Travels - Hong Kong and Home

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And finally, after a few days in Wellington, we head back to the UK, stopping off at Hong Kong again. You know how sometimes if you’ve been travelling around a bit, you decide you’re going to just splurge out (I think that’s the term) and book just one really expensive hotel for the last bit, I wonder if there is some rule that states that it will always be less than the perfect experience.

Allow me to introduce you to the Hotel Grand Harbour Kowloon. I have changed the name to preserve some anonymity. But only slightly.

Now there are two potential ways to run a hotel with a 5 star rating and obscene prices. The first is you go all out to make sure the guests have an absolutely flawless experience, are treated like royalty and you are made to feel as though you are just born into this lifestyle. The second is to maintain an air of haughty grandeur and somehow convey to the guests that they’re LUCKY to be allowed to stay in the hotel.

Following the first concept, there are free things, like free wi-fi, chocolates on the bed, a trouser press, a bowl of fruit, fresh flowers, rose petals strewn in the bedroom even. The second concept, a noticeable absence of free things. And there are spiteful little notes telling you that the room fridge is for chilling HOTEL MINIBAR DRINKS ONLY and requesting that hotel guests do not put their own drinks in there. There is no iron or ironing board, you have to avail yourself of the laundry service at a price that makes throwing your clothes away and just buying new ones a real option. The hair dryer accepts banknotes. When you roll back the bedsheets there’s a discreet note on the pillow asking patrons if they have any intention of dying in the night, could they please sleep on the floor. OK, maybe that’s not quite true.

There was a sort of stark, unfriendly efficiency to the place, which however did not extend to ensuring rooms were available for guests, even though they may have been booked some six weeks earlier. This caused them some problems and, in a stay lasting three days we moved twice, which hardly left any time for seeing Hong Kong. I did raise this with the General Manager at the time and apparently they are unique in that rooms advertised for sale on Booking.com weren’t necessarily ‘there’ when you arrived. I do sympathise with their situation. The hotel has 555 of them. It is entirely possible that they lose a few from time to time.

The next morning we went down to the Cafe in the hotel and had two cappuccinos and a couple of panini and it came to something around £50. That evening we went a few yards outside the hotel and had a full meal in a restaurant for £17.

The air of haughty grandeur persisted for the duration of our stay, however I did take some pleasure in pointing out to the General Manager that their fire safety signage was inadequate - you couldn’t tell which way the fire exit was when you stepped out of your room, even without any smoke, and the televisions also had bare wires hanging out the back and fizzed slightly. So lets see, 555 rooms, probably something like 55 floors, and it’s on record that a customer has raised an issue with inadequate fire safety…

They had seven people to show you to the front door when you checked out. SEVEN. They were stood approximately two feet from each other. They all made the same sweeping gesture with their right hand - it was like watching doormen do synchronised swimming.

This has absolutely nothing to do with cameras, has it - but it has a lot to do with annoying men - mainly me in this instance. In fact, if you type ‘annoying photography blog’ into Google, you’ll see I’m third on the list, out of fifty four million, nine hundred thousand hits. I am MORE ANNOYING than 54,900,000 other things on the internet. I told my partner and he was horrified. “Are you upset?” he asked. He’d forgotten the name of this website. Far from it - I’ve taken a fundamental principle from my day job which is that if you’re not annoying somebody, you’re probably not doing your job right.

That said, on to some photos, our last foreign city before our final flight home.

The hotel was situated in Kowloon, but a fairly inaccessible bit of it, overlooking what used to be Hong Kong International Airport (Kai Tak), known worldwide for its terrifying landing approaches between tower blocks and a 30% degree turn just before you land.

The old airport runway has been replaced with sports facilities, a go cart track, and a golf course, all of which are considerably less exciting then landing there was in the old days. You can see it in this picture, it’s the long flat building to the right.

You think I’m exaggerating? This picture, of Checkerboard Hill, where the pilots had to make that right turn, should speak a million words.

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This is not my photo but it has been reproduced so many times I can’t identify the copyright on it.

So, this part of Kowloon was heavily residential, with the typical tiny Hong Kong apartments rising into the path of oncoming jets. They use bamboo for external scaffolding. Apparently this is very practical in a city with very little room - its light, and it can be cut to size and transported very easily. And apparently if you fall off it, well, it doesn’t feel like such a big deal.

They don’t just use it for tweaking their aircon units and fitting a new window box. They use it for skyscrapers too. If you doubt this, check out the Panasonic building (Honk Kong Island) in the following photograph. If you click on the image and expand it, you’ll see the ends of the bamboo poles. I read up on this and the thing that scared the bejesus out of me is that the walkways are just placed onto the structure, not tied onto it.

This part of Kowloon had a fake ocean liner in the middle of the street. A sort of themed shopping centre which was a bit odd. It was pretty convincing but the reason I knew it was fake is that they don’t build many cruise liners out of concrete.

We also checked out a market. Each floor was dedicated to a particular area. My partner’s pescaterian (that means a vegetarian who doesn’t quite have the commitment to take the final plunge and still eats fish) so we managed the vegetable section, and the fish section, thankfully not walking past anything that was being cut up alive. They seem to have a completely different approach to animal sentience in Hong Kong.

We wandered into the Pets section but didn’t stay long...

OK so that’s a joke. We didn’t go into the meat section just in case we encountered animals we would keep as pets (I once had a pet tarantula so the odds were pretty high). And no, they don’t eat dogs, it’s illegal in Hong Kong (since 1950), but you can get horse meat sashimi, snake soup and blood tofu, and yes, to answer your question, it is. Rather defeats the purpose of tofu in my view and I imagine it has probably freaked out the occasional unwary vegetarian.

After scooting pretty quickly out of the market, vanilla tourists that we are, we then went to the 118 storey International Congress Centre. First of all we stood at ground level, looking at the height of the residential buildings in the complex and wondering how anybody could be comfortable living in anything so high, especially if your flat is in the ‘bridge’ area between the two columns.

Then we went up the International Commerce Centre, the tallest building in Hong Kong, to the Sky 100 Observatory, and looked down on the same buildings we’d just looked up at. We were so high I think I could almost see my house from there…

These are the last pictures from Hong Kong.

So, the end of a very long day, a great deal of it spent sitting down - I had finally learnt the secret of travelling with an 11kg camera bag - we headed back to Hong Kong International Airport, and caught the flight home.

The international venues are all in the past now. From here on in, it’s duck photos desperately trying to be interesting.

These two were quite pleased to see us though…

Until the next time…

Travels - The Glittering Sands of New Plymouth

Yes, I know, they’re not particularly glittering. The thing is, they ARE.

Back Beach.

See only in New Zealand would they have such a surfeit of beautiful beaches that when they get one like this they just call it ‘Back Beach’. I think this is something pretty deep rooted in the Kiwi Psyche, because if you look at the Maori names for places, they’re often pretty down to earth. Maunganui - Big Mountain. Ruapehu - two explosions. Taranaki - Shining Mountain. I’m not meaning to be disrespectful by the way, apparently you can’t rely 100% on breaking down place names into their component parts to get their original meaning, but as Ruapehu is an active volcano, you can see where that may have come from.

Back to the subject, or back to Back Beach. The sand is black, but it’s not just plain black, it glitters. And as I found out, it is extremely difficult to capture in a photograph, as the camera just can’t quite believe what it’s seeing and just thinks sand = sort of browny gold.

The following picture has been heavily worked on in Photoshop to try to get a sense of what this feels like ‘real’.

Moody, innit?

Although it looks isolated there were loads of people using this beach, walking dogs and stuff, very friendly people too.

I walked on this beach twice, once with my partner and his sister, and then a second time, when they went off for a coffee and I decided to nip back and take pictures (not only do I find it difficult to take pictures OF people, I find it difficult to take pictures when People are Around. It’s a wonder I take any at all).

On the second visit, I got from about 2 miles behind this photo, to the bottom of the pointy rock in the background, Paritutu Rock, and just at the point where I was furthest from the car I got a phone call to say they were done.

I drove back, thinking I could find my way back without Sat Nav and do you know, New Plymouth is a lot more complicated than it first looks. I ended up on this short, wide, and incredibly straight road with lots of airplanes on it and people waving and screaming at me. Don’t know what the hell was going on there.

Anyway I eventually found my way back.

Oh we laughed. Well they did. Until I drove them back of course. Well, there’s a lot to think about - indicator stalk on the wrong side of the steering wheel, automatic transmission, a parking button rather than a plain old brake. And of course they drive on the other side of the road to the UK.

What? They DON’T?

Well my travel tale is almost done. Back down to Wellington for a few days, and then back to the UK via Hong Kong, so a bit more to blog about that. Then after that I think it will be back to blogging about insect photos and stuff.

And a confession for those of you who don’t realise it, I am writing this some time after I got back. There’s obviously a downside to this. Some of you may be idly wondering what will happen next - will I suffer a ghastly accident, perhaps a Cathay Pacific plane dismantling itself at 30,000 ft because it couldn’t cope with the undeclared weight of all those passenger cabin bags that were over 7 kgs, ahem… think of all those little bits of drama I’ve been trying to build in to make this slightly more readable…. I’m afraid you now have the disappointment of knowing that I MADE IT.

But look on the bright side - you’ve also missed the part when I got back and had to go back to Real Life, a Job, the UK, Brexit, Donald Trump, Laundry. And Jesus, I was moaney for that month. Nobody needed to hear that.

And I confess I have genned up on Employment Law in New Zealand and I did ask a few Kiwis while I was over there what the general population would think of an Englishman telling them all how to manage people, would they think Uppity Pom Go Back To Your Own Country? This is currently very similar to the prevailing view in the UK. People over here seem to want everybody to go back to their own country. This is quite a tricky proposition as we are a nation of immigrants and if we took it literally, the Anglo-Saxons would be back off to the ancient homeland in Germany and we’d be left with a handful of pureborn Celts with an awful lot of lawn mowing to do.

However, all the kiwis I spoke to about the possibility of a stuck up Englishman telling them all how to do stuff were surprisingly nice about it, the couple in Rarotonga I met gave me the name of a recruitment website, and even said “We wouldn’t mind YOU”, and when I contacted the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment in NZ to ask where I could read up on the differences between UK and NZ law, gave me a few helpful pointers and said ‘let us know when you get here…’

I contrast that starkly with the welcome people receive in my own country, even in the airport. As you pull into Auckland International Airport the first thing you see is a huge banner saying “Thinking of Emigrating here?”.

Pull into Heathrow as an international traveller and the first thing you’ll see is a small depressing a4 sized purple poster saying “Assaults On Our Staff Will Not Be Tolerated”.

Enough for now - the dogs have rushed out to the back yard so that either means my partner will be back from his string quartet gig, or Amber, the next door neighbour’s dog, has had the temerity to use her own back yard again…

Travels - Up The Mountain

OK, not very far UP the mountain, but still up the mountain.

One blustery morning, at 6.30am I set off. I would like to say this was because as a photographer I was dedicated to capturing the Golden Hour however to be honest I really wanted to get away from the snoring.

It’s the opposite of the bagpipes. Bagpipes are just lovely when they stop. Snoring is faintly irritating when it’s carrying on but the real pearler moments come when it stops. Sometimes for 45 seconds at a time. I timed it.

Anyway, I gave up trying to work out if I could make an improvised defibrillator from the table lamp and braved the mountain instead.

This image shows Mount Taranaki, far right arrow is the location of Stratford Mountain Lodge, and far left arrow is the location I managed to get to before turning back.

Not very impressive, is it? However on this image, the brown bit is pretty much the snow line in winter, so I’m higher than you think.

So, a couple of new experiences for me. Firstly I think I redefined the concept of Point and Shoot photography. A camera with a completely manual wide angle lens, howling winds, and sideways gusts of rain. Set the focus point to somewhere short of infinity, guess the exposure level, whip the lens cap off, take a shot blindly into nothingness, wipe the rain off before slamming the lens cap back on again.

This shot below shows the true magic of using Lightroom to rescue what you get when you take that type of shot. Before and After…

Seriously - who would think? This is the view towards Stratford from the high car park on Taranaki.

Secondly, changing lenses in high winds was also quite a challenge. I tried to use the car as a ‘safe zone’, I thought I was doing quite well, standing in the passenger doorway and changing the lens on the passenger seat when the wind caught the door and bounced me straight onto the driver’s seat.

This mountain has its own weather, and it changes by the inch and by the minute. So I got up there in brilliant sunshine, and by the time I’d reached the high car park I was parking the car into the headwind to make sure it didn’t roll over. Squalls of rain passed over the mountain but I was determined to get some shots, and I did get quite a few. Mainly shots with rain all over the lens, so I had to practice trying to shelter by the cliff side, whilst also being very aware of the recent heavy rainfall, the frequent rock falls, and getting blown off the mountain.

I didn’t get a completely clear shot of the mountain but I think in many ways it is more atmospheric if you don’t. The night shot that started the last blog was very clear, but it somehow makes the mountain look small. I guess that’s something to do with framing it with the Milky Way.

Another Before and After shot. Amazing what you can recover, isn’t it?

So I left the car and headed further up the mountain towards the flying fox. The following sign was not terribly encouraging.

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Not terribly encouraging…

I spent what I thought was about half an hour up the mountain, but returned, as it turned out, two and a half hours later. This is a timeless mountain, it would be such heaven to live in the shadow of it.

And finally, saying goodbye. This is the second day, just about to head out - the first photo is Mount Ruapehu, 270 kilometres and four hours drive away.

Travels - Night on Mount Taranaki

This beautiful volcano was used as a stand-in for Mount Fuji in the film ‘Last of the Samurai’. I am completely in awe of this mountain. Its almost a spiritual experience for me. I say almost because I’m not sure a truly spiritual experience is accompanied by the soundtrack to “Dante’s Peak” playing in your head every time you look at it.

I’ve been here twice, staying in the atmospheric Stratford Mountain Lodge a little way below the snow line. I refer you to my earlier comments in a previous blog about high thread counts on bed linen. The only tent I have ever been in has been a wedding marquee.

On both visits I went up and did an early morning walk just below the snow line.

The first time I left a note in my room to say where I’d gone, I know F. all about climbing on mountains but I also know it is people like me who know F. all who get lost and incur expensive mountain rescue operations. I drove up a winding road to a high car park, and then walked some way up past the flying fox that goes up to the ski fields.

To be honest I felt I was being a bit of a risk-averse twat.

Granted that there had been pouring rain the day before, and flooding, and there were dire warnings about not going forward without a shovel to dig yourself out of any avalanches, but then on the other hand, I was on my own and I strongly suspected I was the only person on the mountain.

I did, however, do a bit of reading when I got back down, and discovered that it was probably good to be risk averse on this particular mountain. It looks very beautiful, almost friendly, but as a local guide said, it also gets alpine real quick and it has its own mercurial weather that can quickly catch you out. 80 people have died on Taranaki since they started keeping records, and they apparently anticipate an average of one person a year.

I’ll do another post about that early morning walk and the perils of taking pictures half way up a mountain in a howling gale, but for now, I thought I’d feature another aspect of this mountain that I was incredibly lucky to see - a clear dark sky.

Thermal Wonderlands

I finally got my head round which thermal wonderland was which. So we started with the Waimangu Volcanic Valley, two different walks, separated by one bus trips. There is something really creepy about this place, not least its air of times past. The truth is the Waimangu Volcanic Valley was the site of the legendary Pink and White Terraces, the Eighth Wonder Of the World, that were destroyed in a catastrophic eruption of Mount Tarawera in 1886.

I always wondered what happened to them. Were they one thing, or two things? and if so, why couldn’t they just dig them up or out?

The walk starts with a short trip up to a bizarre looking wooden bus shelter, painted with elegant figures in Victorian dress, admiring a volcanic landscape that looks unrecognisable from the one you’re actually looking at.

The 1886 eruption was the biggest eruption in New Zealand in the last 700 years and the bus shelter stands on the site of a tourist hotel which was obliterated by steam from the blast. It is why the view looks so different now. It is the youngest geothermal area in New Zealand and the eruption covered the area with mud and ash approximately 20 metres thick.

So that is what happened to the terraces, two separate sites - one of which can only be guessed at now, and the second of which is buried deep below Lake Rotomahana.

The walk takes you past Southern Crater Lake, a steep sided cold lake with pink scum (red aquatic fern apparently) floating on the surface, then on to Frying Pan Lake, which we could barely see because of the steam coming off it and the surrounding hills, and the last small lake, Inferno Lake, a startling cerulean blue, that rises and falls because of the action of a geyser underneath the waters.

Finally you get to the end of the trail which is the beginning of the vast Lake Rotomahana, filling a crater over 100 metres deep. In 2011, there was an announcement that The Pink Terraces had been found but it looks unlikely now that this was the case, and what had been discovered might have been prehistoric terraces that had always lain under the lake and had been previously unseen. Quite moody and atmospheric when you see this off season, with only the odd birder who would rather you just Went Away for company.

By way of a complete change, a few days later we ended up at Lake Taupo and the site of the floatplane, which I had looked at longingly and taken several photos off, it being the only kind of plane I had never been in. My partner took pity on me and paid for me to go up.

On my own, was his suggestion initially.

Was this because we had been discussing my extensive Death In Service benefit shortly before? Who knows? Anyway, I think the pilot took my partner’s laconic comments about safety and Not Getting Me Up In One Of Those Things rather personally, not helped by my rather dark humoured comments to the effect that when I’d put a codicil in my will, leaving our dogs to the lady who was looking after them while we were away, in case we went down in a plane, and that I’d rather anticipated that it might be a bigger one than this.

“Yeah, we do sometimes make it back?” he said rather drily.

However, when he took our details and ‘next of kin’, my partner said “I just put my dad’s name here?” the pilot shifted rather awkwardly and said “er…. a telephone number might be useful…” so maybe they don’t always make it back…

In this next set of pictures you can see Lake Taupo, which apparently is wider than the English Channel in parts, the Hydrothermal Plant and the Hucka Falls from the air. Hucka Falls is next to the prestigious Hucka Lodge, where you can spend over £1,000 a night having a meal cooked by a guy with a minimalist haircut (one tiny plat, about a centimetre long, right in the middle of his forehead. I’m sure there’s some massively cooky reason for it. Probably helps with preparing those foam, smoke, and delicate jus type dishes).

We thought it might be a jolly good wheeze to drive up to the electric gates and ask through the house intercom system whether they did take-away but they didn’t concur.

Next up was Wai-O-Tapu, probably the most popular site, not quite as much walking as Waimangu, but with probably the most variety of steamy lakes in a variety of toxic looking colours. And some ‘man made’ terraces, I discovered afterwards, where the water has been diverted over a flat area and new green and white terraces are forming.

At the far end of the trail is Lake Ngakoro, calm, but unnaturally green, and the even more alarming electric green Devil’s Bath, coloured by sulphur in the water.

And finally, a few pictures from the shores of Lake Taupo of distant Mount Ngauruhoe, the cone shaped volcano (that still gasses the odd unwary hiker) and Mount Ruapehu just behind it.

And just a few photos of the third volcanic area we visited, the Wairakei Thermal Valley, located down a winding dirt road and as opposite to the fairly commercialised Wai-O-Tapu as you could get.

The caretaker was an old English guy who had lived half his life in the UK making British cars, and ended up emigrating here almost by accident. He had a wry sense of humour and got me to drop the F bomb by catching me out with something he does with all the visitors. Those with strong hearts that is. I won’t tell you want it was, but be very careful around any Tarantula Eggs he might give you. That’s all I’m saying…

And next, the Stratford Mountain Lodge and awesome Mount Taranaki.

Rotorua and Surrounding Gases

Waimangu Volcanic Valley

So at this point I got a little lost and confused. We stuck around Rotorua for a few days and made the odd trip out to the Thermal Wonderlands, of which there are many. Wai-O-Tapu, Waimangu Volcanic Valley, Wairakei Thermal Valley being three big ones. It was quite easy to get them all mixed up, and they deserve a post all on their own so I will do a separate post about them very soon.

This part of NZ shows some signs of heavy marketing and Rotorua itself, boy oh boy, if there’s a hill, it has a zipwire on it, if there’s a forest, it has a canopy walk, if you’re into sheep, there’s the Agrodome, (pretty good actually, not sure who are better trained, the sheep or the sheepdogs).

I do however draw the line at the the National Road Board hopping on the bandwagon with the grandly named “Thermal Explorer Highway”, this evokes images of bursting geysers, lava flows, rugged 4by4 travel over steam swathed landscapes, but it is, at the end of the day, just a road. There’s nothing thermal about it, unless you turn the car heating up.

That said, they do have a lot to work with. Even Rotorua town itself, a view across the town will show rising steam from between the buildings.

Steam coming off of from the town.

I know this isn’t a great photo by the way but I’ve realised there is a difference between just posting photos that tell a story themselves, and photos that support a blog. I’m not 100% sure about the ‘photos that tell a story’ schtick anyway. Those arty photos about the lonely Afghan goat herd contemplating the changes to his life and the impact of increasing urbanisation, actually, No. He’s Not. He’s probably thinking about lunch. Or thinking ‘If This Guy Doesn’t Bugger Off Pretty Quick I’ll Set The Dog On Him’.

A casual stroll down to the placid lakeside will take you to Sulphur Point, where there are dire warnings about going off the path and where all the lake birds congregate in the bubbling water.

I am not a natural videographer (you needed telling, right?) but in case you haven’t clocked, part of the purpose of this website is for me to learn how to ‘do’ websites.

This particular video is quite a simple edit of two video files, but involved loading them into Corel Videostudio, applying an ‘anti shake’ feature, fades in between and at the end, and separating out the soundtrack and replacing it.

Replacing the soundtrack involved going onto the website to look for ‘sound files of wind howling’, finding a clip that had been posted on youtube (with permissions to use), saving it via EasyYoutube mp3 as an audio file. Which incidentally sounded eerily like the original windy noises that were on the tape. And patching that audio file into Corel Videostudio, and saving the lot in a file.

Then to get it onto your website, you have to upload the vid to Youtube, and put a link to the Youtube video - and then insert a tricky bit of code (?rel=0 …are you impressed?) to prevent Youtube then going onto make suggestions about what people can watch next at the end of your video. In my case that would be loads of camera gear reviews and videos of boats being sunk to make artificial reefs.

I really should get out more, shouldn’t I?

So - Rotorua. One place where you can be assured of getting a motel, as my partner blithely informed me, because they’re everywhere, so I let him choose. I had forgotten his criteria were a little different to mine.

I tend to go for places with crisp cotton sheets with a high thread count, a view of the Peninsula/Volcano/Desert. He tends to go for the thing that starts with "£$BARGAIN”, and ends there. Places, perhaps, where the customer is not so much ‘King’ as ‘King for an Hour’.

I know it’s just personal preference but my preference is somewhere where the glory hasn’t faded yet, where the lights don’t fizz when you switch them on, and where there aren’t discreet messages about what to do with your needles in the kitchen area. But that said, in this particular case, when we asked about a clothes airer and the last one was in use - the guy at the desk went out and bought us one. That doesn’t happen at the Hilton.

Has to be said, I did not feel particularly safe in Rotorua, lots of little things, a screaming row between another hotel resident and the kind guy with clothes airer, the extensive Rogues Gallery in the New World Supermarket of people who were banned from shopping there, and the number of times my partners said “Don’t look, keep going” all contributed to that.

I think the thing that really brought it home to me was when we’d just exited the Gondola Station at the bottom of Ngongotaha Mountain, all chrome, new glass, whizzy tourist attractions like a luge and some horrendously scary bike trails, and walking across the car park fiddling with my camera and hearing my partner say “That’s so sweet…”. I thought I’d done something whimsical but he was referring to the fact that I was so involved in whether my camera was in Programme Mode or Aperture Priority, I completely failed to see the two cars full of yoofs spinning around the same car park, screaming at each other and waving guns.

Guns. In New Zealand?

So Rotorua. Tons of things for families to do. But, Gangs, and Guns. I’ll move onto the Thermal Wonderland with the next post and we’ll be back to steam, rocks, landscapes with green ponds before you know it. You’ll see.

Travels - traversing the Hamptons

So after an uneventful flight, marred only slightly by discovering that some oik had stuck the pages of the safety briefing together with chewing gum, and then discovering that the in-flight entertainment didn’t work. I suspect Thing B led to Frustration which led to Thing A, but it was only a 4 hour flight so I whiled it away staring hard at everybody else’s screens and making them uncomfortable.

Customs and security was interesting, my partner thought he’d whizz through security faster than I on an NZ Passport, which he would have done, had I not offered to fill out his Landing Card for him and inadvertently ticked the “No” box to the question “Do you know what’s in your bag?” He didn’t let me do that again.

However, we got through it, and how we laughed! Well I did. And I was quite glad that we hadn’t succumbed to buying any coral or wood souvenirs at the airport duty free in Avarua, as Customs made you throw them away when you arrived in NZ. We got out to our hire car, in the dark, having narrowly escaped being upgraded to a 7 seater when really we only needed a slightly large boot, not a truck.

I think the agent got his own back on us though as we had a) keyless start b) automatic c) non-intuitive lights, d) indicators on the wrong side and e) parking buttons, not handbrakes, to contend with.

Most of these were OK, as we took it slowly at first, however there was one heart stopping moment when my partner decided to slam the brakes on (trying for the imaginary clutch) and we had a loud beep from behind us from a kiwi gentleman who, after that point, drove at a safe distance.

This was the only time we experienced this phenomenon. I don’t mean accidentally slamming on the brakes, we did that loads. I mean having a kiwi drive at a safe distance behind you.

We pulled into a motel in Hamilton, ragged in the way that international travelling leaves you, but I’ve decided that’s probably the best way to experience Hamilton. The motel was nice and I learned how to use NZ heat pumps at 3.00 in the morning, when it went on at full blast because some of the random button pressing I’d been engaged in earlier in the evening trying to switch it ON somehow activated a timer.

Then on, the next day, towards Rotorua. We passed through a small town, Tirau, which had some rather odd buildings made by someone who had a lot of corrugated iron and too much time on their hands.

Why? Just Why?

We saw signs to ‘The Blue Spring’ which seemed to be a tourist spot, and made a detour towards it.

It was quite a way off the beaten track but it proved to be well worth it. For a start my partner saw several Pukekos that remind him of home, not surprisingly, as we were, actually, ‘home’ but that always cheers him up.

It would appear that while you can have too many photos of ducks, you can’t have too many photos of Pukekos, and if he’d had his way, the 4,000 photos I took when I was overseas would have all been Pukekos.

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Pukeko

Good eating on one of these…

And this is a Takahe. A Takahe is a larger, bluer bird. Quite rare. Which is a good job as partner already goes nuts over Pukekos. They run away from him, startled. Imagine what he’d be like if there were Takahes in the wild too…

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Takahe

Larger, bluer, less good at evading predators

I should perhaps clarify at this point for the Department of Conservation, that there is NOT Good Eating On A Pukeko. At least I wouldn’t know.

So on we went to the Blue Spring. As we approached it we came upon a Cormorant drying its wings. I was so excited to encounter this at relatively close range, I took loads of photos with a 400mm telephoto lens, and a 1/50 of a second shutter speed, so the end result was quite impressionistic and could have been a cormorant drying its wings, or a whale breaching, so I’ve not included them here. However, I did catch some later of the same bird resting on top of a cabbage tree.

So herewith, photos of the Blue Spring - the stunning colour of the water is due to it’s optical clarity, having filtered through underground aquifers for between 50 - 100 years.

And that is enough for today, the next posts will be about the Thermal Wonderlands, Rotorua, and how I could never be a photo journalist, a decision I came to after realising I had wandered into the paths of two cars driving full pelt, and bristling with gang yoof waving guns and screaming foul oaths at each other, and I was too busy adjusting the settings on my camera to notice.

That for another day!

Travels - last night in Rarotonga

I had taken a few last shots as the sun set and I thought that was pretty much it for the evening, just one more of some of Rarotonga’s stray dogs fishing in the lagoon.

Or maybe two. These two were best buddies, and the dark one was really friendly. If you patted her she would even ‘guard’ your stuff when you went in the ocean for a dip!

Night fell and I was busy packing the complex chinese puzzle that my luggage had become. My partner, who tolerates rather than enjoys my photography habits, came in and said to me “You’ve got to see this…”

In the UK, you can hardly ever seen the Milky Way. Sometimes you can just about tell it’s probably there, unless you are in a true Dark Sky site like the far West of Scotland.

Rarotonga is an island, but it isn’t really a Dark Sky spot, however it does have very little pollution and that makes a huge difference to how much you can see.

I think the bright star you can see in some of these shots is Venus, it was so bright you might have mistaken it for the moon. As with all the other photos, double-clicking on them will bring them up full size.

Travels - Rarotonga - the Curse of Metua

Could this happen anywhere else? I don’t know.

Picture this. Vaimaanga Tapere, a stretch of land that runs from The Needle, an inland spike of rock, down to the beach on the southern side of Rarotonga, looking out onto the lagoon.

Rarotonga’s Great Road, Ara Tapu, encircling the island, runs through it. Beside this road, blink and you miss it, there’s a quiet space, a blank moment, with a strange sense of past times, of quiet and decay. This is the Sheraton Hotel Resort.

No, this is not the bitchiest hotel review ever. This isn’t because I had simply the worst quiche in my life there, or the most overpriced daquiri, at this hotel there is no customer service, no daquiris. No anything except brooding, quiet ruin.

In spite of being prime Rarotongan real estate, the resort was abandoned when it was partially completed, something like 25 years ago. No guests have ever stayed there and to date, nobody has stepped in to try to develop it.

This is one of about 15 buildings, set in a great semicircle that make up the complex.

Image courtesy of Google Maps, I ain’t got no drone

Image courtesy of Google Maps, I ain’t got no drone

Admittedly there are some downsides to the location: You have to cross the main road to get to the beach (this makes a huge difference to the prices holiday lets can charge); The beach itself is relatively small and it opens onto a fairly rocky part of the lagoon; And finally, this part of the lagoon can kill you.

If you look slightly to the left of the hotel complex in this picture, you also see a blue ribbon going from the lagoon out past the reef, and another, more obvious blue tendril to the far left of the picture.

These are riptides, deceptively calm looking parts of the lagoon with a strong current that will whisk you out to sea before you know it.

But the real reason this complex lies abandoned is because it is cursed.

In pre-colonial days, it was the scene of bloody tribal battles and spirits are said to walk the land. And in the early 1900s, the land was claimed by a prominent chief at the time, Pa Ariki. The claim was disputed by another tribe led by chief More Uriatua and this simmering powder keg of emotions (you get it all in this blog, don’t you?) came to a head in 1911, when a European Settler by the name of William Wigmore, shot and killed More Uriatua.

More Uriatua’s daughter, Metua, appeared in vengeance and placed a curse on the land. She said that none would profit from the land until it was returned to the tribe. Although Wigmore managed to escape prison, his businesses failed.

Fast forward to 1980, and some Italian businessmen struck a deal with the Cook Islands Government, to open a 5 star hotel on the site, involving joint investment from both parties.

In 1990, at the ceremony to start the building works, Metua’s grandson, More Rua, suddenly appeared dressed as a high priest and dramatically renewed Metua’s curse. He struck his spear on the rock bearing the inaugural plaque, and it shattered.

This naturally was a little upsetting for the developers, but they pressed on. Three years later, with the site almost finished, the Italian money suddenly stopped, and the building contractor went bust. There were rumours of mafia involvement and the Cook Islands government who had underwritten the project ended up facing a bill of $120m. This had an absolutely devastating effect on the island and marked the emigration of waves of Cook Islanders to New Zealand to try to find work.

In spite of repeated attempts to re-start the project, all subsequent efforts have failed amid allegations of tax fraud, and the head of the tribe, Amoa Amoa, has refused to lift the curse unless the land is given back to the More tribe.

This story might seem incredible to our eyes, but the place really has a creepy atmosphere.

I had the eeriest feeling I was being watched. In spite of the fact that it was very obviously abandoned, I felt really uncomfortable about going in any further. You can just walk off the road onto the site, but you do feel like you are walking on sacred ground.

Pause for thought.

Later on the same day, I took the road from the north of the island, Happy Valley Road, up to the start of the track to The Needle. Calling it a road was aspirational, in the same way as calling my moped an Off Road Vehicle was. Mopeds have a very odd centre of balance thing that makes you feel a bit like an elephant riding on a marble. You sort of get the impression that this thing was designed by someone who just didn’t care if it remained upright.

The road gradually deteriorated under me, there were deep channels cut into it from flash floods. And it got increasingly rural. Rarotonga is well known for its roosters and chickens everywhere, but here there were also pigs tied at the side of the road, the odd farmer working in a field.

The atmosphere got steadily more intimidating, and eventually I got to the end of the track, and parked up.

It was really quiet, you really noticed that you couldn’t hear the waves, something you got used to virtually everywhere else on the island.

I headed back down. I came to a fork in the road, and on one side was a farmer loading some crops onto a flatbed truck. Next to him was his son, probably about 12, staring at me.

I thought, what must I look like to them? bleached white and occasionally sunburnt, on a hired moped, obviously a tourist, with a backpack. I started drawing parallels with the film ‘Deliverance’ in my mind.

Then the boy waved at me and gave me a thumbs up sign.

These Rarotongans are really Awfully Nice People, aren’t they?

That is it for this evening, the next post, one more from Raro I think, to say goodbye and then off to New Zealand, Rotorua, and Lake Taupo!

Travels - Rarotonga Constitution Day - Te Maeva Nui

Purely by chance, we ended up in Rarotonga when they were celebrating their Constitution Day, 4th August 1965.  This is a big deal for the Cook Islands, and Islanders from all over the Cook Islands come across to Avarua in Rarotonga to celebrate the diversity of the islands and showcase their culture. 

The Cook Islands include 15 islands scattered across the South Pacific over a vast area and when you see just how vast, it cover 1,800,000 square kilometres of ocean, and shows what a tribute this was to the early Cook Islanders who set off across the ocean to see what they could find.  

Some of the islands benefit from tourism, such as Aitutaki, Rarotonga, and others like Manihiki benefit from black pearl farming. Some are nature reserves with only 2 caretakers, others are very difficult to get to for tourists, and even Rarotonga gives the impression of being relatively unspoilt so there is a huge amount of variety in each of the islands.   

I had assumed that colonialism probably brought with it a lot of negative things that we tend to associate with Empire, one of which would have been concepts of land ownership, and you would suspect given what has happened elsewhere with Empires, the principle of land ownership being followed very closely with the principle of swindling original settlers out of it with beads and blankets, apparently one of the things that came out of this colonialism was a concept of indigenous land ownership from mountain to sea - so when they were allocating land to various tribes, sections were divided up this way.  This would mean that the islanders could own the very desirable beachfront properties all around the lagoons.  

I am not 100% certain this is absolutely accurate, I learnt all this from a very friendly Kiwi couple who initially mistook me for the Official Photographer of the Parade, and ended up telling me I'd be very welcome as an HR Manager in New Zealand and even suggesting the jobs website I should check out.

So the Parade was a little casual, shall we say, and I have subsequently found out that we were some way down from all of the action.  I think the first sign was the arrival of the first float, this one.

which as you can see, is Float No 4.  This was followed after some time by Float No 11, then 21, and the order of appearance gave some clue to how the Parade was going to go.  It took quite a long time and to be charitable something like this is fairly difficult to co-ordinate (and it should be noted that this is just one of the activities that mark the Declaration of Independence..  

Anybody who has read my blog previously will realise I am usually fairly reluctant to photograph people, something that many amateur photographers have in common, and looking through the following pictures you may get the impression I've been able to overcome this - however, in practice I shot these with a very long lens and initially thought they were pretty disappointing and cluttered, then I started realising that I could crop other people out of them and some of them ended up being quite interesting portraits.  

That said, these are really easygoing people.  If you can't take a photograph of someone who's that friendly, who can you photograph?

Later on, I'll look at some of the other aspects of Rarotonga, the night sky, some of the beaches and the lagoon, even the slightly spooky interior and the definitely creepy abandoned Sheraton Hotel Complex that's a story in itself...

But for now - Constitution Day!