Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Racing Cars and Sixties Stars

When  we made plans to spend a New Zealand summer in Wellington, we knew it was never going to be a “scorching” experience. It’s generally three or four degrees cooler here than the other main cities in NZ and can often be significantly more, depend on the prevailing winds.
So we have been surprised at the amount of sunshine that has beaten down on us since our arrival and this coming week looks like much of the same. So hooray for that.
Young Livi was a bit under the weather at the beginning of last week and got a bit ratty on our excursions out and about, no doubt due to her feeling a bit poorly though we did get  back to the zoo on Friday and managed to get very close to the giraffes, which are her favourite.
New Zealand’s capital city attracts the usual mix of touring acts from the US and the UK, and when we were planning our stay, I checked on line to see who might be coming through Wellington while we were here. I noticed” The Hollies” were in town during our stay, and having never seen them, thought they would be worth a punt, having had a dozen top ten hits in the 60s and 70s. James and Erica bought us two tickets as a Christmas present and the concert was last Saturday night. On our way into the city we wondered if we would be among the youngest there, which proved pretty accurate. There were a number of the audience clutching walking sticks and the odd wheelchair was in evidence.
The Hollies catch us not clapping!
The two remaining Hollies, Tony Hicks and Bobby Elliott, are now in their very late sixties, and the various group members leave the stage and re-appear throughout the performance to give them all a break. However, my other prediction, that those in wheelchairs imbibing oxygen from the bottle by their side would overdose when they sang “The Air That I Breathe” was unfounded. The band were OK and played all their hits proficiently, but they do miss Alan Clarke to give them that “Hollies” sound. The audience were very enthusiastic and were on their feet for the last 20 minutes. I guess I’ve just seen too many top groups over the years to be impressed. "Long Tall Woman" was fab though. 
Earlier that day the kids took us over to the suburb of Island Bay where they were having a bit of a festival, a feature being “The Ribble Street Races”. This suburban street is cordoned off once a year and all sorts of un-powered carts race down it, against the clock. I had organised a similar event for John Lewis several years ago so was keen to see the comparison. There were plenty of thrills and spills, though the day started quite sedately with a lego racing competition over a shortened track. Different ages raced there home-made machines down the track, and it got very competitive.
The line up for the "Eight-Year-Old " Lego Racing Final
The Lego Racing Route
The Ribble Street Racing machines await their drivers
On Sunday I joined “The Ukes Of Wellington” for the first time. They are a big group – about 40-strong, run by Shane, a  very charismatic Kiwi, and they have a very eclectic repertoire. They meet for a Sunday strum  in the lobby of a centally-based Wellington hotel where the guests seem very bemused to hear songs such as “Ring Of Fire” belted out with Kazoos playing the Mariachi trumpet part. We finished with the NZ National Anthem sung in Maori and English. Now if they did that in the UK with "God Save The Queen" we would have to sing it in about 14 different languages!
The Ukes Of Wellington during their Sunday Strum
One thing I failed to mention in last week’s blog, was that while we on the South Island, I finally got a proper leather, wide-brimmed boating hat, to wear when it rains. It’s Kiwi made, and I am delighted with it. I did buy a replacement for one that I lost overboard on the Gloucester & Sharpness last spring, but its cotton-based, and not waterproof. This one is.
My new Kiwi leather wide-brimmed hat
The only downbeat piece of news at the moment is that we will not be able to meet up with either of our UK pals who are in NZ at the moment. Brenda leaves on Friday and we can't get up to Hamilton this weekend to see here. We thought she had longer here and Sue and Geoff, who I also worked with at John Lewis, will be Queenstown on the weekend of Livi's second birthday party, and we need to be here in our "Gruffalo" costumes. 
Oh well. Toodaloo chums

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Due South And Back Again

His signature might have been on every British bank note over the last 10 years, with his face rarely out of the news as the UK’s interest rates flattened, but on this side of the world, Mervyn King was just another name on the guest list at the exclusive Timara Lodge hotel on the outskirts of Blenheim last weekend.
Our hosts for the weekend were Lynn and John, friends of my sister and brother-in-law, and Lynn works part-time in this small, luxury hotel, close to where they live. It only takes eight guests at a time. She was keen for us to visit, and to show off its magnificent grounds, so we took a detour as we toured the extensive vineyards that surround Blenheim.. “We have Lord Lothbury staying with us this weekend”, she said. “Have you ever heard of him?" “Can’t say we have,” we both said. “On our guest sheet, he’s also called Mervyn King”. “Ohh, I think we have both heard of him,” we replied in unison.
I guess Mervyn and his Finnish wife, must be wine buffs, for this is the main reason tourists are drawn to this part of the country.  Bleinheim sits at the top right hand side of the South Island. It is blessed with two long valleys that are exceptionally ideal for viniculture and over the last 30 years the industry here has exploded. Thousands of acres of vines, run off in every direction and new vineyards are springing up all the time. It’s extremely likely, that if you have a bottle of NZ wine in your fridge, it probably came from this area.

Making a purchase at "Spy Valley" winery
But I get ahead of myself (and that’s a joke, by the way, as you will see soon). Since we have been in NZ I have not felt quite right. I felt a bit dizzy when we were at the zoo, a couple of days after we arrived, and these dizzy spells got more frequent as the days went by. I also felt a bit nauseous, a bit like you do when you get off a fast, spinning ride at a fair or a theme park. Somebody joked it’s because we are now living upside down, but I was concerned it might be my blood pressure, which is normally spot on. I put up with it for several days before getting Erica to make me an appointment at her local medical centre. You pay a set fee to see a GP in NZ, and there is no waiting for several  days like in Britain. She called at 4.30pm Thursday evening and I saw Doctor Geri  at 11am the following day. She gave me a very good going over. I was in her office for 30 minutes, so I got value for my $80 (£40). She ruled out a number of options , via the exhaustive tests I had from head to toe, and diagnosed I had vertigo, which is what I thought, and hoped I had. “Sorry, Roger, there is no medication I can give you that’s going to cure it,” she said.  “You’ll have to work through it. It might take days or weeks.” 
It’s now the following Wednesday, and I must admit over the last couple of days it’s got much  better, though at times over the weekend, I was not sure whether my spinning head was due to the vertigo or the wine we were imbibing as we trawled the vineyards of Blenheim and its environs.
Picton Harbour 
You can fly across to the South Island, but most people make the three-hour crossing on the  ferry  that depart from Wellington’s harbour. The Cook Strait can get very choppy, but we had two really calm crossings in warm, sunny conditions, and John and Lynn were waiting for us when the ferry docked at Picton. We both like Picton, for despite it being the major destination for ferry traffic from the north, and having rail sidings and all the paraphernalia of a port, it is also a pleasant and very attractive little town. The harbour area is bordered by palm trees, and boats of all sorts bob about, overlooked around the bay by some very attractive properties that cling to the hills.
Both John and Lynn come from this area, as have their parents and grandparents, and it was fascinating to listen to their stories of growing up post-war in rural NZ and the changes that have taken place to them and the area in general. They are rightly proud of their little piece of New Zealand, and are very fortunate to live in such a beautiful part of the world.
The weather was very kind to us throughout the weekend. Blenheim seems to have its own micro-climate, shielded by mountains on three sides, which is obviously one of the reasons grapes grow so well there. We decided to drive down the coast on Sunday to visit Kaikoura, a town we last stopped in 10 years ago when we back-packed around the country. The journey is a cracker and follows the railway line from Picton to Christchurch for much of the way. Firstly past vineyards and then it hugs the rugged coastline for around 20 miles.
The coast road to Kaikoura
Kaikoura is the whale-watching capital of the south island – very touristy, and has not much else to offer. We last stayed there in a backpackers called “Dusky Lodge”. It was one of our favourites.  It’s still there and, it’s up for sale. A snip at $3 million (about £1.5m), if anybody’s interested.
We had fish and chips and a bit of a picnic above the beach before returning to Blenheim, though the other three  managed to sneak in an ice cream as well, during a bit of window shopping  in the gift shops that predominate in the main street.
Fish & Chips on the beach

Our weekend hosts. Lynn and John
This week it's business as usual, though Livi has been running a bit of a temperature since Sunday, so we are not making any major plans, though we'd like to take her back to the zoo sometime this week if possible. We bought her a zoo pass for Christmas, and like all children of that age, she enjoys experiencing the animals up close. It's a great zoo as well, so we enjoy it too.
Pat checks out the view on our return ferry crossing

This coming weekend will be our first staying in Wellington since we arrived, nearly four weeks ago now. Erica and James brought us tickets to see “The Hollies”, who are touring NZ at present for Christmas. On Sunday the kids are going car hunting, and I think I will investigate the “Ukes of Wellington’s” lunchtime thrash, which seems to move about a bit, but is generally in a bar, somewhere in the city centre. Looking forward to see what the standard of playing is like here. Reckon it’s going to be pretty good, so I’d better get practising.

 Toodaloo chums

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

The Fillers Get Into Some Hot Water

After two weeks in and around Wellington, we gave Livi back to James and Erica last Thursday and commenced a marathon 10-hour drive from the very bottom of the North Island to the Coramandel Peninsular, which is a little sticky-out ear, to the East of Auckland. The last 50ks are over a mountain range, whose name I can’t remember, and even if I could, I doubt if I could pronounce it, but it’s the usual mix of sheer drops and hairpin turns, which you really need after setting out at 5.30am that morning.

We have done the journey before a couple of times, so we knew what to expect. The area we were heading for is called Mercury Bay; the weekend playground of Aucklanders and those from Hamilton. That’s where are pals Kevin and Helen have a farm and we were heading for their holiday home, or “bach” as it’s called over here in the main town, called Whitianga. Evidently you pronounce the first two letters as “F”, just to complicate things.  Kevin and  Helen found the description of our route from Wellington to the Coramandel highly amusing as we attempted to get our toungues around the the Maori pronounciations. It’s worse than Welsh.
Kevin & Helen's bach in Whiitianga. Our hire car is the one in the middle
Our jouney north had taken us through the centre of the North Island, which is where much, but not all, of the thermal activity takes place. It’s not unusual to see jets of steam rising from passing fields as you drive through that neck of the woods. The centre of it all is the town of Rotorua, a beautiful  place, on a stunning lake, but boy, does it pong. We had “done” Rotorua 10 years ago on our first visit to NZ, so just stopped for some beers and wine, and pushed on.

There is no shortage of stunning beaches and coves on the Coramandel, but one of the most popular is one that also has thermal activity, namely “Hot Water Beach”, about a 45-minute drive from Whitianga (don’t forget the “F”). The place tells its own story. Two hours before low tide a quick dig down a few inches releases pools of hot water. Some are just warm, while some, just a few feet away, can be bubbling hot.

We join the rest of the bathers in the cold and rain of Hot Water Beach. Pat and Kev get digging. Helen in the red pancho supervises operations
For a variety of reasons we had never experienced this phenomena before, and the day we chose to experience it was windy, cloudy, rainy and downright miserable. Surely nobody else could be as stupid to go onto the beach in such conditions. Well, we got there early, and there must have been 50-60 brave souls already lounging in their own private baths.

The bath nears completion
A quick dig later, we had joined them. Some folks were having to go into the sea to either cool down or fill up a bucket with sea water to cool down their pools, such was its heat. It was a very surreal experience, and we were both glad we did it in those conditions.

We luxuriate in our "hot water" pool
Luckily that was the only rough day, weather-wise, and on the following day, Saturday, it got up to around 26 degrees, and we spent a good bit of the afternoon on the beach at Whitianga, watching the offshore powerboat racing, before repairing to another spa. This was equally as interesting. A local had discovered a thermal spring in his back garden around 10 years ago, and has developed it into a very swish, upmarket spa. You drive down a normal suburban street and pull into the gates where you are transformed into a tropical paradise. It was expensive and we only had an hour there, which I found more than enough when the temperature can get up 40 degrees. It was called “The Last Spring”, and I think we might do it again when we return, which will probably be at the end of the year.

The Fillers & The Williams's relax in the "Last Spring"

The Lost Spring Spa
The Coramandel has a bit of a reputation for its “alternative lifestyle”. A community exists in the hills, where they smoke dope and indulging in numerous activities, mostly illegal it seems. I must say we have never seen any evidence of “New Age” activity.

Well, that is not exactly true. We were in the supermarket queue buying mussels on Saturday afternoon. Now most, if all, supermarket checkouts have magazines and confectionery at the point of sale. Not on the Coramandel they don’t. The whole area was devoted to contraceptives and sexual aids. Helen had not noticed it before. We all found it very amusing.

The mussels were very good: so good we bought some more the following day, and I volunteered to cook them, but not before we suffered the humiliation watching England lose to New Zealand 21-0 in the Rugby Sevens tournament, which was being held in wet and windy Wellington, live on TV.

I have mentioned before on this blog about the rivalry between Australia and New Zealand, and that is often quite vindictive and cruel. Kiwis think the Aussies are generally loud, arrogant and crasse; while some Aussies see their neighbours as country bumpkins. That would be OK if it was just good-natured banter but it even stretches to political one-upmanship, with the two countries bickering at each other at the moment about stocking each others produce on supermarket shelves.

Some of it is both of these things. While at the powerboat racing I overhead a Kiwi who was obviously an Immigration Officer recalling a funny story about a New Zealander who landed at Sydney Airport and waited patiently at Immigration to have his passport stamped. On reaching the head of the queue the Immigration Officer asked the Kiwi a number of questions including: “Do you have a criminal record?”, to which the quick-witted New Zealander quipped: “Why, do you still one to get one to get in.” See what I mean. But I digress.

We broke our journey home Sunday night, with an overnight stop at Taupo, which sits at the head of the lake of the same name. It’s the biggest lake in NZ and is claimed to be as big as Singapore?

We have been there before too, and we stayed at the same place as last time, spending the evening at the cinema watching the new Tom Hanks movie “Saving Mr Banks”, in which he plays Walt Disney about the making of Mary Poppins and his stormy relationship with book creator Pamela Travers. Considering it’s the middle of summer, it was very quiet there.

I should have put this one in last time. Livi emulates her super-star Grandpop
This weekend we head south across the Cook Strait for the South Island to see some friends of my sister.


Monday, 3 February 2014

Kia Ora everybody

Hello chums, and warmest greetings from the “coolest little capital in the world”. Well, that’s how the locals describe their fair city of Wellington, our base for the next 10 weeks or so, and it certainly delivers of its claim – a small, easily walkable city centre, set around a sweeping bay and small, cosy suburbs, which nestle on hillside locations surrounding the city centre. It reminds me very much of the Hollywood hills, around LA.
The local tourist authority claim the city has more bars and restaurants per capita, than any other city, and walking down the waterfront, you can easily believe it. It’s a very laid back place. And more about coffee later.
This is not our first visit to Wellington and I doubt it will be our last, and each time we come back I warm a little more towards the place, despite its other claim as being one of the windiest cities on earth. However, since our arrival, a little more than a week ago, the weather has been warm and today (Monday) it is hot, with a breeze, of course.
Livi helps Granny Pat in the kitchen bake some biscuits
I am writing this looking out over Karori park, which backs on to the property and the sprinklers are working overtime, while a chap on a ride-on mower cuts the grass to one side.  Sparrows are chirping and there is not a cloud in the sky.  It’s a large green space, and most evenings and at weekends, there are several games of cricket going on, plus kite flying and one chap brings his model aircraft down to fly them. It’s also where the swings are, which are a daily obligation for Pat and me; sometimes twice a day.
We are here for several reasons. One is to escape the ravages of our English winter, but primarily we are here to see our daughter Erica, her huband James, and their little one, Livi, who will have her second birthday while we are here in March. So we are basically on baby-sitting duty while Erica returns to her job as a teacher full-time. I have found out, very quickly, that you can learn a lot from spending some time with pre-school toddlers. I never knew, for example, that in New Zealand frogs do not go “rivet” or “grumph”, rather they go La, la, la, laa. Well that was the interpretation at last Friday’s “Rock & Rhyme”, at the local library up the road, for the under 3s: who am I to argue.
Elevenses at the Park Cafe. Home is one of the townhouses on far left. Joining us is Dan, an old University friend of Erica and James. Livi looks forward to her "Fluffy"

Livi gets to grips with her "Fluffy"

It makes a great face-wash too, Grandpop
We are also getting a toddler-eyed view of Wellington’s coffee culture. Forget your skinny lattes and cappuccinos. The drink of choice for any self-respecting  2-year old is a fluffy (frothy milk with a marshmallow in it). Ideal for elevenses and it makes a good face-wash as well, as this picture illustrates.
I must say , even after a week, it’s still a novelty to turn a tap on and not have to worry about how much I use (no water rates in Wellington). And we have a big bed, so we can move about without bashing into each other, as we often do on the boat. I think we both miss life afloat  though, and it’s great to have these two distinct parts of our life where we spend part of the winter here and the summer, cruising the canals and waterways of Britain.

We take Wellington's Cable Car up to the Botanical Gardens
Our journey here went very smoothly. Emirates to Dubai, then a couple of hours wait before a Quantas flight to Melbourne, and a change “across the ditch” to Wellington. I had never flown direct to NZ, though Pat has. We had always broken our journey somewhere on the way, so this time I booked and paid for an exit seat on the 14-hour section from Dubai. Pat sat in front. It was money well spent and I got some sleep in, which I always find difficult to do on planes. I have already booked the same seat on our return at Easter. It’s a massive 13-hour difference here at the moment, and the jet lag, was not too bad, thanks to the sleep we both enjoyed.
Our overall plan is to spend Monday-Friday in Wellington, looking after Livi, which is a delight, and then to take off at the weekend. That starts this weekend when we have a 10-hour drive north up to the Coramandel peninsular to visit our Kiwi pals Helen and Kevin who have a holiday home there. It’s a Bank Holiday weekend for NZ this weekend with Waitangai day this Thursday afternoon. I have been asked to play ukulele at a Waitangai concert on Thursday with “The Ukes of Wellington”(I brought my uke with me). It’s a shame we will not be here, but I’ll catch them on our return. They have a regular Sunday strum in a bar in the city centre. They did send me the play list and a few of the songs are in Maori, which I don’t know, so it’s probably best to decline this invation. I am sure there will be other opportunities.
Toodaloo chums