Wednesday 27 January 2021

Not spying but flying

With thanks to Waiheke Wings

Today I should have woken up in a boutique cottage overlooking the Bethell's Beach black sands, and then pottered around various arty places en route to Matakana - sculpture, modern Maori art, pottery - and finished up by having a nice dinner out before retiring to a spacious garden villa overlooking a vineyard. But a rogue Covid occurrence in the community (a post-negative test flare-up of the South African variant) has put paid to that famil for the time being, so instead I went up on a spyplane, with Waiheke Wings.

Well, not really a spyplane, since we weren't hiding - but we were going to observe from above the America's Cup yachts having a practice ahead of this weekend's racing. So we took off from the grassy airfield here on Waiheke, puttered (it was a 4-seater Cessna) along the coast and over sundry scattered islands to Rangitoto's brooding bulk. 

There we should have been able to see the yachts skimming over the water on their foils - except there was no wind, so that scheme was, er, foiled. Shame. All we could see was one yacht (possibly American Magic) with not even its sails up.

But it was lovely anyway, flying over the turquoise sea, dotted with other boats, and the sandy beaches of the North Shore, and then the city, bridge, marina and ferries. We moseyed back along past Mission Bay, St Heliers and Musick Point. 

Then we flew the length of Waiheke again, with its real contrast between the populated west and the empty east, and its clear focus on farming wine, oysters and mussels.

I had some of the former afterwards, plus a delicious baked Brie, at Thomas's Bach near the airfield, as consolation for not having had the hoped-for America's Cup flurry. And then we headed home again, to hide from the sun on this blistering hot day.

Saturday 23 January 2021

Pedalling the lights fantastic

With thanks to Power to the Pedal

Well, that was fun! Last night I went out again with Power to the Pedal. I did a tour with Eddie a couple of years ago, a daytime Inside Loop e-bike ride around inner Auckland, exploring some pretty suburbs I hadn't visited before and enjoying the cycle paths that I was only vaguely aware of. This time, we did it at night, on a bit of a different route, that included skimming up to the top of Mt Eden to see the sunset over the Waitakere ranges, and ending up on the waterfront, where the America's Cup buzz is going pretty well, considering it's just us Kiwis producing it.

(Eddie, incidentally, is from Edinburgh and his voice and accent are so very similar to the Twitter-famous Andrew Cotter that I kept expecting him at any moment to start talking about Olive and Mabel.)

The great thing about city tours like this is that you find out lots of things and places that you had no idea about - for instance, Emily Place Reserve. Eddie had suggested I walk that way en route to meeting him and it was a delight - a little park in the city totally dominated by huge and sprawling pohutukawa trees, whose branches drooped right across the paths meaning I had to step over and stoop under them. Gorgeous.

Then, once we had set off, him, Carson and me, all kitted out and instructed (happy to report, as a flat-city, non-gear bike rider from way back, his e-bikes are a doddle to operate), we skimmed away along surprisingly quiet city streets, alongside the motorway and then through Mt Eden's pretty, villa-lined streets and up to the top of the maunga. There was a fairly sullen sunset happening over in the west, but the city lights were coming to life, and we shared stories like the one about Tom, Prince Alfred's elephant, who hauled tons of rock up to the platform at the summit in 1870, in return for buns and beer.

Then we whizzed back down the hill and past various murals and illuminated artworks, and afterwards onto the fabulous pink Lightpath, with its motion-operated coloured lights and great views of the city - dominated of course by the Sky Tower, dramatically lit up red last night advertising in honour of  Prada, the main America's Cup sponsor.

It was a contrast, crossing the dark of Victoria Park, though it didn't feel at all unsafe; and then we were into the lights and buzz of Wynyard Quarter, where the restaurants were mostly busy, there were lots of people wandering along the waterfront admiring the lights and looking at the big screens, and we could only imagine how much more bustling it would have been, if our borders were open and all the America's Cup fans could have come here.

The endless roadworks along Quay Street provided some fun road-cone bending, and then we were at Queens Wharf, where the Lighthouse (a rather odd but quite appealing little state house sculpture) was all lit up with Captain Cook looking, er, reflective inside. 

After that, we should have cycled back up the hill to the start, but it was near ferry time and so Eddie and Carson took my bike and I was able to avoid the horrendously long wait until the next one. Thanks, guys! And thanks too, to Power to the Pedal for all the colour and fun.

Thursday 21 January 2021

Gone to the dogs, and back again

My appreciation of nature on my walk this morning was interrupted by a loud and aggressive poodle running at, and around, me on the beach. Its owner shouted at it from where she was sitting and, getting no response, eventually came over and managed to get it to leave me alone, although despite her orders, it would neither sit nor shut up. "She's friendly, really!" the woman insisted, and took offence when I disagreed, stomping off with the still barking dog in tow.

Of course, the next section of my walk was taken up with mental arguments with the dog-owner, and reassuring myself that my reaction had been reasonable, and that I wasn't being a Karen. Part of my imagined response was listing all the dogs I've owned, known or lived with: some Labradors, a spaniel, several terriers, various mongrels, two Great Danes, a Dobermann and a couple of Rottweilers (the latter two owned by my friend, er, Karen).

And then I remembered the last dog I'd spent time with: Joey, a cute little Italian greyhound cross, who I took for a walk up Runyon Canyon in LA almost exactly a year ago. It was an Airbnb Experience, walking rescue dogs, and it was fun and interesting, and I really enjoyed it, out in the sunshine and fresh(ish) air, with lots of other people around also enjoying the outdoors. It seems so far away now, not just in physical time and space, but in another world. I hope it's not too long before it all comes back again - and not just because then my story about it would finally get printed.

Today at least is a step in the right direction. Excellent news this morning from Washington DC has sent a huge sigh of relief all around the world. And now I must get on with writing about last week's Segway outing...

PS: If you prefer your coincidences more obvious, how about today's Facebook communication (which turns out to be fake, but the fact that it's still so believable speaks volumes) -

Tuesday 19 January 2021

Wars and whales

Despite (I know!) not being, like so much of the rest of the world, locked down, isolated or in any way confined to the premises, I have still managed to give due attention to social media. So I have followed the TikTok sea shanty thing right from the first post of Nathan Evans singing solo, through all the fun additions, one by one, to the collective, multinational and very catchy masterpiece it is now.

Though I had heard the Wellerman song before that, I wasn't aware that it is, in fact, local to New Zealand. People have, naturally, done the research and found that the British-born Weller brothers sailed from Sydney to Otago Harbour in 1831 and set up a whaling station there. (Their ship, the Lucy May, was later crewed by Herman Melville.)

The Wellers were the first Europeans in the area, even before Dunedin was founded (by the Scots - Nathan is also Scottish, by the way). They did very well until the whaling industry collapsed in 1840, simply because there weren't any right whales to be found any more. Funny, that.

There's a rock named after the brothers just off the coast right by the road that runs out along the Otago Peninsula, so I have sailed past it, with Azamara, in 2017. Returning to the ship after a railway outing earlier that day along Taieri Gorge, I went into the Maritime Museum at Port Chalmers, alongside where the ship was moored, and had a good nose around. Without a doubt, I would have seen Weller Brothers artefacts there, but was more taken by Shackleton's typewriter and Mark Twain's complaint about the Union Steam Ship Co's Flora: "the boat was the foulest I have ever been in" which made me feel pretty smug about Azamara Journey. I was also fascinated to see a bit of debris from (see below) the Japanese attack on Darwin.

I was also driven past Wellers Rock, again without realising, on my way out to Taiaroa Head and the seal and penguin colonies there, on a TRENZ tour the following year. After our drive through that property, we finished up at the royal albatross colony to coo at the big fluffy chicks, before dutifully admiring the 1886 Armstrong Disappearing Gun at the underground fort there - built because of the fear of, believe it or not, invading Tsarist Russians. 

*cough* Coincidentally, just last week, I popped across the harbour to Devonport for a bit of a Segway, and we went up to North Head to look at the gun emplacement there, also built because of that threat of a Russian invasion in the late 1880s. And *ditto* yesterday, I stood in a similar, but much bigger, gun pit at Stony Batter right here on Waiheke, where in 1948, somewhat tardily, they finished installing a 9.2 inch gun to fire at the Japanese, who really had been poking around NZ during WW2, after the fall of Singapore and the bombing of Darwin in 1942. After a single test firing in 1951, the gun and other equipment were eventually broken up and sold for scrap, and some of the sheet metal was bought by - the Japanese. Who are also, incidentally, one of the few whaling nations left in the world.

So, we've gone from a sea shanty connecting people in many nations, to serious guns installed at huge effort and expense to repel invasions, at a time when the physical borders of many countries are shut tight... it's a funny old world, eh?

Thursday 14 January 2021

Devonport by Segway

No two ways about it: I'm a sucker for a Segway. Today was my ninth ride, as far as I remember - one in Perth, one in Durban, a couple in the US, and the rest here in NZ - and I've only fallen off once (epic bruise!). There was no chance of that this time, as Pauline of Magic Broomstick Tours was very good at indicating all the potential snags and dips that might catch me out.

It was such an easy day - ferry across to Devonport, quick demonstration on a quiet bit of the wharf that I knew what to do, and then we were away, off on a seamless ninety-minute tour that took in the waterfront, North Head's tunnels and gun emplacement, gorgeous villa-filled suburbs, and lots of places I knew nothing about, despite having often been to the suburb.

We passed Elizabeth House, the Wren's base during the war and, not surprisingly, Party Central back then; and then cruised on along Torpedo Bay, stopping often for bits of naval and other history, local gossip and architectural drooling. Devonport is a treasure trove of beautiful old wooden villas, all lovingly restored, surrounded by neat gardens and each worth millions. One, Pauline said, was bought for $5m-plus by an English family who spent another $3m on doing it up and then - just as it was finished - got trapped in the UK by the lockdown. Painful.

We skimmed up North Head - now under iwi control, so get used to hearing it called Maungauiki - to prowl through the hand-dug tunnels where small boys were making the most of the echo-effect. There's a maze of tunnels under the hill, mostly closed to the public and, I was disappointed to hear, none of them seriously thought to be hiding the first two Boeing aircraft ever built. That was a story I was intrigued to hear the beginnings of at the Everton Boeing factory, near Seattle, in 2010, and it would have been such fun if it were true. And it still might be...

Still, the views over the harbour, city and Rangitoto were terrific. Then we scooted back down and along the seafront, to discover a tearooms right over the water that I had no idea existed, past a giraffe in some eccentric lady's garden, paused outside an even more tempting French café that I really must get back to, and then dived into the depths of Devonport's secret suburbs. So much gorgeousness! 

Pauline told me some interesting geology, and we visited Mt Cambria, that I'd never even heard of before, and saw the little museum set up in a disused church. Another must-visit for the future. There was more local gossip - always fun - and then we headed downhill again, pausing under a big pohutukawa where Bertie (should actually be Beatrice) the cockatoo sometimes hangs out, and stopping at Old Albert, a huge Moreton Bay fig tree by the fancy new library - planted way back in 1883. 

Nearby is the band rotunda which, I'd never noticed till Pauline mentioned it, has music notes all around it - the beginning of God Save the Queen. Except, and I only found out later, looking it up, the workmen got the notation order wrong, and the music goes wonky. The first bit is right, though, I was pleased to be able to, er, note.

And then we were back at Windsor Reserve, with its temptingly fun-looking playground, and the old Nothing Happened joke plaque in the ground, and the tour was over and I had to get off. That's the worst thing about a Segway tour, every time. But up till that point, it had been great fun.

Wednesday 6 January 2021

Hare, and there

So, I break off from sorting out the airing cupboard (how come there are so many pillowcases in there? Do they breed?) to view a big motor yacht gliding into Oneroa Bay, and straight away get a connection with a couple of boats of quite a different sort (but one exactly the same age), plus Prince Andrew, a round-the-world sailor, and Bluff.

First, the boat: 58m long, and now called the Dancing Hare, it was built in 1986 for the Saudi businessman cousin of recently murdered (and dismembered) journalist Jamal Khashoggi. It was later bought by media mogul Robert Maxwell, who named it Lady Ghislaine after his daughter. He disappeared off the yacht near the Canaries in 1991 when big trouble was looming for him - jumped, pushed, fell while peeing in the nude? - and his (or maybe not his...) body was later found floating in the sea. Nobody's telling who currently owns or is using the boat, but it's been hanging around NZ for a few months now.

It's an obvious link from the yacht to Maxwell's daughter Ghislaine, and then from her to Jeffrey Epstein - was it suicide? or murder? - and from both of them to Prince Andrew. Now that's a story we're all going to be horribly fascinated to follow, when they finally get around to the trial. But, the royal non-sweater with a sailing ship? And all of this with me?

Right. Back in - also - 1986, when I was living in England, our loose group of regulars at the White Hart Inn got involved in organising fun events to raise money for the pet charity of one member, Liz (whose handmade Christmas tree decoration present to me I packed away today for another year). The aim of the Jubilee Sailing Trust is to enable the physically handicapped to enjoy sailing on the ocean, in the company of able-bodied people. We helped raise money to build a sail training ship, the STS Lord Nelson, a three-masted barque, and were then invited to attend the naming ceremony in Southampton in July. The Patron of the organisation was Prince Andrew, but the person performing the actual naming was Miss Sarah Ferguson - as she still was, just, their ill-fated wedding coming a fortnight later.

It was all very grand - I wore a hat! - with band, anthem, prayers, Rule Britannia and so on, and then after the naming ceremony there was a lunch at long tables, and the host on ours was Sir Alec Rose. He was knighted - despite not being the first - for doing a solo circumnavigation of the world by sail. That was back in 1967 in the 11m Lively Lady, during which he had to call in at Bluff, way down south, to do some unplanned mast repairs. His previous port of call, incidentally, had been Melbourne, where PM Harold Holt came to see him sail in, and who later that day went swimming and disappeared, presumed drowned. Bit of a theme here, eh?

Even 20 years later, Sir Alec was lapping up any adulation that might come his way, and made sure to tell us all about his adventure - but he was jolly enough, I suppose. Preferable to seedy Andrew and his mates, anyway. And the whole connection is certainly a lot more interesting than tidying bed linen.

Tuesday 5 January 2021

Yebo, Phinda!

Dutifully watching the TV news last night, it was a novelty, though not a relief, when the gloomy focus moved away from Covid, prison riot, road toll etc to Africa. Not just Africa, but South Africa. And not just South Africa, but Phinda Game Reserve, where I've been. Twice.

The topic was the poaching of pangolins - inoffensive, cute little creatures covered in scales which the Chinese, despite being clever in so many other fields, insist are a vital ingredient in traditional medicine. Like rhino horn, it's just keratin, same as fingernails, and just as inert and useless; but so convinced are the Chinese, and so eager to acquire it, that the poor pangolin is the most poached animal in the entire world.

One ranger interviewed reckoned that the weight of the annual haul of rhino horn, elephant tusk and lion bone, horrific though it is, would have to be multiplied hundreds of times to equal the tonnage of pangolin scales. Incredible, and so sad. I'm guessing it helps that they're so much easier to catch than the other animals. I'm also pretty certain that, with tourism currently so diminished, there are a lot of unemployed people out there busily poaching for an alternative income.

Rescued pangolins, which survive, are released to safety in places like &Beyond's Phinda, a private game reserve where they are very energetic about protecting endangered species. It's a lovely place, with a choice of six environmentally different lodges (mountain, grassland, forest, rock), all of them gorgeous, luxurious and staffed by real enthusiasts. I had such a wonderful time there, and got so close to the animals - bumping along behind cheetah running down a nyala, being looked at by a lion walking right past the open Landcruiser where I was sitting, rushing in reverse away from a black rhino that was pawing the dust before it launched into a charge. 

I didn't see any pangolins though. Sounds like that's getting even more unlikely, now.

Friday 1 January 2021

Kia ora, 2021. Haere mai.

Happy New Year! Welcome, 2021: odd-numbered years have always been better for me, so let's keep that custom going, eh? 

Aiming to be relentlessly positive, the current pandemic set-up is precisely the sort of scenario that this blog is designed for: all about being reminded of past travels, and not, as most travel blogs are, about current exploration and experiences. Not that there won't be a few of those too - necessarily domestic, but none the worse for that as (our national smugness currently reaching, er, epidemic levels) most of the world would have to agree.

So, onwards and upwards, right?


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