Sunday, 5 January 2020


I've been back from Australia for two days, but there's no escaping the fires there. Oz is a three-hour, two thousand kilometre flight away, but Auckland right now is bathed in an eerie orange light, the clouds stained yellow, the sea a weird brown colour, and automatic streetlights were coming on mid-afternoon on a summer's day. The smoke, which I can smell, has blown across the Tasman and everyone is looking at the sky with dismay, and deep sympathy for our neighbours. 
All the news from Australia is shocking, the numbers mind-blowing (the burnt-out areas equal the area of Belgium - or did, because that's old and outdated news now), the images horrific, the stories heart-breaking. For me, today's most dreadful reports - so far - are from Kangaroo Island, off the south coast of South Australia, where more than a third of the entire island has been burnt. I was there in 2008, and had a lovely time, enjoying the unique and teeming wildlife, the spectacular rocks, lovely beaches, special honey, and proud residents. 
I was especially envious of those who, unlike me, were able to stay at the then brand-new Southern Ocean Lodge, tucked low on the skyline above the sea, full of big windows and luxurious accommodation. I hoped that one day, I might get back there to experience it. Not now.

Thursday, 2 January 2020

Silver Muse cruise, Day Ten - End of days? End of cruise, anyway

With thanks to Silversea for this cruise
Yesterday was a glorious clear, sunny, blue-sky day, a perfect start to the new year/decade. Today? Apocalyptic. I opened the curtains to thick yellow smoke outside that quickly got even thicker, almost blotting out the already dim and orange sun. It, and its smell, soon infiltrated the ship, making the Arts Café look like a coffee bar back in the smoky seventies, the corridor outside full of haze. The captain had to make a special announcement that it was all from outside, there was nothing to be done, and nothing to be concerned about engine-wise. Certainly, there was no avoiding it, inside or out.
We are glad we decided not to hang around in Sydney when we arrive there tomorrow morning, and have arranged to fly straight home. The locals have had occasional breaks from these conditions, thanks to varying winds, but they've been living with this bush fire smoke for several months now. Even returning to New Zealand will not be the escape we'd like, though: the wind has carried the smoke across the Tasman to cover the whole of the South Island, and even up in Auckland people are able to look at the blood-red sun directly, and outdoor security lights are turning themselves on.
The pool deck was closed for most of the day, and back in the cabin suite our suitcases had, in a too-obvious hint, been put onto stands, so we wandered off to have a last buffet lunch at La Terrazza. Then we attended an interesting lecture (not by the boring Major-General OWM) about women convicts in Tasmania - none of them transported for being prostitutes, by the way, but many driven to it on the transport ships, and in Van Diemen's Land, for an income; and consequently blamed, by men, for the depravity, of men, that their presence caused. But at least one of them did so well that her face is on Australia's $20 note. Wonder how well the others might have done, given half a chance?
Our quiet afternoon was interrupted by the captain announcing that the change of course we might have noticed (er, no) had been caused by an emergency services request to go to the aid of those people on the beach in East Gippsland, at Mallacoota, and help with the evacuation; but then we were stood down because they weren't ready for us. Bit of a shame, really - that would have been interesting, and it would have been good to have helped. I (and everyone else on board) had already received an emergency text about information meetings in Mallacoota. Poor things - my eyes have been stinging a bit even out here at sea. Must be horrendous, right amongst it all.
After hours of being in a sort of vacuum, with nothing to see outside, not even the sea - it was as though the world had been erased - the smoke began to clear later in the afternoon, as we headed to the Dolce Vita lounge for our final Team Trivia game. There was a jolly atmosphere, lots of joking and friendliness, but not a lot of actual success as our team scored only 16/20 and the winners had a clean sweep. Questions included the capital of Armenia; where is the Sandy Desert; what is hypnophobia; what's the diameter, in inches, of a basketball hoop; what is Cd on the periodic table; and what body part was Alfred Hitchcock missing?

We cashed in our precious prize points - the most expensive item, for 160 points, was a Silversea umbrella, the least, at 10, a pen; I claimed a (second) fridge memo holder for our hard-won 30 - and finally gave in to the necessity of packing. Which at least took a lot less time than it had back home.
Dinner was back in Atlantide - meltingly tender filet mignon again, which I wasn't able to finish, and will remember with sadness and regret for some time to come - and the table was shared with a UK/Oz/NZ trio, with whom we had a lively conversation that included jury service, rain in England v the Waikato, Team Trivia cheating, returning home to doing our own chores, and polo. One of them had ash stains on his shirt, which were clearly going to be a souvenir.
And that was that, for the last day. Labelled suitcases outside the door at bedtime, the cabin suite looking impersonal again, and tomorrow just the tedium of travel to look forward to with an eventual arrival home at probably 9pm. It's been fun, weather and bush fires notwithstanding. Thanks, Silversea.

Wednesday, 1 January 2020

Silver Muse cruise, Day Nine - New year beginning, cruise ending

With thanks to Silversea for this cruise
We set off at a leisurely pace this morning, everything considerately later than usual, for those who were up late last night (not us, obviously). It took ages to cross Melbourne's vast harbour to the heads that protect it, where we were escorted by the pilot boat through the 2km-wide, churned up gap with a lighthouse and spectators on one side. Then we were back in Bass Strait, heading for the Tasman again to sail, eventually, northwards to Sydney. For quite a distance, we had coastline to watch, which was a novelty.
Everyone was very chilled-out - if you can call people that who are basking in hot sunshine - and the pool deck was the most crowded bit of the ship, although there were always spare loungers and chairs for latecomers (despite a German family I've been observing doing the cliché German thing of using their towels to claim loungers for the entire day, including in their absences).

I was pleased to hear that the big net of balloons that hung over one end of the pool deck, that was still in place when we went to bed after midnight last night, was not opened to let them disperse into the air and sea, and no doubt kill many sea creatures. "The fun police," someone harrumphed, but I was pleased, and just surprised that in these environmentally enlightened (some irony there) times, anyone had ever thought that was a good idea at all. [Side note: I read today that it's estimated that half a billion animals have died in Australia's bush fires so far. Heartbreaking.] [Update: Apparently there was never any intention to release the balloons: the net was just how they were displayed.]
There was lunch, there was downtime, there was sitting on the veranda in the sunshine with the sea sloshing peacefully below, and then there was Trivial Pursuit. Reader, we came first! With 19.5/20! Questions included: what is As on the periodic table; who played Galadriel in LOTR; what country does Denmark border; what port sees the most cruise passengers; what's the longest running show in the West End; and how many millimetres are there in a kilometre?
Although there is still all of tomorrow left on the cruise, the relentless winding-up has begun: the comments form delivered, the disembarkation instructions, luggage labels. As always, it feels too soon. The most emphatic part of this process was the ceremonial crew parade of 400 staff over the stage for the farewell tonight, with standing ovations and cheering. (It followed the Voices of Silversea doing Queen hits, which left me full of genuine admiration for Rami Malek. Say no more.)
We ate this evening at Spaccanapoli, which is a pizzeria overlooking the pool deck, with a perfect view of the lowering sun tonight heading for a smoke-tinged sepia sunset. It was really warm up there - bare legs and arms temperature. And the pizza was good too.

At the Arts Café we had coffee on the rear deck as the sun finally slid into the sea, and we rounded the Wilson Promontory to turn northwards. It was a quiet evening as I prowled around the ship afterwards: not many people in the public areas at all. Probably bracing themselves in their cabins suites for the last day of the cruise tomorrow. And meanwhile, the staff were taking down the Christmas decorations. Holidays over, no question.


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