31 December 2013

The year that was: 2013

On the last day of the year, like so many people, I took time out to pause and reflect on the year that was 2013, a year of unexpected twists and turns, a year of wonderful moments and extraordinary highlights, but also a year when I learnt even more the value of appreciating the small things - of smelling the flowers and laughing at the antics of tiny frogs, and the lesson of living each day as if it was my last.

My first six months of 2013 were spent in Siem Reap, Cambodia, and one of the highlights of that time was the two weeks I spent helping out in the workshops of the Giant Puppet Parade project in February. The project brings together children from local NGOs and staff and volunteers from around the world to build a series of giant puppets. The culmination of the workshops is a night-time parade through the central city with the excited children proudly showing off their enormous and very splendid puppets, with the majority of the city’s inhabitants and visiting tourists turning out to watch.

Cambodian children are wide-eyed, cheeky, desperately poor, smart, smaller and thinner than they deserve to be, cute, capable, hard-working, affectionate, creative, playful, sensitive.… One of the joys of my last few months in Siem Reap was managing the transition of Helping Hands, the project this boy attends, into the Globalteer family. It is so satisfying and rewarding to know that in a very small way I was helping to give these children a better future.

If you know me, you know I am addicted to things old and ancient, so living in Cambodia was a paradise for me, offering regular doses of the ruined and the aged to feed my addiction. One day I particularly remember was a trip to Beng Melea with new friend Jill. The 90-minute tuktuk ride there and back was a joy in itself but the ruins are even more superb, especially as they are distant enough from the main Angkor Wat complex to avoid (most of) the madding crowd. Though the ruins have been much ravaged by vegetation, temple authorities have constructed wooden ramps and stairways that help negotiate the fallen stonework easily. It was a superb day out.

I also fed my addiction with almost daily doses of pagodas and I’m sure I was fast earning a reputation amongst the tuktuk drivers as that crazy old white woman, as my weekends were often spent tuktuking through the countryside in search of more temples. Wat Damnak, pictured here, was one of my favourites and was on my circuitous route into town so an easy place to pop in to. You can read more about it and the many other pagodas I explored on my other blogs.

Wat Damnak didn’t just offer beautiful buildings and quiet contemplative spaces, it was also home to some of the local wildlife, in particular frogs and lizards. The frogs’ antics were often laugh-out-loud funny but the lizards also made me smile, with their hilarious dance-like actions, their ability to change colour when aroused, and their truly impressive tails. Both these Oriental Garden Lizards and the tiny geckos that inhabit every nook and cranny of every building in Cambodia, as well as the Tokay geckos that cry out “okay, okay, okay”, charmed and entertained me, and helped provide me with the memories of Cambodia that I’m sure will never leave me.

The frogs and lizards weren’t the only beasties that made me smile in 2013. I am not a twitcher or even a birder but I’m definitely a bird-watcher and a bird-lover. As the great naturalist and broadcaster David Attenborough once said: ‘What wild creature is more accessible to our eyes and ears, as close to us and everyone in the world, as universal as a bird?’ In Cambodia, I enjoyed the birds that visited the trees outside my window and the glorious creatures (like this magnificent Indian Spotted Eagle) at the Angkor Centre for Conservation of Biodiversity. In Kuala Lumpur, I spent a wonderful afternoon at the bird park, where the huge free-flight aviary provides a very natural environment for the birds to live in. And since I’ve been back in New Zealand, I’ve enjoyed reacquainting myself with my Kiwi feathered friends.

When I visited that bird park in Kuala Lumpur, it was during a short five-day break, a wonderful birthday treat to myself. I loved the cultural diversity of KL. I loved the incredible modern architecture of the Petronas Towers. I loved the Indian and Chinese temples. and the character of the old shophouses. I loved Merdeka Square with its eclectic mix of British colonial brickwork, Islamic arches, Moorish cupolas and Moghul domes, all bordering a rectangular green where the Brits once played cricket. And I loved sharing part of my holiday with my cousin Julie, who flew up from Singapore for the weekend to help me celebrate yet another birthday.

I’ve spent the second half of 2013 back here in Auckland, New Zealand and, though I certainly didn’t expect to still be here as 2013 drew to a close, I am enjoying so many things about being back again in this beautiful city: the history of her heritage architecture and creativity of her public artworks, the green of the expansive parks right on my doorstep and waking to the sounds of tuis, walking the seaside boardwalks and bush-lined pathways, my tiny but perfectly formed apartment and the convenience of city living, watching the weather and the ships come and go across the sparkling waters of the Waitemata harbour, catching up with friends and the latest movies, and so much more.

Though this return to Auckland was not in my ten-year plan to travel the world, I am reminded of the wise words of the Dalai Lama: ‘Remember that not getting what you want is sometimes a wonderful stroke of luck.’

26 December 2013

Auckland walks: The Domain

Auckland Domain is the city's oldest park (established in 1845) and one of my favourite places. Its 80-odd hectares are where I walk most days and they are never boring. The atmosphere of the grounds changes with the weather – it can be quite eerie under a layer of fog in the winter and it can be swelteringly hot for a game of cricket in the summer.

The grandstand was built in 1898 and is still well used today.

It actually sits right on top of one of Auckland’s older volcanoes – the Auckland War Memorial Museum is built on one side of the crater rim, Auckland Hospital is on the opposite side. The duck ponds are one of the products of the volcano – they are natural freshwater springs, from groundwater that pools in the lava fractures and the scoria that fills the ancient crater. More information about the geology of the area can be found in Auckland University Press’s publication Volcanoes of Auckland.

Maori named the scoria cone of the volcano Pukekaroro or Pukekaroa (‘hill of the black-backed gull’) and the remnants of a former Maori pa can be seen on its flanks. It is topped by a totara tree planted by Princess Te Puea Herangi, which is surrounded by a manuka palisade with traditional Maori carvings. The remains of an early scoria quarry on the north side of the cone are now a lush fernery garden, behind the massive glasshouses of the Wintergardens.

Pukekaroro (or Pukekaroa) hill

But enough from me … you can read more about the diverse facilities of the Domain on the Auckland City Council website or, even better, explore the extensive grounds for yourself. Take a stroll along the bush walks and lanes or enjoy one of the many festivals held in the natural amphi-theatre of the volcanic crater (like ‘Christmas in the Park’), take advantage of the high location to fly a kite or relax to the sounds of a jazz band in the band rotunda on a summer Sunday afternoon, be delighted by the splendid displays of the colourful garden beds or take tea in the Kiosk alongside the duck ponds. 

During my many wanderings, I have photographed some of the places marked on this map from one of the park’s signboards. I hope they tempt you to enjoy the Domain for yourself.

#1 this athletic-looking bronze, by New Zealand sculptor Richard Goss, adorns
one of the Elliot Memorial entrance gates to the Auckland Domain 

#2 the fernery in the old scoria quarry
#4 the cool glasshouse at the Wintergardens
Left, #5 the flock of geese who live in the duck ponds and, right, #7 the band rotunda
#8 the Auckland War Memorial Museum beneath this morning's stormy skies
#9 the Cenotaph sits in an area of consecrated ground in front of the museum
#11 the formal gardens are colourful year round, with permanent beds and seasonal plantings
#15 the totara grove
Left, #16 the Valkyrie Fountain and, right, #17 the Robert Burns Memorial
#19 the Cain and Abel statue
#20 the three bronze figures representing wisdom, fertility and strength

19 December 2013

Cruising into summer

When I was eighteen (rather a long time ago!), I sailed to Sydney on the SS Oriana – in those days, sailing was cheaper than flying.

At almost 42,000 tons and 245 metres long, the Oriana was one of the bigger cruise ships of the time and was probably considered quite luxurious but the ship’s stabilisers broke down once we got out into the Tasman Sea, there was a huge storm and I was seasick all the way to Sydney. Needless to say, more cruises are not on my bucket list!

Compared to today’s cruise ships, the Oriana was tiny – compared, for example, to the Voyager of the Seas, a recent visitor to Auckland. At 138,000 tons and 310 metres long, Voyager is the 16th largest cruise ship in the world. She’s just one of a fleet of 23 ships operated by Royal Caribbean International, the company that operates five of the ten biggest cruise ships, including the world’s largest two, the Allure of the Seas and the Oasis of the Seas. Their smaller sister ship, the Radiance of the Seas, is due in to Auckland in early January.

Sun Princess

Auckland is a veritable Mecca for cruise ships, especially though not exclusively during the summer months. The most frequent visitors are the ships operated by Princess Cruises: Sun Princess, Sea Princess, Dawn Princess, Sapphire Princess, Diamond Princess and Pacific Princess – those last two will call in to Auckland during February next year.

According to its website, Princess Cruises has grown from very modest beginnings in 1965, when they had a single ship cruising to Mexico, to become one of the world’s foremost cruise lines. Its fleet of eighteen ships carries over a million passengers every year to more worldwide destinations than any other cruise-ship company.

The 77,000 ton Sun Princess boasts 15 decks and 1998 berths, with 10 separate places to eat as well as 24-hour room service. I rather liked the sound of the ‘Movies under the Stars’ poolside screen!

Sea Princess

The Sea Princess has the same passenger capacity as her sunny sister, and very similar features. One that sounds particularly interesting is The Sanctuary, ‘a serene haven just for adults’. Her accommodation includes 1008 cabins, of which 6 are suites and 32 are mini-suites, complete with private balconies. All 38 are bigger than my apartment! One interesting snippet about this ship – when she rejoined the Princess fleet in 2005, she was christened by Joanna Lumley.

Dawn Princess

The Dawn Princess also had fun christeners, the original cast of ‘The Love Boat’! She’s about the same tonnage and length as her sisters, with similar features. Four hundred and ten of her 999 cabins have private balconies – gone are the days of four bunk beds in a room below water level, like mine on the Oriana all those years ago!

Sapphire Princess

I took this photo of the Sapphire Princess some years ago (it seems my fascination with cruise ships is not as recent as I thought!). At almost 116,000 tons and with 1337 cabins, this princess is bigger than those previously mentioned. Her features include 8 whirlpool spas, a lawn court for golf putting and lawn games, a wedding chapel, a casino and an art gallery – strange bedfellows!

Moving on from the Princess cruise ships, we come to the Celebrity Cruise Line. The names of all eleven of their ship start with the word celebrity, hence the name of this ship, the Celebrity Solstice. With her blue-glass upper decks, this cruise liner looks more like an enormous floating hotel than a ship. She's 1033 feet long, has 19 decks, and houses 2850 passengers and 1500 crew. She is the 25th-equal-biggest cruise ship in the world and she is very impressive – but I still wouldn’t want to sail on her.

Celebrity Solstice

Next up is the Italian cruise line Costa Cruises, which was actually established back in 1854 for the transport of olive oil and fabrics between Genoa and Sardinia. Following the Second World War, Costa recognised the economic potential of the growing demand for passenger ships and the influx of European emigrants to the USA so moved into passenger transportation. It was a wise move as Costa is now Europe’s number one cruise line and Italy’s largest travel group.

One of a fleet of 14 cruise ships, the Costa Romantica sounds very luxurious: her public rooms are decorated with rare woods, Carrara marble, and millions of dollars worth of original artworks. Her decks are named after well-known European cities: Monte Carlo, Madrid, Vienna, etc. 

Costa Romantica

Last but by no means least in today’s cruise line up is Auckland’s most recent visitor, the Holland America Line’s Oosterdam. Holland America ships have been circumnavigating the globe for over 140 years and ms Oosterdam is one of their current fleet of 15. She is 936 feet long, weighs in at more than 82,000 tons, has a passenger capacity of 1916, and was christened back in 2003 by HRH Princess Margriet of the Netherlands. That black slit up her middle is actually the lift area, a necessity for passengers who have 11 decks of facilities to explore!


I wasn’t the only person at Queen’s Wharf to watch the Oosterdam depart last Wednesday. There is something fascinating about these huge ships. Maybe it’s their size, maybe it’s the wonderful sound of those three blasts of their horns that signal departure, maybe it’s just the sense of romance that comes from sailing off into the sunset.

10 December 2013

Some famous silent movie stars

I mentioned in my previous blog about my collection of photographs of silent movie stars that some of them are famous names. Here are a few of those, starting with the ladies.

American actress Gloria Swanson was born in 1899 and died in 1983, having starred in more than 70 short and feature-length films, both silent and talkies. She was one of the few silent movie stars to make the successful transition to talkies, she was a fashion icon, she produced movies and acted in theatre and, eventually, moved on to cameos in such television shows as Dr Kildare, My Three Sons and The Beverly Hillbillies.

She received Best Actress nominations for her roles in Sadie Thompson (1928) and The Trespasser (1929), and for her most successful movie, the 1950 film Sunset Boulevard, for which she also won a Golden Globe.

A lot of the photos I have show sultry, seductive, smouldering images of young women, similar to this portrait of the very beautiful Lillian Gish. Born in 1896, Lillian was particularly active in film-making from 1912 to 1921, starring in movies like The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance and Way Down East, amongst others, and it has been argued that she was the greatest film actress of that era.

Lillian continued her screen career later in life, starring in television programmes from the 1950s to the 1980s. She received a Special Academy Award in 1971 for “superlative artistry and for distinguished contribution to the progress of motion pictures.” She starred in her last movie, The Whales of August, in 1987 aged 93, and passed away in her sleep at the age of 99.
Lillian Gish was a close friend of our next movie star, Mary Pickford. Born Gladys Mary Smith – hardly a movie star’s name – in 1892, Mary began her career as a performer at the tender age of 5 and continued to play young girl roles, even in her adult years. The fact that silent movies were relatively short meant she was able to appear in over 40 movies in just one year.

Mary went on to found the film company United Artists, with fellow moviemakers D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks, whom she later married. Though she retired from acting in 1933, Mary continued to work in the industry, helping to establish the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and producing movies.

Mary’s brother Jack was also a child actor but was never in the same league as his sister. One movie in which he was successful was Tom Sawyer, a 1917 silent movie in which he played the lead role and which also starred Robert Gordon (shown here in the role of Huckleberry Finn).

Born in 1895, Robert Gordon acted in 35 films between the years of 1917 and 1949, including the 1919 movie Dawn, If Only Women Knew (1921) and The Mysterious Witness, from 1923. Though I could find little information about Gordon online, he was obviously a favourite with Adela Dawson, the woman who compiled my photograph collection, as there are many images of him later in life. He was rather handsome!

Next up is another name most people will recognise, Will Rogers. According to Wikipedia, Rogers (1879 – 1935):
was an American cowboy, vaudeville performer, humorist, social commentator and motion picture actor. He was one of the world's best-known celebrities in the 1920s and 1930s.

Known as "Oklahoma's Favorite Son”, Rogers was born to a prominent Cherokee Nation family in Indian Territory (now part of Oklahoma). He travelled around the world three times, made 71 movies (50 silent films and 21 "talkies"), wrote more than 4,000 nationally-syndicated newspaper columns,[ and became a world-famous figure. By the mid-1930s, Rogers was adored by the American people. He was the leading political wit of the Progressive Era, and was the top-paid Hollywood movie star at the time. Rogers died in 1935 with aviator Wiley Post, when their small airplane crashed in Alaska.

In 1908, Rogers married Betty Blake (1879–1944), and the couple had four children: Will Rogers junior, Mary Amelia, James Blake, and Fred Stone. Sadly, the youngest, Fred, died of diphtheria at the age of two.

Will Rogers made 48 silent movies and 21 feature films but is equally famous for his writing and penned some brilliant one-liners. A couple of my favourites are: "Even if you are on the right track, you'll get run over if you just sit there" and "Lettin' the cat out of the bag is a lot easier than puttin' it back in."

My last movie star needs no introduction, though you might not recognise him from the photos below. Charlie Chaplin – or, rather, Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin – lived from 1889 to 1977, and is world famous for his slapstick comedy, in particular for his role as ‘the Little Tramp’. But that is not the limit of Chaplin’s contribution to the movie industry. By the age of 30, he had acted in and/or directed 62 movies, and his 75-year career also included movie production and musical composition.

The French government honoured him with the rank of Officer of the Legion of Honour in 1952, he was awarded a Special Academy Award in 1972 for his "incalculable effect in making motion pictures the art form of the century”, and in 1975 he was made a Knight Bachelor of the Order of the British Empire for his services to the entertainment industry. But, for me, as a big fan of the old black-and-white silent movies, Chaplin will forever be that funny little man with the ‘toothbrush moustache’, the bowler hat, the twirling walking stick and that crazy funny walk.

08 December 2013

Birds of New Zealand: part two: seabirds

Juvenile kelp gull
Seabirds confuse me.

In the past, I thought all seagulls looked alike. So, I consulted an expert, Brent Stephenson, and the book he co-authored with Paul Scofield, Birds of New Zealand: A Photographic guide, for help identifying my gulls.

Turns out, there are kelp gulls, and red-billed gulls, and black-billed gulls, amongst others. And those large brownish-feathered birds, often seen with gulls, which I thought were called Mollyhawks (in fact, there’s no such thing, the name is MollyMawk), are actually just juvenile gulls (even though these kids look a whole lot bigger than their parents).

One of the most common seabirds in New Zealand is the Red-billed gull (below), which is found all along our extensive coastline. Their distinctive red bills and legs are how we can tell them apart from the black-billed gulls, which are otherwise very similar. Having said that they are our most common seabird, I should add that populations have taken a nose dive in recent years and this may be related to their diet. Their usual foods are plankton, little fishes and marine invertebrates like molluscs, anemones and crustaceans, but they are also scavengers, selecting choice morsels from rubbish dumps and quickly gulping down tasty titbits thrown at them by humans. The fact that rubbish in landfills is now buried may be a contributing factor to their dwindling numbers but over-fishing and climate change are also possibilities.

The Kelp gull is also common in much of New Zealand and, indeed, throughout the world, and it also likes to scavenge at any opportunity. During my early morning walks through Auckland’s Domain I often see these gulls collecting worms from the roads, particularly after rain has flushed out worms from the grass verges.

The Kelp gull is distinctly black and white (compared to the grey and white of the red-billed and black-billed gulls). It is larger than the red-billed gull, and has a yellowish-orange beak and legs. Its scientific name is interesting: Larus dominicanus dominicanus is, as you might guess, named for the similarity of its plumage with the habits worn by priests of the Dominican Order.

Sadly, the Black-billed gull is on the critically endangered list. This photo (right) is not one of them – rather, this serves to show how the juvenile red-billed gull can easily be mistaken for the black-billed variety, due to its blackish bill. But the real black-billed gull’s beak is sharper and the bird itself is more finely featured, with very light grey upper wings.

The Black-billed gull can be found throughout New Zealand but is most common along the South Island’s braided river systems, and can be seen following along behind farm tractors ploughing the Canterbury plains.

Little Pied Shag
Apparently, the word shag is Old English and relates to the crest on the bird’s head – think, for example, of the word shaggy. New Zealand has several distinct species of shags and you could easily be confused into thinking we have several different species of little shags as our Little pied shag can vary substantially in colour – some are mostly dark, some have two or more different colours, others are streaked. This little fellow (below) was happily fishing around Auckland’s inner city wharves.

I took this photo of a Dotterel (below) in Whangamata last Christmas, while visiting an aunt who lives there. It was at the end of the beach nearest the estuary so, fortunately, away from the bulk of that busy beach’s foot traffic. New Zealand dotterels are shorebirds, usually found on sandy beaches and sandspits or feeding in tidal estuaries. They once were common and widespread but are now highly endangered, partly due to a loss of habitat, partly due to predation by introduced mammals and partly due to their breeding grounds being disturbed.

As you can tell from this photo, dotterels can be hard to see – their colouring is so similar to the background of sand, shells and dune vegetation that they merge with their environment. Their nests are often just a scrape in the sand so, to distract intruders who stray too close, dotterels fake injury, perhaps a broken wing, to draw the intruder away from their vulnerable eggs and chicks.

I always think of oystercatchers as completely black but the Variable oystercatcher is just that, variable in colour – some adults have dark uppers, white unders, and smudgy grey bits as well. Their long orange-red beaks and eye-rings are very distinctive, and the birds can often be found in pairs – they usually mate for life – on beaches throughout New Zealand. 

With a name like oystercatcher, you’d expect these shorebirds to feast in style, exclusively on oysters, but they actually eat all types of molluscs, as well as crabs and worms. Their long beaks are particularly well designed for punching holes into mollusc shells and levering apart the two shells of bivalves.