Thursday 27 August 2020

Bad news, good news - sort of

For today's connection, I could have gone with Wisconsin, if ihe news coming out of there wasn't so sad and depressing. We probably drove past Kenosha on our way back to Chicago after our IPW post-fam in 2014, having done all sorts of lovely things in and around Milwaukee and Madison. I especially remember the joy of discovering the amazing things in The House on the Rock - and, as regular 😀 readers will remember, it was on this trip that I was first introduced to Blue Moon beer, so that was important. (Sadly, it's no longer obtainable in NZ, though the Baby has brought me some back to enjoy hoard.) I must, of course, mention cheese, too.
I had a great time on that trip, and will retain my positive feelings about Wisconsin despite the recent hideous news from there - but instead I'll go with something much more cheerful that is also in the news.
We've just got to see the first photos and footage of the baby rhino recently born at Auckland Zoo - a little cutie, not yet named, 65kg and drinking about a dozen litres of milk daily. She is so sweet, galloping and jumping about, the first rhino born here for 20 years. She's a southern white rhino, which is the most populous of the five species, but that's still not saying a lot really - their numbers are still dropping steadily, mostly because of poaching to supply horn to stupid people in China and Vietnam.
On my rhino charity trips to Africa, I was introduced to all sorts of organisations which are doing valiant work to protect rhino there, and had a heart-warming encounter with babies at a rhino orphanage. Covid initially was a help to the cause, since even the poaching networks had to shut down. Now though that evil scum is stirring again, and on top of that the sudden end to tourism, with all its jobs, has meant that local people are out of work and hungry, so they're going back to poaching, selling intel, and simply killing animals themselves for bushmeat. It's grim. So really, not much different from Kenosha, it turns out. Sorry about that.

Wednesday 26 August 2020

The long and the short of it

I've been writing today about the longest place name not only in New Zealand, but also THE WORLD! It's in the southern Hawkes Bay and it's "Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamateaturi pukakapikimaungahoronukupokaiwhenuakitanatahu" which means "the place where Tamatea, the man with the big knees, who slid, climbed and swallowed mountains, known as 'landeater’, played his flute to his loved one". It's also a bit of a cheat, since there's good reason to say it should be written as the sentence that it is, and not a single word.

However, as it is, at 85 letters, it's officially the world's longest place name, sweeping aside the feeble competition from Llanfair-etc in Anglesey, in Wales, with its piffling 58 letters. It was 2009 when I went there, and I can't remember much now about the town, apart from the famous sign at the railway station:
Without a doubt, though, there's more to see there than there is at Taumata Hill, which you get to by driving 60 winding, hilly kilometres from Waipukurau, hardly a vibrant centre itself. It's just a middling-sized hill surrounded by farmland - but they did do their best with the sign, which is 10 metres long these days. When I went there, back in 1980, to the accompaniment of increasingly impatient tutting from the OH behind the wheel, it was just a standard yellow AA sign, if somewhat larger than usual.
It sent me off on a brief tangent to find out what the country's shortest name is, but that only brought up some pretty standard Anglo-Saxon like Gore, and Cust. I did discover, though, that there are many countries in the world with one-letter place names. Most of them are in Scandinavia and one is in the Lofoten Islands in Norway, where I went in 2018, although not as far south as  (that should actually be a little circle over the A, but I couldn't find one like that).
It was a pretty dull day there, weather-wise, which is probably standard, though of course the myriads of Instagram photos of Lofoten are uniformly bright and colourful. It was good to get there, though, and have a drive around. (I was the only one, it turned out, in our little group from the cruise ship, who had a driver's licence with me, so I did the driving, which was fortunately less challenging than it could have been, because the roads were so quiet and the other drivers so considerate). 
Pleasing clean-lined bridges, villages curled around their little ports full of fishing boats, racks with cod drying on them, pointy hills and pointier mountains with snow on even in July, red barns, yellow houses, orange kelp, sheep in green fields... It was lovely, even under low cloud. 

Tuesday 25 August 2020

Dog-gone it

This is a dog spike. Nothing, I'm pleased to report, to do with spiking dogs, but all about railway tracks: you hammer these through a hole in the rail base to fix it to the sleeper. There must be so many of these in the world - imagine, two each side of every sleeper, which are set about half a metre apart along the length of the tracks. You'd need better maths than mine to tot that lot up. Anyway, heaps; so I have no qualms about having souvenired this one back in 2007, in South Australia.
I was taking part in the Great Australian Cattle Drive which has been held every two years since 2002, droughts and global pandemics willing: it's a re-enactment of the old days when herds from stations throughout the back country followed the Oodnadatta Track down to the railhead at Marree, from where they were shipped to market. On our one there were 500 cattle, 150 horses, 12 drovers, 40 staff and 80 guests, and we spent four days on horseback, droving the cattle across the remote plains. We returned each night to our tents at base camp where there were hot showers and flushing toilets on trucks, and a big marquee where we ate excellent meals in cheerful company.
My fellow travel writers were from the UK and Singapore, and they were both rather shocked at first by the conditions - one had brought her loofah, and the other's idea of camping involved, quote, "billowing white curtains". They were great fun and good sports, and I soon came to envy the padded, fluffy Seat Saver that Tahira had bought in London.
We'd met in Coober Pedy, opal capital, where we stayed in an underground hotel that had teeth marks on the ceilings (from the digger, you understand) and then drove out past the Dog Fence that runs for 5,400 kilometres from Queensland across NSW and South Australia, to keep dingoes away from sheep, to join the cattle drive near William Creek (pop. 8).
We were assigned our horses (tall, dark and handsome Harley for me) and tents, and settled into the pattern of breakfast, mounting up, and 'helping' drive the herd of Hereford cattle about 15km each day across the red gibber plains with the actual cowboys ('ringers' in Aussie-speak) - like Whitey, who was 77 and thrilled to be doing again what he'd done for real as a young man. Doing it properly back then meant shoeing the cattle before setting off across the stony Outback - imagine that: 8 shoes per cow.
The big excitement of the trek was the dust storm that struck in the middle of one night, when we all had to evacuate our tents and scuttle to the marquee while the staff ringed the camp with the trucks for protection. "Free dermabrasion," said Tahira, of the stinging red sand. I was smug about wondering, while still in my tent with all the walls flapping, whether I would be a Downunder Dorothy - beginning in Oz, would I end up in Kansas? (Yes, that did make it into my story.)
Yawning, we mounted up the following morning, and, while the staff sorted out the mess, returned to following the herd over salt pans, round unexpected puddles, through sand and stones, past flat-topped hills and astonishing bubbling mound springs.
It was a terrific experience: horses, sunshine, blue skies, red earth, mooing cattle, friendly people, lots of good food and drink. I'm so grateful I got to go on it. And the dog spike - which I picked up when we crossed the old route of the Ghan (which I'd travelled way back in 1974) - reminds me of all that. 

Monday 24 August 2020

Red - dirt, but also blood

Last night I was watching a by-the-numbers true crime rehash of the Peter Falconio murder - or was it? - in the Northern Territory in 2001. It is a fascinating story, the more so for being so far unsolved (though Part 2 is yet to be shown, I rather doubt there will be a revelation) - but mainly I was gripped by the many aerial views of the crime scene. Well, the scenery, really, since the crime scene is literally just a smallish pool of blood on the edge of the road.

From side to side, and to the far horizon, it was just flat red dirt with a scattering of spindly shrubs, cut through by the dead-straight Stuart Highway. HUGE! And, to many people I suppose, pretty boring - but I love that side of Australia. You can keep your tacky Gold Coast and even Melbourne's laneways and Sydney's glorious harbour and iconic buildings - for me, Australia is all about the Outback. I've been there quite often now, and hope to go again one day; but nothing will beat the thrill of setting off from Darwin, all by myself in my hire car one June day back in 2005, and passing this road sign:

It rather put my mere 300-odd kilometres to Katherine into perspective  - and, now that I was out of the city, I understood the eyebrow twitch that had followed my request for a road map. The road - the road, the only road - lay ahead of me all the way to Adelaide, with its kinks and curves so stretched out that they were unnoticeable. There was just endless tarmac, blue sky, and me. Oh, and the road trains: around 50m of truck and up to four trailers thundering along on 60 wheels at 100kph. Overtaking the first one is guaranteed to give anyone sweaty palms. It takes the best part of a minute and up to a couple of kilometres to get past one of these monsters; but on the Territory’s long, empty stretches of road (with no speed limit, fyi) even I came to do it without holding my breath.
I side-tracked into Lichfield National Park to scare myself with crocodile warning signs by the pretty pool with its two waterfalls, though the only actual wildlife encounter I had was with a dozen hungry kites, dive-bombing me, intent on snatching my lunch-time muffin. Reader, I triumphed.
On the road to Katherine I came across lots of reasons to stop: other waterfalls, other pools; pockets of monsoon rainforest in amongst the parched savannah; a huge cluster of flat grey magnetic termite mounds, all aligned north-south; towering orange cathedral termite mounds, sculpted and architectural; beautiful white ghost gums and pink-barked salmon gums; untended burn-off fires licking along the road margins with plenty of snap, crackle and pop; precariously-balanced high stacks of red rocks; astonishing floodway markers measuring up to two metres planted in apparent desert. Not all the sights are natural: the War Cemetery at Adelaide River, where every meticulously tended grave carries a personal message, is unforgettable. ‘He was my love, my all. Mother’; ‘Our Daddy’; ‘He has folded his wings’. 
There was a lot to do in Katherine: boat cruise along the spectacular Gorge, caves, thermal pools, bush walks, the School of the Air, galleries of Aboriginal art, night-time croc-spotting outings... I did all that, and then dutifully turned right onto the Stuart Highway, heading back to Darwin again. Really, I would have liked to turn left, and carry on through the Outback, a dot in that vast landscape, off on my own adventure. Er, but not like Peter Falconio...

Friday 21 August 2020

I must go down to the seas again... or river, not fussy

As usual, I didn't have my phone with me to take a photo, so you're going to have to use your imagination. Start with the above, then move the tide to high, cover the sky in dramatically dark grey cloud, make the water in the bay cloudy turquoise, dark out by the rocks, on which the waves should be breaking white, and lighter turquoise near the shore. Then shift your point of view a bit further to the right, so you're looking straight out over the bay, and step back so that there's a cluster of red, yellow, lime green and blue kayaks in the foreground. And then, for the final flourish, picture shafts of strong sunshine angled from the right, highlighting the kayaks. Got that? Gorgeous, isn't it? 
It got me thinking, as I continued on my walk, about the fun I've had in kayaks - despite not being very expert, and always ending up with blisters on my thumbs and forefingers. I've paddled them in exotic locations, bird spotting along the coast of the Big Island in Hawaii, counting monkeys from the upper reaches of the Amazon, spying on Bill Gates's house from Lake Washington in Seattle, watching sealions play catch with seaweed in the Galapagos Islands. I've paddled along the the calm waters of Margaret River, and a croc-infested river in the Northern Territory, and watched a dingo chasing a kangaroo along the shore for maximum cliché points. I've done it at Freycinet in Tasmania with the Firstborn, and also there along the dark and sinister Gordon River, and a similarly tannin-stained river up near the Bay of Fires, and out into the sea where it was so windy we could have sailed. 
You can do that, in a kayak, using just your paddle held up, if the wind is strong enough - I tried it once up north a bit, heading inland from Sandspit to Matakana. Most of my kayaking has been done here at home, of course - pootling around a peaceful bay at sunset on Stewart Island, drifting down the Avon River in Christchurch, stirring up bio-luminescence in the water on the way back to the city from Brown's Island. 
My most memorable paddles have been with the Baby, though: there was the one ages ago on Waiheke, with the German exchange student who she didn't get on with - that was awkward; and before that, the ill-advised and fraught battle with an incoming tide, waves, wind and rocks at Brown's Bay that could so easily have ended badly that it still makes me shiver; and the more recent marathon struggle against head winds both ways on Waiheke again, when we were disturbingly far from shore. But best of all were the two days we  spent paddling along the coast of Abel Tasman National Park, in sunshine, with no wind, when the only things that were saturated were the colours. That was brilliant. 

Wednesday 12 August 2020


Here we go again. Normal TV programming was broken into last night by an emergency press briefing with the Prime Minister and Director-General of Health announcing the disappointing news that, after 102 days free of community transmission, New Zealand has now rejoined the rest of of the world. Four people in Auckland with no obvious connection to anyone with Covid-19 have tested positive, and so the entire super-city region of 1.4 million people is back to Level 3 lockdown, with the rest of the country on Level 2.

Almost straight away, there were stupid queues at the supermarkets as people panicked yet again about toilet paper and flour; while the rest of us sank quietly into the Slough of Despond. Just when we were getting hopeful about being able to share a bubble with the Cook Islands! Though at least now I'm spared trying to come up with another story about Aitutaki's glorious lagoon that doesn't reference colour charts.

Australia, of course, which had been considered for a trans-Tasman bubble, has been out of contention for weeks now since the resurgence of cases in Victoria. We're going hard and strong again, in the hope that we can avoid following that path - but it's depressing and also worrying, given that the source of infection is so far a mystery. It's also a huge nuisance, because Parliament was meant to be dissolved today in the lead-up to next month's election, the timing of which is now in doubt. Personally, I wouldn't mind skipping it altogether, and just carrying on with the same leadership we have now, which has been doing a sterling job. All praise to the sainted Jacinda and Dr Ashley!

Monday 3 August 2020

Gracias, Mauricio

Whanganui and Valparaiso get connected today, thanks to Mauricio. He's got a bit miffed about the Durie Hill Elevator's claim, faithfully repeated by me in a story written some time ago that's just been re-run, that it's unique in the southern hemisphere. As he rightly points out, with multiple links to online proof, it's actually not: there's another one, the Polanco Lift, in Valparaiso, with a 150m tunnel leading to a couple of lifts, which take people to the top of the hill, 60m above. Being Chilean, he's understandably offended - also though, being Chilean, perhaps he didn't quite appreciate in-joke of the 'World Famous in NZ' title of the feature, but that's ok. 
I did however think he was a bit over-sensitive in claiming that New Zealanders don't properly recognise that there are other countries south of the equator besides the English-speaking ones. As a nationality, I reckon we get around more than most others, and South America is certainly a popular destination for Kiwis. I've been there several times myself, including to Valparaiso.
That was way back in 2008, on my first big and very exciting trip to South America, when the main focus was on walking the Inca Trail. Before joining the (very small) tour group, I had a couple of nights in Santiago and was escorted to Valparaiso, which is about an hour's drive away through wine country and a range of hills you might call mountains if the actual Andes weren't in plain sight.
Valparaiso is old and very pretty, as well as modern and ugly, and classy and very down-at-heel - typical port city, then. The old part, which was far from being fully gentrified, was full of piled-up wooden Victorian villas painted fabulously bright colours, with towers and iron-lace verandas, set along steep cobbled streets intersected by plenty of narrow alleys where the "bad seňoritas" service the seamen. The sailors we saw were togged out in white dress uniforms with brass buttons and even white gloves, and clearly above such shenanigans...
There were stately buildings, tree-lined avenues, dinky fishing boats and stern grey naval ships, sea lions and pelicans on the rocks, and heaps of statues including one of the local horse that holds the world record for highest jump, 2.47m, set there in 1949 by 16 year-old ex-race-horse Huaso, who was then immediately retired. There were less athletic horses hitched to carriages for tourists, and, as ever in Chile, lots of stray dogs - most of them, I'm happy to say, apparently well fed and cared for by people who aren't allowed to keep them in their apartments. There was even an Easter Island moai, my first, which I was excited to see - not knowing then that I would be going there myself just four years later.

Sunday 2 August 2020

Parakeets and a McCaw

I'm surprised and dismayed (because of its increasingly important function as my surrogate memory) to randomly discover so many gaps in this blog - places I've been, things I've done, that have gone unrecorded. Presumably that's because I was just too busy, flitting on to the next thing before I had a chance to write about the previous one. I certainly remember once flying home from Johannesburg to Auckland for one night in my own bed before taking off again next day for Rarotonga - where, and this is a downside of such things, I fell so soundly asleep on a lounger the following afternoon that I scored absolutely epic sunburn. Anyway, sigh, those days are now gone forever, probably.

Oh well. The blank I've just discovered is a trip down to Christchurch in June two years ago, which was followed so rapidly by a Silversea cruise along the Norwegian coast that it just never got written about. And there are many people in this country, some of them of my acquaintance, who would never be able to understand how I could possibly not skite about that visit - because it involved Richie McCaw. Regular 😀 readers may recall I have actually mentioned him before: with a Chicago connection and then, more understandably, at TRENZ in Dunedin that year.
He is a rugby hero, captain of the All Blacks when they won two World Cups, and forever after a national icon. More relevantly to a rugby-phobe like me, he's a very pleasant, quietly-spoken man who, amongst other things, is partner in a helicopter business based in Christchurch. That's how come I met him at TRENZ, which led to taking up his offer of a flit in his chopper a month or so later. 
So I flew down to ChCh, my home town but much of it looking very unfamiliar these days, post-earthquakes, and checked into the George, which is the hotel I'm currently writing a review of, and was hoping I'd have made a few useful comments about in here. Tch. So, anyway, it's a 5-star boutique hotel across the Avon from Hagley Park, too middle-aged to have much character, but very pleasant, art-filled and comfortable, if a little on the chilly side in winter for a now-soft-Aucklander like me. The staff hit the right note of unfussy solicitousness; though it was kind of chilling to learn from the PR lady that they are forbidden to engage in eye-contact with a guest without exchanging a greeting. Most people would surely do that, anyway - it just grates a bit to hear it prescribed like that. But my room was nice, with a restful view across into the park.
I had a lovely time, wandering around the city, re-connecting with important places from my past, noting the new constructions and regretting those ruins still untouched (Christ Church Cathedral, heart of the city, you look SO sad). Speaking of which, the Memorial Wall recording the 185 who died in the 2011 earthquakes has some heart-rending personal touches, like the note next to one name: "Aunty Mandy - Mum says you smelled of jasmine".

Next morning, two of the hotel staff and I went out to the airport and met up with Richie and his business partner Terry, and heard all about the helicopters - tourism, fire-fighting (the pilots' favourite activity) and their conservation work with the orange-fronted parakeet, regularly transporting young birds back into remote and predator-free environments.
Yes, yes, laudable of course - but what we were all itching to do was to get airborne. Which we did, so easily, lifting up with Richie at the controls, and then swinging out over the Waimakariri's convoluted braids, over the Plains, and up along the gorge into the Southern Alps. We flew over the TranzApline tracks beside the turquoise river, Richie marvelling at all the work behind the building of the track, bridges, viaducts and tunnels; and then, excitingly, we landed on a snowy peak. 
Chest Peak is over 6000 feet and the sky was clear, so we had brilliant views back over the Plains to the city, and along the Alps as far as Aoraki Mt Cook. It was glorious to be up there, just us, surrounded by so much raw (yet so easily-accessed) nature.
And then it got better - I scored the front seat for the flight back, and sat next to Richie with all that scenery unravelling beneath me as we flew back across the Canterbury Plains and river, and around and over the city, including the now-empty Red Zone, the CBD and finally back to the airport. Fabulous! I love sightseeing in helicopters, they really are the best. And having a world-famous person at the controls is also a bit of a buzz, to be honest. Even if it is just for being good at rugby.


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