Sunday, 9 December 2012

South Island - Rising from the rubble

I started writing this blog on my flight leaving Christchurch, New Zealand to Brisbane, Sydney. On the plane I watched a great documentary called 'Searching for Sugar Man'. Another recommendation - you know who you are - thank you. The film is a touching story about an American singer songwriter Rodriguez, whose 1970 album sold no records in the States but unexpectedly became a cult hit in Apartheid South Africa amongst liberal white South Africans. Many of his songs were banned, and his music inspired a new generation. I won't tell that story as the film is worth watching. It reminded me that each of us can underestimate the influence you have on others and how important it is to act as if you might change the world in all your interactions, words and deeds, all the time. Think how often you refer to something someone once said to you. They probably never know the influence they had.

Sue Connell is one such person. She remains the school librarian in the City Academy, Hackney, where I was teaching up until July. She is passionate about reading because reading opens up the world to children in so many ways. She has led a culture of reading in the school so that it is cool to read even if you are the toughest kid on the block. She brought several authors into school to speak to students. One of those was Elizabeth Laird. She spoke to the young people and gave them the advice. 'Read, write and live. Travel, see the world, live life'. Neither Sue nor Elizabeth probably realise the impact those few sentences had on me. Perhaps I would not be writing this blog otherwise.

My two weeks on South Island began with the memorable ferry journey from Wellington to Picton. The hills rise steeply from the Cook Straits like a big bumpy sea monster submerged in the depths. We cycled along Queen Margaret's Drive along a stunning coast line that was Malborough Sounds. We headed south to Blenheim, stopping at Cloudy Bay vineyard for a few glasses. A gorgeous sunny day, a glass of Pinot Gris - one of the wines they don't make enough to export - drunk whilst in a wicker bowl chair suspended from a magnificent tree. James and I had a rare moment to contemplate how far we have come and what is next for each of us. James is heading home to see both his Helens - his mum, Helen, who has fallen ill and girlfriend - coincidently also called Helen. I move on to Australia.

In Blenheim we stayed with Ian, one of Helen's friends from Northern Ireland and a journalist for the Malborough Express. Journalist have a great way of asking questions and finding the story. Somehow with a few questions I had promised to make Ian eggs for breakfast. It is very common in New Zealand to keep chickens, bees and grow veggies. Agriculture is a big deal on the south island. Cows and sheep are everywhere. Not only is their population growing faster than that of humans but 95% of their dairy produce is exported bringing in one quarter of export sales at 21 billion. One of my favourite moments was when James and I were cycling and we passed a man wearing a flat cap surrounded by 6 Labradors. He called out to James:

'I like your girlfriend. Where can I get one?'
'She's not my girlfriend.' replied James with a hint of disloyalty. I was surprised he didn't add,

'She's yours for four Fresians'

My mum will be relieved that I am not settling down with a dairy farmer on the other side of the world who talks about women as property.

The two day cycle to Kaikoura should have been straight forward. The first day was hilly but we made it in good time and stayed on a dairy farm at a little known hostel just for cyclists. It is always reassuring to read the comments of other cyclists in the guest book. Long days, rain and headwinds seemed a common theme. The following day we met exactly that. The headwind was so strong that I had to peddle on steep down hills and at one point I looked down at my speedometer which read 2.7 miles an hour. Slower that walking. We made 10 miles in 2 and a half hours. We were at an expensive cafe at a tiny spot with nowhere to stay. We contemplated pitching the tent and waiting it out. I called the hostel in Kaikoura to delay our booking. I then met a guy in the car park who was supporting 18 French Canadians also cycling. They had gone further than us already and were heading for Kaikoura. If they could do it, we could. You never know the influence you have.

James and I agreed - this would need to be a team effort. We peddled on. I tried really hard to keep in the shelter of James who went slower to help me. And bit by bit we made progress. At one point I tried so hard I started to lose my breath, had to stop, pull in. I burst into tears. James asked 'Would this be a good time to tell you you have sun cream on your face?'. No James. Just when the road showed no sign of ending we heard a noise. Bark. We stopped and saw leathery brown seals basking on the rocks. Suddenly it was all worth it.

Kaikoura is a small town on the east coast of the South Island. It grew up as a whaling centre in the early 20th century until someone worked out that the whale population was not infinite. In the 1980s it became a boom town for sea life watching. There is a deep cavern just off the coast which means there is an abundance of food for various fish and mammals. This is where you can swim with dolphins or seals, watch whales or albatross or dive to see the abundance of sea life close up. New Zealand is famous for its experiences: bungee jumping, zorbing, kayaking, quad biking and the country even has its own word for walking - tramping. As a keen swimmer the opportunity to swim with dolphins was one I felt compelled to try.

The conditions were ideal with blue sky and calm waters. The experience started with a young woman looking at my feet and guessing the size. They are always bigger than people think. Another man gave me a wet suit, including a hood, which I squeezed on. Too many flat whites and home made scones and muffins in this country has meant this was not as easy as it may have been. Next was the briefing and video where we were told to look for dolphins under the water and to sing to them. We were piled on to a bus and filed on to a speed boat. There were of course, lots of Germans. We bumped along for half an hour or so. All was well on the way out. There is no guarantee that you will be able to swim with or even see the dolphins so I was ready to be writing about plenty more mammals in the sea. Appropriate on a number of levels. I stared out to sea and spotted my first jumping dolphin.

It was less swimming with dolphins, more trying to swim without arms, to mimic dolphin behaviour and hum 'Ar Hyd Y Nos' - 'All through the night', the great Welsh song through my snorkel whilst dolphins whizzed past me and occasionally tried to spin round me. A grey streamlined shape would appear from the bluey depths. I tried to make eye contact. Sounding like a gazoo orchestra, the Germans seemed to have more luck with their dolphin like noises. Water was seeping in my mask so the last time we went back in I abandoned the mask and opted for goggles. What I really wanted to be doing was be swimming in my hat, goggles and bikini, peeling off the spongy warm wet suit and letting the cold get to my skin and just swim. I wanted to be a dolphin.

Back on the boat, I changed quickly and grabbed my camera. We saw tens more dolphins playing at the bough of the ship, showing off their somersaults, leaps and occasionally having dolphin sex. They are apparently very promiscuous animals. Not like doves or swans. (Not sure exactly why they'd be like doves or swans.) I drank a hot chocolate and ate two ginger biscuits.

Suddenly I needed to be sick. I found one of the allocated buckets and a good position at the stern of the boat. I was sick, yet distracted by the jumping dolphins - playful in their choppy paradise. I put my head in my knees and tried to sleep the long 45 minutes bounce back to shore.

The final stop in South Island was Christchurch. Devastated by two big earthquakes I had heard that the city was a mess. We headed straight through and over a very steep hill to stay with friends of a friend, Lydia and Duncan who emigrated to New Zealand four years ago. Lydia heads up communications for Chritchurch council - a job that has taken up more significance since the earthquakes. They have a beautiful home overlooking Governors Bay on the lip of an ancient volcano. On our second night, Duncan headed down to the bay for his regular coast guarding training whilst Lydia's mum, her brother and his partner came over for a barbecue. And guess where Margaret was from? A Cardiff girl of course. She survived Fitzallen - a school with a rough reputation and moved out to New Zealand without ever previously having set foot in the country. The story reminded me of those 19th century American pioneers or the masses of Brits who flocked to the promised land it he hope of a better life. It is so far away. Lydia was also following the footsteps of Captain Cook who comes from her village.

These stories made me think about what home means. Is it a place? A family? Where you make it? I find it fascinating that as human beings we have a strong tendency to form groups and communities and yet also a tendency to explore, adventure and risk. And yet when we get there, wherever there is, people still do everything they can to make home, to make community and make life. The revelation that you can take your life in a different direction is presumably what drove Polynesians to rope together rafts and head to different lands, the same that took Captain Cook from Whitby to the other side of the world, what drove our ancestors to look beyond east Africa and probably what brings me to be here in Brisbane. About to embark on the next adventure.

The other thing I found out about Margaret was that she was in the Canterbury TV building at the time of the February 22nd 2011 earthquake. Same day as my birthday so the date sticks in my mind. This six floor building collapsed and caught fire killing 115 people, over half the victims of the disaster. Margaret was the Office Manager for King's Education, an English school which had over 80 Japanese students studying in the building at the time. She hid under a table and was the last person to be pulled alive from the rubble. She came out in her underwear as her clothes were pinned down by debris. Others were known to have survived after the building collapsed but were either burned by the fire or drowned in the attempt to put out the fire. Margaret suffers from post traumatic stress disorder but unlike others who have left the stressful event, earthquakes just keep coming. The after shocks are just more earthquakes. There hadn't been one since Christmas last year but the threat does not go away. Until yesterday that is when there were 28 little shocks across New Zealand.

There is an investigation underway looking into whether the building followed regulations that were set out to prevent collapse. One of the engineer responsible was not actually an engineer and made up his degree. Gerald Shirtcliff assumed the identity of an English man William Fisher who had an engineering degree from Sheffield University and used it to obtain a Masters degree. He built his life around this lie and continued to practice as an engineer in Brisbane - the original penal colony.

I met a woman in Brisbane who worked for an engineering firm. She told me that Shirtcliffe had also been responsible for buildings in Sydney. She makes it her business to try and get all engineers in her firm registered. However Queensland is the only state in Australia where all engineers must be registered. A useful reminder how important it is to do things by the book.

The centre of Christchurch is still cordoned off as many buildings have to be demolished. The devastation on the positive side provides Christchurch the opportunity to rebuild. Whilst government and city wrangle over how best to do this people are taking city life into their own hands. Old shipping containers have popped up across the city to house shops and businesses. Lyttleton which was close to the epicentre of the February quake has numerous art projects, community businesses and organisations. Plans are afoot to rebuild the cathedral. A Japanese architect offered a temporary structure made of cardboard tubes but unfortunately it was too controversial. I loved the spirit in Christchurch. It felt like a city taken back by the people. Let's hope that spirit will and can combine to rebuild an incredible, innovative new city from the ashes.

Creating an opportunity to build from scratch again is a privilege and one that requires great leadership. The taxi driver on the way to the airport told us that after the quake people had started to drive with great consideration. They were already he said slipping back into their old ways. So if you knew that life was going to end tomorrow, would you live your life any differently today? What are the things you have said or have not said that you need to revisit?

As I embark on this solo journey, excited about what is left of the year I am reminded of what a privilege it is to have this time.

I have decided that the Australian journey will be about how many different places can I find to swim and finding people to cook for. I plan to cycle the 500 miles from the Gold Coast to Newcastle, just north of Sydney even without the motivation of cycling buddy James. I will of course continue to talk to people and try and understand the real Australia.

Reader, you may never know the influence you have.