Friday, December 20, 2013

Rangitoto Island

One of the delights of writing my books is the excuse it gives for visiting interesting places. I hadn't been to Rangitoto Island for many years, but when a character decided to go on an outing there in my work-in-progress, I decided it was high time I paid the island a visit.

Rangitoto Island is a familiar sight to anyone who's visited Auckland. The island is roughly circular, so it looks the same from all directions. It's a relatively young volcano, last erupting a mere 500 or so years ago.

We took the ferry over one morning, and set out to climb to the 260-metre (850 feet) summit.

The dominant species of Rangitoto's forest cover is pohutukawa, sometimes called the New Zealand Christmas Tree for its profusion of red flowers at Christmastime (we were there just a little too early for its flowering). Pohutukawa and other species are gradually covering the island, especially since the major pest eradication of recent decades, but there are still large areas of bare lava flow:

Those fields of jagged lava make it all the more impressive to see how vegetation takes hold, survives, and eventually thrives in this challenging environment.

Looking into the crater from the summit:

We walked around the crater, with fine views in all directions:

On our descent, we took a short detour to the lava caves. These were formed when the outside of lava flows cooled while the contents kept moving, leaving hollow tubes:

We made a more leisurely day of this lovely outing than the energetic young visitors of my work-in-progress, but enjoyed it just as much as they did.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Bush-farmer's Scourge

There's a section in Mud and Gold when Frank faces near-disaster after several of his cows get into a patch of poisonous plants:

One of his cows lay on the ground, straining to get to her feet and moaning with the effort. Another was a few feet away, her unnaturally stiff limbs making it obvious she had been dead for some hours. Frank knew the cause even before he saw the scrubby plants around the edge of the clearing with their distinctive pattern of growth, each leaf directly opposite its pair on the long, thin branches instead of alternating up the stem: tutu, the bush farmer’s scourge, and perversely attractive to livestock.

Tutu (Coriaria arborea) is still fairly common in many parts of New Zealand. The eastern Bay of Plenty, where my fictional Ruatane is set, has traditionally had some large concentrations of this plant. Tutu is highly poisonous, and over the years it has caused many stock deaths, mostly in sheep and cattle. It's even been responsible for the deaths of two circus elephants which were inadvertently allowed to graze it, once in 1869 and again in 1957.

Humans, too, have felt the ill-effects of tutu, especially in the 19th century; sometimes attracted by the shiny berries, but more often from eating honey made by bees that have fed on tutu honeydew. My husband's grandfather fell dangerously ill as a young man from eating tutu-contaminated honey; fortunately he made a full recovery.

I rarely see tutu these days unless I'm travelling further afield, as it doesn't seem to grow well in this area (which is probably for the best!), but I did come across a patch on a recent outing. Here's a flourishing plant:

Note the distinctive growth pattern, with the deeply-veined leaves set opposite each other on the stems. Those long trailing stalks will have flowers later in the season, followed by invitingly shiny dark berries.

Maori skilled in plant lore used to make a delicacy from tutu berries, after carefully straining out the toxic seeds, but it's not something to be attempted lightly.

Frank learned a hard lesson in the vital importance of maintaining fences; a lesson he never forgot.

Saturday, November 2, 2013


If you've read A Second Chance, you may recall that A Certain Character is "exiled" to a small town north of Auckland called Russell. He greets the news with outrage:

‘I can’t go and live in Russell! Good Lord, I’m not sure I even know where it is.’

‘You certainly can’t continue to live in Auckland. Unless prison appeals, that is. And I’ll see that you find your way to Russell, you need have no fear on that score. It’s quite a distance north, but a boat goes there occasionally. I understand a good deal of fish is shipped out of Russell—I believe it’s the only real activity in the area these days—so it’s possible the boat may be somewhat odiferous, but that can’t be helped.’

Russell had a wild past in the early 19th century, though by the time of A Second Chance it was something of a sleepy backwater
—not an appealing place for a man used to the dizzy social life of Auckland. But despite his ill-informed reaction, Russell is a charming little town, and one we re-visited just recently.

Although it can be reached by road, Russell has something of an island feel about it. My favourite way to visit the town is by ferry across the bay from Paihia:

The red-roofed building on the right of the photograph is the Duke of Marlborough Hotel, which, although re-built after fires, has been on its present site for over 170 years. I imagine our exile visiting this establishment as often as his slender means allow.

The pretty building on the left is Russell's police station:

Until 1890 this was the town's Custom House, built in 1870 when Russell was a much busier port.

Not far from this building is a modest cottage:

I envisage our exile in a cottage very like this one. He sees it as quite a come-down after his grand house in Auckland—though, as several readers have remarked, it's rather better than he deserved. It would be nice to think he learned to be grateful, but I doubt it.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Anzac Day

Anzac Day

Among the food dishes named in honour of a battle is the Anzac biscuit. It originated in the biscuits sent to overseas troops during the Great War; biscuits that needed to be fairly tough and long-keeping, but which would have been hugely welcome both as a reminder of home and as a variation in diet. After Gallipoli, these crisp oaty biscuits were renamed Anzac biscuits.

The recipe for this biscuit comes in many variations, but this one makes a tasty, chewy snack. I made a batch this week in honour of the day:

They didn't last long, which is usually a good sign.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Kingston Flyer

As well as the steamship Earnslaw (which I wrote about here), the Lake Wakatipu region is also fortunate enough to have a fine old steam train, the Kingston Flyer. Last week I was fortunate enough to take a ride on the Flyer.

Getting up a head of steam ready to depart:

We decided to make the most of our outing, so travelled first class, which meant an elegant compartment all to the two of us, along with a delicious lunch.

Bounty of the region, with a scenic backdrop:

The author enjoying herself immensely:

And a small hint for what's to come: as with the Earnslaw, I fully expect the Kingston Flyer to make an appearance in a future book (although not the current work in progress). I hope my characters will enjoy the journey just as much as I did.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Breaking Out With Apple

Apple's iBookstore has just launched a new feature, Breakout Books, to showcase selected authors. I was pleasantly surprised (not to mention delighted!) to find myself on this list with Daisy's War.

Daisy is in fine company, and this is a wonderful opportunity to meet some new readers.

More about this feature can be found at the Smashwords blog.