Sunday 28 August 2022

End of an era… well, of a contract, anyway

Today, after 4 and a half years, my last World Famous entry in the Sunday Star-Times/Stuff has been published. The initially occasional column was started back in 2016, written by a variety of contributors. I was so reliably regular that I was given sole charge in 2018. Since then, I’ve written nearly 250 entries about a wide range of features around the country - natural and man-made, places to visit, activities to do. I could have kept going, easily - but times are tough, pagination is limited, WF isn't the only victim.
It's been fun, using the column as a way to get freebies, and also harking back to visits I've made to places sometimes many years previously. Only a relative few were done from research only, mostly because I had to fit in with a destination focus for that issue. The Lavender Farm is one of the latter, which I'm sorry about because I'm a sucker for lavender. It's crazy, then, that I've only ever visited one lavender plantation. That one was at Bridestowe in northern Tasmania, and it is a classic - curves of purple leading the eye to mauve mountains, glorious scent in the air, everything neat as. There was just the one drawback, though...

Thursday 25 August 2022

Not high about being dry

With classic timing, I've just filed a commissioned story about river cruising in Europe, describing what I've called the Favourite Four - Rhine, Rhône, Danube and Seine - which (such a coincidence!) are the only ones I've experienced. And what is in the news now? Europe's dried-up rivers, exposing all sorts of treasures, and horrors.

Not just Europe, of course - China's drought means even the Yangtze is shrivelling up, and there are similar problems everywhere up top, including North America (while we down here are getting record-breaking rain) - but it's the Rhine and Danube especially that are making news. Mostly, of course, because of the unexploded WW2 bombs being found, and wrecks of German warships. How startling must that be, if you find you've been living right next to stuff like that? Well, startling to consider from here, that is - I guess it's a fact of life for Europeans, and will be too for Ukrainians now, for generations into the future.

But there have been interesting discoveries too - buildings, shrines, ancient stone structures. Perhaps we could take a shred of comfort - because it's clearly happened before - from these carvings on a 'hunger stone' exposed in the Elbe, in the Czech Republic. They read "If you see me, cry."

For sure. They'll certainly be doing that at the HQ of Avalon, Uniworld, Viking et al, as they frantically book coaches to provide outings for their stranded passengers guests.

Thursday 18 August 2022

The only shiny things in the loo were the cockroaches

While the planet either burns up or gets washed away, depending on which bit of it you're living on, it's nice to look back - way back - to gentler times. I'm currently writing about river cruises in Europe, on the Rhone, Rhine, Seine and Danube, and trying to rank them. Impossible, of course. They have lots in common, and each has its particular delights, so you really can't go wrong.

I wrote here a wee while ago that my first cruise was in Fiji - but it wasn't at all, I now remember. Leaving aside, for obvious reasons, my voyages between NZ and the UK back in 1957, the first time I travelled anywhere on a boat - apart from the Interislander ferry here - was in 1980, on the Irrawaddy in Burma/Myanmar. 

It was part of the Big Trip, back to England from NZ in 1980, and we started the cruise at Mandalay. We'd got there from Rangoon/Yangon on a battered old Fokker full of odd seats, and spent the day exploring what was then a quiet, sprawling city full of trishaws, pony carts and freely grazing cattle and sheep. We wandered around the grounds of the palace, encountering a snake and lots of lizards, and climbed, bare-footed as per custom, up the 1729 steps to the top of Mandalay Hill. Tourism was still a novelty then, and so were we, to the locals - only fair, really, though it got a bit tiring having people constantly offering to buy my watch, and asking if I had pens, cosmetics or clothes to sell.

We visited the big and beautiful pagoda, went to a market to buy mosquito coils - not the simple transaction you might expect - and then visited Amarapura, including temples, innumerable Buddhas, various handicraft workshops, and U Bein's picturesque bridge.

The ferry to Pagan/Bagan left that night, and we were really taken aback by what we'd let ourselves in for: lower deck packed with baskets of produce, upper deck like a scene from Exodus - not an inch of free space, people crammed in everywhere. Even our little "first-class" bow cabin had only four bare wooden bunks and a toilet heaving with cockroaches.

We and an Italian couple spent the night easing from one aching hip to another, woken at 4am when two more couples - German and American - came into the cabin, and the boat finally set off with loud shrieking from the hooter above our cabin. The others slept lay on the floor and table. 

The following day was a repeated pattern of gliding slowly down the super-wide, shallow river, periodically easing sideways to the bank to put ashore/take on passengers. Snack sellers came on board too, but we restricted ourselves to bananas and mangoes - oddly, not tempted by the fried grasshoppers wrapped in leaves so popular with the locals. A monk came on board at one stage and was seated in our cabin with great reverence.

The boat eventually stopped for the night well upstream of where we'd expected to go ashore, but with the help of a Burmese teacher on board who spoke English, six of us tourists splashed out on hiring a private boat for the exorbitant sum of $55. We were taken to it through the village on a pony cart, and caused a sensation, hordes of kids rushing up to shake our hands. After a 90 minute cruise further down the river, we came ashore again, got into another cart, drawn by a bad-tempered pony who had thought his working day was over, and crept through Pagan's moonlit temples to, finally, a lodging with a proper bed.

Uniworld, it definitely wasn't. But memorable, for sure... (Read more here.)

Wednesday 17 August 2022


Thank you again for the awesome spread in the SST, as well as the article online. We had a really busy day at BFC, which we can definitely attribute to the exposure. 

It's rare to get feedback in my job - for me, anyway. You get sent somewhere, have the experience, write up the notes and then the story, edit the photos, send it all off, wait for publication, and then wait some more for payment. And meanwhile you're on to the next thing. It's always good to see the story in print, but it's really rare to get any response to it, other than an occasional bit of nit-picking in the comments online from people who have nothing better to do.

So it was a delight to get the above email from the Marketing Manager at the focus of my last story, and know that people not only read the story, but were inspired by it to visit the location.

I'm also pleased, because I know they'll have a good time. I certainly did. Butterfly Creek, out near Auckland Airport, has been there for almost 20 years, but it was ages since I'd last visited, so I was happy to go again. I was even happier to see it's got bigger and better since then - it's a kind of hands-on zoo-cum-amusement park, and heavily into conservation. It's not huge, but that means it's easy to get up close to the animals they do have, and I got to have some special encounters.

I poked bits of shrimp and octopus through wire to five very eager and cute little otters, put food down for three hungry meercats in their very artistically decorated enclosure, gave boiled chicken bits and squirmy moth larvae to two tiny cotton-top tamarins, and got sneered at by a very superior - but genuinely magnificent - green iguana. I loved it all, going behind the scenes and getting so close. 

I was fascinated to study the giant weta, and even the tarantula was genuinely magnificent, though non-keepers aren't trusted to hold them, because of unpredictable reactions on the visitor's part - fair enough. I wouldn't be able to guarantee not suddenly jerking in reaction, and dropping the spider. I did touch her, though, which was a first (the only other tarantula I've got close to was a stray one that turned up on the spare bed in my room at a sheep station in South Australia, which my host's daughter turned into a large smear on the bedspread before I even had a proper look at it, thus depriving me of years of detailed nightmares).

"You won't be feeding the crocodile," they told me, and again, there was no disappointment on my part. Perfectly happy to watch from a distance as Goldie leapt up half out of the water to chomp down on a dangled fish frame.
I spent ages at Butterfly Creek, enjoying the animals and trying to get a good shot of a huge blue morpho butterfly. They import the chrysalises regularly from the Philippines and Costa Rice, and I saw them carefully unpacking a shipment and hanging each chrysalis from racks in an incubator. The staff were all friendly, and very dedicated - plus, Paul had an excellent line in quotable quotes, which I appreciated and exploited. "He looks at you like you're worm spit, eh?" was my favourite, about the disdainful Diego, the iguana.
There's easily a dayful of fun to be had at Butterfly Creek, including huge noisy dinosaurs, ponies to pat, wild eels to observe, invisible kiwi to try to spot in the dark, and highly-recommended egg sandwiches to eat. Go, if you can. You won't regret it.


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