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Saturday, March 29

This is Brighton

A few more things about the West Pier fire: the restoration will still go on regardless, and this fire might even end up saving the restorers some money. And then there's a long and wistful story in the Argus, which needs a couple of quotes repeated:

I sympathise very strongly with this one:
We have lost an old friend. I know it sounds a bit silly but I think we all loved her really

And this:
Above the sound of helicopters circling overhead came the surreal sound of Pavarotti singing.
In a bid to mark the former majestic pier's destruction, Giuseppe Colasurdo had flung open the windows of Alfresco's restaurant and played Nessum Dorma at full volume.

Is just so perfectly Brighton. I really wish I could have been there.
posted @ 3:46 AM -

An appeal to no-one in particular

Actually I do have one more thing to say, which is please keep Israel out of this. In the words of Israel's new foreign minister, We are not part of this war. We want to stay out of this war. We've said it many times before.

Ultimately the issue of the Palestinians' status will have to be resolved if sanity is ever to prevail in the Middle East, if only because they are such a convenient pawn for Arab despots to use when they want their people to forget how awful their own government is, and it makes Israel (and by extension America) into a very convenient common enemy for demagogues to rail against. [I take it as obvious that resolving the status of the Palestinians is imperative for its own sake because they are millions of human beings who are sufferring in their current situation, and the Israelis are millions of human beings who are sufferring because of the Palestinians' situation, but sadly that sort of concern doesn't make things happen in international politics]. However, Israel and Iraq are seperate countries, with seperate issues.

Israel didn't ask for this war against Iraq, and is not doing anything to support it, and it bothers me deeply that a lot of the anti-war protesters seem to be forgetting or wilfully ignoring this.
posted @ 12:49 AM -

Friday, March 28

My opinion, which is of no consequence at all

This is likely to turn out as quite a long post, something of a rant, and in some places rather defensive. If you can't be bothered reading, I won't be remotely surprised, because my opinion really is of no consequence at all (all the more so as I've waited till the war started to get around to expressing it), but I'm hoping it will make me feel better to write it and at least get this off my chest.

I think I'll frame this by comment on a series of statements, some very uncontroversial, some more questionable, and some with which I disagree [and probably not in a very sensible order, but I'm writing this in one take, so to speak]. Getting these straight should make my opinions make more sense, even if you disagree strongly:
  1. Saddam Hussein [I can't bring myself to call him by his first name. Maybe it's the norm in the Arab world, in which case perhaps someone who knows more about Arab culture could put me right on this one, but to me it smacks of a sort of disrespect that wasn't even handed out to Hitler (Mr. Hitler in many contemporary news reports) and is downright offensive even when speaking of someone as repugnant as Saddam Hussein (never mind the general foolishness of treating one's enemies with disrespect; I'll come back to that)] is a horrible man, and a terrible leader for the Iraqi people. I couldn't agree more with this statement. I have deliberately stopped short of using the word evil, because it's a word I'm extremely rarely comfortable using to describe anyone, and the only world leaders I feel 100% comfortable using it for are those from Germany's Nazi era who were involved in the conception and supreme oversight of the Final Solution.


  2. Any other administration would be better for the Iraqi people than the one they labour under at the moment. I'm not totally sure about this. Perhaps adding the word almost to the start would clear it up, but without wishing to ramble for too long about this I think I'd probably rather be one of Saddam Hussein's [I also don't want to just call him Hussein because that's a relatively common Turkish first name (and makes me think of a particular person who I remember with some affection), as well as the name of Jordan's last king, who I reckon was one of the better rulers the Arab world has seen within my lifetime] subjects than one of Robert Mugabe's or Kim Jong Il's. Still, I think that even if Iraq is reduced to a travesty of a colonial administration after all this is over, life may well improve for Iraqis. The one outcome that might be worse for them is if Baath's fall is followed by a long period of civil war.


  3. Therefore the international community has a duty to liberate the Iraqi people. No, no and thrice NO. This does not follow. One of the principal reasons why I oppose this war is that it is up to the Iraqi people to decide how they should be ruled. If they don't have the wherewithal to overthrow their overlords, then it is their lot to suffer for it. I simply can not support intervention in a sovereign country.


  4. The invading army will be welcomed as liberators. I was highly doubtful of this to begin with - they are still an invading army, and people almost always rally against an invading army, regardless of how unhappy they were with the status quo in their country before - and the news since the war started seems to support my view. For one thing there are a series of stupid things the US Army has done, all of which are dramatically upstaged by the general idiocy of the concept of shock and awe (quick summary: we're going to be welcomed as saviours by people who we've just bombed the shit out of). Add to that the various reports I've heard about Iraqi irregulars (ie ordinary people who've managed to get their hands on some sort of weaponry) fighting back in places like Umm Qasr, which is the one thing that has surprised me so far in terms of how the war is going, and seems to imply that Saddam Hussein is more popular than I had thought, or at least that revulsion towards the invading army is stronger than I expected.


  5. But we're fighting for freedom. Bollocks [and that's my edited, toned-down, abbreviated response]. Whose freedom exactly? Americans are not free to make their opinions known, if that opinion happens to contradict their government's line. As for Iraqis, well no-one's quite spelt out what's in store for them, but the snippets I've heard sound suspiciously like an externally-imposed, colonial government. I'm going to cut this short here because the idea of an external power imposing freedom on people is so patently absurd that I just can't bring myself to discuss without sinking to childish torrents of abuse, and you don't need to read that.


  6. changing tack somewhat: Saddam Hussein presents a clear and immediate threat to world security. I'm not remotely convinced about this. I am particularly unconvinced that Iraq has been presenting a greater or more immediate threat to world security than the DPRK, who are not getting anything like the same treatment. Plus my understanding (though I am no expert in Middle East politics) is that Syria meddles far more actively in things like international terrorism than Iraq has ever done (though Iraq does openly pay relatives of Palestinian suicide bombers, which is both absolutely disgusting behaviour and unhelpful to the Palestinian cause). The most important thing here though is that Iraq was hit very hard by the last war on its soil, and has never really recovered, so I don't think they posed that immediate a threat.


  7. All the same, something had to be done to keep Saddam Hussein in check, because of potential future consequences of leaving him alone. Yes, probably. I have little doubt that he is a megalomaniac, and little doubt that when he threw out weapons inspectors a few years ago it was to give his army space to start develop WMDs again, to increase his potential for making trouble when it suited him. However, I don't feel that invading the country, or getting rid of him as leader, are the only ways to stop him.


  8. The UN weapons inspections weren't working and could never work. Hmmm.... depends on what their objective was. If it was to prove that Iraq didn't have a WMD programme, then they could never work, because not finding something doesn't prove it doesn't exist, and many people (not just the US government and its allies) would never be willing to believe Iraq was innocent unless it started co-operating along the South African model that Hans Blix likes [used to like?] to talk about, which clearly wasn't about to happen. If it was to prove that Iraq did have a WMD programme, and thereby legitimise an invasion, they were also almost certain not to work, because Iraq's a big place, with enough intact infrastructure even after 12 years of bombing, and enough people loyal to [or scared enough of] its government to keep playing hide and seek for a long time. Even if the Franco-German-Russian proposal to bring in many more inspectors were taken up I reckon Baath could have continued hiding something for a long, long time, which in turn is why the inspections could never prove innocence. However, there is an important sense in which I think weapons inspections were working, and could have continued working indefinitely: while that game of hide and seek was going on it would have been impossible for Iraq to continue any WMD development programme, or to deploy any weaponry without it being noticed. I don't see why simply keeping Iraq hamstrung like that wasn't good enough for international security. Yes it must have been humiliating to Iraq, yes it must have been expensive, and yes it did have elements of farce about it, but do these things outweigh the cost (human, or even simply financial, at a time when Britain's and America's governments are having a lot of difficulty balancing their books) of a war? Surely not.


  9. The UN had proved itself irrelevant because it was so divided. I feel like I can respond to that in 8 letters: bullshit. I ought to justify myself a little better though. If the purpose of the UN were to rubberstamp policies made by its most powerful member, why would anyone have bothered forming it? The most powerful country in the world can go and impose its will on other countries without such a rubberstamping assembly, just as it is doing anyway. The primary purpose of the UN is to prevent wars. The UN was trying its utmost to prevent a war. The only reason it has failed is that the most powerful country has chosen to ignore it - it is this course of action that has made the UN irrelevant. One of the things that most depresses me about this situation is that I do see the UN, after years of having its usefulness questioned, finally going the way of the League of Nations, and becoming irrelevant because countries are choosing to ignore it. The UN has had many failures in its lifetime (I think I'll pick Rwanda as one of the less controversial examples), but I do firmly believe that the world would be a safer and saner place if conflicts were resolved by some sort of international consensus-forming mechanism, and for all its flaws the UN is [was?] the best we've seen. Look at East Timor to see an example of it actually acheiving something, and this year I have a suspicion that it may (with the help of a lot of pressure via the EU) finally resolve the Cyprus conflict, which would be a proud achievement indeed. If the world's only superpower would work through the UN, and volunteer its forces as an enforcer of UN policy, the rest of the world would have to listen, but if it ignores the UN the UN is perilously close to being deemed irrelevant by the rest of the world, because it can't protect them or enforce its decisions.


  10. another change of tack: It's going to be a quick and easy [and therefore relatively painless for both sides] victory for the US & British armies. I never believed this, and when I hear such statements there is one thing that echoes in my mind: It'll all be over by Christmas (in case you don't know what I'm talking about, that was a statement bandied around a lot in 1914). It's an important point, because the longer the war goes on the greater the sufferring it will cause, so the stronger the case that would have to be made to justify it. I have little doubt that America & Britain will prevail, but war is almost never easy, and it is invariably horrible. We're going to see more body bags, more bereaved relatives even in the US, and thousands of casualties, both military and civilian (and remember that Iraq's army includes a lot of conscripts) in Iraq. And then the US administration expects its troops tobe welcomed as liberating heroes....


  11. The long term consequences of this war on world stability and security are absolutely terrifying. I've already dealt with one consequence - the marginalisation of the UN - but there is also a series of other issues in terms of the signal this sends out to the world. To any Arab leader it must surely shaken their faith in the reliability of America as an ally; after all it is US support that made Iraq powerful in the 1980s. I guess the Bush administration is hoping that other governments will respond with shock and awe by becoming puppets of America, but in many countries doing this (or at least being seen to do this) will simply anger the population so much that the government would fall. Instead I think that America will find it harder to deal with other Arab regimes, which is clearly not something they want to achieve. Perhaps more worrying is the signal it sends to the DPRK, justifying decades of the army first policy, which apart from being one of the most disgusting aspects of the DPRK's governance has also been very successful in making the DPRK a serious threat to the stability of its region. The Kims (father and son alike) have always argued that the army first policy is a necessary reaction to the threat to the DPRK from the USA, and if I were Kim Jong Il I would see this invasion of a sovereign country because the USA decided it could no longer tolerate its government as justification to ramp up the expenditure of resources on the military from the already obscene 31% of GDP, accelerate the nuclear weapons programme, and just generally work towards the goal of becoming even scarier.


  12. another change of tack: Many of the anti-war protesters are in it for the wrong reasons. Yes, probably, but does that invalidate their cause? From what I know of the sorts of people who regularly turn up at anti-government protests (though the unprecedented size of the protests against this war make me think that many more 'ordinary' people must be involved than usual), I'm sure that there is a rent-a-mob element there (from my limited experience, protest marches are fun, and although I would never go along just for that reason, some people do seem to). I'm also sure that there are people there who are protesting because they just protest against anything their government does, people who are protesting because they viscerally hate America and therefore protest against anything it's involved in, and so on. These people are idiots (I think I've spoken to enough in person to be qualified to make that statement), but that doesn't mean everything they say is always wrong. There are probably also a bunch of hippies who think that because war is horrible it can simply never be justified; a point I sympathise with but do not agree with. None of this means that the cause in support of which they march must be wrong.


  13. The US & Britain are in this for the wrong reasons. See above. I don't for one second believe that it is genuine anguish on behalf of the long-suffering people of Iraq that is motivating this war, but if I thought the war was justified I couldn't care less what was motivating those prosecuting it. Take the last war against Iraq as a case in point: clearly the only reason so many countries cared so much about Kuwait was its large oil reserves, but all the same the war fought then liberated a sovereign country from domination by an aggressive foreign power, therefore achieving something noble, and I feel being unambiguously justified. [an aside: I don't actually think this war is being fought directly for control of Iraq's oilfields. The Economist has over the past few months, while failing to convince me that this war is justified, made a convincing case that this is not so. However, oil is still clearly fundamental to the motivation of all this, because the general oil wealth of the Middle East is the only reason America could care less what happens there, hence why Mugabe and Kim are being allowed to sit pretty, while Saddam Hussein is going to be unseated]


  14. final change of tack: Britain will eventually reap the benefit of being a staunch ally of the US by having some influence over US policy. Please tell me one thing: when?!? I've been hearing this from Blair & co for ages, but I've seen no evidence of it. Apparently Blair has on several occasions tried to encourage Bush to persevere with consensus-building, and been ignored. I can't blame Bush for this - it's obvious to an educated monkey that Britain needs America far more than America needs Britain, so Bush simply doesn't have to listen to Blair if it doesn't suit him. The only way in which I detect a possible hint of British influence is in the choice of day for starting the war; it seems like a mighty big coincidence that this happenned just as things seemed to be getting really difficult for Blair at home.


  15. Blair has been brave by sticking his neck out for something he believes in against the flow of public opinion, and should be lauded for this. This is actually something that gives me serious difficulty, because I often bemoan the way that governments seem to be led by opinion polls rather than convictions, and here is an example of the government acting against the current of public opinion, because it earnestly believes (for whatever reason) that what its doing is right. The trouble is, they are at the same time trumpeting the importance of democracy. Democracy doesn't mean people getting to vote every 4-5 years and then being ignored in between. It means popular rule. When I argue that the government should have the guts to pursue unpopular policies, I don't mean they should simply ignore unprecedented waves of public protest against what they are doing (and a million marching through London was certainly unprecedented). They have a duty to try and persuade the public that what they are doing is right, but in this case they have tried their utmost to make a case for war, and failed to convince their electorate. In that situation they have to listen, at least if their talk of the importance of democracy is to wash.
That's probably enough ranting for a few weeks now. If you've read this far, then first of all thanks for your perseverance. I do feel better for having written all this, though I still feel that the world is in the process of becoming a more dangerous place, and I am particularly angry that the leader of my country is so happily being an accessory to the crime, against the clearly expressed wishes of his people. Having asked last night that you hold fire with comments, I would now really like to hear from anyone who has a reasoned argument against what I've spent a few hours writing, and about a week mulling over. But please: reasoned argument only. Name-calling, ludicrous over-simplifications, and denunciations will at best be ignored, but will probably just get deleted, so don't bother. [for the record: it's not that I expect this behaviour from any of my handful of usual responders, just that generally weblogs that express political opinions in difficult times like this tend to attract boneheaded comments from casual readers]

After all that, two final points. Firstly, I may be away from internet access for a while again, as of tomorrow morning. If I seem to be ignoring comments that deserve a response, please bear in mind that it could just be that I haven't had a chance to read them yet. Secondly, why have I waited till now to say all this? It's point 7 above - the one about something needing to be done to prevent Saddam Hussein from becoming a threat - that had me wavering undecided for a very long time about all this. I've only been certain that this war is unjustified for a month or two, and by that time it looked so inevitable that I couldn't be bothered to spell out my opposition to it. The only thing that changed that was when I heard (via a fellow cycle-tourist who I met in the middle of nowhere, but had phoned home a few hours earlier) that the war had started, and suddenly my reaction to it became very emotional.
posted @ 10:19 PM -

I am burning with fury because my country has been betrayed

Tomorrow I will take the time to write a detailed, reasoned account of why I oppose this war so strongly, and of why it took me an unusually long time to come to this decision. Until then, I will just link to an article the headline of which captures one of the many things I am feeling.

Until I write my long post I ask a few simple things of you, my readers, whoever you are (whoever is still looking after I had gone quiet for a while): Please don't comment on this just yet. Please do read the article I've linked to, carefully, at least once. Please also follow some of the links from there to other articles by the same author, but if you read The Middle East is destroying my friendships, please also read It's not anti-Semitic to connect Iraq and Israel. If you're just going to look at the headlines and/or skim-read the articles, then jump to criticise either the author or me without bothering to think it through, please don't waste your time or add to my existing anger. If you have something intelligent or reasoned to say, then I look forward to reading it, but please still wait until I've said my piece, if only so that I can be sure my writing hasn't been coloured by people I find myself responding to.
posted @ 3:51 AM -

Hell Fire

The third pier-disaster in a few months has hit Brighton. The West Pier (the beautiful end part which hadn't collapsed into the sea) is now on fire. More information to follow when I can find some.

[update half an hour later: there's a report on BBC News now. Thanks to Alex for the original tip-off, and Peter for the full story]

This makes me very sad. There are far worse things happenning in the world, which make me angry, and very good things happenning in my life, which make me happy, but right now the strongest emotion I'm feeling is sadness for the probable demise of a building which I love more than most inanimate objects, and sadness that I'm not there to pay my respects, so to speak.

[another update: more information from the local paper]

[another update at midnight local time (noon GMT): it looks like the fire has been put out, but that the damage is pretty extensive]

[and a final update 12 hours later: it looks like it was probably arson. I know I am not the only one to suspect the Nobles of having their greasy paw prints all over this.]
posted @ 2:48 AM -

Democracy is in an undisclosed location

so these are the precious freedoms that the US army (with fawning cronies, including those who supposedly represent me) is fighting to spread to other parts of the world. Excuse me for not being overcome with gratitude.
posted @ 2:34 AM -
normal blogging service will briefly resume tomorrow (you just can't hide your excitement can you?), but until then, here's a story from round here to ponder on:

Winston Peters (the leader of New Zealand First, who are a rabidly racist party [ooh I hope he threatens legal action over that too]) has threatened to sue a Korean language newspaper over running an ad that insults him. Not that shocking in itself, but bear in mind that this is the same Winston Peters who a few days ago responded to criticism from the Race Relations Minister (who is openly gay) with I don't have to listen to that nancy in parliament. [and yes he was made to apologise for it by the speaker].
posted @ 2:05 AM -
if you have sent me email in the last day or two please re-send it. Scans of a few important letters filled up my inbox and it has been bouncing messages. Sorry.

[update an hour later: quite a lot of space was being taken up by graphics-rich spam advertising penis enlargement. I have deleted all of the offending messages, but myrealbox still keeps sending me messages telling me my mailbox is full even though it now manifestly isn't. Most annoying.]
posted @ 12:46 AM -

Monday, March 24

Correction to yesterday's post

There is actually another reason why I'm not writing much here (or emailing much or spending much time online altogether). When I go online I inevitably look at at least one news website, and it makes my blood boil. At some point I'll take the time to actually explain why I am so angry about this war (hint: it's not that I support Baath or anything they do, or that I would mourn the downfall of Saddam Hussein), which might make me feel better enough that I can face being connected to the outside world again. But knowing that this will change nothing makes it far from urgent, so for the time being I just wash my hands of everything but the rainforest, the Tasman Sea, the Southern Alps and the glaciers.
posted @ 1:08 AM -

Sunday, March 23

Ugh

So we are at war. The playground bully will get his way, and frankly I don't want to talk about it.

I also don't want to write about what I've been up to, because it seems absurdly trite by comparison, but I will just say that I'm well, and in remote parts where it's never impossible to go online (I've seen towns with 20 buildings that still have some kind of internet service), but often a hassle (internet cafes that are only open during the day, while I want to spend my daylight hours savouring these places), and that's the only reason this site's been quiet for a while; it's nothing to worry about.
posted @ 1:51 AM -

Tuesday, March 18

I've started writing about the bike trip, and backdating entries. The new stuff starts here, and just scroll up after each day.

Haven't been able to finish because there's only one computer here and there's a queue, so I don't want to hog it for too long.
posted @ 1:46 AM -

Mountains!

Today I have seen Milford Sound (spectacular), seals, a shooting star and the International Space Station. I'm now in Arrowtown which is a lovely preserved gold-rush town in the Southern Alps. If this computer goes long enough without crashing I'll start writing about my trip day-by-day.
posted @ 12:51 AM -

Friday, March 14

First leg

I'm in Invercargill now. This internet cafe is about to close, so I can't write much. So far I've bought a nice bike, seen some beautiful country, and had a hell of a day today cycling into constant strong headwinds. Tomorrow I'm off to Stewart Island; will try to write more here when I can.
posted @ 12:48 AM -

Tuesday, March 11

The New Zealand I had imagined

This day was more or less the start of the area known as the Catlins, which was the object of this part of the trip. It started with a long detour along gravel roads (but without any real climbing, so it wasn't really a problem) following the coast to Nugget Point. Nugget Point has two attractions - the chance to see penguins and a pretty old lighthouse. It turns out that penguins are out at sea all day, so one has to be around early in the morning or late in the afternoon to sea them, making it unlikely in the middle of day's cycling. As for the lighthouse, well this day had been grey and rainy, limiting views across country and out to sea, but somehow it fit the lighthouse very well. Everything I could see was beautiful , but there was a lot I couldn't.

Towards the end of the day I got off the bike for a short walk out to two waterfalls. The semi-drought that's hit the country this summer left the waterfalls looking less than impressive, but the walk itslelf was worthwhile. Lush woodland full of ferns, and somehow much more the NZ I had imagined than anything I had seen before.

Stopped at Papatowai at possibly the finest hostel I have ever stayed it. Not only was their idea of a dorm a 2-bed room, not only were the handful of other guests really friendly, but also the owner saw me dripping wet on the bike and immediately made a cup of tea to welcome me. Little things like that make such a difference....
posted @ 1:45 AM -

Monday, March 10

They call this a road?

Finally this was the day to start covering ground. 70 kilometres to be precise, taking me to Balclutha (aside: the south of NZ is supposedly very Scottish influence, but the only way I see that is in the names, both of places and families). Not a terribly hard day, but there was one long climb in the middle, which took forever because it was on what is labelled as a gravel road, but really consists of mud with a few stones, and it was finally raining properly. I hate to say it, but rural Thailand has better roads than rural New Zealand (though to be fair it also has a far higher population density...). The descent was lots of fun. I would never have imagined that riding a bike down a hill could be difficult, but when the road is bad enough....

Balclutha is another small sleepy place, though it obviously is a bit of a service centre for the surrounding area, having a plethora of mower shops, fertilizer warehouses and the like.
posted @ 1:29 AM -

Sunday, March 9

Spending another night in Brighton

Partly to have a rest day before starting the ride proper, and partly just because of the name, I decided to spend a night in Brighton, which is about 20 kilometres south of Dunedin along the coast road. Brighton itself is a much smaller place than the one I'm used to (consisting of about 30 houses and a motor camp), but funnily enough the ride there felt very damiliar. Rolling hills and views out to the sea, that easily could have been the South Downs and the Channel, rather than Otago and the Pacific. The weather seemed fitting too; grey and damp, but never quite raining.
posted @ 1:24 AM -

Saturday, March 8

Albatross! Get your albatross ere!

For my warm-up ride I did a return trip up the Otago Peninsula, which is a 30-kilometre long strip of volcanic hills that provides Dunedin with a perfect natural harbour. It was a sunny but relatively cool day (ideal for cycling), and there was a bit of a headwind on the way out, but that's easy to deal with when I know it will help me back. It's a fairly attractive strip of land, but the main attractions were the view back across the harbour to Dunedin, and the royal albatross colony at Taiaroa Head at the far end.

Albatross generally pick remote rocky islands to breed on, so it's a rare privilege to find them so close to human settlement, but the actual colony visit was a slight disappointment. I learned lots of interesting things about the birds, but just wasn't lucky with the viewing - none were flying, and there were only a couple in their nests, so not actually very much to see. Perhaps the most striking thing about it is how much of a human-fostered colony it is. First the Maori deforested the area enough that it became suitable for albatross, then intensive support by DOC to help the birds breed, and particularly to keep out predators (though that is really only undoing the damage humans did by introducing the predators in the first place).
posted @ 1:20 AM -

Friday, March 7

Aviation, NZ style

First I had to fly to Dunedin, which was an experience. Taupo airport is smaller than most London bus stations, and when I turned up (very early because that was how to get a cheap flight) there was only person working there, who was getting the plane ready. The plane was a Beechcraft 1900, which is a cute 19-seater propeller aircraft. Apart from burning about half as much fuel as jets, these things have the advantage that they fly much lower, so I had a wonderful view of the sun rising over the North Island's volcanic middle.

Changed planes in Wellington and took a far less fun 737 down to Dunedin, but that was also great because the route is almost parallel to the mountainous spine of the South Island, and I think I've seen enough of New Zealand now to be convinced that there is no place more beautiful on Earth than this country.

Arrived in Dunedin early enough to buy a bike and get everything else I needed done, leaving me a day ahead of schedule before I even started.
posted @ 1:04 AM -

Wednesday, March 5

Heading South

Tomorrow I fly to Dunedin, where I will buy a bike and start a long (about a month) tour of the South Island. I will be online on rest days, but that's not necessarily more than once a week.
posted @ 1:52 PM -

Tuesday, March 4

Herding alpacas by bicycle

Is not the sort of thing I would ever have expected to find myself doing. However, there was a minor (2.7 on the Richter Scale, with its epicentre more or less here, but 3Km underground, so I felt nothing, though I did think I heard thunder when there was not a cloud in the sky) earthquake here on Tuesday, and since then several of the animals have been somewhat spooked. The ducks (who always remind me of a bunch of gossiping old housewives) have been huddling much more closely together, the chickens raise merry hell if anyone walks near them (even when they are up trees), the sheep have been running away from me when they used to come up and sniff around, and the alpacas won't let poor John (the proprietor) near them.

Every morning he takes them from a sheltered paddock behind the cafe to a more exposed one where visitors can see them, and every evening he takes them back. It's normally an easy job, because they are so friendly and easily bribed with a handful of food that he doesn't even need the one halter he has. Yesterday they were being timid, so he haltered one, but it immediately ran away. Even when this happens, because they are not the brightest of creatures, he usually manages to herd them in the direction he wants them to go, and if a second person helps it's normally no trouble. Yesterday whatever he did they just seemed to stray further, until they were on the road that leads out to State Highway 1. At that point things get very tricky, because the road is narrow and enclosed enough that any approach will just drive them further away.

Meanwhile I had gone down to the campsite to fetch my bike, and when I saw what was going on I thought I'd try and help. In the end the only solution we could think of was for me to charge at them, try and outrun the alpacas (much easier than outrunning a barking dog), and chase them back in from the other side. The poor things were so terrified by this strange-looking creature that moves faster than they can that once I started chasing them in they bolted all the way to the paddock we were trying to get them into in the first place. The only trouble is that now they are even more nervous of me than John.
posted @ 3:05 PM -

Building on a volcano

It seems that parts of Taupo have been built on soft, geothermally active ground. Now news is getting out about exactly which properties are in danger of subsidence. This just reminds me of the Lewes floods 2 years ago, when it turned out that many of the affected houses were built on what was known to be a floodplain - will people ever learn?
posted @ 3:04 PM -

Sunday, March 2

We kill people, sir, and blow things up

Well I suppose the kind of person who becomes a Marine isn't going to be one to mince words, eh? It seems the British contingent are being asked to though....

And yes, having spent a little time in New Zealand has made it impossible for me not to snigger whenever I see the words Mr. Hoon.
posted @ 3:46 PM -

Torn

There has only been one difficult question on my mind lately, which is when to leave New Zealand. My current plan is to leave here on April the 30th, and get to London on the 15th of May, having dallied in Australia and Cambodia on the way (schwer ein Eldan zu sein, eh?). That was based on financial constraints, but given that my cost of living here is precisely $0/day and I'm enjoying being here, I am tempted to extend my stay. Extending it would also allow me to do some bike touring of the North Island, which costs very little after the initial expense of the bike (what I'm using at the moment is not up to it) and accessories. That way I could see the Eastern (a beautiful coastal road that every cycling New Zealand resource I see raves about) and Western (Mount Taranaki; a perfect volcanic cone that looks stunning in photos and from the air) extremities of this island, possibly even having time to take in the Coromandel and Northland (though that would be pushing my finances as far as they can possibly stretch). New Zealand is so remote, and there are so many other countries I want to visit, that if I don't see these places now I may never get the chance.

I am tempted, but something significant and unprecedented has happenned in the last few days which makes me inclined not to delay my return to the UK. For some reason (perhaps the extensive rainfall we've had) I've been thinking about home (which is still a vague concept mixing London & Brighton, together with some hints of Bristol) a lot over the last few days. I'm actually finding myself feeling a bit homesick. It's not that I haven't experienced homesickness before, but this is the first time in many years that I've felt homesick at the same time as being happy, rather than becoming homesick because something is wrong. Maybe it is time for me to start thinking about heading back. I'm not tempted to bring my leaving date earlier, because there is too much that I want to do here, but this might just stop me from staying any longer.
posted @ 1:23 PM -

Saturday, March 1

America's Cup heading to Europe

Alinghi have managed to win 5-0. BBC News has some nice pictures. In further embarassment for the kiwis, they suffered yet another gear failure, though at least this time it didn't put them out of the race, or even leave them far behind. It's nice at this point to see the local media and the defeated skipper acknowledging that the best team won, though in fact I think they are unfairly hard on Team New Zealand. The two races in which nothing broke were among the closest, tensest contests I've seen in any sport, and today they were still not far behind even with a broken spinnaker pole.

I do think they screwed up technically, by having a boat that was too experimental when they didn't have the budget to destruction test it, but credit should be given where it is due - the series was far closer than the scoreline would seem to suggest. In the end the Cup has gone to one of the most 'conventional' (and reliable) boats that was in the running, but it has to be said that Russell Coutts' and Brad Butterworth's intuitive feeling for the wind and sea was what really won the series. In the Louis Vuitton final against Oracle, and again in the actual America's Cup challenge, race after race has been won by those two (both kiwis; something of which this country should be much more proud than it is) just seeming to know the exact right moment for every turn (and particularly getting the start spot-on in every race I saw), and the whole crew working so close to perfection that even their top class opposition simply couldn't catch them.

The best news of the day is that the Golden Gate Yacht Club (home of Oracle) have already challenged Alinghi, so it shouldn't be too long till the details of the first defence to be held in Europe are announced.
posted @ 10:41 PM -

Living on a volcano

Is not necessarily as dramatic as it sounds, but it is what I'm doing at the moment. The whole reason for this place's (the Wairakei Thermal Valley) existence is that much of the North Island is volcanic, and a significant chunk (an arc from White Island to Mount Taranaki, via Lake Taupo) is relatively recently formed and still semi-active. There hasn't been a really huge eruption in the time that people have lived here (bearing in mind that the Maori are not an ancient civilisation, having only settled Aoteroa a millenium or so ago), but in 1886 there was an eruption big enough to bury a village about 60 kilometres from here in ash. The ongoing activity here is not as spectacular as that, but there are a great many hotspots around, where magma is unusually close to the surface of the earth and makes its presence known by heating the groundwater.

This particular valley has been developed as a tourist attraction for a long time - in fact Rudyard Kipling wrote a story (One Lady at Wairakei) here, and he already referred to this as an established stop on the NZ tourist trail - but its nature has changed over the years. It used to be the Wairakei Geyser Valley, but the development of a geothermal power plant nearby in the 1950s has interfered dramatically with the local area. On the far side of the plant, an area of ground has collapsed and become full of steam vents, now being known as the Craters of the Moon because it has a distinctly other-worldly feel to it. On this side, the geysers have stopped flowing, but in their place are mud pools and steam vents, plus some parts of ground are drying out while others subside. The overall effect looks like this:

the valley with steam rising


The main attraction here is a 30 minute walk through the valley to see (and hear and smell) this stuff, along with a lush undergrowth of native bush and some strange flora that only exist around thermal vents. It costs $9 for an adult, which I used to think was bit steep until I got involved with maintenance of the path. Walking through it it's easy to take the path for granted and just notice that some of the wood (there's a boardwalk in one place, and a couple of bridges) looks very old. In fact it takes constant work to keep the thing open, because the path needs periodic re-routing, and even where the route stays constant nothing lasts very long. The ground is almost too hot to touch, and permanently damp, so no wood lasts very long. This is what happens after about 2 years:

a very rotten post


In the drier areas the posts don't rot so much; they just turn to charcoal instead. As well as this accelerated wearing out, parts of the ground are still collapsing, so the path needs to be changed to keep visitors on safely solid ground. So, having spent a couple of days cleaning the cafe, and a couple of days weeding, (plus helping serve customers when the cafe is busy) I am now digging holes. It's more interesting than it sounds, because of the extreme strangeness of the ground I'm digging into. In each hole there's a different range of colours that appear, which I'm sure if I knew more about geology would tell me something about how this all formed. It's actually very soft ground, but I have to work slowly because as soon as I break the ground it starts to hiss and steam. What eventually will be new fence posts, so far are just new hotspots that have to be allowed to cool down before we can do anything with them.

It's not all work, work, work for me. I'm not being asked to work particularly hard, and if anything I'm doing more than required because I like the place and want to help out. Outside work, I've borrowed a rusty old mountain bike, which gives me the freedom to explore the surrounding region, which is rather lovely. I've found a nice bike path that goes through woods and fields, half-following the Waikato River between the Huka Falls and the Aratiatia hydro-electric dam (which is opened at certain hours to make the rapids flow), with lots of wild fruit that is ripening just about now. The only downer is the road into Taupo, which is a bit too busy and narrow to be pleasant, but it doesn't take too long.

Really the greatest attraction for me is where I get to live. It's not exactly the lap of luxury - I'm in an old caravan - but the surroundings are wonderful. I wake up each morning to birdsong (there's a host of little birds around, as well as the ducks, chickens, peacocks and guinea-fowl that are tended by the owners), and the view from my window is of trees and grass. Walking around the site there are also a load of rabbits, two sheep (who earn their keep by keeping the grass trimmed on the walk), two alpacas (gorgeous creatures; they're thinking of getting a few more and trying to start a herd) and a goat (which helps me with the weeding). Some of the other campers have been talking about how I'll appreciate my creature comforts when I get home, but I'm really not missing such things. I have a comfortable bed, three meals supplied each day, a selection of music and books. The only material thing I am desirous of just now is a top-notch bike, and the only thing I'm looking forward to about getting home is the chance to catch up with people who I have some history with.

My one regret is that this is the first thing I've done since leaving the UK that I feel might have been more valuable had I been younger. Watching the 18-year-old brats in hostels round here I am very certain that travelling has been more rewarding now than it would have been then, when I was more gripped by herd instincts, but this experience is different. For a start I would probably have lived more cheaply through university had I once been forced to restrict my possesions to that which is portable. More importantly, nothing I'm doing now has long-term value as work experience, whereas when I was 18, and routinely taking manual jobs to earn money, everything I'm doing here could have opened up a few more options to me. Still, as long as I'm enjoying myself and not handicapping my future plans in any way I shouldn't worry about such things.
posted @ 3:46 PM -

Economics 101

First of all, this is not a rhetorical question. It's something I really don't understand, and I would appreciate any sensible answers:

Why is economic growth necessary? It is very obvious why recession is bad, but why are economists so obsessed with producing constant growth as opposed to stability?
posted @ 3:37 PM -

To finish first, you must finish

New Zealand's second America's Cup defence is really turning into something of an embarassing farce. Somehow Team New Zealand are claiming that they were adequately prepared, but when their boat has only finished two of its four races it's obvious that this can't be the case, and when they say that they never dared test the boat to its limits, well, you don't need to be a yachting expert to see their mistake....

It looks like there's a good chance that today will be the last race (if there's enough wind to race), which would be particularly embarassing, because it would mean that the competition finished on schedule even though four race days were cancelled. I do hope that Team New Zealand at least manage to claw back one win to salvage a little pride, and I've finally found out what would happen if they do: the contest can drag on for as long as necessary until a winner is finally found.
posted @ 3:36 PM -
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