Saturday, 24 September 2016

Who was Arthur? And why did he pass?

The Alps from the Canterbury Plain
One of the routes I've never travelled in New Zealand is Arthur's Pass, so this time I decided I'd give it a go.  There are two ways to travel - a very expensive rail journey from Christchurch to Greymouth, or the West-Coast Shuttle bus.  I decided to go one way and come back the other.  The rail trip costs $159 and the bus $55.  The train goes through quite a few tunnels, the bus goes over the original pass and follows the old stage-coach road for much of the way.
The old stage-coach road along the gravel river bed.
The bus takes about the same time as the train.  You can guess which one I preferred!
It takes two locos at the front and three at the rear to get over the pass
From the Canterbury plain with its rolling green pastures, you soon get a glimpse the first glimpse of the Alps and the remnants of glacial lakes.

There are bridges and deep gorges.

and wide river crossings across braided rivers and banks of gravel that are apparently about a thousand feet deep, left behind by the glaciers.

Arthur's Pass station is over 700 metres above sea level.  It was the base for the workmen building the tunnel that takes the train under the mountain to the other side.   Arthur's Pass was named for Sir Arthur Dudley Dobson who was the intrepid surveyor who found the track (he was told about it by the Maori!) that was eventually made into the first stage-coach route through the Alps.  He had a father and a brother who were both engineers and so it was always called 'Arthur's' pass to distinguish him from his family.
Selfie opportunity!
Doing this trip by stage-coach must have been fraught with danger.   This is an old photo of one of them, passing underneath a rather rickety foot-bridge.  The sad truth of this nostalgic image was that the horses had a life-span of about 1.5 years because of the strain they were forced to endure. As a horse-lover, brought up with draught horses, it makes me very angry.

The first cars along the route had to be helped over the river-beds by horses, hopefully  better treated.

No horses were injured or exploited on this trip. I made it to the other side by engine power and then onto my waiting bus, bound for the small community at Punakaiki where, apparently, there are some spectacular rocks and beaches.

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Christchurch's Graffiti Revival

Christchurch is still a mess.  6 years on from the  September 2010 7.2 earthquake that began its destruction, it remains a jumble of demolition and construction. Where there were once streets, there are now wastelands being used as car parks. But something amazing has been going on. NZ and international artists have been painting exposed, scarred walls with graffiti art - some of it sensational. The iconic image of this street art exhibition was the Ballerina, painted on the back wall of the  restored Theatre Royal, by Owen Dippie.
The Ballerina, being painted from a crane by Owen Dippie
I've been wandering around to see how many I can spot.  I found these New Zealand birds, though I had to trespass on a building site to photograph them.


There are a number of super-realist images.

And rather spooky images peer out at you from side-streets, and the doors of boarded up shops.

Or lurking in the porta-cabins erected to protect listed facades.

There are colourful monsters

Multi-coloured car-parking


Some interesting cartoons

And the images are both inside and out.  This one is in the YMCA building that recently hosted the graffiti exhibition.

And the ballerina? She's being obliterated by a new building.  Which I suppose goes to underline the temporary nature of graffiti art.  But it seems a shame.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

A Million Miles that Ruined the Planet

Yes!  It’s all my fault – I have to confess.  My love affair with airline travel has contributed, possibly fatally, to the demise of the planet.  My only excuse is that, when I started, I didn’t know that would happen.  I’m currently eleven and a half thousand miles from home, a journey I’ll have to do in reverse in a couple of weeks time. That’s twenty three thousand miles in a single month. Sitting on a plane crammed with almost four hundred people doing the same thing made me think really hard. Most of them were going on holiday, to visit family or on a business trip.  Many of those journeys were luxury items at a time when we’ve got to think very carefully about our carbon footprint.  It set me calculating mine.
Too Many of These
I first flew about 50 years ago, in the days when the jet-set really WAS. Flying was something very few people did.  I was a terrified first-time passenger with a young baby, boarding a long-haul jet to join my husband in the middle east.  Have a few gins, the doctor advised.  It’ll keep you calm.  Fortunately I don’t like gin, so I was sober in charge of a child and almost completely in my right mind when I got on the plane at Heathrow. We were treated like celebrities and there were free Elizabeth Arden cosmetics in the loos.
Martyr's Square, Beirut as it once was. 
We flew to Beirut.  Remember Beirut?  Formerly in the country known as the Levant, the jewel of the Mediterranean, the Athens of the East, a fabulous, vibrant city (before it was bombed to bits), where East met West.  It was my first experience of the Orient, and I fell in love.
Dubai as I originally saw it
From Beirut to Dubai, which was at the time an unspoilt ancient trading port on the Arabian (then the Persian) Gulf.  It was a vision of carved white wind-towers, looking at their own reflections in the Creek, where fleets of wooden Dhows were moored in a shimmering heat haze.  A few years later it was all bulldozed to create the concrete manhattan shopping mall you see today.

Dubai airport was a tarmac strip on the edge of the desert.  From there I flew to Abu Dhabi, which didn’t have an airport at all – only a subkha strip on the beach and a hut made of concrete blocks roofed with corrugated iron that served as a terminal.  We landed in an old DC3 that still remembered the Second World War, there were camels in the distance, I’d been reading Lawrence of Arabia and – yes – I loved the desert too.
In the balmy waters of the Gulf
Since then my entire life seems to have been punctuated by flights to one part of the world or another as well as every European destination you can name.  Totting it all up, I can remember Iran, India, Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Nepal, Thailand, China, Cuba, USA, Canada, Malaysia, Indo-China, Russia .......
A railway station in China
That Russian flight was one of the most memorable.  Europeans who went to Russia for the first time after Glasnost got a bit of a shock.  We arrived by charter flight at Leningrad/St Petersburg (it wasn’t sure which at the time).  ‘Just a warning,’ the female pilot told us over the intercom in cut-glass accents. ‘This is not going to be like any landing you’ve ever experienced.’  And it wasn’t, as she hopped along the runway avoiding the pot holes left by decades of Soviet neglect.  On either side were the rusting hulks of all the planes that hadn’t made it, mostly Aeroflot.
In front of Lenin's tomb, closed for the Glasnost revolution
There have been other memorable flights – landing in a field in India in a monsoon gale – a flock of goats that led to an aborted flight in Katmandu – a flight through a typhoon over Hong Kong – a Cessna flight through the New Zealand alps, wing-skimming the mountains, buffeted by turbulence, to land on a strip of grass beside a stream. Dawn over Iran, sunset over the rocky mountains of Canada; nostalgia starts to set in the moment I mention the names.
Dawn over Mount Elbrus, from the plane
But the most memorable of all has to be an internal flight in Africa; the only time I’ve ever had to bribe my way out of, or into, anything.  Having survived two military coups in a matter of months and experienced soldiers running around through the houses with machine guns, I wasn’t keen to live through another, particularly on my own.  My husband was ‘up-country’ on a business trip and I was alone with my 2 year old daughter. Many of the houses around me were empty, as Europeans had left the country in droves.

The first sign that something was wrong came when I discovered that the night-watchmen had vanished in the middle of the night and the rest of the staff didn’t turn up for work in the morning. The steward, the garden boy and the small boy were absent.  The radio was playing martial music.  A phone call confirmed what I feared, there had been a coup during the night.  I was desperate to get out of the capital city.  Throwing some essentials into a bag, I drove round the back roads to the airport to try to get a flight into the interior where my husband was.  There was only one flight still running and it was fully booked.
Peta, aged 2, in West Africa
Summoning all my courage (what will you not do for your kids?)  I asked to see the supervisor and was shown to his office.  ‘I have to be on that flight,’ I said, putting some money on the desk – roughly twice the price of the fare.  I saw him look at it and hesitate.  My daughter began to cry and I suddenly saw his face change.  He picked up the money and wrote me a ticket.  It was the first and only time I have done anything like that and it filled me with shame.
A runway - believe it or not - somewhere in Africa
The plane was a very old turbo prop that probably wasn’t airworthy at all.  The pilot was in the same shape; a battered Australian with an alcoholic shake.  He walked through the cabin re-arranging the passengers, tipping up seats and moving us around to balance the weight, he counted and re-counted his flock, as though puzzled that it didn’t add up.  I was surprised that the plane became airborne at all, and it would certainly have been my fault if it hadn’t.

There were holes in the floor and I could see the tree-tops of the rain forest skimming underneath our feet.  That flight is also one of my daughter’s first memories, mainly because she arrived without knickers, which I’d forgotten to pack in my panic. It’s among mine because of the guilt and the overwhelming relief associated with it.
Flying Small in Canada
I totted up my air miles recently and lost count when I got over nine hundred thousand, and that didn’t include the short haul hops round Europe.  I didn’t realise at the time, that I’d contributed to the pollution of the atmosphere and the destruction of the climate. I loved every moment of it – the thrill of travel, the paradox of flight.  These days I try not to fly at all – it’s just that it’s so difficult to go anywhere these days without stepping on a plane, if you have family in foreign places.
A haze of pollution over Singapore
Apart from the environmental damage, flying does weird things to your body – it affects your lungs and your brain, thickens your blood, dehydrates you, makes you feel drowsy and oddly sexy – which I suppose explains the Mile High Club.  One frequent flyer club I’ve never managed to join!  We need to cultivate the art of Slow Travel - trains, boats, bikes and boots, holiday nearer home (it’s good for our local economies) and do more business by video conference.  Meanwhile, I’m off to get on a train into the western wilds of New Zealand.  I'd better enjoy it while my conscience still allows  me to.
More of this, I think.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Tuesday Poem: The Song of the Open Road - Walt Whitman

Going on a journey is a very strange thing - unsettling and exciting all at the same time. There's a pull between our desire to belong to 'one dear perpetual place' and the yearning for adventure, new things. It's always been two parts of my own character, always in conflict. I love this poem by Walt Whitman, because it says everything, and by a coincidence appeared on my poetry news-feed this weekend from the Poetry Foundation just as I was packing my suitcase.  These are some extracts, from what is a very long poem.

Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.

Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune,
Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,
Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms,
Strong and content I travel the open road.

The earth, that is sufficient,
I do not want the constellations any nearer,
I know they are very well where they are,
I know they suffice for those who belong to them.

(Still here I carry my old delicious burdens,
I carry them, men and women, I carry them with me wherever I go,
I swear it is impossible for me to get rid of them,
I am fill’d with them, and I will fill them in return.)

The earth expanding right hand and left hand,
The picture alive, every part in its best light,
The music falling in where it is wanted, and stopping where it is not wanted,
The cheerful voice of the public road, the gay fresh sentiment of the road.

O highway I travel, do you say to me Do not leave me?
Do you say Venture not—if you leave me you are lost?
Do you say I am already prepared, I am well-beaten and undenied, adhere to me?

O public road, I say back I am not afraid to leave you, yet I love you,
You express me better than I can express myself,
You shall be more to me than my poem.

I think heroic deeds were all conceiv’d in the open air, and all free poems also,
I think I could stop here myself and do miracles,
I think whatever I shall meet on the road I shall like, and whoever beholds me shall like me,
I think whoever I see must be happy.



Why are there trees I never walk under but large and melodious thoughts descend upon me?
(I think they hang there winter and summer on those trees and always drop fruit as I pass;)
What is it I interchange so suddenly with strangers?
What with some driver as I ride on the seat by his side?
What with some fisherman drawing his seine by the shore as I walk by and pause?
What gives me to be free to a woman’s and man’s good-will? what gives them to be free to mine?

The efflux of the soul is happiness, here is happiness,
I think it pervades the open air, waiting at all times,
Now it flows unto us, we are rightly charged.

Here rises the fluid and attaching character,
The fluid and attaching character is the freshness and sweetness of man and woman,
(The herbs of the morning sprout no fresher and sweeter every day out of the roots of themselves, than it sprouts fresh and sweet continually out of itself.)

Toward the fluid and attaching character exudes the sweat of the love of young and old,
From it falls distill’d the charm that mocks beauty and attainments,
Toward it heaves the shuddering longing ache of contact.

Allons! whoever you are come travel with me!
Traveling with me you find what never tires.
The earth never tires,
The earth is rude, silent, incomprehensible at first, Nature is rude and incomprehensible at first,
Be not discouraged, keep on, there are divine things well envelop’d,
I swear to you there are divine things more beautiful than words can tell.

Allons! the inducements shall be greater,
We will sail pathless and wild seas,
We will go where winds blow, waves dash, and the Yankee clipper speeds by under full sail.

Allons! with power, liberty, the earth, the elements,
Health, defiance, gaiety, self-esteem, curiosity;

Camerado, I give you my hand!
I give you my love more precious than money,
I give you myself before preaching or law;
Will you give me yourself? will you come travel with me?
Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?

Walt Whitman
The Song of the Open Road

And this is where mine is currently taking me.  Allons-y!!!!!
Mount Cook, South Island, NZ (Pinterest)
(If you are reading this on Tuesday, I am probably somewhere in the air between Singapore and Christchurch). 

Sunday, 11 September 2016

Leaving on a Jet Plane . . . .

My luggage is not as beautiful as this painted leather case by Yuval Yairi
 So, here I go, off on another adventure.   Heading for New Zealand via Munich and Singapore and a giant size dose of jet-lag!  Everything here is in chaos.  Trying to remember to turn off electricity, gas, water, clean the kitchen before my neighbour has a panic attack when she comes in to water the plants,  catch up with urgent emails, pay bills, and anything else that might need to be dealt with before I come back in October.
This looks a very useful kind of suitcase - right balance between clothes and wine.
I will be in regular touch via blog and Facebook and - fingers crossed my disaster-prone doppelganger will stay at home!
But regret my luggage is more likely to resemble this! 
It will be early spring in NZ, rather than the Indian summer of early autumn we have here.  A complete reverse of time and season.  Must go now though - this monster is waiting for me in Manchester.

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Tuesday Poem: Hunting Snake by Judith Wright

Sun-warmed in this late season’s grace
under the autumn’s gentlest sky
we walked, and froze half-through a pace.
The great black snake went reeling by.

 Head down, tongue flickering on the trail
he quested through the parting grass,
sun glazed his curves of diamond scale
and we lost breath to see him pass.

 What track he followed, what small food
fled living from his fierce intent,
we scarcely thought; still as we stood
our eyes went with him as he went.

Cold, dark and splendid he was gone
into the grass that hid his prey.
We took a deeper breath of day,
looked at each other, and went on.

© Judith Wright,
from Hunting Snake, 1964
Black Rat Snake
Judith Arundell Wright (31 May 1915 – 25 June 2000) was a leading Australian poet, environmentalist and campaigner for Aboriginal land rights. She was a founding member and, from 1964 to 1976, President, of the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland. She was only  the second Australian to receive the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry, in 1991.

Collections include:   The Moving Image, Woman to Man, The Gateway, The Two Fires, Birds, The Other Half, Magpies, Shadow, The Flame Tree, and Hunting Snake.  Her Collected Poems was published by Angus and Robertson in 1994 and can be bought from Amazon (kindle and pback) from £5.00 upwards.