Friday, May 30, 2008


We packed our gold mining gains, and a souvenir pan (you never know) from Shantytown into the car, and continued northwards towards Greymouth and ultimately Punakaiki. This place is famous for its pancake rocks and its blowholes. The pancake rocks are a cliff formation peculiar to the area, formed underwater by marine animals obligingly turning into layers of limestone, sequentially and over a period of tens of millions of years. The finished product was thrust out of the sea by an earthquake, to form cliffs. The blowholes are holes (unsurprisingly) in the pancakes through which large volumes of liquid (maple syrup say, or perhaps just seawater) are squeezed at high tide. You can just see why people flock here. Just.

Punakaiki was the only other stop off on the West Coast that we thought was within easy striking distance and even vaguely interesting. Our expectations weren't high, and in one important way they were met: The food west of the Alps continued to disappoint. Had we eaten some of the pancake rocks themselves, rather than the disagreeable stodge for which we exchanged perfectly good real money in Punakaiki's only tavern, we would have been no worse off. If this is what the locals themselves regularly eat then clearly there is another variety of blowhole here whose eruptions are independent of the tide.

But all that was to come later.

When we first arrived, we went straight to the rocks, and took the path that led in a circuit from the main road to the cliffs, through abundant flax growth, and back. It was close to sunset and Letizia started snapping away in light that perfectly displayed the strange formations. There was something strange in the atmosphere that at first I put down to the rocks themselves, the noise of the waves' impact underneath us, and to the isolation lent by the surrounding flax.

But after the light had faded and we had found our motel - situated on a tiny sliver of land with the darkened beach on one side and an even darker enormous cliff on the other - I realised what it was that had struck me as odd earlier on. Since leaving Cork, we've either travelled inland, or on the eastern seaboards of enormous landmasses. This family of islanders had just seen a sunset over the sea for the first time in 5 months.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

MTV (Maori Television)

[Updated May 30th to sort out cut&paste problems in first paragraph]

When you switch on the telly for the first time in New Zealand, you'll find that one of your viewing choices will be in a language that you have probably only heard before on the rugby pitch, when the All-Blacks perform their famous haka. The Maori language is like nothing I've ever heard before, and strange to a European ear. But when James Cook (there he is again) made contact with the people of New Zealand in 1769, he had on board somebody who could understand these men, and could make himself understood. That man was called Tupaia, a Tahitian chief picked up during the first part of the Endeavour's voyage. The reason that Tupaia understood the Maori is because the Maori, like Tahitians, are Polynesians, and speak languages that come from the same sub-family of Austronesian. The Polynesian people swept eastwards across the Pacific from 1200BC until 1000AD, starting from Taiwan and inhabiting island after empty island, eventually doubling back to find Earth's last big true Terra Nullius, New Zealand. And they did it a good six to eight hundred years before Cook passed by.

When you first enter the country, even at the airport, you see the Maori language all around you. Like Ireland, official signage is always bilingual. Like Ireland, certain terms in the one language have found their way into the other. Most white Kiwis will know what mana is or what whakapapa means - not just words but even Maori concepts form part of New Zealand's shared vocabulary. The cross-fertilization works both ways. After Cook had moved on, and traders and whalers moved in, the Maori needed to expand their own language to deal with things they had never seen before, and they used transliterations, just like we've heard in the Chinese language a few months ago. For example hipi renders the idea of the then-unknown sheep and pata sounds like the foodstuff that the Maori had never know, due to the lack of large mammals on the islands: butter. (I have no idea where Lake Wanaka got it's name...)

Take all these things together - Maori Television, a single Maori language respected with dual signage, a keen sense from white New Zealanders (Pakeha) of Maori culture - and you get an outsider's feel for the difference between the situation of the Australian aboriginal and the New Zealand Maori. The Maori suffered under colonization, make no mistake. At one stage during the late 1800s most whites believed - many with regret - that this was a people doomed to extinction. But they survived conquest better than the Australian peoples, and adjusted with greater ease into an essentially European political framework.


At the moment, I'm reading another, older Jared Diamond book called Guns, Germs and Steel. Diamond offers an explanation for what he describes as the "broad pattern of history": how Europeans (or at least Eurasians) came to conquer the rest of the planet, rather than Africans, Native Americans, or Australians. I'll wait till I finish the book before trying to summarize it on this blog, why the fates of the Maori and the Australian First Owners have differed so much.

For now, let's look at another related New Zealand story that Guns, Germs, and Steel relates. The book starts with a discussion on the spread of the Polynesians across the Pacific. This is because that movement serves as a kind of Human History in a Nutshell, a small isolated example of what happened globally when anatomically modern Man spread from Africa to almost every corner of Earth. The islands that they conquered or filled varied enormously in climate, size, isolation and domesticatable plants and animals. Over the two millennia of exploration, the inhabitants of each of these islands tended to lose their cultural memory, forgetting where they had come from and simply adapting to conditions on each of the islands. The starkest lesson that can be gleaned from these adaptations lies in the story of the Moriori people of the Chatham Islands.

When they settled in New Zealand, the people who came to be known as the Maori brought with them some domesticated crops (the earliest Polynesians were already farmers). Some of the crops they had didn't thrive in the colder climate even on the North Island, but others did and the Maori people came to depend on agriculture more and more, especially after they hunted the larger flightless birds on New Zealand to extinction (the Moa being the most well-known example). By the time New Zealand was fully colonized by the Maori, they were organized into territorial tribes. At any moment in time, some tribes were at war with each other, while others cooperated (a perfectly normal state of human affairs). Some time before 1500, a group of Maori left NZ and settled the Chatham Islands, 800km East of where I'm sitting now in Christchurch. Life on the Chathams was not the same as where they had come from - it was too cold even for the few crops that remained to the Maori. But it was abundant in seafood. The Chatham Islanders reverted to a hunter-gatherer way of life and while this was the right choice (indeed their only choice) for survival in these conditions, it was the wrong choice geopolitically and it sealed the Moriori's fate.

In order to survive on an island that could support no more than 2000 people, they developed a strategy for dealing with conflict that excluded outright war. It wasn't strictly pacifist - you could still take a stick to your neighbour in a ritual fight. But once you drew blood, that was as far as you were allowed to go. There was no food surplus, nor way of storing it, that would in any case have provided for maintaining even temporary armies. There were precious few natural resources that could have provided for weapons. If the Chatham Islanders had kept up their Maori ways, they would have wasted what the islands had to offer, and died out.

When contact was next made with the Moriori people, by whaling and sealing ships around 1800, the word was brought back to the Maori in New Zealand of islands that were bountiful and inhabited only by a group of people who had no concept of weapons or war, and simply no idea how to defend themselves against outside aggression. A total of around 800 Maori chartered a European ship, and went to settle the Chathams. Those of the unfortunate Moriori who escaped slaughter tried repeatedly to negotiate their way to peace (it was all they knew) but merely ended up as the slaves of the Maori. The consequent genocide was practically complete in 1933 when the last full-blooded Moriori died.

By recounting this story I am not criticizing the Maori - what they did was in complete accordance with what they would have expected to suffer if they were defeated in war themselves. Nor am I saying that the Moriori are to be commended for their pacifism - their lack of defence was not a principled stand as such, but simply due to the fact that as a people they had forgotten how to fight. The real tragedy as I read it, is the fact that neither side understood that they were brothers, separated by just a few hundred years. And the immediate lesson that I take from it is that, if you extrapolate out the 2000 years of Polynesian colonization to the 40,000 years of the movement of modern Man, you are left with the similar conclusion that every one of the current wars raging on the planet right now is a war between brothers. That is not a liberal, bleeding-heart opinion. It is, to steal a phrase from Stephen Jay Gould, a contingent fact of history.

Selling up to travel

Just to put our own little trip into perspective, check out this family from Florida. They're selling the family home, and embarking on a round-the-world trip for a year with their three teenaged sons. The have a blog too, which I will definitely be subscribing to.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Flash in the Pan

We stayed a second night in the Glowworm cottages, and already traumatized by the truely awful food available in the local pubs, we decided to play it safe and 'take the soup' on offer from our hosts, and hang out in the lounge for the evening. The next morning we headed back north again on our way to Punakaiki - home of pancake rocks and blow holes (what now?)

But before arriving there, we stopped off in a place called Shantytown, just outside of Greymouth. Shantytown is a reconstruction of a goldmining town. So much of white New Zealand history is bound up with this metal. It's discovery secured the future of the then-colony, attracting tens of thousands of prospectors from all over the world. The most exciting activity in Shantytown by far (even more exciting than the ham and cheese sandwiches) was panning for gold. Here, you are guaranteed a find. You're given a pan with stone and a very small amount of real gold, and instructions on how to pan. I was helping Nina and Sara (by edging them out of the way in order to make sure that they didn't lose whatever miniscule amount was in the pan) and discovering how unnervingly addictive it could be to stare into a pan of gravel, looking for flashes of gold.

The place was very quiet - it is off season - and felt all the more twee for the lack of crowds. There was a ride on a steam train which went all of 100 meters in one direction, before reversing back again.

I'd like to say that 5 months on the road has raised Nina and Sara's expectations and standards when it comes to entertainment. But it hasn't - they loved this place. To be fair to them, they loved the fact that the found gold and got to take it away with them. And I suppose to be even fairer to them, deep down I really like that they can enjoy a place like this without turning their noses up at it.

Interestingly enough, when we were there we met a lady from Clare (where my dad is from) who lived in the UK now but who had a niece in Carrigaline (where we call home). So if you're from Carrigaline, and you have an auntie Bridie (who's married to a kiwi) - she says to say hello!

Monday, May 26, 2008

Walking on Water

We shouldn't be let mind a dog, never mind two children. The night before our planned excursion on Fox Glacier, Sara gave her unsolicited opinion on the food in Arthur's Pass in the direct and physical way that we are used to from the girl: she barfed it all back up before bedtime. It wasn't looking good for the hike. To make matters worse - much worse - the following morning as we got up early and started to prepare ourselves the same child pointed out, again in the most direct way possible, that her stomach was empty and her sugars were low, by fainting in the bathroom. She didn't black out, but she ended up on her arse, murmuring slowly to herself, until we set her on the bed and put her head between her knees. Really - if anyone feels like reporting us, I'd almost encourage them.

But it gets worse again. Sara recovered quickly, and protested our decision to call off the glacier trip. She insisted that she wanted to do the hike and that she was fine now. We weren't buying it but set off to Fox Glacier (half an hour's drive from Franz Josef) to see if we could get a refund of the $100 deposit. When we got there, and explained Sara's alternating puking and swooning, Malcolm our guide-to-be told us that she'd be fine (these Kiwis are as good as the Aussies at shrugging off illness, danger and common-sense).

So, responsible parents that we are, we continued to increase Sara's sugar levels using fruit sweets and juice, fitted herself and Nina out with boots, and got on the bus with the guides that led to the start of the trail.

What's a glacier anyway?, I hear you ask (admittedly over the noise of those baying for our children to be removed for their own safetly). It's a river, really, that moves 100,000 times slower than normal rivers. Instead of water, flows ice. Instead of a spring, there's a snow-collecting basin (called a neve) over 3000m up the mountain, where today's snow compacts yesterday's and eventually compresses it into ice. The ice flows downhill under its own weight, moving on a layer of water formed where the ice meets the underlying rock, but also moving internally, in a plastic flow. At the bottom of the glacier, the terminal, where the higher temperatures defeats the pressure, the ice finally melts and runs off as cloudy green streams.

The way you get up onto Fox Glacier is to start near the terminal of the glacier and hike for the best part of an hour along the mountainside - the bank of this river of ice - until you reach a point where it's safe (in the I-have-signed-a-waiver sense of the word) to move onto the glacier itself. To reach this point, we had to climb a fair bit, as well as move along a narrow trail at the edge of a bluff. This last fact might alarm American or Antipodean readers. That's because they know what the hell a bluff is. A bluff in European English is a clever card-playing pretence, and very little else. So when we were told in advance that we would be walking along a bluff, I thought it odd but not much odder than anything else I've been told by a guide in the last 5 months. Halfway along our hike to the edge of the ice, we found out what a New Zealander means by a bluff. A bluff, so far as I can now tell, is a f**king great cliff with a 100m drop. It has a path alongside whose width is very much economy class. And by way of support for those who might have fainted that morning there is a chain and a red-bearded, grinning guide. (Social services numbers are in the Government section of the phone book, if you haven't found it yet).

We survived, and not having been killed are of course stronger (big chunks of ice bring out the Nietzsche in me). Nina and Sara dealt with the heights like two little girls who know what it feels to zip along on a flying fox at 7 meters, and we all went on to have a surreal and rewarding experience walking on top of a glacier for 90 minutes or so.

When we got to the edge of the glacier, we were handed poles, and told to put on our instep crampons. And then we walked on water. We stepped onto 12km of frozen but moving water. The surface was broken in a thousand different ways. Where it met the mountainside, it thrust upwards, trying to burst its banks. The centre of the flow moves faster than the edges, creating crevasses whose depths are disguised by the pools of water that fill them. We were walking in the melt zone of the glacier, where the liquid flow created other perfect imperfections on the icescape - archways, circular pools and waterfalls. From the mountain, the uppermost surface of the glacier is undulating but looks smooth. Up close, it is anything but. The ice looks like a snapshot of the choppy surface of a lake on a windy day.

On any trip, there are inevitably things that you wish you had kept your wallet closed for. You're probably glad you did them but you wished you didn't have to pay so much for it. We spent less than 100 euro in the backpackers in Franz Josef, and a little over 100 euros for the half-day trip on the Fox glacier. It was one of the best value highs we've had on the trip so far. If you come here with kids, be aware that there is practically nothing else to do in either Franz Josef or Fox Glacier. The evening activity is limited to going to the pub, and apparently they get quite boisterous. Our irresponsibility as parents doesn't extend to finding out in person.


Friday, May 23, 2008

West over Arthur's Pass

For the first time in quite some time, this blog is coming to you live. I've paid my blog debt and now I'm reporting directly from Franz Josef on the West Coast of New Zealand's South Island.

We stayed put in Christchurch for almost 2 weeks, but we couldn't resist any longer. We got into the car this morning and headed over the Arthur Pass. We've been looking west to the distant Alps since we first arrived in Christchurch, but it was only today that we pointed the car that way. After about 5 minutes in the car I mentioned to Letizia that finally being on the move again felt good and in fact moving has become our natural state of being. Staying put, even just for a week or two, was starting to weigh us down.

From coast to coast it's only a little over 200km. The first 70 kms were on the Canterbury Plains, flat and straight, with the foothills of the Alps appearing out of the mist. The second 70km was spend riding out of one valley and into another, each one different to the last. Some were tiny patches of fertile land, perhaps with a lake, others were stony flat badlands, others again with forests, until we reached Arthur's Pass. The rest of the trip to the coast was a steep and scenic descent to the sea. We turned south, lush treefern forests to our left, and the waves of the Tasman to our right. We were heading down to see the glaciers - and walk on them too. From start to finish we didn't pass anything approaching a large town. There were a dozen or more small towns, or collections of houses offering fruit, art or B&B. One sign advertised psychic readings and vegetable soup - an unusual combination that somehow seemed to work (something fulfilling, that also leaves you feeling full).

Our base for the next two nights is a small, cozy and cheap place called Glowworm Cottages in the centre of Franz Josef. For a room with four bunks, a kitchenette and an ensuite the total price for the 2 days comes in just under 100 euros. After that we'll head back up North to check out the Pancake Rocks, do a little panning for gold, and hopefully have the time and weather to check out the Devil's Punchbowl (thanks for that tip, Paul C).

Franz Josef was our first choice for a glacier walk, but unfortunately there's an age/height limit that Sara couldn't quite pass, not even on her tippy-toes wearing a pointy hat. A little further down the road, Fox Glacier doesn't have such requirements. But apparently the hike that leads up to the ice itself presents its own challenges - narrow trails with steep drops for example. We'll see if the Adrenalin Forest experience has prepared Nina and Sara (and Letizia and me, for that matter).

The town of Franz Josef is probably a great place if you don't have kids, but the only thing to do around here other than climbing a glacier is going to the pub. I think (hope) the glacier experience will be a positive one, but if you come here with kids, don't stay more than one night.

More tomorrow, if we survive the hike on the ice.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Trying something out

I've been using Zemanta for the last few blog entries, by way of making it easier to link to related wikipedia articles, and finding related news. But now I've come across something called Apture which allows me to do something similar, but connecting to a larger selection of links, using multi-media formats which pop up directly on the screen.

For example if I mention a song called No Alarms and No Surprises by Radiohead, I can easily set up a few references to YouTube and similar. A reference to Hu Jintao might yield different results on different media formats.

Let me know if it gets too irritating.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Traveling with Kids: A New Website for Parents

For Irish readers, I'd like to point you at a website that has just launched. It's called Sticky Fingers Travel and is dedicated to those who know, or who are willing to discover, that having kids is no obstacle to real travel. It's worth checking out, and preferably signing up, and becoming part of this new community.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Campervan: Epilogue

When we first climbed aboard the campervan a few days previously, I had two concerns:
1) Would the whole thing topple over on a sharp turn; and
2) Would the campervan turn into a bloodbath on wheels - the kind of Lord of the Flies scenario that Manchán Magan was hinting at a few weeks back.



In retrospect, we were inviting disaster. The four of us are used to being in close quarters, but it's an entirely different proposition to invite a fifth person, even if they are family, to suffer the inevitably claustrophobic atmosphere of a young family. Giovanna was taking a big risk of finishing her break in New Zealand on a bum note.

The thing about campervans is that although they look impossibly unstable, they are built to hold together in the tightest corners - as long as you take it nice and easy. And family is pretty much the same - it tends to work even in the most demanding situations. You just have to slow things down and take your time. We didn't topple over - there wasn't even a moment of worry. We managed to have an excellent campervan experience, memories that will last us a lifetime, and one very happy zia Giovanna. I think we did it just by avoiding stressful timetables and activities, by loosening the rules a little, and by having a laugh whenever possible.

The drive back from Hanmer Springs was very easy. We stopped off once more at our local freewifi point, stopped in Waikari to pay due respect to Giovanna's Dunny (see below), and drove into Christchurch dancing around the campervan to the sounds of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Unfortunately the next day we had to say goodbye to Giovanna. It seemed impossible to accept that a month had gone by so quickly, and that we had gone from six to four in a matter of days. I personally wasn't prepared for how bad it felt to lose Duncan and then Gio'. Again, the speed that time is passing by continues to amaze me, and that was part of the problem. I felt very down for a full day, and poor Nina ended in tears at the end of the day, thinking about Giovanna.

But we're up and running again now. We've been taking it easy, saving time and money (thanks to the home swap) here in Christchurch, but we've already ben thinking and planning ahead. Later in the week we'll head to the one remaining part of the South Island that we haven't seen yet, the We(s)t Coast, including Franz Josef glacier and Pancake Rocks. Then one week later, we'll finally be heading north to Wellington to begin our 4 weeks adventures in the North Island. We've also found accommodation in Fiji for our 'week out' between NZ and South America (and for slightly under budget!) And we've finally started thinking about how to divide our time in South America (about time I guess).

There's a lot still ahead of us. From here on in we're on our own. I think we'll be OK.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Campervan: Day 5

After breakfast with the sandflies (we had Cheerios, they had us) we set off for our last camping night in Marouia Springs. Not far away from Hanmer, these springs have a completely different feel. They are run by Japanese owners and as well as a few small outdoor thermal springs pools they have a Japanese bathhouse. Here you can soap up and scrub up outside of the water, shower it all off, and then get into the hot thermal bath - all while comtemplating the mountain view outside the window that covers one side of the bathhouse. Cozzies are optional for the uninhibited (and the mountain outside is uninhabited). A fabulous experience for anyone interesting in getting their kit off in nature without getting arrested. But because the owners are Japanese and not Scandanavian, the bathhouse is divided into male and female halves, and never the twain shall glance, much less meet.

The effect of the bathhouse was terrific. After a drive from Saint Arnaud, and over 36 hours and 250kms since my last shower, I felt completely renewed after an hour in the springs and baths.

All aglow after the thermal treatment (holding the pink bag in which I store soaps, conditioners, and my testicles should I ever need them again).

Unfortunately the campsite which is part of the springs complex was closed (more frozen pipes!) so to find a place to stop we continued down the road to Hanmer Springs. We were just using it as a place to sleep and eat this time, and the place we found was Rustic Cafe and Tapas Bar. If I weren't so forgetful as to have left my sunglasses behind me the last time we stayed here, I might have thought of returning to the place next door, where I probably left them.

We found an unusual way of connecting to the internet from Hanmer, thanks to the advice of the very helpful waiters in Rustic. If you ever find yourself wireless in Hanmer Springs, it's worth your while parking outside this place if you want to catch up on your email. Given the absence of either WIFI in the campervan park, or an internet cafe, we did what we had to do:

I might add that the campervan came into its own on this occasion. And given the Mission Impossible atmosphere we had created in our own (sad) little world, Letizia's beanie seemed ready to double as a balaclava at any moment. Elegant and ingenious - can't get any more Italian than that.

Campervan: Day 4

In keeping with the Camper! theme, every time I've gone to use the showers in whatever halting site we've found ourselves, my thoughtful wife prepares a little bag with shampoo, conditioner etc. A petite pink bag. Not unlike a handbag. I've had to make the walk of shame from the camper to the showers, pink bag swinging in my hand, greeting anyone I meet in deeply compensatory tones. At this point, Nina and Sara are taking the piss out of my 'borsa rosa' and saying what a girly-girl I am.

We left Nelson City for the middle of nowhere, also known as Saint Arnaud. This was to be Duncan's fault, or Duncan's kudos, depending on how badly or well things went. We had no idea if the place was even equiped with a powered site for the camper, or indeed if there was any reason to be there in the first place, other than the fact that it was approximately half way between where we were and where we next needed to be. Duncan had told us that there was nothing there but it was a beautiful nothing (Bel Niente). Sitting on the edge of Lake Rotoiti, Saint Arnaud has one hotel and a camping site. What the hell - we were up for it.

Before we left civilization, we stopped off in another of Duncan's recommendations: WOW. The World of WearableArt. About 20 years ago in Nelson, a show that combined art and fashion was born. The only requirement of the work presented was that every piece had to be wearable. The idea took off, and after another few years it grew so popular that it had to move to Wellington in order to cater for the ever increasing audiences. It's improbable, odd and if I'm honest not entirely enticing at first. But it's really worth visiting. The shows themselves, which can be viewed in the mini-cinema at the end of the gallery, look like a fantastic evening out.

An unexpected side-effect of our visit to WOW was the aquisition of a work by a local artist. Che Vincent's workshop is very close to Nelson, just off the road to Abel Tasman we had taken the previous day. One wall of the gallery's foyer was covered with these little creatures. We had to have one - we're already working on the next parcel to send home (number 5!).

We stopped off on the way for another Irene Safari, which in the camper now includes hot coffee!We made our picnic on a little bench at the top of a hill in the middle of logging country, where the scenery was dominated by planned and orderly conifer forests, and some closely shaved peaks that didn't look like they were going to produce again any time soon. How odd it was then, from this height that didn't offer much beauty, to come across the following work of philosophy carved into our picnic table:

I can subscribe to that. First talk, then trousers.

The Bel Niente turned out to be accurate on both counts. Other than the fabulous Lake Rotoiti, a takeaway/shop and a small motel, there was only the campsite and its resident sandflies. The lady running the DoC campsite told me that the sites were indeed powered, but due to the cold weather, the hot water was switched off.

How's that now?

Yes, I had heard correctly. If it's very cold, then the pipes might burst, so there are no hot showers in Winter. I did the spoken equivalent of a double-take (think of Porky Pig, but without the keen intellect) and - fair dues to the woman - she kept a straight face while running this logic past me a second time.

After a small walk around to check for kiwis (nope, no kiwis here), and a brief tour of the main road (nope, no Kiwis here), we settled in for the night. The kids watched Ghostbusters II, we ate some dreadful pizza, and then all fell asleep listening to the wind, and the noise of the branches overhead scratching the top of the campervan. At least I think thats what it was...(who ya gonna call?)

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Chengdu Revisited

The recent earthquake in Sichuan hit 50 miles northwest of Chengdu, where we stayed just 4 months ago. I've contacted Sim's Cozy Guesthouse, and luckily they haven't suffered any damage or injury. I've contacted Erik Wiersma to make sure he's good too, and hopefully I'll hear back from him.

Reports on damage in Chengdu itself seems to conflict, some talking of almost 1000 deaths, others report minimal damage. The Chinese people that we met a few weeks ago in Slope Point were from Chengdu. I've been in contact with them, and some of them have been home. One of them has suffered heavy damage to his apartment and possessions.

The Olympics are just around the corner and Bejing must surely have imagined different international headlines than those that have come to pass. So much has happened to China since our time there, first the Tibetan unrest, subsequent suppression and public opprobrium that followed, and now this devastating and tragic earthquake. In the first case, the Chinese showed their similarity with the Burmese regime, and in the second, they demonstrated the difference, by accepting foreign humanitarian aid immediately and mobilising the army in Sichuan as urgently as they did in Tibet. (Burma by stark and disgusting contrast are centralizing their resources into the administration of a referendum of dubious worth, and keeping US and other aid at arms length and away from those who need it.)

My undiluted sympathy goes out to those Chinese people caught up in this natural disaster. It has perhaps given an opportunity for ordinary people worldwide to connect to ordinary people in China through fund-raising and humanitarian organizations, over the heads of politicians and outside the straitjacket of politics.

Campervan: Day 3

Abel Tasman Park, in the northwest of NZ's South Island, is accessible from a number of points, one of which is a town called Marahau 60km from Nelson City. There's a coastal walk that leads from the Wainui at the tip all the way back to Marahau which takes about 3 days to complete. Some day I'm going to do that. But for now we were content to do a half-day walk, facilitated by Aquataxi. More like a bus service these guys will take you to one of 5 or 6 points along the coastal walk, and pick you up from another. The walks are all well maintained and marked. It couldn't be easier.

When we set off from Bark Bay, with a 7.7km walk to Torrent Bay, Nina was in bullish mood. "This is too easy!" she insisted. The trail was mostly covered by the canopy of the trees above us, but it did follow the coast and climb up above it too. Every now and then we could look out over the water, or down to an inlet, and curse the fact that you didn't pack your swimmers - or to hell with swimmers, at least a towel! One hour later, when the gradient had asserted itself a little, Nina's attitude had changed: "Why does the trail have to go UP?", she asked in pained tones. Where do you start with a question like that? Poor Nina and Sara. We've calculated that since we left Cork, they have hiked around 75km. Those are real hikes, not including city walks and general traipsing around. They have both had plenty of practice of hiking in Cork, and plenty of notice about what might await them on this trip.

Why does the trail have to go up?

Oh my wonderful little Nina, the trail will go up, and the trail will go down. And sometimes it will wind around on the level for so long that you will forget that you are even on a journey. And at the moment when it gets really tough you might be surprised by a stupendous view afforded only to those who put in the effort. The trail goes up because that's what the trail does. And when it goes down, it goes down because it already went up. Make your peace with the fact that sometimes it will be harder than others, and that all you have to do is keep putting one foot in front of the other and know that sooner or later, it will get better. We all know that the good stuff doesn't last, but not even the bad stuff does.

On a less chocolate-box philosophy note: The temperature has improved tremendously - enough so that Letizia was able to sleep without her beanie! There's an unconscionable and irresistable provocation if ever there were one.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Campervan: Day 2

We woke up early in the freezing morning in Blenheim, with various extremities suffering from exposure. In the daylight we could see that our corner of the 'Holiday Park' wasn't much more salubrious than a supermarket carpark. Duncan joined us for brekkie before heading back to Christchurch for a 2pm flight, eventually attracting the unwanted attention of the New Zealand police due to the rush he was in. (Very unlucky, when you consider we had covered more than 2000km a few weeks ago and seen exactly two speed traps).

We unplugged the campervan, as if it was just a big toaster (well fridge, really) and headed towards Nelson via Picton. Picton is the place where the ferry between the North and South Islands leaves from, making its way thorugh the spectacular Charlotte Sound. We'll be passing that way again at the start of June when we leave Christchurch behind for good, and go check out Wellington and beyond.

Just outside Picton we saw an enormous logging shipping facility with what looked like around 100 tips of 3 or four hundred logs each. Moored alongside was a ship with all its hold doors open wide, and specialized log-moving vehicles buzzed around in front of it - looking tiny in front of the ship, but at the same time dwarfing the logging trucks that they were unloading. Those logging trucks look plenty big when you share the road with them. I know that the logging industry here is probably being run along sustainable lines, but the sight of this enormous appetite for timber is still unsettling. It's made worse by the fact that there are signs all around the top end of the South Island of deforestation.

Despite all that, the road between Picton and Havelock is not to be missed. The road rises and falls along the coastline, which looks out onto Charlotte Sound. The views from on high are magnificent and the peace and quiet when you pull in and sit at the shoreline is something that oddly, up until now, has been hard to find during our stay so far in New Zealand. For once, we could hear a variety of birdcalls coming from the trees. And fern trees - the first we've seen since Queensland.

I finally saw a tamed version of the Pacific thanks to the insular and peninsular complex of Marlborough Sounds. Warmth at last - all of this scenic experience was blessed with sunshine as warm as you'd find on an Irish spring day, and that sunshine lasted us all the way to Nelson, where we found a campervan park within walking distance of the city centre.

We ate the best homous and falafel I've tasted in, well, perhaps ever (if you're ever in Nelson City, call in to Falafel Gourmet - they make from scratch with carefully sourced ingredients). Things were looking up.

What's a traveling family's favourite berry?

The lie-berry of course (pronounciation courtesy of Sara).

The Christchurch library near us is the business. As well as a fantastic selection of books, a huge upper limit on how many books they can take out, and DVDs as well, it's a cool place to hang out. There are playstations for rent, computers to access for free and listening posts for music. And there are green beanbags every where for you to lie on. That must be where it gets its name from.

Monday, May 12, 2008


Here's how it goes:

Brendan walks into the local carhire agency and says, in his normal manly way:

"I'd like to hire a vehicle where I can sleep, prepare food, and still drive from place to place".

"Camper, sir?"

"Well, I'll give it a try", I said, loosening my wrist, upping my voice pitch a few notches and repeating: "I'd like to hire a vehicle where I can sleep, prepare food, and still drive from place to place, dahling."

"Camper, sir!!??"

And so it goes on. Of course it didn't happen, but thanks to Duncan for the original 'joke' which then set the tone, and the catchphrase ("Camper?" pronounced in a shrill Aussie accent) for the rest of our time on the road in our Winnebago.

Do our bums look big in this?

The first leg of our journey was the longest and took us from Christchurch to Blenheim - the central winegrowing town in the centre of NZ's Marlborough region. The coastal road along the way near Kaikoura is amazing - the road is meters from the Pacific spray, dozens of seals hang around by the water's edge undisturbed by the passing traffic, and hanging in the background are the snowcapped mountains.

We stopped off in The Store (recommended to us by Simon and Leah), and it was already dark at that point. An unmissable spot on the main road, it's probably best seen during the day to appreciate it's setting, but we still found it very special, and it's open fire and wooden furniture was particularly welcoming.

We got to Blenheim so late that pretty much all the restaurants were closed. We rang one of the restaurants attached to a winery called Herzog and made it there in 20 mins from the camper park, only to find an ultra-luxurious and suitably expensive place, well out of our price range. Fair enough that it was Duncan's last night with us, but we weren't going to make that even more tragic by forking out 130 dollars a plate (not including the wine). The evening started going downhill after we arrived too late for a number of other restaurants, but was saved by Bellafico's in the centre of Blenheim who took us in and fed us well for a decent price. Great local beer too.

The evening was freezing - the coldest yet - and our first campervan sleeping experience involved certain people wearing beanies in bed. Discretion prevents me from naming names.

Last Blast from Hanmer Springs

I mentioned a snowfight...

...Hanmer Springs is a memory now. Duncan has returned to Sydney and Giovanna has just boarded her flight to Paris. It's back down to the core team again. Since I've last blogged, we've been on a five-night campervan experience. I've got lots of free time this week to assault you with Tales of the Camper. Watch this space.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Snow and Steam in Hanmer Springs

Our group has been expanding ever more. As well as Giovanna, we were also joined by Duncan all the way from Sydney. We knew when we made our goodbyes in Sydney that we would see Duncan again - he promised to come and show us around NZ, as he used to live in Wellington. We complicated matters by choosing Hanmer Springs as our destination - somewhere Duncan has never been. All the better, perhaps.

We needed two cars to move around, and that qualifies as a convoy where I come from. We didn't have the CBs, and Kris Kristofferson was nowhere to be seen, but we did have a bad attitude and scant regard for the law. No, that's not true either. Damn. Well, Duncan got a speeding ticket towards the end - does that count? Look - we're hard, and you'll just have to take our word for it.

What does Hanmer Springs have to offer that Alice Springs didn't? Springs. Thermal ones, sulphuric ones. Hot ones, cold ones. And water slides too. And on the Christchurch side of Hanmer Springs theres a place called Thrillseekers Canyon, where among the many activities on offer is Whitewater Rafting. Yes! You the readers of this blog (or 22 of you the readers of this blog - or actually about 10 of you, plus Sam my godson who has probably voted 12 times by now) have put Whitewater Rafting as the top must-do experience of New Zealand. And do you know what? I'm never asking you anything else again!!

Oh it started well alright. We were given the briefing by a wild-eyed Graham who made Sara laugh from the get-go. His front teeth were missing (we were too polite to ask if he lost them rafting) as were some other items like fear and perhaps judgement. We got suited up and then carried our raft down to the Waiau river. The trip was a Grade 2 'scenic', which is probably just one step up from a punt on Christchurch's Avon river. It's the rafting equivalent of a busy shopping day on Patrick's Street, Cork - you'll get thrown around a bit but nobody will get hurt (as opposed to the same street at night, which would be more of a Grade 4). As ever, we were lucky with the weather. Our drive from Christchurch was pleasantly sunlit and by the time we reached Thrillseekers Canyon the conditions looked ideal. But by the time we reached the water's edge and looked up at the sky, we realised that we had already seen the best the day had to offer. From here on in it would all be downhill, downstream, but - and this is the crucial part - upwind.

Five minutes into our family rafting experience, it became clear to our guide that we were going to take twice as long as normal to reach the end, such was the headwind we were dealing with. Five minutes after that, it started to rain. The temperature wasn't forgiving either - Sara, from behind a blonde scowl and gritted teeth, offered the observation that 'the whole world is an icecube'. Another five minutes passed and we were now trying to row backwards to avoid being hit in the eyes with hailstones. Duncan pointed out that the only form of precipitation we had missed was snow, and sure enough it began to snow. Sara had retreated into her coat to an extent that would make a tortoise proud, and a quick look at her aunt Giovanna's face demonstrated to me that not only would we have to deal with difficult weather conditions, but we were also carrying an Italian Time Bomb on board. Never mind Kris Kristofferson - we were missing Sylvester Stallone on this trip. It didn't help that Duncan and I were pretty much enjoying ourselves, and Graham's manic laughter down the back was tipping towards the hysterical. If something didn't happen soon - by which I don't mean more weather - it was going to get very ugly.

That something was a jet boat operated by Thrillseekers Canyon. It roared around the corner and pulled up alongside. Graham didn't even finish the sentence that began with "Does anyone want to transfer" when Gio and Sara were already onboard the jetboat, their paddles still spinning like tops in the centre of the raft, cartoon-style. The remaining four of us, and Graham, continued to paddle against the wind, the odds, and the prevailing flow of logic. We had pretty much got to the end of the trip when the jetboat reappeared. Gio didn't look much happier, and Sara was nowhere to be seen (she was out of sight, tucked into the lap of her aunt). The rest of us got on board the jetboat, the Thrillseekers got the raft onboard too, and off we went back to the relative warmth of the boathouse. But not before Giovanna delivered, using the kind of facial and manual body-language that come so naturally to Italians, her feedback to the proprietors.

We shivered up the road to Hanmer Springs, in search of hot water. We couldn't have picked a better place. It's a weekend getaway for lots of Kiwis and the price of the motels shows. If you want to rent a house there for a few days (much better value) then you'll have to book well in advance if you have weekends or school holidays in mind. Right across the road from our motel was the Thermal Springs, a complex of 12 different baths or pools, with temperatures ranging from 20 to 43 degrees. We suffered one last indignity of walking out of the changing rooms in freezing conditions in our 'cozzies' before settling into the pools, looking up to the sky and seeing once more, snow falling. From the comfort of 38 degree geothermal water, this time the snow was welcome.

The rest of our stay in Hanmer Springs was taken up with a long hike (including the second snowfight of our trip so far), a long brunch and another long and relaxing evening in the springs. If you come to New Zealand, make some time for Hanmer Springs.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Dunedin and the Otago Peninsula

When we finally found a motel in Dunedin, We booked in for two nights. We decided we'd need a full morning and afternoon on the Otago Peninsula, allowing us the evening and the following morning to explore Dunedin itself.

The tip of the Otago Peninsula is just 45 minutes drive from Dunedin centre, and its attraction lies primarily in the wildlife that inhabits it. The stars of the show are the rarest of all penguins - the yellow-eyed penguin - which has a small colony on the peninsula. The private company that owns the land and organizes tours has built a series of camouflaged trenches and observation huts to allow close viewing of these very unsociable creatures. But before we turned up at our booked toured, we went to the very tip of the peninsula to visit the albatross centre.

I've never seen an albatross, and I was looking forward to seeing for myself their 2m wingspan. When we inquired at the centre, we learned a few things: firstly, we probably wouldn't see any albatrosses that day as they were out to sea, feeding; secondly, if we wanted the tour, which included seeing an albatross chick, it would cost us more than NZ$200 for the family. I was not happy. The penguins were already coming in at about NZ$250, and we had already baulked at paying over NZ$100 to see the mansion home of one of New Zealand's richest men of the 19th century. Uluru was still weighing on our minds and budget. We left the centre after reading interesting information about how longline fishing was reducing their numbers, but how cooperation between fishermen and environmentalists resulted in a few simple techniques that protected albatrosses while improving fishing catches.

We walked along the clifftop to see whatever nesting birds were there, and perhaps see a southern fur seal if we were lucky. After 10 mins, our luck proved to be better than we could have hoped for - a free albatross. A lone bird glided in along the cliffside, then circled the hill that sits in the centre of the sanctuary. It soared in and out of view, and made a spectacular sight for the dozen or so of us that picked the right time to wander outside, though we never managed to get a photo.

With a free albatross, our karma was in credit, but Penguin Place - the private sanctuary for the rare Yellow-eyed Penguin - looked like it was going to to balance the books. We were all keen to see these creatures waddling in that ridiculous but adorable way along the beach, as the brochures portrayed. It was only after we paid the hefty fee, watched an introductory Attenborough video and sat in the little lecture room for a talk on what makes Yellow-eyes so different and so rare, that it was pointed out to us that during this time of year these animals are out to sea fishing, only returning to their nests when they're full, and there were no guarantees that we were going to see anything.

Yellow-eyed penguins nest in whatever cover they can find near beaches. We were taken by rickety bus to the edge of their colony, and led through the aforementioned trenches to the beachfront observation post - a half-buried shack with a plank missing at eye level. There wasn't a penguin to be seen. There were about 20 in our group, staring eagerly out to see, waiting for a returning penguin to turn this visit into something other than the world's most expensive peep through a seaside letterbox. 15 minutes later, the only things waddling ridiculously along the beach were 20 or so sullen punters, making their way back to the bus.

Just before getting back on the bus however, we took a detour along the hillside overlooking the beach. Lo and behold lying in the grass in the distance was - apparently - a yellow-eyed penguin. It was only when the animal finally started to move around that some of us were convinced that it wasn't a taxidermist's 'backup' penguin. If the excitement of seeing our investment start to yield some return wasn't enough, our guide's walkie-talkie crackled in the news that there was a penguin on the beach too, just coming out of the water. Then another. Before we knew it, we had gone from zero to three (somewhat distant) penguins and a closeup southern fur seal (to, ahem, seal the deal you might say. Sorry. It's late. And Duncan's influence hasn't worn off yet even though he's now back in Sydney.)

So Penguin Place was saved a long chiding from irate customers about false advertising, thanks to the fact that two penguins had stuffed themselves with fish, and a third, that at first appeared to be stuffed, couldn't even be stuffed to get off his arse to go out and fish.

The next morning we were presented with Anzac biscuits by the landlady of the motel. We hadn't realised that Anzac Day - the occasion that Australians and New Zealander's remember their war dead - fell on the very day we were planning to explore the town. Almost everything was shut. Pity really - it looked like an interesting place. We did spend a fair bit of time in the Otago Museum, where amongst many other things there were excellent exhibits on the Maori people, and on Melanesians, Polynesians and Micronesians. I never knew there was such a place as New Ireland, but there it is, bold as brass, east of Papua New Guinea (in fact politically part of PNG) and sporting some specialised wooden carvings known as Malagan. Obviously some bugger somewhere thought it would be a jolly jape to name some unfortunate recipient of imperial hospitality after a country that had already had its fill of the same.

And on another politically uncomfortable note, the most noteworthy expression of solidarity with NZ soldiery that I saw on Dunedin on Anzac day was a blackboard set out on the Octogon (central feature of Dunedin) next to a huge poppy, that read "Thank you Helen Clarke for keeping our troops out of Iraq".

Sunday, May 4, 2008

To Dunedin via the Catlins

We're just back from two nights in Hanmer Springs, but I'm still deep in blog-debt so I'll first describe the last stages of our tour of the southern part of the South Island.

Our constant companion on the new Zealand road is the circling bird of prey. If we were of a nervous disposition, we might have interpreted the wheelings overhead as a vote of no confidence in our ability to survive New Zealand's extreme sports (or indeed extreme driving). The reality is that these birds hover over the highway looking for 'squashums' (squashed possums) - it's easier to have your pick of animals already picked off by cares, than to hunt them down yourself.

First stop was a fossilized forest lying in the intertidal region of Curio Bay, less than an hour from Invercargill. It sounded dramatic and had the added frisson that the tide had to be out in order to see it. Being a landlubber, I didn't even bother to check the tide times before setting off, happy to leave it all to chance. As chance would have it, we arrived just in time - in time to watch a powerful Pacific tide wash over a black, stump-pocked sheet of rock. The spectacle provided by the dangerously fast tide was more interesting by far than the fossilized tree stumps that we came to see. I can't imagine where the Pacific Ocean got its name. Seemed pretty angry about something from where I was standing.

After Curio Bay we moved to the nearby Slope Point, the South Island's most southerly point and our trip's lowest latitude. We were halfway round the world, and at our nadir, so it made sense to stop off for a coffee at the Nadir Outpost just set back from Slope Point.
"Do you do coffee?" I asked as we walked towards the entrance.
"Yes, come right in" the lady replied in an accent that sang gently in a way that no Kiwi or Australian accent can.
She brought us to the small and sparsely furnished front room of Nadir Outpost (itself just a little bungalow sharing its grounds with a few other low buildings) and disappeared to prepare the coffee and hot chocolate. By the time she got back I had understood where she was from.
"You're Welsh" I suggested.
"From South Wales, yes."
Interestingly specific. The last time I encountered a similar precision was in reading about Captain James Cook. Nobody is sure if in naming the East coast of Australia New South Wales he was merely pointing out the geographically obvious, or whether more pointedly he was deliberately snubbing the northern half of Wales. I've only been to North Wales once - an attempted cycle from Anglesey to Aberystwyth. I stopped off in a town with a generously long and unpronounceable name to ask directions. I wasn't so much rebuffed as contemptuously ignored - and I thought everybody loved the Irish (this was pre-Celtic Tiger). It might not have helped my case in approaching strangers in the street that I was wearing a pair of Lycra bicycle shorts long before Little Britain's only gay in the village made it either fashionable or profitable to do so. Whatever the reason, my experience leaves me happy to believe that Captain Cook, the man who added so much to the world's atlas had good reason to delete North Wales. Accordingly, I was happy for Beverly, the landlady of the Nadir Outpost to set matters straight on the precise nature of her Welshness.

Because I'm a nosey git, I learned more. Once upon a time she was married to a man who had no interest in travel (sound familiar?) When they eventually parted ways, she met Richard, who had also suppressed a desire to travel for the sake of his former partner. Within days of becoming a couple, they sent off an application to emigrate to Australia - almost without even having to discuss it, such were their shared assumptions on travel. They spent 7 years in Queensland, Australia before deciding to get out of the heat and move to New Zealand (mission accomplished - it was not warm at Slope Point!!) They had been there for 18 months when we met them. It's interesting to note that having children is not nearly as incompatible with travel as having a reluctant spouse is.

Next stop on the Catlins was a waterfall by the name of Purakaunui Falls. The last time we stopped the car to walk to a waterfall it was at the Kondalilla Falls in Queensland. On that occasion what started as a gentle amble finished under a cloudburst, sandals wedged with mud, and nothing but a pair of structurally compromised umbrellas that served more for comical effect - and perhaps as protection from falling leeches - than as a way to stay dry. The whose-idea-was-that silence in the car after Kondalilla was not something I wanted to repeat. And yet when the walk to Purakanui Falls turned out to be a brief and dry one, I couldn't help feeling that the overall impression it made was also brief and dry. I'm sure that when pleasant Purakanui is a long lost moment, catastrophic Kondalilla live on in the collective family memory. That's the nature of travel stories.

The last stop of the day was a place called Cannibal Bay. I've no idea where the place got its name - though it is a well-documented fact that the Maori practiced ritual cannibalism on their defeated enemies. Our hope for the place was to find some sea lions, or lions-of-the-sea as Sara was calling them under the influence of 5 days on the road with predominantly Italian spoken. Our hopes came to nothing alas, but our spirits remained inexplicably high:

We ran around the beach for a while, Nina keeping a watchful eye on the tall grass in the dunes where sea lions were reputed to hide. You don't want to get between a sea lion and the sea, by all accounts. We needed have worried.

We spent as much time off the main road as on it that day, having stopped off at many points of interest, and getting trapped behind at least two flocks of sheep (the latter opportunity giving me the opportunity to see just how unprepared that species is for a life without man - if we don't make it, sheep are next on the list). Catlins Coast box ticked, we packed into the car, and motored into the sunset towards Dunedin. More on that next.

Thursday, May 1, 2008


There's a little playground down the road from where we're staying in Christchurch. Nothing new there - there's a little playground down the road in Carrigaline, Cork, the place we call home. I've taken Nina and Sara to the local playground here a number of times in the last 2 weeks. Their favourite ride there is a tyre suspended horizontally from three chains in such a way that it can not only swing, but also spin. Nothing could be simpler.

As far as I can tell, it's their favourite ride firstly because they never quite know what direction it's going to swing or spin in next, because their Daddy is an unpredictable pusher. It might just swing when they thought it would spin, or the other way around.

The other reason I think it's their favourite is because that's the one where I have to participate. They get quality Daddy time, and it's clear that I'm enjoying myself as much as they are. That's the difference. I'm not in a hurry to be somewhere else. It's a simple pleasure that happens more often on the road than it does at home.

In most other respects, life with the kids is just like home. I have to correct them, and sometimes I'm not as patient and understanding as they need me to be. I still have to say things three or four times before they listen to me. We still fall out for short periods of time.

But the counter-balance, the moments when we're just OK being with each other and talking (with Sara this is a kind of one-way download from her to me where I have to work hard to identify the message buried within the verbosity; with Nina it's almost the opposite where I have to interpolate the few words into the idea that she roughly sketches; in both cases it requires me to shut up and listen), are more numerous than at home. I would have paid the tickets for this alone.