I wish them good health and happiness

My post this week is a little late – sorry about that. I’ve had some technical issues (apart from GDPR) that I’m still grappling with.

But I wanted to make a POINT.

I’m not a royalist. I’ll take it further and say that as an Australian, I’m a born-again Republican.

Right, that’s done. NOW I’ll talk about the Royal Wedding. I know, I know. Half of you were dazzled, the other half were sick to death of all the hype and the glamour and the bitchiness. To some extent I was in camp B, but when you think about it, if the press wasn’t full of the wedding, it was full of car accidents, murders, yet another school shooting in America, and political back-stabbing at all levels. The wedding was about a lonely young man who’d finally found a beautiful woman with the poise and experience to put up with the adulation and paparazzi nonsense that he’s lived with for all his life.

Seems to me after a rocky start with the death of Diana, the Windsors are becoming much more a part of the real world. Charles married Camilla, a wedding his sons attended. Then we had William and Kate Middleton (the very lovely daughter of a middle class family) and now Harry has found hapiness with a divorcee of mixed race background. And if that last sentence sounded at all bitchy, that’s not how it should be taken. To me, it looks like a love match, not some arranged union with (as a commentator put it) “some horse-faced German princess”. Sorry, Germany.

Since I haven’t been to the doctor lately I didn’t see the women’s magazines which no doubt had a wonderful time talking about the dress and the bridal party and Meghan’s bogan relos. Apart from this event selling millions of magazines, tacky souvenirs like mugs, cups, commemorative plates, it also sold plenty of international plane tickets, and within UK, train, bus, and parking tickets. Thousands of people lined the Long Walk in Windsor. More thousands lined the routes about the town streets. Millions watched it unfold on TV.

People – ordinary people – loved it. And Harry and Meghan – and William and Kate – embraced the joy. And good on them. If we looked carefully, I’m sure we’d find Prince Fred of Denmark and his wife, Aussie Mary, somewhere in the crowd.

Meghan’s mum, Doria, wore the most beautiful dress – and her nose stud and unashamedly afro hair – with pride and dignity. Kudos to her.

So if you enjoyed the Royal Wedding, all power to you. It was a wonderful breath of brightness in an increasingly dark world.

Please feel free to comment. You’ll have to tell me your email address but I promise not to send you anything at all, really. I don’t like spam, either.

GDPR is bigger than Y2K

The 25th May is approaching! That’s the date the EU’s new legislation aimed at protecting the private data of all EU citizens using the internet comes into force.

“GDPR stands for General Data Protection Regulation. It is a legislation that aims to protect the privacy of all EU citizens. GDPR forces organisations to make major changes in the way they handle their customers personal data, affecting their business processes as well as software. It’s a whole system of principles, rights and obligations which you will need to be familiar with. GDPR will apply from 25 May 2018.” That’s a quote from an excellent article explaining the legislation, and the obligations of website administrators, in simple language. The actual legislation, in typical EU fashion, is lengthy. Here it is, for your edification. Pardon me if I don’t wait for you to catch up.

This comes after many breaches of people’s privacy, not so much hacking incidents, but more where data such as email addresses have been collected and sold or given to third parties to be used for such things as spam. The recent furore over Facebook and  Cambridge Analytica, where Facebook sent users’ data on to another company without their knowledge, is a case in point. I’m sure all computer users would agree that collecting information about them and passing it on without prior consent is wrong. In very simple terms the GDPR requirements mean that if a person (eg me) uses a website, and that website collects any data about me, I need to be told what data, and why, and I have to consent.

Fine. But it turns out ‘very simple’ isn’t very simple.

The thing is, we willingly share information about ourselves if there’s something in it for us. Our phones tell use what the weather’s like where we are, or where to find a restaurant – if location tracking is on. Information such as your age and sex can be used to target advertising so you’re shown dating sites for the right age group. Amazon famously uses your (collected and stored) browsing and purchase history to suggest other items which might be of interest. But that’s on Amazon’s own website. If the company on-sold the data, it’s another story. Then there are online retail sites (including Amazon), which require names, phone numbers and physical addresses. And it could be argued that if you don’t realise Amazon and Facebook and Google and Microsoft are all collecting data about you, you’d better get out from under that rock.

Mind you, if I’m buying something like an ebook I resent having to provide a physical address. It’s not needed to carry out the transaction, and I’ve been known to walk away rather than divulge.

But that’s the obvious stuff. There are other items of data that are collected to make the wheels of the internet turn smoothly, or for quite inocuous, statistical reasons. Many sites collect data such as IP addresses for Google analytics so the administrators can see which countries their visitors come from (it’s just a count – nothing more).

If I want to leave a comment on a website, then typically I’m asked for my email address and maybe my own website. That information is stored on the site’s server, and is visible to the administrators. If I elect to follow a site, my email address is collected. If I join a mailing list, ditto – and perhaps also my name. Etc.

The GDPR regulations state that visitors should opt in to collection of their data. They should be able to opt out at any time, and be able to delete any information that may have been collected at a given site.

It all sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?

And that brings me back to Y2K.

In the mid-1990’s the IT world had an ‘oh shit’ moment. Back when computers were first developed hardware was very, very expensive, so every effort was made to use the bare minimum of resources such as data storage. For that reason dates were stored as 6 digits – DDMMYY everywhere but the US, where it was MMDDYY. Then somebody realised that when we reached the year 2000, all our date maths would be out the window. Let’s say you started a 10-year loan on 1/5/95. It would be due to terminate on 30/4/05. But if you subtract 95 from 05, you don’t get 10. This meant retrofitting a gazillion systems using 6-digit dates to 8-digit dates (DDMMYYYY). It was huge. It required a multitude of analysts (to find where the dates were used) and programmers (to fix the code). But it was done. The century rolled over with barely a hiccup – but at a cost of billions of dollars. ($100 bilion in the US alone)

But that Herculean effort pales into insignificance in comparison with GDPR.

These requirements don’t just affect websites in the EU, they affect all websites which could be used by EU citizens. That includes this site, gretavanderrol.com, my crummy little website where I list my books and prattle on about my last holiday (and a few rants). Please do not imagine for a moment that compliance is easy. WordPress, the software upon which my site is based, is a huge enterprise. Half the world’s websites (especially the small ones) are hosted by WordPress. At some stage the company will catch up with some of the requirements, and include them in its basic framework, but not before 25 May 2018, when the law becomes enforceable. Added to that, there are literally thousands of WordPress plugins, (apps if you will) specially written to fit into the WordPress framework. Some of them use cookies, or collect information about visitors, and if I use the plugins, I’m responsible.

Even for a simple little site like mine I’m expected to list any cookies that the software might place on a visitor’s machine. Here’s what WordPress says about cookies for people leaving a comment [1].

“When visitors comment on your blog, they get cookies stored on their computer. This is purely a convenience, so that the visitor won’t need to re-type all their information again when they want to leave another comment. Three cookies are set for commenters:

  • comment_author_{HASH}
  • comment_author_email_{HASH}
  • comment_author_url_{HASH}

The commenter cookies are set to expire a little under one year from the time they’re set.”

I have to make sure you can see a list of every cookie my site stores and what it’s for. You have to give consent before you can comment on my blog, and you must be able to remove your consent, and delete any information I might have stored about you, which means deleting your comments, and also deleting any record of your visit, such as your IP address.

Needless to say, enterprising software developers are writing plugins to help website owners cope with the requirements – some are free, some are not. I tried one plugin which checked for use of cookies. It was free for a site with less than 100 pages. I don’t have a lot of pages – but I use the site for my blog, and every post was counted as a page. That put me into premium class, and would have cost me $10 per month, which is frankly more than I pay for hosting the site. One plugin required me to make a change to the header in the HTML. I assure you most site owners wouldn’t know what that meant, let alone how to do it. And all the way through, there are disclaimers that this plugin will not make your site compliant. Perhaps you should talk to a lawyer, and hire a developer.

And if you opt to ignore the legislation? The penalties are (to say the least) substantial. Here’s a quote from GDPR Associates. “There will be two levels of fines based on the GDPR. The first is up to €10 million or 2% of the company’s global annual turnover of the previous financial year, whichever is higher. The second is up to €20 million or 4% of the company’s global annual turnover of the previous financial year, whichever is higher.”

I’m glad I never bothered with a mailing list. Anyone with a mailing list must go back to all subscribers and have them either subscribe again, or be assumed to have unsubscribed.

A ‘contact me’ form must explain what you’ll be doing with the contactee’s email address. I’ve deleted my ‘contact me’ page. But I have copied a boiler-plate privacy policy. I cannot imagine how the EU thinks it’s going to police this policy, especially on non-EU websites like mine. But I do get visitors residing in the EU, and I suppose all it needs is for one person to register a complaint. Me, I’m collecting up my toys and retreating to the comfort of WordPress.com. Not only is it cheaper, it relieves me of some of the responsibility of complying.

The thing is, while I can see why it’s being done, I don’t think much thought has been given to the ramifications. It’s like a fishing boat trawling for sharks. Trouble is, it swallows up everything – dolphins, turtles, tuna, mackerel, whiting, sardines, clown fish – the lot. Guess which species I am?

Still using those travel sites?

I guess most of us have used one or other of the travel aggregators to find a tour, or a hotel when planning a trip. I certainly have – Expedia, Booking.com, Trip Advisor. And I thought they were pretty good – until I learned about the problems associated with them.

As you all know, I went to New Zealand for a one-week trip not so long ago. My friend and I started planning some time ago – as in before Christmas. She’s a very, very busy lady, so she was happy enough to leave the details to me, being as how I’m not a very busy lady. So I looked up a few things and booked an apartment in Christchurch via Booking.com. We didn’t have to pay a deposit and if things changed, we could cancel for free up to a few days before the trip. We could make changes, too.

Time passed (as it does) and circumstances changed just a little. A couple of weeks before the trip we needed to change the dates for our accommodation. Instead of Saturday to the following Sunday, we would do the same Saturday, but check out on Thursday. I went into the website and chose the option to modify my booking. I left the ‘from’ date unchanged, and modified the ‘to’ date. The hamsters ran around for a second, and then I got a message telling me the property had no rooms on those dates. But (hang on a sec) they had these others which might suit. One of them was the room I’d already booked. But what the hey, I’ll play your silly game. I picked the room, and the hamsters started running… and running… and running…

I aborted and tried again, several times. Having been a programmer, I know that very often the cause of errors is sitting at the keyboard. But I couldn’t get the change of dates to happen. So I contacted the proprietory, explaining the change I needed to make. I received a prompt reply, stating that I HAD to make the change through Booking.com.

So I cancelled the booking. The hotel lost a 5 night stay.

Peter booked the new apartment for us via Expedia. To start, he booked two separate rooms at the same hotel, not realising the property offered two-room apartments. The apartment was cheaper than two rooms, and more convenient, so he changed the booking. Once again, the website was a crock. So Peter rang the help line, once again a call centre in the Phillipines. The person taking the call had little knowledge and no authority. He was told he would have to cancel the first booking and book the other room. The payment he’d already made would be credited to his credit card in 7-10 days. Pete was not happy. It had taken a nanosecond for Expedia to accept the payment, and yet it would take over a week to process a refund? Especially since he’d explained he was effectively just changing the booking to a different room. A clerk at the property would have said, sure, we can change that. It was a simple request.

When pushed, Expedia refunded the original payment promptly. But why should we have to push?

Next, I booked a tour to Arthur’s Pass via Viator, which is a part of Trip Advisor. There was an option to include a ride on a jetboat, but, knowing my friend’s not all that keen on boats, I went with the trip without the jetboat option. When I told my friend about it, she asked me to add the jetboat. No problem. I found my booking on the website and tried to include the option. My experience was much the same as I’d had with Booking.com. After a couple of tries, I rang the ‘help’ line.

I waited on the line for at least forty minutes before a pleasant (but not very bright) young man from the Phillipines picked up the call. After several goes at getting him to understand I just wanted to add the jetboat option, and yes, I would pay by credit card etc etc the booking was finally changed. I tried to tell him about my issues with the website but he couldn’t get me off the phone fast enough.

I contacted the tour company when we arrived in New Zealand to confirm the booking, and confirm the change to pcickup location. Even that wasn’t as straight forward as it should have been, but never mind. All good.

We were duly picked up at the right time and place, and enjoyed our trip up to Arthur’s pass. But the jetboat ride didn’t happen. It was nobody’s fault, the river was too high to take the boat out. I received an email from Viator before we left New Zealand, acknowledging the jetboat had to be cancelled. A partial refund had been sent to my account.

Partial?

They’d refunded $55. What the hell? I’d paid rather more than that. So I sent an email stating that it wasn’t good enough. Why was this a partial refund?

A few days later, I received an update. They’d refunded another $15, making the refund $70. By this time I was livid. I’d paid $96 for the trip and I told them so, reiterating that we hadn’t cancelled, we’d showed up, and they had no right to retain any of the money. I have now received the full refund.

So… all these aggregators are great at taking your money, not so great at giving it back. I’m sure they use the excess funds on the short term money market (just like the banks). In the case of Viator, if I hadn’t complained, I’m sure they would have left the refund at $55. Quite a few people wouldn’t have noticed.

We have found that the aggregators are good at giving lists of properties. From there, take your pick and contact them direct. Hotels pay to be listed on these sites – you might find as Pete did recently that Booking.com offers a room at (say) $120 – but the hotel will ask for $110.

One thing’s for sure – I’ll never book anything through Booking.com, Expedia, or Viator ever again.

And on a positive vibe, here’s a couple more photos of lovely New Zealand.

 

Let’s find a cure for ALS #ThinkBlue4ALS

Prof Stephen Hawking, universally acknowledged as a great physicist and a leader in the study of black holes and cosmology, died recently at the age of seventy-six. These days, seventy-six isn’t particularly old – but it’s remarkable if you suffer from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS. Prof Hawking was diagnosed with this dreadful disease at the age of twenty-one and was given only a few years to live. Here’s my thoughts on his disability and his life, written just after his death.

ALS is a type of motor neuron disease which attacks the nerve cells that control voluntary movement, such as walking, talking and the like. Over time, victims lose the ability to walk, talk, eat and even breathe. Although the disease can strike at any time, the incidence is highest in those between fifty-five and seventy-five. To be struck down at such a young age was particularly devastating. There is no cure. Please refer to this fact sheet for more information on the disease, its symptoms, and current research.

Not long after Prof Hawking’s death the ABC aired a program about an Australian with this horrible disease. He used a conventional string puppet to illustrate the condition. One by one the strings used to manipulate the puppet’s limbs are cut, until there’s just a mind trapped inside a useless body. That’s how Prof Hawking lived for fifty years. It’s horrifying to imagine.

Research needs funding. We’ve seen the powerful ice bucket challenge, but this is something new.  As part of an effort to raise money for ALS research, a group of authors got together and pledged a quarter of their earnings from the sale of selected books, each of which have the colour blue in their covers.

You can help us by buying the books on offer and sharing this wonderful cause with your family and friends. You can also help by making a direction donation to the research effort. Go to Greta van der Rol’s page on the ALS Team Challenge page and make a donation – anonymous if you wish.

My chosen book for the promotion is Morgan’s Choice.

Somewhere out in space, humanity’s past is about to catch up with its future.

When Morgan Selwood’s spaceship is stranded in unknown space she is relieved to be rescued by humanoid aliens. But her unusual appearance and her extraordinary technical abilities mean that everybody wants a piece of her. Who’s it to be? Autocratic Admiral Ravindra, who press-gangs her to help against a shadowy threat from the stars, or the freedom fighters who think she’s a legend reincarnated, returned to help them throw off the yoke of oppression?

Morgan doesn’t much care which it is until the uprising and the atrocities start. While civil war rages across the planet the shadowy threat from the stars emerges as an implacable killer bent on destroying all intelligent life. Morgan will need every bit of her superhuman, bio-engineered intelligence to save the man she has come to love and his people from annihilation. And spare a little to save herself.

Buy the book at  Amazon B&N Kobo  iBooks

There’s a dozen excellent books on offer, science fiction romance and paranormal romance.  You’ll find all the books here. You might find something else you’d like – and know you’re supporting a wonderful cause

You can find out more about our support team here. Please share to anybody who might wish to help. The more the merrier.

 

 

A cruise on the harbour

Akaroa the town

B and I went for a walk around the town of Akaroa, which is a typical holiday town catering for tourists – lots of eateries, souvenir shops, and tour operators. There’s a lot of French influence here, with many French street and business names, but it has a very normal history – a Frenchman bought some land from the local Maori tribe. [1]

The town suffered damage in the 2010/11 earthquakes, but nothing like Christchurch. It’s a pretty little place, with cute cottages lining the streets.

Neither of us was impressed with the ‘beach’ – all dark sand and rocks, as you’d expect in a volcanic area. We had breakfast at Bully Hayes, which served great food and coffee on what turned out to be a lovely day. We’d had our worries, with cloud gathering over the higher peaks, and a forecast of rain later, but the weather held off and we enjoyed the sunshine, taking a leisurely stroll around the town.

B had been told to bring back a New Zealand delicacy called ‘pineapple lumps‘. I’d never heard of them, but apparently they’re a mixture of pineapple (duh) with chocolate. Sounds yucky to me, but hey ho. We found the desired item in the Four Square supermarket, a chain that has long since closed in Australia. The nice young lady at the shop said the packets on the shelf would be the last they’d be getting in. It seems Pascal will be releasing/manufacturing them in Australia. B also bought some hokey pokey, a chocolate lump with embedded honeycomb, another NZ specialty. We ambled off and ended up on the wharf.

A tour boat was moored alongside the jetty, and passengers were boarding to go on a harbour cruise. One lady was handed a glass of wine – or at least, a beverage in a wine glass. B and I looked at each other. A harbour cruise might be nice. Our host wasn’t due back until mid-afternoon. That boat went, but a larger boat (Black Cat) was going out at 11am. B isn’t the greatest sailor, but the water was smooth, with very little wind, so it sounded safe enough. So off we went with a good number of parents with small children (it being school holidays).

A cormorant rookery

The boat cruised along the coastline, with the female skipper giving commentary, explaining the geological origins of Akaroa. It’s spectacular coastline, displaying its volcanic origins, with caves and rookeries for cormorants and other sea birds.

The towering headland at the harbour entrance

All was well until we left the shelter of the harbour. The Pacific Ocean wasn’t rough, but there was a substantial swell and the boat began to bounce, rising and falling with each wave. Soon B wasn’t the only one feeling a bit green around the gills. Most of the kids were seasick. B bought a cup of sweet tea and sat down on the lower deck, watching the cliffs.

Best I could get – check the link to see what they look like

Out there in the ocean we were joined by a small pod of dolphins, which swam around and under the vessel for a few minutes. The endangered Hector’s dolphins are cute little guys, much smaller than the dolphins we see in most of Australia. Hump backs come to visit on their migration, and orcas and blue whales are around in Akaroa harbour all year, although from time to time they vanish. Unfortunately, this was one of those times.

Back in the harbour we journeyed along the cliffs and did some seal-spotting. At one place, baby seals gambolled about in shallow pools in the rocks. And then it was full steam ahead back to the wharf.

By the time our host returned, clouds had gathered on the hills and started to pour down into the valley. We drove back via the Summit Road and soon the car was enveloped in quite thick mist hanging around the upper slopes, so we couldn’t see the views except for occasional moments when the mist parted. I did manage to take a few photos.

Clouds rolling in over the harbour

A break in the clouds

Beautiful views

Elm trees line the road back to Christchurch

After a lovely dinner of mashed potatoes, herbed peas, and roasted salmon, it was time for me to go to a motel near the airport. I arranged for a 4:45 shuttle bus to the airport and tried to get some sleep. The motel room was excellent – clean, neat, with a great bathroom. But it’s a busy place, with people arriving late. I got 2 hours of actual sleep, and maybe a few minutes of doze, and woke up well before the alarm I’d set.

I wrote the later blogs on the plane flying above a thick cloud layer over the Ditch (that’s the Tasman Sea, that section of the Pacific Ocean between Australia and New Zealand). It has been a wonderful few days, but I’ll be happy to be home in my own bed.

Akaroa

The town is just visible, right at the end of the harbour

B’s friend, S, picked us up from our Christchurch hotel and took us to her holiday home in Akaroa, about 90 minutes drive from the city.

Akaroa is at the bottom, Lyttleton at the top

The Banks Peninsula is the result of volcanic activity. Both Lyttelton and Akaroa are the remains of volcanic craters. Read more here.

It’s a very pretty drive from Christchurch, winding through countryside tinged with the colours of Autumn.

We did a couple of picture stops, the first at a ‘beach’ covered in water-worn stone. There was tonnes of the stuff, all smoothed by the action of wind, water, and abrasion. It’s all volcanic around here, and most of the rocks looked grey, but when they were wet patterns and colours appeared.

 

Lake Forsyth

We drove on past Lake Forsyth, a haven for water birds.

At Little River we stopped for lunch at a place S assured us did great food. She was right. I had fetta and spinach filo,  served with a fresh salad. From there it was on to Akaroa, a natural harbour set amongst rolling hills and rocky crags. The summit road gives glorious views.

 

Our hosts have a lovely home with a great view over the harbour. They also have a lovely garden where we enjoyed watching the birds picking at the pears in a prolific tree.

Sunset fire is reflected in Akaroa’s waters.

We enjoyed a lovely meal with W and S, drank good wines and listened to stories about Akaroa. The area was (of course) settled by a Maori tribe. I suppose I vaguely knew the Maori were cannibals, but W told us about how a warlord from the North came down to attack the local tribe. Te Rauparaha wanted to attack paramount chief Tamaiharanui, who lived in Akaroa and conducted trade with the Europeans. But he needed surprise. The appearance of war canoes in the harbour would signal his intent and warn the village. The warlord made an agreement with Captain Stewart, of the brig Elizabeth. The European ship would transport the Maori war party and their canoes in exchange for 50 tons of flax. The unsuspecting Tamaiharanui actually came on board the Elizabeth for what he thought would be trade talks. He and his wife were imprisoned below decks. That night the war party attacked, sacked the village and engaged in a cannibal feast. Eventually Captain Stewart handed Tamaiharanui and his wife over to the attackers, when they were tortured, killed and eaten. Captain Stewart only received 18 tons of flax and I expect he developed a few grey hairs with a blood-thirsty Maori war party on his ship. It seems another trader with more New Zealand experience had advised him against the deal. A wise man.If you’re at all interested in history, this is a fascinating story. Find the passage headed “The capture of Tamaiharanui”. History of Canterbury 

The following day S took us sight-seeing, starting with a quick visit to a Maori settlement and its tiny church. It had a lovely painting of Jesus steering a boat in a storm. I’d never seen him depicted in such a way before. Note the familiar Maori Tiki symbols on the gables.

 

That’s Akaroa’s head

Then we drove up into the hills above the harbour and down a narrow country track to Flea Bay. It’s all green, precipitous, and spectacular. It’s as if the sheep have velcro on their feet.

The track down to Flea Bay

Flea Bay

Tomorrow we’ll take a closer look at the town and the harbour.

 

Headed for the hills

The railway line from Springfield

Today we went up into the mountains. We were blessed with brilliant weather – blue skies and not much cloud, and the snow that had fallen the previous week had persisted. Transport was a little white van capable of seating 12. There were 11 adults and a child – 4 Americans, 2 other Australians and a young Indian couple with their daughter. The bus was quite cramped, but hey ho. You can’t always have a Volvo to yourself.

Our driver took us up to Springfield to catch the train up to Arthur’s Pass. It’s a new, comfortable train with large windows (and lots of reflection) although we could have walked up to the open carriage near the front to catch the view without windows. That struck me as a bit chilly. And I managed to get some good pics by bringing the camera close to the glass. The following 4 photos were all taken from the moving train.

An alpine lake and mountain peaks

Turquoise water an Autumn foliage

Meandering rivers

Just the sort of river to film the scenes as Frodo and co approach the Argonath

While I was busy with the camera B did some people watching. Three older-than-middle-aged, well-heeled American women (think designer jeans and botox) stood in a gaggle chatting together as the train passed through some amazing scenery. They compared nail polish designs and the best dental products for whiter teeth. As you do as the train passes by amazing scenery. It’s a spectacular trip, the train winding its way through the river valleys or climbing up the slopes.

We got off at Arthur’s Pass and drove on in the van after a minor drama at the station. B needed some food on the train trip, so we went up to the cafe car, where she bought a sandwich and coffee. Neither of us had cash with us, so she paid with a card. Unfortunately, up there in the mountains the signal to the internet is patchy, at best. The server took B’s card and assured her the transaction would be completed, and the card returned, by the time we got to Arthur’s Pass which is the only stop between Springfield and Greymouth, on the west coast. It’s very much a five-minute whistle stop so that people can alight. I got off the train and B went off to find somebody to get her card back. After a few minutes, the porter blew his whistle. No B. The train blew its whistle. No B. Any minute now she’d be off to Greymouth. I was starting to compose the phone call to B’s husband. “Um. I’ve got some good news and some bad news. B’s on her way to Greymouth. But she’ll get her credit card back…” But then she appeared, waving her card. Phew. Nobody had come looking for her (as promised), but she’d found somebody. Did I say phew?

The viaduct through the mountains

The original road before the viaduct was built. It was used until 1999!

We had a photo stop at a lookout with a view of the viaduct that has replaced part of the road through the mountains. While we were there we met New Zealand’s alpine parrot, the kea. They’re smart birds with the destructive habits of some of their Australian counterparts. Keas are known for picking the rubber out of windscreen wipers and door seals. Despite their fairly drab outer plumage, when they open their wings it’s a ‘wow’ moment. Check out the pictures on this page.

One of several keas. That plumage is great camouflage in the scrub

The kea popped into our van and nibbled the carpet

We stopped for lunch at Otira, a quaint little place that used to be much bigger in the days of steam, when many more people were needed to service the railway.  The rooms are full of sometimes interesting, sometimes just weird bits and pieces, such as a couple of stuffed possums, one posing with a toy rifle. Possums are introduced pests in NZ, so they’re not popular, but I thought they looked gross. Although some of the other pieces were genuine antiques, they all needed a dust, if not a clean. Otira used to be quite a large town when the steam locomotives made the trip through the mountains. They needed a lot more people than the modern diesels, so Otira dwindled into the past. Our driver told us that one person bought the whole town for $200,000. Stars in his eyes, he opened the town to disadvantaged people, who moved into the empty houses. But it only lasted until the first winter. This is a bleak spot.

Can’t get away from LOTR in NZ

Our driver had asked us to pick an item from the hotel’s lunch menu before we arrived – and he told us he thought the place – and the food –  was dead ordinary. He was right. B had a grey-looking beef burger, and I had whitebait patties (an Otira specialty). The patties are more like pancakes, pieces of fish mixed with egg and flour, and fried. Here’s a recipe. Two of them came served between two slices of bread (which I discarded) and some pretty revolting chips (fries). B made her revolting chips even more revolting by mistaking the sugar dispenser for the salt shaker. Oh well. She wasn’t going to eat them, anyway. I think the only person who appeared to enjoy lunch was the rather large young Aussie male who was there with his mum. He was the sort who’d eat anything.

The walk to Cave Stream

The entrance to Cave Stream

From Otira we headed on back down through the mountains towards Christchurch, stopping for photos where we could. One longer stop was at Cave Stream, where a stream flows through a 600m tunnel. Our driver told us five girls had died there, washed away by flood waters, but I couldn’t find any reference online to such an incident. Still, people have died attempting the walk through the cave – the water is cold, and chest deep. Here’s a story.

Back in the bus, next stop was the trip on a jet boat. That had to be cancelled because the river was too high from the recent rains. Seems the river brings down silt and rocks and as a result the place where the jet boat starts had only 3 inches of water. He couldn’t even launch it. Sad, but you can’t argue with Mother Nature. Having arrived home, Canterbury Leisure Tours has only refunded 75% of the fare. I’m not happy, and I am arguing with them.

We went off to a farm where farmer Kevin brought out working dog, Jeb, to bring the sheep over. He’s a cross between a NZ mover dog (like a cattle dog) and a rounder-upper (like a border collie). Kevin named NZ breeds in his pedigree but I don’t recall what they were, and I’d never heard of either. Suffice to say Jeb is an all-rounder who incidentally loves scratches and pats.

Jeb’s herded the sheep

Then Kevin sheared a sheep. The Yanks and the Indians were fascinated but B and I had seen it all before. I was interested in the pamphlet about a mix of merino wool with possum fur. Possums were brought to NZ to start a fur trade. Apparently they have hollow fur, a trait they share with polar bears. This makes the fur very light, and very warm. When mixed with wool it makes garments light, warm, and pill-resistant.

Kevin is shearing this six-month old lamb. It has never been shorn before.

The cup of tea and Kevin’s wife, Heather’s, home made bikkies and muffins was welcome.

It was a good day, but tiring. A little white van isn’t the most comfortable mode of transport, and on the way back the Americans were in conversation with each other and the Australians, all talking about different things from different directions. For us it was something of a dull roar.

Tomorrow we’re off to Akaroa. Meanwhile, here’s some more photos.

Gardens and vineyards

After a leisurely breakfast at the same cafe as yesterday we went to the Christchurch Botanic Gardens, a large park with the Avon River running through it. It’s Autumn in Christchurch and in this cooler climate the deciduous trees are a riot of colour.

We also went into an exhibition of whimsical dance costumes, all based on floral themes. Created by Jenny Gilllies, each costume takes three months to make. I don’t doubt it. The inspiration to create the design is amazing, and then each component piece must be sewn individually before it’s all put together. A screen at the back of the exhibition showed the costumes being worn in dance. That really brought the whole thing to life.

I loved the water garden with its strategically placed trees reflecting their Autumn splendour in the water.

We enjoyed a glass of wine in the gardens, and a simple wine and cheese meal at the apartment.

The following afternoon in brilliant Autumn weather we went on what turned out to be a private wine-tasting tour in the Waipara valley, just north of Christchurch. Our driver, Graham, picked us up in a Volvo SUV since we were the only people who’d booked. Touring in comfort – I’ll take that any day. He was much the same age as us, and he told us stories about the quake, as well as about the countryside we passed through.

We had lunch on the veranda

A simple platter full of variety

First stop was at Waipara Springs, where we enjoyed a wonderful, very welcome, lunch including fruit and salad. We sampled their wines, mainly whites with a final pinot noir. That was pretty much the pattern – whites, then maybe a light red and or a dessert wine. Our server here was an American.

Then we crossed the road to Greystoke/Muddy Waters. As the name suggests, two wineries were combined, one on limestone soil, the other on clay. Because of the soil differences, the wines from the two areas were quite different. The vintner here was Fergus, who is as Irish as his name suggests.

From there we went to Waipara Hills, dominated by a truly magnificent building. Graham explained it had been built by an American, using stone imported from the US. Unfortunately, the man’s wife became homesick, so they sold up and went back home. This winery also had vines in the Marlborough area, so one of their offerings was a Marlborough Sav Blanc, We tasted a couple of sub-varieties of Chardonnay, then we were offered a late picking riesling. I don’t normally like sweet wine, but I reluctantly gave it a whirl. It was absolutely delicious, a treat with cheese.

The last winery was Pegasus Bay. This property has a beautiful garden and would be lovely for picnics and concerts on the grassy slopes above the little waterway. Back in the main building our server was a lovely German lady. This property had its wines on tap, which apparently reduced waste and spoilage since the air didn’t get into the wine. After the usual sav blanc, chardonnay, and pinot, we were offered a drop of muscat. It was very, very nice.

After a slow drive back to town caught up in traffic after an accident somewhere, we rolled back to the apartment. Dinner was a delivery of pasta, followed by an early night.

Tomorrow we’re off to the mountains.

 

The remains of a ruined city

Sunday morning dawned blustery, with scudding clouds interspersed with sunshine. My friend and I found Procope, a lovely little coffee shop, open on a Sunday morning for a welcome coffee and an excellent bite to eat, then we walked into Christchurch’s CBD. Every street had empty blocks, traffic cones, detours, wire fencing, cranes, and construction sites.

The wrecked cathedral is the outstanding reminder of the earthquakes that devastated the city in 2010/11, around 7 years ago. There used to be a spire where that metal brace stands. For the rest, the town is full of large open spaces where buildings used to stand. All these years later, the scars remain – although new, modern, (ugly) earthquake-safe structures have started to rise.

The first earthquake struck at 4:35am on 4th September, 2010. The magnitude 7.1 quake damaged many buildings, but only one person died and a few were injured.  For the following year the area was shaken by thousands of shocks and after-shocks. A serious quake on Boxing Day 2010 caused more damage, and then another serious earthquake occurred on 22nd Feb, 2011, taking down buildings already weakened by the previous activity. 185 people died in that quake, many of them inside buildings that collapsed.

It’s not just the damaged buildings, though. When the earth moved it destroyed sewerage pipes and water pipes, took down power lines, and buckled railway lines. Soil became mud and roads and buildings sank into the ground. All the fabric of modern society was destroyed. Portaloos were distrbuted and water was a problem for months.  Understandably, many people moved away from Christchurch.

I think you can’t get a feel for what has been lost unless you talk to people who knew, and loved, what was there before. Everybody has a story to tell about the quakes. I mentioned the bus driver who had managed hostels destroyed in the CBD. She was grateful no one she knew was among the 185 people killed. I spoke to the cleaning lady at the hotel, who said she still lives in her damaged home, and she’s still waiting for some sort of repairs through her insurance company. I remember hearing about the quakes on Facebook, all those years ago. One of my friends was forced to leave her home because it was unsafe – but that didn’t deter the looters. She lost valuables, but also irreplacable mementoes. She certainly wasn’t the only one.

Street art is common, as are parking lots on rubble

This city block looks okay, but look at the next picture

This building is obviously unsafe and abandoned

B had friends in Christchurch – we’ll call them W and S – and they took us on a city tour. They filled in the holes, so to speak, telling us what used to be in the empty spaces, or what was where that horrible piece of modern architecture now stands.

Nature bounces back. That basic fact was underlined as we drove past tracts of what we thought were extensive parkland that were actually places where suburbs had stood. The land has been cleared, but you can still see the streets, the trees people used to have in their gardens, the edges of the properties. In many areas people still live in their damaged houses, with the holes and damage covered up as best they can.

B’s friends’ house was also badly damaged. The house had two solid chimney stacks, and the rest of the building more or less twisted around those two structures. They were fortunate to be able to relocate to their holiday home at Akaroa – and they had insurance. We admired the house as it is now, a lovely, bright home with a gorgeous, productive garden. But S talked about what she’d lost, what used to be there, small things like tiles over the fireplace, large things like reorganised rooms.

S in particular still mourns for the beautiful buildings lost in the town. She said she never goes to the city now, and I can understand why. Some buildings have been restored to their former glory and there’s talk of restoring the cathedral, but W says there’ll be many arguments before that happens.

Every person we spoke to about the earthquake said the situation had been poorly handled, with everyone pointing a finger at somebody else. You can’t stop mother Nature – but rebuilding is something that must be done by people. Contrast the city of Napier, also devastated by earthquake, which took that unfortunate event as an opportunity to reinvent itself. The city has been rebuilt in Art Deco style (which it was not) and is very popular with tourists. In contrast, while there’s talk of restoring the old cathedral, nothing has happened so far.

One of the restored buildings giving a feel for what was here before 2010

Ongoing restoration

One of the lovely bridges over the Avon River

The epicentre of the earthquake was quite a distance from the CBD near Lyttelton, Christchurch’s main harbour. Our hosts pointed out coastal features which had been changed forever – rocks split, collapsed Maori caves, whole hillsides that slipped onto the road or into the sea. I remember seeing footage on TV of houses balanced precariously on the edge of precipices created when the land collapsed beneath them. Here, too, people are still waiting for the insurance companies to do something.

But through all this, the countryside is beautiful. We drove up winding roads to admire views over the harbour and the city, spectacular despite the gale force winds. Wind surfers – braver souls than me – rode the wind and waves, and we even spied a board rider out there.

Having seen the sights, we adjourned to B’s friends’ lovely home for drinks, nibbles and an excellent dinner – with superb NZ wine. Much of the meal incorporated home grown fruit and vegetables. The quince crumble dessert was lovely with ice cream. They make their own olive oil, too, which appeared in a hummus made from chick peas, fresh peas – and the wonderful olive oil.

Uber took us back to our accommodation. Tomorrow we’ll do a little more exploring outside the city.

Wind-blown waves in the harbour. You can see a brand new cliff just behind the beach.

From up here, the harbour is beautiful

B and G’s excellent adventure – getting there

I was off on my own (ie without Pete) for a short adventure with my oldest friend, B. She and I go back fifty years, when we first met at high school. We became firm friends at university and shared many a scrape and mistake and wonderful times back in Perth, where I grew up. These days, she still lives there with her large family and plenty of responsibilities, whereas I’m a retired layabout on the other side of the country. So we planned a short escape to give her time to refuel the engines, and give me a chance to see a small part of New Zealand’s South Island. And gossip and reminisce over a glass or two of good New Zealand wine. Of course.

Needless to say, we didn’t travel on the same plane. B booked a flight from Perth which would have her arriving in Christchurch well before me. I flew on a morning flight from Brisbane, which meant a 3-4 hour drive from Hervey Bay to the airport. Rather than get up at midnight to drive to Brisbane, Pete and I drove down the day before and stayed in a hotel overnight. It was pretty ordinary, but it was a bed for the night. Breakfast was pretty ordinary, too – we had a sort of Eggs Benedict, overcooked eggs on a slice of ham on a slice of bread, covered in rocket leaves, drowned in far too much (bought) sauce.

Hey ho. Pete dropped me off and headed for home while I worked out how to do the self-service check-in. Much as I poo-pooed the whole procedure when I first encountered it, I have to say it has speeded up the airport experience considerably. No more conga line of people and bags snaking around in front of the airline desks. I’m not sure what they can do about the security screening, though.

It has been many years since my only previous flight with Virgin, so it was going to be interesting. Although it’s no longer as cutprice as it was when it started in Australia, Virgin is still a bit spartan. I paid the extra to pick my own seat, and get a meal. But you use your own device to watch movies etc, having downloaded the Virgin app. There were no usb ports. The food was ordinary – penne in olive oil and breadcrumbs on top with gluggy potato salad. The chocolate mousse wasn’t bad.

We got off to a bad start when the flight was delayed for an hour. These things happen, of course, but when the pilot did the routine apology, he explained that the delay resulted from two factors; first, the crew had arrived from New Zealand that morning on another flight, which was late getting in. When they arrived, they had to go through transit security. NZ flights seem to leave from the gates furthest away from the main airport, so they had to go all the way in, then all the way out again. It must have taken 20 minutes. Bureaucracy gone mad, in my opinion.

It’s a boring flight most of the way. The plane crosses the Tasman Sea between Australia and New Zealand, known to us as ‘The Ditch’. I played Solitaire or dabbled in a book until we crossed the NZ coast. The alps were spectacular, with snow dusting the mountain peaks and turquoise rivers swirling through the valleys. Yes, the camera was up there in the overhead locker. I had more leg room in the row behind business class – but there was no seat in front of me to put my camera bag. But I did my best with the notebook.

I’d organised a super shuttle for the trip into the city. It’s a shared mini-bus service, costing $25 – much, much cheaper than a taxi. The driver was a refugee from North Carolina, a big, bluff woman who said she used to manage backpacker hostels in the city centre – until the earthquake (there will be more on that). Her job vanished with the buildings, so she bought into this franchise. She was the first and by no means the last person to tell me how frustrated she was with the lack of action in addressing the devastation caused in the earthquakes in 2010-11.

I arrived at the hotel (complete with 2 bottles of sav blanc from duty free) around 5pm, expecting my friend would have arrived well before me, around 10am.

She wasn’t there.

All sorts of things went through my head. Illness? Problems with the grand children? A sick dog? I sent her a text message. “You’re not here. What happened?”

The last thing I expected was aircraft dramas. The direct Perth – Christchurch flight she was supposed to take was cancelled due to maintenance problems. So she caught a Qantas flight to Sydney, which would connect with an Emirates flight to NZ. Except that after about two hours the cabin lost pressure. You know all that stuff they tell you in those safety briefings? Masks come down from above, put them on and breathe normally? Yep, all that.  She said there was a noise and all the lights went out, then a repeated announcement was made – ‘this is an emergency’. But the lights came back on, the pilots said a fault in the air conditioning caused the cabin to lose pressure. The plane descended rapidly to 10,000 ft, where oxygen is not required. B thought there was also a medical emergency in the cockpit, with a woman passenger she thought must have been a doctor running down to the cockpit. The cabin crew kept stressing that they were trained in dealing with the situation and to keep calm.  Since B flew business class, she would have been shielded a little from events in the rest of the cabin. It must have been heart-stoppingly scary, but B said after she accepted that there was nothing she could do, she watched the cabin crew, who wore masks attached to oxygen bottles they carried, doing their jobs calmly and efficiently. There were 297 people on the flight. It must have been a helluva job keeping all those people from panicking. Although I expect there would have been a few who panicked, anyway. Here’s the news report about it.

The plan had been to land at Adelaide, but Adelaide couldn’t accommodate the aircraft, so they flew on to Melbourne. There was no gate available there, either, so they stopped at a hard stand away from the terminal and waited until ground staff brought over a ladder for all the passengers to disembark. Then Qantas staff had to arrange new flights for everybody. My friend was put on an Emirates flight. But her luggage (and about 10 other people’s) hadn’t made it off the plane. Staff did their best, giving stranded passengers Qantas pyjamas and rudimentary toiletries. B spent 5 hours in the Qantas lounge and arrived in Christchurch around 6:30pm, suffering from lack of sleep – but with a great story to share. Just as well I bought that wine in duty-free.

B told me it was almost as if she had a premonition something might go wrong. Although she’s a great traveller, she doesn’t like flying. Apart from the usual hugs and kisses for the dogs (in case she doesn’t see them again) this time she packed an extra dose of her medication and a pair of knickers in her carry-on luggage – something she doesn’t normally do. At least I didn’t have to lend her a pair of knickers.

Dinner was a bottle of lovely NZ sav blanc, and a (delivered) gourmet pizza. Even that was a tale in itself, involving issues like how do you call an 0800 number from your roaming mobile, why won’t the online apps recognise the hotel address, and ringing pizza joints that no longer deliver. But with a bit of advice from the hotel staff, all was well. After that, both of us passed out for a much-needed sleep.