Tuesday, 31 January 2023

Taiwan Calling


This is the last in a series touching on our trip around the world, and Taiwan has to be the most foreign. Why? Because all of the other countries had strong colonial of some sort, and boast a common language, or so it’s claimed.

Taiwan is a busy, sometimes frenetic, place of great beauty and great danger: earthquakes, typhoons, snakes and China.  However, there is no day–to-day awareness of that danger to my mind: life goes on, and for many it is a good life.

We have rather a unique view of Taiwan since our eldest son lives there and is married to an aboriginal lady. Consequently, we spent Lunar New Year’s eve way up in the mountains where her father has built his own house with, perhaps, the most stunning and (for the vertigo sufferers such as myself) dizzying views that I have witnessed in Taiwan. There we barbecued food whilst alcohol ran freely (including the father’s own peach wine – very strong) and various members of the family, young and old dispatched hundreds of rockets over the peach trees which cling tenaciously to the mountainside: those fireworks exploding noisily in the valley far below. Meanwhile red envelopes containing money were given to the children and even some for us as honoured guests – how kind.

Though most of our time was spent with our son, his wife and their two children; we did venture further afield taking the rather famous Alishan Forest Railway up to the park of the same name. It’s a tortuous trip in a small, narrow gauge, train traversing a line that rises steeply by utilising switch backs, U-turns and spirals. Originally created by the Japanese colonists to bring down timber from Alishan, it is now a major tourist attraction and is certainly a memorable experience for all – especially the vertiginous. We stayed up there in Alishan’s wonderfully laid out park in a hotel which turned to be our most expensive, meanest and coldest of the whole trip! But the views compensated: so dramatic, especially from the railway station.

One night was certainly enough in that hotel so we moved by bus (another dizzying, but stunning, experience) to Sun Moon Lake. Here is what I wrote in my notes. “This is one of the most inspiring, tear jerkingly beautiful locations I have ever visited. The view from the hotel lobby this morning caused me to stop in my tracks and gasp. It’s probably impossible to put into words but I’ll try. The lake is suffused with sunlight and rippling softly. There seems to be many islands but some are actually low hills on the distant shore. In the background are many grey/blue mountains of random heights, the biggest looming right up towards the sky and each of them wreathed with the soft whiteness of clouds.

Though roads are constantly improving across the country and there are many overpasses to speed the flow of traffic, the scooter is still king. Margaret christened them “replacement legs” and she’s right, people do not seem to walk very much because it is so easy, and cheap, to hop onto the scooter and park on the pavement right outside the shop or eatery that you are making for, thus creating a street scene that is unsightly, dangerous and awkward to negotiate on foot. My son took me to places where change is beginning, where pavements are for pedestrians and there are more trees and some modern apartment blocks, but this will surely take decades to make a great impact.

I’ll finish by confessing to my love for the flora and fauna of Taiwan, particularly the former. Things grow so luxuriantly there, and on any surface: including each other. Not far from my son’s home the straggle of houses finishes and wild, almost impenetrable jungle abounds. It may soon devour the scooters as you can see. I call this a “natural ending”.

And so ends my trip. After three months covering four distant countries and twelve air flights we arrived back in Oxford, which was cold but still lovely and a complete contrast to the places we have visited. Now I must begin work on a book detailing our travels.

Thursday, 12 January 2023

New Zealand Calling

 Is there a tangible difference between Australia and New Zealand beyond geography? Well, they do have a lot in common - but there are real differences. Upon leaving Adelaide we stayed for a few days in Auckland, NZ residing just beneath the incredibly thin and high Sky Tower. On our first morning we visited the War Memorial Museum located in the city’s wonderful park: the Auckland Domain. The museum covers a range of topics, but we were most interested in the history of the country (and certainly not that of Stonehenge which was currently being covered as a guest display from the UK), particularly the coming of the Maoris (known to themselves as the “Mouldies”. That part of the museum began with a vast area devoted to Polynesian cultures – the true ancestors of the Maoris before their incredible journeys from the Cook and Society island groups – and it is that journey plus their settlement of New Zealand that particularly interests me.

Maoris first landed their ocean-going canoes in NZ only 800 years ago or so – whereas the original people of Australia were there 50,000 years ago when their land split from the main continent. I have a personal interest in all of this since the reason for stopping off after leaving Australia was, at least in part, to link up with our granddaughter. She was there for Christmas and New Year with her New Zealander husband (who himself has Maori ancestry) and a first chance for his family to meet their baby son, our first great grandson.

Though thrilled with the wonderful blue-green experience afforded by the landing at Auckland airport (one of the best airport approaches in my estimation), we were not that taken with our second visit to Auckland itself: we later regretted that we did not hire a car to explore the reportedly beautiful coast to the north. However, our main objective was not there so after a short stay we took the bus south travelling to the west coast via the green, lumpy countryside of those parts. Unfortunately I had return to Auckland soon after leaving because of the ‘suitcase incident’ – don’t ask. So we spent the day of New Year’s Eve travelling by bus to the island of Mount Maunganui, then on the following day I spent eight hours travelling back to Auckland and half of the next returning to the Mount. Maunganui is the place that my grandson-in-law regards as home and this is where I saw the New Year in, sitting in the garage of an Airbnb with a group of his NZ friends who displayed an enviable capacity for alcohol, cursing and beer pong. It was fun and I added just a little to the atmosphere by getting them to sing and dance to Auld Lang Syne.

The mount is a strangely fin-shaped volcanic cone at the western end of the island, itself bordered by the finest of white sand and pummelled by roaring surf which delights surfers but knocked me for six over and over again. It lies in the Bay of Plenty next to Tauranga and is known by some as the party island of the country despite severe restrictions on the consumption of alcohol outside the home (and Airbnbs).

We returned to Auckland for our next flight (to Taiwan) and had a pint in the Shakespeare Hotel which has its own brewery and was the scene of violent glass throwing on our previous visit. The beer there was not bad and the fish and chips just great. But the best pint to my mind is Galbraith’s just to the south of the city. This place is unique, not only does it have its own brewery but serves the beer at cellar temperature through a fine set of handpumps. Yes, REAL real ale. That was and I’m sure will remain, the best pint of my round the world trip. Still, when in Rome and all that. Do they serve real ale in Rome? ‘Course not.

Tuesday, 3 January 2023

Australia Calling

I know, I know. Tasmania is part of Australia and I’ve already written about that. But it seems like another country, just as the State of South Australia that I visited seems a different country from West Australia its neighbour to the west and Victoria to the east. I think these state are more like England, Scotland and Wales in this respect rather than, perhaps, the counties of the UK.

Our son greeted us at the airport together with his two kids who were squirming with ... with what? Excitement, embarrassment, shyness? Who knows? After all they hardly know us plus they are just five and six years old. Then we took a taxi and my son took them home, no room in his car because of the child seats regulations!

This was a return for us – and a goodbye. They rent an ugly but quite spacious bungalow in North Brighton, Adelaide but had just bought one of their own in the same area – so we now know that Australia is their permanent home. Most of Adelaide’s housing consists of bungalows and on a previous trip I regarded them as little more than sheds: this time, because of their purchase perhaps, I realised they are often quite characterful and certainly varied. Meanwhile there is a trend there towards demolishing the bungalows and constructing two storey and/or multiple homes.

For me the most welcome, the most startling, and the most interesting aspect of the country is the birds: so colourful, so splendid, so musical yet also cacophonic, and so proximate. For colour my favourite is the Rainbow Lorikeet – so beautiful, so noisy. For musicality it’s the Australian Magpie, so lyrical, so black and white. But of course I love the mammals too, though there were not so many wild sightings this visit (we did visit the excellent Adelaide Zoo guided by our grandchildren).

My three week stay consisted primarily of working on my son’s new home: fencing in his dysfunctional swimming pool (a legal necessity there), repairing a collapsing garage, some rewiring and so forth. However, I was allowed a holiday of three days; so we hired a car and travelled north towards the York Peninsula through bleak flatlands mostly consisting of natural low scrub, vast wheat fields, or enormous sheep enclosures. The roads were mostly straight, lonely and well-made though we also traversed long miles of unsealed roads at ten miles per hour or less. On the latter we met a kangaroo and experienced a limited, but enthralling, degree of interaction.

Star location of the trip was Moonta, an ‘ancient’ town owing its existence to copper mining and imported Cornish labour (the pasties were good). We resided in a hotel that served no food and dined in a motel that had no beds! We also enjoyed the local museum which brilliantly told the story of this now defunct mining area from all aspects: community, technology and workforce and so on. We also visited a seaside town called Port Broughton and a wine town in the Clare valley.

Of course I much prefer beer to wine and, on this trip, evolved a technique for obtaining beer which was not ‘teeth shatteringly cold’. What I did was this: I ordered bottled from the store at room temperature and mixed them with the near zero stuff from he tap to attain the perfect cellar temperature of approximately twelve degrees centigrade – much to the astonishment and puzzlement of both drinkers and bar staff.

 Christmas was very different to my norm. First of all the sun was shining and it was hot. I went for a run as ever in the morning and found nearby Brighton beach buzzing with swimmers, sun bathers, dog walkers, kayakers, surfboarders and so forth. The water looked so blue, so inviting, so tempting that I stripped to my shorts and underpants and plunged in. Cold, but refreshing, I truly enjoyed that swim, my first on a Christmas day so it really had to be done. I then dripped, towel-less back to the Ilfracombe Avenue bungalow for present giving and a spiced beef Christmas lunch.

In the afternoon, guess what we did? Yes, the whole family went down to the beach dragging a tent, in which Margaret sheltered from the wind-blown sand, an inflatable paddle board and all the paraphernalia apparently necessary for a family beach visit. And there I was again; swimming on Christmas day plus playing ball and drinking beer, not at the same time of course, on a glorious sun-baked beach in the antipodes.

On Boxing Day there is a tradition within our family to take a long walk, so, even though the heat was omnipresent, my son and I did just that. We followed a trail up to some waterfalls located in a national park on the eastern outskirts of Adelaide and found, just like us, they were dry. However, we met an emu, which was nice.

It was not all building work and play though. I did some interesting research into a famous man who headed a ground-breaking medical team in Oxford and was born and educated in Adelaide. Watch this space for the forthcoming video.