How do you know when it’s time to go home?


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How do you know when it’s time to go home?

When you find yourself standing on a lookout on the island of Madeira, with tears starting unbidden at the sight of cliffs rising from deep blue water, framed by pohutukawa trees.

Yes, pohutukawa on Madeira.  Alberto, our guide, had asked where I was from. At the “New Zealand” answer he said “I can show you metrosideros!”  And there they were, above Faial.  I don’t know how quickly they grow there … but if it’s a similar growth rate to NZ, they’d probably been there a good 50 years. And I felt a tug to my roots.

The pohutukawa seem to be a benign addition to the landscape, unlike our questionable Aussie cousins.  Parts of the island are covered in wilding gum-trees. They were (like the gorse and broom!) brought in with the best intentions.

Madeira’s name means ‘island of woods’. But it’s also a very steep land of volcanic rocks, so as the forests were felled for shipbuilding and burned for farming, the erosion started, and the floods raced unimpeded down the hillsides.

What to do?   Well, eucalypts have a very long tap-root, which would be good for holding the hills together, they thought.  Four varieties were brought in in the early 1900s, and liked it so much they stayed.  And took over.  And another unforeseen consequence:  Madeira had also been an island of birds – like New Zealand, the only mammals are introduced. Those birds, and their insect-foods, had developed with the Laurisilva – the original bay-tree forests.  The insects couldn’t abide the smell and taste of the eucalypts. No insects = no birds. They retreated into the residual bay-tree forests.

Bay tree forest.

You might have gathered by now that we were blessed with a guide who had wanted to be a biologist.

He even pointed out to me the euphorbia which is used to make Campari. Loved that man!


Loved Madeira too.

It’s dramatically rugged, with narrow roads engraved into the sides of the hills, and villages with houses perched like swallow-nests on ridges in deep valleys.

Looking down into the Valley of the Nuns. Short version: a convent-full walked the 17ks from Funchal to (successfully) hide from pirates.

Farming’s no easy thing…

Funchal, the capital, is on hills and gullies too, but with roading infrastructure which is a triumph of engineering. The highway even goes UNDER the end of the airport runway extension!

Funchal is charming – two sides to the old town: one narrow alleys with door and wall art; one more elegant with the monumental buildings, linked by a lively and lovely market.

Funchal has had its challenges since its founding in the mid-1400’s ..

sackings and burnings by pirates,

major earthquakes and floods,

shelling during WWI…

… what’s there now is an architectural time-series.

And the harbour is front and centre. We went out on a replica caravel, authentic down to the smells of pitch and rope, and constructed in the old fishing town the next bay along. (She had diesel motors though, so we weren’t called on to haul sails.)

Swimming off the Santa Maria de Colombo … safely certain the cannon’s a replica. (I’m furthest out, and Stefi’s powering toward me.)

Which had me thinking… Madeira in the 15th and 16th century must have functioned somewhat the way we imagine the moon or Mars functioning in the 22nd century, as a way-point, a coaching stop, a re-fuelling and repairs stop for explorers launching into the farthest reaches.

It was settled and developed quickly as part of the great Age of Discovery, and continued to be an important point on the trade routes throughout the 18th C.  James Cook and Charles Darwin both stopped over.  What lessons might linger there?

Plagues, pirates, slavery (once slavery was abolished, the slaves almost entirely decided to go home to Africa), booms and busts as exploration and trade patterns changed…  and now a place where plants from all over the world grow, and people from all over Europe go… Madeira feels like a microcosm of the past, and maybe a preview of the future.   And oh yes, they’re working on a eucalyptus oil extraction industry.

They have tree-ferns too – but these are an endemic version and my tears were safe.


Country Smells


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There is no glory in star or blossom till looked upon by a loving eye; There is no fragrance in April breezes till breathed with joy as they wander by.

William C. Bryant

… or in our case …. as we bike by the fragrances, inhaling deeply.    The smells of the countryside are all around us.  It is been a great year for clover, and the sun lifts its perfume towards us.  Then the grass where the famer has cut a swathe to feed fresh, and left another swathe to dry for hay.  Gradations in aroma from sharp to mellow.

A potpourri of countryside smells. Clover, cut grass, compost (green canvas line) and cut grain field.

The compost from the cow-barn straw lies in a tidy line alongside the farm tracks/bike tracks, sometimes covered by green canvas, sometimes steaming a little in the open air.  The smell of future fertility.  More pungent is the schüti  (if that’s how you spell it – my dictionary doesn’t do dialect).  That’s the cowshed effluent, collected in large vats where it ferments until the farmer and the weather decide it’s time to spray it on the paddocks. The smell of schüti is totally accurate forecaster of rain.

So the smell cycle goes …. Cut the grass – fragrant; spray the shütti – pungent; watch the crows, seagulls, and yes our resident storks, hurry in to catch the small tasty things exposed and brought to the surface.

We passed a cut field of grain with its warm dusty smell, and suddenly I was back 60-mumble years, in an ancient farm shed, turning the handle of a what-seemed-massive old iron grinder.    I was grinding the wheat and corn for the hens, in what was a favourite task – not a chore at all.  Perhaps it was the pleasure of a small girl in the power she could exert through a machine.

Workload sharing!

The smell of horses and cows is just as potent a carrier of memory. There’s something of warmth and comfort, something of a feeling of safety alongside the bulk of familiar animals with warm breath and their own being.

And then come the sweetnesses.  The almond perfume of the Meadowsweet. Its English name reflects the fragrance; its local name Wiesengaissenbart,(field-goat’s beard) picks up the visuals. It’s a great herbal too. 

The surprising fragrance of a field of Echinacea.  I’ve grown it in the garden for Mani’s herbal remedies, but never thought it had a scent until I was surrounded by it.

And – bless the gardener who put a line of roses alongside our path.

Another (fragrance-free) treat to share: a cluster of old farm buildings.  Don’t you love the person who, some years back, painted these.









Linger moment, thou art fair.

Christopher Marlowe – Dr Faustus



Revisiting Verona


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2016 – “we will return!”

Much of the amphitheatre [in Trier] has disappeared, its stones being recycled over the centuries.  But you can explore the cellars under the arena. A while back we’d seen a television programme reconstructing the underground stage machinery for lifting cages of lions, gladiators, and other entertainment into the centre of such arenas.  Amazing to be able to visualise that.    A couple of weeks before in Verona I’d just prowled around the outside of the arena, saving the excitement of being inside for when we go back there for the opera, maybe next year.

Me, in 2016


Maybe the middle of a heatwave wasn’t the easiest time to revisit Verona – but it certainly made for balmy evenings at the opera. Still sleeveless at midnight.

We tried a different way of doing things – a bus tour opera package, with five of us (Stefanie, Maria, Fredi, Mani and me) boarding in St Gallen and being driven in air-conditioned (thank heavens!) comfort to Verona, our hotel, and back to the centre for the Aida that night.

The next day, a city drive, followed by a walking tour (TOO hot!) and then a horror realisation that we were to stay in the city until that evening’s performance.

Rebellion and renegotiation.  Some of us at least, wanted to shower off the rivers of sweat and relax a little before our appointment with The Barber of Seville.  Our driver complied – though not with the greatest grace.  He was a very good driver; just not a great tour-host.  Consensus:  we’re better at being independent travellers.  The driver might concur.

But ah, Verona.  The romance of the place, the shabby beauty, the graceful lines and higgledy-piggledy conglomerations of buildings.

I observe the masonry-catching nets under some particularly rickety balconies and firmly suppress all thoughts of earthquakes.

Of course a week later we’re watching the devastation of the bridge collapse at Genoa, and thinking again about the cost of being Italy:  a huge deficit, deferred maintenance on every part of the infrastructure, and the responsibility for so much of Europe’s cultural heritage.


Those of us who come to marvel pay a little tourist tax on our hotel bill, spend a bit in the cafes and restaurants, dicker over the price of the seats in the Arena,  and…   What would it take for the world to decide to distribute its wealth differently?  Spend a heap on climate change mitigation, another heap on poverty, another heap on conservation and preservation, and starve the military, stop investment in militarising space… You’ll have your own list, but there’s nothing like standing in places where 2000 years of history are visibly present to make us think about our priorities for the next 1000.




Back to the Arena!   It was built in CE30, when Tiberius was emperor.  For those of us who like timelines, think Julius Caesar, who made his protégé and great nephew Octavius his heir; Octavius was the first Roman Emperor, renamed Augustus; Tiberius succeeded his stepfather in CE14. That meant three very successful administrators and nation-builders in a row.  What might they do with Italy now? Augustus had been interested in restoration as well as building – he’d had Athens and the Agora restored.   Our kind of ruler!  Tiberius continued the building programme. Although he was not himself a happy chappy, he obviously knew the value of bread and circuses for keeping the citizenry amused – so up went the Arena.

It could take 30,000 spectators, in 44 tiers of seats.  Now they offer only 15,000, ‘for security reasons’. Another thought firmly suppressed.  In we went, through the dark stone passage between what is now the outer ring, and the inner one.

We’re sitting on metal seats placed on top of the ancient stones. Not what you’d call comfortable – but better than directly on the stone seats which is where the ‘unnumbered’ tickets go.  Cushions are for sale for just a few euros.  I buy one for the 2nd night.

The original outer ring of lovely pink and white sandstone almost all came down in an earthquake in 1117 (stop thinking!) just leaving the ‘ala’ (the ‘wing’) standing to catch the light of the sunset.

There’s something a little different about the wait for an outdoor opera to start.  The people-watching brings so much more diversity to the eye. Summer frocks, haut couture, jeans; jandals and accident-waiting-to-happen heels…

The set calls to your imagination about what they will do to it, to create scene-changes without the benefit of wings or a fly-gallery.

Aida – “set in waiting”

Aida – in action

And here in Verona, it’s a daily breakdown of the set from last night’s opera and installation of the one for tonight.

Aida the morning after, and awaiting it’s next performance


The Barber of Seville – roses of course, for heroine Rosina. The maze, I think, for the deceptions of the plot.

Then, the wonder of the acoustics.   The Verona Arena is the third largest in Italy, after the Colosseum and the amphitheatre in Capua – 140 metres long, 110 metres wide – and with a perimeter around the seating of 391 metres.   Yet, it’s grand opera unplugged! No amplification, no cunningly concealed microphones. The power of the human voice is all there is. And all it takes.     There’s a special engagement when you need to really listen to the dynamics of the sound instead of just having it pumped into your ears.

Years back, I was astonished at the acoustic of the ancient Greek theatre at Epidaurus – but that was designed for theatre, not as ‘sports’ venue like a Roman arena.  Times, tastes, and values change though, and when Emperor Honorius banned gladiator games in 404CE, the Arena ‘went black’ for centuries.   In the Renaissance they used it for theatre, then in the 1850’s there were some operatic performances – and now, as in the Roman days, people come from all over.

It doesn’t take much of a leap of the imagination to re-costume the people milling around waiting for the show to start.  But no animals (or humans) were harmed in the staging of this production.  That said, we couldn’t help but miss the elephants and horses and chariots from Aida‘s Grand March, the way they did it in the Steinbruch at St Margrethen!

Next year….?

More Verona… with sad thoughts towards Genoa.

Porta Nuova – well, new in the early 16th C – welcoming us back.

Ponte Pietra, built on the road going to Genoa, 100BCE … and still standing.

Fortified Castel Vecchio Bridge or Scaliger Bridge, over the Adige River. Built in 1350s, and yes, still functioning.

Seeing the Stork



Having eyes, but not seeing beauty; having ears, but not hearing music; having minds, but not perceiving truth…These are the things to fear…

Tetsuko Kuroyanagi

There are times when you just have to laugh in delight at your own blindness.

Here we were, out biking a favourite path.  “Let’s go and see if the stork is there” we’d said.

First stork-sighting, 3 weeks ago. (Echinaea fields beyond.)


It had been there several times recently, standing in the field, watching for small morsels – and wearing its leg-bands that indicate the history of reintroduction.

It had been there a week ago when we went into the fields of echinacea to pick flowers for making tincture (with the farmer’s permission of course).

We’d had the conversation about when and whether they might nest locally again, because it’s only in recent years that we’ve seen them return.

But today, no stork.  We sat on a favourite bench. I took photos of the trout in the pool, avoiding the shadow the pole behind threw on the water.


We started biking back, and I glanced behind……



We’d been so intent on looking for the stork on the fields we’d not seen that sometime (my earlier photos had missed that spot) someone (next time we see the farmer we’ll ask who) had put up an absolutely unmistakeable, unmissable pole by the pool, and topped it with a frame for the stork to build on.



Hah!  We had only to lift our sights……


Midnight in Tromsø


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People who study evolutionary biology might hazard a guess …. But I’ve been wondering how long it could take for humankind to get over our desire to sleep when it’s dark and wake when it’s light.   We change hemispheres, and it doesn’t take long for our body to adjust to night being day, and vice versa.  Some of us adjust to long-run nightshifts, and function pretty well.  But given the opportunity, it’s back to waking with the sun.

For Mani and me, the shortening of the day, even more than its cooling, produces the strong urge to head to the ‘other side’, where the light is extending.

Of course, these musings come from visiting the land of the midnight sun. We sailed north as the calendar moved into spring – and daylight accelerated its extension until dusk was morphing into dawn.  Magic.

The evening started with a dinner of king crab — and this view out the window.

Then a stroll on deck … these are around 10.45pm.

And most magic of all …. A midnight concert at the Arctic Cathedral in Tromsø.

Quarter past midnight, looking back across the harbour to the Kong Harald

The Arctic Cathedral – think slabs of ice tied together with light

In, in the twilight.

We were sitting in the pews. A young woman had come to the front and made the normal call on cellphones.  And disappeared.   Then from the organ loft behind us, cello and organ in an ethereal fugal arrangement of a Samis song.  The sound slipped into the back of our heads and surrounded us.    Then the young woman’s soprano lifted in a Greig song.  Another organ piece.   Then a pause while we started to breathe again and shuffle and snuffle as an audience does.  And the trio were up front, the organ exchanged for a piano …  and a gently mixed programme of folksong arrangements and of course more Greig.


Out, in the dawn.

1.25 am

And still wondering about how people sleep and wake… Locals told me they do all sorts of outdoor things in the midnight sunlight – and save their sleeping for winter.   Are they differently adapted?  Or teasing me.

A group of teenagers joined us to go a couple of ports along. Maybe this is the way to do it.

A Nordkapp Celebratory Gallery: Time-shifting Spring


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(Re-)Crossing the Arctic Circle.

I’ve called this a Celebratory Gallery because … we went, and it was wonderful.  Mani had driven to the Nordkapp – the northernmost point of mainland Europe – many years back on a boys’ roadtrip with son Daniel and nephew Christian.  Some 7000k’s from Switzerland and back. Somehow the idea of driving it again felt a bit extreme – so a visit by ship seemed the answer. It was. We went on the Hurtigruten Kong Harald – in and out of 34 port towns, some just for half an hour in the middle of the night because the job of supplying all those towns must go on, and some for long enough to make an excursion – like to Nordkapp.  And with an expedition team on board to satisfy my inner info-junky. Ideal.

And celebratory because … I’ve just finished turning some of the photos into a couple of DVDs.   It’s one of those cool-day jobs with lots of small pleasures along the way – self-congratulation on how some of the photos turned out, and joy in finding the music which works, editing it to fit, and seeing how it all comes together.  Of course I had to use some Greig, but new, for me, were two of Norwegian Sami composer-singer-musicians, Mari Boine  and Frode Fjellheim.  Mari Boine’s work I’d heard on the voyage, and Frode Fjellheim I found thanks to Wikipedia and iTunes and he’s now firmly in my firmament of stars.

So lots of causes for celebration.  Share a bit of the pleasure.  Let’s focus on the Spring, and look at other themes later (promise!)

Bergen in early May was showing a haze of green buds over bare-branched trees, and as we sailed out past farms, there was greening under the snow-yellowed top grass.

By Alesund, daffodils and hyacinths are bright in civic gardens.




Northwards — now the trees show no green, the mountains are snowy with the stark structure of their rocky ribs showing, and now patches of snow on the shaded parts of fields. 

Across open seas to Lofoten Islands, and ice still on the lakes, thawing now around the some edges.  The fields are sodden with melt.

North again through sounds and fjords to Honnigsvag – and by bus through snow-ploughed roads to Nordkapp. The reindeer are back on the island now they can get through the snow to feed. They’ve been shipped over, or brought by truck through the undersea tunnel.  After a summer of fattening up, they get to swim back.

The quick shot out a bus window – otherwise we saw only tracks!

Guide’s joke, pointing out a snow barrier “see that fence? The herders make the reindeer jump over it, and raise it every week, until by Christmas they can fly.”

Obligatory “I was there” photo. My ruddy cheeks tell the temperature!  BTW – as at Cape Reinga, there’s actually a slightly northerner point – but this is where history has set the mark.

Around the top to Kirkenes on the Russian border, and snow is still a metre deep in back gardens, melted back from the sun-gathering warmth of wooden fences and bare-branched bushes.

Sailing southwards again…

Did I just catch an avalanche?

… and we’re fast-forwarding spring.  Lichens and mosses are greening, and people relaxing…

Spot the stars and stripes onesie!

By Bronnysund, the exact half-way point along the length of Norway, the buds are bursting on the trees, and an otter is sunning itself in the stream.


Trondheim was in glory.

Nidaros Cathedral – only Spring could make it more beautiful

A fortnight after we left, spring has fully sprung.

Is there a ‘best time’ to do this trip?   Early May was pretty good!   More snow, and the drama of the rocky ridges would be hidden. High summer, and the sudden transitions of a northern spring would be lost. Northern lights season, and the sea-landscapes would pass in twilight.  I celebrate Spring!


Out of the Ashes – Alesund’s Art Nouveau rebirth


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They say Ålesund is one of the most beautiful towns in Norway – and it is. But it’s so much more.

The sea-edges of the town are built on and in the water, Venice-style, and the buildings themselves are a concentrated gallery of Art Nouveau, or Jugendstil.

It was a devastating fire in 1904 that destroyed the town. In 16 hours 850 buildings burned down.  10,000 people were homeless in the depths of winter, but only one person was killed: she’d gone back into a building to save something. A town built on water – lost to fire.

In rushed assistance, architects, and craftsmen. Norway was in economic difficulties at the time. This was opportunity for employment, and the chance to be part of something significant:  to rebuild entirely in concrete and stone, and in the contemporary style of the time.

50 young Norwegian architects, many of whom had worked and studied in wider Europe, were commissioned and set to work.

The fire was 1904.  I saw one building with 1905 on its front, several with 1906, and by 1907 the job was done.

I spent a little time (could have been more, but the boat waits for no one!) in the Jugendstil Centre which is in the Swan Pharmacy built with characteristic turrets and flourishes in 1907.  What was wonderful was the way the displays honoured the people who were responsible for the rebuild, the architects, yes, but also the builders, plasterers, finishers…









And then a quick canter around town – seeing their work.  111 or so years on there are of course some modern buildings, but mainly sympathetic.  There’s scaffolding evidence of continuing maintenance, and some ‘hmmm’ moments wondering about sea-level rise…  but it’s gorgeous, and glowing with civic pride.


So of course my mind turned to Napier, arisen from earthquake and fire in its Art Deco incarnation some 25 years after Ålesund.  Again, speed, determination and a coherent design philosophy … executed in the middle of a depression.   And I wondered what, in say 50 years time, we will be able to look at as the defining features of the Christchurch rebuild.  Probably not speed.  But what will it say about the people and style of our time?

The memorial to those involved in the Great North Sea Escape Route from Alesund – plus obligatory seagull.

Another thing about Ålesund.  It was a really significant contributor to the Great North Sea Escape Route – later known as the Shetland Bus.  As soon as the Germans had invaded Norway in April 1940, flotillas of fishing boats started ferrying people to the UK, some to escape, many to join the forces.

Underground groups in Ålesund formed, hosted and shipped fugitives. From May to December 1940, 29 vessels left from Ålesund  –  nearly half of all those that left Norway – and during the entire war, 88 vessels and 800 people made the run from Ålesund, despite brutal attempts to stop them, and the dangers of the route.

The cost was 18 vessels and 158 people, lost, 130 captured, 51 executed.   A part of me wonders if the pride and resilience developed in the early 1900s was part of Ålesund’s determination to organise and act.

Then, it was back onto Hurtigruten’s Kong Harald to continue our cruise to the Nordkap.  But not before I had to accost a couple of bemused people in the street.  What were they doing with Kiwi-branded (plastic!) grocery bags?   The answer was in a not-so-Nouveau building up the road.

Shapes of the past, space for the future?

And another look at built beauty… and a wistful thought about a long cup of coffee and just letting the boat go on.

Today I watched a Bee die.


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Today I watched a bee die.   It was on the lawn by my feet, and at first I thought it had made a false landing, deceived by the elder flowers littering the ground. But it was climbing up a blade of grass, then falling back again. Turning round, turning again, climbing again, falling again, righting itself, settling its wings…  The wings looked OK, but the bee could not use them to lift itself out of the grass.   It was carrying no pollen, nothing to lift but itself.

Just this morning we’d been celebrating the hundreds of bees busy in the kiwifruit vine. It’s one of those grape-sized kiwifruit, which produces practically nothing in fruit, but has been spared the axe for its shade and perfume, and its blessing to, and of, bees.

The perfume is strongest in the morning, and as we had breakfast under it, the bee-sound was as loud and constant as a tap running.  Of course, we’re in a Swiss early summer, not a New Zealand winter. DSC03678





The bees here have already done their work in the cherry trees, the apples and pears and plums. The linden trees will be the next great gathering.

And meantime the paddocks and roadside flowers and grasses are not cut back until after they’ve flowered and provided their pollens.

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I’ve caught the local habit too  –  I mow around the daisies in our lawn



Lying in the deck chairs under the elder tree, we’ve become resigned to the sticky drippings from the aphids infecting its new growth.

Blasting them with the hose in lieu of reaching for the bug-spray is only a very temporary solution, but the spray would be a final solution for visiting bees – so we get sticky with virtue.

Hornets – now protected for their wasp-killing virtues – seem also to be beneficiaries. They look as if they’re feeding on the aphid-drippings.


I watched the bee die. It took a long time, but it seemed as if it should be observed.

Bees have been turning up a lot in my reading and thinking lately – yes, bees in my bonnet!  If reading about colony collapse, and climate change threats to bees hasn’t yet got your mind buzzing (forgive that!) try reading Maja Lunde’s novel “The History of Bees”, and what happens in a post-bee world.   So I’m quietly cheering about small steps, like friend John’s beehives in our allotment gardens in Kapiti, and larger, like the proposal for hives in Christchurch’s red-zoned land, and commercial, like large-scale Manuka plantations.

This morning under the bee-loud kiwi-fruit vine, it seemed as if all was right with the world.


And then I watched a bee die.



Galapagos – Puerto Ayora


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I can’t leave the Galapagos without sharing just a few small delights.

There was an early morning stroll down to the little boat harbour. The fishing boats had come in, and the locals, human and others had gathered to get their fish.

Between the main road in Puerto Ayora and the sea, some wonderfully creative person/persons have been mosaic-ing.





The owner of the Maprae Museum in Puerto Ayora used to, according to the woman minding it, pack his collection of pre-Columbian artefacts into and out of exhibitions.  He decided there had to be a better way.

Now, for the price of your admission you are handed a tablet and headphones.  Each plinth represents an artefact.  Hover your tablet over it, and Ta-dah a three dimensional image emerges.

You can turn it, look over and around… while getting a short (too short for my info-junky taste) description of its origins.   Fascinating.

Despite my exhaustion and the late-night heat, I went back to the hotel to get my camera to capture the concept.  But in retrospect I realise that my reactions were wonder at the technology, rather than the artefacts.  I still remember the first time I saw a truly ancient piece – a bowl in the museum at Belgrade dating back some 4000 years.  The feeling of awe, of deep connection to the people who had crafted and used it.   That was missing, with the act of looking at these equally beautiful and interesting things mediated through technology.


I’m still musing on that….  and a couple of other different museum experiences.

There was the Palaeontology Museum at Trelew in Patagonia.   Highly recommended, and yes, it had good information, classical style museum displays plus some nice newer styles, plenty of info, access to the workshops … and a real hands-on experience. Being not just allowed, but encouraged to touch was wonderful. 


















And there was the Museum of the Future in Rio de Janeiro.  Such a piece of architectural art, and such a concept.  A museum that shows how we are currently modifying our world, and what that means for the way we construct our future.  Interactivity exemplified.   Not just able to touch but to interrogate, to construct scenarios, to calculate your own environmental footprint.  “Next time” I would allow a whole day here.






So, three very different approaches to the museum world … and three very different experiences.

But one final too-real moment.   Back to Puerto Ayora, and the virtual museum.  Alone, in a Perspex case in a separate room, was a highlighted exhibit – the preserved head of a South American Indian.  I went to look – I had to see and feel what it meant.  But I took no photograph, and left quickly.  It is so important to us in New Zealand to be repatriating Maori heads, and returning them where possible to their iwi.  It seemed very alien, very ‘other’, to see one on open display and wonder what that meant about Ecuadorian attitudes. Different places, different people….

Out of there, into the full moon-lit warmth and humanity of the town.  Puerto Ayora has its own charms as well as allowing access to the wondrous Galapagos experience.

The true meaning of Pacific time. Look closely at the clock. Perhaps the moral is that here in the Galapagos Islands we can move freely backwards and forwards in time. That feels good.

Galapagos – Human and other Animal Conservation Heroes


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Tortoises in Residence at the Charles Darwin Research Centre, Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz

My last post left me being pursued (slowly!)  by a giant tortoise as we went from the El Chato Ranch where the Santa Cruz subspecies roams free, to the Charles Darwin Research Centre where people work on the survival of the species.    They’re heroes … working with commitment and science to undo what other people have unwittingly done.

We know it well in New Zealand  –  the animals and plants introduced either accidentally or with good intentions which went deliriously wild.  Then there were the transfers of giant tortoises from one Galapagos island to another, mixing up genes that had developed in isolation to create a clear demonstration of evolution.  And in our own time, the risks of misjudging how many tourists and tourist-support services a place can accommodate without unintended consequences. 

Apart from shipwrecked sailors, and the boat-builders who stayed to fix them up, people have only lived here for a hundred years.  When one of our guides came to the Santa Cruz Island 49 years ago, the population was 100.   Now it’s 25,000.  Hmmm.

Coming to understand the Galapagos conservation challenge was one of the big surprises of this trip.  You look at the nature documentaries, and see what looks ‘original’, ‘unspoilt’. And some of the 21 Galapagos islands still are.  But – as we also know in New Zealand – there’s a lot else going on.

So to the Charles Darwin Research Centre.   It started its breeding programme in 1965, when it was clear that the Pinzon Island subspecies of giant tortoise was in trouble.  Rats breed much faster than tortoises – there was no contest for the tortoise hatchlings and eggs.  Fortunately, the old tortoises plodded on, and once in their refuge, kept breeding.   Pinzon is now rat-free, the Pinzon tortoises are back, and there are babies running wild (well, ambling wild). 

It’s been harder to save other subspecies.  Lonesome George (the last from Pinta Is) became the pin-up boy for the Charles Darwin Centre – sadly there was no-one of his kind left to mate with, and attempts with females from other subspecies failed to produce viable eggs … a sad indication of species separation, and maybe lack of practice. 

Lonesome George still fulfilling a role.

Still-Lonesome-but-now-Stuffed George is still a draw-card though.  Since I visited Tito’s Mausoleum in the former Yugoslavia I’ve been a bit squeamish about such places – not because of the deceased, but because it seems a bit psychically unhealthy for the living.  However, George had to be visited.  A clutch of equatorially steaming tourists are sealed into a small chamber to cool down, then released into George’s presence.  Photos are taken, and we’re let out through another airlock. Happily, no overt outpourings of emotion!   

Super Diego taking a well-earned rest.

We met a more successful stud, who has sired 800 young and is still at it – Super Diego.  The island of Espaňola had ended up with a non-breeding population – there were apparently a dozen females and two males spread over the island, and they weren’t ‘bumping into each other’ (so to speak).  Even when they were captured and relocated into close proximity in the Recovery Centre, they weren’t making much of a job of making out.  There’s a suggestion that a lack of numbers means a lack of role models for how to have tortoise sex, which is a cumbersome business.  Enter our hero.   Genetic testing around the zoos discovered one of the Espaňola race at San Diego Zoo.  He was repatriated, and has been doing sterling paternity service ever since.  Espaňola is again well-tortoised.

Such excitement! We thought we were seeing a seminal moment, until the guide pointed out it was a pen of males. Still it’s good to see they’re getting practice.

A 2017 clutch of Santa Cruz hatchlings

Keeping the subspecies separation matters.  Each enclosure of hatchlings is labelled with their name and year, and covered against rats and hawks until they’re big enough to stand up for themselves. 

As they grow, the differences become obvious. 

Those from arid islands have

Evolved differences.

developed a saddleback shell shape, raised at the front so they can crane their necks up to reach the cactus and branches they eat. Their necks and front legs are longer – aspiring to be the giraffes of the tortoise world.  Those from islands with good grazing vegetation are bigger, with shorter legs and necks, and domed shells.  Interestingly, Charles Darwin almost missed out on noticing this, but that’s another story.



The Charles Darwin Research Centre is also about more than tortoises … amongst other things they’re making sure the different plants are also maintained, and there’s a little demonstration garden designed to encourage the locals to plant native rather than introduced species.   

Land Iguanas






If you’re visiting, two pieces of advice: have space to buy one of their excellent books, and take your passport with you.  They’ll stamp it with a picture of Lonesome George.   He‘s still fulfilling a role.

A clever photomontage of the young Charles at his eponymous centre