Sharp as a Rapier; on my visit to Napier……

Not sure how sharp, to be honest. My trip starts with a very boring flight (cheap air ticket as usual) to Auckland. At least  I am on the North Island of NZ this visit. Last time (some of you may recall) I planned a visit for architectural delights, but mis-remembering the info in my brain, took myself via Christchurch to Dunedin (on the South Island). Dunedin, to be sure, is quaint enough, with lots of decent Edwardian/Victorian architecture that would not disgrace Edinburgh or the city of London, but I wanted art-deco. And was therefore disappointed.

More certain geographically this time, I headed into Auckland City which, to my surprise, reminded me quite a lot of San Francisco!  Similarly hilly terrain (very); lots of nice villagey neighbourhoods. Alas, no cable cars but a very efficient system of inner-city-circle buses in various colours.

Digressing – what’s new? – I recall that I forgot to visit the steepest street in the World whilst I WAS in Dunedin! Most people think Filbert or Lombard Streets in San Francisco; the latter because it has eight hairpin bends in a very short space! But no, Baldwin Street in Dunedin lays claim to be being steeper than both – and it is – though Canton Street (Pittsburgh PA) may be steeper. If you can be bothered Google or YouTube any of the above and see what you think. 35% incline or steeper is the mark

Anyway – whilst I was speaking with my sister Jean about this trip, she remembered to ask if I have seen Baldwin Street whilst I was in Dunedin and I had to confess that it had completely slipped my mind. Ah, such is age…….shall I go back to check it out?  Probably not – life is too short for two visits to Dundedin.

By chance and – I suspect – because of its silly name, I booked into a B&B in a suburb of Auckland : Ponsonby . Turned out to be the little Chelsea area, with boutiques, designer shops and cafes etc. I lucked out (as my San Franciscan friend Miss Purple, would say).

Which really means, incidentally, “lucked in”, as it is a good thing, not a bad. Coincidence One.

Though the B&B was not good, but that’s another story.

Here is the city at night, from Ponsonby hill-top:

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Auckland has a city population of around 450,000 – the metro area in total is in the region of 1,300,000 and indeed, 30% of the population of NZ lives around here. So no surprise to find it is a bustling and lively city. Reminiscent too, if you haven’t been to San Fran, perhaps of Seattle. Young and studenty.

I am NZ  (as much as for any other reason) to renew my Australian Visa. My initial year Jan 2010 to Jan 2011 will run out on Jan 28th so I am making this trip in order to claim one final 6 month entry before that day, which will allow me to stay till July. As this little trip unfolded, I became convinced that my guiding star was setting the scenario with great flair.

Coincidence Two: I need to get an early (7am) bus for Napier – seven hours away. A bus runs from the end of my B&B street to connect with that service.

I had planned none of these connections before travelling. There was more to come.

Since I was leaving early, I left my major sightseeing in Auckland till my return a few days later, but in terms of this post I will add them here.  A few shots from the sky tower you see in the picture above and random images from Auckland.

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Apart from being hillier, this map shows a striking resemblance to the layout of the city of Sydney! All roads lead down to the harbour – facing north; large par/gardens to the right side, freeways to the left….

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This is One Building: the brick front is simple a facade attached to glass and the glass tower continues the building upward.

The Sky Tower from below:

I am saying nothing – it’s all in the mind!!

You can ascend to various observation decks and cafes – you can even (not that I was game enough) attach yourself with a rope and clip and walk around ‘outside’ at the top! Heavens above – and what a drop below!!

So that’s Auckland from the air…….

And so – to Napier. Another of my bus specials; it actually took from 7am to 3pm with a lunch stop and several other stops and plenty of Lord of the Rings landscapes, which I won’t bore you with.

NAPIER: lies on the south east coast of the North Island and with its sister city, Hasting is sometimes jointly known as the Bay Cities.  Captain Cook charted the site in the 1760s but it wasn’t till 1850 or so that European settlers obtained the land from the local Maori tribe and started building.  At that time it was little more than a swampy bay inlet with land on both sides and a lake behind.

Nature giveth and she taketh away!! In 1931 a severe earthquake more or less demolished the entire town centre (swampy foundations couldn’t take it, though more damage was done b y the fires that also broke out from fractured gas mains etc).  Though 250+ people died, the city gained an extra 4000 hectares of land that, until the earthquake had been undersea!

But – with a speed and commitment you cannot help but admire, the bulk of the town was rebuilt in two years. Given the time – and the architectural influences (coming via Australia from America) of Frank Lloyd Wright and others, it isn’t so surprising that most of the rebuild is in Art Deco style.  There were a couple of very far-sighted local men too, who interpreted the styles in overseeing much of the rebuilding. What is remarkable today is how much of it still survives.

Most of the buildings are simply two stories high and have every type of Deco embellishment imaginable, from Egyptian to Ocean Liner, from Greek motifs to Maori and to wander around the half dozen streets that make up the city centre, is a real treat. It is more fun in daytime that at night for – whilst there is less traffic and noise in the evening, many of the buildings have internal details which you cannot get at after the businesses close for the day.

WARNING: This is the point where you close down if you can’t be enthused by a row of art deco!

Having said that : this building is anything BUT Art Deco! The only town centre survivor of the earthquake/fire, the Public records office has a grandeur that belies the fact it is actually quite small. (compare the cars parked alongside to see that it is quite tiny). But perfect as a Greek temple on the Acropolis (almost!). It is now empty downstairs and has a gym upstairs.

Only 3 of these street markers survive; built into the pavements at a corner. There were at the time no lamp-posts or other street furniture from which to hang a sign and anyway, it’s easier to look down!! Though you miss a lot if you do: my travel tip is always to look up (above the shopfronts) : that’s where architecture often surprises.

Government Offices.



Some lovely lion head details and lettering. Almost all buildings had the same sort of overhang – to protect pedestrians from rain and/or sun – but ALL also had to have the securing rods above to for extra safety against earthquake vibration!

Probably the swankiest building – HQ of the Daily Telegraph newspaper.


Munster is a province of Ireland.  Check out the little shamrock motif.

Some lovely black and white detailing here….

This was my favourite : neglected and lost in a corner away from the Centre. One-time Servicemens’ Club, then back-packer hostel. Now empty and dusty – but for my money, echoes the landmark buildings of people like Frank Lloyd Wright and Corbusier in a gentle and imaginative way.  Still remarkably intact – I hope someone gets it and looks after it. Maybe we should all have a whip-round and I will reopen it as a chic boutique hotel….. Napier could use one.

Talking of hotels – this is where I stayed:

Coincidence Three: without my asking, they had allocated me a room right on the Terrace, overlooking the street : the best view and, as it turned out, the last room available there. Thanks Guardian Angel!

Rebuilt after the earthquake – the Masonic is now in its 3rd incarnation – today complete with roof level terraces overlooking the beach and promenade. Once a year they host the focal point of a city-wide Art Deco week where you can’t move for Gatsby lookalikes, their molls and the motors!!

I think even an art-deco fan like me might find that all a bit too much like a trip to Vegas or maybe Brigadoon! And – to be honest, the rooms were nothing special. I know the (newish) owners are working their way through upgrading but there’s a fair way to go. However, not many hotels can supply such a stylish local mineral water as this:

I am re-using the bottle since I brought it back with me. As you might imagine, it raises a few eyebrows down the Gym!! I jest……

And so – after a few days wandering and wondering, I returned to Auckland and thence to the airport.

Somewhat trepidatious, I was expecting a grilling at immigration. Guardian Angel had other plans. Coincidence Four.

I was flying with  LAN Chile – no I had never heard of them either!  But, as it turns out, they are the national airline of said country and as it also happens, they had a promotional deal which meant that for the same price as a real budget airline, I got a proper economy ticket to and from Auckland. LAN Chile flies Santiago de Chile to Auckland to Sydney and back again. Who knows why?

Trying to check in online didn’t work  (it couldn’t find my booking!) but I managed OK at the airport and then waited; it was a 6am flight. I arrived far too early  and  was dozing by the Gate when they called me by name over the tannoy to come to the desk where the attendant asked for my Boarding Card and promptly tore it up!

I thought to myself:  this is either very bad news, or very good news and it became the latter when she handed me a new Boarding Card saying with a smile, “we’ve upgraded you, Mr C – have a nice day”.

Feigning nonchalance, I pocketed the Card till I got around the corner and took a look at it. Seat 2A. Thank you LAN Chile! You can’t get any nearer the front.  Premium Business Class came with all the extras you would expect; my only regret was that I was taking only a 3 hour flight to Sydney – I would have liked to try the full flat bed on a longer journey (say to Santiago) but I gave it a trial run anyway. My fellow Premium Class passengers probably wondered what was wrong with me as I went horizontal and back several times.

Coincidence 5 now  under way, upon disembarking at Sydney, a very nice Qantas ground handler gave me an Express Ticket for both Immigration and Customs/Quarantine. Suffice to say that, whereas the majority of passengers were forming orderly queues for entry to Australia, your’s truly whooshed through an empty express lane  and arrived at the Immigration Desk.

Him: “Good afternoon, Sir” (Me: Afternoon)

“Travelling alone Sir?” (Yes)

“Have a good day Sir (stamp stamp – that’s him not me!!)

and I am  through and in the Arrivals Hall. Total time from landing 30 minutes – including picking up my case. from the carousel.

As I said, my guardian angel / call it guiding star was on my side that trip.

Oh, there was the one other (little) adventure I almost forgot to add.  What does New Zealand say to you?

Rugby, Maori warriors (Haka), Cricket, Arms covered in tattoos, Lord of the Rings, local culture and icons, Cheese, Lamb????

Anyway – more than anything I always remember those almost Celtic tattoos everyone seems to have – well everyone under 30 anyway. So who says an over 60 can’t?

So my New Zealand souvenir of choice – a very little Libran astrological sign, which now sits – resplendent in bright blue (outlined in black) on my left inner wrist!  Like this:

This is not to be confused, as one or two “wits” have suggested, with this logo:

Which is, as can be clearly seen, one of the local transport providers!!

There is (I know) no fool like an old fool and I stand here before you, thus self-proclaimed.

Did it hurt? Yes, a bit. Like that bit when the dentist first puts the numbing needle in –  only this took a while longer than a micro-second.

I didn’t know what to expect either; bit like a visit to a new dentist in that respect also! I just hoped it wouldn’t hurt so much that I would sob or groan, since the Tattoo place operatives were all very macho. As it happened, I gritted my teeth and thought of England – or something. I was more concerned about keeping my arm flat and straight (!) so the hand-drawn image wouldn’t be crooked. Which it is a little, anyway, but that doesn’t matter a jot.

After it was done, it was wrapped in cling film for the day and though I kept close watch on it, nothing happened : it got a little crusty a week later and after 10 days or so, is all quite ordinary.

So my first (and last!) tattoo or self-organised mutilation! I started this post with a pun about Rapiers in Napier and , as it turned out, finished there with an even sharper tattooist’s needle!

Whatever next…………………… pray for me!

JC x

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Christ – and all His Churches gone!

I realise that almost every Blog I write starts with a disclaimer about what time has elapsed since the last, and this is no different.  My excuse in this case being that I was left in such shock after my brief visits to Christchurch that I didn’t know what point there was in writing about it………..

Still, several weeks later and I wanted to record what I felt (and photographed) at that time – so feel free to skip what will be a rather lower-key, probably sad reminiscence.

I arrived in Christchurch late at night / early morning on  my birthday – 13 October – and  spent a pretty uncomfortable night on airport bench seats till the coffee store opened about 5am and the first bus into the City departed at around 6.

I was purely passing through, to make a connection with a coach going down south (see my Post on Dunedin) so saw little of the City itself. I remember being surprised when the airport bus dropped me next to a park and the office for the coach company was a portacabin / almost a ship’s container. A little further down the street, an old bus seemed to be the ticket office for all the local buses (and there were many).  I didn’t realise (at that time) that the whole of the transport infrastructure had been re-scheduled, due to the closure of the city centre and, with it, closure of the bus and coach depots – and much more besides.

It wasn’t till I returned a few days later – and had a day in Christchurch – that I fully absorbed the enormity of the two earthquakes that hit the city in the previous few months; the most recent (last February) causing the closure of the ENTIRE city centre……….

Imagine (say) Cardiff, or  Bristol, or Sheffield – all cities with similar populations of Christchurch – around 450K. So far bigger than, say, Canterbury, Cambridge or Bath in populations terms.  To give an idea of the size of the place. Then imagine – if you will – putting a fence around the very centre of the city/town and simply closing everything off!

This – as you see – is the Crown Plaza Hotel – it (like all the buildings you see in these photos) is closed.  It took me almost an hour and a half to walk around the metal barricades closing off the town centre. And even outside these steel walls – street after street was lined with buildings that looked like this :

As far as I could decipher, the marks on buildings indicate which International team had checked the building, when and what the result was. So many of them seemed OK – until you noticed that at ground level – right where the foundations meet the pavement or street – the whole structure has dropped. They even use that term around the City centre – you can’t enter the “Drop Zone”.  Which is why it is taking so long to restructure and rebuild : when the earthquake hit, whole sections of the ground simply dropped : fell in (sometimes by several feet) taking all services and utilities down with it……..look at the way this pavement is humped and where the building has sunk….

And one of the saddest sights – not just in and around the city centre – were the Churches. Most of them (I suppose) Victorian and therefore hardly built to withstand earthquakes, with the following result….

I must have seen 6 or 7 churches like this around the city – and two or three empty (cleared) sites with a Notice saying where the church services were being held now that the church on the site I was looking at no longer existed.

Older houses/office seemed to fare no better:

The only way I can describe the experience is to ask you to imagine arriving at your local city – whereveryou (my reader) happens to live. As you approach through the suburbs, roads are simply shut off with No Entry signs. Garden walls – especially old brick ones – every few hundred feet are shored up with L-shaped timbers, since clearly they would collapse without support. A pair of semi-detached houses stands – one unmarked and ordinary, it’s next-door neighbour shored up much like the walls are. The sight is simply bizarre. Bits of gable roofs missing, motels rickety and shut down.

And then consider ALL the shopping centre being closed – no buses, no taxis, no department stores or supermarkets, no hotels, no cinema or theatre, no clubs and pubs. All shut – save those in the outlying suburbs – most of which (at least on the landward side) escaped the worst of the shocks.

Even the bus I took from the City to the seaside made several diversions around rounds and areas where I could clearly see “drop zones” on roads, and pipes with water/gas services being restored.

At least at the seaside (I told myself) all will be clear and indeed, the lengthy beach I wandered – littered with thousands and thousands of wonderful shells, was almost deserted and very calming :

Yet even here – as I wandered a little, trying to find the diverted bus-route back, this little row of local shops had its own story to tell, 3 or 4 miles from the city centre at least.

How to finish this?

I would say that I felt a real sadness, an emptiness and hurt that seemed to pervade many of the places I visited – the people looked resigned, maybe almost a little beaten down by it all. And who wouldn’t after two major earthquakes in six months! And yet – within that, the human spirit was struggling to show through:

right next to the odd collection of huts and sheds that comprised the central bus “hub” was a brand new trailer selling home made cakes, healthy snacks, the best coffee I had had in months and two ladies serving who explained that their cafe in the city was out of bounds so they had created this unit to service people travelling the buses and so that their name (brand) wouldn’t be forgotten.

Around the corner, in the city’s largest park, a  local lobby group had set up a tented camp and was offering places to stay for people travelling through and also dispensing information on how to be part of the process of re-building Christchurch for the local community, along with help yourself lunches.

Though I left Christchurch somewhat subdued by it all, I left without doubt that it would rise again, but maybe with less desire to build high-rise hotels and offices, whether earthquake-proof or not!

New zeal and new direction??

Hi all

After a shaky few weeks trying to reconcile my vanishing bank balance with my original plan to stay away from the UK at least for one winter……

I was on the point of heading to France for an interesting but financially unrewarding caretake / houseit adventure. Nice old manor / chateau that used to be a Fort (1700) in the south Languedoc.

But it started to unravel and I started to realise that I hadn’t yet fulfilled my plans in Oz so – with a little Help from  Better Homes & Gardens and a live version of Masterchef Oz,  I am back  on track and I write this missive from departures at Sydney International – en route for Christchurch, New Zealand. Some of you may know it as earthquake central (Feb 2011, Sept 2010) so if you never hear from me again, start the search there…..

or better, yet don’t start the search at all. But remember me with a smile. Oops….. the flight is called.

Well , several hours later – 01.39 to be precise – I am in the arrivals area at Christchurch airport. With the TV blaring out the latest Rugby Match. Apparently I must be the only one not following it. Indeed, I hadn’t really connected that it is on – mostly in the North Island (I am South – we go south in the winter!!) and in any event, the British team (or probably English) has already been knocked out by – guess who, the Froggies! – and I presume have slunked orf home!!

I am awaiting the first proper bus of the day. At 06.05 – call me Cheapskate O’Rourke if you wish, but I don’t allow (as in budget) for taxis and shuttle-buses. All far to expensive and seems even more so here in darkest Christchurch.

Of course, I have no idea what it looks like until it gets light; we did fly over snowy-topped mountains on the way down but that’s all I know. Then I take the bus (an Intercity this time) down the coast fort 5/6 hours to be place called Dunedin.

Here’s an object lesson in what happens if you (by which I mean “I”) trust the memory banks. When I decided to hop across here, I attached a little dream to my plans : to visit a city also ndestroyed by earthquakes (in the 1930s)  but rebuilt in almost completely preserved Art-deco. Yum for architectural buffs. So….. booking my trip, I “remembered” that it was Dunedin and duly got a flight to Christchurch – easy and swiftly done.

Ah, but. Speaking to a friend later about said art-deco delight, she said, “oh, yes, Napier is lovely – you must go”.

Needless to say Napier is on the North island – accessed via Auckland – all of where I am NOT going! Hey-ho, it turns out that Dunedin (and here is where the wires may have crossed) is famous for it’s Edwardian / Victorian architecture.  Think Edinburgh, or those large offices and banks that litter the City of London. Oh, well, perhaps I can pretend I have come in search of Charles Rennie Mackintosh influences, since Dunedin is also (allegedly) a Scottish city – whatever that means.

This blog ceases here again for a while : the airport very kindly provides free internet (like Sydney) but only for 30 mins, so I shall log away and be back in a twinkling of the southern stars.

Incidentally – I am as far away in time and space as I think is possible from London /England etc.  Exactly 12 hours ahead of you (if you are in UK) and as of now, I am 62 years of age and 2 hours!! Happy Bday to me!!

Well, circumstances dictated a rather different trip that expected and indeed, I am completing this Blog from what passes for home (in Sydney, that is) after an eventful but fun few days.

I am keeping Christchurch for a separate Blog : as much as anything, because it’s a very sad subject. I was more shocked and saddened that I had expected; to see quite a sizeable city reduced to a cordoned off, quiet  and eerie no-mans land was quite hard to fathom. So more of that later.

Meantime, I arrived at the bus interchange outside the city (see para above) since the absence of a central point has created two interchanges – one each side of a huge park. Here I get my bus for Dunedin (6 hours to the south) but not before having a delicious home-made muffin and exceptional coffee from a little roadside shack near the buses. An enterprising couple set it up precisely to fill the many gaps in the normal day-to-day workings of the city. (It is very hard to avoid references to ChCh as they call it).

Anyway, after my sleepless night travelling, I saw little of the journey south as I slept fitfully – first in my own seat and then (when I spotted an empty back row), actually sleeping lying down across the seats. Albeit the seat ridges giving the feeling I was sleeping on a corrugated roof!

Had I been awake, I might have seen scenery like this (which of course I captured on the return journey!):

and this

Now I know I said “oh it’s just going to be like Wales or Scotland – and I’ve been there”. And to an extent, that is true, but the actual foliage (the flora!) is quite different – apart from the yellow Gorse which is unmistakable anywhere! I can’t believe that the immigrants brought it with them – there’s so much of it! But yet, it can’t be a native plant and I believe that most of the land was native bush, until Europeans got there, when they cleared it and made farming land – so maybe they did bring it. To remind them of home.

Other reminders…. this could be a Scottish loch or Norwegian fjord:

So – I arrived In Dunedin and checked into a converted Tannery – now a rather stylish industry-style hotel. Here’s the view from the window – quite industrial – though an intriguing building looms on the horizon (more of that later!). The building centre left is the Fire Station, incidentally.

Yes, quite an industrial view! But the room boasted (as they say) a very groovy curved glass bathroom :

how  Star Trek is that!! Slide the glass door back and inside is a loo, a sink, and another glass wall within which lies the shower.

So, Dunedin did not disappoint. It is – as I have said elsewhere – the Gaelic name for Edinburgh – and it’s layout is almost the same: long flat plain with railway alongside the main streets – yes there are Princes and George Streets here. There’s a volcanic plug at the far end (matching Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh). The only thing missing is a castle. But there are plenty of other splendid buildings:

The Railway Station :  I kid you not! Though no passenger rail exists at the moment – only freight! What a terrible waste.

 

The Cathedral – complete with statue of Robert Burns in front!


Wonderfully neo-classical ex theatre and offices.

The University clock tower – worthy of St Pancras himself!! The building you saw from my hotel window.

 

So you see, a small town – population no more than 12,000 but with many students and a bustling arty feel that made me think more of Oxford than anywhere else.

This is Paul – he is (I suspect) a perennial student as he’s near 30! He very kindly borrowed his flatmate’s car and took me around the University and the nearby Otago Peninsula – as far south as I have ever been.

He’s from Malaysian originally, but has been in NZ for 10 years – and still studying! Currently a Doctorate in Chemistry – clearly we had much to talk about especially given my fascination with the Periodic Table of Elements. (see, I bet you think I am joking!). In a year or two he plans to go to Europe and maybe take another Degree – there seems no end to the potential in Chemistry!

By the way, he was very lovely and really generous – I just don’t think he liked having a photo taken!!

I would not have seen so much of the area without his kind offer of tour guiding.

At the end of the peninsula, a Seal sanctuary and an Albatross colony! Though we didn’t see any of either. Here’s a shot of some cormorants (or shags) nesting nearby : spot the shags anyone?

We are close to the sea here, and the river is quite a tricky place to navigate – with sandbars and shifting tides. But it looks and is beautiful.

As far away as the Victorian settlers of Dunedin were, they clearly did not forget their homeland – these images speak for themselves, wherever in the world we may be (and they are ubiquitous):

this is a bar and restaurant now

this, an employment office

and this…….

 

Pom pom pom pom pom-pom (do sing along!!!). She would not be amused.

And so – after a turn around the very well-equipped town library – which included an exhibition about Eleanor Farjeon. She wrote the poem everyone thinks Cat Stevens wrote : Morning Has Broken In fact, he simply put music to her words.

It’s 11,000 miles from home here – and not far from the international dateline that would take me back into yesterday as the time flies. So I am not surprised at all to see how those pioneers 150 years or more ago wanted reminders of their home country. What is surprising is that (as the money from sheep farming and dairy came rolling in) they had such grand architectural ideas for their town – equal to any in the cotton mills back in Lancashire, or to those of the rich aldermen of Edinburgh. Though not so surprising when you know that one Thomas Burns, a nephew of the Bard of Alloway himself, was a founding father of the town.

Now I’m awa to ma bed………………….and as my dear old departed father was wont to say, by way of convivial farewell:

“lang may yer lum reek”.    I couldn’t have put it better myself.