Friday, 21 October 2011

NZ Tripping, part II

   Today we left the Bay of Plenty and its troubles behind and headed down to Napier. A pretty drive over the mountains took us via Lake Taupo, a place I remember vividly, where we stopped for a dip in the hot springs. Napier is sensational town. It was destroyed by an earthquake in 1931 and rebuilt using art deco architecture. The net result was like walking back into Chicago in the 30’s and I half expected to see Al Capone come round the corner in a Model T Ford! The town revelled in the style too, with many shops selling classic clothing and hats, while new buildings were developed in the same style.
   Our ensuing drive, the next day, took us down through the glorious Wiarapa valley, the home of New Zealand’s sheep industry. I was quite astounded by the lack of them though, compared to my last tour here. It seems that the sheep population has declined from 70 down to just over 40 million over the last 3 years. Much of the ground is now farmed by the diary industry, with some of the better ground turning to grape and wine production. Such a steep decline has, of course, now pushed up the price of lamb as demand outweighs supply. Maybe they have been a little too hasty?
   As the valley opened out, we made a quick stop at the legendary TUI brewery which, although still brewing fine beer, is now set up for tourists. I dined on Paua fritters for lunch, the first time I had tried them and hopefully the last, they were ghastly!
Our journey South ended in the capital city of Wellington, one of the world’s nicest cities. A great choice of hotel from my better half found us on the tenth floor overlooking the beautiful harbour which drifted into bright twinkling lights as the warm evening on our balcony wore on. I tried my best to capture the scene on camera but, as is often the case with beauty, the only way to truly capture it was in my own memory. Wellington is packed with things to do, but sadly time was against us and all we could squeeze in was a whistle stop tour around the museum of culture. It is very hard to get an understanding of how the Moari tribes once ruled these lands with their ritual ways before the white man took it from them, cornering the remaining few tribes into ghetto’s and slum suburbs. On TV, the ceremonial dance of the HAKA, done by the All Black team at the start of each rugby game, may look as comical as it does barbaric, but when witnessed first hand, it is plain to see its links with the inner feelings of the Maori race. Repressed yet content, the fierce ritual represents a proud nation, living with sacrifices in the name of harmony.
    Sacrifice is what came next, as once again we flew to Auckland for more rugby in Eden Park. This time the sacrifice was from the Welsh, when one of their main players got sent off by a dubious decision from the referee, leaving them a man short and somewhat helpless against a gallant, if poor, French side who booked their slot in Rugby World Cup final. There will be no welcome in the hillside for this referee, as the final whistle sounded to a dejected roar from the team and the whole Welsh nation, many of who were reduced to tears, many more who will remain angry for a good number of years. With my French beret on, I could only utter the words c’est la via, c’est la sport, to anyone wearing a dragon or a leek.
    As I write, the final game looms against the All Blacks, and there will only be one winner there. Without being too presumptuous though, New Zealand do deserve emerge as champions, purely due to the spectacular way in which this Rugby World cup has been organised and to the Nation, (to a man) for their welcoming attitudes.
    We now find ourselves in the Bay of Islands, 4 hours North of Auckland in what is essentially a tropical area, amongst palms and silver ferns. We have decanted into a campervan which rocks erratically as we peer out of our window over the bay through rain and high winds. After two weeks of mostly nice weather, it is a bit of a shame that we cannot get to enjoy all this part of the country has to offer, but it is only Spring down here and the rain is much needed.
    One last paddle in the sea before breakfast on the most beautiful beach I have ever been on, watching the sun rise over an idyllic catamaran moored just offshore. This is the stuff of dreams and I believe mine will keep recurring until I come back here, maybe next time for good.
Then its back to Auckland one more time, for a 24 hour journey hemmed into a sticky seat. It’s time to adjust my watch again, except I haven’t worn one in years. Diet starts tomorrow, at lunchtime…or is it breakfast? What day is it again?

Welcome to America

    Unfortunately, the advancement of aeroplane travel has still not extended to include fuel economy of the scale that will afford a jumbo to travel 12,000 miles. For that purpose, a return trip to UK from down under requires that we make a pit-stop in USA. For pit-stop, I mean exactly that, a refuel, load on some more mediocre food and a change of crew. Not a problem, you say, just a chance to stretch the legs and use a proper toilet. But hang on; this is USA, so let’s no assume simplicity. After all, it means we mortals would have to be allowed to step on hallowed turf and, for that pleasure, we would have to be identified.
    Firstly, unless we have a US visa, which we do not, we must pay $14 for the right to arrive in USA without one. We have to do this online, which includes entering all our personal and credit card details into a system while an overhead camera records our input. This, in itself, I consider to be a rather dodgy process, as anyone who wishes to illegally retrieve the security tape would be able to do some pretty decent dining out on all those card numbers. So now, for every person entering the US, they already have our secure payment details, and our money, in their system before we even touch down. After being crowded into a holding pen, we are summoned to once again clear immigration, despite us doing this before we originally boarded the plane and our identities already being in the ‘system’. Here it gets a little more intense. When asked by the pan-faced custom’s officer to hold up my right hand, I really thought he was going to make me swear my allegiance to the President or, at the very least, sing two verses of the Star Spangled Banner. But no, this was to take my finger prints, like a common criminal. Then a photo opportunity, smile for the camera, so this too can go on record. So here we are, after one hour on US soil, giving just about every personal detail we possess to the American system. I only just refrained from showing the guy my arse for his files too.
     A quick trip to toilet, I note the disabled cubicle is so huge you could turn a lorry in there, let alone a wheelchair, and we are herded back onto the plane once more.
A sign says, USA welcomes visitors! It didn’t welcome me and I didn’t welcome it. Does this country live with permanent paranoia? Or maybe I am becoming a homophobe?

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Big fat fishes are Wales

After some deliberation, 10 reasons why I will support France on Saturday.
  1. 1972-77, boarding school on the Welsh borders. Wales won every international game and rubbed it in with salt (and more painful substances).
  2. During my early years in business, I bought hundreds of cattle in Wales, and not all of them were what they were supposed to be.
  3. Wine: French make it, Wales do it.
  4. 1972-77, boarding school on the Welsh borders. As a 9 stone full back, I got trampled too many times by hot footed backs from Llandovery and Brecon college. They laughed.
  5. Nigel Owens, Gareth Thomas, Max Boyce…..Little Britain.
  6. Jonathan Davies on TV: God, does that guy ever stop complaining?
  7. I live there.
  8. Borth.
  9. 2006 Lions tour,  New Zealand. Despite us being on the same side, every Welshman (to a man) complained about Clive Woodwood at every opportunity.
  10. They wouldn’t support us if the boot was on the other foot.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Tripping down under

I write to you this month with a narrative from our recent trip to New Zealand.
The first leg didn’t start too well, it has to be said. We underestimated the rush-hour traffic and  arrived at Bordeaux airport to be confronted by a cantankerous Easy-Jet check-in attendant who blankly refused to check-in our cases because we were one minute late. She would, however, let us check them in if we paid a princely sum 50 euros each and then carried them to the plane ourselves. What a wonderfully vulgar business cheap air travel has evolved into? Arriving to an exceptionally blazing hot day in Luton, considering this was nearly October, we accept the usual rudeness that awaits us from the airport staff. So many times I wonder what the interviewing criteria must be to get a job in that place? Inaudibility, belligerence, impertinence, all these words must surely be on the application form? It’s a wonder any of them can even read it? I am still working towards my next business venture, printing t-shirts with the words: I H8 LUTON AIRPORT! I am sure they would be a top-seller.
After queuing for an hour in the sunshine, we shuffle onto the shiny bus which should take us to Heathrow, to find that it has the heating on full blast. One of the travellers asked if the driver could switch on the air-conditioning, as the atmosphere really was stifling. At that very moment, I was compelled to take out pen and paper to write down his retort, word for word, so I could relay it with amazement back to you, the reader who resides in this country. For it was far and away the most baffling excuse I have ever heard:
“You get what you get, this is England,” said the driver. “In the summer, when it’s hot, it’s hot and it’s cold in the winter!” Our hour long trip was probably the warmest I have ever been, outside of a Borneo rain forest.
An eight hour wait in Heathrow was also stifling as, so I was told, they were unable to switch the air-conditioning on as it was nearly October. I guess who ever was in charge of that task was already on his 6 month winter break.
I know little of Thailand, other than the odd visit to a few of their restaurants, and was blissfully unaware they had a national airline. All I can say is they must have had it for some time, as the Jumbo we were on for our 24 hour flight was still fitted with ashtrays and rattled from time to time, quite alarmingly, for no apparent reason.
No matter, here we are, in the land of the long white cloud.
First up, Auckland. We have been fortunate enough to stay with a man who runs a brewery, which is quite handy. Not just any brewery either, one called Heineken who just happen to own 60% of all the NZ breweries. Our most welcoming host took us on a tour around the city, including a trip up to Mount Eden, which is a dormant volcano and a great viewpoint. At least, I hope it is dormant. Auckland boasts 52 dormant volcanoes in its close proximity, and I couldn’t help wondering if the earthquakes in the south of the island might suddenly wake them up. Thankfully they didn’t.
The town was alight though, but with tourists either wearing white rugby shirts or kilts, as we prepared to see our beloved nation take on the old foe, Scotland, in a winner-takes-all rugby match. The Kiwi’s, many having Celtic ancestry, sided with the Scots and the stadium was packed with saltires and blue painted faces. Lots of banter and friendly rivalry prevailed between the two groups of supporters throughout the whole day until it was somewhat quelled when England managed to emerge from the game victorious. The Scotland fans remained gracious, as farewells were made over a beer or two, such is the nature of the rugby game. Wendy, my better half, being also of Scottish parentage, did refuse to speak to me for some time, but eventually her English side forgave and moved on.
Move on was exactly what we did next, as the following morning, after an all too short sleep, we caught an early flight to Dunedin in the far south of the country. I instantly fell in love with this little town, with its Scottish origins and place names, nestled into the side of an estuary. Dunedin is what Edinburgh was originally called many years ago and the two towns bore a great resemblance. However, for this occasion, the Scottish flag had been replaced by a sea of green, as thousand of Irish descended on the town to support their team against Italy. Not only the Irish wore their native colours either, as the entire local community offered a hand, decorating themselves and their houses in all things green. At the game, 99% of the crowd cheered on the Irish, helping them overcome a steely Italian side who I couldn’t help but feel sorry for. More partying and craic was had, as thousands of happy revellers poured more money in the Heineken pocket, well into the small hours. By this time, our own energy levels had declined towards empty and we retired to our quaint old bed and breakfast, voices croaking from singing endless verses of The Fields of Athenry.
From Dunedin, we headed to Queenstown, the outdoor activity capital of the universe. Here we could enjoy throwing ourselves of bridges, various aerial sports or any amount of near-drowning experiences in the nearby lakes and rivers. It seems that unless you can kill yourself doing it, it isn’t a proper sport in New Zealand! Our hotel had the most spectacular view from the window, over Lake Wakatipu and to the snow-capped mountain peaks known quite simply as The Remarkables. An old steam ship ambles into the harbour, the toot of its whistle echoing around the nearby hills, like a scene from the African Queen. Meanwhile, I exchange pleasantries with John Inverdale in the hotel foyer. I feel the urge to pinch myself to see if this real. This town too is full of Irish, some with sore heads, as they make their way North to their next rugby encounter. On the road to get here, one local farmer also shows his support for the Irish by painting his sheep in orange, white and green stripes. Rugby support here certainly is serious business.
After a restful day, we took a 7 hour drive through the heart of the South Island amongst some of the most stunning scenery imaginable. A quick lunch on the shores of the teal blue Lake Tekapo, gazing to a backdrop of the snow capped Southern Alps and the towering Mount Cook. In Maori, Mount Cook is aptly named as Aoraki, which means ‘cloud piercer’, and it was certainly doing that today. 
By late afternoon, after a brief altercation with a hidden highway cop, we arrived in the heart-breaking town of Christchurch. I have fond memories of this city from my trip 6 years ago but sadly now the town centre and much of the surrounding area has now been condemned, since it had two major earthquakes earlier this year. We stayed with friends who live locally (originally from Leominster) and were given all the updates on the horror that happened on February 22nd, when the second earthquake hit, sealing the town’s fate. It was such a shame, as this town is known as the home of rugby and we had originally scheduled to watch quite a few games here in their brand-new stadium. This morning we walked quietly around some of the town, seeing many buildings beyond repair, including the never-used stadium itself. Christchurch’s iconic cathedral, one of the oldest buildings in New Zealand, was missing a wall and its roof, exposing its insides to the world like an old lady showing her underwear in public. I had to hold back a tear.
Fortunately, our next stop was much more cheery, in a small town called Blenheim, bang in the middle of wine country. Now I would argue that where we live in France, near Bordeaux, is probably the capital of red wine production for the world.  The Kiwis, however, will now stake a claim to producing some of the world’s finest whites; their chardonnay’s being exceptionally good, with their smooth buttery texture. We stayed for a night at the Brookby Ridge vineyard, right next to the world famous Montana Estate. As I write, I can look out from the balcony in our lovely cottage high up on a ridge amongst the vines, down on to thousands of hectares of grapes, including Cloudy Bay to the west and beyond it, over the straights to the city of Wellington in the North Island. Our host casually mentions that this vineyard may be for sale and my heart skips a beat. Should I phone my bank manager now, or in the morning!? If only.
A short drive through the mountains found us in Nelson, a wonderful little city nestling on blue shores, which claims to be the sunniest spot in New Zealand. The place seemed vibrant with a great young culture, lovely restaurants and a host of British-type beers. Being fairly starved of the latter in both this country and our native France, we had a super night out with our welcoming hosts, Sean and Faith, indulging in as many as we could. The following morning it was time to don my England shirt once more as we made the short flight back up to Auckland through Nelson’s quaint but efficient airport, saying a sad farewell to the South Island. Or maybe it is just au-revoir?
Our re-acquaintance with Auckland was not quite so fruitful, as we went back to Eden Park stadium, this time to see England knocked out of the Rugby World Cup by the French. I wouldn’t mind if they had the decency to play a good game or two, but the whole England team seemed to have stuttered from the start and their final demise almost felt like a kindness as it put a wounded animal out of its misery. Obviously, with my French connections, I have now switched my allegiance to France, although, as I write, I believe it may be Wales who will reach the final.
Moving on from Auckland, we hooked up with a friend of a friend who manages a deer farm, just south of Hamilton. I have worked in the pedigree cattle and sheep industry for many years but I had no idea about deer and their produce. On this 1400 animal stud, our host, Bill Robinson, explained how the best animals are sold on for breeding, many of which produce ‘trophy’ antlers of over a metre in size. The antlers are exported mainly to USA and China to adorn the walls the wealthy. The remaining animals are kept for producing ‘velvet’ which is exported to the Far East, where it is used in herbal medicines, and this farm has an output of 1.5 tons of the stuff. Deer antlers grow at a rate of 2-3cms per day and are harvested at 60 days growth by means of a hacksaw! Although this may sound somewhat barbaric, the whole operation is slick, hygienic and humane and the farm also produces excellent venison as a by-product, which was very kindly provided for dinner by Bill and Deb.
As often happens in springtime, the next couple of days brought torrential rain and with it some quite nasty storms. We arrived in the Bay of Plenty on the West of the North Island to see the waves fiercely lapping over the promenade, amidst a gathering of camera crews. The storm has blown a tanker up onto a reef, 5kms offshore and there is already oil washing on to the beach. Teams of volunteers are out there with spades trying to gather the evil black scum before it kills too many seabirds, but as I write the TV News presenters, who are positioned outside our hotel window, make grave predictions that the whole ship will break up and the coastline will be swamped by a 1700 ton oil-slick that will scupper their entire holiday season and possibly hang around for up to 10 years. For a country that has suffered mining disasters and major earthquakes in the last 6 months, I sincerely hope that this eco-disaster can be avoided, but it seems it is once again in the hands of the gods. Bizarrely, I was asked to do an interview for national TV on the subject but, for once, I declined the chance of offering my sometimes offensive opinions, despite wondering why the boat had seemingly been on auto-pilot when it ran aground at 17 knots. The boat’s skipper has since been charged with negligence, his prosecutors pointing out that everyone in NZ knew where that reef was so why didn’t he?
On our way down the coast we called in for a beer with Mark Jeynes (son of Rose, Rock Cross’s most friendly barmaid) and his wife Kristy, who run a 250 Jersey dairy farm. Most of the area was under water after 6 inches of rainfall overnight, but nobody seemed too worried. When it rains in New Zealand, it doesn’t mess about. I have to say that Mark has the most impressive collection of Brittain’s toy tractors I have ever seen!
From here we head down through Napier on our way to Wellington, before flying back to Auckland once more. Next week, we are hoping for a bit more R&R as we shoehorn ourselves into a camper van for a few days, and head North to the beaches in the Bay of Islands.
I have to say that New Zealand is one of the most pleasant places in the World I have ever been. From its scenery to its friendliness, it never stops giving.