Wednesday, 26 August 2009

End of the Line

No, it's not Optimus Prime's embarrassing great uncle. This is an Inunnguaq, standing on top of Whistler Mountain north of Vancouver. Innunnguaq apparently means "Imitation of a person" in the language of the Inuit tribes in the north of Canada, but it's also becoming a universal Canadian symbol of welcome for travellers. So it's being used as a symbol of next year's Vancouver Olympics, an awfully long way from Inuit country as the pedants are keen to point out.

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.

People are strange, when you're a stranger

When being asked for highlights of the trip, I tend to slip into autopilot and reel off dolphin swimming, parachuting, scuba diving, mountain summits, getting my 1st proper suntan for 20 years etc. But it's the people who really made it memorable. In no particular order
  • 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.

Lost in some good books

One last selection of the books that have kept me company through bus trips, coffee shops, and airport departure lounges various over the last couple of months. Apologies for inflicting this on my own readership, know it's not to everyone's taste. Wonder if my Blog will get any reviews?


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

Take me down to the ball game


Baseball doesn't get much respect in the UK, but much to my surprise it became my brother Mike's favourite sport during his 3 year sojourn in the US. Alan and myself went to one game with him then, at the widely disliked New York Yankees (the Man Utd of baseball) and we repeated the experience at grass roots level with the Vancouver Canadians last night. And I mean grass roots; we hadn't realised how humble an operation this is. Vancouver play in the Northwest League, which glories in "Short Season A" classification. This seems to translate as 'about 3 levels below the major leagues and based in an area with too few teams to put together a full season.' Sort of like the Magners League if it mislays any more teams.

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.
The big TV sport seems to be UFC - Ultimate Fighting, which can be spectactularly brutal but can also degenerate into a boring variety of wrestling. It doesn't get reported in the papers, but I've seen it on TV a lot, far more than boxing, and one bar we were in was full of people who'd come just to see that night's big fight.

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

The Trees


Canada has no shortage of trees (their finest rock band, Rush, even sang a song about them), but the locals still campaign hard to keep the loggers at bay from those they think are special. Which includes those on today's kayaking destination, Meares Island (7 km by kayak from Tofino, where we're staying). Apparently loggers had the whole place in their sights, but a groundbreaking 1980s campaign dissuaded them and was the start of a far greater emphasis on conservation. The benefits can be seen everywhere; Bald Eagles are common as muck, and this has been the finest year for salmon fishing that anyone here can remember.

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

Doon the watter...

...on an inflatable raft, to the constant accompaniment of "WE'RE ALL GOING TO DIE!!!" from one of my fellow crewmembers. And as certain rocks approached, I thought she might be right, especially with turkey vultures hovering overhead, looking like they felt lunch was just a matter of time. But these rafts are deceptively robust, even when stuck on the rocks. We mislaid an oarsman at one point, and his name was Mackenzie, but I'm evilly delighted to say this was Alan rather than me, and nothing hurt but his pride.

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

Mr Mackenzie, I presume?

Vancouver, less than 2 weeks to go, and at last I've met my ideal travelling soulmate. Able to share my appreciation of unchilled ale, debate the relative merits of Buffy and Doctor Who, and join me in deploring American pronunciation ("there's no such thing as 'aluminum'!") And an even more pathetic excuse for a suntan than mine. Yes, my brother Alan is in town. Only drawbacks are having to listen to his sleeptalking and indulge his enthusiasm for culinary experimentation - tonight's vegetarian restaurant has gone down in the 'learning experience' file.

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

Sleepy in Seattle


Yesterday started at 6:15am waiting for bus, and finished about 2am in a spartan club a few blocks from current home, the Green Tortoise hostel. Had to celebrate last night in US. So not much energy today. Hope the bus to Vancouver doesn't pass too many amazing views, because chances are I'm going to sleep through them. And hope my brother Alan doesn't want a big night to celebrate his arrival in Vancouver, though after flight from UK, not too likely.

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.


As the home of Boeing, Seattle is aircraft-crazy. Two huge museums on the subject, including an ex-Air Force One and one of the remaining Concordes (which has horrible grey decor; not surprised they couldn't find enough people willing to pay several thousand to cross the Atlantic like this latterly - but externally it's still by far the coolest machine I've ever seen). Plus several days of displays by the Blue Angels air display team (pictured) as part of the Seattle Seafair festival.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

View from the top...


...is mainly a view of other people. Huge numbers climb Half Dome in Yosemite (pictured from nearby Glacier Point), and they spend lots of time on the summit. Not surprising, the views are amazing, and it's a great place to sunbathe. Plus everyone's shattered by the temperatures, the climb (4,800 feet) and especially the last few hundred feet, for which you have to pull yourself up cables.

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

Regrets - I've had a few...


...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

ARE YOU READY TO ROCK??!!


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

Flowers in my hair


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

The next big thing

Myself and my San Francisco couchsurf host Laurie have been out drinking this evening, and we met this band - http://www.myspace.com/thebarbaryghosts - on their way home from a gig. They played their song 'Rio Grande' to us on the street corner, it was lovely. They deserve to be megastars, the campaign to make them megastars starts here!

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Spot the odd flag out

I visited Hawaii's most popular attraction, Pearl Harbour, to see the sites of America's 2 most famous battleships. Arizona, a war grave which sustained the heaviest casualties during the attack and was left as a tomb for the 1000+ who died inside. And Missouri, the last working battleship, on which the Japanese surrendured in 1945. It was only decommissioned in the 1990s.

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

Building more real estate


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

Island Time


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

In search of Captain Cook


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?!

Journey to the Dark Side


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

Hostels


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

Step out of the vehicle please, Sir






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.

Bust by the dust




The washing machines in Darwin YHA are being replaced today. I think it's coincidence, but they spent yesterday evening wrestling with the dust I collected at Cape Tribulation, The Laura Aborigine Dance Festival, and the Kakadu National Park, and perhaps they just gave up the struggle. Dancing Aborigines in particular can kick up an incredible duststorm.

The trip to Cape Trib and the Dance Festival also covered the Daintree National Park, Cooktown, some beautiful beaches and some of the many wild crocodiles I've seen over the last week. My chauffeurs were Eric and Sandra (better known as 'The Doll' by truckers on the Cape Tribulation road...) from Switzerland, who I met on my dive course. Just enough space in their 4WD for me and my luggage, though as it contains 8 months worth of travel debris, it was cosy - if you missed seeing something on the road, there was no way to look backwards or even sideways at it! It's the first time I've camped on the trip, and their 8 months of experience made it a much smoother process than if I'd gone it alone. They're on their 3rd tent and I doubt the first two would have repelled the rain at Cape Trib or the ant colony that took up residence under the tent at Archer Point beach. Many thanks to them both for excellent campsite cooking (pancakes an especial highlight), good-humoured and entertaining company whatever the rigours of the trip, and teaching me canasta, though Eric may be regretting this now - the cards were very kind in my first couple of games!

The dance festival (http://www.lauradancefestival.com/) was the highlight. It seemed a properly aboriginal event, with spectators as well as performers, but at the same time one where non-aboriginals were welcome and had no need to feel self-conscious. No alcohol, which makes the whole thing almost too well mannered, but having seen a little of the more unfortunate side of aborigine society in Cairns, I can see why this is banned. Most of the dancing tells simple stories of hunting or tribal conflict; a lot of impersonations of kangaroos, emus, crocodiles etc. though the most exciting dances are 'shake-a-leg' efforts which encourage the real showmen and women to strut their stuff. The groups all represent tribes or regions from throughout Queensland, and with many it's about participation rather than excellence; some groups (such as the Yarrabah in the first picture) had child performers as young as 3, who were among the most popular participants. Dancers aren't averse to modern technology either - see the lady on the right in the 2nd picture.


It's now nearly 4 months since I set off - a month longer than I've been out of Scotland since 1980. Still not really missing it, though a bit of Scottish weather would be welcome right now. I couldn't handle Darwin temperatures (or mosquitos) for long. Unbelievably this is considered to be the cold season here - not on my planet, it isn't.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Finding Nemo


...and all his friends, they don't make it difficult on the Great Barrier Reef, the fish (and turtles, and rays, and nudibranches, and lots of things I can't identify at all) seem totally unconcerned by divers. The variety is astounding, though sadly I didn't encounter any sharks underwater. They usually make an appearance during night dives, but the one time I did this it was on a reef they don't frequent for some reason.
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

Fun, fun, fun, in the sun, sun, sun


Yes, I've been watching old Red Dwarf episodes at Sam (pictured, with Brisbane in the background) and Rod's but anyway, Cairns is what Australia is meant to be like. No culture or rain or any of that other non-Aussie nonsense , just sunshine and bars, and impossibly good looking girls (and some pasty-faced British ones, but never mind) wondering round in bikinis - I saw 2 in the supermarket yesterday. And here comes the weekend! So of course with typical bad timing my 5-day dive course takes me offshore tomorrow, to the Great Barrier Reef for 3 days of Finding Nemo and shark dodging ("Remember, Fish are friends" - "so what are you planning to eat, then?") Which doesn't sound so bad, though the rate of attrition on my course is worrying - 7 people and we'd lost 3 for various reasons before we completed the swimming pool and paperwork stage.

Monday, 8 June 2009

In my considered opinion...

More blether about the books that have been keeping me company. Don't worry, blogfans, I'll get to back to the usual nonsense shortly.

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

Brakes? What brakes?


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

CHARGE!!!!


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

Views from (and of) the tops


I'll let the North Island scenery (or the bits I've climbed at any rate) speak for itself today. The three photos above are:
- Castle Rock towards the top of the Coramandel Peninsula.
- The Pinnacles further south in Coramandel.
- The summit of Mount Maunganui looking south to Tauranga and the Bay of Plenty.
The Pinnacles walk in particular has a fantastic path, lots of ladders and rock staircases near the summit. There doesn't seem to be the same sort of focus on bagging peaks in NZ as there is in Scotland, but the popular ones are made as easy as any hiker could reasonably ask.
These walks are full of reminders of how much man has changed the NZ landscape. Not just the Europeans; the Maoris and the rats and dogs they introduced had wiped out Moa and lots of other birds before Europeans got here, but Europeans took destruction onto a new level. Coramandel has a few stands of the huge kauri trees, and used to have whole forests of them, but logging wiped these out in just a few decades. There's still attractive bush on the walk up to the Pinnacles, but the kauris will take centuries to recover their former glory.
The bush is full of interesting fauna and flora, if you like that sort of thing - I can only take so many different types of trees and shrubs. On some hills you hardly ever get out into the open until you reach the summit, and I miss the open hillsides and ridgewalks you get on Munros in Scotland.
Now back in Australia, but seem to have brought the NZ changable weather with me. Though Brisbane was flooded last week so maybe it's the other way round.

Friday, 29 May 2009

"Hey, I can eat beans without worrying about the consequences!"

One of NZ's finest tourist attractions would be the White and Pink terraces near Rotorua. If they hadn't been destroyed by the Mt Tarawera volcano in 1886, that is. But Rotorua's still pretty striking, to the nose as well as the eyes. Many years exposure to egg sandwiches has built up my resistance to sulphurous pong. The local maoris probably notice it even less, though this chap's looking a bit shell-shocked by it all. The villagers at the Whakarewarewa thermal village (this is the short version of its name) are much livelier, and even managed to put on a cultural display that didn't make me cringe, so obvious is their pride in and enjoyment of what they do. See http://www.whakarewarewa.com/ for details. The place genuinely feels like a village where people live and work, rather than just a showcase for tourists, though this is partly because there are so many smoking maoris hanging around.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Whae's like us? And where are we?



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

So here's what I think...

Another slice of my literary opinions. Anyone who would rather get these from qualified reviewers who actually get paid to read and comment on stuff, look away now.

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.

Adrenalin Rush


So I decided to jump out of an aeroplane. It seems obligatory in NZ. And if you're going to do it, do it properly, so I went for the maximum 15,000 feet, 1 minute of freefall option. Then had a sleepless night, then the Taupo Tandem company maximised my nerves. Long delay before they got the plane organised; a German instructor with poor English, which meant pre-jump nerve-calming banter was out; then it turned out everyone else on the plane was leaping out at 12000 feet, so myself and instructor had it to ourselves for the last 5 minutes before the door opened again, and we took the big leap into the void. It's an out-of-body experience, I still can't quite compute that I did it, it feels like something that happened to someone else. And it went incredibly fast, can't believe the whole thing took a minute, never mind the freefall bit. I'm sure there were some fantastic views (like the one above of Mt Ruapehu, only higher), but I don't remember them, I'm sure I had some sort of conversation with my German after the chute opened, but the only thing I can remember saying is "Woooaaahhh". To misquote Steve Redgrave "If I ever strap one of those things [a German attached to a parachute] on my back again, shoot me". Of course, he did, and I secretly hope that on some subsequent big birthday I feel mad enough to sign up again.

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

Nostalgia ain't what it used to be...


Masterton gets bypassed by most tourists, but that'll change when the plaques to commemorate my home and school go up. If I ever do anything worth remembering - suggestions please. Not that the conservation authorities are showing much respect in the meantime - the house (see photo) has acquired an extension to the back porch and a lot of decking, and part of the school burned down. But pretty much as I remember really, very strange to see them again 29 years on. Other things on the pilgrim trail have fared worse. The library has moved, the open air swimming pool is now mostly under cover (clearly Kiwis aren't as tough as they were) and the Golden Shears motel where we stayed on arrival in Masterton is now an Old Folks home. But my holy grail, Hedley's bookshop, is still a mainstay of the high street and has doubled in size, definitely a good sign. There's lots of good independent bookshops in small NZ towns, much better in this respect than their Scottish equivalents.

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!

An NZ vignette

I was eating between planes at Christchurch airport when an extremely classy lass sat at the next table. Sharp black suit, expensive hair, immaculate makeup, eating a small plate of sushi while typing on an up-to-the-minute laptop. Wouldn't have looked out of place in the swankiest 3 Michelin star restaurant.

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

If you want to get ahead...


Mexican flu has reached Wellington. The symptoms, and the effect they had on the fashion sense of one innocent traveller (his resistance weakened by an onslaught of tortillas and intoxicating beverages), are clearly visible.

Friday, 15 May 2009

Coming in from the cold


As previously stated, I think couchsurfing (http://www.couchsurfing.com/) is a great idea, but you have to take the rough with the smooth. In the case of my hosts in Dunedin and Wellington, this means heating. NZ has a curious view of central heating and double glazing, ie 'we're not ready for these new-fangled ideas, thanks'. In the Dunedin flat, there were alternatives, but being students, my hosts were reluctant to incur cost by using them. In Wellington, my hosts simply don't have anything - the flat is in any case more a micro-brewery (with a very palatable product) than a place to stay. Of course, the accommodation is free, so I'm not really complaining, just didn't think my chunky hand-knit pullover would see so much indoor use here.

But it's the opposite with Pete and Debbie (the latest members of the Donaldson clan to host me - as ever, hospitality way beyond anything I've a right to expect) in Masterton. A wood burning fire-cum-water heating system in the living room, which had me sweating beer (Pete is very generous on this front too) by the end of the 1st evening. This is a much nicer problem. Plus the weather is warmer here in the north. Just as wet, but this has mostly been at night, when I find it a relaxing sound. In fact, getting to sleep without the sound of water pounding on the roof and windows could be an issue, if I ever get to experience it again.
Will report on the Masterton nostalgia-fest next time. But had a few days in Wellington first. I've little memory of spending time in the cities when we were here before, suspect that as outdoors people our parents just didn't take us to them much. Wellington is the most attractive NZ city to walk in (or rather above - see photo for one of many attractive viewpoints that overlook the city), but the big attraction is Te Papa, the newish Museum of New Zealand. Like many of these new museums, it has complex architecture that somehow fails to form a coherent whole from any angle, and an impressionistic approach to exhibits which sometimes makes me want to grab a guide by the shirtfront and shout "I don't want to know how it felt, I want to know what happened, dammit!" The Imperial War Museum in Manchester was the same, a sensory assault that told me lots about what it was like to be in a war, but left me giving thanks that I knew the history of the wars Britain had actually fought prior to going in. But both are very impressive in their own way. Te Papa is huge, and the large-scale exhibits make excellent use of the space they've been given.
Te Papa is also a reminder that the Maori experience is more central to life and culture on the north island than the south. The Maori versions of history and myth are reported on exhibits and at viewpoints in the south, but they can seem like afterthoughts, plus I saw few actual Maoris there. Apparently there were large areas they never colonised, only visiting seasonally to mine or hunt. I'll be interested to see how the North differs.

Monday, 11 May 2009

Lucky, lucky, lucky


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.

The tour also involved seals (Mums and Pups, far more active than the sleeping heaps of blubber I've seen elsewhere), sealions, and yellow-eyed penguins, all at the far end of the peninsula. Plus spectacular raging seas, I've no idea how the seals at that location survive their trips from sea to land, we'd look like we'd spent 5 minutes in a blender.

Still no kiwis yet though, hope to put this right in the north island.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

How did you know I'm not from round here?


Travellers don't want to look like travellers, we want to blend in. Depending on who you are and where you are, sometimes it ain't that easy...

I love it when a plan comes together


Just occasionally something works out well enough for me to feel smug. My plan to cycle the Otago Rail Trail in 3 days was dropped when I saw the weather forecast for the last 2, instead I went for the scenic train trip up the Taieri Gorge, overnight in Ranfurly, followed by a single day cycle on the section of the trail from Ranfurly to Middlemarch.  Very cold, but downhill and downwind, and the heavy showers weren't forecast until the afternoon.  Sure enough, the bus driver who picked me up in Middlemarch said that when he'd driven through Ranfurly (5 hours after I left it) the snow had arrived and was piling up on the roadsides.  I met a few cyclists heading in that direction; I'm guessing they didn't enjoy the trail as much as I did!  It's an excellent cycle route, has apparently done wonders to revive interest in an area that doesn't normally get many visitors.  If only someone had thought to do something similar when the Waverley line through the Borders closed down.

I wasn't the only one to be scared off by the forecast.  The scenic train was busy, but I had the bus to Ranfurly, the hostel in Ranfurly, and the bus the following day from Middlemarch back to Dunedin all to myself.  Not sure the last was a good thing, it meant the bus driver could lecture me on his Neil Diamond obsession for over an hour, at least 55 minutes more than I wanted.

A word in praise of the NZ visitor centres ('i-sites').  I went into the Dunedin one to ask about this trip at 10:45 on Friday morning, needing to be on the Taieri Gorge train at 12:30.  I needed to book the train, 2 separate buses, overnight accommodation, and bike hire (including delivery to my starting point).  All done within 15 minutes, very efficient, which has been my experience of the i-sites throughout.  

Not sure if the weather on the Otago plain has been as bad since, but if Dunedin is any guide, there'll be some miserable cyclists out there.  I'm in an attic room, ideal for listening to rain crashing against your roof and window from all angles.   And a good excuse to spend 2 days huddled in museums, galleries, pubs (Chiefs v Hurricanes was best rugby game I've seen in nz to date) and movie theatres (Star Trek last night, very entertaining).  Venturing out again today for my last chance to see albatrosses and penguins, on the Otago peninsula.  Don't think these guys make it to the North Island, where I'm headed tomorrow, they seem to like this weather for some reason. 

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Big

Everything in NZ is just a bit bigger than everything in Scotland.  I'd no problems with them having bigger mountains than ours, but it's a bit depressing that they even have 2 mountains called Ben Nevis bigger than ours.  

Looking on the bright side, they have much bigger student flats than ours, if tonight's accommodation is any guide.  I'm here via the Couchsurfing network, in a room that I thought was a cupboard but turns out to be like Bender's cupboard in Futurama, i.e. almost bigger than the flat it's attached to!  Many thanks to my host Emily and her flatmates for the hospitality, and to Emily for letting me join her swimclub for drinks tonight - never seen such a gathering of impressive sets of shoulders in my life!

They also have a bigger than average rainfall, and much of it is scheduled to fall in Otago in the next few days, so debating whether to go for cycling the full Otago railtrail.  May settle for just a section of the trail, the bit nearest to the far end of the Taieri Gorge scenic railway which I'll definitely be taking whatever the weather.  

Or I could spend 3 days watching Super 14 games in the pub...

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Blasts from the past


I wasn't sure what I'd remember of NZ from my previous visit in 1979/80, when I was 12. The answer so far has been 'not much', though partly because I haven't revisited many of the same places. The family did a 3 week tour of the South Island in 1980, but myself and brothers were more interested in jet boats and swimming pools than scenery, and though I definitely remember Milford Sound, it was more for the dolphins, seals, and the thrill of driving through a long tunnel than for the waterfalls and soaring peaks it's famous for.

But had a couple of flashbacks in recent days. The drive from Picton to Havelock is only about 25 miles but I remember it taking forever. In 1980 we took so long that we arrived after the petrol station was closed, and the following day was Sunday, so no petrol for sale back then. We were only able to head on to Greymouth because a Havelock local offered to siphon some petrol from his lawnmower! And while opening hours may be more convenient nowadays, the road is just as twisty, I doubt anyone could exceed an average of 20mph, especially when driving an elderly Nissan Sunny. Very scenic, if you're not in a hurry, but if you are, travelling this region by boat makes much more sense.

Another thing I remember is the waterfall in the photo, because even at 12 I realised that the concrete thing at the far side was an awful eyesore doing its best to spoil the view. I didn't remember where it was, or even that it was in NZ, but anyway, these are the Maruia Falls, created by the Murchison Earthquake in the 1920s, and this is only a fraction of what they'd be capable of after a wet spell.
The real nostalgia fest will be my return to Masterton in the North Island, where we lived in 79/80. I remember the layout of the town, our house and garden, and my school very well, and am looking forward both to seeing them and to semi-scientifically analysing how closely they fit my memories. Of course, school and house may have been knocked down by now!
But anyway, prior to wallowing in the past I've committed to cycling the Otago Rail Trail, so heading down towards Dunedin for my last few days in the South Island; currently back with the Donaldsons in Christchurch. Have spent more time than intended in the South (I've put back the date of my return flight from Auckland to Brisbane), and still not seen the glaciers, been to Mount Cook, or taken part in the permanent party that is Queenstown. But can't do everything, and you'd need a lot more time than I've got to do everything NZ has to offer. Maybe on the next trip....

Saturday, 2 May 2009

Making it up as I go along


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

ZZZZZZzzzzzzz....


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

Call yourself a hostel?


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?