to swing the vote towards the bar-tailed godwit, which migrates between here and there. Australia (684), the UK (682) and the US (563) were even more prolific voters, but no-one is accusing them - yet - of an attempted hack.
The hoiho, or yellow-eyed penguin, by just pipping the kakapo, has broken the run of k-birds (kokako, kea, kereru) which I had rather hoped myself to continue by voting for the kaka, since one of the flock that lives in our valley has become a regular visitor to our deck, muscling in on the nectar feeder I keep topped up for the tui.
Sadly the votes for the hoiho hugely outnumber the total population of the bird itself which, at 225 pairs, is in serious trouble - usual story, warming oceans, commercial fishing, human disturbance. So it was no wonder that the pilot of the boat that was taking me from Oban to the Ulva Island bird sanctuary was astonished and delighted to spot one swimming nearby, and circled back for a closer look. I saw some others on that Southland trip too, at Curio Bay in the Catlins, coming ashore to hop along over a fossilised forest back to their nests.
It's always cute and special to see a penguin, even when you've been to Antarctica and seen 15 different species in colonies pushing 100,000 (that's a lot of noise and smell). I hope the hoiho manages to cling on. It would be so sad if, in the end, the only place to see it was on our $5 note.

Saturday, 9 November 2019

Crypto coincidence

Have you heard of OneCoin? It's an online currency like Bitcoin except (except?) that it's a scam - possibly the biggest cryptocurrency fraud in the world so far. Launched in 2014 and still up and running, it has attracted hopeful investors from all around the world who are, to put it mildly, dismayed to be just learning now that their hard-earned money has disappeared into the ether.
Well, not disappeared - it's actually been banked (presumably, and ironically, in a conventional off-shore account) by the scheme's founder: glamorous, red-lipsticked, Bavarian-born intellectual Dr Ruja Ignatova. Dr Ruja is the one who's disappeared and, as I've been squatting on a steep bank in my garden here on Waiheke, cutting steps out of the clay and sweating profusely in the spring sunshine, I've been listening to a gripping 8-episode podcast all about it: The Missing Cryptoqueen by technology journalist Jamie Bartlett and his BBC producer Georgia Catt. 
The last episode has just been uploaded - being real life, there's no neat tying-up of the loose ends, or even a well-deserved comeuppance for Dr Ruja. Instead, there are more false trails and heart-breaking interviews with people who thought their financial problems were all over, sucked into the hype of getting in on the ground floor with this new money-making scheme. Jamie talked to people who had persuaded their family members to invest huge sums of money - tens of thousands of pounds - and who now were faced with having to tell them that their life savings were gone. Or not tell them - one sad young man simply couldn't bring himself to confess to his mother that he had lost her money, and was desperately stringing her along in the hope that - somehow - the worst might not actually have happened.
And it was at this stage that this blog post's hook revealed itself: Jamie and Georgia had followed the trail of investors to Uganda, and had gone to a small town there to speak to this young man in front of his mother who, fortunately for her peace of mind, didn't understand English and had no idea that her life's savings were lost. And this random town, in the middle of Africa, where this particular victim, out of 50,000 investors in the country, was chosen by chance by Jamie and Georgia? Mbarara, which I passed through twice on my Intrepid Basix journey to visit Rwanda's mountain gorillas in 2017 - just about the time that Dr Ruja dropped out of sight.
I remembered the newspapers stapled shut on the newsstand in the shop where we bought drinks, the motorbike traffic with its sunshades and huge loads of goods and/or people (up to 4 men), a teeming market; and, on our return journey, camping in the bird-busy grounds of what by then seemed to us a fancy hotel, where I drank Nile beer in the garden bar and was quietly thrilled to hear Toto's 'Africa' being played. That was Day 12 of our dawn-to-dusk camping tour in a rattly bus with inadequate upholstery, passing through a never-ending roadside parade of lives lived on the margins. We were all looking forward to getting to journey's end in the sophistication of Nairobi and the subsequent return to our soft and comfortable lives. It had been an education, to see how hard these people's lives were - and, now, it's an outrage and a tragedy to know how much harder it is for some of them, all thanks to a clever woman with no conscience.

Friday, 1 November 2019

Fuller(s) excitement

I don't know. I've been all over the place, going up in hot air balloons and small planes, riding horses, swimming with whale sharks, getting close to bears and rhino and lions, climbing peaks and going down into caves, scuba diving and kayaking, and the most proper drama I've witnessed was heading across to lunch in the city today on the Waiheke ferry.

Well, actually, there was that time I was mugged in Santiago - oh, and dislocated my shoulder in Norfolk, and, um, got tipped out of a white-water raft near Taupo, and, that's right, ran aground in a ship off Stewart Island... but I'm sticking to my premise, that this afternoon it could have got really nasty on board Fullers' Quick Cat. 

Not that it did, of course, I'm here typing this and besides, this is New Zealand, even a fire on board a ferry is a laid-back experience. Because that's what happened: I was sitting reading the local rag in the main cabin when there was a flurry behind me and a serious-looking life-jacket-clad staff member was opening a hatch I'd always wondered about below the window, and dragged a fire hose out of it, and across to the door. An announcement told us that there was a problem with one of the engines and we might like to go outside to avoid any fumes. Not many did.

Then we were told that, actually, we all had to go up to the top deck because the starboard engine had caught fire and we needed to be in the open. So we trooped up there, a bit bemused, no-one particularly worried, tourists laughing, and got whipped about by the chilly wind for a while until we were allowed down into the upper cabin. "The fire is contained," we kept being told and, apart from a faint smell, that seemed to be it. 

Except that obviously the engine was out of commission, so we had to limp across the harbour on one engine at just 8 knots, so our journey ended up being about three times longer than usual. Never mind, we had entertainment: the Coastguard gave us an escort, and the police launch Deodar III came alongside so three firemen in all their clobber could leap on board.
Eventually we chugged up to the pier where, kudos to the skipper, we eased into the mooring with no hiccups. There was a fire engine waiting by the Ferry Building, and more firemen on the pier, a couple pushing a stretcher for a crew member who, we learned on the TV news that night, had been overcome by fumes. And that was it. Apologies from the skipper, and thanks for our understanding, and everyone trooped ashore as usual, faintly relieved at not having had to get wet.
All in all, it was a lot more traumatic way back in 2006 when I fell off the side of a staircase in a holiday house we were renting on Waiheke, knocking myself out on the washing machine below, and breaking my wrist. The local ambulance people took me to the jetty - somehow, can't remember - and I rode in the original Deodar across the harbour to a waiting ambulance that took me to hospital. I missed out on being delivered there from Waiheke by the Eagle helicopter because it was attending a big crash up north, which also meant that I was left waiting for hours on a stretcher under a bright light while the casualties from that accident were seen to. Not that I'm bitter, at all... Oh, and they sent me home next day in a taxi, bare-footed and wearing somebody else's ghastly too-big top because they'd cut mine off. Tch.


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