NZs paradise shelduck was called the painted duck by Cook

web paradise ducklingsI saw my first Paradise ducklings of the season over this past weekend … these birds are unusual in they sometimes nest in trees, some 10 – 15 metres above the ground.

They are also the only birds in New Zealand who have increased in numbers since Cook arrived in NZ: he named them the painted duck.

female on Avon river
female on Avon river
male paradise -- they pair for life
male paradise -- they pair for life

See other blogs I have written about NZs flightless birds and this website for more information.

Farewell Spit – the north of the south

Farewell Spit Eco Tours: South Island, New Zealand

I join Farewell Spit Eco Tours on the last day before the time of the tides prevents vehicles travelling on the spit for a few days every so often.
(Check for dates and bookings – AND tell them I recommended them to you!) Above photo courtesy of Farewell Spit eco tours.
My driver-guide, Elaine, is in her fourth summer and says it’s the best job in the world and she is driving Lily. “In front of you are handles. These are for you to grab during the bumpy bits when we go off road” she tells us as we get our safety instructions, then off we go.
We have 24 kms to the start of the spit and 15 one-way bridges to cross.
Originally called Te Onetahua, meaning heaped up sand the long sandbar stretches out 35 km and Paddy Gillooly, manager of The Original Farewell Spit Safari, has a family history with it as old as Collingwood. He prides himself that his hand-picked guides know what they are talking about, that they give accurate information and can’t just be a bus driver. They also have to have great people skills and must constantly read the beach, watching for quicksand.
First called Murderers Bay by Abel Tasman in 1642, when James Cook came he called it Massacre Bay and the early settlers first called it Coal Bay. It was then re-named in 1850s when alluvial gold was discovered in the Aorere River, giving the area its current name  Golden Bay: much more melodious and welcoming.
Growing out of a service delivery, taking fuel, food and school lessons to the light housekeepers and their families, carrying passengers began so they too could enjoy the landscape and see the wading birds. It’s from those beginnings the trip I’m on began.
I had not expected the pools of water all over the bay which replace the long wide beach I had expected  – no wonder wading birds love it here, and the cockles grow so well, I’d had forgotten it’s a mudflat not a beach.
The tides rise and fall fast. “At about walking pace” I’m told: “not at the speed of a galloping horse” that the Nelson artist, Anna Leary, had been told as a young girl  – a dramatic picture that has always stayed with her.
Whale strandings happen in Golden Bay too. It is particularly notorious for pilot whale strandings and during the 1990s there was often one every summer and is why some whale experts call these months ‘the silly season.’
Over the years more than half were refloated, but several hundred have died and been buried on the beaches where they died. The most recent major standing was in December 2005 when 123 whales beached at Puponga and after a massive rescue operation, were refloated.
After visiting the northern-most point of the South Island, Cape Farewell, a bold cliff top which provides a spectacular view of the wild Tasman Sea, we head for the spit, passing “the oldest resident in Puponga” on the way: a face in the craggy rocks.
Through the locked gate we drive, from here, the public may only walk. Down the beach we drive, seeing a few spoonbills and black-billed gulls and many black swans feeding, reminding me I am too early for the godwits which arrive in the thousands from Alaska and resolve to return when I can join a bird watching tour with this company. Wading birds abound from September to April, with February and early March being the ultimate time. With so many seasonal feathered visitors, its no wonder this area has been named a sanctuary, a wetland of international importance.
Driving over the spit to the northern face of Farewell Spit I now see the huge sand beach I was expecting on the bay side. It’s impressive.
The spit could be likened to an iceberg “up to 250 metres deep” our guide tells us, “and growing in length at 4-metres annually. The sand dunes further along the spit are up to 25 metres high. This makes about 3.4 million cubic metres of sand.”  I later find it has been growing for some 6,500 years and settlers have visited the area since the 1870s.
At our first stop at Fossil Point I pick up 3 plastic bottles which have washed up on this pristine area and search for fossils: we find a few in the rocks and I watch some Caspian terns swooping and diving into the sea. There are also some black oystercatchers with their distinct red legs and bills and shrill calls warning me against coming too close! Despite the name, here they dine on tuatua (a shellfish which we Kiwi love to eat too).
Down the beach we drive and I gloat as we pass the post – 2 km down the beach and 4 km from the locked gate –  as this is as far as people can walk, while we continue for another 22 km to the lighthouse.
The wind is picking up the loose sand making the dunes look like the waves beside them: the Nor-wester is the prevailing wind and it is windy 70% of the time, an essential element in forming the spit and consequently Golden Bay.
Qucksand a constant presence

“How good is this?” asks Elaine “No roads, no signage. So no advertising and no traffic so just sit back and take in the awesome picture of nature undisturbed.” And undisturbed it is.

She has already told me it’s been about 18 months since she got stuck in the sand although in her first year it happened regularly. Her male colleagues kept telling her they would paint her shovel pink.
They had also told her “You are only really stuck if you can’t dig yourself out. If you have dug yourself out you weren’t really stuck!”
“There are probably photos of me on the end of a shovel all over the world” she laughs.
We eventually arrive at the lighthouse which has its power line buried the length of the spit although I think the lighthouse itself is solar powered and the light rotates every 15 seconds.  
As a result of many shipwrecks, the first lighthouse was commissioned in 1870, a wooden structure that had to be replaced in 1897 with a steel one. Automated in 1984, this lighthouse is also depicted in a 1969 stamp series of light houses: The Farewell Spit stamp was valued at 10 cents.
After afternoon tea in one of the lighthouse keepers old houses, I climb to the second level until my fear of heights beats me and I retreat and go to look at the Pouwhenua which depicts my favourite, pacific-wide, mythical person: the mischievous Maui Tikitiki a Taranga who is credited with fishing up the North Island while standing in his canoe, the South Island.
According to the notice beside this carving by locals, “as Maui pulled on his line, his feet were dragged along the land, pushing sand in to the dune formations which form Farewell Spit.”

rooms with views

This week (this was written a few years ago)I am writing from a room with a view. A  room in which various national and international ‘artists in residence’ have used to relax or work.

As I sit and await the muse to visit (surely there must be some residual energy from those other writers) I gaze out the window at the view.

The Peacock Fountain, in the Christchurch Botanic Gardens, was built in cast iron in 1911, and is the background to many photographs travelling to all points of the compass. As people pose, it sprays it’s water regularly from the dolphins, and is well decorated with herons, lily leaves, and other undefined foliage.

I sit and think of other views, other places. Some from on high, others through a door or window.

A palm-roofed hut, just large enough to place a double-sized bed and still walk around it, produced a romantic view of white sands, palm trees, and blue skies. Idyllic – a genuine travel brochure scene.

The view from my downtown Manhattan hostel window – taxis abandoned in the middle of the street and only the top of the yellow-cabs roof showing through the snow.

The view from  a tower in Istanbul may have been amazing but I was too busy clinging to the building to appreciate it. It is hard to be a tourist or traveller with a  fear of heights!  Nevertheless I do recall seeing the busy Bosphorus and the skyline of minarets through adrenaline-impaired-vision.

Once I nearly got over my fear enough to inwardly consider urban rap-jumping from the Novotel in Auckland. I am pleased to report I recovered my senses enough to keep those thoughts to myself and remained firmly on top of the hotel and did not walk down the side of the building- face forward – and now own a Tee shirt that says; I wouldn’t dream of urban rap jumping. The view of downtown Auckland and the harbour was great: however I was not really appreciating it right then.

With these confessions of fears, you will be surprised to know that I have done a bungee jump – right in the heart of Wellington. I was really fearful as they tied my ankles, the soft towel to prevent ropeburn did not reassure me. I must be crazy I think. Ropes tied and tested I am under starters orders. “Move to the edge of the platform” he tells me and I shuffle forward, “A little more” I move imperceptibly more, my heart beating at an uncontrollable speed. The view is now clearly in front of me, the water is fast, cold looking and a long long way down. I still have time to back out of this but my pride won’t allow it. The countdown starts. Three. Two. One. Bungee! Over the edge I go, plummeting downwards, waterwards, my heart undecided if to climb out my throat  or smash through my ribs, I’m screaming. I bounce, up and down, down and up again swinging side-ways and slowly come to a gentle halt. They untie my legs as I wonder did I wet my pants? I slowly walk away. That may have only been virtual bungee at Te Papa but it was real enough for me!

Another memorable view from the top was in Scotland. Inveraray, a village built by the head of the powerful Clan Campbell (my clan) in 1745, has a bell-tower built, on top of a hill, as a memorial to the Campbell’s who have died in battle. I climbed, sometimes crawling on my knees, to the top for a fantastic view of the village below, the Clan Campbell castle (Inveraray Castle) and the beautiful Loch Fyne and the tiny village. It seems amazing that such a calm, peaceful setting was the training ground for some half a million troops prior to the D-Day landings in WW2.

My journal, written on top of that hill, notes my grief at my sons death some five years earlier, and how I had then thought I would die from the pain, yet now, on the date of his birth, I was enjoying the view from a hill in Scotland. Grief produces such paradoxes, out of pain, or perhaps because of it, growth and life and laughter happens. Just as Buddhists explain the lotus flower and how its beauty grows out from mud.

Maybe the muse that has been left in this room is a reflective one. One that looks out windows and wonders what’s it all about. I certainly don’t know, all I know is the more I know, the less I know, the less I need to know.

the good news and bad news about Canterbury NZ

This article by Heather Hapeta was originaly published in the Ecan magazine 2008

Canterbury plains are one of the worst examples of the loss of native plants in New Zealand’ Professor Ian Spellerberg tells me. ‘Less than 0.5% of native vegetation remains on our plains.’

When colleagues from Europe ask, as he drives them from the airport to Lincoln University, ‘where are your native plants’ he understands their surprise. Returning to Canterbury, he too was disappointed. Spellerberg had become used to UK landscapes with their hedgerows making great use of native plants and which are now some of the last bastions of habitat for wildlife.

However, there is good news about our plains: the Te Ara Kakariki Greenway Canterbury Trust has been formed and is encouraging us to increase native plant communities for all reasons – not just restoration, or beautification as some critics suggest, but for boundaries, shelter belts, crops, tourism, and ideas that we haven’t yet thought of. Its long-term vision, maybe taking hundreds of years, is to make connections between the mountains and sea by using corridors and stepping stones of native plant communities – and connecting existing patches. Another goal is a one-stop-shop for information: cost, availability, economic benefits, where to get natives, after-planting care and research – perhaps leading onto field days. Encouragingly, Motukarara Conservation Nursery says they can’t keep up with the demand for native plants.

The land between the Waimakariri and Rakaia Rivers gives the project an identity and all Cantabrians can be involved: country or city; on public and private land; for economic and ecological reasons, alongside roadsides, railway lines and rivers.

This year, (2008) in conjunction with Southern Woods Nursery, has seen 25 Selwyn schools being invited to design and plant a native plant community for their school.  Judging (November 08) will be around the knowledge pupils gained, not just the design. (Good luck to Southbridge, Templeton and Ladbrooks schools, and others, who Robyne Hyndman tells me have signed-up).

Spellerberg’s enthusiastic. ‘I have this dream of tourists coming to see Te Ara Kakariki, a Canterbury icon! Imagine native plant hedgerows on those long stretches of road. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? It’s the loss of associated native wildlife too: maybe we could re-introduce the Kakariki back to Canterbury.’

‘We underestimate the value of natives in an uncertain future. What’s the environment going to be in ten years? What about land use? Changes in weather? We have to think about what roles native plants will play then. It might be crops, better shelter belts – after all, these plants evolved to live in dry windy conditions.’

‘Why aren’t we proud of our native heritage of plants?’ he continues. ‘We owe an apology to nature for the devastation of our native plant communities. We should be celebrating them, they are our wealth.’

‘I’m putting my money on Te Ara Kakariki becoming an icon for Canterbury.’ I see tourists coming to see this landscape project which communities, schools, and other groups have created. A wonderful greenway of native plants and native plant communities.’

Books about natives for Canterbury

Native plant communities of the Canterbury plains (Dept of conservation)

Living with natives (2008) Canterbury University Press. Edited by Ian Spellerberg & Michele Frey. Available July-August.

Going native (2004) Canterbury University Press Edited by Ian Spellerberg & the late David Given.

Living with natives (2008) Canterbury University Press. Edited by Ian Spellerberg & Michele Frey. Available July-August.

Establishing shelter in Canterbury with nature conservation in mind. Available from ECan or the Isaac Centre for Nature Conservation.

Plant Nurseries for natives

Motukarara Conservation Nursery

Trees for Canterbury

Southern Woods

(& others)

Do you want to be involved?

Want advice for your property?

Have you got a case study or project idea?

Do you want to help with planting?

Would you like to make a donation?

Would you like to be involved in our Management Group?

Would you like to help with fundraising?

If you answer ‘Yes’ to any of these questions, or have other suggestions or questions, please contact the trust.

Professor Ian Spellerberg: re info or talks. Email: Spelleri AT

red rocks, seals and a maori myth

Blue skies and a group of Australians were my companions when I joined the Red Rock Seal Tour in Wellington.

Leaving from the tourist information centre twice daily there is plenty to see on these tours including landmarks, seals and great views.

We wind our way through the Wellington (capital of New Zealand)  streets and within ten minutes we are having a wildlife experience on Wellingtons doorstep- this amazed the Aussies who expressed surprise that Wellington didn’t sprawl on for suburb after suburb until our tour-guide explained to how Wellington is constrained by the harbour.

On we went around the south coast of the North Island, through a disused quarry, past the flowering gorse-covered hills, on past the occasional fisher, scuba-divers and walkers and finally reach the red rocks.web red rocks

Science is not at all romantic and says the rocks are about 210 million years old and are made of iron oxide.

Legends are much more colourful. However they are also less definite and I was given one version to explain the rocks by John, another by an ex- Wellington resident, and the book The Great Harbour of Tara by G. Leslie Adkin gave me two more.

Legend 1 says it is the blood from Maui who used his own blood to bait the fish-hook when he caught the North Island (Te Ika a Maui)  During a phone call from London I was told “ No. It’s the blood from a high born young woman who threw herself off the cliffs because she couldn’t marry the man she loved as he was a commoner.”

Confused I went to the library and found these explanations. Pari whero (red cliffs) is where Kupe had his hand clamped by a live paua and it was his blood from that injury that stained the rocks. Story number four says it’s the blood from the two daughters of Kupe who gashed themselves in grief at their fathers long absence.

rock pools are always interesting to me
rock pools are always interesting to me

Which ever version is correct, the rocks are dramatic because of the small area they are confined to and their very different colour. Other interesting rocks in the area are the ‘pillow rocks’ which have been thrown up by an undersea volcano and the pushed-up-and-twisted rocks that have been formed by earthquakes around the Wellington region.

Also in this area are small caves where adzes and stone chisels have been found many years ago- before the base of the cliffs were covered. This whole area was raised up by a large earthquake rocks3

Continuing along the rocky coastline in the four-wheel-drive Landcruiser we start to see the NZ fur seals (kekeno) who hang out here in a bachelor-pad non-breeding colony – they leave their harem behind in the South Island to rear the young.

Some stay all year but most just winter over on this coast – so this tour continues all year.

Onto the main seal group we go, up a steep climb, through the Devils Gate then stop to admire the great pointy-snouted, small-eared mammals and have a cup of tea or coffee.

inter island ferry on horizion
inter island ferry on horizion

New Zealand fur seals love relaxing and mostly they ignored our photography session. Because they reach weights of some 200kgs and 1.8 metres in length I resisted the urge to pat their incredibly soft-looking fur which is grey-brown in colour, long and fine on top and very thick under-fur.

The trip is circular and after we leave the coastline and the view of the leaning light-house, we climb up the steep hill where we are told “we get a bit of a lean on here, but we should be right”. Most of us wimps preferred not to look too closely at the steep drop!

This part of the journey is via a private road that follows along the Wellington fault-line. From there we go past the Hawkins Hill radar station, which has a radius of about 400 kilometres, and looks like an ominous giant puffball from a distance. Not long after that we stop at the Wellington wind turbine generator for an impressive 360 degree view of Wellington and its environs before heading back to the city.

This trip was a great break from the city yet did not take all day to travel and left me free to visit Parliment gardens and buildings in the afternoon. Wellington is a wonderfully compact city and if you book ahead you too can ‘send yourself’ to our capital city for a reasonable cost.

Seem the longest word in world is in New Zealand not Wales

longest word in the world in New Zealand

“PLACENAMES CAN BE DIFFICULT  Here in the UK, the longest name of any place is the famous Welsh one, usually written as Lanfair PG:

Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. There are many longer, including one in New Zealand with 92 letters. This week it was admitted officially that yet another long place name, of a lake near Worcester, Massachusetts, has been spelled wrongly on signs as Chargoggagoggmanchaoggagoggchaubunaguhgamaugg for some years. It should be Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg. The locals call it Lake Webster”

Read more great wordy stuff here in worldwide words.

While back here in New Zealand

The longest place name in New Zealand is in Hawke’s Bay is a hill known as “Taumata whakatangi hangakoauau o tamatea turi pukakapiki maunga horo nuku pokai whenua kitanatahu”, which translates into English as “the place where Tamatea, the man with the big knees, who slid, climbed and swallowed mountains, known as ‘landeater’, played his flute to his loved one.” Locals simply call it Taumata Hill.

what to pack and what to leave

What to pack or not to pack that is the question.

  • Maud Parrish (1878-1976) in her book, Nine Pounds Of Luggage, said she travelled the world with approx. 4 kilo of luggage and a banjo.
  • I travel for a year with less luggage than my friends take for a weekend!
  • Carrying possessions on my back ensures I pare the weight down to the least possible and still have a change of clothes.
  • It’s the necessary extras that weigh so much – toilet-gear, books, glasses/contact lens, footwear.

So what can a woman with a passion for travel and adventure tell you about what to take?

  • Travel lightly, in spirit as well as in luggage; wear the world like a loose garment as an old saying suggests but pack lots and lots of enthusiasm.
  • Take less rather than more – a lot less, there very few places that you cannot improvise or buy a needed item of clothing. Remember, most of the people you meet will never cross your path again so there is no need to impress with different clothes each day.
  • So what can you jettison – everything you take ‘for just in case’. Soap is on the out list; body shampoo works well on hair too and saves carrying two items. Disposable shavers will keep your legs just as silky as the designer ones and half empty containers of toothpaste and deodorant from home last for ages. Old film canisters are great for keeping things such as hair gel rather than carry big containers.
  • I love BIG bath towels! However travel has taught me to dry myself on a well-worn, soft, small one.
  • Think about where you are going when you pack your clothes.
  • Be respectful in your clothing, even if you don’t approve of, or understand the cultural norms that require you to cover up.
  • Remember you went to that place because of it’s difference, if it was the same as home you may as well stay at home, it would be easier and cheaper!
  • Jewellery, take the absolute minimum as insurance cover is expensive, and looking after them is just one more worry. I wear small earrings and a gold chain, and of course, like most travelling Kiwis, my bone carving or greenstone.
  • Sometimes I buy a couple of cheap fun pieces in the county I’m in for a change.
  • Bank cards are my way of travelling, with a few small travellers’ cheques and a little cash, hidden away for emergencies. Most airports have an ATM ensuring that as soon as I arrive I can get some local currency.  Only once did I have a problem with using a card – leaving Zimbabwe
  • On a practical level, check with your bank about charges. It may pay to put your credit card into credit then use it as a debit card to reduce charges. I carry two different cards that I keep separate in case of loss or theft and make sure the expiry date doesn’t fall in the middle of your holiday!
  • Traveller cheques (get rid of the covers) are still  used by lots of people so check the exchange rate, often those offering no commission pay a lower exchange rate. Once again, talk with your bank to get current, and correct, advice.
  • Soft covered journals weigh less than others, swap your reading material along the way, send photos home once they have been developed (negatives in a separate letter for safety)
  • Most of all throw out all your worries and problems about yesterday and tomorrow, they weigh far too much to be of any use to you today.

FINALLY:  if it’s in your bag for –  “just in case” –  leave it at home!

freedom campers in new zealand

Freedom campers asked to assume nothing

2010 NOTE: you can, and likely will be, be given an instant fine for parking in places specifically marked “no overnight camping”  Camping includes – campervans, caravans, mobile homes, tent etc.

16 Sep 2009 New Zealand’s wide open spaces and unique environment provide a mecca for freedom campers but tourists are being advised to check with the locals before pitching a tent or parking their campervan.

“Assume nothing – always ask a local” is the message being touted by authorities keen to tidy up the presumption that anyone can camp anywhere in New Zealand.

In a united campaign, holidaymakers are being encouraged to check with i-SITEs, the Department of Conservation (DOC) Visitor Centres and Holiday Parks for local camping information to minimise any negative impacts.

And a recently launched website ‘camping our way, love NZ’ has become a one stop shop for campers seeking information on eco-wise practices, keeping safe, facilities, regional camping, what to do and where to stay in New Zealand.

Freedom camping
Freedom camping has become a popular way to enjoy New Zealand and sums up the practice of camping away from recognised camp sites.

It includes holidaymakers camping in caravans, buses, cars, tents or campervans and staying over in rest areas or reserves, at beaches, in car parks or at the side of the road.

While there are no statistics available to cover the number of people who freedom camp, it is recognised as a popular pursuit with both New Zealanders and international visitors.

Regional restrictions
Restrictions on freedom camping vary in each region. In some areas people can camp with relative freedom but in other places freedom camping is restricted to selected areas.

Each community tends to manage freedom camping in ways that are appropriate for them and many councils have bylaws to control the practice.

While freedom camping is seen as a way of bringing visitors into an area and adding value to the local economy, authorities believe it needs to be managed to care for New Zealand’s natural environment to preserve it for future generations.

Ask a local
The new “assume nothing, always ask a local” tourism initiative is the first time there has been a unified stance on how best to manage freedom camping.

Education helping campers to embrace the principle of kaitiakitanga (guardianship) and ‘camping our way’ is seen as the best way to get the message across and will be advertised at DOC visitor centres, i-SITE information centres around the country and at holiday parks.

Rental vehicle companies have also been asked to link to the ‘camping our way’ website and promote the message during their booking process.

NZ Freedom Camping Forum
The New Zealand Freedom Camping Forum (NZFCF) was formed in 2007 by the Tourism Industry Association New Zealand (TIA) and is developing a number of initiatives to help communities better manage freedom camping in their areas.

“Freedom camping is a popular way to enjoy New Zealand and we don’t want to prohibit people from travelling that way, but we do want to minimise the negative impacts,” said TIA advocacy manager Geoff Ensor.

The message echoes New Zealand tourism industry’s guiding principle of kaitiakitanga – guardianship and sustainable management of natural, built and cultural resources for the collective benefit of current and future generations.

“New Zealand is a beautiful country. Help keep our towns, cities, parks, beaches and native bush free from pollution and waste. Please also respect our unique flora and fauna. Be active and get involved in caring for the environment. It is everyone’s responsibility,” the ‘camping our way’ website reminds visitors.

These topics may also be of interest to you

check this warning out too …

Related Links
i-SITE Visitor Information Centres
The official New Zealand information centres for travellers.
Other Sites
DOC Campsites
Camping Our Way website

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bells peel out in new zealand to welcome a bird back

web cathedral and chalice The very first feathered signs of spring arriving in my city have landed.

The Anglican Cathedral bells ring to welcome the  Eastern bar-tailed godwits as they arrive back in Christchurch ( New Zealand) from Alaska.

This annual, non stop epic journey of some 80 thousand godwits migrating back to their breeding grounds here – from the Alaska Arctic Tundra – are warmly welcomed by the ringing of the bells ( hand bell ringers too). This journey of 11,500 kms is usually flown non-stop and usually takes about six days!

Every year we locals farewell them from our shores and when they return the catherdral bells peel out to welcome them back to their summer feeding grounds here on the Ihutai/Avon- Heathcote estuary such a short distance the centre of our city.

godwits coming in to roost beside the black and white oyster catchers
godwits coming in to roost beside the black and white oyster catchers

excerpt from Naked In Budapest:travels with a passionate nomad

I’m keen to get to Thailand but I need a few days to relax and get used to the heat so decide to move onto Malaysia [by bus from Singapore] in the morning and prepare for another 12 months of travel. Did I really only get a passport when I was 40-something – I’m really playing catch-up now.

At the bus stop in Malacca I hire a man and a bike to take me to a hotel. My bag is only 14 kilos but Mr Ong, with his skin and bone legs, finds it difficult to get the bike moving. When we reach a small rise I offer to walk but he declines with vigour. He tells me he has been a cyclo for 50 years, he’s now 80 and has postcards from all over the world and will I send him one from New Zealand? (I did)

For over a week I explore, keep out of air-conditioned places and I’m now enjoying the heat; I’ve even stopped my arthritis medication – I’m sure I was meant to be born in a hot climate.

‘Selamat. Hari Raya Aidilfitri.’ I’d not expected to be welcomed with these words at the home of a Malaysian Cabinet Minister. Hari Raya, the celebration at the end of Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month, is a time of reflection and thanks for the past year, gaining merits for the next life.

Over the past 10 days I’ve been reading, in the newspapers, the exact time of the beginning and end of each day’s fast that is governed by the time of sunrise and sunset. Yesterday was the last day of fasting and was announced in the newspapers and television by the keeper of the Ruler’s Seal, Engku Datuk Ibrahim Engku Ngah.

The days leading up to Hari Raya have been festive: special songs are blaring from giant speakers; houses are cleaned ready for visits from friends and family; new clothes are worn; festive fare prepared; and advertisements and banners in the streets proclaim ‘Our differences keep us together. Hari Raya Aidilfitri.’

During Hari Raya, Muslims give charity money (zakat fitrah, a moral tax or tithe, usually 2.5% of a person’s income) to the mosque for distribution to the poor and for building and maintaining mosques. ‘What happens if people don’t pay?’ I ask.

‘They will have problems when they die,’ James, the manager of the budget hotel tells me. His Chinese employer will not give him time off work to attend prayers today. ‘I will have a bad year.’

I wonder at the actual depth of the racial harmony that’s proclaimed daily in newspapers and on posters – although I am impressed by the apparent tolerance the different races and religions show each other. I meet Muslims who are Indian, Indonesian, Malay and Chinese. Conversely I also meet the same cultures practising many other religions in this country of numerous races and religions: Muslim is predominant, about 52% and television programmes are interrupted each evening for prayers.

Over the past two days huge crowds have swamped bus and train stations as people return home to celebrate with their family. James tells me to go to an ‘open house.’ ‘Of course you are allowed to go’ he says. ‘Everyone is welcome.’

Catching a bus, to follow his advice, I’m surrounded by brightly dressed people many carrying gaily-wrapped gift hampers. I’m on my way to the home of Deputy Health Minister, Dr Mohammed Ali Rustam even though my western mind is not totally convinced that I, a non-Muslim stranger, can attend the celebration.

Under a huge canvas roof beside the house I meet the Doctor and his wife, who welcome me, saying they enjoyed their trip to New Zealand: I sit opposite Janet and her mother who doesn’t speak English. Janet, an elegant Chinese woman, tells me, ‘I went to New Zealand. I was at Rotorua with the Hash Hound Harriers – the boiling mud and geysers were amazing.’ She’s not Muslim and is one of the few people dressed in western-style clothes.

A delightful young girl willingly tells me about the various foods. It seems the little cookies and cakes are made especially for Hari Raya while redang is a dish of meat cooked slowly in coconut milk, chillies, onions and a mixture of spices and served with lemang – a glutinous rice dish cooked with coconut milk and inside a bamboo stalk. Dozens of dishes are served and Janet’s mother encourages me. ‘Eat, eat,’ she says, giving me delicacies off her plate and to be polite, my usual vegetarian diet goes.

The bright yellows, greens, reds and other multicoloured robes and scarves make me feel dowdy in my casual back-packer clothes. I’m wearing a T-shirt and fish-covered long cotton pants I’d made two days before I left home. However, with all the laughter, greetings and smiles I feel part of the dozens of guests and I’m asked to pose for many photos – reversing the usual as the traveller becomes the focus. (pages 152-154)

NOTE: my ‘few days’ in Malaysia becomes three months!

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