Friday, December 30, 2016

Glass Bottom Boat

An early flight got us to Auckland by 7:45am. We stopped off for a quick breakfast in the airport before picking up our hire car, and driving the drive to Whitianga. It doesn’t look far on the map. However the road is twisty and turny, and so it took about 2 ½ hours to complete the trip. We found a car park in the centre of town and stopped for a coffee and tea at The French Fig café, before searching out our accommodations at Marina Park Apartments. We settled ourselves in there, then went out to explore the town. Nicola stopped off at the leaflet emporium to begin with, so we could plan our time here.

The first order of the day was to get some lunch, and for that we went to the Harbour House Café, which, unsurprisingly, is just on the harbour. The rest of the day was spent exploring the waterfront and retail opportunities of Whitianga, as well as a quick trip to New World to stock up on breakfast supplies. Whilst looking around the town we found a place to book the Glass Bottom Boat tour, so we enquired about availability and eventually booked ourselves in for the following morning at 9:00am.

We got down to the jetty in plenty of time, and waited for our fellow passengers to arrive. We chatted to the captain, Fraser, who was doing a degree in tourism at Massey University in Wellington, and our crew, Emily, also a student at Otago University in Dunedin.

Once everyone had turned up, Fraser gave us the safety briefing, then took us out of the harbour and along the coast, stopping off at various caves and rock formations along the way. He and Emily gave us a bit of history of the area, especially the arrival of Captain Cook and why the bay is called Mercury Bay (not Freddie, apparently). It was whilst here observing the transit of Mercury that Cook was able to establish his latitude and longitude with a fair degree of accuracy. I’m not saying he was lost exactly, but it’s always nice to have your position confirmed. We went to Cathedral Cove, the most obvious draw on the Hahei Beach coastline, as well as Champagne Bay, and the blowhole – where the roof of a cave had fallen in, thus exposing the sea cave to the top of the cliffs. In stormy weather, waves come into the cave and erupt like a whale’s spout onto the land. Today, however, Fraser told us that the biggest waves we were likely to see would be the wakes of other boats.

Along the way we spotted a lot of sea birds, including black-backed gulls, some of which were feeding their chicks on the rocks; the inevitable shags; some herons, nesting in a tree on a cliff face; terns, shearwaters, and a gannet; and even an Australasian harrier, circling on the thermals rising over the beach.

We then entered the marine reserve area of the coast. The fish density is much higher in there as all forms of fishing and collecting is prohibited. Canny fishermen set up just outside the reserve area as the fish, being fish, can’t quite see where a line is drawn on a map (but they seem to know). Over the years, populations have increased to the extent that they are now also growing outside the reserve, in spite of the fishing. Fraser and Emily removed the cover on the glass bottom of the boat. The first shallow area we stopped at was full of snapper and not much else, as snapper are quite aggressive (do they snap?) and so other fish tend to keep away. The area was also rich in sea urchins, or kina, which is one of the main food items of the snapper.

Next stop was at an area with more fish variety, including blue mau mau, leatherheads, red miko, and triplefins. At this point the offer was made to go snorkelling, but the weather conditions on the day weren’t quite conducive enough to convince us to get in the water. Maybe if it had been a bit warmer!

We also stopped at the Orua sea cave, which is large enough to take the boat into. Emily pointed out the different rock formations on each side of the cave, as it is on a fault-line – the same fault-line that causes the hot water at Hot Water Beach to be, er, hot. The cave water is very blue, and also full of fish – the same species as we saw before.

As we exited the cave, Emily spotted a little blue penguin, a rare native of New Zealand and the world’s smallest penguin.

We made our way back at full speed past all the rocks, caves and beaches we’d seen on the way out. No stopping this time, as we were running to schedule. The whole trip takes two hours, but it’s full of different sights, geological and biological. We arrived back on shore, and Fraser left us with the inevitable plea to review on Tripadvisor (we did) before heading inland to Espy café for a coffee and a cake.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Hudson And Halls Live!

Hudson and Halls were a New Zealand institution. Between 1976 and 1986 they appeared together as a double act on New Zealand television, hosting a cooking show like no other at the time. With camp comedy and slapstick, they squabbled and ad-libbed their way through the show.

Before we got here, of course, there was the obligatory dinner. I'd tried to book first at Fratelli, then at Hippopotamus, but both were fully booked; presumably with it being Christmas and all. So we were reduced to booking at the staff canteen, also known as Logan Brown.

 In 2015, Silo Theatre in Auckland commissioned a play, Hudson And Halls Live!, based on an episode of their television show. It follows the production of a Christmas special show, and included the stage manager and director. The show is being performed and aired live, and is a complete and utter shambles behind the scenes, but somehow they manage to hold it together on camera, as manic changes and improvisations are made during the ad breaks, including a late stand-in for their surprise guest no-show.

The whole thing gets pulled together at the last second, and the table set for Christmas dinner. It’s a rollicking good ride and had us in stitches.  

Monday, December 5, 2016

Moving And Shaking

We had an earthquake. You’ve maybe read about it in the news. It was on 14th November, a little after midnight. 

Once the excitement of an earthquake is over, however, there is a considerable aftermath that doesn’t get reported – not in the international press, at any rate. You might find a story about some cows stranded on a piece of land, but that’s about it. So here’s an update on what has happened for my international readers.

Firstly, an earthquake is not “an” earthquake. It is one large quake followed by a number of aftershocks. These vary in intensity and location. Since the first quake there have now been over 5,000 aftershocks. Yesterday we had a big one, 5.5M, which gave a definite bump. I reported it on Geonet, which collates reports of felt earthquakes, and is the source of all the reporting for earthquake data.

Secondly, this was a BIG quake. The fact that it struck on the middle of the night in a sparsely populated region is probably one of the main reasons why there were very few fatalities. The second reason is that New Zealand houses are generally of wooden construction, which makes them far less likely to fall down in a quake. In fact, the buildings destroyed were either of older, brick construction, or hit by falling chimneys (of brick construction) from neighbouring houses. However, this chart shows that the energy released by this earthquake is greater than the sum of all energy released by ALL other earthquakes in the last six years. That includes the two that hit Christchurch in 2011. It is the largest recorded in New Zealand since the 2009 Dusky Sound quake.

Wellington is the nearest city to the earthquake, and the effects were felt here, even though we’re 200 km from the epicentre. After an event like this, buildings are checked to see if they’re in imminent danger of collapsing. One building, on Molesworth Street, was cordoned off at this stage, and several others were also closed. An aftershock did further damage to the Molesworth St building, and at this point it was “red-stickered” – condemned for demolition. After making their initial checks, engineers did more detailed work on buildings that had suffered damage, and over the last three weeks more buildings have been red-stickered. Other buildings need substantial remedial work before they can be reopened, but do not need to be torn down.

61 Molesworth Street being demolished
There has been considerable comment in the press about damage to newer buildings, which appear to have fared worse than some older buildings. Two in particular, the BNZ building on the quay (which was closed for several months after the 2013 quake), and the Asteron Centre on Featherston Street. Both of these buildings are designed to be quake-resistant – what we’re learning from this is that the design is not quake-PROOF: the idea is that the building will take the damage whilst preserving the lives of those inside. Buildings can be replaced. The current map of buildings that are closed or due to be demolished now stands at 25, although only five of those are to be demolished.

On the South Island, closer to the epicentre, there has been considerable damage to roads and rail. The coastal SH1 route to Kaikoura has been blocked by landslides in several places, and there is still some debate about whether that route will be re-opened, or whether a new overland route will be made to get to Kaikoura. The town itself, whilst not too badly damaged, is highly dependent on tourism for its survival, so with no road in at the moment many are facing loss of their livelihoods.

In the nearby Marlborough wine region, there has been some damage to vineyards, and around 2% of wine stored at vineyards has been lost. This is not significant in overall terms, although obviously some vineyards have been badly affected. Storage for the coming harvest should be replaced in time.

Geonet have made some predictions about likely probabilities of aftershock intensity and frequency, and so far we have been at the low end of those forecasts. It’s fair to say we’re not out of the woods yet. There’s still a possibility of a large quake (6.0 or higher) over the coming weeks.

Closer to home, we’ve suffered some damage from both the original quake and the one yesterday. During the original quake, my toothbrush fell from its upright position, into the bathroom sink. And from yesterday, my shower sponge fell from its shelf onto the floor of the shower. Obviously we’ve lodged claims with EQC to cover these and we’re waiting to hear the outcome.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Don Juan

A few months ago we went to see a production of Jekyll & Hyde by A Slightly Isolated Dog. It was a fun evening, and when they alerted me to the fact that they would be performing their version of Don Juan, we jumped at the chance.

The cast had changed slightly from last time, although key members Andrew Paterson, Jack Buchanan and Susie Berry were still there. Also still there was the audience participation, and the cod French accents. These seem to be hallmarks of their productions.

This is a roving production, and has been performed in S&M Bar on Cuba Street, Bodega, and our venue for the night, Old St Paul’s church in Thorndon. Before the show got underway properly, the cast circulated amongst the audience, asking how we met and also distributing various favours – scarves, crowns, tiara etc – for us to wear during the show. They were doubtless also sounding out who would make a good participant later on in the proceedings, as no-one is safe from their depradations.

The show kicked off and we were introduced to Don Juan. He is played by all of the cast at various stages – signified by a baseball cap with sunglasses attached, and carrying a portable speaker through which he speaks. In a deplorable French accent. Don Juan’s adventures, as you may know, largely consist of seducing inappropriate people, and then abandoning them – in one case, a nun, who he marries before departing in a hurry. Unfortunately, the nun has some brothers who look on this behaviour as somewhat lacking in decorum, and they start to hunt him down to exact their revenge. Don Juan manages to keep one step ahead of the brothers whilst continuing to seduce anyone and everyone he meets along the way.

 The story develops, with various characters being roped in from the audience and being whispered their lines. Some members of the audience seemed to get into the spirit of this more than others, it has to be said! At one point, the whole of the front row were dragooned in to provide a seascape special effect, again with mixed results. There was also a memorable moment when underwear was ripped from an unsuspecting seductee and distributed liberally about the audience.

As we have learned to expect from A Slightly Isolated Dog, it was all a jolly good romp, and I look forward to their next production.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016


On a rainy Thursday night we braved the weather to go and see Lungs at Circa Theatre. But first, inevitably, dinner. There was a voucher on GrabOne for a three-course dinner at Trade Kitchen, which we’ve not been to in a goodly while, so we decided to give it a go. The nosh is pretty good, but we were a little hurried as we had to move the car as well.

Lungs is a two-hander written by Duncan Miller. It deals with the big question of whether it is “right” to bring a baby into the modern world; because the two protagonists, M and W, are “good people” who, amongst other things, switch off the tap while they’re brushing their teeth. There are no props, and the passage of time is marked in some places by simply walking around and having a conversation which clearly takes place over a number of weeks, months, even years on occasion. Much of the discussion about whether to have a baby revolves around global warming, carbon footprints and the like. Whilst the two characters are very right-on, they’re also quite annoying and unlikeable.

The ending of the play speeds up the time line quite considerably, as we follow the final years of M’s life, dealing with loss of memory and communication with her daughter.

It’s a variation on the usual sort of play; the way the characters talk is a bit more realistic that a standard “drama” delivery, often contradicting themselves and reversing their position mid-sentence. It doesn’t mean that you like these characters, though. In the end, that also makes them more like “real” people.

Sunday, November 20, 2016


At 6:00pm on a rainy Monday evening, I made my way to the Soundings Theatre at Te Papa, the museum of New Zealand in Wellington. It’s here that the Department of Internal Affairs holds its monthly citizenship ceremonies, and after qualifying for citizenship in August this year, I have finally been invited to take part in a ceremony, the final stage of obtaining New Zealand citizenship.

The ceremony involves swearing allegiance to the Queen of New Zealand, who is the same person as the Queen of the United Kingdom. In my 50 or so years on the planet so far I’ve not been required to swear allegiance to her before – I guess it’s taken as read if you’re a British citizen. But swear I must, so I did. They offer you a religious or non-religious option (you can leave out “so help me God” at the end). I’d considered taking a religious tome along with me – the gospel of the flying spaghetti monster – but I figured they may not take it in quite the spirit intended, so just took the atheist text.

After everyone had finished, we all sang the national anthem, and then exited. We went for a celebratory dinner at Whitebait restaurant in Oriental Bay, one of Wellington’s top feeding stations.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Margaret River Wine

Apparently, they make wine in and around Margaret River. Sounds like an opportunity for a day out.

We booked a day tour with A Touch Of Glass, a company which, unsurprisingly, offers wine tours. They asked if we had any specific requirements. My only requirement was to visit Leeuwin Estate, about which more later. Other than that, we’re in your hands, I said.

Our driver, Steve, turned up at 10:00 and we set off for the first of our wineries, Howard Park and MadFish Wines. Like all the wineries we were visiting today, this one has been around for quite a while. The Margaret River wine industry got started in the early seventies, and Howard Park has been going since the late eighties. We tasted a variety of wines, concentrating on the regional specialities of SSB/SBS and cabernet sauvignon. SBS or SSB is a blend of semillon and sauvignon blanc – the order of the letters being dependent on which grape is dominant in the blend, and is the signature “drink now” wine of Margaret River, and indeed Western Australia. We also tried some of their rosé, which is made from shiraz, and also had two different styles of riesling. They give you a lot to taste at these places! – typically seven or eight different wines were offered at each vineyard that we visited. We also tasted side by side examples of cabernet sauvignon – one from Australia, one from France, made by the same winemaker, to compare and contrast the flavours. The vineyard has a strong connection and association to a French winemaker, and market under the same name, Marchand & Burch.

In the morning we visited two other wineries, Woodland Wines and Woody Nook Winery, where we stopped for lunch. Both wineries gave us tastings of SSB, chardonnay, and various reds including cabernet sauvignon and various blends. We also tasted several examples of shiraz throughout the day, and each winery was insistent on telling us how their shiraz was different to the typical South Australian shiraz with its strong, peppery flavour – it was more subtle, with a white pepper taste rather than the strong black pepper of SA.

Woodland Wines
Woody Nook
The lunch platter at Woody Nook was pretty satisfying, and also allowed me to recover from nasal fatigue that you get when you’ve sniffed too many wines. That set us up for the afternoon, with more of the same being offered at both Cullen Wines and Vasse Felix, the two wineries that were the first to make wine in Margaret River back in the early seventies. Both offered extremely good wines.

We then took another break from wine to visit the olive oil maker Olio Bello, and sample some of their products. They produce a number of single varietal oils, as well as flavoured oils and other olive oil products and related foods.

The next winery we went to was a little unusual. Adinfern Estate create not only the usual array of wines, but also some sweet and fortified wines, which include a sweet red cabernet sauvignon/shiraz blend, and a port style wine. It was while I was outside trying to get a picture of a parrot that I was subject to what is a common occurrence in spring in the region – I was “swooped” by a magpie. Fortunately it didn’t actually attack, but it came quite close to my head. This is a behaviour adopted to dissuade people near its nest, and they do so very aggressively.

Our final stop was at Leeuwin Estate. Our driver didn’t like this place as they charge for wine tasting, and don’t refund the charge if you buy some wine (maybe they do if you buy a crate, but not for a single bottle). We did, however, taste some very good wines here, including some side by side from different years for comparison – a 2008 riesling with a 2015 vintage, for example, gave a clear demonstration of how it will age over time. Unlike Mornington wines, which vary significantly depending on the weather for each vintage, they expect their wines to be very similar year after year. It’s therefore reasonable to assume that any given year’s wine will taste similar after x year’s cellaring.

We only bought a couple of bottles for immediate consumption, as we’re not planning on taking any of it back to New Zealand. Whilst tasting the cabernet sauvignons, the youth of the wines was very apparent with a mouth-puckering tannin being the dominant sensation – these wines will need several years in the cellar before they will express their full fruit flavour.

Seven vineyards is a pretty full day’s tasting, and my taste buds were feeling a bit worn out by the end of it. I’d spat nearly all the wine I’d tasted, apart from the really expensive ones where I felt it would be a shame to do so, so was able to enjoy a nice glass of chardonnay from Leeuwin at the end of the day.