Wednesday, 26 August 2009
This seems an appropriate way to finish this blog, as warm welcomes and extreme generosity have been perhaps the most memorable feature of the last 6 months. Since I left home I've been welcomed in 22 separate homes (ok, one of the homes was a tent), including those of 9 Couchsurfers, and can't think of any where I've not felt relaxed and comfortable. Provided I don't stay too long - as they say, visitors are like fish; after 3 days they start to smell. I've also slept in 36 hostels, 1 hotel, 3 trekking huts, 1 other tent, 1 boat, and 5 planes, and they've all been good sleeps except the planes. And Milford hostel, boy could that big lass snore.
If I've any regrets it's that I didn't go off on any really unexpected tangents. But maybe I should treat that as a compliment to my initial planning. And an incentive to do it all again sometime, there's lots more countries that I could be touring when I should be working. And if the Scottish climate, which has taken only 5 days to give me a heavy cold, carries on like this, the next trip may be sooner than my bosses expect. But till then, thanks for listening.
- The American who turned up in Bollywood without a penny, and now dubs generic Yankee voices onto local films when a local actor is playing an American but sounds nothing like one;
- The girl who was dumped by her live-in partner of 3 years the night before setting off on 4 months of travels;
- The girl who admitted she's still with her boyfriend because she likes his family, even though she's felt little for him for several years;
- The oldest fellow-hosteller I met, a cheery Midwest American in Waikiki who looked about 90.
- the 14 year old daughter of one of my couchsurfing hosts who calmly informed me that she had a boyfriend and a girlfriend but neither of them should expect her to be faithful (Mum named her after a song by The Damned, so I've little sympathy);
- the girl travelling with her somewhat dissolute father, reluctantly meeting his costs rather than the other way round;
- the Chinese girl who lectured me for half an hour on why the leadership were quite right to massacre the Tiananmen protesters;
- the Kashmiri in Sydney who claimed to have had both Indian army and Pakistani-affiliated rebels interested in kiling him in his teens;
- The guy at Darwin hostel haranguing his female companion about "What you just don't realise is that music is my LIFE" - my 'total wanker' detector has never gone off so fast or so loud.
- And the weirdo who left his job for 6 months without pay, but still checked and answered his work email about once a week - oh hang on, that was me.
Exit Lines - Ian Rankin: It's a mark of how little impression it made on me that I've no idea what my one previous Inspector Rebus book was called. This is his last adventure before retirement, and I still don't really like the character (much too snide and unnecessarily confrontational) or rate Rankin as a writer. Can anyone have overused the verb 'shrug' as much? It's addictive and the solution holds together, though of course it involves a ridiculous number of coincidences. And why do characters called Stuart always turn out to be murderers or weirdos?
First Among Sequels - Jasper Fforde: Desparate grab from a hostel bookshelf when I had nothing else to read. 5th book in a comedy series (lazily compared to Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett - aren't they all?) set in an alternate contemporary England, that assumes the hero can visit 'Bookworld' and meet every character in every novel ever published therein. And that she has to solve crimes that take place among them. I like the idea and Fforde is good for a few cheap laughs, but his inventiveness swamps the plot - it's hard to feel any tension when a new authorial device turns up to rescue the hero every time she's in trouble.
Fiasco - Thomas Ricks: Another dissection of the US disaster in Iraq, this time focusing on the military angle rather than the politics. US generals and most of their subordinates seem to have been as incompetent as Bush and his ideologically-blinded team. Ricks is more willing than Bob Woodward to draw conclusions rather than leave that to the reader. I think he relies too much on anecdotes drawn from his visits to the country, but still an absorbing and convincing account.
The Yiddish Policeman's Union - Michael Chabon: My favourite literary discovery of the trip (just edging out Andrew Greig) for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. This time he mixes alternate history, a whodunnit, and chess, so presses lots of my buttons. The book assumes that in 1940 European jews were given refuge in Sitka, Alaska (apparently an offer Roosevelt seriously considered making), and built a yiddish-speaking society there. The plot is a standard detective yarn, though with added doses of the 2nd Coming (well, 1st Coming as far as the Jews are concerned) and Holy War. The detective format, so soon after reading Ian Rankin, and featuring a detective with lots of similarities to Rebus, is perhaps too conventional for this to match Kavalier & Clay in my affections, but Chabon's a fantastic writer and I'm keen to see what else he's done.
The Android's Dream - John Scalzi: Bought partly to support a science fiction bookshop in Vancouver that actually sells only books! No figurines, fanzines, Star Wars tie-ins or other such mince. It'll never survive, but it won't be my fault. Scalzi's nothing special as a writer, and despite sci-fi setting (sort of a David Brin-type Universe in which Humans are lowly but resourceful) it reads more like a contemporary US-based thriller with hokey dialogue and added exposition, which Scalzi downloads in random plot-choking blocks. But it's a fun action-packed plot with some nice twists, and an oddly touching moment between a human and the alien that's about to eat him. Which tips it into the 'thumbs-up' column.
And that's all, folks!
Wednesday, 19 August 2009
Vancouver's play was distinctly humble too, a 10-3 defeat to Tri City Dust Devils, with two of their runs scored at the bottom of the 9th, i.e. meaningless consolation prizes. But baseball is a family occasion and no one seemed to mind much. About 2000 fans, well short of full. Maybe Vancouverites are keeping their powder dry for bigger events. The Ice hockey (or just 'hockey' to the locals) season starts soon, and the big one is the Winter Olympics next year, which in true Olympic style is dividing the population, many feel it's a complete waste of money. More negativity than I've sensed re London's Olympics, I'm guessing that Montreal's experience in 1976 (they finally paid off the associated debts a couple of years ago) makes Canadians pretty cautious about this sort of thing.
As a dry run for the Olympics, Vancouver has recently been hosting the World Police and Firemen games. So no point in Alan or myself trying to impress the local talent...
Thursday, 13 August 2009
It's ironic that one of the trees the conservationsists were trying to preserve was the Sitka Spruce, a native of western Canada, but better known in Scotland as the centrepiece of lots of ugly forestry. Even there the worst excesses are in the past, but I don't see anyone mounting campaigns to save them, as they're doing here!
With no human interference, Meares Island is covered in thick temperate rain forest. Not ideal walking territory, potentially rather harder than kayaking in fact, even though today was my first attempt at the latter since my teens. There were some alarming thunderclaps while we were out on the water, but the local sounds, channels and inlets were all flat and still except for motorboat wakes, and you would have to paddle appallingly to capsize the kayaks. Even Alan managed to stay dry.
Talking of intrepid sailors, I also had another encounter with my old pal Captain Cook in Victoria, the capital of Vancouver Island. Yet another coastline he touched on his travels, and everywhere he visited seems impelled to raise a statue to him.
2 more nights here, 2 more nights somewhere between here and Vancouver (we haven't yet decided where), 3 more nights in The World's Most Livable City (per this year's survey in the Economist) and then home. Whether I want to be returning to a country that can concede 4 goals to Norway is a question I'm still pondering.
Monday, 10 August 2009
This was about 3 hours upriver from Vancouver, and in lovely conditions, but today we're going in the opposite direction, across to Vancouver island, where I hope to see the sun again. Vancouver is soaking today (the weather gods must have heard us discussing a game of golf), and even when dry, has been grey and hazy throughout our stay. I can tell there are impressive mountains nearby, but it's hard to get excited about them when all I can see are fuzzy silhouettes. But this means temperatures are ideal for walking and cycling in town, especially in Stanley Park where the tourists tend to congregate. And it's ideal for homeless people - apparently in Canada they tend to congregate here as it's the one city with a year-round climate where it's more or less comfortable to be homeless.
Saturday, 8 August 2009
Our couchsurf host Rain (pictured with us - as usual, the level of hospitality goes way beyond what we've any right to expect) exposed us to more culinary experiments at what must be about the world's biggest ice cream parlour. I don't think we're ready for wasabi, garlic or curry flavours, and I'm sure these and many others are produced for the shock value - having sampled them I can't imagine anyone actually ordering a full cone of the stuff. But with over 200 other flavours there's no shortage of palatable alternatives.
Wednesday, 5 August 2009
Early start was for tour of Mount Rainier National Park. Usual mix of short walks, photo opportunities, and waterfalls that might have impressed in the spring but after an unusually hot summer, look weedy now. Tour was excellent, featuring by far the best guide I've had for one of these things. The mountain is a picture perfect volcanic peak, though the Park is full of reminders of how dangerous it could be if it blows its top a la nearby Mount St Helens 30 years ago.
This is the furthest from town I've managed in Seattle. Partly due to hospitality of most recent couchsurf hosts, there's been lots to do here. One favourite was the laser dome where we saw a midnight light show to backing music of Pink Floyd. This and several other tourist attractions stand in the shadow of Seattle's signature building, the Space Needle. My Mum told me the other day she was here in 1962 for the World Fair, the event for which the needle was built - this impresses the locals! All cities should have a building like this. Excellent for navigation; as long as you can see the Needle you can find your way back to your hostel.
Tuesday, 28 July 2009
There's an assumption that, being a litigious society, America is very safety conscious, except where guns are concerned. This isn't the case at the top of Half Dome. The cables are old, the posts they're attached to rattle alarmingly, and if you lost your grip on the cable, especially at the point where it starts to traverse across the slope, you'd reach terminal velocity long before anything stopped you. That said, there were no fatalities for 80 years, until 2006, but a few since, perhaps because the walkway is getting worn and shiny. Granite grips shoes well everywhere else. Some climbers make it look easy, a few others come prepared and clip themselves to the cable which makes it much safer, but I had my heart in my mouth watching a clearly scared 10 year old girl pulling herself up without them.
I asked a ranger about all this when I got down, and was told (a) that it's the wilderness and it's meant to be dangerous, they seem almost proud of it, the park bookshop has a book describing in ghoulish detail all the deaths-by-misadventure that have occurred in Yosemite's history; and (b) that because National Parks are federally administered it practically takes an Act of Congress to change anything about how they're run. I can think of several easy ways to make this cable ascent safer, given the numbers climbing it I'm amazed this isn't an issue.
Discarding your pack for the cable climb is one way to make life easier, but has its own risks. The local squirrels know all about this trick, and as soon as the owners leave they either burrow into the packs or just bite their way through them in search of grub. Several of my fellow climbers were in for a shock when they got back to their packs.
The descent was perhaps even tougher, because by then it was afternoon (I started at 7:30am, when temperatures are pleasant), and I was descending into the 100 degree valley floor. I took lots of water but had long since exhausted it when I got back to the highest drinking fountain, never been so glad to see one.
Felt I'd earned a lazy day after this, so have so far spent it in the spa at the Midpines hostel, where I'm staying. Back to San Francisco tomorrow, flying to Seattle the day after.
Sunday, 26 July 2009
...but then again, too few to get het up about. But lest anyone thinks this trip has been as smooth as a baby's bottom (which is more than can be said for my bottom), here's a few moments when it wasn't:
- Lost or stolen camera (Melbourne) : Looks like I'll have to rely on my memory for the last few days in Tasmania and Melbourne.
- Accidental deletion of several days photos (New Zealand): And the same goes for my time on the Queen Charlotte Track and near Nelson in the South Island. Still not sure what button I pressed, still grumpy about the result.
- $300 car damage (NZ): Apparently only about 1 in 25 people take the accidental damage insurance from car rental companies. I'm one of the 24, which bit me in NZ when something wooden fell off a moving timber truck, and demolished the mirror on the driver's door of my hire car.
- Badly fitting flippers on my diving course, and failure to take protective measures. I had spectacular blisters, especially on the upper part of the balls of my feet for a couple of weeks afterwards, which made walking, or just wearing shoes come to that, very uncomfortable.
- Walking into wall: Happened while trying to find toilet in darkness in unfamiliar house. Embarrassing swelling on forehead for several days.
- Flight from Oahu to Big Island, Hawaii: This flight takes its passengers along the south coast of 3 big islands, past beaches, volcanoes and other fantastic scenery, all visible if you sit on the left of the plane. I sat on the right, from where you can see the Pacific Ocean.
- Theft of t-shirt from washing line in Cairns: This was my black one with a picture of George Best above his most famous quote about how he spent his money. Acted as an ice-breaker in several hostels and hostelries. People tended to assume I was Irish, but this isn't always a bad thing.
- Eating paua (Local NZ Shellfish) in Thai restaurant in Kaikoura: The shells are beautiful when polished. The contents are rubbery, gritty and bitter, and should be discarded, not cooked.
- Oedipus Rex by awful local theatre company in Darwin: I resent the fact that I'll never get those 2 wasted hours back!
Another regret is making definitive statements on my blog which turn out to be nonsense, such as "I'm not going to Yosemite in temperatures over 90". It topped 100 today, but I've come anyway, too many people in San Francisco said I couldn't afford to miss it. And while hiking's very hard work (4 miles on the flat left me shattered), the park is so well organised and gorgeous that I can forgive. Though even Yosemite has its bad moments. The photo shows Mount Watkins (one of many stunning lumps of granite) in the background, and shattered trees and rubble in the foreground cause by a major rockfall a couple of months back. The damage these can cause is impressive, the relevant path is impassable for the foreseeable future.
Hiking is essential to avoid the crowds in Yosemite, but California has state parks as well as national parks. I visited Pacheco park (http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=560) on the way here. 7000 acres, 28 miles of trails (I covered about 6 of them), beautiful scenery (not as dramatic as Yosemite, but what is?) perfect walking conditions (it's close enough to the coast that the temperatures are bearable) and I was the only person in the whole park. Or at least I saw no one else and there were no other cars parked, which is all the evidence needed in the US.
Wednesday, 22 July 2009
This could refer to Alcatraz - 'The Rock' - which is the most popular tourist attraction in San Francisco. I was there on Monday (am I the 1st Scotsman pictured in one of these cells since Sean Connery in the film "The Rock"?), but I'm really blogging about the once-mighty Blue Oyster Cult, who I saw in action at a non-descript nightclub the same evening. It was one of these crusty ugly audiences I seem to specialise in these days (see also Rush, Australian Pink Floyd and Richard Thomson, and apologies to anyone who was at those gigs with me), and it's easy to see why BOC are playing clubs while some of their contemporaries are still filling stadiums. Only 2 original members, both of whom look embarrassed about the whole process - they're probably respectable husbands and fathers in real life. The lead singer finished the evening with injunctions to drive home safely and take no drugs - not very rock and roll. And not much inspiration about the music, the original BOC sounded a lot more distinctive, this was just generic dadrock. From a selfish point of view, disappointing they played no songs from the 2 albums I know and like, apart from their only big hit Don't Fear the Reaper because there'd be a riot if they didn't play it. But still glad we went - I need a fix of this stuff occasionally!
Sunday, 19 July 2009
San Francisco is considered a great place to be, rather than necessarily to do things. And so I'm doing my best to tune in to the vibe, man, and be one of the dudes. Which isn't really me, to be honest, but I'm trying.
A criticism the city gets is that it can seem self-satisfied, and I can see something in that, a typical example was all the whooping and hollering that went on at a bike film festival I went to. It seemed cliquey, and not especially welcoming if you weren't part of the clique, though lots of the short films were good. But it's much the most interesting city I've been to on these travels for just wandering around, there's such variety and character, though far too much facial hair, even on quite young guys. But even the oldest are keeping up with the times - photo was taken at a very well attended free concert by Sergent Garcia in a park to the west of the city - though most of the crowd were a bit livelier than these two.
There's far more begging than anywhere in Oz or NZ. I've no idea how SF's homeless percentages compare to elsewhere in the US, but I suspect they're quite high, as a lot of people who feel they don't fit in elsewhere (not just homosexuals, though inevitably that's quite central to the culture here) gravitate to SF, and just as inevitably, a lot of them don't fit in here any better than they would elsewhere.
Note: I subsequently read that SF is fairly relaxed about people sleeping on its streets - the local Big Issue started here too. Other cities tend to run the homeless out of town, or at least out of the town centres.
This is turning into a social critique, which will bore people faster than - er - well, even faster than the rest of the rubbish I write. So will get back to what I've done and what I'm doing. Fisherman's wharf yesterday, Asian Art Museum today, Alcatraz on Monday. And heading north a couple of days after that, though this may depend on the weather. It's perfect here, but inland California is having a heatwave, and I won't be walking far in Yosemite in temperatures of 90 degrees, so will give this a miss if it stays this way.
Saturday, 18 July 2009
Thursday, 16 July 2009
I also saw this collection of flags on a US WW2 submarine, showing the ships it sank. Suggests that US-French animosity predates the whole 'Freedom Fries' nonsense! For extra points, can anyone tell me why the US was sinking French ships?
Now in San Francisco with my latest couchsurf host.
Monday, 13 July 2009
Most of Hawaii is shrinking, but the Big Island, which is the newest and contains the active volcanoes, will be growing soon as a new undersea volcano reaches the surface and joins the rest of the land sometime in the next few thousand years. So here's what it has to look forward to. Constant rain (on this east side of the island), questionable fashion sense, far too much country, reggae and christian music (at least 4 christian radio stations so far), and lots of non-indigenous life that's busy eating the indigenous stuff. In New Zealand stoats were public enemy number 1, here it's mongooses/mongeese (pictured), which were brought in to tackle snakes but decided the local birdlife was much tastier.
One of the smaller existing volcanoes, Kilauea, is the liveliest at present. I visited the point where its lava is hitting the sea, or at least the viewpoint half a mile away which is the nearest we're allowed to get. The summit is less lively, but currently producing enough sulphur dioxide that parts of the 11km road round the crater are closed. But it's possible to walk through a smaller crater nearby, full of incredible lava formations. I've seen nothing like it anywhere else. Volcanic scenery (I'm comparing it to Iceland and New Zealand) takes lots of different forms.
Anyway, I'm currently sat at a table in a hostel in Hilo doing lots of passive smoking, and talking to 3 gorgeous French travellers (one of whom bought this laptop solely because it's pink), so blogging isn't the best use of my time. Later dudes...
Friday, 10 July 2009
Hawaii's meant to be the laid back bit of the US, and here on the Big Island that's certainly true, unless the volcanoes come to life and give the locals a hurry-up. Hopefully this isn't their plan for tomorrow, since I'll be in the vicinity. Molten lava and pyroclastic flows I'm happy to experience on TV rather than in real life.
I've been donning mask and flippers again to test my new found diving and snorkeling skills. See photo - if a giant 'S' on the chest stands for 'Superman', what does the giant 'B' here mean? The corals and varieties of fish don't compare with the Barrier Reef, but it's nice to be able to step off the beach straight into prime reef territory, as opposed to taking a 50 mile boat trip first. Highlight was the biggest turtle I've seen; some turtles on the barrier reef would have made good snacks, but this guy had good-sized snacks living on his shell. One lowlight was having swotted up on my diving stats on the plane, then discovering that America's rejection of all things metric made these irrelevant. The other was watching my dive buddy for the day succumbing to seasickness, emptying her guts over the side of the boat and thinking "I've got to swim in that..."
Tuesday, 7 July 2009
I hadn't thought about it before today, but much of this trip has parallelled the journeys of Captain Cook, who made the first detailed descriptions of NZ, Oz, and much of the Pacific in the 18th century. I've seen statues or museums commemorating his landfalls in the Queen Charlotte Sound in NZ and at Cooktown north of Cairns. He was also in Sydney long before it became Sydney, and today I toured the replica of his ship Endeavour at the Maritime Museum in Sydney. And tomorrow I'm off to Hawaii, where he came to a grisly end - hope this is where the parallels stop. The histories are a bit delicate on the subject, but it seems the British only got some of his body back from the Hawaians who killed him. Not sure what happened to the rest, but 'Long Pig' was definitely on the south seas menu in those days.
Finally, big shout to my pal Ronnie, who was going to come and meet me in Canada at the end of the trip, but has just broken his leg so sadly won't be going anywhere for a while. My brother Alan is still scheduled to come, can I ask his fellow footballers to treat him with kid gloves for the next few weeks please?!
Yes, rugby league, the wriggling code. Never been to a game in the UK, and a couple of decades ago my name would have been mud in the Scottish amateur union code for even considering it, but times change, and sadly this is the number one sport in Australia. Mainly because it occupies the place in the national psyche that football does in Scotland, with all the positives and negatives this implies. An incredible number of players have been in the papers recently for alcoholic and sexual misdeeds or general loutish behaviour, and some of their excuses are very entertaining. But it brings in the fans.
We went to a game in Penrith west of Sydney (the Sydney couchsurf hosts were laughing hysterically at the thought of tourists heading so far into the backwoods) for a game with local rivals Parramattah, the sort of local rivalry (think Ayr v Kilmarnock in Scotland) the rest of the world ignores but means everything to people in the two towns. Who seem pretty rough diamonds. One fan we conversed with in a hostelry was interested in Europe only as a source of dope, and we saw a cracking fight after the game featuring about 10 people including a pregnant woman, with not a policeman in sight, despite a 16,000 attendance. And in the midst of it all was an excellent game, about 38-34 to the home team with the lead changing hands at least 8 times, thanks to a mix of good skills and useless tackling. The game doesn't have enough variety to displace Rugby Union in my affections, but I wish Union (especially in Glasgow) could draw crowds like this. And we saw some more traditional Aussie dancing - pictured. Myself and Erich spent much of the game congratulating ourselves on our choice of seats.
This is my last night in Oz. Think Sydney is still my favourite city here, even if inevitably it's not as exciting when there isn't a rugby world cup on. Spent part of the evening watching a film with a Sydney setting. Yes, Finding Nemo, featuring the clownfish I swam with on the Barrier Reef. Hoping to see a few more on my next stop, Hawaii.
Saturday, 27 June 2009
There's a certain rhythm to hostel life - you meet people in your room, and have the following conversation:
- Where are you going?
- Where have you been?
- Where are you from (usually Germany, which the Germans say very apologetically - I think they came here to get away from each other)?
- What do you do (I hate this one, in my case it takes too long to answer and leads to lots of follow-up questions)?
I'd have gone stir crazy if I'd spent all my time on this trip in hostels, but I've had enough variety (friends, friends of friends, couchsurfers, camping) that I'm not yet sick of them. Sick of some aspects, mind - overcrowded kitchens (the word 'sorry' is constantly employed by the 20 different cooks reaching across each other), ancient literature, and casual theft of my beers from the communal fridges. Some have hardly any character (usually city centre ones like Sydney where I'm staying now), and some have rather too much. The proprietor in Deloraine, Tasmania who hadn't bothered to take down the xmas tree by late March fell the wrong side of the eccentric/scary weirdo line.
But the good ones make it all worthwhile. They're usually small, Murchison and Te Aroha in New Zealand, or St Helens in Tasmania. Another of my favourites is Katoomba in the Blue Mountains near Sydney. I was there for a night between rugby games 6 years ago, and went for a proper stay last week. Lovely rambling 1930s art deco building with the most comfy hostel beds of the trip, though with a 1930s attitude to draught exclusion. The town looks tired though, funny how some parts of these new countries can feel rather old fashioned. But the blue mountains scenery is different from any I've seen, and parts are surprisingly inaccessible and unexplored given proximity to Sydney. About 15 years ago, botanists discovered Wollemi pines in one of the gorges, apparently this is the botanical equivalent of finding small dinosaurs running around.
Today's photo was the scariest of the trip to acquire; in a howling gale on Hanging Rock, one of the blue mountains' more inaccessible viewpoints. It has 300 metre vertical drops and no railings. I crawled on and crawled off, hope my readership thinks it was worthwhile.
NZ hostels are much better than their Aussie equivalents for recycling. They tend to have about 6 different rubbish bins for different classes of recyclable items, which have me crying out for a 'normal' bin for rubbish that's definitely not recyclable. The whole recycling concept has much less priority in Australian hostels, a difference which mirrors the countries as a whole, one of the reasons I prefer NZ.
Talking of hostels, I'm making a point of not seeing the horror film 'Hostel' which would apparently discourage me from staying in any of them. In the same vein, a recent aussie horror-flick called Wolf Creek is constantly referenced by travellers considering a farm-stay anywhere in the outback.
In Sydney now, hooking up again with Sandra and Eric. A major Scotland v Switzerland duel was scheduled for tonight, but Andy Murray lost his Wimbledon semi-final, so guess Scottish honour depends on my performance with the Canasta cards instead. We're going to my first rugby league match this afternoon - not planning to be tempted to the dark side permanently, but you never know.
Friday, 26 June 2009
You could spend an entire life visiting Aussie National Parks, but Kakadu has the advantage of being near a city, so gets more visitors than most. Like much of Oz, it has long stretches of extreme tedium (straight roads through scrub) linking sites of jaw-dropping beauty and grandeur. I joined a camping tour for this one - many of the roads are not for the faint-hearted, tempting as it is to give 4w driving a go. Weather was kind, perfect for swimming in plunge pools (well, the croc-free ones) at the foot of waterfalls, and the wetlands are gorgeous, especially at sunset. I'm not sure about the common sense of teaching crocs to jump though. They've done fine without evolving for the last 200m years - if they really get the notion for self-improvement we're all in trouble.
And my tentmates were the first Scots I've met on the trip! And they're recent graduates (DMEM Department) of Strathclyde Uni! We're pictured trying to describe current University strategy - only joking, if any Senior Officers are reading this.
Not all plain sailing. Darwin has a reputation for hard drinking and unfortunately this extended to our guide who made the most of the last night at the campsite (your correspondent doesn't recall all the details, and is VERY glad he wasn't doing the driving), and was breathalysed the following morning. He would have passed a conventional test but tour guides are judged by a higher standard and he had to pass the steering wheel to one of the passengers for the rest of the morning. Not sure if this will have implications for his career, we were all too embarrassed for him to enquire at the time, but the tour-group is reconvening this evening at a Darwin hostelry and he plans to attend so we'll perhaps find out then.
I've decided to head back to Sydney in a couple of days. Alice Springs and the attractions thereabouts (well, 500km away which qualifies as local down there) appealed but not enough to justify the time and cost of getting to them and then getting to Sydney in time for my flight to Hawaii. Last time I was in Sydney I thought it was my all-time favourite city, but that was during a World Cup so not exactly normal circumstances. Plus I read a colour supplement article the other day in which a local writer deplored the way the city has gone to the dogs in recent years. Hope not, but we'll see.
Tuesday, 16 June 2009
Anyway, after 2 days in the pool, 3 at sea including 9 dives, I now have the PADI Open Water certificate, so can dive anywhere, provided I do it soon enough that I don't forget everything I've learnt the past few days. Hardest thing I found in the sea was 'equalising', i.e. squeezing the air out of my ears (as you do when a plane is ascending/descending) to stop my head exploding. This is necessary to adjust to different depths, but eventually got the hang of it. Equalising is incidentally a problem with skydiving as well, though not one they tell you about before pushing you out of the plane, my ears were popping like crazy all the way down, though I didn't give it much thought till I hit the ground; skydiving gives you other things to think about.
Being Scottish spared me one problem, I didn't feel cold in the water at all, no matter how deep we went (18 metres maximum). The Taiwanese lad in our group was shivering uncontrollably every time he came out of the water. He did better than his mate, who was disqualified from the course for not being able to swim!!! Seems amazing that you'd sign up to a scuba course without this particular skill, but apparently it's quite common with Asians, who seem able to convince themselves that this isn't necessary.
Friday, 12 June 2009
Monday, 8 June 2009
The Whole Story and Other Stories - Ali Smith: Bought on the strength of her brilliant novel The Accidental. But these short stories are much less brilliant, or at least much less memorable, far too slight and thinly plotted for me to get my teeth into.
When They Lay Bare - Andrew Greig: Eagerly anticipated on the strength of In Another Light, which I read previously on the trip. Especially because it's set in the Borders, albeit in the dodgy bit south of Hawick which doesn't really have much in common with Melrose. It was written before In Another Light, and they have things in common - the intercut of past and present, a magnetic but brittle lead female character, a strained relationship between father and son. But it isn't quite as good, it's too portentous and could do with a few laughs. But great to read a gripping adult novel about the Borders.
Surveillance - Jonathan Raban: Set in contemporary Seattle, and a good intro to another city I'm planning to visit. It's about the growth of surveillance and associated paranoia in the US in the aftermath of 9/11, though not sure I'd have identified this theme if the blurb hadn't told me. But it's got good characters and very well written. Some intriguing plot points that are all swept away at the end by the biggest Dea ex Machina (I always wanted to write that! Just hope I've used it in the correct context) I've encountered in literature.
The War Within - Bob Woodward: The 3rd of 4 books I've read by the Watergate Investigative journalist about the politics of George Bush's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. This covers 2006-8, during which the carnage in Iraq peaked and started to decline, perhaps partly due to changes in US policy. Unequivocal evidence of just how intellectually under-resourced Bush was to be President.
The White Divers of Broome - John Bailey: A history of the attempts by the Oz government to replace the Asian divers who dominated the pre-WW1 pearl diving industry with whites, as part of the 'white Australia' policy; as well as being a fascinating account of what was then a lucrative business, it reveals how racist Australia was in those days, as bad as South Africa at the time. According to some Aussies I've spoken to, attitudes in some areas haven't changed much either, even if goverment policy has.
Emma - Jane Austen: A long overdue 'classic' - I read about one a decade. I knew the story, but the pleasure is in the prose and dialogue, though over 500 pages is a bit much of it, especially when characters like Emma's pathetic father are wittering on. But I can totally see why some people go back to Austen again and again, it's as pleasurably escapist as any fantasy.
The Power and the Glory - Graham Greene: Another classic, provided the reader has patience for the knots that catholics tie themselves in - mine was being tested by the end. But it's a gripping story, and reveals some fascinating history about anti-clerical campaigns in Latin America. It's full of ghastly moral dilemnas, strong characters (I wish the fate of more of them was explained), and simply very well written, like Our Man in Havana, the other Greene book I've read. I can see why he got considered for the Nobel prize, though I've read he believed he was denied it by an anti-catholic member of the relevant committee.
Killshot - Elmore Leonard: A very spare direct crime novel by the doyenne (another word I always wanted to use!) of such things in the US. Gripping story, though it didn't much make me look forward to arriving in the US. The 'baddies' are utterly amoral (they quite separately and unnecessarily murder 18 year old girls) and while the 'goodies' (a couple who witness and prevent a crime) are attractive characters, even the things they like about their lifestyles sound awful to me. And the various law enforcement agencies portrayed are useless at best - sometimes much worse. But at least it's all set in the Midwest, another reason not to go there!
Note: I didn't post this entry until June 16 (by which time I'd read all these books), but started it much earlier. The blog system inserts newly published items on the date I started them.
Sunday, 7 June 2009
Here's another of my "Don't think, just do it" moments - sand-tobogganing in 'the desert' on Moreton Island off Brisbane. Not very sophisticated, they give you a piece of flexible chipboard, wax one side of it, tell you to lie down and face downhill, and give you a push. No chance of backing out, there was a 73 year old lining up behind me. It's easy to get a mouthful of sand if you don't hold up the front of the board, and when you go over a bump it feels like you've been punched in the stomach. But could be worse, one stag party (or bucks party as they're called in Aussie) lined up on the hill and used their boards on the naked rear end of the groom as he came down; apparently he was unable to sit for the entire wedding! It's an ideal island for swimming too, in lakes and the sea, at least from the Scottish perspective; the Aussies thought it was much too cold. Wussies.
Everyone I know in Oz seems to live in Brisbane; it's not just for cast members who leave Neighbours. I met Liam on his own travels in Glencoe Youth Hostel a few years back and introduced him to Glasgow rugby. He repaid the favour here by taking me to an Aussie Rules game, Brisbane v Carlton (from Melbourne, very much the home of the game). About 30,000 fans at the Gabba (better known in the UK as a test cricket ground) and I have to say a much better atmosphere than the Super 14 rugby games I attended in NZ. I think the sport is a bit of a shambles at times, but impressive at its best. Brisbane are going well in this year's championship, but despite a late rally Carlton were too good on Saturday. Thought I was going to get a bonus in the pub later when the British Lions game came on TV, but after 20 minutes the Aussies 20:20 cricket game in England began and rugby was shunted off the agenda. Though watching the Aussies lose was still entertaining. Not as funny as watching England lose to the Netherlands was for the Aussies though!
Otherwise it's been a very civilised week; art galleries, vineyards, botanic gardens and lots of shower dodging in cafes. Heading for the national parks south of the city with Sam and Rod tomorrow. It's a Monday holiday for them, as it's Queen's Birthday weekend - much to my surprise this rates as a holiday in both Australia and New Zealand. Which should discourage thoughts of a republic anytime soon!
Wednesday, 3 June 2009
I did promise I'd do stuff I don't normally do. Fighting for a Scottish medieval army .v. English redcoats in pith helmets for control of a park in Hamilton seems to fit the bill. Paper swords, names like Major Blunder and Private Parts, cannons that fire flour; All very pythonesque. The whirling dervish charge, the can-can charge and the human battering ram are unlikely to find their way into military textbooks. I did my best for the Scottish cause, but made a strategic error by not drinking any beer beforehand, so was too self-conscious to get fully into the spirit, plus could hardly stop laughing long enough to take photos. Many thanks to my Auckland couchsurfing host Anna for press-ganging me into the army, and her daughter Eloise for reviving me with ginger wine every time I was 'killed'.
Now in Brisbane, and feeling a complete fraud as a traveller, my friends Sam and Rod served roast dinners the first 2 nights I was here! Sam's an ex-colleague from Glasgow, and one claim to fame I treasure is that I was her only wedding guest who knew she was getting married prior to the day of the wedding - they kept the secret very well.
Brisbane hasn't changed much since last visit (for rugby world cup in 2003). I seem to have brought NZ weather with me, lots of showers, but it's warm enough to lie in the hammock Sam and Rod have strung up on their balcony, which is acting as a major disincentive to actually doing anything here! Moreton Island tomorrow, AFL game on Saturday, and back on my travels next week.
Sunday, 31 May 2009
Friday, 29 May 2009
Tuesday, 26 May 2009
NZ may be proud of its Scottish heritage, but we don't seem to be flocking here nowadays. I met a Scottish traveller at Rotorua the other day, she was the first I've spoken to since I left home. Whereas I've met any number of Dutch, Israelis, and Irish, none of whom I'd have expected to be travelling in greater numbers than us. Plus as many Germans as all the rest put together. Where are we all?
Maybe I'm just in the wrong places. There is a special breed of traveller who arrives in a City Centre hostel, and settles in to drink coffee, watch DVDs, moan about their lack of money and the impossibility of getting a job, and never moves on. Having spent only 2 nights in City hostels here I haven't met many of them, and I wouldn't want to think this was what the missing Scots are doing, but maybe...
Anyway, doesn't stop the locals paying tribute to us in all sorts of ways. A couple of examples (see photos) are a special Scottish section (which doesn't accentuate the bagpipes and silly dancing image quite as much as the photo implies) at Te Papa museum in Wellington. And a sculpture (ok, it may be coincidence) of the 'Worst Toilet in Scotland' scene in Trainspotting, from the delightfully wacky Waiau Water Park on the Coramandel Peninsula.
Regardless of how many of us come, some of us stay. I spent 2 nights with Caroline Bagshaw and family near Hamilton. Caroline's the sister of Roger whose tragic early death I mentioned in April. She was the year below me at school though our paths seldom crossed then and never subsequently. She moved here 16 years ago and the rest of her family followed. I couldn't have asked for better hospitality, especially in the circumstances, and glad I had the chance to belatedly pay my respects; I couldn't make the funeral as I only heard about it the day before.
Saturday, 23 May 2009
The House of Dust - Paul Johnston: Actually, this only just qualifies as literature. It's a detective story set in a fascistic future Edinburgh (about 2025), which sounds a juicy mix of SF and crime fiction, but it's so badly written it gives both genres a bad name. Abysmal prose (the dialogue would embarrass Jeffrey Archer), 1-dimensional characters, and laughable set pieces (the heroes actually turn the tables on the main villain in the climactic confrontation by shouting the equivalent of "Look behind you!"). This chap's managed to get a whole series of these published, which is depressing.Thud - Terry Pratchett: Late-period Pratchett, which means a more thoughtful (despite the title) plot (about dwarves and trolls - it's a race/religion allegory) and fewer laughs than he sometimes provides, though one crack about Gods still has me chuckling 3 weeks on. For Pratchett fans amongst my readership (i.e. my brother Alan, and er... not sure who else) it's one of the 'Guards' books, probably the best ongoing series on the Discworld.
Cat's Eye - Margaret Atwood: A much more 'literary' novel, about a Canadian artist reflecting on her life, as she returns to an exhibition of her work in Toronto, where she grew up. It's gripping, especially in the sections about the narrator's early schooldays, which have been described as an important insight into the way young girls interact with and often bully each other. But it's a little chilly, some of the characters just don't come to life, and the narrator is someone things happen to, she seems to make few conscious choices of her own. It made me think, but I didn't find it very convincing, the later stages especially.In Another Light - Andrew Greig: A Scottish novel intercutting the adventures of a doctor in Penang, Malaya, in the 1930s, with those of his son in contemporary Orkney. The son is trying to discover his father's hidden past, and to make sense of his own life and love after a near-death experience and a series of bereavements. It's excellent; mature, addictive, moving, and full of believable characters with recognisable dilemnas. I can see it having the same effect on many men as the film Sideways. The ending is a little contrived and makes some characters seem unrealistically devious, but it's a minor gripe. I'm looking forward to reading more of Greig's work; have given this one to Caroline Bagshaw in exchange for an earlier one set in the Borders. Hope we both get as much pleasure as I did from In Another Light.
Beneath the Skin - Nicci French: A superior thriller, well written by good observers (Nicci French is a pseudonym for a couple who write together) and tackles a really interesting dilemna - how do police, and victims, really feel and act when they realise that a victim has been chosen for death by a serial killer who has already proven his competence. But I didn't like the structure much, having narrators who tell the story up to the moment of their own murders is unpleasant rather than properly chilling.
Felt for one other chap who planned to do it the same day. He didn't know until he got there that they have a 100KG limit, he was 104KG, so had to sit in the aerodrome and watch his friends come back sporting the same sort of insane grins I was probably wearing myself an hour later.
Tried to recapture the magic the following day by trying to recapture the magic of childhood. The most exciting thing I did in NZ when I was 12 was the Shotover Jet Boat in Queenstown. In fact, it was better than any roller-coaster, a thumping twisting cascade through rapids, near death collisions with rocks, overhanging trees etc. Taupo has a similar run through several sets of rapids, and - well - ok, so I'm 41 now, it's not quite the same. but still fantastic fun.
But I still draw the line at bungy jumping.
Thursday, 21 May 2009
I caught up on some of what I'd missed while out with a friend from my Wairarapa College (i.e high school) year. We'd exchanged xmas cards up to about 7 years ago, but lost touch after that and I only decided to search for him in the phone book the day before I went to Palmerston North, where he lives now. He's a reminder of how straightforward my life has been. His wife of 20 years has had constant health problems, his kids are 'high-maintenance' for various reasons, and he's at least partly estranged from his parents and his 5 brothers. Though successful professionally his life sounds a real struggle, and he seemed glad of the chance to unload it all. And the stories he told of the few classmates and even teachers we both recall all involved underachievement and missteps. In particular, one guy I recall as being bright, the best sportsman in the year, and an extremely nice guy (he was very good to me as the uncertain foreign kid - I didn't have the confidence to make a real effort to win him as a close friend, though I would have liked to), apparently got into drugs in a big way at University and was last heard of in a psychiatric institution. There's an awful lot of ways to mess up a life, glad I've avoided most of them.
This sounds a bit downbeat! Glad I went back, wish I'd time to see more of the local sites and do the walks I resisted like mad when our parents tried to drag us up them the first time round. Many thanks to Peter Donaldson and family for their hospitality, including the kids party we went to, featuring very complex tug of war - about 20 kids and they all kept changing sides. Though even by my standards, watching 4 rugby games (3 Super 14 plus a local match), plus going to see Pete coach his son and other kids on the Saturday morning, in the space of 26 hours, is a bit excessive!
Then a waiter brought her a huge bowl of fries, which she proceeded to slather in enough ketchup to drown a whale. Christchurch ain't turning into the Paris of the south anytime soon...
Sunday, 17 May 2009
Friday, 15 May 2009
Monday, 11 May 2009
Not with the weather, that is. But the wildlife has been extremely cooperative on this trip, I feel like Dr Dolittle. Birds queueing up to be photographed, a higher than average number of whales, dolphins returning to Kaikoura after a few days away just in time for me to swim with them. And now the albatrosses. I took an Otago peninsula wildlife tour yesterday, including a half hour in the royal albatross viewing hide. Many visitors see only a few chicks waiting patiently for their parents to return from marathon fishing trips, which only happens every 2-3 days. We saw 4 adults soaring past the hide (several times each), 2 chicks being fed (see below), one take-off, and as a bonus, a hawk also hovered 10 yards from the hide, then pounced on a mouse and took off with the unlucky wee thing still in its claws. Our guide was practically in ecstasy, proclaiming us the luckiest visitors of the whole season.
Sunday, 10 May 2009
Thursday, 7 May 2009
Tuesday, 5 May 2009
Saturday, 2 May 2009
I made an almost (but not quite) conscious decision on this trip not to plan too far ahead. In NZ, this has taken the form of staying in places I knew almost nothing about (eg Tekapo, Hamner Springs, currently Nelson), not buying a Lonely Planet or Rough Guide, and making my decisions about what to see and do on the day I do them. This has been mostly positive. Most recent trip has been 2 days up at Golden Bay with Dani from Austria, walking the Abel Tasman Park (soaked again, but at least got some nice rainbows), the beaches near Farewell Spit, and to one of the World's biggest deepest holes near where more of Lord of the Rings was filmed (she's another LOTR obsessive). We met and arranged all this in Nelson the night before we set off, I doubt we'd have done so if I'd been enslaved by the Rough Guide the way some travellers are. Now she's about to go to the North Island, or start working somewhere, or just sit drinking coffee for a few days (you think I'm indecisive...) and I'm going back south, to Christchurch and then maybe on to Dunedin, where I'd like to cycle the Otago railtrail. Probably fly to North Island after that.
One decision I can't put off much longer is how long to stay in NZ. Right now I'm booked to fly out on 20th May, but this leaves very little time for the North Island, so now planning to put this back at least a week. Less time for Oz, but hey, been there done (some of) that.
I wondered if I'd lose touch/interest with what was happening at home. No sign of it yet, checking rugby news is still 1st thing I do when I get computer access, and Hull City's battle to avoid relegation is still on my mind. But not seen anything about Scottish politics since I left, another plus about being away!
Incidentally, no shortage of emails from home, including comments about this blog, for which many thanks, but no comments on the blog itself for some time. Feel free to add them, the more irreverent the better, I hate talking to myself.
Tuesday, 28 April 2009
It goes without saying that snorers are the greatest curse to afflict humankind. Their rasping, hooting, roaring, shuddering (I've heard all kinds) sounds are carefully calibrated to cause maximum irritation to the light sleepers they afflict. They should all be consigned to the 7th circle of Hell immediately, alongside the Taleban, the Khmer Rouge, and that referee who gave England a last minute penalty at Murrayfield in 1994. They [goes on and on in this vein for several minutes, you probably don't need to read it]
But so far I've been pretty lucky. I've shared hostel dorms with up to 12 people and can only recall one really bad night. That was at the end of the Milford Track. Ironically sharing huts with at least 7 people on the Track itself was no trouble, but sharing with 3 in the Milford Backpackers lodge was torture - a Japanese man and a very large lady (I was concerned about the strength of the bed - she was in the bunk above me), joined together in unharmonious symphony and proved impervious to all the pokes, kicks, sirens and rabid possums I threw at them.
It probably helps that nearly all dorms seem to be mixed these days; the girls snore in a ladylike fashion if at all, and perhaps the guys subconsciously tone it down in order to avoid making a bad impression (this may not be good science). Most dorms were single sex when I did Europe by train in 1992, and the snoring was far worse.
Snoring is no problem if you're so tired you're asleep as soon as your head hits the pillow. One way to achieve this is lots of beers, but the one I've just tried is 2 days cycling in heavy rain on Queen Charlotte Track (pictured with latest trusty steed). There's great views of the sounds on either side of this peninsula, and despite a few too many steep sections, the track is a nice mix of coastal and ridgetop. But I didn't have much time to look at the views, more focused on staying upright, it was very slippery at times. Only one fall, which given velocity and rocky landing caused surprisingly little damage, but really tiring, mentally as well as physically.
One other strange experience on the Track, a large good quality restaurant at Punga Cove (where I stayed) to myself! There were only a few occupants that night and everyone else was cooking for themselves. So waitress and chef had an evening solely devoted to making me happy, I could get used to it!
Sunday, 26 April 2009
Back on my own again, Zoe's off to the North Island in search of a job on the Hobbit, or a course in meditation in Thailand, or to get away from pleas from her Dutch friends for her to come back to her old job behind the scenes in a Dutch TV hospital drama; she hasn't decided yet. But enjoying wine tasting while considering options - photo is from winery near Blenheim. So I'm having to cook for myself again, with the exception of dessert - current hostel serves portions of a huge chocolate pudding to all residents every night, best freebie so far. And the room at this hostel is en suite, unheard of luxury. Though to be fair, most hostels have been good, except in Christchurch, I've heard complaints about 3 different ones there. Good job the proliferation of Donaldsons in Christchurch means I haven't had to stay in any of them.
So time for another long distance track before I get fat. The Queen Charlotte Track at the top of the South Island, starting tomorrow, and this time I'm doing it by mountain bike, which should reduce it to 2 days. Hikers use the same path, wonder how many of them I can take out en route?