Thursday 31 December 2020

2020: fun to write. That's it.

It would be nice to be able to live up to the title of this blog - the skite bit - but it hasn't been that sort of year, has it? This is usually the post where I gloat about all the places I went and what I liked best, and all that. Well, exactly one year ago today I was on a Christmas cruise to Sydney sailing through the hellish orange smoke of the bushfires, and then a fortnight later flitted to LA for the joyful announcement by Viking cruise lines of their expanding from river and ocean into exploration cruises, building two new ships to take on the Arctic and Antarctic. Afterwards, I went to the Museum of Death.

Since then, I've been hunkered down in NZ, safe but bored. Yes, of course there are heaps of lovely places here to visit and explore but you need energy to sort out your own famils and I'm sure I'm not alone in finding that hard to summon up in 2020. There is, obviously, no reason to believe that simply clicking over into 2021 is going to make any difference - but I will try to have some faith in all those hard-working scientists and medical people, and look forward to perhaps, sometime, somehow, taking a step or two towards a version of normal that might allow some sort of travel, eventually. Maybe.

Wednesday 30 December 2020

Many a true word spoken in error

Desert Safari Dubai has perfect includes for Sole, Family, and Couples. If you are traverse in Dubai or on a stopover flight. You were most likely to do different activities in Dubai. Either than visiting malls, dine in restaurants or city sightseeing. For an adventure break, one should endure a 6 Hours Evening Desert Safari. 

This is a spam email that came to me via a comment on this blog. Clearly, targeted, at least; but had they done a little research, they would have discovered that I have actually done the Dubai desert safari not once, but twice (actually, three times, if you count the one I did in Qatar). And neither time, to be honest, with real enjoyment - which at least makes their choice of verb in the last sentence very apt, I reckon.
You get picked up in a 4WD and taken out along the motorway into the proper desert - which doesn't take long at all, since Dubai is plonked, very unnaturally, right in the middle of a vast, sandy expanse. Then it's time for the tyres to be let down a little, for added grip, and you're off into the dunes, following a path of sorts, apparently chosen for maximum jolting, lurching and sliding, in every direction. Honestly, you do have to hang on, inside the vehicle, to stop from slithering about, and bumping your head. There's some excited whooping to begin with, but then, in my experience, things quite quickly go a bit quiet.
It's properly sick-making, if you're that way inclined, which I am, and also others I shared the trips with - one, literally. It's very far from the ideal preparation for a buffet feast at low tables in a pretend Bedouin camp, trying to be positive about a woman doing a cliché belly dance (the first one I went to, she turned out to be Russian). There was also a pre-dinner single circuit on a camel to do, which would have been a novelty if I hadn't already done proper camel treks in Australia: it was hardly worth the lurching effort of getting on and off. I did enjoy spotting an oryx, though.

My safaris were free, provided by the tourism people, so I got the basic deal, understandably. There are much fancier versions, with added astronomy, owls and falcons, hot-air balloons and even luxury overnights, which does sound lovely, and not at all the sort of thing you would have to 'endure'. All, though, very academic right now of course.

Tuesday 29 December 2020

Until yesterday, iGNorant of a connection

I didn't mean to stalk Graham Norton. I didn't even know I'd done it. It was only yesterday, over a year later, when I was listening to an old RNZ interview with him and Kim Hill that I realised I'd done it. He mentioned how he liked living in Bantry because although, same as in London, he was recognised everywhere he went there, Bantry is so small that he can recognise people right back - supermarket checkout lady, petrol station guy, man who fixes the boiler - so it's fair.

Regular 😀 readers will recall that in August last year I went on a Silversea cruise from London, around Ireland, and back again. It was blighted by a terrible case of the flu/possible pre-Covid that laid us out for most of the trip - yes, I'm still coughing, thanks for asking - but, diligent as ever, I did force myself off Silver Wind at each port to do an explore. Bantry was a little gem: colourful old houses reflected in the waters of the harbour, bustling main street, picturesque ruined church with a wild cemetery outside, grand mansion up on a hill, lively history, passers-by full of banter with our funny guide... it was a treat, and well worth dragging myself out of what had been feeling would become my deathbed. It was, if further proof is needed, memorable enough for me to properly remember it, and not rely on my trusty notebook which, for the first time ever, I had no energy to actually write in:

Not enough contact to qualify as stalking? Fair comment. But before the cruise began, we had to be driven from our splendid hotel right next to Tower Bridge, where the ship was meant to be moored, way out to distant, and desolate, Tilbury Docks. That was because the wind had been too strong for the ship, despite its small size, to be safely sailed through the Thames Barrier and up the winding Thames through Tower Bridge to its mooring beside the Belfast. It was disappointing (though made up for at the end of the cruise, by doing exactly that) but it did mean we had a long and very expensive taxi tour, at Silversea's expense, from St Katharine's through, initially, Wapping. Which is where Graham has his London residence, our helpful driver told us. Helen Mirren too, apparently. (Gary was very chatty - it took him 4 years to do the Knowledge, part-time, which he reckoned was equally as necessary to the job as GPS.)

So, ok, maybe stalking is stretching it a bit. But two GN connections in one cruise, without even trying? Good enough for me.

Wednesday 23 December 2020

A different sort of Christmas scent

I have no idea how this deodorant came to be in my bathroom cupboard. I discovered it while rummaging through various baskets looking - in vain, it turned out - for the replacement roll-on I thought I had laid away ready. I stopped buying aerosol deodorant many, many years ago because of the CFC thing, so that's the first bit of the mystery. There is a clue, though, in the size of this container: it's very small, which suggests it was complimentary. Plus, of course, it's German. 

I haven't been anywhere German-speaking for ages. The last time was just before Christmas 2014, when I did a cruise with Uniworld up the Danube from Budapest. They threw us travel writer freeloaders unceremoniously off the boat halfway through the trip, so we missed out on the highlight of sailing through the Wachau Valley, with its hills, castles and vineyards, and on towards Passau and beyond. Instead, we were mini-bussed back to Vienna to fly home. It had been lovely up till that point, though - despite every day being seriously cold and grey. It was an education in understanding why Christmas in Europe is so much more Christmassy than it is here downunder, with our summer holiday distractions that include, notably, summer. When it's that grey and grim, you really need things like mulled wine, gingerbread and market stalls draped in coloured lights.

Vienna was actually my first introduction to the European Christmas, way back in 1987, when we went from England to Austria. Vienna was certainly gorgeous, but even better was Salzburg, where we spent the actual Christmas Day - plus, more to the point, Christmas Eve, which is more important than the 25th, dinner-wise. We'd got a bit anxious in the preceding days, seeing menus that all focused on the traditional Karpfen - carp, the fish, an everyday fish at that, unlike salmon, say. 

Anyway, we turned up at our Vier Jahreseiten hotel restaurant on the evening of the 24th, dressed up, with our presents, just as all the locals were, picked up the menu - and oh! What a relief! Main course: Englisches Roastbeef! 

Earlier that evening, we'd been to a service in the cathedral, quite a casual affair with a lot of coming and going, and then afterwards trailed behind everyone else to the cemetery, where people were putting wreaths and candles on family graves, and singing along to a live accompaniment of violins and cornets. That was wonderfully atmospheric. Christmas Day itself was anticlimactic - so ordinary that we hired a car and went for a drive, looking for snow and, after deciding that it was cheating to pretend a frosty spruce tree would do, found the real thing on top of a peak that we went up in a gondola.  

It was a lovely Christmas. Which is not to say it's not equally lovely to look out of the window and see this sort of thing:

(None of which, of course, solves the mystery of the German deodorant.)

Sunday 13 December 2020

Behind the scenes. Literally.


Today I stood on the same spot as the Beatles, the Queen, Bill Clinton, Elton John and Helena Roosevelt. Not all at the same time, obvs. The Grand Old Lady of Queen Street, Auckland Town Hall, which opened in 1911, is now doing behind the scenes tours - but the best bit is the opposite of that, standing on the stage of the Great Hall. I've sat in that audience several times myself - the last time, um, to see Alan Davies? - so it was interesting, and a bit terrifying, to get the opposite view. (The stage was set up for the Messiah tonight.) It seats fewer people these days than originally - we're fussier about more comfortable (and bigger) seats.

It was also fascinating to get up close to the huge German organ with its 4,000 pipes and daunting-looking keyboards with all their knobs. Our guide, Paul, fired it up and asked if anyone could play but, sadly, no-one volunteered, so he just randomly pressed a few keys to show off how it sounds. It would have been lovely to have heard it played properly. It took over two years to build, by 42 Klais personnel sent here.

We did get literally behind the scenes too, down in the bowels and backstage (very plain and uninspiring) but most interesting was hearing random facts about the buildings, such as the £400 prize offered for the initial design equating to a staggering $72,000 today. The final cost, including the land purchase, ended up twice the original budget, at £126,000 - I daren't try to convert that. It can't have helped that the Melburnian architect insisted on the use of basalt from Melbourne, despite our having plenty of that stone right here.

I was pleased by all the symmetry everywhere, but appalled to hear that, when it was built, there was no provision for women to go to the loo. Oh yes, of course there was a men's toilet from the get-go - but any woman caught short during a performance had to leave the building and go down Queen Street to use one in a nearby shop. And that's despite having a bust of Kate Sheppard above the stairs! Pft.

Sunday 6 December 2020

Warbirds on Parade, Ardmore

Here are two tips for when you attend a Warbirds display at Ardmore Airfield (which you really should): take a chair, and sit near the loudspeakers. We had one chair between the four of us, which was dumb because we're all too old now to sit comfortably on the grass, and we also stood too far away to hear properly what the announcer was saying. After all, these are planes, they're up in the air - there's no need to scriggle through the crowd to a front-row position.

And, very pleasingly, there was certainly a crowd. Having been there a few weeks ago to talk to the organisers, it was really good to see their hard work bear fruit. And it sure was organised, from start to finish - very good.

It's always interesting to see these old planes, which up close look so flimsy and basic, or dauntingly complicated, but even better is to see them in action, which they certainly were today. It was extraordinary, to see a triplane chasing a biplane overhead, dipping and turning remarkably nimbly. They started with the old ones, the stated reason being that they're harder to handle when the wind gets up later - which just makes you marvel even more at what their pilots took on, originally.

The planes gradually got newer, and faster, and there was even a race between a Mclaren and an Extra aircraft flying low and, of course, beating the car. Best of all, though, was when the Spitfire - the only one flying outside Britain - suddenly zoomed overhead, going straight up, stalling, swooping down, then going into barrel rolls and loop-the-loops. Spectacular! And so thrilling to hear that distinctive throaty roar as well as see it in action.

The Roaring Forties aerobatics team was brilliant, too - lots of vapour trail patterns, and impressive close-quarter manoeuvres. It was all so good, except for the bit where silly men pretending to be soldiers, but far too fat and in only approximate uniforms, did a bit of popping off of fake guns, lying on their podgy tummies beside the runway. Daft. Apparently they came out yesterday and camped overnight, staying in character the whole time. I was much more impressed by the pilot who flung his plane all over the sky and then, after landing, climbed out in his shorts and t-shirt and just strolled away into the crowd.

It was a really good display, and I'm glad I went. Recommended. 

Sunday 29 November 2020

Return to Rotoroa

Talk about island-hopping. From Waiheke to Tiritiri Matangi on Thursday, then back to Waiheke, and off again to Rotoroa yesterday. I was last there three weeks ago, to witness the release of a kiwi chick into the island's safe and pest-free environment, to grow big and strong enough to return to the wild on the mainland. I came again to get the more usual visitor experience: of escaping the city rat-race - well, Waiheke in my case - for the peace and laid-back relaxation of the island. Except it's not. Peaceful, that is.

Since the Salvation Army addiction treatment centre closed down, and the lease was acquired by the island's Trust, masses of work has been done by eager volunteers, and, after just ten years since the revegetation of the island (which had been cleared for farming) the bush is back and burgeoning. And with it, the birds - which are SO NOISY! There are oystercatchers on the beaches, putting on broken-wing dramas to draw you (me) away from their nests, squawking piteously. There are pukeko darting about everywhere on the open grassy areas, hooting away, plus weka, ditto. Tui are a constant, running through their huge repertoire of calls from above; fantails twitter, kereru coo, takahe squeak - and also boom, oddly. It goes on and on, even at night, when kiwi are added to the roll call.

Of course that's not a complaint, and I loved it all. Having done the guided tour last time with ranger Milly Lucas, this time I just wandered, looking for birds and frogs, and having a very relaxing time. The ferry was busy today with people taking advantage of the discounted fare to take part in Experiencing Marine Reserves, which hosts snorkelling events, everything provided, and free. The volunteer hosts were all full of enthusiasm, and it was well done, but the downside of the Hauraki Gulf is that it's so thoroughly fished that even the reserves aren't exactly teeming yet. While I was waiting for the ferry on the jetty at Orapiu, a chatty man was delighted to catch two very respectable snapper in just fifteen minutes.

The EMR event was at Ladies Bay, a long, sandy beach where the women being, er, hosted by the Sallies could swim - round the headland was, of course, Mens Bay, which was a bit more boisterous. The water looked lovely but I knew from recent experience on Waiheke that it wouldn't be warm. It was good to be able to borrow a wetsuit, even though it's always such a demoralising experience, getting into one - and out again. Such a struggle. Plus, it turns out that no-one can take off a front-zip wetsuit without assistance: getting it off your shoulders is impossible.

My home for the night, Oranga, was one of the four rentable houses on the island - spanking clean, remarkably well-equipped, private and very comfortable. I would happily live there, as would many others, judging by the comments in the Visitor's Book. Paradise, oasis, sanctuary, magical... one person was on their 6th stay there; and some came regularly for Christmas, which seems a lovely idea to me.

This morning I was very smug about tracking down the pair of takahe with their chick, exactly where I calculated they would be. That pleasure was diluted, though, by finding a dead penguin on a beach, sadly. Then I spent ages vainly trying to photograph a whitehead - they are so fast, they just dematerialise the instant you (I) click the shutter. Fun, though. 

Finally, it was time to head to the wharf to catch the ferry back to Waiheke, after a properly lovely time. It was only slightly marred, while we waited to board, by an OWM volunteer chatting with Milly, who was being amusing about her husband. "But you married him," he said. "And gave him a male heir." When I asked what difference it made that the child was a boy, he was satisfactorily nonplussed, I'm happy to report.

Friday 27 November 2020

Loo view

Pardon the indelicacy, but when I sit on the loo in my bathroom at night, I can see, flashing out in the blackness, a lighthouse signal, every 15 seconds. So it was satisfying, yesterday, to go to Tiritiri Matangi Island to spend the night in a bunkhouse just a hundred metres or so from that very lighthouse.

That wasn't the main purpose of the visit - although it's a classically attractive lighthouse, the oldest one still operating in NZ (since 1865), and stands next to an even more appealing watch tower. No, the main draw to Tiri for its visitors is birds. Once extensively farmed, cleared of almost all its virgin forest, it was the first island to be the subject of an intensive, and unique, revegetation and pest-removal programme that started nearly forty years ago. 

Volunteers and government agencies worked together and planted over 300,000 trees in just ten years, most of them grown from seed collected on the island. Now, it looks wonderfully natural again, and the birds love it. So did I - especially after the noise and chaos of the endless roadworks on Quay Street, it was so lovely to be delivered by ferry to the island where all you can hear is wind, waves and birdsong.

There are over 70 species resident on the island, including kiwi and takahe, and also, I was really thrilled to hear, kokako. This is a hard-to-see bird about the size of a tui that has the most beautiful call: haunting, melodic, so tuneful. When you return to Auckland airport after an overseas trip and walk through the carved archway on the way to immigration, that's the song you can hear. It's gorgeous.

Not quite so gorgeous is the accommodation there, for spoiled people like me. It's a bunkhouse, with rooms sleeping 4-6, with a shared kitchen for preparing the food you have to bring yourself. But an island visit is all about being outside, exploring, bird-watching and listening, so that didn't really matter. 

It was a short night anyway - we were all out after dinner, wandering around in the dark hoping to hear and see kiwi. Which I did, thanks to some kind and sharper-eyed people who pointed it out to me, scuttling across the track. Then, we were all up early next morning to go and hear the dawn chorus in the bush: just glorious! So loud, and varied, and musical - perhaps not quite what Capt. Cook's crew complained about down in Fiordland back in 1770, disturbing their sleep, but much better than most people have heard. The same nice people as yesterday showed me a tuatara they'd spotted that I would certainly have walked right past.

The island is very pretty too: it helped that the pohutukawa is just coming into flower now, but the beaches are lovely, the cliffs dramatic, the sea a beautiful blue, and the views long and wide. If not quite clear enough today to see Waiheke Island from there, let alone my toilet. Probably just as well.

Tuesday 24 November 2020

Trains and boats and planes

What a joy it is, when public transport works as it should! And, to be fair, as it usually does, in my experience: so, well done, AT. Today there was a seamless transition from ferry to train, which took me into the trackless (well actually of course not, seeing as how I was on a train) wastes of southern Auckland, to Papakura. There I was met by Gary from Ardmore Airfield, and the rest of the day was all about planes.

Not your boring everyday Boeings and Airbuses, but aircraft full of personality and awesomeness, dating from 1912 to 1964 - famous and iconic planes including Tiger Moth, Harvard, Skyhawk, Mustang, Aermacchi, Fokker, and even a Polikarpov. I first saw one of those at the Flying Heritage Museum near Everett, Washington state, about ten years ago. That was where I first heard the amazing story of the Night Witches, women who insisted on doing their bit for Russia in WW2, and ended up becoming the Germans' worst nightmare, swooping silently over the lines at night and shoving bombs out over the side of their open biplanes. Astonishing.

Regular 😀 readers will recall that I am an airman's daughter, so it was especially interesting to me to follow the rapid progression learner pilots like Dad - teenagers! - would have made, from Tiger Moth to Harvard to Kittyhawk and then into action, with the enemy shooting at them from the ground and from other planes. Getting up close to the planes and seeing how basic and flimsy they are was a real education, and very sobering to consider.

There are two hangars, WWI and WW2, with most of the planes owned by syndicates of enthusiasts, but the whole set-up owing a huge debt - fortunately, just of gratitude - to a man who turned up unannounced one day, saying he'd just won $24 million on Lotto, had set his family up, and now was "going to do what I want". Which was indulge his passion for planes. So what had been a very small hobby arrangement has now become an impressive collection of over 30 assorted aircraft, almost every one of them capable of being flown.

Which is why I was there: to publicise their upcoming Warbirds on Parade event, when there will be a number of air displays including a bi- and tri-plane dogfight, and, star of the show, an actual Spitfire showing off and fixing forever in everybody's memories that unmistakable throaty clatter - which I last heard in 2018 as I walked along the top of the White Cliffs of Dover one bright summer afternoon... 


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