Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Milford Sound

The far southwest corner of New Zealand's South Island is known as fiordland. If you take a look at a road map of the island you'll see that this is the place where all roads come to an abrupt halt. From Queenstown we drove to Te Anau, a small little town that serves as a way-station for the fiordland. From where we could either move down to Manapouri and get a boat-bus combination to Doubtful Sound, or else drive up and slightly east to Milford where boats could take us directly out on the waters. We opted for Milford Sound - it was further away and would involve retracing our steps to move on, but it was much less expensive than getting to the more isolated Doubtful Sound.

We never regretted our choice, both the drive there and the 3 hour catamaran cruise around the sound were spectacular. During our week's ramble around these parts we were very lucky with the weather. It's well into Autumn here in the Southern hemisphere, and we've had a lot of rain or cloud cover in Christchurch. On the road we had almost unbroken sunshine. Even though Milford Sound is one of the wettest places on the planet (6.5 m of rain a year; one day in two it rains; a drought is 9 days without rain), the only time we got wet was when the skipper one of the waterfalls that lines the steep sides of the sound. Autumn sunshine brings another great advantage in this part of the world - a variety of leaf colours that are hard to imagine. Every hue possible between gold and deepest red presented itself sooner or later, often as part of a breathtaking natural composition set into the steep mountainsides.

The cruise brought us out to the edge of the sound, to the Tasman Sea. The last time we looked on this body of water it was from the other side - from Sydney. I feel nostalgic for that city more than any I've ever visited, so much so that even looking at the Tasman Sea was a boost. On cue, more than a dozen huge southern bottlenosed dolphins came alongside and in front of the catamaran and surfed on its bow waves. The wild dolphins we fed in Tangalooma seemed even more delicate and alien when compared to these robust creatures. But the same mutual curiousity defined the 10 minutes or so we spend in each other's company. These individuals turned on their sides to look up at us, and reacted enthusiastically when we waved back at them.
From Milford sound

We got back into the car and made a dash south to get to Invercargill in good time for dinner. We would use this town as a launchpad for the Catlins Coast - the southern drive that takes in fossiled forests, and a place called Cannibal bay - on our way to Dunedin. More on that tomorrow.

Duncan from Sydney join us tomorrow for a few days, bringing our number up to 6! Letizia and I realised that in our trip so far we four have never really been alone for long periods. In Sydney and Brisbane we had friends around us (in Brizzy it was more like being part of a big family with the Petts!). China was the place where we relying most on each other's company. We will return to that state when Giovanna leaves us in a few weeks, and things are likely to stay that way until near the end of our trip when we meet up hopefully with Letizia's mum in Peru. We will see, by and by, what kind of challenges that isolation might present.

We're Being Followed!

I don't know how to explain this, but a certain Mr Smiss and his long-time-companion Pernod (an assumed name if ever I heard one), seem to be following in our footsteps. And so closely as to make the experience distinctly uncomfortable for us.

I'll be keeping a close eye on matters.

Queenstown Part II

What goes up, must come down. Newton's fictional apple did, and so did a whole bunch of very real people when they chucked themselves off a perfectly good, and very pretty, bridge just outside of Queenstown. People have been chucking themselves off Kawarau bridge now for quite some time all beccause about 20 years ago, a kiwi gentleman called AJ Hackett decided that he would replicate the Vanuatu ritual of throwing oneself from a tower, with each ankle tied by a vine rope. Using elastic 'bungy's instead of vines, he was able to make a potentially fatal but thrilling experience available to a paying public and he demonstrated its efficacy by doing an unapproved bungy jump from the Eiffel Tower in 1987. Since then, at least 18 people have been killed doing similar jumps, but none of them, as far as I can tell, with AJ Hackett.

I had no interest in doing a jump before coming to NZ (though I am partial to the idea of jumping out of an airplane). The bungy was Letizia's gig. To be more precise, it was Letizia and Simon's gig. We were supposed to meet Si and Leah in Queenstown, but unfortunately it wasn't to be. Little Caitlin discovered a 200km car journey limit, the outer bounds of which were defined by copious amounts of projectile vomit. The Pett family was staying in the North of the South Island, and Letizia was stranded in Queenstown without a jumping buddy.

I offered. I did really offer. And I meant it too. But the sudden change in circumstances rattled Letizia's resolve, and after watching a dozen or so people (all apparently part of the same Japanese family) demonstrate the various ways in which one should, and should not, fall from a height, she opted not to jump. But watch this space. I feel the story has still got legs.

With Christchurch behind us, the planned part of our journey was over. What lay ahead, we would make up as we went along.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Traveling in the 4th Dimension

Try the following thought experiment. Wherever you are sitting right now, relax and close your eyes. Remind yourself that you not moving - that your position is fixed (it's easy to ignore the planetary motion, expansion of the universe etc). Now imagine a clock's pendulum swinging, complete with a tic, toc, tic background noise. Each passing second represents the journey through the fourth dimension that we are all on, like it or not. We are all traveling.

When you move around in space, the passing of time seems to be even more noticeable. Letizia and I spend many's the year moving around the IT contracting trail in Europe before coming back to Ireland, and the longest we stayed put was around 2 years. A byproduct of all this relocation, leaving behind friends and surroundings that had become familiar and comforting, was a reminder that time was slipping by as well. Memories of just a year previously can seem very distant in time if they are also distant geographically, and most of our memories were of that nature. When you stay in the same physical place, the passing of time has a way of creeping up on you.

We're at the halfway point, more or less, of our 8-month trip (hence the admittedly somewhat maudlin tone of this blog). Beijing seems like a very, very long time ago. Just a few days ago, we visited Slope Point - which is not just the southernmost point of New Zealand's South Island, but also the Southernmost point of our journey. Beijing was the northernmost. So at the halfway point of our trip, having spanned the latitudinal extremes of the planned itinerary, who did we meet at Slope Point? A group of Chinese people (from Chengdu in fact), the 'leader' of which lived currently in Australia. I love impromptu living metaphors like this. They're meaningless of course, but I can still have some harmless fun building some meaning around them. The meaning in this case just boils down to a terrible cliche: Time flies when you're having fun. Of course time flies even if you're not - you just don't notice it so much.

The other truth that I was forced to face was how quickly my modest level of basic Mandarin can crumble through lack of use. It's time for me to get back to my studies on Chinesepod (Liping - keep a place for me in class when I get back). So much to do, to see, to learn. And so little time. Better get to it. While stocks last.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Traveling in Cars with Girls

Nina and Sara have been mixing Enid Blyton with JK Rowling over the trip (with an assortment of other good books that we find along the way - Nina is currently reading Maori legends - thanks Ian!). They are reading Famous Five and Secret Seven from Blyton - she still manages to win young readers all this time later. And it does have some entertaining results:

As we march them up yet another bleedin' hill somewhere, just to see what it looks like from the top, they can imagine themselves on Kirrin Island, dealing with some combination of smugglers or spies.

The discovery of Ginger Beer first in print and then in reality (Bundaberg Ginger Beer is readily available all over Queensland) was a big hit. They loved the idea of being able to taste what fuelled the adventures of Julian, Dick, Anne, George - and presumably Timmy the Dog. Unfortunately the novelty couldn't mask the sad fact that they just didn't like the taste so much. Another few months on 'Kirrin Island' should sort that out.

Sara has always had very clear speech - at least we have always been able to clearly make out her words even if, when assembled, they don't always make a lot of sense. Now in addition to precise diction, under the influence of the Famous Five she regularly talks about things being 'quite astonishing' or 'rather exciting'. This sounds odd from a 7-year-old with an Italian mother and an Irish accent.

We've clocked up 1600 km in the last week - it'll be 2000km when we return to Christchurch tomorrow. That's a lot of time for two young girls to stay in a car, so I'll explain how they manage to keep sane. The basic tools of the trade are books and Nintendos DSs. The latter can be overdone (Nina has been seen in the back with a fleece over her head to prevent reflections on her screen - while we drive past some of the most spectacular scenery NZ has to offer), but thankfully batteries tend to wear out so they are forced into a bit of variety. Every now and then we have to intervene and get the girls to engage with their surroundings. No magic going on here - just the usual combination of cajoling and bossing, trying to help them make something personal out of what they are seeing. Nina, for example, loves to get her hands on the camera. Thank goodness for digital photography - she can snap away as much as she wants (ish) and often sees things that we miss.

All of this requires regular stops of course, and that's an important factor. Except for rare occasions when we really have to make point B by a specific time, we take most photo opportunities that present themselves. And here, there is one around each corner. We also use a technique that has been known for a generation in one family (as it is now in ours) as an 'Irene's Safari' (thanks Ludi!). More often than not we take at least one packed lunch - or the ingredients thereof - in the car with us. The weather here has been very kind, and we've had more than one lunch out of the boot of the car. Somehow it's just more fun (and saves a lot of money over even a short amount of time) than stopping in one cafe after another.

When all else fails - and only when all else fails - we resort to singing. Sara specializes in tear-jerkers from Annie the Musical. Nina gives vent to her attitude by belting out Skaterboy by Avril Lavigne. I join in both, in an exaggerated operatic voice. But only in order to bring proceedings to a close. Works every time.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Queenstown Part I

Our new dynamic is very interesting. Letizia and Giovanna take turns at sitting up front, and both of them have their guide books open. Letizia has the book of lies, Giovanna has a french guide. They cross-check accommodation, restaurants and activities for the next stop on the Magical Mystery Tour. Nina and Sara, as ever, divide their attention between books, Nintendo DSs and the scenery. My job, apart from driving and navigation, is to occasionally bore the crap out of everyone by delivering historical sermons based on whatever I've been reading recently on New Zealand. I take this job seriously, and so try to maintain a kind of plummy, condescending tone. Don't feel so smug - it'll be your turn next.

The stop-off in Lake Tekapo was just intended to break up the journey from Christchurch to Queenstown, but it was worth the trip. The lake view from our motel included a backdrop of mountain peaks, recently coated with light snowfall. Down the road from us was a tiny little stone chapel whose alter was backed by a large window that looked out onto the lake. Guidebooks informed us that the perspective on the lake from that window was unique, but the church was in use during our visit. So we, and all the other visitors to the lake that evening, had to make do with the infinity of other unique perspectives on the lake that were on offer. I found the fixation with the church quite odd. The was a concentration of tourist buses which parked outside this little chapel - which really was no bigger than a motel bedroom - so that visitors could pile into a little stone hut and look out on a lake which, if they would just come back out of the stone hut, they would see just as well and without any obstruction (other than that of the little stone hut itself).

We reached Queenstown on day 2, in the darkness, after a relaxed drive that included many stops for photo opportunities. It seemed that around every corner was a different country, and Letizia and Giovanna were kept busy. As ever, on Letizia's blog you'll see plenty of excellent photos of where we've been, and if you read italian (or indeed use Google's site translation service) you'll be able to follow here unique perspective on our trip (without having to file into a little stone church). At this point I have to confess, that whatever the results of the poll on Kiwi extreme activities might result in, we're likely to just go ahead and do (or not do) our own thing. So which Jet Boating is coming in last on the poll, that's what we did first. Not just Jet Boating, but a day trip that took us out to Glenorchy (West of Queenstown and on the same lake), included a 4wd drive to a nearby forest, a short guided walk through that forest, and then a jetboat run up and back down the Dart River. It was money very well spent. Apart from the fact that it was a group activity, we also learned a lot of interesting things as we went along.

The forest that we visited includes a tree called the Red Beech which has some interesting behaviour (if a tree can be said to exhibit behaviour). There's very little topsoil around Glenorchy, and competition between trees can be fierce. The forest has a high and full canopy so the only chance for young trees to stake their own claim is when an older tree falls and leaves a gap up there. The saplings then have to grow upwards like crazy, with no thought for stability, in order to be first to reach the sun. Only when they get there do they start to put on a bit of weight - new growth takes place around the thin girth of the successful sapling. Because it grows from the inside, it also dies from the inside. Old trees are completely hollow all the way up their lengths by the time they finally expire. A byproduct of this race is the saplings ability to stay young and small for years, keeping its powder dry until that vital gap opens up. There have been examples of little 'saplings' that are more than 50 years old.

Part of the bushwalk included a vist to a mocked up Maori encampment, where we were shown a thing or two about bushcraft. One thing that caught my attention was a trick for moving fire embers from one camp to another (saves on lighter fluid I guess). A kind of large fungus (about the same shape and dimensions as a casserole dish) that grows on the sides of trees was buried under the campfire. In the morning it was dug up and was cold enough to handle. But when making camp again that evening, the Maori would break open the fungus where the ember of the previous night's heat still glowed. Some clever bugger figured that one out a long time ago.

We left the forest and drove across the river bed to where the jetboat was waiting to knock all that education out of us. We were able to drive across, as the rivers in these parts are of a type known as braided river systems (only found in NZ, Australia and another country whose name got dislodged from my memory during the subsequent jetboat ride). Again, because of the poor topsoil, the rivers here spread themselves wide rather than digging in. They rise after rainfall, but when the levels fall away again, the river settles down each time into different channels through the mostly dry river bed. The name 'braided' is a good way to describe the visual effect: a stone and gravel strip with rivulets of water weaving back and forth across the its width. The water in places is only ankle deep - but that's all a jetboat needs. Invented in New Zealand not as an extreme sport but as a way for landowners to navigate otherwise unnavigable rivers, they are simple but clever machines. There are no outer propellers. The titanium hull has a water inlet facing forwards and a directable nozzle facing back. Water is sucked from one point to the other at a rate of hundreds of litres a second, creating an extremely directional propulsive force. A picture or two demonstrates the effect of being on board for an hour and a half.

We chilled out, and dined out, in Queenstown that evening, but only after an hour spent watching people throw themselves off a bridge just outside the town. Some decisions had to be made. Would Letizia jump?

More soon.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

And Then There Were 5

We're on a magical mystery tour at the moment. Giovanna joined us in Christchurch and after an Olympian effort to overcome jetlag, we went on the road 2 days later. So far we've been to Lake Tekapo, Queenstown, Te Anau, Milford Sound and we're now in Invercargill. The plan is being made as we go along - something that I'm particularly enjoying.

For such a relatively small country (compared to where we've just come from) New Zealand looks very big. The mountains and plains go on and on, and around every corner there's a different landscape. The mountainous centre of the South Island is completely different to the coast - the latter looking very much like the UK and Ireland. The scale of the Southern Alps is immense. If you want to feel small, come to New Zealand.

Lake Tekapo was a half-way stop on the way to Queenstown, but a good one. And the road that leads from it to Queenstown is a spectacular collection of turquoise lakes, shadowy passes and snowdusted mountains. You can tell you're getting closer to Queenstown because the traffic (what little of it there might be) speeds up. Queenstown is the adrenalin-soaked heart of the area, fuelled by bungy, whitewater, jetboating, skydiving and much else, and it seems to siphon in tourists and spit them out at high speed on the arterial roads that lie on either side. We indulged in a little extreme activity - more on that in a Queenstown post - and two days later we were on the road again. This time to Milford Sound.

I'm getting into blog-debt. I can't do Milford Sound justice without dedicating a post specifically to it. For now, let me say that it was a 300 km trip from Queenstown to Milford Sound, for a 3-hour tour of the waters there. And it was worth every kilometer. That was yesterday. We finished up the day in Milford with a 300km dash to Invercargill (the route brought us close enough to Queenstown again to slingshot off it's heighted energy and reach the South coast). Here, we're positioned for a run along the Southern Scenic Drive (Catlins Coast) to Dunedin, with the option of stopping off overnight if we find something that interests us enough (and weather to enjoy it in - so far we've been extremely lucky on that count).

The dynamic of our group has changed, slightly and effortlessly, with the arrival of Zia Giovanna. This is a group that has worked well in Ireland, Italy and France, so it's no surprise that we get on so well this far from home. As well as being so popular with Nina and Sara, Gio adds two extra camera lenses to the group. Watch here for some of the results (when we get back to Christchurch.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Detailed scientific analysis of the New Zealand accent

I confess - before we left Europe, I couldn't tell the difference between an Australian accent and a New Zealand one. They seemed pretty much the same to me - regional variations at best. But our time spent in Oz has had a profound effect on our perception of accents, and this was revealed to us before our flight from Brisbane ever left the tarmac.

The male member of cabin cabin crew who was making the announcements seemed perfectly alright at first. He went through the normal patter that you associate with buckling into a metal cylinder that has no business moving, much less flying. Then we heard them. The Kiwi vowels. His sentences seemed to hit air turbulence on encountering 'u's and 'i's and 'e's, losing altitude without warning and leaving inexperienced listeners reeling. Then just carrying on as if nothing had gone wrong. We were being asked to stow our luggage in 'overhead buns', that our flight was due to land at 'sux muneets past ee-lee-veen'.

Letizia and I exchanged worried glances. What did he say? She was learning Spanish for South America, I had done my Mandarin duty in China, and we had native speaking guides in Australia to help us with the non-standard noun-ending (you're just getting the hang of stubby, barby, pozzy, and so on, and then they chuck bottle-o and slippery-dip at you). But we had not prepared ourselves, linguistically speaking, for the Kiwi vowels.

On landing in Christchurch, it only got worse of course. We were swimming in 'chully buns' (chilly bin = picnic cooler/esky), with only 'fush and chups' for company. There were many embarrassing episodes where I would turn the most delightfully helpful of waitresses or supermarket cashiers into frowning curmudgeons by the simple repeated use of the phrase "sorry, what did you say". A typical bout would see us locked in a vowel-wrestling hold for up to five repetitions of "sorry, what did you say", before we would break and retreat to our corners, frustrated that we had not understood each other, but relieved that it was over.

But I think I have got to the bottom of the matter now. It's all the Scots' fault. The New Zealanders say their 'u's like 'i's in exactly the same way (to my ear) that Scottish people do. I am well used to the latter accent, and I can totally understand 'Bully Connolly' when he speaks that way. But when you do the same vowel translation against a backdrop of what otherwise sounds reasonably similar to Australian (or 'Strain', as I have seen it defined), then the context throws me completely. So to understand Kiwi, I am using the following trick. I am assuming everyone here is really Scottish, and pretending to be from Australia. Or if that doesn't work, the other way around.

The Australian tone can be reproduced quite easily. Imagine the letter 'y', made out of some very springy, bouncy material. Every Aussie you will ever meet has had one of these (the size may vary) inserted into their mouths at birth. It stops the mouth closing around a simple word like 'no', transforming it instead into a 'noiiiii', the springy letter 'y' bouncing along like a flat stone on water in every decreasing stretches before finally sinking. Marry that elasticity of vowels to the chin-against-the-chest, mischievous murmurings of a Scot, and you have 80% of the Kiwi accent. After that, Mandarin will seem like a piece of puss.

(PS: Somebody armed with more facts and less inclination to parody has come up with a different analysis of the matter, but the Scottish element of my thesis is supported).

Friday, April 18, 2008

Heading to Queenstown

After the by now customary week of sitting on our hands and settling in, we begin our exploration of the South Island tomorrow. We are driving to Queenstown via Lake Tekapo, followed by a trip into the Fiordland. This is real Lord of the Rings territory with dramatic scenary and of course lots of heights to jump from and fast things to cling to.

We'll meet Simon, Leah and Caitlin in Queenstown too. In case I haven't slagged them off enough already, can I point out something quite disturbing about their very presence in NZ? They put us up, and up with us, for 4 weeks (FOUR WEEKS!!!) while dealing with work deadlines and the daily demands of parenting, in their wonderful home in Brisbane. When we finally left them in peace (and in pieces), they celebrated their new found freedom by...taking the next flight to Christchurch. OK - they have the excuse that Leah's brother is living here for a while too, but I'm not sure that is going to save them from this ribbing. The only explanation is that they want to make sure that we really did leave Australia.

I finally got sick of dealing with the Nokia N800's limitations (I'll explain the details in a later post) and picked up an ex-lease Thinkpad here in Christchurch. I'm almost weeping with joy over the keyboard right now. Hope the bugger's waterproof.

Poll Time: Extreme Kiwi Activities

When in Rome, throw yourself off the biggest aquaduct. Or something.

There are more extreme activities to do in New Zealand than I have money to pay for. I'm damned if I'm going over budget again (says the guy who just gave in and bought an ex-lease laptop) so I'll have to decide with of the many madnesses on offer I'm going to do. I need a prioritised list to work my way down until I run out of money. And you can help me compile it.

On the right is a poll gadget with a list of those activities with big price tags that I'm interested in doing. (I can just go without food for a few days in order to afford the lower-price ones.) Which of these items, in your opinion, are mandatory for visitors to New Zealand? You can choose more than one, but please don't just tick them all - perhaps a maximum of three.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Birthdays on the road

We flew into Christchurch by night, declared the red Uluru dust still on our boots, and grabbed a taxi to our new home. We've swapped house for the next 4-6 weeks or so with Ray and Louise who are now settling in to our house back in Cork. The house here is terrific. It's 10 minutes easy drive from the centre of the city, and situated on the slopes to the south of Christchurch that mark the beginnings of the volcanic Banks Peninsula. The view from the window that first night was of a perfectly flat landscape below us, lit up into the distance.

When we woke the next morning to a clear blue sky, we could see the real view. That flat landscape we had seen is called the Canterbury Plains and it stretched in front of us, half way across the South Island, till it hit the Southern Alps. The contrast between the steady plains and the dramatic peaks gives a hint about what life is like here, especially for visitors. Christchurch is known as the most English of NZ cities. The beautifully laid out streets and the tranquility of the parklands give order to the meandering river that runs through it. The river is slow-moving and has been further tamed with the very reassuring name of Avon. But at the heart of the city, in the i-Site information office on Cathedral Square, you can book sky diving, white water rafting, zorbing (I'm particularly partial to this idea) , bungee jumping, ballooning, hang-gliding, skiing and other adrenalin-soaked activities that seem to have nothing to do with Christchurch's mellow setting.

It seems as though Kiwis are compensating for a lack of the lethal beasties and bities that Australia offered, by providing man-made routes to premature death or serious injury. Naturally we will be taking up New Zealand's offer on this. It would be rude not to really.

We have in fact already started. We started the days celebrations (Nina's 9th birthday) in a place called Adrenalin Forest. Here, for a very reasonable NZ$95 (47 euros) for the entire family, we strapped on some harnesses and spent 2 hours battling with our fears of height in an obstacle course that ran (for us) up to 6 metres from the forest floor, but could go to 17 meters for adults. The course included flying foxes where you clip yourself to a cable, leave go and think about how you're going to cope with the impact of the fast approaching tree. It wasn't easy for us, never mind the girls, and Nina and Sara had to really work through their fears (while Letizia and I tried unsuccessfully to mask ours) in order to complete the course. Let's just say that Nina had to prove today that she was a big 9-year-old. And she surely did.

Where are the brakes?!?

Trust me Sara - I'm an engineer!

After that heart-pounding start to the day we decided to try a more traditional route to cardiovascular trauma by having lunch in McDonalds. As with the Adrenalin Forest event, we were joined by Simon, Leah and Caitlin (yes - our Brisbane hosts. I really will have to explain in a post soon how it is that this long-suffering family managed to find themselves yet again surrounded by Lawlors). We had a quorum to convene a birthday party, complete with chocolate cake and candles, and of course pressies. Nina made her annual pronouncement that this was the best birthday like ever. We rounded off the day with was was supposed to be a nice quiet movie but as it turned out, The Spiderwick Chronicles probably bruised whatever heart muscle escaped the first two activities.

Over the next few weeks we'll have to make some decisions about what kind of activities we are most interested in. As ever, the budget is limited, and we have no desire to blow it out again like we did in Australia. So if anyone out there has any opinions on which extreme Kiwi adventures we should absolutely not miss out on, then please drop a comment and let us know. I feel another poll coming on...

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Book of Lies

Readers of this blog might be aware of this semi-affectionate name we've used for our Rough Guides, both on China and Australia. It looks like we'll have to revise that to being Book of At Least Partial Truths, given that its main competition seems to be even worse.


It's a sin against nature for a child above a certain age to believe that their parents are cool, even worse to openly declare this belief. So imagine my concern when Nina (8-about-to-be-9, and therefore well past aforementioned certain age) suggested a few weeks ago that she had cool parents. When I challenged her on this she insisted somewhat impatiently: "Sure you're cool. You're taking us around the world, aren't you?".

This is a worry.

I had it all planned out - or at least confidently predicted - shortly after she was born. Nina has a software engineer for a dad, a doctor of law and stay-at-home mamma, but her Italian aunt Giovanna lives in Paris and moves between fashion/art photography to dealing in antiques without visible effort. It's her job to be cool. It's her job to be right where Letizia and I are wrong, and provide for the you just don't understand me like Giovanna does (slam!!!) moments. And of course when Nina is old enough, it'll be to Gio that Nina will go on holidays, and certainly not anywhere with her parents.

So this new-found coolness of ours is upsetting everything. And it is new-found, by the way. Before we left Ireland last December, if you had asked Nina about whether she was excited about the trip, she would have said "not really". She wanted to stay with her friends, and her cousins, and of course her classmates. Was there anything she was looking forward too? The Great Wall of China? The Great Barrier Reef? The Big (if not indeed also Great) Pineapple of Woombye? Nope. But if you caught her in one of her more adventurous moods, she would confess a certain curiosity for a pair of cats in Christchurch, New Zealand. You see the first leg of our New Zealand trip was to be a house-swap (arranged through HomeForExchange) with a English/Kiwi couple called Ray and Louise. An optional part of this swap included the company of Satie and Willard, the resident cats. So in a nutshell, Nina was begrudgingly allowing us to take her and her sister to 8 new countries, across 3 continents and 2 hemispheres, on a trail littered with World Heritage listings, diverse cultures and climates, stocked with a zoological cornucopia of exotica, on condition she could make friends with a pair of antipodean moggies.

Now this is the kind of infuriating, illogical, and downright ungrateful behaviour that I am most comfortable with. This was child-parent communication in a language I could understand. Then it all went horribly, horribly wrong: As the trip began, so both Nina and Sara began to enjoy it.

As the fog of jet lag cleared in Beijing, they got into their stride. It was hard for them not to love the pandas in Chengdu, or the sweet treats in Xi'an. But they also developed a taste for the Shanghai marketplace haggling and the strangeness of Chinese buildings. And they were seeing things with minds much less tainted by the false familiarity of TV documentaries than we were. When we reached Australia, where they could actively engage with their surroundings thanks to the language, where we weren't moving at such a frenetic pace, and where we were meeting many new (to them) friends, things kicked up a notch. They couldn't bear to leave Sydney, or then Melbourne, then they didn't want to move on from Cairns, and finally they didn't want to say goodbye to Simon, Leah and Caitlin in Brisbane (they didn't as it happened - more on that in a later blog entry). And somewhere in those 12 Aussie weeks, Nina used the c-word against me: Cool, she said. And she meant it.

Cool doesn't sit well with me. Cool leads to teenage conversations that start with what a great dad I am and end with car keys getting handed over. I've never been cool, and so I'm entirely unsure how to manage it, and if I get used to being cool then I'm sure I'll start worrying about losing the status (by not handing over car keys or similar acts of willful parental spite).

But I'm playing the long game. I'm quietly optimistic that it won't last, that it's a temporary aberration that time and continued exposure to 'daddy humour' will heal. There are indications of a return to normality. As I write this, Nina and Sara are fast asleep here in Christchurch, with Willard purring gently at the bottom of their bed, and Willard and Satie have proved themselves to be as big a highlight of the trip as anticipated. Tomorrow Nina turns 9 and Sara has just turned 7 (every year brings us closer to the very uncool parents years). And in two short days, Zia Giovanna flies in from Paris.

Cool doesn't stand a chance.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Leaving Oz

Oz. A suitable name for a place which is partly magical, partly fictional, and well, not Kansas. Before we came here, all I knew of Australia was what I had read, and what learned from Australians directly through a number of friendships. My impressions of the place were overwhelming positive. But now Australia has become much more - instead of the printed page and second-hand reports, I have personal memories that I will always be able to call on. Now my view on Australia is based on direct experience, distorted undoubtedly by baggage and the special atmosphere that accompanies a trip like this.

I'm heartbroken to leave the place, but at the same time, I'm already beginning to feel the excitement of arriving in a new destination, New Zealand. (I am a fickle bastard.) Letizia has done a wonderful job of summing up (in English) what we owe, and how meagerly we have paid, for the many kindnesses shown to us by so many people here in Australia. There is nothing I can add to what she has written, so instead I'll offer some last words on Australia. For what it's worth, here are my 2 Australian cents...

Australia is a particle collider. It takes elements from many different sources and bangs them together at high speed, each time creating something new. It is too diverse to define but still hangs together in a way that works, defying expectations.

They drive on the left here, they speak English, and many of them even look quite English (or a tanned version of English). Many of the cities have leafy suburbs that would easily blend into an English storyline. The coins have the profile of Queen Elisabeth II stamped on them, and the national sports include cricket and rugby. But this isn't England. Your bank manager might address you as 'dahl' (darling), you might think nothing of shopping in your bare feet - or at least not be too surprised to see somebody else do so. At the end of a busy day, you might relax on your balcony or veranda with an excellent local wine and listen to the amusical raspings of parrots, the insane guffaws of kookaburras, or any number of other birdsongs that you'll never hear in the UK. You might be able to set your watch by the first signs of rabbit-sized bats moving across the dusk sky. In short, Nature will make clear to you with every sight, sound and smell that you are somewhere very different to the old Mother country.

Despite the ties to an English way of life, this isn't some island orphan of a defunct sea-going empire. This is a nation of its own, born of Europe but long since grown up and moved out. And yet it has Europe in its DNA and a cultural and political heritage that anyone from Europe can recognise and bond with at once.

In the meantime, the older culture on this continent has been all but wiped out, and even if today some amends have been made, and some attempts are underway to conserve the wisdom of the Australian aboriginal, this is all being done within the social and economic context of the conqueror. The trip to Alice and Uluru set me thinking that any talk of a solution to the Aboriginal Problem is premature. The problem itself continues to unfold. 230 years is an instant in historical time, and the impact of the white invasion on the black population is still revealing itself in different ways. You can no more speak of a solution to it, than you can talk of rebuilding a city while the earthquake is still shaking it. I hope this doesn't sound to pessimistic, but that's how it seems to me. (It will be very interesting to compare the condition and fate of the Maori in New Zealand to that of the Australian First Owners.)

The many faces of Australia - natural, human, historical - are hard to bring together into one picture. Many of them seem unrelated while others quite simply clash. How can you say that tropical Queensland and downtown Melbourne belong together? Where is Australia? In the red sands of Uluru or in the golden dunes of Fraser Island? Is the whitefella a survivor, a pioneer, a refugee, or is he a conqueror, a thief, a murderer? Is the blackfella a sage, an ecologist, an artist? Or is he a drunk, a bum, a loser? These are ideas that are about as mutually compatible as urinals and open-toed sandals (though Australians seems to take that combination in their stride too!). But that's how it appears here - the fabric of this superficially young, but in reality ancient country is woven from impossibly different threads. It seems to me that those threads are held together by something other than knee-jerk nationalism. The stark isolation of Australia seems to have forced and forged a cohesion in this country that is the envy of many older nations in the Northern hemisphere. What makes Australia work? It's the people, stupid!

A few weeks back, when we were resting for two days in Depot Beach, I listened to a talk show on one of the national radio channels to an interview with an Australian moral philosopher. He was talking about a great many interesting things but eventually came to the subject of what made Australians different. By way of describing that difference, he told the story of a German Jewish refugee who was being interned in Australia during WWII (not because he was Jewish, but because he was German). The internment camp was in the middle of nowhere (they sure have plenty of nowhere here) and he was being marched at the tail end of a line of other internees towards the camp. All of a sudden, the soldier guarding him stopped, handed him his rifle and said "Here, hold this. I need to go for a piss". Australians in general have no respect for bad rules. (Above and beyond the point of the story itself, I just love the fact that in Australia, moral philosophers say "piss" on national radio.)

In a few hours we'll be landing in Christchurch, New Zealand, where we have a house-swap arranged for the coming weeks. It's also Sara's 7th birthday today, which we've celebrated in an orgy of sugar at the breakfast table - again thanks to Simon and Leah for organising balloons, cake and the other necessaries. Now Sara's going to do a Phil Collins on it, and jump on a plane to celebrate the rest of her birthday across the Tasman Sea. Next post from NZ.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Quick Note: Irish Times

I've just received an email from Manchán Magan (you may remember him from such posts as The Big Adventure) telling me that he's penned a piece for the travel section of the Irish Times that mentions this trip. It's coming out this Saturday and I think will also be available to read here from that date.

He tells me he's written it 'a little tongue in cheek', so I have no idea what to expect and in fact I'm expecting the worst! But hey - there's no such thing as bad publicity, right? Right!?!

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The Rock

Near the start of our 6-hour bus trip from Alice Springs to Uluru (Ayres Rock), our driver Gordon pointed out that if we were to get off the bus, leave the road and walk westwards, we would be more likely to encounter the Indian Ocean than to encounter another human being. And that'd be something like 2000km later, so much more likely again would be a lingering death in the desert. At first I didn't think too much about this - I've read a dozen similar parables from just about every book I've read on Australia. But now that I found myself in the desert for the first time, I looked at things a little closer. I imagined doing exactly what Gordon described. The thought occurred to me that even if I just wandered for 30-40 minutes westwards, I wouldn't be too sure that I could even make my way back to the road, as I could distinguish no landmarks. And if I couldn't find the road, then I might as well be half way to the Indian Ocean as far as my chances of survival are concerned. Northern Territory, where both Alice and Uluru lie, makes up a little shy of one fifth of Australia's area, but has a population of only 210,000 people. Or put another way, NT is 20 times bigger than Ireland, with 20 times fewer inhabitants. The very idea of providing universal mobile phone coverage here is preposterous, so anywhere outside of major population centres, you can forget about phoning for help.

And yet this road through the dead heart of Oz serves as the boundary between some of the various cattle stations (cow farms to you and me) that operate out here. These can encompass enormous areas - approaching the size of Belgium, or Connaught (and making the latter look like bounteous meadowlands). Occasionally we saw cattle, alone or bunched in twos or threes, meandering around the bush, grazing on who knows what. Maybe the word desert is misleading here. It's not the Sahara, with nothing but sand dunes as far as the eye can see. If you look from the road, you'll see lanky trees to a height of 4 or 5 metres in some places, bushes and scrub occupying the middle area, and course grasses in the foreground. Only occasional glimpses of red sand can be made out. But when you step into the landscape, you realise that all that vegetation is thinly spread out, and 80% of the space is bright oxidized red sand. This is why the cattle stations are so damn big - around here, a single head of cattle needs 2 square kilometers (200 hectares) to feed itself. This is almost the definition of marginal land. As we move closer and closer to Uluru, the cattle stations fall away. There's clearly just no point in trying.

I'm glad we spent a night in that shithole of Alice Springs (there you go Dunc, self-censorship lifted ;-) if only because the journey by bus sets Uluru into context in a way that flying directly to its airport could never do. It's far away from everything and everywhere. We spent the next 2 days visiting two major sites: The Olgas (Kata Tjuta) and Ayres Rock (Uluru), and Letizia has outdone herself with the photographs this time. The walks we did were not terribly strenuous though in the heat, and constantly beset by flies, even small efforts took their toll. Poor Nina and Sara: they've been marched up and down over the last 3 months, but they are still going strong. What really helped their resilience this time was the purchase of two really cute hats that look like they're straight out of Crocodile Dundee. They couldn't believe their eyes when their normally cautious parents loosened the purse strings a little and treated them to these hats. They wore them proudly up the gorge between the Olgas, and around the base of Uluru at ungodly hours of the morning. A great investment. I suspect you won't see a single picture of them from here on in without the hats.

Sunset on the rock is truly beautiful, and it does change colour continuously as the sun reaches the horizon. The place where most people watch it from isn't too busy - you can certainly get away from the noise if you want to. But it's not a spiritual experience - and I'm not just saying that because I'm the crusty old Cartesian my wife describes me as. It's a beautiful sight, it's a relaxing experience, a great backdrop for a glass of wine and a stupid grin, but sunset from Fraser Island will remain with me forever.

Before coming to Uluru I had read of the handover of 1985, when the government of Bob Hawke decided to recognize the title of the indigenous people of Uluru (the Anangu) to this land. I was looking forward to seeing a part of Australia that was in the hands and under the management of the first owners. This was pretty naive of me. When the handover took place, Uluru was already a National Park at the time, not to mention a popular tourist destination. The deal reached between Hawke and the Anangu hinged on the condition that the Anangu lease the land back to the federal government for the next 99 years. There was no visible sign of black ownership anywhere. There were plenty of references to local culture and lore from the (white) guides and in the resorts literature. But then again, in modern Australia, such references are everywhere. You'll find Dreamtime stories related to the creation of the moon and the stars in Sydney Observatory but it hasn't been handed over to the long-eradicated Eora people. It seems that it will take many more generations - maybe longer than a 99-year lease will provide for - for the aboriginals to assume the real day-to-day management of this, or any other, large project.

The Anangu never lived around Uluru - it wouldn't support a permanent human presence. They visited for special occasions, like rites-of-passage ceremonies. They would also come after rainfall and make the best of the increase in edible flora and fauna (digging up honey ants seems to have been a favourite treat in this area), but like most aboriginals, they moved around to allow the earth to recover and regenerate, sometimes giving it a helping hand by setting fire to it before leaving. (In case this sounds a little crazy, firestick farming has only recently begun to be understood scientifically as an effective way to convert scrub into grazing - supporting the kind of wildlife that the aboriginals liked to hunt.) In a harsh environment like this, where man made no pretension to conquer nature by farming, but instead had to make do with living within its limitation, the aboriginal population itself rose and fell, matching the numbers of animals and plants that it fed on. It sounds primitive, but population control is a complicated matter, and one that modern societies would do well to learn (says the man with two kids).

To those who voted for us to go to Uluru, thank you. I'm very glad we went, and would have regretted missing it. In fact my only regret about going is that we didn't spend another night and go to see King's Canyon. But I think a 17% budget overrun is quite enough, don't you?

I've got one more blog in me before we leave for New Zealand on Saturday - something to summarize the Australian experience if that's possible. Thanks for continuing to follow the blog (or indeed thanks for visiting if you've just arrived).

Without any attempt to relate this to anything I've just written, spare a thought for this gentleman:

We encountered him on the road to Uluru from Alice. Those are camels that you can see there, and they are harnessed to the motor-less carcass of some old car. What you probably can't see are the solar panels on top, and the laptop inside. Apparently this guy has been wandering the backroads of Australia for over a decade now, sustaining himself with casual work wherever he stops. He's German apparently, and before the car, he had an old cart whose wheels were big enough to allow him to travel along the dried river beds. Now he has to content himself with sharing the road with the likes of us. For all I know, the chap has his own blog out there, but I'm stuffed if I can find it. Next time you think it's a crazy dream to up stakes with your family and travel around the world for no good reason, remember - there is always somebody out there crazier than you.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Mrs Todd's Billabong

Alice Springs started life as a telegraph station. It's half way between Adelaide in South Australia and Darwin in the Northern Territory. That is to say it's about 1500 km from both of them, and further again from the East and West coasts. Much further. In 1865, the British parliament approved the construction of a telegraph line to stretch from Port Augusta in Southern Australia, across the emptiness of Central Australia, to Darwin with the ambition of connecting eventually to the telegraph line in Java, and so on to Mother England. (Just 57 years earlier, it had taken a full year for the news of the Sydney mutiny against Governor Bligh to reach London - this was real progress.) Alice Springs was the halfway point and a repeater station for that telegraph line.

By the time we landed in Alice Springs airport, we had flown two and a half hours over, well, mostly nothing. Below us, the pale colours of uncharitable Australian farmland gave way to the completely unworkable sands that make up the Red Centre. Once we got off the aircraft and walked to the terminal building (it was well hidden belong scrub on the edge of the runway, giving us the impression of having landed on an abandoned airstrip), that red sand started to accumulate on our shoes. A brief but costly taxi ride through the unimaginatively named Gap to the centre of Alice Springs left us outside the Aurora hotel, ready to check in, unpack and explore.

Within one hour of getting there, I sent the following text to Simon back in Brisbane: "Alice is a hole". Nothing happened in the intervening hours of our stay to make me revise this opinion.

The town was originally called Stuart (as in Stuart highway - the road that follows the route opened up by explorer John Stuart) but was changed to Alice Springs in the 1930s. So who the flip is Alice? She was the wife of Sir Charles Todd, the top man in South Australia's postal service. The 'Springs' in question were in fact a Billabong - a seasonal and sometimes stagnant waterhole rather than a clean source of fresh water. The river through Alice was named the Todd river after Charles himself, but in these parts rivers are not the permanent fixtures that most of us are used to. The Todd river hasn't passed though Alice for more than two years. It's just a dried up riverbed, marked out by gum trees that can tap the remaining underground water. So both Alice and Charles were unfortunate enough to have given their names to geographic entities that, for most practical purposes, don't exist.

The Alice Springs that we were expecting doesn't exist either. The town that started life as a telegraph station is now home to a node on the US military communications network, and manned by as much as 2000 Americans (I saw none - perhaps they don't exist either). The technology has changed, but the function remains the same: take a signal from point A and forward it to point B. The Book of Lies (aka The Rough Guide to Australia) told us we would find a metropolitan atmosphere, in part thanks to the large US population. What we found was a flyblown, unwelcoming shambles, that didn't extend to any great extent beyond the central pedestrian section of Todd Street. Most of the aboriginals in sight were either propped like sacks of potatoes at the edge of the road, or wandering the public spaces aimlessly. Every now and then a group of young kids on BMX bikes flits across the road or path, like a small flock of birds, causing cars to brake suddenly. There's a piece of graffiti that reads "Fuck Racist Cops" where somebody has crossed out the first word and replaced it with "Support". Both of these sentiments seem to me in keeping with the atmosphere of this town.

All the aboriginal art dealerships we saw were in white hands. I heard English, Scottish, Australian and Dutch accents coming back across the desk at us, as we wandered from shop to shop looking for something that we'd like to buy. We eventually found some pieces that we liked - one for ourselves and another for Simon and Leah - in the Mbantua Gallery.

We left at 6am the following morning on a six hour bus trip to Uluru (more on that later). It's the first place we've been to in Australia that I have no desire to revisit.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Tangalooma: Close Encounters of the Preferred Kind

As an indication of how long we've been in Australia now (11 weeks), we think nothing of rolling off names like Tangalooma, Uluru, Wollongong, and so on. Wagga Wagga still solicits a gentle giggle, but even that's settling down now.

The aforementioned Tangalooma is a resort on the West coast of Moreton Island - another Sandy Island off the Queensland coast, but this time just a hour's boat trip from the Centre of Brisbane. Like Fraser, there's lots to do there, but where Fraser has dingos, Tangalooma has dolphins. Wild ones that swim to the beach most nights, and which you can get to feed under very controlled circumstances. We left Brizzy at 10:am and got back at 9:00 pm, and I'm hard pushed to account for much of what we did there. We didn't do the helicopter rides, we didn't do the quad biking, we didn't even walk as far as the wrecks that lie on the beach, preferring to just snorkel close to the resort itself. The most strenuous activity of the day was a half-hour kayaking which Nina really enjoyed, but Sara considered to be "a little bit boring actually". Partly we were saving money (it wouldn't do to turn up at Duncan's house expecting bed and board after skiting around in a helicopter a few days previously), but partly we were just kicking back and chilling out. As well as the four of us, there was Leah and little Caitlin who came along for the trip, so we six make camp on the edge of the beach within easy reach of sea and pool, and let the day stretch lazily (Leah was kept a little busy taking care of Caity but she a professional and found the time to send Simon - who is doing absurd hours in the office - a little picture of our surroundings. He replied with a picture from his desk. Two screens, he has! I was very jealous. Honestly.)

Another reason perhaps that we didn't run around trying to do everything available on the island is that we were there principally to experience the arrival of the 9 or so regular dolphin visitors to Tangalooma, and if possible, get to feed them. The dolphins come in at sunset, which in Queensland is around 6:00 pm (Queensland does not observe Daylight Saving/Summer time - something related to a morbid fear of sun-faded curtains). By this time we were all nicely sun-tired, and beach-faded, and I personally was experiencing a dramatically reduced attention span, hanging round the jetty, almost forgetting why I was there. Funny how a dorsal fin can change all that.

The dolphins could be seen making their unhurried way from the South, in the shallow water along the beach. There was a hydrophone in the water at this point, picking up the clicks and squeaks they were producing, and playing it to the crowd of 100 or so people waiting around the darkening jetty. There wasn't a single announcement, not a single explanation, from the marine biologists who were managing this event. They just let the dolphins do the talking, and it was sublime. The atmosphere was such that when the animals finally approached the jetty, and we could see them clearly though the shallow transparent water, I felt like I was in an alien encounter. A good 30 minutes passed where the 8 individuals who turned up that night did the talking and put on a beautiful display of swimming, hunting and good old-fashioned jack-assing in front of the delighted crowd. It was clear that some were younger than others, and at least one juvenile was inseparable from its mother. A group of 3 or 4 writhed about together for a while, right in front of where I stood with Nina, until they stopped, and one by one stuck an eye above the surface to look right at us. One family, gazing at another. Each as curious, it would appear, as the other.

At 6:30 it was time for the public to feed the dolphins, so we queued up on the beach, and followed the precise instructions of the biologists: rinse off any sun cream - it irritates the dolphins' eyes; wash hands thoroughly in disinfectant, and no touching the animals. When it was time for Nina and I to enter the water, we held the fish in the way we were told, put our hands under water, and watched spellbound as Storm and Silhouette rolled over, approached us, and very very gently relieved us of the fish that had been stinking up our hands in the queue.

I've never been one to get too excited about dolphins - I certainly would never ascribe to them the human level of intelligence that some New Age commentators seem to do. But this was unmistakably an encounter with intelligent, beautiful, graceful beasts, that will have a lasting effect on how I see them. Once more, in the age of TV, we feel like we've already seen everything. And it a way, we have. There was no surprise to me in their physical appearance, or in the grace and strength they displayed in the water. I've seen Jacques Cousteau documentaries since I was younger than Nina and Sara. But for some strange reason I was as excited and moved by the actual physical proximity to these 8 dolphins as were Nina and Sara. I can't quite say why, but I'm glad it felt that way.

Letizia has posted on Tangalooma, and as ever has included some great photos. All of the dolphin shots were taken by Leah, except for the ones with the resort logo in the corner.

If you find yourself in Brisbane, and don't have the time to go to Fraser, then make it as far as Tangalooma. You won't be sorry.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Update on Uluru

We're going. And as my father would say, to hell with poverty.

The whole trip will cost about 2 weeks' worth of Australia but will last just three nights. But in the end it was a no-brainer - and all the nicer that the poll results back us up (I should point out that things were neck-and-neck on Letizia's blog's poll, with the 'si' camp shading it). We both feel that if Uluru provides anything like the level of lasting impact that Fraser Island gave, then it will have been worth blowing the budget for (sorry, re-allocating funds - thanks Andrew).

Duncan, better start working on those blow-up matrasses.