Tourism Under The Radar

Skippers Canyon

What do a record-breaking fleece, up-cycled wardrobes and Paradise have in common? All featured on the off-the-beaten-track itinerary when my mother and I headed out on a South Island road trip last week to explore some little-known Otago gems. Domestic tourism is often underrated – when Hawaiian sunshine beckons, the rain of the west coast or the sandflies of the Routeburn track find it hard to compete. Persevere with New Zealand though, and it’s surprising what kinds of unique oddities are waiting just to make your day.

The highlight of our trip had to be Tarras, home of the most famous sheep in New Zealand. After being discovered encased in a recSHrekord-breaking 24kg fleece, Shrek was received by the Prime Minister, toured around A&P Shows, authored a book, and even visited Antarctica (sort of). Visit the ‘House of Shrek’ and you’ll find a giant display that pays homage to the sheep that was shorn on an iceberg. There are shots of the sheepy crampons, newspaper clippings about the berg itself, and even the fleece that was clipped on the icy hunk. Shrek passed away in 2011, and his taxidermied fleece is due to go on display in Wellington’s Te Papa at the end of this month. Still, the two picture books and full-length illustrated biography of the sheep that weighed down my luggage on the way home mean his story will stay alive in our household for years to come.

This was a road trip, so having scoped out Tarras we hit the tarmac and headed for Wanaka. No visit to the resort town would be complete without a stop at the inland cousin of our own local centre for pre-loved bric-a-brac: Wastebusters. While we had no pressing need for doors or a pre-loved exercycle, we did spend hours perusing the books, and came away with both strange looks and some real treasures.

When you go on tour with a librarian, books feature highly on the agenda. My excitement at the Shrek displays and ‘wasties’ was rivalled only by my mum’s delight at finding a collection of children’s books by boutique NZ publisher Gecko Press in Glenorchy, on the very border to Paradise. They even had a title about a sheep: the sale was inevitable, but also for a good cause. Mum’s running ‘sheep week’ at her Auckland library to bring a taste of Tarras to the townies.

New Zealand’s an exciting place to explore, but staying at a hostel we became attractions in our own right: in the sea of foreign voices it was a novelty to meet a real life kiwi. We had great fun plotting local out-of-the-way treasures onto torn out pages of tourist maps and sending the visitors off for a taste of real New Zealand, the way we’ve come to know it – Shrek and all. Next time your annual leave beckons, don’t forget there are always more obscure sheep museums and second-hand bookstores to discover in your own (national) back yard!

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

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A Funny Looking Sheep…

llama back

As far as mountain ranges go, the Kaikoura ranges do not really compare to the massive Andes of South America when it comes to height or scale. When it comes to long-necked furry mammals though, it is another story. Last weekend we headed north to explore the coast and to experience the new tourist phenomenon that is llama trekking.

First up, a clarification: ‘You Do Not Ride Llama!’ as the brochure loudly exclaims. Instead, you walk alongside the animal, gazing into its large black eyes and hoping that it doesn’t decide to spit in your general direction. First, though, you need to pen the creatures so they can be haltered up. That was an interesting way to start the morning, chasing llamas round a muddy paddock. Since moving down here I have invested in a pair of good quality gumboots, and in this situation they really came into their own.

Next it was time to get to know our charges, and for them to get to know us. Each llama has a distinct personality, which was evident from the outset. Just like the seven dwarves, there was the slow one, the grumpy one, the eager one. Carlos and Rocky were the best of friends, so naturally they had to walk side by side. We took them by the halter, and headed off for the grassy verge of the highway, into the late morning light.

Being llama novices, we opted for a flat and easy hour-long taster rather than a half-day trek or an overnight mission. As it turned out, they were very pleasant exercise companions, stopping for a chomp of grass every now and then, but otherwise peering quite happily over our shoulders at the mountainous terrain and posing for the obligatory llama selfies. While riding is out, you can put any important documents in the satchel bags on the animals’ flanks to get ‘llaminated’ (this is a great activity for families, because the opportunities for ‘dad jokes’ are endless).

Llamas in Auckland are about as rare as lapdogs at the Brown Pub, so the opportunity to make friends with what looks like a long-necked sheep was rather novel, and not to be passed up. In fact it was a friend from the city who tipped me off the activity in the first place. Of course I booked right away. In short, we paid good money to take someone else’s llamas for their daily exercise. And we had a lovely time.

Aussie Aussie Aussie, Sheep Sheep Sheep

shrek

We recently had an Australian couch surfer come to stay on our lounge suite. He came for the snow and a small taste of the rural, but in light of the gale force winds he was starved of the former and gorged at a buffet of small town NZ until he was full to bursting.

First up, we took him for a pint at The Blue. On a Wednesday night, the pub was not its usual bustling self, but we assured our guest that on special occasions, like the speed shearing competition, both our local landmarks pack out. The mention of sheep shearing was innocent enough, but apparently the trend has yet to hit the hip new nightclubs of Brisbane. Eyebrows were raised.

The next day I sent him off for a wander through the town, marking such highlights as ‘The Garden of Harmony’ and the ploughing sculpture on a map. They were nice enough, but it was the sheep in our neighbour’s garden that had him raving. ‘It’s a pet,’ I explained, ‘until it becomes dinner.’ Living in an apartment 12 stories up, a hamster was the best our visitor could manage back home, and his hamster was definitely not named ‘snack’.

Next it was time to get outdoors for a stretch and some scenery with a gradient. On our hike up Awa Awa Rata our Aussie was initially cautious as I strode ahead. ‘Back home you’d definitely be on the look out for snakes in this terrain’ he told me. Not here, though. The wasps of summer were nowhere to be seen, and the dearth of venomous creepy crawlies made all manner of cross-country manoeuvres possible. He started to relax. ‘I could get used to this’ he told me as we descended towards the car park. Then, as we drove past paddocks of livestock and over the RDR, he snapped a few photos and offered to make dinner. 

Post meal, when I asked our Aussie about his impressions of Mid Canterbury he went quiet for a moment before offering his response: ‘I never thought that all the sheep clichés were true before I came here.’ In light of his reply, I’m not quite sure what to make of the fact that he cooked us a lamb curry for dinner that evening…

The next day our guest departed Methven, bound for Queenstown, culture, and the slopes of the south. Or so he thought. What he’ll make of the Shrek museum in Tarras is anyone’s guess…

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

Hoi An: Symphony of Lights

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In Hoi An Old Town night lanterns sway in the breeze, painting a symphony of lights as they reflect off the meandering river below. This is a place for the senses and the sensual, where lovers stroll hand in hand and the tang of the ocean mingles with the aroma of freshly cooked dumplings. Thanks to the piped music that drifts down from speakers throughout the precinct, the Old Town is heard before it is seen. From the moment the notes meet the light of the lamps you are in another world.

Hoi An means ‘peaceful meeting place’, and it lives up to its name. Located just 30km south of the bustling city of Danang, this small coastal town is the perfect location for a relaxing getaway that is layered with the sights, tastes and styles of Vietnam.

By day Hoi An is a bustling maze of tailor shops and cafes, all with wooden facades and shutters that open directly onto the street. These facades have remained unchanged since the fifteenth century, leading to the area being designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999. History may be alive and well within the confines of the Old Town, but modern design has its place when it comes to attire. Famed as Vietnam’s hub of tailor-made clothing, tourists flock to the town with fashion magazines and fabric swatches in tow. Whether you are looking for a clone of your favourite worn out pants, in need of fitted business shirts, or seeking to turn a rough pencil sketch of a lavish frock into a reality, this is a place where anything is possible.

For those who are all shopped out, boat tours to the surrounding islands abound, while the Old Town boasts several museums that provide a glimpse of what life was like in the trading port in previous centuries. When stepping into the cool courtyards of the ancient houses, the weights of the shadows and of history are tangible in equal measure. Then there is the nearby beach, where exhausted shoppers can relax on deck chairs in the shade of the palms, while the more adventurous types hire jet skis or try paragliding in the afternoon sun.

By night Hoi An Old Town transforms into a tourist attraction in its own right, with access to the lantern-lit quarter and its range of open-air musical performances by ticket only. Restaurants offering al fresco dining line the promenade and entice the custom of passerby with local delicacies such as the White Rose shrimp dumpling. After dinner, a stroll through the traffic free streets reveals a town full of dancing shadows. Shopkeepers chat outside alongside their wares, illuminated from behind by the light box that is their storefront. Old women sit by the bridge, selling lanterns and the chance to make a wish as the fragile basket of paper and flame is lowered onto the water below, where it drifts away to the distant strains of the nightly soundtrack. Gradually, crowds disperse, guided by the light of the lanterns. Still, the memory of the town lingers as notes float over still waters.

Vertigo and Verve at Crazy House

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Nestled atop a hillside in the mountainous highlands of Vietnam stands a hotel that makes concrete one architect’s wildest dreams. The organic tumble of plaster is reminiscent of the works of Gaudi, with dripping edges and rounded corners abounding. A model giraffe’s head peers down on the courtyard, wreathed by bougainvillea, while fairy lights trace out giant spider webs in the leafy canopy. This is Crazy House.

Our stay at Crazy House – or Hang Nga Villa, as it is also known – was crazy from the hour we arrived; we knocked on the door at 5am, fresh off a night bus. As we entered the gates we could have been forgiven for thinking that we had lapsed back into the dream world, because the looming facades of the surrounding buildings were on a surreal tilt. Plaster vines radiate out from the high peak of the central building, twining themselves into dizzying bridges and collecting mosaic turrets as they ramble downwards. These perspective-denying angles are coupled with the kinds of stairs that would give an OSH inspector a heart attack, as we soon found out as we were taken for a tour of our accommodation.

The ten rooms at Crazy House are all themed to particular animals, with names like ‘The Bear Room’, ‘The Pheasant Room’ and ‘The Kangaroo Room’ apt descriptors. The latter boasts a life sized kangaroo sculpture, complete with glowing red eyes and a fireplace in its pouch. Thankfully the marsupial was unavailable, thus sparing us from Australian-inspired nightmares. Instead, the Ant Room was to be our abode for the night. Room is something of a misnomer, as the suite consists of three parts: bedroom, bathroom and a living area, complete with an ant shaped fireplace. This was not just a place to stay, but a place to really experience.

Crazy House is the brainchild of Vietnamese architect Dr. Dang Viet Nga. After studying architecture in Moscow, she returned home to work for the Vietnamese government for many years before embarking on her own personal project. Started in 1990, the Crazy House is constantly evolving. The buildings are based off paintings, which are then transformed into reality by a team of local craftsmen. The project continues to have environmental concerns as a central theme, as Dr Dang Viet Nga explains: ‘with the voice of architecture I wish to lead men to come back to nature.’ At Crazy House, human habitats and natural shapes combine to create a new vision of architecture that pays close attention to organic detail, whilst setting no limits for the imagination.

Crazy House opens as a tourist attraction during the day, but daylight only reveals half the picture. By night the layered fairy lights and a symphony of frogs combine to create an other-worldly spectacle in the gardens. The chirping amphibians are a far cry from the bustling traffic noise of Ho Chi Minh City, which is just a day’s drive away, but their song lingers longer in the memory. Call me crazy, but that’s just the way I like it.

Crazy House (Hang Nga Villa) Da Lat City, Vietnam. Open Mon-Fri. www.crazyhouse.vn

Talking Trash: The Penguins of Vietnam

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Vietnam might be an unlikely choice of destination for avid penguin spotters, but a recent trip to South East Asia has shown me that things are not always as they seem. Animal lovers fear not, this is not a tale of animal cruelty and broiled birds. Instead, it is a lesson in international approaches to spreading the clean green message, and the use of penguins as receptacles to this effect. In short, it is about penguin rubbish bins.

The first time we saw a little black and white bird with an upturned beak and an empty Fanta bottle protruding from its jaws we thought ‘Aaaw, how sweet. What a novel way of dealing with the eyesore of public rubbish bins.’ It was somewhat out of place in the 40 degree heat, but the lush tropical surrounds just made the dichromatic colour scheme all the more noticeable. We duly deposited our Oreos packet into penguin’s beak as we exited the park and enjoyed the brief virtuous glow that such an action precipitated.

The second time we came across such a penguin was in the depths of a meandering limestone cave. While Antarctic species are not known for their spelunking abilities, New Zealand’s own Little Blue Penguins do nest in burrows, so the subterranean location of this critter was understandable. Most people continued on their way, photographing the gaudily lit stalactites and paying the form of the trash can no heed. I turned my camera in the other direction to capture the happy coincidence, then bought a fresh pack of Oreos at the snack stand by the exit.

The fourth time we saw a penguin rubbish bin we thought that perhaps there had been an extra zero added to an order at some point in the past. Maybe there was a surplus, so penguin bins were going cheap? There was a suspicious lack of mammalian or reptilian rubbish receptacles, so either it was an issue of supply and demand, or someone really didn’t like the polar critters. We were leaning towards the first option, right up until we visited the mines at Marble Mountain.

There, in the depths of a cave that was rich with geological and social history, we came face to face with a part of the mountain that was no longer mountain shaped at all. Instead, it boasted two flippers, two webbed feet, and a gaping mouth. This penguin shaped rubbish bin took the cake, both because of the craftsmanship demonstrated in the carving process and because of the way it blew our earlier theories out the window.

The penguin shaped rubbish bins weren’t an accident after all. There is something about their compact, oval form and protruding bellies that makes these critters a prime target for urban planners and their waste management division. If Happy Feet has been sending subliminal ecological messages to a generation of children, who knows what effect these penguin bins will have. Will they lead to the mass donation of crumpled food packaging to Penguin Rescue Shelters in coming years? If so, our marine birds had better develop a taste for High Fructose Corn Syrup quick-smart.

It’s a long shot, but so was heading to Vietnam on a penguin-themed holiday in the first place.

 

 

 

Boarding Call (2009)

My Wörterbuch, my kiwi flag,
Socks and sandals, just like Dad,
My summer dress, my lightweight cardi,
Photos from my leaving party,
Names and addresses of distant rellies,
Marmite to treat homesick bellies,
My bulging backpack, my hiking socks,
Pineapple lumps, combination locks,
Camera, notebook, sunscreen, togs,
Glenn Colquhoun’s book ‘Playing God’,
My tiki T-shirt, student ID,
Presents for all my friends-to-be,
Toothbrush, toothpaste, dental floss,
Metro Mag for all the goss,
My passport and my boarding passes,
My crayola felt tip washable markers,
St Christopher necklace from my mates,
Instructions to the boarding gates,
My optimism, my trepidation,
My welling pride in my home nation.

La Chascona: A poet’s eyes

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Ok, it’s now official: I am a literary groupie. Visiting Berlin to take in the sights from Theodor Fontane’s novels, I felt my heart speed up at the sight of the Liebesinsel and the (obscured) Grunewaldsee. That was just the beginning, inspiring a week-long Günter Grass Poland trip to take in the alleyways and history of Gdansk. It should not come as any surprise then that, finding myself on an overnight stopover in the capital of Chile, I am at it again. Today I made the trip through the bustling streets of Santiago to a small oasis perched on the side of a leafy hill, to explore the inner sanctum of Pablo Neruda’s ‘La Chascona’ abode.

Born Neftali Ricardo Reyes Basoalto, Pablo Neruda is Chile’s most celebrated poet. Renowned for his sensuous poems, he also led a sensuous life: ‘La Chascona’ is named for his mistress – and later wife – Mathilde Urrutia, and was built as a sanctuary for her to live in and him to escape to. It is appropriate then that when it came to his house he chose to focus on the intimate interior rather than a showy façade. The white walls betray none of the inside details: courtyards overlook each other like Juliet balconies sheltered by grape vines, while twisting staircases inhabit secret passageways.

The artworks tell the story of a man who loved the ocean, with the walls adorned with galleons tossed upon wild seas. This love is evident from the first room, known as ‘The Captain’s Bar.’ The poet had a close affinity with the Ocean, calling himself a ‘Land Captain’ and filling his homes with maritime paraphernalia such as a theodolite and nautical charts. This collection also tells a personal story, and Diego Riviera’s portrait of Mathilde with two heads is fitting. The two faces hint at Neruda and Mathilde’s affair and later marriage, depicting what is seen and what is not. Those who look closely will also find Neruda’s profile painted in the waves of Mathilde’s hair.

La Chascona demonstrates the two sides of Neruda as well, with the rooms revealing insights into both the poet and the politician. While it is well known that he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1971, the importance of Neruda’s Marxist motivation is often overlooked. The numerous civic awards on display in the library serve as reminders of his successful diplomatic career. Neruda’s political interests remained strong right up until his death in 1973, which was attributed partly to stress over Salvador Allende’s loss of power following Pinochet’s military coup.

The lounge where Neruda’s wake was held is now open for visitors. The mountainous vista and eclectic collection of artworks, furniture and polished stones are welcoming, but their appearance masks a turbulent past. This is the same room in which Mathilde simultaneously mourned her husband and made a political stand, surrounded by friends and diplomats who had all picked their way across wooden beams to cross the flooded courtyard. The flooding was the result of vandalism, carried out by Neruda’s political opponents following General Augusto Pinochet’s takeover. When the people of Chile took to the streets to mourn him, they did so against direct orders, and knowing they were being watched by the brutal Pinochet regime.

Eyes still watch over the courtyard, but these days they are black and white drawings that hang from a branch and toss gently in the wind, winking over the landscape from many different angles. Having just come from Antarctica, my eyes are tuned in to relics of the Southern continent. Upstairs in the ‘French Room,’ an early map of Antarctica and a painting of a French Antarctic Expedition adorn the walls. The room is so called because it housed Neruda’s extensive collection of French poetry and literary works. It is also an insight into the poet’s unique attitude towards architecture: the room was built specifically to house Neruda’s favourite chair next to a well placed window and a picture he liked. Rather than starting with a space and filling it with details, he instead started with the details and built to accommodate them.

The result is a tangling maze of architectural moments, each its own work and, like a poem, suited to its own specific occasion. From the summer bar with its Single Malt Whisky sign, Fornasetti stools and giant pair of shoes through to the secret passageway between the dining room and Mathilde’s rooms upstairs, the house has many moods. It also inspires many moods in the visitors who come to explore, including curiosity and contemplation. I’ve come away from this excursion with a book of love poems, a better understanding of Chilean history and a definite track record for stalking literary greats.

The Warsaw Mermaid

When a land-locked city in central Poland proudly displays the image of a mermaid as its emblem, one cannot help but be intrigued. Up on a pedestal in the market square she holds her sword aloft, ready to defend Warsaw against any invaders. Unfortunately the mermaid is made of bronze so this threat never eventuated to much – just ask the Nazi invaders of WWII or the Soviet forces of the mid 20th century. Nevertheless, she stands for protection and as a symbol for the city is taken most seriously.

So, why a mermaid? There are several legends, all involving a Xena-style character playing the damsel in distress and an ironman swim down the Vistula river. One day a mermaid swam the 260km from the Baltic sea all the way to Warsaw. After taking a well-earned rest she decided to stay: the climate suited her. Unfortunately her presence didn’t suit the local fishermen who were less than impressed with the waves she caused and the fish she freed. They were, however, impressed with her voice. After a subsequent kidnapping by a local merchant one of the fishermen rescued the mermaid who, it turned out, was quite handy with a sword and shield. She revealed her skills, swore her allegiance to the fishermen and from that day forth has been the protector of the city.

Images of the mermaid abound in Warsaw, adorning everything from taxi doors to building company logos and the electrics panel on streetlamps. They all allude to her home, the Vistula river, which runs directly through the city and provides a clear geographical marker. Lone fishermen still litter the banks, casting their rods in all seasons, while the floating Aldona River Hostel allows visitors to fall asleep to her siren song. Swimming, however, is out. After several days of heavy rain rips are rife and every now and then the odd tree floats past. A gentle punting trip on a lake in the nearby Lazienki park is much more enticing for all but the hardiest endurance athletes. After our riverside stroll a leisurely trip around the lake was just what our legs desired. While we were not actually in the water, the edges of the boat were close enough to the waterline for it to qualify as a ‘near-mermaid experience’.

For those looking for more concrete examples of defenders that live up to the sword and shield emblem, the Warsaw Uprising Museum is the place to go. No mermaids in sights, but the displays tell the story of those involved in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, during which thousands of Polish resistance fighters lost their lives to German forces. Photographs and artifacts are used to narrate the history, with sections dedicated to German occupation and communist occupation and the personal stories of those who survived. These defenders of Warsaw are also immortalised in the large Warsaw Monument to Insurgents in the Old Town. Although the 1944 uprising was ultimately unsuccessful, The sentiment of those involved would have done the city mascot and her iron sword proud.

  • The Warsaw Uprising Museum is open Monday, Wednesday and Friday: 8.00-18.00,
Saturday and Sunday: 10.00-18.00,
Thursday: 8.00-20.00. Adults 10 zloty ($NZ4)
  • Punting trips take place daily during the summer in Lazienki Park. 7 zloty per person ($NZ3)
  • Aldona River hostel (The Vistula River, Poniatowskiego Bridge, Warsaw)offers basic accommodation in novel surroundings, floating on the Vistula river. One, two and three bed cabins available 75-130 zloty ($NZ30-50)

Bevar Christiania

A dragon, a fairy and a mythical tree guard the entrance to this land of pause. Bordered by water, a lone mallard keeps watch, paddling up and down the waterway with an upturned beak. The city may not pass. Beyond these walls of green the city drones, dives, flashes, moves, but here the hyperventilating of the metropolis seems a long way off. It is as if the earth is holding its breath while striking a yoga pose. Nestled against the canals of Copenhagen, this is the border of Christiania.

Lone poets litter the lakeside logs, some contemplating the ripples, others smoking under the thick canopy. Some sleep, bags clutched to their chests, beards matted, curled into the knot of a fallen trunk or a nest of long grass. They dream in saturated hues of the markets and vegetarian fare that characterise the commune just over the hill, dream of dragons and fairies and bicycles and snails. A giant floating frog-like sculpture observes all from his mid-moat mooring, taking everything in with his spotted hexagonal eyes. Following the meandering moat-side path, time slows down. It is not hard to find a spot and make a nest of your own. The frog takes note, then drifts and turns away.

Breathe. Let evening come. View the world from a snail’s perspective. This place smells of earth, of soil that has not been packed and shifted but left to ripen. It smells of growth and summer. A gentle anarchy prevails. It smells like home.

Planks of wood that have assembled themselves into small lakeside dwellings sprout technicolor vegetable gardens and bike sheds. Windows jostle for attention with mosaic entranceways and hanging gardens. Some call these illegal structures, some call them art. Others call them Home. They rise like phoenixes from the rushes, casting purple shadows. Gilded orange by the evening sun they look as if they may sprout wings and erupt at any second. This is prime real estate and eviction is always a possibility.

Build on military ramparts, each of these five triangular bays is a reminder of a hostile past. The topography is designed for conflict and sculpted for protection. Land torn from land, preserved as an excellent example of 17th century defence. Small fish agitate the surface as they dart after their evening feed. A slight breeze murmers to the rushes before replying to the trees. This green belt creates an insulation more effective than barbed wire or police blockades. The water acts as a coat check and worries must wait at the gate. There have been no raids, no shootings this month: the dragon and the mallard have been doing their jobs.

Folk music drifts through the trees and out over the lake, an invitation to return to the frazzled rainbow maze beyond. A bicycle workshop, markets, electric lighting and dinner at the old commune kitchen all beckon. The reeds let out a sigh. Dusk breathes shadows into the water, erasing the mallard’s silhouette. Waking snails. Leaving poets to dream.