Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

Scottish Birds photography and the white sands of Jervis Bay

January 22, 2019

As a member of the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club, albeit as only an occasional bird watcher, I receive the journal Scottish Birds – see latest cover ( and some content) here. For serious birders – do not use the pejorative term twitchers – there are many well researched and peer-reviewed articles in the journal. My main interest is in the photography. Through the help of Harry Scott of Pica Design and with the permission of the photographers, I am able to reproduce three aesthetically pleasing examples here.

The first is of a honey-buzzard (below) which was captured in flight, showing its magnificent wingspan. This bird is a living creature but also a work of art. It is beautifully symmetrical – look at the outer wing, finger-like feathers and the Australian aboriginal-like painting patterns on the wings. The bird’s tail could be a Japanese fan, used to display status and cool down its user, as opposed to being part of this superb hunter’s killing machine. The eyes and the beak look small and insignificant in comparison, but they too are part of the hunter’s toolkit. I see many more common buzzards as I cycle around the countryside than I did a few years ago and buzzards often sit on fences next to a dual carriageway in our county. They look in control of their territory and their elegant flight is something to see.

Honey Buzzard – Copyright John Anderson (Click on all photos to enlarge)

The second photo is of avocets (below)which have the superb Latin name recurvirostra avosetta, which translates as having a curved back and beak. The avocet really is a most elegant bird, with its long straight legs like pillars holding up an earthquake threatened building, an upright stance and that beak which is turned up at the end, giving the bird a haughty look. There’s an excellent video of avocets here (scroll down to the video) where you can hear the birds chitter-chattering and watch their non-stop action in preening and feeding.

Avocets Copyright Ron Penn

The third photo (below) is a new bird to me, the kildeer (good photos) – the charadrius vociferous – which has a distinctive call and is a rare visitor to the UK. This photo was taken in Shetland and was only the 5th sighting in 50 years. This is a small bird but the shapes formed by the colours of the feathers around the eye, beak and neck give it a rare elegance. The subtle brown of the feathers on its back draws your eye to the black stripes and up to the slightly darker brown around its alert eye.

Kildeer Copyright Donna Atherton

While staying with our friends on our last stop in Australia recently, they took us down the coast to the idyllic beaches at Jervis Bay (good photos). We have a beach called Whitesands not far from Dunbar and it is a beautiful beach. In terms of being white however, Jervis Bay beaches are a long way ahead. The photo below shows one of the white beaches through the trees next to the road above the beach and you can see the brightness of the beach and the delicate turquoise of the sea.

Once you were down on the shore, there were big waves rolling in. The water was not as warm as we enjoyed in Port Douglas, but it was still very pleasant for a paddle. You can see in the photo below the whiteness of the collapsed waves, the bluey green sea behind and the slope of the beach. There was a considerable drag each time a wave performed its diving act and turned back to meet the next wave.

As we walked through the bush at the edge of the beach, we came across this friendly gecko, which was completely undisturbed by my close-up photography and seemed willing to pose for the camera. In the first photo below, the gecko catches your eye first but then you see the huge spider-like split in the tree trunk, as you follow the gecko’s tail to the leaf-laden floor of the bush.

In the next photo, the gecko’s ability to camouflage itself is apparent and when it climbed further up the tree trunk, it was hard to spot against the darker wood. I loved the rough curves and lines of the gum tree trunk, which had cast off the bark it no longer needed. There is a plethora of Australian geckos which you can see here. If you have more time and patience than me, I’m sure you might be able to identify this particular type of gecko.

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New Year walks, pelican in the chip shop and Kiama blowhole

January 15, 2019

On New Year’s Day, we woke to 2019 to see a fairly clear sky and a sunny day albeit with a coldish westerly. So as to make the most of the light, we headed off in the morning to St Abbs Head, which has featured many times on this blog and is one of our favourite places. We parked overlooking the harbour and there is a superb view from here, as in this 2017 photograph, which takes in the main harbour, the outer harbour and the lifeboat station.

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Looking down on St Abbs Head Harbour (Click on all photos to enlarge)

We walked from east to west as far as the lighthouse which was built by the Stevenson brothers in 1862. It’s an unusual lighthouse in that it sits on the edge of the mainland, high above the sea, as in the photo below.

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St Abbs Head lighthouse

On the walk there and on the way back, we noticed that an area next to the shore had been cordoned off and a notice said that seal pups were being protected. We saw 2 pups down on the rocky shore. When they are still, the pups are very well camouflaged and look like some of the bigger rocks. So silky smooth when in the water, the seal pups clumsily made their way across the rocks to the flatter part of the shore, maybe to enjoy the winter sun. I could not find any current information on the seals, but this 2017 report (good photo) is very informative about the St Abbs seals.

Back at the car above the harbour, I took this short video.

On the 2nd January, we took a walk along the wide stretch of Belhaven Beach. When we got to the bridge, although the tide was out, it was not far enough out and we could not cross the bridge, as the far end was covered in water. So we walked along the Dump Road to West Barns Bridge (photos from previous post) and out to the beach. The wind had eased from yesterday, so it was warmer and we could stand and watch the huge waves hurtle themselves on to the beach. There were quite a few surfers out and while some eased gracefully along a big wave, others were knocked flat by an incoming rush of water. There was a glorious sound of incoming waves, followed by a sluuurrrp as the waves hit the beach and dashed back out. The photo below shows the drama of the waves. 

Big waves and minuscule surfer on Belhaven Beach

I took a video of the waves and swung the camera round to see the chalets at Belhaven with the golf course behind.

The last stop on our overseas trip was to visit our very good friends Bob and Robyn at their idyllic house near Berry in New South Wales. They met us off the train at Kiama which is a very attractive coastal town not far from Berry. There’s a very good fish and chip shop/restaurant that overlooks the water – The Kiama Harbour Cafe. The fish and chips were excellent, but what is different about this fish and chip shop is that they have a pelican which nonchalantly walks about the shop and cafe – see the photo below -which shows the pelican waiting expectantly for fish – it does not like chips apparently – next to our table.

Friendly pelican in Kiama cafe

Kiama is probably best known for its spectacular blowhole (good photos) and it is a fascinating sight, as people watch in anticipation of the seawater being blasted into the air. The blowhole’s action comes from large waves entering a small cavern and compressing the air, which then forces the water out of the gap. This photo below shows a medium-sized eruption of water. You watch and watch for the really big blow-out and of course, this happens when you walk away and hear the other viewers yell out “WOW!”. There is an excellent coastal walk that you can do when visiting Kiama, taking in more than one blowhole, fascinating rock structures and unspoilt beaches.

Water spurting out the Kiama blowhole

Lucy Newton exhibition and back to Wagga Wagga

January 8, 2019

We recently visited Lucy Newton‘s superb exhibition of wildlife paintings at Waterston House, Aberlady. The exhibition runs until 16 January and it really is worth a visit. I last reviewed Lucy Newton’s work on the blog in 2017 and I did wonder if this new exhibition could be a as good as the previous one. The new exhibition is not just as good but better than the previous one, with the artist’s intelligence, skills and brilliant technique on show to even greater effect. Lucy Newton kindly sent me examples of her work.

The first portrait below is an exquisite depiction of a curlew – my favourite bird – which I regularly watch through my scope on the rocks near our house. The actual painting is much more effective in terms of the quality of the bird’s features and background, but I do like the way the artist has portrayed the elegance of the curlew with its long beak, strong upright stance and delicate colours in its plumage. There is a slight haughtiness but not arrogance in the curlew – it knows that it is bigger than other birds and can delve further under the rocks than the others also. I recently watched a curlew twist its head and push its beak under a rock. The beak emerged with a good sized crab wriggling in it. The curlew nonchalantly tossed the crab in the air, opened its beak and swallowed the crab whole.

Curlew by Lucy Newton (Click on all photos to enlarge)

The second painting below is of a grey wagtail and again, this reproduction of the work does not do it full justice. The colours of the wagtail immediately catch your eye, the delicate greys and the striking yellow contrasting very well with the more Impressionist depiction of the rocks behind. The detail in the bird’s feathers is very impressive and Lucy Newton captures the tense awareness of the bird – ever alert to what might be happening in its environment. The artist catches the softer elements of the wagtail’s plumage, but also the sharp lines of its beak, legs and tail to very good effect. I looked at this painting for quite a while, forever noticing some new detail.

Grey wagtail by Lucy Newton

The third example from the exhibition is of a red squirrel and here Lucy Newton’s artistry shines out. Look at the bristling tail of the squirrel, its soft ears and nose and very keen eye. Again the sharp portrait of the animal contrasts with the softer background of the tree trunk, with its gnarled features and lichens, which are so softly painted that you feel that if you reached out, they would be delicate to your touch. Few artists have the ability to draw and paint the squirrel’s fur in such beautiful detail, but Lucy Newton has the imagination, skill and remarkable technique to produce such an outstanding piece of art. Get to see this exhibition if you possibly can. Unsurprisingly, many of the paintings had been sold.

Red squirrel by Lucy Newton

In the 2000s, we lived in the New South Wales town of Wagga Wagga for 3 years, when I worked at Charles Sturt University. I then taught from my home in Dunbar for another 6 years, going back to Wagga (as the locals call it) for 6 weeks every year. We returned to see many friends at Wagga Wagga Road Runners on our recent visit to Australia and stayed with our very good friends Paul and Sonya – superb hosts. The Murrumbidgee River (good photos) flows through Wagga Wagga – designated as an inland city – and there are some lovely walks along the river close to the centre of town. The photo below shows some of the beautiful gum trees along the riverside. The gum trees of course shed their bark, not their leaves and then they reveal smooth trunks. I like the reflections in this photo – of the trees, the riverbank and the cow on the far side.

Gum trees on the Murrumbidgee in Wagga Wagga

One of the remarkable features of the river at dusk is the arrival of very excited and very loud sulphur crested cockatoos – photo below. If you check the link and scroll down to Calls, you will hear the screeching noise these birds make. Imagine the racket you will hear if you go down to the river at dusk and maybe 200 birds arrive to roost, but not before they produce a deafening cacophony. They are attractive looking birds with their distinctive yellow crest and white plumage and will land quite close to you.

Sulphur crested cockatoo

We also made a nostalgic visit to the Pomingalarna Reserve (good photos) to walk around one of the many tracks. When we arrived in Australia we quickly discovered that you cannot run (my wife) nor cycle (me) in most country areas as you can in Scotland, so you need to go to designated areas. The reserve is well known as the home of two mobs of kangaroos and it is unusual for a visitor to the park – runner, cyclist or walker – not to see a kangaroo. We only saw some of these amazing animals from a distance, as the photo below shows, but we did see a large group bounding across the grass and into the forest – a fascinating sight. The second photo is from 2011 and shows the kangaroos on the golf course at the entrance to Pomingalarna. When conditions are very dry, the kangaroos will venture on to the course to find water. Note the flag on the green in the background.

Pomingalarna is a very interesting and attractive part of Wagga Wagga as it features a wide variety of trees, animals and birds, so it is well worth a visit if you are in the vicinity.

 

Kangaroos at Pomingalarna

“Mountains: Epic cycling climbs” and Whakarewarewa Maori village

January 1, 2019

At the moment, on my little easel in the room where I write, there is a book which one of my sons gave me for my birthday this year. It is (cover below) entitled “Mountains: Epic cycling climbs” by Michael Blann. Each day, I turn over the page and see and read about some of the stunning looking, but often exhausting (for cyclists) roads, often with multiple bends, leading into the mountains. The book covers the mountain climbs in Le Tour de France but also the Vuelta a Espana, the Giro d’Italia and Swiss and Austrian cycle races. There are many beautiful photographs in the book of the landscapes through which the cyclists pass at various times of the year, so the photos can appeal to those interested in cycling but also to those who have no interest, but enjoy seeing very different mountain views in European countries.

M Blann’s superb book (click on all photos to enlarge)

I picked out two photos from the book to show contrasting views of the mountain climbs. The first view (below) shows the twisting route on the Luz Ardiden which is an HC climb – the toughest on Le Tour. HC means hors categorie i.e. beyond categorisation. This area is in the Haute (High) Pyrennees and the climb lasts 13.1K with some very steep parts included. The website notes that the descent from the top is the best of all descents in Le Tour. As you can see in the photo, the 25 hairpin bends would make this quite a spectacle on Le Tour with riders either straining every sinew to get to the top or risking a crash coming down the road at top speed, which can mean well over 100kph for the top riders. When you look at the enlarged photo and follow the bends, it can be quite hard to stop your eyes drifting down the side of the mountain. There is a building – looks like a house in the middle of the bottom 3rd of the picture. The house must have amazing views but, even in a car, this would be dizzying ascent to get home.

Luz Ardiden in the south of France

The second photo (below) is by way of contrast to the first photo and many of the views we get on the TV coverage of Le Tour – the castles, the forests, the fields of barley or sunflowers. This view shows that cyclists have to traverse some parts of the mountains which are not viewed as picturesque. This route is part of Le Cols des Champs  and is called the grey shale summit. As you can see in the top left of the photo, the areas is mixed and there are some very attractive parts of this ride on Le Tour. While this part of the race may look uninteresting because of the road going through what may be a disused shale mine, there is still a fascination in the potentially vertiginous descent in which the riders are engaged. There is also a stark beauty in the layering of the shale on the slopes.

Le Col des Champs – the grey shale summit

From France to New Zealand and a complete contrast in landscape. On our trip to the north island of New Zealand, we visited the town of Rotorua which is famous for its geysers. Our aim was to see the Maori village of Whakarewarewa (good video). The village’s name is pronounced Foka -rewa-rewa as our guide told us and she also gave us the full name of the village- in the photo below. The village is still owned and inhabited by local Maori people. On the tour, we were given the history of the village which dates back 300 years to a gathering of troops by a chief named Wahiao and the full name refers to this conflict between tribes.

Maori village in Rotorua

The photo below shows part of the village, which was built on geothermal land so the people could benefit from heat generated. The guide explained that this was potentially dangerous as a new geyser could erupt under any house. There were early warning signs and some houses had to be moved. It is a strange sensation when you first look across the houses, but as you walk through the village, you soon become accustomed to this new, steamy environment. What you do notice at the end of the tour, is that your feet are deliciously warm.

Whakarewarewa village – steam rising from geysers

The next photo below looks across one of the larger pools in the village. While it looks inviting – and the smell of sulphur was not very strong here – you could not bathe in these waters because of the temperature of the water and geysers which shot up at irregular intervals. There is an attractive reflection of the bushes and the houses in the water and you can see some of the more modern houses above the water. The village is a mixture of traditional bungalows and recently built 3-storey houses.
The “most volatile” of the geysers according to the map we were given is called Korotiotio which means grumpy old man and the temperatures can reach 120 degrees Celsius.

One of the larger pools in Whakarewarewa

At the end of the tour, there was a performance by Maori singers Te Pakira and the show included the traditional Haka war dance, some Maori songs and a demonstration of Maori stick games. Sometimes when you watch so-called “cultural” performances, you have the feeling that either you are patronising the performers or they are patronising you. However, there were no such feelings amongst our audience as this appeared to be a reasonably genuine recreation of Maori songs, dances and war dances. It was a lively and colourful performance as you see in the photo below.

Whakarewarewa performance

This was an excellent visit – educational, informative, entertaining and reasonably priced. If you are in the Rotorua area, you should not miss this. You can get an even better flavour of the village and the performance in this video.

Tiles on the Cafe Royal Oyster Bar and the Tauranga beekeeper

December 24, 2018

My cycling pal John gave me his copy of Pints of View (cover below) which is the magazine of the Edinburgh and South East Scotland branch of CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale). The magazine has news on new real ales and on pubs in the area which sell real ale.

Pints of View – the real ale magazine (Click on all PHOTOS to enlarge)

My attention was drawn to an article in PoV by Michael Slaughter and Geoff Brandwood entitled “Tiled paintings in Edinburgh pubs. Part 2: The Cafe Royal Oyster Bar”. The Cafe Royal is a very well known pub just off the eastern end of Prices Street in Edinburgh. The main bar itself is highly decorated and you can walk around the bar, with its beautiful wood, before choosing what to drink and perhaps eat. On the walls are large tiled depictions. The Oyster Bar is the restaurant next to the main bar. The photo below shows the lavishly decorated room – the exquisite ceiling tiles, the eye-catching tiled pictures on the walls, the impressively marbled bar and the inviting tables with traditional chairs and sparkling white table cloths. The article notes that behind the marble topped bar, ” The windows of this room have eight large stained glass depictions of British sportsmen, designed by Ballantine and Gardiner of Edinburgh” and the sports include fishing and rugby. When you are in the Oyster Bar, these windows are a magnificent backdrop to those dining at the tables.

The Oyster Bar in Edinburgh’s Cafe Royal
(Photo by Michael Slaughter LRPS)

One of the most striking of the tiled panels is one showing two of the leading lights in the earliest photography in Europe. This panel (see below) shows Nicephore Niepce and Louis Daguerre .  There is no agreed inventor of photography but Niepce was certainly the earliest to experiment into what was to be become photography. Daguerre’s work took the process further and the two men became partners in 1829, after which they made further experiments and were able to produce more sophisticated images.

Louis Daguerre (left) and Nicephore Niepce who pioneered photography
(Photo by Michael Slaugher LRPS)

The 3rd photo (below) sent to me by co-author Michael Slaughter shows a cherub playing the Pan Pipes and while the 4 cherub tiled panels are not examples of high art, they are nevertheless quite singular and joyful additions to the varied panels around the Oyster Bar. The Cafe Royal main bar is always busy and it is often difficult to get a seat. You need to book a table in the Oyster Bar but it is a rewarding experience – especially if you like oysters.

Cherub tile from the Oyster Bar
(Photo by Michael Slaughter LRPS)

On our visit to Tauranga in the north island of New Zealand, we stayed at my sister and brother-in-law’s house. It has a large garden and next to the well-filled woodshed, there is a beehive. The bees are looked after by another Scottish emigrant to New Zealand – Heath, who was a renowned ships’ captain before retirement. This beekeeper hails from the bonnie wee village of Echt (good photos) in the north of Scotland. The first photo shows Heath taking out one of the internal boards in the hive and inspecting it. As you can see, he is very well protected and your photographer was keeping his distance from distracted bees who had been disturbed from their hive activities. This is the equivalent of a giant lifting up a whole village or town and shaking people out of their houses, so it’s unlikely that the bees welcomed this intrusion. You can see the structure of a hive here.

Echt beekeeper in Turanga NZ

In the second photo below, you can see how the bees have filled holes in the mesh structure and formed combs. The beekeeper will inspect the combs from time to time to ensure that the bees still have room to expand their food store. It looks a very complicated life that these bees lead but hives are highly structured in terms of hierarchy and what work is done by the different bees. In terms of logistics, bees can teach much about organisation of production and management of the workforce.

Close up of bees on hive board

I took a video of Heath checking various boards in the hive and you can hear his commentary on the healthy state of this hive. For those not accustomed to Scottish accents, you will hear phrases such as “drones – useless brutes o’ things”, and “they’ll run out of space and say that ‘we’re oota (out of ) here”. So, it’s probably worth viewing twice. It was a fascinating visit from this expert on bees and a real learning experience for me, who had never seen the inside of beehive before. Click on full screen to get the best effect from the video.

The Illegal Age by Ellen Hinsey and Karangahake Gorge Walk

December 17, 2018

There are very few books of poetry that make you feel uncomfortable while reading them. You admire the versatility of the poet, the striking imagery and the immaculate construction of the book, but the content is disturbing. Ellen Hinsey‘s The Illegal Age (review) is one of the these books. The subject of the book is totalitarianism across the world and what she refers to as “political illegality” as seen, many would argue, in regimes such as that in Turkey today. So this is not poetry for the faint-hearted and it may be seen as very different from lyrical poetry dealing with nature for example. On the other hand, it is not so different, in that the poet is using imagery to allow us to examine the subject of the poems. The book is highly structured, with 3 sections, each with 7 sub-sections and the reviewer above suggest that the poet may be trying to replicate the bureaucratic structures of oppressive regimes – something I had not thought about.

The first section beings “Nothing happens quickly; each day weighs on the next -/ Until the instant comes -” when someone walking “along/ The foggy lane in innocence”  disappears. This suggests the gradualism of oppression. Another section deals with The Inconceivable which again creeps up on society until it is too late. This reminded me of Germany in the 1920s and 1930s when most people would have seen the consequent rise of Nazism as inconceivable at the time. Hinsey then writes “.. the Inconceivable seeps forward, mastering territory with the unpredictable sleight of a storm’s stealth” – a frightening but beautiful image. In The Denunciation, subtitled East Germany 1979, a woman reflects on her husband/lover’s betrayal, asking when it began e.g. “when you sat together by the braille of a restless lake” or when he kissed her “by the prying iridescent eye of the butterfly”. Both these images – of the lake and the butterfly – are very imaginative and in another context would be uplifting and Hinsey does this throughout the book, to great effect. 

This will not be the most comfortable read of you life, but it does stress how important it is to record the rise of oppression and to remember it. Hinsey’s imagery will stay with you for a long time. 

Ellen Hinsey’s powerful book of poems (Click on all captions to enlarge the images)

On our trip to New Zealand, our niece took us to Karangahake Gorge (good photos) which is the site of an old gold mine. There are a number of different walks and we chose one of the longer ones which took us to the top of the hill which housed the mine. There are many interesting boards along the way and the one at the start of the walk (below) gives you an insight into what you might be encountering along the way. 

Karangahake Gorge in New Zealand’s North Island

It was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that gold mining was undertaken by large British companies at Karangahake and there is a good history here. As you go up the mount, you come across the remains of the mining infrastructure and equipment. Working in these gold mines was a hazardous occupation, as cyanide was widely used to extract the gold. The information board below shows some of the machinery used to crush the stone and then to mix the ore with cyanide. The ore/cyanide mix was made into bullion and on the bottom right, you can see a photo of a man pouring the molten liquid into a barrow. Health and safety regulations were unheard of in those days and other boards told of the fatalities that occurred in the mines. 

The use of cyanide in gold mining at Karangahake Gorge

As you climb to the top of the Mount Karangahake you pass many of the railway lines used to transport the stone down to the processing plant near the river. You also go through dark tunnels (phone torches needed) and you get the feeling of how claustrophobic it must have been in many parts of the mine. The walk is steep in parts and tricky in others but it is worth climbing to near the summit to get the views down to the river, as in the photo below. 

View from one of the lookouts down to the river at the Karangahake Gorge

One of the most fascinating features of this walk was the variety of ferns which we encountered along the way. The ferns themselves were of a multiplicity of greens and very attractive in themselves. What was more striking were the fronds which emerged from the ferns. The photo below shows the fronds emerging from a silver fern  and the stem is called a koru. 

Silver fern with fronds emerging from the korus

A close-up view (below) shows the delicacy of the frond which looks as if it could have been knitted or woven and the design might be used as the figurehead of a walking stick. With its delicate hairs on display, it also resembles what might be a curled up millipede, waiting to strike the next unassuming insect. This is nature as sculpture and a strikingly beautiful example of it. 

Silver fern frond in Karangahake Gorge

The Karangahake Gorge/Mount walk is an exhilarating one from start to finish and I highly recommend it to anyone visiting the area. Near the end of the walk, I took this video at the side of the river.

Benjamin Black’s Holy Orders and Mount Maunganui

December 10, 2018

Holy Orders by Benjamin Black  (good video) is the 6th book in the 1950s Dublin-based series featuring the clever but self-doubting pathologist Quirke, his daughter Phoebe and his detective ally Hackett. Like the other Quirke novels, this may be classified as a crime novel, but this is a very well written novel, with a superb sense of place, an engaging plot and excellent characterisation, which has a crime as its centre. Benjamin Black is the pen name of Booker prize-winning author John Banville and this shows in some of the lyrical phrases which Black uses in the book to very good effect. You don’t read Benjamin Black for a page-turning potboiler, but you do read him for a story which will intrigue you as to which way it will turn. You also read him for his engaging characters, particularly Quirke who is often troubled by thoughts of his school days when he was abused by Catholic priests. In this novel, Black also fleshes out the character of his daughter Phoebe, whose journalist friend Jimmy Minor has been beaten to death and dumped in the Dublin canal. Quirke and Hackett set out to identify the killer(s) and there is a gradual build up to a satisfactory conclusion for the reader – no spoilers here. 

Black – like Banville – has some outstanding phrases in the book which stand out in the memory e.g. “In the fireplace, a dolmen of turf logs was smouldering sullenly”. A dolmen? The Cambridge Dictionary defines it as ” a group of stones consisting of one large flat stone supported by several vertical ones, built in ancient times “. Once you know the meaning, Black’s imagery is even more powerful. In describing Sally, Jimmy Minor’s sister, Black writes “Her hair shone like coils of dark copper”. Another powerful simile – “In Baggot Street, the trees shivered and shook like racehorses waiting for the off”. This is an impactful book in many ways and as the plot develops, more social issues in Ireland emerge and become part of the story. If you like well-written, well-plotted and sometimes drolly humorous novel, then this is definitely for you and it would make a great festive season gift. 

The 6th book in the Quirke series (Click on all captions  to enlarge photos)

On our trip to New Zealand, we visited my sister and brother-in-law in Tauranga (good photos).  Tauranga has a huge harbour with extensive docks which regularly house cruise liners and large container ships, such as the one below, heading for the harbour.

Container ship heading towards Tauranga harbour.

Mount Maunganui  lies on the other side of the harbour and is described as a “holiday paradise”. It has a beautiful stretch of beach and on a sunny summer’s day, with the white waves easing themselves ashore from a deep blue sea, you can see why. Here is the beach with the Mount at the end. 

Mount Maunganui beach and The Mount.

Originally a separate village from Tauranga, “The Mount” as local refer to it, is called after Mauoa which is the remaining top of an extinct volcano. You can walk up and over the Mount or around it and the 360 degree views are spectacular from the top, from where you can see the harbour,  Motuotau (Rabbit Island) (good photos), out to the ocean and along the beach. Below is a photo taken from the top of The Mount and looking over Mount Maunganui and the beach. It is quite a strenuous walk to the top of The Mount but we did it in 30 min as we are pretty fit. The track is quite rough in parts and there are some very steep inclines. So it is a good workout as well a rewarding walk, given the views from the top. 

View over Mount Maunganui beach 

There is also an excellent walking track around the base of The Mount. It is a much easier walk but it gives you time to appreciate the surroundings more – the trees, the sheep and the vegetation. I mentioned the many tankers going into Tauranga Harbour as well as the cruise liners. On our last visit in 2011, we were walking around The Mount when we were passed by this huge liner. You can see the size of the vessel by looking at the people on the track. We had seen this same cruise liner docked at Circular Bay in Sydney just a few days earlier. 

Cruise liner heading for Tauranga Harbour

Daintree Rainforest and snorkelling on the Low Isles (Version 2)

December 4, 2018

On our trip to Australia, we had two things that we wanted to do that we hadn’t done before. The first was to visit the Daintree rainforest (good photos) in Northern Queensland. The rainforest is the oldest in the world – 180 million years – much older than the Amazon equivalent. It is a vast forest covering 12,000 square kilometres and our Daintree river trip host told us that it has 1034 native trees. To put this in perspective, he told us that the UK has 37 and the USA 300+. On the river trip, you look up to the huge swathes of trees but you cannot really distinguish different species of tree and fern until you walk into the forest itself. A short way up the river, we came upon a female crocodile (photo below) on the river bank. Crocodiles are perhaps fascinating to some and while it was good to see one in its natural habitat, they are not the word’s most attractive creatures, although the patterns on their hide are elegant.  

Crocodile on the Daintree river (Click on all photos or caption to open in a new tab)

It is when you go into the rainforest itself that you appreciate the variety of trees and ferns on display. The boat host advised us ” in the forest itself, don’t look AT the trees, look THROUGH THEM” and this was very good advice. In the photo below (from Creative Commons) you can see some of the variety of the trees and the ubiquitous ferns which are very attractive. It is fascinating to look at even this relatively small space and note how many different trees there are and how they are differently shaped. 

Inside the Daintree rainforest

In the next photo (my own) you can see the vibrant colours of this large leafed fern. We had just missed a rainshower and the leaves were sparkling in the afternoon light. Behind this fern , you can see a variety of smaller ferns and you can read much more about the Daintree ferns, which first appeared 325 million years ago on this helpful site. It would have been wonderful to go on an extended walk with a guide in the rainforest but time was limited. One for a future visit. 

Beautiful ferns in the Daintree Rainforest

The other reason for choosing Port Douglas as the first destination on our trip was to visit the Great Barrier Reef (great video). The reef is under threat from climate change and there have been dire warnings that, with further warming of the seas, it could disappear in 10-20 years. We went on a boat trip to the Low Isles, a half hour of huge waves and some extreme ups and downs. When you get to the island, it looks idyllic – see photo below – with its pristine sandy beach, lighthouse and trees. 

Low Isles sea, beach and lighthouse

Once on the island, we were given thin suits to protect us from jellyfish, which are called stingers in this part of the world. Confusingly for British people living in Australia, jellyfish are also called bluebottles. We were then taught how to use the snorkelling masks and flippers. It was our first experience of snorkelling and what we saw under the water made it a worthwhile trip. Once we were directed to a buoy not far off shore, we saw the range of coral on the ocean floor and a huge variety of fish, including parrot fish (good photo) and angel fish (good video). We also saw some fairly large turtles in the water nearby.

After the snorkelling, we were taken on a short tour of the island and we saw numerous terns which were nesting. Unlike the local arctic terns which nest near Dunbar in a protected area and which will dive approaching humans, these common terns (photo below) went about their business quietly. Close up, this is a most attractive bird and the background of spiky tree trunks and leaves show off its sharp colours and distinctive black/blue line across its eyes.  

Tern on the Low Isles near Port Douglas

On the island, there is an impressive lighthouse which was built in 1878. Our guide asked us to look up towards the light and we did, we could see two osprey chicks (photo below) sitting at the edge of the nest. I was hoping that the birds might look down to improve the photo but they remained still, while haughtily ignoring our presence far below. The birds looked smaller than they are, especially sitting next to the huge ramshackle nest. 

Osprey chicks on the Low Isles lighthouse

This was a very satisfying day for us – a new adventure on an idyllic island surrounded by the warm ocean, on which the sun glinted and the water sparkled. 

Visit to Peebles and Dawyck Gardens

November 5, 2018

It’s 3 years since Peebles featured on the blog here and 4 years since I highlighted signs in Peebles here. This was a coldish but sun-filled day and the autumnal colours were having their annual beauty contest in the trees by the river and on the river paths. This is the view from the main road bridge in Peebles, looking along the river Tweed.

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Looking down the river Tweed from the Tweed Bridge in Peebles (Click on all photos to enlarge)

The next photo is taken from the other side of this bridge and looks over the town centre towards the hills in the distance. The Leckie Memorial Church spire is prominent and there is a range of colours in the trees.

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Looking over the park and town towards the hills in Peebles

What we did not know at this point, was that the colours seen from the bridge paled into insignificance compared to what we were about to experience. Our main purpose for the day was to visit Dawyck Gardens which is an offshoot of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (good photos). The name “gardens” is rather a misnomer for the Dawyck experience as it consists mainly of woodland, but this is extremely well nurtured woodland, with labels helping you to identify the many variety of trees. The site changes with the seasons, with swathes of snowdrops and daffodils in spring,  and beautiful azaleas in summer. We were treated to the autumn spectacle. Having paid to enter at the well-stocked shop, you can follow a variety of paths through the woods. In addition to the splendour of the scenery, this is good exercise as you walk to the top of the gardens and through the different areas. We were alerted to the domed acer (photo below) near the start of the walk and a stunning sight it is. The acer or Japanese maple is relatively common in the UK but we had never seen one as eye-catching as this sudden splash of deep pink in the midst of evergreens. It is also a very shapely tree.

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Domed acer in Dawyck Gardens

There is also a magnificent range of impressive Douglas Fir trees, named after the Scottish botanist David Douglas, and many of the trees here were grown from seed, whose descendants were brought to Scotland by David Douglas. The one shown below is an excellent specimen and it is only when stand underneath one of these trees that you get to appreciate their height, solidity and what looks like bubbling growth. These trees dominate their surrounds and while the other trees may appear smaller, you appear very small indeed.

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Douglas Fir at Dawyck Gardens near Peebles

There are a number of benches in the woods and taking a seat in one of the benches at the top of the forest, you are rewarded with stunning views. The photo below shows one such view, looking at a wide variety of trees and the hills above Peebles in the background. As your eye wanders across the scene, you go from the multi-coloured and multi-patterned deciduous trees to the larger and smaller fir trees, with the smaller ones making elegant green triangles on the leafy ground. You can sit for quite a while here and always catch something different as you survey this aesthetically pleasing landscape.

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Dawyck Gardens looking over the hills near Peebles

There is a huge variety of trees here and some are quite unusual, such as the sorbus munda belowWhat was fascinating about this tree was that, as you approached it, you feared for its survival because it was covered in lichen. However, another visitor with good knowledge of trees told us that the lichen was a sign of a very healthy sorbus munda, despite the fact that the lichen was making the attractive berries quite hard to see.

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Sorbus munda at Dawyck Gardens near Peebles

In contrast, the sorbus commixta, a similar tree of Chinese origin, had little lichen and a beautiful display of berries as shown below.

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Sorbus commixta at Dawyck Gardens near Peebles

I took many more photos of the trees, the paths and the carpets of leaves – too many to show here. I leave you with a video of part of this wonderful forest, to which we shall return in the spring. We are off to Australia and New Zealand for 3 weeks in a few days time, so blog posts may be more intermittent than usual.

 

Seville: Archivos des Indias and Esplanada d’Espana

October 30, 2018

In the centre of Seville, just along from the cathedral is the Archivos des Indias or General Archive of the Indies. The huge archival collection, which covers 300 years of Spanish colonisation in the Americas, is housed in a strikingly attractive building (see below) which has superbly crafted ironwork on it many balconies and eye-catching tiles around its upper sections.

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Archivos des Indias, Seville (Click on all photos to enlarge)

While many scholars visit the archives for research, most people go to see the interesting interior of the building. In the building’s many rooms, there are displays of examples of the archival material held there, such as Columbus’ letters to his son or a catalogue of fabric samples. What is most remarkable is the design of the interior with its delicately crafted wood and sculpted ceilings, which are worth taking time to look at closely. As you see in the photo below, there is a variety of symbols carved into the wood and these may represent the trades of the merchants who first used the building to carry out their trading.

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Carved wooden surrounds in the Archivos des Indias, Seville

As you walk down the marble stairs, there is an impressive array of carvings around the sign for the archives. In the photo below, above the name, there is a crown and carved crests and on either side of the sign, and there are beautiful marble pillars and star-shaped carvings. This symmetrical design – at once simple and complex – makes you stop on the staircase and look at the carvings. This is clearly the work of expert craftsmen.

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Part of the staircase in the Archivo des Indias, Seville

I took a wee video of the inside of the main room in the archive – see below. There was also a 15 minute video – in English and Spanish – which tells the history of the building. What is intriguing about this video is that the narrator is the building itself, telling how “I” began as a merchants’ building , fell into ruin and eventually became the archive we visit today.

On the trip to Seville, we made the fatal mistake of not booking online for fabulous Alcazar Gardens and were faced by a huge queue in 30 degrees of sunshine, so we moved on. We were rewarded not far away with the spectacular Esplanada de Espana (good photos), a magnificent crescent of connected buildings, with 2 huge towers at either end. This splendid edifice was built in 1929 but it looks much older. The photo below shows one of the towers which rises above the canal, which goes round part of the square. Looking at the towers, it makes you think that this might be a tribute to traditional Spanish architecture and design, with the layers to towers rising to a peak, suggesting a Moorish influence at the top.

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One of the towers bookending the Esplanada de Espana, Seville

An outstanding feature of the area is the ceramics, starting with the array of pillars which go around the perimeter of the entrance and around the canal. As you see in the photo below, there are ceramic figures on the pillar and tiles at the top and bottom of the ceramic pillars. The tiles are known as azulejos and have been made since the Romans were in Spain. The coloured tiles are thought to have been introduced by the Moors and there are definite signs of Moorish/Islamic influence in  all parts of this building.

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A pillar/lamppost at the entrance to the Esplanada de Espana, Seville

On the walkway above the canal, there are large areas of mosaic tiling and at regular intervals, there are large tiles depicting all the different regions of Spain. The example below celebrates the province of Huelva, which lies to the west of Seville and stretches to the Portuguese border. The colours in each of the squares are vibrant and it is interesting to see the different coat of arms for each region. The Esposicion Ibero Americana noted in the tiling was a world fair in 1929 to enhance trade particularly between Spain and South America.

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Coat of Arms of Huelva province in the Esplanada de Espana, Seville

There is so much to see in the Esplanada that you can easily spend an hour or more looking at the building from different perspectives e.g. there are balconies on to which you can climb to look down on the square and the canal and across to the two towers. You must not miss this out in a visit to Seville.

I took a video of the Esplanada de Espana and I hope that this gives you a flavour of the uniqueness of this very joyful building and square.