Monday, October 26, 2015

I dreamed of the Orient Express ... and I woke up in Plovdiv

Have you ever read Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express, or seen the film?  There are linen tablecloths in the restaurant car and uniformed waiters.  The sleeper berths are the last word in luxury.  While we did not expect to meet Hercule Poirot on our journey from Sofia to Istanbul we were rather looking forward to a little old-world extravagance.

The reality in 2015 is a far cry from that romantic picture.

We could not make reservations over the Internet, so we presented ourselves at Sofia station, where a pleasant woman speaking good English explained that the choice of sleeping accommodation was simple.  There were no berths of any class.  We would have to sit up all night.  Well, we'd managed that from Budapest to Sigisoara and it hadn't killed us.  We could cope.  "And" she added, "there is no restaurant car.  You will have to take your own food."  Curses and naughty words!

"The train goes as far as the Turkish border, arriving at about 2am.  You will go by bus from there."  This last factoid wasn't a surprise because earlier Internet researches had revealed that the Turks have been doing major work on the tracks and we knew that the final part of the journey would probably be by road.

There was a tram from outside outside our hotel directly to the station so that part of the journey was simple enough.  We surveyed our takeaway food options.  Sofia had not been a gourmet experience until then and the station offered nothing to change our opinion.  The least worst option seemed to be large slices of pizza and a giant bottle of beer.  To kill time we opted for a coffee from the tobacco-and-spirits shop that boasted a few tables and chairs.  Not only was it the cheapest coffee in Europe at about 60 cents for the cup, it was the best coffee we'd encountered since leaving Germany.

The effect of this cheering jolt of caffeine was to make me study the shelves of spirits.  None of the labels was familiar, and, since we were in Bulgaria, they were mostly in cyrillic script.  I selected a green bottle with a friendly-looking label.  "Schnapps", explained the tobacconist-cum-barrista lady.  The 200ml bottle set us back $3.50.

The electronic departure board signalled that we would be departing from platform 12Ѝ.  Now Sofia station boasts the worst signage in Europe.  We found platform 12 without difficulty, but there were two trains sitting there.  Which portion was platform 12Ѝ?  There was no hint.  So I walked along the nearer train looking for a coach with the right number on it (we had reserved seats, remember).  The first several were unlabelled.  Then a conductor appeared on the platform.  "Istanbul?" I asked in my best Bulgarian.  She pointed to the coach immediately behind the locomotive.  "This coach.  Only one through coach."  So the famous Orient Express is reduced to a single, ageing 2nd class coach behind a workaday electric loco.

At least we departed on time.  And then stopped at every village along the line.  The first call was still within Sofia, where a band of young men, apparently going home from work, boarded.  There was plenty of room in the coach as we trundled through the Bulgarian countryside.  The young men chattered and we ate our pizza.  The cardboard and paper wrapping was a surprisingly efficient insulator so it wasn't completely cold, nor was the beer completely warmed.  We sipped at our ridiculously cheap schnapps.  It was OK.

Dusk turned to night.  A conductor walked down the coach.  "In 45 minutes, off train onto autobus.  In Plovdiv."  His English wasn't up to explaining why we were being transferred to a bus, but the message was clear enough.  Plovdiv is Bulgaria's 2nd largest city and, Wikipedia tells us, is an important economic, transport, cultural, and educational centre.  We saw nothing of importance as we carried our luggage across the tracks and waited at the kerbside.  Our Orient Express experience was over.

The bus quickly left the city and settled onto a motorway.  This, I thought, may save us some time.  It is actually quicker (and cheaper) to travel from Sofia to Istanbul by bus, but they don't have on-board toilets, which is an important consideration for the mature traveller.  More fool me.  It seemed hardly any time before the bus had to turn off the motorway to call at the next train station.  And on we went through the night.  I got the strongest impression that we called at one station twice.  Maybe the driver missed one and had to double back.  And towards 2am, as promised, we arrived at the border with Turkey.

If I'd thought much about it I would have guessed that the border would be a single, half-asleep customs officer stamping passports like an automaton.  In fact there were thousands of people lining up to enter Turkey.  Trucks have their own lane.  I swear they were backed up for two kilometres.  Buses and cars at least got within sight of the border control buildings before they had to queue.

Leaving a country is normally the briefest of formalities, but the Bulgarians took aside one lady.  She was part of what we took for a family group.  The husband was, I think, Canadian.  The wife was notable for wearing a formal evening gown for an overnight journey on public transport.  What was the matter?  Why should she not be allowed to leave Bulgaria?  Whatever the problem was, it got sorted out and the whole party re-boarded the bus to advance to the Turkish side.

Nearly everyone needs a visa for Turkey.  It's a nice little money-spinner for the government, with a computer somewhere in Ankara collecting fees and despatching e-visas in pdf format while the traveller enters all the information.  New Zealanders are among the chosen few who need no visa, but Eve was travelling on a UK passport.  It had taken ages, using a tablet computer, to enter the information, correct the spelling errors introduced by predictive text and double-check that everything was perfect.  In the morning I had opened the e-visa so it would be ready to show at the border and found Eve's name was misspelled, despite all our care.  I thought it likely that money would change hands at the border to remedy the defect, but I confess that I did worry a little about what would happen if we were refused entry.  My disquiet was unnecessary. We were simply handed back our passports with new stamps in them.  The problems were for the five travellers with no visa at all.  This must be a common problem, because the bus driver collected the visa-less five and confidently marched them off to where visas are dispensed.

All this took time and it was well after 3am when the bus moved on with its cargo of sleep-deprived travellers.  In Turkey the first thing it did was to force a way through the line of cars headed in the opposite direction into the grounds of a hotel.  Then we threaded our way through lanes of parked trucks, whose drivers were presumably asleep in their cabs.  Beyond this was - a railway station!  And parked beside it was a Turkish bus.  So once again we hauled our bags into a new vehicle.

Eve and I both thought that we would get no proper sleep that night, but the Turkish bus must have been more comfortable because we both managed a couple of hours or so.  As far as we know, this bus did not leave the main road. Certainly it made good time into Istanbul.  We were deposited at the terminus at about 6:45am.

I wonder if anyone has ever surveyed the accessibility of taxis by time and place.  If they have, I should imagine that going on 7am outside a boarded up, defunct railway station would rank pretty low down the list.  But Istanbul is awash with taxis and there were actually two of them sitting on the rank waiting.  We showed one of them the printed name and address of our hotel and off we went.

There was a slight glitch with the GPS navigation system in the cab (I later found the same imaginary street on our electronic map), but we were delivered to Mint Residence at about 7:15.  This has to be one of the nicest hotels on the planet.  The porter hurried out to claim our bags, confirmed our booking, gave us the WiFi password and made us a cup of coffee, all the while apologising for his poor English.  When the receptionist came on duty he checked us in and, since the room was vacant, invited us to occupy it straight away, making this the earliest of early check-ins.  We asked if we could buy a breakfast and were told to help ourselves from the buffet.  The offer of payment was refused.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Annual what-we-did-this-year blurb for 2014

Greetings to all.

Last year I wrote a great multi-instalment account of what I and Eve had been doing in the previous 12 months. My intention is to squeeze the account of 2014 into one episode. We shall see what my stint at the keyboard delivers. I cannot hope to compete in human interest with my cousin Mike's account of his desperate search for a lavatory near Buda castle. But I can certainly promise that this epistle will be illustrated.

At the end of 2013 we hosted our first wwoofer. Wwoof is an acronym for willing worker on organic farms. Through the year we have had a series of delightful young people in the house. They work on the farm for 4 or 5 hours per day and we provide board and lodging. They are usually travellers, working their way around New Zealand, but we have had a Kiwi, too. They have harvested last summer's garlic, hung it up to dry, cleaned and sorted it. Wwoofers helped to plant this year's crop, mulch it and weed it. And they have all been great company.

Christian (Germany), Elisa (Austria), Fabian (Germany) and Eve. For some reason, the two boys would do anything Elisa asked them to.

14 January 2014 was a very important day for us. That was when Laurel Sara Heritage, my first grandchild, was born. She had the great good sense to choose Richard and Tansy as her parents and, as you would expect, is growing into a delightful child. Not that Grampa is biased of course.

Laurel will be very literate. She has no option. Aunty Elizabeth has already started her on Pride and Prejudice and Grampa recites poetry to her; Spike Milligan and Ogden Nash mostly.

In February we booked ferries and drove to Auckland. Eve's niece Leigh was getting married to Glen on Waiheke Island on 1 March and this was an excuse to visit some other good friends. In Pauanui we caught up with Martin Little, who I have known since he flatted with my brother, Nigel, in London in the 1970s. In Auckland, John Vague, one of my many accountant friends, took us out on Auckland Harbour in his launch. We had a wonderful day, even though the snapper we caught were all undersized and had to be thrown back.

The wedding took place under a tree on a hill surrounded by grapevines. The weather was perfect. The groom was dashing. The bride was beautiful. It couldn't have been better.

Glen is from Ulster so we met his mother and aunt. We got on very well, and have pressing invitations to stay with them if we are ever in Northern Ireland. Leigh is a singer, so the reception music was live and featured some very well known (except to me, of course) musicians.

After a good party it was agony to get up early the next morning. But it had to be done so that we could get the first ferry back to the mainland and deliver me to the airport. I then flew to Wellington to play hockey. I was playing in the National Masters Tournament as a member of the Nelson 60+ team. So at the end of my hockey career I achieved representative honours. Not that there was a lot of competition for selection. If you were over 60 and still a registered player in Nelson you were in the team.

Eve drove the car South at a leisurely pace and collected me at the end of the week. After the tournament I retired from competitive hockey (for the second time). I still umpire and I will still play Golden Oldies hockey.

On the work front I fired my biggest client! I had been contracting to the New Zealand Institute of Chartered Accountants since 2004 to undertake quality control reviews of chartered accountancy practices. In 2013 this expanded to include reviews of licensed auditors under delegated authority from the Financial Markets Authority. Over time this had changed from being a largely educational process and become very much a policing operation. I have been heard to say that the FMA should have issued its reviewers with jackboots and a steel helmet. I did not enjoy it nearly so much, so I gave notice that I would not be renewing my contract.

Over time I had built up a little list of clients to whom I deliver advice on auditing and technical accounting matters. There wasn't enough of that work to generate a decent income, but preliminary discussions led to talks and then to an arrangement to help one of the national accounting firms. Again I am a contractor, not an employee, but I have the grand title of National Audit Risk Manager for BDO NZ. I even have a BDO email address, but it only accepts internal messages so you can't try it out. (BDO is a global network of accounting firms.) Quality control reviews are a large part of my work, but it also involves training audit personnel, and developing/improving audit policies and practices. And I can still do work for my other clients.

Eve went travelling without me in June. The original idea was to go with a friend, but the friend eventually couldn't go so Eve took off by herself. She went to the UK to see friends and relatives. These included her brother, Geoff Franklin, and my brother Nigel. The visit to Geoff and his wife, Stephanie, coincided with the death of Stephanie's mother, Doris. Doris had been ill for some time, so it was not unexpected, but it still made for a sombre visit.

Eve took a brand new camera with her but she didn't use it much. You will not be surprised to learn that nearly all the photos she brought home were of plants.

While Eve was away it fell to me to replace the car. The old one, which had given no trouble at all, suddenly developed several ailments at once. We have remained loyal to Toyota, but have gone up to a Camry because (a) it is very comfortable and (b) we got a really good deal on a not-quite-two-years-old vehicle. Luckily Eve likes it as much as I do.

After Eve got home we had less than a fortnight before we were off together. This year's holiday was to Fiji. After trying snorkeling for the first time in Hawaii last year Eve was very firm about doing some more. We did lots more.

We actually went on a package holiday. What? The Heritages are famously independent travellers. The deal we found was an 11-night tour of some of Fiji's offshore islands; the Mamanucas and Yasawas if you want to look them up. We selected the grade of accommodation and the tour operator selected five different resorts for 2-night stays and the last night was at Beachcomber 'party' island. Naturally we selected the most basic “1 coconut” resorts, but took the “Full Monty” package with lots of activities included.

Every day a large, yellow, fast ferry leaves Denarau in the morning and follows a route to the most distant of the Yasawa Islands. Then it turns round and heads back to Denarau. Along the way it picks up and drops off passengers and freight at the many resorts. Only one resort has anything so sophisticated as a jetty. The ferry merely slows down and drifts while people, luggage and freight are transferred to and from the resort's launch. Then it powers off to the next mid-ocean rendezvous.

We had a wonderful time and I could enthusiastically write at great length about out time in Fiji. Our resorts were generally small and run by the owner family. Our fellow guests were mainly young people on backpacker budgets. Both groups were invariably friendly and good company. Our bures were simple and comfortable and with one exception had en-suite facilities. At one resort we had a tiny private yard with an open air shower amongst the hibiscus. We generally had cold showers, but that's no penance in the tropics. The food was variable, but if the dining was sometimes ordinary, the dinner table conversation never was.

Every resort had at least one delightful, sandy beach. The sea was packed with coral and our snorkelling equipment got plenty of use. We saw all sorts of marine life, from living cowrie shells to sea snakes to manta rays. The new camera was a waterproof one, purchased with snorkelling in mind. For all that, it was an effort to break the habit of many years and put an expensive camera under the surface the first time.

One activity was advertised as feeding the sharks. The guides made much of the sharks' alleged preference for white skinned flesh. In the event, we didn't see the sharks eat anything, but we did gape at the way the guides played with them – grabbing them and bringing them up to the surface so we could all stroke the captive.

Fish amongst coral

Eve, Bill, Jess (UK), Simon (Germany) and Celine (Sweden)

A cowrie shell with the owner still inside

Eve caught the most fish

Who wants to pat the shark, then?

There are more photographs on my Facebook page if you are interested.

When not actually immersed in the sea we lazed in shaded hammocks, played/watched volleyball, fished, were serenaded as we watched the sunset from an open boat and, at one resort, dined al fresco just above the beach – again at sunset.

Our favourite resort was Naqalia, despite it having the coldest shower. They put on a lovo (earth oven feast) and a wonderful demonstration of Fijian dancing followed by a kava ceremony.

The tour operator was Awesome Adventures Fiji ( We recommend them.

Last Christmas I recklessly promised Eve that we would adopt a puppy from the SPCA. In August she exercised this option and we brought home Flossie.

Flossie is a 'summer' dog. She's summer this breed and summer that breed ;-) She is certainly good, exuberant company. We took her to puppy school where she learned to 'socialise' with other pups, which appears to be code for 'become uncontrollable'. We are trying very hard to mainly feed her the recommended, scientifically correct puppy food, which costs rather more than a restaurant steak. Flossie much prefers the supermarket's own-brand dog sausage, sheep poo or (if she is lucky enough to find one) a rabbit or hedgehog that has been dead for a week. When we first got her, she was miserably car sick. Now she sees a ride as a treat to be secured at all costs. A few days ago she spotted a stranger's car parked near our gate with a door left open. She immediately leapt inside and to our mortification ignored all commands to get out. She is now six months old and has successfully charmed us both.

October brought high drama. We had a French couple, Nicolas and Charlotte, wwoofing for us. Their English wasn't very fluent, but it was improving noticeably as their stay progressed. One of their tasks was to trim the twigs off broom stems that Eve's son Matthew had cut, and chop the stems into firewood length pieces. One day they arrived at the house in a very agitated state. Nicolas had been using a machete and had slashed his left thumb.

I immediately phoned for an ambulance, while Eve applied first aid. Both Nicolas and Charlotte were in a bad state, and Nicolas would not let Eve bind the hand properly. It was, Eve said afterwards, the first time she'd seen the inside of a living bone – and she would have liked a closer look. The machete had gone right through the bone and his thumb was attached only by soft tissue. Anyway, Eve did wrap it up in a towel and made Nicolas keep his hand elevated.

Rural properties are often difficult to identify at the roadside, so I was instructed to go down to the gate and make sure the ambulance came to the right place. It seemed to be taking an awfully long time, and then a helicopter appeared, circled once and then zeroed in on the house. Once I had climbed back up the hill I learned that the ambulance had been replaced by the rescue helicopter. The pilot had managed to land on the only level-ish piece of ground near the house.

The medics praised Eve for doing exactly the right thing and put a huge bandage on the injured hand. Nelson Hospital does not have the right specialists for sewing thumbs back on, so Nicolas was whisked directly to Hutt Hospital, in the North Island, which has a Plastics Department. The next morning the surgeon did his magic and the day after that Nicolas and Charlotte were back with us. The last we heard, the thumb is healing well.

Charlotte and Nicolas after the surgery

As if to compensate, November brought a piece of luck. BDO asked if I would help to present a week-long training session being run jointly with BDO Australia in Sydney. Did Eve want to come to Sydney with me? Of course she did.

The flight from Christchurch to Sydney was remarkable for what happened on the ground at Sydney Airport. Our plane was not directed to a gate with an air-bridge, so we had to be bussed from the aircraft to the terminal. We were seated close enough to the front of the plane to get on the first bus. When it was full the driver started the engine and pressed the switch to close the doors. The front doors closed, the rear doors hissed shut but the middle doors only waggled a bit. Open the doors and try again … After several attempts, some with physical assistance, all the doors closed – but the bus's electrics apparently didn't believe it because the vehicle would not move. By this time the passengers still on board the 'plane must have been getting very fed up.

The second bus had arrived, so we all shuffled off the first one and traipsed over to the replacement. The doors all closed to a subdued ironic cheer. The lady driver backed out into clear space, turned so that the bus was facing the right way and engaged forward gear. Nothing happened. It was an electric vehicle, and we could see her pushing buttons, but every time she attempted to move off one of the buttons popped out and the bus stubbornly stayed where it was. After several minutes she turned off the air conditioning and by some alchemy that allowed the motor to produce forward motion so we could proceed to the terminal.

We managed to have some time to ourselves at the weekends before and after the course. We took the ferry from Circular Quay to the zoo, which has a splendid collection of Australian fauna. We saw wild kookaburras and heard a clamorous reed-warbler. The latter has a loud, tuneful song, which it delivers without ever seeming to take a breath. It was in a fairly small cage but neither of us could see it! We visited Eve's friend Tasneem and her husband Don in Brighton le Sands. Eve had repeatedly told me that Tasneem is gorgeous. I can now confirm that she is.

During the working week I was coaching BDO senior auditors in how to do even better audits. Eve ambled around some of Sydney's tourist spots, had an extravagant lunch with Tasneem and devoted one day to the botanical gardens. She reported back on a number of shops, but did very little actual shopping. Her most notable purchase was a range of teas from a bookshop cafe.

On our last day we walked the Manly Scenic Walkway. The route is all within Sydney. Some of it is through suburbs, but an astonishingly large part of it is genuine bush. We enjoyed great views of the harbour, heard more kookaburras and saw many interesting plants.

A pied currawong

Eve had spent most of the week on her feet and had walked up some blisters. Near the end of the scenic walkway a large blister burst and the raw skin underneath was agony to walk on. Luckily we were approaching a residential area and the sight of a bus stop promised relief. The bus took us to the Manly Ferry Terminal, where we caught the fast ferry back to Circular Quay and a taxi to the airport.

My parents' estates got (mostly) settled during the year. We have paid off a chunk of the mortgage, but kept enough back to make us think of owning a boat. We have already inspected a few launches and hope to report on nautical adventures next year.

My Uncle Norman celebrated his 90th birthday in December. He is clearly confident of eclipsing his brother's 91 years and 5 months because he has already invited us to his 100th birthday party! And look out for the celebrations next October when he and Chick will have been married for an amazing 70 years.

Christmas was on a smaller scale than usual. Matthew has been living with us for the last few months and the only others to share our roast turkey were our most recent wwoofers, Minako and Naoto from Japan. They are a lively couple, who managed to maintain smiles on their faces even after 3 weeks of weeding the garlic. Minako is a qualified teacher and she spent a couple of days at Lower Moutere School observing the end-of-school-year chaos. She also enjoys cooking and has promised to come back in the New Year and cook us a Japanese banquet. Yummm.

You didn't think you were going to get away with only one photo of my granddaughter, did you? This is Laurel at 10 months.


Eve here now, but where to start? Bill has told you all of the news really but perhaps I can add a few comments.

First of all I'm fully in favour of having wwoofers to help on the farm. They've made things much easier for me and I don't have to worry so much about getting things done, especially in the garlic field. As Bill said, we've had a lovely mixture of young people here to help out. In spite of a neighbour telling us not to have under twenty year olds, this nationality and that, because they're lazy, useless etc., we have had very good experiences with all of them. Apart from being hard workers and lots of fun, we've had some very good cooks here too, so have tried many different ethnic foods.

One of the best things to happen this year is Bill giving Practice Review the old heave-ho. He is far more relaxed and happy with his new working life than he has been at least for the past two years. He even manages to take the odd afternoon off! Here's hoping that when we get our launch, he'll find even more time to relax.

My trip to England was quite leisurely. I spent time with Nigel in beautiful Dorset, and had a lovely few days there visiting stately homes and gardens with Vivienne, a family friend of the Heritages. We also had a great morning, Vivienne and I, ratting round in charity shops. We went back to Nigel's with some great bargains. I then went to visit my brother and sister-in-law near Tamworth. The countryside around there is very pretty, though in the circumstances we didn't go out very much. Next, I went on to stay with a friend in Port Sunlight which is a very interesting and attractive town, built originally by the Lever brothers (Sunlight soap) for their staff and their families.

Another train journey took me to Winchester to visit my cousin Geraldine and her husband Paul. It was great to see them again. Winchester is amazing and has a most beautiful old cathedral which was consecrated in 1093. There was a church there before that which was built around 600 AD (the Old Minster).

I then moved on to our friend June's home in Norfolk near Norwich and had seven or so days there doing her garden and going out with her to visit nature reserves and other beautiful places. We didn't go to the Broads this time.

After being home from my travels for about a fortnight, Bill took me to Fiji for my birthday. It had to be the best birthday present ever! He's told you enough about all that so I won't carry on.

This  year has to be the best one for the vegetable garden and it's simply because I now have drip irrigation for it. It makes such a difference to just turn on the pump from the stream and leave the garden to soak up the water. Everything is growing very well although I haven't got everything planted yet.

All in all it's been a very interesting and enjoyable year but I feel as though I'm never going to catch up on all the things that need doing around here! At least I won't be away from home as much next year.

We wish all our friends and relations a very happy and healthy 2015.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

What Happened in 2013 - Part 5

We came home from our travels to find that the house sitters had not been very energetic.  The garden was an overgrown mess.  In the house they had used many items in the pantry, which is OK, but not replaced them, which is not OK.  A nice wooden bowl had been broken and many things had been moved.  There are still a few possessions that we have not located, and one or two of theirs have appeared.  Oh well, the house had not been left empty and the chickens had been fed.  Of course we had been spoiled last year by Ted and Susan, who must be the world's most perfect house sitters.

Our bantam, Beryl, had gone broody just before we got home, so we let her sit on 10 eggs.  She hatched 4 of them and we had 3 black chicks and 1 white one.  They have all gone to Richard and Tansy in Christchurch and are growing well.

This year we planted only garlic varieties that grew well last season and the crop is shaping well.  We had plenty of rain in the Spring, when the garlic wants moisture, and plenty more rain in the summer, when we would prefer a dry spell.  Fingers crossed that we get a decent crop when they are ready to pull.

We had a visit from Viv Winterburn (nee Pezzey).  Our parents were great friends and my brother, Nigel, had managed to keep in touch.  When he knew Viv was planning a visit to NZ he sensibly directed her towards us.  We enjoyed her visit very much.  She and Eve got on particularly well.  I abandoned my work for 2 days and the three of us went over the Takaka Hill to Golden Bay to show Viv Waikoropupu Springs, the seals on Wharariki Beach, and a little bit of Farewell Spit.

We have hosted our first wwoofer (wwoof = willing workers on organic farms).  Miriam was from Stuttgart.  The host provides full board accommodation and the worker delivers 4 or 5 hours work per day.  The weather was not nice while Miriam was here, and it was Christmas holiday time, so we weren't working very hard.  Eve found some indoor tasks and Miriam has achieved the almost impossible and created order and tidiness in the cellar.  We have several enquiries from prospective wwoofers for 2014.

2013 was a year of granddaughters.  Eve has two more, Ellyssa (born 2 May) and Leila (born 27 August).  Bill is due to become a Grampa in January 2014.

Elaine, Matthew and Leila

One of them even joined us for Christmas dinner.  Matthew (Eve's son) and Elaine brought little Leila with them.  We also had Miriam, Kate from next door, Kate's mother Challis and Lee, who was living on Kate's property at the time.  So we sat down 8 to dinner plus the baby.  As always, the barbecue roasted the turkey perfectly.

The year ended on a sad note.  "Uncle Arty's", a Washbourn family holiday home burnt down on 28 December.  We aren't blood members of the family, but June Washbourn was my godmother and Liza and Jo, the next generation, are very good friends.  The first holiday Eve and I had together was at Uncle Arty's in Golden Bay, so it has a strong romantic attachment for us.  We were booked for another stay at the end of January.  Fortunately no people were hurt in the blaze, which merited the front page of the Nelson Mail and was even reported in the Christchurch Press.

Friday, January 3, 2014

What Happened in 2013 - Part 4: Hawaii

We only had one night in Seattle, and the idea that we would spend the afternoon sightseeing morphed into a stroll round Chinatown, where the hostel was located.  The hostel directed us to a very good and astonishingly cheap restaurant for our evening meal and then it was early to bed because we had to catch the first train in the morning to the airport.

The hostel had advertised itself as convenient to the airport train, and it did not exaggerate.  We had to cross the road at the first corner and descend the steps to the platform.  It was an arrangement I'd not seen before; the 'station' was shared by the light rail, which we rode, and the city buses.

Our train was on time and we were delivered to the airport, which despite the unsocial earliness of the hour was already teeming.  Crowds surged around the Alaska Air automatic check-in kiosks, but we didn't have to wait long to get to one.  Then a hitch.  For a reason I cannot now remember we had to enter our address and the machine rejected our NZ postcode.  There is indeed a desk with actual humans to resolve such little difficulties, but it had a huge queue, which did not seem to be moving at all.  We had no option but to join it, with the risk approaching fast that we might miss our flight.  To our relief an Alaska Air employee came down the line to see what issues people had.  He grasped the problem at once.  The "fix" was to check in at a kiosk but not to attempt to pay the machine for our checked bags.  Instead, go to the bag drop and pay there.

So we did not miss the 'plane and we flew to Honolulu for the Golden Oldies hockey festival.

We are members of the International Harlequins team.  Bill plays and Eve supports, encourages and defends our gear.  We both socialise, which is the principal objective of the event.  The team is currently managed from Calgary, so we were listed in the programme as a Canadian team.  I have often described these festivals as "a week-long party with hockey breaks."  It started with a welcome cocktail party and finished with a formal dinner.  There were three days of games in between.  No scores are ever recorded - it's purely for the fun of it.

Not that the hockey isn't important.  We do try to play a reasonable game and to score more goals than the opposition.  Since no hockey is played in Hawaii we were warned to bring ALL our gear, as none would be available locally.  Sadly, the organisers did not understand the requirements of the game properly and the pitches were terrible.  By the second day of games they had been mown shorter and were merely 'bad'.  But give them credit for fashioning very serviceable goals from plastic pipe and whatever netting was to hand.

Our hotel was just across the road from Waikiki Beach.  We trod the sands and swam in the sea.  There was a modest swell, but not many people were trying to surf.

Sunset over Waikiki
On Monday night the sky was aflame.  The picture was from our hotel balcony.  That's Waikiki Beach just behind the palm trees.

There are no games on Tuesday and Thursday to let our not-so-youthful bodies recover.  One of these is always a 'picnic day', when all the teams are bussed to a nice place to eat, drink, socialise and drink some more.

Eve Heritage, Bill Heritage and Bella Whippy (nee Heritage)
One of our particular friends is Bella from the Fiji Invitational Veterans.  She has been attending these festivals for about as long as I have.  She was born Isobel Heritage and we have tried hard to find a link between our families.  To no avail.  But we pretend nevertheless that we are cousins.

One of the entertainments organised at this picnic was a relay race that involved removing a ribbon tied to a goat's tail and he next member of the team had to reattach it.  I imagine this can be fun if you have had enough to drink.  One contestant made it a memorable event by competing in a lime-green mankini.  I do not intend to post my photographs of this, one of which appears to depict a very unhealthy interest in the goat.

On our free day, Eve and I went on a guided tour of the island.  There are heaps of tours (tourism is BIG business in Honolulu), but very few offer anything like an introduction to the local natural history.  There was only one that suited our timing so we took it.  We gained insights into the coffee and cocoa industries, and visited the Waimea Valley Audubon Center, where the rare Hawaiian Moorhen was known to breed.  And we actually saw one.  Tick!

Shama Thrush
The reserve also contained plenty of commoner birds, like this one, which is much more colourful than the moorhen.  Our guide was pretty knowledgable about the trees, as well, in the center's delightful botanical gardens.  The reserve was on the North Shore of Oahu.

The tour included a shrimp lunch from one of several specialist cafes beside the road.  The chili shrimps were superb.  The cafes cluster by a large area where the shrimps are bred in large ponds.  In the nearest pond were several Hawaiian Stilts, even rarer birds than the moorhen.  TICK!

The same evening most of the Harlequins went on a dinner cruise.  The evening was balmy, the food was very good for a buffet, the band was fine and the dancers gave us examples of dancing styles from Hawaii and several other Pacific Island groups.  It should have been a great evening, but it was totally spoiled for me by the incessant badgering to get the audience involved.  This started on the bus from the hotel, when the courier had us rehearsing a "bus number one war cry" or some such nonsense.  Dear cruise company, I am an adult and I do not need level one lessons in how to enjoy myself.

The only organised festival activity on the Saturday is the finale dinner, so that is another day for a free choice.  Eve and I went to the Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve.

Hanauma Bay
Getting there was a single bus ride from near the hotel.  Entering the nature preserve required money and the compulsory viewing of a video about safety in the water - for both bathers and the marine wildlife.  I think the dangers to swimmers were rather exaggerated.  As you can see from the picture there is plenty of sheltered water because the waves break on the reef quite well out.

A few more dollars rented snorkelling gear.  Eve is a very good swimmer but this was her first use of a mask and snorkel.  The water was so shallow it was very difficult to avoid kicking or handling the rocks.  There was not much coral, but the other life was great.  We saw many species of fish - good sized ones, too.  We also saw a turtle; the first wild one I've encountered.  And I saw my first octopus, but it withdrew into a crevice before I could show it to Eve.

Eve was hooked on this.  She immediately made it clear that she would like a snorkelling kit for Christmas, and a tropical holiday to use it in 2014.  So mask, snorkel and flippers were under the Christmas tree and very soon I'd better start researching island resorts.

What Happened in 2013 - Part 3: Vancouver Island

2013 was Eve's first visit to Canada.  I'm an old hand at Canada and had previously been to many of the places we saw on the mainland.  Somehow I had never got to Vancouver Island, despite the very positive comments so many folk had given it.

Getting there was a breeze.  You take the bus from downtown Vancouver all the way to Victoria.  The bus has to go a long way to the ferry terminal.  The driver then appeared to ignore all the traffic directions, but drove us onto the correct ferry.  No struggling with baggage on gangways.  All we had to do was find a seat with a view and, at the end of the crossing, find our way back to the bus.

The hotel we had selected in Victoria was inexpensive, but not altogether convenient.  First, it was well out of the city centre and second, it had no proper dining room.  What it did have was a bar operated by a third party.  As a bar it was pleasant enough, with good beers and patrons who welcomed us in their midst.  But the bar menu was an unimaginative selection of burgers.  It did not open at all in the morning, and the hotel could only manage a very basic 'breakfast in a bag' to take to our room.  (In fairness to the Howard Johnson Hotel, it was adequate and healthy and only $2.)

So we got to know the local buses pretty well in our searches for a good dinner.

Our itinerary allowed us 3 nights and 2 full days on the island, which is hopelessly inadequate.  We have seen only a tiny fraction of the sights.

Day One - Butchart Gardens

Every gardener should pay a visit.  The gardens were established by the wife of a local businessman and are still owned by the family.

We got there by local bus, using a very inexpensive day pass.  The driver of the first bus gave us admirably clear and accurate directions when we had to change.  The return journey was even better - we were picked up at the Gardens by an express going directly to the city centre.

The Butcharts employ 50 gardeners and the result is a floral treat of great beauty at any time of the year.

A tuberous begonia

The Sunken Garden

A small sample of the mass of dahlias on show

I've left out photographs of the several acres of ground devoted to raising seedlings, the fountain with ever-changing displays, the merry-go-round, and several thousand other gorgeous plants.  There were even water lilies in full bloom in September.

Needless to say, Eve was in her element, and full of admiration for the designers and cultivators of the gardens.  They (the gardens, not the cultivators) are not a cheap excursion, but certainly worth every cent.  Even the gift shop was memorable for its huge range of garden-related merchandise and the assistants' knowledge - even to which seeds could be legally taken into New Zealand.

All the tourist literature recommended Barb's Fish and Chips on Fisherman's Wharf.  No wonder Barb can afford all that advertising - the prices were scandalously high.  So we ate Mexican from a nearby competitor.

Day Two - Lakes

When we had arrived to pick up our Rent-a-Wreck car in the evening of day One the office was unattended.  We waited for 10 minutes and it was still unattended.  But we have a phone!  The number must have switched through to a cellphone because we made contact straight away.  The lady was embarrassingly apologetic, gave us a free insurance waiver and late return.  "Tell you what.  You keep it overnight and I'll run you down to the ferry terminal in the morning."

So we had wheels for the day.

Our first destination was Swan Lake, which was not really an appropriate name that day because we saw a lot of wildlife, but no swans.  It was a very pleasant reserve and a nice meander around the paths.  We had chosen this lake for its birding reputation.  We each carried binoculars and I had my camera attached to a monopod, purchased expressly for these situations.

Part of the lake edge
There was an otter in the distance but you cannot see it in the photograph.  There were also grebes at extreme binocular range.  I thought they were the red-necked species.

Belted Kingfisher
I was close enough for the bird to notice me, but far enough away that I had to use full zoom.  The sharpness of the image is due to the monopod reducing camera-shake.

Spotted Towhee
No, I don't know how this little bird (20% larger than a sparrow) got its surname.  Another coup for the monopod.

There were a couple of joggers circuiting the lake at a pace we could not match on bicycles, but not many other people.  Just before we completed our walk we met another birder armed with similar bird-spying equipment.  We had a most enjoyable chat with Cheryl Redhead, took each other's photos and are still in e-mail contact.  She was able to identify the distant grebes as pied-billed.  I emailed her a photo of a couple of LBJs (little brown jobs), that are only slightly less annoying to the birder than the very common birds-you-can-hear-but-not-see.  Even with a good photograph and a good field guide I couldn't identify them. They turned out to be young brown-headed cowbirds.  "Common bird, but tricky juvenile id." So I don't feel too bad about being stumped.

In the afternoon we visited Thetis Lake.  There weren't many birds here, but plenty of people swimming, walking their dogs or, like us, just walking.

We returned to Fisherman's Wharf on our last evening and studied the quaint houseboats and the tourist vessel designed to imitate a pirate ship.  We ate slightly less expensive fish and chips from one of Barb's competitors, whose scraps had attracted two seals so close you could almost touch them.

The following morning the rental car lady was as good as her word and delivered us to the ferry terminal.  The plan was that we would have lovely views of the islands on our way to Seattle, but th weather let us down.  There was thick mist, which only eased slightly during the journey.  Never mind, we met some very pleasant fellow travellers and conversation passed the time.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

What Happened in 2013 - Part 2: Mainland Canada

It would not be much of an exaggeration to say that I work for 11 months so that Eve and I can travel for the 12th month.  This year the destinations were Canada and Hawaii.

We started with a few days in Southern California, where we visited Disneyland and Universal Studios and astonishingly I did not take a single photograph.  We had a wonderful day at Disneyland, enjoying the rides, the music and the atmosphere generally.  We also observed first hand the obesity problem in the USA.  Our favourite ride was Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters.  "Evil Emperor Zurg is stealing batteries from helpless toys ..." so our mission was to take our laser blasters and zap images of Zurg and his minions as we were trundled round the course.  It is clearly designed for the younger generation - so we sixty-somethings rode this one twice!

From LAX we flew to Vancouver, where cousin Sarah lives with her husband, Tom.  They made us very welcome, even though Sarah's niece, Lily, was also coming to overflow their apartment.  All five of us had an expedition to Granville Island using the ferries that ply False Creek.

L to R: Eve, Bill, Lily, Tom and Sarah

Only a few days after this photo was taken Lily's boyfriend, Thom, proposed to her and was accepted.  Congratulations to you both.

There are market stalls offering just about anything edible, but particularly local produce.  As at home, berries in season are available by the kilo.  You can also get meat, cheese, pastries - you name it.  There are also more permanent shops selling all sorts, from traditional brooms to ship chandlery.

From Vancouver we rented a car and set off for the mountains.  Our route took us along the Crows Nest Highway to the Cascades and Slocan Valley, out onto the plains and northward to Calgary and then back West and more North into the Canadian Rockies.  It is tempting to write a day-by-day account, but I want to get this post finished this year, so you will have to settle for selected highlights.

First wildlife sighted: a chipmunk at Hope Slide

Slocan Lake

Canada is a land of lakes.  We never tired of seeing them.

Nelson, British Columbia

We live in Nelson Province, NZ so we could not miss Nelson, BC.  The beach is not as fine or as large as Tahunanui, but it is nevertheless a good beach.  The water is not salt.  That's an arm of Kootenay Lake.

Prairie wildflowers

These were photographed near Head Smashed in Buffalo Jump.  Yes, that's the place name.  It was where the first plains residents would regularly attempt to stampede the buffalo over a cliff.  The head immortalised in the name was not a buffalo's head, but that of a boy who wanted to watch the falling buffalo from underneath and got too close.

In Calgary we were welcomed by Tony Stewart, the captain of the hockey team we would be part of in Hawaii.  He not only gave us a room for the night, he carefully wrote down all the places in the Rockies that we really should not miss and provided sketch maps of brilliant clarity.

From Calgary we went to Banff where, to Eve's delight, we found Evelyn's Coffee Bar.  This promised, and delivered, excellent coffee.

One of the many very attractive rivers in the Rockies

We saw lots of berries in the woods, but never a bear eating them.

A number of plants produce 'woolly' seed heads.

Just upriver from one of the big waterfalls, whose name I have forgotten.

Moraine Lake (I think)

Who cares what its name is?  It's yet another beautiful piece of scenery.

Takakkaw Falls

None of my photos does justice to these falls.  The picture above only shows the first section.  The main drop is 254m.  Even though I'd been to this part of the Rockies before, I didn't know about this stunning waterfall.  And if the falls weren't enough, the surrounding scenery was extra gorgeous.

Golden mantled ground squirrel

This piratical rodent is scoffing *my* lunch.  We sat on a bench to eat our meal while we admired the view of Mt Edith Cavell when the squirrel appeared.  Playing on its undeniable cuteness it cozened us into feeding it blueberries.  I was trying to get a photo and put my plate down on the bench.  "Where's it gone?"  It had disappeared and by some sleight of paw popped up behind us, stretched up to the plate and carefully selected the largest cracker.  It then hurried well beyond any retribution and daintily but rapidly nibbled away.  "Yes, officer.  I have read the signs.  I did not deliberately feed baked goods to the wildlife."

Arboreal squirrel sp.

This critter has the good sense and manners to eat what the forest provides.  It did not come looking for handouts - in fact it ignored the humans around it while it rapidly extracted seeds from cones.  Note the blurring of the right paw as it removes the unwanted pieces of cone.

The first step of the Athabasca Falls

Some waterfalls are very accessible.  You park your car in a spacious car park and saunter over to where the noise is coming from, covertly scanning the license plates of the other vehicles to see if you can add to your list of state plates seen.  Around the falls there are made paths and fences and, sometimes, signs with sad tales of visitors who have fallen in the water, detailing the date of the incident, the victim's age and how far downstream the body was recovered.

Jasper, which is the nearest town to this and many other sights, has the most expensive accommodation in Canada.  Many of the local residents offer rooms at 'only' around $100 per night.  That does not generally include breakfast, but the one we settled on did provide good, brewed coffee and toast.  Mind you, our hostess insisted that we change to a bigger room after the first night and then charged us $20 extra for complying with her request.

Patricia Lake, near Jasper

Choosing which lake photos to leave out has been difficult.  This is one of the few with a close up of a shore.  We stopped here after admiring and photographing the more well known Pyramid Lake.  It was only a minute or so after we left here that we nearly collided with a deer.  We think it was mule deer, but really it all happened so quickly.  It burst out of the woods to our right and I didn't see anything before it was in the road and about to collect the car amidships.  I did stamp on the brake, but there was no time or room so it was lucky that the animal didn't pause but carried on at the same breakneck speed and vanished into the trees on the other side of the road.

Mt. Robson

After we left Jasper we drove West through Mt. Robson Provincial Park.  I'm not sure if it counts as the Rockies or not.  The mountain itself is very imposing, and the photograph doesn't really convey that well.  But we'd been driving long enough to want a break and a coffee and we got this grand view, too.

Bill and Eve with Okanagan Lake in the background

Even though we were headed back towards Vancouver we had more to see.  Cousin David and his wife, Jane, live in Summerland.  Jane generously played tour guide and between wineries and gardens took us to this prominent hilltop and photographed the tourists.  Thank you, Jane.

Jane and David

From Summerland we continued South to Osoyoos (pronounced as it is spelled - figure it out like we had to) and the Nk'mip Desert Cultural Centre.  Nk'mip is pronounced 'Inkaneep' we think.  The cultural centre was a fountain of information about the tribe's history; particularly their treatment by Europeans, which was strikingly similar to the early Pakeha insensitivity to Maori in New Zealand.

We were lucky enough to be at the centre at the right time for a talk on the local snakes.  The ranger started with small, non-venomous species and worked up to a rattlesnake.  He treated us all like adults and didn't try to make the rattler scary.  He described its habits matter-of-factly, didn't handle it directly, but did take it out of its box with a stick and put it on the table.  The snake seemed to be bored with the whole process and couldn't be bothered to shake its rattle, let alone attempt to bite anyone.  Finally the ranger placed the box, on its side, on the table and the snake immediately glided inside and curled up out of the sun, just as the ranger said he would.

From there we drove to Vancouver and a final night with Sarah and Tom before returning the rental car and heading for Vancouver Island.

What Happened in 2013 - Part 1

I went through the year's photographs and selected just the most interesting ones for this series of posts.  When I'd finished there were 49!  So they had to be even more ruthlessly culled.

Work was slow in January, so the year got off to a fairly relaxed start.  Our first commercial crop of organic garlic ripened.  We had sourced seed from a range of suppliers and found that the local varieties performed significantly better than those purchased from further away.  We sold some to the local supermarket, but kept most of the big bulbs for the next season.

At the end of January I had my hernia operated on.  This has been described in a separate post.

In February we had to move out for a few days so that the concrete floor could have its final coat of sealant.  Not only did most of the furniture have to be moved out, but we had to wait for two days for the chemicals to dry and the nasty fumes to disperse.

At the end of the month my brother, Nigel, visited from England.  The main objective of his visit was to be part of our father's 91st birthday celebrations on 3 March.

Dad had been getting harder to look after.  We were able to access some help in the home, particularly with showering him, but it became clear that he needed professional care.  After the birthday celebrations Nigel and I explained this to Dad and recommended Woodlands Rest Home to him.  Fortunately he took the news philosophically.

Living in the countryside and often leaving the doors open means that from time to time birds fly into the house.  Some of them then panic and cannot find their way back out without the clumsy guidance of waving arms and oaths.  Every now and then we have to actually catch one and carry it outside.  On 14 April a fantail got disoriented and after an exhausting chase I scooped it up and took it outside.  The poor creature was so traumatised that it just sat on my hand.  Eve had time to fetch the camera and take pictures before it flew away.

My "pet" fantail

Where we live snow mostly confines itself to the mountains so that it is tidily available for skiing, but does not disrupt daily life.  But while I was working in Christchurch in May it not only snowed in the city, but settled and prettily coated the cars.

In July we had more bird incidents.  This time it was kea.  NZ's alpine parrot is famously inquisitive.  In fact, they can be right little feathered hooligans.  They took to visiting us in the early morning.  Their investigations reveled that a beak can pull lumps off polystyrene seed boxes.  There seems to have been some rivalry as to who could remove the largest chunk and scatter the debris over the grass.

They are protected and, in the proper place, lively and charming birds.  They are, by bird standards, very intelligent, but their ideas of fun include removing the rubber from around car windscreens.  Eve called DoC for advice.  Apparently it is the adolescent birds (damn teenagers!) that are destructive.  Remove shiny items, which attract them, and a water pistol is a good deterrent.  It doesn't harm the kea but they don't like it!.

Discussing what to chew next

Eve and I briefly got involved in the attempt to save the Joan Whiting Rest Home in Collingwood, Golden Bay.  Government funding was withdrawn in favour of a new and very hospital-like facility in Takaka.  I was even going to be a director of the landlord company if the bid was successful.  However, there were numerous obstacles and in the end the property was purchased by someone who wants to turn it into a backpackers hostel.