30 January 2012

Security

Over the last ten years, I have been on many aeroplanes and have had the somewhat dubious pleasure of visiting a wide range of airports - from Kavala in northern Greece to Knock in northern Ireland and from LAX (Los Angeles), California to Durban, South Africa. During these travels, I have been making mental notes about airport security and have been amazed to find so many variations and so many discrepancies.

Perhaps I am naive, but I have this idea that airport security should follow agreed international standards, enforced through rigorous inspection and licensing. Nobody likes security checks but in a world that has been blighted by inhuman terrorist attacks, travellers have a right to expect that airport security checks will, as far as possible, guarantee their safety.

Regarding our recent trip to New Zealand, we were allowed to take bottles of water on our internal Jetstar flight from Auckland to the South Island. Why? If liquids are a security problem on international flights, why are they allowable on internal flights? At Dubai, I did not have to take my laptop from my carry on bag whereas at virtually every other airport in the world laptops have to be scanned separately. In fact the guy at the X-ray conveyor belt was insistent that the laptop should stay in the bag.

Also at Dubai, when we were "airside", we bought some water for the onward flight to Brisbane only to find security people at the boarding gate insisting that we binned these expensive bottles. Interestingly, there wasn't an equivalent process when we returned to Dubai three weeks later and boarded our connecting plane to Manchester.

At some airports, they make you take off your shoes as a matter of course, at others they don't. Before passing through some X-ray gates you are asked to remove watches and belts with buckles but at others you aren't and yet when you pass through those gates the alarms fail to sound. Why would that be? Are the X-ray gates sometimes purely for show?

Once at Treviso airport near Venice, I accidentally went through security with an umbrella in my hand luggage but it wasn't detected even though the security signage insisted that umbrellas would be confiscated. At the same security check, a bottle of water was removed from my bag but the second bottle of water - at the bottom of my bag - was missed.

Our daughter, Frances, tells me that security was extremely lax at the airport in Birmingham, Alabama even though she was connecting with a transatlantic flight in Atlanta. Her hand luggage was not scanned and the X-ray gate was redundant so she boarded her later flight to Manchester without being screened at all.

I could go on and on about this subject. But finally I'd just like to make a point about water. Generally speaking, travellers are not allowed to take bottles of water "airside". You have to throw your bottles away and then buy new bottles of water in the duty free shopping zone. Invariably, this water is heavily overpriced. At Auckland Airport we paid $4NZ (£2) for a 500ml bottle and once at Shannon Airport in Ireland there was no water for sale anywhere. When travelling by air - especially long distance - it is vital to be well-hydrated. The small amounts of liquid provided by cabin staff during flights are often insufficient. In my view, if we are required to throw water away before passing through security, we should be provided with free or very cheap bottles of water when "airside". Besides, there are surely quick tests that could check the contents of a bottle so that travellers would not be required to needlessly throw their water away.

Dear reader - have you got any tales or thoughts of your own about airport security?

28 January 2012

Photography

I took over a thousand photographs in New Zealand. It was an exceedingly photogenic part of the world. However, my trusty Hewlett Packard digital camera is clearly due for replacement. Apart from anything else, it now has a mysterious tiny chip on the lens which has caused a few irritating flaws in some of my pictures. Besides, at Christmas my best and most unexpected present was a cardboard mock-up of a camera from Shirley and our children. Frances had made it . Puzzled, I prised open the back of the fake camera to discover a large wad of cash - sufficient to pay the lion's share of the cost of a new Nikon or Canon digital SLR.

Finding out about cameras available in the current market is like pursuing a degree course in photographic jargon. I just want a great camera with a lens that has reasonable zoom capacity and the ability to take satisfying close-ups - but the explanatory details never cover such simple requirements. Undoubtedly, there are people in the world who have more significant problems to deal with.

Anyway, I have spent a three or four hours sifting pictures from my NZ collection to add to Google Earth. It can take a while because of the need to find accurate picture locations within the Panoramio mapping facility. While in the "land of the long white cloud", I was drawn to tatty or empty buildings that spoke of earlier times when New Zealand settlers arrived slowly by boat and were then very disconnected from the world they had left behind. Very different from today with air travel, television, telephones and the internet - facilities that in  a real sense have made our planet shrink into manageable and sadly less mysterious proportions:

26 January 2012

Back

Pukeko bird
Back to winter in England. We flew from Auckland to Melbourne, Australia where I noticed the tennis star Serena Williams heading for first class on our Emirates flight to Dubai, following her early exit from the Australian Open. That flight was thirteen and a half hours long but made easier to bear by the entertainment console on the back rest of the seat in front. I played the inflight trivia game several times and watched the film "Thor" directed by Kenneth Branagh as well as reading most of "No Country for Old Men" by Cormac McCarthy.

Dubai Airport terminal is massive and though "award-winning" is most unpleasant in my view. There are  pathetically few  lavatories which are greatly oversubscribed and constant teams of attendants from poorer Asian countries are required to maintain them. The airport is supposed to be home to some of the best duty free shopping in the world but my investigations prove that electrical goods, watches and jewellery can be bought more cheaply in British high streets. At the airport, you see all creeds and nationalities as travellers from every continent pass through this vital "hub". We boarded a huge five hundred seater A380 airbus bound for Manchester and were delighted to discover that it was only half full - meaning we could spread out and feel less like New Zealand sheep crammed on to a truck.

Speaking of New Zealand, I think that one of the things we will always remember is the birds that live there - from kiwis to pied stilts and from tuis to unfamiliar hawks pecking away at roadkill - usually brush tailed possums. We would sometimes wake to tuneful birdsong we had never heard before and at Rotorua, as we observed a bubbling vent, a pukeko bird strutted out of the undergrowth. Of course we saw keas on the South Island and a recently deceased yellow hammer by an electric fence. Victorian immigrants - mostly from England - not only brought sheep, cows, cats and dogs with them but also house sparrows, thrushes, blackbirds - presumably to make them feel more at home.

New Zealand was once a land of birds. There were virtually no mammals - just a few bats and seals. That's why flightless birds evolved in the forests - they had no predators until the Maori people arrived. They obliterated the moas and several other species long before Captain Cook's cabin boy, Young Nick, first spotted the headland near Gisborne that was later named after him. 

Human beings have done their best to wreck the living aviary that was New Zealand. The destruction goes on. Keith  Woodley at the Miranda Shorebird Centre has seen a steady decline in shorebird numbers during his nineteen years in charge there. Meanwhile the government has endorsed a widespread poisoning campaign to reduce brush-tailed possum numbers on the South Island but precious and unique birds like the weka are also tasting the possums' poison - and dying. I dedicate this post to the native birds of New Zealand.
Variable oystercatchers at Whangarei Heads
Weka at Cape Foulwind
Giant moa in Auckland Museum

22 January 2012

Taupo

Great Lake Taupo, New Zealand

19 January 2012

Gisborne

We're now in Gisborne - the far east of the North Island. We're in a veritable mansion called Cedar House and seem to be the only guests here. The owner is a happy clappy lady called Catherine whose philosophy allows us to roam freely around her beautiful old property with its large dimensions and expertly crafted woodwork. Our bathroom with its hardwood floor is gigantic - the premier feature being a large, modern spa bath which Shirley lounged in as I swam in the outdoor pool this evening.

Today we drove up the coast to Tolaga Bay, hiking over to Cook's Cove where on October 28th and 29th, 1769 the "Endeavour" was anchored. Captain Cook's men took on board wood and fresh water while botanist Joseph Banks collected yet more unique plant specimens.
Cook's Cove north of Gisborne
Bus shelter on the road to Tolaga Bay

Shirley's spa bath
Captain Cook 's statue in Gisborne

17 January 2012

Livingstone

Today - at Whakarewarewa, Rotorua
When I was eight years old, a new teacher arrived at my little village primary school in the heart of East Yorkshire. She was tall, slightly exotic in appearance and spoke English in an accent we had never met before. She was Miss Sanderson and she came from New Zealand.

On several Friday afternoons, she led singing sessions on her ukulele. The songs she taught us were as unfamiliar as her accent...”Riding home from Bangor on an Easter train/Met a student fellow, handsome tall and plain/ Quite extensive whiskers, beard, moustache as well...” But the song that really stuck in my little eight year old mind was "Pokarekare Ana", sometimes known as "The Waters of Lake Rotorua".

That’s where we are tonight – Rotorua - in the geothermal heart of the North Island. Our cedarwood chalet looks out on Lake Rotorua itself. This morning we visited the Whakarewarewa Maori village, built around an area of significant geothermal activity. Some of the pools are so hot that the people cook in them. For forty minutes we watched a little Maori cultural show in which the performers sang a languorous version of the song I first heard from the mouth of Miss Sanderson some time in  1961.

Yesterday was a true milestone in the history of blogging as when Livingstone met Stanley or when McCartney met Lennon. I visited the Tauranga mansion of Katherine de Chevalle with its lofty riverside views and there I met the great lady herself. I know that Mr Brague of Canton, Georgia will be extremely jealous about this but I don't care. Katherine gave Shirley and I a lovely homemade lunch which we consumed with Katherine’s affable daughter. The roast kiwi was succulent. Embarrassingly, I managed to drop some of our gracious hostess’s delicious green tomato chutney upon the tablecloth. Silly me!
Dr Livingstone I presume?
This is only the second time I have met with a blogger I have often linked with but I was glad I called in on Katherine. We got on fine in spite of initial and mutual nervousness and I wish we could have stayed longer. It was great to see some of Katherine’s portfolio of artwork – surrounding her investigations into the lives and perspectives of bees. Thank you Katherine. It was lovely to meet you and visit your characterful home.

Tomorrow we head for Gisborne on the east coast of the North Island.

15 January 2012

Miranda

Sorry I haven't posted much since arriving in New Zealand. As a mean Yorkshireman, I don't really like paying extra for internet access.

We enjoyed four lovely days at Whangarei, about a hundred miles north of Auckland. It was a human-scale city with spectacular coastal scenery nearby. I swam in the ocean twice but as the water was not bath temperature Shirley only deigned to paddle. We saw two captive brown kiwis at the Kiwi North project. How salutary it is to recognise that these precious birds became endangered just because of Europeans' introduction of dogs and stoats and earlier the Maoris' introduction of the Polynesian brown rat.
Maybe it's just me but I feel a sense of sadness when I think of how New Zealand must have been before human beings ever happened upon these remote islands. It was surely a Garden of Eden with unique flora and fauna. Some of that still survives but much is lost or compromised by the things that man brought here. The towering kauri forests - containing trees five centuries old - must have been a true wonder to behold.
Anyway - here we are at Miranda - the NZ Shorebird Centre. Unfortunately we missed today's high tide with its promised excited conglomeration of shorebirds but in the late afternoon we walked upon the shoreline and saw some interesting birds pecking around in the mud flats - including white-faced herons, godwits and by an electric fence we found the sad corpse of a dainty yellow hammer.
Miranda - a picture by Katherine de Chevalle who we hope to meet tomorrow.

8 January 2012

Alive


The Pudding heart is still beating. We have not been pecked to death by kea birds or savaged by warring Maori rugby players with sticky out tongues.

We are on New Zealand’s South Island now. We stayed in Koa Cottage, Little River on the glorious Banks Peninsula that Captain Cook mistakenly believed to be an island. It was named after the influential eighteenth century botanist – Joseph Banks. On Saturday night, the Earth moved for Shirley when  we were abed but it also moved for me in the form of a minor earthquake that measured 5.2 on the Richter scale.

We drove across the island yesterday via the breathtaking Arthur’s Pass, stopping off in the NZ village of Sheffield to buy a steak and onion pie from Sheffield’s Famous Pie Shop. I also noted the Sheffield Community Hall and the village’s only pub – The Sheffield Hotel. The weather was magnificent as we drove through obscenely beautiful mountains with hardly another vehicle in sight.

Annoyingly, just outside Greymouth I received a ticket from a traffic officer for overtaking another car on double yellow lines. Nothing was coming my way and the battered jalopy I chose to overtake was crawling along at about 30mph. Bugger! A $150 fine. Should I pay it? That is my current moral dilemma.
Birdling Flats, Banks peninsula
Kea bird at Arthur's Pass
Franz Josef Glacier earlier today
Today we drove southwards through lush forests and over gushing river plains, watched by snow capped mountains as we made our way to the Franz Josef Glacier. We walked up to this wondrous spectacle in blazing sunshine and later picknicked on a “scenic reserve” as we headed back up the coast to Greymouth. Another “grand day out”.

3 January 2012

Rangitoto

It wasn't the bluest or sunniest of days on Rangitoto. We walked up a scoria track to the very summit of the island where we stood on the rim of the crater that spewed out this harsh black lava island only six hundred years ago. There were a few old bachs (NZ holiday homes) down near the shore and there were excellent views back to Auckland. It was as Wallace might have said, "a grand day out".

2 January 2012

NZ

Above - the new Sky Bridge at Manchester Airport. Below - a place we were not meant to visit. It's Brisbane, Australia. Look very closely and you will see Helen from "Helsie's Happenings" frolicking barefoot in her garden. The plane was meant to refuel at Bangkok.
And finally, Auckland in New Zealand. Thirteen hours ahead of us timewise. It seems a very sleepy city but characterful too in the sultry sub-tropical warmth. People have so much space here and there's greenery and birdsong and one of the most popular pastimes seems to be waiting to cross roads even when there are no vehicles in sight. Two men were guarding a warehouse full of tens. And the Sky Tower - the tallest building in the southern hemisphere soared above everything like a guiding lighthouse. Tomorrow we hope to take a ferry to the volcanic islet of Rangitoto - assuming we can escape from our hotel room with its dodgy plastic key. We were locked out for over an hour earlier this evening waiting for the staff to figure out a way of getting us in. That's technology for you - sometimes it works - sometimes it laughs in your face.


1 January 2012

Diversion

It was impossible for our flight to touch down as scheduled in Sri Lanka on New Years Day. This was because of tropical stormclouds piling up creating violent meteorological conditions over the Andaman Sea. We had chartered a seaplane to fly us from Colombo to Blogland but in the event we never got there. The pilot ignored my desperate pleas and kept going on and on through day and night, until we arrived in this place:-
Recognise it? We have never been here before so we are going to stick around for a while as I make new onward travel arrangements for Blogland.