Thursday, January 31, 2013

Monday 28th January – Inspecting the Damage in Christchurch

Until the Christchurch earthquake two years ago, most cruise ships coming to this area, would call in at the port of Lyttleton, just outside Christchurch. But, since that devastating earthquake, ships now tender into the tiny town of Akaroa, at the other end of the rugged Banks Peninsula.

Akaroa is a gorgeous little place with an interesting history from its times as a French settlement in the early colonial days – but, our mission today, was to go to Christchurch to see how the city is handling the aftermath of that terrible earthquake which damaged so many of its buildings and claimed 182 lives.

Our lovely friends Megan and Malcolm drove over from Christchurch to pick us up and take us to their city to see the damage and the re-building process. They've had a pretty tough time since the earthquake – dealing with the trauma of that fateful day and the 11,000 aftershocks that have hit since (they can now identify the scale of an earthquake within 0.1 on the Richter scale, just by the feel of it).

As we got to the city, the first thing we noticed was the state of the roads – previously flat roads are now damaged and undulating – something which makes for a very bumpy ride, and there are constant roadworks all around the city. They drove us round eerily deserted suburbs in "The Red Zone" where all the houses have been condemned – the damaged houses waiting to be pulled down are being overgrown with weeds and covered in graffiti. It made for a depressing sight.

In Sumner, luxury houses that were 30 feet back from the cliff, now lie abandoned, hanging precariously off the cliff face. The cliffs were now supported by shipping containers. In fact, there are shipping containers everywhere, supporting damaged buildings and cordoning off forbidden areas.

Then we drove to the city centre, which was almost unrecognisable – it was like a war zone, with piles of rubble and twisted metal where buildings had once been. It was disorienting even for Megan to drive her way around the streets, without any of the landmarks that she was used to seeing.

The city's iconic neo-Gothic cathedral is a forlorn sight – it's once-proud steeple now toppled, and the rest of the building in ruins. They still don't know whether to try to re-build it, or knock it down. Later, we saw the building site where a new temporary cathedral is being constructed – in a city where it's difficult to plan for the future, appropriately enough, they're building it out of cardboard (although, somehow it's costing millions – much to our friends' disgust).

Just when things were getting depressing, we went to the Re:START Mall that's recently been built in the city, as an attempt to put some life back into Christchurch. The mall is mainly made up of shipping containers, but they're laid out and painted in such a quirky and imaginative way, that it felt like an ordinary lively city centre. It really gave us hope that this city can bounce back and re-build itself better than it was before.

We had lunch in another temporary structure – a giant rugby ball that had been in Auckland during the 2011 Rugby World Cup (which Malcolm continually reminded me, the Kiwis had won – I pointed out that, as England had beaten New Zealand in their most recent encounter, that made us the de facto world champions).

Then we went to see the damage at their house. On first glance it doesn't seem too bad, but on closer inspection, you see all the cracks in the walls and the ceiling, the bulges in the floor, the doors that don't shut any more, and the places where the liquefaction came bubbling up from the ground. The insurance company is still deciding if the house should be repaired or knocked down to start all over again. It's likely to be 3 years after the earthquake before they have a decent house again, yet somehow they're staying positive and cheerful – I'm told that alcohol sales in the city have gone through the roof, as the bottle has become an essential part of the Christchurch coping mechanism.

All too soon, it was time to think about the 90 minute drive back to Akaroa, but we'd got a strong flavour of what this city and its people have been through, and the determination to get back on its feet and re-build. They've been through the worst of times, but things can only get better.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Sunday 27th January – Wellington’s Weta Workshop With the Wilsons

Another gloriously sunny day in Wellington – I've never seen the city look better.

We had a great day catching up with friends and their children who we haven't seen for 5 years – the children are now grown up enough to make us feel really old. They took us to a Wellington attraction that we'd never heard of - the Weta Workshop. This is a high-tech workshop facility put together by Peter Jackson, the Director of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy and the Hobbit, and some of his geeky friends, to produce props and effects for his fantastical films.

The craftsmanship, artistry, and attention to detail that goes on in the workshop was astounding – the solutions they come up with to produce the incredibly life-like effects in the films were so ingenious. It seemed like no job was too big or too small for the workshop - building miniature cities and castles that would be CGI'd into the films, or lightweight weapons and armour that allowed the actors to look utterly convincing in their battle scenes, but were light enough to allow them to do a full day's filming.

What came through most of all, was the passion for their craft that was bordering on the obsessive, and an almost nerdy-enthusiasm for the world of orcs, elves and hobbits – some of the people who worked there almost looked like hobbits, and it wasn't much of a surprise that 80% of the male workers have beards.

But, the film industry has become incredibly lucrative for Wellington and New Zealand. Depending on what films are being shot, the workshop employs about 200 people, while the digital side of things can employ up to 3,000 people, when a film like The Hobbit is being put together. "Wellywood" is booming.

After this fascinating tour, we went back to the city centre for a long lunch of catching up. Wellington is famous for its cafe culture, and on a sunny day, the city had a really buzzy feel to it.

It's amazing that you can meet up with people after 5 years and slot straight back into your friendship, but it won't be so long till we meet again - we've already made a date to meet up again when the Silver Whisper calls into New Zealand on next year's world cruise.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Thursday 25th January – Haka Watching in Auckland

We got up pretty early to watch our sail-in to Auckland's beautiful harbour. It made an impressive sight as a few yachts bobbed up and down on the sparkling waters that glinted in the sun, ferries shuttled to and forth, islands with green volcanic cones dotted the bay, and the city's skyline of tower blocks and the iconic Sky Tower came into view.

Whilst Auckland's harbour is probably its best feature, its modern centre, just opposite where we docked, is probably one of its less attractive aspects – there's nothing wrong with it, but it just doesn't have the character of other parts of the city. Here, the thing to do is to venture out into its more historic suburbs, or to catch a ferry to one of its islands, or to visit one of the city's excellent museums.

We walked over to another one of the city's ancient volcanic hills, the Domain, to enjoy its open parkland and visit the Auckland Museum. Here, there were some excellent exhibits on the early days of the city and on New Zealand's natural history; but the chief attraction for us was to see its wonderful displays on the Maori culture. The highlight for us was a fascinating and really enjoyable show of Maori singing and dancing, rounded off by a spine-tingling haka (the traditional Maori war dance), that was almost shocking in its aggression and pulsating intensity. With its eye-bulging, tongue-thrusting, body-slapping warriors going absolutely crazy, this was more frightening than anything the fearsome All Blacks can muster, and you get the impression that any opposition faced with this would raise the white flag before any hostilities commenced.

To calm down from this adrenaline-fuelled high, we wandered down through Auckland's most historic suburb, Parnell for a spot of lunch in one of its trendy cafes, before carrying on to the City Art Gallery. There weren't any big names on show here, but it was interesting to see the weird and wacky modern art, and some good Victorian pieces. Perhaps the most interesting stuff were the portraits of the Maori by the Victorian artists, who were mostly trying to portray them as downcast noble savages who were on the edge of extinction. Judging by the vibrancy of the haka we'd just witnessed, those Victorian artists couldn't have been any more wrong about the perceived impending demise of the Maori.

We then wandered down Auckland's main shopping street, Queen Street, where we got to experience what a cosmopolitan metropolis Auckland has become. Not only is Auckland home to the largest number of Polynesians of any city in the world, but large numbers of South East Asians have also made the city their home.

After a long day of almost non-stop walking, it was nice to get back to the ship for a rest; but our Auckland experience wasn't quite over. It turned out that the same folkloric group who had entertained us at the Auckland Museum, had come onboard to give us a show just before we set sail. Actually, most of the show was different to what we'd seen earlier, although they obviously had to finish it off with another haka. This one wasn't quite as intense as the one we'd seen in the morning (how could it be by the time of their fourth haka of the day – it must be exhausting), although the women really did go for it, with their wild-eyed screaming and wailing.

A perfect end to a wonderful day.

Thursday 24th January – The Beautiful Bay of Islands

At the end of our day in the Bay of Islands, I've never seen so many passengers in such a good mood – people were absolutely raving about how much they enjoyed themselves today.

Maybe it was because the weather was utterly glorious – after days of torrential rain in French Polynesia, at last it was sunny, but it wasn't too hot; or maybe it was because the Bay, with its scattering of islands and sparkling seas, was just so incredibly beautiful; while, lots of people were just blown away by the sheer overwhelming friendliness of the locals. Whatever it was – we all loved it.

We caught the tender into Waitangi, and after walking into Paihia we caught a ferry to Russell, the first place of British settlement in New Zealand. After the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, which recognised British sovereignty over New Zealand, Russell became the colony's first ever capital. However, you just had to look around the small scale of the town to see that New Zealand's beginnings were very low key. Nevertheless, Russell is a really charming little place – lots of wooden colonial buildings that were the first this or that in New Zealand.

While we were feeling energetic, we slogged up the very steep Flagstaff Hill - not only to enjoy the tremendous views across the whole Bay, but also to visit a spot that was instrumental in the conflicts between the Maori and the British. Because, rather than leading to peace between the two sides, the Treaty's rather questionable translation into Maori and the differences in its interpretation, led to more conflicts with the Maori. The local chief, Hone Heke, ended up cutting down the British Flagstaff (as a symbol of British rule) four times, to protest against the encroachment of the settlers onto his lands. Even today, graffiti on the base of the Flagstaff informed us that we were "trespassing on Maori land".

By the time we'd trekked back down again, it was time for lunch, so we headed for New Zealand's oldest public house for a delicious meal on its open verandah. As we had a couple of beers (apart from Tracy, who is gamely persisting with her vow to not drink alcohol in the whole of January) overlooking the sea, the supremely relaxed pace of life of this place was infectious.

Somehow, we roused ourselves from this blissful environment to do a little more exploring – so, we visited New Zealand's first ever Church (still bearing the bullet holes from the conflicts with the Maoris); and we had a tour round one of New Zealand's oldest houses, Pompallier House. The great thing about Russell is that there isn't really that much to see there, so there's no rush to do it – you just slow down, savour the relaxed atmosphere, and enjoy the historic architecture.

If the rest of New Zealand can live up to this fantastic introduction, then quite a few people onboard are going to fall in love with it.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Monday 21st January – The Day That Never Was

Over the course of this cruise we've been gaining extra hours as we travel westwards – but, just to prove that nothing in life is free, today we lost a day out of our lives, as we crossed the International Date Line. So, Monday 21st of January never happened for us – we passed from Sunday to Tuesday.

To my knowledge, no-one onboard missed out on a birthday on that missing Monday, so no-one could say that they have been the same age for two consecutive years.

Of course, no-one likes Mondays at the best of times, so it wasn't much mourned, although I must admit that I was utterly confused as to what has happened to the space –time continuum.

Time travel is easy on the Silver Whisper.

PS. Seeing as nothing happened on a day that never existed, I have included some shots from around the ship, including Sujith, the F&B Manager, with the biggest fish that I have never seen.

Saturday 19th January – The Cook Islands Weren’t Swell

We had an extremely rocky day in the Pacific after leaving storm-hit Bora Bora, so the chances weren't looking good for getting into the Cook Islands. Unlike the French Polynesian islands, Rarotonga (the main Cook Island) doesn't have any large bays to shelter in, or a break in the reef to provide a safe anchorage, so the sea needs to be calm for us to get off the ship.

We did wake to find clear skies and less strong winds, but there was a large swell caused by a tropical storm off the coast of New Zealand. With the swell reaching up to three metres, the ship was lurching around a fair bit, which meant that the little tender boats would have been tossed around dangerously.

So, the captain made the sensible (but disappointing) decision to cancel the call here – which meant that all we had was a tantalising glimpse of this beautiful tropical island from the sea.

We will be back.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Thursday 17th January – Poura Poura in Bora Bora

When it rains in Bora Bora, it REALLY RAINS. I don't think that I've ever experienced as heavy and persistent rain in my life – or at least spent as much time outside, being rained upon by such heavy and persistent rain.

With such horrendous weather hitting the island, this was probably not the best day to be going on a snorkelling and island picnic tour on an open boat; however, in spite of the terrible conditions, we still had some pretty amazing experiences along the way. Of course, if the sun had been shining, then the lagoon would have been truly spectacular, the jagged mountains would have been breathtaking rather than covered in mist, and the visibility underwater would have been as wonderful as normal.

As we sailed away from the tender pier, the heavens opened and we were already soaked even before we even got to the snorkelling spot. With the wind blowing across the lagoon, it was definitely warmer in the water rather than shivering on the boat, so it was a case of diving in as soon as possible. Even allowing for reduced visibility, the views below the surface were fantastic - huge numbers of fish in all shapes and sizes.

As the rain let up, we decided to press on with the trip, and head over to the reef to feed the sharks and the rays. Even though this boat tour runs every day, I hadn't expected to see so many sharks circling the boat within just a couple of minutes of our arrival. These were black-tipped reef sharks which we were assured were harmless, although when some fish were thrown into the water for them, they thrashed about fairly menacingly in a violent feeding frenzy.

So, now was the time to see if I was a man or a mouse, as the guides offered us the opportunity to swim in amongst the sharks. My heart was saying just do it, and my head was saying don't be such an idiot, but in the end I decided to just go for it. By now, my heart was beating out of my chest as I climbed down the ladder into the water, with the sharks circling about 6 feet away. However, it was when I put my face under water and went face to face with them that the sheer terror kicked in. At times I was just a few inches from these primeval-looking beasts – there must have been at least 20 of them in the water with us.

Just to complete the picture, faster than you could say "Steve Irwin", at least 4 sting rays swooped in to join us, seeming to revel in freaking me out by occasionally wrapping themselves around my legs with their rubbery bodies. Every touch from a sting ray convinced me that it was a shark nudging my leg prior to biting it off, but in fact, the sharks thankfully kept a respectful distance.

After a few minutes, the fear began to wear off, and it seemed to be fairly natural to share the water with these scary-looking predators; although, inadvertently treading on a sting ray soon brought my blood pressure up to bursting point again.

Elated by these wonderful close encounters of a shark kind, everyone forgot about the disappointing weather, as we set off past the luxury resorts with their thatched bungalows over the water (people pay over $1,000 a night to stay here), heading to a deserted motu (sand island) for a "picnic lunch". At this point, the heavens opened again and the rain lashed down heavier than ever. Morale had begun to plummet by the time we reached our idyllic motu and we soggily sheltered under a tent to eat. It had begun to feel like a cub scout camp I'd been to as a young child in rainy Britain, when everyone was so miserable that they phoned their parents to come and pick them up.

We ate our food, prayed for deliverance from the deluge, and set off back to the pier. Our prayers were not answered. It scarcely seemed possible that the rain could get any heavier, but it did – I honestly could not have been more drenched if someone had poured 5 buckets of water directly over my head. Fortunately, by now, hysteria had set in, and most people had begun to find the whole thing amusing.

It was such a shame, because this tour had all the ingredients for being one of the most spectacular you could do – one of the most beautiful islands in the world, wonderful sealife, amazing views across the lagoon, and unforgettable encounters with the sharks. Sometimes the weather does not always co-operate.