Tuesday, 30 August 2011


23rd - 27th Aug 2011

Same-same but different.

I boarded the good ship Bahia on the afternoon of the 23rd in Auckland's Waitemata Harbour. Trapped on board until sailing time because the port authorities won't let you 'go ashore' again once checked in. I went well supplied with extra rations, just in case. The Bahia was remarkably similar to the others, Tanzania and Cap Cleveland in shape and size. There were two notable differences; it had a lift between decks ( luxury ) and it was carrying a 'stable' of six horses. If they had been on the Cap Cleveland we would probably have eaten them.
The Captain this time was, surprisingly, a Scotsman called Peter Handley. Not many Brits on freighter vessels nowadays, I was told. The remaining officers were predominantly eastern European and the crew, as normal, Philippinos. We set sail at about 2030hrs, or however many 'bells' that is.

Our initial route took us north up the east coast and across the top, passing good old Cape Reinga, of Maori spiritual renown ( bad photo left ). Then directly west across the Tasman Sea to Sydney.

Right: The 'stables'. Three trotting horses, two hacks and a 28 year-old Clydesdale. Their groom was called Carl; an ex-Jockey in NZ. He told us that they can get very seasick. I don't think these did. Just for your info, should you be considering it, it costs $NZ3000 per horse for a passage from NZ to Oz.

Left: Carl, the groom ( right ), trying out the life-boat. As per the other ships we were given good instructions on how to launch and drive the life-boat if, in the entirely unlikely event of the ship sinking and none of the crew were left, we had to do it ourselves. Difficult to imagine this happening somehow. 
The horses would go down with the ship. 

Right: Another pic of a container ship at sea. Different ship, different sea but surprisingly similar scene. The weather was calm most of the way across.

Left: The only other passenger, Tiziana. She had been on board for about 5 weeks since the ship left Savannah, Georgia. A very interesting lady.

Right:  Captain Peter, from Edinburgh.

We arrived in Sydney Harbour at about 2200hrs on the night of the 26th. Not under the Harbour Bridge and in sight of the Opera House,  that's where the posh passenger ships go, but into the boring container port, so no interesting photos of the well known sights.
We disembarked the following morning.

More to follow after a few days in Sydney. I will be on the lookout for boomerangs, billabongs, XXXX, didgeridoos, Sydney Opera House and things with which to tie my kangaroo down, sport.
No worries, mate!

Saturday, 27 August 2011


20th - 23rd Aug 2011

City of Sails

Auckland, known as the 'city of sails' due to it's seafaring history, is a large sprawling city of 1.2 million inhabitants. It accounts for over a quarter of the entire NZ population. It consists of several districts spanning the isthmus between the Pacific Ocean and the Tasman Sea, and has harbours for both; Waitemata Harbour to serve the Pacific and Manukau Harbour to serve the Tasman side.
What I saw was mainly the city centre and quayside areas plus a couple of the outlying districts, Newmarket and Ponsonby. There are indeed some very pleasant and wealthy looking residential areas but, certainly in the city centre, I thought it was, for the most part, rather tacky. Lots of grotty fast food establishments, loads of 'liquor stores', gambling joints and dirty bars with a few decent shops and watering holes on the quayside. Lots of urban grot.

Left: A friend of mine in the UK had a little dog like this. He called it Birmingham. Why? Because it was mainly black and brown with a couple of white patches.
Auckland centre reminds me of Birmingham. All the taxi drivers are Indian and there seems to be a preponderance of Asian, Oriental and Polynesian inhabitants. They call it a 'vibrant ethnic mix'. Smart it is not.

The outstanding structural feature of the city is the SkyTower ( right ). It has a complex around it's base consisting mainly of rather naff bars and casinos. The tower itself is quite elegant; 1076 ft high to the masthead tip with a 'sky deck' observation platform at 722 ft. So it's about half the height of the CN Tower in Toronto, but it's the highest structure in this part of the world ( I think ). High structures are not best suited to these shaky earthquake prone islands, although serious earthquake proofing is built in here.  It has a revolting, sorry revolving, restaurant.

A.J.Hackett, he of bungy jumping fame, has introduced two additional money spinners to the tower. You can jump from 636ft up on the end of a sort of abseiling wire. This is the Sky Jump, or at the same level walk around the outside of the tower  on a 1 metre wide unrailed grating platform ( attached to a safety line, admittedly ). This is the Sky Walk. At $225 and $140 a go respectively, I happily resisted both temptations.

....there seemed to be plenty of takers for these expensive adventures. NZ seems to have become the undisputed world leader in profitably getting people to leap off tall features and structures. After rugby and sheep-shearing it is their national passion.  

...and on the main observation level ( 610 ft ) it has a glass floor. A bit of a copy of the CN Tower.

On a nice day there are certainly good views from the Sky Deck. This ( right ) is looking over the quayside and harbour to the north-east. Rangitoto volcano ( island ) in the distance. The Auckland area is made up of many lowish extinct volcanos. Well, they anticipate more volcanic activity....but when is anyone's guess.

....and this ( left ) looks over the Westhaven Marina and Harbour Bridge to the north which, of course, courtesy of Mr Hackett again, you can also climb up to the top of and jump off with a bungy ( surprise surprise ). I don't think there is a single static vertical object over 150 ft high in NZ which you can't bungy jump from.

....and west towards Eden Park ( centre right ), the stadium soon to be a focal point of the forthcoming World Cup rugby tournament.....I predict the All Blacks will win, and watch out for Tonga.

Left: This is the War Memorial museum in Domain park to the south-east. It is a decent museum and one of the few Grand looking buildings in the city. It has three floors. The ground floor is devoted to Polynesian culture; lots of big canoes ( waka ), carvings, weapons, masks, tools and Maori paraphernalia. The first floor is natural history with, like Te Papa museum in Wellington, an excellent section given over to volcanoes and earthquakes featuring a simulated volcanic eruption and tsunami off the coast of Auckland. The top floor is a war and weapons museum also featuring a war memorial hall. Well worth a visit. There is another exhibition which I didn't get the chance to visit and which is, apparently, brilliant namely 'Kelly Tarlton's Antarctic Encounter and Underwater World'. It is housed in converted storm-water and sewage holding tanks out to the east of the docks. There is also another good one, the 'Voyager Maritime Museum' near the marina. OK, the city does have some interesting things to see.

The country is really winding itself up for the World Cup rugby which kicks off on, I think, the 8th Sept? Lots of flags on display all over the place ( as per right ). I have a horrible suspicion that hotels are already over-booked, restaurant prices will go through the roof, there will be queues for everything and a shortage of expensive transport amongst other things. The sale of the new style 'Adidas' sponsored All Black rugby shirts has already caused riots because Adidas are/were selling them for $225 each in the country when they were available 'abroad' for half that price. Adidas have been accused of being greedy. Well I never!
So that, in short, was my Auckland experience. Lots of potential there, but I think Auckland centre has suffered from some pretty bad architectural and environmental decisions in the past. It isn't that bad a city really, but was my least favourite place of all the towns, cities and countryside areas that I visited. I suspect it was because the other places were all so pleasant.
My tour of NZ has been great fun and a big eye-opener. It is a new country with so much potential and so much space to accomodate investment and enterprise. All the places that I have been to on this world journey, so far, have had their good, less good and even bad points. NZ has more good than most. As I'm sure you don't need to be reminded, all this is only my snotty opinion but I will summarise anyway. NZ offers plenty of entertainment in many areas ( especially leaping off and out of things ) but is, perhaps, lacking, at present, 'top end' facilities, culture and occasion. On the big plus side it doesn't have nearly so much of the European and American 'bottom end' foulness. The countryside and most towns are remarkably beautiful and all refreshingly different from one another. It is an expensive place ( for a Brit tourist anyway ) especially food and drink but, thankfully, does not have that irritating American 'tipping and ++ tax' culture, ie what you see on the label is what you pay. No extras, and barmen, guides, drivers etc. do not expect, of right, to be tipped. The Kiwis unfortunately do have, to my ears only perhaps, a few annoying colloquialisms amongst which, the worst by far, is that ghastly Americanism 'awesome' which they have adopted with indecent enthusiasm. They even have companies called such things as 'Awesome Tours' and 'Awesome Eating Experience'. I hope they stamp that out firmly, and soon. There is an over-abundance of Starbucks, MacDonalds, Burger Kings and the rest and they chose to adopt the 'dollar' as opposed to stick with the 'pound'. They are, like so many countries, in thrall to the USA. Having said that, they did boot the US 'observation' presence off the Mt. John observatory facility near Lake Tekapo for, allegedly, misusing it as a spying/eavesdropping base; but then what did they expect?
I must just mention that I collected my non-operational very expensive and robust lap-top computer from a MacStore in Auckland where the damage was being assessed. Their assessment for repair costs was $5840.......and their fee for doing the assessment was $138! This was reduced to $60 in the face of a dangerously berserk customer. Needless to say the damned lump of metal is still non-operational and I am planning my revenge.
Off now to the land of Oz, a country which has proved beyond doubt, given sufficient time and space, that you can turn a bunch of criminals into a self-supporting, indeed prosperous, nation with some great people ( Rolf Harris and Dame Edna Everage to name but two ) albeit with the likes of Ned Kelly and Rupert Murdoch.
....and g'day to you all, mates.

Monday, 22 August 2011


16th - 20th Aug 2011

Weather for penguins

After slopping out at 0600hrs I waited outside the Jailhouse for the shuttle bus to take us to the station to catch the 0700hrs 'Coastal Pacific' train. It's final destination is Picton but my plan was to get off half-way at Kaikoura.There was me and an Indian gentleman. It had snowed again overnight, as forecast. Not too much, but the Indian decided to walk to the station anyway. It is, I had been told, normally a 15 minute walk. I had a large wheely bag, a small rucksack and a briefcase to carry so decided to wait for the transport. By 0640hrs it had not arrived. I had to make a decision; wait or walk. I decided to walk. Towing the wheely bag through the snow was like dragging a corpse. It did not wheel, nor slide very well. I persevered by using the semi-cleared slushy road. I then got a bit lost, and with 10 minutes to departure time I flagged down one of the few passing cars. He only stopped, reluctantly, because I was in the middle of the road. I asked the single occupant, a bloke with a beard and bobble hat, where the station was and he pointed, vaguely, and told me it was nearby. I asked if he could please give me a lift because I was going to be late and had heavy luggage. He said no and drove off. "Bastard!" I shouted after him. I found myself on the railway track itself, in about a foot of snow. I could just make out the platform about 400 yards away. I could see the red lights on the back of the train. I had about 7 minutes in hand. I dragged, and puffed and wheezed and cursed my way towards the station. I had a vision of getting to within feet of the train and it slowly pulling out. It was like having one of those dreams where you could not move your legs. It was still only half light, I was making desperately slow progress and both sweating and icing-up simultaneously. 2 minutes to go and I was within 100 yds of the platform. I saw a workman there. I yelled at him and waved like a maniac. I might have been dying. If I was ever going to suffer a heart attack and/or die of exhaustion this was it. He turned away. Another bastard! I was bent double and hauling what now felt like a dead sperm whale behind me. It had just gone 0700hrs and I was on my knees, cursing and swearing with what little breath I had left. I somehow clawed myself plus dead whale, now with an anchor attached, through snowdrifts onto the platform. The train was still there. I noticed that noone was on board. I staggered, half-dead and wild-eyed to the station building to be told that the engine had not arrived ( snowed in ) and there would be at least an hour's delay. Bloody Hell! I then saw the beardy driver with the bobble hat. He had the nerve say "Glad to see you made it, mate". I replied "no thanks to you, mate", and politely refrained from adding "you miserable unhelpful wanker". If I had had the strength I would have punched him on the nose. The shuttle bus arrived 5 minutes later.

Left: Kaikoura from a little way south where I stayed at yet another excellent YHA. It's not a big place but popular with sperm whales, seals, penguins and tourists. Arrived at about 1.00pm and the sea was too rough to go out 'whale watching'.
There were only three of us at the YHA, myself a Malaysian girl, Yin, and a Dutch girl, Adeline. I suspect many people had been stranded by the weather. Yin had been there, unintentionally, for four days already. They were great company. We all went out for an amusing supper in somewhat deserted down-town Kaikoura.
The next day the wind was even stronger and the sea rougher. Again no whales on the agenda. Yin suggested I go on the delightful coastal walk ( she had probably done it several times ) to view the fur seal colony. I declined because the weather was pretty grotty and, for some totally unjustifiable reason, in the same way as I took a dislike to stupid spitting alpacas, I don't like seals. Neither have ever done me any harm but I reckon seals are dirty smelly beasts which make horrible honking noises, have gloopy eyes, can be surprisingly aggressive and devastate any local fish population. They are also thoroughly boring to watch. Orcas ( killer whales ) like them. I went to the pub instead.
Interestingly, Kaikoura boasts of it's delicious locally caught crayfish. On the pub lunch menu they were on offer at $105 a crack! I might understand that if they had been flown in fresh from the south of France but... locally caught?....I didn't see too many millionaires queuing up to order them.
So, apart from being amused by the charming girls, Kaikura was a bit of a disappointment. At the railway station, before the Coastal Pacific train on to Picton arrived, they were showing a film about sperm whales. It was excellent; both fascinating and educational. I saw and learnt more about sperm whales from that than if I had been in a boat where you are lucky to see a spout of water, it's long back or possibly it's tail fluke as it dives. I learnt, for example, that sperm whales have teeth ( like dolphins and orcas ) and are carnivores. They are the deepest diving whale, 700 metres long, weigh 4,000 tons and eat sheep ( and hopefully seals for afters ).

Right: The sea was even rougher. Might have washed a few of those pesky seals away.The trip to Picton was a mere 3 hours up the coast.

....and just to give you an example of the countryside, on up past Blenheim and the renowned Marlborough wine country......

....to the ferry, the Kaitaki ( ex Pride of Cherbourg again ) at Picton where, if you are lucky, the conditions will be like this........
( photo taken from an advertisement )

......but in reality were officially described as this....

........however it could have been worse, as the helpful chap at check-in demonstrated......

......and the place quickly took on the look and sound of a floating vomitorium. Lots of shouting for Ruth and Huey and those fortunate enough had their own private facilities, as per this chap. When he finished I offered him a bite of my mince pie. Not appreciated.

We arrived in Wellington a bit late. I had a day to kill before I could get a seat on the Overlander train back to Auckland. The same one that broke down half way a few weeks ago when I was returning from Palmerston North.
Right: I previously missed this interesting 'water sculpture' in Cuba Street. It tips water from bucket to bucket until the big one at the bottom is full, which then empties. OK, I was interested.

Also took the opportunity to go to the Archive building to view the original 1840 Treaty of Waitangi. This is one of the rather moth-eaten pages ( left ) signed by some of the Maori representatives. It effectively handed sovereignty over New Zealand to the Crown. It has been the source of much misunderstanding ever since. Not surprisingly because it was impossible to read it. They probably have transcripts.

Then back onto the Overlander train to Auckland. A 12 hour, 700 km journey. Past the same places as before, unsurprisingly, but I will show a few bits of scenery nevertheless....  several gorges like this ( right )

Left: Andy, one of the excellent crew who were multifunctional. They changed crews half way. They served at the caff, did tickets and also gave a good commentary on local sights.
Approaching the village of Ohingati we were told to expect a bloke to appear waving a red flag. This is Kivun, he is a 79 year old 'railway icon' and has waved his red flag at all passing passenger trains at this spot for as long as anyone can remember. Kivun duly obliged like a man possessed and, of course, everyone waved back enthusiastically.

... on past Mt. Ruapehu ( 9174ft )...a volcano at the Tongariro National Park.......

...and Mt. Ngauruhoe......another volcano

....over this viaduct which was the scene of a major disaster in the 1960s when Mt. Ruapehu erupted and sent a wall of mud downstream which collapsed the bridge. The train driver wasn't aware and therefore didn't stop in time. I think 138 people were killed. There are suitable precautions in place now to prevent a recurrence.

Left: Some of the beautiful undulating sheep and dairy cattle country south of Hamilton.

Right: Just to give you an idea of the size of a Kiwi's egg in relation to the bird itself. Crikey! This has little to do with the rail journey, but thought you might be interested.

And so on to Auckland. At least the train didn't break down this time. I have been around the city earlier and have another day here so will undoubtedly have something to say about the place. Due to time constraints and other more interesting things to do, I suspect my impressions and photos of the 'City of Sails', as it is known, will have to wait. My ship, the Bahia, leaves Auckland for Sydney on the 23rd, arriving on the 27th Aug.
I hope it's not another floating soviet gulag. Rest assured I will be taking sufficient emergency rations on board. 

Auckland. City of Sails.

Saturday, 20 August 2011


13th - 15th Aug 2011

The Red Zone
On into Christchurch. Coming from the south, north and/or west you would not really notice anything amiss. I went to the Jailhouse to dump my kit and then on to the racecourse at Riccarton Park.

Left: Riccarton Park racecourse. I would say the place is similar in size and layout to Stratford except it is, as is most racing here, geared to the Flat. I got there a bit early, before most had arrived, hence empty stands. The little tent in the parade ring was to house a very jolly Irish band which played between races.

Right: Groups of local 'toffs' set up some extravagantly laden picnic tables along the rails.  I hovered around expectantly, hoping to be invited to share their champagne and sausage rolls. In vain.

The going was 'good' and there were some tight finishes. The programme of 10 races began with a 2 mile ( although they did everything in metres and kilograms here. How tedious. ) hurdle race. The 7th race was the Grand National Steeplechase. The remainder were all Flat.

Racing was interspersed with entertainment in the parade ring by such things as sheepdog displays... and very agile they were too........ 

... and a parade by the Christchurch Hunt ( left ). I was not exactly clear what they hunted as, to my knowledge, there are no foxes in NZ. Possums maybe? Everybody hunts possums, but they are nocturnal and climb trees so these hounds might be at a disadvantage there.....perhaps they have a terrier to run up trees, with night vision goggles.

..... and of course the Oirish band called 'The Boys from Ballyrag' which was excellent. As you can see, they were warmly dressed for the occasion.

The main feature of the day was the FMG Grand National Steeplechase over 5600 metres ( I think that is about 4 miles ) and twenty two fences. All the races, including this, were started from stalls.

The stands ( right ) were respectfully full before the race. It was cold, which might have explained why few ventured out onto the lawns around the paddock. Also, there are no bookies. All the gambling is done on a tote system operating in the stands. They have a 'pre-parade ring' at the back which attracted more spectators. 


Left: A fence on the home straight. The portable fences down the far side are so soft that the horses just ran through them. Then they put three fences on the home straight with supporting rails 3 ft up at the back ( as per photo ). Not surprisingly a couple of horses tripped up; one fatally, falling on the rails just on the far side of this group. The eventual winner, Counter Punch ( No. 1 in blue ), just leads here. He won it last year too.


Lots of 'Jockettes' were participating, and very successfully too. This lady ( right ) had just won a race. I noticed that the colours were in all cases those of the trainer, not the owner. I think that is a bit of a swizz for the poor wage paying owners!
And after all that, no sign of McCririck. I had had a pleasant and most interesting day at the races. 
Jump racing in NZ is still very much the poor cousin to the Flat despite the fact that NZ exports many highly successful NH horses to the UK. They are trying to rectify this, but I doubt they will succeed. There is probably more public interest in 'harness' and 'trotting' racing which I, personally, find remarkably tedious. The predominant sport, indeed religion, in NZ is undoubtedly Rugby, of the Union variety. Not long to go now to the Rugby World Cup here ( Sept 8th? ). The whole country is winding itself up into a frenzy about this. It will be good to be out of the place then when prices will soar, there will be queues for everything and no accomodation or transport to be found anywhere. Best watched from the comfort of an armchair in front of the telly, if you ask me.

I had checked in, voluntarily, to a place called The Jailhouse. It was...the jaihouse until some time ago. The owners have, imaginatively, not changed it too much. There is now better heating perhaps, good kitchen facilities, internet, TV lounges etc. Quite comfortable really.......but no smoking, of course. It is not difficult to escape.

.....and the 'cells' had retained most of their original character and decor. Bloody heavy steel doors and locks with walls three feet thick! You could, however, keep your lights on for as long as you liked but you were expected to put your rubbish bin out for collection each morning.

Left: This was part of the normal ( voluntary ) check-in procedures.
I am, apparently, 180 somethings high. I didn't know that.

As mentioned before, you wouldn't know anything was wrong with Christchurch until you walked towards the City Centre. It was here and towards the sea on the east side that the earthquakes struck; firstly in Sept 2010 and then again, with seriously fatal results, in Feb 2011 and with many after-shocks in between and afterwards. The central area, the 'red zone' is still fenced off. There is a river through the centre which caused a lot of foundation 'slippage' and even though many tall buildings remain standing, their foundations are irreparably damaged and will have to be pulled down.

The red zone is relatively small, but contained all the old buildings, offices and main shopping centre. It couldn't have happened at a worse place. Christchurch wasn't even considered a major earthquake threat, unlike Wellington which sits on a known fault-line. The zone is cordoned off by a large fence decorated with 'serious danger' warning signs.
Even after 6 months they have hardly started the necessary demolition and clearance work, let alone reconstruction.


Right: This was the Methodist church. This collapsed in one of the after-shocks killing three workmen who were inside assessing previous damage. Both the grand Anglican cathedral, the central point of the city, and it's RC equivalent have been destroyed. The 'Good Lord' did not look kindly on his edifices in Christchurch. The place will have to be renamed Christ-no-church.

Life goes on outside the centre, and I took shelter inside a pleasant pub just as a big thunderstorm plus hail approached. The pub, name forgotten, served a delicious, nearly up to The Grapes standard, Sunday roast lunch. They were also showing on TV the demise of the Indians in the 3rd Test. This marked the beginning of some rather wintry weather. I had booked a day return trip on the 'Tranz Alpine' ( yes, the 'z' is considered trendy ) train to Greymouth, on the west coast, the next day, just for the scenic ride. I had received parole from the Jailhouse.
Woke up ( without warders banging on the cell door ) at 0645hrs to discover that there had been a dump of about 6" of snow. I thought firstly, the NZ forecasters are a lot better than the UK equivalent and, secondly, that there was a fair chance the train to and/or from Greymouth would not be operating. A shuttle bus picked us up outside the Jailhouse for the run to the station. The train was due to leave at 0815hrs but, due to snow clogging the points, it was delayed until 0915hrs. We duly departed. It is a 4.5 hour trip.

Left: A snowy scene just outside Christchurch. The Kiwis are not used to snow at sea level, especially around Christchurch. It causes havoc with their transport....... I mean even more so than in UK.


Right: They have open air observation platforms on the trains. I supect these are even more popular in summer when it's not snowing a blizzard. Due to the icy conditions we were told to take care on the 'sluppery dick'.


On the way westwards to Greymouth we followed the Waimakariri river. Lots of tunnels, viaducts and impressive scenery but mostly hidden by the snow.  The bar car was doing good business. This area is supposedly home to the Greater Spotted Kiwi although, as it was wittily pointed out, is not spotted very often.


The commentary by the 'conductor' was possibly somewhat scripted, ie. most of what was described was invisible. At this point ( right ) we were told to look at the many Merino sheep which are farmed up here. You would need damned good eyes to see sheep in this landscape. Reminds me of that totally white painting entitled 'Anaemic Virgin Nuns in White Habits Walking to Church in a Snowstorm'.

Left: Blue skies when we reached Greymouth. There are three main passenger train routes in NZ, collectively called Tranz Scenic. This one is the Tranz Alpine ( none of the staff appear to like the 'tranz' bit ). The train between Christchurch and Picton up the east coast is the Coastal Pacific ( changed back from Tranz Coastal ), and the one between Wellington and Auckland is the Overlander. I hope to have done all three.

Right: An interesting mural depicting many historic events in the Greymouth area. Quite clever, I thought.

The weather was much better on the way back. This is following the river Grey out of Greymouth.

....with a stop at Arthurs Pass, the highest point on the route at about half way, for a spot of snowballing.
There were lots of Chinese types on the train who were enthusiastically throwing snow over one another. NZ in general is a popular destination, it seems, for people from the Orient; both tourists and residents. The street map I have of Christchurch duplicates many street names in Japanese, for example. ( nothing to do with earthquakes I hasten to add....I don't think ).

Left: A typical view over a gorge once the snowstorm had abated. These railways were completed at the beginning of the 20th century. The engineering work, with all the tunnels and bridges involved, was an incredible feat.

.....and just before we got back we passed through this rather snowy vineyard.

With more snow forecast overnight travel arrangements might prove uncertain. I believe the airport has already been closed, and it doesn't take much to stop the buses. I am booked onto the 0700hrs Coastal Pacific. I intend to break the journey with a stop-over at Kaikoura, on the coast half way up to Picton. This place is noted for the proliferation of sea-life, especially sperm whales ( of Moby Dick fame ), which feed just off-shore. We shall see. Meanwhile, back to jail.