Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Firebirds Burn


We made an early start back to Wellington on Tuesday morning as we wanted to get home and then get back out again to go to the basin reserve, there to see the Wellington Firebirds take on the Central Stags in a a game of Twenty20 cricket. It was a lovely day for it, with sun shining and only a few clouds in the sky, but noticeably cooler than in Wairarapa the previous day (where I later found out temperatures had reached 32˚C).



One of the highlights of the game was watching Muttiah Murilatharan, who has joined the Firebirds as their overseas player this season. He duly went on to take 3 for 18, and the Firebirds bowled out the opposition for 155 in the final over, setting an eminently achievable target of 156 to win. Unfortunately they’d lost wicket keeper and batsman Gerry Ryder in the second over of the match, so their batting order was under pressure from the start; and with an entirely preventable run-out, had soon fallen to 49 for 4. Now, run-outs are nearly always foolish, but to make the distance but not have your bat grounded seems like a big mistake to me.

As the bowling ground on, the required run rate stretched further away from them – 8 an over, 10 an over, 12 an over, and with wickets falling regularly they were bowled out with the final ball, 25 runs shy of the target. This is, regrettably, to be expected of the Firebirds, who aren’t the greatest team, and don’t seem to be able to make the big overs needed to get ahead of the run rate. Whilst some of their batsmen did seem to get stuck into the bowling, too often the ball seemed to go straight to the fielders, so what looked like a good strike of the ball ended up with one run added to the total.

They’re playing another home game today, against unbeaten-so-far (and last year’s winners) Auckland Aces. I don’t fancy their chances much.

Wairarapa


We had decided to let someone else take the strain this Christmas, and booked ourselves into a hotel in Masterton, in the Wairarapa region. Wairarapa is just over the Rimutaka mountains, which lie between Wellington and most of the rest of the country.

We arrived around mid-afternoon on Christmas Eve, and after unloading our stuff in the hotel, drove into Masterton for a look around. Most places had already closed early for Christams Eve, so we didn’t spend much time there, just long enough to walk up and down the main street.

On Christmas day we had a big breakfast, then drove out to Mount Holdsworth for a walk up the mountains in the sunshine. As we were equipped with nothing but a water bottle we decided to take the easy walks rather than the longer ones, but even so spent a couple of hours on the mountains in the woods and by the river.



Afterwards we returned and made use of the spa pool in the hotel, bore having Christmas dinner in the evening – turkey, ham and salad, with nary a Brussels sprout in sight.

On Boxing Day we drove out to Lake Wairarapa, with the intention of walking around there. Unfortunately it isn’t really geared up for walking around, and is almost surrounded by private farmland. There was one bit where we were able to get down to the lake to have a look around, where we were followed around by a black chicken, clearly a resident of the area as it didn’t seem to be at all shy.



We then drove into Martinborough to visit a couple of vineyards, stopping off first at the i-site to check which ones were open. We visited the Schubert vineyard and acquired some of their Pinot Noir, then went on to the Haythornthwaite vineyard where we sampled their rosé and various styles of gewürtztraminer. Having made our purchases, we headed back into central Martinborough for a spot of lunch. Unfortunately the café that had been recommended to us at Haythornthwaite was closed on Boxing Day, so we went to the Martinborough café instead and had salad and antipasti. It was a baking hot day –   temperatures always get much higher in Wairarapa than in Wellington in Summer – so we were grateful to find a table in the shade in the courtyard.

Lake Wairarapa


Pimp Your Pod


As part of our “get in the mood for Christmas”, our floor ran a “pimp your pod” competition, with a prize for the best-decorated pod. Our work space is divided up into sections, or “pods” of four people each, who sit facing out into the corners of their pod.

The pod next to us started out early, making snowflakes from paper to hang from the ceiling. It is a strange feature of the Southern hemisphere Christmas that, despite it being sunny and warm, decorations still feature snow and reindeer and the familiar trappings of the Northern hemisphere tradition. There’s even a television advert that features“Walking in a Winter Wonderland” despite it being the middle of summer.

Over the next few days, other pods started on their decorations, with balloons, streamers, and a chimney variously being constructed. When we were asked what we were doing in our pod, I held up a piece of tinsel (about ½” long) and said “here, that’s what we’re doing”. We didn’t actually say “bah! Humbug!”

’Twas the night before judging, and all over the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a…wait, what’s that? The three members of the pod turned up after work and, with the assistance of one Santa’s helper, decorated the pod with green tissue paper, wrapping paper, and a sign saying “Beery Christmas” (made up of letters from logos of various beer brands), and the pièce de résistance, the beer tree (topped with a green teddy beer).



When people arrived for work the next morning, then, they were presented with the fruits of our labours (as we have the pod right next to the door, they couldn’t help but notice it). The beer tree drew many comments.

And so it came to the judging. Two judges, the heads of the two departments on our floor, judged based on effort and imagination. We felt that with our beer tree and our themed decorations, we were in with a  fighting chance…and so it turned out, as we took the first prize, a $100 restaurant voucher.


Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Clear And Present Manger


On Friday night we headed out straight after work for dinner and a show.

Back in June, Cuisine NZ announced the 50 finalists in its restaurant of the year awards. 50 restaurants were named, 10 of which were in Wellington. Some of these we knew and had visited, other names were new to us, so we had decided on a programme of visiting all of them. Logan Brown was for once absent from the list - but this was due to their chef being one of the judges rather than anything to do with the quality of their food. One of the Wellington finalists (and eventual runner-up in the awards) was The Ambeli - a modern European bistro on Majoribanks Street. So we decided to go there for dinner before the show.

After a brief discussion with John, the maitre d' and sommelier, I decided to let him choose the wines to accompany my starter of vine leaf-wrapped quail and main of fillet steak. This is because he often has wines that are not shown on the list (either at all, or not by the glass), as he may be trying them out, (as was the case with the red I tried), or had opened one at lunchtime. Unfortunately we had  to depart in a bit of a rush to catch the show, and so I wasn't able to have a full discussion about the wines with John. However, we had a quick chat, the upshot of which was that next time we go there I'll have a glass of wine on the house, and maybe a bit more time to enjoy them!

We dashed out to make sure we didn't get left out of the show, which was on at the Downstage Theatre just across the road. The show, Clear And Present Manger, is Raybon Kan's Christmas show, in which he gives his unique take on anything and everything Christmassy. His humour is more observational (and a little bit ranty at times) so raised chuckles and titters rather than side-splitting hilarity.


Shake, Rattle And Roll


On Saturday we took our first "proper" ballroom dancing medal. The medals that we've taken so far have all been in the "social" category - for bronze, you do two dances, for silver, three, and for gold, four. However, the standard of dancing does not need to be very high to gain a pass - in fact it's rumoured that you get a score of 90 just for showing up for the first one! The Ballroom class includes waltz, foxtrot, quickstep and tango. For the bronze level, we do waltz and foxtrot, as we've been doing these dances almost from the beginning, and we're now trying to improve our technique rather than learn the steps to these dances. The tests were running late when we got there (as always seems to be the case - an instance of Hofstader's law in action?) and we were just able to get in before they decided to take lunch.

In the evening we went to the social dance, which is usually arranged for the same day as the medal tests so that badges and certificates can be presented in the evening. We'd arranged with a few of our contemporaries to meet up beforehand at a Chinese restaurant nearby, before proceeding to the dance in the Whitireia Performance Centre, our usual venue. It was while we were dining here that the earth moved - quite a significant rumble (magnitude 5.7, we found out later, and the most severe earthquake in the region since 1966). We joked about it, as you do, and then finished our dinner.

At the dance we were presented with our bronze medals and certificates, together with the examiners' comments. I guess the time has now come to start paying some proper attention to these in order to improve our dancing style. Still scoring in the Highly Commended category, but at the bottom end of the score range these days instead of the top. I definitely need to work on some aspects of my dance before I attempt another medal. We are, however, increasingly confident at the social dances and can tackle most of the dances that are available. We are planning to take our dancing out "into the wild" again in the new year.

On Thursday morning of the following week, we were once again visited by the earthquake gods - this time with a relatively minor 4.2, which I missed because I was at street level. When I got back to the office I found out about it - but then, you always feel them more when you're on the 7th floor.

Monday, November 21, 2011

A Tale Of Two Fishies


On my previous visit to Palm Cove in  2007 I'd visited Nu Nu, widely regarded as the best restaurant in Palm Cove, on Jason's recommendation. I'd not been disappointed, and in fact liked it so much that I went back there again during my 4-day stay.  I hoped it was still serving up the same high quality 4 years later...

We started with an octopus salad and a butter poached reef bug, both of which were fantastic. "Yup, still on form", I thought to myself. For main Nicola had the reef fish of the day, whilst I went for the baby barramundi. This was cooked with turmeric sauce, mussels and a mint salad, the whole creation stacked up like so:


  
Once again, beautifully presented and absolutely delicious.

We were tempted by the puddings, but as the gold-leaf-coated chocolate bomb of yesteryear no longer features on the menu, we declined, as we were pretty well stuffed by that point. Nu Nu's reputation is intact - still the best restaurant in Palm Cove, and one of the best in Australia.

The following night, we went to Beach Almond - an altogether different experience, this bills itself as a modern Asian establishment. Nicola went for the set menu - Thai green curry - whereas I went for the fish of the day...hey, guess what? Baby barramundi again! This time done with a Vietnamese ginger sauce, and served with rice. The fish was well-cooked, but didn't really need the extra portion of rice pushed on us by the waitress. This was an altogether different kettle of fish to the previous night.

Well, what do you expect, with one being a top-class restaurant and the other being more of a beach hut? I mean, the one in the top-class restaurant probably cost twice that of the one in the beach hut, no?

No. It was $6 more.

Nu Nu 1, Beach Almond 0. 

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Frankland Islands


The bus was late as Dave, our driver, had woken up in the morning to find that his watch had stopped, and the alarm hadn’t gone off. We were a bit behind schedule and when we arrived at Cairns to transfer to another bus, it was full of people who’d been sitting around waiting for half an hour. We stopped along the way to make a couple more pick-ups in Cairns, then headed out to the landing stage where the boat would take us out to the Frankland Islands.

The Frankland Islands tour is unusual, in that it starts from a river, then heads out to sea – most of the Great Barrier Reef tours depart directly from Cairns. So, as we set out, our tour guides told us about the crocodiles in the river. “You won’t see any crocs, because they’re swimming along under the boat waiting for someone to fall in.”

The weather was a bit miserable as we chugged down the river, with drizzly rain and cloud covering the sky. But wait, what was that in the distance? Was it more cloud, or a patch of blue sky?



As we approached our destination, we could see much more blue sky overhead, and by the time we landed we were in bright sunshine.  We collected our snorkelling gear then headed out to the reef, guided by Dave, who knew exactly where he was taking us and what we should see there. This included giant clams, clown fish, angel fish, sea trout, and loads of other types of fish, as well as describing the various forms of corals that were visible below. We spent a good hour snorkelling, then returned to the shore for a trip in the glass-bottomed boat. On this trip we went round to another side of the island, there to see more fish and corals.

There are fish in here...honest!


Afterwards we sat down to lunch in the shade, eating a prawn and chicken salad provided by the tour. After lunch we took the “round the island” walk with Dave, as he pointed out various interesting things on the way. He encouraged us to look for interesting and unusual things on the beach, so we came up with a collection various shells and other artefacts; Dave explained what each one was and how the animals lived, including the death of a shellfish by a boring snail – no, it doesn’t go on and on about what it did in the holidays (!), it drills its way through the shell of its prey, and eats it. The shell we found had a characteristic hole through it, evidence of how it had met its end.

We also saw a pair of rare beach curlews,



And circling high in the sky, sea eagles of the type that we’d seen a few days earlier in Brisbane at the Koala sanctuary. Sadly my wildlife photography skills ended up with me having a lot of shots of blank sky where a sea eagle had just been. They were fishing near a tern colony so as well as trying to catch fish, they were being mobbed by the terns if they came too close to their nests, and also robbed by the terns who tried to get them to drop their catch. It’s a tough life, being an eagle.

Also on the walk around we saw some turtles, and this time my photography was a little better:



All too soon it was time for the return trip, which was a lot calmer and sunnier than on the way out. We went out onto deck when we were back on the river, trying to spot crocs, but with no luck. Still, the trees were interesting.

Crocodiles are masters of disguise

Thursday, November 17, 2011

White Water


Palm Cove is known, amongst other things, for its spas and therapy centres. We developed a cunning plan: to go white-water rafting in the morning, and then have a well-deserved (and probably needed) pampering session in the afternoon.

Alas, it was not to be, as the white-water rafters were only available in the afternoon on Friday. Well, what the hell, we went and booked ourselves into the spa in the morning anyway.  I had a massage, and Nicola went for a mud wrap. Mine was really good, and I’m assured that Nicola’s was also well worth it.

We had a fortifying lunch at one of the bars on the beach before heading back to our digs to be picked up at 2:00pm, dressed for action, and driven to the top of the rapids on the Barron River. On the way we were given a rather alarming disclaimer to fill in, complete with emergency contact information, for insurance and liability purposes. 

We arrived at the top of the river and were advised to leave behind anything that was not strapped on and that we didn’t want to lose – including glasses in my case – and also told to ditch any footwear that wasn’t firmly strapped in place. So it was away with the jandals (thongs/flipflops to all you furriners), and we were issued with a  pair of plastic boat shoes instead. We were also strapped into life jackets and yellow crash helmets.

The instructors divided us up into teams of six or seven each, keeping groups and couples together as much as possible. We were then allocated a guide, and a boat. Our guide was called Bill, and he was originally from California but had settled in Australia seven years ago. He arranged us around the boat, and we lifted it onto our heads and carried it down to the river. He arranged us in the boat, with me and another bloke taking the front two positions, presumably because he wanted a bit of power up front. Bill then instructed us in the art of white-water rafting, including how to paddle, the commands that he would give, and what to do if we fell out of the boat. The rapids are caused by the daily outflow of water from the invisible hydro-electric power station in the Barron Gorge further upstream.

And then we were off! It was a short while before we reached our first drop, and Bill ran us through some drills before we got to it so that everyone was working together and getting their timing right (at least I assume they were – I was looking out in front, not seeing what was going on behind me).



We got through the first rapids OK, then reached a fairly startling drop. On this one my oppo fell out of the boat, and Bill was up like a shot from his position at the back of the boat to haul him back in. “Blimey!” I thought – all this talk about falling out of the boat was no joke. At the next big drop, it was my turn – I could feel the boat turning and there was no way I could stay inside, and slipped gently out over the edge. Bill came charging to the rescue again, but I lost a shoe en route.

We went down some fairly tricky falls after that, but seemed to have got the hang of staying in by then, and we didn’t lose anyone else overboard. When we got down to a calmer stretch we recovered my shoe, which had floated on ahead of us.

This river is known as a grade 3. This is as high as a novice would tackle with a guide – after that you get onto grades where all the crew should be experienced. So it was no cake-walk, and I think we’ll stick to rivers of this difficulty for the time being.

At the bottom of the river we had a final row across the calm section of the lake, before disembarking and carrying our boat back to the road. We posed for a group photo – which I will post once I’ve received it from the company, in about 2 weeks’ time – and there will be photos from around the course as well. You’ll be able to spot me – I’m the one in the yellow helmet.




Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Green Island


Up with the lark this morning to be picked up at 7:00am and transported to Cairns, where we were loaded onto a catamaran along with about 100 other people, and ended up on Green Island.

Green Island, surprisingly, is so-called after Captain Cook’s astronomer Charles Green on the Endeavour, and not because it is an island that is covered in (green) rainforest. It’s part of the Great Barrier Reef national park. The island has a hotel and various amenities. We took a walk around the island first (it’s not very big), trying to take pictures of the elusive quails and egrets in the forest. The beach is very picturesque – white sand, blue sea, blue sky, yada yada yada:
  



As we walked along the beach, we could see turtles just a few yards away. Our efforts at turtle photography, however, were not brilliant.

There are two turtles in this picture. Can you spot them? 

After going all the way round the island and stopping for some refreshment, we got hold of some masks, snorkels and fins and went out swimming. Reef fish are abundant around the island, and we saw parrot fish and various other kinds – fortunately none of the jelly variety, although we had taken the precaution of wearing stinger suits, as it is the season for them. Nicola found Nemo. We also saw a ray burying itself in the sand.

We went back to the centre of the island and found that the quails and egrets weren’t quite as elusive as we’d first thought – in fact they were hanging around trying to get scraps of food. The first quail we met I named “Quaily”, and the second one “Dan”. The egrets also weren't shy:

There's no egrets...oh wait, there's one.

After lunch we sat around lollygagging in the warm sunshine before boarding our boat to take us back.

In the evening we went out to dinner at Palm Cove's best restaurant. More on this later.


Thursday, November 10, 2011

Psycho Killer




The trap was set. Killer watched as his prey hovered uncertainly, and then settled down on a blank surface. He approached, silently, stealthily. His black, reptilian eyes took in everything as he stalked his victim, watching his every move. Finally, he was in position to make his strike.

But wait…something had spooked his target. He took off rapidly, and Killer rushed in to try and grab him. He managed to snatch at a leg, but was unable to stop his victim from fleeing the scene. Slowly, he chewed on the leg that he’d captured, but there was a growing sense of disappointment that such a juicy prize had evaded him. Still, the night was young, and there were plenty more prospects buzzing around in the restaurant that Killer called home.

“Killer” was the name that I’d assigned to the second of the geckoes that had climbed down the pillar next to our table in the Greek restaurant where we’d decided to dine. The first, “Gecky”, had been deemed too obvious by Nicola. (She had earlier poured scorn on my names of Lizzie the lizard, and Cassie the cassowary.) The geckoes were involved in life and death struggles with the flies and mozzies that congregated around the light on the pillar, and we were encouraging them to eat all the mozzies they could find…life for the geckoes, death for the insects.



Earlier in the day, we’d hopped on the scenic railway up to Kuranda. This is a tourist railway that used to be one of the main routes over the mountains in Northern Queensland. They tried to interest us in the history and engineering but frankly, we were more interested in the scenery. We stopped at Barrons Gorge to snap the waterfall – now in very slow mode, as most of the water is dammed up for use by an invisible hydro-electric power station.



Kuranda is now just a tourist town, whose sole purpose is to be at the end of the railway and Skyrail. We got a quick lunch there and explored the tourist shops, coming away with the inevitable “been there” t-shirts.

The next stage of the journey is the more interesting one: Skyrail – a 7.5km cable car that runs over the canopy of the rainforest on the way back down to the terminal by the Captain Cook Highway. There are two stops on the way – the first at Barrons Gorge (from the other side) where we got out and walked around. There’s a boardwalk to walk around, and near a path we saw a cassowary – feared denizen of the rainforest! We took photos, very carefully.

Cassie the cassowary 

At the next stop down, Red Peak, there was another boardwalk tour, this time accompanied by a park ranger who told us about some of the plants of the rainforest, including, inevitably, how poisonous they are. (This is Australia, after all. Everything is poisonous.)

The final leg took us down a steep incline to sea level. From there we were bussed back to our hotel. In the evening we took it into our heads to go out for a Greek dinner.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Koala Sprint


On Sunday we drove out to Lone Pine, which, despite sounding like a retirement home, is Australia’s oldest and largest koala sanctuary. We saw many koalas,

Give me your hand, Mr. Frodo!


…and listened to a talk about Eric the python…



…before entering the kangaroo enclosure, where you could get up close and personal with emus and kangaroos.



There were also aviaries containing various aves, and some aves that were just there hopping around, wondering why they didn’t get a cage and fed as well. The same could be said of the lizards, some of whom were in cages, including the lacy monitor, Australia’s largest lizard, which grows up to 2m in length; and some rather brave (or foolhardy) ones that had infiltrated the crocodile enclosure.

We also attended a rather good talk and demonstration on birds of prey, which included a kestrel, barn and barking owls, a very impressive sea eagle, and a wedge-tailed eagle.

After spending some time in the reptile house and seeing a sleeping wombat and a distinctly un-satanic Tasmanian devil, we’d seen pretty well all they had to offer, so we went to lunch at the café at the summit of Mount Coot-Tha. This is what pases for a mountain in Queensland but at a mere 287m above sea level barely qualifies as a hill, really. Nevertheless it has good views of Brisbane from the top.



We drove the long way back down the mountain in order to take in the views on the way, then returned home for an evening’s lollygagging.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Brisbane - Day 2


We walked down to Regatta pier on Saturday morning, ignoring several large lizards on the way (we are *so* over lizards), to catch the CityCat into town. We got off at QUT, and then crossed back over the river to spend the morning in the Maritime Museum.

The centrepiece of the museum is the River class frigate HMAS Diamantina, which was built during WWII and saw service in the Pacific theatre in 1945, and was also involved in the Japanese surrender. The ship is open apart from the lower engine room deck, so we clambered all over from the bridge and wheelhouse to the guns, which we were able to rotate and elevate, and down through the captain’s, officers’, and ratings quarters. There were also displays about the construction and history of the ship, and a good sense of how crowded life was aboard a ship like this in wartime.



Also in the museum is the Ella’s Pink Lady, a pink yacht sailed around the world by a teenage girl, Jessica Watson.

Inside the museum building itself are various models of sailing and steamships of significance to Queensland, and the usual collection of nautical artefacts.

Afterwards we re-crossed the river on the Goodwill bridge, and set off for the Eagle Street Pier to find somewhere to have a spot of lunch. I had identified this area as a good place for lunch from the leaflet emporium of yesterday, but when we got there, we ended up in a restaurant not listed in any of the publications I’d collected. We surmised that this was due to it having only just opened, clearly replacing one of the incumbents. It was called the Kingsley Steak and Crabhouse, and a quick glance down the menu told us why. I had a craving for some crab and as it was lunchtime we stuck to a simple menu of king crab, bresaola with truffle oil, chips and spring beans, washed down with a couple of glasses of wine. Followed by some extremely decadent desserts...and very nice it was too.

Vanilla, strawberry, white chocolate cheesecake

That was about the extent of our adventure in Brisbane for the day. We came back on the CityCat and idled about, before going out once more in the evening to the local Chinese restaurant for dinner. We ate Chinese food.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Brisbane - Day 1


We took the bus from Castlemaine to the airport, and arrived in Brisbane late in the afternoon, where it was warm and sunny. We met Ian at the airport, as he’d been flying in from elsewhere in Queensland on important government business. We are staying with Ian for four days in Brisbane before heading further North to Palm Cove near Cairns.

On Friday, we headed into central Brisbane on foot, armed with a map book and a vague plan of where to go. Brisbane is built around the Brisbane River, and we are staying in an apartment overlooking the river on the North bank. We walked along the river, crossing at the Go Between bridge (named, apparently, after The Go-Betweens, a Brisbane band) before continuing our journey along the South Bank, through what is known as the Cultural Centre. No laughing at the back here, please.

Along the way we spotted a large lizard basking by the shore, and ibises stalking through the grass. At this stage we found this to be quite new and exciting.

Whatchew lookin' at?


We took in the Queensland Art Gallery and walked through the South Bank parklands, which are also home to the Street beach – a purpose-built swimming area by the side of the river with plenty of water features for the young at heart to run through, over, under and between.

An ibis appreciating modern art


We had a mini-adventure caused by finding a wallet lying about on a bench, so then had to locate a police station to hand it in so that it could find its way back to its owner. After that detour we continued along the South Bank, before re-crossing the river on the Goodwill bridge; then heading into the Botanic Gardens, which are enclosed by one of many sharp bends of the Brisbane river as it winds its way to the sea. The gardens contain a marker which showed how high the river has flooded over past years, most recently in January this year.



By this time we were feeling a bit peckish, but with no real guide to eating in the city we headed for the nearest halfway-decent looking place for lunch, where I was served a chilli pasta which was entirely bereft of chilli. Nicola had a melt which was accompanied by a “leaf” salad – an instruction the chef appeared to have taken literally.

In the afternoon, Nicola had an appointment in town, so after a quick trip to the tourist information centre in the middle of town, I went and explored the Eagle Street Pier and Riverside areas, whilst Nicola went to chat to talk to financial specialists about the problems of retirement savings. For more information on this, see elsewhere. I, meanwhile, consumed some of James Squire’s The Chancer golden ale at Groove Train.

When Nicola had finished we met up at the Pig and Whistle – someone’s idea of a “traditional English pub” which seemed to be a cross between a Wetherspoon’s and a country inn, but more the former. Why anyone would want to imitate this is a matter beyond my ken.

We got on a CityCat back home, which whisked us down the river in a manner reminiscent of the Thames Clippers we used to catch in London. Thus ended day one of our Brisbane adventure.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Castlemaine


On Wednesday we decided to explore Castlemaine more thoroughly. We went up Lyttelton Street to the Burke and Wills Memorial, known by several other names like Burke and Hare (me) and Birkenstock (Jason). Burke and Wills were two explorers who went from Melbourne in the South to the Gulf of Carpenteria in the North of Australia, and were the first white people to do so. How they managed is a mystery as they are generally acknowledged to be amongst the most bungling and incompetent of explorers and it’s a wonder they didn’t end up dead on the way, a fate which met many of their fellow expeditioners. Both died on the return journey, and only one of the original party made it back alive.

There’s a memorial in Castlemaine because John O’Hara Burke had been Police Commissioner of the town for the preceding two years.



Afterwards we made our way back down, passing Castlemaine’s most famous geographical feature, the anticlinal fold:



Those of you knowledgeable about geography will be able to explain this to the rest of us. Or just follow the link.

We then headed up to the Castlemaine art gallery, which has works by Australian artists as well as a museum of Castlemaine in days of yore.

We went to lunch at the Public Inn, where we had a very reasonable two-course set lunch with wine, consisting of tuna carpaccio and pork belly (me) and shoulder of lamb croquette and salmon pasta (Nicola).

After lunch we walked up to the Botanical Gardens, and explored the Significant Trees of Victoria, of which there are two examples in the gardens.

A Stone Pine (Pinus pinea) - a significant tree of Victoria
  
We’d pretty well worn ourselves out with all that walking around, so we then went back to the house for a cup of tea and a rest.

Melbourne



On Monday, we were due to take the hire car back to the airport, so popped down to the café for some raisin toast before making an early start down the Calder Highway. We made good time, handed back the car, and then took a taxi into central Melbourne.

We dropped off our bags at the hotel, which was on Little Bourke Street next door to the Punch Lane wine bar, an old haunt from Jason’s Melbourne days. First port of call in Melbourne was the art gallery, where we were searching for a picture that Nicola had seen once, long ago (and possibly in a far-off galaxy). Our search was unsuccessful, so we then set out on a more realistic search, for some lunch. We walked along the length of the South Bank, seeing the sights along the way, then went to a restaurant of Jason’s choosing on the river, Pure South, which provided us with an excellent meal.

After a spot of shopping in the CBD, we reassembled in the Punch Lane Wine Bar for a glass or two of wine and some canapés, before heading out to the main event of the evening – dinner at Movida. This is a tapas restaurant that has grown from a small place (last time I visited Melbourne in 2007) to a three-outlet empire with a large venue on Little Bourke Street. We had a good selection of starter and main course tapas, all brought with a decent time interval between them so that we could drink and enjoy the setting fully. Hero of he meal must have been the braised ox cheeks – beautifully tender and succulent.

Afterwards we walked home amongst the partying revellers of Melbourne, many of whom were in fancy dress – it was, after all, 31st October.

Next day we went for breakfast at The European, just around the corner from our hotel on Spring Street, opposite the state parliament. There were many behatted people about as it was Melbourne Cup day, and the good citizenry of Melbourne get all dressed up to go to the races.

After checking out of the hotel, we decided to head out of town and down to St Kilda beach, catching a tram down to the main street, and then walking along, taking photos of the local wildlife…



…and the obligatory picture outside the entrance to Luna Park, the amusement park that’s been there for decades.



We looked into a number of shops along Acland Street before lunching at Cicciolina, an old-established Italian named after the famous Italian politician.

Our best-laid plans to return to Castlemaine went slightly aglay as the train we intended to catch turned out not to be running, as it was a bank holiday and so the Saturday timetable was in force. We got back to Castlemaine just in time to pick up Nellie from the café and go home for a quiet night in, after the hecticness of the past two days.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Leaving Town


A couple of days ago we skipped town. I drove Nicola down to Wellington airport, dropped her and the luggage off, then drove back home, parked the car, and walked down to the airport myself. A couple of hours later we were winging our way across the Tasman to Melbourne.

When we landed in Melbourne it was raining. Undeterred, we went to the car hire shop and collected a Toyota Corolla, and drove up through the Macedon Ranges to Castlemaine, there to crash Jason’s birthday party, which was in full swing as we pulled up a little before 8pm.

There, it sounds like we did all that just on a whim. But no, it was all part of a carefully pre-arranged plan! We’re staying in Castlemaine for 6 nights before heading up to Brisbane for a long weekend, then going further north to Palm Cove near Cairns, where we’ll be staying a further 6 nights.

On our first night here, and despite the rain (which we thought we’d left behind in Melbourne, but had doggedly followed us all the way), we had an al-fresco dinner with around 20 people, which went on long into the night.

The following morning the weather had cleared, and we walked down the road to Tog’s for a spot of breakfast, before collecting some tourist guides from the Castlemaine tourist information centre, and deciding to go out for a drive to Daylesford and Ballarat. Daylesford was pretty busy as it’s a holiday weekend here in Victoria, but we found somewhere to park down by the lake and had a light lunch at the lakeside café there. We then walked around the lake, finding a mysterious native bird…



…and spotting some rosellas in flight, which I was unable to capture on film. I’m sure there’ll be plenty of other opportunities!

We then headed down to the Goldfields museum in Ballarat and had a wander around there, learning the history of gold mining in the region and seeing replicas of some of the large nuggets that have been found in this area, including the Welcome Stranger, the largest gold nugget ever found. It’s enormous!

Back to Castlemaine, and Jason and Elissa had a long-standing invitation to a birthday party for one of their staff, so we were parked at The Good Table for dinner whilst they went off down the pub. We had oysters, stuffed zucchini flowers, quail and duck, all cooked beautifully. The chef used to work at Movida, apparently, and the food is presented tapas-style so you can have a bit of everything. Afterwards we walked back up the road and had an early night.


Morning Tea


During the tournament, the bank I work for have been running various competitions for tickets to matches, merchandise etc. In the final week, the Risk department held a competition to host a morning tea. “Morning tea” is a New Zealand tradition and usually consists of sausage rolls, served with the inevitable tomato sauce (never ketchup!) Each team within the department were allocated a pair of countries around whose cuisine their offering was to be themed. We were allotted Scotland and Italy, so prepared a table for each country. Scotland cuisine included a haggis, Irn Bru, shortbread, and a microwaved Mars bar (as we had no deep fat fryer to prepare the Mars bar in the traditional Scottish way).



The Italy table had pasta, pizza, biscotti (made by me) and cupcakes decorated with Italian flags.



It all came together remarkably well, and at the end we were judged the winners of the competition, and were rewarded with the respect and admiration of our peers.

After the judging, we scoffed the lot in pretty short order.


Return Of The Blog


Yes, I’ve been remiss and ignored this blog for too long. Whilst I’ve been away, there’s been a small matter of a sporting competition here in NZ, you may have read about it in the papers. It was the Rugby World Cup, and New Zealand won it. We managed to get to one game in Wellington, watching the Tongans hammer the French. Unfortunately, the French knew that they were pretty well due to qualify in their group anyway, unless Canada managed to pull of an enormous upset and beat the All Blacks by a considerable margin which, needless to say, they didn’t. So the French stumbled on and through on their way to the final, where they were defeated again by the ABs, who marched on to claim their victory.

Victory parades were held in Auckland, Christchurch and Wellington. Naturally, we went down to Lambton Quay at lunch time, to watch the team parade past, accompanied by the band of the RNZAF.




Sunday, September 18, 2011

Miramar Heights


Saturday was a lovely day, and as they say, you can’t beat Wellington on a good day. We did our chores in the morning (returning costumes from the night before, shopping etc.) then after lunch we drove around the peninsula, stopping at Scorching Bay for a coffee at Scorchorama. There were some folk out on the beach, and even braving the water (with their feet only, it has to be said).

Nicola claims that this is all her own work:


I’m a bit dubious myself.

On the way back home, we took a left turn up a road that we’d passed many a time before, but never driven up. This took us up to the top of Miramar Heights, where there are views all around the peninsula, and also some extremely nice houses! There’s also a prison, which seems to be wasted on the prisoners (unless this is a new “cruel and unusual” punishment, by making the surrounding area so nice).

I tried to repeat my success with the picture that we have in the living room, but the atmospheric conditions weren’t quite up to it:



Medieval Merriment


We were invited to Jim’s 50th birthday party, held at the Wellington Irish society just off Cambridge Terrace.  Jim is a keen collector of all things medieval, so the party was themed and fancy dress required. We set off to the Costume Cave on Thursday evening before dancing to select our costumes, and with the assistance of the helpful staff, soon came away with a good selection including accessories:



After work on Friday, we headed straight home to change, then got in a cab back into town. Unfortunately we’d both forgotten to go to the cash machine before going out, so we had to ask the driver to take us into Courtenay Place to get some money out, and then walk from there to the venue, attracting some comments along the way – although most of the denizens of Courtenay Place seemed to take it in their stride, and assumed that we were just a sharp-dressed couple!

We arrived to find the entertainment had already started. The Wellington Medieval Guild had been invited to provide jugglers, musicians, singers and dancers, and they proceeded to juggle, make music, sing and dance. After dinner various friends and family members made some speeches, then the dancers attempted to instruct us in the art of medieval dancing. We just about got the hang of it.

Medieval lady with mobile phone


Monday, September 12, 2011

I Beg Your Pardon



Gosh, how long since I last blogged! What can I say? we've been boring homebodies for the last couple of weeks.

Last weekend we headed out to the garden centre in Miramar to begin our first foray into the world of gardening – we bought a planter and some herbs. Hopefully these will survive on the mixture of wind, rain and jet fuel fumes available on our balcony! I look forward to them providing sufficient foliage to provide us with good cooking. I’ve only planted what I hope are the hardier types of herbs – I don’t think basil or coriander will survive the outdoor conditions, unfortunately. I’m considering the option of a miniature greenhouse, though…maybe grow some salad fruits as well.




Next week, exciting news about some sporting competition that's going on around here or hereabouts...you may have heard about it on the wireless?


Thursday, August 25, 2011

Fush'n'Chups

Those of you on Facebook will have realised this already, but for the rest of you (and I think you know who you are! ;-)), I have started a new blog, which records my search for the perfect fish and chips on this side of the world. I'm also experimenting with using Wordpress rather than Blogger for this - with which I've had a couple of teething problems, so bear with me whilst I learn how it works.

This doesn't mean I'll be abandoning Wellington Boots...this is still my main blog. I expect to update fush'n'chups far less frequently. Man cannot live on fush'n'chups alone!


Sunday, August 21, 2011

Gold

Always believe in your soul

On Saturday morning we drove into town to take our Gold medal test. Unfortunately we’d made a bit of a mix-up with the times, and were an hour later than we thought we should be. This in  itself wasn’t a major stumbling-block as they’re fairly flexible about timing, but it meant that almost as soon as we arrived we were thrust into the test with very little practice or warm-up beforehand. That said, we know the routines pretty well by now, but I was somewhat disappointed with my performance and didn’t think that I’d given it my best shot.



Afterwards we went for a coffee with another couple, then after a spot of shopping, parked up and went to lunch at Le Métropolitain, a French (never! ;-)) café on Cuba Street. This was a final foray into Wellington On A Plate, and the first time that we’d gone for the burger option – one of the competitions run during the WOAP fortnight is the Burger Wellington, whereby each participating venue creates a burger especially for the competition, and is voted on by members of the public. In terms of originality, the “Allo Allo! Burger” was nothing special – melted cheese, bacon and mushroom topping – but it was very well executed, served with hand-cut string fries, and generally pretty good. It was the first time we’d been to Le Métropolitain (we’d tried once before, but it was fully booked…we avoided that trap this time) and we liked it a lot, so I think we’ll head back there sometime and sample the rest of their menu.



As is usually the case when we do our medal tests, there was a social dance in the evening. We packed our dancing shoes, caught a cab into town, and turned up at around 8pm. Some of our usual gang weren’t able to make it that night, but there were enough people there that we knew, and we are now confident enough to take to the floor for nearly all the dances, apart from the advanced ones that we’ve not started yet, like the tango. However, we have been promised a start on the quick-step next term, so that should add to our repertoire.

We had our medal ceremony, but unfortunately our medals hadn’t arrived - just the certificates and the examiner's marks and comments - so no pic of the shiny gold one that we have both attained.

Battle Of The Brains

My employer is one of the principal sponsors of Daffodil Day, New Zealand’s Cancer Society’s annual fund-raising day. One of the main events the bank holds is Battle Of The Brains, a quiz competition for all Wellington-based staff. Quiz, you say? With my reputation? ;-) Yes, I joined a team of eight organised in our department.

One of the features of the competition is that all the teams dress up in fancy dress. There is, naturally, a competition for this as well. Some teams (clearly those with more money than sense, and far too much time on their hands – yes, Marketing, I’m looking at *you*) go overboard and do fully themed team costumes, make-up, wigs etc. whereas most teams go for a more “home-made” approach. We threw a few ideas around when the competition was first announced, and finally decided that we would go for something that would be fairly easily put together with a few props and a couple of face masks: under the team name “Yes We Can!” we went as Barack and Michelle Obama, together with their secret service security detail – i.e. the remaining six of us dressed up in dark suits, white shirts, dark glasses, and the finishing touch – those curly-wired earpieces that go down the back of your collar.

"Yes We Can!" - indistinguishable from the real thing


The gig was being held at the Amora Hotel on Wakefield street, so we walked down there from the office in full cosutume, and in character: “Step away from the President, Sir!” and similar badinage. Joke of the evening – supplied by yours truly and applied to just about anything or anyone deemed a threat to the president:

“Agent Collins, there’s a goat in the corner of the room”
“Roger that”
(Cue hilarious laughter)

The quiz followed the usual format – 10 rounds, two jokers, various audio-visual aids for the music round and others. We scored well at the beginning and after two rounds were in the lead. Unfortunately we shared that lead with 5 other teams! We gradually slid down the leader board as we made some glaring errors (Azerbaijan won the Eurovision Song Contest? Who knew? Er, some of the others, apparently) and eventually finished at 15th out of 55 teams, and only eight points off the winning score, so not a bad effort overall.

Along the way there were various auctions for other prizes, a dancing competition, and the aforementioned “best-dressed team” competition. The winners were the Scary Scarecrows, who’d gone for full make-up effects as well. I think we were robbed, however, as we were all in suits and ties and therefore clearly the best-dressed team. The judges seem to have misinterpreted this as meaning “most original costume” or something. Humph.

Freddie & Elvis were there, too (Dead Pop Stars team)


Anyway, we all had a thoroughly good time, and some of the teams then headed into town for further “refreshment”. I went along to Molly Malone’s for a couple of beers – a slightly bizarre sight as people in the pub watched a bunch of American gangsters enter, followed by secret service agents and Wonderwoman. But they took it in their stride – just another night out in Wellington.