Monday, 27 January 2014

10th Jan - Rangitoto Island

This is Rangitoto Island, a very recent addition to the archipelago in the Hauraki Gulf, just a few minutes on a Fuller's ferry from the centre of Auckland. The city is built on numerous volcanic cones, some count fifty, and Rangitoto, having been born in a series of eruptions around six hundred years ago is the newest. NZ Geographic notes that human footprints have been discovered between layers of ash on neighboring Motatapu island, so it was certainly born within the days of human habitation.

Rangi has a very special place in my heart. Ever since first coming to Devonport in 1980, I've been aware if it's austere symmetry, an impassive totemic guardian watching over the beaches of Auckland's North Shore. Late on Christmas Day 2006, it also served as the backdrop for a very special moment in my life, and I soon afterwards incorporated it's broad-shouldered silhouette into the design of that invite. Before that and since, it's provided benign shelter to Cheltenham Beach from Tasman Sea weather on so many special family occasions.
In the end, we decided not to swim (Ha!), and got the ferry instead. It is possible to kayak across - I did just that a decade or so ago, taking more than an hour, but it's a busy shipping lane and care must be taken. However, you could go with
The name roughly translates as 'Bloody Sky' a reference to the bleeding of a Maori warrior following defeat at a certain battle. I imagine the name predates the gradual growth of flora on the cooled lava that built the island, particularly the large number of Pohutikawa trees that flower blood red around Christmas time.

The view from the summit across to Auckland on the far left, and the North Shore centre and right.

Recent government intervention by trapping and poisoning now means that the island is free from pestilential non-native predators. Vsitors like us are now screened for smuggled stoats and concealed cats.

A closer view of the city from the summit. In the mid-ground the twin green Devonport peaks of North Head left of centre and Mount Victoria in the middle.
Near the summit of the island are lava caves, a couple of which are big enough to walk through.Mind your step though and bring a torch.
The return ferry journey is a beautiful way to approach the city.

Saturday, 25 January 2014

23rd Dec-14th Jan 2014 - Devonport, Auckland

I've be coming to Devonport every few years since 1980. Most of the maternal side of my family live here, so really it's a home from home. Aunts and Uncles, several cousins, and my dear Gran make this a wonderful place to come back to again, and again.

Flying in late and so missing the last ferry across the harbour from the city meant I had to call in a bit of ground support. Fortunately, Will was on hand to for a late night taxi service, having flown in a couple of days before way Sophie. Thank goodness for brothers. But first, a slight technical hitch - No phone signal, of all the places in the world, why would my iPhone refuse a connection here? Fortuitously the pilot of the plane from Adelaide that I'd just got off, got on my bus, and very kindly lent me his - now that is good service.

Despite being about as far from London as it's possible to get, and thus only half way around the world, arriving here almost felt like the end of my travels. After three months of culture-shocked tongue-tied strangitudes, here was a quasi homecoming, and that's why it was so difficult to leave and get back on the road again.

Auckland city as viewed from Stanley Point, next to Devonport.

I guess it's fair to say there's no more middle-class area in New Zealand than Devonport. It's not full of the very rich, like say Remuera or Epsom, but it is inhabited by comfortably-off families who enjoy a good life living in colonial-style villas, playing tennis or golf, going for a swim, or a picnic on the beach, and only when necessary, catching a 10 min ferry to the city to earn a living, or do some shopping. In Devonport there are caf├ęs, bars, wine retailers, art galleries and supply shops for those who want to paint, and a wonderful restored and reopened cinema. It is a very easy place to spend a lot of time doing not a great deal. I love it. 

The view from Stanley Point to the harbour bridge. 

Victoria road in Devonport, with Mount Victoria behind. The purple building is The Patriot, the last remaining pub since The Masonic closed a few years ago. (Luxury flats, since you asked.)

This is the Victoria Cinema, thankfully reopened a few years ago after a decade of development debacle, it's now fully equipped with digital 3d projectors that, even so, are not good enough to make The Hobbit pt2 an interesting film. Apparently it's the oldest running cinema in the whole of the Southern Hemisphere, and I remember watching Footrot Flats with my cousins there way, way back in 1987.
By now the wonderful Evergreeen Books will be closed. It's been a welcome feature of Devonport's high street for twenty years. Everyone in town has been vocally mourning its imminent closure, and business at 50% off was, if not brisk, then moderately enthusiastic . I for one will sorely miss browsing through old books of NZ architecture without spending a dollar. On this last occasion I spent hours flicking through almost every page of biographies of Dietrich, Garbo, Nazimova, Burton, Welles, Monroe and O'Toole before adding them to my amazon wish list. RIP the great bookshop. 
One of the two churches at the foot of Mt. Vic.
New Year's Eve fireworks viewed from the top of Mount Victoria.
Mt. Vic. viewed in the day time. My brother and I used to race up it, while the grown-ups timed us against the next glass of Sauvignon blanc.

2nd-4th Jan - New Plymouth & Mount Taranaki

A couple of years ago when I flew from Wellington up to Auckland, I had a window seat on the left hand side of the plane. Looking west towards the coast, I was captivated by the sight of Mount Egmont, a perfectly conical volcano sitting on it's own peninsula half way down the north island. I said to myself that one day I'd go back and climb it. The young volcano, more usually known by its Maori name Taranaki, erupts every couple of hundred years, the last was in the 1850s and I believe we're due for another one soon.

Flying from Auckland to the nearest town, New Plymouth is quite expensive so I got the Intercity Bus instead, via Hamilton, costing $39. The other advantage of travelling by road is that it gives one the chance to view New Zealand's beautiful landscapes. And on this trip we saw some fantastic coastline.

Just before New Plymouth though was one particular bit of landscape I was interested in - In 1984 renown kiwi director Vincent Ward released his haunting movie Vigil, it was the first New Zealand film to be admitted to compete in the Cannes Film Festival. It tells the story of a young girl on an isolated farm, whose shepherd father dies while rescuing a sheep. His body is returned by a brooding stranger, who over the next few days begins to court her mourning mother, whilst her eccentric old grand-father provides comic relief with his new agricultural inventions. It could be said though the film's main character though is it's relentlessly storm blasted environment. The lush green hills are perpetually under a veil of thick grey cloud and driving rain, and it is in this lonely, echoing world where the girl, entering puberty, struggles to cope with the death of her father and the looming presence of the usurping stranger.

Some fairly in depth googling revealed that Ward spent years searching for the right location (as well as cast), before finally settling on a valley under Mount Messenger, not far from the coast and within Taranaki National Park. It just so happened that my bus route down the west coast went right past Mount Messenger. I considered getting off the bus, finding and visiting the farm and then hitching the rest of the way, but figured I might get more specific intel in New Plymouth, so carried on. That plan didn't quite come to fruition, so pin-pointing the precise location will have to wait for a day when I've got my own wheels.  
The photos below were all taken within a couple of miles of the assumed location, but on a sunny day don't give a sense of the lonely, almost Celtic land depicted in the movie. I would get more than my share of that the following day though.

Arriving in New Plymouth on a beautiful sunny evening, I visited the tourist information centre (the i-site) and was dismayed to learn that the weather forecast for the rest of the weekend was very poor with strong winds and rain predicted for the following day, when I intended to climb the mountain. I walked around an exhibition on the strong history of surfing in the area, whilst considering my options. 

New Plymouth and the dozen or so coastal towns that surround the circular national park like numbers on a clock-face  (and whose names all begin with either O or P) have for a long time been populated by die-hard surf bums seeking the wild and rugged breaks here. Their culture has filtered through to the mainstream: check out this road sign near the port:

I decided to wait and see what kind of weather the morning would bring. A tall volcano on the coast of an island in the middle of the southern oceans is obviously going to be susceptible to some very changeable conditions, so I'd just have to hope for the best.

I went for a walk down the coast path, out of the town centre, passing a stone sculpting expo. All of the sculpters wearing ear-defenders and some with respirators against the dust and noise, it's clearly not a hobby for those who enjoy quiet and fresh air. I'll stick with painting for now thanks.

Much further south, past the dock and the gas terminal, I arrived at Paritutu, a big rock sticking out from the shore. I climbed up the rope-assisted scramble to the top in ten minutes and watched the sun set. Beautiful views looking west from the top of the rock, Mount Taranki hidden by clouds on the far left.

I stayed that night at the Egmont Eco-lodge twenty minutes walk from the town centre. A curious place with half the rooms run on behalf of the YHA, and the other half by the BBH. Depending on who you book with you may pay more and may not have such amenities as towels included. Since I was a member if neither, I payed full price for the mediocre digs.

There's a shuttle service from New Plymouth up to the park headquarters at Egmont North. Rob, the guy who runs this and charges $45 for a return ticket ($35 if with a group), is also the owner of an outdoor equipment shop in town and is pretty circumspect about the risks involved. I'd recruited two French lads from the hostel who wanted to do the climb too, and together with a Dutch man who wanted to hike the perimeter of the park over three days, we set off at seven the following morning.

This is satellite view of Taranaki, the conical regularity is enhanced by the almost perfect circle of bordering fence.

Mount Egmont/Taranaki is the scene of more fatalities than any other mountain in NZ, including the far higher Mount Cook. Those fatalities are not usually related to technical difficulty - indeed unlike most ascents in the southern alps, Egmont involves no technical mountaineering skills at all. It's a hike and a scramble to the 2518m summit. This would seem to be the problem, since it attracts inexperienced day-trippers and ill-prepared chancers like yours truly.

With that in mind we were quite surprised when our driver, contradicting the advice of the nice ladies in the i-site suggested that us three lads were capable of making the summit, or at least capable of deciding for ourselves whether it could be achieved in the conditions.

At the park HQ at 946m, it was obvious the conditions were far from ideal. It was not particularly cold, but the wind was gusting strong and the summit was shrouded in a heavy layer of wet cloud. The staff inside the warm information centre and HQ looked slightly concerned and offered us more counsel than I guessed was normal. They mentioned that gale force winds were coming in and that weather warnings for the whole area had been issued.

Nevertheless, we were all determined to at least attempt it, especially given the price of the shuttle. The first several hundred feet were very blustery but the bush provided us with some cover. As soon as we crossed the tree-line though it was a different matter. With no shelter at all, we were subject to the full force of the cross-wind. There were moments where we couldn't progress against the gusts, but had to brace against them and wait for it to subside.
In addition we were now up in cloud-land and visibility was frequently no more than thirty feet, and then it started to rain. Though we'd all brought waterproof jackets, Pierre was wearing shorts, not full length trousers, so the wind-chill was becoming noticeable. It became obvious how rough the conditions were when, scanning the landscape for the Tahurangi Lodge, the last place in which we could shelter for a snack, the cloud lifted for a moment and it was there, no more than twenty paces in front of us. We prized open the door and stepped into the small boot-room. Access further into the private lodge was restricted by keycode to members of the Alpine Club, but we were happy just to be able to eat a banana and read a map without it being ripped from our mitts.

Puffing up The Puffer, a 4wd track that goes as far as the telegraph station.
Visibility fair to poor.
Before the wind got to 100km/hr and we were still having fun. Note ill-advised shorts.
Wind blasted at 1500m, still a good 900m from the summit.

In preparation for the climb, I'd come across the tragic and very recent story of a young couple who'd perished on the mountain in October. They'd started the climb with six others on the Saturday morning, attempting a tricky ascent up the east face. For some reason they took much too long to reach the summit, and instead of descending at a planned cut-off time, they carried on up and over to find an easier descent on the other side. By this time the weather had closed in and two couples separately decided to hunker down for the night. Alarm was raised at about 11pm. The lower couple made it down on Sunday morning, but the couple who'd stayed high were stuck. The emotional impact of the tragedy was reinforced by their constant phone contact with police and family. They had a signal, but no escape. They could describe their location, so it was not so much a search, but more of a rescue. With such high winds, helicopter extraction was out of the question, so relays of Rescue teams were deployed, each getting beaten back by the weather. One team got within 200m of them. On Monday morning when rescuers finally made it to them, the guy was long dead and the girl was beyond saving. The full news report can be read here:

While we were recounting this tragedy, a group of local alpinists with a guide emerged from the interior of the lodge and told us they had aborted their summit attempt. That fixed it for us, we reluctantly decided to climb no further than 1500m. Instead with the help of my trail map, we found a route that traversed around the mountain before descending through the ski fields into the bush, and then back along the lower Curtis Falls track to our starting point.

So, no summit for us, but instead, a true taste of the tempestuous weather that permeates the film Vigil. 

Despite our collective disappointment at not making it to the top, we actually had a really good walk once we got below the worst of the weather. I say walk, but these two young French lads took delight in yomping as fast as possible through the gorgeous Tolkienesque scenery. At times it was more like parcourt than hiking, we covered a route described as four and a half hours in just two.

The following day, contrary to the forecasts, was beautiful and sunny. The tantalising summit of the beautiful mountain clearly visible from New Plymouth. By that time though I'd already booked my return ticket to Auckland. Next time I'll have my own wheels.

A final glimpse at the haunting landscapes of Vigil.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

22nd Dec - Art Gallery of South Australia - Adelaide

I ended up going to this excellent gallery three times in search of a guided tour. No problem though, as each trip uncovered more interesting works and themes. If you're more interested in paleontology then scroll to the bottom. (I am not Ross).

Here's a selection of pieces that caught my eye:
A slice of Bacon.
On my final visit, and suitable for Christmas, I was shown this amazing tapestry by William Morris and his studio. As usual with him, all the pigments are naturally occuring and sourced by hand. Arts and crafts.
I last encountered the work of Richard Long in a gallery in Cape Town. Here he is again, removed from context, with a circular arrangement of Cornish slates from one of his journeys.
Another 'walking artist' Hamish Fulton, similarly sanctifies his relationship with the land through photography. See also Andy Goldsworthy, and also Stanley Donwood's recent collaboration with Robert Macfarlane. It's difficult to appreciate these works in an art gallery, when really they belong out on country under big skies.

Back to traditional fine arts with this piece from Camden by unlikely Jack the Ripper suspect, Walter Sickert. Did the model survive this slightly squalid sickert encounter?

Another reclining nude, this from 1927 by kiwi artist Charles Wheeler. "And so the story ends". Beautiful skin tones. I wonder if she also looked good in ribbons?
One from Fiona Hall's Seven Deadly Sins, this being gluttony.

A captivating 40 min long video tryptich hypnotically choreographed by AES+F, a group of four Russian artists, reminiscent of Mathew Barney.

A typically macabre installation by Jake & Dinos Chapman. I had the pleasure of working with Jake a few years ago and found him thoroughly pleasant and not very deranged at all.
Tim Webster & Sue Noble made gold plated casts of mummified rodents, and arranged them to cast intriguing self-portrait shadows in this The Gamekeeper's Gibbet.

This was perhaps my favourite work in the whole gallery. An Untitled photo by Adam Fuss, almost impossible to discern until ones eyes adjust to the dark. A ghostly figure of a boy emerging from the image is barely there at all. It was hauting in it's ephemerality. I've enhanced the photo a little to bring out the latent image.

A Lalique dragonfly broach.

This huge Ferris-wheel like structure by Ian Burns, called Clouds, to my mind ugly because it's inner workings are so much on show, nevertheless held me captive for minutes as I studied it's varying texts created by the switching of light-bulbs refracted through magnifying lenses and repeating piano motifs from attached keyboards, mini-cams and LCD screens. All made from ladders, tables, buckets, umbrellas and other hardware store finds.

There are several sculptures of human figures dotted around the gallery. This gimpy couple by Thomas Hirschhorn was particularly striking. Each of the thousands of screws are driven to a deliberate depth.
In an adjoining room, Cupid points his arrow at a painting of two lovers.

On the ground-floor near the entrance stands Marc Quinn's Buck, a life cast of a the eponymous cigar-smoking, tattooed Trans-sexual. 
Down in the basement, echoing back Buck, is this figure.
Finally, two different ideas of Australian art, firstly a crowded beach from 1940 by Charles Meere, depicting body-beautiful surfers and bathers
Secondly, painted on bark, from near Cape York, an aboriginal conjuring of a whale shark attacking dolphins. Imagine seeing that happen!

After all that art I went round the corner to the museum of South Australia to look at some rocks -
More interesting than it might sound actually.

When Darwin and Wallace were working out their theories of evolution, they had a bit of gap at the beginning their fossil timeline, between simple single-cell organisms and complex early creatures like trilobites, round about 500m years ago. This gap, one that loony creationists still point at, was fortunately plugged by a paleontologist in 1946 working in the Flinders Range close to Adelaide, in a place called the Ediacara Hills. Others had seen these small jelly-fish like fossils for decades before, but thanks to their preservation and prevalence here, the awkward gap was filled, and the theory of evolution had a complete timeline. Hence, Ediacara Biota - The very long bit before the arthropods, the dinosaurs, the birds, mammals, and (just now) us.

Given the proximity of those hills, the museum is very proud of its display of those Rosetta-like slabs of rock. 

Melvyn had a good programme about it some months ago, there's a link here:

There's also a fine collection of minerals, metals, ores and crystals, this one arranged by colour, just for the fun of it: