29 June 2014

Madrid and the crowning of King Felipe VI

And so the adventure begins …

It’s a long long way from Auckland to Madrid, from my apartment door in Auckland to the hotel door in Madrid about 34 hours, and I wasn’t very well for much of the trip so, suffice to say, I was very glad to collapse in my comfortable room, have a hot shower and order room service for dinner, then sleep away the jet lag.

I chose well when I picked Hotel Europa from the many reviewed on TripAdvisor. It’s in the pedestrian-only street Calle Carmen, in the oldest part of Madrid, very close to Puerta del sol, the exact centre of the old city and the zero kilometre point for all Spanish roads. My room was modern and well equipped, with excellent double-glazed French doors leading out to a tiny balcony, overlooking the hotel’s street-side restaurant immediately below and with views along the surrounding streets. That double glazing was absolutely essential and very effective at stopping the noise of life outside, which continued into the wee hours.

I chose the hotel for its location, about half way between the Royal Palace in one direction and the Prado in the other, and my plan was to spend a day exploring in each direction. By sheer coincidence, 19 June, the day after I arrived, was a historical day for Spain, the coronation of King Felipe VI following the abdication of his father Juan Carlos. I only discovered this watching CNN news that morning and didn’t realise what celebrations had been planned so set off in the vague direction of the palace but following a walking trail of the various historical and notable buildings on the way.

And what amazing buildings they were! Every which way I turned my head, there was impressive sculptural decoration, intricately carved doors with shiny brass door knockers, gilded details glistening in the sunlight, ancient brick patterns and fascinating old shop-fronts and signs, balconies overflowing with the ubiquitous flowering geranium and, for the coronation, adorned with patriotic banners of red and yellow.

I soon got sidetracked down intriguing alleyways and seductive side streets but I think I did manage to see all the buildings on the list, including the Church of San Gines (dating from medieval days but rebuilt in the 17th and 19th centuries following destructive fires); the Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales (the 16th-century home of the barefoot Carmelites); the Royal Monastery of the Incarnation; and the Senate House, which houses the upper chamber of the Spanish Parliament.

At first, I couldn’t get near the Royal Palace, as each street leading in that direction was barricaded and swarming with police but, eventually, I followed the same direction as the increasing throngs of people to the one entrance point, where bags and bodies were being scanned. Declared safe, I was allowed in and found a great possie right in front of the palace, where the friendly locals assured me I would soon see the arrival of the king.

That word ‘soon’ was a little optimistic and we all quickly became very hot, both from the sun and the increasing volumes of people jostling for position. But, after the arrival of various local and international dignitaries in cars and buses, the parading back and forth of regiments of soldiers, both on foot and on horseback, King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia arrived in an open-topped limousine, to the huge cheers and enthusiastic applause of his patriotic subjects – and the clicking of a million cameras! Another 20 minutes or so passed, while the troops paraded off before the king and queen appeared on the palace balcony. I shouted ‘Viva Felipe!’ along with all the rest and found it quite moving to experience this special moment in Spain’s history.

I headed back to the hotel and enjoyed a delicious lunch and rehydrating drinks at a sidewalk table, then escaped the heat of early afternoon by retreating to my room for a couple of hours. When I re-emerged late afternoon, I set off for more exploration, first to the Plaza Mayor, the main square which dates from the reign of King Philip III (1598-1621). It’s huge, surrounded on all four sides by four-storey buildings with arcaded shops below and umbrella-covered cafes out front, entered by a series of nine massive gateways. I strolled around, being entertained by various types of street performer, but found it stiflingly hot in the confined space, large though it was.

So, I headed out again, past a cluster of fascinating old buildings: the site of the cloistered convent of the Hieronymite nuns, Las Jeronimas del Corpus Christi; the Lujanes Tower, the city’s oldest civil building; and Cisnero’s House and the Casa de la Villa, bridged high up by a narrow passage. And then it was on to La Almudena, the enormous Catholic cathedral, where I spent perhaps 30 minutes, enjoying the cool and the peaceful atmosphere, craning my neck to admire and photograph the impossibly high vaulted ceilings. This is a relatively new building, only consecrated in 1993 by Pop John Paul II, so its neo-Gothic interior is almost surprisingly modern, with richly coloured paintings and statues by contemporary artists.

The cathedral sits adjacent to the Royal Palace so that was my final port of call for the day. With the barricades gone, I could get closer to the fences, gates and doorways for better images. Constructed between 1738 and 1755, it is the largest palace in Europe with 135,000 square metres of floor space and 3418 rooms. Though public entry is usually allowed, it was closed for that day’s ceremonies and, anyway, I was again hot and thirsty and tired – time to find a café and a beer and reflect on this amazing first day of my holiday!

12 June 2014

A taste of Africa and a slice of England

It’s almost a year since I returned to New Zealand from two years living abroad, intending to take care of some property issues then depart again – ha! As the Scottish bard said ‘The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men, / Gang aft agley’, though I was much luckier than Burns’ ‘wee, sleekit, cowran, timorous beastie’, who lost his home to the plough. Instead, I sold my one-bedroom apartment and bought a studio apartment, in the same building, so downsized my home but, luckily, didn’t lose it.

The property exchange was done and dusted by the end of August so I could still have headed off quite quickly. But, by then, I was teaching business English in the afternoons with one of my previous employers, and had taken on temporary office administration work in the mornings with another. I thought I could settle down again so one of those temp jobs soon changed to full-time and permanent, something I quickly realised, for several reasons, was a big mistake. However, the six months I stayed in that job did allow me to save the money to pay for my next adventure.

On 17 June I head off for a rather extravagant 76 nights’ holiday, with 3 days in Madrid, 19 days in Morocco, 38 days in England, 2 days in Dubai, 10 days in Tanzania, 2 more days in Dubai and a couple of nights on planes. My itinerary includes 13 flights: an initial long haul from Auckland through Sydney and Dubai to Madrid, and after a short stopover there on to Casablanca; then from Marrakech to Manchester; later from London through Madrid to Dubai; a wee break there then on to Kilimanjaro via Nairobi; later the reverse journey from Kilimanjaro to Nairobi to Dubai; another very short break there, then home to Auckland via Melbourne. Phew!

Apart from the short stopovers, the trip breaks into three parts: a tour of Morocco, 5 weeks visiting friends in England, and 10 days in Tanzania.

Morocco has been on my list of places to visit for many years. My ex and I planned to go there during a 9-month trip half-way around the world way back in 1983 but didn’t quite make it – we had a couple of weeks in Tunisia, but that’s as close as we got. The idea for this part of my trip was hatched back in May 2013 when I was living in Cambodia and treated myself to a 5-day birthday break in Kuala Lumpur. My cousin Julie, who lives in Singapore, flew up for the weekend to help me celebrate and, during one of our many long conversations, we discovered a mutual fascination with Morocco. As she’s a teacher, she has her long break in June–July so the idea of a tour of Morocco in June 2014 was born. A friend of hers, Andrea, will also join us for this adventure.

To avoid the hassle of organising the trip ourselves, we’ve booked with Intrepid Travel. I haven’t travelled with them before but they have a good reputation so fingers crossed it goes well. Our tour is quite comprehensive and includes a taste of Bogart’s Casablanca, Roman ruins at Volubilis, a camel ride into the Sahara for a desert camp, a night with a Berber family, lunch in Ouarzazate (where Lawrence of Arabia was filmed), a couple of days in the pretty coastal fishing town of Essaouira, and we’ve tacked on a few extra days at the end to explore the medinas of Marrakech.

From Marrakech I fly to England to begin a series of visits with women friends, in a small village south of Manchester, in Kent, in Devon and in East Sussex. I haven’t been to any of these locations before so I’m very much looking forward to long countryside walks, visits to country houses and historic places, and spending time with each of these wonderful women, as well as having a few nights in London for some sightseeing there too.

For the last part of my trip I return to Africa, to Tanzania for a 10-day adventure with The Giving Lens, an organisation that uses the medium of photographic workshops to bring volunteers and much-needed funds to local NGOs at the same time as providing their participants with photographic training and a more genuine, less touristy travel experience. I first got to know the folks at The Giving Lens when their leader, Colby Brown, brought a team of photographers to the NGO I managed in Peru.

In Tanzania, we’ll be volunteering with an NGO that fosters the artistic development of the local children, we spend 3 days in a Masai village, and also volunteer with families struggling with AIDS. For the final 3 days we’ll be on safari in the Ngorongoro crater and the Serengeti. To see wild animals roaming free on the plains of Africa is a long-held dream of mine so I know everything about Tanzania will be sensational.

I have a new camera I need to learn how to use (a Canon 100D) and new luggage to try out (an Osprey 75L Sojourner, a hybrid backpack with wheels). I’ve had my rabies jabs (not pleasant) and bought my anti-diarrhoea meds (the traveller’s friend!). I’ve booked all my accommodation and most of my transport. And I’ve been enjoying farewell get-togethers with friends, some of whom seem to think I won’t come back … but, as the man said, I’ll be back, if only to earn the money to do it all over again or to pack up my belongings and head back overseas to live and work! Time alone will tell which of those scenarios pans out. 

In the meantime, five more sleeps …

08 June 2014

Birds of New Zealand: part 3

As my pleasure in bird watching has continued to grow over recent months so my library of photos has also increased, meaning it’s time to post another blog about some of our wonderful New Zealand birds (my two previous blogs on the subject are here and here). I say, ‘New Zealand’ birds but, in fact, a couple of those listed here are immigrants who have perhaps been blown to these shores on the winds of a particularly violent storm or hitched a ride on a ship and, finding the environment to their liking, decided to make New Zealand home … and who can blame them?

New Zealand scaup (Aythya novaeseelandiae)
The New Zealand scaup (aka Black teal) is a little cutie and quite the entertainer. When feeding for the little fishes, snails, mussels, insects and aquatic plants that make up its varied diet, it dives underwater, staying down for between 20 to 30 seconds and reaching depths of up to 3 metres.

Though its plumage isn’t striking, being mostly dark brown or black, its squat form and upward pointing tail give it a perky appearance. In the breeding season, the male likes to advertise his presence by changing his head plumage to iridescent green.

European settlement in New Zealand reduced the numbers of these natives for a while but they have recovered naturally in some areas and been reintroduced in others (North Auckland, Taranaki and the Wellington district). For Aucklanders, there are quite a number of scaup making their home at Western Springs. And a word to the untutored like me – I have just realised today that I have been pronouncing its name wrongly – apparently, it should sound like ‘scorp’ not ‘scowp’.

Spur-winged plover (Vanellus miles)

Here’s another bird whose name can confound the tongue as opinions differ on the pronunciation of plover. Some say plover as in ‘lover’, others says plover as in ‘over’. I’ll leave you to decide which you prefer!

The spur-winged plover is a self-introduced Aussie (in Australia, it’s known as the masked lapwing). It was first discovered at the bottom of the South Island in 1932 and is now widespread throughout the country. 

It’s a large stocky wading bird but can be found almost anywhere there is low vegetation. I’ve seen quite a few along parts of the Auckland coastline but I’ve also sighted several pairs on the grassy slopes of Auckland Domain.

Pied stilt 
(Himantopus himantopus leucocephalus)

This is another self-introduced Aussie which, since its arrival in the early 19th century, has interbred with our endemic black stilt to produce a bird distinct from its Australian cousins. I particularly like its elegant long pink legs – hence the ‘stilt’ name, and those legs are also the reason for its Maori name, poaka, from ‘po’ meaning small and ‘aka’ meaning long, thin roots. As those long legs suggest, this is a wading bird, most often found on wetlands and in coastal areas throughout New Zealand.

The pied stilt is a very social creature, so is almost always seen in large noisy flocks, often feeding near other wading birds like oystercatchers and godwits. As that beak indicates, they often probe for worms, aquatic insects and larvae but, when the light is good, they also catch their food by sight.

Sacred kingfisher (Todiramphus sanctus)

The aptly named ‘king of the fishers’ is another highly entertaining bird to watch, especially when fishing. It will sit patiently on a strategically placed branch, pole or railing overlooking a mudflat or estuary then, with a sudden flash of turquoise, it’ll be off to snatch, catch or grab whatever has caught its sharp eye.

With its loud ‘kek kek kek’ call, the kingfisher will be sure to announce its presence, especially if you stray within its territory during the mating season, when it will also dive-bomb other birds and even humans if it considers them a threat. Its burrows can often be seen up high in muddy cliffs and banks at the coast but it also nests in holes in trees. Luckily for us, the population is numerous and widespread so we can all enjoy its antics.

Caspian tern (Hydroprogne caspia)

I spotted the two birds in my photographs in Auckland’s Hobson Bay on 26 May – a very exciting first sighting for me – then didn’t see them again on further visits until 7 June. The Caspian tern is the largest tern found in New Zealand, about the size of the black-backed kelp gull but with quite different colouring. With an estimated 1300-1400 breeding pairs in New Zealand, sightings are relatively uncommon, hence my excitement.

I think these two are mother and fledgling, as the younger bird was continually begging for food, both through its supplicating posture and its constant begging calls. The very patient parent would tolerate this behaviour for about 5 minutes, then give up and fly off to fish for food, hovering over the shallow waters until she saw her target then diving rapidly down to swoop it up. They were an absolute delight to watch.

Eurasian (or Australian) coot 
(Fulica atra)

For me, the most fascinating thing about this Australian immigrant (first recorded breeding in New Zealand in 1958) is its bizarre lobed feet, a cross between the long toes of wading birds and the webbed feet of swimming birds like ducks. If you can’t see its feet, you will also be able to recognise it instantly by the white shield above its bill.

These coots have made themselves at home in those parts of New Zealand that have their preferred reed-edged freshwater lakes and ponds – the birds I’ve seen have been in Hamilton’s Lake Rotorua and at Auckland’s Western Springs, where they compete with ducks, swans, geese and gulls for the bread thrown by humans.

And that’s it for New Zealand birds: part 3 – there will undoubtedly be a part 4 in the future. I hope this post will encourage you to turn off your computer and head outside to check out your local birdlife. I guarantee you will be amused by their antics, delighted by their colours, and entertained by their merry tunes. Just remember the wise words of Robert Lynd, ‘In order to see birds it is necessary to become a part of the silence.’

Much of the information about these birds came from my much-thumbed copy of Birds of New Zealand: A Photographic Guide, with a little additional help from co-author and master bird photographer Brent Stephenson.

07 June 2014

Auckland walks: Mt Victoria and North Head

Leaving on the ferry
One of the best things about having so many volcanic cones dotted around Auckland is the panoramic views you get from the top of them and, as most are very accessible for walkers, you can easily combine exercise and sightseeing by a walk to the top of one … or, in this case, two.

As I live in the central city, access to these two volcanoes, Mt Victoria and North Head, is via a quick 10-minute ferry ride across the Waitemata harbour to Devonport. This is a pretty little seaside suburb, with architecturally significant colonial-era houses, craft shops and galleries stocked with fine examples of local artistry, a range of outdoor cafes with offerings to satisfy the most demanding taste buds, as well as beaches and parks where you can stroll off the calories after you indulge!

My map – and this blog post – focus on the walk I did last week but Devonport is worth exploring further. In fact, the place has so much to offer there are two websites to show visitors what to see and do, and where to stay and eat.

Devonport and Mt Victoria

From the ferry, the direct route to Mt Victoria takes you up the main street, Victoria Road. With extreme difficulty, I resisted the temptation to browse the shops and galleries (you can always return to these at the end of your walk!) and focused on the hill. At the entrance to the reserve, across Kerr Road, there’s a sign showing the road and pathways but, basically, you just follow the road -- a steep-ish climb to the 87-metre summit, but with plenty of opportunities to stop for photos, it’s easily managed.

Named after Queen Victoria, this volcanic mount was formed by the fire-fountaining of frothy scoria from a central crater, which was later breached on the south side by a lava flow that extends towards the Devonport foreshore. When the tide’s out, you can clearly see the remains of this lava flow on the beach between Devonport wharf and Torpedo Bay, and its rock pools are fun to explore, though sturdy footwear is required.

Looking from Mt Victoria to North Head and Torpedo Bay
This mountain is not just a scenic reserve. It was used as a pa (fort and village) by early Maori and, due to its height and prominent position, the signal station for the Port of Auckland was sited on top in 1841. Much updated and now fully automated, it still functions today, and the old signalman’s house has become the Michael King Writers’ Centre, supporting the development of high quality New Zealand literature. The mount was also the site of 64-pounder muzzle-loading guns when, in 1885, Aucklanders feared an invasion from Russia, and still houses an 8-inch disappearing gun that dates from 1899. The northern side of the crater contains a water reservoir, the vents from which have been painted to resemble artificial mushrooms growing in the grass.

Looking from Mt Victoria back towards the central city
Once I’d checked out the historical sites, soaked in the views and taken a hundred photos, I headed down a track on the eastern side of the mountain, emerging on to Church Street via Flagstaff Lane. I turned left and continued along Church Street a short distance until the entrance to Cambria Reserve appeared across the street. This pretty park was once home to a 30-metre-high volcanic cone but one hundred years of quarrying away its scoria and rock have almost flattened the land, and landscaping by the local council has produced yet another green and tree-filled space for a pleasant stroll. I did a quick circuit and emerged on the eastern side, where the old, relocated Presbyterian Church now serves a new purpose as the Devonport Museum. It was closed on the day I visited but I’m sure its collections of memorabilia and photographs would be worth a visit.

Looking from Mt Victoria across the Mt Cambria Reserve and Cheltenham Beach towards Rangitoto Island
You could walk all the way up Vauxhall Road and access Cheltenham Beach from the northern end but I always choose the greener route if I can, so I strolled across the grounds of the North Shore Rugby Club to Tui Street, then turned left into Tainui Road and took the next right (Matai Road), which took me straight to the beach.

Looking north along Cheltenham Beach from North Head
With its golden sands and a grand view out to Rangitoto IslandCheltenham Beach is a favourite spot for walkers and swimmers alike. Dogs chased sticks, energetic youngsters jumped to catch Frisbees, families picnicked, and seagulls squabbled over fishing rights in the shallow water – it was an idyllic sunny scene and I lingered awhile to enjoy it all, soak up some sunshine and dry my feet after a paddle. Then, it was off southwards along the beach to my next volcano, the 50,000-year-old North Head, the eroded remains of a scoria cone overlying a small tuff cone.

Just like Mt Victoria, North Head’s strategic location at the entrance to the inner Waitemata Harbour has led to its use as a defensive fortification, with more muzzle-loading guns placed here in 1885 and three disappearing guns in 1886. Prior to the First World War, prisoners were used to excavate tunnels linking the gun emplacements and their service facilities, and exploring these is a fun activity for young and old alike. Fearing invasion by the Japanese, North Head’s defence capability was further developed during the Second World War and the fort served as the Regimental Headquarters for the entire Hauraki Gulf defence system.

These days, North Head is part of the Hauraki Gulf Maritime Park, and the Department of Conservation manages the heritage buildings and defence facilities and artefacts still found there. Their website contains excellent information and a guided walk pdf so interested visitors can learn more about these aspects of Auckland’s history. 

North Head from Torpedo Bay, with the Navy Museum and cafe at bottom right

I wandered the paths, at sea level and around the top of the cone, once again enjoying the panoramic views and taking lots of photographs, before heading down to Torpedo Bay, its excellent Navy Museum and café for some well-earned lunch. Afterwards, as I strolled the seashore back towards the ferry, I was treated to the antics of a plethora of birds: herons and cormorants, kingfishers, oystercatchers and gulls. Sitting on the ferry back to the city, I knew I had only scratched the surface of all Devonport has to offer and vowed to return again soon to explore further.

Information about the volcanoes listed here came from Bruce Hayward’s excellent book Volcanoes of Auckland: the essential guide, Auckland University Press, 2011.