Monday 21 March 2022

Up right out back

 All hail the internet! It was way back in 2014 when I did this trip to Kakadu in the Northern Territory, but it was easy to check up on the facts before I submitted this story in response to a request for Australian material. It was a bit of a shame then that, having written and sent in six assorted stories, the bubble with our neighbour burst again, and they had to be filed away. But at least I was paid, in advance! Which is rare, very rare... Now though, finally, the borders are open again, and this story has finally seen the light of day.

So I look forward to seeing the others, about Ningaloo, and the Bibbulmun, and Rottnest, Broome and the Stuart Highway, in the coming weeks. I do enjoy remembering those colourful trips and, as ever, hope that the stories will prompt Kiwis to break away from their boring Melbourne-Sydney-Gold Coast mindset, and explore other bits of Australia, especially the amazing Outback.

It's kind of a shame that 'The Tourist' on HBO Max isn't as gripping as it should be, given its Outback setting, and its cast; because it might otherwise intrigue some viewers enough to make them want to get a taste of that location. Never mind, though: season 2 of Tim Minchin's 'Upright' is about to be filmed. Season 1 was about a journey across the Nullabor Plain heading to Perth, and it was glorious - not even just for the scenery, either. It's a funny, sad and original story and, of course, has excellent music, notably for me 'Carry You', sung over the final credits by Missy Higgins

The song starts with a mention of fish and chips on Perth's Cottesloe beach, where I went to do a story about their annual sculpture exhibition. I really enjoyed it, and not just because I got, for the first and only time ever, a per diem - what a thrill! But the exhibition was great too, and it was the perfect place to stage it, along that gorgeous beach.

Connections? Well, Cottesloe’s sculpture exhibition is on again right now; plus Sculpture on the Gulf is currently running here on Waiheke, which I've written about, of course. And I did go to see Tim Minchin last year, performing at the Civic, a theatre I've also written about, of course. Upright S2 is going to be filmed in Queensland, but I have faith that Tim will break away from the boring bits and take us viewers into less familiar, but far more spectacular, locations. Can't wait.

Thursday 10 March 2022

Slava Ukraini!

I haven't been to Ukraine, but I have been to Russia. Well, Moscow, for just a couple of nights, on our multi-hop return from NZ to the UK in 1980. We flew there from Delhi, and couldn't work out why, when we landed, there was applause throughout the plane - because everyone was thankful to have survived the ramshackle Air India flight? Or just glad to be back in the motherland? It was less than a fortnight before the Olympics were to be held there, so it was surprising that the airport immigration procedures were so slow and inefficient. And it was very unnerving, given Russia's reputation, when the OH was whisked away out of sight after I'd been admitted, because his new beard didn't match his visa and passport photos.

They did let him through, after a fraught hour and a half, but our nerves were shot and we never felt comfortable after that. It didn't help everything feeling so foreign that Intourist at the airport gave us no choice of hotel - it had to be the Soyuz, way out in the suburbs, where we had to pay in advance. 
Next day we took a smelly taxi to Red Square where there was a long queue of what looked like Russians waiting to file through Lenin's tomb. We went instead to St Basil's which, with its fantastic and colourful domes and turrets, looked very out of place against the high, brick walls of the Kremlin. It's all small chapels inside, not like a cathedral at all, and very disorientating. And of course it's a museum now.

I needed the loo then, and it was a mission to find anywhere. We ended up trying to get into the Hotel Rossiya, blocked by one of the suspicious armed guards who were absolutely everywhere. I was finally allowed in, without my bag. So it was unexpected, after wandering across the Moskva River and back again, to find ourselves entering, unimpeded, the grounds of the Kremlin. The cathedrals/museums in there were pretty spectacular, but we were most fascinated by a soda-water vending machine that filled a glass you washed beforehand.

We did an Intourist bus tour then around the city. Our guide was a uniquely slim and pretty young woman - honestly, all the other women we saw, like the men, were very fat and very dowdy. Everything looked neat and tidy, though that might just have been because of the Olympics, and despite Stalin's architectural efforts, overall it seemed a pretty city. 

Later, after a very average dinner, we went out into the rainy evening to watch the changing of the guard at Lenin's tomb. Squashed in the crowd, I heard everyone suddenly fall silent, and then the hissing tramp of boots on wet cobbles - very creepy. Three guards goose-stepped into view, paused by the tomb while the Kremlin clock struck the hour, and then swapped with the old guard with such machine-like precision that they made the Buckingham Palace lot look positively sloppy.

Next day we walked past people queuing to buy manky cauliflowers to brave the Metro into the city, and were very impressed by its meticulous cleanliness, cheap fares, and the stateliness of the marble stations. 

Back in Red Square, we went into Gumm, which looked elegant from outside, but inside was dripping with rain through the roof windows. We'd expected a department store, but it was instead three floors of tiny shops, many of them with very bare shelves. There were still plenty of shoppers, though, who seemed to have no concept of personal space, and bumped into me a lot. We saw lots of queues - one, of 40-50 people, was for toothbrushes.

We wandered along Gorky Street where we found actual department stores but they didn't have much for sale, and most of that anyway was behind counters so you couldn't see it properly. The rain didn't help, of course, but honestly, wandering the city streets was a depressing experience. Then our taxi driver got into a rage when we asked to be taken to the airport, and threw us out of his car; and when we got there finally, there was more tension throughout the departure process. We had to open our suitcases, the OH's books attracting much suspicion; and then at passport control the officer inspected every single page of my passport, and the OH had to give a specimen signature to prove he was himself.

It was a huge relief to board the SAS plane to Sweden, and this time we felt like applauding as it took off, suddenly realising how tense we had been the whole time in Moscow. It was interesting to see the city, but no fun at all. We were astonished how uptight everything was, and couldn't understand how they were going to cope during the Olympics. Stately buildings apart, everything also seemed so poor and basic, and even if it hadn't rained, my impression would still have been of universal greyness.

Since then, of course, oligarchs have become a thing, though I'm sure their riches are/were the exception. Life probably did become freer and more colourful for the general population for a while there; and certainly St Petersburg became a go-to destination, especially for cruisers. Now, though, with all the sanctions being imposed internationally, Russia will be going backwards. Tough for the people. Shame Putin won't feel it.

Shackleton, yes - but also Worsley

It's lovely to be distracted from all the horrible world news by the discovery in Antarctica, 3000m underneath the increasingly solid surface of the Weddell Sea, of the amazingly well-preserved wreck of the Endurance. It sank in 1915, on an ill-judged voyage towards a crossing of the continent by Ernest Shackleton - he was strongly advised not to go, because winter had started early that year, but he was stubborn and went anyway, with his crew of 27 men, 69 dogs and one cat.

The discovery was announced on the 100th anniversary of Shackleton's funeral, in South Georgia, where he had gone again to attempt another Antarctic expedition, his fourth. He died in Grytviken of a second heart attack, the first having happened in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil en route to South Georgia - which he had brushed aside. Antarctica does that to you, you know - gets under your skin, draws you back, won't let go.

I'd go there again like a shot, offered the chance. It's unique, stunningly beautiful, and pitilessly inhospitable. On my Silversea cruise there, despite it being so expensive (*cough* to regular punters, not freebie-grabbing travel writers like me), several of the passengers guests had already been there at least once.

We visited Shackleton's grave there, and toasted 'The Boss' with a glass of champagne; and later visited dauntingly barren and rocky Elephant Island, where his crew had clung for four and a half unimaginably brutal months while awaiting rescue. That they were indeed all saved is due in huge part to the comparatively-unsung hero Frank Worsley - of Akaroa, NZ - who managed to navigate their little lifeboat in almost impossible conditions over 1300 stormy kilometres to South Georgia, to summon a ship for rescue. 

It's also thanks to Worsley's excellent mapping skills that the discoverers of the Endurance knew to look in pretty much the right place for the wreck. And, another Kiwi connection, one of the photography team who took these amazing underwater images of the ship is James Blake, son of Sir Peter, famous sailor, who was killed by pirates while on an expedition up the Amazon. In Brazil.

PS While writing this entry, a Silversea email popped into my inbox about - you guessed it - expedition cruises to polar regions, focussing on a giant petrel feeding frenzy in South Georgia and Zodiac explorations in Antarctica. Connections, people.


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