26 March, 2006

Magnificient Marine Mammals

Auckland is a very popular destination for tourists, but living here we don't usually feel all that inclined to try out the tourist attractions on our own back doorstep. We tend to behave like tourists only when we're away from our familaiar environs.

We might never have gone whale watching in Auckland if I hadn't been given tickets for Auckland's Dolphin and Whale Safari by my company at Christmas. With our seventh wedding anniversary happening this week (tomorrow in fact), we decided that this was a good time to mark the occasion and use the tickets which have been pinned under a magnet on the fridge for the past three months. So we went yesterday (which turned out to be a good move as today is a howling storm outside and would have made for a miserable trip if we'd picked Sunday rather than Saturday).

The safari was great fun. We spent about 5-6 hours travelling around the Hauraki Gulf on a 20 metre Powercat, which is a twin-hulled boat with plenty of observation points both enclosed and on the deck. There was a party of about 35 of us, mostly tourists from all corners of the globe, but a few locals like ourselves.

The crew were very entertaining and informed commentators, hugely passionate about marine ecology and the importance of looking after the environment and protecting whales and dolphins from slaughter by humans.

We travelled quite some distance to the outer reaches of the Hauraki Gulf, out as far as the Coromandel pennisula and the Barrier islands. For a long time it looked like we might not get to see any whales or dolphins. Apparently there are a few days when there are none to be found (when that happens the tourists get a discount voucher for a return trip).

After a few hours of looking (concentrations of birds flying close to the surface of the sea is the telltale sign), we came across what the crew referred to as a 'work-up', a phrase that made sense once we came close enough to see what was happening. A pod of perhaps as many as 250 'Common Dolphins' (Delphinus delphis) had herded pilchards into a tight ball and had driven them up to the surface where they were picking them off in a frenzy, and the sea birds, especially gannets. The dolphins were joined by three Bryde's Whales (Balaenoptera edeni) which rather unfairly in seemed, undid all the dolphins' hard work by diving up through the ball of fish and taking many of the pilchards for themselves. This is however apparently the way it normally happens - when you see a pod of dolphins feeding there's usually a whale or three around as well.

I tried to get some good photos, but the speed of the whales and dolphins was far greater than my own reactions or the speed of my digital camera, so I came away with lots of shots of ocean and only a few of these magnificient marine mammals.

A highly recommended day out, for visitors to Auckland and locals alike!

22 March, 2006

What We Did On Our Holidays (Part 3)

Sunday 26 February

Sunday was another brilliantly hot and sunny day. We stuck around to help clear up after the wedding reception and took some time out to explore some of the farm, including making the acquaintance of some sheep. After an afternoon BBQ with the bride and groom and various remaining guests, we bid a reluctant farewell to everyone who'd made us feel so welcome, especially Bruce and Carol who'd been wonderful hosts, and finally started on our trek across country.

We didn’t have much of a travel itinerary in mind, but having seen all the signs pointing the way to Arthur’s Pass as we’d travelled out to the farm, it seemed logical to keep going, and head for the pass and across to the West Coast. We got underway around 3pm and made our way through the sleepy settlement of Darfield – which seemed to be little more than a few houses and some tearooms – and then headed for the hills.

We stopped for a break in Otira Gorge near a railway station and sidings. The railway track lead out from the station across a large bridge over a chilly mountain river and on the other side the track disappeared into a tunnel. This is the longest railway tunnel in the Southern Alps, 8.5 kilometres long. In the years before the tunnel was built, the railway terminated here. As we took a walk by the river’s edge we heard the growing rumble of an approaching train through the tunnel, and found ourselves a prime position to witness a very long coal train emerge from the tunnel and cross the bridge, hauled by four massive locomotives. The coal train was barely clear of the bridge when it stopped, and was soon met by another huge coal train coming in the other direction on a parallel track. We watched as a complex shuffling of locomotives took place - the front two engines from the first train were uncoupled and were manoeuvred into position in front of the two engines on the second train. It seemed to be four locomotives were required to pull trains through the tunnel, as once the first train had departed the second train entered the tunnel. Perhaps those two locomotives only ever go from one end of the tunnel to the other?

Above: The head of the train emerges from the tunnel mouth and approaches the bridge.

While we’d been watching the trains, we’d noticed the same police car drive up and down the same stretch of road several times. As we made our way back towards the campervan, a helicopter flew overhead and set down in a field close to the car park. The helicopter crew were met by the police and after some discussion and donning protective clothing the crew and police officers all took off in the helicopter and soared away over the top of the looming mountain ridge high above us. We learned from a newspaper a few days later that we’d witnessed the beginning of a hunt for a missing woman, an English tourist who’d failed to return from a walk. Unfortunately her body was discovered a couple of days later in the bush – she’d apparently fallen down a cliff.

We’d only travelled a short distance up the road when Rochelle noticed keas on the side of the road. We stopped so that Rochelle could get some photos. These cheeky native parrots are fearless and seem to love performing for tourists. They paraded up and down the footpath outside the Arthur’s Pass information centre and played chicken with the cars in the road.

Above: Why did the kea cross the road? To entertain the tourists, that's why...

Driving on through the pass, we stopped for the night at Kelly Valley, a camping ground that was little more than an unsealed gravel road beside a river.

Monday 27 February

There’s nothing like washing in a river with water that’s melted off the snow-capped mountains to wake you up in the morning and let you know you’re alive. If the water was any colder it would have iced over!

We travelled on to Hokitika, where we stocked up on supplies – including bug spray, as we’d discovered that the van had a tendency to fill up with sandflies at night. We had a marvellous lunch in a restaurant where I discovered the delicacy that is South Island Blue Cod. This is a simply delicious fish, and for the remainder of our trip I sought out for takeaways that sold this. Unfortunately I’ve yet to find anywhere in Auckland that sells Blue Cod and I rather suspect that if and when I do find it that it’s going to be rather expensive. Hokitika has this great windswept beach littered with driftwood and rocks. We found some remarkable small green stones, polished by the waves just by walking a short distance along the beach.

Above: The wild and windswept Hokitika beach, littered with driftwood.

From Hokitika we drove south, heading as far as Fox Glacier. As we approached, the skies darkened and by the time we pulled into the glacier car park a light shower of rain had started to fall. Undeterred by a little water, we set off along the track. As we walked, the rain got heavier and heavier and we were soon drenched to the skin. Close to the glacier itself, we were admonished by a tour guide leading a party of elderly tourists all decked out in full wet weather gear. We must have looked like a couple of drowned rats. “It’s only a little water!” I cheerily assured the glowering guide, who clearly disapproved of our light, summer attire.

Above: Me at Fox Glacier. Freezing rain not pictured.

Despite the (by now) torrential rain, Fox Glacier was a truly impressive sight up close, looking for all the world like a massive surge of water, rushing through a valley, that had frozen solid in a blink of an eye. I risked taking a few shots whilst trying not to get my digital camera wet. By the time we got back to the camper van we were completely soaked and splattered with mud from the walking track.

We drove back to Franz Josef, a short distance back along the main road, where we tried our luck at the Franz Josef Top 10 Motor Camp. We were fortunate to get one of the very last vacancies for the night. The camp was fully decked out with kitchens, washing machines, clothes dryers, TV and games rooms and – most importantly of all – hot showers. There is nothing that quite matches the experience of getting out of freezing wet clothes and stepping under a piping hot shower. Sheer exquisite bliss!

To be continued...

16 March, 2006

TSV issue 35 now online

TSV 35, the green Sea Devil issue with its very eye-catching front cover by Neil Lambess, is now online.

This issue sees the introduction of a new style of index page that the highly talented Alden Bates is now retrospectively applying to the back catalogue (he's working backwards and at the time of writing has reached TSV 27). The new look has been in development for a few months. Late last year I spent some time delving through the online archive of the New Zealand Listener and inspired by the layout of their index pages for each issue (which sadly only goes back as far as June 2003 - now there's a job I'd like - building an online archive of Listener issues...), mocked up a new index page layout and sent this off to Alden. After a bit of discussion about what did and didn't work, Alden nailed the format you see today.

The big difference with the new index page format, apart from being considerably more pleasing on the eye, is that the issues appear more like online publications in their own right. You still have the option of viewing the old index page (via the 'Print Version' link), but the new format dispenses with the page numbers from the paper edition and is no longer locked down to the sequence in which the items originally appeared in the print issues. The links are now grouped together under subheadings such as 'Features', 'Regulars', 'Fiction', etc, and only the material that actually appears online is listed. It's also pleasing to see the artwork given more prominence in the new look index pages, as this has always been an integral part of TSV.

TSV 35 was published in September 1993. That was the last issue published while I was still living in King Edward Ave in Epsom. A couple of months later I moved to the North Shore, to a street that quite by coincidence, was also called King Edward Ave (though the street has since been renamed Bayswater Ave to avoid confusion and mis-directed mail...)

TSV had few overseas contributors at the time and as such it was thrilling to have Kate Orman write for us about the process of getting her first New Adventures novel commission, for The Left-Handed Hummingbird. The issue also featured a piece of short fiction from Kate, called Dawn. This story had actually been submitted many months earlier, but Kate had mailed it to the old TSV address in Christchurch and the envelope had apparently been forwarded on once or twice before former editor Andrew Poulsen sent it on to me.

This issue saw the return of TARDIS Tales, brought back by popular demand for a second lease of life that, with a few missed issues along the way, would run through to its eventual end in TSV 50.

The Dark Dimension had recently been cancelled, leaving the fans without their promised epic thirtieth anniversary story (the least said about its replacement the better...), and in this atmosphere of doom and gloom its perhaps not surprising that the issue features a couple of opinion pieces (In Memory Alone, The Final Nail) touching on the subject of whether Doctor Who now had a future on television. How times change!

15 March, 2006

With or Without You

The holiday travelogue resumes shortly. During this short intermission I want to follow up an earlier blog entry I made about my quest for tickets to the U2 concert. Yes, that's right, the concert that's happening this weekend. Only it isn't, because late last week the band announced that they were postponing the entire Australia - New Zealand - Japan - Hawaii leg of their Vertigo '06 tour.

Now apparently they've got a very good reason for this - a seriously ill immediate family member of one of the band - and in consideration of that I don't for a moment begrudge them their decision to postpone, but after trying for so long to obtain tickets and finally succeeding, this latest turn of events just feels like another bump in the road. The latest is that the concerts will be rescheduled for as yet unspecified dates in November. Right now that seems like a very long time away.

Until recently, a billboard near where I work displayed an advert which read something like "U2 Will Play With or Without You in Auckland on March 17 & 18. Make sure it's With." Well done to the marketing bod who came up with that one. Of course U2 won't be playing 'With or Without You' - or any other songs - in Auckland this weekend. Perhaps 'Gone' is the apposite U2 song title now?

14 March, 2006

What We Did On Our Holidays (Part 2)

Friday 24 February

A very hot and brilliantly sunny day in Christchurch. We explored the central city on foot in the morning, checking out books, music and DVDs and realising that the shopping isn’t nearly as good as Wellington. Even Christchurch's Real Groovy store doesn't seem nearly as well stocked as their Wellington branch.

In the afternoon I left Rochelle shopping to get a lift out to the rehearsal for Adam and Sandra’s wedding. The wedding was held about 40kms out of Christchurch, on the bride’s family farm, in a remote area of countryside near Darfield. My main task was to start and stop the music during the ceremony but I also helped out with other preparations.

In the evening, myself, Adam and Karl (the best man) returned to the city. I collected Rochelle, who was by now quite hot and footsore from walking around the shops all afternoon and we all trekked off to a lovely outdoor pub called the Dux which specialised in its own specialty beers. I particularly liked the Ginger Tom, an alcoholic ginger beer. We were joined by Morgan and Claire – by a remarkable coincidence Rochelle and Morgan had crossed paths years earlier when Morgan had played the Doctor in a Doctor Who fan video recorded by Rochelle. Morgan had kicked Rochelle’s K9 down a hill. I think she forgave him!

The Dux has lager lamps. A lager lamp is best described as a very tall glass pipe with a beer handle at the bottom. The pipe is filled with beer and we got about three rounds out of each lamp. We got through two of these and were contemplating a third when commonsense prevailed as the groom and best man had an early start the following morning.

Top:The first lager lamp, but not the last....
Bottom: Christchurch Cathedral, seen through beer-goggles round midnight.
(photos taken on mobile phone)

Saturday 25 February

What is it about pub-brewed beer that doesn't leave you with a hangover the morning after?

Alas, this was the day that we bid farewell to our luxury apartment and started roughing it as campers. The morning was spent trekking out to the airport by bus, where we picked up our campervan that would be our home for the next week. We were very fortunate to get the van. We booked well in advance with Escape Rentals but they phoned us just as we were leaving Auckland to tell us that the van they had for us had been badly damaged in an accident by the previous hirers, and they didn't have any other spare vehicles. To Escape's credit they did all the phoning around for us and within a day had jacked up an equivalent-sized van with another rental company, Freedom. We learned when we picked up the van that Freedom had been working quickly to get it fully kitted out for us as it was a new addition to their fleet. All credit to them for doing this for us!

After stopping in at Papanui shopping centre to stock up on supplies we headed out into the rural backblocks of Christchurch for the wedding. There were a number of guests staying in caravans in an adjacent field so turning up in a campervan didn't look all that out of place. The wedding, which was held outdoors in the garden, went without a hitch. The weather was brilliant sunny - a little too hot maybe, so I was glad of having a legitimate excuse to dart into the shade to cue up each music track on iTunes. Unlike hot summer days in Auckland though, Christchurch has a dry heat so you don't get soaked to the skin with sweat, and it was generally quite bearable wearing a suit and tie all afternoon.

We were among the last to leave the wedding reception, after the majority of the guests and the bride and groom had departed for rthe city on a chartered coach, not long before midnight. We found our way through the darkness to our campervan and spent our first night in the middle of a farm paddock, under the stars, discovering that a mattress no thicker than an average paperback novel is not recommended for a good night's sleep.

To be continued...

What We Did On Our Holidays (Part 1)

It has been a few weeks since my last posting. We've been away on a trip aound the South Island and since our return last week we've been caught up with dealing with the sudden and unexpected death of a family member. There's also been the usual re-acclimatising to everyday life that seems comes with any return from an extended time away.

While we were away on our trip I made notes with the intention of posting regular updates here on our progress, but it soon became apparent that there wouldn't be the opoportunity to visit an Internet cafe often enough to achieve this, and it's only now that I've gotten around to deciphering my handwritten scrawl. So here's the first instalment of a diary of our trip, in text and pictures.

Wednesday 22 February

We flew down from Auckland to Wellington on an early morning flight. It takes less time to fly between these two cities than it takes to get from our house to Auckland Airport. Each time I visit Wellington I'm struck by how much better the shopping in Wellington is than Auckland. There seems to be more variety, more range - and more secondhand bookshops too though an old favourite, Bellamys on Cuba St, is closing down.

In the evening we had drinks with a bunch of Wellington TSV readers whom I haven’t seen for simply ages. Rochelle and I stayed overnight in the Comfort Hotel on Cuba St. we had a pokey little hotel room just barely large enough to fit the bed, and windows overlooking the street, which was very noisy even at 2am and sounded like a revolution but was probably just drunken revellers being thrown out of bars. Are these people who have to get up and go to work the next morning...?

Thursday 23 February

Photo: The northern-most tip of the South Island.

An early morning departure from Wellington on the Kaitaki, a large passenger ferry crossing the Cook Strait bound for Picton. We were fortunate not to miss the sailing as the ferry company brought the departure time forward by quarter of an hour and the taxi was late to pick us up. It was a very smooth crossing, to my considerable relief as I’m not good with boats - though Rochelle (who claims to have no problem with them), looked decidedly green for most of the trip! Upon our arrival in Picton the skies quickly darkened and as we made our way on foot to the railway station the rain started to fall. This turned into a storm, apparently causing the delayed arrival of our train. Fortunately by the time it arrived the storm had passed.

Photo: About to board the train in Picton.

The Trans Coastal train from Picton to Christchurch takes about six hours and passes through some dramatic scenery, travelling along the coast close to the waters edge for a long distance, with seals basking on rocks on one side of the train, and rugged hills and snow-capped mountains in the distance on the other. The Trans Coastal has an outdoor observation car, which was a terrific though rather chilly experience. We arrived in Christchurch in the early evening. The railway station is at Addington, which is a suburb of the city and not within easy walking distance of the city centre so we caught a shuttle.

Photo: Our room in the Burberry Apartments.

We’d booked our accommodation online, picking a place called the Burberry Apartments for two nights, for no other reason than it was central and was free the two nights we required. We had little idea what to expect but it was simply delightful. The keys were waiting for us in a safe outside along with instructions. Our apartment was on the first floor, above a clothing store and was one of a number of rooms converted from a converted clothing design company’s premises. The apartment was self-contained with its own kitchen, all wooden polished floors and a lovely four poster bed. Ah, bliss!

To be continued...