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|Peter and Pauline Curtis's 1996 Christmas Newsletter|
We have just spent 6 weeks in New Zealand. The last two weeks were not in the plans but Peter was rushed into hospital one day before we were due to return where he spent a week followed by another week of recuperation before they would allow him to return. The time and place, Tauranga, were impeccably chosen, the last real day of the holiday at a town with, arguably the best hospital in New Zealand and an excellent beach - an eleven kilometer sweep of sand - right outside the motel ready for recuperation. Peter tried very hard to let him stay the 6 weeks needed before they can safely operate but failed seriously.
The rest of the holiday was excellent - this time we only went to North Island which allowed time for a whole weeks sailing in the Bay of Islands. We started at Auckland, where we landed after our 36 hour journey, and stayed with my niece Christine and Ralph. We had two days in Auckland and explored the Wine growing areas and stocked up for the Sailing trip. We visited, in many cases revisited, a number of our favorites vineyards during the holiday. In the Auckland area we went to Matua where we carried out major provisioning and Selak (they now have some excellent methode champenoise) and, like many of the vineyards an excellent restaurant where we had lunch.
The next three days were spent in the Coramandel at a small place called Ferry Landing opposite, and surprise linked by ferry to Whitianga. Nice beaches and walking and a lot of history of the gold mining and kauri gum mining days. We gathered our own mussels on the rocks at the end of the local beach - not the typical 10 cm new Zealand ones as we were only collecting close inshore and it was the end of the summer.
After the Coramandel back up through Auckland to stay for one night in the bay of Islands at Paihia before picking up the boat in Opua. We had hoped to have a flight over the bay in the Vintage Grumman seaplane at Paihia but weather not quite good enough. We did not go to nearby Waitangi this time but went by the Stone House at Kerikeri whilst shopping for fruit and vegetables for the trip. The whole area is full of orchards etc. mostly of which have excellent roadside shops - we were eating oranges from Peter's bargain $10 sack for the next four weeks! We also followed signs to a steam powered sawmill which was interesting although temporarily stopped for tea break - all the waste was recycled and fired the boilers and the dryers - in the end only about 50% of the treas come out. It currently has a 1950s engine but they are installing a vintage engine.
We met up at Opua with Christine again and also David who is one of the occasional skippers with Moorings from whom we chartered. This time he was along for a couple of days as a friend. He had been rash enough to clear us for "solo" last year after a couple of days. Whilst we do a lot of boating on inland waterways sailing and being at sea is very different and our sailing had been limited to a small but intense period of instruction by David Bennetts on his boat in the Solent prior to our first charter.
We had the same boat as last time, an oldish but very nice handling Davidson 28. We sailed round into main part of the Bay and the first evening was spent at a lovely cove where at low tide you just put your hands into the sand and brought out Pipis, a local shellfish, by the handful - you could fill a bucket without ever moving your feet! We had a very nice run the second day out to the "Hole in the Rock" at Cape Brett - the edge of our permitted cruising area and back through one of the narrow channels to moor. We then went back to Opua to drop David off and then to moor at Russell - no sooner had we got the anchor down than David turned back up by dingy with Rory suggesting a meal and drink. Rory who is currently is the manager of Moorings at Opua is quite a character. He built a 21 ft catamaran and then sailed it, much of the time single handed, from England to New Zealand - probably one of the smallest boats to make the journey. I believe he still lives on it much of the time. He is currently planning a little trip to Australia which Christine is thinking of crewing. We went back for an earlier night partly because the outboard was suspect on the dingy ever since Peter had turned it over, which he does not want to elaborate.
The next day we had some pleasant sailing in the bay and moored on an island for lunch - it got a bit more gusty after lunch and Pauline was convinced that some of gusts were going to lay us flat so we ended up well reefed and returned to the very sheltered Pipi bay in anticipation of the forecast 35 knot blow over night. In the end we were there for 3 nights with only a brief excursion out with about 6 foot by 4 ft of jib unfurled - we still went well although tacking was impossible and we had to gybe every time. We convinced ourselves it was good practice and experience before returning to hide from the wind. The last day was beautiful and we had some very pleasant sailing although still with the main reefed as there was still a good blow outside of the sheltered inner islands. Peter is certainly hooked now.
We drove back with Christine to Auckland for a single night then headed South and towards the East coast to a region we did not know from previous visits and spent in the end three nights at Ohope (near Whakatane) although we had only intended to stay for one and then travel on. They delay came about partly because we liked the area as a base and partly because we were persuaded to take a trip to White Island. White Island is an active volcanic island about 30 kms off shore. It was certainly a memorable visit. The trip by the PJ boat took about an hour and a half and we were then issued with hard helmets and gas masks, the latter are always needed, one hopes the hard hats are required less often! We were landed by inflatable jet boat 6 for a guided tour lasting a couple of hours. The overall impression was that the description of it being "the most awesome experience in New Zealand" was not that much of an exaggeration. It certainly makes even Hells Gate look restrained and we certainly needed the gas masks at times as the swirling clouds of steam and sulphur caught up with us.
White Island has been inhabited at times by sulphur extractors for fertilizer manufacture and some of the buildings and kit remain - the extreme corrosion and the way some of the equipment has been distributed bear witness to the power of the fumes and the sea. At least one party of minors were completely lost in an eruption and only the cat was ever found. A very good visit well organised by Peter and Jay who are real enthusiasts and one we would happily recommend. Once back to the boat snorkels appeared for those who wanted to see the rich underwater life - no fins unfortunately but Peter still had an enjoyable 20 minutes and regretted he had not had the grease for sealing the video camera underwater case with him.
Next main stop was Rotorua where we spent 3 days staying at the Regal Geyserland hotel which is right on the edge of the Whakawerawera thermal site. We had stayed before so had specified the room we wanted which looked straight down on the biggest and best area of bubbling mud we have yet found - one could and we did watch for hours the mud with the changing pattern of geysers in the background. We did not get the exact room as they upgraded us to the one next door with a spa pool - quite an experience when as it always came on at full blast. During the stay at Rotorua we revisited many of our favorite thermal areas including the Waimangu, Waitapu and Hells Gate. They are always different in some aspect and we once more have far too much video and film of the whole trip, Peter managing 10 hours of video and Pauline a record 19 x 36 films in the month.
From Rotorua we took a long trip down to Wellington where we had a short interlude of work. Peter visited NIWA (The National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research Ltd.) where he gave a talk (synopsis and his resume) and had some interesting discussions with NIWA and Met Service staff. Pauline visited the Ministry of Research Science and Technology (MORST), the Ministry of Commerce and the Victoria University of Wellington. The British High Commission were very supportive and informative. We spent a very pleasant evening with John and Blythe Sansom who Peter had initially met at the WMO MeteoHyTec Conference in Geneva the previous summer and had subsequently visited the UK Met Office and joined us for an evening in UK. They have a house with spectacular views out over Wellington. We had not realized how the hills rose round Wellington when we decided to walk to them and we arrived panting and late after what had looked an easy walk on the map.
There was not a lot of time for sightseeing for either of us in Wellington although we had a walk round downtown and the harbor area the first evening and an hour or so after the debrief at the Commission. We also found a wine shop which also offered a lot of useful advice on the wines of the area once they knew we were interested and they also produced a bottle of Cloudy Bay Chardonnay which has returned to the UK for a special occasion. Cloudy Bay, whose vineyard we visited in South Island last year, produce cult wines which even if available are always rationed.
From Wellington we headed back North via the Martinborough vineyard areas where we had been recommended to visit Te Karianga - the wines we sampled were very good and some of them reach the UK. Some of their wines had scored very highly in the last round of competitions but they had all been snapped up in the shops we checked. We looked round the rest of the area but did not sample very widely. We then continued and stopped at a town called Bulls which had many puns on all the facilities - the Police Station boasted ConstaBulls available and the hotel was advertised as being ComfortaBull etc. It was also famous for the size of the meals, in particular steaks which we, and the hotel cat, can vouch for.
From Bulls we headed for Mount Egmont, another area we had not been to before and stayed at the Mountain House which we had picked because of its justified high reputation for meals. The mountain top was covered in cloud when we got there but it cleared during the end of the evening and Peter got up early for magnificent views as dawn broke. We then went across to the central volcanic mountain area but low cloud came in and high winds so we could not get up the ski lifts at Chateau to see what had happened during the violent eruption of Ruapehu last Autumn. We settled for traveling on to Taupo where we got some long views back that evening. We spent a couple of days there and went to another couple of thermal areas firstly the "Craters of the Moon" which has only become active since they started extracting geothermal power nearby and is still very unstable, new craters can open up overnight. We had lunch at a Prawn farm - acres and acres of geothermally heated lakes - then to Orake Korako otherwise named the Hidden Valley. We also had a look at a unique early river boat which used to run up through the rapids on the Huka river. It was about 55 foot long, about 7 foot beam and about one foot draft fitted with a tunnel propulsion system which was the precursor of the modern jet boats. It had a winch to make it back up the major rapids.
We booked a flight on the local seaplane for early the following morning which initially had to be canceled as Peter started to feel ill that morning. We took the trip a bit latter in the morning and went all up round Mount Ruapehu and Tongarero. There were major changes since last year and many of the ski fields are covered in thick ash. The hot lake is starting to fill back up with water. We have yet to compare the video from this year and last years flights. We thought that was a great end to the holiday and headed for Auckland and the airport choosing a scenic route intending to stop part way which we ultimately did at Tauranga for far longer than we had planned.
After Peter came out of hospital most of the time was on the beach and then some very local trips as even being driven was unpleasant. We made it up as far as Katikati a town full of Murals. The residents were afraid that a bypass would be built so they started the murals a few years ago to keep the main road flowing through the town and have now built up a nice tourist trade. Close to Katikati is Morton's Vineyard, another of our favorite wines, particularly the vintage sparkling which one can sometimes get in the UK. They have a good restaurant which turned out a low fat meal - the only time we ate out during that week. A very pleasant area for a forced stay.
We then drove up to Auckland staying overnight with Chris and Ralph ready to head out for the airport at 0930. At 0915 the phone rang to tell us our flight had been delayed for 12 hours so we rang Avis to keep the car another day to spent round Auckland doing the Museums etc. The Maritime museum was very interesting and we found big boards about Rory's trip in the 21 foot catamaran on display. We also went out to Kerry Talton's Underwater World where you walk round in big Perspex tunnels under the fish tanks with sharks and sting rays a few inches away - well worth a visit. The complex now includes an Arctic world which was also quite good. Back for a quick meal and then the flight back via Kuala Lumpar on Malaysian Airlines booked by the insurance company.
Pauline has now taken a courageous step and left DTI after twenty years. The downsizing and delayering - in the jargon - has meant that very favorable terms have been available for those prepared to grasp this window of opportunity to expand their horizons. And it is a real opportunity, enabling her to build on her wide experience of developing and implementing research, science and technology policy in Government, alongside her extensive undergraduate and MBA course tutoring.
The leaving party was in London and joint with several others also leaving or moving to new jobs from what was Management and Technology Services Division. The invitation list ran to several hundred and it was set to last from 1500 to 1800. At the peak I estimated there may have been 150 people and there were still old friends, colleagues and acquaintances turning up well after 1800. The caterers gave up at 1900! Because of the type of celebration the leaving speeches were unusual. Most were by Keith Shotten - the most senior person present- however he was also a host having left at the end of last week. His speech was given by his boss - namely his Secretary.
Pauline gave a concise speech. She spoke of how much she had enjoyed the twenty years in DTI reflecting on how much experience she had gained from her time and what she would miss. She said she had been lucky to escape from NPL when she did and how interesting and useful the time in policy areas had been. She reflected on how much she had been influenced in the first years by Barry Copestake who was tragically killed in an aircraft accident commuting to Ireland. She reflected on how he, more than anyone, had passed on to her many of the skills she has in turn tried to pass on to her staff by helping, coaching and acting as a mentor - as she put it by "encouraging people to learn by walking with them".
She noted that the pace had steadily increased and since 1989 she has held four Grade 6 and one Grade 5 jobs - a chance to work and learn from many people which was very enjoyable but not to be recommended to everybody who wished to progress. She will miss the people more than anything. She envied those who will still travel to and from London whilst she watches the Swans float by. She said that talking to those that had left brought out common themes of - the freedom to do what you want - the chance to do interesting things - the lack of the need to start at 9 and finish at 5 - the flexibility to start at four in the morning or ten at night and a general improvement in the Quality of Life. She fully intended to take advantage of all those opportunities and also looked forward to more time with Peter. She also hopes to do something about innovation policy from the outside. She promised to keep in touch and hoped people would do the same - there would be no charges initially! She ended by encouraging people to look to the future and make sure they were in the right place to exploit times of change to do interesting things.
As she had nothing else to do during the OU vacation, Pauline joined Pete at the IAA Symposium on Small Satellites for Earth Observation in Berlin where he was chairing the panel session on "Smaller Satellites and their Use in Operational Environmental Monitoring Systems", to which we added a long weekend touring the area around Dresden and Meissen. It is wine-making country, although the wine is expensive, and the Sachsicheweinstrasse is not as pretty as the other German wine routes. Our memories of the roads are of diabolical pavé with perpetual roadworks and apologetic roadsigns. Average speeds were 40 Kph, which was a real shock after normal German roads. It took 2 hours to drive across Berlin from the airport to the start of the autobahn to Dresden. Even stretches of the Autobahn were so broken up they had 50 km speed limits.
Dresden is a beautiful city, and well worth a visit. In November the ships had stopped for the winter, but normally it is possible to cruise up the River Elbe, just like the KDs cruise along the Rhine. The city was raised to the ground during the war and is slowly being rebuilt. The cathedral, the sister of our Coventry cathedral, is the last to be rebuilt. It is an emotional experience to see how the new Germany is growing out of the old ruins. But compared with Dresden, Berlin must be the building site of Europe.
Pauline first visited Berlin for the Business Futures Network meeting in May 1992 and was joined by Peter for a long weekend, and the difference now is shocking. There are inevitably many brand new hotels and shops in the eastern side, including Galeries Lafeyette. The area around the Reichstag is being developed into offices for when the German Civil Service moves from Bonn. We found no signs of the old Wall although a small part is said to be standing. Even Checkpoint Charlie is being surrounded by large modern office buildings. It is planned that a glass dome will be built in the centre of the Reichstag, reminiscent of the tasteless glass pyramid at the Louvre. It seems that the memories of the past are being quickly engulfed by the plans for the future.
Pete followed Pauline into early retirement which finally took place in November. I recently (in 2020) when reorganising the web site found a write up of the various parties at the time which either never made it to the web site or had become unlinked so I add a reference here A first Retirement to preserve it
We have just spent the last week on the Cunard Queen Elizabeth 2. There are three classic indulgences which we believe one should have once in ones lifetime, Concord, The Orient Express and the QE2.
The QE2 trip was to some extent opportunistic and linked to a favorable offer using our bonuses gathered from petrol and wine purchases etc. And had originally intended to celebrate the end of another phase of our careers and take place just after I joined Pauline in leaving the civil service with a generous Early Severance packages however I had agreed to stay another month to attend a key meeting of EUMETSAT Council on the UK Space programme. It was supposed to be a week from Southampton down through the bay of Biscay for three days in the Canaries and Morocco. We had some concerns over the Bay of Biscay in November but it was an offer we could not refuse.
The QE2 lived up to all we expected and more - she is a thoroughbred designed for both the Atlantic run and for luxury cruising. The cruising limited her size to fit the Panama canal which she does with two feet to spare (and the dismantling of a part of a building every time she goes through). The Atlantic run heritage means she is the fastest civil ship of any size and far faster than all other cruise ships. She is built to withstand and travel on through weather which sends others fleeing for shelter. We averaged 27 knots down to the Canaries on 6 of her 9 engines. (She is scheduled to run on 7 with one in reserve and one continually cycled out for maintenance). Her performance in rough weather was brought home as we swept by another ship which was pitching so much it bow and stern were disappearing from sight whilst even the self service was operating normally on the Queen.
The overall standard was very high - even at the bottom end the food was good and in several cases the best examples of a dish I have ever had. The ship is "classed" only to the extent that there are different restaurants depending on the room booked. The service in the restaurant was by far the best I have ever experienced even when using the buffet options at breakfast. Every time one went to collect anything the serviettes were refolded ready for ones return. The alternative informal buffet service restaurant again was a very different experience. On entry you were given a tray and a waiter added the cutlery you requested - you were then allowed to move it yourself as the initial dishes were added but then a line of waiters would be hovering to grab it from you and pick up extras such as fruit juice and then over to your chosen table where they would lay it all out.
The entertainment was also very good - we have never been ones to go to "shows" but the main evening shows held us several evenings. There were also a couple of concert recitals by concert pianists in the Evenings and morning talks by the like of Bernard Ingham, Maggie's PR secretary for her entire reign. He was most entertaining as well as a true professional - he refused to categorically to confirm the vegetables story which - for the few who have not heard it goes that during one of the Cabinet Dinners the Head Waiter asked what Maggie wanted and she said Steak and he asked "and what about the vegetables" to which she replied "they will have Steak too".
So what about the cruise itself - this was very different to our previous cruises where the ship was largely a floating hotel providing pleasant overnight accommodation and food which delivered one to a different place every day. This was classic cruising with long periods at see with only a couple of short periods on land so food, drink and entertainment playing a much more important role. Food I have covered as far as quality but not the quantity. Ignoring the ever available coffee and biscuits the day started with Breakfast at 0800 - 1000 either buffet in the Lido or served in the restaurant. Lunch was at 1200 with 4 - 5 courses. The tea ceremony - served of course - occupied 1530 -1700 giving time to get ready for dinner at 1815. Dinner was always jacket and tie with 3 evenings black tie.
Between tea and dinner there were various receptions or sailaway drinks most days - one did not really need wine with the meal after yet another 3 or 4 glasses of fizzy with the Commodore (no mere captains on the Queen) or the six large tumblers of Sangria Pauline knocked back as we sailed out of Tenerife. The first night we did indulge in a Cloudy Bay Savignon Blanc which deserves a page to itself - it has become a "cult wine" rationed everywhere else we know (the wine steward did note that the Officers were not allowed access). The wine steward we were allocated was very knowledgeable and the Senior Steward was available for an hour every morning and afternoon for in depth discussions and preordering.
The first of the two stops was at Santa Cruz, the capital of Tenerife. There were a number of possible tours but we already new Tenerife well so spent the morning round Santa Cruz and went back for a late lunch and spent the afternoon sunbathing on the ship until the clouds came in just before the sailaway party started. The Jazz band played and the rain came down but nobody seemed to care too much.
The next day was a long day in Madeira which we have only been to once before. Again we forewent the tours and ambled round the town before ending up in one of the Madeira tastings. It was very instructive with the four possible types available in various ages and estates. We ended up bringing back a selection of the 5 and 10 year old Buals and Malmseys, so rich you do not notice the sweetness. We also took back a Verdelho the softest of the four for tea to accompany a miniature of the classic honey sweet and very rich Madeira cakes which are close to a Parkin in texture.
We went back into town again after dinner to see if the Christmas lights were on as they were all in place - unfortunately they were not on. We watched her leave, nudged slowly out by a bevy of tugs in front of many of the towns people who came out to watch from the dockside. Then down below with perfect timing for the start of the midnight buffet to gather a little smoked fish with lobster and crab, to then be tempted by the flambe bananas, and a scoop out of a whole Stilton to clear the palate.
The bad weather in the Bay of Biscay the Commodore warned us about did not materialize on the return trip although there was some excitement as a crew member had a brain hemorrhage and we turned back to Lisbon where a helicopter came out and landed on the sun deck to pick him up at first light. This was a very difficult decision with another tight refit ahead and operating costs of well over a million pounds a day but it turned out well as he survived and was recovering in hospital the last we heard. This however delayed our return and gave us an extra day and night on board.
As I write this we are slipping effortlessly along at nearly 30 Knots up the channel and it is barely possible to feel the engines or motion and one can certainly not hear anything over than the rattle of tea cups and muted conversation 30 meters away across the lounge. Another sightseeing chopper slides past the window, soundless like a fish in an aquarium behind the double glazed glass. No other ship can still evoke the same feelings or get so that much interest close to home - what happens in far ports? The trip has been everything we expected and much more.