Sunday, 30 October 2011

Victoria Pendleton

‘Queen Vic’ as they call her, is the subject of a lengthy profile by Sports Interviewer of the Year Donald McRae. It covers the lows and highs of the recent European Track Championships in Holland, at a critical time for the star athlete, just nine months before the London Olympics, where so much is expected of her

It comes in two parts, Part one, and part two.

Pendleton's support staff also includes the Team GB psychiatrist Dr Steve Peters. His role is most acute with Pendleton, who confesses to being riddled with self-doubt. “The men couldn’t understand how I could be so successful and so insecure at the same time – because it doesn’t really exist in the same way in the male psyche ... It was difficult for them to fathom how desperately upset I get when I fail and how ­negative I am about my performances.”

There is a gallery of photos by top sports photographer Tom Jenkins.

My photo of Victoria Pendleton, with fellow cyclist Jamie Staff, at the Olympic Parade through London in October 2008. She holds the gold medal she won in Beijing in the Women's Individual Sprint Event.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

New Zealand: Final feflections and ruminations

WEEK 8: NZ and Sydney:  Some reflections and ruminations on my trip

The beach at Kaikoura

Many thanks to all those who sent me messages over the seven weeks I was away, by text, email, tweets, facebook, and skype. You were wishing England well, mourning Scotland, asking the odds on Wales, complementing me on some photos, and saying nice things about this blog. I didn’t respond to any of you at the time, but I’m very grateful. You know who you are, so many thanks again.

So how to sum up the seven weeks in New Zealand? There will be two enduring memories: the places, and the people. If you haven’t been, it helps to understand this fact. The country has a landmass roughly the same size as Great Britain, but has a population of only 4.5 million (against GB’s 60 million).

The south island is a 33% larger landmass than the north, but has only 24% of the population, just 1,038,200 people. So apart from the two cities of Christchurch and Dunedin (390,000 and 116,000) the remaining 1 million are spread widely and thinly. It is a rural country, the economy largely dependent on international trade, agriculture, timber, mining, with tourism being the fourth key component.

Tending the vines, Felton Road, Otago

Tourism is big business, playing a major part in the economy. But it’s not large-scale, corporate, or ‘have a nice day’ tourism. It is calm, quiet, and very personal. Most tourism experiences I enjoyed seemed to be generally small-scale companies, usually family owned, and yet highly professional. I went on nine tourist trips (whale watching, star gazing, cruising, wine tasting, etc ) and only one was below five-star. Incidentally, some were free.

Tourists on the Doubtful Sound cruise

Mount Crowfoot seen from Doubtful Sound

Every town and village has an iSite, a tourist office, sometimes large and professionally staffed, other times just a counter and brochure rack at the side of a small café or bank. They are always staffed by knowledgeable locals, always willing to share ideas, suggest trips, who will make a booking for you, and they should be your first port of call in every new town.

The Department of Conservation has responsibility for the protection and management of the natural environment and almost every historical location will have a discreet and informative display, explaining what you are seeing, the historical or geological significance, as well as suggested walking routes and times. They have a great website, and also operate some small camping sites in 'up country' locations.

I regret not making more time early on to understand the history and heritage, and the Maori culture. It was really the two visitor experiences in my last ten days that began to make it clear: the Maritime Museum in Auckland, and the Waitangi Treaty Grounds.

Waitangi. Te Whare Runanga - Meeting House

The country and people seem exceptionally conscious of the natural environment, and the issues involved in protecting it. Of course it is stunning, so who wouldn’t want to value and preserve it. Like most other things in New Zealand, this attitude isn’t brought about by signs and notices, by authority and instruction. It seems to be cultural and behavioral, and my assumption is that people are schooled and brought up in this way.

Similarly, everybody obeys the speed limit. It is 100 kph on open roads but as soon as you reach the edge of a town or village, where the limit is 50 kph, everybody drops immediately to that lower limit. I saw no speed cameras or police cars checking or enforcing this anywhere; it seems that people understand the reason, and respect it. Driving is easy, in fact a pleasure. Apart from the last 75 miles or so approaching Auckland, the roads are very, very quiet.

People are really happy to stand and chat. The common greeting ‘how’s it going’ or ‘how you doing?’ doesn’t demand an answer, but it helps, and does lead to conversations about you, your trip, the rugby, and it all seems very genuine. I was on a path, halfway up Mt Iron, on a hot afternoon and pausing for moment, when a man coming down greeted me with a ‘how’s it going’. Thirty minutes later I resumed my climb after a long chat with Bob about the town of Wanaka, its rapid expansion in the last five years, urban development generally, the All Blacks, the London riots, and more. On another occasion I stopped for a moment at the roadside of Hway 85 to photograph the oxbow lake on the Waitaki River. It was late morning, the road was very quiet, but within two minutes a car pulled up beside me. For the next twenty or thirty minutes I chatted with a couple, she Swiss, he German, both of them resident in NZ. The river, the adjacent power station, my campervan, Scotland (they had toured there), and all manner of things. My point is that people are less rushed, can make time, and are interested.

Oxbow lake on Waitaki River

So how was the camping, or glamping as some of you called it? Well for me it was a great way to travel. I needed a vehicle to get around, I’d want somewhere to sleep, so combining the two in a campervan was ideal. You meet many more friendly people on camp sites than in a hotel. It helps too that New Zealand is a well-developed camping society, with really good sites and facilities. There are at least six firms hiring campervans vans of all sizes from two-sleepers up to six-berths. Mine had a gas and electric cooker, grill and microwave; a double bed, shower and loo, water and waste tanks. It was also really easy to drive. The biggest drawback was the lack of insulation, for the five days I was at the bottom of the South Island, where the nighttime temperature dropped to 1 degree. The early weeks of my trip were still officially wintertime in New Zealand.

My campervan, home for six weeks, on site in Oamaru

I had 42 nights in New Zealand and booked in advance 21 nights accommodation – generally the weekends when towns would be very busy with rugby fans. I had intended to do some free camping – just pulling up where I happened to be at the end of a day – but grew dependent on electricity: for heating in the first couple of weeks, but also to recharge camera, phone, laptop etc. Officially free camping is allowed almost everywhere, provided one’s vehicle is contained (the waste stays in tanks and isn’t wasted onto the ground).

I rented a bike with my van (hanging on the back). I didn’t do any off-road mountain stuff but found it really useful for exploring, and if the weather had been better in the early weeks would have made even more use of it. Recommended

Of course the catalyst for my trip to the Land of the Long White Cloud was to follow the Rugby. So how was it?

New Zealand was an excellent host, with the full weight of the government and all other authorities thrown behind the RWC 2011 Ltd organization. Those elements for which they had responsibility all seemed to work really well for me. Particularly I must praise their handling of events in the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquake. That rugby-mad city was to have hosted seven matches, the quake coming just six months before kick-off. At a stroke RWC had to relocate all the matches to other cities, find new hotels and training grounds, and most difficult of all, re-issue 266,000 tickets, an enormous undertaking without precedent. For this fan, it was all very well handled.

As for the matches: England were as dull and dismal as I had expected, so I wasn’t too upset, their style and standard of play being consistent with what we have seen over the last four years. There were few really big upsets, and few games that will really live on in the memory. Perhaps Ireland v Australia in the pool stages, Australia v New Zealand, and Ireland v Wales quarter final are the stand out matches. In the ‘smaller’ nations, Japan, USA, Canada and Georgia have all improved since RWC 2007, and will continue to do so. Japan host the RWC 2019 tournament and will want to make a really good showing. The Final of course was gripping, and well done France – who I was supporting – for making the AB’s work so hard to win it.
Paul Rees, in the last of his Breakdown features, has a good summary
And Guardian writers sum up the whole tournament here.

And yet, Rugby World Cup, for all its size and scale, the presence of 100,00 fans, and world-wide tv coverage, still apparently makes a loss for its host nation. There are reports of NZ losing $40 million, which I’m sure it can’t afford, especially with Christchurch to rebuild. Something has to change – no host should make a loss of that level.
England Rugby’s problems are bigger than the players. The chaos at Twickenham hq has to be resolved quickly, with the appointment of a first class Chief Executive and the reorganization of the entire governance. There must be much greater clarity and transparency. When completed, there must be a rigorous process to select and appoint a national coach. He must then be given the freedom to appoint his own team (something denied to Martin Johnson four years ago). I hope we are mature enough to consider non-English coaches.   England will host the 2015 RWC tournament and has a hard act to follow after the success of New Zealand this year. If true, the plan is to play most games at major football stadia – a great shame. Surely some matches could be played in rugby heartlands, for example, down in the south-west where Exeter Chiefs have a great following, and at Leicester’s Welford Road stadium.   Refereeing of matches is a very difficult area; there must be greater consistency between refs, but the criticising of match officials by coaches and players must be banned, Warren Gatland being the worst offender.

Warren Gatland criticising the referee

TV coverage: I didn’t see any of the UK coverage provided by ITV but I’ve heard how poor it was. And the bad news: in 2015 they will provide not only the UK coverage again, but also pictures to the rest of the world.
And then there is England – an embarrassment, on and off the pitch. The charge sheet reads:
  • Wearing an all-black playing strip for their opening game didn’t endear them to fans, Kiwis and neutrals: ‘Arrogant England Again’.
  • Jonny Wilkinson’s kicking, only 3 out of 8 in the opening game; we didn’t like the neutrals booing him, we felt his frustration, but then we cringed at the stupidity of the captain (Tindall) and the coaches, for keeping him kicking at the posts – the corner would have been a smarter option.
  • Ball switching by the England coaches, to enable Wilkinson to kick with his favoured ball – billed in the local press, reasonably in my view, as cheating.
  • The whole Queenstown night out: drinking, clubbing, dwarf-throwing, and Tindall’s ‘dalliance’ with his ex. All meat for the press pack, a major distraction for the players, and an embarrassment for we fans.
  • The fine by the IRB for Manu Tuillangi, wearing an ‘unofficial’ mouthguard, was a silly overreaction. A reprimand might have been sufficient, but he was dumb to do it, as was Lewis Moody two weeks later.
  • The hotel chambermaid ‘alleged harassment’ incident involving three players; this felt like a re-run of a similar sex allegations about England players in Auckland in June 2008.
  • Manu Tuilagi diving off the ferry into Auckland harbour – not a prank, but a really stupid and dangerous act.

That’s England. What about everything else?   The most passionate and noisy fans, and the best singers – all the way through the match – were the Argentine supporters. They completely outsang England in Dunedin’s Octagon, the afternoon of the match. They then did it all over again for 90 minutes during the game.

Argentine fans inside Dunedin stadium

The most colourful, stylish, and seem-to-always-be-having-fun are the French supporters, although with such clues as berets, moustaches, striped Breton shirts, strings of onions, and red/white/blue face paint, it's easier than for some other nations.

The Kiwi fans were, as usual, quite reserved, but they had bigger things to worry about: they just couldn’t face the ignominy of not making the Final, and of not winning the cup. We were all pleased for them, but perhaps they could lighten-up a little during a match.
The International Rugby Board however, has a different set of charges laid against it – by me at least. The ticket prices were way too high, and the number of empty seats at major matches, quarter- and semi-finals, supports that claim. The IRB has to cut its cloth more astutely and remember that without fans there will be no games. Tickets to the semi-finals were $800 (£400)

Empty seats - at an All Blacks game too - suggest they were overpriced.

Their determination to protect their sponsors has reached ridiculous levels, such that fans going into stadia, having their bags searched, were prevented from taking in bottles of mineral water if they weren’t from the official sponsors. Several people told me the crisp story. A mother with four big bags of crisps was told she couldn’t take them in, as they were branded. “So it’s the bag that’s the problem?” Correct. She got her kids to rip open the bags, tipped all the contents into her rucksack, and left the offending wrapping with the security guard. If this is how it was in gentle, easy-going New Zealand, just wait for zealous England in 2015: the lawyers will have a bonanza.

There was a definite loss of the party atmosphere which surrounded the matches in the south of France in 2007. I went to many games in Marseille, Montpellier, and Toulouse, and the spirit on the streets around the stadia was fabulous. Fans mingled with street vendors, musicians played impromptu sets, there were beer tents, food stalls and loads of people in fancy dress, with the gendarmes occasionally joining in.

Fans get in the party mood in France at the 2007 Rugby World Cup

The party atmosphere at RWC 2007 in France: Australian (top) and Italian (below) fans
The atmosphere this year, albeit taking place in less Mediterranean weather, had a sterility to it that was due to the organisers’ heavy-handed legislation banning food stalls and bars within a certain distance of the stadia. You know that from here on, you’ll only get grub in the ground, at a hefty mark-up, and only Heineken, again at a steep price.
There was clearly a policy to prevent large groups of fans from the same country sitting together in large blocks. The ticket allocation seemed to have ‘randomised’ seating, which made it very hard to get anybody singing. I know we England fans had nothing to sing about, but the Welsh and Irish certainly did, and the games are poorer for not hearing them sing.

The same legislation quite specifically banned musical instruments, and if you had them they would be taken off you at the bag search. I was grateful for the lack of vuvuzuelas, thank you, but really miss the bands we had in France.

This year in Dunedin, on the day of the first England game, the Argentine drummers played and sang outside the bars in the city centre during the afternoon, whipping up a great game as we English tried to out-sing them. But the drums were not allowed into the stadium. Similarly the Scots were banned from taking pipes into their matches. In contrast, in 2007 in Toulouse there were two small bands at opposite ends of the Stade, playing all the way through the 90 minutes, to great delight. All of this is now lost. One of the bands I saw in Toulouse appeared and played in Auckland but was not allowed inside the stadium.

One of two bands inside the stadium, Toulouse, RWC 2007

The IRB, having taken away our music, turned injury to insult by playing a synthetic version of the trumpet ‘Ole’, which came from France. They have effectively corporatized and taken ownership of that which was spontaneous, and belonged to the fans.  England host the 2015 RWC, and I truly hope we can correct some of these frustrations. We’ll have had the Olympics as practice in the meantime, so perhaps we’ll be good hosts – as good as the New Zealanders were. They set a very high standard indeed.

Russell Ferry, Bay of Islands

Back to the country. On the North Island I greatly enjoyed my couple of days around the Bay of Islands. Russell is worth the short ferry ride for the walk up Flagstaff Hill and a nosey around the tiny town. An interesting case of role reversal here: it used to be the main town for the whole area, with Paihia simply the ‘mainland’ ferry jetty. Now, Russell appears to have no business other than the ½ day visiors like myself, whilst Pahia is very much the centre of the area.

A visit to the nearby Waitangi Treaty Grounds is essential.

Napier is well worth a visit, and with more time I would have used it as base from which to explore more of the Hwake’s Bay region. If you want to taste wine, and eat good food too, this is a good place. Auckland I enjoyed, and I think the guide books unfairly mark it down. If you go, be sure to visit the Voyager Maritime Museum.

Napier: Ahuriri Estuary, from Perfume Point

I was disappointed by the Coromandel Peninsula, apart from the Hahei Explorer, but the weather was poor, and it was the last couple of days of my entire trip: perhaps I was fatigued. I only passed through the edge of Wellington as I drove off the ferry. I hear good things about it: perhaps another time.

On the South Island, I had an expert guide for my tour of the Marlborough wine district, where it was good to connect vineyards I saw with labels I know and have drunk.

Giffords Road, Marlborough

Christchurch was a mixed bag of emotions: two evenings of lovely hospitality, but an upsetting day looking at the devastation in the city centre. I will follow the recovery and redevelopment with great interest in the years to come.

Devastation in Christchurch

Best area: If I had time to visit just one area in New Zealand it would be Otago and South Canterbury, spreading from the Peninsula east of Dunedin, through central Otago, across to Doubtful Sound and Te Anau, and north to include the lakes of Wanaka, Hawea, Pukaki and Tekapo. Fabulous scenery, great drives, fascinating wildlife.

Lake Wanaka

Lake Ruataniwha

Best Trip and best guides: John Lockie at Doubtful Sound, and Sean McConkey at the Peninsula Wildlife tour. Both first class trips and excellent guides.

Best Food: Breakfast at River Valley, Eskdale; Lunch at Two Rivers, Cheviot; Dinner at Fox on the Quay in Napier; Fish and Chips at HMS Kings, Invercargill. And of course morning coffee and cakes – almost everywhere.

I can’t pick a single Best Campsite, but would praise these three: Amber Park in Christchurch, Leith Valley in Dunedin, and Remeura Motor Lodge in Auckland.

Everywhere, I loved the empty roads: three or four miles without seeing another vehicle, and almost every village, however small, with a great café serving real coffee and delicious home-bakes. I drove about 5,320 kms, but had plenty of days with no driving. It was all fine, helped by easy roads and very light traffic. I’d caution against trying to see every part of this fine country, because you’ll spend too much time driving. My own itinerary worked out really well (remember, it was largely dictated by the location of the rugby matches I wanted to attend). If I had to shorten it I’d probably omit Invercargill and the very ‘bottom’ of the south island.

The almost deserted Highway 1, north of Cheviot

Getting there: It took 34 hours from home in London to the terminal in Christchurch. The return from flight from Sydney to London was about 25 hours.

The flights: I went out by Air New Zealand via Los Angeles. A long and tiring flight, but excellent service and a good experience. I was in the new Premium Economy, and it’s worth knowing that ANZ have only three classes: Business, Premium Economy and Economy. My return was by BA flying from Sydney via Singapore, again in Premium Economy. BA have the additional first class cabin, and with these four classes seem to struggle to differentiate between them. Certainly my experience felt like Economy+. It was poor, in parts almost like the service on the London-Glasgow route. I can’t imagine why they might think grey plastic cutlery is appealing – grey!. The food was very poor, the wine Spanish, the cabin cold.

So I’d strongly recommend Air New Zealand over BA, but there are alternatives and I heard good reports of Emirates and Etihad. There are other ways, not involving a very long haul flight. I’m rather taken by the idea of going by sea, on a freight ship. This website has details of various operators who take a few paying passengers as well. How about departing from London Tilbury, and going via New York, Jamaica, the Panama Canal, and all the way on to Napier, on New Zealand’s north island. You will be traveling with only five other passengers, sharing a twin or double-bed cabin. Allow 84 days, and £90 per day. Sounds quite appealing.

Take a camera, a good one, and really learn before you go about all the features and how to adjust settings. The weather and the light changes very quickly, and some things you’ll only get one shot at. When a sperm whale has dived its too late to wonder about your exposure (or even the lens cap). On the day I went to Otago Peninsula to see penguins and seals, one person in the group only had an iPhone camera. I’m a big fan of the Apple device, but it isn’t good enough for capturing and recording this kind of experience. Lots of memory is essential, and a spare (and charged) battery a good idea. Finally, decide in advance how you’ll back-up your photos at several stages during the trip, ideally onto cd’s, and post them home. You won’t want to lose your pictorial memories.

Bring your camera, take my photo

It was delightful to catch up in Sydney with old friends Cass and Alison, Natalie and Tim, Ricky and Melissa, and all their children. Good too, to meet a ‘new’ member of my family, Alan Bevins. Thanks Rod and Di in Blenheim, and to meet and dine with Dorenda and Rob in Christchurch. Thanks to all of you for your hospitality.

And to the dozens of other people I met, and whose company I enjoyed, in cafes and campsites, coffee shops, bars and boozers, restaurants and rugby grounds, at tourist sites and on ferries. Thank you too. I did it all on my own, but I did have 4 million Kiwi friends, and another 80,000 rugby fans to keep me company.

Beautiful country, lovely people. Thank you all.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

New Zealand Week 7: Whitianga, Hahei, Thames, Auckland, Sydney, London

October 18th - 19th. Whitianga - Hahei - Thames - Miranda - Auckland

Tuesday 18th Whitianga, Coromandel. I parked-up yesterday afternoon in the small town of Whitianga, another small town-at-the-end-of-a-stretch-of-water place, quiet just now (apart from a dozen or so rugby fans I find in the local bar), but clearly busy with yachties at weekends – there are many moored in the marina.

Small and a little sleepy it may be but it has an alert and active local council, which is seeking the views of the town residents on updating its tsunami evacuation procedures.
This may interest the oenophiles amongst you. In the four good restaurants I’ve eaten in, the wine list has been laid out by grape variety – that’s not too unusual you’ll say. But after the standard white headings of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris etc, there comes a listing ‘Aromatics’, which includes Reisling, Gewürztraminer, Viognier/Marsanne. Similarly with the reds. After the usual Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot etc. there is a section ‘Red Varietals and Blends’ which includes Cab Shiraz, Cab Merlot, Shiraz/Grenache/Mourve. This seems a great way of drawing attention to those less well-known wines and perhaps encouraging people to try them.

Across the bay from Whitianga is Hahei, where I fancy doing what will be my last tourist-type trip. There are four must-see places on a short stretch of coast. With sufficient time one can park up and walk the several miles of cliff and beach, but I’m short of time so am drawn to the Hahei Explorer, a trip by sea to the same places. A ‘phone call establishes that I’ve already missed the 9am sailing (the best time to do almost all these sea-based activities is in the early morning, when the weather is generally better), and that serious rain is threatening the 14:00 trip. Can I be on the beach at 12:45? I get there on time and find I’m the only one, just me and Shane Harnett, whose business this is. The boat is
a rigid inflatable, with a powerful Volvo motor on the back, and is on a trailer, behind Shane’s tractor. It’s shoes and socks off, and into the water to help launch it – I wasn’t expecting this bit, but its fun.  It normally carrying parties of eight, and with only me, it’s a bit light and high in the water, so we have a very bouncy trip – quite exciting.

The first thing to view is Champagne Bay, a small beach with a wall of rocks above in very warm, almost pink, stone. Next is the Blowhole, which we enter by steering Explorer though a tiny opening in the rock, and then enter a very dark cave. This opens up into a cavern, an enclosed chamber, which rises 80 feet to a ‘ceiling’, arching in above us, rather like inside the dome at St Paul’s. Topping it is a small opening to the sky, lined with trees standing round the edge. Spectacular.

Looking up at the top of the Blowhole

I’m still admiring and photographing this as we exit into some light and Shane decides a squall is imminent. We make a fast dash across the bay, with the Explorer hitting each wave with such force that I’m constantly thrown up off my bench, thankfully holding on with my non-camera hand. I’m not sure my chiropractor would approve of the shocks to my spine. We get to Orua sea cave where we shelter, although we are both well soaked, until the worst of the rain/hail has cleared. This time we emerge to some blue sky – amazingly fast changes to the weather.

Shane turns us round and we head north, around Mahurangi Island, and in a wide arc to approach Cathedral Cove from the north. This is quite a famous spot, partly because it has been used as a film location. (Narnia - Prince Caspian)

Cathedral Cove

Three things stand out from this short trip:
First, the rocks of the cliffs have such amazing colours, which I haven’t noticed at all over the past six week – presumably because I’ve normally been standing on them, peering out to sea. And then the rocks have such intricate patterns of lines, slashes, whorls. One young boy, a recent passenger of Shane’s, asked why the rocks had Chinese writing on them; a shrewd question. Finally, how quickly the weather changes. There can be blue sky and sun in front of us, but grey menacing clouds racing in from the other direction. All mariners know this but to landlubbers like me it’s a surprise.

It is very hard to photograph today, from a bouncing boat, and with so much water around that I’m worried about the camera, so I’m pleased that some shots have come out well.
Our time is up and Shane’s partner Robyn is waiting to meet us back on the beach as another burst of heavy rain is starting. Out of the boat, into the water, pull it up, and secure it onto its trailer. Just time for a quick photo, and then a barefoot walk to the van to change into dry clothes. What fun, and an ideal way to see those sights if your time is short.
Shane and Robyn Harnett

In dry clothes and with a coffee I now head back through the Coromandel Forest from the east coast of the Peninsula over to Thames on the west. I overnight at what is my poorest site of the whole six weeks (perhaps least-good would be better) – Dickson Motor Lodge - but it is only $20/£10 for the night.

Wednesday 19th Thames, Cormandel. My very short visit to the Coromandel Peninsula is over and I must return to Auckland for my last night in NZ. As every morning, I look over the map to see what is on my route and might be interesting. I don’t want to simply drive back to Auckland. I’m in that ‘I must squeeze in just one more thing before I go’ frame of mind. On the map I see ‘Hot Springs’. It will mean a short detour but that’s fine, something else new on this holiday-of-new-things.

In fact I miss the turning, a consequence of the laudable rules in NZ which strictly control roadside signs and advertising. Back home you could expect a sign about some tourist spot perhaps ¼ mile before the turning, and then another one at the turning. Here, you’ll be allowed just the one, small and discreet, placed at the very turning. Miss it, or see it at the last moment, and you may have to drive quite a few miles to find space to turn round. That’s what happened to me with the Hot Springs – I never visited them.

So I changed plans and drove on to Miranda. I’d already been to Geraldine, a small place near Christchurch, and any village with that sort of name sounds enticing.  There is a nature reserve, run by the Department of Conservation, based around the Firth of Thames wetland, miles of mudflat and muddy estuary. Many of the sea birds have come here from Alaska and Siberia, over 12,000 kms away. The landscape is found in few other places in the world, being a series of shell ridges, on top of the mud. The Miranda Naturalists Centre provides visitor and educational activities, there are many walks, and some discreet hides for watching the birdlife. I join a few twitchers for the walk over the flat, marshy land to the edge of the reserve. Some people have brought binoculars, others have telephoto lenses on tripods. I struggle a bit with my point-and-shoot camera, leaning it on a fence post. It is interesting, but bird-watching isn’t really for me. I am taken though by this specimen, which looks a little oriental, standing so elegantly on thin legs.

Back on the road, a very minor road, a sign appears “Major Intersection Ahead”. When I get there, I spend a full three minutes looking at my map, then re-turning the radio, and not a single vehicle passes: “Major” indeed – just another deserted NZ road.

Two hours later I’m back in Auckland, at the lovely Remeura Motor Lodge, for my last night in New Zealand. Before I get too misty-eyed there is work to do. The van goes back to the hire company tomorrow, and as it’s been my car, office, bar, kitchen and bedroom for the last six weeks it needs a really good clean and tidy. I also have to pack luggage for the flight to Sydney tomorrow, and wash some clothes. Just as I finish a really thorough clean and brush-out of the grubby carpet the heavens open and the grass patch outside my doors becomes a mud-bath. Now how do I get in and out without undoing all my work of the last three hours? Remuera Motor Lodge has been an ideal base for my three visits to Auckland. Well equipped, close to shops and cafes, it is handily placed for bus routes into the centre of the city
I have touched on this previously but want to repeat how much I’ve enjoyed Auckland. Perhaps I should recognize that the Lonely Planet / Rough Guide readership is largely the youthful backpacker, student adventure crowd, so for them perhaps the city compares poorly against Queenstown and other South-Island activity spots. For me, though, it’s a fine city of about 1.4 million people of many ethnicities, clean and well run, with decent modern architecture, and sitting in the middle of an isthmus with harbours on both sides. I like it and would be happy to return.

Thursday 20th. Auckland. The van is checked in at the United Campervan depot at the airport and I find I’ve driven 5,320 kms (3,303 miles) in the last six weeks.

For anybody interested in coming over to NZ here’s a tip: The main campervan hire companies often find they have too many vans on the south island and need them relocating to Auckland; or alternatively find they have too many up north and want some moved down to Christchurch. What they need are drivers, and you can be one, paying typically just $5 a day for the hire of the van; they will pay for the diesel and the ferry ticket, and give you five days to get from one place to the other. Seems a great bargain to me. Just type “campervan relocation nz” into Google and follow the links.

Farewell Auckland

An easy flight to Sydney, just over three hours on Air New Zealand, and another chance to see that great safety video. Do have a look; it’s a novel way of getting an important, although tedious, message across to weary travellers :

Sydney: I’m staying in the Radisson on Liverpool Street, with a huge bedroom, and balcony. First off, a haircut and smarten up. I feel a bit like Crocodile Dundee, just arrived in the Big City after six weeks camping in the outback.

I read in a local paper that the British and Irish Lions are touring to Australia in 2013. Hmm..I wonder if I should….might need to talk to the bank next week.

Younger readers look away now (anybody under 40).
“I think I might take some photographs tomorrow”. That’s what we used to say at some point during the annual summer holiday, in the days when a camera involved rolls of film, expensive processing, and some care about what you shot. We were really cautious about shooting loads of pictures, knowing it was another added cost to the holiday. Then in the ‘90’s digital cameras arrived. No purchase and no processing. So now we shoot hundreds of images, at every opportunity, and later erase a large percentage of them. My camera itself is so small, so light, that I always have it with me. How times change.

It is 8 years since I was last in Sydney (to see Jonny Wilkinson drop ‘that’ goal) and on that trip I didn’t bring a camera at all – how weird. This time I’ll head down to Circular Quay to get some classic Sydney shots. The city feels much busier than I recall, more bustle, faster traffic, with many new skyscrapers, best seen from across the harbour. The business district appears less formal, many people in t’s and flip-flops; I don’t remember that. Has it really changed so much, or is my memory wrong?

A good long walk, a shower, dinner, and then into the biggest bed I’ve seen in some years.

Friday 21st. At Sydney Central station, a déjà vu moment, and then I remember I have been here before. In 2002 my first visit to Australia was to speak at a conference in Melbourne. I decided to get the train up to Sydney. It is a 12 hour trip and friends in Sydney were shocked, and a little embarrassed for me; only very poor people would train that route.

Today I’m on a smart double-decker train, so take the upper level on the left hand side to get the best views. I’m heading south, down the coast, to Scarborough, a journey of about 70 minutes. I’m off to see an old friend, Cass Jones and his wife Alison. Cass and I first met at drama school in 1967, he was my best man, and our paths crossed many times in my theatre years. He’s been living in the centre of Sydney for the last 15 years, but two years ago decided with Alison to build their own home. It is five minutes walk from the Scarborough station, in a stunning location, perched right on the cliff – literally perched – looking at the ocean. They drove concrete piles into the rock and built the house on top. Not only are the location and the view stunning, the house itself is beautifully designed, and built with great care for detail. It’s a dream, and I have a wonderful 24 hours with them, walking on the cliff road, visiting other local towns, having a fish and chip lunch on the beach at Thiroul, and a delicious dinner. This home shows that marvellous results can be achieved by clear and thoughtful clients, teaming up with talented architects, and a top-class builder.

Perched on the rocks

Evening drinks at the edge of the ocean

Saturday 22nd. The drive back to Sydney, which passes through the Royal National Park, takes about 90 minutes and I can see why Sydneysiders would want to move to the coast: it is so easy to commute to work in the city and yet have a beach life too.

It is eight years since England won the 2003 Rugby World Cup, right here in Sydney, and eight years since I saw Tim and Natalie Slessor. She and I worked on a project at the BBC back in 1998, and we have kept in touch over the years. They looked after me when I first came here in 2002, and in fact it was their suggestion that I should return in 2003 for the Rugby World Cup, which England won.

This evening I meet up with Natalie, and with another of my close ex BBC chums, Ricky Johnson, who she also knows well. Ricky moved out here with his wife Mel in 2003, and like Natalie has started a family. We have drinks, dinner, a good old blether, and will see more of each other tomorrow.

Sunday 23rd October, Sydney. It is 27 degrees at midday, the sky is blue, and I walk over to Circular Quay to get the ferry to Manly, which is crowded. On weekdays these boats are an essential part of the city’s transportation system, taking thousands to work. At weekends they are more about families and tourists heading for various beaches.

The Manly ferry passes the Sydney Harbour Bridge

Natalie and Tim were living in this house above Manly when I last saw them, but at that stage they didn’t have children. The demands of a growing family led to a need for more space, which they have cleverly solved by extending upwards. From the road it looks like a completely new building, the white upper level gleaming in the sun. Inside, it is filled with light, has acres of new space, and extends outwards onto a deck and garden.

The old Slessor House

The new Slessor house

They have invited a crowd of friends and family for afternoon of drinks on the deck, and to watch the rugby – the Final – on tv.

Natalie has ‘outed’ me on facebook as supporting France, which I am for two reasons. The All Blacks will surely win but I want them to be tested, to have to fight for it, to play real top-flight rugby (we haven’t seen much in the whole tournament), and also because I like France, the French, their country and culture. I also know that on a good day the French can play great rugby, with real flair and determination.

And so we sit down to watch the Final – an incredibly tense and close match, and France have certainly ‘turned up’. Led by their brilliant captain Thierry Dusautoir they put in an enormous effort, and are unlucky to lose by just one point. For most of the second half 4 million New Zealanders must be reliving their worst fears – yet another loss, and this one at home and as the host nation. But they scrape through and are duly crowned as the Best in the World. I’m delighted for them, and the people of NZ, but I’m also pleased that France put up such a great showing, perhaps causing many people to re-asses their view.
Under the headline Rugby World Cup 2001 final: France lose but gain the respect of the world” Richard Williams writes a very fair assessment of the game:

Within 10 minutes of the final whistle this appeared on Twitter: Well done NZ! Now rwc2011 is over can @johndeedesign come back? Ella misses her g'pops!
We all sit down and dine and drink into the night. It has been another really lovely day with good friends.

New Zealand - World Champions

Monday 24th. Sydney. The Aussie newspapers report the result of last night’s game, but in a sports-mad nation, it doesn’t get quite the coverage it will get ‘over the water’ where they have declared a public holiday. I can’t find a New Zealand Herald anywhere in Auckland.

It is the last day in Australia, and the last day of my long trip. I start the chore of collecting my belongings together, and make a half-hearted attempt at packing my stuff. But the daytime temperature is 34 degrees, so I wisely have another look around the city, heading east to the old Parliament buildings and the Domain.

The shops are selling-off RWC merchandise, heavily discounted, much of which was always grossly overpriced anyway. I try to buy just one t-shirt at each world cup, which is how I came to have a ‘France 2007’ shirt to wear yesterday. I still cringe when I see the official 2011 England shirt, a truly awful piece of design, with its dreadful ‘Olde England’ font.
Nowadays there is less evidence of unofficial shirts, the RWC lawyers presumably cracking down on such frivolity, but I always keep my eyes open for such things. I still have a Ripcurl tshirt from 2003, which used RWC on it, but beat the lawyers by putting a cross through it! My favourite this year is below, which I bought in Dunedin. It’s a clever play on the English Rose, and was designed by local company Wrookie Monster. They also did Ireland and Argentine versions, with a Shamrock or Jaguar. You can buy online here:

Tuesday 25th, Auckland. I go downstairs for a cooked breakfast in the Radisson: the restaurant tv is showing the Wales v Australia game. I’ve had enough rugby, and sit with my back to it. The morning passes with a quick walk around the block, and an hour in the hotel’s Business Lounge, writing up this blog, and some emails.

Sydney airport departures

I’m on flight BA 16 Sydney to London, with a short stop in Singapore. I’m surprised to find it’s only about 50% full, with a lot of empty seats in business and first. I heard that BA was pulling out of the Australian market – is this the reason, or will it fill up in Singapore?
The pleasure of podcasts. I downloaded some in Sydney to listen to on the long flight. The first is a Radio 4 Food Programme, and the subject is the growth of street food in Los Angeles. This whets my appetite for the forthcoming meal, only to be disappointed: the BA inflight meal is poor, dull roast chicken, served with vegetables so overcooked they should have been pureed. The grey plastic cutlery doesn’t help, the label on the Spanish white wine says it’s ‘a fun wine’. Why Spanish when you are flying out of Australia?

On the plane I read an extract in The Australian from the biography of Steve Jobs, which is published worldwide today. It deals with the role of Jonathan Ive, the chief designer of all Apple’s products, who managed to forge an exceptionally close and personal relationship with Steve Jobs. I wonder how the company will survive the recent death of Jobs, and how Ive will continue to break new ground, without his soul mate. I also wonder how the two of them would set about designing the interior of a 777 aircraft, in fact the whole flight and passenger experience, which on today’s evidence needs some improvement.

The stop in Singapore is only 75 minutes, for fuel and a new BA crew. I had hoped to be able to buy a UK newspaper, although the chances of the Guardian are remote, but can’t even find a newsagent in the vast terminal. Back on board, although there is no apparent increase in the number of passengers, I count 11 cabin crew, here to serve a plane running at about 50% capacity. It seems a little overmanned to me; there are 14 passengers in my section of 34 seats. The benefit to me is a bank of four seats across, all to myself. They do offer a newspaper though – the Mail on Sunday.

Throughout the flight I have kept my wristwatch on Australia time, to help me ‘manage’ my body clock. Two hours out from London a hot breakfast is served. Since leaving Sydney I’ve had dinner (roast chicken), cups of tea, a sandwich snack, a bar service at 3 am, followed at 4am by another dinner (roast chicken again) and now brekkie. Is there room for an exercise bike on these planes?

So I’m now over London, nearly home, after 25,000 miles flying and a further 5000 kms driving. That’s all for now folks. Time to recover my luggage, change currency, and get home. There’ll be another post next week, a sort of Best of the Trip, with some Reflections on the Rugby.

There are many more photographs illustrating the week above at: