28 February 2014

Auckland’s Sky Tower

Auckland skyline from North Head

I remember quite well all the grumbling and groaning when it was announced that the Sky Tower would be built in central Auckland: ‘It will ruin the city skyline’, as if the skyline was something worth preserving; ‘It will be a huge concrete eyesore’, as if the skyscrapers built during the 1980s and 1990s weren’t themselves huge concrete eyesores; and ‘It will destroy the city’s heritage’, as if the developers hadn’t already done that when they indiscriminately tore down or preserved only the facades of many of Auckland’s heritage buildings.

From Westhaven marina and from St Stephen's church in Judges Bay
Twenty years later, the tower has become an icon, a major tourist attraction and the best way to locate yourself when out and about in the city and suburbs, as it is so tall it can be seen from far and wide.

Old and new - the tower of the old Auckland Art Gallery and the Sky Tower
If, like me, you enjoy weird and wacky facts and figures, here’s a bunch from the Sky Tower website 
The Sky Tower took 2 years and 8 months to build during which time the more than 1000 people (from several different companies) who helped build it are estimated to have eaten 545,000 pies and drunk 1.245 million cups of tea.

The main structure of the tower is a concrete shaft 12 metres in diameter, which is supported at the base by eight concrete legs. These legs are connected to the shaft by a concrete collar which is designed to spread the load.

A good reflection and a tasty meal?
The Sky Tower weighs 21 million kgs which is the equivalent of 6000 elephants, 30 million pavlovas (the pavlova is another New Zealand icon, though Australians claim to have invented it!), or 8,765,903 gumboots filled with concrete (men’s size 9 – not proven, but thereabouts).

At 328 metres tall (from the ground to the top of its mast), the Sky Tower is the tallest freestanding structure in the Southern Hemisphere – it is approximately 23 metres taller than the Sydney Tower (we had to beat those Aussies!). On a worldwide scale, the Sky Tower is approximately the 25th tallest tower in the world – that list keeps changing as more towers and skyscrapers get built. The height of the Sky Tower would be the same as putting 37 buses end to end – who works out these things?

From Viaduct harbour

The tower provides amazing views from its three observation decks and its revolving restaurant. From the top deck, the Skydeck, which is immediately below the main communications antenna and 220 metres from the ground, you can see up to a distance of 82 kilometres on a clear day. On a not-so-clear day, the tower’s top is often shrouded in low cloud and mist, so visibility is practically zero.

From Albert Park and from the Domain

To get to those upper levels of the tower, there are 3 glass-fronted lifts which travel at approximately 5 metres per second so the ride only takes about 40 seconds. If you suffer from vertigo, you might want to face the doors – and when you get to the observation decks, you might also want to avoid walking on the areas of glass flooring that give a view directly down to the ground.

If being up so high causes you concern about your personal safety, you will be reassured to know that the tower has been designed to survive a magnitude 8 earthquake occurring 20 kilometres away and it can withstand wind in excess of 200 kilometres per hour. The tower will, in fact, sway up to one metre in extremely high winds – this is a good thing – better to sway than to bend and break!

From Rangitoto Island and from Mt Eden
As well as enjoying the viewing and eating entertainment, those who are brave enough can also walk around and / or jump off the tower. Walking around might not sound scary but the Skywalk is 192 metres from the ground, with no walls or windows to shield you and no handrails. Just two thin cables connect you to the building to prevent you from falling. 

Been there, done that? Then you can also try the Skyjump, leaping off the main observation deck, controlled by guide cables so you don’t collide with the tower during a wind gust. It’s certainly not my cup of tea but American singing superstar BeyoncĂ© proved she had nerves of steel, jumping not once but twice off the Skytower when she visited Auckland back in October 2013. 

The tower is admired by tourists
In the daytime, the Sky Tower is a beacon to aid the navigationally challenged and at night it lights up the skyline, in colours to promote causes – pink for Breast Cancer Awareness month, for example, and to celebrate events – red and green at Christmas time and blue for the birth of Prince George in July 2013. Love it or hate it, the Sky Tower is now synonymous with Auckland.

22 February 2014

Auckland Lantern Festival

Last weekend’s Lantern Festival was the 15th to be celebrated in Auckland and it was touted as the biggest and best so far. I’ve only been to a couple so I can’t really testify to the truth or otherwise of that claim but it was certainly popular and attracted the biggest crowds I’ve ever seen in Albert Park. In fact, the park was so jam-packed on Friday and Saturday nights that you couldn’t really enjoy – or easily photograph – all the wonderful displays.

Luckily, one of the features of this year’s festival was a lantern-only night on Thursday night, which attracted less people – a photographer’s dream. As I live just around the corner, I also visited several times during the previous week as displays were being erected so shot a lot of daytime photos as well.

The Lantern Festival is timed to coincide with the first full moon following Chinese New Year and has formed an important part of New Year celebrations in China since the Han Dynasty (from 206BC to 221AD). Apparently, the festival also has some of the attributes of the Western Valentine’s Day as, in centuries past, it was one time that young Chinese could venture out in the evening without a chaperone. I suspect that idea persists today as there were a huge number of young people amongst the crowds in Albert Park.

The lanterns are hand-crafted, made to order in a factory in China. Fish and birds, masks and teapots hang in Albert Park’s huge trees and, on the ground, there’s an eclectic mix of traditional Chinese street scenes, traditionally dressed women and sword-carrying warriors, buffalos, dragons and, bizarrely, a flock of sheep and their sheep dog. They are beautifully colourful and quite spectacular once illuminated.

As well as the lanterns, there are exhibitions of martial arts, and dance and live music performances by local and international artists, as well as demonstrations of traditional dragon and lion dances – always entertaining to watch and a great favourite with the crowds.

Princes Street, which borders one side of Albert Park, is closed to traffic for the duration of the festival and turns in to a food alley, with all kinds of delicious Asian food for sale. The smells are divine, the tastes delectable, especially the traditional Lantern Festival called tang yuan – round glutinous rice dumplings with sweet and spicy fillings. The spicy dumplings were particularly delicious.

This year, Albert Park wasn’t the only location for festivities. Queen’s Wharf was home to child- and family-friendly events, from outdoor movies and puppet shows to paper-lantern-making workshops. Auckland Museum also got in to the spirit of the season. The exterior of the museum was lit in the colours of China for the week, and they also held related activities: a display of Chinese art and calligraphy, expert discussions on Chinese and Maori culture, plus kite-making workshops followed by a kite flying display on the lawn in front of the museum.

The finale to the highly successful festivities was a spectacular fireworks display from the Sky Tower at 10.30pm on the Sunday night. So, Happy Chinese New Year and welcome to the Year of the Horse, the character that symbolises graciousness, dignity and momentum.

16 February 2014

The humble sparrow

Probably the most well-known bird in New Zealand and, indeed, in the entire world is the humble house sparrow, Passer domesticus domesticus. According to my trusty copy of Birds of New Zealand, the sparrow ‘benefits from man-made agriculture and building design without affecting humans in any substantial way’ – the perfect combination – and, although it ’has undergone huge declines in Europe’, it’s still doing well here in New Zealand.

A male house sparrow, New Zealand
The sparrow is not a native New Zealander – it was introduced here several times between 1866 and 1871, and has clearly made itself at home. There are 26 species of house sparrow in the world, and they are native to Europe, Asia and north-west Africa, though there are also American sparrows (a separate family, the Emberizidae) and birds with similar names, like the Java sparrow (also a different family, the Estrildidae). Sparrows were certainly familiar birds during the time I lived in Peru and in Cambodia and, being such familiar birds in so many countries, they have become the subject of many sayings and proverbs. I will share some I’ve found, along with some of my photos of one of my favourite little birds.

Sparrows bathing, New Zealand

‘I am only a sparrow amongst a great flock of sparrows.’ Evita Peron

Rufous-collared sparrow, Peru

‘The sparrow that is twittering on the edge of my balcony is calling up to me this moment a world of memories that reach over half my lifetime, and a world of hope that stretches farther than any flight of sparrows. Donald G. Mitchell

Male sparrow, Cambodia
‘I once had a sparrow alight upon my shoulder for a moment, while I was hoeing in a village garden, and I felt that I was more distinguished by that circumstance than I should have been by any epaulet I could have worn.’ Henry David Thoreau

Cute sparrow fledglings, New Zealand
The humble sparrow has even made its way into the work of that famous bard William Shakespeare. For example, he uses the sparrow to illustrate Hamlet’s belief that there is rhyme and reason to even the slightest events of the universe: ‘There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow’ (Hamlet, act five, scene two). And, in King Lear (act one, scene four), Shakespeare has the Fool utter this piece of wisdom: ‘For, you know, nuncle, the hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long that it had it head bit off by it young’.

Rufous-collared sparrow, Peru
When the sparrow sings its final refrain, the hush is felt nowhere more deeply than in the heart of man.' Don Williams Jnr.

Female house sparrow, New Zealand
And then there are the proverbs …
‘A sparrow in hand is worth a pheasant that flieth by’, and ‘A sparrow in hand is worth more than a vulture flying’, and ‘A sparrow in the hand is better than a pigeon on the wing’, all French proverbs. And the variations on these from other European countries: the German and Polish versions are the same: ‘A sparrow in the hand is better than a pigeon on the roof’; the Spanish: ‘A sparrow in the hand is better than a bustard on the wing’; the Russian: ‘A sparrow in the hand is better than a cock on the roof’, and the Portuguese: ‘Better a sparrow in the hand than two flying’.

Sparrow, Cambodian
Then there are several countries’ versions of proverbs with two sparrows. Firstly, the French: ‘Two sparrows on the same ear of corn are not long friends’; the Spanish: ‘Two sparrows on one ear of corn never agree’; and very similar to the Spanish is the Romanian: ‘Two sparrows on one ear of corn make an ill agreement’.

Another Peruvian rufous-collared sparrow
And I’ll leave you with a few of the 50-odd other proverbs I discovered that all feature our little feathered friend …
Russian: ‘A spoken word is not a sparrow. Once it flies out, you can't catch it.’
Danish: ‘A sparrow suffers as much when it breaks its leg as does a Flanders horse.’
Bantu: ‘Only heaven can see the back of a sparrow.’
Malawian: ‘An upstart is a sparrow eager to marry a hornbill.’
Turkish: ‘Who fears the sparrows must not sow millet.’
Japanese: ‘The sparrow flying behind the hawk thinks the hawk is fleeing.’
Burmese: ‘Sparrows who mimic peacocks are likely to break a thigh.’
Scottish: ‘Auld sparrows are ill to tame.’

A curious young female sparrow, New Zealand

08 February 2014

Sailing away: cruise ships, part two

It seems people like to cruise! Given the popularity of my first cruise ship blog and with so many different cruise ships visiting Auckland, I figured I would cater to popular demand and do another cruise ship blog. Here are some of our recent visitors.

Crystal Cruises’ ship, the Crystal Symphony was built in Finland in 1995 at a cost of US$250million, was refitted in 2006 at a further cost of $US$23million and then refitted again in 2009 – another US$25million. Expensive vehicles, these cruise ships and, to be honest, I thought her sides were looking a bit rusty and grubby when she was in port recently so I’m guessing she’s going to be costing her owners even more money quite soon.

Her 12 decks carry a maximum of 922 passengers and 545 crew, and she has a truly global sailing itinerary. Her first 5 months of 2014 will be spent in south-east Asia, visiting ports like Singapore, Hong Kong, Beijing and Ho Chi Minh City, then she heads north, criss-crossing the Atlantic from New York to Stockholm, Reykjavik to Copenhagen, echoing the routes of the Vikings of old, before cruising to several European cities: Hamburg, Lisbon, London and St Petersburg.

On its website the by-line for the Seven Seas Voyager reads:Exceeding the loftiest expectations for luxury’. When you consider how many extremely well-appointed cruise ships there are in the world that strikes me as a very high claim. She is, however, an all-suite, all-balcony ship – even the suites on the lowest deck look rather splendid – and has a wealth of crew (447 in number) to cater to the every wish of a maximum of 700 passengers, so she is well equipped to live up to those high aspirations.

Seven Seas Voyager is one of three ships operated by Regent Seven Seas Cruises, an American company with its fair share of CEOs, COOs and Executive Vice Presidents, and a whole page on its website dedicated to explaining ‘forward-looking statements’ – obviously to guard against the possibility of being sued for over-advertising or under-achieving. Yet, their ships have certainly won their share of accolades: the 2012 and 2013 Virtuoso awards for ‘Best luxury cruise line’, and the 2013 ‘Best for luxury’ in the Cruise Critic Editors’ Picks Awards, to name but a couple.

In complete contrast to that corporatisation of cruising, Silver Sea Cruises Ltd is owned and operated by a single family, the Lefebvres of Rome. Typically Italian, they boast of being world leaders in ‘style, design and that intangible allure called la dolce vita’. Two of their five ships have visited Auckland in recent weeks, the Silver Shadow and the Silver Whisper. Like the Seven Seas Voyager, these are all-suite ships, though they’re smaller in size than many cruise liners with a maximum of 382 guests and 302 crew members. Gone are the days of tiny portholes – these liners have large picture windows for panoramic ocean views.

Silver Shadow’s schedule in 2014 includes such diverse destinations as Myanmar, Alaska, Kiribati, Easter Island and the South American coastline. In celebration of Silversea’s 20th anniversary, the Silver Whisper begins the year with a 113-day world cruise, sailing from Los Angeles to Barcelona, with 54 ports of call in 29 countries. The cheapest fare is US$52,550, the most expensive – in the overwhelmingly luxurious Owner’s Suite – is a tad over US$158,000.

An even smaller cruise ship that popped in to Auckland in January was the MV Orion, an Australian-based ship that usually carries just 106 passengers. She is soon to become the National Geographic Orion, offering cruises to the Arctic and the Antarctic, guided to some of the world’s most remote locations by people who are experts in their fields, biologists, ornithologists, geologists, artists, historians, photographers. Though they offer luxury akin to the large cruise liners, theirs are cruises for the thinking man and woman, who wish to explore in more depth the places the ship visits.

Last but not least of today’s cruise ships is P&O Cruises’ Pacific Pearl, one of three P&O ships that specialise in cruising the waters of Australia and New Zealand. They each have live cruise cams, updated by satellite every 15 minutes – the Pacific Pearl’s is hereWithout meaning to demean the quality of the P&O cruises, I gather from their website that they are of a less elitist, more affordable and more popular nature. Their website mentions an ‘eye-opening range of activities’, a 'great range of bars', and ‘jaw-dropping acrobatics’ in the outdoor arena area. If I could afford it and if I actually liked the idea of going on a cruise – which I most certainly don’t – I think I would favour something a little more classy.

In the course of researching ships’ details for this blog, I found a very cool website that shows live marine traffic around the world. You can enter a vessel’s name to find its exact position, its destination and even recent photos. You can check it out here